The life and times of Zack Weinberg.
Monday, 24 November 2003
# 7 PM (GMT-5)
I'm writing this on the plane back to San Francisco. Unlike all the other segments of this trip, this flight is nice and simple: JFK direct to SFO, six hours. It's quiet in the cabin, there are lots of empty seats.
It's been a fun trip, but now I am tired and it will be good to get home.
Sunday, 23 November 2003
# 9 PM (GMT-5)
Darya and I went to see De La Guarda, an Argentinian performance troupe who carry out their act almost entirely on trapezes. The first third or so is Expressionistic shadow play — they put a paper scrim between the actors and the audience, and do amazingly clever things with lights, sound, small objects dropped onto the scrim, etc.
Then they tear the scrim away and go wild. It is easier to see what is going on in this part, — I'd characterize it as about half rumination on the existential despair of modern life, and the other half practical lessons in letting out your inner monkey. Perhaps this is a suggested antidote to the despair? It was all done in the rave aesthetic, and I'm amused to report the audience contained many people who wouldn't be caught dead at a rave — but slap a $55 ticket on it and call it experimental theater, and they'll come. And they'll have a good time, too.
Afterward we went to Cafe Lalo, which is an Upper West Side moviegoer's institution. When I was at Columbia we always used to go there after the late show. They serve dessert and elaborate mixed drinks. I was unfortunately too wiped out from the show to enjoy it much.
Saturday, 22 November 2003
# 5 PM (GMT-5)
Visited my uncle Lewis, who lives down on Chambers Street. After lunch we went to see the memorial designs for the World Trade Center, now being exhibited at the World Financial Center (just across the street from the giant pit in the ground where the WTC once was). It's hard to judge something that will be built on a monumental scale from a four-foot-square model — or, really, at all. I suppose architectural critics get good at this. Neither Lew nor I were terribly happy with the designs. Lew is concerned that, since they're all on such a huge scale, they are all too impersonal for a proper memorial. I share this concern, and in addition I don't like the symbology of any of the designs, in particular the preservation of the "footprints" of the old towers as elements of the memorials.
Apparently this was a non-negotiable stipulation of the families of the dead. Now I do not have much of an emotional attachment to the event, certainly not as much as they do. I had been living on the other side of the continent for years when it happened, no one I knew died, and I always thought the towers were kind of an eyesore. (The new plan for the site fits much better with the overall NYC skyline, I think, — or at least it would if not for that ridiculous glass spire, which I hope they run out of money before it gets built.) Anyway, keeping the footprints strikes me as the symbolic equivalent of deliberately creating a giant scar in a very visible location on the "body" of Manhattan. It's just the thing to freeze people into the way they feel about it right now, which I do not think is healthy.
(Editor's note, months later: The selected design is not nearly as bad as some of the alternatives, I'm pleased to find. I still don't like the symbology.)
Friday, 21 November 2003
# 10 PM (GMT-5)
Went to see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World with my old friend Steven Kasow, at the Ziegfeld. This is New York City's most famous lavishly decorated movie theater. It used to be a stage, then it went bankrupt and was bought out by concerned citizens and turned into a movie theater.
I have read only one of the books on which this movie is based. Thus, to me the movie was a rollicking good sea yarn, but not the feast of references to things in the books that Steven found it to be. Almost all the action is at sea, and there's a handful of scenes filmed on the Galapagos Islands, which I cannot quite believe they got permission to do. It's very long but it does not drag.
Afterward I met another old friend, Michael from the CU marching band, who informs me that that institution has mostly recovered from the unhealthy attention it got from the deans' office back in the nineties. This is a relief, however I would like to see it for myself, which there will not be an opportunity to do on this trip. Michael now works for Bloomberg Inc and was delighted to show me around their incredibly lavishly decorated offices. Lot of money to be had in providing tons of juicy data to stockbrokers.
# 1:30 PM (GMT-5)
So here I am in Manhattan, which is deeply familiar. I'm writing this in Madison Square Park, not very far from the Flatiron Building. On first glance, it seems hardly anything has changed since 1999. Especially the area around Columbia University, and the campus itself, are just as they were: same sorts of faces, same little restaurants, same old brick and copper buildings. Elsewhere, again, same sorts of faces, same bustling streets, same architecture.
