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.