Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Going Home: Berlin

I've been strangely apposed in writing about Berlin, probably because the tsunami of feeling I washed away in (and I am still swimming in). It is easy for me to step back and be objective about other locations but when the houses I grew up in, the school I graduated from, the places I worked at are still standing, and I'm standing in front of them, awed at how time seems to be playing on 2 levels – the past and the present...

Berlin blew me away.

From the moment of arrival after an 8-hour train ride and checking into my hotel just before 9PM, I was beset by a twilight sense of wonder. Not the least of it was caused by... how long has it been since you've seen a hotel room with an actual key, hanging on a big brass fob?

My hotel was one street over from Kurfurstendamm, affectionately referred to as the Ku'damm, the city's premier walking and shopping street. I used to “run the Ku'damm” when I was a teenager. Tired and overwhelmed, still I couldn't resist: I took off walking. I had to lay eyes on Rememberance Church, bombed out during World War II and left as a visual reminder of hatred and fear, and one man's desire to rule the world. 


My friend Sam said it best: Germany remembers her history. I agree with him. Everywhere amidst the modern, you see the old, even in the most modern of German metropoli: Berlin.

Here, I am torn: should I include pictures you could easily find by a simple internet search, or pictures of my life growing up? For example, here is where I lived when I was fourteen (first window by the tree was my room):

If you like doing internet searches, here are some things to look for in Berlin: Alexanderplatz, Reichstag, Brandenburg gate, Charlottenburg Palace, Gedachnisskirche, Tempelhof, Berliner Dom, Funkturm, Checkpoint Charlie.

My first full day there, after a fitful night's sleep in spite of the long train ride and all of the walking, I rented a bike and visited all of those places, dawdling at Alexanderplatz. When I called Berlin home, that location was walled off but made famous by the atomic clock and the television tower.

Legend has it that that tower was built when TV came into vogue, and it was to be a showpiece of East Berlin's progressiveness. The ball housed an exclusive restaurant that people vied to eat at. The only problem was that the tower was close to The Wall, so patrons could dine while longing for freedom in the west. In fact, as the story goes, everyone sat on the west side of the restaurant, hoping their weight would be enough to topple the tower into the west, thus forcing a path to freedom. In response, the restaurant was renovated to include a rotating floor, so that nobody could be exposed to only a western view. 

The last standing guard tower, one of the few remaining remnants of Soviet occupation, is tucked away on a side street, behind – of all things, the Spy Museum. It is not very tall; 4 meters at most. After the custodian showed me on a map which part of the wall that tower overlooked, I was able to climb inside. I was hard-pressed to imagine the no-man's land this horrid relic oversaw for all of the new buildings that surrounded it but I had no problem picturing the bleakness of existence for the people in that part of the world during the 28 years the wall was up.  I had been there during that time, after all.

The names! The places! 

The next day I paid a day fare and rode buses to everything I remembered of my youth. Nothing had changed. From the bus window I saw the Outpost movie theater, where I had my first job. These days it is a museum for Allied artifacts. (You can find its picture on the 'Net, too)

Getting off at Oskar-Helene Heim, I walked through the former Berlin Brigade housing area to the apartment I lived in when my daughter was born.

From there it was off to Goertzallee, where I worked as a Supply and Services clerk. On the way I passed McNair Barracks, formerly home to the 6th Infantry brigade where my husband was assigned to, now condominiums.

And then it was off to my old high school, and the ice cream store where we would get ice cream after class.

I finally found my way to Steglitz, another place younger me had hung out and shopped.

The day was waning and I was tired from all this rediscovering and, quite frankly, the emotional toll this Remembrance Tour was taking on me. Still, I had to make my way to Tempelhof, the site of the famous Air Bridge.

Immediately after World War II, while the Allied Forces were still negotiating territory, the Soviets had completely encircled West Berlin with the intent of driving the allies out, thus claiming that strategic city for themselves. No food, water, electricity or supplies could get past those barriers. People in post-war Berlin were starving and freezing to death in their bombed out homes. The Allied command – British, French and American, quickly devised a plan.

They would fly supplies into the besieged city! I can't imagine the planning and logistics that went into this effort but, every 45 seconds, a plane touched down at Tempelhof, loaded with food, medicine, and other vital materials. This went on for nearly a year: from June 1948 to May 1949. This statue commemorates the 3 Allied Powers's efforts.

