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Monthly Archives: May 2012

My favorite part of living in NYC was escaping it into the semi-wilds of the Hudson Valley. In an attempt to recreate this experience here, I bought a book called “Hiking in Brandenburg” with 50 hikes all around the doughnut shaped state that surrounds Berlin. Unlike most of the hiking I did in NY, all of these hikes are accessible by train. So on Pfingsten -a national holiday that honors someone’s ascension to heaven, we took the train to Dannenwalde and began a 21 kilometer hike.

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If anyone needs reminding, divided Berlin was completely surrounded by East Germany. So leaving the city today means entering the former GDR. This is great for nature lovers because even as the capital, Berlin didn’t develop the urban sprawl that most large cities have -thus the name of my blog!

But nature in Germany is not very wild. Almost the entire country has been tamed by centuries of human development -fields for food, forests for wood, lakes damned and rivers channeled into locks to ease the transport of goods across Europe. Of course, there are exceptions but Brandenburg is very flat and rather homogenous. Still, it’s not hard to find beauty in the landscape.

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It’s also not hard to see wildlife. Almost immediately, we saw this badger!

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Badger in German is “Dachs,” which got me curious about how Dachshunds got their name. Apparently they were breed for hunting badgers, Dachshunds’ long narrow bodies perfect for chasing badgers out of their underground tunnels. We also saw a lot of storks and a really beautiful red heron that I have yet to identify and a bunch of not so wild animals that were quite friendly.

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A lot of the hike was along old paths through forests and fields that connected small villages, so we were never too far from civilization.

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We eventually reached the beginning of the Havel River that was very pretty and we hiked along it for some time.Image

We stopped for lunch in the little town of Bredereiche at a restaurant right on the water. There was a lot of aquatic activity there, as evidenced by the traffic in the lock.Image

The rest of the hike was mostly on the Havel, which was extremely pretty but also rather buggy. Christian was really glad when the path lead us slightly inland to the warm, dry open fields approaching Fürstenberg.ImageImage

Of course, the most interesting part of the day I don’t have any pictures of. Just past a big lake called Stolpsee, we came across a field with some pretty recent looking ruins -cement foundations and street lamps. A large sign said that the site was formerly an industrial textile/fabric factory and that money from the European Union had been used to demolish the buildings, clear the rubble and now to let the earth breath. We walked a little further and came across an old railroad ferry that is a historical monument. Overgrown railroad tracks lead right to the banks of the river where the ferry could bear the weight an entire railroad car and transport it to the other side.

There was also a sign with more information about the textile factory. It began in the early 1900s as a factory for the netting used to burn in gas lamps before filaments came into use. The owner was forced to sell the factory during the Weimar years and eventually it came into the hands of the newly elected Nazis who immediately began producing weapons there. The little train ferry was still in use but this time, to transport prisoners from the concentration camp in Ravensbrücke to work in the factory.

I was stunned! This idyllic, beautiful place was once the landing point of forced laborers? It was hard to believe but in Germany, you are never far from this dark period of history. Suddenly the dancing Birch tree leaves and lapping water seemed so sinister. The information board went on to explain that after the war, the factory was used to build and repair tank parts for the GDR’s People’s Army. When it closed in 1993, the land tested positive for all sorts of toxins and the rehabilitation process described above began.

It was not long before we reached Fürstenberg, entering the medieval city over a wooden bridge that dumped us into the oldest part of town.

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From there, we took the train back into Berlin.

The whole walk was really nice, but it wasn’t the same as hiking Storm King. But I realize I will have to nurse my longing for mountains and valleys for the amazing history that lies just beneath the sandy soil here.

Last night I scrimmaged with a girl’s team that is part of a local league. They wanted to try playing on natural grass so they arranged to meet at Tempelhof, a giant airport in the middle of Berlin that has been transformed into a recreational area. It’s a bit like Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn, but literally in the middle of the city and the scale is off the charts. Bikers and rollerbladers speed by down the runways to never to be seen again. Small shapes in the sky mark the kite flying area which appears to be miles away and but is still in the park. A large stretch of grass is full of Turkish families grilling and filling the air with delicious smells. All this activity happens against the backdrop of the one-kilometer long terminal hall built by the Nazis. The whole thing feels impossibly massive, and yet the airport was closed in 2008 part because its runways are too short for the airplanes being built today.

The natural contour of the field did indeed prove to be a challenging surface -at least for me. After 15 minutes of playing “Storm,” I retreated red-faced and out of breath into goal. We played two 30 minute halves, finishing just as the sun began to set behind the sleek Nazi-architecture. We hung out for a while longer drinking beer on the grass. There were lots of people still hanging about enjoying the mild night -including a group reenacting a medieval battle, charging each other with spears and maces to the beat of a pagan-sounding drum.

