Rainy Berlin

I had been warned by Alix that Berlin is a gloomy and rainy winter city, so I was hardly surprised to be greeted with clouds and stormy weather when I landed in Berlin. Thankfully, I had remembered to pack an umbrella so I didn’t get too wet on my way into Berlin. Getting to the city itself was also pretty easy. My previous trips to Germany meant that I knew Google Maps would work with the public transportation system, and sure enough it only took a few clicks on my smartphone to look up a fast and easy way into the city. Once I had that planned out, it was easy enough to buy a ticket and board the next train. My prior experience in Munich meant that I paid special attention to actually buying a ticket and validating it (there are red boxes for this along every platform), something that worked to my advantage since my ticket was checked on my way into the city.*

I had decided to arrive in Berlin a day before the conference (which started on a Sunday), and I spent most of my first day walking around and trying to familiarize myself a bit with the city. That being said, I did manage to accomplish two major things my first day. The first was getting a SIM card. Thanks to my college roommate, Julie, the one I stayed with in Munich, I was told that I could easily buy a SIM card at a Saturn electronics store. I dutifully made my way over to the nearest store and quickly realized that I couldn’t even begin to understand the phone advertising in front of me. Bowing to the inevitable, I asked a store representative for help (the first thing he did was kindly informed me that I had actually been looking at iPad SIM cards instead of phone SIM cards), and after getting a bit of help, I walked out of the store with a brand new German SIM card with 250 MB of data–not bad for €5.

After that, I spent most of my time wandering around. Alix had warned me that in Berlin graffiti does not necessarily denote crime, and I enjoyed having the time to myself to look around and appreciate both Berlin’s street art and its architecture.

IMG_0128  IMG_0134  IMG_0135Through my wanderings I really noticed that Berlin is a city with a remarkable relationship to the past. It is a place that is caught in inbetweens, for although it is clearly a modern bustling metropolis, it is also surrounded by monuments to the past. Some of the scars the past has left behind are more obvious, remnants of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, etc., while others are more subtle, the concrete buildings that pervade what used to be East Berlin. And while this was something that I picked up on more and more as I spent time in the city, the first time I really noticed this grappling with the past was on Museum Island, where most of Berlin’s most prominent museums are located.

Walking around Museum Island is stunning. The island itself is quite small, but the buildings on it are impressive. Many of them have undergone some sort of renovation since World War II, but you can still see the marks that World War II has left behind. There are plenty of chips in buildings’ facades and old bullet holes in the colonnade.

I particularly noticed this in the Neues Museum (pronounced Noy-es), or New Museum. The Neues was my second big triumph of the day. Now the Neues is a bit of a contradiction. Although it is called the “New” Museum, it was originally built between 1843 and 1855 and designed by August Stüler. The museum was severely damaged in World War II, and this resulted in it closing for 70 years. It was finally reopened in 2009 after undergoing a redesign by David Chipperfield. Like much of Berlin, the museum embraces parts of the old, while trying to integrate it with the new. The result is amazing.

IMG_0182  IMG_0179  IMG_0185IMG_0187  IMG_0190  IMG_0188IMG_0192  IMG_0204  IMG_0199While the Neues is well known for its Egyptian artifacts, I was much more blown away by the building itself. Chipperfield did a wonderful job redesigning the building and many of the rooms were purposefully designed so that they echoed ancient structures, for example some rooms would mimic the floor plan of an Egyptian temple. In my mind, the museum itself was its own work of art.

IMG_0147  IMG_0153  IMG_0155IMG_0157  IMG_0159  IMG_0160IMG_0165  IMG_0170  IMG_0175That being said, there were still a number of impressive things housed inside the museum. I admit that my favorite was the bust of Neferiti. It was amazing to see in person, and the attention to detail was stunning. One thing that surprised me was that the museum even had a replica of the bust that the blind could feel. Unfortunately pictures were not allowed, but feel free to check it out on Google Images.

