(Photo above: Chestnuts foraged from hundred-year-old trees at Hagley Golf Course and Park)
In last week’s post I expected that I would be writing from home in San Francisco. Yet I want to share a few last lingering and loving thoughts about New Zealand.
I haven’t changed my mind about leaving New Zealand to return to the U.S, but I feel melancholy and wistful. Yes, it feels like I am swimming upstream and inconceivably towards more harm than away from it. For me, it is time to return to the real world, while having escaped from it for a while. I have been to the far side of paradise but I should leave it, now that I have been here.
After five months here, I relished the many positive points about this tiny island nation. Tourists rave about its pristine beauty. For those fortunate to live here beyond a dream vacation, they will find a life worth living.
Today, as New Zealand joins the bubble with its big cousin, Australia, there are new protocols. Health providers must suit up fully to administer COVID tests. The requirements change frequently as the level of safety varies. Only half of the population approve of the new bubble and another quarter are ambivalent about the changes.
In my observation and experience, New Zealanders are courteous, cautious and conservative. Those have been the trademarks of managing the pandemic successfully. They wait for the science to prove itself, so there is no rush to vaccinate. Patience is a virtue. There will be enough doses for everyone, whether you hold residency or not.
Strong family values fostered by the Maori community are often mentioned in the media. Bilingual messages delivered through public media spread the latest information about COVID-10, the importance of getting vaccinated, and personal hygiene measures to avoid COVID.
Farewell to a Cute Country
New Zealand is a country I would describe as “cute”. Its people, land formations, and customs give me a warm and endearing feeling. While it’s also “rugged” or “raw”, I am drawn to its mild-mannered people, their mindfulness, and their ability to be kind.
I don’t intend to compare the pros and cons of New Zealand characteristics with ours in the US. The world can learn alot from this tiny country that could. Over the past months, I have grown fond of New Zealanders, their tenacity, and can-do mentality. I will really miss New Zealand.
Yes, back to masks. And I will perhaps be deterred from many freedoms already offered here: get my hair cut, go to a movie or attend a concert, or ride the bus mask-free. Hug friends and family readily. But maybe one day. Soon.
The decision has been made. I am returning to the States after nearly a half year in New Zealand. Following the news on both sides of the Pacific has been fraught with uncertainty. My reasons for returning only slightly outweigh remaining in this picture-perfect island paradise on earth.
First of all, there may not be an active vaccination program in New Zealand until July. Word has it that it can be as early as May, but there is no assurance of that. Extending a stay here to complete both vaccinations would require complicated housing, flight arrangements, and family decisions.
Returning to the States involves where, when and how to be vaccinated. With anyone over 16 being eligible, the appointments will be much more competitive. The race against variants is worrying. Flights and the quarantine process on arrival require reverse-engineering the outbound San Francisco to New Zealand process.
On return, I do not look forward to the restrictions and mask-wearing, After savoring so many natural and human facial gestures throughout New Zealand, it will take some time to readjust. I’m not sure where the real world is anymore.
As part of my farewell, I made a special purpose visit to Marlborough Country. It’s famous throughout the world for its Sauvignon Blanc wines. Similar to the Sonoma Coast, the climate is milder for producing the whites that are delicate and flavorful. The vineyards are pristine and unlike other wine regions I have seen.
It’s not the Destination, but the Journey….
One of the two great rail journeys based from Christchurch plies the northeastern coast of New Zealand to Blenheim. (The other journey is through Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth on the West Coast). This coastal journey takes about five hours, where you can opt for a four-course dining experience during the trip or enjoy coach seating with access to a cafe and outdoor car. And yes, for now people travel maskless but are very conscientious in recording their whereabouts on a contact tracing app installed on smartphones.
The pastoral landscapes with rolling hills carved by many of the rivers and 27 earthquake faults, vast farmlands along the Canterbury Plain, and direct views of the Pacific Ocean (on the east coast here) were spectacular and helped me to momentarily forget my future travel woes.
By the way, everything in New Zealand is backwards to what Americans are used to! Driving on the left side of the road, water running down the drain counterclockwise, the strongest sun in the north, and Christmas in the summer are just a few phenomena to keep you wondering and on your toes.
Cloudy Bay and Wither Hills Wineries and Vineyards
As mentioned earlier, coming to paradise with freedom to move about can be a lonely experience. Friends and family in the States are unlikely to understand or relate to my time here. Maybe astronauts who have traveled to outer space feel the same isolation. Nevertheless, I am grateful that I came and will find ways to cope.
Sketching and Exploring at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
In a recent sketching event at St. Paul’s Church in Northcote, I couldn’t help but notice the tombstones included in my sketch. It took a second visit to the church to read the epitaphs to long lost and forgotten individuals. How fleeting is a mortal life! We are specks of dust that appear and disappear in a flash of light. The stone monuments in the graveyard attempted to extend the memories of an individual, until they also eventually disappear and are forgotten.
A few of the moving epitaphs of children who died over 100 years ago are captured in the attached slide show. It may be a bit difficult to decipher, but worth zooming . A few quotes on the stones gave me a glimpse of each individual. I could sense the deep love devoted to them by their families.
Continuing on a roll from the 100 People One Week Challenge, I found more subjects to sketch at the Mediterranean Cafe and at the Willowbank Cafe. And continuing the Zoom Portrait Parties from the Bay Area hosted by Jen and Govind has been a godsend. I painted my interpretation of a painting by Klimt below.
Before long, I will be back in the U-S-S-A. I am somewhat sad and ambivalent about the return home, as New Zealand has provided a semblance of normality in an abnormal world. As this is probably my last post from Christchurch, New Zealand. I hope you have enjoyed them! Please let me know, and look for my report next from San Francisco!
Last week was consumed with an international event for sketchers. Every year, the challenge is to draw 100 people in one week. Having done the same task last year, I was better prepared to develop a strategy to complete the exercise. First, you stake out your victims, then use the same venue each day to become familiarized with the types of poses and people you sketch.
Due to the pandemic, many people this year could only draw from photographs, magazines or online images. I was fortunate to be in a country where I could still go down the street to sketch real people in their natural environments.
I chose the Christchurch Turanga Library. It is remarkable in many ways, as a “third space” for living. It is neither home nor work, but it fills in the voids in between. It was perfect for capturing teeming humanity, primarily in the Foundation Cafe, but also at computer stations, playing chess, and at the children’s center, where tired and exhausted mothers could catch a few minutes of sleep with their infants.
The sketches provide an example of the types of characters at the library–many engaged at activities yet to be appreciated in the States–surrounded by others without distancing, staff working close together, and active conversations with friends and families while eating. Let’s hope this is a mere taste of what’s soon to come in San Francisco and elsewhere in the U.S.
The Vaccination Dilemma
Speaking of the U.S., we hear that vaccinations in California will be available to anyone over 16 by the end of April. That’s good news for my daughters. One plans to return shortly with a baby. The other daughter is comforted to know that she and her colleagues in the food business will be protected.
We are waiting to decide whether to get vaccinated in New Zealand or in the States. It’s a tricky decision that depends on where we can get inoculated first, and for both doses. There are advantages and disadvantages for either location. We are weighing them as news changes daily and impact our decision. Add a minor stress of booking tickets and accommodations timed for the yet-to-be-determined exit and you have the picture.
Willowbank Nature Reserve
In the meantime, I continued sketching with Christchurch City Sketchers, who visited Willowbank Nature Reserve outside the city last weekend. Native kiwis are featured in their natural habitat there. Unfortunately the area was pitch black so none of the four kiwis were visible!
An unusual auction of rare breeds of birds and animals was held the same day. Unfortunately, I did not take full advantage of the llamas, cows, and a Clydesdale horse on display. I focused on drawing human animals in the cafe instead. After drawing so many people the previous week, I was fixated on capturing more tantalizing eyes, noses, ears, and saggy profiles. After leaving the park, I kicked myself for missing the golden opportunity to sketch all those voluptuous animals!!
Being in Christchurch has filled our time with interesting activities and new adventures. I took my daughter for her first round of golf! We only did six holes, but that was plenty enough to entertain and challenge us for a solid morning at Hagley Park. A momentary hiatus in the sandpit was not enough to discourage me from future outings.
News Update: As of Sunday, March 7 at 6am (New Zealand Time), Auckland will drop to Level 2 and the rest of the country to Level 1
Global news can change quickly, especially with the pandemic roulette swinging wildly. This up-to-now, COVID worry-free country has stepped up its vigilance. A couple of troubling community cases in Auckland near the airport last week has moved the city into an Alert Level 3 and the rest of the country to Level 2. That affects those of us living in Christchurch on the South Island.
Here’s a snippit from a recent news article on the recent changes:
While there are renewed restrictions such as the wearing of masks on public transportation, social distancing and contact tracing, the general population was initially slow in responding to any changes. Now, there are visible differences. The news reports progress openly and transparently, and reminds everyone to follow instructions.
Public service messages also remind everyone to be kind and not to excoriate those who may have extenuating circumstances for not following the rules. Except for uniformed kids hitting town after school, fewer people populate the streets of Christchurch. Local travelers encouraged to see New Zealand are putting intercity travel on hold.
Shops, cafes, museums and cinemas are once again threatened with a downturn in the struggling economy just as it has in other parts of the world. With a chain of events that include the Mosque bombing, the earthquake, and recurrent COVID fears , the people of Christchurch have demonstrated incredible resilience and acceptance of circumstances beyond their control
As the tide was turning, we were in the midst of a weekend outing to Mt. Cook in the Southern Alps. Mt. Cook is high on the list of quintessential outdoor destinations in New Zealand.
