Friday, January 12, 2007

Berlin interlude

In November 1989, the Berlin Wall -- long the symbol of a divided Europe as well as Germany -- fell. To be sure, some people saw this event coming some time before it did so. However, in the summer of 1989, when I paid my first and only visit thus far to Berlin (more specifically, West Berlin, since I never did cross into East Germany), I was not among them.

In fact, whenever I came face to face with, or caught sight of, the Berlin Wall during my one week visit there, it came across as solid, formidable plus -- unlike my main reason for visiting Berlin at the time that I did; that is, to check out a grand exhibition of Orientalist art! -- there to stay for a long time. And a sad but simultaneously prominent blot on a still scarred city's landscape to boot.

Somewhat ironically, the Martin Gropius Bau (N.B. the last word translates as "House" but the structure's actually far larger and physically impressive than any other house I know!) where the Europe and the Orient 800-1900 exhibition was being held that summer, was located near part of the Berlin Wall. So, even without making a point to do so, after spending many happy hours checking out room after room of Orientalist masterpieces, I emerged from the exhibition area to find myself in the vicinity of Checkpoint Charlie.

To be honest, I didn't find that Cold War crossing point between West and East Berlin to be all that attention-grabbing; at least, not for long. Instead, what really caught my eye and attention in that area was that which looked to be an unusually vacant lot that -- until, somehow compelled to explore further, I went and set foot on the place -- seemed to only have generic building rubble on it. After I realized where I was though, chills ran down my spine almost continuously until I left that section of the city.

For, as it so happens, I actually had found myself on the site of the former SS (i.e., Schzutzstaffel; trans., "Protective Squadron") administrative headquarters and Gestapo "house prison". The buildings which once stood on this lot had been largely destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945 and much of what was left after the war went on to be further demolished. However, the cellars of the building used by the Gestapo -- that is, spaces where many prisoners were tortured and executed -- remained and, in 1987, two years before my visit, turned into a memorial cum museum.

As can be imagined from its having the name that it does, the Topography of Terror is dedicated to detailing the history of repression under the Nazis. Expectedly again, this makes for it being a museum whose displays don't include any pretty pictures. At the same time however, I must admit to being somewhat heartened by -- if not what I saw within it, then the existence of such an institution on German soil.

For, in this along with other visible plus grim reminders of Germany's Nazi past, in particular, Nazi attrocities, which I encountered while in Germany, I saw an admirably determined resolve to not forget in order "that the past may serve". (The motto, more than incidentally, of Britain's anti-war -- despite its name threatening to make one assume otherwise -- Imperial War Museum.)

Still, lest it be thought otherwise, I didn't always feel surrounded by doom and gloom in Berlin. Indeed, certain other sights and experiences that I had while in that city opened my eyes to a certain joie de vivre (French for "joy for living") which I hitherto hadn't realized that Germans can possess!

For starters (or should I say starkers?!): One outdoor activity which I discovered while strolling in, and admiring, the many gardens that the city can boast of is that a segment of Berlin's population enjoy sunbathing...and preferably that of the topless and even completely nude variety!

(And yes, all this can make for a considerably more eye-popping, even if not necessarily more aesthetic pleasing, sight than the plethora of artistic treasures on display in such as Schloss Charlottenburg (home to a selection of artworks by the likes of the great German Romantic painter, Casper David Friedrich) the Egyptian Museum (that's home to the incomparable bust of Queen Nefertiti, chief wife of the Pharoah Akhenaten) and the Bauhaus Archive Museum of Design (with its many representative examples of works by -- and in the avant-garde style of -- the Bauhaus School of art and design)... ;) )

Continuing on a beery note: Berlin additionally is one of those cities where biergartens (trans. "beer gardens") abound and often are full of imbibers. More particularly, Berliners appear to love sitting outdoors and drinking Berliner Weisse, a tart wheat beer native to Berlin that's often served in a goblet and -- I kid you not! -- with raspberry or woodruff-flavored syrup and a straw (to sip the beer with but also with which to stir the syrup to make sure it thoroughly mixes with the beer)!

Ending on a culinary as well as shopping note: One other "can't miss" Berlin attraction as far as I'm concerned is the Kaufhaus des Westerns ("KaDeWe" for short). The largest department store in Continental Europe (and one which, as it so happens, will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2007), it has been described as a shopper's dream.

However, like the British department store it's been compared to (i.e., Harrods), its food halls -- with its ready-to-eat delicacies (think tons of different kinds of sausages, cheeses, cold cuts, pickles, etc., etc.!) as well as other culinary delights -- are its crown jewels as far as this foodie is concerned. And a particular boon if you're the kind of person who doesn't like dining alone in restaurants, especially in the evenings, but happen to be in Berlin by your own lonesome... :)

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