Looking harder, one sees cosmetic changes. The MTA is engaged in a huge project to replace all the tile in all the subway stations. They are keeping the 1920s-era mosaic station names intact, which is a relief. On the surface, there are a lot more American flags in evidence than there used to be: appliquéd to the sides of trucks and buses, hung up in office lobbies, and so on.
Mainly I've been visiting old friends. They are the same people that they were. Some have moved into new digs, some have new jobs, some are out of a job, life goes on.
Yesterday I got to say hello to one of my old professors, Dr. Allan Blaer of the Physics department. He tells me that the new president of the university is full of plans to expand the campus with a new complex of buildings at 133rd and Broadway. There would be a distressingly large gap between this and the existing campus, which ends at 120th, but if it means they can tear down the hideous business-school building, I am all for it.
Tuesday, 18 November 2003
# 1:10 PM (GMT)
Sure 'nuff I missed the connection in Heathrow, so here I am sitting on my bum for the next four hours. Oh well. There's a rambunctious two-year-old running around the waiting area.
A random thought while I'm sitting here: As mentioned earlier, it would seem that everyone smokes all the time in Germany. More accurately, smoking is allowed almost everywhere, and substantially more people do smoke (although perhaps still an absolute minority of residents). Somking is a problem for people around the smoker, in a way that drinking alcohol is not; this makes it different from other recreational drugs. There must be a less antisocial way for people to get a hit of nicotine. I wonder if it would work to brew tea from tobacco leaves? I have heard of someone making tobacco soufflé, so the idea is not totally hopeless. My guess is that different varieties of tobacco plant would have to be developed, so the tea wouldn't taste vile, but otherwise it would work.
# 7:30 AM (GMT+1)
Writing this on the plane from Berlin to Düsseldorf, where I change for Heathrow, where I change again for New York. I'm kind of worried about missing the plane in Heathrow; the connection time is really tight. But they did let me check my suitcase all the way to New York, so at least I don't have to deal with baggage claim twice.
Berlin's Tegel airport has a novel (or perhaps extremely old) approach to the security perimeter. Each gate has its own check-in desk, security checkpoint, and waiting area. You can't go from one waiting area to another without going out and back through security again. All the shops are on the "insecure" side of the perimeter. This does require more staffing than the conventional approach, but it also makes the lines shorter and I think it's more secure, too.
Last night we went out to dinner with Dara's assistant director, Anke, and then for drinks with some of Anke's friends. A good time was had by all, even if I did insist on going home early so as to get up at the crack of dawn today to get to the airport.
A curio: Ticketing for the Berlin U-bahn is on the honor system. You're expected to buy a ticket from one of the friendly yellow ticket machines, timestamp it with one of the friendly yellow timestamp machines (most of the ticket options are good for a certain time after being stamped — the separation is so you can buy tickets in advance), and then carry it with you. But there is no gate preventing you from getting on the train without a ticket. There are supposedly plainclothes police who will make random checks and slap you with a hefty fine if you haven't got a ticket, but I did not see this happen all the time I was in town.
What I did see, though, was an ad campaign being run by the U-bahn operator (BVG) to try to shame people into buying tickets. These ads refer over and over to "Schwarzfahrers", which is the idiom for fare evaders. But the literal translation into English is "Black Riders." So the mental image I kept having was a plainclothes policeman staring down a Nazgûl and demanding to see its U-bahn ticket.
Monday, 17 November 2003
# 4 PM (GMT+1)
Today Dara and I tried to go to the various museums on "Museum Island", only to discover that they are all closed on Mondays. Instead we visited the Berliner Dom, a Lutheran cathedral commissioned by Friedrich Wilhelm IV (but not actually built until the reign of Wilhelm II). A Lutheran cathedral sounds like a contradiction in terms, but there it is. Because there was renovation going on, we had to get in via the crypt, where all of the Hohenzollern kings are interred, in big freestanding stone coffins with crowns balanced on top. The interior looks not unlike a Catholic cathedral, except the statues are of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other Protestant elders, instead of Catholic saints.
