Travel: Berlin for beginners
|Travel: Berlin for beginners|
Fraulein Maggie's "first trip" to Germany
by Maggie Bloodstone -
SGN Contributing Writer
My first trip to Europe! Woo hoo! Fifty-one years old, and I've never set foot on soil more foreign than Vancouver, B.C.! Needless to say, I was thrilled to tiny bits at the prospect of visiting my mother's fatherland, Germany, where some of my most favorite-ist things in life come from: Nina Hagen, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kurt Weill, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and Lindt chocolate. I couldn't wait to hear German voices speaking German, breathe German air ("Berliner Luft"), and best of all, not have to hear about Sarah freakin' Palin for a whole week! (Watching the Republican Convention on the TV monitors in the boarding area, I admit the thought of not coming back did cross my mind for a moment&.)
This year, Lufthansa has begun a direct flight from Seattle to Frankfurt, and I gotta say, you seldom think of a plane trip as being a part of your vacation, but in my case, it's the God's honest truth. Everyone in the office bemoaned my having to endure a 10-hour flight, but with attentive attendants, a good book, my own childlike excitement, and plentiful Jacquart Brut, the time positively disintegrated. Every time I looked at the flight plan video (installed in every business-class seat), I was amazed at how close I was to eating Bockwurst ("We're over Greenland already? Wow!") Even my post-9/11 anxiety disappeared in the comfort of a seat with more positions than the Kama Sutra and an amiable-but-not-overly-chatty seatmate. Even the one baby in my section made nothing but happy noises the whole time (happy German noises). Oh, and the food: Between the macadamia nuts and juice you get promptly upon settling in and the perch in mustard sauce with the Best Bread Ever, I didn't care if I ate at Burger Konig the rest on my trip. The portions are typically small, but this is German cuisine, which means "real" food - basic, unpretentious, and hugely satisfying.
LANDING IN BERLIN
The flight left and arrived bang on schedule, as did my connection from Frankfurt to Berlin (the only downside being having to negotiate the Frankfurt airport from the arrival side, which should be an Olympic event, with elevators, escalators and excruciatingly slow-moving sidewalks - the only thing missing is skiing and shooting). On the upside, the Lufthansa business-class lounge is bright and roomy, with showers and champagne. Everything else about coming in to Berlin was a breeze, from the taciturn (and only slightly intimidating) passport officials to the speedy baggage retrieval. And my host was right there at the gate, waving and wearing his Dame Edna sunglasses.
The first thing I would suggest to a first-time traveler in Germany is get yourself an expatriate American Sister Of Perpetual Indulgence who has been living in Berlin for the last 25 years who speaks flawless Deutsch and can speak eloquently of the region's history, from the last days of the Berlin wall to the present. I was lucky enough to have my own personal tour guide/interpreter in the person of Sister Vesta Rose, late of Kentucky, USA, presently a member of the Schwestern der Perpetuellen Indulgenz of Berlin. He knew Berlin down to the paving stones, and was invaluable in filling me in on the background of every landmark, the habits and quirks of native Berliners, and to help me to properly order a Lynchburg Lemonade (hint: "limonade" is not necessarily an ingredient). Lacking that, grab a map at the airport. Seriously.
SIGHTSEEING, CINEMATIC AND SOMBER BERLIN
It's amazingly easy to get around in Berlin, with its excellent public transportation (yes, the trains do run on time), and most points of interest are within walking distance of the center of town. The first picture I took upon emerging from the U-Bahn was of the slab of Wall standing in the middle of Potsdamer Platz, a few yards from where that Concrete Curtain actually stood. Two decades after Reagan single-handedly brought about the obliteration of the Wall and the totalitarianism it represented (insert huge gut-laugh here), the marked difference between West and East can still be seen in the form of plain, dreary former apartment buildings and the occasional cross marking failed escape attempts on the Eastern side. Potsdamer Platz is flanked by the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Tiergarten, which encapsulates a huge, gorgeous park which was the longtime location for one of Europe's Gayest event, the Love Parade. (In keeping with the dark synchronicity that is so much a part of Berlin's history, it was also the site of Aktion T4, a Nazi program of "euthanasia" directed at the disabled, and of the first Institute of Sexual Research by the ultra-progressive physician/Gay-rights advocate Magnus Hirschfeld.)
Memorials and monuments from Berlin's recent eventful past abound, but few are grimmer or harder to forget than the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a three-year-old construction in the heart of Berlin marked by the Field of Stelae, almost 3000 stark concrete boxes of varying size, designed to evoke both an inescapable labyrinth and the overwhelming volume of anonymous death dealt in a shockingly brief time period. This sight alone is difficult enough to shake off, but a journey through the below-ground chambers provides a powerful humanizing contrast with walls filled with photographs, recorded voices, and stories - way, way too many stories.
Making a mental note to myself to not only return to this place if I ever come back to Berlin, but to save an entire afternoon for it, I visited the Museum For Film & Television, an absolute gotta-go for film freaks in general and lovers of German cinema in particular. It's an easily traversed ramble from grainy silents to Run Lola Run, with veritable shrines to Teutonic geniuses like Fritz Lang (M) F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu), and G.W. Pabst (Pandora's Box). Of course, Marlene Dietrich's section was not so much a shrine as a temple, a high-ceilinged room filled not only with La Dietrich's voice and moving image, but her costumes, both actual and replicas-a cape from Garden Of Allah, a very butch tailored suit from Song of Songs, and a spectacular stage robe festooned with ebony gamecock feathers. (Sadly, no Morocco tuxedo - doubtless one of many acolytes had long since appropriated that particular fetish object.) There's her actual makeup kit, a gift from Josef Von Sternberg, with period-correct contents, and even a couch in the middle of the space so the faithful can sit and meditate on her eternal fabulousness. Right after the miniature of the 1936 Olympic Stadium that serves as the center for Leni "Didn't See A Thing" Riefenstahl's space is the chilliest exhibit, Film Under National Socialism. With most of Germany's greatest talents dead or fled, there was little left but propaganda and escapism, and this room accents the lack of artistry - and soul - of the period. While the other rooms feature scores of video screens with loops of genre-defining celluloid art and recreated setpieces, this one is sparse, with a few photos of forgotten stars and a couple of video screens hanging from the ceiling, creating the feeling in the watcher of being constantly watched. Then you notice the drawers built into the walls, which when opened, contain more video screens and related memorabilia - a morgue in more ways than one.
While we're still on the subject of museums, of course I had to visit the "Schwules Museum" - the Gay Museum -located in what Sr. Vesta called the "hippie" district of Berlin, full of nifty little shops and cafés - not quite Haight-Ashbury, but welcoming. The lower level of the museum was devoted to the exhibit "Die Schonsten Lesben kommen aus Berlin," or: "The most beautiful Lesbians come from Berlin" (Oh, they do! They do!), a retrospective of 40 years of Gay-gal life in what is arguably the most dykey city in the world. The upstairs is the permanent exhibit, stretching from the first recorded mention of "Warmer Bruders & Schwesters," literally, "warm" brothers and sisters. The portion that held the most interest for me was the incredibly rich Weimar Republic era (the Cabaret era, for the history-challenged), with a collection of photos and magazine articles that I'm sure barely scratched the surface of one of the most screamingly Queer periods in modern history - many of which can be found in the excellent book, Voluptuous Panic, which I perused on the plane coming over to put me in the proper Christopher Isherwood frame of mind. Any 20-something twinkie or baby dyke who thinks America (and/or Madonna) invented Gay Culture needs to get their fannies to this establishment and discover what it really means to be a martyr to one's cause. (Being called "faggot" on the street is pretty tame compared with Paragraph 175 and pink triangles&.)
RESISTING THE MAINSTREAM BERLIN
Speaking as a tourist, I wouldn't come to Berlin (or any major European city, for that matter) with shopping as a primary goal - the Euro is kicking the dollar's ass, and there's not a whole lot you can't get back home, anyway. My prize find was in a used record shop down the street from the Schwules Museum: a stack of German vinyl albums for 1 Euro each by fairly obscure '70s artists like Status Quo, Savage Rose, Sweet, and Amanda Lear (a French Patsy Stone clone once rumored to have been born a garcon). But if shop you must; there's the Kufurstendamm, a plethora of fancy-schmancy shops and boutiques, including Kryolan - which, being a Sister Of Perpetual Indulgence, I had to make a pilgrimage to with Sr. Vesta and Sr. Sunshine, a vivacious "real" girl visiting from Munich. Any Sister or serious drag queen should thank the goddess for Kryolan, the foremost maker of stage makeup for a half-century - in fact, to make the experience all too perfect, while we were there, a local drag celebrity (whose name I neglected to jot down) visited with a camera crew, in the process of making a day-in-the-life-of-a-Diva-type documentary. The owner of the shop was a Chilean-born sweetheart who was well acquainted with the Berlin Schwestern, and who made a present of the lovely necklace she wore when I expressed my admiration.
I tried hard to avoid anything and everything that smacked of creeping Americanization in Germany (which is no mean feat; one of the first things I saw on my entry into Berlin were graffiti-saturated walls that would not have been out of place in the Sodo district), but the one "touristy" activity I have no reservations about recommending is the boat trip on the Spree (the river that runs through Berlin). It's an idyllic float past the older, more Gothic neighborhoods, and being the history geek I am, it was a sublime experience to be so close to structures older than the oldest building in the U.S.A. I felt like even more of a geek taking pictures of them, but really, how can you not?
Did I mention this was my first time in Europe? For those who have yet to make the journey (and you must), I do have at least one tip: Unless you speak a given language fluently, stick to English. Being rather proud of my convincing German accent (honed by my fondness for Mozart arias while a classical voice major at Cornish), I thought I would try out my limited command of the language while there & which lasted about the time it took to go from baggage claim to the bus outside the airport. All it took was one blank Berliner stare when I tried to spit out - literally - "Wo ist Matthaifriedhofsweg. Strasse, bitte?" and my primary phrase became "Sprechen sie Englisch?" Berliners are not exactly famous for their friendliness, anyway, but better I should say that, unlike Americans, they don't feel the need to act like every stranger on the street is their New Best Friend after simply asking what time it is. Case in point: I have a lot of beautifully rendered tattoos on my arms, and it's a rare summer day when I can walk down a Seattle street and not encounter every possible reaction from an unnecessarily loud "Gee, you got a lotta tattoos!" to unsolicited physical contact if a passerby is unsatisfied with seeing only my left shoulder blade. In Berlin, I still got looked at - sometimes for a looong time - but not a word. Not a peep, negative, positive, or otherwise. Not a lot of other folks with skin art, either (except for the death metal rocker who tied up our tour boat on the Spree). Surely there are other tattooed Berliners, I asked Vesta Rose. He said yes, there are, but particularly with women, they're more, well, private about it. Makes sense - Americans have this inbred need to be noticed and acknowledged that comes with being a very young (and noisy) culture, and this attitude extends to our corporeal forms. I actually found myself thinking: "Hey! German people! Lookit me! I got tattoos!" But I actually found this indifference to my collaged carcass refreshing for a change, and it seemed to be confined to the public sphere - in more intimate settings, the locals showed as much interest in my demographic dioramas as any overly solicitous American. (It also occurred to me later that tattoos have a whole other layer of meaning to Europeans & particularly Germans & particularly older Germans for whom a certain tattooing fad from a few years back was anything but fashion forward.)
