Archive for the ‘Berlin’ Category

What is it about being in a new environment that makes daily life vivid? Zombie-like, we typically move through our daily lives on auto-pilot until we are suddenly immersed in a fresh new place. Even taking a shower and brushing one’s teeth can be exciting if you don’t recognize the toothpaste brand or can’t figure out how to control the shower.

Berliner Bathroom

Arriving in Berlin one year ago, I felt like a kid. Going to the grocery store was an adventure and opening a bank account was a triumph to be celebrated. We arrived with one suitcase and one backpack each, easily fitting into our funky furnished apartment in Prenzlauer Berg.

My Prenzlauer Berg desk

After purchasing a tv, dvd player, printer, and bicycles, we felt completely satisfied with our material goods, ready to experience Berlin and our new life without the burden of maintaining a car or a house. How liberating to own almost nothing.

Joyful day!

Although surrounded by spoken and written German, we managed to maintain an English bubble for much of our day. High-speed internet access gave us the New York Times, the Daily Show, Facebook, email and other sundry delights and temptations, keeping us up to date with news about the USA and our friends. The miracle of Skype meant that regular contact with family and friends was easy and free.


Through my involvement in the Booker Tea book group and the Berlin International Women’s Club, we’ve gotten to know many interesting people living in Berlin and made some good friends. Both of these organizations use English as the primary language, again reinforcing the English bubble. Even our friendly neighbors speak embarrassingly good English. German was reserved for reading the newspaper, watching the news on tv and ordering food at a restaurant. Overheard conversations on the U-bahn were a puzzle where every third word or so was comprehensible.

Korean tourists

Each day of living in Berlin was filled with astonishing new sights and sounds, secret courtyards, wonderful museums, and huge parks to explore new open-air markets to uncover. The people on the street, in the U-bahn, on the tram, in the restaurant, looked exotic and interesting. The Berlin Tagesspiegel newspaper ran a story every day about the anniversary of some historical event or important person’s birth or death. The 80th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s visit to Berlin was celebrated with a Chaplin film festival at a nearby independent movie theater. How cool is Berlin? Let me count the ways.

Which way is up?

And then somewhere along the way the thrill was gone and living in Berlin felt normal and routine. A trip to the grocery store became a trip to the grocery store and not a treasure hunt in some strange land filled with exotic products. Giving strangers directions on the street no longer raised the blood pressure. Wednesday became Schnitzeltag, with the waitress smiling and greeting us as regulars. Using the extensive public transit system was easy. Gone was the frisson while walking out the door.


And gradually the German conversations on the train became comprehensible, newspaper articles readable without the dictionary, public announcements understandable, exchanging niceties easy, news on the television useful, and babysitting German-speaking neighbor kids doable. One foot may be planted in the English bubble, but the other foot was stepping out onto the German-speaking world.

Astroturf in Berlin?

The original plan was to stay in Berlin for at least one year, and perhaps through end of June 2012, when our house in Boulder would become available. At the end of 2011 we realized that we just weren’t ready to leave Berlin–that we needed another circle ‘round the sun.

Let me lend you a hand, comrade!

During this coming year, I want to recapture some of that childlike wonder from a year ago, starting each day pretending that I am a seven year old. Moving to Kreuzberg will offer new places to explore. Dedicated study will deepen my German language skills. Involvement in the Berlin International Women’s Club will give me responsibility and community. Travel will expand my mind map of the world.

Another year in Berlin? Wunderbar!



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“Recent discoveries in physics and astronomy point to the idea that our universe may be one of many universes populating a grander multiverse,” says Columbia University Professor Brian Greene on a recent Fresh Air interview. Because of recent progress in string theory and quantum physics, the evidence of parallel ‘multiverses’ has become more probable, based on work at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Greene has written  “The Hidden Reality,” a book on the topic. Like Terry Gross, I had a tough time understanding what this could possibly mean to everyday life, but it’s interesting to think about the possibilities. Are we floating along on a carpet-like membrane that is the universe we know while other parallel universes exist alongside?