If you climb two hundred and sixty-seven steps you get to an observation platform on the outside of the dome. Since it was drizzling or raining all day, we had this to ourselves. The cathedral is not very far from Alexanderplatz and the TV tower. You can see most of the same things from the cathedral, only you are not so high up and therefore you can make out more detail.
After this we paid the obligatory visit to the preserved segment of the Berlin Wall. It is easy to see how this bleak slab of concrete became such a symbol of division. Even with the artwork and graffiti painted on it, roads cut through it, U-bahn lines running over it, and so on, what's left is still grim and daunting. It's got this black cylindrical cap, to make climbing harder, possibly once had razor wire on it; somehow that little touch makes the whole far harsher.
In places, the wall is disintegrating under the relentless force of erosion. Frost heaves have exposed the rebar, which is rusting and expanding and cracking the concrete further. Weeds and moss are growing in the cracks. In an hundred years, this wall will only exist in history books and old archives. Time conquers both our glorious achievements and our ignominous ones.
I shall link to a complete transcript of the late President Kennedy's speech on the occasion of his visit to Berlin in June, 1963. You've all heard the sound bite, but read the whole speech.
Dara was tired so I went on to the Bauhaus-Archiv by myself. This is a fairly small exhibit of artworks, furniture, and architectural models done by various Bauhaus residents. It is, unfortunately, not as interesting as the real thing must have been; it seemed only the shell of the movement.
Sunday, 16 November 2003
# 10:40 PM (GMT+1)
I don't have as many photos from the Tiergarten as I'd like, because the batteries in my camera went dead somewhere in there. Fortunately I brought the charger along, and an adapter for the German 220V house current. This adapter is labeled "Use only with heat-producing appliances rated 50-1600W, not with electronic devices." I can think of no plausible reason for either restriction. Empirically, the charger is a 6W device and it only generates heat because it isn't 100% efficient (and because the charging reaction of NiMH cells appears to be mildly exothermic), but it worked fine. However, I freely admit I do not know from electrical engineering, maybe there is a good reason I shouldn't've done this.
I did get a chance to take pictures of the circle of "buddy bears", on the Ebertstraße. This is a fun local phenomenon. Since 2001 local artists have been painting ceramic bear statues and placing them in public places around Berlin; in 2002 the idea occurred to have artists from lots of different countries each paint one bear, and then put them all in a big circle. It's been very popular. The collection now goes on tour regularly to raise money for UNICEF, but I happened to catch it in between trips.
I also photographed the under-construction Holocaust memorial, also on the Ebertstraße. Rant follows: As a Jew, it offends me when memorials are erected to the Jews who died in the Holocaust, but the Catholics, Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals, and political dissidents who were also murdered are forgotten. Their deaths are no less significant. Nor were the Germans responsible for the sole government-orchestrated mass murder of the past century, or even the worst. Statistics.
# 10 PM (GMT+1)
I'd had enough of museums, and Dara and Nathan were tired and wanted to stay home, so I went for a nice long walk. I started at Potzdamer Platz, then walked up the Ebertstraße to the Brandenberg Gate and the Reichstag. I might have gone into the Reichstag (I wanted to go up in its glass dome and look out) but there was a line all the way down the steps and out onto the lawn. So instead I walked the long axis of the Tiergarten (Berlin's Central Park) which is a good 3km. The Tiergarten at this time of year is a riot of deciduous leaves turned yellow or red and in the process of falling off. There are huge piles of leaves on the ground, and when the wind blows it makes a constellation of them in the air. Soon they will be on the ground; the trees will be bare, with only the conifers still green. Just in time for the snow.
I climbed a tree somewhere, along the way, just for the fun of it. Not sure what kind. It was broad and had lots of handy forked branches to climb. Smooth, dark gray bark. [Upon returning home and discussing it with my housemates, we think it was a black walnut. —Ed.]
After I got to the other end, I came back to the flat, collected Dara and Nathan, and we all went round to a local pizza joint for dinner. Now I'm back in the flat again, writing this and listening to the rain.
