Last weekend I visited Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) and discovered the existence of the little treasures from the Pomeranian Kunstschrank (art cabinet) owned by Duke Philipp II. The art cabinet itself was destroyed in 1945 during World War II, but to my surprise, many of the gifts kept inside its numerous drawers remained intact and were on display. The cabinet was orchestrated by Philipp Hainhofer, German art dealer and impressario of the 17th century. Think of him as a producer who selected the artists, silversmiths, and craftsmen responsible for creating such a work.
A film entitled “Welt im Schrank” (World in the Cabinet) played continuously alongside the display of items from the cabinet. Made before the cabinet’s destruction, the film showed how each section of the Kunstschrank could be opened to display the hidden treasures inside each drawer. Removal of the crowning sculpture of Mount Parnassus with Pegasus led to the section below. Some of the beautiful objects revealed in the film were displayed in nearby glass cabinets: metal playing cards, carved ivory chess pieces, small paintings, apothecary bottles, small to large jars that fit into one another like Russian dolls, a heart-shaped silver place setting, toiletries such as an ivory comb, razor (intricately designed, of course), shaving brush, and much more.
Museum time! On my search for the Brothers Grimm story in Kassel, Germany where the Grimms collected and wrote fairy tales, I was distraught when I learned the Grimm Museum had closed in 2014. But then I found out about the latest ode to the Grimms: GRIMMWELT.
GRIMMWELT is a museum-slash-experiential gallery that blends history and contemporary art. Or more accurately, the museum features contemporary art rooted in history and historical objects. Here, the Brüder Grimm are celebrated for their contributions to the German language and culture.
Treppe — “how the ‘trip-trap’ of footsteps embodies the meaning of ‘Treppe,’ the (German) word for stairs.” Top right — publications of the Grimms’ dictionary. Bottom right — final publishing contract of the Grimms’ ‘German dictionary’, signed and executed by the Grimms in 1847.
Contemporary works with historical insight. Some of my faves: Alexej Tchernyi, “The biography of the ‘german dictionary’ Diorama in 14 scenes,” 2014/2015, handmade paper; the exhibition entrance is laid out in an alphabet soup-type of path; lost in a forest of “trees” equipped with speakers that told fairy tales.
And speaking of fairy tales… here’s an early edition of their first collection: Children’s and Household Tales published in 1812.
Last year at this time, I couldn’t have guessed that I would be adventuring in Europe for almost a year for academic research. It’s funny how life passes and changes so quickly with its alleyways of twists and turns. Sort of like images of landscapes and seascapes zooming by during a bus tour through Northern Ireland. Last week I was fortunate enough to see some of the most beautiful countryside in the world: the Ireland in my mind, the Ireland purported by movies and television. All from the windowsill of a coach (specifically, Finn McCools Tours). No Instagram. No Photoshop. No re-composition. Just the view. How quickly it sped by.
It’s Christmas time in England for us this year. Many markets, many quaint towns, and much eating. One of my favorite all-time food in London has been Indian cuisine. Yes, I know, not exactly Christmas. Or is it?? After a few days at the Christmas markets, in which I compared the German ones to the English ones (Germans excel at the food and drink, English at the gifts offered), I skipped the bratwurst and mulled wine and went for Indian spices at the Masala Zone. Lovely food with colorful variety. And puppets. A multitude of puppets hung like ornaments in decorative fashion from the ceiling’s rafters. By the time I stepped into the Masala Zone, I’ve already eaten at another Indian restaurant the previous night: Hot Stuff in Vauxhall.
Hot Stuff was blazingly good. The chutney that accompanied the courtesy papadum was seriously super spicy and delicious, and when paired with a milder yogurt type, so delectable. I think I ate all the papadums and chutneys, and craved even more. One of the surprises was the naan; the sweet almond and coconut naan at Hot Stuff was one of the best naans I’ve ever tasted. I’m looking forward to returning there.
Today, one week into my trip around England, I dined at Rajpoot on the Pulteney Bridge in Bath. Again, quite delicious. I ordered a Bengali fish dish. Spicy, of course, but not overwhelming. One of my goals for the next year is to discern the differences between Northern and Southern Indian food. Perhaps this will help me begin gathering some Indian spices so that I may learn to cook Indian cuisine at home.
Today November 24 marked the start of the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. Kids and adults alike enjoyed train rides, the merry-go-round, a temporary Christmas village complete with Christmas saloons selling a little something called Glühwein or mulled wine. I haven’t had the pleasure yet, but hear it’s hot and sweet and tastes like Christmas. Bring it on.
The most impressive display of Christmas combined with wine appeared in the form of a more than life-size Christmas windmill. I have one of these table ornaments at home from my first trip to Germany many moons ago. So sweet it is with two little figures holding candles. The flames from the candles make the windmill spin around. Well, color me impressed when I saw my little toy all grown up here at the Weihnachtsmarkt. And naturally, you can buy Glühwein at the base of the windmill. Sure, why not?
All Glühwein shops had little standing cocktail tables next to their stand/shop. Some tables had little Santas, other tables looked like wooden Christmas trees.
