Berlin This Time: Impressions, Art, and Objects

exhibit on a remaining section of the Berlin Wall, image of a boy and his dog in Belfast

exhibit on a section of the Berlin Wall, image of a boy and his dog in Belfast

The last time I was in Berlin, it was early fall. Everything felt gray and drab, chilly. I had just gone through a bad breakup and spent most of my time going to memorials to victims of the Holocaust, the Jewish Museum, the Berlin War Memorial, and so on. History loomed everywhere, shadowy and spooky. I was impressed by the very public attempt to apologize and heal from injustice perpetrated against others (a lesson we could learn from in the US, I imagine).

This time, I deliberately kept things a bit lighter, and had a very different experience of the city. It’s amazing how much your interior world affects your impression of a physical place. One of my favorite things about Berlin is zipping around on a bike: it’s flat and sprawling, with abundant protected bike lanes, and hoards of other bike commuters. My friend lent me a rickety cruiser and I set off on a self-guided Socialist East Berlin bike tour that I read about online. There were also public exhibits explaining the architecture along the way. At some point, I arrived at the massive concrete campus of the former secret police, now the Stasi Museum and archive. Much of the exhibit was in German, but there are fantastic objects on view, ranging from everyday objects and games to indoctrinate people to Socialist principles and all sorts of cameras hidden in everything from ties to boomboxes to birdhouses. There are photographs of the burgeoning punk scene and other political dissenters as well as an entire office from the time, with pristine mid century modern furniture worthy of envy.

Then I rode down to the East Side Gallery, the largest surviving section (1.3 km or 2/3 mile) of the Berlin Wall, now a display of murals of graffiti-like art. Recently, part of this wall was threatened with demolition for– wait for it– luxury condos. It’s a story I hear in every city I’ve visited over the last few years: more and more luxury condos for wealthy foreign investors who don’t necessarily live in the city– or even country– pricing out people who live and work in those cities.

On the other side of the wall was a stunning temporary exhibit, Wall on Wall, photographs of walls in other countries intended to stop immigration, reduce conflict, restrict movement. It felt like you could step into the huge panoramics, taken at borders like those between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, North and South Korea, the US and Mexico. The German photographer, Kai Wiedenhöfer, poignantly said that “walls reflect a failure of politics.” It was sobering to be reminded of the barriers that humans erect at a place celebrating the removal of one.

The next day, I biked to the Pergamon Museum on the city’s Museum Island. The highlights of the museum are truly monumental. You walk into and throughout the enormous Pergamon Altar and the Gate of Babylon as well as an intricately crafted paneled room from Syria, the Aleppo Zimmer. A numbered audio tour is free with admission, so you can learn more about details that intrigue you. I found the exhibits that explained the enormity of the archeological undertaking to be most intriguing. In Iraq, for example, war and looting have largely destroyed the potential for valuable insight, since only a small percentage of work had been completed there.

Hallo Berlin! Stay tuned for more posts on Berlin nightlife and food.

Stasi Museum

Stasi Museum

Socialist latchhook

Socialist latchhook

Wall on Wall exhibit, image of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona, where I'm headed to next

Wall on Wall exhibit, image of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona, where I’m headed to next

detail of the Aleppo Zimmer

detail of the Aleppo Zimmer

detail of the Pergamon Altar

detail of the Pergamon Altar

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Mexico City: Art Outside

Our visit to Diego Rivera’s murals at the Palacio Nacional was thwarted by police, who flatly stated that public access was closed for two weeks due to a protest. The manifestación on the Zócalo (main plaza) was an evangelical teach-in, with urgent preaching and praying, children dressed as angels, and free haircuts for men and women in separate tents. So we wandered into the free Museo de Arte de la SHCP instead, which had an exhibit called Bybood-Booboot, of large, geometric patterns and conceptual pieces. Naturally, being a bunch of queers, we had a photo shoot in front of the paintings.

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Another day, we took the metro to the highly recommended Museo Nacional de Antropología. It being a Monday, it was also closed. (For some reason, I always forget this when I travel.) But there was a spectacular public art exhibit, Paseando por la Cuidad, of the works of photographer Manuel Ramos from 1900-1940. We joined the chilangos strolling along the wide sidewalk overlooking the Bosque de Chapultepec (also closed), reflecting upon the history of a city that was newly familiar. Some images even had QR codes so you could find the approximate location today, and many were taken around the Zócalo, near our hostel. The play of the digital age and a century in the past was mesmerizing.

That’s my last post about DF. At least until I have a chance to return. Hasta pronto.

First Impressions of Toronto: Have I Been Here Before?

I’ve been to Toronto at least twice. I have a distant memory of a boat tour of the Thousand Islands taken with my family. What I remember most is a house with a pine tree right in the middle of it. Apparently people were encouraged to maintain existing trees and natural life, so they built the house around the tree. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and that idea stuck with me all these years, even if I have few memories of the city otherwise. I also recall a vast indoor shopping mall from another trip taken with my summer camp, and even as a kid, I thought that was a very dull thing to do when traveling. Needless to say, I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I love this city.

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There seems to be a deliberate attempt to make Toronto both beautiful and liveable. It’s very walkable. There are parks all over, some tucked away in hilltops with staircases hidden by a canopy of trees. Business districts and residential neighborhoods are distinct. There is a downtown area with highrises, but most people live in houses in cozy and relatively quiet blocks. There are lots of secret places in backyards that you can’t see from the street. And yes, people are friendly.

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Murals are on walls everywhere, even on underpasses. This brightens the drab concrete and makes the city feel warmer. This temporary installation on a huge chain link fence served to disguise a construction site. It was stunning and a relief from slabs of plywood.

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Some storefronts house temporary art exhibits. Wandering through Koreatown, I stumbled upon a photo collection called Against a White Background. Taken just two weeks before Lithuanian photographer Vitas Luckus committed suicide, the photos feature people at a fair with the goods that they are going to sell, everything from yokes to cans of pickled herring. They are regular folks, staring at the camera with their resting faces, and the portraits speak volumes about human nature.

I continued, exploring Little Italy and Kensington Market. That night, I saw a touring show called Red Ride, an evening of indigenous female songwriters. The musicians play string instruments, and use loop petals to create orchestration and electronic soundscapes. Melody McKiver played viola, followed by Kristi Lane Sinclair, who sounded a bit like Jolie Holland. Laura Ortman, visiting from NYC, played fast, intense, and powerful music. And finally, Cris Derksen, winner of 2011 Best Instrumental Album for the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, was a joy to watch. She plays cello and creates beats. At times reminding me of CocoRosie, her music was atmospheric, inspiring, and unique.

More soon!

Making the Most of DC

gardens at night
Photo by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel

I go to our nation’s capital a few times a year for work. On a recent trip, I barely had a free moment between 12-14 hour days of meetings, workshops, networking, and a barrage of information. I needed to slow things down. I deliberately booked my hotel at a less expensive option near the conference event, so I could get out of the stale indoor air and walk a little daily.

This time, my eye caught an outdoor photo exhibit called Gardens by Night on the exterior walls of the National Geographic Museum. The images were backlit, so I resolved to check it out on the way back to my hotel that night.

Diane Cook and Len Jenshel photographed Japanese gardens, sanctuaries created by wealthy eccentrics, and magical flowers that bloom once a year, at night. The lighting lends itself to quiet spookiness and serenity. The accompanying commentary was witty. The 41 images will definitely provide inspiration for future adventures.

I also checked out a few restaurants in downtown and nearby. It’s a pricier neighborhood, because you’re sandwiched between the White House and K Street lobbyists, but my favorites include:

Georgia Brown’s for upscale southern cuisine. The atmosphere is fun and cozy. Last time, I had the Southern Fried Chicken, this time, the Carolina gumbo (with shrimp, Andouille sausage, chicken, crab, duck confit), and I would recommend both. The salted caramel crème brulee was good, but prepared in advance in a wide dish, with a higher sugar to custard ratio than I prefer.

Boqueria for lunch. The space is clean and refined. The wine selection is impressive. I had the bocata de jamón serrano and tried the dátiles con beicon, buñuelos de bacalao, and croquetas, all exemplary. I hadn’t even been to Boqueria in NYC because I have my own jamón serrano connection, but I’m glad I stumbled upon it here.

Dukem for Ethiopian. There is a sizeable immigrant Ethiopian population in DC, so it’s one of two foods I try to have on a trip here (the other is crab). Our group took a cab to reach the U Street Corridor. We tried two combination platters, and soaked up every delicious bite with spongy injera.

Mitsitam Cafe for lunch. My companion and I had just enough time to stop at the National Museum of the American Indian after our last meeting, and feasted on an Indian taco (chipotle chicken on fry bread) and a pulled buffalo sandwich (the latter was the clear favorite). No time for the exhibit, however, but there’s always next time.

And I learned from a local that I could get a SmarTrip card for $5, saving $1 per ride relative to a paper ticket. Good deal!

So, I try to carve out some time for reflection and perspective on a trip, whether trying new restaurants, checking out free museum hours in the evening, or exploring a park. It makes traveling for work that much more enjoyable.