The (Not Really) New City

In the week between the end of the semester and my departure for London, I researched each city on our itinerary to find activities I could do in my free time. By the time I had looked up London and Paris, I was too tired and confused by Berlin to spend much time researching the city. As a result, when I arrived in Berlin, I had no expectations of the city.

On the surface, Berlin is a modern city, comprised primarily of modern buildings and technologies. To many of us, it bares a remarkable resemblance to many American cities, Columbus included. However, it resembles modern American cities because of the war’s complete destruction of Berlin. Berlin had its rich architectural and cultural history almost obliterated because of the bombs and demolition during the war. As a result, most of the buildings that we could see in Berlin were either newly built or heavily repaired, thus telling Berlin’s story from the perspective of the war and the post-war conflicts.

Berlin, I believe, is a city defined by its struggles in the twentieth century. Over the course of the past seventy years, it has been a heart of an empire; a heavily fought-over enemy hub; a metaphorical and physical reminder of the struggle between the capitalist West and socialist East; and the center of rebuilding and reunification after years of conflict. In my mind, Berlin’s current identity seems to be heavily influenced by World War II and the Cold War conflicts arising from the war.

I am always fascinated by architecture and the stories that can be told through it. Berlin’s primary architecture revolves around the years after the war. The absence of any pre-war buildings is a painful and constant reminder of the consequences of total war; the nonexistence of the old buildings emphasizes the relatively new constructions that stand in the city today. The conglomeration of different buildings, from the concrete utilitarian structures to the post-modern glass and steel creations, tell the story of post-war Berlin, the Berlin that exists today. Berlin was defended, fought over, destroyed, split, secured, and reunified, all stages that I believe can be seen in the buildings that stand—or are not standing—in the city today.

However, Berlin is a city that is still being rebuilt. Memorials are still being created in remembrance of the atrocities that the wartime Allies and Germany refuse to let the world forget. Only twenty-five years after reunification, Berlin is finally now able to begin dealing with the events of the past century by remembering, atoning, rebuilding, and ultimately moving forward.

In a way unlike any of my experiences in other cities, I have been deeply struck, impressed, and shocked by Berlin’s history. I separate “Berlin: The Historical City” from “Berlin: The Real City” in my mind. However, the two are deeply intertwined. Berlin as a city is a deeply historical city; even when we cannot see direct remnants of past events, they happened on these streets. And yet, despite the years of terror and bloodshed on many of Berlin’s streets, Berlin seems to be moving forward with honesty and a vision of a future remarkably different than that of its recent past.

Strong Impressions

On Wednesday, after four years, I was able to return to the Musée d’Orsay. Many of the interior aesthetics have changed in the past four years because of renovations and reorganizations but the art, as always, remains the same. For a long time, Impressionism has been my favorite period of art, and my appreciation of the period, the artists, and the specific pieces has grown as time has passed and as I have learned more about the period.

Many of the people on the program can probably attest that I was (perhaps) irrationally excited to return to the museum. When people tried to figure out what they wanted to visit in Paris, I routinely suggested the museum. However, as I went into the museum, I was afraid that the reality of the place would not be able to live up to 16-year old Emily’s memories. But when I walked in the doors, I loved it as much as I did four years ago. It might be unusual or even weird, but museums are some of my favorite places; there is something about their seeming permanence and design that I find peaceful and comforting (that is, as long as they are not being invaded by groups of noisy school children, a circumstance that we have had to experience frequently throughout this trip).

As I walked through the museum, I found myself, to my deep dismay, becoming emotional and dare I say, even romantic. The people who know me well will most likely agree that to avoid feeling anything beyond ambivalent appreciation I will default to a sarcastic response. Nevertheless, I began to have so many thoughts about the art that I began typing them into my phone, thus resulting in Vince, Henry, or Anthony having to call my name to make sure that I kept up with them.

As I walked and admired their collections, I began contemplating why I enjoy Impressionism so much. To me, in terms of broad forms of art, realism dictates what I see and how I should interpret it. Modern art, on the other hand, relies on a subjective experience and personal interpretation of colors and images. Impressionist paintings depend on the artist’s ability to capture his or her fleeting impressions of light or shadows on canvas. These paintings encapsulate moments only experienced by the artists; the paintings’ durability, however, arises from the lasting impressions that the paintings grant each viewer. Each person looks at the same image, for example a woman in a field by Monet, a mountain by Cézanne, or a group of dancers by Degas. But their interpretation of and experience with the painting can widely differ.

The Musée d’Orsay and its neighboring museum, the Musée de l’Orangerie, host fantastic collections of Impressionist art in galleries designed so that people can best appreciate and understand the art. When I walked into the room to see a collection of Monet’s famous water lilies, I stared as the light changed and different shadows seemed to appear, making me feel as though I was in the gardens themselves rather than in the heart of Paris. Each shadow seemed to create a different painting; one moment it was colorful and joyful, and the next it was somber and melancholy. And yet, that interpretation and those moments were my own. Neither the painting nor fellow viewers told me what to think or how to feel. Just as the moments Monet painted the water lilies were his, so the moments I viewed the paintings were mine.

Later, as I continued to walk around Paris, my thoughts continually returned to those paintings. In my opinion, they best capture life. People do not experience a standardized life experience. Instead, each of us experiences life differently and values different moments above others. My experience of Paris was itself comprised of impressions. As I think back on those few days in Paris, I am left with glimpses of important moments and feelings: the time I leaned outside my window to view the glowing lights from the café on the corner; walking along the Seine at sunset; or smelling the rain as we walked along the river’s banks.

By painting impressions of light, shadows, and faces, the Impressionist artists were able to communicate feelings that are instantly relatable, and thus appreciated. By visiting the two museums, I was able to compare, view, and appreciate a wide variety of Impressionist works in a wonderfully organized and maintained environment, thus maximizing my enjoyment of and admiration for the Impressionist works of art.


Google has begun a project to digitalize key works of art in high-definition so that the public to view them online for free. Individuals are able to create their own “galleries” with art that they love. I created a ‘gallery’ with some of the most fascinating works I saw in Paris; the link should hopefully take you there.

Lasting Impact

Big Ben BWThe first place we visited as a group was the Churchill War Rooms near Westminster Abbey and Parliament. The Cabinet War Rooms were in a reinforced steel and concrete bunker that Churchill and his staff used to run the war. I was lucky enough to have visited the rooms last summer when I came to the Great Britain on a family vacation. However, I had not had the opportunity to take several World War II classes before visiting. As such, this visit possessed a poignancy my last visit did not. This time, I had studied the war and its difficulties in depth, and so it was immensely humbling to visit the small rooms in which the war was organized.

The men and women there worked without sunshine in secret, congested quarters doing what needed to be done. Sometimes, when I talk about the twentieth century–and especially World War II–I romanticize it; I fall for the glamour, patriotic declarations, and excitement in the old black-and-white films I love to watch. By visiting one of the places where they worked and learning, for example, about the low ceilings, limited protection, and lack of sunshine in the bunker, I appreciate Churchill and his staff’s endurance and determination even more.

I have been spending most of my time simply walking around London; as I have walked, I have come across monuments commemorating the war and the important contributors. The public and consistent acknowledgement of World War II struck me. In the United States, it frequently seems as though Americans do not possess a shared public consciousness about World War II and its costs, effects, and significance. The war is simply an event that happened in the past that affected our grandparents and their families and is commemorated in a single monument in Washington D.C. As we walked down the London sidewalks, we saw statues praising General Slim and General Montgomery and memorials saluting the women in World War II. In London, the war seems much more present in the national memory. Bombs fell on London itself and destroyed thousands of homes and locations representing thousands of years of British history.

However, the most memorable moment was when I walked into the back of Henry VII’s Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey.  Westminster Abbey is a fantastically large and detailed cathedral, and the chapel was once considered to be one of the great wonders of the world. In the back of the chapel is a series of stained glass windows honoring the men of the Royal Air Force who served during the Battle of Britain. It seemed odd to me to place stained glass windows honoring World War II in a medieval chapel, but it highlighted for me the war’s significance in London as a destructive and powerful force that has left a lasting impact on the city and its future history.