BELGIUM, FEBRUARY 2000 The month ended with a Chunnel train to dignified Brussels, where Mike discussed turning science into public policy with international cohorts. I walked to the enormous art museum both days. Early Dutch and Flemish fourteenth and fifteenth century pieces awed me; modern art lay, much of it very large and sometimes roughly done, in a new stone section 6 stories underground. Art ranged from van der Weyden to Breughel to Oldenburg. On the third day, after the meetings, we both explored old churches and the Grand Place, the sculptural main market square surrounded by pierced stone-carved guildhalls. Tourists from every nation included a group of Alabama high schoolers. We went into the City Museum in the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and an art exhibition. Next, a great lunch of fish chowder; moules and frites, the national dish of Belgium. We bought gifts of small lace pieces and Belgian chocolate.
The city is filled with opulent stone buildings. The vast Palais de Justice, Europe’s largest court building, could fit even Texas’ state capitol building inside it several times--and Austin's capitol is taller than DC's!. There are almost no parks or green garden spaces however, so below the gray overcast sky the city looks severe, broken by the sinuous art nouveau buildings. It’s noisy in the Avenue Louisa area where we stayed, busy with trams and traffic amid upscale antique and chocolate shops, Gucci and Armani. Not all pick up after their dogs: watch your step. It’s an international town: well-dressed streetwalkers subtly plied shop doors as the evening darkened, whispering to potential patrons, but most looked like somebody’s mom more than a hot mama or the half-naked German ladies of Hamburg's famous windows!
Train stations are in slightly depressed sections of town and look like they need a good soap and water scrub, but cranes and building projects filled many areas; church reconstructions replaced many ancient black corroded stones with smooth bright newly clean sections looking like neon glows amid pitch. Newly carved angels and sills gleamed next to crumbling reminders of gritty coal and wood fires and smoke pouring out of thousands of chimneypots..
Belgium became a nation only in 1830 under King Leopold, after being overrun by Spanish, French, Germans, and others; today language and religious differences chafe both French and Flemish; every sign is in these two languages. There is a mixed population, largely white, reflecting the Belgian colonial period in the Indies and Congo where they left shameful legacies of poverty and abuse. In the US, even though we speak many tongues, English is a unifying language, and thankfully, we have no state religion.
GERMANY June 2001 Mike's meeting in Potsdam, in southwest Berlin, concerned nanotechnology. The international scientists stayed in a hotel on a quiet wooded peninsula, usually surrounded by boats and bike riders. There are miles of shaded bike paths under the trees and on the roads, and people of every age and condition use them. There are as many fat old ladies on 3-speeds as helmeted Armstrong wannabes crunched over titanium handlebars. (Austin's own Lance Armstrong was in the lead before his third Tour de France win, but it's been tougher finding the latest results since I left Austin.) I'm wondering if the bike paths are used in winter; Berlin, I'm told, is not too snowy. Adjacent to the secluded hotel were many steep-roofed red brick buildings, accented with designs in patterns of dark green-glazed bricks. Gardens and paths connected all the buildings, once a religious school campus, and one building is still used as a school. Others house technology labs, and also house elderly people and mentally impaired youth.
Although there seem to be trees galore throughout Berlin, which titles itself the most forested city, a reforestation project is evident, with thousands of assorted new trees, protected by tall wooden stakes, along busy highways and quiet byways. The GDR architecture, all boxy hi-rises, contrasts with the graceful Baroque designs of Frederick the Great (Frederick II) and his courtiers. King Freddie's Schloss Sanssouci is in a park of the same name and is heavily visited. Potsdam, a city since 1317, has been a UNESCO protectorate since the 1990's, possibly because of GDR neglect. (Remember that Berlin 100 miles inside East Germany, required a 1948 airlift to deliver food, and was politically parceled into quarters after WWII.) We crossed a bridge where, because of the Wall, anyone entering the water was shot, and where spies once exchanged data.
With two other wives from the symposium, I spent a day shopping in Berlin, buying shoes at trendy Nike Town on busy Kufürstendamm, a fashionable area near the zoo. All Nike staff speak English, but the young clerk told me the customers mostly were Spanish, Italian, and other non-Americans. Instead of running into a back room to grab a few pairs of shoes, the clerk types a few numbers into a computer and soon, voila! In a glass elevator just the right size, two or three boxes of Nikes appear from somewhere below. I jettisoned my sale-items-only philosophy and whipped out my Visa. My regret is not visiting the Reichstag, now restored and crowned by a glass dome. It was being refurbished after Christo wrapped it in fabric a few years ago, before we visited, and is supposedly awesome. I’d previously visited the Pergamon Museum and the wonderful Gemaldegalerie art gallery.
We visited KaDeWe, the largest store on the Continent, rather like Harrod's, and ate lunch at a sidewalk café because a hotel restaurant refused to serve us after 2 PM. Europeans like their customers to eat at the designated times! Unfortunately, we neglected our homework, and didn't note that KaDeWe's 6th floor has a staff of 500, including 150 cooks and pastry chefs, and boasts over 1300 cheeses, 400 breads, and 2400 wines. No matter. Nearly every block had sunny sidewalk cafes, all busy, many under colored umbrellas.
We traveled by S-bahn, the over ground train, as opposed to the subway, both non smoking. Many Germans speak English, so there was no problem with directions. One difference in Berlin from many American cities is the number of green forested malls separating traffic lanes. There are inviting benches everywhere, encouraging wanderers to sit awhile under shady trees. American cities purposefully eliminate benches to confound the homeless roaming our streets. The evening ended after a boat ride to an outdoor dinner buffet and a few short speeches, none scientifically oriented. Whew. Foods were substantial and not as awful as I recall: coffee was richer and wines better. At our table were Marcus and Colin, 5 1/2, awed by my artistic ability to draw Pokeman folk.
