Dresden For a Day. It’s a Great Time to Visit a Beautiful City.

Catching up with Martin Luther

 

Dresden after the bombing in 1945

Dresden after the bombing in 1945

I’ve always hesitated to go to Dresden.  It was among the most heavily bombed cities in World War II, the successful outcome of a joint British and American campaign that began on February 13, 1945 and obliterated one of the most beautiful cities in Germany, the capital of the German state of Saxony, which sits on the banks of the Elbe. At least 20,000 people were killed during those bombings, and while those are the harsh realities of war, I’d never particularly wanted to see the damage first hand, even decades later, when it was still starkly visible. And while Dresden was part of the German Democratic Republic in the Cold War era, I really had no reason to go there.

But when the Wall came down 25 years ago, cities like Dresden again began to receive the attention and funding they had been denied when they were in the Russian sphere of influence.  And when friends in Berlin urged me to go, saying that it was well worth a trip, I downloaded a Deutsche Bahn app onto my IPhone and off I went (best thing ever – no ticket needed – you just show your phone to the conductor).

It was a suitably gray, atmospheric and foggy morning when the train arrived in Dresden a little behind schedule at  9:00 a.m.  I had an hour to walk to the Altstadt, or old town, before the museums opened at 10:00 a.m. and scope out what I wanted to see.  But before I left the train station, I bought a two day Dresden-Card, which I highly recommend and is a bargain at 30 Euros, even if you only plan to stay for one day, as I did, because any museum that you visit is at least 10 Euros, and I packed six of them into one single day. And this is as good a time as any to tell you that visiting Dresden in mid-November spares you all of the lines that visitors during the spring and summer experience.  Granted, the city is greener then, but there was something mournfully perfect about visiting Dresden in the late gray of autumn, especially when you had entire rooms in museums to yourself, as I did. Even the soot and grit that cover many of the city’s monuments that are in desperate need of sand blasting, somehow seemed just perfect, a balance of the authentic old Dresden and the cleverly reconstructed new.

Before I visited a single museum, I went and saw for myself the magnificently reconstructed Frauenkirche, which had been reduced by the bombings to a 45 foot high rubble pile, and which stayed that way for decades.  It was only in 1994 that reconstruction began on the church, and it brought tears to my eyes to see it.  Though its baroque interior is generally too fussy for my taste, it is a triumph, and the very fact that this church has risen again inspired me.  It was paid for by donations from around the world, including from many people in both the U.K. and the U.S., and it has restored Dresden’s pride in a way that few other acts could have.  Because it was such a foggy day, I didn’t bother to climb to the dome, but others I talked with had on sunnier days and said it was worth it for the magnificent view of the surrounding countryside.

The Dresden Frauenkirche, a triumph of hope, money and perseverence.

The Dresden Frauenkirche, a triumph of hope, money and perseverance.

The dome of the Frauenkirche.  The restoration started in 1994 and was finished in 2005.

The dome of the Frauenkirche. The restoration started in 1994 and was finished in 2005.

 

First on my list of museums was the Albertinum, home to the New Masters, where I headed straight for the German Romantic painters, Casper David Friedrich foremost among them.  I grew to love them from my years in Berlin, and like old friends, I stick with them unapologetically. There are also some nice Rodin sculptures, a Degas Little Dancer and plenty of other mostly 19th and 20th century treasures in there, along with a vast trove of much earlier sculptures going back many hundreds and even thousands of years.

One of Caspar David Friedrich's gorgeous paintings in the Albertinum Museum in Dresden

One of Caspar David Friedrich’s gorgeous paintings in the Albertinum Museum in Dresden

From there, I walked the Fürstenzug, or the Prince’s Way, which is the longest porcelain mural in the world and quite beautiful in its fashion, depicting a millennium of kings and queens. Then it was off  to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, the Old Masters Gallery, which is part of the trio of museums that belong to the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and that you purchase on one ticket.  It’s no exaggeration to say that I could have happily spent an entire day going from gallery to gallery visiting paintings that I’d studied in college, among them Jan van Eyck’s Winged Altar, a gorgeous Botticelli, some lovely Rembrandts, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve and on and on.

