Sunday, March 16, 2008

March 5-11


Photo: Brandenburger Tor

We were in Berlin for a week to do some site-seeing around an MPI retreat Mike had there. We had a great time. Maeve and Cat were coming off a cold, so we did a fair amount of resting. We also got there the first day of an U-Bahn strike, which meant that the metro and the buses weren’t running. Luckily, Berlin also has a system of light rail, which was running, and our apartment was a 20 minute walk from Bahnhof Zoo, the central rail station in former West Berlin, so we did more walking than we had anticipated, but were able to get around okay.

We were staying in an apartment off the former government area in former West Berlin. Now, all this has moved back to former East Berlin, which was the original government district. Our first day in Berlin, we took the bus from the airport, planning on getting off to take the U-Bahn to our apartment, which was a 2 minute walk from an U-bahn stop. We mistakenly got off at the S-Bahn stop (Schnell Bahn or light rail), which turned out to be lucky. After taking the S-Bahn one stop, we asked around and found out about the strike and a helpful Berliner helped us make a plan about how to get to the apartment. At the same time, we were talking on the cell with the lady who rented us the apartment – she was supposed to meet us there but got stuck in traffic as the metro wasn’t going. After 90 minutes or so, we got to the U-Bahn stop near the apartment, but couldn’t find the apartment because the street numbers were going up instead of down, and we needed to find number 3. We called the landlady several times, who helpfully told us to keep walking until the numbers went down. We eventually found the apartment. It just so happens that some streets in Berlin are numbered with evens on one side and odds on the other. Other streets, like the one we stayed on, are numbered going up on one side, and when the street ends, the numbers switch sides and keep going up. We were looking across the street and saw the numbers increasing, while they were decreasing on our side. Very confusing. Luckily it had stopped snowing by the time we started walking around towards the apartment and ended up being a chilly but pretty day.

We spent our first morning getting into the apartment, and then went to eat lunch at a veggie restaurant called Einhorn, across from KaDeWe, Berlin’s biggest department store. The food was fine, and it was close to the apartment. After the afternoon nap, we went to wander around Kurfurstendamm, the main shopping street of West Berlin. A slow tourism day.

March 6 we went to Unter den Linden, the main drag of Berlin, which used to be in East Berlin. From Freidrichstrasse train station, we walked down through the business district. Unter den Linden is a boulevard with businesses, embassies etc, but not really a street to hang out on. We walked past the Gedarmenmarkt, which has 2 very similar looking churches, one for the French Huguenots and one for the German Lutherans. In the middle of the square is the Schauspielhaus, a former theater. The square is supposed to be on of the most beautiful in Berlin, but it seemed somewhat bleak to me, as by that time we were all getting cold and Maeve a bit more unhappy. Nobody was around as we stood next to the Schiller monument in front of the theater and read about the churches, perhaps a cool, rainyish morning in March is not the best time to see life there.

We then headed out for the Musueum insel, an island in the Spree river that was the original location for Berlin, and that now has several excellent museums, the cathedral, and used to have the Berlin palace. On the way there, we went through August-Bebel Platz, which is across Unter den Linden from the main building of Humboldt University and inbetween the Opera and formal Royal library, which is now the law faculty of Humbolt. This used to be called Operaplatz, and was the site of Nazi book burnings. Now there’s a plack about the book burnings in the middle of the plaza and a plexi-glass covered hole in the ground that has empty library shelves below it. Creepy. From there we hurried to the Pergamon as Maeve was cold and fussy, and got there right as it opened at 10AM.

The Pergamon is an amazing museum, and good to visit with kids. The museum is full of large-scale reconstructions of buildings and monuments. You walk into the museum and see a reconstruction of the Pergamon altar, a Greek altar built about 200 BC in Turkey. The façade of the altar is reconstructed with as much of the frieze as they could find. The frieze is hundreds of meters long and depicts the battle of the giants and gods in high-relief, with the typical Greek beautiful bodies engaged in dynamic movement.

We spent most of our time in the Near-Eastern wing of the museum. It was full of monumental gates. The Ishtar gate was first (after a Roman market gate in the process of being reconstructed). It’s made of blue tiles, and was part of the processional way in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. It’s huge, and the part of the processional way that has been reconstructed is something like 3 times as narrow and only a fraction of the original length. There were also a number of other gates from the Sumerian times – my favorite was one off to the side that was made from small ceramic tiles that looked like corks – centuries older than the Babylonian tiles and much simpler, but impressive nonetheless. We quickly did the Islamic art floor as Maeve had to be changed and gotten home for a nap, but the Mschatta façade – a stone-carved façade for a palace in Jordan, was the main highlight. There were lots of smaller prayer niches as well, but having Maeve run around the main architectural reconstructions was the best way to see the museum.

On March 7 we started the day at the Brandenburger Tor, which used to close Berlin in (Berlin then ending at the end of Unter den Linden and the area where Tiergarden – Berlin’s Central Park area- and former West Berlin being out of the city limits) and later was a symbol of the split city as it was off-limits for years, located in the no- man’s-land in between the two walls separating East from West. We then walked to the Reichtag (now called Bundestag), the parliament building that was burned in 1933 and served as Hitler’s excuse for dissolving the legally elected government. Its dome was redone in the 1990’s as the Germans prepared to move their parliament from Bonn to Berlin, and is now a huge tourist attraction. We’d read that the lines to go up get quite long, but if you have a baby in tow you can skip ahead. Sure enough, when we asked a security guard for directions, he said we should go in the handicapped entrance, and we went straight up. The dome is all glass and has a history of the German parliament with a lot of pictures on display at the base, as well as the requisite restaurant. To go up to the top, you walk a spiral ramp, and a different ramp spirals down. On non-rainy and cloudy days, you can apparently get a great view of Berlin, but our view was better near the bottom of the dome where the slope of the glass was greater and not so many raindrops distorted the view.

From the Reichtag, we walked a few blocks to the new Holocaust Memorial. Aboveground, it’s a whole block full of concrete slabs of varying heights forming a maze. Belowground is a museum and visitor’s center, luckily again very kid-friendly. The room I spent the most time in had excerpts from the last narratives of about 15 holocaust victims, mostly letters home, on the floor. There were also a number of benches in the room that Maeve enjoyed climbing on which gave me the opportunity to read. The most telling part of the room, however, were the numbers of victims in different countries which were like a decorative band around the top of the wall. Germany had maybe 300,000 Jewish dead, of course, this was after massive amounts of people had fled or been expelled. But Poland and RussiaPoland was several million and Russia was almost 10 million murdered. It’s unfathomable.

Leaving, there was information about other Holocaust memorials around Europe, and plenty of disclaimers saying that although this museum focuses on Jewish victims, memorials for others are planned.

From there, we walked to Potsdamer Platz, which was a major hub before WWII and got mostly bombed out. It was never rebuilt because the wall went through the middle of the square. When I was last in Berlin in 1993 or 1994, Potsdamer Platz was an urban wasteland – just huge tracks of empty lots in the middle of the city. Not anymore. It’s now a major shopping and entertainment hub, with two malls and plenty of high rises. Not being that interested in malls, we ate lunch in a food court and got Maeve home for a nap.

That evening, we took the S-Bahn to Oranienburger strasse, which is just north of the area with Unter den Linden and used to be the Jewish quarter. It’s now very funky. We walked past the New Synagogue, which was saved from being burned by the Nazis by a policeman, only to be totally bombed out by the Allies. It was recently rebuilt, but as a cultural center not a site of worship. We had dinner at Diafana, a little organic/vegetarian café and bakery around the corner from the Synagogue, and got to listen to a lecture on bread baking. On the way back to the station, we walked through a Hof. Hofs are like patios behind buildings, but in this section of town there are Hofs connected to Hofs, so you can walk through the interior of the block. This Hof had a very touristy candy-making shop, where we saw them pull out hot raspberry-flavored glass-looking play-dough, run this through a mold machine, pop out any candies with bubbles while the candies were under a fan to cool off, and break the candies into pieces, separating out the extra hard candy connecting the molds. Then they ran the candies through a big drum to break off any remaining extra pieces and coat them with a little bit of sugar. Neat. The rest of the Hof was cafes and boutiques around nice gardens, but was mostly shut down for the evening.

On March 8, we went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum. This is a museum, originally set up right on the boarder between East and West Berlin, that was a foundation for human rights and helping people escape East Berlin. It’s very kitsch and needs badly to be modernized, but has tons of information about how people resisted oppression and escaped from East Berlin, including modified cars, a little submarine, a hot-air balloon, modified suitcases, and even a contraption used to turn power lines into zip lines to get over the boarder. Each detail was interesting, but the museum needs to invest in providing more general information about the context of each exhibit or room. We at this point were picking out museums we wanted to see that we thought might be kid-friendly, and again, Maeve had a good time running up and down stairs, climbing in old cars, and generally wandering around the exhibits.

On the way back to the S-Bahn at Potsdammer Platz, we stopped by the Topographie des Terrors, an outdoor exhibit on the grounds of where the SS-building used to be, about the Nazi war and terror machine. They’re thinking about reworking the exhibit, and most of the site was under construction, but they had one very full wall of information in what used to be the basement of the SS-building. We had a hard time making sense of it all, and could have used more overview. At that point, I was pretty much museumed out anyway and tired, so we got some fast food pizzas on the way home for lunch and took naps. The plan was to get Maeve down early and up from her nap to go out that evening.

