Saturday, September 26, 2015

Botticelli Kommt Nach Berlin / Botticelli Comes to Berlin


Berlin's Gemäldegalerie has some clever ads publicizing its current exhibition (The Botticelli Renaissance) celebrating Sandro Botticelli and the artists he influenced.

The Birth of Venus
Botticelli, an early renaissance painter, is probably best known for The Birth of Venus and Primavera. The ad campaign, Botticelli Kommt Nach Berlin (Botticelli Comes to Berlin), has actors imitating models from famous Botticelli paintings at popular Berlin locations. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to see many of Botticelli's paintings at the Uffizi. Seeing this current exhibition is high on my to-do list. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Creative Writing: A Short Story

Faded Memories

I always referred to them as Mrs. Baker and Miss Alice. I'm not sure I ever knew their other names. Mrs. Baker was Miss Alice's daughter-in-law. They shared a modest house next to ours where they lived for 20 years following the death of Mrs. Baker's husband. Mr. Baker had been a successful banker who had died of cancer. His long battle with the disease had bonded the two ladies who had cared for him during his final months.

Mrs. Baker was utilitarian and paid little attention to her appearance. In summer, she would wear jeans, a flannel shirt, and a straw hat as she tended her garden. In the fall, she would rake the leaves in a moth-worn overcoat wearing large black boots, which looked suspiciously like those of her late husband.

Miss Alice had been a fashion model, and while her looks had long faded, she still paid attention to her appearance. She'd wear her signature ruby-red lipstick, rouge, and white gloves whenever she left the house. She'd visit the hair dresser every week for her shampoo and set, and even traveled to New York to shop twice a year.

Despite their differences, the pair complemented each other. Miss Alice was gregarious and full of life, Mrs. Baker taciturn and direct. They were content and close.

The time came when Miss Alice began misplacing things and forgetting names. A few years after that, she began having difficulty talking. She would start a sentence then forget her thought. Finally, she stopped talking.

Mrs. Baker also changed. Bags appeared under eyes, the creases on her face became deeply furrowed, and her stoop became more pronounced. Yet, she continued to guide Miss Alice on their daily walks. As the pair shuffled along the sidewalk, Mrs. Baker would talk, and Miss Alice would merely smile and laugh. They were utterly content in each other's company.  

Miss Alice's doctor had recommended that she be moved to a nursing home, but Mrs. Baker's would never consent. “My heart would be broken when I imagine my life without her,” she said. 

On Miss Alice's birthday, Mrs. Baker invited the neighbors for cake and ice cream. Miss Alice was radiant that day. Sitting on a chair with her sliver hair newly coiffed and wearing a pale white dress, she looked happy in the presence of the guests. Mrs. Baker was unusually talkative and in good spirits too.

We never knew Miss Alice's age. She was coy about about age, and no one asked the question even when it seemed appropriate on her birthday. 

Thumbing through a photo album, Mrs. Baker pointed to a picture of Miss Alice as a young woman. “The beauty and passion are gone, but her spirit still lives. We've shared the ups and downs of our lives, and she makes my life full.”

As Mrs. Baker spoke, it was difficult to imagine how caring for Miss Alice could be rewarding. She needed help eating, dressing, and walking. Even conversation was one-sided. 

“Not a day goes by when we don't laugh,” continued Mrs. Baker, lifting a fork with cake to Miss Alice's lips. “She's really no trouble. Alice has faded like the garden does in the fall, but I still get pleasure from it.”

A few days later, Miss Alice died in her sleep. “She looked peaceful when I found her,” Mrs. Baker said, tears streaming down her face. 

For awhile, Mrs. Baker continued tending her garden and going on her daily walks, but there were periods when she would disappear, and then reappear looking frailer than before. Gradually, the garden faded and the walks stopped. 

A year later, she was gone. Although the doctor said she died of a massive heart attack, we all believed she died of a broken heart. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Face of Greed: Martin Shkreli

Here's the face of GREED, if not evil. Former hedge fund manager, Martin Shkreli raised the price of a life-saving drug from $13.50 a tablet to $750 overnight. Shkreli's company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, bought the rights to Daraprim and immediately hiked the price more than 5,000 percent. Daraprim is a critical part of the standard treatment for a potentially life-threatening parasitic infection called toxoplasmosis. It is also used to treat people with compromised immune systems, like AIDS patients. 

Daraprim has been on the market since 1953, but it turns out that buying the rights to drugs--even generic drugs--and raising their prices has been something of a business model for American pharmaceutical companies. That's capitalism!

Social media was outraged at Mr. Shkreli's price hike. Mr. Shkreli responded by quoting the lyrics to an Eminem song: "And it seems like the media immediately points a finger at me/so I point one back em, but not the index or pinkie."

I only hopes that Mr. Shkreli is never in a position where he needs a life-saving drug that he can't afford. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Good Food in Berlin

Frau Behrens
Most restaurants close within the first year of business. It's a competitive undertaking and only the best survive. A restaurant is never static, and more often than not, its quality goes down as it ages. Case in point, Mr. Minsch. Originally, Mr. Minsch was a wonderful little bakery/cafe offering some of the best pastries in Berlin. It was so successful that it expanded. Unfortunately, Mr. Minsch's expansion resulted in less delicious cakes, pastries and pies.

I've also seen restaurants become complacent. Successful restaurants often become indifferent and take their customer base for granted. Such is the case with David's, a successful restaurant in Portland, Maine. It expanded and began to rely on the tourist trade. The result was lackluster food and poor service. 

Luckily, I've found a few places in Berlin that consistently have great food. I've been visiting Frau Behrens Torten for about 10 years. It's a small bakery located in Wilmersdorf and it has great cakes! Started by Victoria Fernandez, a Spanish transplant to Berlin, Ms. Fernandez uses recipes handed down from her German mother-in-law. Fernandez uses fresh ingredients, no preservatives, and no chemical additives. In all the years I've been going to Frau Behrens, I've never been disappointed. The walnut cake is amazing!

Ristorante Boccalli near Winterfeldtstraße is another restaurant that continues to be one of my favorite places. Their lunch special includes a huge pizza or pasta dish, a glass of wine or soft drink, salad, and coffee for only €7.90. Their friendly service and professional attitude makes Boccalli one of Berlin's best Italian restaurants. You won't be disappointed. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

DDR Restaurant in San Francisco

Most German restaurants in the USA specialize in Bavarian food, but Walzwerk specializes in food from the former German Democratic Republic (DDR), a cuisine that's heavy on the meats and high on the calories. Located in San Francisco's Mission District, the restaurant is a hit among the locals. If I ever have a chance to visit San Francisco, I'll give it a try. In Berlin, it would be difficult to find a restaurant of this kind. The city has plenty of restaurants, but very few that offer traditional East German food. 

Berlin's Art Week: Watch Ice Melt

Allan Kaprow

It's Berlin Art Week (Sept. 15 - 20, 2015), and for six days the city is awash in art. There are more than 140 exhibits from around the world taking part in this year's extravaganza, including works by Cindy Sherman, Paul McCarthy, and Alicja Kwade. There are even impromptu exhibits. 

Michael Jackson
Memorial Tree
The other day, I was riding my bike through the Tiergarten and came across a memorial to Michael Jackson; and this morning, I saw an exhibition entitled "Fluids" by Allan Kaprow near the Neue Nationalgalerie. It's just blocks of ice melting. I'm not sure what the fuss is all about, but it seems to be hit among the Art Week attendees. I've always been fascinated by melting ice, and during the spring, I enjoy watching it melt on the front lawn. I wonder if I could make that into a work of an art? 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Euthanizing Healthy Animals

View of Animal Enclosure From Bikini-Haus Terrace

The Bikini-Haus is an upscale shopping center located next to the Berlin Zoo and is considered an architectural landmark. Built in 1955-1957, the building was originally a fashion house, which produced and sold women's clothing and furs. The name refers to the structure that was divided into two sections: one for sales and one for production. The building was completely gutted in 2010; and in 2014, it opened as one of Berlin's premier shopping venues. At the back of the complex is a terrace that spans the length of the shopping center, affording views of the Zoo.

