The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Posts from — March 2008

Pilgrims

Yesterday on my walk I fell in with a group of people heading toward Cappanawalla. The group was strung out along the coastal road in clumps of brightly colored coats and ski jackets. I asked a local Irishman if he knew that lot, but he said it was too early in the morning for him to respond to questions. I set out after them and after a mile found myself walking with a man in his seventies who had managed to overtake me. He said the group were from Limerick, staying at Hyland’s for the weekend, and had come to take the nine-mile hike across Cappanawalla. They did it every year. For some reason, I was reminded of Chaucer’s pilgrims wending their way to Canterbury.

The guy enjoyed talking with an American and shared his stories of Mexico, Spain, and the other places he had seen, including a stint in Zambia where passports were always presented to border guards with folded bills inside. He said he was surprised at Obama’s success, since most Americans he knew were racist. Two or three of the group used canes, but all were as fast as I was. They invited me to come along with them, but I said it would take most of the afternoon and I didn’t want to miss the rugby match between Ireland and Wales.

On the way back, I encountered a thirtyish couple walking toward Monk’s. The woman was talking at the top of her lungs and I could barely hear the man. She had the sidewalk to herself and her husband followed in the street one step behind. Naturally, I found this funny, and wondered aloud whether she always made him walk in the street. “What?” he asked, after she told him what I had said. “The street isn’t big enough for both of us,” he yelled, and we both started laughing. It was the kind of Irish repartee I have come to know and love.

March 9, 2008   Comments Off on Pilgrims

Berlin (Thursday)

The Neue Nationalgalerie by Mies van der Rohe in its large open space in the middle of the city seemed to stare back at me with the fixed, vapid smile of an empty mask. The structure, I assumed, was intended to be transparent (in the sense of not calling attention to itself), but, like a stiff German servant, it achieved this objective all too well. Nevertheless, it was a great place to view large works of art, and I found the sculptures of Lehmbruck particularly interesting. One piece, the torso of a woman, was so amazingly perfect in every respect that I spent an hour studying it.

seelsorgen.jpgBut I still had an hour to kill, so after a capuccino and a wedge of chocolate cake, I headed for a nearby cathedral which I had seen earlier from the sidewalk. From the plaque by the door, I learned that like many buildings in Berlin, it had been rebuilt after the war. The outside was constructed of reddish-orange brick and the interior was made of modern wood and plaster.

A woman at the door of the nave greeted me formally and then handed me a red flyer. “In mitten der pulsierenden Stadt, zwishen Kulturforum und Potsdamer Platz ein Ort der Ruhe, der Besinnung und Begegnung,” it said. I had found my way to St. Matthäus-Kirche. There were some other men and women inside as worn with the patina of age as me, though none of them seemed to be tourists. A few minutes later an organist appeared, climbed to the organ loft, and began preparing the organ to play. I sat down near the front of the church. From nowhere the pastor came and sat beside me. He was a large man with one of those deeply lined, soulful faces you sometimes see on older German men. “Kann ich hier bleiben?” I asked. “Na ja.”

The organist began to play. I looked again at the red piece of paper I had been given. I noticed now that it outlined a service. It began with a “Glockengeläut,” with the organ imitating the ringing of bells. Soon the pastor stood up and addressed us. Several times he turned and talked directly to me. My emotions, which were already all over the place, were in my throat. Unfortunately, I understood every word. “Und vergib uns unsere Schuld, wie auch wir vergeben unsern Schuldigern. Und führe uns nicht in Versuchung, sondern erlöse uns von dem Bösen.” Suddenly, I couldn’t take it any longer and got up and left. I didn’t want to be forgiven or to forgive. In my life I had seen too many good people stand around and say nothing while the destroyers of the spirit went about their nasty work.

Later, we travelled across town and, after a series of U-Bahn and S-Bahn excursions, found ourselves in Charlottenburg, where I saw the Picassos at the Berggruen with one of the students. Taking another bewildering set of trains back to the Zoological Gardens, Rebecca and I strolled through the Ku’damm to the Kathe Kollwitz museum and were stunned by the power of her drawings, woodcuts, and sculptures. At one point Rebecca came to me and said that during her life one critic complimented Kollwitz by saying she had “ein Herz eines Mannes.” “Can you imagine?” she asked. “The heart of a man? What crap!”