Although the Neues is perhaps most well known for its collection of Egyptian artifacts, this is only a fraction of the museum’s entire collection. I enjoyed walking around their Greco-Roman collection, and actually found it a bit funny once I started to read the descriptions around the room. Many of the information plaques talked about Heinrich Schliemann, a German adventurer who discovered the original site of Troy. However, Schliemann got into trouble for illegally smuggling some of his findings out of Turkey. He was later fined by the Ottoman Empire and eventually paid triple the fine in order to legally own his smuggled goods. Unfortunately, many of these artifacts were later taken by the Soviet Union, something that the Germans have clearly not let go of due to the number of sentences in the museum like this “In 1945 the bulk of the Trojan treasures were taken as booty to the former Soviet Union, where most of them are held to this day in breach of international law.” A bit ironic considering how the treasures first found their way into Germany. But then again questions of proper ownership are always interesting in museums.

After that I went back to my hostel to meet up with Iman, my hostel roommate and an Italian Fulbrighter who I met when I was in Rome. Because Iman got in late, we didn’t really do much other than get dinner together. We ended up being seated with a group of five men at a seven person table. About 45 minutes into our dinner conversation the man next to me interrupted me and the following conversation happened:

Man: Excuse me I couldn’t help but overhearing, but do you live in Norway?
Me: Yes I do! I’m based up in Trondheim for the year.
Man: Oh wow, we’re all from Norway! From Ålesund.
Me: No way! I’m hoping to visit Ålesund later in the year.

Iman later told me that she was amazed that 1) it took them almost an hour to ask me if I lived in Norway 2) that I didn’t realize that they had been speaking Norwegian. To be honest, I was actually surprised that the men sitting with us had said anything at all. Norwegians are renowned for being a bit anti-social. It’s actually not uncommon for Norwegians to go out of their way to avoid people, so I was surprised that they even mentioned being from Norway.

As for not recognizing the language, Norwegian actually has a large number of cognates with German, so I simply assumed that they were speaking German.** Clearly I haven’t picked up a lot of Norwegian since moving to Norway.

But the day ended on a high note and Iman and I enjoyed a late nightcap at the hostel bar before calling it a night.

IMG_0221  IMG_0227  IMG_0234

*I was asked for my transportation ticket three times when I was in Berlin, so I would recommend getting and validating all transportation tickets when traveling around the city. That being said, the fine for being caught without one isn’t horrendous (€40), or at least not when compared to the ones you are subject to in Norway (~$150).

**My favorite language misstep happened with the word “ostbahn.” In Norwegian “ost” means cheese and I knew that “bahn” meant train. My gut translation was that “ostbahn” was the “cheese train” instead of the “east train.”

Museum Quarter and the Opera

This was our last day in Vienna so we decided to take it at a more leisurely pace. Our first stop was the Museum Quarter so that we could visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum, or Art History Museum.

IMG_2090  IMG_2087  IMG_2092IMG_2094  IMG_2096  IMG_2095If you look closely at the middle picture in the second row you can JUST make out a bit of artwork above the arches. That was done by Gustav Klimt.

My Dad particularly wanted to see a Velásquez exhibit that was on, and Velásquez is one of the few artists that I vaguely remember from my AP Art History class. Sure enough, I recognized some of his more popular works such as Venus at Her Toilet and Las Meninas. To be honest I’d always thought Las Meninas was a rather blah painting so I was interested to see if I found it boring in person. To my great surprise I really liked it…until I saw that it was actually a copy of the one in the Prado.

Anyways, I still managed to remember enough art history to point out to my Dad that the entire painting is a rather large self-portrait. Velasquez is the rather shadowy painter off to the left of the painting and the canvas in the picture is supposed to represent the painting Las Meninas. So it’s a painting of Velásquez painting the painting. Trippy right?

As for Venus at Her Toilet, the only thing I could remember was that it’s clearly connected to an old and rich history of similar paintings (which at one point long ago I could recall at the drop of a hat). That and the fact that Venus isn’t looking at herself in the mirror. She’s looking at the audience. At the time, this indirect gaze was significant since it represented a shift in these types of classic paintings. And that’s about all my brain managed to dredge up from the depths of my rather shaky art history memory.

meninas  velazquez-toilet-venus-rokeby-venus-NG2057-fmAfter seeing the Velásquez exhibit we walked around the rest of the museum. The top floor mostly contained paintings while the ground level was devoted to a variety of things. My Dad and I liked looking at some of the old clockwork that was on display, particularly because a lot of the clocks were automatons, but we also had a good time wandering around the Egyptian and Roman artifacts.

