from Sandy Needham

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Berlin Dispatch

Our arrival in Berlin fortuitously and unexpectedly overlapped the departure to Brazil of Felix, Julia and little Zoë, whose Prenzlauer Berg flat we were exchanging for the next nine days. We ran into them on the sidewalk in front, about to catch a cab to the airport! Felix, an actor with the public theater, led us up the five flights of this historically preserved building for a brief introduction to the spacious and light-filled flat. I was immediately swooning over the collection of Arne Jacobson and Charles Eames chairs that Felix had inherited from his parents and the Danish lighting fixtures that lent the perfect continuity to the summer's mid-twentieth century design theme. There were Felix's creative instructions and suggestions for our stay and a variety of art on the walls to examine later.

This Prenzlauer neighborhood is known for its young families, the big park out our front windows with the old water tower - now refurbished into hexagonal apartments - and loads of shops and international restaurants, bars and cafes. We found the prices the lowest we had seen in Europe, by far, and cannot help but think that this plays a big part in the youthful and creative dynamism of this former Eastern Bloc of Berlin, which has risen so splendidly out of its communist grey. Some say that Berlin is now the capitol of Europe!

Jake and Larissa were staying in a beautiful AirB&b in the Friedrichshain neighborhood. They joined us the first evening for happy hour in a neighborhood Argentine bar and a true introductory Berlin biergarten dinner. I finally had sauerkraut after nine years! Unfortunately, sauerkraut is a Bavarian dish and was not available again until our last night in a simple German restaurant.

A kindergarten in our park filled the mornings, once again, with the squeals of happy children. We spent the first few days walking the neighborhood, sampling the Thai, Russian and Italian food and visiting a huge flea market in Maver Park with many live music venues. Small kiosks painted like strawberries were everywhere selling strawberries, so we succumbed to the temptation next to our flat and never stopped eating the most incredibly delicious strawberries of our lives for the remainder of our stay. We are at least temporarily ruined for those sketchy things that are called strawberries elsewhere; we simply cannot eat them for the time being. We loved the semi-weekly street market on the next block, where we sampled the famous currywurst and the gözleme, a popular turkish crepe with vegetables.

We had a great Asian fusion dinner with Jake and Larissa at Toca Rouge on Torstrasse, and a sunny summer's afternoon at Lake Liepnitzsee together, an hour's drive in the lovely old Audi station wagon that was part of our exchange. It was fun to see the swimmers of all ages unabashedly changing back into their street clothes along the shore...a reminder of our ingrained puritanical roots! (Sorry; no photos.) We had a ping-pong reunion on a small island in the lake:

Jake's dear friend (and wedding groomsman) Thomas Schulzee was then moving to Berlin from Thailand. He is practically one of the family! Another of Jake’s friends from Nyack High School, Jake Schickler, lives in Berlin. His father was visiting at this time, so we all met up for another biergarten dinner at the famous Tiergarten Park. Plenty of bier, and I discovered one that is not so heavy or bitter, now that I’m accustomed to such light-though-flavorful Brazilian beer. It was a fun reunion with lots of Nyack, New York reminiscing. 

Our dear friends - more like relatives - Anke and Klaus, arrived from Herford in Westphalia for a few days' visit. Anke was my family's year-long American Field Service exchange student in 1964 in Tulsa! She has always been the fifth Needham daughter, and shares an appreciation of and love for my departed parents. Klaus is now retired from his bank managership, so we did what we talked about doing three years ago when we visited Herford: meet in Berlin after his retirement! They became our native guides to the historic wonders of the city and our partners-in-dine!

We got off to a rough start when we were to meet them at Hackescher Market; the place was swarming with happy hour crowds and we could not spot them anywhere. We even checked with one of the bartenders if there might be a specific bar called "Hackescher Market?"...but, 'no.' Finally we saw Anke walking towards us. Sure enough, across the street out of sight was the very chic Hackescher bar where they had been forced to start without us! We found a great little Italian restaurant, Vino e Basilico on Tucholskystrasse near their hotel, and had a rollicking, wine-infused dinner.

