Here’s a little quarantine activity that I have going on - as I go partly insane from being cooped up in a 15x4 foot box, surviving off chili mayo and supermarket bread.
Paris was like reuniting with an old friend. The pretty beige-colored blocks of Haussmann era architecture, standing at attention no matter which street I turned to. It was classic European, with an air of refinement that was so typically French. I’d love nothing more than to live off baguettes and some chèvre ronde with wine from Nicholas for the rest of my days, taking walks along the Seine. But Paris has its own problems - I found the degree of consumerism and advertising disgusting. Covering these historic buildings were gigantic billboards - probably at least a hundred feet on one edge, advertising some shoe or cosmetics. The glitz and glamor in The Galleries Lafayettes was also nauseating. I guess even the most historic cities can’t escape from the grips/clasps/touch of the modern world.
Berlin was not what I had expected. Coming from the land of put-together buildings and fun little shops, Berlin was a total mess. The buildings had no sense of cohesiveness, with plain modern buildings next to historic brick churches, and so on so forth. The walls in the area I was in were covered with graffiti, and there was just no sense of cohesion that I found in Paris. I didn’t know what to make of it. Visiting Museum Island, I also found the repetitive nature of the neoclassical architecture to be pretty banal, and to one part - totally understood the rationale of the great modernist architects in their desire to create something new.
This wasn’t to say that Berlin doesn’t have cool experiences - I didn’t partake in the underground club scene due to covid, but I spent an afternoon with my brother at the Templedrom’s sauna/salt water pool. There, you had these arching concrete columns meet in a dome shaped overhead, with lights reflecting off the water and music in both the air and underwater. Floating with the help of some float tubes, you’d immerse yourself into the water and feel the music pulsate into your body. As you floated, you could move your arms and legs and perform this horizontal, floating acrobatic dance. It was freeing.
The weather certainly didn’t help either - most of the days there were overcast and rainy - which really I don’t mind, but it really adds a sense of brooding and darkness - befitting the home of the Nazi revolution.
I started to think otherwise once I discovered the sheer amount of history in Berlin, as well as when I discovered the doner kebab. In all honesty, finding good food was the real key - I was so obsessed with the classic German “potato and sausages” that I kind of blew off what Berlin is best known for - it’s diversity. Berlin isn’t like Paris, which is catering to a certain person and aesthetic. Rather it has little pockets that are eclectic and everyone is able to find a piece for them. For me, I found this in the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Jewish Museum, and the Futurum (as well as the philharmonic hall). I have a separate post dedicated to my experience in those environments.
Walking through the downtown core and seeing remnants of the Berlin Wall, the site of Hitler’s Bunker, or the Nazi Government headquarters - it mirrored the experience of my first time in Paris and walking through the Saint Chapelle (or some other site) where I learned it was where Marie ANtoinette and Robespierre were held before their execution (which I had learned about in high school).
To be honest, museums don’t quite interest me which is a bit of a shame when Berlin has such an incredible collection of museums, but really I liked looking at the outer appearance rather than the inside exhibits. None of them really did a good job combining the regal neoclassical facade with the white paint covering and conventional modern interiors. After a while, statues and columns just feel cheap and repetitive. Looking at old relics of forgotten lands also doesn’t really do it for me - it all blends together and really, I’m just left wondering - what from society today might last into the future? The intricate carvings all weather away to gentle impressions and no material - from wood to stone and glass - is left standing intact. Out of all the natural elements on earth, not even the mountains stay constant. The only positive constant is nature - trees that are left standing continue growing. And this makes me think that maybe - the best sort of museum or monument isn’t found in museums, but rather in nature preserves and photographs. A building that is left standing should be one that continues to grow.
Beauty changes, but age remakes venerable.
In the backdrop of all this is my interaction with fellow tourists and travelers. People who are rowdy, gaudy, etc -> maybe I’m being overly judgmental, but just the sort of behaviors I see make me question whether the world is worth saving. (Maybe I’m looking for that special someone who will make me want to save the world for them). It’s interesting that I have these thoughts - when there are signs along my walks in Berlin like “leave no one behind.” There are these principles to life, that may be challenged all to easily - but they should in fact, remain as principles. Watching people take photos of themselves - and even my own family, carefully documenting each meal at a Michelin star restaurant and asking for a photo with the meal. I understand the need for documenting these experiences - for our own sake, looking back on these memories, but I don’t quite understand the selfie/stand in front of monument culture that people have, including my parents. Perhaps this stems from a lack of self-confidence, a discomfort in my body image and how I look in photos. Perhaps it’s to downplay my ego (because I kinda love looking at photos of myself). Regardless, I had a thought while I visited the old Berlin Olympic Stadium. People take photos because they are ways to remember themselves by. When we die, photos are among the most direct connection that people will have of us. But with this spectacular piece of architecture, I feel like it would be more interesting if I had something physical for people to remember me by. A building or work of art that is so unmistakably me. It’s a bit of wishful thinking, considering Richard Rogers died at the start of my trip and I paid a visit to one of his most famous works: the Centre Pompidou which is perhaps the most visited building in all of Paris. On the outside at least - there was no mention of his name, no wreath of flowers or small little stand that paid tribute to the man who dreamt it all. The Centre Pompidou is a bit of a beast, and doesn’t fit in at all with the surrounding neighborhood (and it also is a huge energy/maintenance hog), but considering the historical context, creating such a chaotic and different space meant that it was a space for nobody, and therefore everybody had a place. With racial and social economic tensions as the backdrop, creating a community center that mirrored the existing architecture would only further reinforce subconscious senses of class and belonging. Rogers and (Renzo Piano) created a space that was free of this, and was therefore equal.
On one of my field trips in an Urban Planning class, we visited a gorgeous public garden and fountain in Stamford Connecticut, that was only accessible by passing through the lobby of hotel of some sorts (or other official-looking entity). We had to climb up three sets of stairs and two entrances to get to this wonderfully tucked away garden. But if this garden was truly for everyone, who would feel welcome there? Who would feel comfortable entering and going under these watchful eyes, regardless of whether they had to interact with them or not? I recognized this feeling as I walked through the streets of Berlin and Hamburg, seeing things that interested me, but also self-qualifying myself out of entering and exploring because of the language barrier. Everywhere we go in life, everyone is facing some sort of barrier that constricts their everyday life. For some its socioeconomic, for some its mental, for some its cultural. What sort of space might transcend these barriers?
In the end, it also really boils down to people. One of the highlights was attending a New Years Eve party hosted by a bunch of Fulbright scholars (my friend is one), and we were just drinking and chatting in this gorgeous apartment with nice 10-12 foot tall ceilings, that was only a couple hundred euros in rent. Insane. I think I got covid from one of the attendees though - but it was nice getting my first New Year’s Kiss from that. She sort of leaned in and asked if I’d had my New Years Kiss yet. That was an interesting experience - I sort of put my thumps up and then made a check motion with my hand as if checking it off my bucket list. Smooth Kevin, smooth.