A tribute to Martina I. Kischke (and my mum)

Picture it: Frankfurt, the early 1980s. On a day like any other, my mother and I passed the Frankfurter Rundschau building, the Frankfurter Rundschau was in these times for Germany what, say, the Washington Post was for the United States, in other words a very important newspaper and former employer of my mother (the blonde on the right), when we ran into Martina (the brunette on the left), a good friend and ex-colleague of my mother’s who was in charge of the newspaper’s women‘s section, the “Frauenredaktion”, in the changing political climate of the 1960s and ’70s, she was commenting on women’s lib issues and the legalisation of abortion as well as reporting from the Paris fashion shows. In 1966, when the cold war was still a major issue, she fell in love with a Russian when reporting from Kazakhstan. A Russian that turned out to be a spy. The very moment, she met her “Romeo” in Alma Ata to marry him, she was arrested for espionage, microfilm had been hidden by her fiancé in her cigarette pack. For 138 horrid days she was imprisoned, first in Alma Ata, then in Moscow’s notorious prison, the Lubyanka. But she survived. On December, 23rd, 1966, she was finally freed because her boss, Karl Gerold, founder and editor-in-chief of the Frankfurter Rundschau, had moved heaven and earth to have her exchanged, exchanged for a real spy, Alfred Frenzel, a German politician that had been working for Russia. Anyway, on this less important day in the early 1980s, my mother, just like Mrs Dalloway in eternal repetition, had bought the flowers herself but was missing a vase, I guess either me or one of the cats had broken the ball-shaped vase my mother had in mind for her tulips and so she asked Martina where to get a one. “Lorey.”, Martina replied, “They have Lalique.” Lalique, okay, sure, why not replace a vase for ten bucks with Lalique crystal? For years, this has been a running gag. Martina had kind of a Jacqueline Kennedy-ish approach to life: always the best. You rarely saw her without an Hermès scarf. I found all of that very intriguing, and as my mother still has no high-toned crystal at home, I have to blame Martina for all the money I’ve spent on Lalique vases.

Berlin’s grey, Berlin’s green.

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…

Kaiser Wilhelm and his bad taste in castles.

Earlier this year, I made an important discovery: Kaiser Wilhelm I had really bad taste, I mean, really bad taste. Schloss Babelsberg, his grotesque summer residence just outside Berlin, is a perfect example of why you won’t find a Wilhelm I chair or ottoman or whatever in any fine antiques store, there’s Louis XV and XVI, there’s even Louis XIII if you don’t care for clichés, there’s Queen Anne, Empire, which is basically Napoleon, everything Victorian, there’s been a lot done in Victorian style, she reigned so very long, then there’s Louis Philippe, George III, the Swedes have their Gustaf, the Austrians have Joseph II and the Americans got their colonial style, I think the colonies belonged mostly to these Georges on the British throne, so it’s safe to say it’s Georgian style, but Wilhelm I? Forgotten with an effort. As if he had never lived. One must know, however, that this particular catastrophy’s architect was none other than Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Biedermeier’s Norman Foster, one of the best Germany has ever had, at least at the beginning, in the early 1830s, when they started construction. Later, after Prince Wilhelm was declared Crown Prince and to inherit Prussia’s throne, his brother’s marriage had remained childless, the budget was increased, allowing them to put more effort in it, demanded especially by Wilhelm’s wife Augusta, she needed even more Gothic bling, for some strange reason everything Gothic was fashionable at the time, an effort that Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s health did not agree with, he died during the planning of the extensions in 1841. Just take a look at it, you’ll understand.

Spring in Berlin.

Finally a lunch break with some sun. Finally some spring in the air. However, let me be quite clear on that, it wasn’t spring at all, not really, maybe meteorologically, but definitely in name only, in fact, it was icy cold outside, my shawl was wrapped thrice around my neck, the sky might have been blue but there was still some snow left on the ground, ice patches made everything slippery that was left alone by passers-by, and of course I slipped taking some of the photos when trespassing the garden design, but it was worth it, Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie, the old national gallery, inaugurated on this very day some 150 years ago, on March 22nd, 1876, was looking splendid with the bright blue sky and the graphics of the leafless trees, there is nothing better to bring out architecture than a tree, the contrast between culture and nature is one of the most spectacular I know, and so I wasn’t too sad about just taking pictures of the gallery itself – and none of the great pictures on display inside.

Having coffee with F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This is 14, rue de Tilsitt. Tilsitt, by the way, is that place in East Prussia where Napoleon signed a peace treaty in 1807 with the Russian Czar Alexander I and Prussian king Friedrich-Wilhelm III after winning the battle of Friedland – of course, there is an avenue de Friedland, too, quite next to it actually, as both streets belong to the architectural ensemble of Paris’ star-shaped Place Charles de Gaulle, with the Arc de Triomphe in its very middle. Anyway, numéro 14 of rue de Tilsitt was the address of none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Zelda’s, of course. It was quite fine an address, some embassies around, avenue Foch as well, Paris’ most exclusive démeure, though at that time still called avenue du Bois, as Maréchal Foch, whom it was named after, a French héros of WWI, had only died in 1929, quite fitting for this fine couple, and especially for an author who has always felt so much at home with the rich and famous. Hemingway, ha!, Hemingway not so much, he and Hadley lived on the other bank, in the quartier latin on Rive Droite, the area intellectually dominated by the Sorbonne and fine old schools, their first apartment was on rue du Cardinal Lemoine, far less elegant, ever so far less, his tiny apartment had its loo in the staircase, to be shared with others, Gertrude Stein came for tea nonetheless. It was so small a place, Hemingway had to rent a room close-by, on rue Descartes, to have some space, or more precisely, some peace and quiet to write his stories, including the ones Hadley lost when traveling to Switzerland, they were never found, they’re lost forever, the lost generation, however, stays on, having me for coffee at the café downstairs on 14, rue de Tilsitt.

The church of a thousand styles.

It’s a mess, a complete architectural mess, an eclectic monstrosity, Potsdam’s Church of Peace evokes everything at the same time, it features the Italian Renaissance, as well as Roman columns, Greek temples, Russian icons, Venetian mosaics, a miniature baroque mausoleum, a Tuscan campanile, Romanesque ornaments, a Tyrolean chapel, and a particular Tyrolean chapel at that, the one that recreates a chapel from Calvary outside Jerusalem, a replica’s replica, so to speak, there are sculptures of all kind of kings, namely Solomon, David and Charlemagne, and there’s Moses, Aaron and Hur, too, the only thing it doesn’t feature is anything remotely contemporary, the Prussian architects of the mid 1800s who were involved in erecting this absurd ensemble must have had no clue of what they were doing when planning a place for all those sarcophagi of the Prussian kings and emperors and their spouses, but at least the result is so grotesque, it’s definitely worth a visit, by the way, there’s a daughter of Queen Victoria buried here, too, called Victoria as well, married to Friedrich III, and although Germany and Great-Britain are one big family, at least as their Royal families are concerned, she wasn’t very influential, otherwise this compound would feature some stunning oriental references, too, her mother was Empress of India, wasn’t she?

Potsdam revisited.

Blend out what you dislike, that would be my general advice in life, and in particular when visiting Potsdam. The city is over a thousand years old, but mostly known for its glorious ornaments ever since it became a royal seat, the palaces and follies of the Prussian kings, prestigious buildings, carefully designed for entertainment, pleasure and recreation, to praise God, too, of course, the Protestant way, a little less pompous than Roman Catholics, but really just a little, Luther’s influence stopped when architecture was concerned, and guys like Karl Friedrich Schinkel took over, and there are plenty more of fine buildings to house soldiers, horses and plants. It’s all still there, at least most of it, but something else survived, too: the architectural crimes of the GDR, some newly invented iconoclasm, instead of destructing the monuments of Germany’s royal past, they just surrounded them with their derefined vision of socialist housing, let’s get rid of that stylish nonsense, let’s disparage all architectural styles, let’s baste Potsdam with concrete and glass and show them what it means to be equal, pardon my temper, but this is what you have to blend out when visiting Potsdam – unless you care for historically correct polar opposites, of course.