Monday, May 30, 2011

Memories and Ghosts-Berlin then and Now

My first stint in grad school I had a roommate, an air force officer who was getting her masters. One day she showed me a medal she got, as part of the occupation force in Berlin. She was one of the last to get it, having been stationed there in 1990 just before reunification.

I'm in Berlin, my last few hours here actually. People have been asking me a lot "is this your first time in Berlin?" and I say no, and they assume I know my way around. I say "Actually, it's my third, but the last time was 21 years ago." I'm 42, that makes it half my lifetime.

I visited Berlin twice before, in 1989, just after the Berlin Wall opened up. I don't like to say "fell" because the physical wall was in place for weeks afterwards, and in fact they've preserved at least one portion of it for posterity, but in an out of the way place. The second time was the following summer, I came here with my mother.

Walking around Berlin, I feel ghosts. Not actual ghosts of course, but things I catch out of the corner of my mind's eye. Standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, I remember standing there, looking up at the Wall, looking up at the East German guards still patrolling the Wall, a little confused I'm guessing at why they were still there since other portions had been removed, and the checkpoints open. I remember the French activist - activist for what I'm not sure, just he had a sign and long hair - yelling up at the guards to tear down this portion of the wall, to open the gate. He was very impassioned, but the rest of Berlin was having a party.

I was a hungry student, traveling with three other hungry students. It was cold, and we'd been used to living the East (Budapest) for awhile. Several major companies decided that the opening of the Wall was a great marketing opportunity. Marlboro had people hand cigarettes to East Germans as they drove their Traubants through the checkpoint. Western cigarettes had been greatly prized, and often used for bartering in Eastern Europe. Candy companies got into the act too. We four followed someone from Snickers around, as she handed out candy in front of Brandenburg Gate. We positioned ourselves in front of her, and acted surprised and pleased every time she handed us some. I felt vaguely sick that night from all the sugar, but I had saved a lot of money on food for the day.

There's no trace of the Wall left around the Gate, except for some signs for tourists explaining a little of the history. Walking through the Gate was weird. Greenpeace activists were staging a small anti-nuke demonstration last night. They'd put up big banners on the Gate. And I realized with a start that I had walked from former East Berlin into former West Berlin. Without really realizing I had been in the East. I saw in my mind my mother breaking off pieces of the Wall. Or perhaps I am thinking of the actual picture I have of her doing just that. Funny that my memory might actually be of a picture of the event not the event itself.

The Berlin GTUG meeting yesterday was at c-base. In my talk I discussed Fusion Tables and the Places API. The group is so vibrant and interested. Before hand we discussed different scripting languages that run on the JVM, someone was really excited about Scala. c-base itself is modeled on a crashed space station, if the space station had been designed for a 1970s movie. Very nice space with a great view of the Spree. I drank Czech beer and ate barbecue and looked at the Spree, and forgot about the memories and ghosts of Berlin past. The present in Berlin is so much more beautiful.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

More Ruminations on Place

Back in March, I wrote a post, Ruminations on Place, after a day walking around in Kyoto. I've been in Paris for a few days and I'm thinking more about Place, and what is a Parisian sense of place. Or rather, I should say, what is my sense of Paris as a Place. These are just some random thoughts.

I have passed approximately 50 - or it may be as low as 10 - souvenir shops selling postcards in distinctive black and white or sepia styles. Do an image search on "Paris France" - "Paris" gets you a lot of Paris Hilton stuff - and you'll see examples of it. It's a style that I realized unconsciously made up my sense of Paris as a Place, and made me long for a black and white camera.

Americans, I think, often have the stereotype that Parisians are rude, particularly when you try to speak French. Apparently, this is no longer true. Oh no, I didn't try to speak French, my partner is here with me and has a great accent, though not a lot of vocabulary, and it's be wonderfully fun. And everywhere we go, Parisians have been definitely not rude. I realize this too was part of my sense of the Place that is Paris, and strangely I feel a conflict between my internal sense of the Place and my current experience. At the same time I am of course happy to have that proven wrong.

Like many of my generation, I am used to relying on guide books for travel. My partner had one, which I will no name here, which had much inaccurate information. I am proud to say that the Google Places app on my Android device was really helpful in situations like "Oh, I need a place to eat now that I have time before the concert I just decided to go to." It was not so helpful in finding a breakfast place because breakfast isn't a big deal here like it is in the US. So we found a restaurant nearby, but not one that served crepes, which we wanted. Because apparently Parisians don't do that. But nothing in Places, or an online search, or a guide book would have told me that. So, still work to do.

Speaking of Places, and to earn my keep, the Places API is now open to everyone and has some really cool capabilities, check it out.