Home again; some thoughts on the trip

Yesterday (Thursday) morning we said a regretful good-bye to our Home Away apartment on Simon-Dach-Straße at 7:45 a.m. and boarded the waiting taxi of Jens-Uwe, our new friend from Wednesday’s lunch. A short Lufthansa flight from Berlin/Tegel to Frankfurt and an 11-hour, eight-time-zone flight to San Francisco brought us home without any (mis)adventures about 3 p.m. PDT (11 p.m. Europe time – they don’t start daylight savings until tomorrow night). Here’s a nostalgic view from a few days ago of our building in Friedrichshain, above the 5 Places burger joint:

Looking back. Some things I don’t want to forget from this trip:

  1. Real people. I’m not very interested in travel for novelty’s sake. Any opportunity to connect with old friends, meet friends of friends, and make lasting new friends is worth more than all the perfectly nice but fleeting contacts with fellow tourists, people who serve tourists, and random strangers. Karen’s much better than I am at making new friends but I’m glad to share in the benefits. My friend’s flu kept me from returning the favor this trip – sad for me but of course much worse for her.
  2. Home away. Usually by the last day of travel I’ve been thinking “Get me outta here” for days, missing my walks, my piano, my activities, and the ability to converse or log on everywhere. Not so much this trip, though my former moderate fluency in German didn’t recover enough to be very useful. I suspect the difference this time was a comfortable apartment (great bed and shower!) near grocery stores and affordable restaurants.
  3. Reality. There are tours and tours. In hindsight the Azerbaijan tour our first week was a squandered opportunity. The country and its people are fascinating, including the peace between religious and ethnic groups that was the focus of the trip. Public institutions, including the authoritarian government, are so far from our own experience that we wanted to learn about them. But the official meetings felt like exercises in propaganda, and our tour leaders and guides didn’t give us many peeks behind the green curtain. What glimmers of reality reached us came mostly in conversations among us tourists, relaying things read online or gleaned in chance conversations with individual Azerbaijanis. It was very different from other tours we’ve been on, where no holds are barred once we’re in the private space of the bus.

That’s it for now unless something comes up. Good-bye until the next trip.


Last day in Berlin

We started our day at the Bauhaus Archiv, on the bank of the Landwehr Kanal just south of the zoo. The clean Bauhaus lines of the building house a small but delightful collection of artworks and practical objects designed by the movement’s members, mainly from 1911 to the 1930s. A special exhibit displayed work by the contemporary British designer Jasper Morrison. The sun was out at last and spring was coming on fast:

At noon we walked to Wittenbergplatz to meet Renate, the sister of a Bayview (San Francisco) friend, and her partner. We enjoyed lunch at the top of the famous department store KaDeWe (KDW):

Our final tourist stop of these 20 days was the Hamburger Banhof, a former railroad station converted to a cavernous museum with room for huge contemporary artworks, from mid-20th-century names like Warhol and Rauschenberg to new artists. Here’s Robert Indiana’s mirror-image expansion of his most famous sculpture out front:

Our chance discovery of a Straßenbahn headed back to our neighborhood let us spend the next 45 minutes or so seeing Berlin from street level, including a long stretch of the Berlin Wall memorial, and chatting with a friendly German seatmate.

Home -3, -2

Yesterday morning (Monday) our friend Sabine was on her way home to Heidelberg and Karen and I were sitting in the waiting room of the ER. And it was cloudy and fitfully rainy. Such a fun day. Not.

But by about noon we were on our way to more sightseeing, buoyed by good ultrasound results and my pockets full of new meds, free of charge – apparently my 100€ ER fee Friday covers follow-up visits and added meds. As it has turned out since, my rebellious gut seems to have slunk back into line and (with help from the meds I took last night) will give me no further problems. I even have a silver bullet (stronger pain pills) in reserve in case of problems during the 12+ hours we’ll spend in the air on the homeward trip Thursday. Here’s Karen looking relieved in the last exam room where we talked to the nice English-speaking doctor:

From the clinic we caught a Straßenbahn (streetcar) and a bus to the Jewish Museum. It’s nothing like the one in San Francisco except that the architecture of both is very daring. This one’s a skinny zigzag of a building with odd corners and random-seeming slashes of windows that echo the building’s footprint. To be honest, the building engaged me more than its contents’ earnest expository presentation of nine centuries of cultural history:

One bit of fun was a machine where Karen inserted a copper five-cent Euro coin, turned the crank, and out popped a medallion commemorating one of my heroes, the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn in the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia. If you don’t know him you probably know his famous grandchildren Felix and Fanny (there’s an in joke here for friends of Mary and Mark).