At Brandenburg Gate
But it got worse: the following day we were to meet them at the Parliament by the Brandenburg Gate in Mitte, the city center. We made our way by tram to the Alexanderplatz underground just below the highly visible Funkturma broadcasting tower. It was our first underground ride since arriving from the airport, and we assumed that we would consult the subway map in the station - as we were accustomed to doing - and then head to the Brandenburg station. The problem was, there is no map and no information booth, just various stairways with a list of stations...not that one...beside them. We called Anke and Klaus after plenty of frantic running around the station - not even knowing where to start. They told us how to arrive at the huge new Hauptbahnhof station and wait for them in front. They trudged on foot in the heat from the Parliament to meet us. Organized Anke and Klaus: meet the forever ill-prepared Sandra and Newton! It was a sweltering day and now they had to turn around and lead us back to the sites, but not without Anke stopping first chance to buy us a map of Berlin!

Funny story: apparently the citizens of Berlin consider themselves the pinnacle of civilization in Germany and exhibit a bit of condescension towards their podunk their own rough way! There was one woman already at the counter where Anke wanted to pay the one euro for the map already in her hand, but when she tried to place the coin on the counter, acknowledge the clerk and leave, the clerk admonished the refined, former professor Anke and explained that it was impolite to pay ahead of the woman in front...except the woman had a notebook and pencil out and was painstakingly planning an entire itinerary at the counter. Finally, the clerk relented and took the damn euro. Anke and Klaus get a big kick out of this Berliner attitude.

Reichstag - Parliament
We then visited Parliament, called the Reichstag, though we did not go up in the dome, which requires a reservation; we passed the stunning modern Parliament buildings; visited the famous Brandenburg Gate, which leads to the fascinating Unter de Linden boulevard lined with linden trees from the days of the Prussian kings, featuring palaces, embassies, and the world-famous Humbolt University (29 Nobel prizewinners!), among many distinguished historic buildings. The Gypsy Memorial pays tribute to the thousands of Gypsies killed by the Nazis, and the classical Neue Wache War Memorial, to all victims of war. Even though we did not walk around the Jewish Memorial, we drove past it and were able to experience the emotional effect of its design. Germany is a model for the world for healing in the way that the country so openly faces the past without subterfuge and honors the victims of Hitler's madness. 

Parliament  Buildings

Gypsy Memorial
Neue Wache Memorial

Holocaust/Jewish Memorial
There were happy sun-soakers along the River Spree.
The oldest church in Berlin is St. Nicholas Church from the 13th century:

We stopped in Gendarmenmarkt Square to see the French Cathedral, originally from a Huguenot congregation; the Neue Kirche, German Calvinist; and to enjoy these playful bubbles in front of the Koncerthaus:

This is a popular summer refresher that revived Klaus and Newton.

Tobias Quack, a personable and brilliant young man, is a friend of Anke and Klaus’ son, Jan, and a past visitor to our home in Natal! He had an internship at Volkswagon outside São Paulo a couple of years ago, then made his way to the Northeast of Brazil and stayed a few days with us. His Portuguese seems as perfect as his English! Tobias’ married older brother and little nephew live in Berlin, so Tobias took this chance to visit the city and share in our fun with Anke and Klaus and to meet Jake and Larissa.

We all met up for dinner in the bohemian neighborhood of Kreuzberg, home to a large Turkish population, punks, hipsters, artists, an amazing food market and street art! We settled on Swera Indian restaurant on the animated Bergmannstrasse because it had an outdoor table for seven! What luck, the food was magnificent. 

Of all the ever-popular Turkish gemüse vegetable kabob stands in the city, this one in Kreuzberg is the most popular of all, with a line stretching all the way down the block.