But, the other two museums called, and even if you’re not a fan of porcelain, which I am, you can’t not visit the exquisite collection that is the Porzellansammlung. I spent less time in the third museum, the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon, which had all kinds of clocks, globes and quirky scientific instruments, not because I wasn’t interested, but because it was time to stroll the Brülsche Terrassen, a huge terrace that runs parallel to the Elbe River and that many consider one of Europe’s most lovely terraces.

The Fürstenzug, or the Prince's Way, the longest porcelain mural in the world.

The Fürstenzug, or the Prince’s Way, the longest porcelain mural in the world.

You have an expansive view of the river from there, as well as of many of Dresden’s finest buildings and palaces, some of which are undergoing major restoration. Curious as ever, I poked my head into a number of building sites.

A view back to the city from the Brülsche Terrassen

A view back to the city from the Brülsche Terrassen

The view over the Elbe River from the New City side.

The view over the Elbe River from the New City side.

By then, I was ready for an art break, so I walked over the Augustusbrücke, one of several bridges that span the Elbe around Dresden.  I headed toward Albertplatz in the Neustadt or New Town, where I met up with Daniel Tarnowski, the son of my friends Peter and Barbara in Berlin, and a young doctor just finishing up his studies.  He gave me a brisk walking tour of that part of town, which is jammed full of students, bars and small boutiques and has a totally different, more funky vibe than the old part of town.  I really recommend getting out and about there for a change of pace, if nothing else. For one thing, it’s filled with small, family owned shops and businesses that depend upon and appreciate your business more than the big chain stores in the Altstadt do. And as an added bonus, it’s less expensive in the Neustadt.

A whimsical facade in the Neustadt part of town

A whimsical facade in the Neustadt part of town

More architectural magic in the Neustadt

More architectural magic in the Neustadt

 

My tour guide and fellow  Asisi enthusiast, Daniel Tarnowski

My tour guide and fellow Asisi enthusiast, Daniel Tarnowski

We had a quick bowl of carrot-ginger soup with some crusty bread, all for a nominal fee, strolled around a bit more and then got into Daniel’s car for a different perspective on the city.  We headed to one of the most unusual of Dresden’s attractions and one that I can’t say enough good things about.  It’s called the Dresden Panometer, and it’s a frankly jaw dropping, birds eye view of what it might have felt like to be in the midst of Baroque Dresden, circa 1756.  Built in one of the early 20th century gasometer structures just outside the city, Yadegar Asisi’s 360 degree view was based on painstaking research, starting with drawings and paintings from the period, followed by road trips across Europe to photograph similar Baroque period buildings, and then an intricate, highly technical process of essentially creating a modern photograph of a far ago land.  Magical is the word that came to my mind several times while I was there.

Asisi, an Austrian born artist, created a 89 foot high by 344 feet wide circular curtain, essentially,  which you experience from a high platform stand placed in the middle of the room.   You’d swear you were there in that period, in that panorama, looking down on a church roof, over the Elbe and towards the royal places, still at their peak. Baroque music, changing lighting and people dressed in period costumes in the tableau all contributed to the immersion experience.  A short film at the end describing how the Panometer was made is not to be missed. Last week in Berlin I visited another Asisi Panometer with Daniel’s father, this one based on a neighborhood close to the Wall, and it, too, was so authentic that we felt like we were young teenagers in the midst of the Cold War again.

With an hour left before the museums closed, I hugged Daniel good-bye, thanked him, and headed into my final stop of the afternoon, the Grünes Gewölbe, or Green Vault, probably the most magnificent treasure trove of gold and jewelry and silver that I’ve ever seen in one place, including the world’s only green diamond, which was set among some pretty spectacular white diamonds.  Once again, I could have stayed for hours, but the museums were getting ready to close and I had a train to catch.

One of the many royal portraits in the Green Vault, all of them dripping with jewels

One of the many royal portraits in the Green Vault, all of them of nobles dripping with jewels

Or so I thought I did.

Night falls early in Dresden at this time of year, but the city glows.

Night falls early in Dresden at this time of year, but the city glows.

Two hours after my train back to Berlin was due, I was still in the Dresden train station.  Eventually, a different train – this way on the way to Amsterdam – picked the weary Berlin-bound passengers.  Intermittent stops for no apparent reasons increased the two-hour ride to over three, but by midnight we pulled into Berlin’s Ostbahnhof (not the Main Station)  and all was well.