A disappointment awaited us back in “our” Friedrichshain neighborhood last night: my friend down the street (many DC readers will know who I mean) had arrived home with a severe case of flu and there will be no visit this trip. Get well quick, dear friend!

Today we headed for Museum Island and managed to squeeze in three fairly thorough (and exhausting) sites: the Neues Museum (the famous bust of Nefertiti, lots of Egyptian stone carvings, and an amazing chronological collection of human artifacts in Europe from Neandertal through stone and bronze ages to iron age Celts, Romans, and Germans); one of these stone axe heads looks amazingly like a modern iron Pulaski:

…the Pergamon Museum (IMO yet another appalling monument to European theft of antiquities from weaker countries, including an entire 5-story-tall Babylonian gateway and the exquisitely carved wood Moorish interior dome that a 19th-century German tycoon appropriated from the Alhambra for his living room; here’s part of the gateway:

…to the small museum in the New Synagogue just north of the island. No photos allowed inside, and the exterior photo I thought I took of the beautiful main dome isn’t in my phone, so this post ends with my apologies. As we left at 6 it started to rain and we fled back to our apartment.

Lazy weekend

I’ve spent Saturday and Sunday doing almost nothing but lie around this pleasant Berlin apartment taking my meds and waiting for signs of progress. Today I’m doing very well and hope to be back in tourist mode tomorrow. Here’s part of my domain:

I did get out both days to run local errands, and yesterday afternoon I took the U-Bahn (metro) 12 stops to the ritzy Kurfürstendamm boulevard in western Berlin to join Karen and Sabina as they finished lunch. Together we visited a four-story museum dedicated entirely to the paintings, prints, and late sculptures of Kathe Kollwitz: moving and mostly dark images of poverty, mistreated laborers, and war, but also mothers with their children, lovers, and self-portraits from her youth to just before her death at age 77 in 1945. The Nazis detested her politics but her fame apparently protected her and her family from persecution.

Like an idiot I didn’t think to take photos in the museum; do look her up online. As a consolation prize, here’s a shot down Kurfürstendamm, half a block from the museum, toward the Gedächtnis-Kirche (Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church), whose spire has deliberately been left unrepaired as a reminder of Berlin’s state at the end of World War II:

Berlin highs and lows

Yesterday, our first day in Berlin, we took our time getting started. By noon, though, we had bought 6-day transit passes and were on the S-Bahn light rail headed downtown from Warschauerstraße to Friedrichsstra§e. From there we walked a few blocks south to the elegant boulevard Unter den Linden, then west to the Brandenburg Gate.

After a pause in the Quiet Room to escape hordes of selfie-stick-wielding teenagers we passed through the gate and were in the former West Berlin for the first time; our “home away” is deep inside what was East Berlin before 1990.

Just to the south we entered the Holocaust Memorial, still unfortunately within close earshot of the chattering, laughing kids. It was a good sound but pretty much eliminated the power of this sunken forest of concrete slabs to induce contemplation. Here’s a rare peaceful view:

We went on through Potsdamer Platz to the museum of the rise and fall of the Nazi Party called “The Topography of Terror.” A rubble-strewn lot beside a remnant of the Berlin Wall when Alex, Sigrid, and I visited in 2009 is now a simple modern building. It houses panels of photos with text that unflinchingly examine how intimidation against Jews and others in the early 1930s crossed the line into mass extermination; how ordinary Germans’ and Eastern and Western Europeans’ inaction or actions helped enable the atrocities; and the largely forgotten story of how Nuremberg and other war crimes trials quickly lost steam and all those already convicted were freed by 1958 aside from a small handful whose death sentences had been carried out. I was left with the usual questions: Would I have had the courage to resist? and Could it happen again? The answer, of course, is that yes, it can, and has already done so many times since 1945 if on a smaller scale. 

Here’s the museum building; it was also full of kids but they were quiet, clearly fascinated by the well-done exhibits and perhaps sobered as well: 

And a remnant of the Berlin Wall (built 1961 by East Germany – I won’t mention today’s odious parallel – and mostly demolished in 1990) above the remains of the Gestapo headquarters’ basement:

From there we walked two last blocks past tourist schlock to the former Checkpoint Charlie, then caught the U-Bahn back to our apartment.

Today has been very different. The physical problem I mentioned in Monday’s post had never fully cleared up and by 3 a.m.today had worsened to the point that all three of us – Karen, I, and our friend Sabine, who had arrived last night from Heidelberg, as linguistic and cultural interpreter – were in a cab to an emergency room. Three hours later we were headed home with a reassuring diagnosis: nothing seriously wrong – and small packs of medication to take care of the problem and the pain. The whole cost: a flat 100€ (about $107) covering the visit, the doctor and staff, tests and a monster X-ray machine. What a system! (Sorry, any details about my ailment would be TMI, trust me.)

Karen and Sabine are now out shopping and probably feeling sleep-deprived. I’m home recovering and blogging. And looking forward to our remaining five days in Berlin.

Baku to Berlin

This’ll be short since yesterday (Wednesday) was a travel day. Five of us got to sleep in (ha!) since our ride to the Baku airport wasn’t until 5:30 a.m. Most of the others had left at 3:00 for the flight back to snowy New York. Here’s the ultra-modern but ultra-quiet airport about 6:30 a.m.

And here’s the departures board by our table in the food court at crowded, unglamorous Atatürk Airport in Istanbul about 10 a.m. Check out the exotic destinations:

There we said good-bye to our friends: Sheila and Ken flying to Valencia to see their daughter who’s studying in Spain, and Sally to Israel to study Arabic.

The departure gate beside ours swarmed with men and women in white robes with little matching tote bags, mostly looking beyond middle age, headed for Jeddah (Cedde, the Turkish spelling, was on the gate sign). Karen identified one set of tote bags as Algerian but we couldn’t figure out where the others were from, or where they were headed in Saudi Arabia; it isn’t the hajj season. I decided not to take a photo for courtesy’s sake.

We settled into our wonderful Berlin apartment, found through Home Away (the European VRBO), with the help of the owner’s daughter’s boyfriend Janosch, and just sort of collapsed, not exactly a nap but payback for lack of sleep and travel fatigue. This morning’s a different story after a comfortable bed, no wake-up call, and a lovely shower.

We’re just down the block from my friend Tammi, Karen’s friend Sabine will be visiting from Heidelberg in a few days, and all Berlin awaits. It will be a very good week, insha’llah.

Last day in Azerbaycan

Signs in Azerbaijan often spell names in two, three, or even more versions. The name of the country is spelled as in the headline above; C is pronounced like English J.* The spelling on our maps with IJ is common in places that cater to foreigners. Names also appear in Cyrillic letters and signs in Russian are common as I mentioned the other day; Russian was an official language until independence in 1991 and still appears to be the main second language taught in schools, for obvious geographic and economic reasons; many Azerbaijanis we met are bilingual. Multilingual signage in cultural sites and museums often includes Arabic (or maybe Persian, written with the same alphabet), and of course mosques and synagogues use Arabic and Hebrew respectively. (Sorry, this stuff fascinates me, it’s 6:45 a.m., and our Istanbul flight doesn’t leave for more than an hour.)

Yesterday’s highlights included a real Azerbaijani breakfast with a new Azerbaijani friend at a tandir (tandoor) restaurant against the Old City wall near our hotel. Here’s the lineup of toppings for their wonderful bread, not oily like naan but baked the same way, stuck to the walls of a huge clay pot: several kinds of cheese, yogurt, cream, and honey:

After some quiet time and another fine lunch with the group we visited the Heydar Aliyev Center that I mentioned last week. The building is breathtaking and must have been extremely difficult to build. 

Note what the architect did where her steps meet the wall:

Next we visited the grand mosque, also named for Heydar Ali, the country’s first president and father of the current incumbent. It is breathtakingly large and luxuriously carpeted but the newness hasn’t worm off at all. We came, saw, and left after prayers by members of our group.

After a quick return to the hotel we walked down the street to see the enthusiastic, fiery celebration of the last Tuesday before the spring equinox festival Novruz that dates to Zoroaster or earlier:

We ended our eight days in Azerbaijan with a farewell dinner at the ornate restaurant Şirvanşah, where course followed course and we were entertained by music and dance that I suspect was designed mainly for tourists.

I’m finishing this post in Atatürk Airport in Istanbul, waiting to board our connecting flight to Berlin.

*Thanks again to Eleanor for a correction.