Our next expertly-guided day with Anke and Klaus was to the Pergamon Museum on the ‘Museum Island’ of Berlin. We visited the Middle East museum within it, with an outstanding collection of Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian artifacts, as well as the reconstruction of a provincial Roman market gate from the second century A.D.:

The collection is astounding.

Anke and Klaus had eaten at our neighborhood Russian restaurant, Pasternak, on a previous visit and loved it; Felix highly recommended Pasternak, as well, so we showed them our apartment and had yet another fantastic dinner on our last night with Russian food and Russian vodka! Thank you, Anke and Klaus, for such a rich and fun view of Berlin! We adore you and look forward to our next Brazil, perhaps?!

I had a strange 'Eastern Bloc' experience when we joined Jake and Larissa on their first anniversary at a Sunday afternoon riverside bar and DJ scene, off the beaten path. I hadn't eaten and expected to get some lunch at the bar, but the kitchen had just closed till 6:00pm. The bartender sent me to the large restaurant next door...same story. The manager inside the restaurant sent me to the restaurants "down the block." Well, I walked and walked in what looked like a street of old abandoned apartment buildings, as there were no people or cars around and nothing open. After about a mile and a half, I got a real taste of the old neighborhood when I entered the open door of a bar where the male bartender and the two card tables of gruff men groaned in objection when I stepped in. The bartender sent me further down the street where, after another mile, I found a Turkish fast food spot at last. I had been time-traveling pre-1989, until the falafel, at least! Luckily, I finally made it back to the family in 2015 and shared some anniversary champagne.

The four of us visited the remnants of the Berlin Wall, painted by international artists after its fall:

I am studying here the photos on this pillar bedside the wall. You can see the photo of the dilapidated bridge directly behind me, now restored:

The "Topography of Terror" is an outdoor/indoor museum located on the site of the Gestapo and the SS from 1933 -1945. It is fascinating to follow the sequence of escalated Nazi suppression documented in photos and captions as you move along this exhibit.

I was very struck by the rapidity with which the horrors of the Third Reich and the horrors of World War II segued into the rapacious invasion of Berlin by the Red Army in 1945. Anke told me that her grandparents from both sides were Berliners, but that her parents fled the city ahead of the Soviets, eventually making their way to her hometown, Bielefeld in Westphalia, via her father's employment opportunities. 

One cannot avoid loving the vigorous, iconic "Ample Man" - the 'walk' signal on Berlin's traffic lights. This was designed in East Berlin during the communist regime and was replaced with West Berlin's 'walk' figure after reunification. Before long, citizens objected and this happy artifact from an unhappy era was re-instated citywide! Its jaunty hat and energy say so much about what survived.

We were off to Barcelona - Larissa and Jake soon to follow for our family reunion with Elise.



1 comment:

  1. You have really been able to explore these cities on this trip and thus see the interesting corners of each. All of my trips to Germany were for short stays while attending conferences. I believe I went to Berlin, Munich, Frankfort, Hamburg and Dresden, and maybe one more I don't remember. But a friend of mine from a biotech in California was also at those meetings and since we both enjoy opera, we were able to see 3 different operas in three different cities. Two interesting things about attending an opera in Germany: 1. If you are not familiar with an opera that is sung in Italian or French or German, you are pretty much out of luck understanding the story since the supertitles are in German. 2. Understanding where your seat is located can be a problem. At one opera we were in a theater that had about 4 balconies that were pretty much stacked straight up and with only 4-5 rows per balcony. I believe we were in balcony 4, row A, what we thought were going to be great seats. What we didn't know is that our row A was a standing row behind the seated rows and we ended up standing through the whole opera. I also stayed in nice hotels, particularly in Berlin. I was amazed that the housekeepers and porters were all attractive young men and women who spoke excellent English. That is something one never sees in the U.S., particularly in big cities where practically all of the housekeeping staff are immigrants who often do not speak English. Since most of my trips were back in the late 90's and early 2000's things might have changed by now with the significant influx of immigration in Europe. Looking forward to Barcelona Dispatch.



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