If you haven’t been, go to Dresden and go now if you can, when the handmade Saxon Christmas crafts are starting to be for sale, but the crowds for the holiday markets haven’t begun yet.  It’s really a perfect time to see what may again be Germany’s prettiest city.

 

The Balloons are Gone, the Party is Over. What a Night it Was.

Like ghostly UFOs, the 8,000 balloons made their way over the Berlin night sky

Like ghostly UFOs, the 8,000 balloons made their way over the Berlin night sky

Some of the balloons just before their releast.

Some of the balloons just before their release at the end of the Lichtgrenze, or light border, next to the Oberbaumbrücke, a crossing over the Spree River that was closed when the Wall went up.

It was like no other celebration I’ve been to, and just as the rest of the million plus people who turned out won’t forget Mauerfall 25, the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, I never will, either.

It was the rare, perfect mix of somber and celebratory. The Chancellor tucked a single yellow rose into a remnant of the Wall, paying tribute to the people who had died trying to cross it. The political speeches were short. One of the key activists from the former East Berlin had a leading role in the ceremonies. Along the Lichtgrenze, one could read 100 different stories of ordinary people’s lives who were changed forever by the Wall.  And the illuminated balloons, stretched along a 15 kilometer stretch, evoked UFOs, which was really the perfect way to represent the Wall – as an alien body.

But the balloons each had a “godparent” or Pate, as they are called in German, and each (biodegradable) balloon had an individualized, hand written message attached to it.   As my friends Peter and Barbara and their son Daniel and his girlfriend Tania and I walked about a three-mile stretch of the Lichtgrenze last night, we stopped to read some of the messages along the way.  Like virtually everything about these past few days, they offered a welter of emotions, some as airy as the helium gas that filled the balloons, others in memory of some of the 136 people who were killed trying to cross the Wall, others still demanding that all of the remaining political walls in the world be torn down.

The crowds along the route never forgot why we were there, and so while there was an undeniably festive air to the foggy night, it was also laced with serious discussions between parents and children and friends and foreigners about what the Wall had represented. Everyone was talking about it, in dozens of different languages, and, for the Germans, in an uncharacteristically open way.  I probably heard a hundred of those conversations myself as I walked the entire stretch over two days.

Waiting for the balloons to rise

Waiting for the balloons to rise

We opted to stay away from the Brandenburg Gate and the hundreds of thousands of people who congregated there to hear the politicians speak and listen to Daniel Barenboim conduct Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Instead, we watched on giant screens erected at the very end of the Lichtgrenze, across from what is the longest remaining stretch of the Wall, now called the East Side Gallery, an outdoor art gallery, and near the Oberbaumbrücke, a bridge crossing over the Spree that was closed when the Wall went up. Our crowd consisted of a lot of locals, people who lived in the apartments looking right over the Wall at the water’s edge, and some of them recalled the horrors they had witnessed from their own living rooms, safe in the West.   As they talked and we waited for our balloons to go up – they were released sequentially –  a few people on standup paddle boards plied the waters of the Spree, where they could not have when the Wall was up.  As the temporary balloon Wall lifted skyward, a pair of mallards flew overhead, backlit by the glow.

As the balloons lit up, crowds strolled the Lichtgrenze near the Brandenburg Gate.

As the balloons lit up, crowds strolled the Lichtgrenze, swapping stories and sharing memories.

Somehow, it all fit together, magically and poetically.

This morning early, heading to an appointment at the American Embassy, right next to the Brandenburg Gate, I marveled at how clean the city looked. Crews had worked all night, and the barriers were down, the streets were swept and the trash had been emptied.  Even the bases of the balloon holders had disappeared. The Wall truly was gone, and by 9:00 a.m., Berlin was nearly back to normal.  I can’t say the same thing about myself.

A plaque marking where the Wall ran along one of Berlin's streets.

A plaque marking where the Wall ran along one of Berlin’s streets.

 

 

 

 

25 Years After the Wall Came Down

 

Some of the 8,000 balloons that the city of Berlin has erected along a 15 kilometer of what had once been the Wall.

Some of the 8,000 balloons that the city of Berlin has erected along a 15 kilometer of what had once been the Wall.

I came back to Berlin this week though I had just been here in August.  I couldn’t be here when the Wall  first opened on November 9, 1989, and so I wanted to come for the 25th anniversary to honor all of the people who made it come down – mostly the East Germans themselves, through a powerful and peaceful revolution – and all of those who lost their lives trying to escape to the West. For 5 years during the Cold War, I lived here, and as anyone who was here then will tell you, it was an unforgettable place.

This being Germany, there is a van patrol organized to replace missing or defective balloons.

This being Germany, there is a van patrol organized to replace missing or defective balloons.

 

 

If you were a West Berliner, as I was, you lived surrounded by thousands of American, French and British troops who were here to keep the Russians in check, not to mention an impressive number of “civilians” who did secret government work, like my best friend Nancy’s father who was, it can now be told, the Berlin station chief for the NSA. In many ways, West Berlin was the safest place on Earth at that time, or if it wasn’t, it felt that way to me, a teenager who grew blasé about tanks rolling down the street in front of my school.  But for the millions of people who lived in East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic (the DDR, as it was known in German) on the other side of the Wall, life wasn’t safe, free or particularly plentiful, unless you were well-connected politically.

When what eventually became the Wall – barbed wire to start with – went up at an astonishing pace in 1961 in a desperate effort to stem the tide of more than a million East Germans who fled the Communist regime, it cleaved a nation still coming to grips with its horrific role in World War II. On top of that shameful legacy, suddenly there were no longer just Germans, there were East and West Germans, essentially at war with each other, sometimes with their own families who, through a twist of geography, were dealt a very different fate.

Tomorrow will be a joyous celebration, but in the days leading up to it, I’ve quietly walked the entire 15 kilometer stretch of the Lichtgrenze, or Light border, which was illuminated for two nights and will be one last time tomorrow night before the balloons are released.  It has been a deeply moving experience, akin to a spiritual pilgrimage, made much more pleasant by unusually warm and beautiful fall weather here.

The Licht Grenze as seen through a beautiful display of fall crab apples.

The Lichtgrenze as seen through a beautiful display of fall crab apples.

 

Many thousands of us have been stopping at temporary commemorative displays, as well as in front of giant screens that the city of Berlin has erected along the route, transfixed by the old, often grainy video images that show everything from tragically bungled escapes to the surges of people heading towards the finally opened borders in 1989.

One of many giant screens along the route that are playing video images from the Cold War. This one says, "Germans, don't shoot your own countrymen."

One of many giant screens along the route that are playing video images from the Cold War. This one says, “Germans, don’t shoot your own countrymen.”

 

My ear catches snippets of heart wrenching and heart warming stories every few feet, it seems. Many who have come to walk have a story or a connection of some sort, and German families seem to be using the anniversary as an opportunity to teach their young children about this piece of their history, one that seems almost inconceivable to those who did not live it, regardless of which side of the Wall they lived.

 

Young spray paint artists continue to make new art on an old section of the Wall.

Young spray paint artists continue to make new art on an old section of the Wall.

A Perfect Week in Berlin

One of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, now repurposed as an outdoor gallery on the banks of the Spree

One of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, now re-purposed as an outdoor gallery on the banks of the Spree

 

Two skyline icons of the new and old Berlin: the rebuilt Neue Synagoge and the Fernsehturm on Alexanderplatz.

Two icons of the new and old Berlin: the Berliner Dom and the Fernsehturm on Alexanderplatz.

It has been a long time since I’ve had a great week, much less a perfect one. Divorce, the death a year ago of someone I’d known and loved for fifty years, and my own black dog of depression have conspired against good days, much less good weeks, these past two years.  But as I arrived home last Sunday from a week in Berlin with my dearest and oldest friend in the world, Nancy Talbot, perfect was the only word to describe it.

The weather was gorgeous, warm but not hot, breezy and so beautiful that we walked for miles every day, wandering in and out of neighborhoods nach Lust und Laune, as the Germans would say, that is with no set itinerary or destination.   The two times that it did rain were brief cloud bursts that cleared the air of dust and pollen and made Berlin sparkle like a platinum-and-emerald crown worthy of a Hohenzollern queen.

