Category: Travels

Buffalo bleg

What to do in Buffalo?  Yes, we are going there voluntarily.  Please feel free to include the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in your answer.  Furthermore, how long does the drive take, crossing the border from one place to the other?

As always, I thank you in advance for your assistance.

Berlin Holocaust plaques, or Stolpersteine

There are small sidewalk-affixed plaques in many locations in Berlin, including on my street.  Here are some visual examples and here are many more.  They sit by the victim's former home and list the victim's name, the date he or she was taken away, and date and place he or she was murdered.  The word given is the more brutal "murdered" (ermordet), not "killed."  

Most plaques refer to Holocaust victims, although one nearby plaque is for a German general who apparently disliked the Nazis (and vice versa) and others are for gypsies, gays, and resistance fighters.  Here are further sites on the plaques, including in German.  Here is Wikipedia on the plaques; some homeowners do fear price depreciation.  Since the plaques are placed in public space, the homeowner has no veto rights.

The plaques are the brainchild of Gunther Demnig, a sculptor from Cologne who has made them his life's work.  A plaque costs 95 euros and a sponsor, often a relative or former friend, commissions Demnig to make a "Stolperstein," as he calls them in German, or a "stone to stumble upon."  The story of the origin of the plaques is here.  Demnig's parents were ardent Nazis, which he reports caused him to feel some responsibility for what happened.  He relies on records collected by the Gestapo itself. 

The first Stolpersteine he laid illegally in the mid 1990s.  As of April of this year, Demnig himself has installed over 22,000 of the plaques.  Here is Demnig's home page.

The city of Munich has since relented in its ban, and now it allows the plaques.


Hamburg notes, Hafen-City

Compared to my previous visit twenty-five years ago, the run-down parts of the city are much worse; it is hard to believe you are in northern Europe.  The nice parts of the city are more splendid.  They are building a new city section altogether — Hafen-City – at a hard-to-discern rate of occupancy, can you say Austro-Hamburg business cycle theory?  It's all mixed with in 18th century warehouses.  Here are some apartments for sale.  Here is one good introduction to the project.

In Hamburg they serve smoked eel with moist scrambled eggs, on delicious black bread.

A good chunk of the people in Hamburg could pass for Scandinavian; that's not the case in Berlin.

For contemporary work, Hamburg's Hafen-City is the architectural marvel of the Western world.  It is Europe's single largest development project, not counting whole countries of course.  Who said we no longer build coherent, splendid-looking neighborhoods?  It is sadly under-discussed (addendum: but not here).  For my unusual taste, the views from Hafen-City, through the harbor, all the way down to Hamburg-Altona, are among the very best in Europe.  The bridges, the elevations and overpasses, the rows of brick, steel, and glass, the transport links, the integration with the water, and the "imaginary harbor," cosmopolitan in nature of course, remind me of what I would expect to find in the lost notebooks of a brilliant "Outsider" artist, except it's all for real. 

One lengthy description, in German (but good visuals), is here.


Berlin is ugly

The buildings don't have nearly the charm of what you would find in Paris, Rome, or much of London.  There are some nice residential areas, some pretty tree-lined boulevards, some occasional 19th century (or earlier) masterworks, and scattered sleek contemporary successes, such as by Potsdamer Platz.  There is lots of 1950s through 1980s mediocrity.  There are nice river settings, but for the most part the city doesn't use its waterfront especially well.  Many streets or plazas in the East remain huge cavernous monstrosities, devoid of Jane Jacobs-like inspiration.

It's nice enough that you can tell yourself it's not ugly, which perhaps is a sign of its ugliness.

I like that it's ugly, because it keeps the city empty and cheap and it keeps away the non-serious.  There are not many (any?) splashy major sights.  Even the Wall is mostly gone.  The way to see and experience Berlin is to do things.  The ugliness selects for people who want to enjoy the city's musical, theatrical, museum, and literary treasures.

Berlin is evidence that most tourists don't actually care so much about history, culture, and museums, as it is not for most people a major tourist destination, despite having world-class offerings in each of those areas.  Mostly tourists like large, visually spectacular sites, or family activities, combined with the feeling that they are taking in culture or seeing something important.  

There are, however, a fair number of Russian tourists who enjoy the nostalgic feeling they get walking through the eastern part of the city and visiting communist monuments and sites.

If you are in Mexico, and you visit ruins of any kind, prepare to see disproportionate numbers of Germans.

Turkish integration in Germany

Here's from the FT:

In the past decade Europe’s largest nation has embraced its foreign population of 15m, and [soccer] team and country seem to have benefited.

“Joachim Löw’s team reflects the Germans’ greater sense of belonging together,” says Maria Böhmer, chancellor Angela Merkel’s minister for immigrant issues. “We’ve never had as much integration as we have in Germany today.”

