Berlin Cathedral, with the "pope's revenge", the star-crossed TV tower, in the background.
Don't let the soaring modern architecture fool you; Berlin is chock full of some of the oldest remnants of civilization. The Pergamon Alter, the Ishtar Gates of Babylon, the 2000-year old bust of ancient Egyptian queen—and that's only a small part of what you'll find in Berlin, as modern a European city as it's possible to find.
I first visited Berlin 20 years ago, right after the "fall" of the Berlin wall (the wall was mostly still there, but free travel was possible). The worn out architecture of the East, which had been the pride of the Soviet empire, is now gone, replaced by the towers of Potsdamer Platz, and modern hotels, office buildings and monuments.
But don't despair; the old stuff—the 19th century museums, built to house the treasures German archaeologists brought back from their explorations, are still there. They've been restored to their former glory. In fact, the New Museum—the Neues Museum—has recently reopened after decades of restoration. The long wait was worth it—it's a fantastic museum.
Let me back up. No, not twenty years ago—Berlin seems eager to forget its divided past. It's only the tourists who flock to Checkpoint Charlie and the scattered remnants of The Wall. The rest of the inhabitants have gotten over it. No, back to when I arrived, to a darkened city full of lights. On the eighth floor of our hotel, we looked out over the Otto Bock building, a smaller building with dancing lights prancing on its side as if hung by a mobile. And next door a giant green beam made a light show on the side of the hotel. And on top of the Otto Bock building was a modern garden with giant modern sculpture.
Light shows are pretty common in Berlin. A walk at night is a spectacle, as we found out when we walked across the edge of Tiergarten to the Reichstag. The Reichstag, where the Bundestag (Germany's parliament) meets, is an imposing old building, built in 1894. But now it sports a modern glass dome observatory. It's hard to describe the inside. You walk up a spiral walkway inside the dome, while an audio guide tells you what you're looking at. Then you walk back down, and at some point you look down in the middle and realize that way below is where the Bundestag sits, in bright blue chairs the size of pin cushions. (Warning: don't do this if you're afraid of heights. I almost lost it when I glanced down.)
"Vibrant" is the word someone used to describe Berlin to me, and it's easy to see why, looking out at a sparkling city of lights.
Unter den Linden, with new linden trees.
But then you walk down Unter den Linden, the old thoroughfare named after the linden trees (lime trees in England, basswood in North America) replanted in the 1950s after being damaged in the war. There was a lot of war damage in Berlin, some of it still obvious on the walls of the old buildings. In Bebelplatz, where in 1933 fascist Brownshirts burned books they considered subversive, among them books by Helen Keller, there's now a haunting memorial consisting of a square of plate glass overlooking a room with empty bookshelves.
In London, modern buildings are set aside, on an island formed by the Thames. In Berlin, it's the old buildings that get their own island. Crossing the River Spree, you come to Museum Island, the spit of land where nineteenth century Berlin showcased its treasures in a series of museums. At one end the rounded Bode Museum fits perfectly at the tip, on the other end the Altes Museum (the Old Museum) looks out over the Lustgarden. But don't get carried away—the Berlin Dom, the cathedral, stands overlooking the Lustgarden just in case anyone tries to take its name too seriously.
The Altes Museum is tempting, standing there in its Classical glory. But it's not worth much more than an admiring glance—much of its Egyptian collection was moved to the Neues Museum. And don't stand in line at the ticket booth outside the Neues, either. Go into the Pergamon and buy your ticket there, and get a combined ticket, since you'll want to see the Pergamon too.
Market Gates of Miletus
If you only have time for two museums, the Pergamon and the Neues are the ones to choose. (Unless you're into Renaissance art, then go to the Bode.) You'll need a timed ticket to get into the Neues, so spend the hours beforehand touring the Pergamon. It's a very hands on museum, so to speak. You can climb the steps of the Pergamon Alter, go through the market gate of Miletus, and then reverse through the Ishtar Gates after proceeding down the Ishtar Processional Way, lined with lions and daisies.
Be sure you don't miss your timed entry into the Neues Museum, however. I found it to be the best museum I'd ever visited, for the simple reason that instead of a vast, dim space, like many museums offer, the Neues is well lit by the sun streaming in through the large windows. Secret confession: I don't really like museums that much, since it's so hard to read labels in dim light. I had no trouble reading the labels here, written in German and English. There's also an audio guide, which allows you to find out even more about many of the objects. It's a vast collection of antiquities from Egypt, Rome, Greece, Europe, plus an interesting collection of Paleolithic items (which particularly interested me, as I was able to see some of the items we've seen in my archaeology class in a proper setting).
Nefertiti, in her new home in the Neues Museum.
Not all Berlin's museums are on Museum Island, of course. The Jewish Museum is also worth a visit, for the architecture of the place alone. And Checkpoint Charlie museum, while a little shabby these days, is interesting, especially now that the anniversary of the fall of the wall is coming up.
If it's monuments you're after, a walk through Tiergarten will do. I ran into a badly damaged Goethe, Bismark, and others, sternly overlooking the visitors to the park. There's also the Victory Column, or Siegessäule as she's known. This is the spot where Barack Obama spoke last summer, though it's hard to imagine 200,000 impassioned Germans filling the space between the Column and Brandenburg Gate.
A visit to The Kennedys Museum, just past the Brandenburg gate, (UPDATE: the museum has moved. The new address is: Auguststraße 11–13, 10117 Berlin) helps explain the fascination the Germans have with our president. Along with a fine collection of photographs of John F. Kennedy and his family, a current exhibit shows Obama and Kennedy in similar poses and situations. For instance, a cute photo of Jack Kennedy with his daughter Caroline is positioned over a photo of Senator Obama with a young Malia. Don't miss the film footage of Kennedy's trip to Berlin, when crowds gathered close (much closer than would be allowed today) and screamed "Ken-ne-dy!" over and over. It's easy to see how he's become to be regarded as an honorary resident of this city he once proclaimed his own.
Just like Nefertiti, who faces possible deportation (the Egyptians are now demanding her back, since she's turned out to be such a popular tourist attraction). I would imagine the plucky young queen loves her new home in Berlin. For despite its tragic past, Berlin has emerged as a plucky survivor.
For more photos of Berlin, check out my photo album here.
This is Knut, the famous polar bear born at the Berlin Zoo, the first "ice bear" born at the zoo in 30 years. His mother, a rescued circus performer, rejected him, and he was hand raised by a zoo keeper. Eventually Knut became a media sensation (you can read about it at Knut's wiki) and earned the Berlin Zoo millions of euros.
I'm not normally a fan of zoos—I don't like seeing animals in captivity, but for Knut I made an exception to my no-zoo policy. Plus, we visited the Berlin Zoo in 1990, when my daughters were small, and I wanted to see it again.
Knut had been separated from the other polar bears, and has a girlfriend now, though both are still adolescents. He's become a symbol of the threat to polar bears from climate change, and cheerfully lends his picture to the cause.
Knut cleans his paw
But when I saw him, he was more concerned with licking his paw than with climate change (the temperature was in the 40s, and while I was freezing, the polar bears seemed to feel right at home).
The other polar bears, including, I suppose, Knut's negligent mother.
I didn't stay long at the zoo—seeing monkeys in cages, with rude people making fun of them, freaks me out. I prefer safari parks, where I'm the one in the cage and the monkeys make fun of us.
East German trucks wait to dispel protesters. Taken from the other side of the wall, November, 1989.
In November, 1989 my husband visited Berlin. The next week the wall fell down, torn down by the force of millions of protesters energized in East Berlin. Originally, we (the girls and I) were due to visit the following week, during the time the wall came down, but with a ten-month-old baby, I decided to wait.
Oh, did I kick myself as I watched history being made that week on television.
Goosesteppers of the DDR. Notice the early 90's fashion in the background.
We instead visited Berlin the next summer, spending the Fourth of July in what would soon become one of the last Communist countries—formal reunification of the two Germanys took place a few months later.
Today I'm heading to Berlin again. I'll be interested to see the changes that have occurred since my last visit.
A few more retro pics below. When I return I'll post more photos, both old and new.
They see me at the back fence, and they come lumbering over. A friend gave us a bag of dessert apples, sweet and crisp. I cut them in half so they'll go further. The cows wait patiently for me to toss them over. They're patient creatures, cows.
The one in the middle plants her stubby legs firmly on the ground, waiting to veer toward the apple when it lands on the ground. The other watch for flying objects.
Chastleton House, unlike many stately homes, is set right upon the village road.
Two years ago we were walking in the Cotswolds when we came upon a beautiful, gracefully aging National Trust home, Chastleton House. At the time we were in no shape for a proper visit—we were muddy from our walk and had an even muddier dog with us, and, as I later discovered, admittance is limited on a timed entry scheme. But I vowed to return one day, without the dog and the mud, and yesterday, a friend and I made the hour-plus trek out along the A44 to Chastleton.
Chastleton was built between 1607 and 1612 by Walter Jones, a lawyer and MP of Welsh descent. He acquired the land from the previous owner, Robert Catesby, who was killed while trying to pull off the Gunpowder Plot. He tore down the existing structure and built the Jacobean Chastleton House, which stayed in his family for centuries, despite their declining economic circumstances.
Due to an unfortunately alliance during the Civil War, the family were taxed heavily and over the years lost much of the surrounding property, and thus the ability to make modern updates to the home. Unfortunate for them; lucky for us, as it's one of the few Jacobean structures in existence with its interiors and exteriors in almost original condition.
The croquet lawns, at the back of the house.
In 1991 the National Trust acquired the home and its contents, just in time for the aging roof to be blown off during a severe storm. The house, unlike many National Trust homes, was allowed to remain as it was, or as one steward told us, "it hasn't been tarted up". That makes for an interesting tour—scarred wood, fading tapestries, and obvious signs of shabby gentility remain.
The gardens, however, are in splendid condition. A round topiary garden is carefully pruned, though its original shapes have disappeared. Chastleton House is
where the rules for croquet were first written by Walter Jones-Whitmore, so appropriately the
croquet lawn is set up for croquet competitions.
The Topiary Garden, first laid out in Tudor times, once featured distinct shapes of a cakestand, teapot, sheep, chicken, horse, squirrel, ship, peacock and crown but now have faded into amorphous lumps.
The 12th century parish church, the Church of St Mary, next to the
property is worth a peek inside, as well. The graves outside have long
since lost their imprints and are covered with moss and ivy, but inside
are several well-marked graves and memorials, and some lovely floor
As in many old English churchyards, the grave stones are illegible, moss-covered and in danger of toppling.
Chastleton House is located just east of Chipping Norton on the A44 near the turnoff for the Rollright Stones and Little Compton. It's almost 2 hours from London by car, almost unreachable by public transport. There's a lovely walk from Adlestrop, however, which is apparently near a rail line.
The house is open until the end of October, but only Wednesday through Sunday between 1 and 4 p.m. Call ahead for timed tickets.
Chastleton House, one of the finest Jacobean homes in England, in nearly original condition.
It's that time of year. October is when thoughts turn to Thanksgiving, and what kind of turkey we'll have. Will it be wide-wattled Bubbles? Or Rhonda, with her pale pink wattle? Gideon is awfully pretty too, but he's in California—a bit far from our shores.
Of course I'm talking about adopting a turkey from Farm Sanctuary, and fortunately, the turkeys stay right where they are—being cared for in a loving environment at either the Watkins Glen sanctuary in New York, or in California. The adoption fee helps provide care for the turkeys that have found their way to the sanctuary rather than a dinner table. As you can see from the photo above, the turkeys love Turkey Day at the sanctuary!
