Yoknapatawpha Crossing

Globetrotter Grady in Berlin

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Despite the fact that pretty much no one else in the group was all that impressed by Berlin, I had a great time there and thought it was an amazing city. We only got to spend about four days there, and what little time we had was sometimes spent on pointless activities, but after all was said and done we got to do some pretty neat things.

We arrived at our hotel Thursday evening, and quickly discovered that it had communal showers in the grand European tradition. Sorry though I am to admit it, I am still a bit of a prude when it comes to such things, and spent an interesting and uncomfortable four days showering with large, talkative European men.

Thursday evening about five of us went to see a variety show at the Winter Garten on Potsdamer Strasse, which is this beautiful theater in the classic vaudeville style. Brass handrails, the flashing lights outlining the stage, employees in evening dress- the place had everything. The show was equally excellent, with a variety of gymnasts and so forth, and one really outstanding old school entertainer. That guy was pretty amazing. Let me tell you about him.

He comes out on the stage and starts chatting with us, dropping little jokes here and there that were really pretty clever- quite a few of them were plays on words that you wouldn’t get unless you knew a little German and English, and he’s dropping in references to American radio shows from the ’30s. And while he’s got his patter running, he’s doing little tricks for us- a bit of juggling, a bit of balancing a top hat on his nose. Except he’s not perfect; every once in a while he wouldn’t quite catch the hat he was trying to flip from his foot to his head, or he’d miss a ball juggling, or something. But he was great fun to listen to, and everyone in the audience was like, “What a charming old man, I certainly don’t expect him to pull off every trick flawlessly.” So as he continues with his act, he pulls out a teacup and saucer. He balances the saucer on his foot, and flips it up and catches it on his head, and we’re all like, “Yay! Good job!” Then he puts the teacup on his foot and flips it up, catching it on top of the saucer. So now we’re all like, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” Then he takes out another teacup and saucer (all while keeping up the banter) and does the same thing. And we’re suitably impressed, but we’re getting worried, because he keeps wandering around the stage with these teacups balanced on his head, and he’s good, but he’s not perfect, and they’re rattling around a lot, and we don’t want him to embarass himself by having them fall. So next he breaks out another teacup and saucer. Has a little trouble balancing them on his foot without letting the other fall off his head, but manages it. Flips the saucer up, and catches it. Flips the teacup up, it almost misses, the whole stack is wobbling, it almost falls, we gasp, but he manages to catch it. So now he has a stack of three teacups and three saucers balanced on his head, and we’re impressed. Next he takes out a tea kettle.

Teacups rattling, he leans down and balances the tea kettle on his foot. We’re all thinking, “Oh, come on man, you can do it. You’re so old and funny, don’t screw up now.” He flicks his foot. The kettle flips up through the air and lands squarely on top of the stack, which doesn’t even quiver.

The man was stringing us along the entire time. He knew exactly what he was doing, and had perfected the technique of making deliberate failures look like mistakes. The whole act, he was building a skeptical audience up to the point where they were completely empathizing with the performer. I have never seen anyone work the audience as well as he did.

On Friday, we had some tasty, tasty Brötchen for breakfast, and then piled on the bus for a “Grand Tour through the City.” It was conducted by some random friend of Professor Klabes’, and wasn’t the greatest. Bus tours to begin with leave quite a bit to be desired, and the high point of this one was the moment when the guide said, “Oh, and by the way, that was the Brandenburger Tör we just passed, turn around quick and you might get a picture.” Ah well. Friday afternoon we visited the Checkpoint Charlie museum, which is small and badly designed but very interesting. After that, I strongarmed a couple of people into visiting the Judisches Museum, which is an architectural marvel, and also a damn good museum, following which we wandered around the streets of Berlin and grabbed some dinner before taking the S-Bahn back to the hotel.

Other highlights of the trip included visiting the Pergamon Museum, and getting to see the opera Eugene Onegin. Now, Pergamon was a city in ancient Greece that built a huge altar to either Zeus or Athena, and it’s been reconstructed inside this musuem. And when I say ‘huge’ there, I mean, seriously, you walk into the first room of this musuem and are dwarfed by this massive, wide set of steps leading up to the altar. It’s just unbelievable. They also have just a shit-ton of other artifacts from antiquity, from several different areas of the world. The other things that really stick out in my mind are the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way from Babylon. Babylon, folks. Now, keep in mind that these are building-size structures that have been reconstructed inside this musuem, and I didn’t even come close to making it through the entire thing. If you should ever wake up one day and discover you’re in Berlin, this is a good place to spend a week or so. And the crazy thing is that this is just one museum on this island in the middle of Spree River with something like four other world-famous museums on it.

Moving on, the last thing I wanted to mention was Eugene Onegin. The text is a poem written by Pushkin using an unusual rhyme scheme that has since become known as an Onegin stanza. The music was by Tchaikovsky. I won’t pretend to know exactly what was going on, but the music was pretty, the staging was interesting, and after I got back to the states I read a little about the text, and it turns out it’s got a fairly interesting history. Nabokov did a crazy translation of it that a lot of people hate. And interestingly enough, Douglas Hofstadter, the mathematician who wrote Gödel, Escher, Bach has also written a verse translation of Onegin. All this has convinced me to read it. Right after I get through the new Potter…

Charles Johnston’s translation of Eugene Onegin

In conclusion, the most consistently amusing thing about the entire German trip was Herr Klabes. As proof positive, I submit this photo:

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Written by Daniel Grady

July 12, 2005 at 01:13

Posted in Travel, True Stories

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