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

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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