This reenactment is apropos of the history of Templehof, named for the Knights of the Templar who were there until 1312 when they disbanded and Pope Clemens V took over. Thereafter, the area continued to be use for military training by the Prussians, the wide flat surface perfect for marching and drills. Its aviation history seems to have begun in 1909 when Orville Wright flew one of his homemade planes there and managed to stayed aloft for an entire minute. A crowd of ten thousand gathered, including the lady on the right who wore a giant bow on her hat for the occasion:

As air travel developed, Lufthansa had its first flight at Tempelhof and a makeshift airport began to develop. Zeppelins also floated and moored there and the subway connected to it to the city center in 1927. Then the Nazis came and rebuilt the airport in accordance of the important role it would lead in the capital of the Third Reich, Germania. The giant crescent structure was built in a Neoclassic but also Art Deco style, the slender windowed hall supported by fourteen towers in a delicate manner. The roof was meant to be a viewing platform for audiences at big Nazi events.

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As WWII began, Tempelhof was not fully complete. When things started to look really bad for Hitler, the Reich’s film archive was put into the basement of the building for safe-keeping. Intense fighting with the Russian front led to the material catching fire and burning for days. Apparently the walls of those rooms are still blackened with soot. With the division of the city, the Americans took over the airport in 1945 and then perhaps Tempelhof’s most famous use came into play -the Berlin Airlift. When the Soviets blocked transport of food into West Berlin on the ground in 1948, the Allies delivered it by air to Tempelhof for an entire year. These planes became known as the Raisin Bombers and the airport became famous worldwide.

Tempelhof’s fame continued into and beyond the immediate post-war years, as many politicians and movie stars entered the walled city on its runways. Billy Wilder shot a scene there in his excellent, hilarious Cold-War film, “One, Two, Three:”

Tempelhof continued to be West Berlin’s main airport until 1975 when Tegel was built and was used up until 2008 when a city-wide vote backed the government’s decision to close it’s doors. East Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport had been chosen for the site of the reunified city’s new airport which after delay is set to open in March 2013 (it was supposed to open this June).

While the new recreational use of the airport’s fields and runways is amazing, it’s a bit unclear about how to access the building. I was there once in 2000 -not to take a flight but for an art-event: Brian Eno’s Music for Airports was being piped into the main hall which I remember looking like the picture below (in the 1960s, a raised floor was put in to make the interior more human-scaled). I would so much like to go inside again!

I’ve been having hard drive problems, which is really scary because I don’t have all my data currently backed up. I am waiting for a drive that crossed the Atlantic on the Santa Bettina with the rest of my stuff. But even then, the rest of the back up is in NYC so if anything should happen to this drive…

So far, Fux Data has been able to make the necessary repairs. This computer supply/repair shop is like the surly, distant relative of Tekserve. Three men sit in a shady back building amidst boxes of computer parts. Their storefront window contains a bunch of outdated Macs, including an iMac with an old OS box thrust into its shattered monitor. One computer appears to be sitting on top of the drum of a clothes dryer, and everything has been significantly washed out by the sun as if it hasn’t been touched for years. It’s such a welcome change from the glass temples Apple has all over NYC. Berlin doesn’t even have an Apple store yet, although one is apparently being built on Kurfürstendamm.

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In the middle of a long, leisurely stroll through the glorious summery idyll of Tiergarten on Sunday, Christian, Simon and I came across a rather bombastic monument. A few hours earlier I had asked if anyone knew where it was that Rosa Luxemburg had been killed. Suddenly we were confronted with her name shooting out of the water like a comet. A plaque described how on the night of January 15th, 1919 Rosa and her German communist party cofounder Karl Liebkniecht were captured, tortured and then brought to Tiergarten. Karl was shot and dumped into Neuer See where we had just been enjoying ourselves at a beautiful beer garden. Rosa was thrown dead or almost dead into the Landwehrkanal pictured above.

The story goes on. Because it was winter when these murders occurred, Rosa’s body was not recovered until June 1st when the ice on the canal melted. She was brought to Charité hospital for an autopsy and then buried in the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery. Thirty-three revolutionaries, including Karl Liebknicht had been buried there earlier that year. In 1926, Mies Van der Rohe built a memorial in the cemetery for the fallen Socialists and it quickly became a pilgrimage point for many during the Weimar Years -even spurring an “LLL Week,” when Germans honored the Lenin-Liebknicht-Luxemburg triumvirate. In 1935, Nazis destroyed Van der Rohe’s monument and much of the cemetery. In 1950, the East German government scouring war-torn Berlin for any remaining evidence of their party’s fiery beginnings, exhumed many of the Frederichsfelde grave sites. Karl Liebknicht’s body was found in place but Rosa’s grave was mysteriously empty.

Fast forward to 2009 -Michael Tsokos, head of Charité’s Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences department finds a corpse in the hospital’s Museum of Medical History that he believes to be the real Rosa -a waterlogged female body without a head, hands or feet that carbon-dated 90 years old. Witnesses to Rosa’s murder said that weights were tied to her hands and feet before she was thrown in the canal and months of being underwater might have caused those extremities to become unattached from her body. Further examination shows that the woman was 40 -50 years old when she died and that one leg was longer than the other. Rosa was 47 when she was killed and walked with a limp due to osteoarthritis. Bone testing on the cadaver reveals signs of starvation, which could have been caused during Rosa’s three-year imprisonment during WWI. Tsokos points out that none of these identifying features were described in the original autopsy report, even the head injuries -even though Rosa had supposedly been hit in the head by a rifle butt that dark night.

