Why Berlin is the Grünstadt

Someone ought to do a documentary on the parks in Berlin. Maybe me, with the exquisitely primitive video capabilities of my camera. We’ve spent the last few weeks exploring parks on the outskirts, the sub- or mid-urban swatches of green that sometimes feel as big as a small country, at least Monaco or San Marinito. It’s like wandering through different lobes of the city’s brain; here are stately old chestnut trees and the DDR’s presidential palace, here are still-visible bunkers, here are naked bodies and sun worshippers, here grills and bottles and weedy grass gone wild over hills of rubble.

Saturday we went north, into Pankow and further, first to the Schlosspark just north of Pankow proper. A tiny stream wanders here through enormous chestnut and maple trees; one end is walled off, with a 17th-century mini-palace (invisible under scaffolding today) which was apparently used as the DDR presidential offices. Next door is an abandoned Soviet-era monstrosity, all white corners and flagpoles, but everywhere else is green, grass and flowering bushes, colonies of summer garden houses that look like a professional arboretum, a shaded suburban idyll.

Just west is the Schönholzer Heide, a sprawling park that in just four blocks leaves behind any pretense of manicuring, a wilder forest with unmarked, ruined bunkers still visible at its margins, and little hills that can’t be anything here but rubble. At its edge is a Great Soviet Monument, breathtaking in its funereal transcendence of taste or humility, commemorating the millions of war dead in WWII, or the Great War for the Fatherland. Aimee has pics here.

Then yesterday to the odd Volkspark Prenzlauer Berg, a steep rubble hill in the middle of Soviet era Plattenbauen (the charmless, square-block housing of the DDR era), growing wild with trees and grass in a way that could easily be a hundred miles into the countryside. Even on a Sunday afternoon, a German park day if ever there was one, it was almost empty; we found a little rough-grass clearing in between stands of trees, and lay in the sun almost alone all afternoon, listening to manic birds, the city below us invisible and almost completely inaudible.

First swift sighting

I fell in love with the swifts last year, birds that play in the air the same way dolphins do in the sea, with every evidence of unadulterated joy in the way they careen between buildings, skim the surface of rivers, chase each other through the heavens. When they left for the winter, it was as much a source of falling spirits as the grey skies themselves.

Today, we saw our first few returnees: a pair swooping through the street corridors near our flat, chirping loudly at each other, seemingly investigating an old nest in the eaves of a nearby building. I stopped and watched them fly for a few minutes, and I wasn’t the only one. A older man, and a young woman with her child stood on the sidewalk with me, wordless, hypnotized by the birds.

Aimee says they have Blackberries, co-ordinating their flights. And pretty close. According to this site, the first returnees are due in Berlin April 24 (two days late, guys, unless you’ve been cooling your tailfeathers in the southern parts of the city). The main “advance guard” isn’t due until May 7th.

Maybe my favorite moment from last year’s travels: sitting with a bottle of cold local wine, a bit of sausage and cheese and fresh tomatoes by the side of the river in Les Eyzies de Tayac, watching the swifts chase each other like inexhaustible seven-year-olds, reading, drinking my wine out of a plastic cup until the sun went down.

Terror watch, in the neighborhood

The US Embassy here in Berlin is boosting security. Apparently there’s an undisclosed threat to Americans here ongoing. Anybody have any clues?

“U.S. diplomatic and consular facilities in Germany are increasing their security posture,” the Embassy said in a statement.

“We are taking these steps in response to a heightened threat situation. The U.S. Embassy encourages Americans in Germany to increase their vigilance and take appropriate steps to bolster their own personal security.”

Further details were not given.

A year on. The post office on tax day. Bubbly.

Tax day. A year ago (minus two days) we arrived in Berlin, travel-tired, wide-eyed, speaking almost zero German. Norbert, who managed the apartment we were to stay in for three weeks, was kind enough to pick us up at the airport, and became our first Berlin friend, the punk-with-a-pillow.

A year later, we’re settled, and another hurdle passed. After much gnashing of teeth and shaking our fists at the great IRS in the sky, we have our first freelancers’ taxes off. They’re not even as bad as we’d feared. Among the chief advantages of semi-poverty is a low tax liability. Trump, Haliburtonies, you ought to look into the strategy. We take them to the German post office, which is blessedly quiet on American tax day.

And now the first spring rain beats against the window, we crack open a bottle of prosecco and let the bubbles chatter a counter-rhythm. One-two-o; a plate of freshly baked brown bread and olives on the floor, because we still don’t have a coffee table, chicken stewing in our tagine and all is well.

Pain on exhibit, and two views of crucifixion

At the Hamburger Bahnhof contemporary art museum is an exhibit on pain (Schmerz). Art shares the walls and display cases with medical implements, a case of pickled, often diseased organs, photos of autoerotic deaths, and a curiously compelling film of a man dancing naked in an attic, a pink plush dinosaur on a chair next to him.

Perhaps most striking is a segment focusing on the crucifixion, the central symbol of a 2000-year obsession with transcendent suffering. Artists have redrawn the passion story in lovingly, fetishistic detail for centuries; and the imagining of the pain itself has led thousands of martyrs to seek the same end. But modern science has of course given us an alternative way to imagine the event: The exhibit tells the story of American medical examiner Frederick Zugibe, who has spent much of his professional career (since beginning with a college term paper) studying the biomechanics of crucifixion, trying to assess the realism of the gospel stories.

Years ago, Zugibe constructed a cross, hung volunteers and studied blood gas, body stresses, heart action, etc. In a museum case here are the instruments used, and photos of his experiments. Unromantic and matter-of-fact, they’re utterly unlike the religious art with which they share the room; and yet Zugibe himself is a practicing Catholic, knighted by the Pope for his work. It’s tempting to see this as the modern response to the story, hard-headed and practical, but then there’s the sweeping success of Mel Gibson’s enthusiastically gory “Passion” movie, and its leagues of evangelical fans. In the US, at least, the unreasoning cult of martyrdom remains strong.

Zugibe, for what it’s worth, says “Passion” was unrealistic. Any real-life human body suffering the beatings given Gibson’s Jesus would have collapsed long before he reached the hill to be crucified.