A difficult question

31 10 2010

How did HItler get away with it?

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, framed by a street sculpture.

As the seat from which he ran his brutal and murderous regime, it’s a question that permeates daily life in Berlin.

Its residents are reminded of it every time they pass by the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a massive gothic cathedral in the heart of the city that was all but destroyed by Allied bombs during WWII; its shattered and scarred bell tower stands as a memorial to the price of war, nestled between a new bell tower and sanctuary, built in the 1960s as symbols of the new, rebuilding Berlin.

 

They’re reminded of it every time a visitor walks out of a souvenir shop with a paint-dabbed concrete, allegedly a piece of the wall that divided the city as a result of the treaty between the Allies that ended the war.

But it’s not a question Berliners, and Germans, shy away from.

A new exhibition at the German HIstorical Museum confronts it head on. Through historical  photos, documents, newsreels and artifacts, it follows HItler’s ascendance from a nondescript National Socialist Party worker to Fuhrer, with the blood of tens of millions on his hands. And it offers some theories on the why and how.

The Reichstag is once again home to Germany's government.

Frighteningly, they’re not very complicated.

Essentially, the German people, still smarting from their defeat in WWI, were ripe to buy into a leader who could tap into their aspirations to become a world political and economic power. Hitler may not have looked like much, but he was a savvy political animal who knew how to surround himself with people who shared his ideas; when those people decided Hitler was their guy to lead Germany out of the shadows of WWI, they used propaganda, fear, and intimidation to consolidate their power and enforce their ideas on the whole country. It was not unlike a cult.

Since it opened in the middle of October, the exhibition has been controversial and wildly popular. When we went on Thursday, there was a news crew filming in the lobby, and the exhibit hall was so crowded it was actually kind of hard to absorb  it all in any kind of leisurely, thoughtful fashion.

But across town, just down the street from Checkpoint Charlie, another free, outdoor exhibit touches on the same question.

In the shadow of a 500 meter long remnant of the wall, the Topography of Terror is a timeline of Berlin’s history as Hitler rose to power, the tactics used by the Nazi regime to attain that power and the role the city played in disseminating and enforcing it, from the construction of great monuments to Nazi aspirations like the Olympic Stadium to the night of terror inflicted upon the city’s Jewish population when many of their homes and businesses were destroyed and the people rounded up to be sent away to “labor camps,” to the campaigns of annihilation waged against the city’s homosexual community, mentally handicapped and gypsies – basically anyone who didn’t fit into the Nazi ideal of a “pure” Aryan race.

It was also very busy when we visited. People strolled slowly down the display, taking time to read the panels and listen to the audio presentations despite the cold weather.

Berlin's Olympic Stadium is now a historical monument.

It’s hard to fathom all this history is only about 70 years old, a blip in the human timeline – far enough from today to be mysterious and confounding, yet close enough to be frighteningly real. We can all hope that through such painfully reflective examinations of the past, that history won’t be repeated.

Synagogues and their worshippers no longer have to worry in Berlin.

 





Ich bin ein Berliner

30 10 2010

Our visit to Berlin has also been a bit of a personal journey into my roots. My father grew up here, until he immigrated to Canada to start a new life, and marry a new wife, my mom.

I think I first got it into my head that I wanted to see Berlin about ten years ago. When the wall had come down in 1989, I watched it all happen on television, a lump in my throat; I had visited the divided city as a kid, but the blood of a Berliner coursed through me and I felt a remarkable connection to those historical scenes of triumph and joy.

My dad passed away six years ago, his parents a few years before that; an aunt and uncle still live in the city, but they are kind of estranged from the Canadian branch of the family. So unlike our visit to Katie’s kin in Belgium, this trip to my roots would be more about walking the same streets, breathing the same air as my father had as a boy and young man.

The old water pump on Schlossstrasse still works!

On our third day in the city, we set out on the U-Bahn to the other side of the Charlottenberg district from where our apartment is located to the neighborhood where my dad grew up. After a pleasant stroll up the tree-lined Schloss-strasse, leaves crunching under our shoes, and a pause to see if an old water pump still worked (it did!), we made a pause at the Schloss Charlottenberg. Then it was on up the Spandau Damm Str. to Soorstr., where I remembered my grandparents lived in an expansive white apartment.