The true proof however would be a DNA test, which was run against a surviving relative -Irene Borde, the granddaughter of Rosa’s brother Josef. The 79 year old Israeli chopped off a lock of her hair and sent it to Berlin. With such a distant relative and decayed body, Tsokos warned that chances of identification where only 60-70%. In the meantime, the public begins to doubt his intentions. Tsokos seems to lavish in the limelight of the media attention surrounding his possible discovery and he even signs a book deal to publish his work. His colleagues express more and more skepticism that the body is Rosa’s, pointing out that she was widely worshiped in the GDR. If there had been any chance at all that she was still at Charité -East Germany’s largest and most important hospital, she would certainly have been discovered during that era.

The frustrating ending to the story is that the results of the DNA test are inconclusive. Charité doctors announce that even Irene’s hair was not collected according to the medical protocol required to provide true, accurate results (Tsokos should have had professionals collect the sample, for example). In 2010, historian Annelies Laschitza and author/director Klaus Gietinger dig deeper into the Charité archives, finding new documentation relating to the original autopsy in 1919: a gold medallion, blue velvet dress and stockings were among the articles that lead to Rosa’s friends giving the body a positive ID. But Tsokos won’t blink. In addition to the inconsistencies of the autopsy, he says that the heated political atmosphere of the day pressured authorities to quickly identify and bury the revolutionary to avoid any sensationalism. Therefore, he believes any contemporary documents will only reflect the official version of events -not the truth of what really happened.

People apparently still flock to to Rosa Luxemburg’s empty grave in Friederichsfelde every January 15th. Her name still graces many places in Berlin and pops up in today’s political discourse as an untarnished icon of strength and intelligence. And across the pond in New York City, ninety-three years later a new Rosa is born. May she enjoy all the stories and mysteries of life that our strange history on this planet has given us!

Last month Mieke and I went foraging in Central Park with Wildman Steve Brill. This weekend we did it again in the Botanischer Volkspark Blankenfelde with Kraut Witch Elizabeth Westphal. Here she is talking about what you can eat from a fruit tree before it fruits:

Surprisingly we didn’t encounter any of the same plants here that we did in NYC, but there was still an incredible amount of things to eat. Here are just some of the edible plants we found:

the young leaves of a Linde tree can be used as a salad base:

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Johanniskraut (St. John’s Wort) gives good vibes in the winter:

Bärenklau is so named either because its three leaves look like a bear claw or because it’s the first thing that bears eat when they come out of hibernation:

The bright shinning blonde heads of these two girls prevented them from getting lost in this pretty field of tall grasses. Its finally beginning to feel like summer!

Scharbockskraut translates literally as “scurvy kraut” -high in vitamin C obviously! The tiny tubers on its roots taste like Jerusalem Artichokes, so yummy:

Into the woods we go. Remarkably there was a woman in a wheelchair in our group:

Gelbe Taubnessel, also with white and violet flowers:

Schwefelporling, “chicken mushroom.” I’m already looking forward for fall mushroom foraging:

Bärlauch or “bear leeks.” They fill the forest floor with an intoxicating garlic fragrance. Mieke and I harvested a bunch of the spikey tops where the flowers had fallen off to reveal a halo of crispy green beads that pop a mild garlic juice in your mouth when you bite into them. They were a delicious and beautiful addition to a giant green salad that we ate later that night while watching the European Champions final:

This is my personal favorite -Waldmeister, or “master of the forest!” Waldmeister has a really unique, sweet fresh taste that everyone here knows from the local beverage “Berliner Weißer” -beer mixed with either a red or green syrup. The red syrup is raspberry and the green is Waldmeister, which I always thought was a name made up for an artificial flavor. It totally blew my mind to chew the leaves of this plant and realize that it’s 100% natural:

Spitzwegerich -believe it or not, these plants are in the same genus as bananas:

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Breitwegerich:

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Ehrenpreis is beautiful, but tastes “a little pissy” according to Elizabeth:

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Back home, I took a bunch of yellow Löwenzahn (Dandelion) flowers that Mieke and I had gathered, carefully removed the bitter green leaves and put them into a jar of Black Locust honey (with a pinch of cinnamon and two cloves). In three weeks time I should have dandelion honey! I feel like a kid waiting for Christmas Day:

When Mieke was in NYC last month, she found a book on sale at MOMA about how to make bento boxes. Its pages were full of glossy pictures of rice balls transformed into smiling penguins, conniving monkeys and furry bears. So it was Mieke’s wish for her birthday on Monday to make a bunch of these adorable creatures and I went over to her house in the afternoon to help her.

Somehow we didn’t anticipate how much work it would be. Japanese moms that make bento boxes are probably making them for one or two children for a small lunch -not 25 hungry German adults for a dinner party. In the end we had 41 little pig hamburgers, 20 assorted onigiri, a sesame spinach dish, a watermelon, feta and mint salad and a green salad of foraged wisteria blossoms and mustard garlic.