mardi 22 mars 2011

Shades of grey

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Berlin sometimes seems to reveal itself in shades of grey, from the thick clouds that gathered in the morning, the structures of some of the buildings and later the silvery rays of the moon, bright enough to illuminate my apartment when I tiptoed through it in the early hours of the morning. Sunday began with an early start, walking briskly to the nearby underground station to catch a train to Alexanderplatz. Almost the whole of last week had been full of raindrops and large puddles in the streets making it impossible to take photos outside. I had been wanting to have one last glance at the Haus der Statistik, soon to be torn down to make way for a modern housing complex and a shopping centre. It has a reputation for scaring the drivers who enter the nearby tunnel and for obvious reasons. A large imposing building with streaked windows which crows peck at, boarded up entrances and barbed wire, a decaying ruin of the place where men in grey collected information about their citizens for the East German government. It's not a place you could ever love, yet I couldn't help feeling sad at the thought of it making way for something equally ugly and heartless. Abandoned for three years, it apparently no longer meets the requirements of a modern office building so it perfectly fits the plans of a government keen to erase all traces of the old East. A coffee cup still remains on the side where a shop selling Russian products called Natascha's once was. Looking up, I can still pick out the neon strip lighting on the ceiling and am mesmerised by the endless lines of venetian blinds that cover most of the windows. I imagine the masses of empty stacks which once contained so many files which their creators must have hurriedly tried to shred when news filtered through that the Wall had fallen, people who believed that "Feind ist, wer anders denkt", the enemy is the one who thinks differently.

Eventually I turned my back to this building, knowing it may be the last time I ever see it and walked towards Unter den Linden. The gleaming disco ball of the TV Tower was hidden in the clouds, the figures of dry Neptune fountain seemed even more naked without their veil of water splashing over them and the benches all around were deserted. This was one of the first places I visited in Berlin, making my way past the elegant buildings of Berlin's most famous street, the old fashioned and deliciously kitsch Opernpalais where I once had coffee with Abbie and chose from one of the huge selection of Viennese Torten in the glass case, the beautiful library, nicknamed the Kommode because of its ressemblance to a chest of drawers and the Opera house, now closed for refurbishment where I saw Péléas et Mélisande. Pushing aside the thick green curtain of Café Einstein (not to be confused with Einstein Kaffee, the chain), I left the greyness behind and took my place beside the window and the slits of its half opened blinds. It was still early and the tourists hadn't yet arrived. Opposite a middle aged man with glasses was finishing up the last of his breakfast; croissants, jam, fresh orange juice, coffee and the group of people on the next table were discussing whether it would be wrong to eat cake before midday before deciding on the famous Apfelstrudel. I did the same and ordered a tall glass of latte macchiato to go with it. The piece of strudel turned out to be the most indecently large I've ever had and the coffee was just perfect. What I love about this place is not only the atmosphere of a real coffee house where people read newspapers on wooden clamps in different languages and you sit on brown leather chairs, but also the fact that everyone is friendly, even at busy times. I remember my first and only visit to Les Deux Magots in Paris where I was greeted with contempt by the waiter. After drinking an overpriced hot chocolate under the watchful gaze of the wooden Chinese figures who give the café its name, and asking for the bill, I then had the nerve not to leave him an extra tip in addition to the service charge already included. He looked down at the exact amount I had put on the silver tray and excalimed "Formidable!" very loudly. I left and vowed never to return.

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Karl Marx Allee

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An old East German mural

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Haus der Statistik

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Everything must go

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Haus des Lehrers

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Unter den Linden

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Die neue Wache

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The Kommode library

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Café Einstein

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The famous Apfelstrudel

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I finished the day in the Bar jeder Vernunft where Abbie had kindly invited me to see the wonderful Pigor and Eichhorn. Outside lines of pale lights were strung up between the bare branches of the trees in the twilight, still cold even in March. We managed to get seats close to the front and had a supper of breaded herring with Bratkartoffeln and the charmingly named Schnuckeldönschen, canapés on pumpernickel bread in the warmth of the marquee before the show started. Sundays should always be this good.

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Bar jeder Vernunft

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Molly's wonderful oatmeal pancakes

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If you can't have breakfast at Café Einstein, you could always make Molly's oatmeal pancakes which are the perfect start to Sunday and later on, you also make Mingou's amaretti which I took for my students last week. No other biscuits have ever disappeared so fast.

Mingou's amaretti (original recipe in French here)

2 egg whites
a pinch of salt
175g ground almonds
50g flour
150g icing sugar
2 drops of bitter almond extract
icing sugar for coating the biscuits

Preheat the oven to 180°C

1. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt. When they start to become stiff, add the icing sugar gently so you get a mixture like meringue.
2. When the meringue is smooth and shiny, stir in the flour and ground almonds with a spatula until the mixture is homogenous.
3. Add the bitter almond extract.
4. Mix again until the dough forms a ball.
5. With a teaspoon to help you, form little round biscuits and dip them in an another bowl with icing sugar, passing them from one hand to the other to get rid of the excess sugar.
6. Put them on a baking sheet covered with non stick paper, at least 2cm apart and flatten them a little.
7. Bake in the oven at 180°C for around 10 minutes; the amaretti will be slightly brown. The biscuits should be crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle.

28 commentaires:

  1. Nice clicks of berlin on a grey and dreary spring day! We have the same thing happening here in Geneva.

    Those amaretti must be so delicious!



  2. Vanessa, I can definitely see why that building has the ability to scare passers by. It's so imposing and, well, grey.
    You know, I love the way you photograph things. That first photograph is one of my favorite of yours.

  3. Beautiful grey-themed shots. It's still cold here in Portland, too. I can't wait for the warm spring weather to come our way and compliment the gorgeous cherry blossoms that are popping up all over the place!

  4. I haven't explored too much of East Berlin, except close to where I live. It does have a kind of depressing effect. That cafe sounds wonderful!

  5. I love Molly's pancakes too ^_^ I was so expecting the library to be called The Kommode because of its resemblance to a toilet, heh...Crossing my fingers next weekend is springlike and heavenly though I'm sure even if it's rainy and awful it will be fun!

  6. Those buildings are so depressing compared to the older ones later in your picture show. The gray buildings seem dead and would make me feel dead living or working in them... except for that coffee cup... odd to have it there. Enjoyed your tour,as always and look forward to those pancakes.. num oatmeal!

  7. Two books and biscuit recipe that MUST go on my list...

  8. It's my dream to visit Café Einstein, and from your description, it sounds like I'd love it. I had a similar experience in Paris in a snobby cafe. I don't like to believe in stereotypes, but that Parisian cafe just confirmed all those silly stereotypes about Parisians. Still, my experiences in Paris have been mostly nice and people are very friendly. I just wish I could hop on a plane and visit Berlin!

    I'm going to make these pancakes this weekend, and if my camera cooperates, I'll take a picture to show you :)

    p.s. what's that book with Sylvia Plath on the cover - is it good?

  9. Oddly enough I didn't manage to visit Cafe Einstein, maybe next time. There is nothing more beautiful than a good grey city day. Berlin is the best for that. The photos transported me there, a lovely post.

  10. @Rosa - I would have thought spring was more fully developed where you are but today I saw some crocuses by the side of the road and the splash of colour made me smile.
    @Magda - Oh yes, it's a scary building all right, like something from a ghost story. Recently I found a blog by someone who goes into abandoned places and this was one of them. Being inside was even more frightening:
    I still prefer it to an ugly modern construction though because the architecture is just as bad without any historical interest. Thanks for your comments about the photos; I somehow like the first one very much too and didn't think much about it when taking it.
    @Nicolette - Now you've made me long for long springtime walks and cherry pie. All this week it's been so beautiful with gorgeous sunshine but I was stuck inside and now it's grey and rainy again - boo! Hope spring comes your way soon.
    @Christine - Yep, some East German architecture is very grey and depressing but I still find it fascinating, especially Frankfurter Tor and hope they don't tear too many more buildings down. I'm sure you'd love Café Einstei and we should go there together.
    @Sasa - Lol about the toilet resemblence! Yep, I'm really hoping for good weather because the city is so lovely in spring but I'm sure we'll still have a great time together. Will be in touch soon about that. Actually I tried the pancake recipe after a read a comment by you recommending them so thanks.
    @Deana - I think the East Germans often had these strange kind of details and a shop to brighten things up a bit and make people think life wasn't so bad. It's true that the older buildings are beautiful and it's good not everything in the East looks like these grey blocks. I can't imagine working in them either. Oatmeal pancakes are awesome.
    @Tracy - Glad to have given you some ideas!
    @Hila - I wish we didn't live so far apart because I think it would be really cool to hang out with you. Café Einstein is a favourite of mine and I'm sure you'd love it. Paris is wonderful and I didn't mean to suggest all people are rude; that place is a tourist trap and I've had many positive experiences in lovely places. I hope you like the pancakes and look forward to seeing the result. They're excellent with fruit or maple syrup. The book with Sylvia Plath is called Interrupted Lives in Literature about famous people who died young. It's basically a series of essays about what might have happened if Shelley, Katherine Mansfield, Angela Carter and Sylvia Plath had lived longer. The idea is a bit strange but it's interesting to read.
    @P.K - If you ever come back here we'll have to go there together. Greyness is pretty normal in Berlin and it's true that it somehow suits the city.

  11. sometimes i think i'm not quite normal: i love winter, and winterlight, and grey, soft light, and i loooooooove, so much love, those grey buildings. Even though they're a symbol of GDR...
    I really love you picture of the outside tables of the Cafe Enstein, the colors!!!

  12. J'ai respire en arrivant au cafe, aux pancakes et aux amaretti. C'etait trop de gris pour moi.
    Bonne fin de semaine.

  13. Those red chairs and turquoise round tables- what a contrast! What I like most about that picture is that the chairs and tables are OUTSIDE!!! Spring is soooo slow to come here in Montreal, and I am jealous of its arrival in Berlin! Enjoy it for me!