We had dinner at what billed itself as a Mediterranean restaurant. Our waitress had to cover three rooms of tables by herself and was annoyed with me from the start. She didn’t understand my request for tap water, so I asked the bartender to pour me a couple of glasses. In German he said that he usually used small glasses, but since I was so big, he would use the larger ones. This, of course, went over like a lead balloon. Rebecca mentioned two of the dishes from the menu which interested her, so I ordered them, along with a half liter of wine. The waitress got even more annoyed when she brought the dishes we ordered, and we hadn’t yet decided who would get what. I ordered another half liter of wine. Soon our German began flowing rather freely. We started naming things and, in the spirit of the game, she began to help us. For example, we learned that a fork is eine Gabel. Our waitress even spelled it for us on a paper napkin. Deciding we were either English or Swedes, but not knowing which, she wanted to know where we were from. I said, “Aus Wein.” Naturally, she rejected this as obviously false. So I suggested we were Mexicans. She didn’t buy this either.

Like most restaurants in Berlin, this place didn’t take credit cards, so, when she rejected ours, I suggested we didn’t have the money to pay the bill and that she should call the police. All of this, of course, in my bad German. At this point, she finally cracked a smile, and we handed her our last fifty. “Where are you from?” she wondered. “Cuba,” I suggested.

On the way out, I tried once more to tell our place of origin. “Aus Schwabenland,” I said. It was then I finally achieved my objective. She laughed out loud.

March 3, 2008   Comments Off on Berlin (Thursday)

Berlin (Tuesday)

After landing in Schönefeld, we got in our hired bus and drove around Tempelhof with its long, massive building designed by Speer to last a millennium, and arrived in our hotel in Kreuzburg, a converted factory now filled with clumps of screaming high school students. The college hired a German guide to deal with things like checking in, getting transportation passes for the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, and gaining admission to museums at reduced rates. The guide was rather droll and told us slightly off-color stories (like having the car you arranged to buy arrive in Poland arrive ahead of you and discovering it was your own), facts about Germany (in Berlin the unemployment rate is 15%, in the former East Germany it is 20%), and how the bars never close at night. Several ears pricked up at this piece of news. At the hotel lobby (on the fourth floor), she bought us drinks (the German Weizzen is amazing), complimented me on my German, and then started calling the museums on our list to see what she could work out. She was worried, though. In the new Germany, workers come in at 10:00 and leave at 2:00.

checkpoint_charlie.jpgAfter getting settled and having something to eat (two large pieces of pizza al taglia for a little over 3 euro), we walked from our hotel in Kruezburg to Checkpoint Charlie (all that’s left of it is the white pill box where the soldiers stood), and then strolled along Under den Linden to the Brandenburger Tor. It was then I first started getting in touch with something I had missed forty years before, when parts of Berlin were still rubble. At the Tor and then at the Reichstag next to it, I was amazed and then revolted by the size of the figures and the burliness of the architecture. It had no grace, simply power– like Greek or Roman buildings on steroids.

We rode up the elevator to the top floor of the Reichstag (after being x-rayed and inspected), where there were the most amazing views of Berlin at night. I ignored the new plastic gyre which stands directly over the legislative chamber and walked around the periphery of the building where I stood in the cold, listened to conversations, and stared past the stone figures into the Berlin night (like Bruno Ganz).

Next, we went to the Jewish Memorial, a large city block of cement rectangles of various heights representing the effects of the Holocaust. We walked through the maze individually, and more than one of us cried at the horror of what it represented. At the far end, a group of young immigrants, obviously drunk, yelled into the night, so I sat near them, hoping they might move on which they finally did. Tired now, we walked through Potsdammer Platz and back to our hotel.

Modern Berliners, I sensed, were not so much German as European. I could find almost no trace of the attitudes I had discovered as a young man in the towns and villages of Germany. By and large, I felt accepted even though I spoke less than perfect German. This was summed up by the placard in the hotel which read, “Jemand ist ein Ausländer.”) Of course, Kruezberg may be different. It’s a mixture of upwardly mobile office workers, old working class, new immigrants, and gays and lesbians. The prevailing attitude is to live and let live. It reminded me a bit of San Francisco and felt like a pair of comfortable old shoes.

March 2, 2008   Comments Off on Berlin (Tuesday)