Travelogue LXXI: Berlin Again

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Hackischer Höfe–street art, anarchy, eros, tourism.

July 20, 2016 Berlin again–my fourth time in the city, and the first time I was able to get a glimpse into the world behind the city’s glamorous tourist front, if only for the few days we spent visiting friends and sleeping in an apartment in Neukölln with the s-train roaring by all night long. The whole place is growing on me.

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Berlin is full of artists and hippies and anarchists, and also hipsters posing as artists and hippies and anarchists. Gentrification is the most pressing buzzword in the Vororte (outskirts)–the process by which poor, “problematic” neighborhoods are cleaned up to suit the values and tastes of middle-class apartment-buyers. “First the social workers show up, and then the police, and then the hipsters,” said a friend of Jonathan’s, himself a social worker in an especially metamorphic area of the city. “In a few years, no local will be able to afford to live here anymore.” What do you do when you find your neighborhood suddenly sanitized beyond recognition, and the rent prices are going through the roof, and you are suddenly surrounded by the young and privileged and have nowhere to go?

Right now, Berlin is in transition, and the discrepancies that come along with that are obvious even to an outsider. It is a jarring experience, to sit in a café surrounded by MacBooks and 4-euro coffee served artfully in mason jars (and to be drinking that coffee yourself), and look out the window at legless beggars and children in dirty clothes playing on the sidewalk.

Am I at this moment part of the the solution, or part of the problem? 

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In the end, though, Berlin has always been a city in transition of some form or another, and despite or because of the tension and discrepancy the city has something–an openness, sexiness, energy, a pressing sense of the past and a vicious exhilarating drive towards the future. You can be whatever you want here–queer, crazy, bourgeois, elite–and you will find a place to fit in to–a dive-bar in Neukölln with police sirens blaring by outside at all hours of the day and night, or a flower-filled garden outside of the Literaturhaus, the arts section of Die Zeit open on your lap.

Jonathan and I both said that if our careers and lives weren’t taking us in two opposite directions, we would move to Berlin together. We weren’t alone, we were told. “The whole world wants to move here,” said a friend, himself a student and long-time resident. “We thought the hype would stop eventually, but it just keeps getting stronger. So act now. In two years, even people as privileged as us won’t be able to afford the place.”

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After a week we were exhausted but also wanted to stay longer. Mainz, with not a soul in sight when we got off the train at one in the morning, seems almost eerily peaceful in comparison.

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Travelogue LXIX: Fachwerk

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Eschwege

May 4, 2016 I spent a weekend in April in Eschwege, a tiny, lovely, half-forgotten German town on the former border between East and West Germany. Although not necessarily a popular tourist destination, the town is full of fascinating architecture–Fachwerk, to be specific, which translates to something like timber framing. It’s a quintessentially German form of construction, in which a load-bearing timber frame is built and the spaces between the beams filled with bricks or lath and plaster. Instead of covering the outside of the buildings with plaster or clapboards, however, the beams are left exposed and then carved and painted according to local traditions, each town or geographical area with a slightly different style.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEschwege was left intact during the second World War, which means that the buildings are original. Many, however, are fairly new by European standards: much of the town center only dates back to the mid-seventeenth century, as the town center was destroyed during the Thirty Years War in 1637.

In the downtown area, each building is unique, painted in jewel tones and carved with curlicues or geometric shapes or faces or mermaids. Yes, mermaids. I was delighted.

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Moustaches ftw.

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Although Fachwerk is today a prized and sought-after part of Germany’s architectural heritage, it was originally a poor man’s construction–if you can’t afford stone, you build with wood.

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Keeping things level wasn’t exactly a priority, apparently. Or maybe things have shifted since the 17th century.

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The latinized form of the town’s name.

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My personal favorite.

And then in good German fashion, fitful rain turned to snow and so we headed for home, where we ate an enormous Sunday lunch with a fire in the stove behind our backs.

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My fellow Fachwerk-investigator, here rather taken by the local Glockenspiel.

Travelogue LXIX: Snow

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My roofs.

