Ah June! To be grounded while I could have been traveling the world…that isn’t a good feeling. But then, there’s nothing bad about it either. As much as travel is about moving around and seeing things in the flesh, it is also about making journeys of imagination, reliving past moments and recreating them for your own pleasure.
Last year in June, we were in Europe on an idyllic vacation. The city lover in me was taking my family through some of the most spectacular sites of urbanisation in the world- Amsterdam and Berlin. Traveling in these two cities has offered me some of the most poignant moments of my life. At 16, I remember visiting the House of Anne Frank in Amsterdam and being moved to tears by what I felt inside.
At 38, I had a similarly intense moment as I turned a corner inside the Judisches Museum in Berlin to be surprised by the spectacular work of art, Shalekhet or Fallen Leaves by Menashe Kadishman. I remember gasping in surprise as I saw before me a sea of faces cut out from sheet metal. Sad faces, agonised faces, screaming faces, horrified faces, faces of despair, blank faces, tortured faces…thousands of them right there before us stretching out to what seemed like infinity.
To put things in context, a visit to the Judisches Museum designed by architect Daniel Liebskind was on my to-do list. But I’d heard extreme reactions to the building and I didn’t know what to expect. This is a structure of blacks, whites and greys. It is stark and has used sheer walls of concrete to express a deep anguish over the fate that befell the Jews at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis. But what I liked most about the building were the unusual voids- triangular spaces, spaces out of proportion, spaces with giant cut outs, spaces of deep darkness and sharp pins of light, spaces that held me spellbound.
The Shalekhet occupied one such space, very very tall and extremely narrow, as if life and happiness was being squeezed out of it. I stood there spellbound. And then, the children started to walk out onto the fallen faces strewn on the floor. I remember making a sound of protest, reaching out to stop them. But they were following an older child and I soon realised this is what the artist intended. For us to hear the clanking of the metal as people walked over the faces of all those who suffered and died, to feel that tortured sound of being in chains, of being walked over, destroyed.
For some reason, the Fallen Leaves made me think of the innocent children all over the world who are victims of violence, not just war and terror, but also beaten inside their homes or emotionally abandoned.
We’re letting them down, I thought. A year later, I’m still stung by that thought.
Its the 9th of November. Twenty five years ago, on this day, impassioned Berliners were tearing down the Berlin Wall, a unique monument that is testimony to the fears and political struggles of the 20th century. A monument built to avoid war at all costs at a point when major Western powers had been bled dry by consequent World Wars (Read if you are curious about why it was built).
With the fall of the wall that “made the Cold War concrete”, it seemed that socialism had been defeated too. To the world at large, the fall of the Wall has been presented as a celebratory event, one that brought together Germans. A victory for democracy that some perhaps erroneously painted as a thumbs up for capitalism as well. For others though, it was an event that happened far too late as they mourned those who had fallen in the struggle.
We tried to imagine what all of this felt like for Berliners earlier this year when we spent a week of a near perfect summer tramping around the fascinating city. Our visit to the Berlin Wall, in particular, was poignant and despite our silly tourist grins, we were contemplative for the rest of the day.
Reliving in my head that wonderful day and the crazy discussions we had. Try condensing the history of the WWII into a story for a 6 year old!
I had pre-booked our visit to the famous new dome built over the Bundestag in Berlin. Designed by Norman Foster, this was my must-see in the city from an architectural perspective and I had been warned about the need to pre-book and be there on time by fellow travel enthusiasts. And so, on the morning of our appointment, my travel anxiety kicked in full swing. I was impatient with the kids and Rahul, urging them to get ready fast and walk fast. We reached late and had some difficulties finding the right entrance to the building. For a while, I really thought we had missed our slot. I was a dour and unlikable person until we actually stepped into the premises of the Bundestag (also known as the Reichstag), when I finally permitted myself to breathe easy and smile!
This is where the German Parliament works from, the seat of power and a powerful symbol of democracy for a nation that has seen a tumultuous recent past. Moreover, the building burnt down during the Nazi regime (1933, blamed on Communists despite little evidence) and the open space around has been the site of many protests and political gatherings. Truly a witness to Berlin’s ups and downs, the new dome designed by Foster is perceived as a symbol of unified Germany, one that has given the building a fresh lease of life and a sense of joy and purpose.
I was very excited to be here, and once I was in, it was my relationship with my camera that took over, as Rahul and the kids faded slowly out for me (they were busy with their own audio guides, which were so excellent that even the kids could independently explore the dome for over an hour!). So many aspects of this magnificent glass dome are fascinating- the way it channels light into the Parliament hall below, the double helix ramps that take you to the top, the opening at the top that let the refreshing summer air in along with some raindrops when we were up there, the clarity of the glass that offers the most fantastic view of Berlin….I could go on and on, but I’ll let the pictures tell you more!
Tired after spending the morning inside the Bundestag dome in Berlin (post here!), we picnicked in the lawn outside. We had had a rainy morning and the bright sunshine that followed offered us the sort of bright light that brings the colours alive and makes everything around look like its straight out of the pages of a computer-rendered drawing!
In this setting, Aadyaa discovered the pleasure of feeding the birds when she accidentally dropped a morsel of bread on the grass beside her! The eager and clever sparrows, well versed with tourists, began to seat themselves in the bushes and trees nearby, waiting for one of us to throw out piece of bread or a broken off potato wafer. Slowly they began to wait in the grass beside us, only a few paces away and it would seem that if we had spent the rest of the day there, they could have eaten out of our hands as well!
Needless to say, our little girl was thrilled! My intense pleasure of experiencing the Bundestag dome paled a bit in comparison with her genuine happiness while feeding the sparrows. Rahul and me were spellbound by the extreme simplicity of a child’s mind. Sitting there, deliberately not rushing the kids towards another touristic destination, we were able to see, for a bit, life the way our kids see it. Uncluttered and in the moment!
This post is part of a series on our family’s experiences in Berlin and The Netherlands in the Summer of 2014. Some of the more popular travel posts from this series are:
Both the kids were absolutely certain of one item on the Berlin must-do list: a visit to the Zoo. Famed to have the most comprehensive collection of animals in the world, Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten (quite a mouthful and Udai practised saying it many times every day, with hilarious results!) is the oldest zoo in Germany, with an interesting history. And true to form, we saw many many species I had never thought I’d see outside of my television screen!
The children were delighted and we spent an entire day there, happy to observe the animals and the humans watching the animals. Of course, a zoo cannot compare to watching animals in the wild, but from an educational perspective, I’m glad we were exposed to such an astonishing array of species. The primate house was particularly impressive, so was the section with night animals where we saw a kinkajou. Now, the kinkajou is an animal we read about in one of the children’s story books and we were all four simultaneously awestruck when we saw one in the flesh! Other highlights were the little joey in her Mumma Kangaroo’s pouch, several types of zebras, the giraffe whose neck wasn’t long enough for Aadyaa and the polar bear, for who we trekked the length and breadth of the fairly large zoo!
Disclaimer: The pictures do not do justice to the fair weather, the well kept environs of the Berlin Zoo and the generally happy state of the animals and those who were out to see them!
No, it wasn’t just the dinosaurs. Yes, they were the major attraction, but once we got there the Museum fur Naturkund (Natural History Museum) turned out to be so much more. It was as if a physical force took hold of the children and we were barely able to keep up, chasing after them as they ran from one exhibit to the other, fascinated by creatures preserved inside bottles, by the science of taxonomy, by the preservation techniques on display and all the stuffed birds and animals, by the sheer biodiversity on our planet that hit us when we were in there. It was like an ocean of information, so well presented and it was an absolute pleasure to be here. To quote from their website, this is “one of the most significant research institutions worldwide in biological and geo-scientific evolution research and biodiversity.”
But let’s start with the dinosaurs!
This gallery, the very first one in the Museum, is a result of a highly successful early 20th century German expedition to Tanzania to collect dinosaur fossils. The Germans were prolific discoverers, very strong on scientific rigour and Berlin is a city full of museums because of this. In this one hall, we saw the largest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the world, the Brachiosaurus, which stands 13.27 metres and whose bones were found during the Tendaguru expedition that took place in 1909-1911. The Tendaguru Beds, as they came to be known, yielded many significant dinosaur skeletons and added hugely to our knowledge of this fascinating species that once inhabited the Earth. A skeleton of the herbivore Kentrosaurus or ‘spiky lizard’ that lived in the Upper Jurassic Period and a reproduction of thos period’s largest carnivore, the Allosaurus with its short front legs and enormous jaws with blade-like teeth are some of the other Dino friends we met in Berlin. Take a look…
I’ve noticed time and again Aadyaa is deeply interested in nature while Udai is on a mission for gleaning facts and will read every written word inside a museum (we call him the paisa-vasool tourist, meaning he will eke out the full value from whatever he spends!). And so, the two kids were comrades-in-arms at this museum, Udai reading things out and explaining to Aadyaa, she running ahead to identify the most interesting exhibits. The visual variety in the museum had a lot to do with keeping the kids engaged I feel.
I have to tell you about this incident inside the museum that really tickled me. Udai and Aadyaa were trying to build a 3D model that shows the different types of outer coverings that Dinos might have had, scaly or feathery. But a piece was missing. Off they marched off looking for it, managing to find the thief and communicate with his German grandpa, finally getting their missing piece back. They went on to toil at the model and posed when it was done, pleased as punch! See the tale in pics!
At the tail end of the Museum, I saw all these people lying on a round couch. It was only when the screen overhead began to flash images that I realised this is some sort of planetarium equivalent. The voice over was in German so we didn’t really understand much. But I captured here that aha! moment for which the crowds had been waiting. At one point of the film, the Google Earth image on the screen zooms in to show an image of the people down there on the couch. At the instant I clicked this image, the camera was already zooming out on the screen, but you can see that people spontaneously started pointing to their own faces when that image was shown! Such excitement! Such a simple way to get people to come back again and again!
Udai is crazy about Lego. He has been that way since he was say a year old. He made the choice to visit Berlin, inspired in part by the German lessons in school that are still a novelty and mostly by my mention of a Lego Discovery Centre in the city. We found ourselves at the stunningly beautiful and modern Potsdamer Platz at the end of our excursion to the Berlin Wall. It was evening time and we dashed to get into the Lego place, barely stopping to admire the architecture of the Sony Centre, in which the Lego deal is located. Rahul opted out owing to the high ticket charges (Euro 18 per person, unless you book in advance) and I spent two hours with my super excited Lego-crazy kids.
What was inside? Well, I really liked the lego reproductions of Berlin city. They were amazingly detailed and vibrant. I didn’t care much for the Star Wars section and even the kids weren’t captivated by it, though there were spacecrafts moving around and everything was made with Lego. There was a dragon themes ride that puts you in a car and takes you into a castle, with ogres and dragons and knights, all mads of Lego again. There are Lego figures standing around- batman, Hagrid and Harry, you get the drift…
It’s a small place and the highlight for Udai most certainly was the zillions of Lego pieces at the workstations and time to sit and make stuff. What did he make? Airplanes…duh! Aadyaa just ran around and explored the place. And we topped this all off with a short Lego film at a built-in theatre they had inside.
It’s not a very large place and perhaps not exciting for grown-ups, but little detours like this is what keeps children engaged. Especially when we travel to cities that are high on culture and sightseeing, we’ve found to useful to mix it up a little. Once the kids know that we’re willing to do ‘their’ stuff, they are quite happy to do ‘ours’!
PS- I did get some shots of the Sony Centre plaza once we got out of the Lego place, and here they are….
Unmoved by Checkpoint Charlie, Udai marched off in the direction he had been told to, looking for tangible remains of the Berlin Wall. We found this spectacular piece of history just round the corner and along with it, an exhaustive exhibition about Berlin’s history starting from the early 1900s until after the World War II. I’m glad we came here that first day in Berlin as it helped set the tone for our experiences of the city.
To me fell the task of explaining the entire exhibit to Aadyaa. She can’t yet read, but she won’t be left out either! She patiently waited for me to read each panel and then listened to my translation. The exhibition (strategically set up amid the ruined foundations of one of the Gestapo’s important buildings and right alongside the Berlin Wall) affected all of us profoundly as it chronicled the peculiar circumstances behind the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Against the backdrop of an economic slowdown, it seemed to be that the German people did not quite grasp the danger that was to come when they fell under the spell of Nazi thinking. The stark and totalitarian methods that Nazis used and the impacts of their fascism are hard hitting. It wasn’t the systematic extermination of the Jews that hit me so much because the Holocaust has been a significant part of fiction and non-fiction reading over the years. What really hit me is that the Nazis classified a whole bunch of people as out of the bounds of normal and these included the gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals and even the elderly and those with mental disorders. In their definition, a German had to not just be the correct race but also needed to be able-bodied citizens that contributed to their economy and power. One couldn’t help but see some parallels with some of the right wing talk around the world, not just in India where we have recently emerged battle-scarred after an emotionally exhausting election process (no, I’m not convinced about the ‘achhe din’ tag just yet!). The children’s reactions to this harsh narrative was notable. Udai was silent and thoughtful. Aadyaa’s interest and her clear identification of Hitler as the ‘bad guy’ both impressed and amused us.
We climbed up from the exhibition to finally walk alongside a section of the Berlin Wall. As an architect, I was taken aback by its thinness (it is built in concrete, hence the title of the post!). It appeared almost flimsy to me and yet must have been so formidably strong in the eyes of Berliners during the Cold War. The symbolism of the Wall makes visitors to it walk real slow. At intervals, you see holes in it, and its easy to imagine the crowds on either side tearing it down on the fateful November 9, 1989. It is an event I remember from my childhood, seeing the images on television and not quite grasping its full import. But now, seeing it in flesh and with the sun having come out and shining bright, I could appreciate a lot more. Most of all, the day’s experiences helped me admire the resilience of this amazing city and respect Berlin’s embrace of multiculturalism that I now understand as a way to counter its sordid, violent and divisive past.
More pics of The Wall ahead…
Nearly everyone who’s been to Berlin, every travel website and brochure, puts Checkpoint Charlie at the top of its list. And so, after a look at the insides of Nikolaikirch, we set out to tick the infamous CC off our list.
Historical info: Checkpoint Charlie was the crossing point between East and West Germany, manned by the US. It is perhaps the most poignant physical symbol of the Cold War along with the Berlin Wall itself (post coming soon), which was built to prevent East Germans from crossing over to the other side.
As luck would have it, we were rained out before we got there and it was a bit of an anti climax to see the poor guards positioned there (for touristic value only, I presume) scurrying around for umbrellas, not looking one bit stern but rather, hassled and helpless. The sad stack of cement bags was something we folks from Delhi see at every Metro station and for some reason, despite knowing the enormous historic significance of this point on the earth’s surface, I wasn’t really impressed! The lines to get into the Checkpoint Charlie Museum were long and forbidding and we did not even try. Plus, the place was way too touristy, advertising itself blatantly to American visitors complete with morabilia stores and even a giant Mc Donald’s that looks straight onto CC!
We detoured into Mc D’s for a pit stop (a mandatory visit thanks to Aadyaa who is something of a loo-tourist!) and ate a sausage or two off a streetside stall. Udai then had the bright idea of asking someone where The Wall is (he was obsessed with the task of finding the remains of the Berlin Wall) and off we marched to explore some more…
I’ve seen this sort of stuff before in Germany. Many years ago in Cologne, I remember walking on a street with a giant circle inscribed in it, to remember the Roman structure that once stood there. It was 1999. I had recently graduated from architecture college and the simple memory tool simply blew my mind!
This summer in Berlin, I noticed that the heavy scent of memory and nostalgia, tinged with sweetness and pain, still hangs around every street corner. And so I was particularly struck by this little open space near Checkpoint Charlie.
It’s called Bethlehemkirchplatz. Here, where a Church once stood, stands a metal frame that recreates the outline of the original building in a giant three-dimensional sculpture designed by Spanish artist Juan Garaizabal (it is a tube structure that plays with light apparently, but we saw it only in the daytime). You walk inside it and you see the plan of the erstwhile church inscribed into the paving in a distinct colour. It urges you to try and conjure up its walls and roof, its interiors, furniture, people. And you cannot, because it is in fact an empty space, filled with memory and emotion.
A 16th C church built for Szech Protestant refugees who came to Berlin at the time of Frederick William the 1st. Built around 1737, the church was bombed during the WWII in 1943 and in 1963 the ruins were brought down. The current artwork was inaugurated as recently as 2012.
We first caught a tantalizing glimpse of the sculpture on our way back from Checkpoint Charlie on Day 1 of our exploration of Berlin (more on that later). But it stayed in my mind and we went back to it another time to feel wha its like to stand inside that shell. Interestingly, the plaza is also known for the building in the background that was designed by well-known architect Philip Johnson and in this way, the place holds more than just memory but is linked to Berlin’s recent history and architectural prowess.