Peacock Island

After stilling my historic hunger with difficult-to-digest fare, Berlin’s greener and more appetizing morsels beckoned. Filled with harrowing thoughts about the infamous Wannsee Conference, I was grateful for the opportunity to push the reset button while walking on wooded paths paralleling the Havel River which shimmered in the late morning sun, until I reached my next destination: Peacock Island.

I owed my knowledge of this famous gem to a reference in the same vintage visitor guide to Berlin introduced in a previous post. Its mention of exotic plants and birds caught my eye, and although the season was too advanced for floral lushness, I was still hoping to catch a few glimpses of the avifauna. In 1924, a nature preserve was established on the 67 hectare island, and in 1990, the designation UNESCO World Heritage site was added under the rubric Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin. It is accessible only by ferry. The 4 Euro ride was over almost as soon as it started, and I expectantly set foot on terra firma again.

As luck would have it, I benefitted from the mildest and sunniest weather of my entire journey. The slanting, late autumn light bathed all insular vegetation, edifices and denizens in its warm glow. Even though most of the grounds and plants have been man-made, are heavily man-aged, and provide a home to domestic animals, among them sheep and horses (and even Asian water buffaloes, but solely during the summer months), wild life forms, be they be-petaled or be-winged, quickly found and filled their niches, and the area is known to harbor rare wildflowers, bats, several threatened beetles, and over 100 species of birds.

Schloss Pfaueninsel (Castle Peacock Island), built by Prussian King Frederick William II 1795-97 for his mistress

The number of avians present on this early December day was lower, but I admired diverse waterfowl, sparrows, tits, nuthatches, blackbirds, jays, egrets and even a couple of Eurasian Bullfinches.

Eurasian Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Eurasian Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

And, of course, those feathered beings responsible for the island’s name whose presence was foretold by a lone blue feather luxuriating on a pillow of moss.

From the top of their nearby aviary, the feather’s former owner was also luxuriating in the late season sun. Peacocks, technically known as Indian peafowl, thanks to their origins on the Indian subcontinent, have been bred on islands like this since Roman times to protect them from theft and to prevent their escape.

It comes as no surprise that, out of my two-and-a-half days in Germany’s capital, the hours spent on this isle, away from the hustle and bustle of crowds, away from controversy, were the most pleasant. My sense of retreat was heightened by the ferry ride, the scarcity of visitors and gardeners at this advanced time of year, the sporadic ship traffic on the stream. I relished the near-illusion of an untamed swath of land where I drank deeply of the fresh air and lolled lazily in the residual warmth of the solar rays. Feeling momentarily light-hearted I was reminded of my ever-growing need to wander under the open sky – especially when it resounds with the cheerful chatter of birds.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/01/26/berlin-pfaueninsel/

Berlin-Wannsee

While in Berlin last fall, I visited Wannsee, the town and lake on the western outskirts of the capital. The ditty, “Pack die Badehose ein, nimm dein kleines Schwesterlein, und dann nischt wie raus nach Wannsee” (“pack your bathing trunk, take your little sister, and let’s hurry to lake Wannsee”), a veritable earworm from 1951 was playing in my mind, and even though I had not heard it in decades, it might have had something to do with my decision. What was not at my mind’s forefront was the “Wannsee Conference”, the antithesis to this light, cheerful tune. The name jumped out at me when I studied the local town map upon my arrival at the S-Bahn (suburban train) station, and set the memory wheels in motion.

On an unseasonably mild early December day I made my way through the well-groomed streets of what has always been a wealthy resort town. When I reached the location of this infamous gathering I shivered, despite the warm sunshine. On January 20, 1942, fifteen high-ranking officials of Hitler’s administration convened here to make the eradication of all European Jews official policy. In this beautiful villa, built in 1915 by industrialist Ernst Marlier, and repurposed by the SS into a conference center and guest house between 1941 and 1945, these men resolved to kill millions of innocent people because of their ethnicity and religion – while they wined and dined in an opulent dining room with a view of the idyllic garden and lake.

I toured the exhibit of what became the “House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site” in 1992. I strolled through the sun-drenched grounds resounding with lovely birdsong. Directly across the lake from the property stretched the sandy beach of “Strandbad Wannsee” (public bathing beach Wannsee), the destination of the above-mentioned melody which might have brought me here – and also one of the sites of segregation in the early years of Hitler’s regime, when Jews were “merely” banned from public places, when Germany’s “philosophers” might have still prevented the worsening madness that was to engulf Europe and the world.

I kept stumbling over the same question: How could something like this ever happen in Germany – “Land der Dichter und Denker” (“nation of poets and philosophers”)? Because it was also the “Land der Richter und Henker” (“nation of judges and henchmen”). A German rhyme. How poetic. How absurd.

While the past can’t be altered or whitewashed, try as we might, I wonder what it takes to prevent new demagogues anywhere from misleading people, from spreading new lies, from painting new enemy images. What does it take for us to focus on our common humanity, instead of dehumanizing, suppressing, or even killing certain groups, be it for political, for religious, or for ethnic reasons?

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/01/20/berlin-wannsee/

Berlin

Who is silly enough to decide on a Tuesday in early December to journey to Berlin by train the following day, spend two nights in a hotel, and three days to sightsee? And to use a booklet from 1973 as one’s guide? At least it was the 8th improved version from 1983!

My youthful optimism and burning desire to re-visit Germany’s capital which I only knew from an organized tour some thirty-odd years ago made me choose this course of action. During all my previous sojourns in Europe, I did not have or make the time to plan such a trip, and, lacking the foresight again during this last one, I resorted to this whirlwind excursion. As I knew full-well before I left, three days (two and a half, to be exact) were not nearly enough, but only afforded a brief glimpse into a metropolis with a convoluted history. I am glad I had the opportunity to get this glimpse, but when a friend asked me afterward about my impressions, I responded that they were mixed. I am still in the process of digesting them.

I arrived at Berlin’s Main Train Station. The Reichstag Building can be seen behind the Christmas wreath.

Crossing the Spree River, looking east toward the Fernsehturm (TV tower) on Alexanderplatz

Reichstag building, former home of the equivalent of the German parliament

The new dome of the Reichstag (completed in 1999). The original dome burned down in the fire of 1933 which was used by Hitler as a pretext to suspend the Weimar Constitution.

Berlin became the capital of Germany in 1871, after Iron Chancellor Bismarck’s multi-pronged machinations united different German regions and interests. Immense growth at the turn of the 19th century was followed by intense bombardment in World War II, and the division of the city into four allied sectors after Germany’s capitulation. This separation culminated in the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the subsequent existence of two parallel universes that lasted for 27 years, until the Wall was torn down in 1989, Germany reunited, and Berlin resumed its original role as capital of a unified Germany. As I moved across the Atlantic from Europe in the mid-1990s, I followed subsequent events from a distance only, but was curious to see the changes since reunification for myself.

Brandenburg Gate

Quadriga atop Brandenburg Gate

I remembered vividly the concrete, steel, and barbed wire from my visit in the early 1980s that separated the city into two, and West Berlin from the surrounding German Democratic Republic, a bizarre reminder of a bizarre situation. If the Brandenburg Gate was previously the center of the divided city, today it embodies the new Berlin. This became evident when I was able to simply walk up to it, and through all of its five arches. Even though remnants of the Wall are scattered along streets and thoroughfares, and former checkpoints and museums continue to recall this chapter of German history, I had the impression that this is something the country has, largely, put behind.

What Germany has, and probably should not, put behind is its infamous role during WW I and WW II, especially its racist, elitist views that led to genocide and a bottomless pit of pain and death. While it is impossible to ever right the wrongs committed, Germany has tried to take responsibility for its past actions. Monuments have been erected to commemorate the murder of Jews, Sinti and Roma as well as homosexuals during the Third Reich. Even though it took three generations to reach this juncture, persistent undercurrents in German society continue to laud Hitler’s “accomplishments” and espouse his evil racial views. I have always had trouble with my German heritage, on account of my birth country’s horrendous history: two catastrophic wars which led to the demise of at least 16 million in the first, 60 million in the second. Unlike a former chancellor, I can’t lighten my conscience by claiming “the mercy of late birth”.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Homosexuals

I grapple with the tension of how this nation can take responsibility for its past, and continue to celebrate its achievements, institutions, and elites, without belittling other states and claiming, once again, supremacy. Germany – and Berlin  still struggle to find answers to yesterday’s troublesome questions, while trying to heal internal divisions, and solve today’s challenges.

Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) on boulevard “Unter den Linden”, commemorates victims of war and dictatorship

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/berlin/

Gone to the Ducks

Birders regularly recall the trigger bird that stopped them in their tracks and awakened their curiosity about the avifauna. While I can’t name one particular trigger species, I owe my fascination for feathered friends to the manifold ducks that migrate to Alaska during the summer. When my husband and I called this northernmost state home in the early 2000s, my interest was aroused whenever we chanced upon colorful waterfowl on the myriad bodies of water that pepper the state. I went so far as to invest in a guide book to Alaskan birds, and even owned a CD with recordings of regional birdsong, but being rather consumed by professional life then, I birded only incidentally.

Ducks, geese and assorted additional water-associated avians are rewarding for beginning birders because their size makes them visible on the water’s surface, and they commonly stay in one place for extended periods, facilitating their proper identification. Now that we no longer live in “The Last Frontier” with its legendary biodiversity, I regret not having dedicated more time to ornithological pursuits there.

My fondness of ducks, nonetheless, abides. It so happens that within walking distance of our current residence in Colorado Springs, two lakes provide habitat for assorted waterfowl.