The east side of the Southern Alps on the South Island are accessible from Christchurch within three hours. We drove through classic rolling hill countryside, passing an occasional car headed in the opposite direction. After pit stops in Fairlie and Geraldine, the snow-capped mountains appeared.
You can take a boat tour to see the Tasman Glacier on the back side of Mt. Aoraki (known as Mt. Cook). After a short one-mile hike to the lake, we arrived at the shoreline for our excursion. I had expected a big ferry with big picture windows, but the light, open-air raft awaiting at the dock was a surprise!
The German-born guide quickly sorted us into small groups to balance the boat and off we went. She described the history and formation of the lake from the ice melt. In just the past few months and years, the lake capacity has been increasing in volume.
The ice floes show only 10% of its body mass. The rest lies below the surface. On larger floes and along the glacier, you can see the water line where the waves meet the ice form. The floes have lives of their own. They play like otters when they roll over and as the mass underneath changes.
The Tasman Glacier, like those in Alaska, relies on ground cover to insulate the ice from further deterioration. The visible river of ice was only a small rendition in scale with those we saw in Alaska, but nevertheless impressive for its peaceful and serene environment. We could only get partial peeks at Mt. Cook, but we were satisfied at having seen its peak the day before.
Zoom Sketching Live Musicians
The Tuesday night jam sessions with live musicians originating from Andronico’s continues.
And a quick sketch in the Christchurch Gallery of a favorite sculpture–you can compare it to the real thing in the following slide!
A community COVID case in Auckland last week spurred the country into action, with the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declaring a Level 3 alert in the nation’s capital and an Alert Level 2 throughout the rest of the country.
All known contacts traced were checked for testing or review. I was impressed by the transparency and rapid response. All news sources provided updates on the situation, and the public was reminded about the need to be vigilant. Wearing masks on public transport became mandatory, and there was visible evidence of people scanning QR codes in public venues.
Though weary, everyone saw the importance of compliance. I compared the inconsistency of response in the States. Although many wore masks, it seemed as if there were as many who didn’t. The mask wearing is not mandatory here, but nearly everyone seems to follow instructions they are given.
Once the exposure from the family of three who were positive was under control, the country alerts were reduced to Level 2 in Auckland and Level 1 elsewhere. It was a relief, but nevertheless worrying and a topic of daily conversation. New Zealanders are aware how tenuous their situation is and how important it is to maintain their hard-earned freedom.
The government announced yesterday that the Pfizer vaccines have been received and the first vaccinations will begin with those who vaccinate. No other indication of when the general public will receive vaccinations, so we are waiting anxiously to find out.
Watching a Zoom Town Hall sponsored by Assemblyman Phil Ting was helpful to follow latest developments in San Francisco Bay Area. Professor George Rutherford compared statistics between the 1918 pandemic with the one today. In 1918, over 3000 people died in the Bay Area (of a population of 350,000). Today, there have been 342 deaths in a city over twice the size. While the numbers are still increasing, it is a testament to modern science and how it has protected the population from grief and tragedy.
In the mean time, life carries on as abnormally normal as possible. Daughter Julianne, grandson Felix and I took a day trip to Lyttelton Harbor. It’s a quaint port town that, despite it being the epicenter of the second major earthquake in Christchurch in 2011 that caused extensive damage, many vestiges of a historic town remain evident.
Logging has become one of the major industries in New Zealand. Just behind sheep and cattle farming, the logs are often sent to China and other countries for processing. Lyttelton, a tiny port nestled on the coast beyond the hills of Christchurch, has preserved a lot of its original character and sense of community .
The featured image above captures a warm and colorful server at the local wood-fired pizza parlor. The owners endeavored to make the restaurant a casual and welcoming environment, similar to other establishments in the neighborhood aiming to please
The evening shifted to a different tone. The Gatherings is a restaurant focusing on curated wines paired with delicious seafood. We were excited by a local “Salty White”, an unfiltered wine by Hermit Ram from North Canterbury. Mussels and chips, a mint salad, and whole flounder were a perfect combination from the Chef’s Selection.
Like many cities throughout the world, you can always find a good meal if you take the time to look for it. Thanks to Daughter Melissa, this one was no exception.
Earlier in the week, frequent walks through the park and adjacent cemetery unveiled many stories to be told from lives once lived.
Sketching with local Christchurch City sketchers at Ferrymeade Heritage Park and in Central Christchurch at Tuam and Manchester yielded opportunities to see and hear the city up close and personal.
While pandemonium in the Bay Area over getting vaccinations prevails, New Zealand has been steadfast and calm over the rush to get everyone vaccinated. Naturally, the state of health for its citizens are just as much a concern as for those in the U.S., but the order of magnitude is much more significant in the States. As a tiny country and with prudent practice, New Zealand waits to see how other countries handle their vaccination programs and whether any adverse outcomes may result from the injections or the procedures.
We are neither vaccinated here nor there. We watch the news each day to see what unfolds in both countries. I rely on news feeds as mentioned previously from RNZ, San Francisco Chronicle, NY Times, and Deutsche Welle. Most are focused on the delay of vaccination deliveries.
In the mean time, we continue to go about daily life as usual–trips to the market, going to see movies, museum visits, and mall shopping. By American standards, extraordinary. By New Zealand standards, ordinary, but still cautious. There have been a few breaches and cases. so people still scan their devices for contact tracing, a process that doesn’t even exist in the States,
Let’s Get Together and Go for a Walk in the Park!
The past couple of weeks have been filled with many delicious walks through the myriad parks in Central Christchurch. Daughter Melissa laughed at me when I told her that there were too many public spaces in Christchurch for people to consume. From Hagley Park along the Avon River, there are plenty of strolls to sooth the soul.
The New Zealand Symphony performed a medley of themes from Blockbuster movies such as “Goldfinger”, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Star Trek”, “Magnificent Seven” and crowd favorite “Lord of the Rings”. In both cases, as you can see, it is inevitable for dancers get out and take advantage of the music.
Sketching in Christchurch
Along with the German Language exchange, I joined a local sketch group. We meet weekly at the library to sketch each other, work on personal art projects, and chat. I still participate in hometown sketching via Zoom. Both the monthly Portrait Parties below and the weekly Tuesday evening Jam Sessions give me an opportunity to stay in touch with San Francisco fellow sketchers as well as to engage in a variety of challenging and lively sketching tasks!
The following series was based on selecting favorite portraits, then sketching them or simulating them in costume and then sketching the simulations! A totally fun and engaging event that we plan to do again.
Sketching via Zoom has created opportunites for screen shots to freeze images while listening to live music. I also sketch from live shots to keep the eye-hand coordination sharp–but sometimes have to jump ship!
The second impeachment trial to convict Donald Trump took place this week. I captured four of the House Managers who gave their impassioned testimony claiming that Trump was directly responsible for inciting an insurrection on the National Capitol. Sadly, he was not convicted by a Senate vote of 57-43.
I have been contemplating how to initiate 2021, after a three-week hiatus from posting Travels with Myself and Others. The uncommonly normal existence in New Zealand seems awkward and inconceivable in light of the unprecedented events taking place in the U.S. Perhaps it is best to acknowledge what has allowed our privilege to be here possible.
The New Zealand government, along with a few other island countries like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, has overcome huge obstacles to protect its people from the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this tiny country of 5 million people, the government has been as transparent and straightforward as possible in its approach to the pandemic.
It also maintains stringent control over non-native flora and fauna. Travelers are unable to bring in foreign species such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Even sun-dried goods such as herbs, mushrooms, sausages and dried meat may contain microscopic live organisms. These items are confiscated and require zapping in high temperature ovens before being released.
Similar to these protections that have been in place for decades, the government takes special precautions against incoming biohazards and diseases such as COVID-19. In going through the agricultural area of Te Puke in Tauranga, signs along the highway remind everyone to protect its local kiwi fruit production.
New Zealanders are aware of their special circumstances. They are grateful for the government’s efforts in being vigilant. They read the news headlines and follow international developments closely. They follow the rules. Everyone knows about the thin line separating them from most of the rest of the world. In the end, no one is separable.
There was talk about creating a bubble for travel with Australia, where 75% of expatriate New Zealanders live. However, breaches in Melbourne, Sydney and where the new COVID-variant is detected, widening the net seems unlikely at this time.
New Zealanders have been very understanding and compassionate, as they hear distressing stories from other countries rampant with COVID-19. They want to make sure that New Zealander living abroad are able to repatriate and be comfortable during the two weeks in the managed isolation facilities.
New Zealand has done the right thing. With good leadership, good policies and practical thinking, it is one of the safest places to be on earth at the moment. We are fortunate to be here and hope that it will remain this way.
Mt. Ruapehu National Park
Everyone was more than ready for 2020 to end. With a few strategic choices and decisions, we were able to fulfill our goal of reuniting our nuclear family in New Zealand. Our last few weeks were filled with joyful holiday activities among close family members and a new addition to the family. We traveled from the North Island to the South Island.
We celebrated our Christmas holidays in Ohakune, at the edge of the UNESCO dual World Heritage Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks. During the off-peak season, we were able to enjoy one of New Zealand’s popular winter destinations with few or no crowds. (It is summertime now). On New Year’s Day, we took the gondola ride up Mount Ruapehu, the largest active volcano in New Zealand and the highest point in the North Island (over 9,000 ft).
Volcanic activity in the area restricted a 2 km radius area, but fortunately it wasn’t in the gondola’s path. New Zealand is unleashed when it comes to extreme sports such as bungee jumping, zipping, and hair-raising climbs. Being liability free, New Zealand is a hearty land for adventure travelers. Seismic and volcanic activity along the ring of fire further increases the potential danger and drama. Some tourists were killed last year when the volcano at White Island near Tauranga erupted.
Overnight in Wellington
We stopped to visit friends and the Te Papa Museum in a brief overnight stopover in Wellington on the way to Christ Church. Filled with a variety of classic and modern art, history, and natural history, the museum had plenty of material to teach and inspire visitors of all ages.
The Wellington Sunday Market in the Central Business District offered summer fruits and vegetables that seemed brighter, fresher, and larger. I was drawn to the pattern, shape, and form of each product. After a delightful and leisurely evening with a close relative, we managed to slip in a dim sum lunch the next day in the center of the city before heading to Christchurch.
Ohakune Forest Walks
Earlier in the week, we took one more hour-long forest walk in Ohakune before heading to Wellington. We had a chance to appreciate the gorgeous display of famous New Zealand ferns.
Middle Earth is a reference to Peter Jackson’s famous Lord of the Rings. Much of the filming took place between Auckland and Tauranga, but it seemed like a more appropriate name for the middle of the North Island. I haven’t seen the series yet, but I am inspired by being here.
With thanks to our pastry chef daughter, we shared the joy of cooking with our beloved family between Christmas and New Year’s. We concocted, baked, glutted ourselves with special meals and dishes and challenged each other’s intellectual skills on a hand-made Scrabble board.
Officially, we are just completing Week 2 of our “Freedom from COVID” visit to New Zealand. We spent the first two weeks in a managed isolation facility after leaving San Francisco on a flight to Auckland via Los Angeles. We were released and allowed to enter normal society on November 23.
After celebrating Thanksgiving at Papamoa Beach in a sprawling suburban house with our family in the Tauranga area, my husband Gee Kin and I transferred to a cozy cottage in the Papamoa Hills. There is a view in the distance framed by the Bay of Plenty, Mt. Manganui and the South Pacific Ocean.
Our short walks up the road from the cottage revealed plenty of flora and fauna. Without much effort, we sauntered past sheep and cattle grazing in the rolling hills, a horse next door, and birds including tuis, pheasants, and hawks.
I picked a bouquet of wild hydrangeas and daisies along the roadside in the midst of tropical ferns hidden in an alien pine forest. The non-native species here are now shunned. A massive national campaign is underway to return the natural environment to native species.
By the end of the week we couldn’t wait to get back to the beach. We could roll out of car in the free parking lot in 15 minutes and immediately feel the sand between our toes. We walked an hour each way without seeing many people as the beach stretched miles before us.
Daughter Julianne, partner Jeff, and precious Baby Felix are having lunch on the balcony of their barn on the avocado and lemon farm where they are staying in Te Puke, kiwi fruit capital of the world.
Why are we in New Zealand?
Five million residents in New Zealand (of which 13% are Maori) are currently able to move about and conduct daily life normally as they have always prior to the advent of COVID-19 in March, 2020. Under the leadership of the prime minister, the New Zealand government tackled the pandemic early and “hard”.
Around 70,000 New Zealand citizens who were living abroad have been repatriated. Qualified spouses or partners of New Zealand citizens, like me, are allowed to join members of their families. New Zealanders have had a tradition of taking a couple of years abroad to do an “OE” (overseas experience). Many who have been living in other countries are now returning for the first time.
In March, there was a complete lockdown throughout the country. The international borders were closed and all incoming travel was banned. All businesses were closed (no takeout or delivery) and residents could not leave their homes except to buy groceries. This lasted for about a month. Except for a few minor breaches, the country has managed to contain any major outbreaks. Services and facilities were gradually opened by levels in a rational, consistent fashion with minimal reversals.
Around 6,000 hotel spaces are provided throughout the country to monitor and test returnees before they are released after 14 days with no symptoms. Travelers cannot come to New Zealand without a voucher for managed isolation facility. Over the upcoming holiday period, spaces are booked out. Airlines do not allow passengers to fly to NZ without a valid voucher for quarantine. Other island countries such as Taiwan, Korea and Japan have implemented similar policies for quarantine.
During the 14-day isolation period, travelers are given two nasal tests. The Ministry of Health calls daily to check in and take temperatures. The only times isolees are allowed to leave their rooms is for pre-booked 40-minute exercises in a confined outdoor area, where those exercising are escorted and monitored by Defense personnel.
New Zealand has always been extremely protective of its land and environment and prevents external hazards or pestilence to enter the country. COVID-19 policies are an extension of existing policies. Because New Zealand relies heavily on its tourism industry, it is also important to preserve its crown jewels for the future.
While only a tiny country by international standards, New Zealand has focused on what it can do in a responsible manner to protect its people. In close collaboration with the Ministries of Immigration and Quarantine, Health, and Defense, the government has maintained an explicit program to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
And to complete the punchline for being here: it was a serendipitous adventure by Gee Kin’s father, who arrived in New Zealand in 1906 at the age of 19 from China to discover, like all immigrants, his fame and fortune. He stayed and left a legacy for his descendants from which we now benefit.
In case you haven’t been following the flow of my posts over the past several months, I have been reposting travels around the world from Mongolia in the Far East westward through countries along the Silk Road. Uzbekistan, Iran and the Caucasus are seldom traveled but contain countless UNESCO World Heritage sites and fascinating histories. If you missed them, please check these posts, republished since the advent of COVID-19 in March of this year.
While the Central Asian countries along the Silk Road have been my primary focus, I also spent many months studying German in Germany. Including the European countries I visited in the last five years is an extension to the Silk Road travels.
These countries are presented in the path of travel rather than in chronological order I was there. I’ve stitched them together so you can compare and contrast each country or city along the chain. In the case of the German cities, the order began with Munich, Schwäbisch Hall, Düsseldorf, and now Berlin. (I’m saving my favorite, Dresden, for last, but admittedly out of sync!)
Despite the COVID-era doldrums for fellow travelers, I hope you will, like me, enjoy revisiting prior travels like those in this series. Please share your thoughts and memories—we’re all in this together!
Please bear in mind that these edited posts on Berlin were originally written in 2016–a mere five years ago. Observations may already appear dated, but they could also be forecasts for what we see now.
Burling into Berlin
Above: the Berlin Tower with a new base
Currently the place where I am staying is known as an “alt bau”, or an old building. I had imagined it as an old Baroque building, finely tailored and detailed, but renovated with modern conveniences. Not. I am in an old building. It will take a bit of getting used to, but it’s going to be fine.
Berlin is wired, both on coffee and devices. Everywhere, at least in the Mitte, people sit outside once the good weather appears. They pull out stools and tables from inside their coffee houses, the laundry or offices. The coffee and the laptops follow, and nothing less than a Macbook Air. Germans like sturdiness and quality. People sit staring at an open laptop and do double duty with a smart phone in front of their computers, just like we do in San Francisco. The only difference is that they can do it in plain sight and en plein air.
Sports shoes are the hot new fashion statement. Every shop in Mitte where I am staying seems to have a full array of snappy looking shoes with white bumper guards, for not a lot of money. It does feel as if design is a high priority here, with more quality and variety in clothing and furnishings. Mitte feels like an up-and-coming St. Germaine-de-Pres. It will soon become too pricey to afford. I’d give it two to five years at the most.
My first day of class at the Goethe Institute was Monday, and I am already fully immersed. There are 12 students in my Intensive, 4-week Intermediate level class, and Herr Göbels is a mature and native German speaker. After nearly five hours of class in the afternoon from 1:15-5:45 including precious breaks, we are pretty wasted.
Above: Photos of the oldest church in Berlin, the Heilig Geist, with an artistic expression at the entry to the church.
The extensive cultural programs for students focus on the different neighborhoods in this diverse city. The first tour this morning was Berlin Mitte and the oldest section of the city. An evening lecture provided an overview of the cultural city of Weimar. Having just been there, I learned much more about Schiller, Goethe, Nietzsche, Liszt, and Wagner. Liszt had conducted Wagner’s Lohengrin in Weimar, and Richard Strauss wrote “Thus Spake Zarasthustra” based on Nietzsche’s book by the same name. There are planned field trips to Potsdam, the opera, ballet and museums, so I am a happy camper!
However, it’s back to the grindstone. I have homework and audio assignments to finish before class tomorrow! I enjoy the focus, learning about the host country, and meeting a wide spectrum of students from many countries. I highly recommend a similar program for any language learner.
The Deutsches Historical Museum
The new wing showcases the architecture of I.M. Pei. He also designed the East Wing of the National Gallery and the prominent entrance to the Louvre. (As an architect, I am always glad to recognize the work of world-famous architects, but especially proud of Asian and women architects!)
The story of the Berlin Wall was displayed in posters at Potsdamer Platz. After going to the Stasi Museum in Leipzig, I was more curious about the events that led to Reunification in Berlin. The story is told in these words and pictures and includes a healthy (?) supply of bubble gum stuck to the old wall relics. Click on each image to increase the size and readability.
Berlin Street Art (excerpted from post in June, 2016)
The Goethe Institute’s Berlin Program treated students to a leisurely afternoon walk through Kreuzberg and adjacent Friedrichshain area where a solid core of artists live and work. A river divides East and West and served as a natural boundary in the city, so it was natural for many political and artistic statements to be expressed on both sides of the divide.
Its easy to lose one’s bearings in Berlin. Streets swirl around in circles, crooked alleys, and curvy swerves around bumps. The Berlin wall never seems to be far from sight, and the meandering boundary keeps you guessing which side you are on. Both today and yesterday are often spoken in the same breath, and for that it makes living here fascinating.