More photos of the adopted turkeys enjoying Thanksgiving are here, and if you'd like to sponsor a turkey, go to Adoptaturkey.org. Each adoption is only $25, and you'll receive (if you opt to) a certificate with a photo of your turkey, suitable for framing.
Adopted turkeys are lovely gifts, too, for animal lovers you love. Each year my daughters get two turkeys. (You might remember Daughter Number Two's reaction the first year I told her we were adopting a turkey. "Does Dad know?!" she asked, alarmed at the prospect of a turkey coming to live with us. These days she's a little more sanguine.)
If you'd like to adopt a turkey, I warn you: it's a tough decision. But if you really can't decide, you can adopt the whole flock, for $150!
Very few Republicans have signed on to the Democratic health care reform bills that have passed through the committees in Congress, and those who have are either not currently in office (Bill Frist, Bob Dole) or are not in a position to run for president: Arnold Schwarzenegger. In other words, they have no partisan ax to grind and are willing to simply speak out for what's right, not what's politically expedient.
But now Bobby Jindal, the young governor of my home state of Louisiana and a possible contender for president in the future, has penned an editorial in the Washington Post that endorses the Democrats' health care reform plan. That's right, Jindal is on board with Obamacare.
Before Jindal's people call my people to protest, let me say he didn't exactly use the words "I endorse the Democrats' bills." But that's essentially what his editorial does, in calling for ten basic health care reforms. Nine—count 'em, nine—are already in the bills in one form or another, in fact, in at least one case, Jindal's prescription goes even further than what's in the bills. The tenth, tort reform, doesn't exactly belong in such a bill, nor does anyone who's looked at the matter seriously believe malpractice reform would lower costs, but regardless, President Obama has already said—on the very floor of the House and Senate—that he would be willing to add tort reform to the mix if that's what Republicans want.
One of Jindal's prescriptions deserves special mention. It's the one nearest and dearest to my own heart, since I have two daughters: The part about covering young adults on their parent's insurance plans when they graduate from college. (Currently they're kicked off their parent's plan, even if they can't find work or decide to go to grad school. This happened to my oldest, who was without insurance for over a year while she subbed in high school, and will soon happen to my youngest.) And yes, it's in the Democrats' plan, always has been.
Here's Ezra with more, and also the background on Jindal, who used to serve as President Bush's assistant secretary of Health and Human Services.
So why aren't Republicans in Congress lining up to endorse what one of the bright young leaders of their party thinks is a pretty nifty idea? Could it be that they don't really want any health care reform at all? Could it be that, like in 1994, when Clinton's failure to pass a health care plan doomed the Democrats to lose their majorities in Congress, Republican congress critters would prefer nothing at all to pass?
The answer is yes.
I suggest you ring your Republican congressperson and ask him or her why she or he isn't planning to vote for a plan that even Bobby Jindal is willing to endorse. And maybe, if Louisiana Senator David Vitter is in between sex scandals, Governor Jindal could give him a ring and tell him all about how swell Obamacare is.
What does a cheating senator have to do with a 4.4 million year old upright-walking human named Ardi? Well, not much other than the fact they've both been in the news lately. Which is why I read the National Geographic article about Ardi, and the sex habits that possibly led to this early human's upright posture, immediately before reading the New York Times piece on John Ensign, the cheating Republican senator from Nevada. This seemingly unrelated convergence resulted in a flash of insight: Cheating senators (and their equally duplicitous mistresses) were evolutionarily programmed.
Seems Ardi was not so well-provided for by her tree-living mates with their "clacker-sized testicles":
Let's suppose that some lesser male, with poor little stubby canines, figures out that he can entice a fertile female into mating by bringing her some food. That sometimes happens among living chimpanzees, for instance when a female rewards a male for presenting her with a tasty gift of colobus monkey.
Among Ardipithecus's ancestors, such a strategy could catch on if searching for food required a lot of time and exposure to predators. Males would be far more successful food-providers if they had their hands free to carry home loads of fruits and tubers—which would favor walking on two legs. Females would come to prefer good, steady providers with smaller canines over the big fierce-toothed ones who left as soon as they spot another fertile female. The results, says Lovejoy, are visible in Ardipithecus, which had small canines even in males and walked upright.
Fast forward several millennia later and the New York Times investigative report in which a small, upright walking primate, Senator Ensign, brought loads of fruits and tubers to his mate, Cynthia Hampton, who was also the wife of his staffer, Douglas Hampton. But due to modern campaign finance rules and the US tax code, Ensign was prohibited from gifting his mistress outright. Instead, those fruits and tubers took the form of employment contacts for her husband, and in at least one case, a $96,000 check.
As part of the arrangement, Mr. Ensign also agreed to help line up three or four clients who would pay Mr. Hampton enough to match or surpass his $144,000 Senate salary as an administrative assistant, Mr. Hampton said. His account is corroborated, in part, by e-mail messages Mr. Hampton sent to the senator that spring, and by a work plan that Mr. Slanker and Mr. Hampton prepared.
Soon after, Mr. Ensign called the Hamptons separately. Cynthia Hampton, he said, would have to leave her $48,000 a year campaign job , while her husband would have to quit as planned. But as severance, the senator said he and his wife would give the Hamptons a check for about $100,000, Ms. Hampton said.
Mr. Ensign’s lawyer in June, however, called the $96,000 payment that was ultimately made a tax-free gift from Mr. Ensign’s parents to the Hamptons “out of concern for the well-being of longtime family friends during a difficult time.”
Not bad for fruits and tubers.
It's a pretty sordid story, both the story of Ardi, who was wooed by a hands-free man with small canines, and the story of Mrs. Hampton, who was wooed by an ethics-free senator with a fierce bank balance. But don't feel too sorry for Ardi, or Mrs. Hampton, whose husband ended up blackmailing the senator (he first asked for a "financial settlement" of $6.5 million, then later adjusted that downward to $2 million). Turns out our female ancestors knew how to get the best of both worlds as well:
But there is one other, essential piece to this puzzle that leaves no trace in the fossil record. If the female knew when she was fertile, she could basically cheat the system by taking all the food offered by her milquetoast of a provider, then cuckold him with a dominant male when she was ovulating, scoring the best of both worlds.
Sometimes you have to wonder if evolution did us more harm than good. I mean, those clacker-sized testicles would sure be a sight to behold in modern man.
Pierre, keeping the world safe from lizards and mailmen.
Yes, I know, this feature was originally the Friday cat blogging alternative, but I spent a week in Louisiana with my daughter's cat and a scarcity of cows, so Friday Cat Blogging it is. Besides, Pierre is such a swell cat she deserves her own Friday blog post.
You read that right, I said "she"—Pierre had some sexual identity issues early on. Upon discovering the stray kitten she adopted was indeed a she, my daughter chose not to change her name. It suits her; "Pierre" sounds feminine anyway (apologies to you French readers who may be named Pierre).
I never spent much time with cats, so I was fascinated by Pierre's predator instincts. She's an inside cat, so she hunts bugs, which are prevalent in Louisiana. Most of them were diving against the screen at night, but that didn't stop her from slaughtering them with her sharp green gaze.
And in the morning when I got up, I found her keeping a watchful eye out for waterbugs. Somebody has to do it, and I'm glad it's her instead of Orkin. This is probably the number one reason I could never live in the South, the giant roaches and the pesticides necessary to kill them.
Pierre's a tiny cat, smaller than most full grown cats. One morning she dashed out of the house when I opened the door, but after hearing some dogs bark, she gave up her quest for a walk on the wild side. Smart cat. Even I'm afraid of the dogs in the neighborhood, who run loose, sadly, and are un-neutered. And that's the number two reason I won't live in the South, the deplorable way so many people treat their pets.
But not Pierre—she's a pampered kitty who has a great life with my daughter and her grandparents. She amuses herself by torturing toy mice and bugs, and sits in the window watching for the mailman to deliver postcards from abroad. I wish every cat could have such a life.