We did get Maeve up at a reasonable time and went to the Kathe Kolowitz museum, which was walkable from our apartment. She’s a 19-20th century artist/sculptor who lived most of her life in Berlin. Her art feels heavy, and her themes emphasize the oppression of the masses, mothers and children, and is very anti-war. It’s a small museum with only 4 floors in an old mansion, and again was very kid-friendly, in part because it only takes a little over an hour to see everything. It’s still well-worth going to see if you like her work.

Our last free day was Sunday, as Mike had to check in at the retreat Sunday evening. We packed up the apartment and then went again to Potsdammer Platz to walk to the Jewish museum, which is a very new museum and we were hopeful would be kid-friendly. It was. We entered through an older building where they have the coat check, restaurant etc and then you go underground to walk to the new building and up to the third floor where the exhibit starts. The museum is very well done, starting from Jewish life in the Roman times and continuing to the present. It has information about architecture, daily life, travel journals from businesspeople, biographical information about famous people like Mendelsson etc. It also has plenty of interactive exhibits as well as audio texts, but those were in German only. Maeve found plenty to play with in each room, so we were able to move along and have one of us keep an eye on her while the other browsed the museum. Like at the Pergamon, we ate in the museum café so we could go back in the museum for a little while after lunch. We left the museum a bit before 1 and decided to get a taxi to take us back to the apartment and then straight on to the retreat site which was out near the Free University, outside the city center in Western Berlin. It would have been easy to get there on the metro, but… Anyway, we were out on the street outside the museum and a fair number of taxis were coming by, some to drop people off, some with passengers. I was trying to call a taxi, but the line was busy. Sunday with no metro is not a good time to try to get a taxi on the fly. After about 10 minutes, Mike finally flagged a taxi that was free and didn’t mind taking a kid without a kid seat.

An aside about car seats for kids: some drivers didn’t have a booster seat and wouldn’t take Maeve without it, others had a booster seat, really for kids much larger than Maeve who should be in a car seat, and wouldn’t let Maeve sit in our laps because they said the booster seat was safer, and others just let us hold her in our laps. Our CambioCar (the car-sharing service we use in Saarbruecken) claims to have a child seat in every car and actually does have a booster seat, but we take our own car seat along when we use it as Maeve is still too small for the booster. Most taxis do seem to have these booster seats as well.

So we hopped in the taxi, went by the apartment to pick up our bag, and headed to Harnak House where we’d be staying for the retreat to put Maeve down. When we go there, we realized it’s in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the Free University. After Maeve’s nap, we walked about 15-20 minutes to Dahlen, the nearest village, to get Maeve and me dinner. Mike had dinner later with the retreat. In Dahlen, there is a working farm which if Maeve were a bit older would have been lots of fun to visit.

The next two days, Mike was mostly working and I also listened to a few talks during Maeve’s afternoon naps. But the mornings Maeve and I got to explore. We called a cab to take us to the nearest S-Bahn station and then took the train into town. The first morning we went to KaDeWe, as I wanted to see if they had a baby monitor and to find some pesto. On the way there, we stopped by the interior of the Kaiser Wilhem peace monument, which is the bombed out remains of a church right on Kurfurstendamm near Bahnhof Zoo. We’d seen it from the outside before, but hadn’t gone in. Only the vestibule remains (there’s a modern church beside it) but the vestibule has a lovely mosaic ceiling. I had Maeve in the sling and we walked around with me staring upwards and Maeve bending over backwards to be able to better see the ceiling.

About the pesto, Maeve is allergic to nuts – not the deathly allergy some kids have but every time she eats nuts, including peanuts and coconut, she gets a skin rash. And all the pesto I can find in Saarbruecken has cashews in it. When I make pesto, I use pine nuts which is no problem for Maeve, but I don’t have a food processor here and we want non-nutty pesto. So Maeve and I went to the gourmet food section in KaDeWe, which is a very very upscale department store. They did not have non-cashew pesto, but they did have ground up basil and garlic paste, so I got a couple of jars and can add grated parmesan at home. The baby monitors were 59 Euros at the cheapest, so I passed on buying that. We got lunch at our buddy Einhorn restaurant and got some take out to take back for dinner.

March 11 was our last day in Berlin. Maeve and I headed out to explore in Kreutzberg, a section of Berlin just south of Mitte, the section with Unter den Linden. The neighborhood was more edgy, and we spent some of the morning walking up to the top of Kreutzberg, a small hill in a park that had excellent views of downtown. We then had lunch at Seerose, a vegetarian café, and got some take out for dinner, which was going to be in the airport on our way home. We stopped by a Turkish stand in a market on our way home and got some flatbread and a zucchini fritter, also for dinner. The fritter was a big hit with Maeve in the airport.

We got home to Saarbruecken at about 9 that evening – a very late night for Maeve who usually goes to sleep about 7. She was hyper on the plane, but not fussy and traveled very well.

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