Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Berlin, Because We Love Her

Berlin was not a new exploration for us on this trip.  We’d visited Berlin in 1998, eight years after reunification.  Berlin was still a work in progress, with broad swathes of cleared land where the Wall had been, and construction projects everywhere.  Despite the mess, when we first saw the Brandenburg Gate, my Dear Husband and I were deeply moved.  The time when Berliners had suffered the division of their city, and the oppression of the citizens of the eastern part, was still so close. 

Back then, we traveled with our children, and stayed in a youth hostel so edgy it was actually unfinished.  The use of everyday objects was constantly under reexamination and re-purposing.  Theater seats could become a sofa!  Mangled street lamps were statues!  Prisons could be monuments to freedom!  And the remains of the Wall were an artist’s canvas.

During the early years of reunification, when the German government found itself owning all the residential and commercial buildings of the former East, bargains were to be had in real estate.  The task taken on by the former West Germany, of bringing the former East up to its standard of working and living, would have daunted any other country.  Being a landlord was not the business of a government struggling to unify two public transit systems, to train young and retrain older workers for viable jobs, and to win the hearts and minds of those eastern citizens who had actually kind of liked the old ways of socialism.

The government may have lost a few euros in selling off properties back then, but it gained much in the way of livability and excitement.  We found a hotel in Prenzlauer Berg, a neighborhood in the former East Berlin still in reconstruction, but starting to seem almost bourgeois.  Of course, there are still bars of every description, and art is everywhere, but the best nightclubs and parties are in other, less reclaimed, parts of the city.

We had to visit the fragments of the Wall, of course, although we have little comprehension of the art that decorates them now.  Near the longest section, along the river Spree in the Friedrichshain neighborhood, we found a “beach” club, created in what was perhaps an old train station or storage lot.  The remaining buildings had been repurposed as stages, volleyball courts, and Jamaican food stalls, or whatever was necessary for all-night, outdoor dancing and partying.  We saw posters urging fans to lobby city officials not to close down the club and take possession of the property.  It’s not just club for fun, it’s a communal expression by a minority, whose rights are sacred in Germany.  Berlin may be becoming accustomed to reunification but the kinks haven’t yet been worked out.

But it’s still not like any other city.  For one thing, its museums are simply stunning.  History buffs like us are just floored by the Temple of Pergamon and the Ashtar Gate of Meospotamia, recreated inside the Pergamon Museum.  The Altes Museum’s collection of antiquities was top quality.  The Picture Gallery at the Kulturforum had world-class paintings.  And monuments, like the relatively new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, provoke both thoughtful and emotional responses.  There was no way we could visit every one of Berlin’s museums and sights, or even a quarter of them.  You’d have to spend a month in Berlin to see them all, and have better shoes than we did.

You’d also have to have better health!  I’d come down with a severe sore throat on our way to Berlin, so I had the opportunity to experience German health care.  A pharmacist near our hotel gave us the address of a local doctor who spoke English; we waited less than half an hour to see him.  After a brief examination, and patiently listening to all the home treatments I’d tried, the doctor wrote a prescription for penicillin, and charged me about 25 Euros.  The prescription cost me about 12 Euros.  Altogether, it took about an hour, and cost less than 40 Euros.  Beat that, American Health Care.

I was more able to enjoy the city after seeing the doctor, but stuck to soft foods for most of our stay.  We were in Berlin during the annual Reunification Day holiday, and enjoyed people-watching from a picnic table at the city’s party in the Tiergarten.  Usually, festival food is sausages, but this was Berlin!  So I enjoyed my first bowl of German split pea soup (with sausage) at the festival.

Germans we’ve met outside Berlin are always curious to know what we thought of it, and pleased (and a little surprised) to learn that we LOVED it.  To us, it’s a highly livable and beautiful city, trams and cafes everywhere, with a compelling history and the museums to beat those of any two other cities.  For non-Berliner Germans, it’s an important city, now the capital, but bringing it back to life reunified has been and will continue being very expensive.  I guess when foreigners express their appreciation, the cost is easier to bear.

German Split Pea Soup

Soak one pound dried green or yellow split peas in water overnight.  Next day, render the fat from 1/2 thinly sliced bacon, and soften a minced medium onion in the fat.  Add the softened peas with their fat, and a smoked ham hock, or leftover meaty hambone, and bring to a simmer.  Add a teaspoon of dried marjoram or basil, or both, and 3-4 peeled and chopped potatoes. To improve the vitamin content, include a minced carrot, some celery and a chopped leek with the peas and meat.  Simmer about 45 minutes until the peas are softened.  Remove the meat and bones.  Mash or puree the soup, but leave about half the peas whole.  Chop the meat from the bones, and return to the soup.  Add about half a pound of smoked sausage, cut in bite-sized pieces.  Garnish with chopped parsley.  Serve piping hot with crusty bread.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

Leipzig, City of Heroes

Leipzig became a destination for me while I was trying to understand how the peaceful revolution came about which ended East Germany just as the Soviet Union collapsed.  It seemed miraculous at the time.  Those of us born not too long after World War II ended never knew a time when Germany was not divided, and hardly remembered when West Berlin was not surrounded by a wall and armed soldiers.  Word leaked out of East Germany during my early adulthood of the oppression and atrocities of the East German secret police, the Stasi.  Many desperate attempts, so often deadly, to escape into West Berlin, bore witness to the ham-fisted terror used to maintain Communist control over East Germany.

Then one night in 1989, the gates burst open, the people poured through, cheering and crying, and the wall fell.  To those of us outside Germany, it was almost unbelievable.  We didn’t know that communism was secretly failing throughout the Soviet bloc, that the funds to keep that iron fist clenched were running dry, or that the dream of freedom still lived in the hearts of those oppressed by tyranny.  One of the ways this dream of freedom found expression was in Leipzig’s Church of Saint Nikolas, where weekly prayers for peace over a period of about seven years drew increasing numbers.  In October 1989, participation at those peaceful prayers grew into the tens of thousands.  Berliners took heart from Leipzig and began demonstrating.  Even the Stasi couldn’t face the bloodbath required to shoot all those peaceful demonstrators back into submission.  Without support from Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet troops, the East German government simply gave up, and Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate opened in November 1989 for the first time in nearly 30 years.

And who were these people whose quiet faith broke the tyrant?  Leipzig is an old city, long known as the center of German publishing.  It was the first in Germany, and possibly in Europe, to have a coffee-shop!  Leipzig’s university is over 600 years old.  Many great talents have lived there: Leibniz (arguably the inventor of calculus), Goethe (who wrote part of Faust in his favorite watering-hole), and Johann Sebastian Bach (choir-director in two Leipzig churches including St. Nikolas for some 25 years) to name a few!  Wagner was born there, and Schumann, Mendolsohn, and Mahler all worked there.  So Leipzig has a long and deep tradition of music, literature, and philosophy.  I was pretty anxious to experience this city.

Leipzig wasn’t attacked with the incendiary bombs used by the Allies in World War II to flatten Dresden.  Ordinary bombing did plenty of damage, but the city wasn’t devastated.  The city was rebuilt under the aegis of the East German government, which is to say, lovely Baroque buildings were replaced with Soviet Bloc(k)s.  After reunification in 1990, what had been West Germany turned its attention to the decline revealed in the former East. 

When we arrived at Leipzig’s central train station, amid the construction we saw lots of evidence of the city’s revival.  Graceful 18th-century buildings have been converted into busy shopping malls. By the Nikolaikirche, where armed Stasi once faced off against the candlelit faithful, outdoor café tables were surrounded by displays of—and stalls selling—harvest bounty.    Naturally, since it was a lovely autumn day, there was an outdoor festival in the central plaza complete with entertainment by a tuxedoed crooner.   Leipzigers did nothing to deserve the oppression they suffered during 40 years of Communist rule, and they didn’t lose their spirit.  Like all Germans, they work hard, value art and beauty, and love to sit in the sunshine on holidays enjoying the fruits of their labor.  And on any given Sunday, they can attend services at the Thomaskirche, where Johann Sebastian Bach was Organist and Choirmaster for over 25 years, and hear his music performed in the same space where Bach himself first heard it.