  14. @Mo - I share your love of winter and the light. Spring and summer can be magical but I miss that softness you mention and when the sun comes out in these cold months, the light is unbeatable. For me midday sun in summer is so violent and harsh and I can never love it. Guess I'm not normal too because these old grey buildings somehow have a special place in my heart, even if I know they're ugly. If I could I'd go to the Café Einstein every day.
    @Gracienne - Ça doit choquer les parisiens non, habitués à une belle ville historique. Berlin est d'abord une ville grise et pas vraiment jolie mais pleine de charme. Peu à peu je me suis habituée aux cieux nuageux.
    @Pearl - Well, many people sat outside last Sunday but I could only manage about 10 minutes before I felt cold so it's still a bit premature. Spring hasn't really arrived here yet either, just a few flowers in the parks but it always takes me by surprise waking up one day to see everyone in full bloom.

  15. When I lived in Michigan (and when I visit), I think grey and cloudy. Mainly fall and winter, but often in the spring, although it never bothered me as much then as I knew summer was coming. You've captured the feeling exactly. Lonely and grey.

    I do love coffee houses and old book stores where you can relax comfortably and read to your heart's content. Luckily, we can still find them here and there.

    I also remember Les Deux Magots, although I found this attitude quite the norm in many Parisian restaurants.

  16. Hello, again -- i really enjoy when you post another one of your pieces (and your photos and your recipes). well, i only have one comment for you today. your shots are lovely (as always), but i couldn't help notice they are absolutely empty of people. ordinarily, i'm down with an architectural tour or photo essay, but combined with that stark and oppressive grey (not as oppressive as that noonday sun you and i don't appreciate to shoot in), it made me a bit lonely (i couldn't help but read into your piece that you're sad to be leaving a place. n'est pas?).

    look forward to your next ...

  17. I would love to read both of those books - will add to my list. This recipe looks great!

    Wishing some spring weather for you...

  18. What a ridiculous waiter. Sheesh. I'm intrigued by Interrupted Lives. I am not familiar with this book. Like Lecia, I'm adding it to my list. Thank you.

  19. @Barbara - It's nice how you always have an experience I can relate to and also true that greyness in spring is much less depressing than in winter. Guess you don't get so many grey skies in Florida though like here. Discovering coffee shops is one of my favourite things.
    @Jg - It's true that I rarely include shots of people and if I do, I prefer it to be of strangers rather than these posed shots of friends which have never really appealed to me, even if I know they're nice for memories. The grey photos are quite bleak and I can understand why they made you feel lonely. The next ones will have more colour though, promise.
    @Design Elements - Oh danke schön!
    @Lecia - Your beautiful shots of blossom and flowers are making me jealous. I just know you'd like the Capote letters, so good and also Interrupted Lives, although it's published by the National Portrait Gallery so I hope you can find it.
    @Denise - The book takes a little while to get used to but it's really interesting and with great photos. Rude waiters are sadly a part of our culture and ruin the whole experience for me, no matter how good the food is.

  20. Your visit at Les Deux Magots sounds very typical... I was about to say that this was the place where Julie and I shared a last coffee before she left to Vancouver, but to think of it, we were at the Magots' counterpart (namely, le Flore - they were pretty rude as well). And that is also why I'm leaving Paris... I was in Nantes for two days, and people are so nice there! We parisians need to stop with the attitude (and I only include myself out of sheer nostalgia.. :-))

  21. It was probably a mistake of mine to go to the Flore and the Deux Magots and expect people to at least be polite so I could imagine how it was in the time of Sartre and Beauvoir. Those places attract loads of tourists so the management doesn't need good service to make money. I can't imagine you're as rude as some Parisians though. Berliners can also be pretty impolite, especially in museums or on buses but it's a different kind of rudeness. People are very direct but it's not necessarily meant in a nasty way and once you make friends here, it's really special.

  22. Oh, I didn't know about the Haus der Statistik! I'm eager to go have a look now myself... & I know what you mean, I was unpacking a box the other day and came across some photographs I had taken of the Palast der Republik, and was pierced with nostalgia.

  23. You should definitely go there soon as I'm afraid they'll start demolition work now the weather has turned warmer. It would be so fascinating to get inside too but there's no chance. Sigh, I wish I'd taken more photos of the Palast der Republik while it was still there and am not at all keen on the Schloss they want to put in its place.

  24. C'est dingue, le succès qu'ont ces biscuits... Ils rendent les gens hystériques.

  25. J'allais oublier : c'est Nilufer qu'il faut remercier ! Je n'ai fait que reprendre sa recette !

  26. Bon, je vous remercie toutes les deux quand même car sans toi, je n'aurais pas pensé à faire ces biscuits :-) Ces amaretti disparaissent tellement vite; je comptais les partager entre deux groupes mais il n'en restait pas assez à la fin du premier cours et les gens m'ont demandé des recettes. Je compte faire tes cookies mais mon four n'est pas terrible et on verra si ça marche...