Every bit of the pun in the title of this post is intended. It’s been a week since I got to Berlin, and its been frigid. Brrrr describes it exactly. And while the last few days may have in fact been warmer than the first three days that I was here, today is the day that I felt the cold the most. Small wonder, being caught in freezing rain while on a walking tour of the city (or maybe I should say, slithering/slipping tour), running mostly on coffee and hot chocolate all day. But more on that later. I should begin as all stories ought to (but seldom bother, it seems) at the very beginning.

This particular story began back in the summer in Vienna actually, or if the time stamps in my computer are accurate, perhaps even a little before that in Cairo, but with the usual end-of-term pressures, grading, moving, packing etc, Vienna is when and where I think of it as starting. Anyway,  a few days after I had first arrived in Vienna, I dashed off an abstract – not carelessly mind you, but hurriedly nevertheless in an attempt to make the deadline – for a workshop that had been announced at the Max Planck. Now the Max Planck Institute – specifically the MPI of the history of science or wissenschaftsgechichte as it is called in German – has been one of my personal academic grails for some time, and when I saw the call for abstracts/proposals on Making Mutations – I couldn’t allow myself to pass it up. There seemed to be a logical connection to one of the papers I had included but only perfunctorily dealt with in my dissertation, and since writing a 500-(or less)-word abstract doesn’t take much time, I did it. And then forgot about it in the excitement of my new environment in Vienna and the summer school.

The weekend after the summer school, I got the fateful letter from the organizers of the Max Planck! My proposal had been accepted, which meant that (gulp!) I now had to write the @#%$&  paper which delivered at least some of the promises I’d hinted at in the proposal. That I did (write it) and it did (deliver) is borne witness by the fact that I’m writing this mail today. The conference was exciting, exhilarating and a bracing reminder of why I love the field of the history of science particularly 20th century biology. It’s a good club to be a member in.

As for Berlin, as a first timer I’m wowed! Chilly – rather freezing – as its been since my arrival (the warmest day had a high of 2 degrees Celsius I think) it’s been a really great experience. Not only the conference (enough said on that already) but the city itself. The sense of history I feel here is as acute as, but in striking contrast to, the one I get in Egypt. There it is the ancient-ness and depth of everything is what get me.Whereas in Berlin – mostly everything was so very recent. Both the darkness of the Nazi history as well as the Wall of course. In fact, everything pertaining to the latter has happened since Appa  was already past boyhood. It only came up in ’61, scant years before I was born, and it came down in ’89 when I was living in Edmonton. I can remember something of the excitement then that the Wall was coming down then, but until I came here I’d had no idea about the details of the story.

Berlin is probably marvelous in the summer, but I’m glad my first visit here was in winter for it made my first tours more atmospheric somehow. Out on a random walk on Friday evening, I found myself halfway to Checkpoint Charlie and so went the distance and checked out the museum (Haus am Checkpoint Charlie) there as well.The cold and somber outdoors matched the mood inside, which besides the relics of real escapes across the border also houses an interesting exhibit on memorabilia an reports from various non-violent movements and protests from all over the world, beginning with Gandhi. Was also interested to learn on my tour yesterday, when I revisited that point, that Charlie was no real or imaginary soldier, but rather the 3rd checkpoint along the wall. It brought to mind the Ludlum book The Bourne Identity, that I was so fond of as a teenager in which the same litany alphabetic spellouts was repeated in the head of the protagonist Jason Bourne.  Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta…. Same etymology in both cases.

Made it back from Charlie in time to greet birthday gal Liz, who came from Poland to see me for the weekend. A nice Thai dinner sent us into a pleasant food coma  (I haven’t mentioned it but Berlin is also a foodie haven also which I’ll have to explore in more detail later) and it was to bed that evening.

Saturday was devoted to museums. Went to the all important Pergamon museum which is spectacular and may be closed soon for reinforcing the building structure which is sinking. Also paid brief respect to the bust of Nefertiti (had to do that!) who is very beautiful indeed. It closed the circle on the experience of visiting the archeological site at Amarna in middle Egypt in mid-November. And finally went the Jewish museum, whose wealth of material culture is so rich that we barely made past a third of the exhibit (we took the chronological route) in two hours before the museum closed. An unexpected encounter with history there was Glickli, a businesswoman from the Early Modern era, whose memoirs I’d read as part of James Amelang’s excellent course (attended by all of two grad students) on autobiography as historical source while in grad school. The museum had a rather large section devoted to Glickli and her life and times, and it was a pleasant reminder of a great course!

Our Saturday didn’t end there. We came home and after a brief (15 minute) refresher, where Jan had thoughtfully bought a sparkly to toast Liz, we set off on our nocturnal adventures. This included a very stylish Asian dinner (can’t pinpoint the exact cuisine for it had influences and ingredients from both Vietnam and Korea) at a lovely restaurant called Chi Sing and with a grand finale at the B Flat (whose stamp has not yet washed off my hand as I sit typing on Monday morning), a jazz club where we met up with Maria, an old friend from my Germanic-Yale crowd (and upon whose recommendations we went there).

The sun is shining out and I must interrupt my Berlin story to take advantage of it. More in a next installment, maybe.

Bis whenever the muse strikes next … Tchus

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