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St. Stephan’s.

January 17th, 2016 Sometimes, you find yourself dancing in some dive bar in the Neustadt at four in the morning. And then sometimes you look out the window to find that it is snowing, really snowing, for the first time since last winter, and the entire world is delighted. You run to the window and laugh, and everyone runs to the window and laughs, and someone opens the door and white fat flakes blow on to the dance floor. You step into the street, and they melt on hot skin. Even the DJ is euphoric.

And then you wake up the next morning after three hours of sleep and take your camera and run out into the cold because this is something.

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The Sunday-brunchers.

Travelogue LXV: Venice II: I am Venice

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“If one wanted to travel to somewhere incomparable, to a fantastic mutation of normal reality, where did one go? The answer was obvious. What was he doing here? He had gone completely astray. That was where he wanted to travel.”

San Marco.

San Marco.

October 20, 2015 It’s been over a week since I have been back from Venice, and I still don’t know quite how to write about it. The weirdest, loveliest, most contradictory place I have ever been in, yes–but what does that even mean? Venice is the most improbable (unwahrscheinlichste) of all cities, Thomas Mann says.

The trip was the third in my series of Mann pilgrimages (Munich and Lübeck down, Davos still to go!), another working-out of this strange drive to live art that seems to dominate a good deal of my existence. In this case, the work behind it all was Death in Venice, the novella from 1911 that was my introduction to the author. Aging writer Gustav von Aschenbach travels to Venice, falls in love with a beautiful child, and destroys himself: Thomas Mann’s perfect irony played out against a heady backdrop of Nietzsche and Wagner and Plato and, of course, the city itself.

The flag of Venice.

The flag of Venice.

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“Can there be anyone who has not had to overcome a fleeting sense of dread, a secret shudder of uneasiness, on stepping for the first time or after a long interval of years into a Venetian gondola? How strange a vehicle it is, coming down unchanged from times of old romance, and so characteristically black, the way no other thing is black except a coffin….”

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“‘The signore wants to go to the Lido.’ ‘But not with you!’ ‘I row you well.’ True enough, thought Aschenbach, true enough, you will row me well. Even if you are after my cash and dispatch me to the house of Hades with a blow of your oar from behind, you will have rowed me well.”

Sam Marco Doge Venice

Winged lions at the Doge’s palace.

My first impression of Venice was one of beauty, pure and simple. I had the uncanny feeling of walking through a painting, all day, every day, through some stirring landscape of teal-blue water and delicate bridges and white marble facades fading into the morning haze. But it wasn’t unproblematic: in Venice, there is no escape from the aesthetically lovely, and it all therefore becomes incredibly exhausting. In Germany, there is always an escape–you can leave the Old City behind after a few blocks and find yourself surrounded by Aldis and 1950s apartment complexes. You can’t do that in Venice, however, and the constant in-your-face presence of so much gorgeousness is somehow wearing. Human beings aren’t meant for paradise.

And at the same time, too, Venice’s beauty is always backed by the Absurd. The gondolas are packed with baseball-cap-wearing Americans and selfie-stick-wielding Japanese. You can buy knock-off plastic carnival masks and knock-off Gucci bags and knock-off everything else on every street corner for five euros. Loveliness is exploited for money, illegally, and when the police walk by all the hawkers leap up at once from whatever square you are on and run, scattering fake Gucci bags behind them.

Even the aesthetic of the city itself, in the end, is flawed on closer examination: the lagoon stinks, even in October, and the marble facades are streaked with pigeon shit and crumbling into the water. The whole place is sinking.

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“Well, I shall stay, thought Aschenbach. What better place could I find? And with his hands folded in his lap, he let his eyes wander in the wide expanse of the sea, let his gaze glide away, dissolve and die in the monotonous haze of this desolate emptiness.”

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The Grand Canal.

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“Never had he known the joy of language more sweetly, never had he known so clearly that Eros dwells in the Word…”

But I fell in love anyway. Mit Erstaunen bemerkte Aschenbach, dass der Knabe vollkommen schön war. With astonishment, Aschenbach saw that the boy was perfectly beautiful: Where else in the world could that astounding sentence, which I am convinced is one of the most important in all of art, have been written? The breaking-in of beauty and Eros in Aschenbach’s life had to happen in Venice; it’s the only city unwahrscheinlich enough to sustain that level of passion.

And at the same time, Venice IS Mann’s definition of artistic creation, of art itself: beauty and transcendence backed by the suspect, by something just slightly nauseating and improper. Being in the city was like seeing Death in Venice, and maybe the entirety of Thomas Mann’s opus, from the inside out.

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“He fled from the crowded commercial thoroughfares, over bridges, into poor quarters. There he was besieged by beggars, and the sickening stench from the canals made it difficult to breath. In a silent square, one of those places in the depths of Venice that seem to have been forgotten and put under a spell, he rested on the edge of a fountain, wiped the sweat from his forehead and realized that he would have to leave.”

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Goldmund and I couldn’t decide if the water was blue or green, or both, or neither.

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“It is well that the world knows only the beautiful work and not also its origins, the conditions under which it came into being; for knowledge of the sources of an artist’s inspiration would often confuse readers and shock them…When Aschenbach put away his work and left the beach, he felt worn out, even broken, and his conscience seemed to be reproaching him as if after some kind of debauchery.”

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And so I walked the city for hours at a time, without a map, entirely lost, in some sort of Mann- and Venice-induced half-stupor. The place was full of tourists even at the very end of the season,  but it was shockingly easy to get away from it all: to take two turns off the beaten path and find oneself entirely alone next to some shady canal, with some black gondola gliding by. They really are silent, as Thomas Mann writes.

On the third day we went to the Lido, the island next to Venice where Death in Venice takes place, and lay on the beach in the sun and looked at the waves and were extraordinarily happy. Even there, though, the atmosphere around us was strange, melancholy somehow: long empty stretches of sand, bathing houses already battened down for the winter, only a few stragglers in the water. We were nearly the only guests at the sea-side café, where we split a pizza and put on our coats and scarves after the sun went down.

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Above, live music in the cafes at San Marco. Below, the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido, where Thomas Mann stayed in 1911, fell in love with with the 11-year-old Polish Baron Adzio Moes, and began writing Death in Venice on hotel stationary.

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“The lulling rhythm of this existence had already cast its spell on him; he had been quickly enchanted by the indulgent softness and splendor of this way of life. What a place this was indeed, combining the charms of a cultivated sea-side resort in the south with the familiar ever-ready proximity of the strange and wonderful city.”

On the last afternoon in Venice, which I spent alone, I ducked into a store off of some tiny side-street and found myself surrounded by lace and paper mache and hanging dark brocade: a carnival shop, a real one this time, no plastic here. A young man around my age sat at a work table painting filigree onto a row of masks. Diamond stud in one ear, dark hair, paint-stained apron. I saw the piece I wanted to buy as soon as I walked in: the half-mask of Commedia dell’artes Columbine with the Phantom’s hand over one eye, two figures in one, the coming-together of male and female and dark and light. “Did you make this one, too?” I asked the young man at the table after I had made my purchase. “No,” he said, “that was my father. Do you want to know the story behind it?” And so he spent the next thirty minutes talking to me about making art and living in Venice, pulling down masks from the wall to show me the different techniques, talking about the Commedia and carnival revelries and showing me his tiny boat parked in the canal outside.

“There is nothing for a young man in Venice–nothing for me here,” he said as I was collecting my things to go. “The entire city is for the tourists. If I want to go out or dance I have to go to the mainland and take a taxi. It is very hard to live here; in the past 25 years three-quarters of the population have left.” “Why don’t you leave, then, too?” I asked. “Because I am Venice,” he said, and then a gondola-load of tourists came into the shop, and I took my purchase and got on the vaporetto back to the apartment and Goldmund, and was very much content.

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“A sacred, deranged world, full of Panic life, enclosed the enchanted watcher, and his heart dreamed tender tales. Sometimes, as the sun was sinking behind Venice, he would sit on a bench in the hotel park to watch Tadzio, dressed in white with a colorful sash, at play on the rolled gravel tennis court; and in his mind’s eye he was watching Hyacinthus, doomed to perish because two gods loved him.”

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“For Beauty, dear Phaedrus, only Beauty is at one and the same time divinely desirable and visible: it is, mark well, the only form of the spiritual that we can receive with our senses and endure with our senses. For what would become of us if other divine things, if Reason and Virtue and Truth were to appear to us sensuously? Should we not perish in a conflagration of love, as once upon a time Semele did before Zeus?”

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“He sank down on one of the seats, deliriously breathing the nocturnal fragrance of the flowers and trees. And leaning back, his arms hanging down, overwhelmed, trembling, shuddering all over, he whispered the standing formula of the heart’s desire–impossible here, absurd, depraved, ludicrous and sacred nevertheless, still worth of honor even here: ‘I love you!'”

All quotations from Death in Venice, translated by David Luke.

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Travelogue LXIII: Hamburg III: Harbor City

If it looks freezing and stormy, that's because it was.

If it looks freezing and stormy, that’s because it was.

October 3, 2015 Hamburg is Germany’s harbor city, on the confluence of the Elbe, Alster, and Bille rivers and some 60 miles from the North Sea. The official opening of the harbor took place on May 7, 1189, and it is today among the twenty largest in the world. The city lives and breaths sea trade.

On my first morning, I immediately made my way down to the edge of the water, and realized that just standing on a pier and trying to figure out what I was looking at wasn’t enough.

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Warehouses and canals in the Speicherstadt, literally “Warehouse City.” In the late 19th century and continuing until very recently, the quarter was Hamburg’s bustling import and export hub, where goods were unloaded and into the brick storehouses right on the edge of the water.

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Today, it’s a rather quiet and peaceful place, full of offices and museums.

hamburg warehouses

And so I found myself on a tiny wooden boat in the middle of the Hamburger harbor on a freezing, windy, misty morning in late September.

Our boat had long benches and, in typical non-American style, no life-jackets or any sort of safety guidelines. We were merely told before boarding to hold on tight, “and if you are going to puke, do it downwind!” Our pilot was an old crotchety Hamburger, who spent most of the time smoking cigarettes and/or insulting the single passenger from Bavaria. As it turned out, though, he knew the harbor inside and out. His love of the place was evident. This had been his world for his entire life, and he was dang proud of it.

Despite the cold and the rather-large waves, I was fascinated. There was something intensely theatrical about all of it–these massive bodies entering and exiting before a backdrop of fog and storm-clouds and early morning light. The silent swing of a crane arm, the lines of wake behind the ferries–it was balletic, almost, a dance in slow motion. The industrial and utilitarian became aesthetic. And the way our guide described the twists and turns of harbor life, he may as well have been describing a work of art.

Cutting-edge new architecture in the so-called Harbor City. Apparently the German Schlager-singer Helene Fischer has an apartment there. "With her boy-toy," as the pilot informed us.

Cutting-edge new architecture in the so-called Harbor City. “It looks like a Döner-skewer,” said our pilot helpfully. Apparently the German Schlager-singer Helene Fischer  (“and her boy-toy!”) have an apartment there. 

The harbor isn't just for industrial ships--here, an enormous cruise boat at the dock.

The harbor isn’t just for industrial ships–here, an enormous luxury cruise boat at the dock.

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The introduction of  containers in the 1960s revolutionized the shipping industry. Before that, things looked pretty much as they did 1,000 years ago--wooden barrels and burlap sacks.

The introduction of containers in the 1960s revolutionized the shipping industry. Before that, things looked pretty much as they did 1,000 years ago–wooden barrels and burlap sacks.

A massive ship from Hong Kong being unloaded after the 57-day voyage to Germany.

A massive ship from Hong Kong being unloaded after the 57-day voyage to Germany.

