Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Random Thoughts from Berlin

Things I Don’t Like About Europe:

(This is not a commentary on Germany per se, but is based on time spent in Germany, France, Italy, and England over the past 20 years.)

1. dog poop everywhere (on the sidewalks, in parks) – this is especially bad in Paris and Berlin. Generally I try to avoid saying I “hate” stuff, but this I really do hate. Why can't people just pick up after their dogs? And in the park? Next to the playground??

2. no clothes driers (you have to hang stuff up all around the apartment) (some people have driers, most do not)

3. no public drinking fountains, and at restaurants they don’t even give you free water to drink

4. pay toilets (but at least they usually have an attendant in them and are clean and well supplied)

Things I Like About Europe:

Pretty much everything else.

Seen / Scene in Berlin Recently:

(These two incidents happened when our friends were visiting from Geneva and we were spending a lot more time hanging around various parts of the city that we don’t normally frequent.)

1. At the Hackescher Markt: a man walks by wearing lion slippers over his shoes. He stops for a moment next to the building, removes the lion slippers, and places them on the ground. Then he walks away, leaving his lion slippers behind. Why was he wearing the lion slippers? Why did he leave them on the sidewalk outside the Hackescher Markt? I guess we’ll never know.

2. In Kreuzberg, walking along the canal: A woman is walking towards us in a slightly bizarre and weather-inappropriate outfit, I can’t describe it (I wasn’t paying close attention), but at the time I thought it was remarkably unflattering. Something like a very short formless dress and a formless jacket over it. But strangest of all, she was carrying a trumpet in her left hand. Not a trumpet case with an instrument inside it, just a trumpet. Not playing it, just carrying it.

This is one thing I love about living in a big city – the unexpected, the diverse, the spontaneous. After 6 years in Columbia, Missouri – even longer than that for my husband – we wanted to spend some time in a city again and experience that for a while. Hence we are in Berlin for 6 months, and those 6 months are passing all too quickly.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sad Tourist

Seen on April 23, 2009, outside the Pergamon Museum:

We're glad we weren't on this tour bus, but we can't imagine who would sign up for it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Happy Birthday to me!

This is where I spent my 45th birthday -- the Pergamon Museum. Fourteen years after visiting Pergamon in Turkey, I finally got to Berlin to see the giant altar -- an entire building, really -- that the Germans removed from its site and reconstructed here. The whole museum is named after it.

In fairness, one can't really say that the Germans "stole" it; they acquired it from the Ottoman Turks by an agreement (presumably a cash transaction). Still, it's pretty depressing to go all the way to Pergamon and find an big empty foundation slab where the Great Altar of Zeus is supposed to be. (Pergamon's well worth a visit even with the altar's absence, if you find yourself in Turkey.)

It was the same in Greece with the Parthenon statues (the "Elgin marbles," named after the man who "acquired" them), except that Greece is no longer part of the Ottoman Empire, and the modern Greek state wants the Elgin marbles back. (I would love to see that happen, but it's much less likely than the fall of the Berlin wall was.)

The Pergamon altar -- known as the Great Altar of Zeus -- is dedicated to all the Olympian gods; the enormous frieze surrounding the podium depicts the epic battle between the Olympian gods and the Titans (giants). Worshippers would climb this monumental staircase, and enter through the colonnades at the top to find the altar itself, surrounded by a portico and open to the sky.

The Germans -- who were heavily into classical archaeology and helped turn it into a discipline and a profession instead of just an amateur pursuit -- did much of the exploration of the Greek Hellenistic and Roman sites in Turkey and elsewhere. This museum in Berlin also has a very impressive gate structure from Miletus.

When you get to the top of the staircase, you pass through the double colonnade into a courtyard containing the actual altar. That court is surrounded by friezes representing the myth of Telephos, son of Hercules – one of many Greek myths. It’s about fate, seduction, attempted infanticide, intervention of the gods, incest barely averted – all the elements that make Greek mythology so compelling.

