24 September: Farewell party at Rodeo Restaurant

The Bosch fellows were treated to dinner at Rodeo Restaurant, which you can actually read about in this New York Times article.


Backstage Meeting

The Bosch Fellows’ first day back in Berlin (23 September) focused on subjects related to the former German Democratic Republic (DDR). I took the liberty of joining a conversation at the Volksbühne (a theater in the former East) billed as “Culture in the DDR.” Our hosts were Stefan Rosinski, the theater’s head dramaturg, and another dramaturg, whose name I missed (but by process of elimination was probably Sabine Zielke).

We were led through a shabby but seemingly spacious backstage administrative area to an office that struck me as a DDR time capsule. The look was mid-century modernism, with flat wood paneling everywhere. Only one picture hung from the walls, a propaganda poster depicting Stalin:

Our host was Stefan Rosinski, dressed expensively in shades of black. His thick, graying mane reminded me of Beethoven throughout the conversation. Sabine Zielke held court on her own until he showed up, and then she barely said a word. (Welcome to the German workplace pecking order. I noticed on the Volksbühne website that the five male dramaturgs are listed before the two female dramaturgs.)

Theater History

Much of the conversation was a scattered history of theater in the DDR. A summary follows.

Fascism is hierarchical and centralized, and after 1945 the East German theater became hierarchical and centralized. There were theater training schools, and every graduate received an appointment to a theater, and could not be fired.

Old classics (e.g. Shakespeare) were a big part of the repertory, and were probably the least problematic plays to perform. Modern classics were hit or miss. Ibsen, for instance, was a bit too bourgeois for East German tastes. Contemporary authors faced a dilemma: Did they really want to paint a picture of the world around them? If so, was it safe to depict the world as it existed? Was it selling out to depict the world more palatably?

The arts developed along different lines in East and West Germany. Both nations sought to use culture to create a national identity, but in different ways. Architecture provides an easy example. As West Germany rebuilt, it sought a new, modern idiom that was unlike the architecture of the 1930s. As East Germany rebuilt, it sought to define a new socialist architecture.

In the 60s, theater in West Germany became more explicitly political. An example is the play Die Ermittlung (The Investigation) (1965) by Peter Weiss, a docudrama based on transcripts of the Auschwitz Trials.

A major event in East German theater was the 1965 production of The Dragon by Yevgeny Schwarz at Berlin's Deutsches Theater. It ran for 500 performances to full houses. I remember The Dragon from grad school. It's a fairy tale, and woefully obvious allegory of totalitarianism. (A town has learned to accommodate a tyrannical dragon.) Ziekle would have me believe that the DDR apparatchiks were so out of touch that they didn't get that they were the subject of criticism, and let the show go on. (I find that doubtful. An easier explanation is that they knew who to keep an eye on by seeing who went to see this play.)

(For information about Horst Sagert's designs for The Dragon, follow this link.)

In the 70s, resignation set in. Authors addressed private rather than topical themes. In the 80s, aesthetic forms took over.

Then in 1989 with the fall of the DDR, 30-40 years of divided and distinct theater history came to an end. Sabine Zielke, who unlike Stefan Rosinski lived in the East, chimed in to say that for the next two or three years everyone was in a perpetual state of confusion.

Reunification, and thus westernization, made it much more expensive to run a theater. The staff of the Oper Unter den Linden was cut from 1,000 to 500 employees.

The head of the Volksbühne made a decision that it was necessary to integrate as quickly as possible, and now has about a 50/50 split of employees from the former East and the former West. Other houses made other choices—it sounds like the Deutsches Theater is still largely an East German operation.

Berlin comprises two worlds sharing the same space. In Rosinski’s opinion, if Berlin could have, it would have chosen to be part of neither the East nor the West. After reunification, a dynamic of friendly competition emerged, as each theater attempts to do better work than its rivals’.

One consequence of having lived through the DDR (and I think Rosinski must have been referring to the former East Germans specifically) is that there is now an aversion to all systems—actor training, ticketing, subscriptions, etc.

Please, not Heiner Müller

A question Germans must wrestle with is what defines Germanness (“Was ist das Deutsche?”). There are significant cultural and linguistic variations that make it difficult to speak of a shared German identity. Rosinski’s interesting but problematic claim is that since Germans don’t really speak a shared language, the language they can all agree on is German as it is spoken on the stage, a semi-artificial construct analogous to BBC English. For this reason, and this is where his argument gets murky, Germans are unusually attached to the theater, and willing to support it even if they never attend, because the theater is an assertion of a shared cultural identity.

Because of this high level of public support, a theater is essentially a Behörde, a public authority. What this means is means theaters have endless freedom and are responsible to no one.