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A tour-boat next to one of the container ships. Yep. Hold on tight. "He's driving too close!" said our pilot. "If one of those containers should fall right now, that's the end of the touring business in the Hamburger Harbor!!"

A tour-boat next to one of the container ships. Yep. Hold on tight. “He’s driving too close!” said our pilot. “If one of those containers should fall right now, you can kiss the touring business in the Hamburger Harbor goodbye!!”

All container ships are required to be dry-docked once every five years.

All container ships are required to be dry-docked once every five years.

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A view of the harbor from the tower of St. Michaelis Church in downtown Hamburg.

A view of the harbor from the tower of St. Michaelis Church in downtown Hamburg.

Travelogue LIII: Kulmbach

The courthouse on the town square, with the flags of Bavaria, Kulmbach, and Germany.

The courthouse on the town square, with the flags of Bavaria, Kulmbach, and Germany.

August 20, 2015 Before we head to Bayreuth, Katie and I are farm-sitting for friends in Kulmbach–sprawling stone farmhouse, beautiful views, pigs and gardens and physical labor and evenings in front of the fire. For me, it is a chance to get out of my head: I cook in the huge kitchen for hours every day, stack wood for the fire. There’s not much space to overthink things.

Today, we took a break from the work to spend a few hours downtown, along with the two other young ladies who are watching the farm with us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKulmbach, like almost every other tiny Dorf in northern Bavaria, is beautiful–not in a touristy, expensive way, but with the sort of effortless charm that reminds me of the villages in Vermont. We drank cappuccinos and then hiked up to the castle outside of town, in the rain, wearing wool sweaters. Autumn is almost here.

The inner courtyard of the Plassenburg, the local castle.

The inner courtyard of the Plassenburg, the local castle.

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Farmers' day off: we all stopped a the café for coffee and ice-cream, thanks to a generous tipp from the young farmer who bought two piglets from us yesterday.

We all stopped a the café for coffee and ice-cream, thanks to a generous tipp from the young farmer who bought two piglets from us yesterday.

The clock-tower at the Lutheran church.

The clock-tower at the Lutheran church.

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On the other side of the camera, for once. Thanks, Katie.

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Kulmbacher Bier. Kulmbach, village that it is, is renowned across Germany for their breweries.

Kulmbacher Bier. Kulmbach, village that it is, is renowned across Germany for its breweries.

And perhaps best of all, there are mountains.

And perhaps best of all, there are mountains in northern Bavaria.

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Travelogue L: Berlin Impressions

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 July 20, 2015 Writing any sort of neat summary post about Berlin is more or less impossible. As I have written before, the very nature of the city defies all attempts at synopsis: historically and architecturally, it is a place of metamorphosis and not of stability. One minute you are walking down some gorgeous boulevard surrounded by theaters and old restaurants, the next you are standing in front of a construction zone, with half the street torn up and posters of what it all looked like before 1989 hanging on the chain-link fence beside you. But the constant shift is what makes it all so exciting.

And it is exciting. You ride the U-Bahn and S-Bahn (subway and overground) uptown, downtown, to some tiny restaurant in the Friedrichsstraße and back again to the Brandenburg Gate. You wolf down a plate of  peppers and couscous at the Turkish Market on the river. You stand for an hour in the line outside the National Gallery to see the Expressionists, in sunshine so penetrating that the museum staff passes out umbrellas. You talk until two, three, four in the morning about God and Eros and Art–after the Theater, in the hotel bar, in some gorgeous tiled courtyard at the Hackescher Markt. All through a haze of movement and wine and overstimulation that is both heady and exhausting.

“Man kann ja schlafen, wenn man tot ist,” I say. You can sleep when you’re dead.

Central Station.

Central Station.

This time around, it was Berlin’s infrastructure, and specifically the city’s massive public transportation system, that struck me the most.

