Monday, 15 February 2010
A Fine Day with Natives of Potsdam: Just Ask the Right Person the Right Question
Nicolaikirche by Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Potsdam II: Schinkel Territory and Cecilienhof
Potsdam's main drag is now called Brandenburger Strasse. It was noonish, Sunday, and many families were sashaying along, not a few of them going to the recently reactivated Christian churches, including, of course, that scrumptious Neoclassical masterpiece, the Nicolaikirche by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the most important architect of the early 19th Century in Germany, and sort of the laureate of the emerging Prussian cultural aristocracy.
I spied a young woman lugging a professional-looking tripod and asked her whether she made still or moving pictures with that formidable gear.
"Photos," she replied.
"What of?" I pressed.
"Of old buildings and young children." A beguiling mix, if you ask me.
So I inquired if she had a gallery where I could see some examples of her work.
"I don't have a gallery, but I live just around the corner, and you're welcome to look for yourself." A veritable American give-and-take, from this former shop window decorator turned semi-pro photographer.
As I followed her into the interior court of the Linden-strasse that led to her second floor apartment, I observed a familiar Eastern European phenomenon which I've noted from Bratislava to Warsaw to Leningrad. The external approaches to private residences look like they've just been bombed. Step inside Ulrika's apartment, however, and you could have been viewing an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
While she put her stuff away, I ogled her setup. Casablanca poster over the sink, Marilyn Monroe on the john door, Faulkner's Light in August in German (I can barely make sense of it in English) on well-stocked bookshelves.
After setting me down on a Danish modern chair, she brought me a box of her prints and a fresh pot of Braun-brewed coffee--a put a George Shearing LP on her turntable. What an array of unanticipated joys.
Her stuff was good enough, but before I could get too involved in it, her best girlfriend popped in for an unannounced Sunday visit--with two moppets (five and eight) in tow. All right. Here were two Germans whose vocabularies were my size!
I gloried in the five-year-old's actually understanding my questions. While I whiled away this Deutsche kindergarten opportunity, my hostess huddled in whispers with her buddy. Soon they reappeared with a query: "What are you doing for the rest of the day?"
I made some crude jest that I just wanted to get back to the Zoobahnhof unmugged (there had recently been a flurry of tourist hassles in the former Eastern zone). They laughed nervously--and then invited me to lunch at her friend's apartment across the city. We piled into her Volkswagen bus (no Trabbies for these Wessie-leaning Ossies) and soon we were entering a marvelous Jugenstil apartment house, dazzling even in spite of its battered condition.
There ensued the tastiest "lunch" I've yet consumed on German soil. Potatoes so light and savory I never imagined such a crude veggie could be so empyrean. And thin slices of pork that seemed to have thrown off their piggish heritage. We're talking five-star restaurant edibles.
When they served me fresh huckleberries for dessert, I thought they'd flip when I told them the American name. "You mean like in Huck Finn?" they exulted. Never have cross-cultural trivia seemed so enchanting to strangers. As I started to doze off on their comfortable couch from their sheer exhausting assault on my digestive system, they prodded me awake by asking what I wanted to see for the rest of the afternoon. Their VW was at my command. Nice Krauts, what?
Thereupon ensued one of the most exhilarating architectural sorties I've ever undertaken. Only my June day at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater vies with it. First there was a close look inside and out of Schinkel's Nicolaikirche. And the Old City Hall-turned-cultural center kitty-korner from it, where the locals put on art exhibitions. I made a mental note to take in those shows the next day.
Then we went north to the Russian Colony Alexandrowka, where the Russian Orthodox chapel Alexander Newski and graveyard recall the presence of a Russian choral group with resided there. The leitmotif of their informal seminar was how those Russian bastards had messed up everything in sight.
We were joined about three o-clock--as the youngsters were beginning to get culture-saturated--by Ulrika's divorced husband. His job was pianist for the Children's Ballet of Potsdam. Ulrika's ten-year-old daughter was prima ballerina for that troupe.
He said not to worry about my not yet seeing Cecilienhof, where Truman, Atlee and Stalin palavered in 1945. He'd take me there after dropping off the kids at home. He began by showing my where the infamous Berlin Wall began--with salvage dogs patrolling a no man's land between two electrified fences along the Heiliger See.
Cecilienhof was the last royal palace of the Hohenzollerns, a Romantic English "cottage" for the Crown Prince built just before World War I. The tour of the Potsdam conference rooms is a must-visit--Teutonically well organized and instructive.
Then we went over to the five-star hotel that's part of the setup to have a coffee and cake and wind down from this adventurous day. I wanted to play Duke de Visa and stay at this hotel overnight, but the mere suggestion drew a horrified response from my host--it would probably have cost him a month's salary.
So I squelched my impulse to live it up and let him drop me off at the Jagertor Hotel on the periphery of downtown. It was perfectly adequate and one-fourth the cost. After soaking in a marvelously commodious old tub, to chase away the fatigue, I went out on the town looking for supper.
I didn't find supper, but I found yet another adventure--in a Teestube, not a Bierstube, but a Third Worldly place where they stocked radical pamphlets of liberation movements and teas and coffees from beleaguered parts of the decolonializing globe.
I treated myself to some great Nicaraguan coffee and began chatting up the habitues. With the fall of the Wall, their ideologies were going into rapid eclipse, but not their teas and coffees. I settled down with a woman from West Berlin who managed a scientific research institute and like to come to slow, poky old Potsdam to unwind on weekends.
Monica was a great talker and eager to know minute particulars about America and its literature. So it was a swell summing up to an eventful day.
Back at the hotel, I fiddled with the TV and short-wave radio for a bit to see what had been going on in the Real World while I'd been Potsdaming. Not much, and boy was I bushed. I haven't slept that soundly in nearly a millennium.
from Welcomat: Hazard-at-Large, June 23, 1993