Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Die Hauptstadt (The Capital)

It’s time for the latest installment in an ongoing series of entries that should be called “Matt Feeds His Wanderlust," and here is the photographic illustration of the following events.

After a week of puzzling over fossils and statistics, I set out Thursday night for Bohemian, bourgeois Berlin, a town once called “Armer aber sexy” (Poor but sexy) by one of its mayors. The last time I visited, tagging the sauropod conference I just saw the natural history museum and a few restaurants. This time I had a hankering to do the full tour of the capital, visiting monuments and museums and hanging out with my friends from Marburg until I needed to settle once again into my lab space back in Bonn.

I stayed with Jason, a twentieth century German history grad student from Northwestern. He was fortunate enough to find a fully furnished apartment with an Ikea futon and soaring ceilings. He met me at the main train station and led me into the massive public transportation system that flows through Berlin to meet Katie, who was visiting for the weekend from Frankfurt where she studies accounting, and Halley, an international studies student in Berlin and Katie’s host for the weekend.

After sharing a drink at a little bar in a basement vaguely reminiscent of the dungeon bar (sans Muppets or old locals) we agreed to meet for a day of monument hopping on Unter den Linden, one of the main, swanky drags of Berlin.

Our first stop was the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of Berlin may be comparable to the Statue of Liberty. The gate was built in the 18th century as one of a series of entrances into the city. Images of the gate grace Euro coins from Germany and images of the gate with fireworks in the background seem particularly popular calendar covers.

The gate was decked out for Christmas, with a large Christmas tree and hundreds of tourists. This meant street performers dressed as the Berlin bear, Soviet guards and American soldiers were wandering around looking for photo ops. Of course we seized the moment and took pictures of our own.

Near the Gate is the American Embassy where the Stars and Stripes are proudly displayed. We had a lot to see, so we passed on the opportunity to visit a little swatch of the good ol’ U.S. of A. The next stop was the Reichstag. The building actually isn’t large enough to house all the parliamentary offices, so more modern (read “glass and concrete”) buildings were set up in the area. The line to take a tour and see the view of the city from the bubble of glass at the top was pretty long, so we passed on the opportunity, opting to wander the lawn and take pictures while Halley, who has toured the building four times, filled us in on the details. For instance, inside you can still see Russian graffiti left by the invading Soviet Army in 1945. Apparently it’s a bit nasty if you happen to read the Cyrillic alphabet.

As we strolled I caught a whiff of marijuana smoke. I saw the knot of teenagers, huddled together passing something around. I recognized the moment as the first (and probably only) time I have ever stood near a national monument and smelled cannabis. Oh, Berlin.

The next stop was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas). Inaugurated in 2005, the memorial is a grid of concrete blocks of varying heights placed on a sloping brick field. You can walk between the blocks and get lost wandering through the vast expanse of concrete along with dozens of other visitors. The monument actually doesn’t have a label or explanation associated with it. According to Wikipedia (the most reliable source, I know), this is because the creators wanted visitors to reach their own conclusions about “what it all means.” The memorial is also notable for probably having the lowest graffiti to concrete ratio in the entire city.

We then wandered around Christmas markets and down Unter den Linten, walking by museums and theaters before Halley stopped by a Ferris wheel at one of the markets. “Hey guys, do you want to? “ Well, who wouldn’t want to take a ride to the top of the city to get a good view? The ferris wheel had one of the fastest revolution rates I have ever experienced, making the whole event that much more exciting as we tried to snap of pictures with horizontal horizons that didn’t make Berlin look like it was in the midst of an earthquake.
A reasonably straight horizon. The view is into the former East Berlin which is dominated by the Fernseheturm (TV Tower), a symbol of East Berlin in the mid twentieth century.
Finally we went to Checkpoint Charlie where pieces of the Berlin wall and signs declaring the division between the two Germanys are still on display. It’s interesting to see museums and monuments to an event that only occurred eighteen years ago. Talk about living in historic times.

That night we went out with one of Halley’s friends for a night on the town in Berlin. Also in the group were Jill and Catherine, two more Marburgers. It was great to see both of them and catch up as we walked first to a Falafel stand then to the bar. Most of what I knew about Berlin nightlife came from seeing “Cabaret” and a vague knowledge of the city’s reputation for crazy nights so I wasn’t too surprised when we started climbing a fire escape to get to the entrance. We paid a one Euro cover, which sent off some warnings in my head. If a place charges a cover, it’s to promote a feeling of exclusivity that just the atmosphere is worth paying for. But a one Euro cover told me, “We really want to be cool, but are a little worried that raising the price might drive people away.”

You try to categorize this place. I'm glad I had the experience, but next time I may check out a different club.

The décor reminded me of someone’s living room, with random furniture and potted plants ringing the dance floor. Just by entering the place, our group lowered the median age by about ten years. It was also 70 percent male, though there were none of the signals that I had missed at Le Copain. The music was pounding electronica and techno (as I expected) and everyone kind of bounced to the beat. One of the nice things about Germany is everyone dances like an awkward suburbanite, because we all are. Just people watching in the place made the time fly by and soon we were back on the street, waiting for the train in the wee hours of the morning.

The next day (Saturday), Katie and I met on Unter den Linten again to check out the Deutsches Historische Museum (German History Museum). The museum spanned 2000 years of German history from the Roman occupation to the fall of the Berlin wall and subsequent reunification. I wasn’t prepared for the scale of the place. The Smithsonian is already overwhelming. Imagine tacking 1400 more years of history onto the exhibits. Highlights included original copies of documents such as Luther’s 97 theses, maps of the Prussian empire and the rapidly expanding world.
Arms and armor that probably came from someone's family collection. It's interesting to think of such artifacts as part of your direct history. In The U.S., armor is always presented as a kind of symbol of backward European values and economics. The more important question I want to deal with is when I can I try such a suit on?

Of course the twentieth century history is really the most fascinating as I learned about history from the German perspective on the origins of WWI and the rise of Hitler. Propaganda posters and caricatures were mingled with artifacts from the life of a normal German in the 1920s and 30s.
The Hitler Youth never really ceases to get me riled up. I see Boy Scouts a way to teach young people about conservation and independence. Sure, there's a patriotic aspect to the program, but the Nazis fundamentally undermined the values of scouting by making it an extension of a political party...oh I could go on but have decided ot spare you.

After all the tension and strife that characterized most of German history throughout the 20th century, there was something very satisfying of ending the experience with images of the Berlin wall collapsing into rubble and proclamations of a united, stable Germany. Leaving the final exhibit was like walking out of an inspirational sports movie.

The bustling Unter den Linden with the linden trees that give the place its name all decked out for the holidays.

That night we had authentic Mexican food near the Natural History Museum, prepared by Mexican immigrants who knew how to handle their spices (even if they didn’t quite know how to handle their time, as we waited for maybe an hour to finally get our food). That night we celebrated Jill’s birthday party and a small Marburg reunion ensued. It was wonderful to catch up with David, Marco, Chris, The Tates, Catherine and Jill, getting everyone’s perspective on life and work in the largest city in Germany.

Sunday, we met David and Marco for brunch at a trendy little cafè in a trendy part of town. Katie had to catch her train at 3, but I wasn’t planning on getting out of town until 6 or 7 which left just enough time to check out the Pergamon Museum before heading home. David and Marco decided to join me in Berlin’s massive monument to ancient art. The museum is most famous for its reconstructions of ancient buildings on a monumental scale. German archeologists took apart the Pergamon Temple in Turkey, then put all the statues and columns back together inside the museum.
The pieces of the temple were cut along those lines and reassembled in Berlin. Of course if and when the German government will return these pieces to Turkey is a matter of much debate.

The same was done with a Roman market entrance and the Ishtar Gate, the entryway into Babylon.
A relief from the Ishtar Gate. Does it look just a little bit familiar? Dozens of these lions and mythological, griffin-like creatures lined the entry way into the city, covered in turquoise and lapis. This is what the conquered Hebrews saw when they first entered the city during the Babylonian exile, the event that finally promoted them to commit their shared experiences to paper (the origin of the Torah).

Photos really don’t to the scale of any of these monuments any justice, but I wanted to have my own images of the classic Babylonian lions and Greek statuary.

Naturally, David and Marco were museumed-out before I was, but they let me cover most of the exhibits and put up with my running commentary, so we headed to dinner. We walked by Baroque churches and performance halls and saw Neo-Classical buildings lit up at night, not to mention dozens of exclusive designer boutiques with the “Armer aber Sexy” vibe that Berlin loves to cultivate. Marco had used the website, a ride sharing website, to arrange a cheap trip home to Dusseldorf. He found out there was an extra seat in the red Golf we would be using to cross the country, so we had a few more hours to kill cooking a meal and discussing research and graduate school (only the most thrilling of topics, I know).

We finally met our car at midnight. I stumbled through a German conversation, acutely aware that I should be able to arrange my thoughts in German much more readily then I was able to. The experience has really galvanized me to work on my language skills while trying to work on my fossils. After a rough night of trying to get comfortable in the back of the small vehicle, we made it to Dusseldorf and finally to the train back to Bonn. I decided to get an early start on the day, but regretted my decision when I felt like a dirty, greasy mess around 2 that afternoon. I have since recovered my sleep schedule. I really enjoyed Berlin, but Bonn has a much smaller, dare I say more German, vibe. Berlin is an international place with people representing nearly every country on Earth. Bonn is a place that typifies modern German culture and I’m excited to get to know it better (hopefully with sharpened language skills).

I hope your weekend was lovely and you are as excited for Christmas as I am. My family and Carolyn will be here in less than two weeks!



Erin Davis said...

Du hast nichts von deinem Schwartz-Fahrer-Abenteur erzählt!!

Matt said...

That deserves its own entry. Stay tuned.