Of course, there's more to that story than this short blurb. If you're interested, here's a great link:   

Mother's Day: I reserved the last day for my mother: where she lived, where she worked and where she rests.

I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I couldn't bear any more memories but I owed, and was owed this tribute.

16 Kaunstrasse, where she lived, is now a doctor's building. I had held a dim hope that her landlady might still be alive; I could thank her for attending to my mom. I am cravenly grateful she was not to be found.

BB shopping center, where she worked, is still there, but it no longer caters strictly to Americans. In fact, there might not be any Americans there.

Friedhof Dahlem is where, supposedly, my mother is buried. I could not find her grave but I walked through anyway. German graveyards look more like parks than graveyards. It was a peaceful letting of stormy emotions.

Back to the pulsing life of the Ku'damm. It is time to shop for my loved ones, in China and America. And time to let go of the past.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

On To Germany

It's been a while since I've traveled abroad other than my yearly pilgrimage to America. You might remember that, last summer, a busted pin kept me home – no traveling possible. This year, that same pin is offering up its best aches and agony but I've decided to go all out: leave China. Not for the purpose of visiting family, which is the reason for the annual pilgrimage.

In Germany I will reconnect with my friend Olaf, with whom I traveled to Chengdu the first year I was in China, who now lives in a small town outside Stuttgart with his beloved, Xiao Ai (she-ow eye – meaning, literally: Little Love... and indeed, she is). I will also revisit my stomping old grounds, Berlin, where I grew up, graduated high school and married. In fact, this trip signifies the first time in more than thirty years that I'll step foot on German soil where, incidentally, my mother is buried.

With such a history and itinerary, you'd think I'd be over hyper-excited about this trip, wouldn't you?

I admit to more than just a bit of reluctance. For one, I haven't gotten my full salary from my school, meaning this will be a budget trip, and the Euro exchange rate is not exactly in my favor. For two, I've gotten quite comfortable in my little home, in my litle neck of Wuhan – I'll expound on that idea in a bit. For three, there's a great possibility that I won't be able to fulfill my desire of tramping around Germany because of my stupid leg. Finally... there's this random fear I have that things will turn out less than stellar. That fear is all new, and nearly paralyzing. I don't like it.    

Thus, I am grateful for Olaf's invitation and and my unthinking acceptance thereof, not giving that fear a chance to get in the way of having fun, revisiting Germany and seeing my mother's grave.

Before going on: a bit about being comfortable (in my little neck of Wuhan). I've never really understood all those people who say they don't see any need to leave home because everything they ever need or want is there. “Lunacy!” I used to think. With the whole world to see and experience, how can one be content to stay forever in one place? Well, now I get it, and apologize to all of those I might have sneered at through the years. The flipside of that coin is the marvel that I have finally found a place I'm reluctant to leave. How much of that has to do with this growing fear that things won't play out well, I have no idea (and don't care to. I'm doing my level best to fight it.).

Nevertheless, leave I did, ruing my decision and expecting things to go wrong.

Departure day: I had planned to ride to the bus stop, towing my suitcase. My bike would be safe in the bike racks, and I would have a guaranteed ride home upon return. The rain, unpredicted, put the kibosh on that. I had to leave earlier and walk across campus to the bus stop. That was more walking than I reckoned on from the outset, and in the rain... welcome leg ache!

See how prepared I was to mutter and complain, this whole trip?

I got a seat on the subway! That's nearly unheard of. And I got to the train station in time. And I got an aisle seat on the train! Oh, dear! I guess I'd better put away the grumpy face; things are going well.

I was all smiles pulling into Beijing, and even negotiated the purchase of a subway ticket to where I would catch the airport express subway the next morning. My plan was to find a hotel near that station and wake up early to catch the first train. (Why, oh why did I book such an early flight??? - that would be me, complaining again.)

here is where I met with difficulty: I couldn't find a room anywhere near that station! I walked for almost 3 hours, from hotel to hotel. Finally, around 8PM, with rain now falling and stopping everyone who looked even vaguely foreign to ask if they knew of a hotel nearby, I stumbled into the lobby of a super fancy hotel.