The company was wonderful, a combination of family – my mother and oldest brother, Pete, who happened to be in Berlin the same week – and old and new friends – my two pals of 40 years, Nancy and Peter, and my new friend, Barbara, Peter’s wife – and made for lively discussions and intimate, heart-to-heart talks that nourished the soul, as well as the mind.

Dinner with friends at a Turkish restaurant in Koepenick, outside of Berlin in the former East Germany. The town has a lovely castle/museum and sits four hours by boat downstream from Berlin.

Dinner with friends at a Turkish restaurant in Koepenick, outside of Berlin in the former East Germany. The town has a lovely castle/museum and sits  on the Spree River four hours by boat downstream from Berlin.

The museums and monuments, a dazzling melding of the former East and West Berlin collections and institutions, as well as new ones built since reunification, are so numerous and stimulating that you could stay a year in Berlin and not see them all.  Having bought a three-day Museum Pass, we took advantage of it to fit in nearly a dozen exhibitions while we were there, including the wonderful Jugendstil collection housed in the  Broehan Museum.

A stunning Jugendstil desk and chair at the Broehan Museum in Charlottenburg.

A stunning Jugendstil desk and chair at the Broehan Museum in Charlottenburg.

 

On another day, we took on the Deutsches Historisches Museum and its intellectually rigorous timelines and artifacts, while on yet another I sneaked out to revisit some old favorite 19th century German paintings like Casper David Friedrich’s “Moonrise Over the Sea,”  which used to be housed in the Neue Galerie in the old West Berlin, but now hangs among thousands of other 19th century European paintings in the Alte Galerie on the Museuminsel, or Museum Island.  Best of all, staying in Mitte, the hip part of town that used to be a part of East Berlin, we hardly ever needed to use public transportation, opting to walk most places, instead.

Casper David Friedrich's Moonrise Over the Sea, one of my favorite paintings in the world

Casper David Friedrich’s Moonrise Over the Sea, one of my favorite paintings in the world

Our hotel was unbeatable.  I’m not one to usually plug one place over another, especially not a chain hotel, but the Radisson Blu was flawless.  Our immaculate room looked right out at the Spree River and the Berliner Dom, and we had the world’s largest indoor, circular aquarium right in the lobby and so got to watch swimming fish and scuba divers cleaning the tank while we ascended and descended in the hotel’s elevators.  And having booked a Business Class room, free Wifi and the hotel’s truly sumptuous buffet were included in the room price and eliminated the need or desire to eat lunch (although not Kaffee und Kuchen, of which we ingested a lot). Best of all, when we finally retired every night around 1:00 a.m., no one banged on paper-thin walls to tell us to stop laughing so loud, because the thick steel doors and sturdy walls rendered our room the most peaceful and restful haven I’ve ever experienced in the middle of a huge city.  I’d go back to the Radisson Blu in a heartbeat.

A scuba diver at work in the aquarium in the middle of the Radisson Blu lobby in Berlin.

A scuba diver at work in the aquarium in the middle of the Radisson Blu lobby in Berlin.

A tour boat on the Spree, right below our hotel

A tour boat on the Spree, right below our hotel window

And finally for this inveterate birder, and since this blog is really about birding most of the time, there were birds everywhere in Berlin, especially eagles, which have played an important role in German iconography and symbolism for over a thousand years.  Granted, most of them were stone or wood, but I loved the sensation of  being observed by the majestic birds everywhere I went, from Schloss Charlottenburg to inexplicably random street corners and building facades across the city.  My heart soared every time I saw one of them. And even the lowly Hooded Crow, a common scavenger all across Berlin, made me smile at its comic antics.

The black eagle, the longtime symbol of German kings and other rulers, and the official bird of the German Republic, as well

The black eagle, the longtime symbol of German kings and other rulers, and the official bird of the German Republic, as well.

 

Another soaring eagle, this one in the courtyard of the Maerkisches Museum in Berlin

Another soaring eagle, this one in the courtyard of the Maerkisches Museum in Berlin

 

A Hooded Crow, doing what he does best, scavenging

A Hooded Crow, doing what he does best, scavenging

I came back from Berlin a different person than the one that left, a heady mix of ingredients conspiring to finally return the woman I used to be.  I’ve missed her and I’ve missed Berlin.  Being back there was perfect.

