Sonntag, 26. Januar 2014

History in Charlottenburg

There is hardly a corner in Berlin that doesn't say it's own story. Especially in Charlottenburg, on the small streets where not many people are walking those days. The curious historian and the fast journalist in me, with the help of my camera, are helping me to get more interesting stories.
Take, for instance, this relatively quiet corner.
Till 1933, this street was called Wallstrasse, after 1933, Maikowskistrasse and since 1947 - till now - Zillerstrasse. In the 1930s, it used to be a center of resistance against national-socialism, many of the members being youngsters left unemployed because of the economic crisis. 
On 30 January 1933, during a parade of national-socialists the SS official Maikowski and a police officer, Zanitz, were killed. In retaliation, 52 people, among which 3 women were brought to prison and some of them killed.
At the beginning of February, streets conflicts in this area were common, leading to many arrests.
The memory of those times is mentioned on an explanation, in German, on the walls of a building in the neighbourhood. 

Donnerstag, 23. Januar 2014

Ben Wagin art installation at Savigny Platz

If you find yourself by accident or by habit in the S-Bahn station Savigny Platz, you might eventually discovered some drawings on the wall, covering some of the colourful graffiti. Some are too far away to be seen properly, for some you need more time to fully understand their meaning. But they are there and there is a message for the busy passenger. 
The drawings are part of a memory project aimed to remember the Jews murdered during the war. In Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf area, at least 11,000 people (may their memory be blessed) were killed. 
The art project in the S-Bahn station is the work of the environmental activist and artist Ben Wagin and it sends messages against indifference and oblivion. As the last year was marked in Berlin in the memory of the 'destroyed part', the re-decoration of the area made sense. It is not easy to see the all messages, and when the train stops, there is not too much time for a considered lecture. However, there is enough information to find out what the project is about and when you are there for the next time, you will see more sense and meaning. 

Montag, 20. Januar 2014

Sunday at the International Green Week

It's that time of the year again, when foodies and healthy travellers are running to the International Green Week in Berlin, to taste some new products or drinks, enjoy some international company or simply run for some free gadgets and samples. I visited the Green Week in the previous years, but with a new foodie passion and a serious involvement in my travel adventures, this time I go with a different agenda. 
As we go straight from the Southern entrance, we enter an exuberant Russian show ambiance, with ladies in colourful popular costumes singing and slowly moving their hands and men actively dancing kazachok. For a couple of seconds, I hope I am not back in time, in the old country of my childhood when such shows were part of the daily TV program we were allowed to watch. But I look around and I realize I am not. I am in Germany this time.
Russia has a huge pavilion, where most of its republics and autonomous regions are represented, each bringing their traditions and customs. There is a lot of vodka and caviar, but also various cosmetic products based on natural ingredients. The most impressive for me is a corner dedicated to various shapes and types of bread.  
In the Greek area, we are introduced to the pleasures of pistachios, out of which you can prepare a liquor, that we didn't try. As a couple of years ago I saw 'wine' made of almost every kind of fruit, I believe it is possible.
Belgium is tempting the visitors with various pralines and delicious chocolates. I take a look and dream about my dear Antwerp. 
Belarus, as usual, has a big pavillion, with many drinks, including one proudly branding its anachronic version of communism, but this time, the employees working there look more friendlier. I refuse to take this first view as a message about possible changing times in the poor country though.
A friendly Bulgarian gentleman, dressed in the popular costume, greets us and invites to taste some big boxes of icecreams. I say a 'thank you' using 1 of the 8 Bulgarian words I know and I run to the Hungarian side of the exhibition, where I smell the kurtos kalacs while my eyes are trying to spy how they are made. One day, I will know how to make it, I promise. In the neighbourhood, the Romanians are presenting a lot of home made products, jams and honey, and cheese. A lot of small entrepreneurs from the countryside are present and they look very interested to sell and introduce their goods which always looks better than wait for the state to do the job for you.
We made another tour, just in time to watch a Greek dancing team performing. Such international events are good opportunities for branding and sharing the local culture, and the Greeks are doing their best. 
Spain, Portugal and France don't need any introduction. The guests are tempted with various cheeses and delicious wines. The prices are a bit high, especially when it comes to the food sold in the fast food counters, but where else can you find a huge international supermarket with so many incredible products?
In a corner, the representatives of Mongolia are selling some local drinks and beverages, many hidden in a traditional yurta.
Each year, a country is invited as a special guest, an opportunity to introduce the culture and culinary richness. This year, is Estonia's big time, whose representatives are doing a great job presenting besides the food, a lot of cultural performances and tourist itineraries for people interested to feel the real country life and natural landscape. As I have a secret plan to finish a tour of the Baltic countries this year, I am more than interested in the offers. A big playground for children near the Pavillion helps the parents to taste their beer in peace for a couple of minutes.
The neighbour Poland brings traditional pickles and many local recipes, as well as wooden toys. I am trying to have a conversation about honey, but I am told that we need to move forward.
Even we were out of time, with less than one hour till the fair closed, I couldn't miss the opportunity to have a look at the garden area, where beautiful flowers, and a full mini-park with a fountain in the middle were exhibited. Before reaching it, we went through an area dedicated to cattle and horses, that doesn't smell very inviting, but it's a great opportunities for city children to see same samples of nature life. Most of the participants are there to make serious deals with other counterparts though.
Armenia and Georgia are big producers of wines and drinks. Ararat, the mountain where it is said the Noah's Arch came to rest, and which currently is situated on the territory of Turkey, plays an important role in the Armenian identity. Hence, the omnipresence of the name assigned to important products, such as the cognac brought to the fair.
The last minutes and we made it to the Switzerland's Pavillion, passing by the windmill of the Netherlands and its thousands of samples of cheese. The branding is, as expected, professional and inviting for a visit. This time promise to do not miss Lichtenstein, the small principality that is presenting to the Berliners its food and natural beauty in a glance. 
An important space of the fair is occupied, as expected, by the various German culinary traditions. The most visible is that from Bayern, not only because people are dressed in the local outfits, but also due to some live presentations of handmade products, from glass to animal horns.
The last minutes of the exhibitions and a big commotion of both exhibitors and visitors. Our last sight is Ukraine, where beyond a smiling picture of a president, youngsters in colourful national costumes are ending up their working day with a mixture of folk and electronic music. 
Times aren't changing that fast, but at least we did almost a full foodie tour of the world in less than 5 hours. 