I didn't care. I was hungry, sweaty – the rain did nothing to abate the humidity, and exhausted. My leg was about to give out. I had to get somewhere! Reluctantly I handed my bank card over for a 900 Yuan a night room. I would have winced but I was too tired.

And hungry! Why didn't I stop to eat anything while meandering all over Beijing? Because my first priority was to find a room. Unfortunately it took so long to find a room, and once I got to my room I was too tired to leave it. Fortunately I had packed some sandwiches and hard boiled eggs. After switching the air conditioner on, I wolfed down the last of my food. A bath afterwards,  and I almost felt like a new woman!

After 7 hours of sleep, I did feel like a new woman. All those stairs in the Beijing subway were no longer disheartening. The rain was another issue altogether but, thanks to the surprise rain in Wuhan as I was leaving the house yesterday, I was prepared for it. Still dubious of my good fortune, I nevertheless made it to the airport on time.

The only glitch was when my little utility scissors were discovered. I've previously been able to pack them in my carry-on but it seems that Chinese security had doubts about them (and the pin in my leg that kept setting off the metal detectors). Rather than permitting me to show them how to unfold this mini multi-tool, the checker forced it open... and broke it. Fortunately it is a Gerber and will be replaced. Even more fortunately, they did not confiscate it.    

The next time we talk will be from Germany. Until then, I hope you bear the weather well.


Plochingen and Esslingen – Small Towns in Southern Germany

 Although I do myself a disservice by posting pictures rather than writing, a picture is worth a thousand words – about the length of one entry. Thus, I continue the trend set in the last post: several pictures to comprise one entry, rather than trying to describe everything I saw. However, I will again write descriptions of the pictures, so that you're not just looking at random, pretty things. Feelings will follow in Trip Notes, at the end of this series on Germany. 


Please note that the configuration of Old Town Plochingen, which is the center of the town because it is not that big, follows Old Town Frankfurt's model: cobblestoned roads/walkways, government buildings close to the church, which dominates all.
The red building in the foreground is currently the library; the white building with red beams is now a museum whose first incarnation was in fact the seat of government for that small town. Centuries later, this larger Rathaus (government building) was built and serves in that function still today.
I remember reading somewhere about a law that, in Europe, no building is to sit higher than the church, for 2 reasons. 1: the church is the most important building in any community, and 2: no building other than the Church should be closer to God or aspire to the heavens. To that end, the church was usually built on the tallest parcel of land: a hill or high above the riverbank. The spire serves to 'reach God' as well as announce its location on the landscape.

If I remembered that correctly, the theory bears out: riding across German countryside on trains, the highest point and most visible icon in any town was indeed the church spire. This new Rathaus in Plochingen broke that tradition, being situated on a hill above the church and sitting higher than the church's spire.

Plochingen's older street was indeed cobblestoned; in fact it was more a pedestrian street because deliveries were only permitted before 8AM. I happened to be there around that time, and this is what it looked like:
It's sister street, more modern (and less cobbled) but no less frequented
That is pretty much the essence of Plochingen, unless you want to venture into the more mundane concerns such as schools, grocery stores and the train station – a rather bland building, by comparison to those shown here.

Sitting in the town square, enjoying the free WIFI provided by the church (I'm not joking!), suddenly the clarion chimed 10 o'clock. This charming building plays a glockenspiel (glocke = bell; spiel = play) every hour.
After enjoying it, I moved on.


whereas the feel of Plochingen was provincial, Esslingen felt like a suburb of a major city. Could well be because that's what it is. Stuttgart, the region's metropolis, is only 2 train stops away. Many people commute to the city (judging by the crowds on the S-Bahn commuter train), but prefer the slower pace this charmer of a town offers.

As with the other cities described, Old Town Esslingen centers around the church, and there is a cobblestoned pedestrian street.
A distinct difference from the other places described is the country's oldest Sekt Keller (sparkling wine 'basement' – not a basement but a whole building, dominating the town square, directly across from the church):
You might wonder about riding a bike on those cobblestones. It is not exactly a pleasant feeling: you'll note the rider is not sitting on the seat. However, I aver that Germans overwhelmingly love riding bikes! Bikes are allowed on trains, streetcars and trolleys. There are distinct bike riding lanes and even traffic lights especially for bikes. A refreshing change from risking life and limb, riding in China!

