Posts by BorisV:

Articles By: boris vassilev

Boris was born and spent his early childhood in Bulgaria, before moving the United States with his family. He holds degrees in Physics and Creative Writing from Columbia University, assuring confusion and unemployment. He enjoys travel immensely, talking about globalization and changing cultures a lot, and mussels not very much.

Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe could hardly have a more central and incriminating location within the German capital. Just a few blocks southeast of the Brandenburg Gate, a lasting symbol of the German nation and its strength, it is a vast grid of concrete blocks, stelae, innocuous at a distance, like a children’s maze, but intimidating upon closer inspection, as the ground between the blocks grows deeper, leaving them towering over entering visitors.

Within in the field of stelae.

A path with trees at the end in the Memorial.

There is a human sense of instability as visitors walk between the blocks. The stelae quickly overpower the senses and instill an uneasy claustrophobia through the limited strips of vision the monument affords. No matter the location, however, there is always an end to the stelae field in the distance, small windows of trees, sunlight and warmth. The blocks themselves are mathematically organized and impressive, with rough, sharp edges, and smooth side surfaces that leave no residue on hands that run over them. Laughter, an unexpected but near-constant part of the stelae field, as uneasy visitors play hide-and-seek, is warped in echoes and difficult to locate, contributing to the isolation of walking inside. At dusk, this isolation and uneasiness, combined with fewer visitors and a breezy chill, ignites a very basic fear reflex and the entire field takes on a more sinister tone.

In his July 12th article for The New Yorker, Richard Brody discusses what he identifies as the “inadequacy” of the memorial as a sufficient representation of the murders of Jews during the Holocaust. I believe that Brody’s article does not do justice to the complete memorial experience. Mr. Brody seems to think that the only means of creating a lasting memory of the Holocaust that does not pale with time is to be explicit in the representation of the monument’s purpose: to create an idea for each individual Jew who was murdered during the Holocaust. It appears differently to me. Met directly with such an overwhelming factual database, if perhaps, as Mr. Brody suggests, six million road markers with names had been constructed instead of the stelae field, any visitor to a monument would have to accept the information as absolute and retain it passively: they would be given facts and therefore must accept them as such. In the current stelae memorial, an active process must take place.

The memorial selection was the result of an exhaustive submission process, yielding a design by American architect Peter Eisenman as a final selection. Eisenman, who is famouse for his fragmenting deconstructivist design and who did not include the exhibition in his original memorial design, professes no particular opinion or even lasting investment toward his creation, instead giving it fully to the visiting public. Given the designer’s lack of commentary on intended interpretation, visitors must seek their own narratives within the stelae and forge their own discussions.

Mr. Brody finds that the exhibition built under the eastern part of the stelae field is “not easy to find” and “not integral to the display.” In my experience, this could not be farther from the truth, as it is difficult to venture through the stelae field without meeting a gate or an exit to the exhibition. The entire dynamic is quite the opposite: the stelae field is integral to the exhibition. The exhibition goes to exceptional lengths to do what Mr. Brody, as written in his article, believes lacking from the visual representation that weighs heavily above it: it creates intimate specificity with both victims and perpetrators, even going as far as to push visitors outside of the normal neutral comfort zone of museums, and into direct contact with this history.

A listening booth in the exhibition under the Memorial.

In all exhibits, great care is taken to identify the names and nationalities of people in and authors of photographs, torn diaries and faded letters. It is a constant reminder that the events of the Holocaust were experienced, perpetrated, documented, understood, and in many cases ignored despite the atrocity, by individual, morally-capable humans with names and histories and real lives. Nazi military men, victims and photographers under the banner of neutrality are all identified in the presented media, starkly named with nationality and title, and left as fact for the audience to process. The entire exhibition places visitors in direct contact with the past, often pushing past barriers of comfort that have been standardized, unspoken, in other Holocaust museums.

Hard to find? A marker for the entrance to the exhibition.

Standing over transcripts of letters on the floor of the Room of Dimensions, it is difficult to read the text without noticing one’s shadow hanging over the words, and in the Room of Sites, visitors are invited to sit in isolating, starkly lit alcoves and physically place a telephone piece against their ear to hear historical transcripts. This emphasis on the need for an active engagement with history is completed at the end of the exhibition, where visitors are invited to not only sit witness to projections of Holocaust survivor interviews, but also personally research the complete database of Holocaust victims, an incredibly detailed and exhaustive archive that attempts to coalesce all known information about victims. Throughout the exhibition, apart for the specificity of fact, is also an awareness of the gaps in fact, with small plaques explaining why photographs are missing, why it is not possible to speak about all victims in the Room of Names, and why some entries in the Holocaust database consist simply of a name and a small photograph, all other information about these people effaced by violence and time.

Room of Records.

Room of Names.

Room of Memories.

The exhibition creates a sense of uncomfortable, but necessary intimacy, and then plants visitors in the midst of the stelae field, where there is no specificity, no plaques with interpretations or statements of fact. The stelae field is an ideal, a representation designed to be filled with the ideas of the visitors, and like any ideal, it is not possible to mentally encompass or completely understand. This is its true strength, its unknowability, a catalyst for thought and discussion and memory, not a collection of facts, ones that can be glazed over because they are have already been written down.

Timeline in the first hall of the exhibition.

In another definition entirely, this is a monument of of unparalleled success. A full seven years after its commemoration, it still inspires heated discussion, both within the stelae field and in private and public forums. Mr. Brody correctly claims that the first step toward forgetting is assuming that others know the facts, and thus omitting them, but were he to fully experience the memorial and visit the exhibition, he would find that this axiom of memory and history does not apply here. The facts are there, as the medium through which they can be processed pushed from photos and dates and maps and names into real thoughts and discussions for visitors.

Overview of the Monument with the buildings of Potsdamer Platz behind it.

Holocaust Mahnmal [map]
Cora-Berliner-Straà­Æ’à… ¸e, 10117 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 263 94336

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Built like a clowny village and boasting more than a century of official history, the Vienna Prater is one of the most varied and rewarding locales to visit in the Austrian capital. There are many people to meet, sights to marvel at, games of chance to lose, and, in a surprising summer trend, many flower-print jorts to ponder.

View from the Riesenrad of the Prater below and the city beyond.

At around 10 a.m. each morning, the park slowly takes in a breath and shudders awake, with various carnival workers streaming in with coffees, tats and scowls. The rides are slowly resurrected from the previous night, scrubbed, patched. Over the next hour, carnies mentally build themselves up, eyeing down goofy teenagers, reminding them that they are the masters of their domain, be it the Testarossa Autodrome (not a Ferrari in sight, but so many flashy bumper cars), or the mouse-themed teacup ride, and slipping into a friendly, easy-going demeanor designed to make even the most shy visitors give their ride or game a go.

One of many crazy roller coasters.

Gravity-defying high rides.

To visit the Prater is to meet a collection of unusual characters and familiar types. The morning brings hyper kids with their grandparents and sweaty tourists, who by the evening  are replaced with amorous teenagers, hefty, loud families, and more sweaty tourists. To walk through the crowds is to transcend many contours of language, with a single, common, grounding expectation: that of being entertained. It is important to be wary of pickpockets, especially in the crowded evening hours, and to bring sunblock during noontime visits, when there are virtually no lines for any of the rides, but the sun is unyielding.


There are two major ways to experience the Prater. The first is to walk around and observe the potentially sudden and front page-worthy ways that people are about to humiliate themselves (strength games, ball throwing, drunk driving the boats in the kiddie pool) or die (any of the rides, really). The second is to consider that one can only do stupid things when one is still alive, and go do the ones you like. Top recommendations are the Riesenrad, the iconic Viennese Ferris Wheel which survived the bombings of World War II and provides an unparalleled view of the city, and the Prater Super 8er Bahn, a 45-second, old-generation roller coaster that threatens its riders with retina ungluing. Visiting the Riesenrad museum provides a series of dioramas showing the Prater and the impressive surrounding park area through the years, fashions, and technological triumphs of entertainment that it has experienced.

The iconic Viennese Ferris Wheel viewed from a distance.

A roller coaster against the backdrop of the Riesenrad.

There are houses of terror, of the zombies (or as the monolithic voice over the loudspeaker calls them, “tsombies”) or the evolutionarily-unlikely dinosaurs flavor. There are racetracks with boats and buggies and go-karts, merry-go-rounds stacked high with toddlers, sculptures meant to delight but which instead turn the stomach. There are roller coasters, upright and upside-down varieties, and those spinning, turning, flipping rides that seem to beg the question: why do some people hate gravity? There is a faint smell of decay in certain corners of the park, either coming from the  beleaguered pony ride, or there really are tsombies lurking here and there.

Sculptures of the WTF variety: a gaudy vomiting TV gremlin.

Lose your phobia of clowns – this comic character is pointing out the way to the facilities.

The Viennese Prater is truly many places. It’s a historical waypoint, a reminder of continuity for the people of Vienna, a symbol of civic pride. It’s a dirty carnival where you hope to win oddly proportioned Spongebob Squarepants plushes but get a tiny off-blue Smurfette instead, and go scare yourself by riding the Ferris Wheel older than your great-grandparents or the jaw-dislodging roller coaster. It’s a park of heartening serenity, it’s a place to meet people, a place to remember how to be your young self, or better yet, not your young self, because your young self was a stick in the mud who was afraid of clowns, but the cool version of your young self who went on all the rides twice.

Many a visitor to the Prater has lost their lunch riding these towering attractions.

Another, smaller ferris wheel.

EXTRA: It is the suggestion of the author that Prater-goers, considering the large quantity of young children on these rides, stay well outside of the splash radius, which is defined as the largest distance that a young child’s dislodged shoe or reappearing lunch can travel if lost during a ride cycle (Splash Radius = SQRT(H/4.9) * V, where H is the vertical apex of the ride, and V is the hoizontal velocity of dislodgement, all in standard metric units).

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There is a city by a lake in Europe that will give you a bicycle, and send you on its well bicycle-laned streets to explore, stand in awe, and rarely get lost. In a very real way, the “Zà­Æ’ ¼ri rollt” bike-sharing program is a direct application of the Zurich, and perhaps Swiss in general, mentality and lifestyle.

Boats harbored on Lake Zurich.

At first glance, the bicycles are unimpressive and look unwieldly, but closer inspection reveals numerous high-end components, hub dynamos and a clever built-in wheel lock. The bicycles are not slow, but neither are they fast nor feline like their speed-obsessed cousins from the same 1000+ Swiss Franc price bracket. Many of the same things can be said about the vehicular population of the city, where there are few exotic sports cars, but many high-end German town and family cars–equally unaffordable and fast, but the latter being more demure and less eye candy.

One of Zurich’s many hilly streets; great when you’re going downhill on your bike.

The Zurich bike-sharing system is free to use, requiring only a valid ID and a temporary 20 Swiss Franc deposit. The transaction is dealt with a bank-like efficiency and careful reminders about the many rules (“Back by 9:30” – like your first date). The cost of operating such a system, with several locations, many employees and the maintenance of the bicycles themselves, is all covered by the city of Zurich, which seems to operate on a philosophy of constant maintenance and building projects. One way to contain wealth within an urban system is to re-invest in large scale projects that are sourced from and benefit the citizenry directly.

Streets in the city are generally very clean. Bike lanes are typically between the sidewalk and the street.

The bicycles are safe, with the highest speed setting just fast enough to get a pleasantly thrilling velocity when coasting down one of Zurich’s many long, gently-sloped hills, and the wide tires make short work of gravel or uneven road surfacing. Zurich loves its safety. Policemen direct traffic at the city’s many construction zones, patrol all parks and side avenues, and smile a lot in a totally genuine, if unnerving, way. Houses in the neighborhoods surrounding the massive Zà­Æ’ ¼richsee (Lake Zurich), around which the city is built, come in all styles, deco to modern to all-glass to Old World Swiss, and are surrounded by impressive, but not imposing walls, as if politely declining unwanted visitors.

Grossmà­Æ’ ¼nster church in the historical part of Zurich.

Flowered walls in the historical part of the city.

Each bicycle has a considerable basket welded to the back, perfect for a few bottles of wine, some fresh bread, salted meats, artisanal cheese and a pickle jar (or whatever you take on a picnic). Zurich residents are addicted to lounging on the grass in their parks. Throughout the day, whether a work one or not, the parks and lawn strips lining most of the lake and neighborhoods are filled with residents, even the red light district (the shockingly sanitary red light district, which contains a great skate park and is very family-oriented).

There is a permeating sense of leisure and surety of existence among the old and young, hookah-smoking or soccer playing, some even looking like odd Brooklyn hipster parent transplants, with sleeve tattoos and trucker hats, but even their nonconformist image is often tempered by wedding rings and toddlers. Zurich is not a Stepford community, but the high quality of life and control seems to have tempered even the usual misfits, in a place where even the graffiti that commonly graces European cities seems tame, hiding in corners and small.

Lounging on the grass is a favorite Zurich pastime activity.

Zurich has created a self-perpetuating system of life, and of bicycle. It is safe, it is expensive but not gaudy, it affords leisure and promotes forward-thinking (the bicycle share system boasts employing the unemployed and encouraging a healthy, green lifestyle). So where’s the catch?

White and Blue are the colors of Zurich’s coat of arms; the Swiss flag is red flag with a white, bold, equilateral cross in the center. Both are ubiquitous.

One could argue that the organization and safety of the city can easily slide a little bit into the predictable and, in the absolute best sense of the word, boring.  This becomes obvious when visiting the Landesmuseum, Zurich’s museum to Swiss history, and one of the many places readily accessible by bicycle. Other than the thorough and quite organized permanent collection featuring the historical circumstances leading to Zurich’s current place in the world, there is also currently a temporary exhibition on Postmodernism. Walking through the displays, charting the movement as it developed from a means of re-inventing old art, through dealing with a post-industrial world, to the glory days of epilepsy-inducing late 80s music videos, it becomes apparent that this entire strain of thought and desire, toward the chaos, grime, the explosively unusual, is somehow missing from the city outside.

Zurich is like a postcard, beautiful to experience and see, though slightly offputting at how put-together it really is. Whether this is a function of the highly-educated, paced way of life that most residents seem to lead, or a top-down result of the high degree of government control is impossible to tell, as the two seem to have become co-dependently intertwined.

The Landesmuseum Zà­Æ’ ¼rich, advertising its Postmodernism exhibition.

Landesmuseum Zà­Æ’ ¼rich
Museumstrasse 2, 8021 Zà­Æ’ ¼rich, Schweiz [MAP]
+41 44 218 65 11

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Istanbul’s rooftops are the baked red clay half-pipes that cup into one another, which you can find anywhere in Europe; in contrast to this, the facades of entire building blocks are accentuated by ornate geometric and floral tilings  – Eastern Europe fitting up against a traditionally Islamic, Middle Eastern sentiment. It is hard to think of any part of Istanbul as a relic of another time because the entire city is happening and changing in the moment, most immediately in the famous Covered Bazaar (or Grand Bazaar), a half-millennium old construction housing the most premium ateliers and shops, and the labyrinthine network of stands that grows radially out from it.

In this center of Istanbul, and in the city as a whole, ticks a carefully crafted mechanism of commerce. Every interaction between travelers is a transaction. It seems appropriate to say “travelers” because it is hard to imagine anyone knowing the exploded expanse of the markets intimately enough to call it a familiar home. In a very different way, the inviting nature of the bright stalls, the enticing duck-behind diukians becomes quickly familiar, not because of any direct interest in bartering, but because of the very human aspect underlying this life. Everything sold is directly useful to some degree, especially in the markets immediately outside of the old city, where the rows of hookahs, ranging from teaspoon to toddler-sized, are replaced by boxes of pipes and bathroom fixtures of startling variety, condition, and age, boxes of socks (“Chift chorapi!”), and the ever-present water bottle peddlers, the lifeblood of the city. Everyone is seeking to purchase something, and the entirety of social interaction runs around it.

It is curious to see how any goods that are labeled as authentically Turkish – ornate sheet metal lamps, fine clothes and assaulting spices – are commodified, packaged and sold as eagerly as possible to visitors, a deep contrast to the juxtaposed markets outside of the tourist range, which sell ubiquitously comfortable Western brand names and goods to the authentically Turkish people. Tourists walk out of the covered market with a 15th century art print of a dervish, and Istanbulites walk out of an air-conditioned mall touting a Whirlpool. In order for Turkey to complete the transaction of entering the European Union, its own cultural tradition seems to have to be reduced to only skin deep.

Passersby are addressed in half a dozen languages if their eyes so much as stray over the goods in the shops (“Merhaba, Hello, Guten Morgen, Dobri den” and the always effective “Good price!”), locals loudly exclaim their disapproval of listed prices and are consoled with exultations and warnings that they are putting the seller’s family out on the street if he takes the price they are asking, one he takes anyway. Travelers who wish to avoid these scenes keep a dead look ahead, or sneak looks under large sunglasses. But these visual transactions permeate far deeper, into the core of cultural interaction. Looking into the eyes of your fellow market-goer, a common catch in the Western world where strangers often make eye contact to confirm one another’s movement, or to share a small humor over something they’ve both seen, takes on a more guarded form in these corridors of exchange.

More often than not, looking up to see the eyes of another person, especially someone of the opposite sex, is greeted by their gaze fleeting away. It’s as if the very act of looking at someone invites an interaction, but unlike the one in the shops, this one is not greeted with enthusiasm. It is particularly striking in the lower markets, where most of the barterers are women, and many of them are wearing burkas, with their eyes as one of the only direct human links, now diverted. This creates a sense of isolation, even among the throngs of merchants and soon-to-be owners of pashmina, tea, and evil-eye charms that they did not even know they needed, and simultaneously allows travelers to find the goods they want to purchase without distraction, and to intensify their own feeling of alienation in this crossover marketplace.

There was no other choice of location for Orhan Pamuk to craft his Museum of Innocence, the psychotically meticulous and fascinating house containing exhibits corresponding to each chapter of his  book of the same name, a story about a complex affection set in 1970s Istanbul. The museum itself is a study in obsession, with every exhibit a memorial to a particular memory that the narrator has of his object of desire, later wife, beginning to great effect with a display case of thousands upon thousands of labeled and cataloged cigarette butts. One has to imagine that Pamuk had a battalion of lipstick-clad assistants whose sole purpose it was to smoke and perfectly crumple the spent cylinders so that he could pin and tag them, butterfly-like. Other display cases are filled with a trinket collector’s dream, a decade’s worth of thrift purchases by Pamuk as he accrued the items necessary to complete the experience in his mind. Walking through the museum is to understand what it is like to take the most private thoughts and obsessions of a person and catalog them in a way for a public eager to peek in, without questioning the potential loss of  earnestness in such a drastic reversal.

Photography is not allowed inside the Museum of Innocence, all transactions must be complete at the door. The guards look you in the eyes here, especially when you are obviously lying about the validity of your student card, and it only serves to remind you that you are in between the outside and the inside, of the museum, of the market, of Istanbul, a traveler in a state of transit and transaction.

The Museum of Innocence / Masumiyet Mà­Æ’ ¼zesi
Firuzaà­”žà… ¸a Mh., à­Æ’” ¡ukur Cuma Cd 24, 34424 Istanbul, Turkey [map]
+90 212 252 9738

Grand Bazaar
Kayà­”ž ±à­”¦à… ¸daà­”žà… ¸à­”ž ± Mh., Hilal Sk 29, 34755 Atasehir à­”ž °stanbul, Turkey [map]
+90 535 220 1472

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