The article offers anecdotal evidence for that view.  A little more on the scientific side:

A new report by Germany's Advisory Council for Integration and Migration says immigrants are fitting into German society better than first thought. The council found a high level of trust between Germans and immigrants…

Ines Michalowski from the Social Science Research Center in Berlin said…"This report and the research that is behind this report actually shows that there is more optimism and that people are pretty much used to immigrant neighbors and immigrants are used to having people without immigrant backgrounds as their neighbors," she said. "People are actually used to living together."

The survey also showed that most people who were questioned approved of, rather than disapproved of, the integration policies of the German government. Michalowski said this is because integration is not a central political issue in the country.

Here is much more.  I found this bit interesting:

The council canvassed more than 5,000 people, including immigrants and Germans, for its integration barometer. Both groups were asked how they perceived the other group, with nearly two-thirds of immigrants responding that they either "more or less" or "completely" trusted Germans. Astonishingly, only 54 percent of Germans reported trusting other fellow citizens.

Two out of three immigrants also said they felt Germans were interested in their social integration.

Here is a good general discussion of some relevant issues.  Keep in mind, the question is not whether Turks do as well as Germans or other immigrants.  Usually the Turks in Germany start off with much less education so as a group they have not caught up.  The real question is whether the costs from the migration are so large as to overwhelm the gains from trade reaped by both sides.  I say no.

Here is an article on the döner bratwurst.  The döner kebab, by the way, was invented in Berlin, not Turkey.  It is now popular in Istanbul.

Here is some basic summary information.  I should add that Berlin is a safe city throughout and also that large parts of Kreuzberg (the major Turkish section) have been gentrified.  It is now less common to hear talk of the subway train through that section as "the Orient Express."  If your working mental model for multicultural Berlin is Paris, you are making a mistake.

Berlin is in terms of the numbers a major "Turkish" city in its own right, but it almost always feels remarkably German.  

Bob Dylan *Radio Hour*

Also known as German markets in everything, or alternatively why oh why can't we have a better U.S. copyright law?

Remember when Bob Dylan was DJ for those XM satellite radio shows, spinning a melange of blues, folk songs, vaudeville, gospel, and general bizarreness, with generally American themes, in the process proving himself one of the world's great musical infovres?  Some of those shows are collected on CD, in Germany, vol. I, II, and III, four discs a box, twelve discs in total.  The listings are here (they will ship to the US), or in German stores for about six dollars a disc, thank you Greece.

I own thousands of CDs, but these are among the very best and the song selection compares favorably to other collections of American music.  The sound quality and transfers are first-rate.

Here is a Bach box, his major choral works and some of the major cantatas, MP3, and CD, 42 euros, 22 discs, John Eliot Gardiner conducting, these are some of the best recordings of the chosen pieces and even with shipping costs this is an extremely favorable purchase.

Have I mentioned there are many outrageous bargains in Berlin, not just my apartment?

For five or six euros, you can buy an excellent spaghetti bolognese, better than almost anything in WDC or Virginia.  Apartments are cheaper, you don't need a car, mineral water and good bread is cheaper, gelato is cheaper, and in most social circles you're not expected to dress extraordinarily well.  I'm not sure books are cheaper but they're not outrageously priced either, even many English-language editions.  It's a strange feeling to come to Europe and have most things be cheaper, which still is not the case in Paris.

Here Angus recommends five CDs for Germany, good picks but the Dylan and the Bach round out some Alvin Curran and some gospel in my living room.

Scandinavia and Germany

Sune, from the comments, writes:

As a scandinavian I'm surprised by the admiration for Germany.

We often talk of Germany as being a step behind in economic policy with their labor market being so rigid, and the still significant power of unions.

When I first visited West Germany, in 1985, it was arguably the best-functioning social democracy.  You could mail a letter for single-day delivery anywhere in the Bundesrepublik, the concept of "deutsche Wertarbeit" was near its peak, Mercedes was the gold standard of automobiles, and the northwest industrial areas had not yet been hollowed out (though they were suffering).  The country also had among the world's best systems for mass transit and urban planning, as well a high living standard and lots of vacation time, all topped off by what was arguably the world's most curious, most travel-hungry, and most intellectual population.

Since then, unification cost a lot of money, and delayed progress, but the country hasn't exactly fallen apart.  It retains many of these virtues, albeit with some fraying at the edges.  What it has gained since 1985 is a greater feeling of normalcy, a stronger identity as European, much better levels of customer service, and the final aging and (mostly) disappearance of a large number of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers.  Those who were sixty, and running the country, are now eighty-five and mostly dead or retired.  Those are some big gains.

The Nordic countries have in some ways moved ahead.  The stunning contemporary architecture of Copenhagen sets the city apart from most of Germany, which now has a somewhat tired-looking infrastructure and a great number of mediocre postwar buildings.  Denmark also has made bigger strides toward economic freedom.  Sweden has shown it can cut spending, reinvent itself, and circumvent what appeared to be a dire fiscal future; this was not apparent in 1985.  Sweden also has done very well by globalization and information technology.  Norway has mobilized its oil and gas wealth to greater degree and strengthened its good governance.

