Un Bacio di Bari (A Kiss from Bari)

Good friends G and V had been encouraging us to come visit them in Bari, and when M from Poland said she was taking a short vacation there this past weekend, T and I decided we had to dash down for the weekend. And I’m so glad we did. Bari is an example of one of those places that had only ever been at the far end of my radar, solely in connection with a friend from graduate days who had been born there. Now, along with Belfast, Bruges, and Berlin, it has turned into one of the “B” cities that has unexpectedly both delighted and inspired me to return as soon as possible.

Bari, located at the top of the heel of Italy in the region known as Puglia, is a harbor city dating from Greek and Roman times. Although briefly part of an emirate, for most of its history it was the subject of multiple tugs of wars between various Italian factions, Lombards, the Holy Roman Empire, Byzantium, and goodness knows who else. It grew into regional prominence under the unlikely patronage of Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, Prince of Naples, who expanded the city greatly in the 19th century, appending a large rational French urban grid to the small ancient city on the harbor. Mussolini added his own distinctive mark in the early 20th century with a number of oversized structures along the waterfront. Today Bari is a charming, vibrant, and surprisingly un-touristy city with lots of cultural and shopping options.

In Pescara, our closest transportation hub, T and I hopped on the Freccia Bianca, the fast train that flies up and down Italy’s Adriatic coastline. It took us just under three hours to cover the 300+ kilometers and dropped us gently at Bari’s central station, leading me to think I was somewhere in France (probably the influence of Murat):

What we hadn’t factored into our plans – but which managed to work out just fine for us – was that the finance ministers of the G-7 had also planned to be in town the exact same weekend:

It’s easy to spot economists – they all dress in identical versions of navy suits and white or light blue shirts, that weekend  sporting huge yellow badges, and surrounded by various forms of security forces. What was equally easy to spot was the massive official police presence all over town, blocking access to some of the tourist sites (the castle, in particular, where the meetings where held and part of the corniche along the sea.) I have rarely felt so safe…so although I couldn’t get any closer, here’s a shot of the Castello Normanno-Svevo, built around 1132 by the Norman/Sicilian King Roger II, complete with a few dozen of the local constabulary:

Look but don’t touch…

As part of the security measures, a number of the main streets were completely blocked off to vehicular traffic, lending a somewhat carnival air to the proceedings (although the actual number of pedestrians was radically reduced as a consequence). So on these lovely warm spring days and evenings, it felt as if we had the city completely to ourselves. Here is a shot of a main square with decorations from a recent festival celebrating the patron saint of the city, San Nicola, a fourth-century wonder-working churchman who later became transformed into our Santa Claus:

No visit to Bari is complete without a long lovely ramble through Bari Vecchia, the labryrinthian historic center of the ancient city recently rehabilitated from the ravages of urban decay and crime. Our quick visit didn’t allow me one of my favorite pastimes in a new city, that being a visit to the city museum. But as small consolation, I took a shot of its location in the entrance to the old town, with a quick promise to return as soon as possible:

I’ll be back

The genius of these old cities is, of course, that the winding alleys block both the wind and rain of the winter as well as the heat and blazing sun of the summer, particularly in a place like Bari that is plagued by precepitation mixed with dust blown up from the Sahara across the Mediterranean. The buildings remain temperate and protected nearly year-round. One does wonder, however, precisely how, ahem, sanitation was managed in days gone by; happily this is an issue that has been resolved in the here and now. Around a far corner, we stumbled onto…the remains of a Roman temple, today just standing guard over recent sanitation of the laundry variety:

A nearby inscription reads something along the lines of: “Under the patronage of the Comune, these monumental remnants of the ancient Bari buried forgotten for many centuries now again see the light.” October the (chiseled away) 1939 (chiseled away – year 17) of the era (chiseled away – Fascist) of the newborn Roman Empire.” (Language apparently redacted by an anonymous civic volunteer.) And that’s all she wrote.