Forty Years On, Berlin Is Better Than Ever

 

The Quadriga of Victory atop the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin

The Quadriga of Victory atop the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin

 

In front of the Brandenburger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate, with my oldest and best friend, Nancy Talbot

In front of the Brandenburger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate, with my oldest and best friend, Nancy Talbot

Forty years ago, I moved to Berlin with two of my brothers and my father when he became CEO of a large German corporation.  It was a decision made as all decisions by my father were, which is to say without prior consultation or even notification.  It was left to our housekeeper, Hedy Hauser, to tell us that we were leaving New York and moving back to Europe, not to Switzerland, where my parents were from, or to England, where I had been born, but to Germany.

Truth to tell, I knew very little about Germany or Berlin at the time.  I was fifteen, a top student at the private school where I finally felt settled after two lonely years, and if I had ever wanted to move back to Europe, it would have been to France, whose language I studied and loved and at which I excelled, placing fourth in the nation among French students, encouraged by my wonderful Algerian-born teacher Mrs. Amsellem.  So the news that we would be packing up and leaving the only country that I could remember, and the few friends that I had garnered, was devastating. But no matter.

After spending Christmas with our Ohma in Switzerland, and on (in retrospect) the presciently named Epiphany Day, January 6, 1974, my brother Dan and I flew into Tempelhof Airport in the American Sector of the four-way divided, post-World War II city of Berlin to join our father and brother Pete.  And though I did not know it then, and even if I still marvel at my teenage self for how quickly I transitioned from Swiss-German to High German after being unceremoniously enrolled at a German-American school where the vast majority of students and teachers were German, moving to Berlin was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

The four years that I called Berlin home before returning to the U.S. to attend college transformed a shy, awkward and impressionable Swiss-American girl into a confident, sophisticated and intellectual woman who proudly called herself a Berliner.  I adored and still madly love this city of opposites on the Spree, where comedy and tragedy, intellect and ignorance, darkness and light, kindness and cruelty, reason and insanity and beauty and ugliness seemed then (as now)so inextricably intertwined, like doomed, conjoined twins who awed and appalled in alternating cycles, each wanting to best the other.

It was in Berlin that I met my best friend in the world, Nancy Holston, now Talbot; embraced classical music, opera, theater and art and culture of all forms; became blasé about tanks rolling by our school every day; watched armed East German soldiers squint at me from concrete towers adjacent to the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie; laughed so hard at the mercilessly sharp humor here that all others paled in comparison; and happily smoked and drank my way through my teenage years.  It was here that I came into my own, falling in and out of love, reveling in the ability to travel to foreign countries for a weekend, devouring history as hungrily as German bread and Currywurst, and savoring the wonderful incongruities of wild boars and high-class brothels, both on the street where we lived.

I have called many places home, but no city has ever captured my heart like Berlin -during or after the Wall – and no friends have ever meant more to me than those made here. And so, forty years after I first arrived, young and not a little afraid, I have come back again, not for the first time, but with my then and still-best-friend Nancy. We are of course older, each of us with our own memories and regrets, but both still filled with awe for the city, even more beautiful now since reunification.  With our beloved and very successful friend, Peter Tarnowski, we have explored the neighborhoods of the former East Berlin, filled with buildings that the Communist regime thankfully never thought to tear down, thus preserving glorious examples of Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, whole courtyards and apartment buildings that now have been burnished to their original glory, as well as yet-unrepaired façades that wear their war wounds patiently nearly seventy years later.

A restored Jugendstil stairway in the Hackesche Hoefe area of the former East Berlin

A restored Jugendstil stairway in the Hackesche Hoefe area of the former East Berlin

 

The rebuilt Neue Synagoge, or New Synagogue, in Berlin

The rebuilt Neue Synagoge, or New Synagogue, in Berlin

DSC02466

 

Fittingly for the former East Berlin, many of the neighborhoods still have an air of grief to them, the ghosts of  their former residents, mostly Jews forcibly evicted and sent to concentration camps to perish, still palpable.  Today, brass markers on sidewalks and building facades call them back to mind, as do the restored New Synagogue and the nearby Jewish Cemetery, where, as the war wound down, thousands of Gentile victims joined the Jews in uneasy repose, yet another juxtaposition in this endlessly complex, conflicted and truly beautiful city that I would gladly call home once again.