The whole place runs on a great tangle of S- and U-Bahn stations, some works of art in and of themselves, some rivaling Frankfurt for dirt and stink. One has the feeling of being within a great machine–no, more than a machine, in some sort of living and breathing organism. The Central Station, five stories of glass and steel, serves some 1,800 trains and 350,000 travelers each day. The energy that pervades the rest of the city is felt in every station in the Innenstadt: a new train roaring in every three minutes, throw yourself on and then off again, stand because all the seats are taken.

Above all, I was shocked at (and perhaps more than a little proud of) the relative ease with which I was able to maneuver through it all, after a year abroad. It’s a feeling of accomplishment, of power even, to sift through thousands of connections and timetables, to get on the right train, and to know exactly where you are and where you are going. If only the rest of existence was that simple.

Still, it’s all something that can be learned. A year ago I didn’t even know that you had to push the “Stop” button the bus if you wanted to get off at the next station. But things move forward. The Mädchen vom Land (country girl) is now thriving in the European jungle, folks.

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Mirror image in the Central Station, S-Bahn platform.

The position of the Berlin Wall is marked throughout the city, even though it doesn't exist anymore--a line drawn through buildings, across streets, behind the Brandenburg Gate.

The position of the Berlin Wall is marked throughout the city, even though it doesn’t exist anymore–a line drawn through buildings, across streets, behind the Brandenburg Gate.

Inside the Ständige Vertretung.

Inside the Ständige Vertretung, a restaurant on the river that serves as a sort of shrine, in the best sense of the word. to pre-reunification Germany.

The Holocaust memorial--direct in the heart of the city, inescapable.

The Holocaust memorial–direct in the heart of the city, inescapable.

The seat of Hitler's bunker in Berlin, where he committed suicide and where Goebbel's wife killed her six children--a parking lot and utilitarian appartments. The lack of any sort of monument is just as fitting and unsettling as the massive memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust across the street.

The seat of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, where he committed suicide and where Goebbel and his wife poisoned their six children–a parking lot and utilitarian appartments. The lack of any sort of monument is just as fitting and unsettling as the massive memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust across the street.

In the S-Bahn.

In the S-Bahn.

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Willkommen in Berlin. Welcome to Berlin.

In the end, after three days in Berlin I was completely and utterly exhausted. But I think that was more from the talking-till-four-in-the-morning than from anything else. Dialogue at its most intense is one of the most beautifully draining experiences on this planet.

Travelogue XLVII: City, Moldau

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June 6, 2015 Today was a city day, a chance to revel in the beauty of Prague itself. It was my first time in a city not destroyed by American or British bombs in the second World War–the wholeness is visible on every street corner. There is a unity to Prague that is lacking, I think, in cities like Dresden or Munich or even Mainz, almost completely leveled during WWII and slowly rebuilt over a period of decades. Even though the cultural landmarks of those cities have been perfectly, meticulously restored, the effects of the bombs can still be felt–a stone-work facade only painted on, ancient buildings next to jarringly new construction, Old Cities shrunk to fit narrow budgets. In Prague, there is very little of that. One really gets a sense of how things were before human stupidity destroyed so many things.

The sheer loveliness of the city, at the same time, made it difficult for me to reconcile it all with the Prague that emerges from Kafka’s works and diaries. Even though I knew that much of the Jewish Quarter had been rebuilt in the early 20th century, I was somehow still expecting something claustrophobic, narrow, dark. And instead, this bright and enlightened European Kulturstadt. It didn’t help that the weather was absolutely lordly, as the expression goes in German–blue skies, hot, the clearest of early June days. No fog in sight. Not that I was complaining, of course.

I first walked up to the castle (THE Castle, say many Kafka critics, though I had a hard time seeing it), with gorgeous views down to the city and the Moldau.

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The Charles Bridge

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The cathedral inside the castle walls.

The cathedral inside the castle walls.

Despite the beauty, though, I found the enormous crowds a bit unnerving. Here at the beginning of summer in one of the top destinations in Europe, the tourism is on a scale I have never seen before, despite having grown up in a state fueled by the money of rich outsiders who want to look at mountains. I think about how my family would always complain if there were 150 people at the local lake when we wanted to swim–in Prague, there are 150 people waiting to take a picture of a single monument at any given time on any given day. Mainz seems like a country Dorf in comparison, and that is a very good thing as far as I am concerned.

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We all had the same idea….!

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I love the streetcars here.

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Jan Hus memorial.

Jan Hus memorial.

The astronomical clock on the town square, a minute from the house Kafka was born in.

The astronomical clock on the town square, a minute from the house Kafka was born in.

In front of the Charles Bridge.

In front of the Charles Bridge.

That evening, I went boating on the Moldau. I am absolutely fascinated by rivers, and it’s not enough to just stand on a bridge. The Moldau, like the Rhine in Germany, is a force behind the Czech Republic’s mythology and art, bound up with creation and national identity. In all other ways, though, it is the Rhine’s polar opposite–gentle and comforting instead of bracing and wild. More feminine, perhaps, to the Rhine’s towering masculinity (the articles in German, after all, are feminine and masculine, respectively). A row boat on the Rhine would be swept half way to Koblenz in an hour; on the Moldau, you can paddle a bit and drink wine and drift without fearing for your life.

As a side note, it was entirely obvious during the whole process of renting a boat that Prague is NOT America. There were no signs informing prospective rowers that BOATING IS DANGEROUS AND YOU COULD DROWN, no lengthy papers to sign so that nobody would get sued, no confirmation of insurance, no lifejackets, no how-to instructions–just the friendly advice to keep 15 meters between yourself and the locks under the bridge. And so I handed over my 200 Crowns (about 8$) and found myself in possession of a bright blue rowboat with wooden paddles and a lantern hung at the bow.

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I rowed all the way to the bridge and back (without falling in the river or crashing into anything, thank you very much, which anyone who knows me will tell you is a feat). The sun set behind the castle and the river faded from pink to gold and out again to blue. The restaurants on the riverside were playing jazz. There are some moments where the awareness of the towering privilege of one’s life comes crashing in all at once.

When I got back to the docks, it was gloaming–blue water, blue air, the stone bridges faded out to gray.

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Fare thee well, Prague…

Travelogue XLI: PEGIDA and Beauty in Dresden

March 30, 2015 Dresden is a stunning city. People call it the Elbflorenz–Florence on the Elb River, the Jewel Box, Germany’s version of Italian Baroque.

I arrived at the train station in Dresden after the DAAD Conference in Jena, dropped my suitcase at the youth hostel, and headed for the city center. When I stepped off the tram at the Theaterplatz, the force of beauty hit me like a brick wall. So much pure loveliness needs no justification, no reason for being. It just is, and you stand there and blink back tears in the pouring rain, and are fully outside of yourself.

Perhaps even more staggering, however, is the fact that it is almost entirely all new–the entire old city was gutted by the American and British bombs that fell in February, 1945. Twenty-five thousand deaths, most of them of civilians, were recorded after the bombings, with thousands more left uncounted. The city as it exists today is a monument both to the horror of war and to the human capacity for hope and industry, I think. Restoration began soon after the war ended, and continues to this day–renovations of the Frauenkirche cathedral, for instance, were only completed in 2005.

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It was a weekend of beauty, of unabashed reveling in Western culture at its most stunning. I photographed statues and frescoes and saw the Old Masters and the German Romantics in the art museums. I stood in line at the box office and scored a student ticket (13 Euros!) for a Bach oratorio at the Semperoper. “It’s the most beautiful opera house in the world,” said the woman who sold me the ticket. Afterwards, I was almost ready to believe her.

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The Semperoper.

But of course, things aren’t so simple. This is Germany, after all.

Besides the museums and the opera and the Rococo architecture, Dresden is also the seat of PEGIDAPatriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West–the far-right political organization that has been hosting demonstrations in Dresden and throughout Germany since October. The group has disturbing overtones of xenophobia, hate speech, and nationalism, which is particularly problematic given Germany’s history.  The founder of PEGIDA, Lutz Bachmann, resigned in January after a photograph of him dressed as Adolf Hitler went viral. I mean, really?? That’s Western culture at its most pitiful, right there.