When the Secret Police gave up control in 1989, the citizens of Leipzig didn’t go into a destructive frenzy of the Stasi workplace.  Instead, they preserved what they found inside as a museum and a reminder of how minutely, sadistically, and mundanely the Communist government spied on and persecuted their citizens.   

The average Secret Policeman didn’t work in luxury, but he did have the very latest in miniature microphones, disguise kits, and envelope-resealing technology.  

The Stasi infiltrated every schoolroom, office, and living room.  Perhaps the only way such a cruelly invasive bureaucracy would be overthrown was by peaceful demonstration and overwhelming numbers.  Courage and faith were the only weapons Leipzigers had to stand up against armed soldiers, and their bravery inspired other East Germany citizens to do the same.  The people spoke with one voice, and November 9, 1989, the tyrannical government and its wall crumbled.  

Friday, November 2, 2012

Early Advent

When I was a child, we marked the passage of days in Advent until Christmas with a beautifully illustrated paper calendar printed in “West” Germany (that should date me).  Being a clergyman’s family, we reused the same calendar many years, each day being careful to exclaim with delight over the familiar image revealed by the opening of the day’s door (“The Candle!”  “A manger!”).  They weren’t terribly exciting pictures, but it helped us mark the time to wait to receive our gifts, which we opened on Christmas Eve in accordance with our mother’s German family customs.  (It was also more convenient for our father, the minister, who often had three services at church on Christmas Day, starting at 7:00 a.m.)

As my children grew, I looked for the modern versions of my childhood Advent calendar, and was disappointed as my modern children failed to be thrilled by the pictures of candles and gifts hidden behind the doors.  Apparently, my children were not the only ones seeking greater thrills each day of Advent.  While I wasn’t paying attention, Advent calendars have become an industry unto themselves.

In Germany, many holidays have a distinctly Christian orientation.  In addition, Germans, of necessity, do not partake in such secular American holidays as Independence Day.  This poses a problem for retailers, lacking the nearly seamless U.S. transition from Halloween, to Thanksgiving, to Christmas.  Autumn in Germany, together with Oktoberfest, permits the sale of seasonally themed decorations, but once Oktoberfest ends, German retailers have nothing but Advent to look forward to. (The first of November, All Saint’s Day is a day off, but not one you can buy decorations for.)  You need to make your Advent calendar choices no later than the end of November.

Apparently, the choice of an Advent calendar is something we have to make carefully.  Advent calendars began appearing in my local stores in mid-October, right after Oktoberfest and the New Wine Festivals ended.  The first calendars I saw had rather familiar content, such as Legos, or Kinder-Eggs.   And it seemed quite natural to see these for sale so early.  German stores must be very anxious to make some money on Christmas before the opening of the Advent-long Christmas markets in the central square of almost every city and town draws all the euros away.

But then I strayed into the largest local department store and discovered it had been converted into Gift Wonderland.  An entire aisle was devoted to chocolate-filled Advent calendars made by different chocolatiers with a variety of elegant or sentimental artistic themes.  Most are enormous, very beautiful, and extremely expensive.

Nearby, in the perfume department, I was shocked to see “make-up” and “bath luxuries” Advent calendars.

In the toy department I found that Lego had been joined by Playmobil (where have I been?), which offers Pirate and Knight themed calendars.  That’s to be expected—these are toys of European origin.  What stunned me was finding My Little Pony, and Barbie, Advent calendars.

At first, I had been delighted by this season’s Advent calendars.  I was dazzled by the beauty and variety of those in the expensive department store.   But then, Barbie, and My Little Pony!  These are no longer the fragile crutches that helped me and my sisters wait another day until we finally received our modest presents.  These are a month’s worth of gifts, to tide children over until the day they are showered with gifts!  The blatant commercialism disturbed me.  I love Germany, but it’s not immune to the same materialism that besets our culture.

I’m considering a new custom for my family.  How about if everyone has the Advent calendar of his or her choice, and we call it done?  Well, I would probably be the first to break my own rule and start buying Christmas gifts too, as soon as the Advent calendars make way for them.  Maybe I’ll do a back-to-the-land kind of thing:  make my own Advent calendars, revealing an activity to do each day that a child might actually enjoy, and learn something from about the meaning of Christmas.  For my grandchildren!