Walking through this complex, I was struck by its ordinariness. The ubiquitous shops could be anywhere. However, what makes this place 'special' and a tourist attraction are its views of the zoo. On the inside and on the outside terrace, shoppers can see various zoo exhibits.
Bikini-Haus Terrace

Looking at the baby baboons at play, I felt sad. You see in Europe, zoos do not use contraception on their animal populations and routinely euthanize animals to maintain population control. European zoos argue that parental care is a big part of an animal's behavior, and that euthanizing surplus offspring (once they reach maturity) only mimics what would occur naturally in the wild. Because zoos have eliminated an animal's predatory and anti-predatory behaviors, parenting is one of the few natural things zoo animals can do. Moreover, contraception isn't a better alternative to euthanasia since in addition to preventing natural parenthood, it puts an animal at risk. Birth control has long-term side effects and associated health risks. 
Baboons at Play

Of course, in a perfect world, we wouldn't need zoos. Animals could live in nature. But environmental degradation, loss of habitat, and human encroachment, have left many animal species near extinction. Zoos may be the only safe haven left for animals. Whether scientifically managed euthanasia is the right course to follow depends on your view of life. In any case, it's an option that shouldn't be discounted.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Living in History

Corner of Karl-Marx-Allee and Proskauer Str.
The Place Where I Lived

View of Fernsehturm
from Karl-Marx-Allee
"You'll be living in history." That's what the owner said as he handed me the keys to the apartment I'd rented in Berlin. I'd found the apartment through, a website to list, find, and rent lodging. The listing and photos seemed perfect: a recently remodeled one bedroom apartment located in Friedrichshain, and near public transport, restaurants and shops. More importantly, the apartment was in an historic building on Karl-Marx-Allee, a street dubbed the "first socialist street" in Germany. I'd seen these buildings hundreds of times, and this was my opportunity to stay in one. 

View of Living Room and Dining Area
Constructed in 1952, the buildings on Karl-Marx-Allee were designed in a Stalinist style and adorned with decorative tiles. They were built for the socialist workers and became one of East Germany's architectural showcases. However, following German reunification, the street and buildings were abandoned and fell into disrepair. Over the last 10 years, the buildings have been rediscovered and become très chic among young Berliners. 

Living Room

The apartment was exactly as described. It was clean, modern, and fully-equipped (great Internet connection). It met all my needs. However, 'living in history' did have a few downsides. First, the walls were paper thin. You could hear the 'intimate' lives of your neighbors and smell their annoying cigarette smoke as it wafted through the walls. And even though the apartment was listed as quiet, it wasn't. Construction work on neighboring buildings would commence promptly at 6:00 AM Monday through Saturday. I'm an early riser, but hammers and drills are too much at 6:00 AM. Nevertheless, I must admit, I did enjoy living in a bit of history. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Berlin's Food Revolution

Believe it or not, it's vegan quiche!
Berlin is a food city, and over the last few years it has undergone a food revolution. The variety of restaurants, specialty food stores, and ethnic markets is astounding. You can find almost any cuisine in this city and at an affordable price. For example, when I want Scandinavian food, I go to the Nordic Embassies. They have full course meals for under €6! You can't get a cup of coffee for that in Scandinavia. And if I want a croissant and cup of coffee, I go to Chez Gustave. At €2,40, it's cheaper than a Berlin subway ride.

But nowhere has the food revolution been more profound than in the explosion of vegan restaurants, stores, and products. For a country renowned for it's meats, cheeses, and wild game, it's unbelievable how veganism has taken hold. Nearly every supermarket now has a vegan food section, most restaurants offer at least one vegan menu item, and there have been calls for the public schools to offer vegan meals.

Sitting at Chez Gustave the other day, I was surprised to find that the proprietress was willing to make a vegan crepe for a customer. She even mentioned that she tries to have a vegan quiche at least once a week. A vegan quiche at a French cafe? Now, that's either progress or the demise of classic French food. I wonder what Julia Child would say?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Lenin's Head Sees the Light

Following German reunification, all reminders of East Germany's socialist past were either destroyed or removed from public display. The Lenin Monument was one of East Germany's iconic symbols that stood in Berlin, Friedrichshain for 21 years. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the monument was dismantled and buried at an unknown location. For awhile it appeared the monument had been lost, but earlier this year, researchers were able to locate it. 

Now, Lenin is back! On Thursday, as members of the press watched, the Monument's buried skull was dug up in a forest on the outskirts of Berlin. It seems that Germany is ready to come to terms with it dark past, and the skull (the rest of the monument remains buried) will be part of an exhibition at the Spandau Citadel. The exhibition Enthüllt: Berlin und Seine Denmäler (Revealed: Berlin and Its Monuments) has generated a lot of buzz, and I expect thousands will flock to see the resurrected Russian revolutionary. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Pass on the Sami Contemporary But Visit the Nordic Embassy Restaurant!

The Sami people or Laplanders are the indigenous people inhabiting the far northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The Scandinavian Embassy Building (Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland) is currently showcasing the works of 23 contemporary Sami artists. Unfortunately, the only reason to see this small and uninspiring exhibition is to visit the Embassy restaurant, which offers traditional and tasty Nordic cuisine. This stylish cafeteria-style restaurant is reasonably priced and has a menu that changes weekly. Their offerings usually include a vegetarian or vegan dish as well as some great desserts. It's one of my favorite places for lunch in Berlin. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Going Underground: Berlin's Wonderful Subway Film Festival

My favorite film festival is now showing on the Berlin subway system (U-Bahn). From September 7-22, 2015, subway passengers will be treated to an ultra short film each day on over 6,100 monitors located on subway trains. Going Underground is an international film festival celebrating short films from around the world. This year there are 13 films vying for the top prize, with subway passengers voting for their favorite film. (You can also go to site's web page and watch the movies yourself.)

Two of my favorites are Beyond Her Memory (South Korea), an affectionate movie about growing old, and the Perfect Houseguest (USA), a delightful film about the houseguest everybody wants. However, many critics (European) think that this year's prize will go to the topical Get In The Car (USA). Unfortunately, the movie relies on too many cliches and American stereotypes, which I found unoriginal and predictable.

Refugees Welcomed in Germany

For the past month, German news has been primarily devoted to the refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have streamed into Europe, and Germany's response to the crisis has been surprising. Unlike Hungary, Greece and Italy, Germany is welcoming the refugees by donating food, clothes, shelter, medical care and money. The public mood in Germany is emphatically pro-refugee.

The last time there was a spike in immigration into Germany, in the 90s, refugees were left to their own devices. Only the radical left and churches offered organized help. Back then, the neo-Nazis demonstrated in front of refugee shelters and protested in the streets.  Even right-wing politicians spouted anti-immigrant rhetoric and called for mass deportations. Today, it's a different story. Angela Merkel has made it clear that the refugees are welcome and the sentiment is the same across the political spectrum. (Contrast this with the USA's response to immigration.) How will German society deal with this new wave of refugees in the long-term is unclear, but they seem on the right road toward assimilating these new arrivals.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Potsdam's Film Museum: A Charming Way to See How Movies are Made

There's more to Potsdam than just Sanssouci. There's also the Filmmuseum Potsdam, a small but comprehensive film museum that focuses on German movies. It covers all aspects of film making from financing to casting. It's not overwhelming and can be seen in about an hour. The museum has recently been renovated and includes some great interactive exhibits for children. 