The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene

Artists sometimes take us into a new world. Saskia Olde Wolbers does this through her abstract videos with voice-overs of elaborate stories that dreamily correspond with the images displayed in the video. “Her intricate videos are driven by a combination of otherworldly imagery – meticulously handmade model worlds – and the apparent inner monologue of the voiceover in the audiobooklike soundtracks. The films are shot underwater. Miniature sets dipped in paint to create unstable imagery that abstractly illustrate the narrator’s thought process.” (www.secession.at). Hers were the first art videos that captured my imagination, transporting me into a world inside of a dream.

Still Photo from Placebo, 2002, Saskia Olde Wolbers

Cloud Cities, a new exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof by artist Tomás Saraceno, evokes another universe. Inspired by spider webs, astrophysics and Buckminster Fuller, Saraceno creates spheres hovering above the earth, inviting visitors inside their cloud-like environs.

Cloud Cities at Hamburger Bahnhof

Clouds to the ceiling

Are those people inside the cloud?

Relaxing in the Cloud

Others float above in a parallel cloud universe

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In the rough and tumble world of the USA, where 44 million people don’t have health insurance and a presidential candidate brags about jogging with a loaded gun, Europe can seem like a cradle-to-grave nanny state where coddled citizens enjoy a lifetime free of risk or worry.

It may be true that everyone here must have health insurance, those who can’t afford it are given assistance, and workers have more rights than in the US, although those rights have been diluted in recent years. However, I have been surprised and sometimes alarmed by the seeming nonchalance Berliners have about their own and their children’s safety. In everything from dangerous playgrounds, bike riding without helmets, smoking, dogs and unmarked intersections, Berliners live on the wild side.


A recent NYT article, titled Can a Playground be too Safe? asked whether children’s playgrounds in the US have become too safe. Clearly, playground designers in Berlin have set aside extreme concerns for safety first and are more in agreement with Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Norway, who stated, “Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground.”

Here, children mob the local playgrounds with parents nearby but not hovering. Barefoot and determined, the kids shinny up poles, climb rough-hewn wooden structures, and climb up webbed ropes to the top of pirate ships.

Are those women drinking beer?

That's a tall slide!

They also jump on small trampolenes, ride bikes over hilly steeple-chase type courses, and slide down 20 foot slides.

Steeple chase

Merry-go-rounds like we had when I was a kid are plentiful, as are new-fangled spinning discs, harnessing centrifugal force with absolutely nothing to hang on to. Looks like a blast!

Spinning disk

Parents seem relaxed and unconcerned, picking up discarded shoes and socks and providing reassurance. The kids are thrilled and ready for adventure.

Special events, such as the open house at the Kanzleramt (Angela Merkel’s executive offices), include entertainment for older children such as the hamster ball in the swimming pool. Older children and young adults step inside a deflated plastic ball, the ball is zipped up, inflated, and pushed into the swimming pool. The young hamsters try to stay upright in the plastic balls, which is clearly impossible. Nowhere did I see anyone signing a release form.

Can you imagine something like this at the White House?

A recent poetry festival featured one of those bull-riding machines. The kids loved it! A fall festival offered children a chance to try their hand at black smithing.

Learning to be a black smith


Berliners are very nonchalant about helmet use while cycling. I’ve noticed that children are more likely to be wearing helmets, but not always. Parents and children regularly go to and from school or kita (day care/nursery school) via bike, and children too small to ride on their own are often perched on the rear of the parent’s bike, in a little wagon pulled at the back,

Lots of kids to get home.

or, my favorite, sitting in a box built into the front of the bike.

Don't lean over too far!

Sometimes their little noggins are protected with a helmet, sometimes not.

Helmet wearers

Maybe we Americans are pessimistic and think about the worst case scenario too much. Maybe Germans are more optimistic. Or perhaps they are more careless.

Watching the Berlin Marathon


Herman Cain has caught a lot of grief over his strange campaign ad, featuring his chief of staff taking a drag on a cigarette. Europeans used to be notorious for their tobacco-stained teeth and smoky pubs. Today, smoking is banned in restaurants and most bars, except for smoking bars. Nonetheless, young people here seem to smoke a lot, taking cigarette breaks outside or deliberately sitting at outside tables in spite of the cold, in order to smoke. Smoking is definitely still ‘cool’ here.

Thumbs up!

Drinking beer on the metro

While riding the metro, it is not at all unusual to see people drinking a bottle of beer. I’m talking normal-looking, suit-wearing, iPhone using professionals, in addition to the punk rocking, hoodie-wearing, skateboarding youngsta’s. Little shops in the subway stations sell sandwiches, coffee to go, and beer!

Recently, a few 3:00 am alcohol-induced incidents in the metro stations where drunken idiots have tried to bash an innocent bystander’s brains, there has been a call for making it illegal to drink alcohol in the metro system. It’s actually already illegal to both eat and drink on the metro—but the rules are not enforced. Old-time Berliners in my conversation group assure me that drinking on the metro is relatively new to Berlin—in the past 10 years. We shall see how things evolve. Hamburg is reportedly beginning a campaign to strictly enforce the no alcohol laws on their public transit system. We’ll see if Berlin follows suit.

This guy may not be drinking a beer, but he has a cool hairstyle.

Dogs Everywhere

I love dogs and I remembered from being a student in 1974 in Regensburg that the Germans love their dogs, too. Things haven’t changed and here in Berlin dogs are welcome on the public transit system, restaurants, shopping centers, and many stores. Dogs are not allowed in supermarkets, although I’m not sure why.

Relaxing on the S-Bahn

Berliner dogs are mostly very well-behaved. A few weeks ago we enjoyed Schnitzel Night at one of our local restaurants. Of the 10 tables outside, 3 had a dog quietly lying beneath the table, all the while everyone was enjoying their delicious, aromatic schnitzel. Two of the three dogs were medium to largish—not just little dachshunds. I cannot imagine our dog Jack in this setting. Or, yes I can. He would have been growling at the other dogs, jumping on top of the tables and gulping down schnitzel.

Who Goes First?

Berlin is a city of 3.5 million inhabitants. Although many people walk, ride public transit or ride a bike, many cars, taxis and trucks also  navigate their way through the city streets. Major thoroughfares are well-regulated with traditional stoplights for every category of transport—pedestrian, cars, bikes and trams all have their own stoplights. You might have to wait a while, but eventually you will get your turn.

At less busy intersections, where in the US we might see stop signs or at least yield signs, Berlin has no signs or crosswalks. The idea is that everyone slows down while approaching the intersection, and there is a bit of a dance that occurs as cars, bicyclists and pedestrians weave their way through. Somehow it works.

Stay alert!

I’ve read about the shizen-inspired high-traffic intersections in the Netherlands that have been redesigned to be void of traffic controls.  “When you come to such an intersection, you have no choice but to slow down, have some human interaction, and use your intelligence,” says Matthew May in a recent article on Zen and Design Simplicity.  Using your intelligence—I like that.


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When I hear Potsdam, I think of the Potsdam Conference of 1945. On 17 July of that year, the heads of government for Great Britain (Winston Churchill, and later Clement Attlee), the United States (Harry Truman), and the Soviet Union (Joseph Stalin) met at the Schloss Cecilienhof in Potsdam to confirm decisions made earlier at Yalta concerning issues at the end of World War II.

Churchill, Truman and Stalin at the Potsdam Conference in 1945

Potsdam is also home to Alexandrowka, a  picturesque Russian village with a quirky history that illustrates the back and forth alliances among the French, Prussians, and Russians. Back in 1812, after defeating the Prussians in 1806/07, Napoleon forced the Prussian King to provide 20,000 soldiers for his Russian campaign, during which the Prussians took Russian prisoners, some of whom ended up in Berlin. Of those POWs in Berlin, a 21-men Russian singing group was formed and attached to the 1st Guards Regiment of Foot.

In March 1813 Prussia and Russia again become allies in the war against Napoleon and the Russian singers marched on Paris with the Prussian Army. King Friedrich Wilhelm III loved the melancholy Russian songs and his friendship with Czar Alexander grew, especially after his daughter Charlotte married the Czar’s brother Nikolaus I. A permanent home was established in Potsdam for the Russian choir members, and the resulting Russian-style village was named Alexandrowka in honor of the Czar.

The Alexander-Newski-Kapelle is a tiny jewel-box of a church, built to provide the choir members with a place of worship. Today the church continues to be an ongoing Russian Orthodox congregation of 90 individuals and is affiliated with the Holy Synod in Minsk.


