02 March, 2008

day six. berlin. the weight of the future, the weight of history.

i cant believe its only day six. how am i going to get through the next 28 days? i suppose it just seems long because there arent that many shows. we play tuesday in paris, and our next gig isnt for another 10 days. i am happy to be a tourist some of the time, but thats not my passion. my passion is music and i am just not making enough of it right now.

i've been so looking forward to being in berlin, perhaps unfairly so. maybe its just another big capital city. and i am thinking this: its so easy to forget how much you need your friends, and how much the way you see a city depends on who you are with. some of my favorite times traveling, on tour or otherwise, have been in the most ridiculously unexpected places but with the perfect company. so here i am exploring berlin alone, and it just feels a little meaningless to me without someone to share it with. so i share it with you, little blog friends.

i got in last night around 6. i had grand plans to see some music or a show, it being saturday night and all. my attempts were thwarted, not too much english language to choose from, and my brain didnt want to translate. so i did some yoga for the first time in days, and then, drumroll please: went to the grocery store. i cant tell you how happy that made me. i took my time, spending over an hour in a big german supermarket just up the street. i bought fish and mueslix, apples and honey, vegetables and soy products. viva la soya! and so i returned to my hotel room for my first meal in a week that didnt include meat or cheese. yes!

my jet lag got me today, despite my best efforts, and i woke up at 1230. sunday in europe means you gotta start early, so i missed alot of the meaty part of the day for see-ing stuff. i was also warned that the weather here would be suspect this time of year. they were right about today! gloomy and raining and wind gusts so hard you had to stop walking and hold onto something. no kidding!

my first stop was the berlin museum of medical history. set on the campus of the charite hospital, the 3 floor museum included a huge collection of medical specimens from the 1700s onward. i saw everything from kidney stones to an iron lung, with early attempts at plastic surgery, two headed babies, cancerous lungs, and wax models of eye afflictions to boot. i must admit i have a little thing for medical curiosities. something about seeing the range of human malformation makes me feel more a part of the regular world, instead of on the physical fringes of it. i saw a version of "body worlds", the fancy new plastination exhibit, in new york a couple years ago. i found it interesting, but not nearly arresting enough. i left the museum today sick to my stomach and totally satisfied. i dont think in america they would have an exhibit like this. someone would protest that it was too graphic or somehow immoral. whats the problem with presenting a whole, and sometimes imperfect, picture of humans? europeans seem to trust themselves to make their own decisions, draw their own boundaries and come to their own conclusions.

of course its the babies that ellicit the most visceral response. as whole minature versions of us, we cant help but feel like we are looking into some kind of time warp, or mirror to our smaller selves. we could have, any of us, been that baby without a head, or the one whose organs formed outside its body, or the one that was normal from the head down until you got to the torso which literally melted into one long fin. i think the feeling is doubly immediate for a woman. what if that was the baby i grew inside me?

i took a long walk afterwards to clear my head and ended up face to face with the reichstag, the german parliament building. bombed during WWII, now beautifully restored, i still couldnt help but feel the weight of berlin's past in it. my dad sent me an email yesterday describing his own trip to berlin this past summer. "All the while we were in Germany, I constantly had a sense of being where the Nazis once were," he wrote. i feel it too, so i cant imagine what someone of my dad's generation would feel. thats all we've known of germany. what does that do to a country to have to extricate itself from under a stone like that? its impossible to start over. germany is Germany, so what do you do? i suppose they have done the only thing you can: soberly face the truth, tell it, and keep moving forward.

i passed through the brandenberg gate, which was bigger than i expected. you know how sometimes grand historical symbols seem so much smaller in person (like heroes)? the gate was grander than i would have thought. i turned right and found myself at the holocaust memorial, which here is called the "memorial to the death of european jews". its a city block of granite plinths. as you look at it, they seem all about the same height, but as you walk through them, the ground falls away until you are in the middle of the grid, with the blocks towering over you. it wasnt very crowded because of the weather, but occasionally i would look down a row and see someone's winter jacket and red scarf breaking up the bleak stone pillars. it was incredibly moving to be there. somehow it all conveyed the size and scope so succintly, all the more powerfully for its bleakness and silence.

another walk to clear my head took me surprisingly to a church. i've been in other cities that seem to have more churches than here. the franzohsichkirche is part of the complex of buildings that make up the berliner conzert haus. i walked in at the intermission of a musik school recital. so i sat down and was treated to a fine fine performance of beethoven's first symphony.

i guess the weather was getting to me, or maybe it was just to keep the theme of a heavy day, but i decided to end my day with a trip to the jewish museum. of course, the holocaust is one small part of the history of jews in germany. it just happens to be horrific and defining. i give credit to the museum for giving the whole history its just due. the upper floors are a more traditional museum setting, though still fascinating and interactive. the basement of the building is like a summation in architechture of the entire upstairs. it consists of 3 overlapping and intersecting hallways. the axis of exile, continuity and holocaust. each hallway has a few objects displayed in them, and each ends in a different type of tower. a garden, a completely empty void, and an installation of thousands of iron masks you walk on, producing an incredible clanking sound. i felt disoriented, i felt overwhelmed, i felt more than walls should make you feel by simply being walls.

i walked a long way after that, trying to find a lesbian cafe that i had read about online, only to find that it was more of a women's center and turkish bath, which it being sunday was shuttered. i'm not really sure i could have switched gears like that anyhow.

history is irrefutable. we carry it with us whether we want to or not. some of us choose to acknowledge it as best we can by writing or tatooing or in the way we live our lives. but what if your history is so heavy and so well-known it threatens to overwhelm the casual or ignorant observer? i hope tomorrow to find myself somewhere lighter in berlin and myself.


  1. Have you checked out the Mutter Museum in Philly? They have all sorts of disgusting/fascinating medical oddities.


  2. I was about to leave about the same note as Amanda (though I would have had to look up the name).
    Interesting blog.

  3. "what does that do to a country to have to extricate itself from under a stone like that? its impossible to start over. germany is Germany, so what do you do?"

    This is a really good blog, I love the way you write. It's so cool you went to Berlin in March, I've seen you in Austin this year and that must have been right around that time as well.
    I'm German and what you wrote made me remember that I tried to hide the fact that I am German when I was in the States from time to time. You are right - it is impossible to start over again. But sometimes I wonder if the way we deal with that fact is the right way. I remember that when I was in school they taught us about the Holocaust for the first time when we were 11 years old. When I graduated I was 18 - in these 7 years we heard about the Holocaust every other day. I think it is very important to remind people on their responsibility of not letting something like the Holocaust happen again. But sometimes I wonder if my generation (I am 22) really has to pay for what people that might have been my ancestors did 70 years ago. It's hard to identify yourself with your country when it is responsible for such a terrible history. And it's hard for a lot of people to find an identity for themselves here because of that. I think that is what it does to a country when it has to extricate itself from under a stone – the people of a country that is associated with that history is broken (I hope this is the correct way of saying that). We do not have pride for our country here. At least we should not - that is what they start teaching you here in your first history lesson. And to see Americans be so proud of their country made me sad and jealous at the same time. I'm not sure if us Germans are allowed to be proud ever again, but I do think that pride is very important when it comes to being ONE people. You know what I mean?