The Elevator from
The Grand Budapest Hotel,
filmed in Potsdam.
There's more to movies than what's on the screen. The behind the scenes aspects of movie making are sometimes more interesting than the movie itself. From Berlin take either the S-Bahn or Regional Train to the Potsdam Hauptbahnhof station. From there, it's an easy 10 minute walk to the Filmmuseum. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Wasp Season in Berlin: Wasps are Useful

August and September is wasp season in Berlin. This is the time they fling themselves into our food and wine glasses, and generally make a nuisance of themselves at many of Berlin's outdoor restaurants and cafes. I've been stung a few times; and you might think that I hate wasps, but I'm one of their staunchest defenders. You see, wasps eat caterpillars, aphids, spiders, and other things that wreck havoc in the home and garden. They also pollinate food crops and flowers. Moreover, recent research has found that a wasp's venom could cure leukemia, prostate, and bladder cancer. Their venom contains a chemical that selectively targets and destroys tumor cells without harming healthy cells! 

If wasps are a problem, one way to discourage them is to burn used coffee grounds. I've seen this done at a few places and it seems to work. The smell is slightly unpleasant but it keeps these troublesome guys far away. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Happy House

Strausberger Straße 8a
Friedrichshain, Berlin

Great Falafel and Schawarma in Berlin's Friedrichshain

There are scores if not hundreds of Arabic restaurants in Berlin. So I wasn't surprised to find Casablanca Imbiss right around the corner from where I'm staying. Located in Friedrichshain, Casablanca Imbiss is a modest and cozy restaurant serving some of the best Falafel and Schawarma in town. The service is amazingly fast, and everything on the menu is FRESH and TASTY. A complete meal will run €4,50 - €6,00. I recommend the Falafel plate (which can be made Vegan) and their wonderfully spiced Arabic tea. Why waste your time and money eating at a tourist restaurant on Simon-Dach-Straße when a few blocks away is Casablanca Imbiss.

Friday, September 4, 2015

It's Not Over Till She Sings: Fat Ladies in Berlin

New Favorite

HU Hongfei is one of China's leading contemporary artists. The inspiration for his Fat Lady series stems from the lives of ordinary women and is reminiscent of the work of Peter Paul Rubens. His sculptures depict self-confident and happy women displayed in everyday situations. Hongfei's work can be seen at Potsdamer Platz and the Lustgarten (Museum Island) until September 13, 2015. It's worth a visit!

Cimone and Efigenia
Peter Paul Rubens


Take Me To Fly


Sun Earth

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Berlin Street Art

Whimsical or political statement? There's always some interesting street art to see on the streets of Berlin. 

Political Statement?
Rear Entrance to the Deutsches Museum

Near Museum Island and the Maxim Gorki Theater

Larger than Life Underwear Hanging near the Martin-Gropius-Bau.
One of the inscriptions states: Even if the pants look cool, it's uncool
when the environment and humans are exploited. We promote
sustainability. You wear/carry responsibility.  

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

District Mot: Over-Hyped Vietnamese Restaurant

A Hipster hanging out at
District Mot
One of the hottest restaurant's on the Berlin food scene these days is District Mot. Offering self-styled Vietnamese "street food," it's difficult to understand District Mot's popularity. The decor is cute and the service is quick, but the food is mediocre and overpriced. I ordered the lunch special (€ 6.50) and was served a handful of noodles, a slice of tofu, a piece of lettuce, and some bland curry sauce. All in all, District Mot was a big disappointment. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What are those Pink Street Signs in Berlin's Friedrichshain?

Grünberger Straße
named after the former
German City of Grünberg
(Zielona Gora, Poland)

For the past month, pink street signs have decorated major traffic corridors in Berlin's Friedrichshain neighborhood. It's part of an art project intended to draw attention to the common history shared by Germany and Poland. It also marks the beginning of World War II with Germany's invasion of Poland seventy-six years ago today. 

After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles deprived Germany of its territories in West Prussia, East and Upper Silesia and Danzig, and transferred them to Poland. Consequently, German cities located in Poland were renamed and give a Polish name. Yet, many streets in Berlin (named after Polish cities) continued to retained their German name. For example, Grünberger Straße is named after the former Silesian city of Grünberg, which is today Zielona Gora. 

As part of the installation, street signs (named after a Polish city and with a German name) have been decorated pink with the Polish city and its geographic coordinates engraved on the pink base. The installation continues until September 20, 2015.

Proskauer Straße
named after Proszkow (Formally Proskau)