The walk felt vaguely familiar, although I’m sure much has changed in the 36 years since I last did it

After another pause for hot chocolate at a corner café (nowhere near as good as the chocolat chaud we’d experienced in Belgium!), we ambled down the Soorstr. towards #78. Somehow, I could feel the spirit of my dad looking down approvingly. Katie squeezed my hand.

At #78, we took some photos; I tried to remember which balcony belonged to my grandparents, but could not. I stole a look at the buzzboard to see if perhaps nobody had bothered to remove their names, but that was so long ago. And then I suggested to Katie we peek around the corner as I recalled my grandfather walking to a bakery a bakery for fresh bread and buns every morning when we visited.

The apartment where my Oma and Opa lived and dad grew up.

Alas, no bakery, but our curiosity was piqued by the little lunch room tucked into the building’s corner; the board in the window promised a lunch of schwienegebraden, rot koll and stuffing for 6.50 Euro, a deal that seemed too good to pass up. Inside, a handful of communal tables filled one alcove, while in the other three women cooked up the limited menu and managed the orders in a spotless kitchen, the ham sizzling in an open fry pan, rot koll roiling in a pot.

The "kitchen ladies" making lunch.

Katie ordered the soup of the day, I ordered the delicious-looking ham.

As we ate our tasty, and cheap, lunch, an elderly couple who looked to be neighborhood regulars sat down at the table across from us. They were likely in their late 70s or early 80s. Old people don’t move house much; perhaps they knew my grandparents?

Getting ready to dig into my roast ham and rot koll, and screwing up my courage to speak German.

I debated in my head whether I should unleash my halting German on them; I grew up in a German household, I could understand it well enough, but I’d always been shy about speaking it. This trip has challenged that comfort zone, and so far I’d managed to step up, translating menus for Katie, ordering in restaurants and bakeries in German well enough that the people didn’t immediately recognize me as a foreigner and begin speaking english back to me. But firing up a conversation with two strangers who likely didn’t know much english? That was a whole new frontier.

Alas, it turns out they’d only moved to the neighborhood about 10 years ago, so they didn’t know my grandparents; but we enjoyed a pleasant conversation about their travels to New York City and Florida, their nephew in Canada, how much Berlin has changed since the fall of the wall, the cold weather and other pleasantries. For the most part, I held my own, dipping into english words only occasionally.

As we carried on with our day, I felt pretty proud of myself; now part of me can truly say, “ich bin ein Berliner.”





Unter and uber den Linden

28 10 2010

In May we took Manhattan. This week, we took Berlin.

When last I was here, I was about 12 years old and more interested in finding Toronto Blue Jays’ baseball games on Armed Forces Radio. Both I and the city are now very very different; I don’t care very much about baseball anymore, and there’s no more Armed Forces Radio, because Berlin is no longer an occupied and divided city.

Although Berlin was founded in 1689, much of what defines the city has happened in the past 70 years, through the rise of Adolf Hitler, to the destruction of much of the city during WWII, to its division by the Allies after the war that rendered half of the city a democratic island in the middle of communist East Germany, and then the destruction of that wall in 1989, leading to Germany’s reunification in 1990.

The Brandenburg Gate is all lit up for the last night of the Festival of Lights.

The wall may be gone, and the country whole again, but walking around the city and riding the U and S-bahns, it’s possible to see the scars of division.

There are many new buildings, gleaming office towers at Potzdamer Platz as corporations returned to the unified city and government buildings at the Reichstag when the city was restored as Germany’s capital. And the U-bahn and S-bahn lines are ever changing (the map in our guidebook, less than two years old, was woefully innacurate) as work continues to patch the gaps and inefficiencies wrought by division.

There is lots of new in Berlin.

As our apartment is only a block from the Ku-damn, Berlin’s busiest and most fashionable shopping street, we walked it alot, up and back towards the Zoo station area; it’s as busy and vibrant as ever, with designers like Gucci rubbing shoulders with Valentino, Prada, etc. It’s like the Champs Elysée in Paris of Fifth Avenue in New York; if you’re to be taken seriously as a fashionable retailer, you have to have an address on the Ku-damn.

But ride the trains to Berlin’s other fashionable street, the Unter den Linden, which used to stretch into the heart of the East from Brandenberg Gate, and the experience is quite different. There are lots of people on the sidewalk and in the boulevard, but the street is shouldered by massive blocks of big square buildings, the pride of Soviet-era architecture. The designers are there, as is Mercedes and Skoda, but so is Aeroflot. Yet it somehow feels soulless, stark, cold.

It’s the same at Alexanderplatz, which used to be another gathering place for East Berliners. There’s hardly any greenery to be seen anywhere, a few scattered trees, no planters or shrubbery. The buidlings that surround the vast expanse of concrete are big, square edifices. It’s odd, or ironic, that they now house fashionable, bustling department stores like C&A and Galeria Kaufhof.

Our first stop as tourists this week was the Checkpoint Charlie museum, located at the small border crossing point from West to East Berlin that could be used by Americans and became a kind of symbol for the Cold War.

A relic of divided Berlin frames a symbol of the new Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie.

When I visited Berlin as a kid, we went there to look at it from afar, watched the soldiers pace back and forth, the gate occasionally rising to let a vehicle through to the expansive wasteland beyond, rippled with barbed wire, watchtowers and then, just beyond the wall, desolate, forlorn, drab buildings and shells of buildings. Today, the street leading up to Checkpoint Charlie is lined with street vendors hawking Soviet Union flags, Soviet army caps and rat hats. A couple of entrepeneurs dressed as US soldiers will pose for photos with tourists for a few Euros. And just beyond the old wooden sign that warned westerners they were now leaving the comfort of their world for the untold mysteries and horrors of the East, a giant billboard for the latest model of BMW sports car is plastered on the side of a building from top to bottom.

The museum itself is a bit of a relic, a cluttered warren of little rooms filled with photos, trinkets and stories about the construction of the wall, and the many attempts by brave and desperate individuals to breach it to find freedom, reunite families, even just get to their job. It’s moving to read about the steely determination of Berliners to keep their city whole as best they could despite the divisive wall.

Just down the street from the museum, along what used to be the actual wall, is a section of that wall, preserved so that future generations will never again allow such a structure to be built. It’s hacked through in places, exposing rebar and more fencing beyond, as the road on the other side is repaved to withstand all the traffice. The top is lined with smooth piping, which made it impossible for possible escapees to fasten anything to the wall, or grab a handhold. Above it from the eastern side loom more of those big concrete block edifices that Soviet architects so loved to build. Across the street, more hucksters selling rat hats. More than 20 years since it fell, the wall has become a bit of a circus sideshow.

Soviet-era edifices loom over a preserved section of the wall.

 





Hobnobbing half a world away

27 10 2010

I’m guessing on the list of favorite European holiday destinations, Ghent isn’t exactly at the top. Even as we planned this trip, we had to tell people we were going to Belgium, or Brussels, because they just knitted their brows when we said Ghent.

We never did get to Brussels during our week in Belgium. We didn’t miss it. That’s because we were so enchanted by Ghent, and for one chilly, bright afternoon, Bruges.

Some scenes from Ghent and Bruges.

Of course, the hospitality of family and friends can warm you in even the coldest destinations and believe me, it was cold during our week in Ghent! Katie’s Belgian cousins, Filip, his partner Griet and their daughter Lolita, and Martin and his wife Christel, stoked our hearts with great family stories, terrific food and awesome Belgian beer.

Visiting family was the best part of our time in Ghent.

Not that Ghent is lacking for things to do. During our days there, we explored its narrow winding streets, some of which date to the Middle Ages, and vast open public squares. We visited museums about the history of Ghent, and daily life through the centuries. We explored the dark passages and torture chambers of the Gravensteen castle, which is more like a fortress built by the duke at the time to protect himself from his own people, who weren’t exactly enamored with his reign. We gaped at the hugeness of the two gothic cathedrals that dominate the downtown and climbed the narrow winding stairs of the belfry tower. We sampled a smidgen of Belgium’s 780 (!!!!!!) different beers and ate chocolate… oh, did we ever eat chocolate.

And we got a couple of chances to hobnob with the hoi-poloi.

Griet is an actress; last year she landed a role as a police officer in a Belgian tv comedy, Melting Pot Café. The show is a sort of a Belgian Corner Gas, in which some of the cultural divides between the country’s French and Flemish populations are played out in a small Brussels’ coffee shop and its neighboring stores and street scene.

The show is about to debut its third season on Belgium’s french tv network, and on Wednesday, we were able to accompany Griet and Filip to a Brussel’s theater for the premiere and reception. It was a road trip straight out of Entertainment Tonight!

Alas, no red carpet, and I was able to muddle my way through the two episodes they showed on the big screen, laughing at the appropriate jokes; but we did meet some of Griet’s colleagues on the show, including a young woman about to take her crack at Hollywood, the show’s director, who sort of frowned at my comparison of his show to Corner Gas (can’t say I blame him), a very funny Moroccan actor who looks like a darker-skinned version of John Torturro, and his director friend who was working the room looking for interest in his next film project.

Now this is my idea of product placement...

We also sampled a healthy amount of Bush beer (thank you product placement) and prowled the canapé offerings for the coveted boxes of frites.

Saturday, we kicked our hobnobbing up a notch, when we attended the World Soundtrack Awards, the gala closing event to the Ghent International Film Festival. It’s the tenth time the festival has recognized soundtrack composers and the awards have become a go-to event for many of them, who then present some of their scores with the Brussels’ Philharmonic Orchestra.

This year, we were treated to music by film composers like Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings), Elliot Goldenthal (Titus, Across the Universe), Gustavo Santaolalla (Babel, Motorcycle Diaries), Gabriel Yared (The Talented Mr. Ripley) and Stephen Warbeck (Shakespeare in Love). The latter was especially thrilling, as Shakespeare in Love is one of my all time favorite movies and soundtracks, and Katie and used one of its tracks at our wedding).

The stage is set for the 2010 World Soundtrack Awards.

And seeing as we were in Flanders, where cycling is never far from anyone’s thoughts, the awards were held in the velodrome that is the venue for Ghent’s famous Six Day track races!

 





Redefining hard

25 10 2010

There’s a fine line between epic rides and insanity. Saturday, we may have stepped across that divide.

If you do a Google image search for crazy, you may soon find a photo of Katie and I riding a 42 kilometer portion of the Tour of Flanders, dressed in too many layers of clothing to count to protect us against the cold, biting wind and driving rain. It was, as our hosts for this taste of Belgium’s great spring bike race, Katie’s third cousin Filip and his brother-in-law, Kristof, a typical day in Flanders. By the time we were done, a little earlier than expected, we had all become “hard men,” and one woman, of Flanders.

When we started planning this European adventure, including a week in Belgium, I was excited at the prospect of seeing some of the historical cobbled climbs of the country’s classic bike races. In our email communications with Filip, he suggested if the weather was good, he’d organize an opportunity to actually experience those cobbles.

Filip is an event organizer, and little did we know the zealous enthusiasm he put towards organizing our cobbles sampler; a little thing like bad weather would not deter us.

As the hardest of Belgium's "hard men" of cycling, Eddy Merckx has a place of honor at the Tour of Flanders museum.

We warmed up for our Saturday adventure on Friday with a visit to the museum of the Tour of Flanders in Oudenaarde. Yes, an entire museum dedicated to one bike race; we can barely see a bike race on North American television.

We learned about the hardships of the race, which is held in April, when the weather in Northern Belgium can often be unforgiving. We saw how much and what kind of food the riders have consumed through the years to prepare for their grueling test. We saw bikes old and new, a wall of champions, and I even pedaled a stationary bike to test myself in a virtual duel up one of the cobbled climbs against former Belgian champion Peter Van Petagem. At the end of our visit, we met another great Belgian cyclist, Freddy Martens, much to the delight of our guide for the day, Katie’s other cousin, Martin, who is a very dedicated fan of Belgian cycling.

Then we went to the Muur, one of the most grueling of cobbled climbs, not just because of its steep pitch and bumpy pavée, but also because it comes at the end of a long, arduous climb up through the streets of Oudenaarde. Maybe they should change the name of the city to Ouchenaarde.

Our visit to the Muur was on foot. The weather was cold, but sunny.

The forecast for Saturday was not optimistic. But Filip assured us we would ride; if we start early, we may finish before the real rain was supposed to start, he said.

If only we had been so lucky.

 

The start of the Muur.

Filip and Kristof had everything arranged as only event planners could, with fine attention to every detail. They had gathered bikes in our sizes, shoes close to our sizes, and a whole cornucopia of gear from bib tights to jerseys galore, to gillets to gloves to overbooties. Good thing. We needed them all.

Saturday dawned with a beautiful pink and fuscia sky. The plan was to meet Kristof at the Tour of Flanders museum, where they have changing facilities for cyclists. Then we would head out for a 72 km loop, including some of the famous climbs like the Kwaremont, the Kruisberg and the Koppenberg.

The raindrops pinging off the windshield of Filip’s Mercedes were a little discouraging. But Filip kept smiling; we are in Flanders after all, nothing will keep us from the bikes. Nothing indeed.

Even five layers of cycling gear isn't enough.

By the time we suited up, the wind was howling, the rain driving intermittently, the temperature with the wind chill likely barely above freezing. And to complicate matters, this was Katie’s first time riding with clip-in pedals; so as Filip and Kristof moved their cars to a lot, I gave her a quick lesson and we were off through Oudenaarde then out into the countryside.

Katie mastered the pedals like a trooper, clicking in and out of them with aplomb. For the first 10 or 15 kms we couldn’t stop smiling as we rolled along quiet country lanes, past green and brown pastures, giant white cows standing resolutely against the wind and rain, yards populated with plump grey geese and the occasional little village. Even the first two climbs, on the smooth pavement of Kluisberg and Knokteberg (steepest gradient at 13 per cent), didn’t cause Katie to flinch, although reaching the top exposed us even more to the fierce, freezing gale.

The Kwaremont was our first taste of the cobbles, rising nearly 150 meters through the village of Kwaremont. To say it was bumpy would be an understatement. The rain rendered the pavée especially slippery. I dropped down to the granny gear, relaxed my arms and fought to keep the front wheel from sliding away. By 100 meters I had gained a whole new appreciation for the Belgian classics, where the professionals attack these hills in packed pelotons at speed.

Katie bends on the pavé, but she's not yet broken.

But the weather was exacting a toll. My gloves and toes were soaked. Water was starting to squish in my socks. My eye sockets were frozen. Katie’s cheeks were reddened from the cold, the smile replaced by a scowl of grim determination. Up ahead, our Flanderian friends looked back and grinned; onward to the next climb they called.

On the next climb, the Paterberg, I followed Kristof’s lead when he veered his Ridley cyclocross bike towards the smooth rain gutter alongside the cobbles; after all, this is the same strategy used by many of the pros to save their legs and stay upright. But the rain-slicked brown fallen leaves that washed along it, and the smooth metal grates of the storm drains made it almost more slippery than the pavé as my rear wheel kept skidding out on forward pedal strokes.

That's not a smile, just my frozen face. Kristof is just warming up.

At the top, we told our guides like every good Italian cyclist, we were ready to abandon for the warmth of a hot drink at a brasserie; my booties had peeled back, soaking my shoes through, Katie’s face was so frozen she couldn’t speak properly.

The 10 km ride back to Oudenaard was a test of survival. We stopped at the base of the Koppenberg to pay homage and take a few photos; it would have to wait for another visit… in warmer weather. Another group of hardened cyclists arrived, also looking very cold, very wet, and very indecisive whether they should tackle the cobbled monument.

Filip and I celebrate survival. The Koppenberg will have to await for another day.

Back in Oudenaard, we squooshed into the brasserie attached to the museum, still dressed in our wet, muddy cycling gear; none of us had thought to bring a dry change of underclothes. And as we sat on the bike seat bar stools, surrounded by photos and trinkets of cycling’s great champions, we nursed our chocolate chaud and Flanderian beers and began weaving the legend of our day as hard men (and woman) of Flanders.

Warming up in the brasserie, where even the bar stools are stationary trainers.

