15 June 2014

What a pleasant week we’ve had. The weather has been tolerable and we just about recovered from our Berlin exertions when our next brace of visitors arrived – sister Sallie and her husband Rod are here for a week on their way to Switzerland.

We didn’t have time to say anything about our expedition to Berlin other than to share a few of the least bad photos with you. In short, we had a great time and Berlin is certainly a very pleasant city. In some ways it doesn’t have quite the character of most European cities as so much of it was destroyed in the war but it is a lovely city and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

East Berlin High Rise ApartmentsOur hotel, the Adina Apartment Hotel, Checkpoint Charlie, was splendidly appointed and very comfortable. I’m not sure we’ve ever stayed anywhere quite so well-appointed on any of our previous meanderings around Europe – we usually secure rooms in which the bed barely fits and one has to climb over it to get to the toilet. We should probably arrange for Stuart to organise all our future outings. Some of the hotel is let long-term as apartments and, as a result, each room has a separate bedroom and sitting area and is fully equipped with refrigerator, stove and oven, full-sized dishwasher as well as a washing machine and tumble dryer. Don’t worry – we used them all just to make sure we got our money’s worth. The hotel is in the Mitte district in what was East Berlin, right in the heart of the city with but a short stroll to Checkpoint Charlie and easy and convenient access to the underground. As we wandered around we crept about in the shadows like spies and struggled to visual that final scene in the film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold where Richard Burton is shot trying to escape to the West. The hotel is just a block from Leipziger Straße which is lined with Russian-era high rise apartment blocks built tall enough so that the East Berliners could not see over them into the West.

On our first day we strolled down to Checkpoint Charlie and walked casually from east to west and back again! We then made our way up to the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and the Holocaust Memorial which was, I thought, really well done.

The memorial is set in a large open area where there are 2711 gray concrete slabs, or stelae, identical in all dimensions except height. These are laid out in a precise rectangular space creating long straight and narrow alleys between them along which the land undulates.

Beneath the field of stelae, underground, is the memorial exhibition with family photographs, diary extracts and other artefacts which gives the exhibition a human scale. Very moving.

Another highlight was the trek, on the second or third day (I forget!) out to the Sanssouci Park in Potsdam. Frederick the Great had the park built, I read, because he wanted to grow figs and grapes for wine and so had a terraced garden built in 1744. Just a year later, Frederick decided to build a large summer resident above the terraces – the Sanssouci Palace. One rambling palace just wasn’t enough so Frederick then went on to build the New Palace just a few years later. Certainly good for local employment, I guess. We had a stunningly glorious day for our visit and spent the afternoon wandering through the park admiring the views.

On our last morning we made our way to the largest remaining section of the wall, now known as the East Side Gallery. We didn’t explore all of it – just a short section, both sides of which are decorated with an abundance of art and/or graffiti, depending on your point of view. This stretch of the wall ran alongside the river which made it particularly difficult to cross.

After visiting the wall we finished the day with a river cruise around the city. A splendid way to see the city and it was very relaxing in the hot sunshine under the bright blue skies. Everything was floating along splendidly until the boat neglected to stop where we had expected to alight and continued merrily along its way. There had been a “breakdown in communication” between the ticket office and the ship’s captain – he wasn’t told that there were any passengers who were only going part way around the loop and so quite naturally chugged on past. All was resolved soon afterward when the ship made an unscheduled stop at another mooring along the river and we alighted to make our way homewards.

So, all in all a very pleasant visit – splendid company, splendid weather, splendid accommodation, splendid city.

During the outing in Berlin, I missed my daily Baseball Tonight podcasts. So, in catching up, I was delighted to learn That Tuesday, 3 June was the anniversary of the first publication of Ernest L. Thayer’s poem Casey at the Bat published in 1888 in the San Francisco Examiner. The podcast included a link to a recording by James Earl Jones reading the original and I subsequently found a link to a reading introduced by Garrison Keillor (although I don’t think it’s him doing the reading – it sounds more of an Australian accent) of an alternative version from the opposition’s point of view. Enjoy.

Casey at the Bat

Casey at the Bat read by James Earl Jones

[audio http://www.stragnell.com/audio/casey_at_the_bat_james_earl_jones.mp3]

Casey at the Bat

Casey at the Bat – an Alternative Version

[audio http://www.stragnell.com/audio/casey_at_the_bat_garrison_keillor.mp3]

A lovely example of government joined up thinking in the Guardian – the government closed overseas passport processing centres and then was caught unawares when a backlog of applications was the inevitable result. Oops!

We had a splendid day out on Friday – the weather was glorious and we all (Sallie, Rod, J, Pen and me) bundled into the car and set off to Packwood House near Lapworth. It was a real gem – a quirky house with a mix of old and “new”  – grand halls, long corridors and an abundance of oak panelling. Queen Mary slept in this room and used this toilet in 1927!

The house is set in gorgeous gardens with fabulous herbaceous borders and a fun yew topiary, and it’s surrounded by parkland and fields. The sun shining and the award-winning picnic produced by Ms Playchute made it a perfect day.

And finally, happy birthday day before yesterday to our good friend Chip Boynton, yesterday to Greg Stragnell (the younger) and today to the always young and always beautiful Pam Stragnell, all of whom are naturally amongst our favourite people!

Dad & MomAnd finally, finally – Happy Father’s Day to the best father I’ve ever had. I was struck by how accurate and astute the following comment, attributed to Mark Twain, is and how precisely it reflects my own recollections:

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

Love to you all,

Greg