Toward the end of the conversation I asked what I knew was a fairly stinky question: What remains of the theater of the DDR, and please don’t tell me Heiner Müller. The answer: Well, actually it is Heiner Müller.

For those not already in the know, Müller is widely thought of Brecht’s intellectual successor. His plays are abstract heaps of cultural detritus. None of it makes much sense, but it’s not mysterious what he’s saying: We Germans are being crushed under the weight of our accumulated history. He scores some points for having something to say in a system not interested in what you had to say, but that’s about as much credit as I will give him. He's not my favorite author. Not even remotely.

The Volksbühne dramaturgs described putting on a huge production of Müller’s Die Schlacht (The Battle) that they were very into, but which attracted an audience of only about 50 people a night. When you imagine that you have a right to exist because the state funds you without regard to the work you create, the result is theater no one gets and no one wants to see.

I objected that theater is a means of communication, and if they were doing plays for the benefit of 50 diehards, they weren’t doing their job.

Rosinsky had a ready response. Like Picasso, it will take the world 50 years to understand Müller. A clever but specious answer. You can hang a Picasso on a museum wall for 50 years, and over time some people will get something out of it. But I don’t have 50 years to get something out of an evening at the theater.

Rosinski told us that What Müller conveys is: None of you understand, but what I’m saying is very important. Rosinski obviously thinks this is ducky; I think this is completely arrogant.

In a previous conversation with theater students from the UK, someone objected to Rosinski that he had been going on for some time without ever mentioning the public. The thing is, by his own admission, he doesn’t actually care about the public.

He ended the conversation snidely, telling us the following joke: Two people meet in New York. The one says she’s an actress. The other replies, “Oh, which café?” I took this as his way of saying, “Aren’t we wonderful? Isn’t it great that we can actually do our work as artists unlike you heathen Americans subject to market forces?” Bah.

Essen Zollverein

As regular readers may recall, I amply dismissed Essen. Here, for the curious, is a less dismissive discussion of the Essen Zollverein complex, by none less than the singer David Byrne: http://journal.davidbyrne.com/2006/08/essen.html.

How to flush a contemporary German toilet

This is a toilet. If you're only making a small transaction, press the small button. If you're making a larger transaction, press the larger button. Any questions?

Hamburg coffeehouses

I had occasion to while away hours in two of Hamburgs great coffeehouses with the Bosch spouses.

1. Café Paris, a traditional French brasserie. (I had a delicious dish of the following: gnocchi, grilled I think; braised cherry tomatoes; touches of goat cheese for flavor; a hint of shaved peccorino; and a "pesto" of ground walnuts, honey, and rosemary. I think this dish could be reverse engineered without too much difficulty.)

2. Literaturhaus Cafe, which the guidebook aptly describes as shabby and baroque.

I had a very respectable Kaiserschmarren (with quartered plums, rather than the more traditional plum compote, as well as an entirely untraditional but yummy, eggy ice cream). I continue to be struck by how many fancy dishes the Germans have stolen from Viennese cuisine.

Es lohnt sich / Es lohnt sich nicht #10

Lübeck is famous for its marzipan, and we started the afternoon at the Niederegger Konditorei (pastry cafe, roughly). I've never met marzipan I didn't like, and the desserts were yummy, but today's shout out goes to the marzipan tea. Heavenly. Es lohnt sich.

20 September: Lübeck

This being a life of excursions, we spent Sunday in Lübeck, another port city, albeit one whose days of significance has past. After relaxing a bit a cafe (more on that in another post) we took an architecture tour, led by a local architect who was passionate about his built environment and urban design.

A refrain of his comments was that Lübeck has always been trying to figure out what it's local idiom is. For instance, in 1938 a building needed some work. The original facade was baroque, but the cagey architect knew that the Nazis weren't going to support restoring something vaguely French. Instead, he designed a facade that looks about like an old warehouse on the river--something more "German." That's what got built (building on left).

This too was a bit of a joke. The image of Lübeck is brick. In truth, the old structurally brick warehouses and homes were stuccoed. It simply turned out that the stuccoed, painted facades fell off due to the local weather.

Later in the 20th century, modernists tried to square their ideas (simple forms) with the local skyline (jagged). As post-modernism began to take hold, there were some buildings built that kind of look like the 1938 building and others like it. One issue was that people had basically forgotten how to build in brick. Another issue was that architects had essentially copied from an architectural forgery based on something that no longer looked as it originally had. Got all that?

I'll let photos of the town speak for themselves.

Dinner was at the Schiffergesellschaft, a local institution since roughly 1538.


The next stop on our tour was Hamburg. I had visited Hamburg long ago, and only for a day in the middle of winter. It was dark, cold, Nordic. Also, I got to see Ulrich Wildgruber perform Prospero in The Tempest. That of course is another story.

My impression of Hamburg by daylight in warmer weather is something else. There are sites that match one's mental image of Europe. This, for instance, is a courtyard in the Town Hall.

Other areas are more functional and industrial. This area near the harbor reminds me a lot of Chicago, right down to the bascule bridges that I spotted here and there.

We got to take a boat tour of the harbor, and that too reshaped my impression. Hamburg is one of the largest, busiest ports in the world, and the scale of activity around the water definitely gives the city a muscular feel.

These gigantic cranes (I'm not sure what else I would call them) move shipping containers onto and off of ships. Under optimal circumstances, one of these can load or unload a 40' container in a minute. You do the math. That's 60 an hour, and there are four cranes in this photo alone. To get an approximate sense of scale, think of each crane as a five-year-old child, and each 40' shipping container as a matchbox car.

This is a creepy buoy out in the harbor.

Es lohnt sich / Es lohnt sich nicht #9

We traveled from Cologne to Hamburg by way of Essen. I realize they are European Culture Capital 2010, but I don't care. Verdict: Es lohnt sich nicht. Not worth it.

For better, or mostly for worse, Essen is in an industrial region that is past its prime. Its central attraction is the Zollverein, a gigantic coal-processing facility turned into a tourist attraction. (Looks a bit like a set for a sci-fi movie.) Info here.

It's just not that interesting. For those of you in Montana, this would be like designating Butte a cultural heritage site because it has a gigantic, polluted, abandoned copper pit.

The, uh, facilities

Before moving off of Cologne onto other topics, I would just like to point your attention to this blog post by another Bosch spouse: http://lifewithumlauts.blogspot.com/2009/09/facilities-in-koln.html. I was in in the same hotel, and visited the male version of the restaurant WC of which she speaks.

Es loht sich / Es lohnt sich nicht #8

Cologne, it turns out, has a very respectable Käthe Kollwitz museum. She's a tough artist to put a finger on. She was active from the late 1800s through her death in 1945, an era of isms, though she to my knowledge embraced none of them. There's a hint of expressionism lurking (more in mood than in execution). There's a hint of die Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity). Mostly, I think she just did her own thing.

In many images, the subject's hands are touching her head, a motif of grief, I think.

Self portrait

While strolling Cologne, this destroyed church (St. Alban's) caught my eye. I later learned that the sculptures are copies of originals Kollwitz made for a monument in Russia, where her son was killed in WWI. It's called "The Mourning Parents."

Es lohnt sich / Es lohnt sich nicht #7

Five or six wines were served during our tour of Kloster Eberbach, all good, some amazing. One, an "erstes Gewächs," was bewilderingly delicious and was not for sale. (As I think about this, I bet the Bosch Stiftung paid good money for our tour.)

The verdict on the wine: Es lohnt sich. And then some.

The first course at dinner was a Riesling-Creme-Suppe (Riesling creme soup). Wow. Fantastic. Es lohnt sich ziemlich.

Mastering the art of Riesling-Creme-Suppe is now on my to-do list. If you know some German, you can try this recipe (which I have not). The ingredients are onions, butter, Riesling, broth, sour cream, flour, heavy cream, parsley, salt, and white pepper.

16 September: Kloster Eberbach

Before heading back to Cologne from Frankfurt, we made a nice pit stop at Kloster Eberbach, a long-defunct Cistercian monastery, now a vineyard and wine cellar.

I knew Cistercian monasteries were austere, but I hadn't realized how crazy these monks were. Not only were the walls bare and undecorated, they were vegetarians in an era without even rice or potatoes, let alone soy protein; they wore sandals throughout the year; there was no glass covering the windows; and so on and so on. There were a lot of respiratory ailments, and your life expectancy was brief.

Curiously, there were also laymen who worked at the monastery (e.g. to build stuff). Their world was literally separated from the monks' by a wall. I can barely imagine what they laymen got out of the arrangement, since they wore the monks' hand-me-downs, which would have been shabby at best. One of the laymen murdered an abbot. Frustration. Resentment.

Kloster Eberbach is where The Name of the Rose was filmed.

16 September: Frankfurt

I have to admit that my day in Frankfurt surprised me. Every opinion I had ever heard was to the effect of: Frankfurt is a gleaming, modern, financial city. It's fine for conducting business, but otherwise there's no reason to go there.

Some of that is correct. It is a gleaming, modern city of skyscrapers and wide streets. It would be easy to think you're in an American city.


But Frankfurt, it turns out, also has an attractive "old town," built on a much lower scale with a very different feel. Admittedly, much of the old town isn't very old. Like much of Germany, it suffered a lot of damage, so what you're seeing is a simulacrum of what was there before. But this is nevertheless not the urban landscape I was imagining.

Words I never imagined writing: it would be nice to have more time to spend in Frankfurt.

Yes, we gähn!

The two main candidates in the upcoming election, Chancellor Angela Merkel and challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier, put Germany to sleep with their televised debate a couple of nights ago. The cheeky headline in Die Bild: Yes, we gähn! (Yes, we yawn).


Es lohnt sich / Es lohnt sich nicht #6

While in Munich, E. and I went to Villa Stuck, a small museum in the former private home of the artist Franz Stuck. Exquisite. Verdict: Es lohnt sich.

The Mason-Dixon Line

Having lived in Vienna for a good long while, Austria is normal for me, whereas Germany is a little off. As we traveled south, my cultural comfort level rose palpably. In Heldeiberg I spied a proper Cafe Konditorei (mmmm). In Stuttgart I heard my first Grüß Gott, and by Andechs I heard lots of Grüß Gott.

It was striking to me that Bavaria was presented to us as some sort of German exception, a place where everything is a little bit off. And from a northern German perspective, that's correct. From an Austrian perspective, Bavaria is the last place where it's still normal, whereas Germany north of Bavaria is off.

I felt a sort of cultural relief in Munich. For example, we had stopped in a photo exhibit in the lobby of an office building. I asked the guard sitting at the desk for a cafe recommendation. In no time we're chatting. He gives me one suggestion--the cafe is nice, but doesn't have much of a selection. So he gives me other suggestions. Twice he gets up and walks over to a closet to pull out brochures for me of places I might like. There is a sort of hearty friendliness that comes more easily to the south Germans and Austrians.

While in the south, I had to quickly relearn the German I used to know and have been unlearning in order to navigate Berlin.

North German = South German (translation)

Quark = Topfen (yummy rich dairy product we don't have in the US, roughly a cross between yogurt and cream cheese)

Guten Tag = Grüß Gott (hello)

Tschüs = Servus (goodbye)

Aprikosen = Marillen (apricots)

kucken = schauen (look, peer)

Brötchen = Semmel (roll, bun)

Trödelmarkt = Flohmarkt (flea market)

Tüte = Sackl (bag)

bischen = bisl (a little bit)

In the same vein, I overheard a man sitting near me in a restaurant say "Das gibt es doch nicht," which is what Austrians say every three minutes, but which I have never heard in Berlin. (Loose translation: "That just doesn't happen." As I think about this, this tells you something about the South German and Austrian mentality. They live in a constant state of astonishment.)

9 - 13 September 2009: Munich

9 September 2009: Andechs Monastery

Almost as soon as we arrived in Munich, the Boschies went on a side trip to Andechs Monastery. The site is very picturesque.

Andechs houses a bunch of religious relics, so it has long been a destination for pilgrims. I've lost track of who was fighting with whom, but some duke or king or prince was fighting another duke or king or prince, and hoped to steal the relics. When the dust settled, however, the relics were nowhere to be found. They had been stashed for safekeeping, but no one knew were. The chapel lost its significance because there were no relics to seek.

Then one day, during mass, they notice a mouse near the alter with a piece of parchment in its mouth. This was the missing clue: the relics had been stashed in a chest below the altar. This is the chest:

Now that Andechs had its religious relics again, it was once again a destination for pilgrims. The relics were kept safely under lock and key. And when I say lock, I mean lock:

Here are the relics today:

The church is structurally gothic, but redecorated in the baroque style.

8 September 2009: Stuttgart

Stuttgart strikes me as an attractive, affluent, bourgeois city. It's not a major tourist destination, but it's a pleasant place to visit.

The "old" castle:

The opera:

Back in Berlin, we visited what's essentially the embassy of Baden Würtenberg, and learned a bit about the region and its culture. The area has been deeply influenced by Peitism, which for simplicity's sake I'm going to describe as German Puritanism. In Berlin, many buildings have balconies so you can sit outside and read the paper. In Stuttgart, there are no balconies, since sitting on a balcony would amount to ostentatious idleness. A fellow American compared the locals to New Englanders.

I've gathered now from various sources that Stuttgarters are thus kind of stingy, trying to save a Euro where they can. We were hardly slumming it, but the plainest hotel we've stayed in yet was the one in Stuttgart.

Current German politics

A big election is coming up in Germany in two weeks. This article from the European edition of Time gives a good overview of the political and cultural issues.

Oktoberfest is coming

Yes, Oktoberfest is coming. And what would be better than a violent pink dirndl? A mere 150 Euros. You'll also need underwear, and a heart-shaped cookie to hang around your neck.