In the 1700s, when Frederick the Great was in charge of Prussia, chinoiserie was in style. And so he had his splendid little tea house outside Potsdam’s Sans Souci palace built à la chinoise, in rigourous splendour as well as in rational opulence; he was into arts, but he was also a very Prussian Prussian. He lived in the age of showing off, but he also knew that a crown is merely a hat that lets the rain in. The golden statues of romanticized Chinese noblemen having tea outside the little pavilion are part of the showing off side of things and therefore purely ornamental, and as such they require even more attention than any other tea guest, no matter how high their level of maintenance might be. In winter, they get all wrapped up, to protect them from the cold, from the ice and snow of the severe winters in Eastern Germany.
The old GDR, and I’m giving my age away by saying so, has so many beautiful spots to visit. East Germany is full of historic places yet to be discovered and I’m way behind. I haven’t really used these last 29 years since the Wiedervereinigung all too wisely for a German who considers himself into art, history and architecture, I must say. Please don’t tell anybody. Anyway, Halle on Saale in Saxony-Anhalt, much more known for being Georg Friedrich Händel’s place of birth than its history as a salt-harvesting city since at least the Bronze Age, has a lot to offer. I visited only for a day, but hell, it was worth it. It’s only one hour by train from Berlin, and close enough to Thuringia to have some great Thüringer Klöße on the menu, the best dumplings you’ve ever had, so I’ll be back soon, I guess…
I can’t remember a day with temperatures below 30 degrees Celsius, these last weeks. Actually, 34 degrees now seem quite agreable to me, it only starts to get really painfully hot once 38 degrees are reached, when the city is running a high fever so to speak, but when it’s still below body temperature, it’s no big deal, wear thin linen shorts—linen is such a smart invention, who ever came up with it deserves a medal, or two—and never leave the shade. But once you do, because let’s face it, everybody has to leave one’s comfort zone every once in a while, make it worth your while—just walk slowly and go see some great places. Berlin’s Mitte is not only any hipster’s natural habitat but has also some very nice places to offer, a little bit out of this world, an air of serene tranquility you won’t find everywhere, least of all on the Champs Elysées.
The weather was fine when I arrived, and it stayed fine all day—as Hamburg is as much known for its exaggerated supply of rain as Seattle, that was not a given, but it did. Lucky me! So I walked a lot, visited familiar places, found some of them changed, some for the better, some for the worse, and had a lot of iced americanos, including my very last one; you see, after posting my cup on Instagram, a friend of mine commented just two words: no plastic. And right she was. It’s amazing how one can support people cleansing the ocean from plastic, blame everybody else for our planet’s decay, and still sip coffee with a plastic straw from a plastic cup. I learned my lesson though, deeply ashamed of myself. And instead of showing off my mind’s double standards, I give you Hamburg’s natural beauty. Enjoy!
The Galaries Lafayette in Paris are worth a visit even when you’re not interested in their goods as the mere architecture of this holy grail of shopping is amazing, Belle Époque splendour of the finest sort—the cupola alone is a sight and made into a very bad movie with Romy Schneider and Michel Ronet which I implore you to never watch, but I digress. The Galeries Lafayette in Berlin, however, are not, not even when you’re interested in any of their goods. And if I hadn’t needed Choderlos de Laclos’ Liaisons Dangereuses La Pléiade edition from its French book section so very badly, I never would have made into that area of Berlin. On my way back home, waiting for traffic to give me a slight chance to cross the street, I glanced to the right, up Behrenstraße, a street of no particular interest, not like Französische Straße, the street I had crossed just before with Berlin’s most prestigious restaurant, the Borchardt, you find yourself dining with Angela Merkel there, but I digress again, anyway, at the end of Behrenstraße, you see a wonderful cathedral from 1773 that looks like a giant pudding, at least to me, a German pudding, some kind of vanilla flavoured panna cotta, not to be confused with anything English like black pudding, can’t stand that one, however traditional, anyway, St. Hedwig’s Cathedral is a gorgeous church, beautifully restored, and once you stand in front of it, and the Hotel de Rome just next to it, every bit as prestigious as Borchardt’s, you suddenly are surrounded by historic grandeur, Berlin’s great palaces of wisdom and entertainment, Humboldt University, its Faculty of Law, and the Staatsoper, the oldest of Berlin’s three opera houses. And truth be told, in the end, I was quite happy with my trip to the Galeries Lafayette.