One of the Berlin Sisters, Sr. Latea, said the night I departed, "Berlin is crying at your leaving!" But I was the one who nearly bawled as I boarded the train to Munich (in a cozy sleeping compartment). It's been said that "no one is born a Berliner, one must become one" - I'm hip. In four days, I got only a small taste (and one big bite in the form of Folsom Europe 2008, which I will tell you more about in this space soon - sooner if you buy me a Wild Turkey at the Cuff this Saturday), but it was sufficient to make me an honorary Berliner for life.
THE IDYLLS OF KARNTEN BERLIN
As enjoyable as Berlin was, the last three days of my excursion was made extra-special because I got to meet someone I had been in online contact with for five years, a delightful Bavarian Fraulein named Sonja, who made the trek from her teensy village to Munich so we could at last meet in the flesh. (Yes, I cried - what's it to ya?) We had a long, but extremely pleasant drive to a region of Northwestern Austria called Karnten so I could have a look at least at one other country besides Germany, and to visit with friends of hers on a heaven-on-earth farm with a Sound of Music view and naught but the sound of lazily clinking cowbells. Sigh. It was enough like home to make me feel comfy and cozy, but fresh and new enough to make me look at every twig and pebble and think "Austrian twig & Austrian pebble ... sigh." If I wasn't ready to move in right then, I was after meeting Sonja's friends; Mama, Papa, two grown Kinder, and Oma (Grandma), who despite my being a total stranger - not to mention a tattooed American - treated me to what I presumed must be old-fashioned Austrian hospitality, complete with fresh-picked blueberries.
Karnten isn't in the mountainous part of Austria, but it's still ear-poppingly high with endless winding roads - heaven for the scores of motorcyclists (not "bikers" - I didn't see a Harley the whole time) whizzing past us every couple of minutes. And the villages are actually villages - there is no such thing as a "village" in the U.S.; the closest we got is the strip mall. These little hamlets have definite beginnings and endings, without dribbling into miles of Wal-Marts and Subways in between. Can't tell you what a treat it is to enjoy a countryside innocent of garish shrines to consumer culture. Well, OK, we stopped at one McDonalds - one, to use the little girl's room - where synchronistically, we met a nice local lady who, it just so happened, was a week away from emigrating to Florida with her hubby and twin poodles. (I didn't have the heart to tell her about the 2000 election - or the hurricanes.) And, I have to mention the best chicken breast I ever ate - ever - at this one guesthouse, cooked "Austrian style," or as I called it, "deep-fried angel." With potatoes.
FAREWELL&FOR NOW BERLIN
Following a weepy farewell at the Munich airport, I boarded a bang on time Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt & where I fell asleep in the lounge and didn't hear my flight announced, so spent an extra night in a Holiday Inn (which wasn't bad at all, it just wasn't well, German enough). I only had time for a few hours in downtown Frankfurt, mostly strolling around a too-charming street (Schweizer Strasse), lined with equally charming cafés. I finally decided on one called Edelweiss, where I had wild boar for the first time, sliced thin enough to read Braille through. (I passed on the mushroom aspic, though. Now, if I had been in Amsterdam, wink wink&.)
The Frankfurt airport is easier to negotiate from the outside, so I had ample time to unwind in the business-class lounge (staying awake this time) and soak up some final drops of Germanness. Unfortunately, my plane didn't come right up to the terminal, so there was a lengthy, humid bus ride to the tarmac - but all was forgiven the minute I plunked into my seat (closest to the door, and no seatmate - score!) and was promptly wined and dined again by the Lufthansa attendants. I think maybe next time I'll just stay on the plane the whole week.
But I'm only half done, really. Stay tuned for future issues of this fine periodical, perhaps our Spring Travel supplement, where I will tell you all about Folsom Europe, in time to convince you to attend Folsom Europe 2009. (S.F. Folsom is fab, but this one is so & European.) Of course, I got pictures - but if you can't wait, go to Flickr and type in "Folsom Europe 2008." (You'll be able to recognize me. Trust me.)