The Pergamon Museum does a good job of explaining the significance of both friezes for the kings of Pergamon, who used the stories to legitimize and reinforce their own right to rule.

"Dude, don't eat my head!"

Drink Beer, Not Wine

Seen from a bus in Dresden:

This is the decorative front gable of a tavern. It shows a knight on horseback; on one side a pageboy of some sort kneels, offering him a glass of wine. On the other, a burgher-type man has handed the knight a glass of beer. The knight hoists the beer glass aloft, as if toasting us before he imbibes. The clear message: drink beer, not wine.

Subtler messages: beer is German, and beer is associated with the burgher class (middle to upper middle class). Is this a rejection of the upper classes (the aristocracy implied by the pageboy). Is it a rejection of French culture? (The pageboy's garb looks vaguely French to me.) I don't know -- but I was so intrigued by it that I got off the bus to take a picture.

Yenidze Cigarette Factory, Dresden

This photo, taken from the streetcar, shows a famous Dresden landmark -- the Yenidze Cigarette Factory, built 1908-1909. Its style emulates a mosque with its "minaret" and a bulbous, pointed dome. This is an example of "orientalism" in architecture -- deliberately exotic, and turning Middle Eastern culture into a stereotype.

The Schloss Pillnitz, outside Dresden

Ten kilometers (about 6 miles) east of Dresden is the Schloss Pillnitz, which was the summer palace of the Saxon monarchs, located in the little village of Pillnitz.

The Schloss sits directly on the Elbe, with vast grounds surrounding it, landscaped both in the formal French style and, in one corner, in the English landscape garden style.
The “English garden” included a small circular temple which was a copy of Bramante’s Tempietto in Rome – the English were very much the conduit for Italian Renaissance architecture throughout Europe, because of the popularity of their gardens and garden follies. The “English garden” was enthusiastically adopted in places like Germany and France, where the “French garden” (i.e., the formal garden) was the dominant type.
The grounds of the Schloss Pillnitz boast a camillia that is over 200 years old and 13.2 meters high. It was brought from Japan in 1776.
A flood in 2002 was the biggest one since 1845. The palace's location on the Elbe River makes it particularly susceptible to such disasters:
(Newspaper photo is courtesy of my husband's cousin Gero, who took us on the Dresden excursion.)


April 2-5, 2009

After two months in Berlin and our day-to-day activities (working, taking our son to and from school, etc.) we began an intense period of tourism, starting with a four-day visit to Saxony (eastern Germany near the Czech Republic) with visits to Dresden, Dessau, and Wörlitz. The city of Dresden was the seat of government of the Saxon kings in the 18th century, when they built lavish palaces and churches, and amassed impressive collections of art objects and curiosities.

Dresden is an amazing city, and definitely worth a visit. It clusters along both sides of the Elbe River, and the city preserves a wide green belt along both banks of the river for miles in each direction. We were in Dresden on a gorgeous, warm spring weekend, and these banks were filled with sunbathers and picnickers. It is rare to see so much prime real estate being left open for public enjoyment, and not grossly privatized and overdeveloped. The public transportation in Dresden is great, making it a very easy place to visit.

Our current six-month sojourn in Germany has been a real learning experience for me, because in the past I have been much more interested in Italy and the Mediterranean, France, and England (in that order). I had only spent 24 hours in Germany before this year, with a one-day visit to Stuttgart (in 1996) to see the 1927 housing exhibition called the Weissenhofsiedlung. (I also spent a week in Vienna in 1998, which was my main exposure to German-speaking culture before now.)

Dresden gave me a delightful introduction to the German Baroque, which was the architectural style favored by European monarchs in the 17th and 18th centuries. At the center of the Old City in Dresden is the palace of the Saxon princes and a number of other structures, the most impressive of which is called the Zwinger, built in an ostentatious and bombastic High Baroque style (which personally I find very appealing). Formerly a royal structure, the Zwinger now houses several museums, including the impressive Old Masters gallery, home of Raphael’s famous “Sistine Madonna.”

Of course Dresden was horribly destroyed in the Second World War. Tens of thousands of civilians perished in the Allied bombing of the city, an attack which took place after Germany’s defeat was imminent. (Civilian casualties have been estimated at anywhere between 25,000 and 250,000, according to Wikipedia.) The destruction of Dresden is widely regarded as a war crime, the subject of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (based on Vonnegut’s own experiences as an American prisoner of war in Dresden).

Overlaying the Baroque history of Dresden and its World War II trauma is the long period of DDR rule – the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic, or GDR, in English) – otherwise known as East Germany. The East Germans built tons and tons of ugly, enormous apartment houses and public buildings, the most banal kind of architecture imaginable. The East German government did not see fit to rebuild the city’s main cathedral, called the Frauenkirche (the Church of Our Lady).

Much of historic Dresden was rebuilt in the 1990s, after the reunification of Germany in 1989; it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the rebuilt Frauenkirche incorporates as many stones as possible from the 18th-century one (they appear much darker than the new stones), the vast majority of it is from new materials.
Dresden also boasts much contemporary architecture, like this Deconstructivist fire escape.

By the way, the Frauenkirche was NOT destroyed directly by the bombing of Dresden; it collapsed later as the result of a chain reaction. Many Germans sought shelter inside the church during the bombing and they survived, the church did not collapse on top of them.

The Socialist government of the DDR was not very interested in restoring monuments from the feudal past or from the Church. However, they DID restore the Zwinger, which like the Frauenkirche is largely rebuilt from new materials. The Zwinger was and is a beloved Dresden landmark. A commemorative plaque on the Zwinger declares, “This masterpiece of Baroque art was destroyed by the Anglo-American terror attack of February 13, 1945.” It goes on to say that it was “lovingly reconstructed” by the DDR and the power of the workers. Its reconstruction was finished in 1964.

Besides this plaque, there is very little else in the city that commemorates or even mentions the widespread destruction of Dresden at the end of the war. History has a very strange status in Dresden – all the historical Baroque structures are reconstructions of the past two decades, while the great horror of the war that was experienced by so many in Dresden is almost completely erased. It’s a little strange.

Modern Ruins

Shown below: ruin of the "Orangerie." It's completely derelict, and this seems to be the only piece of the building that still remains; it's just down the road from the Zwinger. The old archaeologist in me couldn't resist investigating it, but I still haven't found out anything else about it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Europe's Mistletoe Epidemic

"I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus,
Underneath the mistletoe last night..."

Who would've thought that mistletoe was actually such a nefarious character, after all the fond Yuletide traditions and carols? I had heard it before -- that mistletoe's an insidious parasite that chokes trees and kills them -- but never really believed it. Now I've seen it for myself. In Saxony (southeast Germany) it's everywhere, hanging from trees in these spherical clumps like some kind of Dr. Seuss invention.

What's more surprising is that we saw mistletoe clumps all over Brittany too -- the north coast of France. It's quite widespread in two such disparate places. We certainly don't see it in Berlin, and I've never noticed it anywhere else until now. I'm surprised the USDA allows mistletoe to be sold all over the US at Christmas time, they should be concerned about the plant's incredible ability to spread itself far and wide. But then again, I always thought that stuff they sell in little plastic bags had to be fake...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Aerial Rotating House

Readers of this blog know that I am prone to posting somewhat random images from time to time, though usually they are related to art or architecture. This one is "Today's featured picture" on Wikipedia.

What is it? Here's the Wikipedia caption:

"Maison tournante aérienne" (aerial rotating house). One of Robida's drawings for his book Le Vingtième Siècle; a nineteenth century conception of life in the twentieth century. Ink over graphite underdrawing, c. 1883, digitally restored.

The artist is one Albert Robida, French, 1848-1926. I'm grateful to Wikipedia because without this pic of the day I never would have heard of this dude. He sounds really cool -- and this image reflects that fin-de-siecle tendency towards utopian imaginings of the future. But I'm afraid there is no such person as Albert Robida, just one of Wikipedia's elaborate April Fool's Day jokes.

(But it's a cool picture anyway.)