Berlin


Berlin CathedralIt’s our last day in Germany, and I think that I can now safely pronounce Dave and myself the laziest tourists in Berlin. We’ve been here for eleven days and we have seen a record low of 4 museums, not counting the outdoor Eastside Gallery, which I did manage to see twice. Not that I have regrets. For me, this has been the perfect stay: it has been a vacation in the truest sense of the word, with long nights of sleep, lazy mornings, and time to bake more than a few batches of bread. Most tourism (if we should call it that) has been social rather than sightseeing.

Through our hosts (who have been most patient with Dave’s and my ubiquitous presence in the apartment), we have met and gotten to know better a wide collection of volk. For example, last week, we dined with a marvelous Spanish couple (from the city of Zaragoza, where we will pass through on this coming Friday) who before moving to Berlin, had lived for three years in Chicago. Among other topics, Sylvia and Juan (who happen to have the same names as the lead dog couple in the foreign language learning video Muzzy) regaled Cindy and me with uproarious if not a little sad tales of European teachers lost in the Chicago Public Schools. Culture clash seems a mild word for the frontier between their pedagogical approach and the middle schools of Hyde Park.

We have, however, managed to leave and return to Berlin. This last weekend, we took the train to Leipzig, apparently one of the most East German of (former) East German cities. Leipzig is also the former home of our dear hostess Cindy and the current home of many German friends who have visited us in Chicago, including Daniel, Antje, Lilli, and Mathias. Luckily for us, all these Leipzigians live under one roof and that roof has a guest room, so we had a most cozy homecoming.

The Giro Coop was a treat to visit. It was started in 2000 by a group of social activists – including Antje and another woman who still live there. The building dates to 1905, very Prussian in style, and was previously made up of three separate apartments to the floor. In Cindy’s days in the coop, and until recently, each room was heated separately with coal scuttled up from the basement. This is probably more romantic to my imagination than in it is in lived reality. I hear it used to be very cold and nighttime trips to the bathroom were a dreaded experience.David in the belly of the beast…or vice versa? However, the 14 inhabitants have been hard at work with renovations and the place gleams of home improvement – freshly tiled bathrooms, new built-in kitchen cabinets, etc. Most impressive was the new heating system in the basement, which uses wood pellets for fuel (apparently ordered in 10-ton batches), which we were able to inspect ever so closely. See right.

The comforts of the coop and afternoon rain did not stop us from exploring the DIY (do-it-yourself) bests of Leipzig, from the Conne Island dance club and café to a series industrial spaces turned art galleries. My favorite site in the neighborhood was the video store down the block known for its collection of meerschweinchien (guinea pigs).

Now, for our final afternoon, Dave and I will tackle the German History Museum – see if we can handle so much official tourism. Next stop, Barcelona. Auf wiedersehen.

Tuesday morning in Berlin and the snow is falling. Our good host, Mike, while chopping potatoes for a hearty noontime breakfast, asks, “What if we get a good snow cover that lasts for the next couple of months? Then, in early spring, when it melts, we’ll have to face all the litter from New Year’s Eve.” If the streets right now look anything like they did at 4:00 am when we wandered home, that would indeed be a sight: waterlogged firework wrappers and damp clumps of orange gunpowder, which would most likely stain the sidewalks and cobblestones.

I have never seen so many fireworks as New Year’s Eve in Berlin last night. Berlin offers a 3-day respite from a year-round fireworks ban, so that since the second day of our stay, the sounds of gunfire have colored the landscape, and we have to pause our walks around the city to avoid bottle rockets aimed innocently at our heads.

For the midnight moment, we stood on the balcony of a penthouse apartment in Prenzlauerberg (which Cindy and Mike refer to as Pramlauerberg for its new yuppie family approach to life). Across the city, the haze of fog and smoke obscured the Fernsehturm (television tower) in Alexanderplatz, which we had glimpsed earlier in the evening. But, all around, gunfire-like shots and flashes of light, people standing on roofs and surrounding balconies and in clumps on the street, made us feel that we were in the middle of it all. I hoisted myself up on the ledge for a moment of gleeful vertigo (apparently giving Mike a near panic attack, which I am still trying to make amends for).

Thousands of miles from home, but we still seem surrounded by enough particles of Chicago. Our New Years was spent with Cindy and Mike (former Chicagoans moved to Berlin), Thomas (former Chicagoan gone San Francisco), Daniel, Dirk, and Martina (all Germans who have visited Chicago for lengthy stays). It also helps the home-like feeling that practically every German we have so far encountered (right down to the Turkish shopkeepers of Neukolln) speaks enough English to help Dave and I get around barely using our five German phrases.

Eastside Gallery BerlinHighlights of the stay so far (New Years’ already included) have been our walk along the Eastside Gallery (a graffiti-covered chunk of the Berlin Wall maintained along the bank of the River Spree in old East Berlin), a Chicago-style dinner complete with a long game of “fictionary” at the apartment of Mike and Cindy two nights ago, and some gleeful dancing later last night at a benefit for undocumented immigrants in Berlin thrown by some of Cindy’s activist friends.

Coming up this week: dinner with Cindy’s Cameroonian friend (who we will no doubt pester with too many questions), explorations of the city’s many museums (which we have so far been too relaxed to attack with gusto and which are closed today), and a trip to the long-fabled Leipzig. Happy 2008 and best wishes to all!

Many Little People

“Many little people who do many little things in many little places can change the face of the world.” (Translation from the German above)