Saturday, December 11, 2010

All right, all right, all right. They brought me up short. But if we'd been thinking about it, we'd have all seen that coming. After a long, delicious nap, I zipped up my down vest, jammed my fur hat back onto my head and headed out into the Berlin evening, the night air snapping and cold around me, the sky dull with the snow that's coming tomorrow. I walked down the Friedrichstrasse and ended up at Checkpoint Charlie, or rather, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. This was the border crossing, the legal one, between the east and the west. The actual guard shack stands in the street still, but is now flanked by the ubiquitous McDonald's. Ah, the burdens of freedom. It is a magnificent museum, if it smells of something unidentifiable but undeniably rank. But maybe that's all part of it, helping to make this museum so real, so visceral, so authentic. They have the stories and exhibits of of the cars, suitcases, and surfboards (!) that people used to smuggle themselves to freedom. They have one huge room dedicated to the memory and honor of Ronald Reagan, who they give huge credit and have gained huge inspiration from. They have the stories of the people who died trying to cross and the testament of the outrage and frustration of the people on both sides of the wall; it is well done, under funded, and a statement that cannot be answered with anything but a prayer. And they have art.

First, as you climbed the stairway to the second level, they have an entire gallery of children's' art, commenting on barbed wire. There's kids playing in barbed wire; playing soccer in barbed wire; chickens and barbed wire; flowers, barbed wire; symbolistic renditions of a Germany tied up with barbed wire. All out of the mouths of babes…

Then, those rascals, the Germans have an entire floor dedicated to Picasso's mega, uber statement about war and fascism, Guernica. I remember vividly the first time I saw the real one, the huge mural named for Picasso's hometown in Spain, and ached and ached for Coeur d'Alene, my own sacred Guernica, my hometown. And the Germans chose to discuss it here, as their feelings about the war and the wall, tumbled out of them and, judging from my walk earlier today, continue to dribble out of them now. How do you get over this in one generation? How do you get over a war in one generation? When I was growing up the 1960s, my father talked vividly about the Fire of 1910 that ravaged North Idaho and he wasn't even alive at that time. But he grew up hearing about it and the legend entered his heart. And so it is with these people, my Germans, the terror and heartbreak of the Wall and the war live in them still and even though they have and have always had Siemens, Schering, Agfa and AEG, and now have BMW, Daimler and the Vatican, they have to figure out life without the wall and who and what they are as a country and it simply is not that easy. The terror and pain were acute and in my opinion, still exist quietly in plenty of neighborhoods here today. My heart is with them. Germany and the Germans went through so much in the twentieth century.

And they make me laugh. I have laughed long and hard today. They have the funniest, most cunning, most clever souvenirs of any country I have ever been in. And they make me concerned: out of 10 people smoking here, 9.3 of them are women. You'll see a mother and daughter smoking, while dad stands by with his hands in his pockets. Good luck on those ovaries, girls. For a country that practically had the World Cup sewed up, there is a remarkable lack of futbol frenzy; they can't even tell me the name of that Turkish kid, 19 years old he is, that scored the most goals in the Cup this year that plays for the German National Team. We got a lotta Turks here, they say, with a polite smile. And everything you hear about the hot wine? completely true. It is phenomenal. As is the sauerkraut, which is creamy, and the roasted nuts. Tomorrow I'm going in for chocolate.

So my discovery continues; I am proud to be an American but I'm proud too, that before we were American, we were German. We know how to work hard, how to stay faithful and wait for things to change and how to laugh. I don't know if I was filling my own order personally if I could ask for a better combination.

On Location
Berlin, Germany
So I'm in the Motherland. My great great grandmother lived here and had 5 boys; didn't want them going off to fight the Czar so she made her husband emigrate to America. Nebraska. Kept all five of her boys alive to live long and happy lives. She was one tough looking girl, too. Like most of the German women I've seen this weekend. And the men! DO NOT presume that ladies would exit an elevator first; even if they were standing by the door. If you're a lady on an elevator, you stand back and let the men in the back come forward and exit proudly. There exists, still today, a strong and valued reason why my great great grandmother knew exactly what she was talking about.

I'm staying in Mitte, in Berlin, which in the 1970s the world knew as East Berlin. Now it's this poshy neighborhood, confirming the worst fears of someone I knew once, who said that Berlin is becoming gentrified beyond a feeble recognition of itself, just like Soho in New York did. I am so glad I came. There exists, in every neighborhood in this town, a statement as to the new, old Berlin. Reunification, that is. But somehow, each arch, building, monument, sculpture and signatory construction falls short of making the definitive comment on what it was like to have the east part of town suddenly taken from the community and, in a stunning reversal, not only taken but used as a prisoner of war in an ongoing battle that may have only been settled in the late 1980s. I cannot think of any American town that would cope well with that.

Part of the way Berlin haunts you is the there is not much left of its palpable history. Oh sure, there's the bridal path from the winter palace to the summer palace, over there in Charlottenburg. Heck, there's even the Charlottenburg Castle. But in the place of the glorious, phenomenal, centuries -old- buildings and neighborhoods in London, Milan, Paris and Istanbul, stand post war modern stark installations where people work, play, eat, and buy what they want and need in this life. Everything here was bombed; everything was destroyed. So the Germans rebuilt, re-imagined, entire neighborhoods and sections of this town. Fold in the new reincarnation of the old Berlin and you have, solidly, a work in progress whose master plan still resides in the heads and hearts the electorate. In other words, nobody really knows for sure. They're still thinking it through. There is no flow and glide to this city; even the demarcation, the wall put up by the Russians, follows incredibly irregular lines and grids through neighborhoods, rivers, woods, parks, industrial areas, retail and service neighborhoods. You just don't know. You just can't get a feel.

Another thing that's sad and haunting for me is the art. There is very little classical art and architecture in the public domain left here in Berlin; and the art that does remain is stodgy; solidly unimaginative and stubbornly unyielding. The best art here is the graffiti, except for the art that the artists of the world came and made on the remaining section of the Wall; it's section by section; spectacular; exciting; none of it German. How do you have a town without its own art, now and then?

But Berlin remains. Stubborn, solid, stodgy. Angela Merkel and the foreign minister came out hard yesterday in defense of the euro. Told the EU that they have to man up and protect the currency; the idea of EU bonds will only prolong the drama. The contemporary Germans are people who have lived through sacrifice and heartbreak;and they know how they got there. They do not intend to go there again. I'm reminded of what Henry VIII did to his people; taxed them to death to pay for any one of a number of pissing matches with his countrymen, his allies and his enemies. I'm no Doris Kearns Goodwin but it seems to me that Germany has had it with being right, and righteous, too. Elizabeth the I, Henry's daughter, reigned over one of the most prosperous eras in the entire history of England and surely, post-war Germany mirrors that success and prosperity these days. The trains stations are marvels; the airports, while quite institutional, are models of efficiency. Somebody, somehow, had to pay for all these new buildings, even if they are nothing special but instead, seriously functional. All of the menial jobs are held by immigrants--people with brown skins and dark eyes. That tells me there's enough going on here for people to leave their homes and families because it's a better life here.

So from this seat in the stadium, it looks like Germany has regained everything it lost in a century of wars and political miscalculations. But I'd love to see their national consciousness sprout around their capital city; I'd love to see their hope, not just their resolution, and I'd love to see their heart, not just their ambition. More than a beer glass; more than exceptional engineering, Germany's got to be something more, something else. I can't wait to find it.

On Assignment
East Berlin, Germany

Sunday, December 05, 2010

So it's Advent again. The feast day of St. Nicholas is tomorrow, that originator of the secret gift. That rascal. One thing that came up in our family during the latest recession is another discussion of meaningful gifts; last year we decided to make playlists of our favorite music for each other; we burned them and then wrapped them up for each other. We spent all of Christmas Day listening to each other's music and laughing at the similarities and the contrasts. It was just lovely.

And so playlists became a new tradition with a family that loves and craves its traditions. God help me if I change the menu on the eves and the days of our celebration to a substantial deviation or if I forget to lay ribbon-wrapped tissue paper packages of pajamas and books for these adult children that now have to make the journey of the Magi to be at home for Christmas under the Christmas tree; a tradition that so far, they trust to my judgment. And I do like to change the Christmas tree up and have it be what I'm thinking and feeling about that year. Does anything ever stay the same?

So our playlist production is in high swing; it's super secret. I think you can get a clearer insight into how Google plans to smoke Microsoft next than to sneak a peek at the playlists being written. I'm feeling a certain humiliation and sheepishness because my playlist is a phat and bulky 24-songs long. I just can't choose any closer! They are so gonna dine out on me...

I had a bit of an epiphany this week when I checked back into last year's playlists and found that some of my selections this year were actually on my children's playlists last year. Clearly, they are informing my choices. And so the role reversal that we seem to be so deeply entrenched in these days continues. It's a wonderful time of year and a wonderful time of life. If you let it be...

The 'Kan EWA