An old church near the hotel, nicely restored, was the venue for an afternoon konzert of Mozart, Hayden, Sant Saens, and Frederick the Great. Freddie, Old Fritz, was a musician as well as a military genius, the Tom Jefferson of his day. I bought a book to learn more, since as a normal American, my European history has more holes than a Texas stored wool sweater. I'm not sure which Frederick was which. Many short chubby old nuns were in attendance, in white starched cotton bonnets that tied in fat bows under the chin, and light gray cotton calf-length dresses. The church walls were completely painted, with patterned vines trailing from the apse and beneath the nave's brick Gothic arches and brown woodwork. The orchestra assembled in front of a small carved wooden altar, facing a dark wood choir loft and a pipe organ.
The little town of Potsdam, Brandenburg's capitol, was seriously damaged by US bombs late in the war, and its restoration is nearly all in the style of the original court architecture. Gentle scallops, swags, and lunettes adorn the building surfaces, which are painted in soft pastels. Along Brandenburgstrasse, a cobblestone pedestrian area, shops and restaurants serve an endless promenade of strollers, bike riders, and pram pushers. A huge canary yellow triumphal arch marks one end with triple arches, and so far only one person had managed to spray black graffiti over one side. Graffiti adorns every surface in every German city. The street's other end is an old brown brick church of St. Peter and Paul. We heard two bands playing in front of the arch: one from Tasmania, off Australia, and the other was a group of black youngsters. An international marching competition was to occur the following day. Both bands wore black pants, white shirts, and wide-brimmed black hats, like Aussie sombreros.
When Frederick decided to build his summer palace Sans Souci, he wanted a place to be carefree, hence the name. It was not to be formal and rigid, like Fontainbleau. Golden Sans Souci palace sits atop a hill with a view of Potsdam. Its rear garden terrace cascades into a series of vineyard terraces to a large square with flowers and a fountain, where children feed ducks and red-gold koi. Its façade, classical pillars and arches with gilded capitol accents, is crowned by a graceful copper dome. Shields and vases rise above the cornice. Rooms are decorated in airy rococo tendrils: creamy-skinned goddesses and well-toned males are examples of perfection to yesteryear's wealthy and powerful visitors.
The building, from 1745, added a kitchen and ladies' wing in the mid 1800's. It's hard to think of pitchers and ewers for washing, chamberpots for necessity, and curling irons and wigs for daily wear being stuffed into those elaborate but small rooms. The beds also were small, tucked into alcoves and surrounded with heavy drapes. Since it was a summer palace, I guess the drapes served privacy, not warmth, since hordes of servants um, served everyone.
The hilly wooded grounds reminded me of Williamsburg Virginia. It must have been wonderful to explore from horseback or a carriage, amid leafy green arbors, enclosed gardens, bridges, canals, fountains, and waterfalls. Small fountains beneath bigger ones cooled the dogs. Flautists in velvet breeches, stockings, and lace-edged period costumes, with powdered curled wigs, played on two of the paths, hoping for tourist gelt. I imagine an exotic menagerie and deer, plus sheep to keep the lawns mowed. The waterworks behind this vast expanse are still shielded in a fake but dramatic black and white striped mosque at the edge of River Havel.
Nearby is a huge brown working windmill, rebuilt after a fire. Farther on is a Romanesque chapel with a glowing golden mosaic apse, taken away from a Venice 13th century church. There are Roman Baths, Greek temples, and a stunning round mint-green and gold Chinese teahouse, with parquet floors and delicate, putti-draped painted walls. It served as a summer dining room and was built to designs by Frederick the Great when the yen was for Chinoiserie. There is a Picture Gallery that I didn't visit, plus a guest palace that I did, shuffling with the required carpet-material slippers over my shoes to spare the exquisite parquet floors.
The enormous Orangery is modeled after the Medici Palace in Rome. Across the park are the New Palace buildings, supposedly the most opulent, topped with lifesize marble (or plaster?) sculptures about every ten feet, outlined against the blue sky. Shiny gilded crowns and mythological accents top cupolas. Photos of the interior show marble floors, lavish baroque decoration, wall and ceiling paintings, tiles, mirrors, and chandeliers, inlaid woods, plus a library and theater. Across a paved path from all this imposing red brick is the University of Potsdam: students lounged on the grass, backpacks and bicycles nearby. It looks pretty regular. A walk behind the New Palace facades showed the shocking necessity for restoration to continue.
Although there are biking verboten signs in many park areas, we tended to disobey, but twice had to dismount and walk, as guards requested. Soon we were riding again, since everyone else was, too. I visited on three sunny days, two with other wives and one with Mike. The park is vast. It would take more than a day and many toe rubs to cover. My rear still feels that bike seat! Sweating tourists trudging along in groups probably would've loved our bikes, cheaply rented from the hotel, and the cool breeze generated by the ride was welcome. A ding of the handlebar bell sent pedestrians to one side with no problem, but there must be times….
What do you know about nanotechnology? It's very important. It addresses carbon objects a billionth of a meter thick, so normal physics rules don't apply. A nanotube's diameter is 10 thousandth the diameter of a human hair, thus we could make incredibly strong stuff that was really thin! The problem is making stuff out of nanotubes, which is why scientists are scratching their heads. (Spring some of this at your next cocktail party.) Mike's Office of Naval Research helped sponsor much international basic research and assisted several eventual Nobel prize winners. Such a lot of smart people!
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