Monday, December 14, 2009

World of probability

My two-week visit to this brawling metropolis began here. Blog-wise, it ends on this page.

My last full day in Berlin was a satisfying one. For one thing, I competently used the S-Bahn to see the southern neighborhood of Treptow. Wow, sure is different down here.

I asked three people where the Soviet War Memorial was. Two couldn't tell me and one kept walking. The thing is monumentally large. Was it my imagining, or did their jaws tighten when I said the word “Soviet”? A lot of people’s grannies suffered badly, to say the least, at the hands of the Russian army. Anyway, I struck out ...

I did have success finding “Molecule Man.” When I saw a picture of this online several months ago, I thought that any city willing to plant this American artwork -- as tall as a football field is long -- in its principal waterway is a city I’d like to visit. It’s been here 10 years now. The artist, Jonathan Borosfsky, reminds us “that both people and molecules exist in a world of probability and that the aim of all creative and intellectual traditions is to find wholeness and unity within the world.” Right on, bong dude! It’s still pretty cool.

A Greek girl takes my picture, keen about keeping her distance.

Check out these ramshackle pubs, closed for the winter, along a sluice off the Spree. Industrial parks are all around. Scenes like this, the Tiergarten, and all the city's parks and outdoor cafes make me want to visit during the warmer months.

Two-to-one this poster is by Charles Burns. Nobody does creepy-cool better.

A prominent public artwork in south Berlin. Enlarge to get the whole effect.

Running into the Oberbaumbrucke, Berlin's most distinctive bridge, was a pleasant surprise. It was one of eight inner-city checkpoints after the Wall went up. Forty-six years ago, almost to the day, tens of thousands of West Berliners were allowed to cross here to visit their relatives in the East -- for a few cruelly brief hours. Naturally, no Easterners were allowed the same courtesy.

This guy is selling bratwurst from a propane-powered grill strapped to his front. Because it doesn't touch the ground, he's exempt from some licensing and fee requirements.

Before the evening's performance, I stop for a bratwurst of my own at the grand Gendarmenmarkt. I've had a dozen of these on this trip and never been disappointed. The mustard's always been good. The fries have been great everywhere, too. This is important.

The Gendarmenmarkt square is hijacked this time of year by a Christmas market. There are some 60 of these schlockfests across Berlin, yet this is the only one I'm aware of that charges an admission fee. I opt out on principle, aiming over the merriment to snap a shot of tonight's concert venue, the Konzerthaus. She's a beaut', perched high to make herself seem more removed from everyday life. It's a theme in the Mitte.

That's a caldron of bubbling kale in the foreground, with wurst floating around in it. Kale never looked so good.

I've got food on my mind, treating myself to a coneful of hot sugared hazelnuts before entering the concert hall. As you can see, I'm to the side of the orchestra, only about 20 feet away. When I saw tonight's program, including the complete songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, I knew I had to go. Its such a quintessentially Bohemian offering, I expect you have to travel to this part of Europe to to see it performed whole.

The hall is barn-shaped with lots of marble exposure, giving it not quite the acoustic qualities of the Staatsoper, Philharmonie, Kammermusiksaal or Komische. It doesn't help that our vocalists, Petra Lang and Hanno Muller-Brachmann, have their backs slightly toward me (my bad), their projections swallowed up in the distance. At the end of the first song in the cycle, Petra looks over at her colleague and smiles as if to say, "Loosen up, let's have some fun." Hanno will have none of it; he needs to concentrate.

I catch snippets that were later adapted into Mahler's symphonies. Hey, that's No. 2. Whoa, I'm listening to No. 4 now, and so forth. What a solid German orchestra this is, channeling all of Mahler's intense floweriness, his bubbling clarinet passages and fiery crescendos. Is it racist to say he's in their DNA? Having this poem/song cycle in your home would give it that 19th-century German folksiness that's so in style. :)

Never Boring Bruckner and his No. 1 follows. The symphony has a Saturday-morning-matinee appeal -- I can imagine it as a "Lassie" soundtrack in some stretches -- realization followed by consternation followed by determination followed by exultation. It's a timeless tableau, and Timmy always gets rescued from the mine. On the way out, I take a picture of yours truly, my cheap-ass Christmas card to you.

Maybe its just my molecules talking, but Berlin looks like a champ to me now. After 336 hours, its architectural incoherence, its mishmash of disconnected neighborhoods seem to tap me on the shoulder, asking me to take a closer look. Back in Prenzlauer Berg I sleep, feeling chased by the clock.

I wake up before the alarm, toss out my recyclables and head to Alexanderplatz to wait for the TXL bus to the airport. I think back to my first time in Ili's. The barman smiled and pointed to my tie. "You go to a funeral?"


He shrugged with unconcern. For some in Berlin, the Unter den Linden might as well be a canal on Mars.

The city's strangeness has not loosened for me. Like any big place it dwarfs the individual, provoking a range of cultural responses, here mostly youthful and pointed. More than once I wondered: Where are all the grown-ups?

Smack in front of me, the TV tower rises from Alexanderplatz, its sphere sparkling like a Christmas ornament. A snowflake stings one eye. I get on the bus.

The end

Things I'll miss

The view from my window at night.

And by day, watching children wearing impossible amounts of winter clothing toddle around the playground across the street.

The world’s fastest toaster.

Berliners’ playfulness and sense of humor.

The bike-a-licious culture here. Note the segregated bike lane, away from the street, theoretically separated from pedestrian traffic. I’m not a big fan of this per se, but once you’ve got the infrastructure, you’re bound to use it. There are plenty of X-Mart Mongooses and so forth on the street, but also a tantalizing number of cherry Batavuses and Kettlers with S-Ram3s, Brooks saddles and lovely waterproof panniers.

This kid is sitting on the rack, keeping his balance by pressing his feet against the downtube. Do you know how difficult this is? Mom and son make it look easy.

How you can get anything you want -- at 5 a.m.

How, if you need to communicate in English, all you have to do is cock your head slightly, like a dog hearing a high-pitched sound.

And of course, all the cute, well-behaved dogs.

Speaking of which, I met my landlord today for the first time, hours before my departure, bounding up the stairs with his well-muscled Vizsla.

And too many other things to mention.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Berlin by night

At this time of year, it's almost always night. A condensed look at what I've been up to lately:

That's Altes, folks!

Bitingly cold today (28F as I write this), with lots of perilous icy patches on the sidewalk. I don’t have a master plan, but there are a couple of things I’d like to get straight -- like where exactly do I pick up the bus for Tegel Airport on Tuesday morning, and where precisely is the Konzerthaus, site of tomorrow night’s abonnementkonzert. Neither task took long, and I scuttled into the Altes Museum, below, for a break from the cold.

“The Praying Boy” may be this museum’s most famous piece. It’s a Greek bronze work from 380 B.C. that was uncovered in Rhodes in the 16th century, and it’s remarkable for its provenance. Charles I of England once owned him, Louis the XIV had the arms added in the 18th century -- even Napoleon got into the act and claimed him as war booty. Since the arms were a late addition, we don’t know if he ever was really praying or not.

This is a detail from a Roman sarcophagus. Not even Adonis’ dogs can keep him from being eaten alive by a boar sent by the god Mars.

The building’s majestic rotunda. This place is not to be confused with the Alte Nationalgallerie, an 8-iron away. Altes = Greek and Roman. Alte = 19th century art. Make a note of it.

Yeesh. I can’t get away from Mr. Smug. There’s a Nespresso commercial with him and John Malkovich on TV every 5 minutes.

That's a Trabant, a sputtering, smoke-spewing vehicle people used to drive in the old German Democratic Republic. Folks seem to be quite nostalgic for them now.

The Russian Embassy. It’s hard to imagine this was the de facto seat of government from 1961-1989, when the GDR was a puppet state of the Soviets.

Today’s real seat of government, thank heavens -- the Reichstag. This is where Angela Merkel goes to work each morning.

Icicles on the Reichstag.

I’m walking along the Spree now, the Reichstag’s glass observation dome visible in the background.