IMG_2106  IMG_2112  IMG_2108After that it was time for a coffee break. Café culture is huge in Vienna and there are a plethora of well known cafés scattered throughout the city. I decided that it would be fun to visit Café Central. Not only does the café have beautiful vaulted ceilings, it also used to be a favorite haunt of people like Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud, Peter Altenberg and Leo Trotzki. This meant that my Dad and I were able to sip our coffee and feel somewhat like intellectuals.

IMG_2115  IMG_2117  IMG_2120Once we finished eating, we made our way to Hofburg Palace. Schönbrunn was not always a popular palace and was only regularly attended as a summer palace starting in the 18th century. In contrast to this, Hofburg was used as a residence for over 600 years and was therefore the center of the Holy Roman Empire. It also served as the winter palace for the Habsburgs. To be honest, the information presented in the Hofburg was pretty similar to that in Schönbrunn. That’s not to say the Hofburg wasn’t impressive, but I would say that it’s slightly less impressive than Schönbrunn (but maybe that’s just because I saw Schönbrunn first).

The thing that the Hofburg did have that Schönbrunn didn’t was the Imperial Silver Collection and a current exhibit focused on demystifying Empress Sisi. The overall sense that I got of Sisi was that she was a very unhappy woman who wasn’t particularly attached to her husband (who in contrast was absolutely devoted to her). She’s also well known for being particularly attached to her Bavarian family and for being obsessed with maintaining her beauty. So, while the Sisi exhibit was a bit grim, I would say that overall the Hofburg is worth a visit.

Afterwards we cleaned up for the opera and then headed out for a quick dinner before Rigoletto.

IMG_2132

Unfortunately, Rigoletto is a truly depressing opera. It can be summed up by saying that pretty much everyone dies or is unhappy, while the culprit, the Duke, manages to get away scot-free. I was actually pretty surprised at the lack of a good Christian moral, though I suppose “revenge is never worthwhile” might suffice. The opera is originally based off a play by Victor Hugo (who also wrote Les Misérables) so I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the opera is decidedly sad. That being said, my Dad and I didn’t have any of this background knowledge when we bought the tickets. We mostly just knew it as a famous opera.

As for the opera itself, it ended up being great. The quality of the singing more than made up for the depressing plot. We even managed to enjoy ourselves despite the fact that we could only see about 50 percent of the stage.

Funnily enough, one of the opera’s most famous songs is one that I remembered from Disney’s Aristocats. If you watch the beginning of the Disney video you can see that George, the old lawyer, hums the tune “La donna è mobile” during the first 15 seconds of the video. I guess back in the day Disney was teaching me opera without me knowing it.

Don’t worry, I don’t think our Duke had eyes quite as crazy as Pavarotti’s.

One really great thing about the Vienna Opera is that they offer very cheap standing room tickets (we saw people queuing for them a good two hours ahead of time) and they also project the live performances on a screen outside of the building.

Once the opera had finished, we went to the Sacher Hotel for some of their famous Sacher torte. Now the Sacher Hotel is a fairly swanky place, to the extent that a man helped me out of my coat at coatcheck (he ignored me when I said I could do it myself–I felt a bit like Matthew Crawley in his early days at Downton Abbey).

Fun fact: although the Sacher torte is a renown Viennese dessert, it was an accident. Apparently the court chef fell ill the day a lot of high ranking guests were scheduled to arrive at court, leaving the apprentice chef, Franz Sacher, to come up with a dessert. Clearly he passed with flying colors. Now the Sacher torte at the Sacher Hotel is made from what is essentially a secret recipe. The recipe itself apparently requires 36 steps and exclusive wooden boxes. While this sounds like an excessive amount of effort to spend on a slice of cake, I will admit that it was pretty delicious.

IMG_2136  IMG_2137 IMG_2139

Thoroughly stuffed, my Dad and I gathered our coats (this time I let the man at coatcheck help me with my coat) and we walked back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep.