Cottbus

Last weekend, as E. attended a conference, I bummed around Cottbus for a day. It's another sleepy eastern German city.

To judge by the architecture, Cottbus must have been affluent and booming around 1900. There are many stately buildings of the era, including examples of Jugendstil (art nouveau).


Whenever I see Jugendstil in Germany I can't get past the thought that it's too heavy to be representative of the genre, though the motifs (vegetative patterns, sphinxes, etc.) are undeniable.


A local architectural highlight is the Jugendstil Staatstheater.


As it happened, shortly after we arrived there was an open rehearsal for an upcoming production of Antigone. I attended, along with about 100 others, which is fairly impressive for a cloudy Saturday morning. The event was billed as an experiment in marketing, and really was just an open rehearsal. The actors and directors worked on two scenes as we looked on, but the actors were barely off book, and the blocking was still taking shape, so it wasn't as if we were seeing anything close to the finished work.


(For theater buffs and dim-witted political scientists, that is an iron curtain, a metal wall that drops in the event of a theater fire to keep it from spreading. I noticed that a fire marshal attended even this rehearsal. German and Austrian fire marshals must be the most cultured people in the world, as one is required at every performance, just in case.)

Cottbus has some cute (though by European standards, ordinary) older architecture.





The highlight of modern architecture is this university campus building (a library, I think).


But if it looks like nothing is going on, it's because nothing is going on.


Treptower Park, Berlin

Neues Museum

The Neue Museum on Berlin's "museum island" was built between 1843 and 1855, and was one of the most notable buildings of Prussian Germany. In World War II it was bombed and pretty much destroyed.

Rather than tear it down, they left it as it was. That's not unusual in post-war Germany. For instance, the Frauenkirche in Dresden was left literally as a pile of rubble until they finally rebuilt it a few years ago. Here's the Neue Museum in 1980:


Then from 2003 to 2009, they put the Neue Museum back together again. Almost. And in October 2009, the museum opened to the public for the first time in 70 years. E. and I stood in line for a good hour to get inside on the first weekend.

The collection comprises mostly antiquities, but they are not the reason to visit. What's more interesting is the building itself, which is again complete, but which is essentially a stabilized version of its old ruined self.

The abraded walls look more like the ruins of Pompeii than a Prussian art gallery.


Many walls are rough brick. In its original state they would have been covered in plaster.


It's odd looking at fragments of antiquities in this space...


Where does the artifact end, and the museum begin? Is there any difference?


I am giving in to the undeniable fact that there is a Berlin aesthetic, and that this is it. The Berliners see their city, their space as an urban palimpsest, written upon and erased time and again. To paint the walls would be to deny history.

I'm reminded obliquely of my years in Austria. Despite having been as tangled up in the wars of the twentieth century as Germany was, Austria has a different notion of history. Like Germany, Austria was occupied by victors of WWII (and Vienna, like Berlin, was divided into sectors). It took Germany until 1989 to achieve a semblance of its former self. As such, it has a 20-year history. Austria, however, by declaring neutrality in 1955 achieved autonomy and normalcy much more handily, and as such has a 54-year history.

I wander Berlin and I see the clutter and damage of the 20th century everywhere. They're just now getting around to putting the place back together again. The Austrians were probably this far along by 1960.

One German perspective is that the Austrian history is in fact not resolved at all. The Austrians (so this line of thinking goes) think that because they were annexed they can wash their hands of their full and pliant participation in the Nazi regime. They dusted themselves off more quickly, but they've not faced the skeletons in the closet.

But the Germans, it seems to me, wallow arrogantly in their historical guilt. The reopened Neue Museum doesn't say: "We've cleaned up, and we're back to normal." Instead it says: "We have monumentalized our destruction. We will neither forget it ourselves, because we did awful things, nor let you forget it, because you did this to us."

Useful generalizations

The western part of Germany pays for the eastern part of Germany (through a subsidy for former East Germans). The southern part of Germany pays for the northern part of Germany (because Bavaria and Baden-W├╝rttemberg are where the industrial activity happens).

Bavaria alone has a "GNP" of over 400 billion Euros. Is it any wonder that Bavarians think of themselves as Bavarians first, Germans second?

In Munich everyone is well off. In Berlin everyone is doing poorly economically. In Cologne everyone is middle class. In Hamburg there's a big split between the rich and the poor.

It's raining babies

One of the most blatantly obvious things to note about Berlin is that there are babies everywhere you turn. I don't have a proper explanation for how or why this is happening. Germany's birth rate, as you can see in this New York Times graphic, is dropping like a brick:


The New York Times article says that the perception that Prenzlauer Berg (my neighborhood) is the neighborhood with the most children in Europe is false. “If you look at the different quarters of Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg has one of the lowest birthrates.” Maybe. But that doesn't change my perception of the matter, because I feel like I've never before encountered so many babies in one place.

A different measure of the baby boom is this: According to Der Tagesspiegel, in 2007, for the first time since World War II, there were more births than deaths in Berlin.

Here's a photo I took in my neighborhood (near Eberwalderstr. U-Bahn, for sticklers) on a recent afternoon. I count five baby buggies, and two Laufr├Ąder (pedal-less bikes for little tots). No, this isn't a baby buggy outlet store. This is a typical cafe on a typical day, crammed with mommies with babies.


Day Trip to Wittenberg

Wittenberg's obvious claim to fame is that it is the place where the Protestant Reformation began. It's a cute albeit sleepy town.



This is the place, though not the original door, where Luther nailed his 95 theses.



Speaking of the problems of Catholicism, one of Wittenberg's more dubious claims to fame is this Jewish Pig. I'll let Martin Luther be our tour guide. "Here in Wittenberg on our parish church a pig is carved in stone. Beneath it piglets and Jews are nursing. Behind the pig there's a rabbi, who while lifting the pig's right leg, and with his left hand pulling its tail, is bent over and peering assiduously at a Talmud, as though he hopes to read something trenchant." (Source.)


Wittenberg benefits from UNSESO Heritage Site Status, and much of the city looks spiffy, but some of the city looks like the semi-abandoned Eastern German city that it is.


Venture away from the historic town center, and the architecture looks a good deal more bland and Soviet.


Nearby, they had the late Viennese artist Friedrich Hundertwasser redo the facade of a school, which, whether you like it or don't, is a reprieve from the rectangular housing projects.


E. however was not impressed.


A Pretty Good Waffle

At a waffle joint on our block.

Funny Portable Toilets

The Giants in Berlin

Among the events marking the 20th anniversary of German reunification was a street performance dubbed the Giants in Berlin. This XXL puppet show by the French company Royal de Luxe was supposedly a fairy tale of reunion. Why a girl in a raincoat represents the East, and a man in a diving suit represents the West, I just don't know. (Actually I do: it was too expensive to make new puppets, so they recycled some old ones.) Regardless, it was a fun and impressive spectacle.



The best part of the show was watching the Lilliputians form human chains to make the giant's limbs move. These photos give you the general idea, but the video is even better.




I take back what I said. This is the best part of the show.


Berlin Wall

Yesterday, I stumbled onto a fantastic website documenting the Berlin Wall. It's in German, but the map feature is intuitive, so you can probably follow your nose even without German.

The two photos below were both taken around 1988-1989 (probably just before the collapse of East Germany). In the first photo, the building in the center is the building where we are now living. Our unit is one floor below the top floor, just to the right of the lamppost in the foreground.



In this second photo, the building we now live in is directly behind the watch tower. (Our unit is around the corner, and not visible from this angle.)



The contrast between then and now is breathtaking. Here's the street scene outside my window today: