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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tulip dreams

Winter's hanging on to Berlin with a vengeance. And all I have is this tulip on our windowsill that bloomed in the sun then faded two days later.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Ghosts of Humboldthain

Only when winter is here, and the sky is an ashen blanket pulled over the city, do I notice the way a green film covers the trunks of the trees. Only in winter, when the gnarled branches of those trees reach into the pallid mist, and the dead leaves are slowly rotting into the earth, do I notice the thick slab jutting out of the ground of Humboldthain Park. I had walked here before and seen the monolith, but had dismissed it as another piece of neglected landscape architecture. But this concrete wall -- yes I can see that now -- is six feet thick. On its face are old windows, bricked shut, with steel hinges each the size of my fist.

There’s only one thing this could be. I search for a sign, a plaque, the remnants of some Denkmal, or monument, or anything that might tell me what it is. But there is nothing. Only this artificial hill, built from the detritus of bombed out buildings, its foundation the old wall of a Nazi bunker that couldn’t be destroyed.

Humbholdthain Park is one of Berlin’s green-space gems. It’s about 2,000 feet long, and almost as wide. A big Sommerbad, or outdoor swimming pool, is tucked in among the trees, along with an elegant rose garden, a small soccer court, and plenty of space. The trees are so dense that even in the leafless winter, one cannot see halfway across the park. And, unlike most of Berlin, the park actually has varied topography: A sort of valley in the park’s center is shielded from the urban bustle by two hills on the park’s edges. For the month or so when a few inches of snow covers the ground, kids on sleds rip down the smaller of the hills; runners do laps up and down the wide, smooth trail of the larger hill.

Like all of Berlin, Humboldthain has its ghosts. Jutting out of the top of the bigger of two hills is a pair of identical concrete blocks that look, even from up close, like overbuilt observation platforms. In fact, this is the northern edge of a massive, World War II bunker. Anti-aircraft guns shot at Allied planes as their bombs laid waste to the city. The bunkers themselves, which were built under Hitler’s orders at the beginning of the war, could hold thousands of civilians during an air raid.

While the towers – or Flakturm – couldn’t save the city, the bunkers turned out to be virtually impenetrable. The invading Russians, after their artillery failed to pierce the thick walls, had to skirt around them to reach the city’s center. After the war, the French occupied the Wedding district of Berlin, in which Humboldthain lies. Using something like 30 tons of TNT, they tried to demolish the bunkers. The north wall refused to collapse. So around the hulking structure the French piled up rubble – some from the bunker, some from a nearby church that had to be demolished, and some from surrounding neighborhoods, which, like all of Berlin, were bombed beyond recognition -- and built a hill.

Strangely enough, I learned most of this from an American TV show after I had lived near and walked in Humboldthain for several months. I did some more Internet research and uncovered a few more facts and wartime photographs. In recent years, people have become more familiar with the big bunker because a group has started giving tours of the “Berlin Underworld,” which includes a trip into the bunker’s innards (the outside walls, meanwhile, make for one of the only “natural” rock-climbing crags around). But the wall that I later found – clearly that of a second bunker -- is never mentioned anywhere. It’s almost as though everyone wishes it would just melt back into the earth, not a shred remaining, not even in our memories.

And that’s understandable. One need not go far in Berlin to find a monument reminding us of the atrocities committed here between 1933 and 1945. The Holocaust Memorial is the most visible and striking, but the Stumbling Blocks – shiny blocks embedded in the sidewalks engraved with details about Jews who were murdered or deported from the building or neighborhood – are equally painful. Dozens of other plaques, monuments and Denkmals are scattered across the city, each intended to remember the past so that we won’t let it happen again.

Just as a conscious effort has been made to remember and learn from those horrors, a parallel effort has been made to erase or simply ignore anything left over from that time that might be used to glorify the Third Reich or war in general. It seems to be a well-aimed jab at Albert Speer, the Nazi architect, and his theory of “ruin value.” He wanted to construct monstrosities that would continue to remind people of the Third Reich long after the Reich had collapsed and the structures had fallen down, much like Roman and Greek ruins still stand as reminders of ancient civilizations. Germans, to their credit, have done quite a bit to eliminate the ruins – not to mention the ruin value – of most of the work of Speer and his colleagues. Hitler’s bunker is under non-descript lot next to a Chinese restaurant, and until just a few years ago there weren't even signs marking its presence. Huge Flakturms in Tiergarten were successfully annihilated after the war, and are now gone.

Still, some ruins remain, like those in Humboldthain. They seem to be telling us that, no matter what we might do to forget, the landscape always remembers.

In his essay, “The Necessity for Ruins,” John Brinckerhoff Jackson writes: "A monument can be nothing more than a rough stone, a fragment of ruined wall as at Jerusalem, a tree, or a cross. Its sanctity is not a matter of beauty or of use or of age; it is venerated not as a work of art or as an antique, but as an echo from the remote past suddenly become present and actual."

Yes. Which is why, with this particular ruin, we can rejoice to see such beautiful graffiti on its face, and why we don’t cringe at the climbers’ bolts sticking out of the concrete next to the bricked up windows. And when I walk over those hills, the dog futilely chasing after rabbits and birds, I can’t help but think about what lies underneath, and can’t help but imagine a certain darkness seeping out of that wall, out of that rubble, and emanating up through the rotting leaves. 

Bunker Art

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Winter's day in Rehberg

Rehberg Park is a huge expanse of grassy glades and dense trees, some trails and even an outdoor movie theatre. A lot of Berliners look down on the Wedding district of town, but Rehberg, not to mention the adjacent Goethe Park, Schiller Park (just a few blocks from Rehberg), the Panke River path, and tons of other green spaces make Wedding one of the best parts of the city. We're within walking distance of all of them. These are recent pics from Rehberg.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Berlin: Coolest city on the planet?!

They are now saying -- again, apparently -- that Berlin is, as the Hollywood Reporter puts it, "the coolest city on the planet." It may be, but when the Reporter's attributing the coolness to the fact that Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and their kind have made Potsdamer Platz their "second home" is a tad bit absurd. For one thing, Postdamer Platz is an American-style architectural monstrosity. For another thing, I've never seen Angelina there or anywhere else in Berlin.

I'd say the Christian Science Monitor -- in a really good, in-depth article about Germany's rise as a "mini-superpower" and Berlin's becoming a real European capital -- summed it up better here:
That gives rebuilt Berlin something of an open and unfinished air. It's been compared to a combination of Boston and Washington. Social hierarchies here are newer than in traditional capitals of old Europe. You can wear your jeans to the opera. Apartments are huge by European standards, and cheap. Food is also inexpensive.
Yet for all the scrubbing and shine, Berlin is a city where 1 out of 5 inhabitants is on welfare. The German capital is poorer than the nation it oversees.
Low costs have made the city a magnet for artists and writers. By some estimates, more than 65,000 artists reside here. It is also an unofficial playground for the under-30 "globorati" who fly in on cheap flights from Barcelona, Spain, and Rome.
 But neither story can answer the question: If Berlin's so cool, what's a guy like me doing here? Why do so many people have mullets, and listen to David Hasselhof? Why is there so much canned meat in the grocery stores, and why is Currywurst -- chopped up hot dogs smothered in curry powder and spicy ketchup -- the city's signature food? And if it's so damned hip, how is it possible that this godawfully ugly building monopolizes the view out our front window:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An apple in Naples

An apple. Two, actually, on a white plate. They were not sliced and put into some buttery pastry, or ground down and frozen into gelato, or zapped with some beam that broke them down into their pure molecular form. They were just apples, their peels -- a burnished off-red color with no shine at all -- completely intact. A long stem, with a leaf attached, still jutted out of one. We were in a dimly lit little osteria on a side street in Naples. The thick green glass of the label-free bottle was almost empty and our bellies pleasantly full. Donna Teresa, for whom the place was named and its sole cook, sat on a stool, watching her patrons. The waitress -- or rather, I suspect, Teresa's daughter, beautiful but who also looked tired and almost apologetic that her mother's food was so good -- brought us our desert: two apples, on a plate, with two knives. That's when I fell in love with Naples, a city of chaos and history and crime and beauty. A place where one's senses are constantly under assault.

