Monthly Archives: August 2012

Silke and I took a Friday off, put our bikes on the train and traveled out to Werder, a small medieval fishing city just west of Berlin. The settlement began on a little island and so we started there too, eating a second breakfast of cake and coffee under the trees near the shore. The weather was warm and sunny, and we planned to take full advantage with a bike tour that would lead us to several lakes over the day. The idea was that at any given moment, we could spring into the water if we wanted.

Our first stop was the Glindower See, a large calm lake whose shores were crowded with little house boats. We found a perfect little beach between two boats, sort of isolated by the bushes and possibly the quietest most peaceful place on earth.

We shared the space with a duck pair and then a swan -all who didn’t much seem to mind us much. We swam out to the middle of the lake and the water was very fine. Upon our return to land, we discovered there was a plum tree shading the beach, it’s boughs heavy with dozens and dozens of ripe plums.

All around Werder we had seen fruit and “fruit wine” for sale. Apparently, fruit has been cultivated in the area since the 13th century by Cistercian Monks. I wondered if this plum tree was some sort of feral ancestor of an ancient orchard or if maybe a monk had sat on this very beach and ate a plum he brought along as a snack, then tossed the pit behind him -unknowingly planting this tree that Silke and I would plunder hundreds of years later.

Our trip continued toward Ferch though we stopped in Caputh, another old little town on the water accessible by a small ferry that is pulled by underwater cables.

We ate at the old ferry house and were astounded at the constant flow of traffic on the water of small motor boats, sailboats, kayaks, etc. that were in turn constantly interrupted by the constant traversing of the ferry from one shore to the other.

From there we began our return trip towards Potsdam, hugging the shore of the sparkling Templiner See all the way (except for a short detour to see Albert Einstein’s summer house). The whole day I had been haunted by a memory of a Claire Waldoff song about a group of friends riding their bikes out to Potsdam, Werder and Ferch. Back home, I confirmed that this Berliner chanteuse from the Weimar years had indeed been singing about a very similar itinerary, though the group never actually makes their destination. Here is the chorus of “die Radpartie” (the bike party) from 1931:

Wir fahr’n nach Potsdam, nach Werder, nach Ferch.
Es fragt sich bloß, wie komm’n w’r mit Miezen übern Berch.
Wat nützt uns denn die Pumpe, wenn uns der Reifen platzt.
Der Ausflug und der Sonntag, die wär’n total verpatzt.
Eigentlich hat det nich viel Zwerch
Mit Potsdam, mit Werder und Ferch.

The song is so full of old Berlin slang and mispronounced words,  it’s difficult to translate but here goes:

We’re going to Potsdam, to Werder, to Ferch.
The question is how we’ll get the chicks over the hill.
What good is a pump to us, if all our tires burst.
The excursion and the Sunday, they’d be a total mess.
Actually, there really isn’t any point
with Potsdam, with Werder and Ferch.

I looked all over the internet for a stream of this song but unfortunately couldn’t find one to link to. It’s definitely worth hearing -Waldoff has the classic cabaret style of an innocent high-voiced girl using dirty language from the street in naive, open way. If you are interested, write to me and I will find a way for you to listen to it. In the meantime, here’s a photo I took years ago of the head of Claire Waldoff that stands outside of the Friedrichstadt Palast in Berlin:


Earlier this summer I saw the film Barbara, the latest from Christian Petzold who some people believe to be the best German filmmaker alive today. You can get a sense of the intrigue, suspense and careful reconstruction of life in the GDR from the trailer, even without speaking German.

I really liked the film (and Nina Hoss’ wardrobe) and understand that it has US distribution. So if you are interested and planning on seeing it, what I am about to write contains a big spoiler. So decided now- turn back or keep reading.

At the end of the film, there’s a scene which features an escape to the west via the Baltic Sea. It’s night, and Barbara and her former patient are sitting on the beach waiting -for what exactly, no one seems to be sure. Suddenly in the darkness, a figure emerges from the sea and the sound of a small motor can be heard. There’s no time for explanation as the escape must begin immediately. But what becomes clear is that the patient is going to be ferried to the west clinging to what looks like a small boogie board dragged by a frogman propelled by an underwater motor. What?

As soon as the film was over, I turned to Silke and asked her if she had ever heard of people escaping to the west that way. She had not, though she seemed to think it was possible. We discussed the possibilities -would they be going to Denmark? Or would a larger boat be waiting to pick them up just past the border in international waters?

Then yesterday while I was in the library waiting for a book to be retrieved from the archives, I leafed through a book about the history of the GDR in pictures. Suddenly I landed on this one:

It’s a photograph of Bernd Böttger taken at a swimming pool in Schoneberg (West Berlin) in 1968. He is demonstrating to the press how he escaped from the GDR to the west via the Baltic Sea using this seaworthy motor he built from a scooter engine!

Christian Petzold’s inspiration? The story of Bern Böttger has the makings of a movie itself. Working at an auto-repair shop in East Germany, Böttger had long planned his escape over water but realized he would need some assistance to swim the distance required. He got certified in diving and worked on the motor in his free time. He sealed a two-crank engine inside a waterproof case, built a 14 centimeter long cigar-shaped air and fuel tank and mounted it all onto a hand-held bracket. Böttger himself would be the rudder.

On July 7 1967, Böttger set out to make his escape from Wismar and was caught on the beach by the Stasi. They confiscated his equipment and he went to prison, surprisingly for only three months. After his release, Böttger built another motor and set off to escape again, this time from Graal-Müritz  on September 8, 1968. He made it into the water and set off for a ship he spotted 15 miles from the shore. He spent the first hour half a meter below the waves being pulled along at 5 km per hour. He did this until he was sure he was past any East German guards at sea, then switched to a snorkle and swam along the surface. The motor was only large enough to operate for five hours, and Böttger had packed emergency supplies -a small bottle of vitamin C and a mixture of milk, chocolate and sugar, a balloon of 10-ounces of drinking water, a rolled up air mattress and tools for on-site motor repairs.

At 4 AM -six hours after leaving the beach and some twenty sea miles away, Böttger finally reached the boat he had seen, which turned out to be from Denmark. As the Danes pulled Böttger onboard, it didn’t take them long to communicate that Böttger’s escape had been a success.

The story continues- once in the west, Böttger patents his “Aqua-Scooter” and begins sales discussions with American sport companies and even the US Navy regarding his invention. In 1974, he travels to Spain to test out a new prototype. It is there while diving with friends that Böttger suddenly turns up lifeless in the water. A strong swimmer, former life guard and experienced diver, Böttger’s death is very mysterious. Böttger’s family speculates that his international success with a  machine invented to escape the Iron Curtain was too embarrassing for the GDR, and that a Stasi hit man was hired to take him out.

Böttger’s life is actually more interesting than the plot of Barbara and I wonder why no one has made a film about him yet? Maybe because as extraordinary as it is, there are dozens and dozens of amazing stories like this -real people taking incredible risks, and using such imaginative methods to escape. It just so happens that yesterday was the anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, so it’s also a perfect time to think about all the people who tried but didn’t successfully make it to the other side.

Bad news for anyone interested in my efforts to grow kale here. Things were looking good when Helen successfully brought me some seeds from New York and helped me plant them in the middle of Vinetaplatz in a bit of guerilla gardening action.

By mid July, the seeds were well on their way but now, disaster has hit. It’s not vandals uprooting the seedlings or litterers discarding their rubbish into the planter. It’s not even the shitty Berlin weather. It’s a beast -a MONSTER, that is eating the tender leaves off all of the new shoots.

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Without leaves, the baby kale is having a tough time absorbing the nutrients it needs from the sun to grow. Like a forest of stunted trees killed by arson, my kale bed looks like an environmental disaster. I still go and water it loyally, but every day I find that any new growth has been promptly bitten off by someone’s little teeth. They’re hanging on for now, but my dreams of a raw kale harvest this fall have been ditched in the dirt.

Last week we rented a car to travel to Bavaria, undertaking a road trip of sorts: seven hours in the car one way! My parents guffawed at the distance, “that’s a drive to San Francisco.” But having long not lived in California, I found the journey daunting, especially because the Autobahn is so dreadfully boring. While I can appreciate its laws against billboards, Germany has none of the fun roadside attractions that the US does, like giant dinosaurs housing creationist museums or a restaurant serving a 72-ounce steak that’s free if you can eat it in one sitting. These things are important for morale when you are hitting the 500th mile/kilometer.

Also, it’s not true that you can always drive as fast as you want on the Autobahn. Digital traffic signs posting speed limits in order to avoid jams appear very regularly. And most of the roads were indeed built by Hitler, including the A9 along which we traveled -which is just creepy. But as we were sitting in traffic on our way back to Berlin, Christian made a really interesting observation. We were in the former East and the road was under construction, being widened and drastically regraded. Christian was fairly certain that this was the first time since reunification, which meant we were getting a glimpse of the A9 as it looked in the GDR days, when it was one of three designated transit routes for westerners traveling to West Berlin.

Accounts of taking these transit routes are legendary. From the end of the West German border to the checkpoint into West Berlin, drivers were under the jurisdiction of the East Germany. Westerners couldn’t leave the Autobahn and were only allowed stop at specially designated rest areas. A speed limit of 100 km was strictly enforced by the Volkspolizei, which many complained was simply a way to make money off of western drivers. East Germans who had fled to the West would never risk the journey, for fear of not being arrested and detained.

My favorite story comes from an exhibit I saw at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in 1996. On display were the giant neon words “Plaste und Elaste” in a beautiful 1960s pallate and script. The wall text explained that these words were once part of a giant sign advertising the achievements of a chemical plant in the GDR. While the chemical plant was located in Schkopau, the sign was hung along the A9 just as it crosses the Elbe River near Dessau, not far from Berlin. This means that every westerner using this transit route to get to West Berlin would have seen it.

The wall text goes on to describe the psychological effect of the sign for these drivers, for whom it became sort of a beacon announcing the final approach to West Berlin. One person remembered it appearing like “a flower in the desert,” one of the only pieces of color on the landscape and a marker of the home-stretch.

I never forgot this story, but of course the details had gotten hazy. So you can still imagine my surprise when last week as we were driving back to Berlin on the A9, I looked up and saw what I looked like the brick tower on which the Plaste und Elaste sign hung. I took a mental picture and confirmed my hunch when I got back home.

And there’s more. According to Wikipedia, the tower was built by the Nazis alongside the construction of the A9, and was meant to be a viewing platform of some sort. So the moral of the story is that there are roadside attractions in Germany, you just have to look up at the right moment.

Bavaria is sometimes compared to Texas because this region’s culture tends to bleed into the whole of Germany for many foreigners, the way cowboy hats and cattle ranches have become symbols for the entire USA. Lederhosen, beer halls, women in dirndls carrying multiple beer steins, the Alps, Edelweiß, brass bands, etc. -these are all Bavarian, which is why it is such a top tourist destination.

For my parents and I however, we went to Bavaria for one thing -the Alps. My parents have been hiking in the Alps several times, in Austria, Switzerland and Italy so I followed their lead and we went on a three day hike in Berchtesgaden. We drove past the road to Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest,” the area’s most famous attraction, took a boat across Königssee and began our hike at Germany’s most photographed church. It felt great to leave the masses of people behind as we started walking south along the lake shore and slowly began ascending into the forested slopes.

There’s no wild camping allowed in the Bavarian Alps, so we stayed each night in a Berghut (mountain hut). These are large houses high in the mountains that are only accessible by the trails (their supplies are brought in by helicopter or hoisted up from the valley floor on long pulley systems). They have big restaurants and sleep over a hundred hikers, often in communal rooms for dozens of people. In this way, we met a lot of nice people that we continuously met on the trail over the next days.

The hiking itself was very lovely, but much more difficult than I had imagined. I thought after our first day’s ascent, we would plateau and have some level hiking. But the the second day was a steadily upward traverse across the Steinernes Meer (the stone ocean). We were above the tree line and gone where the green meadows, waterfalls and wildflowers. It looked like we were on the moon and the rocky terrain was difficult to navigate. Occasionally, we had to cross treacherous ice fields that threatened to dump you into a ravine of spikey stones with one slip. Marmots would occasionally crawl out and sound a shrill warning call that echoed across the weird landscape.

At the end of the three-day hike, we were all quite sore and exhausted and spent a day wandering around Salzberg. Then we drove to Garmisch-Partenkirche, another part of the Bavarian Alps to meet up with Christian and his uncle and his husband. We all did another big hike up through the Höllenklamm (the hell gorge) which was like Ithaca on crack. The trail continued towards the Zugspitze, the tallest mountain in Germany but we took a turn to head back to the valley. Thunder began to rattle through the crown of peaks and we had to take shelter in a Chamois cave (I was sure we were going to get hit by lightning). After that we pretty much took it easy with gentle hikes and big dinners. We definitely got a chance to indulge in the beer and meat dishes that Bavaria is famous for before heading back to Berlin.


The past few weeks have been full with activity because my parents are here! Although I’ve lived here twice before, something about this time must feel more permanent because this is the first visit (actually my dad had been here in 1962 and brought an assortment of old maps of the divided city to prove it). We spent the first week doing all the classic Berlin tourist activities -renting bikes, Unter den Linden, Reichstag, Brandenburger Gate, Holocaust Memorial, Tiergarten and Cafe am Neuen See where I saw this busboy with this excellent t-shirt:


That was just day one. We also went to Potsdam and saw the grave of Friederich the Great, then went swimming with Silke at Schlachtensee where apparently there is a giant catfish that sometimes bites bathers. This rumor is unfortunately true!

We did do many things it’s impossible to describe them all here. But some highlights were going to  Hamburg to meet Christian’s parents and a visit in Berlin from my cousin Elizabeth. She’s in working in Frankfurt for the summer and came up for the weekend.


As with any family visit, there was a lot of eating involved and per my dad’s request we went to Mustafa’s to try what is supposed to be the best Döner Kebab in Berlin. We waited forever -not just because the line was so long, but also because when we got to the front they had to change the meat spit and it took 25 minutes for the new meat to cook. Was it worth the wait? The general consensus was yes and we all were quite happy to eat in the middle of Mehringdam on a traffic island.