Although the number of protesters has fallen drastically from the roughly 25,000/week at the beginning of PEGIDA’s existence, Dresden is still something of a pilgrim site. The weekly “evening strolls,” as the group describes the demonstrations, still attract thousands of participants from across Germany. And unlike in other cities, there isn’t a counter-demonstration, or at least not one that I could see. In Frankfurt, the counter-protesters often outnumber the PEGIDA supporters twenty to one. There was none of that here.

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Incredibly surreal, to be drinking tea in some gorgeous cafe with riot police outside the window.

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An hour before the demonstration was to start, the police were already in place.

At the same time, the official position of Dresden as a city was made very clear. There were public banners and signs throughout the city calling for understanding and openness, demanding that Dresden wake up and consider the dignity of all human beings.

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Across from the Semperoper: “Doors open, hearts open, eyes open.”

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A three-story-tall banner across the street from the demonstration itself. “The worth of human kind is given into your hands. Protect it! It falls with you, and it will rise with you.”

At the actual demonstration, there were speeches broadcast by  loud-speaker, and hundreds of banners and hand-painted signs. The sheer ugliness of some of it contrasted starkly and ironically with the beauty of the surroundings.

A small selection of the signs:

“Deutschland wehrt sich”–“Germany is defending herself.”

“Klagt nicht, kämpft!”–“Don’t complain, fight!”

“Wir sind das Volk”–“We are the People.” At the counter-demonstrations in Frankfurt, this is turned around into “Wirr ist das Volk”–“The People are just confused.”

“Erst wird’s bunt, dann…”–“First diversity, then [a picture of a bloody hand grenade].”

“Wir lassen uns nicht mehr von Minderheiten terrorisieren!”–“We aren’t going to let ourselves be terrorized by minorities any more!”

The minorities mentioned above, apparently, include the LGBTQ crowd as well. As one speaker said, “We don’t want the homo-trans-whatever-sexual minority to slime their way into our schools and traumatize our children with their shit-talk!!” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry after that one.

And the flags–I saw more of them in an hour than I had seen in the past 8 months, the soccer championships included. In Germany, unlike in America, you just don’t display the flag like that unless you have just won the World Cup, or unless you are trying to come across as problematically nationalistic at best and as a Nazi at worst.

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Riot gear.

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I saw more German flags in an hour than I had seen during the past 8 months in Germany, soccer world championships included.

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Departing for the march through the old city.

In the end, it was all a strange mixture of laughable and horrifying. The protestors, at least on the day I was there, weren’t much of hooligans–but rather neatly-dressed middle-aged middle-class, perhaps disappointed and discontent, but not really the stuff of revolution.

So I never felt like I was in danger–but it was an unnerving experience none the less, to find myself in the middle of thousands of people who share a worldview that fundamentally clashes with my own.

In the end, though, as I have written elsewhere, this is one of the main issues Germany is talking about today. Watching the demonstration in Dresden felt a bit like being a part of history.

Travelogue XL: Hinter den Kulissen

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May 9, 2015 Mainz is not cobblestone streets and old churches and beautiful Europeans drinking wine by candlelight. Or not just those things, anyway.

I am learning that cities are like people–a thousand contradictions and transfigurations inhabiting a single space. Apollo and Dionysus, dark and light, straight-forward and complex. The human being has a million souls instead of Faust’s two, Hermann Hesse writes. So does the city, I think.

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Prostitution is legal in Germany.

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Bikes at the train station.

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The night club after hours, Kaisterstraße.

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Jägermeister, Kaiserstraße. I could do an entire photo series on alcohol bottles left in public.

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Cigarettes and vodka, Rheinufer.

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More vodka, Old City.

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Kaisertor.

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Housing on Kaiserstraße.

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Döner, Bahnhofstraße.

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Cigarette vending machine, Weintorstraße.

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Graffiti, everywhere in Germany, often blurs the line between vandalism and art.

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Münsterplatz.