Beyond the church and the Sekt Keller, Esslingen boasts many unique architectural jewels:
The Inverted House (not its official name): each successive layer is bigger than the one underneath, but only on 3 sides.
The Melting House (again, my imagination takes flight!) seems to be sloughing off to the west.
What appears to be the last tower of the old city wall, ignobly reduced to being an ice cream store.

There's actually quite a bit to see in Esslingen – like: the water wheels, still in use and generating electricity for that portion of the city. But my favorite had to be the coffee store, because you could put a coin in the slot and pull out a drawer of your select coffee!
Two more things about Esslingen:

1.      'Ess' = 'eat' in German. Thus it became the running joke during my visit with Olaf and his family that, after exploring Esslingen, we should go to Trinklingen – 'trink' meaning 'drink'.

2.      Looking up pays off, yet again! High above the mundane rooftops, nowhere near the Sekt Keller or any other remarkable building, I spotted this pass-through, presumably leading from the government building to the church's spire. Too bad we didn't have time to explore it!

Plochingen, Altbach – nothing more than a wide space in the road where my friend lives, Esslingen, Stuttgart: all in a row, now all explored. We didn't get to see very much of Stuttgart because it was time to move on to Berlin. Oh, well! The Stutt, as I affectionately refer to that city, will have to wait till next time!

On to the most anticipated leg of this trip: my old stomping grounds, Berlin.

But before that...

Old Town Frankfurt in Pictures

 How to discover a city: ride buses, and get off when you see something interesting, or when you see a bunch of people congretating. Surely they're looking at something interesting.

Whereas in China, one buys bus fare on a 'per ride' basis, in Germany one has the advantage of buying a 'day card' – a bus ticket valid for the whole day, on any bus, trolley, metro or streetcar. Believe me: I took full advantage of that! For 7.6 Euro, the city was laid out before me. All I had to do was ride. This is what I found in Frankfurt:
  Willy Brandt Plaza
Willy Brandt – or, Uncle Willy, as he was colloquially known, was a German statesman and the leader of the Socialist Party from 1964 to 1987. Among other noteworthy achievements, he gained the confidence of students by following a strict formula for social reform. “Let's dare for more democracy!” he famously intoned in 1969.

            If you want to find the more historic districts in Germany, look for cobblestoned roads. That (and a trolley) is how I found Old Town Frankfurt:
Religion features prominently in European history, therefore towns were usually built around the churches. The one in the background of that picture is Nikolai Chapel, presumably meant for the lower classes: shop keepers and merchants. For a few years, it was also the center of government.

Church also took a large part in running the government. Thus, right across from the Rathaus – what would be the seat of government, was this more stunning edifice: Saint Paul's
As though these 2 churches were not testament enough to the power of religion in Old Germany, a mere 2 blocks away was The Dom: Frankfurt's cathedral, currently undergoing renovations.
I had just finished touring the inside...

… when an usher invited me to either stay for the service, or leave. On my way out I spied an original collections trunk, propped open for donations. I couldn't help noticing how generous Chinese visitors were! (The sign says: Historical treasury box. We ask for your help in restoring the Kaiser Dom.)

Anyone can follow a tourist map and snap sights. To spot the unusual, I tend to look up. Above a funky restaurant I saw:

unfortunately I could not find any history on this building. Was it built to look like a castle battlement on purpose, or, being on the edge of Old Town: was it a part of the original city wall battlement? Who knows?

No tour of Old Town would be complete without the Rathaus: the seat of government. It is a stunning collection of linked buildings with a center courtyard. Those facades boast murals depicting harvest time, presumably of apples, seeing as the figures are culling something from trees:

Note that you can see the dome of St. Paul's church over the roof of the second picture. This bridge linked the 2 parts of the Rathaus – as the city grew, so must the government. This newer portion stands immediately next to the church, as though to underscore the importance of the church in state matters.
 I didn't spend too much time in Frankfurt. I was only waiting there for my friend Olaf to come back from China. Wuhan, specifically – oh, the irony! And then, I would travel south with him to his home in Altbach.
His wife, also a native of Wuhan, asked why I didn't just head down to her house instead of dallying around Frankfurt. Besides wanting to rest up after the flight, I needed to get my German back!

It was so strange: once in Germany, all I could speak was Chinese.