It’s hard to find a place without any trees in Berlin, they’re everywhere, even important buildings like Humboldt University in what used to be East-Berlin – the Berlin featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, a place much less horrid than the film, he must have been drugged throughout the entire production, or even at the time when he was reading the script, why would anyone shoot such a boring mess, anyone, I ask you, but I wildly digress – anyway, even this architectural gem is partially covered in leaves and blossoms of a majestic chestnut tree, actually, all of Berlin is covered in trees, up and down every place and street, they’re flourishing so opulently you can’t make out the trunk at times. I wonder who planned this urban jungle, some green spirit way ahead of its time – whoever he was, I proposed a toast to him today, with my little bird friend and my soy caffè latte venti at a very treed Starbucks.
Berlin’s façades fascinate me, the old ones, I mean, the ones talking of a great past, like the one above near Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden, right in the middle of Berlin. As the third floor lettering suggests, it was once a great hotel – the Splendid Hotel. But some research showed that period lasted only for fourteen years, however splendid it might have been, it got shut down in 1918, possibly due to a lack of customers, who would want to visit Berlin shortly after World War I? So its rooms were rented to small businesses, tiny offices instead of vast suites. The building survived even WW II and the GDR’s neglect of anything remotely elegant, and as it stands now in one of Berlin’s most cared for areas, it’s in perfect shape and wouldn’t have lost any of its appeal if it weren’t for spring — I can’t pay much attention to anything grey these days. And although this building as well as mine are under monumental protection, mine was not a hotel but it used to house female students in the good old days of the Kaiser, I tend to just look at the wonderful green of the trees from the very moment I open my door or a window…
Can one miss something one has never experienced? I do think so. I for one miss cocktail hour. I miss dressing up for drinks. I miss not being forced into a tuxedo after six – just like Jack Donaghy, Alec Baldwin’s character in 30 Rock. When asked by Liz Lemon aka Tina Fey why he was wearing a tux, he replied: “It’s after six, what am I, a farmer?”. I love such traditions, and I want them back, just like in the 60s when even the most provincial of German TV families, the Hesselbachs, styled themselves up. Such glorious times. I really miss them.
Berlin has so many lakes, little ones, big ones, small ones, huge ones, a friend of mine lived near one of the smaller ones, in a beautiful villa next to Nikolassee, but however small it was – the lake, not the villa – the neighbourhood’s real estate renommée was huge, nothing but hoary villas set in beautiful gardens, with mature treestock and a rhododendron population to die for, if these bushes suffer from anything, they do from old age, then there’s Wannsee, one of the biggest, which has become quite infamous due to a conference held in 1942, in an even costlier villa, waterside property, the lake’s image, however, hasn’t suffered much, obviously you can’t blame a lake for its residents, but I digress, all I wanted to say is, after a year of living in Berlin, I almost never made it to any of them, they are all so very far away from where I live, Lake Zurich on the other hand was part of my life, I lived nearby, a five minute walk, I crossed it at least twice a day, in the morning on my way to work and back home at night, I swam in it, I sat on its border having Bratwurst and beer, I walked along its shore, back and forth, I watched the sun setting over it, the sail boats crossing on it and stalked the ducks swimming in it, well, what does one do with a lake on your hands, I did all of those things and enjoyed it deeply. Do I do any of these things in Berlin? Some, at least? Not so much, I’d say. I don’t seem to respond to these lakes’ sex appeal. Not in the least, actually. Lake Zurich has ruined me for other lakes, that’s the awful truth.