My wife Wendy, daughters Lydia and Elena, and I had come to Naples three days earlier almost by accident. We flew into Rome, and intended to stay there for a week, seeing the city and its surroundings; I had hoped to find Rome's best gelato and Negroni. But Wendy has a hard time sitting still, and after a three-day whirlwind tour of the Vatican, the Forum, the Colosseum, "Invader's" street art, Trastevere and Testaccio; and after sampling several off-the-beaten path Roman rosticcerias, no fewer than eight gelaterias and a negroni or two, we decided to head further south. Naples was less than two-hours away by train, at just 57 Euros for the whole family. So, why not?

In retrospect, it might have been too much to go directly from the zurückhaltend populace of Berlin to Naples. Luckily, Rome helped acclimate us to what we would experience when we got out of the Montesanto metro station in a bustling hillside Napoli neighborhood: a full-on sensual battering. Bright orange storefronts beckoned. Through the window of a barber shop, we saw a man sitting helplessly in the chair, his hair half shorn, as the two barbers yelled and gesticulated frantically at one another. The smell of garlic and pizza and garbage mingled together in an olfactory stew.

The Google map had shown a mere 200 meter walk from the station to the bed and breakfast we had booked. It did not mention that the walk also included a 100 meter vertical climb, through narrow passages (I'd use the word sidewalks, except cars and scooters used them, too) that were paved with black volcanic stone worn shiny from a millenium of use and that did not easily accommodate the wheels on our low-grade luggage. Clothing hung above us from every balcony like awnings, and there was more graffiti than in Berlin. I knew enough Italian to ask an old guy in which direction we should go, but not enough to understand his answer, except that he kept repeating the word "funicolare." Later, we would discover what that meant: A cable-pulled train that makes climbing Naples' formidable hills a lot easier. We kept walking. The old man laughed, threw up his arms and pointed up the hill.

That was good enough. While our room -- the cheapest one we could find in Naples -- was not exactly plush, it was adequate. It's part of a building complex perched perilously on the edge of a cliff high above the city, and was also serving as the residence of three college-aged women studying at the local fashion design school. Andrea, the owner and a Naples native, is friendly, fluent in English, and gave us great tips on how to spend our time in the city, steering us clear of tourist traps. Indeed, as it was lunchtime when we arrived, he sent us right back down to the chaotic neighborhood below, where we ducked down a street so narrow that felt like night, at noon. After dodging several scooters and even a small car, we found the doorway to the olive oil shop next to the big shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary (these shrines, or madonnine, are everywhere in Naples, but this one was especially ornate). There -- the place has no name as far as we could tell -- we found a few tables, a woman slaving away in a tiny kitchen, fresh octupi piled up on a counter. There was no menu, but somehow we managed to stumble through the language barrier and get a lunch of simple pasta, seafood meatballs (I don't know what else to call them), a couple of plates of vegetables drenched in beautiful olive oil and a jug of wine, all for about $30.

Naples is steeped in some 3,000 years of history. Greeks settled nearby islands in the 9th Century B.C., where the Sirens had once lured sailors to their deaths on the rocky coastline,  and in the 5th Century B.C., Greeks founded the "New City" of Neápolis. Even after the Romans took over and danced a gluttonous jig on the Greeks' collective graves, the Greek culture persisted in Naples. Evidence of those early times can be found at Pompeii, of course, about half-an-hour by train down the coast. But better yet is Herculaneum, another city that in 79 A.D. was buried, and thus preserved, by Mt. Vesuvius' ash. Excavations began in the 1800s, and continue to today. It's closer to Naples' center, has relatively few visitors and is remarkably well preserved. Lydia and Elena refused to leave without seeing -- and narrating the significance of -- every room, every mosaic, every fresco. We were there for nearly five hours, seven if you include our trip to the National Museum and its artifacts from Herculaneum and Pompeii, not to mention that tantalizing "Cabinet of Secrets," full of Roman erotic art (kids not allowed).

