Monthly Archives: December 2013

Sweet sorrow

Potsdamer Platz mallIt’s the departures that are the hardest; friends come to visit and it’s joyous to explore the city together, thrilling even just to see their familiar faces standing in our lobby next to us, but there’s always an undercurrent of urgency, knowing they have a finite amount of time with us, return flights booked and waiting. We show them around our neighborhood and well beyond, and I’m gratified to hear them say the same things I’ve said over the past few months—there’s no grid here, the streets are so confusing, one could so easily get lost; yet how livable it is here, how bike-friendly. But no matter how long their visit, there is always an end in sight.

M’s brother Geoff returned for Christmas to Berlin, his home away from home—his third visit since our arrival, and several more planned for this spring. He came two days after we first arrived in August; showed us around our neighborhood, pointed out where to find the best falafel, showed us the best wine stores; taught us which transit pass to buy, advised us to not walk in the bike lane.

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Pierogi panic

ImageWe have a full house these days—six girls and five adults. Our good friends from New Jersey bit the bullet and made the trek to Berlin to see us for Christmas. They found a flat just one block away from us, an easy walk back and forth each morning and evening.

On December 23 we fanned out across the city, all eleven of us, some heading to Museum Island for a self-guided walking tour of the heart of the city, others of us setting off to a multitude of markets to track down all the groceries we’d need for the coming days, when the city all but shuts down.

After months of daily shopping, this ban on shopping for a string of days, just at the time when we are planning our biggest meals, had led to much anxiety and discussion. It is serious business, Christmas meals, and for us the focus is the Wigilia, the Christmas Eve meal. Ours is modeled on Polish traditions brought by M’s mother’s side of the family so many years ago. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without kapusta, the whole pea-cabbage-dried mushroom soup, or the baked fish, the stewed prunes, or the homemade pierogies. Everyone’s favorite is, of course, those potato and cheese-filled pierogies, the dough light as air.

On the 23rd, sitting on the S-Bahn across from our visiting friends, M asked Larissa, “Do you have the pierogi recipe with you?” Larissa laughed and said no. She saw M’s dark look but assumed he was just kidding. It wasn’t her recipe; she had seen it at M’s sister’s place in New Hampshire a month or so ago on a recent visit, but hadn’t brought it with her.

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See and be seen

wolf in sheep's clothing

My photo of a painting on the inside of a Francesco Clemente tent on Potsdamer Strasse.

They stare whether you’ve done something mildly interesting or nothing at all, and maybe that’s the most disconcerting part. You never know what it was that drew their attention to you.

It’s blatant, the stares; Germans don’t seem to have that American need to avert the eyes. Standing or sitting on a train, walking down the sidewalk, browsing in a store… if you’re out in public, you’re fair game. If you’re sitting on your balcony and are visible to residents across the street, you’ve offered yourself up for observation as well. Continue reading

Liebe Ruderkameradin

Franklin Ave Bridge

Franklin Avenue Bridge, Minneapolis. Courtesy of Hennepin County Library.

In Minneapolis they jump; the Franklin Avenue Bridge seems to be favored.

One imagines a walk through the bleak, unending night. Some untold moments staring at the murk below; the allure of the black, mesmerizing water. They come alone to the bridge, work their way to the edge, and they let go, whether in a leap or a fall. Either way they plunge into the Mississippi. If the impact doesn’t kill them, the water surely will.

Their bodies wash up on shore and are fished out by the sheriff, often weeks after they make their plunge.

Sometimes rowers are there to witness the fall. Once, I was told, a man hung onto the stern of a passing shell as the rower rowed them both back to the dock.

Here in Berlin, it’s the tracks that beckon. Continue reading

Lost in the Weihnachtsmarkt

gluhwein stand

At the Alexanderplatz Weihnachtsmarkt

My sister spent the past two weeks with us in Berlin. She works in Melbourne, halfway around the world. To think that she would come all this way to spend time with us was a marvel. With her I finally allowed myself to be a tourist in this town. We went on a chilly Fat City bike tour of the city; we went to the Bauhaus Archiv. We visited the Topography of Terror exhibit about the Nazi era; we went to the DDR Museum exploring the trials and tedium of life behind the Wall.

Getting to that last site was a journey in itself, involving Christmas Markets and a little midday Glühwein. Continue reading

More than a meal

thanksgivingThanksgiving was a chance to introduce four Germans to the very American custom of overeating in late November. Or at least that’s what we seem to have accomplished. One of our guests called our meal ‘obscene,’ and I think we’re all still recovering from that.

We invited some characters to our Friday night presentation of a Thanksgiving meal. These included two old friends of M’s brother, who happened to be visiting us for work and for the occasion. His friend Uwe is full of wit, strong opinions, and a propensity to combine the two traits to put someone in their place when he sees fit. His niece, who lives with him, joined us after work, and before she arrived he said, remarking on the open seat next to him, “I don’t want to sit next to her; I have to see her every day,” which rattled us slightly but as M let her in the front door I slid over towards the miffed guest so he wouldn’t have to sit by her. Continue reading

What brings us here

footstretchersLast Saturday as I walked the last mile from the S-Bahn station to the boathouse, I seemed to be alone on the path, but others emerged through the classic Berlin gloom and drizzle. An older woman with a long grey ponytail sailed down the hill on her bike. A blind man with a stick tapped his way along the sidewalk across the street from me, making slow but steady progress. All three of us were heading to the boathouse to row.

I had noticed the blind man for the first time a few weeks ago, feeling his way along the wall up the stairs of the boathouse toward the men’s locker room. I was somewhat awed when I saw him; if I feel deaf and mute around Germans, it’s a temporary condition that can be remedied by a return to the land of English speakers. His condition has no such land of grace.

The woman on her bike turned out to be Helga, the woman I had met on my first day at the club. She seems to be in her mid-70s and has rowed here since the club allowed women to join nearly 40 years ago. Her lined face and curved back may show the crush of age, but her eyes and wit are sharp and she is always ready to climb into a boat to cox or row. Continue reading