Looking for solace in remembrance of the past

If there were ever a country that has been handed its rear body part to it on a platter due to a bad election result, it would of course have to be Germany and and the decision its citizens made in 1933 to elect a certain megalomaniac sociopath to power. In my visits here to Berlin, I have repeatedly mentioned my respect for the Germans’ bold move to maintain many of their sites of shame and physical fragments of painful history lessons learned during that era as edifying examples to future generations.

Yesterday, November 10th, 2016, as I tried stitch my consciousness back together in the realigned universe following the American election, I decided to try to seek some sort of insight or consolation from one of those fragments of history left strewn across its Berlin’s civic landscape. I headed for a little solace and guidance to one of the first places I had visited in Berlin now about two years ago – die Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Here’s a shot of the church as it looked that day in early December 2014 and as it will again soon, Christmas preparations being already well underway on the Ku’Damm:

Days of Future Past

Days of Future Past

What you see here is the remnant of the church on the left (the tower on the right was then and is still undergoing scaffolding for renovation) in the condition the war left it in, as “a memorial to peace and reconciliation” and “the will of Berliners to rebuild their city after World War II.” (Slightly more cynically, it’s also known locally as”der Hohle Zahn,” meaning “The Hollow Tooth.”)

While I am not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination, at moments like this in our national and international life I think I and many of us are drawn to some traditional considerations of Things Larger Than Ourselves as a way to try to find perspective, to reorient our internal gyroscopes, as it were.

But no post of mine would be complete without your minimum daily requirement of history and culture. So without further ado, here’s the quick overview of the place. Quick and dirty from visitberlin.com: “The neo-Romanesque church meant to glorify the first German emperor was built between 1891 and 1895 and was designed by Franz Schwechten.”

Here’s a look of the building itself in situ during those early heady days of the 20th century:

More innocent times

Nary a crosswalk in sight

After the church was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid on the 23rd of November 1943, the ruins, which served as a testament to the horrors of war, were going to be demolished in 1956 so as to make room for a new structure.”

Stark reminder

Stark reminder

“However, the people of Berlin protested fervently in favour of integrating the ruins into the new church.”


No roof to block God’s message

“The modern structure was built between 1959 and 1961 and was designed by Egon Eiermann. The church consists of honeycomb-like concrete elements, in which glass blocks can be found. Inside the octagonal nave of the church, the coloured glass blocks produce an intense blue light and meditative calm.”

A bold statement of faith

That’s some calm

But what I was interested in yesterday, and spent more time considering, were the stories and reminders of the Bad Old Days and how they were overcome after the war by thousands of people on both sides working intentionally and patiently together to put the ghosts to rest, as much as they ever can be.

The first symbol I want to share with you is the Cross of Nails which Wiki tells us “was made from nails in the roof timbers of Coventry Cathedral. This cathedral had been severely damaged in a German air raid on 14 November 1940.” I have also learned that “there are over 160 Cross of Nails Centres all over the world, all of them bearing a cross made of three nails from the ruins, similar to the original one. They are co-ordinated by the International Centre for Reconciliation.”



The next keepsake is an icon cross which was given by the Russian Orthodox Church shortly after the way but was only allowed to be delivered in 1988 when relations between the two countries started to thaw a bit.


As a reminder, Germany lost eight million people, military and civilian, in World War II to America’s roughly 400,000 deaths. The Soviet Union lost an almost unfathomable 20 million of of their then total of 170 million. The skull at the bottom stands as a grim reminder of that loss.

The third symbol is a drawing entitled “The Stalingrad Madonna.” In the fall of 1942, 90,000 members of the German Sixth Army were encircled by the Soviets near that city.  A German field surgeon who had trained as a pastor, Kurt Reuber, drew this work on the back of a Soviet map during the Christmas season for his fellow soldiers “as a symbol of hope in a time of darkness, death, and hatred.” The Germans were all taken prisoner in February 1943 but only 6000 of them actually survived the camps at the end of the war. Reuber himself died a prisoner in 1944 and this drawing, with others, somehow found its way back to his family:

"Light, life, love"

“Light, life, love”

The church itself remembers its own members who lost their lives during the war, many for working against the regime.