But lest you think the Bari Vecchia is all work and no play, here’s a shot of a festive residence along the Le Vecchie Mura, the massive and pedestrian wall that separates the old town from the water and harbors on each side of it:

…and a few local ragazzi enjoying the afternoon:

One last view of boats in front of what I think I remember as the customs house, one of the reminders of Uncle Benito’s reign:

As you might imagine, all this hoofing, even without the press of crowds, can bring about a mighty hunger and thirst. One of southern Italy’s unique gastronomic offerings is Taralli, small (savory) or large (sweet) bread circles. They’re made of flour, white wine, olive oil, and salt, but no yeast, and oven baked:

Bet you can’t eat just one…

…and of course we did not. In addition to these nearly addictive munchies, G & V prepared a wonderful lunch for us and some other lucky friends. The meal included a wonderful pasta and some fantastic cheeses, along with the ubiquitous red and white wine but complemented particularly by G’s mother’s amazing Limoncello and some other lethal homemade liquors. Here’s a shot of the table after we had had our fill. T looks particularly satisfied…

…so there you have it…a wonderful get-away that kept me happily distracted for a couple days before our visit to the police the following Monday to submit the paperwork for my Permesso. But I have fallen in love, and T knows he’s in for at least one more visit to Bari before too long….I have to see the castle and the museum and walk again along the long lovely wall along the sea…

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Permesso di Soggiorno 2

  • Good News Department: Paperwork submitted. Fingerprints taken, data entered into computer before my eyes. Receipt for paperwork received (proving I am trying to become legal in Italy), which, combined with my passport and copy of our marriage certificate that should probably be adhered to my body, will keep me from being hauled off and placed in detention.
  • Patience Still Required Department: Process to actually *receive* Permesso may take weeks or months. Clarification: I am more or less free to move *around Italy* once T and I go and chat with the local police department and tell them what our plans are. Whew. I was under the impression I would have to stay tethered to four walls. Not true. Happy me.
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Permesso di Soggiorno 1

Now that I have entered into a state of international marital bliss (see previous post), there is, as you might expect, a price to be paid. And that price at the moment is trying to gain legal status to stay with my spouse in Italy and also to be able to travel about the European continent without fearing that I overstep overlapping and/or conflicting immigration regulations with dire consequences. We knew this day was coming; things are probably going as well as possible under the circumstances, but at the same time, I now have a much larger and lived appreciation for the anxiety and downright blood-chilling fear that must haunt the days and nights of millions of otherwise innocent immigrants and refugees who are trying to live a better life in places outside their own borders and must interface, as I am currently doing, with loads of bureaucratic administrative units, usually doing so, as I am currently doing, in a language not their own.

Shortly after our marriage, T called his locale commune (his township or local municipality) to inform them of a change in dependent status and ask for the next steps. In typical charming Italian fashion, he was offered the warmest wishes of congratulations and told it was merely a simple matter of going to the questura (police station) in a nearby town and applying for my permesso di soggiorno, a permission to reside in Italy for a period greater than three months, the renewable document required of all non-EU citizens who wish to live in Italy. I had a hunch that it would be slightly more complicated than that, and indeed it is proving to be so, even though we have not yet gotten any hint that we won’t ultimately be successful, and that marriage is probably the fastest route in any case to obtain this document. But as inspiration for you to read this post and for me to not lose heart, here’s a shot of one of the villages not far from T’s home:

Day 1

  • Travel 45 minutes over twisting and rutted mountain roads. Go to questura. Chat with lovely officer at the counter. Be offered a long photocopied list of 35 requirements. When stomach stops sinking, notice that she has only checked nine of them and written in two additional for us to provide. These include: a copy of T’s permesso; our marriage certificate (translated into Italian; it is mercifully brief); a full copy of my passport; three separate confirmations of our identity and residence; a copy of my Italian tax ID; certification from T’s accountant that he has sufficient sums to provide for me; four photos; and of course an odd amount of tax to be provided in the forms of stamps. None of these things are, of course, available in the questura.
  • Head over to the Palace of Justice, thankfully in the same town. Get lost amid the soothing light blue walls of the building and find a kind security guard who takes us up to where we need to go. Check with the administrative judge and learn that indeed our five-language marriage certificate is not sufficient and that an Italian translation is required. The judge decides T’s language skills are sufficient and immediately deputizes him to do the translation. We take note of the slightly pornographic art on the walls of the judge’s office and beat a hasty departure.