Brass plaques commemorating the lives of Jews exterminated during the Nazi era

Brass plaques commemorating the lives of Jews who had lived in Berlin but were exterminated during the Nazi era

One of Berlin's many eagles, all stone

One of Berlin’s many eagles, all stone

Following in David Attenborough’s (And Other Giant) Footsteps in Search of the Birds of Paradise

 

A King Bird of Paradise

A King Bird of Paradise

 

The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, one of my all time favorites that I saw

The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, one of my all time favorite BOPs that I saw

Some of you have wondered why, of all places on Earth, I was determined to go to Papua New Guinea.  It’s one of the hardest destinations to reach; it has very little infrastructure once you’re there; it rains ungodly amounts up in the mountains where I spent most of my time; the food is awful; the lodging substandard; and there is always that age-old question about when cannibalism really stopped being fashionable there.  And don’t even get me started about the 27 leeches that I pulled off of myself in less than an hour just a few days ago.

So why did I go? Blame it on David Attenborough, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes.

Sir David Attenborough is my hero and has been for many years. He always tops my list of modern-day invitees in that hypothetical game of assembling the perfect roster of dinner guests.  He has taken me (and millions of others) around the world vicariously to see the most fascinating wildlife on this planet, and he does it with the most infectious wonder and enthusiasm imaginable.  The first time I saw Attenborough in Paradise (1996) and The Life of Birds (1998) I was hooked.  One day, I told myself, I’m going to go and see those Birds of Paradise for myself.

Attenborough eventually led me to the writings of Alfred Russel Wallace, a renowned 19th century British scientist, scholar and explorer, a contemporary of Darwin’s and the author of  The Malay Archipelago, a brilliant work in which he describes in great detail, among other things, “…the most extraordinary and the most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth – the varied species of birds of paradise.”

And then two years ago, my sister and I went to a lecture in Washington that was jointly sponsored by National Geographic and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  The speakers that day were Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes and marked the publication of their book, Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds (2012), the culmination of their nearly decade-long project of studying and photographing all 39 species of Birds of Paradise.  Their talk and PowerPoint, and the exhibition that National Geographic mounted to coincide with the book’s publication, were riveting.  How much longer do I want to wait, I asked myself that day.  And the answer was, not long.

So it is thanks to all of those men that I have stood on a pass near Mount Hagen on a cold and misty afternoon and seen with my own eyes, perched in the distance on the top of a dead branch, The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, his yellow breast aglow, and his two head feathers, or “flags” and “head-wires” as they are known, waving in the breeze as he sat there regally for all of us to admire.  And the sublime Ribbon-Tailed Astrapia, his turquoise blue throat aflame as he flew across that same road the next, misty morning, trailing his four-foot long white tails like an ermine cape. And the astonishing Blue Bird of Paradise, preening his dazzling cobalt feathers, turning his black head and body upside down and displaying for the female who watched from above, seeing the virtual apron of feathers that he fluffed out for her benefit. And the more subtle, but still dazzling, Brown Sicklebill female as she came to the feeder at Ambua Lodge, pale eyes glinting, her long, curved beak open wide to receive the fruits that she plucked so daintily.  All of them, plus fifteen other species of these magical animals.

A female Brown Sicklebill Bird of Paradise at Ambua Lodge

A female Brown Sicklebill Bird of Paradise at Ambua Lodge

 

 

I have seen birds so beautiful that they stunned me into silence, so perfect that they moved me to tears, so whimsical that I shrieked with laughter, and so wondrous that I stood there slack-jawed with delight.

All of that and  leeches, too.  Really, what more could a woman want?

 

A Different World

A man in Hula Province, in the Highlands, selling his handmade wooden figures.

A man in Hula Province, in the Highlands, selling his handmade wooden figures.