Afterwards, we think Kristof may have gone out for another ride; the morning’s jaunt hadn’t been enough to test his mettle.





Looking for Tim Robbins

19 10 2010

If Paris is like a sweet tartelette, all sweet and fancy, the perfect tasty treat to boost your spirits on a cold fall day, Ghent is like a layered pound cake, not a lot of fancy adornments, but delicious in its own way. Of course, the fact many of the old buildings look like layered cakes helps.

 

Ghent is alight at night.

 

The fall wind is still cold, but with the Belgian rail strike paralyzing travel across the country, we set out exploring oblivious to both.

Ghent isn’t a large city, about 250,000 people, but it has a rich culture, with a notable university district, a brand new history museum, a castle, two fabulous gothic cathedrals and a famous summer festival. It also has a film festival, which happens to be going on right now. But it’s not just an ordinary assemblage of international movies curated by film studies graduates; the Ghent Film Festival pays particular homage to soundtracks and even gives awards to the best soundtracks. As a result, many of the composers make a point of attending the film festival, and performing concerts during the festival.

Filip, our host and Katie’s third cousin, has a special connection to this part of the film festival, as his old car was used as a prop in a series of photos taken by a friend of his of many of films’ great composers like James Newton Howard and Elliot Godenthal. The photos became an exhibition and are published in a book. We’re hoping to be able to attend the closing concert of the festival on Saturday night, by Gustavo Santaolalla, who composed the music for Babel.

And then there’s Tim Robbins, who has delusions of musical grandeur, now that he’s split from his wife, Susan Sarandon. Apparently he is in town for the film festival, as well as to play a concert with his band on Wednesday. We’ve been keeping an eye out for him on our tours around the city, but we’ve yet to spot him. Perhaps on Wednesday.

Nope, can't see Tim Robbins from the belfry either.





Shopping and dancing: it’s all on the Mouffetard

18 10 2010

This is a big ring first; I’m writing this entry aboard a Thalys high-speed train to Brussels. A day earlier than planned, mind you, but somehow we managed to get the same seats we’d been originally assigned on our tickets for Monday.

It’s frickin’ cold outside. Like winter cold. So cold in fact, Katie bought a winter coat at a little boutique on the Mouffetard. I’m thinking both of us may be investing in gloves and hats when we get to Belgium.

Katie shops on the Mouffetard.

Then again, it is practically December…

The Mouffetard was crazy busy this morning, huge long lines at ever boulanger and patissier. Even the butcher selling roasted chickens was frantically busy. But the atmosphere is wonderfully festive; it seems everyone plans their major marketing for Sunday. At the foot of the Mouffetard, an impromptu dance floor formed in front of an accordionist and mostly elderly couples took turns waltzing and spinning to his lively music.

The locals say the Mouffetard has become touristy, and there are certainly restaurants and pubs at its upper end that seem to cater mostly to them, with sign boards out front in multiple languages. But the lower end, where the shops and fruit mongers are congregated, is bustling with locals buying ingredients for their Sunday dinners, beautiful golden loaves and baguettes, shiny pink shellfish, craggy oysters on ice, sad, forlornly dead ducks hanging upside down in the butcher’s display case, cheeses of every shape and smell, and sweet delicacies of fancy chocolate and pastries.

That had been our plan for Sunday; gather the ingredients and cook our own feast in the kitchen of our apartment. Alas, the Belgian train workers had other plans.

Dancing on the Mouffetard.

So we scrambled to squeeze in a visit to Saint Chapelle cathedral. And I do mean squeeze. After standing in line to go through the security check (St. Chapelle is in the same complex of old buildings that also house the Palais de Justice), we were just about to go through the doors when we were stopped for TWO large and slow-moving tour groups who had reservations. Aaaargh. I’ve wanted to visit St. Chapelle each of the times I’ve been to Paris, but was always prevented by the long lines. Here we were, so close, and yet so far.

But we persevered. And while it’s no Notre Dame or Sacré Couer, it’s single narrow sanctuary is spectacularly lit by tall, ornate stained glass windows. It’s those windows we’d come to see.

On to Belgium.

Man, this train moves fast.