Still, either then or now, I'd rather live in Germany, even if it is harder for larger countries to turn on the proverbial dime.  The country has dealt with more serious problems, so its performance has been less in absolute terms.  But in part it's had more serious problems because it is a more interesting place.  Germany is bigger and more diverse than the countries to the north.  At the very least I would reject the portrait of Germany as a country which has fallen behind the other major social democracies.

Berlin notes

Living here feels natural.  I am happy but oddly unfascinated.  Most of all, I notice the changed routines of my life.  Every day I take mass transit and have cheese for breakfast, rather than the car and cereal.  I am more likely to take in information by walking around different parts of town than by reading.  I have only five CDs, a Kindle, and a few paperbacks, including the new (and good) David Mitchell novel.

The Berlin newspapers seem uninterested in the collapse of Greece and the future of the Eurozone; that probably reflects the preferences of their readership.

They have a whole shop, on my street, for books about the German train system; there is another shop just for books about miniature model boats.

There are many more photocopy shops here than I had expected; I wish I could short the sector.  The Berlin Zoo has a "gay night."

There is a not-very-bohemian part of town, a somewhat bohemian part of town, and a "supposedly to be really bohemian but actually still quite German" part of town.  A funny kind of pointless Tiebout competition reigns.

Berlin is a big playground with relatively little busines life or production, lots of space, and amazingly low rents.  You can buy a good gelato for less than a Euro.

The vegetables are superb.

Sometimes you can't tell which national cuisine the Asian restaurants are serving and I don't mean that as a compliment.  Sri Lankan food is one of the best respites from the oppression of food preparation in Deutschland.

If there is one overriding principle of German food, it is to avoid anything in a sauce.

The Turkish integration into Germany and German life is a major postwar success story, yet it is not much reported on.

The musical life and museums are first-rate, yet the real sight here is simply Germany itself.

Back in Berlin

The President of Germany had to resign over this?  On the bright side, it doesn't seem as important as Lena winning the Eurovision contest.

And so I am back in Berlin and for a good bit of time.  I've already blogged my 1985 visit to East Berlin with Kroszner, which remains one of my strongest and most influential memories.  I also returned the summer after the Wall fell, and spent about two days walking and driving around the Eastern part, more or less pinching myself to see if it was real.  The same people who had been afraid to talk to me five years before suddenly were friendly and open.  It felt remarkably like West Germany…and yet not.  I don't expect to personally witness a comparable liberation in my lifetime and those days too have stuck with me deeply.  For a number of reasons, just stepping foot in Germany is for me an emotional experience.

Twenty years later, I experience Berlin as a normal city for the first time.  But I just arrived, so we'll have to see. 

It is striking how cheap rents are.  I have a two-bedroom apartment, fully furnished, short-term, in a neighborhood comparable in quality to Manhattan's Upper East Side and yet it costs less than many a mediocre place in Fairfax.

Istanbul notes

Contra the United States, here it is the leaders who have the moustaches and the voters who do not. 

Nowhere have I seen more free toothpicks for offer, yet after days I still have not encountered a single Chinese restaurant.  Turkish food dominates the culinary landscape.

The bestsellers are mostly by Turkish authors, yet The Prince of Persia fills many a movie screen.

Orhan Pamuk: "To be traveling through the middle of a city as great, historic and forlorn as Istanbul, and yet to feel the freedom of the open sea — that is the thrill of a trip along the Bosphorus."

Turkey is the world's second leading producer of watermelons and the leading producer of cherries; you can see both in the streets.

Full of small villages, it's one of the best walking cities.  People are friendly and helpful to strangers.

According to Forbes, there are 35 billionaires in Istanbul.

The major sights underwhelm me, in part because they are so crowded with tourists and in part because the "real city" feels further removed from them historically and spiritually than say Cairo does from its classic mosques.  

Sultanahmet is the worst tourist ghetto I've seen in any major city, ever.  It is essential to stay in some other part of the city, any other part.  I'm far from the center in Topkapi (not near the palace of the same name) and happy with my choice.

I could imagine living here.  It offers many of the benefits of major European cities but at lower expense.  It is less exotic than I had expected, and that's taking into account the typical first-order illusion about the exoticism of distant foreign cities. 

Turkey is Europe's leading producer of televisions.  After the 2001 troubles, both the banks and the government are in good fiscal shape.  The Turkish lira has yielded strong returns for years.  The economy is well-diversified.

Oddly (or perhaps not), the city reminds me of a larger-scale Marseilles.

Three years ago, here is Alex on Istanbul.  I took a cab there, and then the ferry back.