Archive for March, 2017

Copenhagen (March16-17)

There’s one more trip I must take. In Copenhagen, Denmark is a small museum called the David Collection. It owns another of the block prints I’m pursuing and I’m off to see it. I bought my train tickets a couple of days ago so all I had to do this morning was roll out of bed and make my way to the central station in Hamburg. I was excited to make this trip because the it involves the train being loaded onto a ferry for the trip from the north coast of Germany across a bay of the Baltic, the sea that separates the Danish island of Sjaelland from continental Europe. The first part of the trip went along the same route I had taken with Jim to Lübeck but continued on northeast to a little seaside town called Puttgarden. The town itself lies on the northern edge of a German island called Fehmarn. The names are more than slightly Danish and it’s no wonder. The Danes and Germans fought more than one war over this real estate up here. For the present, it’s German.

Public works projects generate intense debate everywhere. It’s no different in Germany and Denmark. Up here, there is a proposal to replace the ferry service with a bridge or tunnel or bridge/tunnel combination between the two countries at this point. But there’s opposition:

You can tell you’re getting close to the ocean because the land flattens and marshes, ponds, and inlets start appearing. Before you know it, the train is creeping onto a boat—a BIG boat– and then it comes to a stop. The train is only four cars long because it has to fit on the ferry, but even so, that’s a lot of train to carry on a boat. Then, it’s “everybody out” for the 45 minute crossing; train passengers as well as car and truck drivers are required to leave the vehicle decks while we’re underway. I spent the trip on the ferry “Princesse Benedikte” wandering around on the observation deck in surprising sunshine and browsing the duty free shops and restaurants in the enclosed areas.

Soon the crew of the ferry announces that we were approaching our destination, the Danish port town of Rødby, and we return to our seats on the train. The train is among the first vehicles to disembark; we set off on terra firma but halt at the first train station, about a quarter mile from the dock. Here the train is boarded by Danish police who politely ask all passengers for their passports. Despite Europe’s generous policy of accepting refugees, Denmark has decided it has had enough so they restrict entry to those who are carrying valid passports or other travel documents. I don’t see them remove anyone from our train…

We arrived in Copenhagen (I should probably write København since we’re now in Denmark—oops: Danmark!) about mid-afternoon. I checked into a modest hotel right next to the central train station. It’s called Nebo and I’ve stayed here before when Vibs and I have had occasion to visit the city. It’s a so-called “mission” hotel because it reflects a “Christian” philosophy that everyone deserves decent lodging. At about a hundred bucks a night, in the city center; it can’t be beat. Some of the rooms have shared baths and toilets but hey, they’re clean and neat.

I spent a bit of time in my room on the computer calculating a route from the hotel to the museum. Once I had done this, I headed out to reconnoiter my path. With a city plan firmly (more or less) in mental grasp, I walked the route I planned to take the next day. Contrary to expectations, the sun was out and the streets were busy. I walked the kilometer or so to H.C. Anderson Boulevard, which runs adjacent to Copenhagen’s grand Parliament building, the Rådhus.

Crossing its plaza, which is a bit torn up due to the construction of a major subway project (the work has had Copenhagen in a traffic and aesthetic uproar for several years, now, but progress is being made…) and the erection of tents. The Danes were getting ready to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The Danes, supposedly the happiest people on the planet, are always up for a good time, even if it’s imported. On the other side of the plaza, I head up Strøget. Strøget is a main commercial street running for a mile or so through central Copenhagen. It’s a pedestrian street and the location of a number of iconic stores and businesses, some of them Danish—like Ilum’s and Georg Jensen—but increasingly American and European shops like Abercrombie & Fitch, Body Shop, Seven Eleven and, of course, MacDonald’s. Street performers were out in force: living statues of Elvis (in the later years), a black guy in dreads performing Bob Marley standards, another artist with a bucket of soapy water and a loop of rope lofting huge bubbles into the breeze. A typical city in other words.

Having determined that my route was accurate and walkable in a reasonable amount of time, I wandered slowly back toward my hotel, scouting out potential dinner locations along the way. The variety of cuisine options has greatly expanded here as it has elsewhere and the thought struck me as, later that evening, I sat at an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet. It seems that food as a cultural marker is losing its distinctiveness. That evening, across the room from where I sat, was your “typical” Danish young girl of about eight or ten: blond hair, blue eyes, Nordic to the bone. She was picking out dishes that her grandparents would never have heard of and that her parents had probably come to only as adults. Yet sushi would be a part of her cultural reference for all of her life, as natural as any other on the Danish landscape.

At ten the next morning, I presented myself at the David Samling. The building is on Kronprinsessengade, which borders one side of the park that surrounds Rosenborg Castle, the official residence of Denmark’s royal family. I met Anne-Marie Keblow-Bernsted, a conservator at the museum, who led me through a labyrinth of passageways to her workshop, where she does the labor necessary to preserve the textiles, paper, ceramics and other materials that constitute much of the collection. She had prepared the block print for me to examine and I spent a couple of hours doing just that. I also had the opportunity to talk with Ms. Keblow-Bernsted about her own work and particularly her study of Islamic ceramics. She had written a book on the subject of pigments and deterioration of glazes and such, a study of major importance in the field.

After expressing my thanks to her and the museum, I wandered back to toward the hotel, stopping off to make a few small purchases of items that are still hard to find outside of Denmark. The skies had been cloudy all morning and now the weather was definitely deteriorating. Taking a stiffening wind as a hint, I found a café where I could have some lunch and watch people through a window. Rain pounded down for a while, chasing pedestrians off the streets. A few disappointed St. Paddy’s Day revelers hustled past, shoulders hunched, hands buried in pockets, their green hats and fake red beards looking a tad bedraggled. By the time I finished my meal, the rain had let up enough that I could make a run for the hotel, retrieve my bag and make the short walk to the train station without getting soaked.

The train journey back to Germany was uneventful. Riding through the dark, we could have been anywhere. The ferry ride was a bit choppy, the boat shuddering through waves and wind but we docked without incident and by midnight I was snug at home.

A Short Week

Since I returned from Munich only on Monday evening last week (3/6), I was already down a workday. In addition, Cousin Jim was due to arrive on Thursday evening for a brief visit with me. Now, I had known that he was coming and I had been looking forward to seeing him. This was his first visit to Europe and he was taking advantage of my presence here to see that he didn’t get lost. The three days before his arrival flew by and, because I felt that I had been keeping my nose fairly close to the grindstone, I was not feeling the least twinge of guilt about taking Friday and part of Monday off so I could show him around.

His visit also gave me the opportunity to get a bit more familiar with Hamburg. Although I had taken the bus tour of the town, I hadn’t veered too far from my day-to-day route or routine. When Jim arrived, we immediately set off for a jazz club that I had found online. Jim likes music and he was looking forward to hearing some. Despite the usual fatigue generated by trans-Atlantic air travel, Jim insisted on scoping out Birdland Club. It was more of a hike than either of us anticipated, but we found it, tucked into a too cozy cellar on a main thoroughfare about a mile from my apartment. We ran the gauntlet of young smokers puffing their carcinogens on the stairway and entered a low ceilinged space with wall to wall bodies. The music hadn’t started yet and the crowd was overwhelming. Disappointed, we retreated to the street and wandered our way back home. Jet lag had finally hit and Cousin Jim collapsed into bed the minute we got home.

The next morning, we ate breakfast in a rather upscale hotel just down the street. Elysée Palace (SO pretentious!) has it all for those who have it all. Spa, health club, four restaurants, a shoe and clothing store (just in case you left your Guccis at home), and lots of other amenities. Despite this, they served a nice breakfast and a good cup of coffee at a reasonable price. Thus fortified, we set out to walk the city, across the Kennedy Bridge, which divides the Outer Alster Lake from the Inner Alster Lake, and into downtown. Having seen much of this part of Hamburg from the tour bus, I was able to point out some of the sights. We walked down to the harbor and saw an area that has recently been rehabilitated. Lots of old brick warehouses turned into office flats and apartments. It was easy to get lost, but people were helpful in pointing us in the direction of landmarks—like the grand Gothic City Hall—so we could get our bearings again. We had a couple of beers along the way and a late lunch at home. That evening, we decided to try the bar in the fancy hotel and, to our delight, they had live music. A jazz trio, composed of three guys in their eighties at least, was doing a fabulous job with the standards and we spent a pleasant couple of hours listening.

On Saturday, I had arranged train tickets to Lübeck. Lübeck is a well-preserved town that dates back a millennium or so. It was one of the original members of the Hanseatic League, that medieval precursor to the European Community. The old town is surrounded by twin moats and boasts the requisite monumental city gates and tilting 500 year old buildings, centuries old churches and cobbled streets. It was cold when we set out but Jim had brought the sun with him to northern Europe and by noon the sidewalk bars and cafes were filled with people enjoying themselves.

Earlier on, we had noticed what looked to be a concert cranking up in a park near one of the city gates. We paid only casual attention to this, but the crowd continued to grow and by the time we stopped for a noontime beer, a substantial crowd had formed, complete with banners bearing the logos of the SPD (the German Socialist Party), a drum and brass ensemble, people in 19th century costume, and other political signs and flags. The biggest surprise: pussy hats! Many, many pussy hats! Okay, so they weren’t true pink—more magenta, or maybe fuchsia—but the form was the same and so was the message. Probably the best American export in decades.

After the parade passed us by, we had lunch and one more beer before we boarded the train for the return to Hamburg. We ended the day in our now favorite hotel for dinner and another evening of music by a different jazz trio composed of even older white guys.

Sunday was a bit of a rest day; we scouted out a part of my neighborhood that I had not yet had a chance to explore and found a couple of gems. One bar that could become a local for me on those Fridays when I can’t stand another minute of the inside of the office and the lure of the apartment is weak. There was also a nice Italian restaurant that has the perfect combination of atmosphere and food that warrants return visits.

All this was a most welcome respite to my existence here. Jim got to see a bit of Europe and I got to speak something other than German for a few days. Not that I mind speaking German; I need to do more of it so my ability improves. I’m a long way from fluent, but a steady diet of newspaper, radio, tv, and conversations with Germans is moving things along.

Two Days Away (March 4-5, 2017)

I have been trying to keep myself on track with all the varied activities I have promised to undertake during my stay in Germany. So far, I think I’ve done pretty well. One month into my residence, I have completed one of three planned research trips, participated in one of two seminar sessions and done some writing. I think that’s not bad, but from experience I know that all of a sudden, one looks up and the time has all gone with too much left to do. A bad feeling.

Wanting to do whatever I can to prevent this from occurring, I set off this past Saturday (March 4th) for Munich where two more block prints reside. It’s a six hour train ride from Hamburg to Munich so not possible to do in one day. I had recently re-established contact with a former professor of mine from graduate school who has spent most of his professional life at Goethe University in Frankfurt. When he learned that I was going to be in Germany, we arranged to meet and since Frankfurt lies between Hamburg and Munich, this was a perfect opportunity.

I spent a very pleasant evening and morning reminiscing with David King and his wife Pat—I had not seen them in thirty years!—and then continued my journey south. In Munich, I spent the night in a small hotel which was so tucked away that it took me a good half an hour to find the street it was on. Even the locals weren’t exactly sure where Amalienstrasse was! In desperation, I walked into a competing hotel and the desk clerk cheerfully told me my hotel was in the next street!

This morning (Monday, March 6th), I walked the three short blocks to Ludwigstrasse, a grand, wide thoroughfare lined with Gothic piles of tooled stone to find the Staatsbibliothek, the state library.

After going through the obligatory check-in, shedding my jacket, hat, and briefcase, and sliding the pieces of paper, ruler, and magnifying glass into the transparent plastic bag I was given, I was admitted to the manuscript reading room where I spent two intense hours examining the block prints. The librarian who had discovered these block prints, Helga Rebhan, came out to greet me and introduce herself. We arranged to meet for coffee after I had finished looking at the block prints and we had a very informative conversation during the course of which she told me that she knew of another example that a colleague of hers had seen in southwestern China! The story of the block prints grows ever more intriguing…

Helga was able to provide a bit of general information about the Staatsbibliothek as well: ten million, that’s TEN MILLION volumes of print plus a couple hundred thousand manuscripts. The building was put up between 1832 and 1839 and is glorious both inside and out. The outside is solid stone, made to last; the inside has high ceilings and broad staircases. The reading rooms have all been modernized, but in a tasteful way; comfortable seating is everywhere and there’s plenty of light. It was busy on that Monday morning, due in part to the fact that the university is just a stone’s throw away down Ludwigstrasse. But the manuscript reading room was populated as well.

Very impressive all in all.

Now I’m on the train again, headed back to Hamburg and my apartment. I’d like to think I could kick back for a couple of days, but the fear of running out of time makes that seem unlikely. A cousin of mine comes to visit for four days at the end of the week and then we’re into the second week of March already. Nearly half of my time here will be gone. So, it looks like I’ll have to press on for a while before I can put my feet up.

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