# 12 AM (GMT+1)
Today we planned to visit the zoo, the museum of modern art, and a performance of Brahms' Deutsche Requiem at the rebuilt Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedäctniskirche. What we actually did was chase all over town after postage stamps, abandon the idea of the zoo, and discover that the Neue Nationalgalerie (which we had thought was the museum of modern art) was in fact a house exclusively for special exhibitions. Further, it was currently showing some complicated deconstruction of anarchy which none of us wanted to spend 10,-€ on.
Feeling a bit demoralized, we went to see The Italian Job (which, being about revenge methodically planned and executed in an utterly realistic fashion, makes a nice counterpart to Kill Bill). This cheered us back up again, so we ventured out — not to the Requiem, but to the Berliner Philharmoniker, playing a retrospective of the work of Max Bru[c]h on the occasion of his 165th birthday. The setting and the musicians were fabulous; the compositions were good, albeit not up to the standard of a Brahms or a Beethoven — but then, that's why Bruh is an obscure 19th century composer and they are famous. I have never before seen a piece performed which requires two pianos as well as a full orchestra; that one was, in my opinion, the best.
After the concert, we went to Alex(?)'s Diner (a decent German imitation of a good American 1950s-style diner) for dinner, and observed France beat Germany at soccer, 3-0.
Friday, 14 November 2003
# 10 PM (GMT+1)
Nathan didn't want to go museum hopping today so Dara and I went by ourselves. We visited the Ägyptisches Museum, which is across the street from the Schloß Charlottenburg (a palace built by Friedrich I of Prussia for his wife Sophie-Charlotte). This has one of the best collections of Egyptian archaeological finds in the world, and it could be made into a thoughtful exploration and exegesis of the ancient Egyptian culture. Instead, though, it's just a context-free gallery of items taken from various people's graves. As these items include numerous well-executed statues of these people's heads, the total effect was both creepy and disappointing.
The weather was too cold to walk around in the gardens of the Schloß so instead we got back on the U-bahn and went to the Neue Nationalgalerie which was supposed to be Berlin's collection of modern art. [It isn't. More on this later.] But that was closed for exhibit changes. Fortunately, next door we found the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Arts and Crafts) which was having an exhibit on the late-20th-century practical design tradition in Scandinavia. Titled "Scandinavian Design: Beyond the Myth", it suffered from a lot of dubious art criticism intending to explain why this style is popular. Also from glaring white fluorescent display tables. However, the exhibited objects themselves were fascinating. I'd never have thought one could do so much with the basic chair concept while remaining true to its function.
(For the record, my personal, much shorter, theory: lots of late 20th designers aimed at simplicity, but only the Scandinavians reliably achieved it without also achieving ugliness. Which is not to say that all of the stuff in the exhibit was simple, pleasant, or both, but most of it was.)
This museum's permanent collection is a historical progression of furniture and other practical items. I'd have liked to see more isochronic, cross-cultural comparisons, — it's very Eurocentric, — but one can't have everything.
We called it an early night; I am still a little jet lagged and Dara is still recovering from the directing gig.
Thursday, 13 November 2003
# 9 PM (GMT+1)
We visited the Museum of Musical Instruments in Potzdamer Platz, which has examples mostly of pianos, violins, and their precursors back to the 15th century or so. Also pipe organs large and small, and a bizarre interactive exhibit in which loudspeaker drivers were coupled to various found objects, like a street sign and an ashcan. It wasn't very good on brass instruments, and I saw no examples of woodwinds at all. Still lots of fun. Did you know they used to make walking sticks that unfolded into violins?
After this, we went to a movie: Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino's latest, in which a woman exacts revenge on her former employer, Bill. He tried to kill her, so she's going to kill all his other former employees and then him. (It helps to mention that this was an all-female assassination squad that Bill was running.) It is best seen as Tarantino's loving homage and deconstruction of the genre of over-the-top action movies, not as a story in any way plausible. It suffers from having been cut in half so as not to be three hours long — we only saw the first half, which ends with Bill still quite alive and it not being clear why he tried to kill the protagonist in the first place.
