Thursday, May 9, 2013

Going to Berlin 4 days before our JPs were due was a great idea! (Seriously)

First, a quick title explanation. Princeton requires every senior to write a thesis; most departments also require independent research junior year, too. The history department requires independent research both semesters junior year, both times culminating in a junior paper (JP). When we decided a month ago to go to Berlin this past weekend, neither Anna nor I really comprehended how close it was to our JP deadline of May 7. Both of us used Berlin as a major source of motivation, though, and we pretty much had full drafts together by the time our bus pulled away from Prague! (At the end of this post you'll see a celebratory post-JP ice cream picture of me and Anna). 

Though Michèle--mom's friend and my birthday twin--thought we might find the directions from the bus station to her apartment to be complicated, we found a nice German lady to show us how to get from the subway stop to the right street, and crashed almost immediately (though not before eating a kinder-egg!)

In the morning, we took our time waking up and then went for an all-day walk around the Schöneberg and Kreuzberg districts. Kreuzberg is definitely more on the tourist hit-list, but Schöneberg less-so. Among other sites, we saw where the socialist revolutionary/Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg was murdered, and ate lunch at the cafeteria in the basement of Rathaus Schöneberg (city hall) where JFK gave his "ich bin ein Berliner" speech (1:44) in 1963. We also walked through lots of parks--some of them secret--including many whose playgrounds were constructed of wood!

Kreuzberg was surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall, and when the wall came down, it was smack in the middle of the city. Rent was cheap at first so lots of artist-folk and other similarly-minded people came, but now there are huge conflicts between squatters and local governments--and the gentrifiers who are trying to come in and raise prices. 

Anna and I split off for a bit to wander the Turkish market--a strange mix of tourists buying Turkish delights (us) and fancy jams (also us) and locals buying necessities (fabric, vegetables, sandals, soap). The best part of the market, of course, was that many of the stands had free samples of their produce: the best pineapple I've ever eaten, perfectly-salted crispy cucumber, juicy orange, and lots and lots of jams. 

Very Berlin: outdoor ping-pong tables everywhere! (721 clan, if we come to Berlin for Thanksgiving, everyone can play at once! They do four-person games here, where each person gets a quarter of the table and each time someone hits it you run clockwise to the next quarter). 

I was also very impressed with the street art and murals that seemed to be everywhere; much more prominent than in Prague, certainly, and more purposeful and well-done in Berlin than anywhere else I've been. These faces are painted on the side of an apartment building complex, and each side of each building had a different set of people.

In the afternoon, we headed to the Jewish Museum. After wandering around aimlessly for a bit (the museum is huge and, despite maps, complicated to navigate) we realized that what we really wanted to see was the "The Whole Truth...everything you always wanted to know about the Jews" exhibit. The "Jew in a box/Ask a Jew" part has been pretty controversial--both the New York Times and the New Yorker wrote about it--but unfortunately we weren't there at the right time of day. Although I thought the exhibit was well-done and probably very informative for someone with little Jewish knowledge (it had sections on everything from "Who is a Jew?" and "Why do Jews cover their hair?" to "Is it okay to joke about the Holocaust" and "Can a Jew criticize Israel?"), it was strange to be the object of study. An exhibit on  Jewish history makes sense to me--but an exhibit about contemporary Jewish practice made me feel kind of like a goldfish. 

People have lots of questions for the Jew in a Box to answer.

Before heading to Shabbat services, we stopped in at this Russian dive for a much-needed snack. We got potato-filled fried dough, essentially, and I have no idea what it was called but it was delicious! Huge numbers of Russian immigrants have come to Berlin since the fall of Communism. 

Saturday was a tourist-trap day. Not really, but Anna and I did All The Things You're Supposed to Do in Berlin. Potsdamer Platz was the meeting place of the four occupational zones of Berlin post-WWII. Now, there's a cheesy segment of the Berlin Wall set up there with an even cheesier "get your East Berlin stamp in your passport here!" booth (how is that legal?).

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is right smack in the middle of everything. Like the exhibit at the Jewish Museum, there's been a lot of controversy about this memorial, which opened in 2005. The memorial consists of 2711 concrete-like blocks of concrete of different heights, laid out in perfect, evenly-spaced rows and columns. But, unless you specifically know that the related Information Centre is beneath your feet, you have no idea that what you're walking through is a memorial. Consequently, we saw people our age (!) hop up on top of a block and jump from one to the next. Maybe they were were just being jerks, but it seems like after enough of that kind of behavior the municipality would think to put up explanatory plaques. 

The East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall is probably the most-touristy place of them all. But we were tourists, so it's fine! The segments of the wall that are there include some original art, but mostly they've been redone and repainted by artists from around the world. This was one of my favorite segments--so many hidden pictures (Galya, made me think of you). 

Trains to Life--Trains to Death, by sculptor Frank Meisler is a dual memorial/commemoration at the Friedrichstrasse train station for those children saved in the kindertransport and those sent to their deaths at camps. There are four similar sculptures along the route of the kindertransport (of which Meisler was part) in which almost 10,000 Jewish kids were rescued and sent to foster families in the UK. 

I thought I was a pro Google searcher, but this apartment eludes me. If anyone can find any information  about a building in the Mitte district near Oranienburgerstrasse that is ornamented with monkeys and flowers, you get a shoutout in the next blog.

The dome/minaret of the Neue Synagogue (for a tour of synagogues I've seen this semester, click here). Thanks to Wikipedia, I know that the Neue Synagogue was built in the mid-19th century, but almost completely destroyed in WWII. What stands there now is almost entirely a reconstruction, and it consists pretty much just of the facade and ornaments--where the great hall used to begin, the building stops. There's an incredible amount of security out front--the entire sidewalk area in front of the synagogue is cordoned off, and two police officers pace back and forth constantly.

We had a bit of time to kill after dinner before heading back for our visit to the top of the Reichstag (more on that in a bit), so we meandered into the Tacheles workshop/gallery/artist refuge/sculpture park. (Again, thanks to Wikipedia, just learned that my original suspicion that the name Tacheles comes from the Yiddish/Hebrew was correct!) It was a bit hard to figure out how to get in--the facade of the building is massive and covered with graffiti, but the actual entrance to the sculpture garden is around a loopy-doopy path through a parking lot. I think we probably would have seen more had we gone earlier in the day, but we still got to see an incredible variety of styles of metal sculptures.

The Brandenburg Gate was one of the old gates to the city; it was damaged pretty badly during WWII, and made inaccessible by the Berlin Wall. For Americans, it's probably most famous as the location of Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech in 1987 (1:11-2:01). Cool, second American president speech in as many days!

The Reichstag is the huge, impressively imposing building of the German Parliament.  From the end of WWII until  the 1990s, it wasn't used for meetings of the government. Two cool facts about it: 1. It was technically in West Berlin, but right on the border with East Berlin. 2. Hitler never set foot in the building, so it's one of the few things in Berlin/Germany that there's no WWII guilt about.

If you wait in line for a really, really long time (or come at dinner-time so only for a long time) you can get free tickets to go to the dome on the top of the Reichstag, which was constructed in 1997 to represent the unification of Berlin. It weights 12000 tons or something like that! Obviously we waited in line, and we got tickets to go up right after sunset, which was the perfect time because of the beautiful lighting! You could see so far. 

It also represents, however cliche, the transparency of government: from the dome you can look directly down into the room where parliament meets!

Sunday morning was quite relaxing. Again, we took our time waking up and then meandered with Michèle through some lovely urban parks to get to the train station that would take us to brunch with Pinkhead/Anya^2. What a wonderful German brunch! Lots of bread and cheese and jam and fruit...

We took another meandering route to the train that would take us to our bus back to Prague, and happened upon one of Berlin's many weekend flea markets. This one was like 250 one-stall thrifts stores, all squished in next to each other outside. Ever since I read the article in the Times of Israel about the organization Bring it Home and recovering Judaica from European flea markets, I've been hoping that I'd see it happen. Well, that there is a menorah. I didn't buy it; Michèle has a point: At least in Germany, "We're all a little bit Jewish."

The beautiful view on our bus ride home! This is already after crossing back into the Czech Republic, I'm pretty sure. Though this was one of the few views I actually got to see: luckily for us, the bus was fully equipped with outlets, which meant that we could work, uninterrupted by dead batteries, on our JPs for 3+ hours! I got almost all my footnotes done then. Somehow, footnotes always take the longest; first semester I spent like 8 hours formatting them up until I turned in my paper, three minutes before the deadline. The time zone really is a gift here (though I ended up submitting hours before 3pm EST anyway).  

This is the "wordle" from the final version of my paper--basically, the larger the size of the word in the wordle, the more times it appeared in my paper. So in case it wasn't clear enough, I wrote about Jewish students at Princeton University, especially one named Aaron (last name). 

Post-JP celebratory gelato at Angelato, with the creamiest, smoothest, best pistachio (including chunks!) and mango gelato flavors I've ever had! (Though nothing holds a candle to the Bent Spoon's blood orange). 
Sorry this post took so long to go up! A few hours after submitting my JP, I got the scary Blue Screen of Death on my computer. This is, I am told (by Michèle), what the Germans call "Glück im Unglück": good luck in bad luck. More bad luck: I still have 20 pages of final papers to write for classes here. More good luck: my program let me borrow a mini-notebook laptop, so it's better than nothing!


  1. Seems You have got fantastic moments and great pictures.

  2. I think the building in Mitte with the monkeys on it, near Oranienburgerstrasse could be on Auguststrasse, near the Clarchens Ballroom. Hard to see on google because street view has that section blocked out. Chris