Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Berlin

I've always wanted to see Berlin. So much has happened there over the last hundred years and remnants of its complicated history are everywhere, as memorials among new apartments and restaurants where the old city was destroyed. These little memorials came in all all manner of surprising ways, like when I realized the occasional brass cobblestones on the sidewalk were etched with the names of victims of the Holocaust, presumably where they one lived. Or the souvenir shop baring the scars of a shelling, and of course the recreated Checkpoint Charlie flanked with a touristy museum and McDonald's, cars whizzing by under the neon.

We were also there for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wish I could say it was on purpose, but it was really just dumb luck. It was incredible to see thousands and thousands of people fill the streets to be part of the celebrations.

The evening of our arrival, we did what has turned into a tradition and grabbed some Indian food then took off for a long walk down Friedrichstrasse to see what we could find.

The Spree River

I happened to glance to my right and saw the Brandenburg Gate lit up in the distance. The platz was filled with people. We encountered a crowd gathered in front of a hotel with camera phones held high for a chance to see Mikhail Gorbachev. I didn't see a possibility that he was going to walk out and address the crowd, so we wandered over to see the history displays.

Crowd watching an eerily scored film about the wall.

We crossed the gate to see the set up for the following evening's performances. Glowing balloons lined the street in front of the stage following the general path of the old Berliner Mauer.

Neues Museum

The following morning, after getting hopelessly lost though only a mere kilometer away, we visited the Neues museum to see the famous and stunning bust of Nefertiti.

We weren't allowed to photograph the bust itself, but wow. The lines, the curves, the color. I don't think I have seen a piece of sculpture quite like it.

This Roman piece was discovered in Germany. It was used to hold a tray of hors d'oeuvres at parties.

Shelling inside the museum.

By the time we left and headed over to a nearby street fair, the weather had turned from pretty chilly to the particular brand of biting cold that I've only experienced in Germany and we cut out early to find extra layers for Emily and an easy lunch that she would definitely eat. That ended up taking us to McDonald's which is gross and shameful of course, but at least led us to this moving and educational public artwork-one of the many Jewish memorials we found around Berlin. It tells the story, one I've never heard, about the Kindertransport. Children were sent away to Britain by way of Holland as refugees after the pogrom of November 1938 (Kristallnacht). Though they were saved and survived the war, it was still a complicated experience. Some children found decent foster families waiting to take them in, while others were taken into homes only to be exploited as servants. The lucky ones were reunited with surviving or distant relatives after the war. Others were left with no one, and still forced out of their temporary homes.

"Trains to Life, Trains to Death" by Frank Meisler, a kindertransport survivor.

25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

In the evening we plopped Emily in her stroller and joined the crowds on the eastern side of Brandenburg Gate, with the intention of working our way over to the other side to see bands play, see politicians speak, and join in the revelry. Uh, yeah, that wasn't going to happen. There were thousands of people trying to do the same thing, and while I was happy to be there with so many people who lived through life in a divided Berlin and celebrate with them, I don't know why I thought we had any chance of getting a good view. We very quickly came across a barricade and slowly worked our way down to the next block to get around and over. Another barricade. One more block. One more barricade. The third try took us a block up to yet another barricade but at least parallel to the gate, three city blocks away. There was a big screen we could sort of see, so we decided to sit tight there for another half hour or so. Near the event's start time, the polizei began making announcements, at first gentle encouragements, then an order, to move back toward Potsdamer Platz. No one in the massive crowd moved at first.

Only when it became apparent that all we would be able to hear were muffled booms from the speakers did people finally give up and disperse. We followed the road to a less crowded intersection just beyond Potsdamer Platz at hung out to see the release of the Wall of Light. While there, I spoke to an older man who told me what that random corner was like in the '70s when he was there a lot. He pointed to the two-wide cobblestone line that marked where the wall ran (the light display would have gone through new construction) and said there was nothing really around there except a recording studio. My ears perked up. I knew David Bowie recorded Heroes in West Berlin. The song is perhaps the most famous recording about the Wall in pop culture, and omgDAVIDBOWIE, so we bid adieu and went to check it out while we waited.

Hansa Tonstudio. You can book tours. If only we had more time!

Finally crowds in Potdamer Platz began to cheer. The symbols of a hopeful future for a united Berlin sailed into the night, one by one as everyone applauded. It was an amazing moment in time.

The next day we hiked up to the Berlin Wall Memorial. It's an open air museum that preserves one of the last pieces of the wall as well as some foundations from some buildings and other infrastructure, and a memorial for everyone who died attempting to escape from East Berlin. Looking at the faces, all these regular people, was even sadder when I saw a picture of a victim who was still a toddler, and the last man to attempt to jump the wall, a mere three months before it fell.

The original part of the wall was already here to use in 1961. This space was part of a cemetery. They worked with a brick wall initially that was already in place and relocated the graves (the entrance of the cemetery is accessible from inside the Memorial-it's very pretty). That's how important keeping unwilling citizens in place was to the GDR. Disturbing the dead.

We decided lunch was in order. The TV tower looked awfully close, and there had to be places to eat in Alexander Platz. Always a brilliant planner, I determined it was a ten minute walk. Over an hour later and still not there, we found the church where Martin Luther King Jr gave a famous sermon.

And a this shelled souvenir shop...

And a Holocaust memorial outside the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, where only a few headstones remain.

It felt so incredibly sad there, and after reading up on it at the link above, I understand why. We left some stones and kept moving.

Finally we reached Alexander Platz. We ate lunch at a mediocre kartoffeln restaurant and walked through an old church. We looked up at the tower, said "yup, there it is," clueless that you can go to the top and look out over Berlin.

We spent some time at a playground right there in the square. I thought about taking video, but I didn't want to miss anything. Picture orange leaves swirling, kids and otherwise stiff-looking adults alike jumping in the inlaid trampolines, and a certain three year old squealing with total joy as she bounced with the German boys and girls. It was a pretty perfect way to end the afternoon.

Later that night after another meal at another potato restaurant we did the last touristy thing on my list: Walk to Checkpoint Charlie. It was a main check point between East and West Berlin, and rebuilt for historic/mostly tourist purposes, manned now with German actors in American uniforms. We skipped the museum as it was late and Emily was grumpy, but it was an interesting place to see, considering how different the area is today.

We left early the next morning. At the station I checked the timetables on the farhkarte machine to see how long it would take us to get to the airport. The train leaving in 1 minute would take a half an hour, so I paid quickly and we dashed up stairs and hopped on. Hopped on, I'm pretty sure, the wrong train. The ticket office was closed for renovations otherwise I would have asked for more information, but the airport train SURELY GOES STRAIGHT TO THE AIRPORT, RIGHT?

As I became more and more nervous realizing at first we were going west in stead of south, I finally found an opprtunity to squeeze over to the line map, and I figured we had to transfer at the next stop, far, far north west of our destination. We unboarded only to see exactly one building across the street from the rural stop, no way to cross the tracks, and no one working. We walked back to the train. I shouted to the conductor to see if it was still going to the flughafen and he nodded while looking at us like the huge morons we clearly were. What we didn't understand was it was taking all the stops first, taking a break at this random town in the middle of nowhere, then going to the airport. We spent the next 40 minutes looking for all of our documents, repacking things and preparing to run. We made our flight by ten minutes!

I really wish we had more time there. Part of the chaos and poor planning was only having a few days to prepare for the trip and not a lot of time to absorb any reading material. Some places are fine for just showing up and seeing what you can find-Berlin is not that city. It's enormous, to start. I wish I understood the public transportation system better, and had more days to eat at locals-only restaurants, shop at vintage boutiques, raid the vegan grocery store, or even see the East Side Gallery. There is a lot happening in Berlin today, though it is impossible not to soak up its past at the same time. That's fine too, because I do want to know as much as I can about it's 20th century history, and in that I did all right.

Berlin, until we meet again.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Morrissey in Padova

Last night I took off for Padova to see El Moz. Alone. Because that's how you get close to the stage. If you've met me once you know my love of The Smiths and Morrissey and Brit Pop in general, and there was no way I was missing a show that close to my house. So this post is less travel/culture and more it happened in Italy and was the best. His fan base is notoriously devoted, and it was a strange that no one in the crowd tried to climb on stage and hug him before being dragged off by security. A show in Italy is definitely a different scene than Los Angeles.

His voice sounded exquisite, and despite a host of medical issues over recent years, looked and performed with his backing band better than when I last saw him play in 2007, when he was paunchy and sang an entire song lying on his back, out of breath and sick of everything.

Well, he's still sick of everything, but it was channeled into an excellent, tight two hours of mostly new material with dynamic sound and lighting design. Though he began with some early stuff; "Hand in Glove," "Every Day is Like Sunday," it was mostly a show for fans who know to expect high drama, graphic animal activism, and social and political issues off more recent albums. He played, now that I'm thinking about it, almost everything off of World Peace is None of Your Business. ("Our last, lost album 'life is sick and disappointing and it only gets worse,'" He quipped to cheers.)


Credit for the photo above: Gran Teatro Geox







The playlist, in no particular order, as far as I can remember-there is one I'm missing:
Hand in Glove
Everyday is Like Sunday
I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris
Speedway
Istanbul
Trouble Loves Me
The Bullfighter Dies
I'm Not a Man
Kiss Me A Lot
World Peace is None of Your Business
You Have Killed Me
Kick the Bride Down the Aisle
One of Our Own
Staircase at the University
Meat is Murder (newer version, with undercover video)
Encore:
One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell

"Remember me. Thank you," He said before launching into the encore. He ripped his shirt off, threw it to the crowd, said ciao and vanished. Fantastico.
Morrissey gets a lot of eyerolls in the media for being a grouchy old queen who won't shut up about his politics, but at this late point in his career he's still an important voice in popular culture. People are still paying attention, clearly. Gender issues, ceaseless wars, factory farming, even universal themes of love and despair are as necessary as ever to address; he's still running around, and his music is still the soundtrack to my life.





















Tuesday, October 14, 2014

London Part the Third, Salisbury, and Stonehenge

For Cody's half of the UK trip he wanted to go to London and Stonehenge. We were priced out of London's hotels and after a bit of panic as everthing else was already booked, remembered the gloriousness of Airbnb and found a little flat in charming Pimlico for hundreds less. Hundreds! It's crazy how much dates matter when booking. Late in the high season is still the high season. But, we did the best we could with the time we had.

For our full day in London we started out at Westminster Abbey. It's a sort of shorthand for English history and literary achievements and it's absolutely required. It's so easy to spend a couple hours looking around and I'm glad I got to drag Cody there.

Rest in peace, Cody's new hat. Curses to whoever picked it up and didn't return it to lost and found.

From there we walked over to Trafalgar Square for some takeaway Mexican goodness.

After our no big deal, just eating lunch on a staircase in London like its something we do everyday break, we headed over to the Diana Memorial Playground. It was so breezy and sunny, and everyone was barefoot and free, even the grownups. I love it. Its Peter Pan theme is so magical.

With time running short we dashed over to the British Museum so Cody could see the Egyptian exhibit. Almost like I planned it that way, Emily fell asleep just before we arrived. Cody for no reason at all (I was asking annoying questions and he wanted to really absorb everything) was all "hey, how about we meet back here in an hour?" *shrug* I'm not really into antiquities the same way Cody is, and considering the museum is free, I was content to nosh on a scone and zone out a while.

Reading about the Rosetta Stone.

When we met up near closing time, he took me back to see a really cool false doorway from an Egyptian tomb.

From there we walked through the crazy-packed crowds along Oxford toward Regent Street and down to Carnaby. It was getting to be about dinner time by that point and the tantrum countdown had started, but with a cold realization we understood: nothing near Carnaby is fit to take a 3 year old to. Much like the Royal Mile and it's endless whisky bars, all that surrounded us were trendy gastropubs with tiny tables, and nothing cheap down the road at Piccadilly Circus. We called it a night and raced over to Pimlico, unsure of what to do but hoping for a place that served something other than booze. After some frantic walking and whining, we spotted an awesome pizzeria with a dedicated kids menu and activities. Hurray for Pizza Express, you saved our evening from cranky ruin! I never knew how much I would depend on the availability of easy short order restaurants before I had a kid.

So that wraps up our big day in London. I hope Cody got a feel for the city, but I think he was shortchanged in that he didn't get to see all the things and that we spent too much time just getting from one point to another. In hindsight I think rearranging our day based on opening hours and location-you know the logical thing-would have made our time flow better and feel less rushed.

Stonehenge

There are a half dozen ways to get to Stonehenge from London, and none of those ways make sense when looking at them on my computer. Stonehenge is in Amesbury, some 9 miles from the nearest train station. You can rent a car and drive directly to the site. You can take a train to Salisbury, transfer to a bus, then walk 2 miles to Stonehenge, which is what I was prepared for. You can pay for an all inclusive tour bus to take you there, buy your tickets, give you a guided tour, then visit Bath for a full day trip. All the info I saw made it seem like you just get to Amesbury and follow a trail for an hour and there you are, and it wasn't until a few days out I even found a site that clarifies that there is fact a new modern visitor's center with educational exhibits and a shuttle to the actual site from the the entrance. I assumed, which is always dangerous, that because Victoria Station is a big hub, that we could buy tickets to Salisbury. The ticket agent told us we would have to take a bus to Waterloo Station, where we could purchase our train and bus tickets to Amesbury. I didn't ask anymore questions and went to look for a bus ticket kiosk to get to Waterloo. Hmm. Maybe I can buy them from the driver like everywhere else? We got on the bus and the man said we had to buy them inside. I asked a security guard inside where the kiosk was. He said there weren't any, but to go back outside to the info counter, maybe they would know. I asked the info clerk where to get them.

"Here." *scowl*

"Two single fares, please?"

"We don't sell single fare tickets. You have to purchase a combined all day ticket. 9 pounds each."

"Nine?! Are you kidding? I just need to get across town! Once! Maybe twice, but it shouldn't cost more than lunch."

"18 pounds for both."

"Fine." *grumble rip off grumble*

We arrived at Waterloo and purchased our next set of tickets. A train was just about to leave, with Salisbury as a stop off. After consulting the ticket collector, he determined that we could get to Salisbury on his train, but we would have to transfer at *thick regional accent.* Where? *at thick regional accent* Or he could just upgrade us for another two pounds. That'll work.

On arrival at Salisbury, a very small city, there weren't any buses to be found. The ticket agent informed us we had been sold a city bus pass that doesn't go to Amesbury at all, and tersely informed us the sensible thing to do would be to buy another ticket for the local tourist hop on hop off bus directly to Stonehenge, and that he would yell at the Waterloo agent on our behalf. By that point, I didn't give a crap. Whatever. Whatever the easiest, least confusing mode of transportation is, we'd do it. Something like 12 GBP later, we were seated on a double decker with a tour of Salisbury, and a half hour after that, finally, we made it to the visitors center. It doesn't need to be this complicated. If you want to visit, please learn from my mistakes. It was a total hassle. To review: Take the train, Waterloo to Salisbury. Tourist bus to Stonehenge. Stonehenge bus run every hour. Pay on the bus.

So here's Stonehenge.

Emily, unimpressed.

The ditch in the background is a circle surrounding the henge, and the original site of older monumental stones. Over time things were moved and revamped into what you see today. Stonehenge is said to be about 4000 years old.

Also on the Stonehenge site are several ancient burial mounds. It says something about our human instinct to strive for immortality and it's ultimate impossibility that there are people so prominent in their own time, at least two full civilizations ago, that they deserved to be remembered for eternity. Yet here they lie and we have no idea who they were or what they did.

Salisbury

Emily fell asleep the moment the tour bus took off, so our planned dinner and exploration in town wasn't to be. Too bad, because it looked so English and a copy of the Magna Carta is there and blah blah blah. So we saw it from the bus:

Another adventure complete.