And then we went out to Kurfürstendamm (aka "Ku'damm") where there used to be a church, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedäctniskirche, which was mostly destroyed by bombing in World War II. After the war, what was left was shored up and left as is, and a new church built in a modern style on the rest of the site. The combined effect, to my mind, is a symbol of Berlin as a whole: scarred by history, but picking up the pieces and moving on. (Construction sites are ubiquitous here.)
We had dinner at the Europa Center, in a German imitation of an American imitation of a bad Irish pub ... at least the beer was good. There was a fascinating clock in the center of the mall which told the time with green liquid in a maze of pipes, doing extremely clever things with the principle of the siphon.
Random thought: The advertising tagline for Matrix: Revolutions says "Everything that has a beginning must have an end." Are these people unfamiliar with high school algebra? The set of all real numbers greater than or equal to 42 has a beginning but no end, or an end but no beginning, depending which way you're going.
# 1 PM (GMT+1)
Dara and Nathan and I went to lunch in the revolving restaurant at the top of the TV tower in Alexanderplatz. The view from the observation deck is good, albeit blocked by haze today. In this revolving restaurant, only a narrow strip with all the tables is moving; the rest stays still, in particular the kitchen and the exit. This is not what I had envisioned but I suppose it's more practical.
After lunch we went walking in the plaza west of the tower. Directly between the Red Rathaus (seat of the old city government) and the Marienkirche is a fine statue of Poseidon surrounded by naiads representing the four principal rivers of Germany; also various sea creatures, and centaurs with webbed frog feet. Farther west is the Marx-Engels-Forum, built by the old DDR. The centerpiece of this is a bronze statue of Marx and Engels, done in a spare style which works quite well. Around them are metal slabs with tiny photographs of I know not what, and stone slabs with relief figures of struggling people. It rather wants a commentary, or at least an explanatory placard. There isn't even an artist credit.
We also stepped into the Marienkirche, which is plain red brick on the outside but beautiful white gothic stone arches on the inside. It was under renovation, there was a service in progress, and some people were setting up to take high quality photos of the interior art, so we didn't want to stay long and get underfoot.
Wednesday, 12 November 2003
# 8 PM (GMT+1)
We arrived at the Ostbahnhof at 7:30 and got a taxi to Dara's apartment. I'll be gone by the time the troupe come back from touring, so one of the actors is letting me house-sit her apartment for the week. It's a really nice loft apartment in the same building as Dara, with a good view on all sides — I'll take pictures tomorrow. For now, Dara and her boyfriend Nathan are going out to a movie, and I'm going to bed. Jet lag + long train ride + up too late last night drinking = exhausted.
# 3:30 PM (GMT+1)
Packed and boarded another ICE train at 1:28 sharp today, bound for the Berlin Ostbahnhof. The ICE can run at up to 250kph on these long routes, and it's only 750km as the wolf runs, but it still takes six hours from Offenburg. I imagine not all the track can handle the top speed; also, there are a lot of stops.
The countryside is going by too fast to take pictures. It's lots of deciduous forest — turning red and gold and brown at this time of year — or else farmland, lying fallow for the winter. As we go north and east the terrain is getting hillier. The train goes over lots of long bridges over entire valleys. There's farming in the valleys and the hills are left to forest.
I can't get a good sense of the cities we're stopping in, from just the train stations. They seem more compact than I'm used to from America. In general, Germany is densely populated but still manages to have lots of open country, and i suspect this is due to the preference for building compactly.
# 3 AM (GMT+1)
Dara arrived at two PM. We went for another walk, staying close to the city center this time. We found evidence that there is a juvenile population in this city after all — for instance, the curious climbing gym outside the Technisches Rathaus.
Then we went out for food. Dara tells me that all the fast-food places have no seating because the German custom is to hang on to a table for hours once you have it. This also explains why the waiters at the sit-down eateries are so slow to bring the bill. ("What, leaving already? Is something wrong?")
At six-thirty we went to the theater where Dara's play, Human Bombing was to be held. This is the "Reithalle" on the Moltkestraße, fairly close to the Musik,-Kunstschule I visited earlier today. Outside there was a group of people with candle lanterns dancing around in a circle; we inquired and were told that today is the feast of St. Martin, which is always celebrated in this fashion.
There weren't very many people come to the play, which was a surprise — the Berliner Compagnie can usually draw a full house just on its reputation. The organizers suspected that the local bishop, or someone else locally important in the Catholic Church, had spoken against the play on account of its being slightly antireligious.
The play itself was in Dara's usual style. There were four actors, all of whom were onstage the whole time, although one of them occasionally would hide behind part of the set. Each had a primary character that they would play most of the time, but they would all take other roles as needed. Also, generally only one or two of the primary characters would be taking an active role at a time; the other actors would form a chorus, in the Greek style, which would dialogue with the active named characters. Finally, all the spoken dialogue was counterpointed with gesture and rhythm, backed up by a drummer to one side of the stage.
Knowing only little German I was not able to follow the plot in detail, but the staging conveyed the gist fairly well. It's a rewrite of the aftermath of the Trojan War. Victorious Agamemnon claims that, while Troy is defeated, Paris and Helen have escaped to Babylon; so he wants to to carry the war onward to conquer it too. In this he is opposed by Clytemnestra and Electra, who are sick of war. Orestes at first delights in the prospect of more military glory, but comes around to Electra's position later in the play. (Resemblances to present day events are intentional.)
After the play the whole company went out for dinner and drinks. This being the last day Dara is on tour with the troupe, we all stayed up very late indeed, drinking round after round of beer and discussing last-minute adjustments to the play. I regret to say I cannot keep up with the Germans when it comes to serious drinking.
Metaphor of the week, as stated by one of the actors: "Helma called Dara to direct, as one might call a spirit, and then could not control her as well as she might have liked. Compare to the story of Faust."
Tuesday, 11 November 2003
# 11:30 AM (GMT+1)
Got up today and went for a long walk out the east side of Offenburg. It's a small town. You go a couple kilometers and you're in open country. The population is aging: there are lots of churches, graveyards, and doctors, but only a handful of schools. You see lots of old people walking around, but hardly any children. It's also a town with a long history. I walked through one of the graveyards. There were stones with both dates in the 18th century, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were even older ones. Past that graveyard is an odd hexagonal church, and then open fields with scattered houses. (Told you it was a small town.)
On the way back I walked past the Musik- und Kunstschule on Weingartenstraße, and an old quarter now taken over by little artists' shops.
Monday, 10 November 2003
# 4:20 PM (GMT+1)
The journey occupied the last twenty-four hours, counting from when I walked out the door in San Francisco to when I walked in the door of my hotel room here. If you deduct time spent sitting around in airports waiting for a connection, it comes to more like 18 hours actually in motion. Or, turnabout, counting the nine hours lost to changing time zones brings the grand total to 33 hours.
The airline part of this was too much trouble. I had to change planes twice, because (a) the airlines do not understand the "grand tour" style of vacation, and (b) hub-and-spoke flights are all very well but when they add six hours to my in-the-air time I must respectfully decline. So I wound up going SFO -> JFK (New York) -> Heathrow (London) -> Frankfurt, which at least has no retrograde motion involved.
Once I got to Frankfurt I had to go the rest of the way to Offenburg by train. This part was quite pleasant. Die Bahn's InterCityExpress (ICE) trains (don't know why the name is in English) are modern, all-electric, fast and eerily silent. Which is a joy, if you've just spent sixteen hours on noisy airplanes.
Not-in-Kansas moment for this trip: there's a casino in the Frankfurt airport.
I wish I spoke German properly. I can dope out things on signs, but I can't communicate with waiters in restaurants for beans. Michael (my friend who was just in this country) and Dara (my sister, whom I am visiting) both predicted this would not be a problem, because "they all speak better English than you do, anyway." This may well be true in the capital or in academic Saarbrucken, but it sure isn't true here.
Sunday, 9 November 2003
# 1:05 AM
I got a digital camera and I've been having fun taking photos of various things I've done over the past couple weeks. Please don't save deep links into that directory, I expect to be tweaking the gallery structure and so on.
Ex Bibliotheca will be on hiatus for the next two weeks, as I am traveling in Germany and New York. When I return, there will be more photos.