Following our forefathers’ tracks

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Tempus fugit.

Sometimes I wonder why people are so interested in the future. The future is all speculation and “we worry about tomorrow like it’s promised.” But the past! The past is fascinating and in a way more real. At least for me and that’s why I studied history and love museums about the past. When I realized I live only some kilometres from where the Neanderthal people were first found, I had to visit.

So I took the chance of the free holiday Thursday and travelled 20 minutes east by commuter train. Already the journey was some kind of epiphany – going through the small towns with the unattractive names of Erkarth and Mettmann, I realized the area is extremely idyllic and pretty. Green as far as the eye can see! I understand that the Neanderthal people wanted to live there.

The Neanderthal (“Neander valley”) got his name from a painter called Joachim Neumann. Joachim’s dad translated their surname into Greek (totally en vogue in the 1600s) which became Neander. His son was in Düsseldorf for four years and hung out in the valley that later was named after him a lot. He also wrote a very famous German hymn “Lobe den Herren” which might have been inspired by the nature around there. (Swedes also know the song as “Herren, vår Gud är en Konung i makt och i ära” and the English sing “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”.)

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The museum did not disappoint, it was a display of very modern and well-done educational work, something you should never take for granted. You could learn about evolution, about how small we humans are in the scheme of things, why the monkeys came down from the trees, which different creation myths different peoples had and how some thing are the same for all humans – and Neanderthalers, like for example initiation rites.

Did you know it was when we started to walk upright that we lost the ape-like body hair? This became a problem for mothers and at the same time the start of the nuclear family. Offspring had no longer mom’s fur to cling to so they had to actively be carried and as the human baby is a premature creature that needs constant supervision, fathers became a more involved. New types of social interaction arose and a tightly-knit social unit was formed.

They even had a great installation where a baby on video tape was lying in the middle surrounded by stand-up displays with statements from people that were related to the baby. On the outside, the modern mother/sister/uncle was quoted, on the inside, the Neanderthal equivalent stated her views. Interestingly enough, the father’s role has – unlike basically all others – not changed dramatically.

Why did these fellows disappear then instead of living in Dizzel today? I learned that the Neanderthalers were much stronger than we are which eventually became their problem when the ice age took away most of their food resources. More muscles, higher metabolic rate – more need for food. The museum did however show how a Neanderthaler could look today. And I didn’t think he looked that unfamiliar.

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A visualization of how mankind is growing.

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These ears tell you the different creation myths

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A Neanderthaler burying her brother

 

 

 

Site seeing in Berlin

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The weather in Berlin: sunshine when Helen is inside. Snow when Helen is outside.

I am in Berlin. Again. And again, I must say I don’t understand why people voluntarily move here? Not only does it take forever to get from one place to the other, it’s also that the majority of people you meet is so incredibly unfriendly. Trust me, if you are a foreigner who’s only been to Berlin and got a bad impression of the German people, this is not who we are.

But enough with the Berlin bashing. Why am I here? For site visits. This morning, I started my work day two hours earlier than usual by throwing myself on an ICE train. (On, not under, mind you.) I literally stepped unto the train as the doors were closing and luckily, I happened to be in the right coach where my seat was. This was my first time in the “silent compartment”: you are not allowed to talk on the phone or actually, at all, if possible. No pensioner couples reading their favorite passages from a book to each other, no parents scolding their kids, no stag parties singing – basically heaven. This must have been my most relaxing train ride in a long while.

The relaxation was over when I hit the streets of Berlin. Today, I saw six locations in one afternoon, tomorrow I’ll see another two. I’m pleased to say that I have three, four candidates that could be a good choice. There is a lot to think about when choosing: will this on site staff make life difficult for me, what costs are actually really included in the rent and can I be bothered to pay for each microphone separately, is there going to be a draft in the reception hall, will these glaring lights blind the guests and does sound of the name of this venue promise a dazzling gala night?

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Bowie stood under that chandelier!

The first stop was the Museum for Communication – I was about to drop to my knees because I loved the museum so much. Outside, they have put a telephone booth on a pedestal, inside they have a giant court in which cute looking robots drive around who react to your voice and start speaking to you, and in their so-called treasury they show “The Blue Mauritius Post Office Stamp” (which is worth more than one million euros). Okay, I admit I am a sucker for all kinds of communication but this museum really seemed to have their museum pedagogy going for them. Have to return one day with some more time and otium.

I also saw the room that David Bowie (who recorded his “Heroes” there) called “The Hall by the Wall”, a hall constructed by the craftsmen in 1913 that was first used as a place to hand out the diplomas to the new master craftsmen who had successfully completed their apprenticeship. The Master Hall attests to the skill of the craftsmen with its detailed decoration. The house, in which countless world class musicians recorded songs including Swedish Kent’s album “Röd”, used to be right next to the wall which is so hard to imagine these days.

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Apparently, all Taxi companies in Berlin must be called very similarily

 

A bunch of stories

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Germania is not amused

“History has each successive day new attractions for me. I wish I had studied nothing but history for ten years together; I think I should have been another sort of being” (Friedrich Schiller, in a letter to his friend Theodor Körner, 1786)

This quote by my then favorite poet Schiller was glued into my history binder in my two last years of school. When I was only 14, my mother had already predicted that I would study history at university, and I found Schiller’s words to be ever so true for myself. During those two last years of school, I attended history classes at an advanced level and our teacher was very strict, demanding and skilled. I remember one of my sources to understand classes and research for homework was the Lemo (Lebendiges Museum online = Living Museum Online), a service by the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum). They had everything beautifully explained there and it was so helpful for school.

Last Sunday, finally I made it to the actual museum. I don’t know why I never went there before when I was in Berlin. I mean, it’s like a pilgrimage site for someone like me. The day I went there, it happened to be free admission as well because the city wanted to reward its citizens (for helping out voluntarily in the refugee crisis, actually).

When I walked up the stairs of the former armory in which the museum is located, I already sensed the uplifting feeling that I get in good museums. And this is a good museum. It was crowded with people, from pensioners with their French visitors conversing about the set up of a medieval city, children with their dads explaining in detail the representation symbols in a king’s portrait, or teenagers voluntarily studying a globe from the 1400s on which North and South America was just one large black spot.

There was so much to learn in this exhibition that was, for German standards, rather progressive in its museum pedagogy. You could listen to texts from different centuries read out loud in the century’s German (I started understanding in 1600). You could flip through a little book explaining the Reformation (beliefs and customs of the Catholics on the left page and of the Protestants on the right page). You could learn that the Reclam family, a name associated today with its “little yellow books” in which they publish literature classics, were originally French Calvinists. You could marvel at Napoleon’s hat, imagine!, the real one, the one his head touched.

You could goggle at the fact that when the Germans tried to form their first democratic parliament, there were only 2 percent of journalists among them. (However, teachers and lawyers were already then, as today, a large part of parliament.) You could look at the “Baden Lullaby” and imagine a mother singing “Sleep my child, outside goes the Prussian murdering everyone” to a baby. You could amuse yourself when looking at the board games people invented when trains became a thing in the 1800s. “Train trip to Paris” was one of them. Passing by various places of interest, one reaches Paris playfully, one’s hand is made up by train tickets and ID cards. (I dislike most board games but I would love to try that one.)

You could start understanding the luxury you live in when examining the models of the workmen’s dwellings in the 1900s. And did you know the word “tariff” is Arabic and was introduced into our languages after the Crusades? Or that Lübeck in the 1400s was the second biggest city in Germany, only topped by Cologne? Hamburg was not even half as big as Cologne then!

My history teacher in the U.S. upon asked why she studied history said “Because it seemed like a big bunch of exciting stories to me”. She took the words right out of my mouth.

If you’re in Berlin, go visit the DHM on Unter den Linden 2, daily 10 am to 6 pm.

What will remain?

Outside the forum, there is a small area marked "dance floor".

Outside the forum, there is a small area marked “dance floor”.

When I proceeded to the exit of the train in Hamburg, a young lady before me got off as well. She was talking to someone on the phone and, upon stepping onto the Hamburg platform, exclaimed: “Dude, no more Düsseldorf ever! Or Frankfurt! I am staying in the North, digga!” Well, that’s a statement. And while I can’t but agree that it is a wonderful sight when the train rolls into Hamburg, I tend to think that it is rather un-cosmopolitan to limit oneself to one place only. Even if that place happens to be the best one in the country. Of course it would be a lie to say that I do not entertain longing thoughts of homesickness but I remind myself of my other friends who have left Hamburg for professional reasons (you know who you are, you brave and pioneering spirits). They do manage a good life away from The Free and Hanseatic City and thus serve as my examples.

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Yesterday, I seized the opportunity to take advantage of something Dizzel offers: an exhibition that was open until late on that Friday. I had the pleasure of having Henrike visiting me and we went to see “Was bleibt? Das Prinzip Apfelbaum” in the NRW-Forum. That forum is a place that looks like a prime example of Nazi architecture from the outside (or at least what I, the architecural amateur, imagine to be Nazi style) and is surprisingly lovely on the inside. The exhibition is a joint project by several charities that try to raise awareness for the idea of bequeathing an organisation of your choice in your will. A renowed photographer, Bettina Flitner, met eleven famous Germans and asked them, “What will remain?” It was very interesting to see how different a scientist, an actor, a bishop, an astronaut answered this question. Even though most of them were thought-provoking, I liked Anne-Sophie Mutter, the famous violinist, best who said that she believed the meaning of life to be “the radiation of one’s soul and being permeable for other souls”.

"This is not a work of art" it says above this. In a modern art museum, you never know. Not even now when it says that above it: it might be a Magritte-copy!

“This is not a work of art” it says above this. In a modern art museum, you never know. Not even now when it says that above it: it might be a Magritte-copy!

Spice up your life

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Whenever I cook for Ingrid and we sit down at the Blue Table and I expectantly look into her face as she takes the first bit, she always says, “Hm, it’s nice but as usual it is completely under-spiced”. Then she goes to retrieve all those different spices I have in my kitchen cabinet. My relationship with spices is Ingrid’s most common criticism about me. Now that she has abandoned me for a month I decided it was a good time to educate myself on spices.

Hamburg actually has a Spice Museum and maybe the randomness of that made me wanted to go there. Our new friend, the professional cook, accompanied me. Spicy’s Spice Museum (the name sounds a little less ridiculous in German) is located in the old storage city because obviously that is where spices were traded. You walk up one of those old buildings and pass oriental carpet shops and opposite the museum is a store that sells all kinds of exotic spices.

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As a historian, I was most interested to understand when spices came to Germany. I still wonder what food must have tasted like before salt, pepper and thyme. (Even though Ingrid would probably say my food tastes historically pre-spice.) It took quite some reading – the museum still uses very conventional display techniques – but I learned that Hamburg started trading spices in 1794 and is today one of the four biggest trade ports for spices. Germans actually did have peppar before the French Revolution, too, with the South Germans trading spice in the 1600s already. I do hope they sent some up here, too.

"Esteemed housewife!", this instruction starts.

“Esteemed housewife!”, this instruction starts.

My companion and I thought about what our favorite spice is and I decided mine is saffron. Because that is in Persian rice and in Swedish buns. And because it is a luxury. Saffron has always been so expensive that in the middle ages, traders sold fake saffron to Germans. Apparently things got so bad that the town of Nuremburg appointed saffron viewers to prevent spice fraud.

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I also learned that the pharao Ramses was buried with peppercorns in his nose which is perfectly visible on his x-rays and that pepper was extremely valueable even until well into the 1900s. Rich spice traders were therefore called “Pfeffersäcke” (pepper bags). And if you have a tooth ache and only have cloves in your house instead of Ibuprofen, you can put a clove into your cheeck pouch. It will make your tooth go numb and relieve your pain. If your breath smells bad, you need to chew on cardamom. I still wonder what it means that cardamom buns are so popular in Sweden.

Speaking about that,I learned that the Swedish word for cinnamon, kanel, refers to a special kind of cinnamon that even the Dutch and German call Canehl. As a spice-ignorant person I might also have been the last to understand that cinnamon is made from trees. Now I know!

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