The thing about spending time in a foreign country doing research is, well, typically on weekends you don’t get to see or speak with a single person. I’m so grateful that this particular weekend, a colleague and I had already made plans to visit a few museums. I really didn’t want to go through the entire weekend without actually discussing what happened in Paris. It would be so easy for me to sit in front of the laptop and read headline after headline, tweet after tweet about any new findings in Paris. But fortunately (and this would be the only time I say this), the internet crawled this weekend, and even slower than usual. And so, silver lining and all, I didn’t look at the onslaught of headlines. Instead, I ventured into the rain and went to museums.
After the first gallery tour of rare albums and prints at the Herzog August Bibliothek, it was time for cappuccino and cake. Let me just say, anytime there’s a choice between raspberry torte and a poppy seed cake with marzipan, take the poppy seed cake with marzipan. At Café am Stadtmarkt in my little adopted town of Wolfenbüttel, Germany, the poppy seed/marzipan creation was super light, nuanced, and beautifully presented. It was helpful to just sit and chat over coffee and cake. We talked about our experiences in Paris, the politics of the situation, how the people of Paris must feel right now, and the response from surrounding European countries, especially in light of the Syrian refugees. The combination of frank discussion, cappuccino and cake helped me work through some of my frustrations and fears. I highly recommend it.
At the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, we saw a lovely exhibition of drawings and prints. I discovered a beautiful etching of The Drunken Silenus (1628) by Jusepe de Ribera, a Spanish artist who worked not only in the medium of painting but also in prints. One of the best moments of going through an exhibition with a broad theme, in this case “autumnal,” is finding artists from different centuries addressing the same theme. Alongside German and Dutch prints of autumn (Jost Amman and Sebastian Vranx, for example) was a woodblock print from the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai from the series “One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets” with its gentle landscape and three figures who appear to be returning to a village from the harvest. What caught my eye was the woven pattern on the baskets strapped to the figures, and the various types of leaves—seemingly individually cut out—on two different sets of trees. So inspired was I by these patterns that I made my own leaf prints at the museum’s print shop. It was likely intended for families with children, but it definitely helped me this weekend.
All I can think about today is the terrorist attack in Paris last night. I’m stricken with sadness, anger, questions of “Why???” Like everyone else in different parts of the world with friends in Paris, I was on social media trying to reach them. Viber, Facebook, whatever. When I finally got through, oh my God, so much relief. Waves of relief washed over me that I was crying while texting. The panic I felt while waiting for word from friends threw me back to the time when the U.S. was attacked by terrorists. I was in Philadelphia at the time, running around trying to get out of the city. The transportation rail SEPTA was shut down, and so everyone was running around with their cell phones trying to reach their loved ones and trying to figure out the different ways to exit the city. Oh God, how I hated that feeling. Scared, panicked, but I didn’t actually cry at all until I spoke with my parents, and my dad said something like, “You don’t need to worry, everything will be okay.” Now of course, that’s when I got scared.
Today, I’ve been trying to avoid social media to avoid breaking down. Figure I would cook some comfort food — a pot of spaghetti bolognese and a side dish of eggplant because that’s all I had in the fridge. The act of chopping vegetables helped. The nice solid crunch of the vegetable, the sound of the knife hitting the cutting board, and the look of diced onions, eggplant cubes, and wedges of tomatoes when I was done, well… it was something at least, and it did make me feel better having done so much chopping. Add chili peppers to the eggplant? Sure why not? It didn’t matter as long as I was creating something on the stove.
Turns out I still need time to grieve. I just peeked at facebook, and the news headlines alone spurned another wave of tears. The headlines and the tears, I realize, cannot be avoided too much longer. Peace for Paris.
Living in northern Germany for the time being, I thought, “Hey, why not do my birthday in Berlin?” Why the hell not, right? It was impromptu and perfect, consisting of museums and food. Since I haven’t written about art in a while, my post here is on the state museums of Berlin.
I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, dropped my bags off, and went straight to the Bode Museum for architecture, medieval altarpieces, and sculptures. Here I saw some of the most fascinating altarpieces and small carved ivories. I was floored by the room with a mosaic apse from Ravenna. I’m not sure if the mosaic is from the Basilica of San Vitale where one of the most famous mosaics of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora reside, so if anyone knows, please chime in. I think this is what’s great about art and art history: you think you know the art object, but you still have many, many questions.
On Sunday, I visited the Brandenburger Tor, the Pergamon Museum, and the Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery). So many great monuments and paintings seen. Since I can’t write about them all, I want to focus on the biggest surprise for me, which was the Pergamon Museum.
First thing’s first. It’s called the Pergamon Museum because it houses the 2nd century B.C.E. Pergamon Altar from Hellenistic Greece. Unfortunately, the museum is under construction and the altar itself is not on view, and won’t be on display again until 2019.
But that’s okay, because I still was able to see and experience the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way from BABYLON, the roman Market Gate of Miletus, and best of all, the intricate Umayyad Mshatta Façade possibly from the palace of caliph Al Walid II (8th century). (Museum link for photos.)
I felt as if I was in some sort of historical stroll through different lands and time periods, when giant lions forewarned foreign visitors the strength of their city. Think Midnight in Paris, but much earlier and less of Owen Wilson griping about how he just wants to disappear into the 1920s. When I came face to face with the Ishtar Gate and walked along the length of the Processional Way, I was bowled over by the enormity and ferocity of the architecture. We talk about architecture today, but I think sometimes we may forget that architecture guides us with its physical structure as well as its images. In this case, the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way still embody strength and power, and one can see how they demanded, from visiting dignitaries to the ancient city of Babylon, respect and acquiescence.
From ancient Babylon to ancient Rome…
My final moments at the Pergamon Museum were spent in the Islamic art and architecture area looking at, among other objects, a mihrab (prayer niche) of beautiful faience mosaics, calligraphic script and patterns from the Beyhekim Mosque (13th century)…and an intricate wooden cupola from Palacio del Partal of Alhambra, Spain.
The pièce de résistance of the entire museum whirlwind weekend, from my perspective, was the Mshatta Facade. I’ve only seen and studied the facade in art history survey books and google images, so it was astounding to see this Umayyad creation in person. You have to look at it from afar first to see its grand size, but then must come close to the wall to see the detailed stone carving. Yes, likely a team of artists and artisans used tools to create mystical animals and luscious vegetal motif in a stone wall.
So grand. Here I am, happy as can be on my birthday weekend.
I’ve recently experienced what it means to eat wurst in Germany. Wurst comes in many different forms. There’s bratwurst (which we’re mostly familiar with in the U.S.) or some variation of bratwurst; there’s currywurst, which you can get at take-away stands in Germany, especially in cities like Berlin; and there’s the wurst you eat raw. Which I did tonight, though not realizing it until too late. And then I immediately had doubts about my ability to understand German, as I thought the butcher behind the counter said in Deutsch, “Do not cook, just slice and eat. Just don’t eat the plastic casing,” or something like that. I asked at least three times in my broken German, “Okay, nicht kochen? Ja, okay.” And so, I expected a wurst similar to a salami or some kind of cured meat. Nein.
I took the wurst out, sliced it like the butcher said, and put a piece in my mouth. “Hmmm, it’s soft.” Okay, so the light in my apartment isn’t great and I had no idea I was eating raw meat, probably pork mixed with other meats. Honestly, it tasted very fresh but growing up in the U.S., one is basically trained to not eat raw pork. I had to cook it, and just hoped that I wouldn’t need to visit the hospital that evening.
I sliced off a few more pieces and threw them into a skillet with olive oil, and cooked them until the meat wasn’t raw-looking anymore. Took another bite, and strangely, the uncooked version tasted better.
I have heard of Mett, minced raw pork eaten for breakfast in Germany. After swearing I would never eat Mett when I learned about it last week, I surprised myself by accidentally having it for dinner. When I showed my German friends the picture of the raw wurst, and asked if it was okay to eat it uncooked, they nodded their heads and essentially said, “Ja, what’s the problem?” Ah, German sushi (as the husband called it).
I’ve just begun my research year abroad in Germany. It’s been about a week and a half, and it’s been a period of mostly highs and…well, not exactly lows, but let’s just say humbling experiences.
My German speaking and German hearing are far from awesome. In fact, I always warn Germans I encounter with my standard opening line, “Entschuldigen, mein Deutsch-sprechen ist nicht so gut,” which translates to “Excuse me/I’m sorry, my German speaking is not so good.” They always say, “Nein, es ist gut!” They’re very kind and I don’t believe them, of course. The folks I’ve met at the library and in the town of Wolfenbüttel in the Lower Saxony region have been super helpful and, oddly enough, quite funny. I think jokes about German humor are definitely not applicable here, because I’ve had a laugh with almost every single local I’ve met. One thing though, I’m hesitant to pet their dogs. Do Germans care if strangers come running up to their puppies? I have no idea, but I’m tempted every time I see a dog.
About those humbling experiences… two days ago I did laundry. Yes, seemingly an easy thing to do with a washer and dryer. Well, not so easy when you don’t have the full capacity of the language. Now I understand how my mom feels in America. I had to look up the words imprinted on the washer to determine which was the most appropriate cycle. For instance, the word “Fein/Wolle” is simple enough — “fine/wool,” but I couldn’t even begin to guess the meaning of the word “Pflegeleicht”. Even after I punched it into my App on the iPhone (“oh, it means ‘easy-care’, okay”), I’m still left wondering, “Wait, does that mean I can combine jeans and knits together? What does Schnell/Mixt mean? How do I wash only in cold?” So confusing. So basically I stared at the washer, willing it to give me answers for a good twenty minutes, hoping somebody would wander by to help me.
Everyday comes with a challenge. But once I’m able to overcome a few more challenges, I’ll really be ready to do some washing!
Of course I’ve found some good food. What’s the point of traveling when you don’t eat well? Even in the small town of Wolfenbüttel, there are some very good Italian (Sicilian to be exact) cucina. It’s so good that I went to the same Italian restaurant twice in one week, and ate enough burrata for the month.