Traveling on Sunday sucks because the trains run only about every 10 minutes or so, compared with 3 or 4 minutes on the weekdays. I browse a newsstand while waiting. You may notice Hitler peering at you from the magazine cover at right. Images of him and swastikas are generally illegal here, unless they’re used for satirical purposes.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hertha 2, Leverkusen 2

But it felt like a win for the home team, Hertha, because on the final play against a more skilled Leverkusen side, the boys in blue put in a header from a corner kick to salvage the draw. You can see Hertha's first goal below and hear the fans' signature chant of "Ha Ho He!"

Getting to Olympic Stadium is an experience. You travel in a crammed subway car with fans from both teams. When you emerge, you walk through a wooded area for awhile and then see this, the site of the 1936 Games:

The sweeping curve of its interior is impressive. The building itself has quite a history. Hundreds of accused army deserters were shot here. In the waning days of WWII, the very young and the very old gathered here for induction into the Volkssturm, the defense of last resort. They got wiped out. In April 1945, battles over the stadium left 2,000 dead, mostly boys of 13 and 14.

In the center of this photo, where the flags are flying, is the equivalent of Hertha’s Dog Pound. They jump around and yell chants all game. I wanted to sit there, but it's pretty exclusive and security is tight. This season, Hertha is the Bundesliga’s equivalent of the St. Louis Rams, and because they’re not very good, the stadium is only half full. Plenty loud though.

To fit in, I buy a Hertha scarf.

A group of friends invites me to sit with them in Section 29. They can’t believe an American traveling alone in Berlin would want to come see their shitty team play. Most of all, they want to practice their English. After the game, they take me to a nearby pub and even though most of them are unemployed, they won’t let me buy a round. At far left is Maurice studying my map, eager to show me something. The baby-faced guy in the middle, Frederick, spent a year in North Carolina, so his English is pretty good. He tries to explain to his pals what Bud Light tastes like and struggles to describe it. “Like piss?” I offer, and he responds, “No! Piss has more flavor!”

It’s getting very late and we say our goodbyes. Frank accompanies me to the S-Bahn and travels with me partway back to the city center. I was impressed by these young Germans. They were really tight, each seeming to care deeply about the other.

The next thing I know I’m back at Schonhauser Allee. Now
I know where to pick up the S-Bahn here -- it’s deep within the Schonhauser Arkade, or shopping mall. I knew I’d figure it out eventually. Too bad I’ve only got a couple more days here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A man of good taste

I spent much of today at the Alte Nationalgallerie, devoted to 19th-century art. No time to dally, I'm afraid. In a couple hours, Hertha BSC takes on Bayer Leverkusen at Olympic Stadium and I'm so there. Are you ready for some fussball?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Berlin Zoo

Remember li'l Knut, the polar bear that captured the world's attention two years ago? Well, he's dead.

Figuratively, of course! Knut just no longer looks like this, having grown into something of a menacing beast no longer fit to canoodle with humans. Whoa, he's really changed.

We're on the prowl for the elusive eisbaren. Perhaps we'll find Knut yet.

Well, here's his enclosure, and if I'm not mistaken the sign concludes with something like "Thank you for your understanding." That's never good news. Maybe he's hibernatin'.

Disappointment breeds invention. Pardon the following reverie.

Yes, yes, otters are nature's comedians. We get it.

I know this looks like something out of the International Wildlife Museum, but these are real live penguins, I swear.

A South African sea lion:

A non-South African, non-sea, lion:

A snipey little fellow. Would like to strap him to my waist and smuggle him home.

What's black and white and retching all over?

I can relate, my man.

Baby elephant alert!

Hey! Come back!

Time for a currywurst. What are you looking at, Fritz?

The rain is really coming down now. This is a prized piece of the Wall by artist Kiddy Citny known as "The King's Head." It's outside the Markische Museum.

psibley 18 from Sluggh McGee on Vimeo.

I was driven, driven I tell you, into this riverside cafe for a Paulaner hefe.

The show must go on. To Berliners, a freezing rain means nothing, and no thought is given to curtailing this carnival.

I'd like to think I'm made of similarly stern stuff, but peasant that I am, I'm hightailing it back to my warm cave for potato soup and toast. See you tomorrow! But not before 94 seconds of animal goodness: