Magic is the intersection of time and place.Events are measured in terms of personal history. Everyone does. If they tell you they don’t, they are just being polite. Time and space nexus and revolve around my axis. This is how I view the space in which I travel.Egotistically, but realistically, I travel first person singular.
Hamburg is the second largest port in the EU and gateway to the Baltic and North Sea. One Hundred years to the day that I arrived in the city, my Grandmother, stepped onto the Red Star Line’s “Lapland” and embarked for America. She was 22, traveling with her 18 year old sister. A century later, I am look over the massive port and witness my first live football (soccer, of course) game. These events—my grandmother’s journey and mine—are two of the reasons I am here in the winter snow.
In the time between my two cosmic events, the Beatles played Hamburg. My life is parenthetical for the Fab Four. They were forged here on a street that spawned legendary Rock and Roll and spectacular prostitutes. The British band was, ironically, forged in Germany—at the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s legendary red light district. The Indra club was their first venue. They were the fourth choice as the first three Liverpool bands were unavailable. Pete Best played with George, Paul and John. Ringo wasn’t in the picture yet and Paul was“Just 17, you know what I mean.”
Stephanie Hempel guides me around pushing her newborn baby in the pram geared with snow tires. She stops at the Star club and describes the year, cast of characters, song list and brandishes black and white pictures of early Beatles in vinyl sleeves.Each stop is highlighted with a few songs that she plays on a steel stringed ukulele, and her powerful voice. The German accented English disappears into a Liverpool lilt with each refrain. Back and forth the accents seesaw and songs are contextualized with time and place.The last stop is the Indra club. Suddenly it is August of 1960 once more, the drinks flow and everyone is singing. The past becomes the present. Black and white becomes colorized and they love you, yeah, yeah, yeah. Depressing as it is, the Beatles broke up when John was 32 years younger than my present age.
Transportation is easy in Germany, although I am on the first German train that is actually late.Two minutes, but everyone notices.The train is clean, dependable and only 90 minutes into Berlin where the journey takes on a more demanding and ominous flavor.
My simplicity is profound. Deep down I am completely superficial–My lifetime, my geography, my chronology, and my topography—It’s all about me.This contrasts with the Germany I encounter. I brandish my myopia and simplicity with pride, but it is assailed by the complexity of Berlin. Here is a city of staggering contemporary architecture, intimate histories of cultural accomplishment and the stigma of an unimaginable legacy of inhumanity.Berlin is pure attraction/repulsion. Literally it is written on the walls.Portions of the east-west border remain with sanctioned graffiti masking its historical purpose. The epoch of the wall, the grey block icon of the failure of the Communist society masquerades as a colorful palette contrasting against a bleak winter morning. I am glad it is snowing. It is easy to be seduced inside the warm bargain priced exclusive restaurants and five star hotels. Costs are moderate. Unemployment is high and the Berlin economy is reeling as jobs move 40 kilometers east to Poland.
I masochistically enjoy being slapped in the face by the wet snow.It reminds me, demands of me to remember German history. Why not simply savor the schnitzel,wurst mit curry and drink the nuanced white German wines?It is easy to forget Germany’s brutal war history and disappear in hedonism of the current elegance of the capital. Visit Germany in the winter and history reprimands you while the weather assails you.
The sights that should not be missed are on every tourism itinerary, but all have paradoxes. The Reichstag is the historical heart of the German government. Architect Sir Norman Foster won the commission to embellish the structure. He popped a dome that sits light-glistening–visual frosting on the stone edifice. The front elevation slips seamlessly into the steel gray night. It is virtually invisible during the day but dramatic in nightfall. It is tempting, but like a diamond tassel on a cheap stripper, it seems like so much unnecessary pretense, as it tries to divert attention from the chambers that allowed Hitler to come to power beneath it’s twinkling dome. The Reichstag, plenary home of the German state is little changed from the symbol of the mid 20thc. horrors.
It is midnight and I am photographing from the field where Hitler’s favorite cinematographer, Leni Riefenstahl filmed “The Triumph of Will.” Don’t get me wrong. I am quite sure the present parliament bears no vestige of fascism. Once decorated with goose-stepping figures, this empty hectare is silent as the snow covers the weed-bound field. Intellectually, I know there are three generations that separate the present from the past Nazi horrors. But again, it is me, insufferable, egotistical and myopic. More than the snow in the air chills me. Maybe it takes one more generation.
Sony’s Center is the heart of the resurgent Postdammaplatz- a symbol of the 21st century.Here the geographic center of Berlin is reconstructed with contemporary architects and corporations showing all flash and technology. Glass and steel are punctuated with a façade of enormous, soulless video screens. The Center presents an overwhelming volume rather than quality or economy. This is a concept that may better reflect the 19% unemployment of Berlin—economic smoke and mirrors. This Oz-like building complex seems more to reflect the Ishtar Gates, imposing symbols of the power of Babylon, made to impress with scale rather than subtly. The economy staggers as glitzy edifices rise.
From the architecture of the future, it is both a pleasure and necessity to remember the glories of the past. A visit to Museum Island redefines treasure.The Pergamon Museum bears the name of the locale where German archeologists deconstructed the western Turkishfrom where the fragments and ruins were taken.Here the famous Alter of Zeus is reincarnated in the former East Berlin, heart of Europe. The collection is subtly defined when you realize the magnificent Ishtar gates gets only second billing. The Pergamon, built on thousands of piers in the middle of the river is sinking under the weight of its treasure.
Travel east a few hundred meters and you are in the Egyptian museum where you can come face-to-face with the Golden Nefertiti—the perfect female. Here the architecture and artifacts speak of the triumph of culture and forces you to keep the current wave of architectural conversation in the perspective of the centuries.
The monument to the murdered Jews of Europe is a sprawling field of 2,700 stone slabs near the Brandenburg gate. Described by former Prime Minister Schroeder as a monument to “That most terrible crime,” it creates a maze of hard stone surface that is difficult to escape, literally and metaphorically. Architect Peter Eisenman’s creation sits opposite the site of the new American Embassy under construction. As a security concern, US officials requested having the monument surrounded by a fence. Ghettoizing a monument to a decimated population–The irony is overwhelming.
Being an American in Germany leads to questions of accountability and responsibility. The past slips easily into the present and the conversations in the bars, the pubs and cafes of Germany are informed and multilayered. Berlin is complex. It is not the cotton candy of Miami, Rio or Los Angeles. There are no easy solutions here.This is a city that takes work. Tourism is not an easy business.
IF YOU GO:
Stefanie Hempel gives an inspired tour of Beatle’s Hamburg email@example.com
Henrik Tidefjard offers a wonderful personalized tour of the dining, café and nightlife of Berlin www.berlinagenten.com.
The rates are $140-$300 per person for anywhere from a three hour four course “food-rally” to an insiders view of Berlin, food and nightlife-Mini Van included.
Dr Richard Campbell is a knowledgeable Berliner who boasts two Phds and a 50 year residency. He gives an encyclopedic walking tour of the history, politics and architecture.
QIU (ww.themandala.de/qiu.htm Both Facil and QIU are in the Mandala Hotel,
QIU is more the bar, snacks $50 is a reasonable fare fortwo with cocktails, or you can have just drinks here; FACIL is more high end, arguably the best in Berlin Dinner is $100-$125 for two.Potsdamer Platz Strasse 3.
Lutter & Wegnerwww.l-w-berlin.dePotsdamer Platz (Sony Plaza)A very decent meal for two is $50 with their home made delicious wines served.
Kadima (Jewish) next to the Berlin Synagoguewww. kadima-restaurant.comLunch is an easy $30 for twolocated on Oranienburger Strasse in the very hip Berlin-Mitte area.
Hotel-Modern Beautiful and convenient,wonderful spa Grand Hyatt
Shiro i Shiro “castle style” diningwww.shiroishiro.comPart of designer Hotel Lux 11
River Kasemattenwww.river-kasematten.deRiverkasematten is the hotspot at the Hamburg Harbour Dinner for two w/wine and dessert is under $100.-Under $50 if frugal.
Altonaer Fischmarkt Breakfast buffet on Sunday morning at the fish-market is pure heaven.