The not-so-loyal opposition

The not-so-loyal opposition

…and last, a very poignant and personal note from someone who finally found his way to forgiveness in 2007 as a result of a musical service in the church:


In the new sanctuary building, I noticed folks lighting candles and drew closer…

Almost a tree

Almost a tree

…but while I couldn’t quite bring myself to follow that tradition, a little sign nearby caught my eye:

No one's offered that to me in a while

(No one’s offered THAT to me in a while)

…and so I took advantage of this opportunity by pulling out the little notebook I carry with me always to write the request that is lying heavily on my mind and probably yours as well:



I hope this visit helped you as much as it did me. I wish for you all during this coming holiday season all the “light, life, and love” you can possibly muster. Courage.

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An Ode to the U-Bahn

It’s been a quiet month here in “See” (Lake) Wobegon as I have applied myself diligently to my Germany language class (five hours a day plus homework will do that for you). But as the last class concluded yesterday (I passed! 12 points higher than last time!), I decided I would share with you a little of what is actually a pretty significant and important part of my daily life here in Berlin, and that is the public transportation system.

TripAdvisor tells us that “Berlin’s efficient public transportation system is affordable, straightforward, usually punctual and very comprehensive. ” No sh*t, Sherlock. You’ve got your U-Bahn (the underground), the S-Bahn (above-ground – heads further out of town), the trams, and the buses. At night, there is a separate schedule, but basically you can get around Berlin’s nearly 1000 square kilometers anytime and anywhere, and relatively quickly to boot. Passage, with the exception of the buses where you have to show a ticket, is on the honor system. I buy a monthly pass, but since I’ve been here (just over four weeks so far this time), I’ve only been checked once. People are polite, for the most part, even when they’re drinking beer (!), or doing whatever else their little hearts desire (usually checking their handys, aka cell phones, but often begging, sleeping, or petting their pooches). Here’s a great video that basically says, “We love you and we don’t give a flying hornet for who you are or what you do…” The narrator is a local famous Turkish German dude and his lingo is local dialect, if your high school German is failing you. “Is mir egal” basically translates as “I don’t care, it’s all the same to me.”

So since I currently live in the southeastern part of town and my school is in the northeastern part of town and my closest friends are in the southwestern part of town, I spend a good deal of time navigating this system. It is truly amazing. For the most part, you can get anywhere you want either directly or with only one change of trains (if you’re clever, and of course I try to be) in roughly a half hour or less. And the scenery is fascinating and constantly changing.

But what is enchanting me these days, besides just the sheer joy of having a system like this at my disposal 24/7, is all the wonderful advertising that is found in these subterranean bowels of transport. Berlin, as I keep suggesting, is a funky edgy space in many ways, and this is frequently reflected in what is plastered on the walls to entertain us as we wait the 3-4 minutes between trains. I’ve shared a few of these before, but I wanted to offer some of the newest ones, particularly because finally *I am able to read them.*

Here’s the one I saw yesterday (just after my exam) that made me flush with pride. I could not only read it, I could explain the grammar in it as well:

"When a little bit simply is not enough."

“When a little bite simply is not enough.”

Oooh, how intriguing. A little bite of what, precisely? But I knew all the words! Huzzah!

Berlin has always had a reputation for being “poor but sexy,” and sometimes it’s all about the sexy. Here’s an advert for an event that sadly I managed to miss:

Note the, er, tattoo...

Note the, er, tattoo…

Even the transport system itself (BVG) gets into the edgy act by advertising the two-for-one special on the all-day pass:

No charge for the silverware

No extra charge for the silverware…the tag line (Weil wir dich lieben) is “Because we love you.” Coordinating conjunction, subject, direct object in accusative case, conjugatable verb.

There must be some local slang in this ad, because literally it means “Bring along with you another shore (? whaaat ?), The Day Card, so Ufer must be some slangy word for, well, whatev.

Here’s a mattress ad that I used earlier – I still think it’s a hoot:

Winter's coming...

Winter’s coming…

and, on a serious note, a poster about a problem that is plaguing much of the developed world, not only the US, and that is racism:

If only we all knew where home was

If only we all knew where home was…

But today I saw one sign that just tickled my funny bone – the kind of clever play that seems to be constantly at work here. So many things give me pause…this one included:

damn I love smart

damn I love smart

And finally, because so many people have beer bottles right at hand during the ride (I haven’t yet succumbed to this trend), cheers to the many people who spend a lot of time ensuring that this system keeps working, keeps moving us there and back, keeping an open space and service where everyone is safe and comfortable (for the most part). Prost!

"Nuff said

“Nuff said

Posted in Berlin | Tagged | 5 Comments

Gems of Berlin

Yes, I’m back in my happy place this fall, yes, I’m studying German again yet still (I WILL learn the possessive pronouns, I WILL I WILL I WILL), and yes, the place is casting its seemingly eternal charm over me anew. Since I’m back at the same school I attended in May (I was actually trying to enroll in a different one but it didn’t work out and my former school took me back at the very last moment), and my friend FB is not around to distract me with long walks and beer-trinken study breaks, I really do plan to get down to the serious work of learning this language. (Short form: there may be fewer blogs. Or not. Who knows?)

But before I disappear into a grammar-infused haze of irregular verb endings and youtube chants to learn the Dativ, I wanted to share a few great pictures from my first week back in Germany. I flew back from Riga just as dusk was falling and caught this lovely shot shortly before we landed at Tegel Airport:

Ordentlich even from the sky

Ordentlich even from the sky

This trip I was fortunate to snag a little place of my own courtesy of sabbaticalhomes.com, a housing resource for academics and related professionals who need accommodation for odd periods of time around the world. My flat is located in the Neukölln section of town, southeast of the city center. Formerly part of the American sector, it features a lot of wonderful architecture and sports one of the highest percentages of immigrants in all Berlin. This makes for truly amazing strolls along the main drags, predominant among them being Karl-Marx-Straße. You want African food, Vietnamese food, Bulgarian food, Turkish food, German food, Thai food, Turkish food, or even American fast food? No problem. It’s all here. This shot is the aforementioned K-M-S, looking a little more respectable near the old Rathaus (City Hall):

The world shops here

The world shops here

One of the reasons I decided to come to Berlin NOW and to stay for so long (returning just before Christmas) was because the American election season has become toxic to my soul and it’s an act of self-preservation and protection that I choose to live away from that fray for a bit. Thankfully, this sign makes me feel right at home:

Even if you is only fleeing the orange menace

Even if one is only fleeing the orange menace…but you can’t beat those prices, either

So in the few days I had before classes began, I did my usual running around trying to see new places as well as visit some favorite spots. Top of my list for this trip was a visit to Hel’s Pond, one of the rare still extent sites of pre-Christian religion in Germany. Hel is the daughter of Loki in Norse religion and her domain is death and the underworld, hence the origin of the expression “Go to Hell.”  Her pond and small park surrounding it are located in the Tempelhof neighborhood, so named because of the historic association with the Knights Templar, the fighting order of the Catholic Church who existed for several centuries during the Middle Ages doing battle against the infidels in the Middle East in the name of Christ. (The historical and religious ironies certainly aren’t lost on anyone who takes the time to dig just a bit.)

But as I walked about this lovely little park shown below, it appears that no one knows or cares about the antecedents of the park. It is interesting and slightly curious to me that there are no signs or explanatory materials whatsoever anywhere in the park. All one sees is the pond…


Still waters run deep

…which is  believed to be the entrance to the underworld and is rumored to have been a place of human sacrifice in earlier times.  On the opposite side where you see a strange gray form with pink graffiti is a large unmarked statue of a bull…

Way before Merrill Lynch

Way before Merrill Lynch

…representing, according to one blog, the “black bulls Hel used to send from the lake up to the surface. The bulls helped the pagan priest who tended her altar – to toil the land and feed himself.” Naturally, none of this was taken kindly by Charlemagne and his minions who converted most of Germany (the Franks at that time) by the sword in the early ninth century. Hel and her lot were consigned to the dustbin of history *except that she regained her glory under the Nazi regime and was used as some form of inspiration to them.* Perhaps that explains the lack of signage – Berlin wants to keep the park free of politics — and the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Dresden. But it is a fascinating site nonetheless.

Another unique treasure I discovered this past week is the Golden Hat, housed in the Neues Museum:

Hat, HAT I tell you, hat!

Hat, HAT I tell you, hat!

Standing nearly a yard high (745 mm or ~30 inches), this object was made in the late Bronze Age (ca 1000-800 BCE) and is composed of thin gold leaf on some organic material. This is one of four found so far in southern Germany and France and Wiki tells us “it is generally assumed that the hats served as the insignia of deities or priests in the context of a sun cult that appears to have been widespread in Central Europe at the time. The hats are also suggested to have served astronomical/calendrical functions.” Well I never. How cool is that?

Moving just slightly north, the Pergamon Museum is also a favorite of mine. I’ll probably do a whole blog on items from these museums, but this is just a teaser. Located in the Pergamon are entire facades of gates reconstructed from mounds of blocks found in the Middle East. When I first saw these artifacts several years ago, I was incensed that colonial powers had stolen and imprisoned these cultural treasures so far from home. Now that ISIS on one hand and the war in Syria on the other are doing their own fine job of destroying what historical remnants remained in the country itself, I have a slightly more charitable view of the colonial borrowing. In honor of the destruction that has occurred in Syria, and most recently in Aleppo, I post this picture of a reconstruction of a banquet hall (dining room) located in an early 17th century home from the Christian section of the city:

"By the waters, the waters of Babylon We lay down and wept, and wept, for thee Zion"

Aleppo House: “By the waters, the waters of Babylon
We lay down and wept, and wept, for thee Zion”

A sign near the exhibit says that many of the buildings in the area where this room was found have been destroyed; the fate of this particular house is unknown.

Saying a quick prayer, we move on.

These last two I’ve posted on Facebook so you may have seen them, but they bear repetition. The first one offers sounds advice in these challenging times:

Harry would get my vote

Harry would get my vote

…and then a sign so chilling it stopped me in my tracks yesterday on my way to school:

Ah, for the chance to explain the present continuous!

Ah, for the chance to explain the present continuous!

Finally, a shot from the U-bahn which sums up a lot of what makes this place so enchanting for me – and an ad for how I will reward myself when and if I get my homework done on time:



So now, back to the books. Bis später – thanks for reading, as always.

Posted in Berlin | Tagged | 4 Comments

A Walkabout in Riga

It dawned on me that in my first post about Riga below, I didn’t give you a single outdoor shot. I didn’t do this on purpose, rather I was trying to give a somewhat coherent introduction to the history of the place which meant including some things and thereby excluding others. But today I’ve got a moment to share some shots from my last four days of walking around. So I’m amalgamating my peregrinations (!) into one pseudo walk, but one which, I hope, gives you some insights into the place.

As I may have mentioned before, Old Town Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but like many of Europe’s historic center cities, the majority of the buildings and streets are quite recently restored. Here’s a shot (on the right) of the famous but unfortunately named “House of Blackheads,” the guild for unmarried merchants originally built by the Germans in the 14th century and named for Moors, I believe. It was bombed by the Nazis in 1941, demolished by the Soviets in 1948, and rebuilt by newly independent Latvians from 1995-1999:

Quick the Clearasil...

Quick, the Clearasil…

It’s currently surrounded by an photographic exhibit of Slovenia, of all random things. Melania would be proud.

Nearby, more faux olde culture in evidence. This statue, a present from sister city Bremen from whence many of the original German settlers came 800 years back, is based on a Grimms Brother fairy tale and represents the town musicians of that city. Erected in 1990, a pivotal moment in both German and Latvian history since the Wall had just fallen (1989) and Latvia was yet to become independent (1991), it was a promise of friendship and better times to come. Now it’s a civic lucky charm and tourist photo op:

The higher you reach, the luckier you may be...

The higher you reach, the luckier you get…

Continuing the animal theme, here’s a detail from the top of the “Cat House,” so named because the statues point their tails either (depending on which legend you hear) in the direction of the Great Guild OR the City Hall, one of which had deeply offended the owner. In any event, Kitty is clearly not amused (and looks to me as though she needs the box – STAT):

Made of tin?

Made of tin?

Riga has a sizeable population of free range cats and thankfully the ones I saw looked well fed and comfortable. (I saw a bowl of milk set out under a hedge near one of the museums.) So, missing my own dear fuzz ball as I do when I ramble, here’s a look at a couple of the locals:

Masters of all they survey

Masters of all they survey

Below you’ll find one of those “can’t make this stuff up” juxtapositions of art and architecture which, while not beautiful, truly makes one stop and pause. The statue in the left foreground is Soviet, commemorating the Latvian sacrifices in World War I. The hideous block in the middle is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, the contents of which have been moved to a different location (which I visited) during renovation. Behind the museum you see the spire of Saint Peter’s Church, an Evangelical Lutheran parish church built in stages from the 13th to the 17th centuries…but sporting the spire you see added during the Soviet era and built by…Poles. (There’s an elevator in it, and an expensive viewing spot, allegedly with the best panorama of the city):

Architectural vertigo

Architectural vertigo…

As is my wont in most cities I visit, I took the “free” walking tour to gain a little more of an insider’s perspective into the locale. My guide, Kaspars, was a remarkably well educated and articulate young man with a master’s in history and a day job as a museum researcher. Happily he supplements what is probably a pittance of a salary with this gig, and we were his lucky beneficiaries. Here he is explaining a little about Krišjānis Barons, a folklorist who systematized and published nearly 13,000 Latvian folksongs, thus memorializing this unique resource and allowing them to be used in the development of a national consciousness during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and thus restoring the ancient Latvian choral tradition, still active today:

Singing for his supper

Singing for his supper

As I mentioned below, Riga is known for its amazing collection of Art Nouveau architecture as well as arts and crafts – I’ll do a complete blog on that soon, inshallah. But in the meantime, here’s a shot of the staircase in the building that houses the museum – it’s pretty swoon-worthy:

Vertigo of the vertical variety

Vertigo of the vertical variety

Kaspars then took us through the Central Market, which, like others across Europe, has been showcasing “local” and “organic” since before anyone even knew or cared what that meant. As you can see, the harvest season is in full swing….

Gourdy gourdy

Gourdy gourdy

…but what is really impressive is an entire wing, a Soviet-era airplane hanger, filled with *fish and nothing but fish.* No surprise there – Riga is on a river leading to a sea, but according to Kaspars, along with the type of fish and the price, each of the hand-printed cards includes the exact location where the animals were caught. People are very particular about those things here, apparently. Since we were moving at a pretty good clip, I just snapped the most curious objects I could find. The locals take these, split them open, cover the innards with garlic and herbs, and smoke the heck out of them. Goes well with the local brew, I’m told.

Nature's bounty

Nature’s bounty

So on the walk back to the Old Town from the Central Market, we had to cross several streets, and while waiting for the light (like good Latvians – no one jay walks here), I couldn’t help but notice a side of Latvian culture that seemed a little less buttoned up, as it were. I’m thinking the young man is excited about some kind of tune-sharing or podcast ability, but it seems an odd way to drive consumer demand…

Munch he's not

Munch he’s not

So now I need to pack my tents and camels and get on over to Berlin where my German classes start on Tuesday (Monday being a public holiday celebrating German unity – interested to see how that goes down this year). I’ll be back to you soon with more as it comes over the transom. I hope you’ve enjoy this little view into this relatively unknown part of the world; I’ve certainly enjoyed sharing it with you.

Posted in Riga | Tagged | 2 Comments

Greeting Riga

Last December I made my first trip to the Baltic nations, spending a week in Vilnius, Lithuania, a charming and quirky city that only whetted my appetite to know more about this complicated part of the world. This fall I’m taking a few days before I start language training (German again, Berlin again) to visit Riga, Latvia, the capital of the next country north on your way to Santa.

It's all relative

It’s all relative

As you can see from the shot above, Riga (the small red dot) is on a river (the Deugava) that leads to the Gulf of Riga and thence the Baltic Sea. That alone should clue you in that most of what has happened to the region and the city over its history was directly or indirectly a result of its maritime placement and prospects. But before we get too carried away with that story…here’s a map of Riga itself:

Another city on a river

Another city on a river

No, you are not at the airport (the green circle). The little green “i” for information on the right side of the river is basically smack dab in the middle of the Old Town or Vecrīga, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that used to be surrounded by walls. The blue stream lies roughly where the city ended before it expanded in the 19th century. Here’s a painting of the city skyline from a few hundreds back (sadly the red tower is no longer extent):


Just your basic low flat gorgeous Hanseatic town

As mentioned above, from the earliest times to the Vikings and the plague and guild wars and endless political occupations through to today, the lives of the city and its inhabitants have been shaped by the competing maritime interests of the major and minor powers in the neighborhood. So as is my want, I started my visit with some museum visits to get me clued into the main chronology, but I’ll only hit you with the highlights.

Known for producing amber (like Poland and Lithuania), wood, woolens, and linens, the most interesting thing for me about the early Livonian history (pre-Christian; up to about the 12th century) was the emphasis on women’s shawls and jewelry (beads and bangles), which were important ways to demonstrate tribe, caste, and status. Here’s a shot of what it took to look good and stay warm in the long dark damp winters:

What she'd give for Polartek

What she wouldn’t haven given for Polartec

One big surprise resulting from the next stop, the Museum of History of Riga and Navigation, was learning that that the very first decorated Christmas tree is alleged to have come from Latvia around the year 1500 when some children had fun decorating a Yule log before it has the chance to be dragged into the house. the glass bauble shown below is alleged to be one of the first actual ornaments, having hung on the actual tree:

Ho ho ho

A little ho ho ho

The history of commerce and trade that makes up the background of Riga’s life story has both positive and negative sides of course. Woe be unto him, for example, who tried to profit unfairly in the Middle Ages! Below is the shot of hands (yeck) of people who tried to forge (mint) their own money and got caught:

Keep 'em in your pockets

Keep ’em in your pockets, lads

During the period when coin money was for some arcane political reason outlawed, (maybe too many forgers?) people turned to hunks and chunks of silver. The shot below looks oddly reminiscent of  contemporary jewelry I saw for sale in Copenhagen during the 1980’s:

Guess you have to save this for big purchases

Hard to get the little lady to part with this for a bushel of barley

In the 16th-18th centuries, Riga and its surroundings fell under rotating occupations of Poland-Lithania, Sweden, and Russia (everyone wants a rich harbor town). Lutheranism gained prominence over Catholicism due to the large number of German inhabitants who ran the powerful guilds. But in the countryside, pagan traditions continued alongside the church and apparently are still evident today. The resulting ancient folk art features symbols that seem almost rune-like to me. Here is a shot of a 19th century living room grouping using those old historic motifs in the service of Art Nouveau furnishings:

William Morris would approve

William Morris would approve

Well, this brings us up to the start of the 20th century, when sadly the screws started to tighten on this lovely little spot (not that it was a bed of roses before, by any means), so we’ll stop there for today’s history lesson. But for just a tiny bit of “You can’t escape your past, Carla,” here’s a picture of what greeted me on my walk back to the hotel:

Khjapuri chases me around the globe

Arrrrrggggh…..khajapuri seems to chase me around the globe

…so as an antidote I defiantly went to the most Latvian restaurant I could find for dinner and enjoyed a lovely fish soup and one of the excellent local brews. (So there.) More to come.

Posted in Riga | 3 Comments

Zippin’ through the Zurich Airport

If you can see the header above (I’m told some can and some cannot), you would be correct in your assumption that Japan is over and done for the year and we’re off to somewhere else. In this case, I’m headed back to Berlin (this a close-up of the top of the Brandenburg Gate, the statue known as a quadriga, a Greek chariot drawn by four horses.) The reason for this is a combination of many things. First, of course, is my deep love of that city and recent cosmic insights that it’s the site of a former life, or some such thing. Second is my Sisyphean quest to conquer the dative case in German grammar. And third and leading the charge on timing is that since the American political landscape currently resembles an abusive domestic relationship, I decided to administer some serious self-care and just get away for a while. (Don’t worry – my absentee ballot will follow me here as well.)

Recently most of my flights to Europe have been on either Turkish Airlines (which I thoroughly enjoy, even if the trip is many hours in duration) and WOW, the budget Icelandic airline that often gives you long lovely layovers in the Keflavik airport due to its bad on-time arrival record (you are deeded 10 Euros for munchies if the delay is more than three hours). This trip I found a good price on Swiss International Air Lines, the reconstituted heir of Swissair which dissolved in 2005. As you are aware, the Swiss are know for their tidiness, punctuality, and love of chocolate, and on none of those metrics was I disappointed. The flight departed and landed on time; the cabin was well-maintained, and we did indeed get as much (milk) chocolate as we wanted during the meal service.

But that also meant that I could add a new airport to my list, and in this case the lucky addition was Zurich. I only wish we had had more time to browse (maybe on the way back?) It’s a Rolls Royce of airports with merchandise and prices to match, but I thought you might enjoy a quick visit. First is a shot of the target airline onsite:

At the gate

Chocolate loading zone

While the airport is pretty standard-looking from the outside, once on the concourse you can quickly see that there was some serious thought given as to how to make those transit experiences more pleasant. Here’s a shot of a cafe/bar for the world-weary:

Nice digs

I’ll have a latte with that view

One of the impressive things about European airports is the delightfully healthy offerings by some of the restaurant purveyors. (You may recall a shot from my visit to O’Hare in Chicago a cart selling hot dogs rolled in dough with the choice of “to bacon or not to bacon?”) Well, Zurich (and others) strikes back with what is for me a much more appealing set of options:

Nutritious and delicious

Nutritious and delicious

But not all is chic bar life and quinoa with lentils. Much of the airport is taken up by various forms of retail establishments maintaining their existence with the sole aim of separating you from your recently obtained Euros:

Slurping up the cash

Slurping up the cash

There were of course the ubiquitous Duty Free stores with their acres of liquor and cigarettes and miles of cosmetics and perfumes, but there were a number of unique Swiss offerings as well. First, of course, chocolate (seeing a theme here?)…

By the gross

By the gross

… and a number of local luxury items including climbing gear, fancy watches and over-priced writing instruments. I was, of course, charmed by the twin Montblancs…

The height of extravagance

The height of extravagance

…but perhaps what was most endearing was the Swiss cow kitsch that was frequently featured. You have, of course, the Swiss flag cow…

White Cross?

White Cross?

…and cow bells in various shapes and sizes:

One for every occasion

One for every occasion

…but the best were the cow slippers for the wee ones in your family. Maddie Paris, this one’s for you:

We've got you covered

Mooooving along

…but thankfully before I could get too much in trouble, it was time to walk nearly the length of Zurich to get to my departure gate and off to Tegel. Now this is one airport I’m looking forward to visiting again.

Posted in Travel - Airport | Tagged | 3 Comments

A visit to the White House

David, a dear friend of very long standing, wrote me a while back to say he would be in Washington DC during September in order to spend time with his infant grandchild. Should I happen to be in the area, he would love to see me (after many decades). At first this struck me as a delightful if somewhat frivolous option, but I assured him I would keep it in mind.  As I mused on this invitation, I reflected that it could also be helpful to meet in person with my Georgetown boss and then I could also take advantage of the opportunity to catch up with a pen friend who I hadn’t seen in some time as well. So with the somewhat zany concept of of three short-but-wonderful visits in two days, I booked tickets for our nation’s capital.

In the meantime, David managed to secure access for us to visit the White House. If you’ve never done this, or if it’s been a while, let me assure you it’s no easy task, requiring levels of bureaucracy and online clearance. Since David and I had toured DC umteen years ago as part of a group of 16-year-old speech contest winners, it seemed a perfect “ribbon on the bow” experience, connecting us both with our ambitious past and our fully realized present.

On the early am ride down from Portland to Washington Reagan, I managed to sit on the left side of the plane which turned into the “right” side of the plane from a viewing perspective and shot this view of the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool bathed in the rising sunlight:

Illumination of the natural variety

Illumination of the natural variety

After a lovely long chewy breakfast at the Old Ebbitt Grill, one of my favorite hangouts from my days living there in the 1980s, David and I headed over the the White House visitor center to ground ourselves in what we would be seeing as well as to escape from the heat and humidity. If you’ve not been there, I highly recommend it. Filling the space that used to serve as the Patent Office, it’s a wonderful resource for learning about the site AND it hosts a much more extensive gift shop than the tiny kiosk that operates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There’s a lovely video featuring Barak and Michelle who welcome you personally but ask that you not feed the dog if he begs for treats.

"The People's House"

“The People’s House”

Then it was time to face the music and the security gauntlet to get into the White House. The fact that we were visiting *the day before 9/11* probably didn’t make it any easier. Let me warn you now. You are allowed to bring 1.) your wallet 2.) a cell phone 3.) a non-metal-pointed umbrella and 4.) any necessary medical supplies into the venue *and nothing else.* Oh, and there are no storage options. For that, head over to Union Station and pay highly inflated fees for the privilege of leaving your bag for a few hours. Ah, the big city.

Back at Security Central. First, rangers let you into the park (the area around the WH). Then you stand in one long hot line and have your “boarding pass” and ID checked. Then you stand in another long hot line and have your “boarding pass” and ID checked again. Then you stand in yet another long hot line and finally enter a small room to wait on a mat while a large ferocious dog on the other side of a low wall checks you out. Then and only then do you walk into the WH itself, a little shaken by the sight of all those automatic rifles strapped across the chests of all those very buff and unsmiling security personnel.

But once inside, things become very lovely and gracious. My pictures will be in reverse order of how I saw the WH, because we went through it basically backwards and I want to share it forwards.  Here’s the front entrance:


Originally built in 1800 and rebuilt between 1815-1817 due to the destruction of the War of 1812, the White House has been altered and adapted over the years for many reasons and by many presidents. Amazingly, it retains the same look and feel as it did in its early days. One has the sense of a thoughtful and historic integrity in everything one sees throughout the building.

In through the door seen above, one arrives in a spaciously large foyer featuring a lovely harpsichord and a picture of Bill:

I thought he played the sax...

Didn’t he play the sax…?

Down the hall to your left, if you followed the red carpet above, you would find yourself in the East Room, the scene of big dinners, receptions, and concerts over the centuries. Here both Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy lay in state, and it’s also where the famous picture of Washington by Gilbert Stuart hangs as seen over the guide’s right shoulder:


Heading out of this room to the upper right, one finds oneself in the first of the “color” rooms , all of which have also been used for entertaining, albeit on a smaller scale. The first one in line is the Green Room:


This was Thomas Jefferson’s preferred room for official dinners – smaller and more intimate than the bigger room you’ll see later hence its transition into a parlor only. Next up is the Blue Room:


Used frequent for receptions these days, this was also the favorite of James Madison. (The flowers in all the rooms were most lovely and fragrant.) By turning around 180 degrees, I was able to snap this picture out the window, out and over to the Washington and Jefferson Memorials:


Finally, the most dramatic of the color rooms, the Red Room. My favorite of the three, it was also used as a parlor, most often by the president’s wives and their guests:


Here’s a shot of the formal dining room which seats 130 at a time. I can see why some of the smaller rooms might be more appealing:

Abe sez "Eat your peas"

Abe sez “Eat your peas”

And, just so you know I was really there, here’s a shot of me once we had exited the building and were still buzzing a bit from the experience:


Holding one of the approved items

…and, while it’s not the White House, I couldn’t leave this post without sharing one of the most endearing things I saw during my brief-but-wonderful weekend. It appears that a San Francisco Bay Area organization had sent a group of World War II veterans and members of their family to Washington for a few days to see the town and a number of the monuments (many built since the war) as a way of showing appreciation for their service. The group of vets (not their family members) ranged in age from 89 to 98. They had been entertained at stops along their visits by all manner of different groups of of musicians and performers, but I was lucky enough to see the last group, this of dancers doing their best to shuffle a little soft shoe to the tune of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B:”

Cuttin' a rug at DCA

Cuttin’ a rug at DCA

…and so on that note, back I flew to Portland, Maine, feeling as true blue as I ever do. God bless us everyone.

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