    Justice is served

  • Drive to another village for a copy of T’s permesso. Although he already holds a carta d’identità (which requires the permesso), this is just how it has to be. But not so fast. All of the required offices are open either 8:30-12:30 or 9:30-12:30 and most do not open in the afternoon. Thankfully this one does (two days a week), but we have arrived at 12:15 and are charmingly turned away and asked to return later in the afternoon with the suggestion that we buy some tax stamps in the meantime. We decide to have a long lunch. Then we head to the tobacco shop where the stamps are sold:
  • Not so fast…

  • Ah. By now it’s 3:15 and we’re a little antsy, but clearly there’s nothing to be done until the shop opens at 4:00 pm. A local bistro offers a lovely glass of local white and some nice conversation with the bar keep. At 4:00 we buy our stamps and head back to the office for T’s permesso. Mission accomplished!
  • Head home, fill out the three self-certified identity and address forms, make a pile of photocopies, translate the marriage certificate, and congratulate ourselves on our initial foray.
  • Day 2
  • Head back to the Palace of Justice (again a 45-minute drive along twisty and rutted mountain roads). Return to the office of the administrative judge with the interesting taste in art. With great flourish, he pulls out some forms, fills them out carefully by hand, staples them all together, stamps the margins in about four or different five places, and wishes us well, then pointing us in the direction of the next office where we will be assigned a case number.
  • At the case number office, watch in utter amazement as our certificate is registered by hand with pen in an oversized registry volume that looks a good bit like the ones pictured below:
  • Celebrate this step with a cappuccino next door.
  • Next, off to a different building in the same town for my codice fiscale, my Italian tax ID. At this moment, I’m certainly happy to pay tax to just about any government except my own, so this is fine by me. Here, at least, the 21st century seems to be in evidence:
  • This step was rapido. ‘Nuff said.
  • At this point, since we were nearly finished collecting the paperwork and even though it was Tuesday and we weren’t supposed to turn it in until Friday, we decide to have another chat with the folks at the questura (police station) and check for any necessary invoices or tax stamps.
  • Happy to see us, lovely police officer offers us an appointment for May 22nd (this is May 9th). Seeing the instant dismay on our faces, she revises this suggestion for May 15th.
  • All of a sudden a long conversation breaks in rapid Italian between the female officer, her boss (a male officer) and T, all articulating and gesticulating in a manner and speed far beyond my somewhat anxious nonverbal interpretative abilities at the moment. Several hair-raising moments transpire in which both officers were shaking their heads and waving their index fingers back and forth in a clear “Definitely not!” message. Naturally, assuming the worst, I take this to mean that someone was coming imminently to restrain me and place me in local detention. Fortunately, this is not the case, and T hastens to assure me that the “Definitely not!” was in response to his concern that I would have to leave Italy during the time my permesso was being processed. “But you’re married!”
  • Shaken but not stirred, we leave the questura and head 45 minutes up twisty and rutted mountain roads to T’s shopping village of G and the office of his accountant, fortunately arriving at 11:45 am before the mandatory 12:30 shutdown.
  • Sit patiently and wait 45 minutes for the accountant to write a long and detailed affirmation that the income tax documentation he is providing in support of our application for permesso is indeed valid and current, all the while counting the number of Virgin Marys that adore his office. (As a feminist aside, I am fascinated that no one thinks to ask *me* if I have financial resources for my own support. But this is rural Italy; my ability to generate income is not even considered. The fancy restaurant in town still gives ladies the menu without prices…)
  • Leave accountant’s office famished and flattened…head to lunch, proud as punch that the paperwork is at last completed and make plans to head out of town this weekend because….once we submit the paperwork on Monday, *I am expected to be physically present in T’s home pretty much continuously until the carabinieri make their unannounced visit to confirm my marital status sometime in the next….weeks….*
  • As compensation, though, here’s a view of the landscape around T’s home…even I, non-nature-lover that I am, must admit this is a lovely sight:
  • I will keep you posted on this most interesting chapter of my journey…in the meantime, if you have any suggestions for amusing and time-consuming online games or puzzles, please send them my way. I am sustained by my charming and supportive spouse as well as the hope that I get to see more of the local flora and fauna. Have I told you about the wild boar that infest the neighborhood? Stay tuned.
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My small Danish wedding

Seeing this title you might think that my European peregrinations of the past several years might have had something to do with my personal life, a subject that has been noticeably absent in my blog content. But the fact that I even have a personal life to discuss at this point is actually as a *result* of those travels, a nearly incredible coincidence of timing, opportunity, and a strong personal interest in of all things…fountain pens. And the result is that I have just married an amazing man and we have made this happen in a most amazing way.

T is German, but he lives in Italy. I am, of course, American, currently resident in…Berlin. When we began discussing matrimony, we quickly learned that the bureaucratic requirements in both Italy and Germany were substantial and both countries upped the ante considerably when multiple nationalities were involved. But I’m a pretty clever little monkey when it comes to online research, and during my electronic rambles I stumbled onto a very interesting fact, and that is that Denmark, bless its practical and tolerant little heart, is literally the “Las Vegas” of Europe.

And I’m not talking casinos and pink flamingos here. What I mean is that Denmark makes it easy to “tie the knot” for people from just about anywhere to people from just about anywhere (folks from Laos, I’m told, have had difficulty). You can do it yourself or you can hire the assistance of an agency that specializes in this area; we were fortunate to receive the tender mercies of Samantha at gettingmarriedindenmark.com. In short, all you need to prove is that 1.) you are alive and legal (passport and residency); 2.) you are over 18 (or under with parental consent) and and 3.) your former spouse, if you had one, is either deceased or divorced. That’s it. Full stop. The kicker is, of course, that you have to *go to Denmark* from wherever you are. Once in that happy land, there are several locations one can choose, and for a number of reasons, we picked the little island of Ærø, and it turns out *a lot* of other people do as well.

Ærø is a small island lying between Denmark and Germany, some 20 kilometers long and maybe three wide, with around 6500 souls in residence and three little towns. You can get there by way of three ferries. The village of “Ærøskøbing, with its narrow lanes and picturesque 18th-century houses was historically Ærø’s chief town,” and is currently THE spot for….the nearly 4000 couples (yes, 4000 couples) who will be united in matrimony there this year alone, according to the local authorities.

Picturesque indeed

This is how it works. You arrive on the island on one day, present your papers to the wedding office, and receive a time for the following day when your ceremony will occur. This requires that you spend at least one overnight on the island, with the resulting monies improving the local economy. The concept itself was the brainchild of the current mayor, an outgoing and enterprising soul if ever there were one, who came up with this idea as a way to radically extend the shoulder season of a holiday island that’s really only appealing for six weeks in the summer.

We were slightly dismayed to learn that the municipal office complex was considerably less visually compelling than the rest of the town, but sic transit gloria mundi:

Probably easier to heat

As you walk into the building, you are greeted by the comforting faces of Denmark’s reigning monarch and her consort, Margrete and Henrik, themselves a bi-national couple (Danish and French) and a bit of a scandal in their day:

Best wishes

Once inside, there is a very friendly and efficient office crew that has processed your documents and can affirm all the things that need to be affirmed:

Note signs for essential support services for brides and grooms…WC and WIFI

But here’s where the story gets much, much more interesting. Through those doors and into this office walk some extremely diverse couples and and no doubt equally intriguing stories. Although we were only there a short period of time, we saw…a German woman in hijab marrying a Tunisian man in tuxedo accompanied by her weeping mother; an African woman with her German groom, complete with her two African children and one blended child, all decked out in full white and sparkled splendor; a young Asian woman in a ballet tutu marrying her Anglo groom; a group of Turks from Berlin where it wasn’t at all clear who was marrying whom, and several other less dramatic couples, including ourselves together with three of T’s relatives who were adventurous enough to come along for the ride. The authorities told us they would marry 24 couples in the office that day, with eight other weddings taking place around the island on this chilly rainy April Friday.

Well, this is all well and good, you say, but where’s the story about you, Carla?

After this somewhat common-place waiting room, I was concerned that the service itself would feel like a car wash or an automat, but in this I was delightfully surprised. Once inside the wedding room itself, we were greeted by a lovely judge and two “hostesses” (they doubled as the witnesses) and a gracious interior with rugs and paintings. The judge herself was quite charmingly surprised that she was actually marrying an American…with a strong Danish name and a family history in the area. She offered the ceremony in three languages, and we chose English. The words were few but very thoughtful and sincerely presented (and received). As non-Danes, we weren’t permitted a religious ceremony even if we wanted (which we didn’t), but the judge wore a gold cross, so maybe the big guy was there “in spirit,” as it were. Here’s proof positive that I have been taken off the shelf again (thanks, Wilson), with T’s brother and his wife, left, in attendance. His niece took the shot:

“Med denne ring tigger du dig…”

Still quivering a bit, we were offered a quick toast of wine or lemonade and a warm congratulations from all present. Soon after, wedding certificates in hand, we passed back through the doors and out into our new life:

Since T and I are minimalists when it comes to all this kind of thing, you’ll probably guess that we didn’t hire a photographer but went with the DIY wedding selfie. Here we are in our hotel room with the lovely bouquet that one of T’s customers sent along to us:

And camera makes three

T’s family spent the day with us, enjoying local offerings both inside and out. But we waved them off on the late afternoon ferry and came back for a quiet evening alone, our first in quite a while, thanks to T’s amazing network of friends and family. We were not disappointed in the gustatory offerings of one of Ærø’s charming dinner spots:

Mission accomplished

May I say here and now that I am most grateful for this astonishing period in my life and the opportunity to pursue my lifelong dreams of travel, teaching, and writing overseas. The addition of T is a kind of dream-like miracle, and one from which I hope I never awake. The world may be writhing around me but I have found, in this moment, a very special place. And I plan to make the most of it. Skål!

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Art and Life in Potsdam

There are a lot of really good reasons to visit Potsdam, a city in its own right 24 km/15 miles southwest of Berlin. Designed using Age of Enlightenment ideals, it was intended to convey “a picturesque, pastoral dream” to remind its residents of their relationship with nature and reason. It was a center of immigration during the 17th century due to the Edict of Potsdam; Frederick the Great built his Sanssouci Palace there in the 18th century, playing his flute with other musicians to relieve the pressures of governing. It became a provincial capital of the state of Brandenburg in the 19th century, and in the 20th it hosted the Potsdam conference where the future of Europe was decided, later housing the East German intelligence apparatus and the “Bridge of Spies.”

As with many German cities, Potsdam was heavily bombed during the second World War, and as with many East German cities, the rebuilding was slow and in many cases downright ugly from 1945-1990. But with reunification, as in Dresden and with the new Schloss in Berlin, there is a concerted effort to reconstruct the original appearance of the historic city, as much as possible, public transportation notwithstanding. Here’s a shot of the Old Market Square with the reconstructed St. Nicholas Church (St. Nikolaikirche) on the right, some other recent renovations on the left, and an “Eeewwwwwww!” example of mid-century urban modernity in the middle:

Work in progress

In order to take this shot, I was standing on the upper floor of the Museum Barberini, the reason for my visit that afternoon. Now an art museum, it was rebuilt on the site of the original Barberini Palace which had stood there since 1772, itself built on the model of the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, erected in the 1600s. The modern reconstruction (2016) is the work of Hasso Plattner, founder of the SAP software enterprise, to exhibit his personal collection of art from the former GDR (I didn’t know this at the time) as well as special exhibitions of other works. I was there to see the highly vaunted initial opening exhibition “Impressionism: The Art of Landscape.” Here’s the front of the Museum Barberini, the building in the middle with the dark arches, showing recent and continuing reconstruction around it:

Embarrassing confession. I thought I liked Impressionism. I thought I downright loved it. But, surrounded by *a lot of fuzzy pictures with water and trees and bridges all painted in roughly the same colors, I got downright bored. (Sharing the moment with hundreds of my new best friends all milling around semi-aimlessly shooting pictures with their mobiles in stuffy galleries didn’t help either.) But I had spent a fair sum and come a fair distance. What to do? Here’s a shot of one of the main exhibit halls that afternoon, giving you a sense of the congestion and my dilemma:

Hard to see the forest for the trees

I took another look at my Floor Plan and noticed that there were some non-Impressionist galleries on the ground floor. Relief! Down I went for a little space and air…to discover…

“Hmmmmm,” sez I. “Now *this* looks intriguing….and better yet, NO PEOPLE! Score!

There was no official state art in the former East Germany; rather it was supposed to have a political function, according to the exhibit. But of course, artists, being artists, are usually not the best when it comes following the rules and doing what they are told. And it appears as if the collector recognized that fact and set out deliberately to find the work of those who dared to share their experience and vision through the lens of the time and place. There is going to be a major exhibit of these works in the fall; the rooms I saw were just teasers, and I’ll certainly be back for the main event.

Back story: As I have traveled around Europe and European art museums for the past couple years, I have become increasingly fascinated with how artists responded to the events of the 20th century in their works. A retrospective for the last ~100 years includes the beauty of turn-of-the-century impressionism; the gritty semi-realism of the First World War; the Art Deco optimism of the 20’s; the increasing ominous abstract expressionism  of the 30’s and 40’s; and finally postwar and up through the early 1990s, some very difficult and painful works (not even sure what to call them) trying to make some sense of the destruction, chaos, and oppression that followed 1945. I have seen these themes in art museums in Germany, Hungary, and Lithuania, a strong suggestion that the stress of the times had a direct impact on the artists’ work. Interestingly, those themes (and that pain) are less evident in Scandinavian art; somehow those artists appeared to spend less time in the crucible, as it were. Please don’t take this as gospel; just my observations.

As an example of those conflicting themes, the exhibit features a sculpture so large it has to stay outside. Here is “Century Step” (1984-2006) by Wolfgang Mattheuer (1927-2004):

Mixed messages…

From the accompanying material: “The striding figure features politically conflicting gestures, with the right hand extended in the Hitler salute and the left hand balled in the proletarian fist…..a warning against the seductiveness and conformism in every kind of dictatorship.”

A little less strident in theme and execution but equally intriguing to my eye is entitled “Rainy Day in the Studio” (1987) by Harald Metzkes (1929-2004):

According to the accompanying information, “…the studio is a refuge from the inclemency of the rainy outside world. It therefore becomes a symbolic interior space, a stage for the artist’s inner world.”  A place to dream, to create, to envision new worlds to come?

I failed to get the name of this next work, so charmed was I by the vision of the couple immersed in its dark beauty:

Obviously I really enjoyed this exhibit and it rescued the afternoon and the admission fee for me. But even the most compelling of art can become satiating after a spell, and since it was a sunny afternoon, I headed out of the museum in the direction of the Dutch Quarter of Potsdam, the Holländisches Viertel, a neighborhood built in the 1730s to lure Dutch craftsmen to the city by providing them with housing that looked…just the way things did back in Rotterdam. (There is a Russian colony as well, built to house Russian singers, but it s further out of town.) With its 169 buildings, the Holländisches Viertel is the largest collection of Dutch architecture outside of the Netherlands:

Not a tulip in sight, alas, but plenty of boutiques and cafes

Nearby, plastered on a window on an obviously student-used building, I saw this sign:

How appropriate, I thought, that a city that has been a center of tolerance and diversity for nearly 500 years is still reaching out to those who both need the hand and who will, in time, contribute back to that society as well. Nice to know there’s a place that supports dreamers.

I had been searching in the Holländisches Viertel for a place that served amazing hot chocolate, recommended to me by local friends. Alas, several turns up and down the picturesque streets failed to find it (or if I found it, I didn’t recognize it), but instead I was cheered by this bit of Easter swag, a nearly meter high (one yard) purple bunny that helped get me in the mood for the chickies and duckies arriving this Sunday:

Not Sean Spicer

So on that note, to you my dear readers, let me say “Frohe Ostern!” May your baskets all be full and you eggs all be gaily painted.

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Just a bit of kitsch in Kölsch…

One of the sidelights of spending stretches of time in Europe is that I can actually make plans to do things in the future, as opposed to merely trying to see as much as possible in a short period of time. As you may know, I have been a long-standing fountain pen aficionada and a regular attendee of the pen shows in the US. Over the last year I have managed to attend eight pen shows (yes, eight), seven in Europe and one in the US. But before you think I’m going to put you to sleep with tedious details about filling systems or the merits of ebonite feeds over plastic ones, let me hasten to add that visiting the most recent pen show brought me back to Cologne, a city I first visited in (kaff kaff) 1974 when dinosaurs walked the earth and I hopped the pond for the very first time.

Cologne is an old old city, dating back to roughly 50 AD, with the kind of history (Gallic Empire! Frankish Empire! Hanseatic League!) that makes me swoon, but I’ll leave the details for you to explore on your own should you wish. I was charmed that I saw a bronze plate in the sidewalk that gives visitors an idea of how the current city overlays the original one:

You are here

That there remain any Roman artifacts at all is rather astonishing, as in 1.) they are really really old and 2.) Cologne was one of the most heavily bombed German areas during the Second World War, with the RAF (thanks, Uncle Bob) dropping nearly 35 tons of bombs on the city and resulting in some strange civic reconstruction. But artifacts there be, the city gate below being treated in a slightly less respectful manner than one might wish, but with very charming results:

What goes up…must come down

But the sight that defines this city, and truly must be seen in person to be appreciated, is the Cologne Cathedral, der Kölner Dom, the towering Gothic structure that was started in 1248…halted in 1473…restarted in 1842 and finally completed a whopping 632 years later after its origination…in 1880. (No wonder the locals call it “the eternal construction site” – die ewige Baustelle.) Here is a shot that shows some of the contrast in civic architecture:

Master of all he surveys…

I am such a sucker for cathedral towers. On that infamous first trip to Europe in 1974, I clambered to the top of Notre Dame and decided then and there I would dog my way up every such edifice I came across. The 463 steps of Il Duomo di Firenze were no match for me, and I certainly wasn’t going to be daunted by Cologne’s 533 steps…up a crowded, claustrophobic, and seemingly endless circular stone staircase. Happily one of my pen buddies decided to join me on this mad adventure so I can actually document our achievement with one of his artful shots:

She came, she saw, she conquered…

…and here’s the reward…a stunning view over the Rhine River and a bit of the city below:

On a clear day…

In addition to the view from the top, one should not miss the breathtaking interior of the cathedral. Although I don’t relish sharing my rare spiritual moments with literally hundreds of others, there’s every reason in the world that as many people as possible should be able to experience this magnificence. Here’s a shot of the afternoon sun illuminating one of the naves:

“You…light up my life…”

Literally a stone’s throw from the cathedral are two of Cologne’s other must-see’s. The first is the museum that holds most of the Roman artifacts, and the second is the Museum Lugwig, a modern art collection with one of the largest Picasso holdings in Europe. We didn’t have time for both and we opted for the Ludwig, but here’s a picture of the Roman museum, complete with a jolly and well-attended pro-EU rally in full progress on that lovely spring afternoon:

Don’t look like much “Deu-xit” any time soon…

Well, not surprisingly, all that excitement can make a girl rather thirsty. And thankfully Cologne is the kind of place that doesn’t let you suffer for long. Just around the corner from the cathedral and the museums we stumbled into a charming cafe that seemed to be calling our names:

Whet your whistle here…

The name of the local brew and its varients is “Kölsch” and it resembles the pilsners and lagers served elsewhere in Germany but with an interesting twist. It’s always served in small glasses, .2 liter to be precise, roughly 3/4 of a cup. Trust me that this amount can go rather quickly if one has been climbing cathedrals or covering football-field-sized museums. So the game historically has been that *the little glasses just keep coming until you tell them to stop.*  The server keeps a penciled tab on your coaster until you (or your bladder) decide that you have had enough and then you set said coaster on top of the glass to signal “Basta!” as below:

Uncle!

So, replete with history, exercise, soul-searching, and artistic enrichment, it was time to head back to Berlin and regular-sized beer glasses that don’t get you so buzzed. Before I caught my ICE train that evening, though, I took note of a little local tongue-in-cheek humor gracing the walls of a Hauptbahnhof watering hole I happened to be passing…wrapping into one charming poster the key elements of my visit:

This is not a beer

Until next time….be thee very well.

 

Posted in Köln | 3 Comments

Birds of a feather

The muse has been quiet for a spell, arrested (as so many of us have been) by the results of the American election this past November. As we all begin to make our way forward in the new reality, my strategy is two-fold. First, I am trying to monitor and bear witness to the convolutions of the new administration, taking such actions as are focused and feasible for me. And second, I am moving ahead with my own life and plans, fortunate that in this stage of my life I have many more options and greater flexibility than most.