Quail Lake with view of Pikes Peak

Doubletree Pond with view of Cheyenne Mountain

 I did not acquire a digital camera until we were in the process of closing our Alaska chapter, and consequently don’t own electronic photos of the beautiful winged creatures encountered there. Instead, I would like to share pictures of some of the visitors of these urban oases in Colorado Springs who, likewise, have stolen my heart. Unlike other birds, they stay (or arrive) here in winter and help brighten the darker days.

Mallards are our most common ducks…

…and Canada Geese our most common geese

Northern Shovelers have spatulas for bills

Hooded Mergansers are spectacular in…

…and out of the water

Common Goldeneye, I wonder why

American Wigeon, aka “bald pate”

Doubletree Pond in winter

This, of course, does not qualify as waterfowl, but when I saw this white dove at the Doubletree Pond on January 1, it embodied all my hopes: Peace on Earth for this new year.

Klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version/click here for the German version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/01/08/entenzauber/

My 2017 Pulitzer Reading List

The caption might be misleading, but as I intend to make this post an annual tradition, and last year’s bore the identical title, I will keep it, despite measly progress with my Pulitzer for Fiction reading list – one lone work. In response to my request for suggestions in January 2017, I heeded M. Miles’s enthusiastic recommendation and chose the “Pulitzer of Pulitzers”, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1921 Pulitzer). I am glad about my long-overdue acquaintance with the author and hope to deepen it over time.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) is considered literary heir to Henry James (1843-1916). Their writing focused on American “aristocracy”. Even though both are claimed by America as some of her greatest literati, both left their native country to take up residence in Europe where they lived out their years. Edith Wharton is buried at Versailles Cemetery in France (she was appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honour for services rendered to her adopted country during WWI). The novelist was the first woman in a (slowly) growing line of female Pulitzer recipients (30 to this point, out of 90). She knew the settings of her prolific output (15 novels, 7 novellas, 85 short stories) well, having grown up in a “blue blood” New York family. Her words frequently assume an ironic tone not unlike Jane Austen’s, who might be considered a second literary role model. It is helpful to read this novel with the bemused air the author herself assumed when delineating human foibles from the safe distance of time and space.

The Age of Innocence was published in 1920, but is set in “Old New York” of the 1870s, the waning era of new-world nobility, arranged marriages, suffocating societal strictures, crumbling morality under a thin veneer of respectability. Newland Archer, the novel’s hero (if he deserves this designation) grew up within the narrow confines of this society’s expectations. While he prides himself to be a free thinker and more broad-minded than his contemporaries, whenever the opportunity presents itself to turn onto the path less trodden, he follows the well-worn tracks of his peers, while deluding himself with his supposed independent state of mind. Upon meeting the “love of his life”, an unconventional, free-spirited woman, instead of breaking up his betrothal to an attractive yet orthodox bride, he resigns himself to the conventional life, to a liaison condoned by their mutual family circles. He pursues a reasonable profession, fathers successful children, and plays the societal games, all the while compromising his ideals. Even after the death of his wife, when the opportunity to reconnect with his muse presents itself, he does not have the courage – but clings to the safety and comfort of the known over the unknown.

Overall, a tone of resignation pervades Archer’s life. Despite his shortcomings and compromises, his life is accomplished in the eyes of a superficial society that keeps up appearances, at the cost of individualism. I am not sure if Edith Wharton supported Archer’s safe choices, or simply portrayed the pointlessness of personal choice for those who wish to remain part of the world she had chosen to leave herself.

With 12 Pulitzer novels down, and 79 (soon 80 – the 2018 recipient will be announced on April 16) to go, I am again open to suggestions. Even though I fell foul of my goal to make a significant dent, I read much – both fiction and non-fiction. I am blaming (or crediting) my favorite literature bloggers for leading me astray (or for broadening my reading horizon), as I encountered literary genres not routinely on my radar. These blogs are written in German but have the world as their theme.

I thank Ira for presenting mouth-watering global recipes on her blog Frankfurter Kochbuchrezensentin, and for introducing me to Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti mysteries on her second blog Frankfurter Buchrezensentin.

Anna’s reviews and literary quotes at the well-organized Buchpost with lists of authors, countries and major book awards are always stimulating and thought-provoking and have added to my ever-growing reading roster.

Last, but not least, is Ulrike’s blog Leselebenszeichen, teeming with inspiring works and reviews. Thanks to her, I have visited London with Ben Aaronovitch’s modern-day wizard police apprentice who fights ghosts and other non-human life forms, am still stuck in the labyrinthine world of Walter Moers’s “Zamonia” where indescribable books reign supreme, and have reveled in lovely, heart-warming children’s literature reviews too numerous to count, all written in words that constantly remind me how rusty my own German language skills have become.

I hope my favorite literature bloggers will take up some Pulitzers, so I can make progress on my list in 2018.