Mosaic, circa 79 AD or earlier, Herculaneum.
One simply can't immerse oneself in so much history without fortification, so we made sure to stop and sit down -- okay, stand up, since that's what you do in Italy -- for caffe machiato and pasticceria. Our gluttony, er, gastronomical research, focused on the crostatta di fragola (tarts topped with what appeared to be wild strawberries), canolli and sfogliatelle, a phyllo dough pastry filled with ricotta and candied orange peel. In those narrow streets, under the watch of more shrines, it was easy to imagine eating an identical treat 400 years earlier, when these pastries were new -- sfogliatelle were reputedly invented in a convent in the heart of Naples in the 17th Century. In Naples time, that's a mere eyeblink. I suspect that 2,000 winters ago, the great poet Virgil sat at a Taberna in downtown Naples and enjoyed a plate of friarelli, a close relative to Brocolli Rabe that's rarely found outside the Campania region of Italy. Napolitans sautee it in garlic and oil, cook it with sausage and put it on pizza, which, by the way, was born in Naples.
Night, Pignasecca market.

Virgil, ancient Rome's most famous poet, wasn't born in Naples, but he penned some of his greatest work while living here during the 1st Century B.C. Virgil's epic poem, the Aenead, includes a number of scenes around the base of Mt. Vesuvius; Aeneas entered Hades to search for his father via Lago Averno, just up the coast from Naples.

Dante Alighieri drew on Virgil's knowledge of the underworld when he portrayed the latter as his guide through the Inferno.
Indeed, as I tried to navigate the dark forest of humanity that is the Pignasecca market, I summoned the guidance of Virgil. Maybe he wouldn't help me find Beatrice, but at least he could guide me to the next pizza and bottle of wine. Luckily, there in one of the city's oldest markets that runs every day, that wouldn't be difficult. The Pignasecca is a jumbled mixture of cheap plastic kitsch and Italian delicacies. Here, a man is peddling cigarette lighters; over there, a pig's head hangs in a window. Still-wiggling fish fill simple tanks at the pescheria, artichokes are piled high at a produce stand, and it can all be had at ridiculously low prices. We got dinner: a huge loaf of beautiful, wood-oven baked bread; marinated local artichokes; olives; salami; cheese; and wine, for just about $10.

Virgil is also said to be buried along the coast in Naples, his bones serving as protectors of the city. Attempted attackers are allegedly chased off by huge swarms of flies. The bones, I don't know about. The thing about the flies, I can believe. They emerge not from Virgil's remains, but from the mountains of garbage on many a street corner. Naples is perhaps as notorious for its trash heaps as it is for its pizza. In the mid-oughts, trash collection came to a standstill as landfills were filled to capacity and garbage workers went on strike. There's some sort of connection to organized crime here -- the city hosts one of Italy's most powerful crime families -- though I can't, for the life of me, figure out what that connection is. Berlusconi, apparently in between his dalliances with teenagers, cleaned things up in 2008, but the problem resurfaced just last year, after a proposal to build a huge landfill on the slopes of Vesuvius was met with riots. How this led to piles of garbage in Naples' streets, I'm not really sure. But, as an Italian told us with us a shrug of his shoulders during a moment of train chaos: That's Naples for you.
Street art in Naples.

That piece of wisdom came after an already long day on public transportation. As we were waiting for the metro to arrive, an announcement came over the loudspeaker, in Italian, of course, and incomprehensible to us, of course. Suddenly, everyone on our platform jumped down to the tracks, and ran across them to the opposite platform -- something you would never see in Germany -- and boarded another train. We followed, fearing for our lives. Then another announcement came, and about half of the people jumped back off the train, and ran back across the tracks. This scene repeated itself several times. A group of Italian musicians assured us that we were on the right train, and to stay put. They were right. I don't know why the other people were running back and forth. I don't know what was wrong with the trains. Nor do I know how the same pickpocket could work the same part of the train station day after day, without getting rousted by the cops. But there he was, first on Friday, then on Sunday. That's Naples, I guess.

