I Now Pronounce You Omelet and Waffle

With only two days left in the trip, it was just now that I was beginning to feel like a Berliner - you know, coated in thin sugary icing and harboring a lurid red dollop of pure raspberry jam suspended mysteriously in my spherical middle.  John Kennedy forever sealed the celebrity of this German confection when a slip of his tongue resulted in identifying himself as a Berliner-of-the-doughnut-variety rather than a Berliner-of-the-inhabitant-of-Berlin variety.  Still, a doughnut seems a fine metaphor to appropriate in discussing the airy layers of my growing urban sophistication.

Rather than giving that ridiculous line of musing any further weight, I decided instead to enjoy my Berliner with a nice hot cup of English Breakfast tea while mapping a plan of attack for visiting a variety of Berlin's weekend flea markets.  I had dismissed all the remaining expectations of my agenda and cleared it entirely for the next two days so I could spend the time pawing through mounds of dirty old mysterious stuff.  Stuff that had the power to explain history in ways not often possible in books or television or lecture halls.

Happily, I'd reached a level of competency with the public transportation system that allowed me to stop focusing so intently on the mechanics of getting places and instead lavish my attention on the everyday backdrop of the city.  That's a good goal for almost any trip I go on - to transcend the logistics and immerse myself in being a denizen.  I'm usually not a fan of the Disney version - I want to see how things really work.

And so for the next two days I alternated my time between trekking through the city and combing a wide variety of booths at flea oriented venues around town. The content was substantially different than what I'm used to in the U.S. and thinking back on it, I'm guessing a vacuum of consumer products must surely have developed during the WWI and WWII eras - every last resource in Germany was likely being used in the war efforts and I'm guessing the number of art deco tea sets produced went way down.  I did end up finding a few things I wanted badly enough to buy and lug all the way home:

*Two silver forks, likely from around the turn of the 20th century, give or take a decade.
*What seems to have served as a style or pattern book when elegant gentlemen arrived at the tailor seeking a custom suit.  Every page has a different gentleman in a different coat.  Very debonair!
*Some old brass sign letters from the early part of the 20th century, all different interesting fonts. And the pièce de résistance..

*6 early 60s Soviet space program promotional posters in perfect shape - astronauts and rockets aplenty!  Even Valentina, the first woman in space!

On the train ride to the large Mauer Flohmarkt, I passed a store window in the Mitte plastered with an enormous poster of Lou Reed with his dark liner-blackened eyes staring out from the cover of his early album, Transformer.  Snap! Of course they would be mourning Lou Reed here - he did a lot of really important work during his Berlin years.  I kept count the rest of the day and ended up with a total of 5 Lou Reed sightings.  I also counted the number of times I heard someone remark to their companion..."ohhh - das ist Schade!"  Which means, "Oh - that's a pity!"  Total mentions: 3.

Sunday evening, I made an expedition out to the airport to check my huge heavy suitcase in advance, which I discovered earlier in the trip and am adopting as a strategy from here on out.  It really works great if you can set aside the time to do it.  After dropping off my bag, I rode the train back to Ostkreuz one last time and after disembarking, passed through my magical grungy portal into the bustling Freidrickshain neighborhood that I'd so enjoyed inhabiting for the last week.  As I walked along, I was on the lookout for two, count 'em two, Mexican restaurants I'd spotted previously, practically right next door to one another.  Time to have a farewell margarita-off in Berlin!

Round 1: Matador Restaurant
Margarita: Hand shaken (tiny ice flakes-yay!), slice of lemon (!), rimmed in table salt, nasty sweet and sour mix not at all in evidence.
Dish: Tortilla soup - creamy tomato bisque with white meat chicken bits, side of 2 flour tortillas.
Score: Not shabby and definitely not skimpy on the tequila. Compact.

Round 2: Rancho Grande
Margarita: Hand shaken, not overly sweet, lemon zest and table salt rim.
Dish: Elotes (Mexican street corn) Frozen and then grilled ear of corn with feta cheese crumbles and pats of parsley butter.  Euro salad on the side.
Score: Meh on the rita.  High overall points, however, for inclusion of modest salad and prodigious use of orange, throughout.

My return flights to the U.S. on Monday were much easier to bear than the 38 hour marathon I'd put in going over.  After an uneventful flight from Berlin to the U.S. and a lengthy layover in Chicago, I was finally nearly home, home, there's no place like home.  On our final approach, I looked out the window gazing on the familiar features of Austin with sodium vapor lit eyes of love. I actually recited the impossibly hokey words, "There's no place like home! There's no place like home!" to myself as we touched down at Bergstrom airport.  It seems like every time I return home, I develop a firmer and firmer understanding of how much I love this place.

Mark and I both decided we were famished by the time the bag had appeared on the carousel and we had hauled all my crap through the maze of the parking garage.  Waffle House was the obvious choice for so many reasons, but chief among them raisin toast, crispy hash browns and human character in abundance.  Our waitress' name was Raxine (Pronounced Ray-seen) - and when queried on the subject explained that no, she was not in fact named after a city in Wisconsin, her moniker was a combination of both her parents first names - Ray and Maxine!  I confessed to her I had an identical story (grandfather Shirley and grandmother Elnorie) and she seemed to like having company in the distinctive category we shared.

We left Waffle House with a satisfied rub of the belly, and as we were walking to our car I couldn't help but notice there was a group of four people headed our way, all of which were dressed va-va-va-VOOM!  And by that, I mean like Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes arriving with Fred Astaire in Funny Face! It was a young couple and most likely one pair of their parents by the look of it.  They were all four laughing, and smiling and talking up a giddy storm.  I was back in Texas, so I could finally holler at total strangers if I wanted to: "Y'all look FABULOUS!" I cried out.  "You people are seriously stylin' at the Waffle House!"  The young girl beamed and reported back, "We just got married!"  The hubbub that erupted left a substantial opening for congratulations and one further observation, "I love y'all already because you'd pick Waffle House for your post nuptial feast.  You are definitely my kind of folks."  With a wry grin, the girl said, "Since this is where it all began, it only seems fitting that we should come here to celebrate.  This is our place."  All there was left to do was heap good wishes on the couple and leave them to their hash browns and coffee and fake eyelashes.

As soon as I got in the truck and slammed the door (yes, loudly, Bruce) I reminded myself, that's why there's no place like home.  I hadn't been back in Austin for even an hour yet, and I'd already experienced its special magic.  It comes often and quick here.  But how wonderful to be able to travel the world and see skyfulls of dancing aurora, glistening fat pink orange ribbons of smoked salmon and artfully arranged surreal objects and then return home to my no place like home.  Perfect.


Technically, It's All About Appearances

Lots and lots of images today (38!).  Sometimes they just seem to bunch up for some reason.

Here's an example of some excellent Berlin street art I spotted (a little over 4 feet tall for scale) on a wall just around the corner from the Deutsches Technikmuseum.  It's so simple and pure - not one wasted brush stroke -  I love it!

When I'd made my visit to the Designpanoptikum the previous day, Vlad had highly recommended that I go take a look at the Deutsches Technikmuseum and since it was already on my list anyway, I moved it to the top of the queue.

Vlad had challenged us (during his introduction to the surreal museum) to work on being present to the form of objects without needing to know what their function was.  His suggestion was very much on my mind as I entered the Technikmuseum, especially knowing that only a small percentage of the explanatory labels included English translations. When I bought my ticket, I was essentially signing on to interpreting what I encountered from inside a vacuum of mystery.  What a great opportunity to practice the exercise I'd learned just the day before!

The Technikmuseum's impressively diverse collection of technological marvels spills over into a whole series of large buildings, sort of like a Smithsonian, Jr.  I decided to start in the old building, first dipping my toe into the textile area (which wasn't exactly doing it for me), but my attention was promptly restored when I turned the corner and found telephones dating from the 1800s.  What an impressive collection!  And from phones the content steadily improved, moving next to telegraphs (they had a German military model of an Enigma machine!), power generation and then on to radio, television and finally ending with computers. In every single area there was at least one item on display that had become such an icon during the course of history that it was hard to believe you were seeing the original.  Having said that, I still have to say it was the computer area that I was most excited to see.

To the left is a memory card (well, board) from a Zuse computer from the 1950s-60s.  I've included a bit of my hand in the picture to help you judge the scale of the thing.  If I remember correctly, this board held less than 1K of data.  Think about the size of this thing next time you use your 32 gig thumb drive.

On the right is another early form of data storage called drum memory.  The cylindrical drum would spin, using a data transmission technology not dissimilar to today's hard disk drive systems.  This memory device was also used in the Z22 and Z23 computers and held a whopping 38 kilobytes of data.  

But by far the most exciting thing at the whole museum for me was the model (at left) of Konrad Zuse's Z1 computer, which is widely held to be the very first modern programmable computer.

Working in his parents' Berlin apartment in 1936, German engineer Konrad Zuse spent two years assembling a mechanical computing machine which used a program punched into reels of discarded 35mm movie film stock to control computational operations.  The Z1 was Zuse's first attempt, and because it is entirely mechanical it was highly unreliable and difficult to operate.  Zuse rapidly moved on, presiding over many further breakthroughs in technology and improved iterations of his Z model computers.  His personal history is pretty damn fascinating, over and above what he contributed to mankind with his cute little switches and knobs and plungers and gates and buttons.  Here are a few pictures of the Z1 model (unattractively, through the display glass):

The above looks like a miniature set from a Godzilla movie, doesn't it?  Think of poor Konrad milling and milling and milling all those thousands of parts.  That's just about as wacky as something I'd do.

Okay, check it out - the Z1 was the absolute first computing machine that used binary floating point numbers.  I.e., very cool.  I think the console on my spaceship may need one of these boards.

The original Z1 was destroyed in air raids during the Bombardment of Berlin in December 1943, but in 1986 Konrad Zuse himself decided to rebuild the Z1 and spent the next three years manufacturing thousands of parts by hand to that end - the results of which are on display at the Technikmuseum.  There are also several of Zuse's later commercial offerings on display as well.  I had so much fun geeking out, I can't even begin to tell you.

I next toured the new building which houses boats and flying machines and all sorts of interesting ephemera associated with those topics.  I particularly enjoyed the small section dedicated to long distance optics (e.g., for lighthouses), and was dazzled by several of the exotic Fresnel lenses that were on display.

A good portion of the upper two floors were dedicated to flying machines from the 20s, 30s, and 40s and as a result, a great many of the items displayed  exhibited heavy damage (sometimes downright destruction), obviously garnered during WWI and WWII combat.  There was one particularly effective piece that succeeded wildly on the axis of form over function I was using to plot points.  Still, I couldn't resist using my barbaric German to try and translate the label - it ended up being a locomotive canopy that had taken a direct hit from an aerial bomb in 1918 in the Saarbrucken area.

I wasn't able to understand the intended significance of the engine fragment shown below, but I'm pretty sure that it is also the very essence of what you want to work with when trying to decouple form from function.  I myself am very strongly drawn to objects that have recorded some sort of acute kinetic event insofar as their shapes have been permanently altered (imagine, say, a busted up rearview mirror). When I look at the propellers on the engine below, I find myself obssessed with trying to imagine the forces that  are able to delicately curl a huge metal propeller into a graceful petal shape.  The only thing I feel certain of is that whatever force shaped those blades had to inovlve a super hot super powerful wave of energy - a lot of heat but not enough to vaporize the metal.  It ended up being the most deeply moving memorial to war I'd seen my entire visit to Berlin.

Immediately thereafter I reached that satisfying point in an experience when you know without even debating yourself that you're done.  Looking at all those tattered remains of flying machines had sort of neatly wrapped up Act III of my visit and I was heading for the exit.  What a great museum though.

After leaving the Tecknikmuseum, I made a quick stop by one of the Germany's best known landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate where I'd be able to take care of buying another transportation pass. The square was thronged with hoards of tourists milling about, so much so that I met a pair of fellows from Houston and San Antonio when the word "Texas" caught my ear from across the square.  The quintessential Brandenburg moment for me, however, was when I noticed a stretch limo had pulled up and the occupant was presumably gazing out the window at this famous symbol of political upheaval and elitism.  They might as well have been riding in a carriage with 8 perfectly matched horses, decked out in a tall powdered wig.

I jumped back on the S-Bahn and headed over to a part of the city that's renowned for its modern art and free wheeling lifestyle - the Mitte.  There, tucked away in a coutyard deep inside an old building is an art installation that I'd been wanting to visit called Monsterkabinett.

A collective of artists has created a gallery of large metal clad robots that you can tour in small groups, led by an enthusiastic guide barking out a strange framing story over the din and clatter of the moving machines.  I didn't even try to take pictures between the weird sort of copyright vibe of the place and the distinct lack of lighting that made images pretty much impossible.

It was charming and I enjoyed seeing something out of the ordinary, but this is the exact sort of venue that going to Burning Man all those years has rendered predominantly unimpressive.  Instead, I found myself waxing nostalgic about Vlad and the Designpanoptikum again.  There is such a difference between the two places, and it's got very little to do with content!  Enough said.

One excellent side effect of visiting the Monsterkabinett was that the courtyard around the gallery had some of the best street art I'd seen the whole time, and it was everywhere. Just a quick sampling:

I hopped back onto the Ring Bahn to head back toward the apartment, flopping wearily onto a seat and hunkering down for the longish ride ahead.  My full attention was instantly revived, however, when my eyes detected an immense sea of pulsing colored lights streaming past the windows on the opposite side of the carriage as it coasted to a stop. It was an enormous Ferris wheel throbbing with color, holding court over a variety of the usual corny carnival attractions.  I jumped off the train without a second thought and was soon walking around the fair, grinning and pushing the shutter button as fast as I could.  Carnivals are such a good spot to play with light painting photography.

I encountered an attraction I'd never seen before and thought was really fun - a photo booth meant to look like a giant snow globe. I watched as Santa herded group after group of willing victims into the clear PVC bubble and then helped perfect their placement so as to capture an always awkward souvenir family photo.  I think you could probably wring an entire coffee table book out of one evening's portraits it was so awfully weirdly wonderful.

There was also the requisite chamber of horrors ride.  Scary in any language!

When the tongue on my camera battery started to hang out, I hopped back on the train one last time and completed my journey back to Freiderichshain, my home base.  The grungy portal at the north end of the Ostkreuz station looked like the gateway to Toyland in Pinocchio when I arrived.  What a day of wonders!