Sonntag, 19. Januar 2014

At Maxim Gorki Theater

Since moving to Berlin, I keep telling myself what a busy cultural life I have. However, I don't  always succeed to go to theatre with the same frequency as I used to. Maybe I go two or three times the year, which is a level considerably low compared with my love for theatre. After a relatively uneventful year in this respect, I decided last December to book a ticket to the famous Gorki Theater.
How many times I planned to go to Gorki Theater, mostly during the regular festival organized once the year, featuring a lot of Central and Eastern European authors and exploring new identities of young expats, mostly originally from these countries. In the last months, the theater was even more featured in the media, after getting a new management and introducing live English translations of German representations.  
Maxim Gorki theater was created in the former DDR in 1952 as a theater for contemporary productions. It turned into one of the most important Stadttheaeters for Eastern Europeans, that slowly moved towards a dissident position. In 1988, Thomas Langhoff staged Volker Braun's A Changing Society, a premonition of the changes taking place soon on both sides of the wall. The production was reintroduced in the program of the next months.
My choice for my first encounter with the theater was a piece signed by Olga Grjasnowa - Russians are the kind of people who like Birch Trees. Similarly with the story of the author, it explores doubles identities - Russian/Jewish in a German environment, translated into work, friendship and love contexts. The production is signed by Yael Ronen, based in Tel Aviv, but a familiar presence on the artistic stage of Berlin, who introduced a lot of black humour and a choice of musical background from the new Israeli singers. 
The production is in German, with accurate English translations on two screens on the upper level of the left and right side of the stage. 
I was expecting probably more tension and drama, but the happy meeting between the two artists diluted somehow the conflicts, even though the questions are still dancing in the air gently after the show is over. And it is better to continue asking than to insist that there is an answer and clear definitions of identities. Not all the Russians like birch trees, isn't it? 
My first visit at the theatre was challenging enough to already plan a return in the next weeks. 

Samstag, 18. Januar 2014

Walking in Steglitz

With such a lovely snowless winter, one of my best by far in years, I had a lot of opportunities to spend more time in various parts of Berlin, enjoying the sunny clear sky and the mild wind. I used to go very often in Steglitz for a while, but haven't been for more than 6 months and wanted to discover new spots and revisit the old ones. I took the U9 U-Bahn till the station Rathaus Steglitz, that stops at the 19th century red bricked townhall, wall-to-wall to a big shopping center. There is situated the public library of the borough, where interesting lectures are regularly organized and where a couple of years ago I attended a lecture by Jonathan Coe.  
On the other side of the street, there is the Schwartzschen Villa, where cultural events, theatre and exhibitions are held. When I visited, the café was open, but did not have time to stop. Another interesting cultural location in Steglitz is Schlosspark Theatre, where I attended a very easy representation in German years ago. On the opposite end, there is the Standtbad Steglitz Kultur, a former swimming pool turned into a cultural arena. 
I am not too much the backpacking style, but the Globetrotter shop there is huge, with clothes and accessories for both children and adults. The place is huge and there is hardly anything you can't find there, from books and packs and even a small café. The last year, it used to be a huge lake where one can test the canoe before buying it. The former lake was populated now with a lot of tents, of various sizes and different kind of temperatures. 
I left the paradise of globetrotters and started to admire, as usual, the clean architecture of the houses. Steglitz used to be a village, mentioned historically for the first time in the 14th century. It has its own paved road from the 18th century. Since 1920, it was included as part of the big city of Berlin, but kept ever since a distinguished ambiance that reminds me of Spandau - minus the big green areas and the small Citadel
Before the war, Steglitz used to be an area where many middle class Jewish merchants and businessmen were living. In the memory of the 1,700 Jews originally from here that were killed, a Mirror Wall (Spiegelwand) was built, close to was once a private synagogue. The names and addresses are written on the wall that reflects the people walking by and the life of the square. When there is a day of open market in Albrechtsplatz, the monument is relatively hidden behind counters selling almost everything. 
Close to the same square overcrowded with merchandises today, at the end of the war, in 1945, hard fightings took place between the German and the Red Army. Here too, a German deserter whose name was unknown was hanged up by his former comrades.
But most of the people walking today on Schlosstrasse, that grew up in the last 2 years as an important shopping avenue in the city, a competitor for Ku'Damm and Tauentzienstrasse don't care too much about fights and history. You may not find here the big names in fashion, like Chanel or Louis Vuitton, but there is Primark and many other affordable options that attracts here people from all over the city at least once the week. Tourists are also getting in the area, for the same noble aim: shopping. 
At the end of the avenue, the huge and unusual Beer Brush built in the 1976 as a beer pub is intriguing. Nowadays, it's quite impossible to resist for too long around its stairs due to some very unpleasant smells.

The foodie offer around is aimed to answer moderate budgets, already affected by the intensive shopping. For a small snack, there is the very cheap Ishin, or the Jasmin Oriental pub on Deitmerstrasse. Confisserie Reichert is strongly recommended for a coffee and a delicious piece of cake. 
In less than 2 hours, our tour of Steglitz was done. I revisited old places and discovered new ones. From a visit to another, Steglitz remains still attractive and surprising.
See you the next time!

