not the hop on hop off bus tour of Berlin

not the hop on hop off bus tour of Berlin

by Janice Nigro

When I went to check in online for LAX-Frankfurt-Berlin, seat numbers up to 94 were available in economy. Yikes, was I going to ride the A380 to Europe? Or was this extreme economy seating?

It was the A380. When I saw the plane at the gate, my brother texted with one of his usual fun perspectives on life, “hope you can find your seat.” I have to admit, when you look at the signs with arrows to economy, first class, business, premium economy and a lot of letters of the alphabet, it feels a bit like walking into a shopping center in Singapore-how to get in there is easy, but finding what you are looking for and getting out are more complicated.

I made it easy for myself and booked the very last seat and by the window.

The A380 is quiet, but it is like a small building taking off. I can’t help but time the take off-from the moment the engines are switched to full power and the wheels begin to roll, to lift off, which in this case took just under 44 seconds. It must be a full power rush for the pilot to get this plane off the ground.

Another trip to Germany. The divorce from my European life is impossible. At some point I have simply given in, but there is this realization also that new life does not begin without a divorce from the old life. And I continue to make new friends in Germany, which, well, interestingly makes the divorce even more difficult. It seems more like a trial separation.

I have been to Berlin three times in less than a year. A group (Einsteinzirkel-you have to participate in something with a name like that) that I was invited to be a part of meets twice a year in Berlin. I was not sure about going this time-it ends up being a complicated mix of attempting to accomplish several things at once-meeting, collaborators, and most importantly European friends-but my thinking became clear when I pointed out to myself that the next meeting would be in December. The weather must be better in May.

This was true. There is nothing like northern Europe in the summer. The days are very long. It is one thing I miss terribly about Norway-the long summer days-staying out until after 2300 taking photos of summer flowers without a flash…This time I waited for the sunset to take a photo at Alexanderplatz, but honestly I just could not wait that long.

The down side is that once you finally get to sleep, the sun is already coming up.

For some reason, I ended up at this small pizza restaurant the first night where I manage to fake that I understand German. I somehow answered the questions appropriately and got exactly what I thought I was asking for.

The Einsteinzirkel was coupled to a bigger but still small meeting in a town just outside of Berlin…in a forest. In Europe, research institutions are named after real scientists rather than wealthy benefactors but perhaps because such institutions are well funded by the state. We were in the Max Delbrück Center named for a scientist who established the basis for the development of modern day molecular biology.

Already from the name of the center you are forced a bit to think about the history of the field. But the meeting took us further back than the 20th century. The dinner for the meeting was held in the historic Charitè Medical Museum, not exactly on the hop on and hop off bus tour of Berlin (yes, Nefertiti will have to wait). The building was bombed in WWII and some of the destruction is preserved as a reminder. It is here that the famous physician and scientist Rudolf Virchow (there was a discussion about how to really pronounce his name) lectured medical students and established fundamental principles of modern day pathology and cell theory. A booming microscope business grew up in Berlin because of the obsession with cells by the physicians at Charitè.

It is a pathology library and if you have ever been to one, it is impossible not to become mesmerized by the anomalies (typical and otherwise) fixed in formaldehyde. Then you can be thankful for modern day hygiene. I can only imagine what it must have looked like long ago walking the streets (or maybe today in certain parts of the world). Syphilis, for example, could run its course. Or take a look at the lungs of a coal miner.

The real bit of luck was taking the advice of a German friend living in Berlin to delve into the art scene. He suggested visiting a small photography museum, the C/O Museum, near the zoo. The current exhibit was Genesis by Sebastiao Salgado. All photographs are in black and white, and viewing them was like turning the pages of a good book-you can’t wait to read them all and then suddenly you have reached the end… Every photographic subject appears grand or majestic especially tribal people which made me question how it was so easy for explorers to massively kill people around the world with such brutality.

His photographs only reinforce that I have seen so little of the world. They inspire you to travel or make you feel the angst that there is not enough time or bravery to travel enough to everywhere in some sort of a meaningful way.

What is of course even more interesting to me is that Salgado began as something entirely different than a photographer or even an artist-an economist. One day he immersed himself in photography…completely. He seems to be inspired to record the world as it is in this moment in an effort to make improvements. To put the balance back into the Earth, his emphasis is on regenerating forests as they once were. His own efforts to transform a once flourishing family farm in Brazil have worked spectacularly.

But perhaps the most important spring event in Berlin and all of Germany was that it was spargelzeit! A celebration of asparagus, white asparagus in fact. I cannot remember where I last celebrated a season for a vegetable and/or fruit. About the closest thing I can think of is the sweet corn festival about 100 miles west of Chicago.

Every pub and restaurant in Berlin has its version of the item on the menu. I had a salad with spargel, wiener schnitzel with spargel, classically served spargel (with ham and cream sauce), and spargel with noodles. I believe you could have had a full several course meal with each dish containing spargel because at the end of it you might just take another order of steamed spargel and that would be dessert.

So just when you think it could be boring to travel three times in less than a year to the same city, it is not.

©2015 Janice Marie Nigro/


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