And that's part of the reason Naples has a reputation as a hotbed of organized crime, petty crime and just outright chaos. Then there's the garbage, the big volcano, the huge fault line and the crumbling buildings perched precariously on vertical hillsides. All of which adds up to one big reason that a lot of people stay in Sorrento, or along the Amalfi coast, and just visit Naples for a few hours to eat some pizza.

Not us. We figured we'd do something like the opposite. We picked up one-day passes on the public transportation system for 4,70 Euros each (our nine year old was free, and the tickets are cheaper on weekends). That allowed us to ride a really slow train along the coast to Sorrento, via Herculaneum and Pompeii. Sorrento is clean, orderly and a cruise ship stop, meaning it's also a bit boring and overpriced (though beautiful). So, with our same one-day tickets, we boarded a public bus to, well, we weren't really sure where. It quickly filled up beyond safe capacity with very loud teenagers, including a kind of chubby obnoxious boy who kept yelling something about muzzarella, which I suspect has a broader, more crude meaning than just being a type of cheese.

The bus climbed, an impossibly steep, windy, narrow road that twisted through olive and lemon and orange groves and tiny villages, and offered a tremendous view of the Mediterranean, far below. Then it stopped at the top of the mountain, and we had to get off. Our hoped-for journey to the Amalfi Coast was cut short. We had boarded the wrong bus. We panicked. I think one of the girls started crying, or maybe that was me: The cafes were all closed for siesta.

Fortunately, after wandering around the sleepy little village for half an hour, we got on a bus going back down. Unfortunately, the bus driver was insane. As soon as we got on, he accelerated enough to throw us all back into our seats and caught up with the bus in front of us. Then, he engaged in what appeared to be a race or strange game of chicken with the other bus, passing those little Italian truck/scooter things that all the farmers drive on blind curves, tearing around the switchbacks way too fast, never falling more than a few feet behind the bus in front of us. Meanwhile the two bus drivers made faces at each other and gestured wildly via rear view mirror.

Procida, a 6 Euro, 40 min. ferry ride from just outside Naples
We survived, but we needed to get away from the cruise shippers. I needed a Negroni, truth be told, but would do with more caffe, a quiet beach, some gelato. All of which we found a few train stops away from Sorrento, at a town called Vico Equense. Getting to the beach here requires another steep descent on foot, but it was safer than the bus, and for the girls it was worth it: The beach was littered with sea glass and sea tiles -- pieces of ceramic tiles that had somehow found their way into the sea and had been worn smooth, like little pendants. We're convinced that we even found a piece of ancient Greek sea glass. Sitting on the beach in the day's last sun at Vico Equense, or the next day, on the island of Procida, which provided much of the setting for the movie il Postino, I could see why people might choose one of Naples' outliers as a base rather than the city itself.

As for me, I'll take Naples. It's scary, yeah, and disorienting and sometimes overwhelming. Its past seems to press down on you, its present has a darkness of its own. But it's also alive, fecund, raw and real.

Oh yeah, and then there's that apple. By the time we got back to Naples, we just wanted a quiet, simple meal, so we took the funicolare up to the relatively posh, somewhat calmer Voremo neighborhoodin search of a pizzeria. Elena spotted a little place with just a few tables and said, "Hmmm, this looks good." So we sat down. No menu, just two of each piatto to choose from. Wine arrived. Then a white bean, friarelli soup ("This is comfort food," said Elena, "and I need some comfort.") A plate of roasted, marinated vegetables. Meatballs. And two plates of exquisitely tender, tiny octupi, cooked in a tomato-based broth.

And then the apples. Raw. Simple. Tasting of the earth, of this place, of this history.

See a video slideshow of images from our trip.

Monday, February 7, 2011