Montag, 13. Januar 2014

The Secret of Berlin Porcelain

The Königliche Porzellan Manufaktur (KPM) - the Royal Porcelain Manufacture - is situated on Wegely street in the elegant Tiergarten district. Wegely was an intrepid businessman who requested to Friedrick II the privilege of setting up a manufacture as well as the exemption of custom duties, plus a building in Friedrichstrasse. More than interested in getting the best advantages of the 'white gold', the king acquiesced and in addition forbade the custom officials to look into his barrels, as part of the plan to keep the secrecy the recipe of porcelain. Centuries and many more histories after, the arcanum continues to be a well kept secret. The cobalt blue sceptre present on all the branding information of KPM continues to be after so many time a symbol of elegance and history of Berlin, 250 years after. The German Art of 'Tischkultur' ('Table culture') so popular even today in the middle-class Europe owes a lot to Friedrick the Great's involvement in supporting and promoting the development of porcelain in Berlin and Brandenburg area.
The original building is no more and the current factory was redesigned several times being considered as one of the only complex building in the city projected according to the principles of the pre-industrial revolution.
Every chief modeller of KPM, created its own pattern yet following the direct preferences of kings. The techniques developed in time as well, as for instance was the case with the cobalt blue, a porcelain 'glasur' aimed to resist at very high temperatures. But it seems that no other king like Friederick the Great was so much involved in the daily work of the manufacture. He was visiting the premises very often and requested special models. The story goes that one day, he saw a decorated porcelain with flowers and said that flowers without insects are not real. The next models still in use nowadays introduced discretely butterflies, bees and other insects as part of the landscape.Image
The recipe of the KPM porcelain - arcanum - remains a well kept secret, but was possibly improved in time, based on the result of information received via industrial spying - mostly in Vienna and other places where big trades were meeting - in the 19th century and later. Basically, the porcelain paste is made of kaolin (Chinese clay), feldspars and quartz. The purity of each ingredient guarantees the specific quality of each product. The main ingredients are mixed with water and drained in order to eliminate impurities. After, the composition is kept in a room with 100% humidity. The model created out of the paste is going through two stages of firing: it is first burned for 980C till the water is completely eliminated; second, it is dipped in a blue solution that burns off during the second firing. The expert eyes analyses the quality of the porcelain and stamp them with the KPM trademark only when there is 100% guarantee that no impurities are left. Usually, at the end of the stages of firing, the piece of porcelain is 60% smaller.
Every single item produced is unique and hand-painted by a team of skilled artists. Oil paintings, like Watteau's, and classical statues served very often as inspiration for various decoration requested by the royal owners of the manufacture. Karl-Friedrick Schinkel, my favourite Prussian architect, created special porcelain collections too, most of them inspired by his architecture projects. Items made in the old style are available at the manufacture or part of the private collections.  Image
I always thought that is no difference between a porcelain statue and a statue in general. I was wrong. Each piece is produced separately and assembled later. It goes the same for a small cup of coffee, composed by a main body, lid, lid handle etc. A simple item is usually composed of 11-15 mould pieces.
Due to the very strict selection process, many pieces of porcelain do not pass the test of purity and are joining the big mount of wreckage. Many of the pieces are re-used for various means, as for instance, for the composition of the floor.
The work in the porcelain manufacture requests time, as every stage of the production is a punctilious effort. The work to a small cup of coffee may last between 1 and 12 weeks. The porcelain paste itself needs around 6 months till being clean enough for being used. As in the case of mining, many skills are transmitted from a generation to another.
Each model is unique. The painter is inspired by a classical model, but he/she adds its personal touch and combination of colours. From Napoleon to the sultan of Brunei, all wanted to have their own piece of porcelain, whose fine lines and uniqueness were and still are almost the same subject of devotion as gold and diamonds. Defying time, KPM keeps the tradition of style and mystery.
Last December, I was offered a free German-English tour of the KPM, the best I had by far in 2013. The opinions are, as usual, my own. 

Samstag, 11. Januar 2014

Tropical nights at the Botanical Gardens

When the city life is too monotonous, I am faced with the choice: Zoo(s) or Botanical Gardens. As in Berlin I am blessed with 2 Zoos and 1 Botanical Gardens, I can rarely complain about the lack of choices. Unknown reasons took me away from the Botanical Gardens for a couple of months, but when I heard that for the next weekends, special 'tropical' programs are organized on Fridays and Saturday evenings, I wanted to be among the first ones visiting it. 
My tropical dreams were strong enough to not discourage me to give up my plan because of the cold rain. Upon arrival, another trial: there were not tickets available, and needed to wait - in the same cold rain - for at least 20 minutes till we were let in. But our perseverance paid up and we made it in due time. The last entrance is around 22.00, but we were early enough to have at least 2 full hours to visit.
It was plenty of people, but most big groups were following the guided tours of the tropical and the concert areas. Otherwise, it was so easy to get lost on the small paths, looking at the very simple vegetation that one rarely notice when in the middle of the nature. Especially in the European part, we don't notice the small grass on the rocks, even dedicated hikers. The first lesson of the evening was to be more careful with every little thing that we see during our trips.
Tables for late pick-nicks or benches hidden by huge leaves for a small talk or for sipping the fruity cocktails added more conviviality to the exploration.   
I must confess my scarce knowledge in botanical matters. I can recognize the big banana trees though. Tonight I discovered that there are also some 'fake' banana trees, growing close to the Ethiopian coffee plantations. 
In a small corner, we entered a small room with carnivorous plants. The poor insects caught in are digested and 'digested'. The 'food' is rather distributed to the stem.
I don't know to swim, but I was brave enough to try jumping on the relatively big stones of the pond for going closer to the music stage. The big yellow and orange fish were turning around quietly, not too much affected by the messy visitors coming and going. The most excited part was when people were impatient enough to cross the small pond on both sides. According to my own recent experience, you can do it! (Just be gentle and polite and ask help from the other stone and everything will be fine).
There were several kiosks with cocktails around the concert area. Most of them were selling alcoholic beverages, with vodka and various liquors, but I had a look at the recipes and decided for a non-alcoholic one, based on pineapple, with a lot of ice (incredible given the reticence of people here to use more than half-an ice cube once in a while). 
Time for the concert! Latin American sounds played by a band whose members were representing almost all the countries in the area invited people to dance. And so they did: mothers carrying children, ladies with their partners or other ladies' partners, everyone was getting latino. Two dancers looking like being rented from the rehearsal for Rio added more action and inspired more courageous moves from the public. Uninhibited, the ladies and gents are having a great time. 
After so much tropical flavours, I have one more wish: to visit the cacti section, which is only a modest corner. I promise myself again to learn more about plants but as in the case of the animals, more visits to the Botanical Gardens will help me to settle down my knowledge over and over again. The good lessons of nature are better than any school sometimes. The Botanical Gardens in Berlin are worth a new visit late in the spring. 

