Thursday, June 9, 2011

Berlin Museums

Saturday, June 4, 2011
It's hot in Berlin today, and humid. Too hot for this time of year Sandra tells us. But the apartment is cool with breezes flowing in through the windows. When all are ready, we head a few blocks to Atlantic Café for breakfast of omelets and other good stuff and conversation.

Dave and I decide to take the U-Bahn (subway) to MuseumInsel (museum island) for the afternoon. We agree to meet at 8 for dinner at Felix Austria. The subway is 3 blocks away from the apartment, in a bit tattered station, but easy to use and the cars are clean and comfortable. A one way ticket costs 2 Euros 30. We figure out the machine (you can choose English) and head to the museum stop which is 500 m from the island where all the museums are.

We stand in line for tickets to the Neues Museum first because they give you an entrance time. However, we get right in. This museum was badly damaged in WWII and was stabilized shortly after the war, but only restored after the wall came down and only opened about a year ago. The museum houses the Egyptian, Greek and Roman parts of the collection but the building itself is as worthy of study as the collections.

An English architect, David Chipperfield, was responsible for the restoration and his approach was (in my mind) brilliant. He kept what was possible and made no attempt to make modern parts look like they are old. Instead, he chose simple, plain concrete that matched the feeling of the space. The museum feels of a whole but at the same time shows it's checkered history. Where decoration remained, it was kept. One Egyptian room in particular had been redone before the war with a dropped ceiling. The paintings on the walls above the dropped ceiling were never touched, but the walls below had been overpainted and so the original paintings were already lost before the war. Now the room is opened up and you can see the ceiling and the very top of the walls that were above the dropped ceiling. And they're amazing.

The scale of this museum is also worth noting. The grand central hall with its massive columns and door remains while the original décor is gone and we see brick walls and where the grand staircase had been totally lost, we see a cement staircase on the same scale and same location as the original would have been.

We spend several hours looking in this museum and then head for the Pergamen. We had seen this museum 35 years ago when it was on the East German side of the wall. I have always remembered it because its exhibitions were on such a grand scale. They display major parts of ancient buildings - a Greek temple, city gates from ??, the ceramic tile entry wall of the palace in Babylon. The museum doesn't disappoint. While Dave wanders the huge displays, I stitch on the steps of the Greek temple. We leave at 6 when the museum closes.

On the way back to the U-Bahn, we stop at a biergarten for refreshments. I order an ice cream with hot raspberry sauce and a coke. The coke and water come with ice cubes. Dave orders beer. It's shaded and quiet in this courtyard even though it's under the train tracks. A group of 15 men come in to order beer. Several small groups are eating dinner. Dave and I both have this strange epiphany as we watch these people. They are our people. They look like our aunts and uncles, cousins. They are our family. These people could be sitting in any bar in Appleton or Cumberland. It's not a feeling we ever had in France. There's an inescapable culture in your genes that you are not really ever aware of.

It's especially strange because these people know immediately that we are not from here, we're strangers. We are not part of them, but they are part of us. In restaurants, waitresses always offer us English menus without even needing to ask. We refuse because we can read the German menus and we know what the foods are in German. We don't always know what the food is when we see an English translation because these cannot capture the style of the food and that is often more important than if it is baked or what kind of meat it is.

Feeling somewhat refreshed, we take the U-Bahn back to where we will meet for dinner. The cafes are now full of people and I watch at the market hall where there are lines of people getting ice cream. It must be a good place as there is always a line in the 45 minutes I am watching. (And doing needlework with a glass of rosé wine at the next café while I wait for everyone to gather at our restaurant.) There are all sorts of children and families pushing strollers and buggies. The streets are lively with people.

At 8 we all meet at Felix Austria for the biggest kalb (veal) schnitzel I've ever seen. It's delicious. And served with cucumber salad which I had forgotten how much I like. It's just sliced cucumbers dressed in a light vinegar dressing that is just a bit sweet, with fresh dill. We eat with Sandra and Wiley and their friend Benny. Again, we have good conversation on all sorts of subjects from art to skiing.

Sandra and Wiley rent a movie which we watch on their "big screen" TV - they've hooked up a projector to their sound system and show the movie on the white wall of their bedroom. Brilliant. The movie lasts a long time and is pretty depressing. Biutiful by director Inarritu. It's set in Barcelona (but not the parts the tourist would see) and deals with all sorts of immigration issues as well as death from cancer. It's well done and we don't fall asleep in the film, but it's not a happy ending.

Arrival in Berlin

Friday, June 3, 2011
Getting to Sandra's is easy with Olga's help. We drive autobahns (like our Interstate highways) most of the way. The trucks are back on the road again - the rest areas are empty and the right lane of the highway is full of one truck after another. But most of the highway we drive is 3 lanes which is helpful. Driving in Germany is different than driving in France. They too have a top "recommended" speed of 130 (about 85) unless otherwise posted. However, German Autobahns allow you to travel as fast as you want and so you see Mercedes and BMWs flying down the highway at 150 miles per hour or more. So you must be constantly aware of traffic behind you. Like the French, they typically drive on the right after passing, but unlike the French the differences in the speed cars are going is really variable, from trucks going 90 km/h to the speed demons burning up the road. Drivers who want you to move out of their way flash their lights as they pull up behind you, riding your bumper until you move over. It's best to try to stay out of the way. However, in areas where there are only two lanes either from construction or road design, the speed limit is only 80-100 (less than the French roads). And surprisingly, the Germans, even the speedsters, pay attention and slow down to the speed limit. We wonder if the penalties for speeding in marked areas are high. For the most part, traffic is light and the day bright and sunny with mild temperatures again.

We drive through really pretty countryside of green rolling hills. There are lots of pine forests along the way and small towns dotted amidst the green fields. Everything seems orderly and purposeful and in its place. There are not the fields of wild flowers like we saw in France, although we do see occasional profusions of poppies. If there are other wildflowers, its not obvious from the highway drive. We stop for lunch at a rest stop that has restaurant-like options for food in a cafeteria setting. We buy some kind of bread with baked ham and cheese and take it outside to eat on the picnic tables along with chips, clementines, and water from the remains of our lunch bag that we have been carrying with us.

We arrive at Sandra's just after 2 PM. Sandra and Wiley (who have just celebrated their 2 year anniversary) live in a 3rd floor walkup in what could be a beautiful old building in central Berlin. The building is being renovated by the owner who will eventually move into the top two floors, so that will perhaps help improve the esthetics of the shared halls and stairs. This building has a lot of character and Sandra and Wiley's apartment includes two rooms with turrets. Both rooms are large with 12 foot ceilings and white painted walls. In between these rooms (which run front to back along one side of the building) is a wide hallway off of which are the kitchen and bathroom, both of which are also large rooms flooded with light from big windows. The floors throughout (except in the tiled bathroom) are either wide pine planks or modern wood laminate. One of the turret rooms is set up as Wiley's studio and the other is their bedroom.

The area around here is reasonable for rent, Sandra tells us, as it's not a hip, young area but more of a family area. There's a large park (Kreuzeberg?) just two blocks from here and when we walk out later to get coffee, we see plenty of neighborhood shops for groceries as well as a large market building housing all sorts of small shops selling meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, as well as a variety of places selling coffee and other drinks and meals which can be eaten outside at the sidewalk cafes.

It's important to pay attention to where you're walking on the sidewalks because part of them is bike lanes and bikers expect you to stay out of their way. While there is plenty of car traffic in this bustling city, there are more bikes than I've ever seen anywhere. For Sandra, it is her mode of transportation to most places, although she also has the option of the subway which has a stop just a few blocks from her apartment. It would seem to be faster as well if we can judge by our travels home from her art exhibition. We had driven and Sandra had her bike and she beat us home by a good 10 minutes. (Although in fairness, she knows her city and we don't.)

Sandra, whose field is art history, has been working and free-lancing in the art world organizing shows for galleries and developing projects involving art and artists. Tonight, she is responsible for setting up a monthly event where one artist is featured at a place called Beta??? This is a building which houses a simple café on the first floor and then offers inexpensive rental of work space for creative endeavors of all sorts. It provides a meeting space and professional space for artists that encourages networking and camaraderie. Judging by the people attending, this is a successful event.

We meet Sandra's parents at the show and decide to go somewhere for dinner. We stop at a restaurant called Max und Moritz (named after a children's book) which offers a German menu. We are seated in the back hall of what seems to be a typical German style restaurant. There are two large groups of people (one of 20 and one of 30) already in the room and the acoustics make this room rather noisy. We order drinks and eventually food. However, after one hour and 15 minutes, our food still hasn't come and the waitress tells us it will be another hour before it is read y (it's already 9:45). The kitchen, she tells us, is behind due to the large number of people in the two parties (in fact we notice a few minutes later that the smaller of the two groups is just beginning to get their food and they had been here and ordered before we even arrived.) We are comped our drinks and Jens goes looking for another restaurant where we might get faster service. We decide to try somewhere else and as we are walking out, we notice that no one in the restaurant has food except for one table in the very front. Everyone is waiting for their food. Unbelievable. We leave and walk a block up the street to an Italian restaurant where we order pizzas and pasta and are served in a reasonable time.

But it's not all a bust. We have a wonderful time with Sandra's parents who speak excellent English and also love to travel a lot. We catch up on what's going on with each family - they had come to visit us at the end of Sandra's stay at our house 12 years ago. We will see them again on Monday when we celebrate Sandra's sister Juliana's 30th birthday.

Home at midnight and a quick catch up with Wiley whom we hadn't seen earlier as he was working at an art gallery. We tumble into bed after 1 and sleep quickly despite the street noises from people and cars below us.


June 2, 2011
We had been to Bamberg on a cold and grey November weekend 40 years ago when we lived in Germany. (Ok, to be precise, it was 37 years ago.) We had hardly any remembrance of the town and who knows where our slides are that we took when there.

Today, the weather is finally sunny and mild (22 degrees) although there's a cool breeze. The drive across Germany is beautiful. Looks a lot like Wisconsin - rolling green hills, woods, fields and small towns. Of course, the architecture of the towns was significantly different, Germanic one would say. And of course, German farms are always in villages and don't dot the countryside as US farms do.

We are staying in a true German gasthaus which warms our hearts with the remembrance of many happy hours spent in these places long ago. Gashauses are unpretentious affairs. One sees lots of wood, ceilings, tables and chairs as well as booths. There is a bar of course, but not one where you sit at the bar and talk to the bartender. This is a working area with the bartender filling orders and the waitress delivering them to tables. In our gasthaus tonight, there is a large family party in the private room and there are several groups still eating when we come in at 9 for a beer. And there is one waitress for all this commotion. She can be forgiven for giving Dave a small beer rather than a large. And, as we remember from the past, in this gasthaus, when the people from the party want to pay, they still depend on memory - the guest tells the waitress what they ate and she writes it down, totals it and they pay. Quite amazing the lack of technology in a place like this.

And this is a large operation. There are many rooms, some with private bath, others, like ours that have only a sink in the room and use shared toilet and showers down the hall. (Remember, I said it was the only room left in town.) In addition there is the huge restaurant, bar, and an outside terrace. There seem to be only a few people working and when we check in, it is clear they don't use technology. Our name is on a list of reservations that is hand written. (Although, we did make the reservation by Internet, so someone is able to use computers here.)

When we arrive, we throw our stuff in the room, which is spare but comfortable. Then we head for downtown Bamberg. We find a place to park down in the center of town without much trouble and find ourselves right in the center of old Bamberg. Bamberg is divided by the Regnitz River which splits around an island where the old center of town sports a rather impressive old rathaus (town hall) on an even smaller island. This most impressive building is part stone, part exposed timber framed burgermeister (mayor) house. And there is a side of the building that is completely painted in frescoes.

Bamberg is mostly a baroque town with some parts going back to much earlier periods. And incredibly, Bamberg escaped damage in WWII, so it is a wonderful example of Renaissance and Baroque German architecture. The houses are all painted soft shades, mostly earth tones, but with the occassional surprise such as this blue house. The town was apparently wealthy as the houses are large and sport many sculpted details as well as the occasional painted mural. Every corner is worthy of a postcard.

As a medieval religious center, Bamberg has many large churches and the associated universities, convents and other religious buildings. As a government center, there is an old medieval Residence and a new 17th century Residence building . We wander the streets, mostly pedestrian. Of course since we've arrived in Bamberg at 5 PM, everything is closed, but really, looking at the outsides of buildings is all that is necessary.

We decide to eat dinner in a biergarten (beergarden) on a little square and are lucky enough to get the last table at 7 PM. Germans eat earlier than the French! We order Bamberger beer and specialities of the area. Dave gets a plate of 3 sausages with saurkraut and dumpling. I get Bamberger zwiebelschweinebraten, baked pork and onions with roast potatoes and salad. We each order Bamberger beer and the whole thing is the cheapest meal we've eaten yet (including lunches). I realize when I get my plate just the degree to which German food is comfort food for us. It is our midwest German - Scandinavian heritage. We leave very satisfied.

As a last activity, we decide to try to find the viewpoint that overlooks the old city and all its churches. We don't have a map (the tourist office closed at 2:30 today since it was a holiday). But we've studied a couple of maps posted by the city to help people find their way around. We head off aiming for what seems to be a high point of town and are rewarded by "THE VIEW" and in addition, we find the Altburg, the 14th century castle perched on top of the highest hill around. The castle is marvelously preserved (remember, it wasn't bombed in the war) and still has its keep, ramparts, and central living quarters. After a bit of wandering, we return to our gasthaus and are now sitting at one of the tables in the restaurant/bar drinking beer and writing this entry.

Tomorrow, Berlin and Sandra. It should take us 3.5 hours to get there, so we plan to arrive by early afternoon.

Ascension Day

Thursday, June 2, 2011
We've been hearing about Ascension Day for awhile now. Tony and Marian counseled us not to need gas on Ascension Day (Thursday, June 2) as only the 24/24 stations will be available (and they won't take our credit card). When we got to Beaune, we were warned of traffic and closings by the English couple we met at lunch. When we booked our hotel in Bamberg Germany, I think we got the last room in town. The English couple told us that while Ascension is only Thursday, it is a long weekend for the French, the English, and the Germans. No one will be working, they'll all be out - traveling, eating out, touring, staying in hotels, etc. (However, most travel would be pretty localized. The British however, have a week's vacation and so will be doing the same kind of travel we are doing.)

I also remember that the feria (bull fighting weekend) in Nîmes is always Ascension weekend.

We saw evidence of this popular holiday long before arriving in Bamberg, our destination today. Traffic was pretty light on the autoroutes which was nice. And there were almost no trucks. Every aire/rest stop we passed was filled with trucks. The large service centers with facilities and large parking lots were wall-to-wall trucks, with additional trucks parked along the roadways, making maneuvering difficult. Apparently, truck drivers don't work on Ascension either. Although we can't for the life of us figure out what they might do with themselves on this day off, especially those trucks that were just parked at the picnic sites - no facilities. What do they do? Read a book? Sleep all day? It did make driving much more pleasurable than the usual endless lines of trucks that clog the roads.

We got the full effect as we were driving into Bamberg. We're staying along the river in a Gasthaus on the outskirts of Bamberg. As we got within a couple kilometers of our gasthaus, people were everywhere, walking and biking on a pedestrian path that went along the roadway. Families and groups of friends were clearly out for the day with picnics and hiking shoes.

When we drove into Bamberg, we saw what those friends and families were doing that weren't out on the hiking paths. Again there were bicyclists everywhere and hoards of people walking the pedestrian streets of the city and having refreshments in the cafés and brasseries.

So, as we were warned, Ascension is a big event. While we heard church bells pealing in Bamberg, there wasn't much evidence of religious ceremony, but people were definitely enjoying the day. Kind of reminded me of our Memorial Day or 4th of July festivities, but without the fireworks.

Home in Madison

Back in Madison, a bit disoriented from having missed two months in Madison that transitioned from winter to summer. Also a bit jetlagged, but that's to be expected. Flights were uneventful except that we couldn't choose seats for our flights until we got to the airport. Not sure what that was all about, but it meant that we got crappy seats for both flights. The Atlantic crossing from Amsterdam had us sitting (luckily both with aisle seats)in the last row on opposite sides of a jumbo aircraft. But as we were sleeping anyway (or trying to - it's noisy in the back of the plane) it wasn't the end of the world to be separated. Service on this KLM flight was extraordinary - they fed us 3 times and the food was really good. Mike and Browen picked us up at O'Hare and we ate in Milwaukee at a great little restaurant before heading back to Madison. (Mother's and Father's Day treat from Mike.) The trip from Milwaukee to Madison was a bit dicey as we drove almost the whole way in a raging thunderstorm. The weather had been extraordinarily, record-settingly hot - breaking 100 in some places, so the storm was a welcome relief even in its fury. We fell into bed around 10:30 having been up over 24 hours and slept till 4 am and then finally got up shortly after 6 am. It will take a few days for our bodies to adjust back to Central Daylight time. The weather here today is dreary - grey and damp with temps in the 60's. A good day to catch up - unpack, laundry and grocery shopping. We're already lamenting the lack of cheeses at the grocery store and the ordinary bread. And what will we do for olives? But it was good to talk to our Moms and our kids today. We missed that contact while in Europe.

I haven't posted in about a week because we didn't have Internet access from the time we left France. I have a few articles I typed on my computer that I will post next, but I'll have to fill in the gaps and add photos later. I'm really glad I kept this blog during our trip. It is hard to believe, sitting in my living room in Madison, that yesterday I was in Germany and that I spent 2 months living in France. If I could walk through an alternate world portal, I would be on the streets of Thézan this morning doing the marketing and talking to the vegetable and fruit seller and to Nathalie in the butcher shop. I would feel as at home there as I do here. It's strange to think that one can live these two lives from one body. I know this level of remembrance and comfort will fade quickly as I get into the routine of this place, just as my thoughts of Madison were tucked away while I was living in France. But visiting the blog will help me remember and go back. And who knows where our next adventure will take us?