The guide shared a very balanced view of the rights and liberties taken by the street artists. While not all were political in nature, they certainly were aware of the limits of their art and how to deliver it. Street art is different from graffiti art. The former is planned and presented for others to enjoy or experience, whereas the latter is intended for groups within a circle or group.
Sometimes the boundary between the two are unclear. Graffiti art is illegal by nature and therefore must be executed very quickly, without being caught or discovered in the act of the execution. Street Art teams often do likewise. They plan and execute the art, so HOW it is done is part of the excitement and danger. Art placed at the tops of buildings require complicated suspension systems, mirrors, bravado, and demonstrate the skill of artists.
While onlookers marvel at the daringness of graffiti artists, street art is much more deliberate and varied. As shown in the photos, there can be paint, stencils, applied images, and many other creative forms on buildings. In either case, the government and building owners have a say in whether the art stays or goes. For political and aesthetic statements, artists have to consider whether public opinion will be swayed to support their cause, or if it will suffer its own demise by being painted over or cannibalized by graffiti.
This type of public art may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly gave me more reason to appreciate the courage and abilities of the artists who choose this medium to express themselves.
At the end of the tour, we ended up near Warschauer Strasse, a flea market and large industrial zone with old warehouses buzzing with locals. It was a very “hip” place with innovative food and drinks offered both inside and outside. I was glad that I had a map to quickly check my bearings and to not rely solely on the guide’s directions.
Yesterday’s tour to Potsdam and Sans Souci Palace was more tame but just as challenging. We spent the better part of a day in the blazing sun and walked over 6 miles from the local train station to the town center, the new chambers of King Friedrich the Great, and surrounding gardens.
The end of the day was capped with a Deutsche Oper performance of “Il Troubadour” (more commonly known as “Il Trovatore”). Got one of the best seats in the house for 15 Euros, compliments of the Goethe Institute. Below is a view of the attendees enjoying the summer-like weather before the performance at the outdoor terrace.
This may seem like a long way from the Silk Road, but for the next few weeks, we will be indulging in Germany. Europe was in the end, the major destination point for many products imported from China and the rest of Asia. They no longer relied on the overland route to transport food and goods, but developed sea routes to bring goods to market faster. We are revisiting all the countries I traveled through in the past six years, not in order, but in a line from Mongolia to the UK, end to end.
Since I have spent more than a month each year learning German in different cities, I am devoting one post per city, from Munich to Schwabisch Hall, Dusseldorf, Dresden, and Berlin. These posts are culled from multiple entries to give you the highlights from each city.
Nazis, Rings and the Blue Rider
In order to provide an overview each city, general sights I visited will be provided. They are not intended to cover all sights popular to tourists. My interests in architecture, art museums, opera, and food and people are featured. Tours sponsored by the Goethe Institute, where I took German classes, are the background for much of the historical information and hidden gems of each city.
National Socialism Museum
The National Socialism Tour by Dr. Christoph Engels, an expert in the history of the Nazi era, gave us fascinating insight on Hitler and how Munich became a central control and rallying point for the Nazi Party.
Using emblems for the flag, logo, and uniforms, Hitler combined propaganda and design to seduce the populace with fanfare and drama. Frequent marches down the main thoroughfare from Marienplatz to the Odeonsplatz were displays of might and staging trials for the military.
The monumental boulevards and parks reminiscent of Paris contributed to the public parades of the military. Billions of dollars were donated to the Nazi Party by private citizens, who saw the salvation of Germany led by Hitler. The original headquarters of the Nazi Party still exists, and while not open to the public, it continues to host activities of the Neo-Nazi Party members.
There were three phases of recovery by the German people after the devastating reign of terror. First, there were those who experienced it, followed by the children of the war survivors. They experienced a long period of “Scham und Schuld”, or Shame and Guilt. After 1968, the third generation began to ask the grandparents what role they had in the war. These questions were difficult discussions that needed to be answered by each family.
When the official statistics about the Holocaust victims at 6,000,000 people were mentioned, a couple of my classmates from Russia and the Ukraine noted that there were many more Russians killed by Stalin before and after WWII. They wanted to put history in perspective with their experience and knowledge. They also noted that the war itself spared many Russians from starvation and death caused by Stalin.
The Ludwig-Maximilians University Quarter tour began with some historical elements of WWII. Sophie Scholl, who protested the dealings of the Nazi Party, attended this university, known as the University of Munich at the time. She was a Philosophy major there.
In 1943, she, her brother, and their friend Christoph Probst were found guilty of treason and beheaded in February 1943. The White Rose represented their movement. Live roses are still posted in memoriam at the entrance to the University and inside the main lobby. It gave me goose bumps after walking through the spaces. You can read more about her here:
Shops around the University area included antiquarian bookshops and quirky cafes like Verruckt. This ice cream shop, translated as “Crazy” in German, features beer flavored ice cream and breakfast ice cream. A storefront cooking school allows you to peek in and see all the action and after-effects of food being consumed. And a specialty bike shop has custom colors for hand made bike frames (see slide show below).
Many of the Altbaus, or old buildings, were built during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Inner courtyards or “hofs” hide renovated or jazzy new buildings and green areas with retail spaces are tucked into the ground floor. Craftsman-quality cabinet shops and made-to-order items are plentiful and enough to delight the eye and microwave the credit card.
The Alte and Neue Pinotheks
For the past three years, Very Good Friend Helena from Brunnen (near Lucerne) Switzerland has joined me each year in Germany. In Munich, we tackled the Museums of the Alte and Neue Pinotheks together. The Masters and Impressionists of European art, respectively, reside at these museums.
We concentrated only on the Vermeer Woman in Blue Special Exhibition at the Alte Pinothek, and the French Impressionists at the Neue.
It was delightful to hear the German guide’s commentary on the Vermeer painting. Her clear and inspiring comments reminded me why I’m in Germany. The clarity and forthrightness of her explanation about the form, structure, color, and subject of the painting made it engaging and easy to understand.
Many of these genre paintings with exquisite light were symbolic connections to the Dutch military and its world explorations, that included Asia and the Dutch East Indies. I had never connected these dots before.
The woman’s place in society is symbolized in this painting. Women represented the Republic and their noble public image. Men, who often were sailing or serving as soldiers, represented the dark and negative side of humanity. When at port, they often headed to the brothels and represented bad behavior.
This was certainly a new spin on the exquisite Dutch, light-filled genre paintings that I came to admire. I couldn’t help but to compare the intimate, home-bound intimate interiors with the bawdy red light district in contemporary Amsterdam.
A few other notable artists’ works in the Neue Pinothek included these impressionists from the 19th Century:
On Sunday we rolled down the hill and across the swift flowing Isar River to the Deutsches Museum. The river not only has a surfing spot, but also a decent sandy beach down down the street from where I live in the middle of town!!
The Museum is one of the foremost science museums in the world. It’s a full scale playout of The Way Things Work and more. We focussed on the Planetarium and Astronomy sections of the museum. The English translations are excellent. The featured image above is from a diorama replica of the Challenger Expedition in 1872.
Helena had suggested going to the Lenbach Museum during her visit here. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to fit everything in. She has pretty good taste in choosing museums, so I decided to venture there on a free morning. I combined a trip to load up on German sketch books at an art supply store near the museum area with a visit to the Lenbach.
I could only remember that Helena had told me about something Blue that was on display there. After all, Helena and I had just seen Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter the week before, right? At first, I thought it was the Blue Wonder, then I remembered, no, that’s a bridge in Dresden. After I ripped through a gaggle of galleries searching for the missing identity, I finally asked the guide where the Blue Rider was located. His answer: they’re everywhere! I was perplexed at first, then realized that its…a movement.
The collection generated a lively FaceTime conversation with my German language partner in the Bay Area. Being an art history aficionado, he set me straight. The text may be hard to read, but if you are interested, you can view it on a monitor.
Munich Opera Festival
The Ring by Richard Wagner is a 17-hour epic, presented in a series over four days. The 2.5 hour, no-break opera in German subtitles was a challenge. I had prepared myself for the “real thing” after seeing my first Ring at the SF Opera the previous month.
The difference between the two? San Francisco spent alot more effort in the production, the acting, the stage sets, but the singing was weak. Munich was the opposite. The stage sets were minimal, but Munich delivered some of the best singing I have ever heard. The opera house is smaller than San Francisco’s, and the singers must have their voices perfectly calibrated to the acoustical capabilities of the house. It didn’t hurt to have estatically beautiful music for both, thanks to Wagner.
And here’s a clip of how it looked from the audience during the curtain call. You would have to turn your sound up to full volume (but don’t do it!) to capture the thunderous foot stomping that Germans do in addition to clapping. The gesture is highly successful because: 1. you don’t have to stand up and drop the program in the process while still being able to respond spontaneously; 2. you don’t block others behind you who don’t want to stand or have a different opinion; and 3. It gets your entire body stimulated and the blood flowing so you can remember to get up to leave!
International Evening at the Goethe Institute
At the Goethe Institute’s International Dinner, I taught my Turkish classmate how to use chopsticks. She was a natural. Despite her gesture of pulling both eyes to indicate being slanted at me, I calmly used the teachable moment to explain that it is rude to make such an expression to Asians. She quickly got the message.
We went shopping in the Asian market together, and after that her boyfriend and another Turkish classmate helped prepare Turkish mini-ravioli with a sauce that was delicious!
And as a parting bonus video: a clip of the evening performance of the organ concert at the Asam Kirche is below.
Here’s VGF Helena at lunch next to the museum and an irresistible baby at the next table:
Next week: On to Schwabisch Hall, a charming city tucked between Stuttgart and Frankfurt!