Dienstag, 7. Januar 2014

Discovering Teltow, the middle way between Potsdam and Berlin

'The flesh is sad, I finished all the books', said Mallarmé, and I was about to adapt this unprobable sadness thinking that with such an intensive program in the last weeks it is not too much left to see from Berlin - except 3-4 places that I will cover in the next posts. What about Teltow?, I said to myself, more than happy that I still have something to write about. The 24th of December in the middle of the morning, we took a bus from Zoo that brought us after around 30 minutes in the Teltow town.
We crossed different areas and architectural styles, from the glamorous Ku'damm to the rural Dahlem, passing by the well guarded famous JFK private school. 
Teltow is situated outside the administrative borders of Berlin, being part of the Brandenburg district. During the Cold War, it on the other (wrong) side of history. Remnants of the Wall, adorned with colourful graffiti are still kept for the sake of the past. 
We followed slowly some directions indicating the way to the Tourist Information Center, closed then, and via Badstrasse we arrive to the main square. The town hall looks a bit like a building from a Far West movie. The area is colourful but almost empty, except some teenagers in the middle of doing a rehearsal for a season's show. We walk the old cobbled streets, passing by old small houses hosting modern bakeries announced by old style letters. Most part of the city is silent.
As many others areas that were later incorporated to Berlin, Teltow used to be a settlement. In 1265, it acquired equal rights with Spandau, Brandenburg and Berlin and for a couple of centuries it developed relatively independently. At the beginning of the 20th century, it has several factories and a modern transportation network.
Till late in the history of Teltow, animals like goats, were part of the daily urban landscape. Many people living here still own horses. However, the small streets are perfect for the bikes and this seems to be the easiest and fastest transportation right now. The buses and S-Bahn are also connecting Teltow to Berlin and Potsdam. The love for animals seems to be specific to this part of Brandenburg, as we saw everywhere shops, cosmetic services, and a crematorium  dedicated to pets. 
We spent around 3 hours in Teltow, but most frequently we over and over again turned around the main square, with the small old houses. Our favourite route encompassed Berlinerstrasse, Breiterstrasse and Ritterstrasse, till Zickenplatz. The communist heritage is outside this area, with the similar buildings, that were given a touch of colour for bringing more life and identity. 
All the main shops and bakeries were closed. The only art gallery, Galerie Altstadt seemed to be prepared for a private party so we left the precincts as fast as we entered. The gastronomic choices are diverse, with Greek, Asian, Pizza and Indian restaurant open till late in the day. Three star hotels, some of them with business facilities, seem to be an option for those interested to be in the middle of the way between Berlin and Potsdam.
Teltow seems to be a good option for spending a Sunday in a place with a little bit of everything. Even a local museum presenting various local traditions and customs, among which apothecary and weaving. Monuments in the memories of war victims and even a couple of Stolpersteine are interesting historical marks. Last but not least, if you plan to bring your children with, you might be charmed by the many parks and green outdoor areas that can be found in both the old and new parts. 
We didn't have too many expectations before visiting Teltow, but we enjoyed enough our trip to strongly recommend a visit to other expats looking for a quiet destination only a little bit away from Berlin.