East Germany & Berlin Diary

Final notes from my recent trip to Central Europe. I kept them in a book in my pocket and typed them up after getting home.

7/29/10 – h

In the Theaterplatz of Altstadt (Old City) in Dresden. First thing in Dresden we checked in to our rooms then went out for durum.

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Yukio says Dresden is known for having an active young left, punk and squatter scene.

At the cafe/bar downstairs from our room at Mondpalast. Drinking a Krusovice, dark Czech beer, at a table with Yukio, Anya, and ATK. Across Louisenstrasse there is a hookah bar called Habibi. Turkish and Arabic food is everywhere in Germany, and hugely popular with Germans.

Dresden has a mildly hippie feel. Shops selling Indian textiles and incense. A German girl in a restaurant with a henna tattoo on her leg. As in Berlin, there’s some amazing graffiti around. Saw a giant graff-style mural of Shiva on one wall. Yukio says Dresden is known for having an active young left, punk and squatter scene. I saw a few punks earlier, looking very late 70’s with glued-up mohawk, but it’s still more of the soccer-mulletted hipster types.

The street we’re on, Louisenstrasse, has quite an active cafe culture, with loads of small clubs and sidewalk tables. Across the street, clouds of smoke from the hookahs… at a table next to us, a woman reads “Uber das Gluck” by Hermann Hesse. On the corner of Louisenstrasse and Martin Luther Strasse, there’s a shop called Abaddon, advertising “Industrial, Punk, Gothic, and Rock n’ Roll Lifestyle.”

All around Dresden I have been seeing posters for Dead Western on European tour. It’s none other than Troy “Mighty” from Sacramento! The poster is very slick. He is posing in a garden staring with a semi-idiotic look of wonder or insanity into space as he fondles a dangling pomegranate, framed in lush green foliage. He has black paint in stripes on his face, pseudo-warpaint.
dresden window

7/30/10 – t

Last night we went to see a jazz improv trio at Blue Note, a small jazz club in Dresden. It was very enjoyable. Been ages since I’ve seen jazz. The players were quite good. The drummer was a bit overdoing it, couldn’t hold himself back from showing off his chops. Seems like he needs to play in a technical death metal band once a week just to calm down. He tended to dominate the sound during the free jazz part, but when they were sticking more to a song structure he was phenomenal and all of them were. The pianist was doing some nice, subtle things with prepared piano during the improvisation.

We’re on the train to Kreutzberg. Passing through rural Saxony. Green rolling hills, wheat fields, placid countryside, with smokestacks, smokeless, in the distance. Towns with new development, old 5-story apartment houses, new apartment blocks. Yukio and Anya say that in Germany people refer to “altbau” (old building) and “neubau” (new building) to describe the kinds of buildings: those from the Grunderzeit (founders era) of the 19th century and earlier, and newer, modern buildings.

We passed through a town called Chemnitz, Karl-Marx-Stadt during the GDR, and returning to the old name a year after the wall came down.

8/2/10 – h

After a night in Dresden and one in rural Saxony, we came back to Berlin. Saxony’s countryside is very beautiful, rolling hills, wheat fields. In the distance the Autobahn, studded with solar panels on its edge. Windmills, never concentrated into farms or ugly, dot the countryside, sleek and pale.

We had beer and sausages with Sabina, Anja’s stepmother, and met Anja’s grandparents. Her grandparents are very cool people, and it was fascinating to hear their perspective on the DDR days. They are pretty unreconstructed communists apparently, because they had nothing but good things to say about the DDR. They said that there was more of a sense of community, that it wasn’t just everyone out for themselves the way it is now in Germany. That far from it being a cruel society, it was very humane.

As Yukio pointed out later, Gunter’s position as a veteran miner and mining engineer put him in an esteemed role in the DDR and in the general socialist worldview. So the fact that they had a very positive experience of it doesn’t mean it was that way for everyone.

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Saturday we came into Berlin on a bullet train from Liepzig. The ride was smooth and seamless even at over 200 kilometers per hour. Thank God bullet trains are coming to the USA. Can’t wait to ride a bullet train from SF to LA and back.
Saturday night there was a party at Yukio and Anja’s. Yesterday we took a while getting out, then ATK and I went to Alexandrplatz and walked down Under der Linden to the Reichstag building. We went to Kreutzberg and I had the most amazing schawarma of my life at a Lebanese place there.

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Post-trip:

Berlin is a city like no other. I enjoyed everywhere I went on this trip, but Berlin is the place I’ll make a point of coming back to. I had moments where I felt an urban epiphany, where I felt like I had suddenly woken up from a dream in which no city felt quite right into the reality of a city exactly the way it is supposed to be. I don’t want to idealize it too much, but there is a balance between density and open space, transit and automobile and pedestrian and bike, green and concrete, that just feels so right. I love the U.S., and I don’t want it to be Germany, but the urban model of Berlin is, without a doubt, a model that U.S. cities need to look at.

My hope is that the U.S. will, despite everything, move gradually towards a less car-dominated way of life. In the Bay Area, where I live, I would like to see streets narrowed and sidewalks widened. I would like to see priority given to cyclists and public transit expanded. A city like Berlin lets you see what that can mean: takes you past the speculation and discussion of urban policy and see why it’s worth pursuing that goal. It creates a city with a dynamic atmosphere and it doesn’t have to mean Manhattanization: alienating towers of apartment blocks and high-rises.

We finished up the trip with visits to the Pergamon, bike rides around the city, and a visit to Hamburgerbahnhof, a modern art museum in an old train station that retains the decor of a subway. There was so much more to see that I didn’t get to: visits to the Jewish and Stasi Museums; a giant park that used to be an airstrip used by the Nazis. It will have to wait until another trip. Berlin is a place I look forward to going back to.

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