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Monday, June 18, 2012

The Stumbling Stones of Aldekerk

One of the reasons we moved to Germany in 2010 was because Wendy, my wife, and our daughters have German citizenship. They are citizens because Wendy's grandparents, Arthur and Margaret Mendel, fled the Nazis back in 1938, and German law says that those who lost their citizenship between 1933 and 1945, along with their descendants, can have it back.

The story of Wendy's grandparents and their families is heartbreaking and fascinating. It's a story I hope to write down someday. In the meantime, I made this short video about Wendy's grandfather's home town of Aldekerk, and the installation of Stolpersteine, or Stumbling Stones, in front of the family house there. The Stolpersteine, of which there are thousands throughout Germany and in some neighboring countries, are a project of the artist Gunther Demnig, who places the little brass sculptures in sidewalks in front of houses from which Jews and other victims of the Nazis were taken or where they were murdered. When we stumble upon them in Berlin, which is quite often, sadly, we always stop and read the inscriptions.

Up until June 2012, there were no Stolpersteine in Aldekerk. Now there are two groups of them, one for each of the two Jewish families who called the small town their home until the Nazis took their homes and many of their lives away from them.

Sometimes the number of memorials to the Holocaust in Berlin can be overwhelming. And sometimes we might ask, Isn't it enough yet? The answer is clear: It will never be enough.

Music: Requiem for Victims of East Japan Earthquake (sanmi) / CC BY 3.0
and Brendan Kinsella playing  Bach - Aria Variata, BVW. 989 - Variation No. 3 from under a public domain license. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Berlin's Bahns & Buses: Hauptbahnhof

Berlin's Hauptbahnhof, or central train station, is considered one of the most beautiful train stations in the world. I have to agree. Its grandeur, the way the light filters through the glass and steel and down through all the layers of the station make it an awe inspiring place. It is, I must admit, a bit weird to walk out of all that modern grandeur into the surrounding part of the city. Indeed, it doesn't feel like a city here at all, but rather like, well, a lot of space with some cool modern buildings off in the distance. I've come to cherish the space and the feeling of near-vertigo one gets while standing out in the grassy field across the river from the train station.

For a lot more video footage of the Haubtbahnhof, go to my Bahns & Buses video & essay. For views of other train stations in Berlin, check out Feuerbachstrasse, Olympia Stadion, Deutsch Oper, Westhafen, Gesundbrunnen.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Berlin's Bahns & Buses: Gesundbrunnen

Quite honestly, the biggest train station in northern Berlin is rather boring. In fact, there's not really even much of a station here, just lots of tracks and platforms and a big flat area where the station probably should be. Nevertheless, you can board long distance and regional trains here to just about anywhere, as well as the U-8 and the Ring-Bahn and the S1.

If the station itself isn't so great, the area around it is worth exploring. My favorite Berlin park, Humboldthain (along with its ghosts), is just across the way. The Berlin Wall ran very close to here, and the Bösebrücke is just up the tracks. A flood of people streamed across that bridge, which marked the division between East and West, when the wall came down. Leading right out of the station is Badstrasse, a wild street full of colors and smells and Turkish grocers singing their produce-selling songs. There's a great Lebanese restaurant a couple blocks down from the station, along with some great Turkish bakeries.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Berlin's Bahns & Buses: Olympia Stadion

It was a dark, cold, damp day in mid-January when I arrived at the Olympia Stadion S-Bahn station. The train was almost empty. The train platforms -- there are many of them, to accommodate the crowds during big soccer games or other events -- were absolutely empty. I suppose it's like this in the middle of a week day in winter, when nothing is happening at the stadium. Still, it was creepy.

Even more creepy were the stadium grounds themselves. They were overwhelming in scale, and overwhelming in their barrenness -- a blank slate on which my imagination could run wild, transposing Leni Riefenstahl images all over the place. The only thing that seemed alive, that escaped the blank rationality of it all was that gnarled tree growing up as if from stone and concrete, all crooked and mysterious. That tree made me feel better.

Even the U-Bahn station was deserted and dark, as if forgotten. I waited there and looked up at the security camera. It glared back at me. When the train came, it was empty, as if it were a ghost from another time.

For my other Berlin's Bahns & Buses posts and photos: Overview & video, Feuerbachstrasse, Deutsche Oper, Westhafen

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Berlin's Bahns & Buses: Westhafen

S- & U-Bahnhof Westhafen isn't exactly one of Berlin's iconic stations. It's perhaps best known as one of the stops you're likely to use when going to the Ausländerbehörde, an experience most folks would like to forget. Westhafen's on the border of Wedding and Moabit, and in the middle of a major industrial zone: It's in the shadow of a big coal power plant, and next to Berlin's big port, Westhafen, on the Spree River.