This flexibility brings me back to Berlin for the spring. Thanks to friends of friends, I am renting a lovely flat in a safe and quiet neighborhood near people I know and convenient to transportation hubs. Here’s a shot of the charming combined living/dining room space:

The comforts of home

But what made setting into this flat even more delightful was meeting M, one of the flat’s owners and thus my current landlord. Roughly my age, a retired engineer who had grown up in East Germany, M has now found his soul home….in Barcelona….where he works part time as a tour guide and spends the rest of his days on the beach and in the mountains that surround that lovely city. We spent a long time over dinner talking about the curious similarities of our lives, both ardent travelers (he going to Eastern Europe during much of his life, me West), both having shed our professions relatively early, both taking this time in our lives to travel and find places places that speak to us more than the places of our birth and upbringing. On the walk home from dinner, we agreed that it was ironic and just a touch too bad that our soul cities…were not closer. And so the next day, off he flew to Barca, and in I moved to his lovely abode. Here’s M in Barca with the beach behind him:

“Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy”

The “birds of a feather” title, as you can see, speaks to the fact that I often meet other people who have, like me, stepped out of life’s more traditional paths and found themselves in places far from “home” in an effort to find their spiritual “Archimedean Point,” the geographic observation deck from which everything else can make sense.

When I lived in Copenhagen, I only saw two types of birds, seagulls and pigeons. In my mind, these two species perfectly mirrored the types of Danes I met (and, by extension, the people who populate most places). Seagulls Danes are the birds that fly far and wide; never far from water, the long distance travelers. Scandinavians have sailed the seas since Viking times; I myself come from a family of shipbuilders and captains, relatives buried around the world and at sea. Pigeon Danes, in the words of a friend, want to stay “hygge” (cozy) at home with their rugbrod and snaps.

Seagulls heavily populate my English Language Fellow (ELF) community, both the cohort from my year overseas in Georgia and now extending to all the applicants I have interviewed over the past four years as part of the selection committee. I interview people who are teaching English in the US but also all over the world…people for whom the itch to see what was on the other side of the mountain has taken them far from friends and family “back home,” and now they’re applying…to do it again. All of us, I believe, have taken those steps, made those voyages, experienced that separation and novelty as a way to trying to find and be our most authentic selves. And, as so often happens, I found a version of this wisdom in a commercial venue here in Berlin:

Wise words for only nine Euros

So this urge to be ours truest elves drives us far afield, hither and yon, seeking the solace of the right space and place, language and culture notwithstanding. Today I had lunch with D, an expat American I met through German friends here. Originally from Nebraska, she has been abroad most of her adult life, living variously long periods in Japan, Nepal, and Ethiopia and traveling to dozens of other spots as well. Her English is curiously accented now, the deliberate pronunciation of someone who has been teaching language mixed with bits of the more prominent features of other expat speech patterns. We spoke today of many things – of our coming to terms with our age, what that means in continuing to travel as aggressively as we have so far. We spoke of our close personal relationships, interested to note that both of us are drawn to men from other cultures. And of course, we spoke of politics, of trying to understand the choices our homeland is making. (“The people in Nebraska like that he is speaking directly to them, not filtering his ideas through politicians or the media.”) Another seagull, another person making deliberate non-traditional choices to find a nest that is not the original nest, one that perhaps makes little sense from the outside.

And the last reason that I was inspired to return to Europe at this moment – the transformation of the American social and political landscape under the forces of the new administration. This is not to say I am ignoring the situation – far from it – I am as glued to the media reports as I was in the US, and Rachel Maddow remains my beacon of sanity. Rather, my goal is not to spend a dime in the American economy as long as the forces of regression and repression hold forth in that land. I was happy to learn that because of my relatively modest income and lifestyle, I was obliged to pay (net) only $1.50 in taxes for 2016, between my federal (+$109) and state (-$107.50) returns. So take that, Republicans. Secure your borders with that.

Speaking of which, here’s a little sign of the times from yet another commercial establishment in the neighborhood:

Ist das klar?

I walked by this same window a day or so later and saw it besmirched by some pointed profanity directed at the current occupant of the oval office, but I felt it deserved to be seen in its original state, so here it is. And the Berliners should know about walls already.

But from my vantage point of Away, and from my feathery friends and associates who share my search for home and itch for adventure, there is another commonality, and that is a deep understanding that in large measure, “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t yet met.” (Yeats). And this is the message that we seagulls most want to share with our pigeon colleagues, those who feel afraid now, those who are thinking of carrying guns, those who are falling victim to the victim mentality being sold as national security: Fly a little. Look beyond your walls. Find a new friend who you just never met before.

Posted in Berlin | 3 Comments