The choir members were provided with a house, land for growing fruit and vegetables, a small barn and hayloft, and a cow.  In order the receive a house, the choir member was required to be married and the house and land could only be passed on to one of his sons. Descendants of the original choir lived in the houses up until 2001. Several of the houses have been updated and have passed to private owners. One has been converted into a small museum, another into a charming Russian restaurant.

Russian-style House

We hiked up nearby Pfingstberg to the newly rebuilt Belvedere which offered fabulous views of the surrounding area. We could even see the tv tower in Alexanderplatz (another place named after the Czar) in the middle of Berlin. Walking in this area was forbidden during the DDR because of the lovely view of West Berlin.

Belvedere auf dem Pfingstberg

View from the top of Belvedere

Soon we’ll be returning to Potsdam and explore the palaces and gardens built by the Hohenzollerns.

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Summer weather has returned to Berlin, just as the kids head back to school and vacation time is over for most people. We hopped on our bikes for a trip to Tiergarten, the Central Park of Berlin.

Richard biking in Tiergarten

Passing the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, known to Berliners as the Schwangere Auster (pregnant oyster), we noticed workers ‘planting’ salad greens and spinach in the fountain area. Must be part of the Lebenskunst celebration this coming weekend.

Guy planting greens

Rows of spinach

A bit further down the road is the Schloß Bellevue, built in 1785 for the youngest brother of Frederick the Great, this lovely neoclassical palace is the home of the President, currently Christian Wulff. He has a much nicer place to live than Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Schloß Bellevue

Our goal was to see the newly reopened Siegessäule, or Victory Column, built to celebrate the Prussian victories over Denmark, Austria and France.


Siegessäule at night during the Festival of Lights

Before climbing the many steps to the overlook, we enjoyed what might be the funkiest museum in Berlin.  The warren of small rooms starts off with drawings and models of the Siegessäule and other monuments in Berlin, branches out to monuments in Germany, then Europe (leaning tower of Pisa, anyone?), and finally a display of souvenirs, some of which were related to the earlier displays about world monuments, others not so much:

Love the nude sunbathers in the beach chairs

Awesome girl power

Pretty good model of Red Square

The mosaic has been beautifully restored, but the pillars still bear scars from World War II.

Restored Mosaic

Scars from World War II

I liked the brightly colored headgear of a couple of fellow tourists.

Colorful Headgear

Biking around Tiergarten is a pleasure, with many winding paths, small ponds and meadows for sunbathing and relaxing. The park is dotted with the occasional statue, many of which were moved there from somewhere else in the city.


The Soviets built a monument to the Red Army and soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin. Over 2000 Soviet soldiers are buried at the monument in Tiergarten.

Soviet Memorial

Richard by Soviet Tank

Biking in Berlin is the best. I’m hoping for a beautiful fall.

Richard on Bike

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Today’s Berliner Morgenpost included yet another story about a newly discovered Blindgänger, an unexploded bomb from WWII. When a 250 kilogram bomb is found, the surrounding area must be evacuated until the authorities can safely remove the bomb. This is the fifth Bindgänger found in Berlin since our arrival at the end of March: 6 April in Spandau; 5 June in Berlin-Buckow; 30 June in Berlin Zehlendorf; 5 July in Potsdam; and 6 July in Köpenick.

Blindgänger are verrry dangerous.

World War II continues to be very much alive for Berliners, as they read about or experience themselves the evacuation (sometimes as many as 7,000 citizens), as well as public transit and traffic disruptions when roads and tracks are closed due to a newly uncovered Blindgänger.

Today we set off on our bikes for a 20 km round trip to Treptower Park to revisit another reminder of World War II. This colossal monument to the Red Army was built from 1946 to 1949 in Treptower Park, a park formerly famous for the 1919 uprising where Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemberg assembled 150,000 striking workers.

Entry Arch to Soviet Memorial

The Motherland

Today the monument to fallen Soviet soldiers is what the park is best known for and is where 5,000 of the 80,000 Red Army soldiers who died in the Battle for Berlin are buried. The Battle of Berlin was fought from April 16 to May 2, 1945. As the German Army was nearing defeat, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin. An estimated 100,000 German soldiers and 22,000 Berlin civilians also lost their lives during this battle.

The Red Army is victorious

The kneeling soldier honors his fallen comrades

On May 8th the formal German Instrument of Surrender was signed, stating that the Germans surrender to both the Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force and simultaneously to the Supreme High Command of the Red Army. The signing took place late in the evening May 8th, after midnight in the Soviet Union. Thus, the Soviet Union, and now Russia, celebrates Victory Day on May 9th. East Germany celebrated Victory Day until 1990.

The large scale of the memorial is hard to capture.

Colossal (see the tiny people?)

Those tiny people were Russian tourists.

Friezes along the pathway depict the horror of war and the valiant bravery of the Soviet soldiers.

The Horror of War

Brave Soldiers

The Mausoleum

Up the steps to the mausoleum, there is a room covered in mosaic depicting people grieving their losses. Today someone had lain fresh flowers as a tribute.

Fresh flowers for the fallen

In 2000, Vladimir Putin visited the monument and laid a wreath in honor of the fallen.

Putin visits the memorial in 2000

Pondering the fact that, during World War II, the Soviet Union experienced between 8.8 and 10.7 million military war deaths and about 13 million civilian deaths, the grand scale of the memorial is understandable.

On our way home we passed by a reminder of life after World War II—one of the last remaining watch towers in the border control system between East and West Berlin.

Watch Tower from the Divided City

Riding along the Spree, we had a good view of Molecule Men, the 30 meter high aluminum sculpture erected in 1999.

Molecule Men

According to American artist Jonathan Borofsky, the huge yet light and airy sculpture 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 in the world.”

Let us all be reminded not to kill each other.

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This spring we were treated to glorious long sunny days that brought us to Prater, a nearby Beer Garden. In April, only a few people were enjoying the outdoor tables.

Early beer garden patrons

As the days continued to grow longer and the weather cooperated, the crowds grew thicker.

More people at Prater

Warm evenings brought out the crowds

We enjoyed drinking beer in outdoor cafes as well.

Sunny cafe

The summer solstice brought a shift in weather patterns, with fewer sunny days and more socked-in cool rainy weather. Berlin is having the coolest early July in 130 years. Pulling out the guidebooks, we looked for indoor entertainment ideas. The New Sucessionist and Expressionism in Berlin exhibit at a museum near the Brandenburger Tor was worth a visit.

Tanzende by Otto Müller 1903

We wondered about the huge crowd of people nearby—waiting for the Kennedy Museum to open or for a latté at Starbucks?

Starbucks or the Kennedy Museum?

Across the street on Pariser Platz, next door to the US Embassy, the DZ Bank building has an amazing inner courtyard designed by Gehry.

Designed by Gehry

As the rainy days continued, we continued our quest for indoor entertainment. What better thing to do on a rainy Berlin Sunday than visit to the Pergamon Museum on Museum Island? Plenty of people had the same idea.


Pergamon 170 BC

The 6th century BC Ishtar Gate from Babylon was impressive

Ishtar Gate from Babylon

Ishtar Gate

A special exhibit from Tell Halaf, 3000 year old artifacts uncovered by Max Oppenheim in the early 1900’s in what is now Syria, was particularly amazing. In 1943, the Tell Halaf museum in Berlin was hit by a fire bomb and totally destroyed. The artifacts were smashed to smithereens, but somehow archeaologists were able to piece some of the artifacts back together.

Tell Halaf Woman

Tell Halaf couple

The Islamic Art exhibit included many beautiful carpets, hand-written and illuminated Korans, and this beautiful 13th century mihrab made in a city in Iran known for ceramics. The mihrab points in the direction of Mecca in a mosque.

Which way is Mecca?

During WWII, propaganda posters in support of the Allies were drawn in the style of Persian fables. Hitler’s face is placed on the body of the evil bad guy with the snakes coming out of his shoulders and Tojo tied to Hitler’s horse’s tail. Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt are sitting upright on horses, mimicking the heroes from the old fable.

Multi-culti Propaganda

I thought of Iowa potter Clary Illian when I saw this late Roman face pot from Egypt.

Late Roman Face Pot

Viewing so many antiquities put us in the mood for Greek food.

Apollon Restaurant

Richard ready to dig in

Walking home, I admired the Berliners enjoying the cool evening outdoors.

Hardy Berliners

Berlin, rain or shine, continues to intrigue me.

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