But it's got some things going for it, aside from the opportunity to go up on a neighboring bridge and watch big machines make mincemeat of scrap metal over at the port. For one thing, it's right next to one of the coolest Kleingartenkolonies in town, a narrow row of cottages and gardens surrounded on both sides by railroad tracks and utter industrialization. And then there's the art, mostly comprised of letters on tiles in the station. At first, the letters seem to be random. But then one realizes that they tell a story of Heinrich Heine and how he lost his name when he fled to France. The rest of the letters -- in a typeface rejected by the Nazis -- spell out the Declaration of Human Rights. The project was done by artists Françoise Schein and Barbara Reiter in 2000, and the story is nicely told in this video.

Westhafen's Kleingartenkolonie, sandwiched between tracks and tracks.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Berlin's Bahns & Buses: Deutsche Oper

During my time in Berlin this winter, while my kids and wife were in school and I was supposed to be doing some real work, I got a bit obsessed with expressing my infatuation with the city's public transportation system. I wrote a sort of love letter and video to the U-Bahns, S-Bahns and buses. During the time, I also found myself drawn to the train stations, themselves. So, for my last few days here, I've been riding the rails and taking photos of various Bahnhofs.

Today's feature is the Deutsche Opera (German Opera) stop on the U-2, one of the older lines that cuts right through the center of town going east/west. The stop is in Charlottenburg, in West Berlin, and opens up to the opera itself -- one of three major opera houses currently running in Berlin. I had never been to a real opera before moving to Germany in the summer of 2010. Then, that winter, my family and I made up for it, attending a half-dozen performances in the Deutsche Oper, the Schiller Theatre (filling in for the old, grand Staatsoper, which is being renovated) and the Komische Oper.

My favorite venue is actually the Schiller (just down the street from the Deutsche Oper). It's rather humdrum, and lacks the slick modernity of the Deutsche Oper, or the opulence of the Komisch. But I just like the way the seats are set up at such a steep angle that you're always looking down at the stage. I also like the fact that, in our experience, the most expensive seats in the house didn't all sell, which means they were available to those cheapskates (us) who show up for discount tickets 30 minutes before the show. At the Schiller, we often had some of the best seats in the house for a pittance.

The opera is just another one of those things that the government subsidizes here because it believes that art and culture are necessities. Not only can the average citizen get a cheap ticket at a world-class performance, but the unemployed can pick up an opera ticket for about $4.50. Yes, you read that right. Socialism? If so, socialism is a beautiful thing.

But back to the Bahnhof. This is one of the classic stations in Berlin, with nice tile mosaics, cool font for the signs, and separate mosaics for various composers in the hallway upstairs. For my video/essay about the transport system, go here. For more Berlin Bahn photos: here and there.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Berlin's Trams, Buses and Bahns, Oh my!

Owning a car sucks. I mean, really: You've got to pay for gas, insurance, oil changes, tires, maintenance. You've got to worry about crashing it. You've got to fret about driving in adverse conditions (traffic). So, it was with great cathartic relief that we sold our car, along with most of our other possessions, when we moved from rural Colorado to Berlin a couple of years ago. After we got here, we had a brief moment during which we thought we needed to buy a car. It passed.

No one needs to own a car in Berlin. A thick and complex public transportation net stretches from one end of the city to the other, so that no matter where you might be, a U-Bahn, S-Bahn, tram or bus is no more than a few blocks and a 10 minute wait away. And once you're in the net, you can get within a few blocks of wherever it is you might want to go. Add to that the fact that Berlin is bike-friendly, with plenty of bike paths and lanes and its lack of topography (making a ride from one side of the city to the other, even on an old Communist-era one-speed, a rather quick and not-too-grueling endeavor), and you've got a city in which cars are superfluous.

Since I don't like cars, I like Berlin. But the public transportation is more than just a car substitute. It's a great medium through which one can see and experience a dynamic, diverse and rather spread out city. At least Joseph Roth thought so. A newspaper columnist in 1920s Berlin, he was one of the greatest chroniclers of the city. In his 1922 column, "The Ride Past the Houses," Roth wrote:
The S-Bahn line goes right past the houses, affording its passengers many curious and interesting sights... Sometimes a ride on the S-Bahn is more instructive than a voyage to distant lands. Experienced travelers will confirm that it is sufficient to see a single lilac shrub in a dusty city courtyard to understand the deep sadness of all the hidden lilac trees anywhere in the world.

Which is why I return from a ride on the S-Bahn full of many sad and beautiful impressions, and when I navigate a little bit of the city, I feel as proud as if I had circumnavigated the globe.
Of course, that was nearly a century ago. Now, with trains, trams and buses going everywhere, it's even more true. Aside from walking, riding buses and trains is the best way to see Berlin, and it's a lot quicker. If you want the typical tourist sights, just hop on Bus 100 at Alexanderplatz, climb up to the top-floor (it's a double-decker, just like the 15 Euro-a-pop sightseeing buses) and relax as you glide past the Brandenburg Gate, the Siegessäule, the Reichstag and Bellevue Palace, embassy alley. And the round trip costs just 2,30 Euro, or about $3; spend four Euros more, and you can spend the whole day riding buses and rails, through every part of the city imaginable. I've been known to do the entire Ring Bahn loop, just to see some of the city's fringe, a stunning view of the Spree near Ostkreuz and a good glimpse of wild street art and abandoned industrial areas.

Yes, and there are the people, too. Berlin trains are nowhere near as animated as, say, those in Naples -- Germans are a bit more zurückhaltend, or restrained. But the trains are packed with humanity of all sorts -- rich and poor, workers in suits and coveralls, old and young. They chat, they stare out at the landscape slipping by, old German ladies lecture parents about their kids' behavior and they read. Yes, read, not stare transfixed at electronic devices. Mostly they read newspapers -- I credit the public transportation system for the success of Germany's print periodicals -- and a few magazines. Also books. It's not crazy to see, in one day, different people reading Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Adorno and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

With all those people in small spaces, it's inevitable that love will eventually blossom. Which is why the BVG, which operates the transportation net, has its own "missed connections" page on its website. Make some meaningful eye contact with someone on the U-1 but were too shy to introduce yourself? Just go to Meine Augenblicke page and post an ad. Here's a rough translation of one from today:

I found you beautiful.

MetroBus M41
Date: 10/01/2012 16:00
Posted: 10/01/2012 22:15
From: slacker
You (female, brunette, brown wool cap, nose piercing, striped fleece jacket, black boots) rode with me (male, blond, blue parka, gray scarf) in the M41 direction of Sonnenallee S-Bahn station. We stood side by side and I gazed at you often. You gave me looks, too. If I wasn't imagining things, it would be nice if you would contact me so that we can go mini golfing sometime. 
Mini golfing? Really? So sweet. The point is, riding the Berlin Bahns isn't just a commute, it's an adventure. It's life. And it's a huge part of life that most of the United States is simply missing out on. Instead, we doom ourselves to sitting for hours in our sealed little steel bubbles, in traffic on some placeless freeway between the suburbs and the strip mall. Too bad. 

I wanted to capture the experience of Berlin's public transportation, so I made this video. It's a bit long, and for that I apologize. But just think of it as a 12 minute meditative break (the music, after you get through the intro, facilitates deep thought). Every shot is either of, or from, Berlin's public transportation. Most are from trains or buses, with a bit from trams. The Hauptbahnhof -- a grand, modern station full of shiny steel and glass -- plays a leading role. The gritty Warschaustrasse station in the east gets a small part, as do a few passengers and even a woman plucking her eyebrows in her apartment window, directly across from the S-Bahn station.

Feuerbachstrasse S-Bahn

I like this station because it's round. And because the font on the sign is very cool. And because the name is translated, roughly, as "fire brook street."

Monday, January 9, 2012

Berlin Bahns: Images

I'm working on a video -- just for fun -- about Berlin from a train, bus and tram's-eye-view, and so I've been spending a lot of time on the public transportation, which I really enjoy. Here's a few of the images. Video coming to this blog soon.

View of Berlin from the platform of the Hauptbahnhof (main train station)

Crazy trees and church near U-Bahn Friedrich-Wilhelm-Platz

Empty U-Bahn car, U-1.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Berlin New Year Pyrotechnic Orgy

I used to think American towns on Fourth of July were kind of crazy, r.e. fireworks. But as this video shows, even our "quiet" Berlin neighborhood becomes rather explosive on New Years Eve, or Silvester. High-powered fireworks are sold everywhere leading up to the holiday, and they can be set off with impunity and do. For hours on end. The music in the video -- a bit of sacred to go with the profane -- is by the Tudor Consort.

Quis non posset (The Tudor Consort) / CC BY 3.0