Thursday, July 1, 2010


During the two years I lived in India, I was exposed to more than a few Bollywood films, so I had some idea of what to expect when I went with a friend to see My Name is Khan - lots of color, dancing, music, over-the-top facial expressions, and the obligatory rain storm scene which is meant to imply sex between the protagonists. Yes, some of these elements were present in Khan and the storyline required major suspension of disbelief in some parts. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film more than I thought. Khan sparked controversy in India and tickets sold out immediately when it premiered in February at the Berlin Film Festival

Afterwards, we went for some excellent Vietnamese food in my neighborhood. We talked about the film and then our conversation turned to the subject of art and film critics. [My friend had been a colleague of the New Yorker film critic, Pauline Kael.] I admire many critics including Kael, and thought of them frequently as I reviewed films, plays, gallery shows, museum exhibitions, and music events in New York and Berlin. However, it occurred to me over the course of the dinner that I no longer want to comment on what others have created. I want to create something myself; therefore, I intend to spend the next several months on a project I began four years ago. 

Karen 5.0 has been a great experience, but now I need to focus my energy elsewhere. Fifteen months and 178 entries later, I thank you for reading. Tschüs!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Honor Among Thieves

Last night, I felt like a salmon swimming against the tide of 100,000 flag-waving (and -wearing), pop-eyed, whooping, vuvuzela-tooting Berliners flowing from Straße des 17 Juni (the long avenue that connects The Victory Column and The Brandenburg Gate). The televised victory of Germany over England advanced Germany to the quarterfinals of the World Cup and was the cause of major celebration in the streets. I'm not going to lie - I don't like watching most sports (tennis is an exception - I loved the "Marathon Match" at Wimbledon last week), but I admit to getting caught up in the excitement.

Nevertheless, I was happy for the silence at my destination, Kino Arsenal, a favorite Berlin venue. Here you can see film series that are categorized by countries of origin (e.g. Poland, Brazil, Mexico, India, or America); by director (e.g. Wim Wenders, Alfred Hitchcock, Andrej Wajda, Akira Kurosawa, or Roberto Rosselinni); or by time period (e.g. Mexican dramas from the 1940's, French films from the 1960's, Italian Neorealism, or American Westerns). If you happen to be a filmmaker yourself, you can get your  masterpiece professionally cleaned/restored there. You can rent some of the theater space within the venue to screen films for small groups. You can see films that are more esoterically grouped by their use of sound, color, or special effects. French director Robert Bresson's 1959 film, Pickpocket, was featured as part of the "use of sound" group. Aside from the barest minimum of dialogue, the sound of footsteps, and a few key scenes accompanied by beautiful orchestral pieces, the film is quiet.

The story is simple: a man wants to help his ailing mother and turns to pickpocketing to do it. He is a French pickpocket, though, so this means that he not only has intellectual discussions with like-minded individuals about the morality of crime (a la Raskalnikov in Crime and Punishment, as has already been noted), he even keeps a thoughtful journal of his activities! Added to this is the character's voice over which further confirms his inner turmoil. The strange, zombie-like beauty of both of the lead actors, Martin LaSalle (Michel) and Marika Green (Jeanne), reinforced the nihilistic feel of the film. 

I have to say that I learned quite a lot about pickpockets and their craft! Did you know that pinball is a good way to sharpen the reflexes? That daily finger exercises are good for manual dexterity? That there are countless creative ways to relieve someone of their wallet/purse/watch? That, when working in a team, sharing the winnings is best divvied up by a friendly game of cards? The best scenes in the film were the ones that showed the thieves at work. The ones which annoyed me showed Michel as he exited his dismal hovel of an apartment, leaving the door open in a most cavalier manner! After one or two scenes like this, I wondered if this was just carelessness on the part of the director, the character, or perhaps it was deliberate to show Michel's subconscious desire to get caught. That's why Edgar Allen Poe's The Telltale Heart came to mind, and when Michel interacted with the police inspector, I thought of the Les Miserables dynamic.

But all's well that ends well - mostly. Things got worse, then better, then worse again before the angelic, Pre-Raphaelite Jeanne redeemed Michel at the end. Pickpocket is a classic that served as an inspiration to director and screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Cat People, The Last Temptation of Christ). 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Night at the Opera

Years ago when I was teaching in Buenos Aires, an oil company executive (one of my many students) gave me a CD for my birthday - Richard Strauss Orchestral Songs Volume I - sung by English soprano Dame Felicity Lott. Last night, I had the good fortune to enjoy Ms Lott's performance at the Deutsch Oper. With Sir Neville Marriner conducting, the evening began with Ottorino Respighi's Fontane di Roma. Ms. Lott then took the stage to perform Benjamin Britten's Les Illuminations, followed by Maurice Ravel's lovely Scheherazade. The very appreciative Berliner audience called her back on stage five times! Finally, the orchestra played the suite from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier to conclude the program.

Manuel, if you're reading this, thank you again for that CD. 

Monday, June 21, 2010

Nine Hours in Leipzig

75 minutes, 19 Euros*, acres of farmland, poppies, a few storks, and lots of wind turbines separate Berlin from Leipzig, which is situated about 150 kilometers to the southwest. Arriving at the city's Hauptbahnhof was an experience in itself. Leipzig boasts the largest train station in Europe. It is filled with shops that stay open until 10 pm (even on Sunday!), bustles with activity, and is as clean as a whistle. 

I walked straight into the center of town to St. Nicholas Church, where the first freedom demonstrations took place in 1989. It was the last day of the Bach Festival, so the composer's music was featured in the mass yesterday. I looked up at the unusual mint-green and pink columns, designed to resemble palms. I don't think I've ever seen a church that was this organic, almost tropical. I crossed the street and entered Specks Hof, one of many old galleria-type shopping arcades in courtyards throughout the city. 

Emerging onto Reichs Strasse and heading west towards the Alte Rathaus, I first encountered the wedding-cake like Old Bourse. In front of this was a statue of Goethe, who came to Leipzig to study law. [Please visit this great site, courtesy of a native Leipziger, for an excellent pictoral tour of the city. For a few reasons, I have opted out of photo-taking and therefore rely on others to augment my words with pictures.] 

Nearby, Zeitgeschichtliche Forum (aka The DDR Museum) had just opened for the day. I had intended to spend just an hour there; instead, I spent more than two. This expertly-curated exhibition begins in the dark and ends in the light, literally and figuratively. The murky interior rooms tell the story of the formation of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). All manner of things accompany this section - vintage films, photographs, passports, recordings, letters, suitcases, clothing, cameras, and even a cannon. As the timeline moves forward to the present day, the visitor approaches the exterior part of the building, which is windowed and full of light. I suspect this was intentional, and if so, quite brilliant. Footage of the wall coming down, interviews, songs, and teletype replicas from the German Police sent to their headquarters tell the story of the events that led to the fall of the wall over 20 years ago. It was moving. 

Conveniently located next door to the museum was Auerbach's Keller, made famous by Goethe. While devouring a delicious plate of wild boar, potatoes, and red cabbage, it was easy to imagine the scene from Faust playing out here. I left just before an enormous tour group's arrival could spoil my reverie. 

Walking off those carbohydrates was a pleasure. Wandering through fairly empty streets (all shops were closed because it was Sunday, but most restaurants, cafes, and bars were open), admiring centuries-old intact buildings was like going back in time...until the moment when turning a corner brought me face-to-face with a dreary specimen of DDR architecture, all concrete and paint store reject colors. Leipzig was bombed during WWII, but certainly not to the extent that Berlin was. So, here you have that jarring mix of old and new. 

I kept up my search for the old and reached St. Thomas' Church, famous for once having had Johann Sebastian Bach as its Cantor. Mozart played here once. In a side room within the church, there is a display of instruments used during Bach's time. Portraits, bas reliefs, and other artwork adorn the otherwise austere interior of the church. I noticed that there would be a Bach concert at 6pm, but since my train left from across town at 7, I reluctantly had to let that idea go. 

At the Museum der bildenden Künste (Museum of Fine Arts), which opened in 1848 and houses artwork from the 19th century to the present, I purchased a ticket for the Neo Rauch exhibition, Begleiter (Companion). To celebrate the native Leipziger's 50th birthday this year, a retrospective of the artist's work is being exhibited at this museum and concurrently at the Pinakothek Der Moderne in Munich until August 15th. Rauch's paintings have fascinated me since 2007, when I first saw his show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In particular, one piece, Die Flamme (2007) disturbed me greatly. It was on loan from The Met and it had the same effect on me three years later in Leipzig. His other work in this show consisted of large, rather surrealistic (a la Magritte) paintings - some old and some new. In the same way that Edward Hopper was said to have painted his own face into all his figurative work, I found that many pieces contained a central figure with remarkably Rauch-like features. Rauch is a key member of The New Leipzig School, and it is clear that his work is informed by aspects of Social Realism, juxtaposed with more traditional influences. It was hard to take my eyes off many of the strangely beautiful paintings. 

In need of a major break, I got out of the tourist-filled town center, crossed the ring road, and found Luise, a cafe located in the Gottschedstraße (Sunset Boulevard). The street is lined with  many theaters, cafes, and bars, all filled with locals. I had a large kaffee mit milch, and continued reading Zadie Smith's 2000 novel, White Teeth, which I am utterly enjoying.

For my last stop, I visited the Museum in der Runden Ecke, aka "Museum in the Round Corner," aka the former Ministry of State Security (Stasi) headquarters in Leipzig. This was a fascinating but really depressing place, kept just as ugly and spiritless as it likely was when it was a functioning office. I rented an English audio guide, something I am usually loath to do. However, there were many details that I wanted to understand about this period in history. My German, though improving, is nowhere near that level yet. I found myself getting a bit queasy - even claustrophobic - looking at the interrogation rooms, spy cameras, and the countless files kept on citizens. It smelled like fear in there. With relief, I exited the building and went immediately to a park near the train station, sat on a bench in the sun, and watched some nice ladies feed some nice ducks. I had to do something to lift my spirits! 

I had time to grab a quick bite to eat at the station before the train left for Berlin. It was a great day trip out of the city and one that I recommend, whether you follow my itinerary or your own.

*InterConnex - If you plan to go by train from Berlin to Leipzig, do NOT get your tickets through Deutsch Bahn (DB). They will cost twice as much and your train will probably not be a direct one. Book online with InterConnex and pay half. The only drawback - and it is a minor one - is that you are limited to one or two trains per day. For instance, mine left Potsdamer Platz at 8:00am and arrived in Leipzig at 9:15. Coming back, I had to take the 6:55pm and it arrived in Berlin at 8:10pm.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

La Monnaie Vivante (Human Money)

On Thursday evening, I attended the opening performance of La Monnaie Vivante, an exhibition that took place from 7:30pm - 12:30am on 17-19 June. The venue was the Hebbel am Ufer 1, a classic old theater in Kreuzberg, and was one of the many events surrounding the opening of the Berlin Biennale. 

Originally conceived in a Paris dance studio in 2006 (and inspired by French writer, translator, and painter Pierre Klossowski's work of the same name), La Monnaie Vivante toured Belgium (2007) and London (2008). It was restructured this year in cooperation with Warsaw's Museum of Modern Art. 

We arrived at 7:30 pm. Instead of entering through the front doors, we were directed to the side entrance so that, like performers, we emerged onto the stage. The first thing we encountered was Mexican artist, Teresa Margolles' piece entitled In the Air (2003), a machine suspended from the ceiling which blew a continuous stream of bubbles. One guest slipped and fell on the watery residue from the bubbles and a young mother walked with her toddler through the bubbles. The latter was quite sweet, and it wasn't until later that I learned that the mixture used for the bubbles had been made with water used to wash the bodies of murder victims following their autopsies! The artist deliberately uses this mixture in her other work to call attention to the political and social violence of Mexico City. Probably for this reason, I immediately thought of the grisly passages from Roberto Bolaño's excellent novel, 2666.  

A rhythmic mechanical sound drew us stage right, where two women were busy working on a pair of sewing machines. This was Danish artist Jens Haaning's piece, entitled Näherei Nebtex (2010), a mini-Berlin sewing factory. By bringing it on stage, the artist confronts the audience with the repetitive reality while simultaneously hinting at the exploitation of factory workers. This theme was also evident in 111 Constructions Made with 10 Modules and 10 Workers (2004), a performance piece by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra in which 10 Polish construction workers arranged a series of large pieces of wood into different formations at precise intervals.

At this point, I decided to wander off the stage and into the balcony section in the audience. There were a few people here, including the Polish artist, Artur Żmijewski, who likely wanted a good vantage point from which to see/hear his contribution to La Monnaie Vivante. In his piece, entitled William Shakespeare: Sonette (2010), a Turkish woman on stage left read haltingly from a book of sonnets that had been translated from English into German. [In New York, I had seen a couple of the artist's films and at MoMA, I listened to him speak about his collaboration with the Israeli artist, Yael Bartana.]

With a good view of the orchestra pit, I could see musicians assembling. Fairly soon afterwards, a bizarre cacophony of sounds emerged. Ranging from traditional wind instruments, guitars, and an accordion to tin plates, rocks, whistles, and their own voices, the Scratch Orchestra (conceived by British composer Cornelius Cardew in 1968) created their sounds together at the direction of a conductor.  When the spirit moved them, some of the musicians would perform solos, much like a jazz piece, but with a more jarring aural effect.

A number of other artists contributed their work to La Monnaie Vivante, but I thought these were the most interesting. What I found particularly thought-provoking was that the boundaries between performer and audience were dissolved and that the audience (myself included) was always a bit unsure as to what would happen next and to what extent they would be involved. This element of discomfort heightened the sense that we were experiencing reality, in keeping with the theme of the Berlin Biennale. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Anfänge und Enden (Beginnings and Endings)

I dealt successfully with complicated visa, apartment, and insurance issues this week, mostly in German. As I prepare to leave Schoneberg and move to Prenzlauerberg in the former East Berlin, I'm a little sad because I have gotten to know people and places in my Kiez and I will miss them. Nevertheless, I look forward to exploring my new neighborhood and to getting a bicycle! Language classes began again this week as well and I have some fun classmates and teachers from now until mid-July. After that, my focus will be on writing my book. I've spent spring in Berlin, summer will be here next week, and I will spend at least part of the fall here. After that, who knows?  

Saturday, June 12, 2010

What's On in Berlin

There is a great deal going on this weekend in Berlin. The Biennale officially started on the 10th, the World Cup kicked off yesterday, and today, the Gay and Lesbian Fest began in my neighborhood. When faced with this many choices (in addition to the usual theater, music, and dance events throughout the city), it's hard to decide what to do. 

For me, though, it was pretty easy - I had already visited several of the Biennale venues on Wednesday after the press preview; I'm not interested in Fußball (though if I wanted to, I could watch every single one of the games in any number of pubs around town), and I just took a quick peek at the Gay and Lesbian Fest. In the end, I decided to spend a little time at one of the many satellite events attached to the Biennale - the launch of the second issue of the magazine The World According To at Salon Populaire. I talked briefly with the artist, Olaf Nicolai, and then looked around at the rest of the exhibition, which included work by Ryan Trecartin and Channa Horwitz. 

There are more Biennale-related events tomorrow, more World Cup games, and more Gay Pride, but if the weather is good, I think I might head to Wannsee with friends from my language class. I am ready to get out of the city and enjoy a little bit of nature!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What is Waiting Out There - Berlin Biennale 6

At the press preview for the 6th Berlin Biennale this morning, Curator Kathrin Rhomberg said that 50 percent of the pieces were commissioned specifically for the event. The 43 artists were asked to create work which reflected their visions of reality. In two of the three venues I saw (there are six in all - four in Kreuzberg and two in Mitte), film/video was the preferred medium. The Biennale runs from 10 June - 8 August.

At Orianenplatz 17 in Kreuzberg, American artist Phil Collins' powerful film, Socialism Today, featured a 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics GDR female gymnast. It ended with a grand display of Sozialismus, similar to the scary beautiful precision of the opening ceremonies we saw at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The gymnast spoke of grueling training sessions for 6-8 hours a day with little food. When her training ended, she began to eat normally, gained weight, and encountered problems trying to re-enter society as a young woman. The gymnast's mother said that if she had to do it over again, she would not have encouraged her daughter to train for the Olympics, but at the time, it was one of the only choices available to those who wanted some semblance of a life. As the gymnast's mother said these words, her daughter visibly choked up. I liked French artist Bernard Bazile's film, Les Manifs (The Demonstrations). In the same venue, Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa's C-Prints and films captured the reality of life in the French suburbs. 

For some reason, I had my own private shuttle service from Oranienstrasse to the next venue I visited - KW Institute for Contemporary Art.. This is the supporting organization for the Berlin Biennale and was founded by Klaus Biesenbach, the curator of the first Biennale and now Director of MoMA P.S.1 in New York. My Albanian driver and I wondered why the traffic was so bad and then we saw that there was a student demonstration blocking our route. The driver was angry not only because of the traffic back-up but also because he said that German students didn't know how good they had things - Albanians and other students paid many times the amount of tuition that German students did. I told him that I might very well be paying off my Master's degree until the end of my days.

I entered KW by descending a narrow staircase and then emerged into a giant space filled with a wooden structure that looked like the foundation for a house. Roosters and hens were part of this piece! One of the hens took a liking to my lizard-skin cowboy boots. Clucking, she made her way slowly over to where I stood and started pecking on them as I calmly stood and made some notes,  much to the merriment of the KW staff. I delicately moved away (not wanting to provoke or otherwise piss off the "art"), and continued upstairs to view other organic work by the same Kosovar artist - a very interesting one by the name of Petrit Halilaj. Also at KW, I liked Shannon Ebner's work with symbols and letters and John Smith's 2001 film, Frozen War, in which he did a voice-over commentary on a news clip about the Afghan war.

Finally, I walked over to the Alte Nationalgalerie to see the Adolph Menzel exhibition, which was curated by Michael Fried at Kathrin Rhomberg's invitation. According to Fried, Menzel (1815-1905) was the best Realist artist and draftsman, and he assured us that spending time with the work "...will tell you all you need to know about art." Fried chose 36 of the artist's drawings, gouaches, and paintings. He said that the Realists depicted "...not what the world looks like, but what it is like to live in the world." The works he chose were beautiful, funny, sad, and ghoulish - from delicate portraits to anatomical drawings to landscapes to grand Fredrich the Great paintings. I really liked the fact that the Biennale included the work of an artist who was Contemporary for his time. I explored more of the Menzel collection in the gallery created especially for his work and found especially interesting a painting from 1859, Studentenfackelzug, in which students are marching with torches. It reminded me of the demonstration I had witnessed earlier - plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Well-Tempered Hund

Of all the places I've lived in, I have never seen dogs that are as well-trained as those in Berlin. I'm assuming that hounds from Hamburg to Frankfort, and from Leipzig to Dusseldorf are equally well-behaved, though I don't know this for a fact. Frequently off-leash, walking impatiently ahead of or dawdling behind their owners, or waiting expectantly outside shops for their owners to reappear, Berliner hunde go about their business in a civilized manner, unfazed by other dogs, animals, or people.

When I recall the stressed-out creatures I frequently observed in New York, I am convinced that it is the city itself which shapes both humans and animals. So there IS such a thing as a Berlin dog, a Paris dog, a New York dog, just as the the denizens of those cities have their own distinct characteristics

Monday, June 7, 2010

Small Victories

Today, I registered my address at the Town Hall in Schöneberg (where JFK made his famous speech) and asked about extending my tourist visa; requested special care at the dry cleaner's for a pair of pants; asked about bank transfer/withdrawal fees and other miscellany at one of my banks; got a really beautiful, inexpensive haircut and color at a nearby Friseur; and arranged to see a few more apartments in different neighborhoods. 

So what, you say? In New York, I completed tasks like this on auto-pilot. In Berlin, I am confronted with doing these things for the first time in another country and doing them in a language I didn't know two months ago. The mundaneness is about the same, but the sense of accomplishment here is much greater. 

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Biking the Berlin Wall

Thursday was the first truly summer-like day we've had in a month.  Of course, it was essential to be outdoors, but instead of my usual walk or run, I chose to be on a bike for 18 kilometers, following the remnants of the Berlin Wall (in a few of its four phases). Our fun group was led by a knowledgeable and entertaining guide in the form of Pieter from Holland, courtesy of Berlin on Bike. Starting at the Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauerberg, we headed north to Bornholmer Strasse, the checkpoint where thousands of East Berliners began to cross over to the West. Nothing remained of the checkpoint; instead, we saw the pitched tents of a soon-to-be circus, complete with camels grazing in the grass. Utterly surreal. 

From Bornholmer Strasse, we headed south to Mauerpark, where a large, graffiti-covered portion of the Wall still stands. On a stretch of Bernauer Strasse, the Wall was constructed in the wee hours of the morning on August 13, 1961, immediately in front of the doors of a row of tenement houses. This forced many of the occupants to make a split decision - either remain in their houses (and therefore, in East Berlin) or jump out the windows, taking few if any belongings and flee to the West. At the Berlin Wall Memorial, we saw a watchtower, which Pieter told us was actually purchased for $2,500 on eBay and was not even from Germany. We peered through chinks in the Wall to see a portion of the infamous Death Strip, which stood between the two Walls (one for the East and one for the West), and which was continually raked so that soldiers could check for footprints of potential escapees. I had only thought that civilians tried to flee to the West, but many soldiers attempted the same. The most famous was Conrad Schumann (above right), although he later committed suicide, allegedly because of the paranoia that continued to plague him in the years after his successful escape. Some tried to hide in the nearby cemetery or the church which stood in between the two walls, while others successfully tunneled under the streets. 

Next, we stopped at the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, whose walls formed part of the border between East and West Berlin. According to the web site, "Laid out in 1748, [the cemetery] was originally [meant to serve] the nearby Invalidenhaus, a hospital built for officers and soldiers disabled in military service. It opened to generals after the war against Napoleon in 1813, and starting at the end of the 19th century, civilians could be buried there, too." There is also a memorial here dedicated to Günter Litfin, the first person to be killed while attempting to flee to West Berlin.

We rode to a high point from which we could see the Reichstag, Potsdamer Platz, the TV Tower, the Spree, the Swiss Embassy, Hauptbahnhof, and the Federal Chancellery (aka "The Washing Machine" because of its appearance). Passing Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust memorial, we paused in the nondescript parking lot that was the site of Hitler's Bunker. In the lovely Gendarmenmarkt, we observed the French Protestant Church, the German Dom, and the Konzerthaus, before pedaling north to cross Unter den Linden. We passed through Museuminsel and lively Hackescher Markt and made our way back to the bike depot in Prenzlauerberg. 

My smug runner's pride began to loosen its grip that day, as I acknowledged the hard work that cycling entailed and more importantly, the joy of having the wind in your hair. Today is Saturday and the weather is still gorgeous, so I am going out for a run. addition to contemplating which of the Sees I will visit with friends this weekend (Wannsee? Muggelsee?), I will be thinking about buying a used a bike, especially since I intend to remain in Berlin longer. There's no need for a wall separating running and cycling, is there?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Speaking of German...

I finished the first phase of my intensive German course today. I have signed on for another six weeks of fun, which will begin late next week. Until then, I give you my favorite German words thus far, chosen mostly because of the way they sound, but in some cases, for what they mean:

Quark - curds
Quatsch - rubbish, nonsense
Kugelschreiber - pen
Erdbeeren - strawberries
Heidelbeeren - blueberries
Blitzableiter - flash of lightning
Glühbirne - literally, "glowing pear," aka light bulb
Brötchen - literally, "little bread," or roll, bun, etc. of which there are many varieties here
Zwiebel - onion
Hell - light, bright
Handy - cell phone
Staubsauger - literally, "dirt sucker,"aka vacuum cleaner
Taschentücher - packet of tissues 
Schlüsselanhänger - key chain/key fob
Schmetterling - butterfly
Wimper - eyelash
Wunderschön - overwhelmingly, stunningly beautiful
Mensch - literally, "man," but used in many ways, e.g. "Mensch, what the hell are you doing?"
schmerzlos - painless
zwölf - twelve
fünf - five
Vogel - bird
Kinderspielplatz - children's playground
Krankenhaus - hospital
Schatz - treasure
Armbanduhr - wristwatch
Schmuck - jewelry
Gift - poison
Mist - literally, "animal dung," but used to express minor irritation, e.g. "Mist, I forgot to do my homework!"

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Runners and Cyclists - A Love Story

The Czech auto manufacturer, Škoda announced plans last month to extend its partnership with Tour de France until 2013. This morning, the Škoda Velothon Berlin began at 9:00 am at the Brandenburg Gate. I knew something was up as I headed towards my new favorite running area in the Tiergarten. More than the usual number of Sunday morning cyclists whizzed past, dressed in jockey colors with numbers pinned to them. 

I generally run on the sidewalk, and a few cyclists ride along on the path specifically designated for them (also on the sidewalk). Sometimes, more bikers join me on the sidewalk because there isn't room for them on the bike path. If you add confused, ambling tourists into the mix, the situation can be quite perilous. I can't tell you the number of times I have nearly been run over. And then the cyclists have the gall to glare at you - the runner - when you have been making it a point to stay off their precious path! 

Well, not today. As I started from the Siegessäule, following the bikers eastward to their starting point, it hit me - now was my chance to take advantage of a rare situation! I realized that the participants in the 60K/120K Velothon had had their route cleared for them and of course, it was entirely ON THE STREET. This meant that I could potentially have the sidewalk all to myself. Sure enough, aside from the random, non-racing biker who happened along peacefully on the bike path, a few small groups of cheering spectators, and a few polizei posted along the way, the sidewalk was clear. As the first batch of elite riders flew by like a swarm of locusts, followed by successive waves of riders released from the starting point in intervals, I felt a little love for the cyclists and even wished them well. Tomorrow, though, may be another story...

Keystone Editions - Fine Art Printmaking in Kreuzberg

The art of printmaking is alive and flourishing in Kreuzberg. Last night, Keystone Editions celebrated the launch of its workshop on the ground floor of a historic industrial loft building on the bank of the Landwehrkanal. The range of work on view included prints by Jim Dine and William Kentridge, by Indigenous Australian artists and Kalahari San (Bushmen) of Botswana, and by other artists from South Africa, Ireland, and Germany. [I urge you to visit the Keystone Editions web site, which is one of the best I have seen; it explains who they are and what they do much better than I could hope to. There are also wonderful photos and images of the artists and their work.] 

Several artists discussed why printmaking continues to be a vital, exciting medium. The ancient machinery and processes used to create prints have not changed a great deal over time, so it is really the artists' innovation which keeps the tradition alive. Canadian artist 
Sarah Dudley and German artist Ulrich Kühle (master printers trained at The Tamarind Institute and founders of Keystone Editions), described some of their creative collaborations with international artists. German artist Thomas Eller, and American artist Nicholas Kashian (who has previously worked with the Keystone Founders) emphasized the relevance of the art form. Kashian recalled being fascinated by his footprints left in the snow. Perhaps we are all printmakers - whether footprints in the snow, a finger traced through a foggy window, words on a page, paint on a canvas, notes on sheet music, or graffiti on a wall, we are compelled to leave a sign that we were here. 

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Room and the Chair

On a quiet corner in leafy Prenzlauerberg, Cafe Hilde hosted former Washington Post journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Lorraine Adams, who read from her latest novel, The Room and the Chair. The story takes place in Afghanistan, Iran, and Washington DC, and follows the lives of strong central female characters -  Mary flies an F16 and Mabel is a Washington DC socialite and journalist who is married to a character based on Bob Woodward, with whom Adams has worked. The passages she read were compelling and I was also intrigued by her comments in the interview which followed the reading. editor Jessa Crispin asked Adams why she had left journalism to write novels, to which Adams responded "...I wanted to write fiction so that I could tell the truth."

The turning point for this decision came during research for her first novel, Harbor, a story about an Algerian refugee living in America. Interviewing real Algerian refugees, she was so moved by their stories that she turned away from journalism to tell their story as she felt it should be told, outside the restrictions of a traditional newsroom. Adams said that the Internet has been a great leveler of information providers long regarded as the only legitimate sources of data (i.e. newspapers) and she advocated blogs. She expressed the hope that people would move beyond thinking in terms of non-fiction (as if only "facts" were of importance) and fiction ("made-up" stories). Novels should play a larger role in people's lives today, Adams stated, because it is often there that real truths emerge.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Henry and Virginia

On one of the loveliest mornings in Christendom, I woke up and decided to go jogging. It had been a couple of weeks and though my recent major walking sprees have been great exercise, I felt the need to RUN. I headed toward the Siegessäule, which is now caged within a latticework of scaffolding until the end of the year. I am glad I saw The Victory Column last month when it could still be seen in all its glory. 

The first 10-15 minutes of running for me are usually a big hurdle to overcome. One of our marathon coaches told us years ago that anyone can run a marathon - you just have to get your mind beyond the pain. And this is true. I have always hated running, and don't like it that much even now, yet I do it more for the mental rather than physical triumph I feel when I get past that first 10-15 minutes when it is so easy to give up. Once the engine warms up, though, it is another story and I can - and do - go for miles, thinking of many things or of nothing at all. Sometimes it's like a Boggle game of thoughts bouncing around up there until the words get settled. 

From Siegessäule, it was a straight line towards the Brandenburg Gate 2 kilometers away. As I ran, I thought of two books I had recently finished - Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, two books whose subject matter and authors couldn't be more outwardly different. Woolf was a staunch feminist and Miller was a misogynist, but maybe not entirely. They both lived more or less during the same years outside the States - Woolf in London and Miller in Paris. Both filled pages with wild words and fantastic imagery, both believed in living life to the fullest, and  - this is what got me thinking that they were really not all that different - they were both obsessed with food and shelter. Miller was hungry for most of his life and Woolf was anything but because of a 500 pound per annum legacy. But both of them described in detail meals they had eaten or hoped to eat. And they both strongly believed that having a stable roof over their heads was essential to the creative process.   

The colors were bright this morning and there was not much traffic. Just before I reached Brandenburg Gate, I had the strangest sensation and the area suddenly transformed before my eyes into the sepia-toned photo I like on one of those postcards of 1910 Berlin. Right then, all seemed right with the world, perhaps due to that bizarre visual experience or the endorphins that had kicked in by then. Six kilometers later and home again, I hoped that the exquisite weather would hold out for the rest of the day. May has been a rough month for Berliners.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time, an American writer had the opportunity to be part of an art experience called Once Upon A Time (Campfire Stories), "...a walking and story-telling series by Heimo Lattner and guests, which [consists of] walk[ing] through the city in search of people and stories...and returning with them to the site of THE KNOT... [The] stories are collected and added to throughout the duration of The Knot in Warsaw, Berlin, and Mumbai, the three locations of The Promised City project. Relationships between the individual, the group, and the place of interaction are explored." 

On the U2 train headed towards the first meeting point at Eberswalder Strasse, the writer saw for the second time in two months the man who sells Motz, the Berlin newspaper produced and distributed by homeless people. This man has trained his dog to stand at one end of the car with the paper in its mouth, while the man stands at the other and explains what the paper is. The dog drops the paper at the feet of those who buy it. Each time I've seen this guy, he makes sales.

At Eberswalder Strasse, the writer met with several other participants and three of them went ahead to take the S-Bahn to Oberspree. On this train the writer, her two companions, and other passengers were "controlled" (checked) by two plain-clothes people whose job it is to bust people for riding without tickets - the penalty is  40 Euros on the spot and they have heard all the excuses before. On the previous night, the writer told a German friend that she sometimes rides without a ticket and for the past two months, has never been checked. However, after the conversation with her German friend (who has never ridden without a ticket and was amused at the writer's cavalier attitude), a general feeling that her luck might be running out, AND the fact that it was a holiday weekend, the writer was glad she had the good sense to purchase a ticket that morning. 

In all, ten people gathered at Oberspree station. The day was sunny and warm, and the group set off in good spirits, perhaps a bit unsure of what lay ahead, but not minding this. Heimo gave the group index cards and pens and instructed the participants to write thoughts as they occurred, with the only condition being that all of the thoughts should begin with the phrase "once upon a time." 

The first area explored was Adlershof, a Science, Technology, and Media Park. The group wandered through the campus and saw the Max Born Institute, buildings with multi-colored Venetian blinds, others with windows that closed automatically as people approached, an enormous 1930's era wind tunnel for testing airplane engines, and even an outdoor sound installation called Air Borne.  All the streets were named for famous scientists.

Immediately following this, the group came to Johannisthal, an experimental living community where the homes were made of organic and conventional building materials. Sheep grazed in an enclosed meadow, children played, gardens bloomed, and the overall effect was rather surreal. A protected nature conservancy was the neighborhood's front yard. Sign posts indicated the kinds of wildlife that could be found there - foxes, rabbits, birds, and schmetterlinge (butterflies), one of the writer's favorite German words. 

From the bucolic to the industrial - the group made their way to an abandoned factory site, entering through a break in the barbed wire fence. Buildings in various stages of decay were covered in graffiti, broken glass littered the ground, and nature had begun to reclaim its territory. Exiting this area by climbing a fence at the other end of the compound, the group then made their way through another peaceful residential area along a canal and then through Königsheide, a historically significant forest, which was the site of confrontations dating back to the 1600s. Today, it is important because of its plant and animal life. The group heard a cuckoo and saw some magpies and jackdaws (kafka in Czech). 

Through another neighborhood and crossing Hermanstrasse, the group entered a park with a Protestant cemetery to the south and an overgrown area to the north. The photo above was taken here. The weary group consisted of a German engineer, a German architect, a German artist, a French artist, a Greek artist, an English artist, two American artists, the Austrian artist, Heimo (who took the photo), and an American writer rather overdressed for a 20km trek.

At the end of the path was a vista that appeared to open into the sky - this was not far from the truth. When the group reached the end of the path, they stepped onto the tarmac of the Tempelhof Airfield. This historic airport was closed in October 2008, but opened again on May 8th as a park, the largest in Berlin. With thousands of skaters, joggers, walkers, runners, football players, and kite-flyers, it was one of the best uses of space the group could think of. Wunderschön! (another of the American writer's favorite German words) At the other end of the airfield was The Knot, which is where the group said its goodbyes after a most unusual and enjoyable day. [Click here for a 16-second video of a 20K walk that took six hours; it is courtesy of one of the participants who intermittently shot footage of the sky via a camera attached to his backpack.]
                                                               THE END