 

Villagers gather for a compensation hearing in the murder of one man by another in a Highlands village

Villagers gather for a compensation hearing in the murder of one man by another in a Highlands village

 

Sweet potatoes are a common crop in the Highlands, where it seemed people grew more of their own food than in other parts of PNG

Sweet potatoes are a common crop in the Highlands, where it seemed people grew more of their own food than in other parts of PNG

Of all the places I’ve now visited in PNG, the Highlands stay with me most strongly.  Perhaps it is my own Swiss DNA that resonates with cool, damp weather, high peaks and lush green valleys, but it is also that I admire the tenacity and grit of people and animals that live in and adapt to places of considerable, cold elevation.  Theirs is not always an easy life: no fish to pull from the sea for quick protein, no tropical fruit trees that practically plant themselves and groan with heavy fruit; no lightweight clothing or the ability to essentially live outdoors, as many people in hot and humid climates do.

Mountain dwellers work hard to survive in places like PNG, where the limited roads and bridges that do exist still routinely wash out, communities are stranded for days at a time, and even the most basic supplies like cooking fuel can be hard to come by. Hence, the Highlands people are self-reliant in notably different ways than in other parts of PNG.  Men harvest timber to build waterproof housing and dry for cooking fuel.  People raise animals like pigs and goats and chickens, which we didn’t see in other places, and their gardens are extensive and productive, with sweet potatoes mounds covering huge swathes of the region. Young girls stand knee deep in running water to cut big bunches of watercress, and women weave simple bags called bilums that they usually wear with the strap across their foreheads, carrying loads of varying weights.

A woman wearing a woven bilum, the traditional bag that is used for carrying all kinds of things

A woman wearing a woven bilum, the traditional bag that is used for carrying all kinds of things

 

The Highlanders’ isolation has slowed the adoption of the latest technology and the casting off of traditional ways. Communities are still closely knit, and like the old tribal societies that they are, they even have their own legal justice system, as we found out one rainy day while passing through a small village. There, dozens of people were gathering in an open field under a sea of umbrellas.

“This is a village gathering to decide a compensation,” our local guide explained to us. ” A man just killed another man here, and now the elders will decide what restitution must be made to the family that has suffered the loss.”

He went on to explain that both families – the perpetrator’s and the victim’s – would be there, along with most of the village, for whom the gathering took on an air of gossipy excitement familiar to any small town dweller.  The elders appoint someone to negotiate for each family in the matter of compensation, going back and forth until there is a proposal and then an agreement that the elders and both families must agree to.  If a great deal of compensation is owed the victim’s family and the accused cannot make good on that restitution, then his extended family must assume the responsibility for paying the compensation, no matter how heavy a burden it imposes upon them. Honor – and the elders – requires that. The police are not involved and the word of the elders is never challenged, according to our guide.  That is how things have always been done up here, and the system works. Compensation can take the form of animals or cash or land, he explained, and it can also include banishment from the village, if the elders feel it justified. In the end, with all of the affected parties involved, justice seems to be served to most people’s satisfaction.

That same afternoon, we traveled to see a group of traditional men known as Wigmen, a small and dwindling group of elders who dress and live in keeping with ancient traditions and who hope to instill those same values in a new generation of younger men. The Wigmen are so called because of the human hair wigs that they make and wear for important ceremonies.  It takes eighteen months for a man to grow out his hair long enough that it can be harvested for wig making, and as part of their practice, the Wigmen run a school that houses and feeds and educates the men while their hair is growing.  During that period, the men must be celibate, live away from their families, and learn and adhere to the highly ritualized practices that the elders impart to them, including sleeping against a wooden post that is specially constructed to keep their hair from being flattened.  Visiting with the Wigmen, I could not help but feel both admiration and sadness for their valiant efforts.  Without the money of visiting groups like ours, I wonder whether the Wigmen would even still exist today, much less whether they will still be there in ten years’ time, Birds of Paradise feathers and Hornbill beaks lavishly and yet reverently decorating their headwear, just as they have for hundreds of years.

But they are men of the mountains, and no one should underestimate them. Certainly, I do not.

The sleeping post which young Wigmen must rest against so as not to disturb their hair

The sleeping post which young Wigmen must rest against so as not to disturb their hair

Birds of Paradise feathers are among the most prized in the headdresses of the Wigmen

Birds of Paradise feathers are among the most prized in the headdresses of the Wigmen