Saturday, 18 July 2009

City Culture: Berlin and London

Well, Aberdeen was simply lovely, and I enjoyed mornings on my roof, reading and thinking of culture. And as my thoughts chased conclusions, it became clear that it would be a good idea to explore culture in some other cities. Aberdeen has its charms, but I know the place well and didn't wish contempt to set in; of importance also: work was quiet and free time was mine on a plate. So conclusions were reached: Berlin and London I would go. Berlin is home of techno and walls, plus young Americans Mary and Carlos, two people not strangers to me. London is home of the Queen and Boris, plus my newlywed cousin and her husband, the latter two also not unknown personally. And thus, without a word to my work (who would probably not like it if I was to disappear to foreign cities when I'm supposed to be available) I snapped up some lovely plane and train tickets and set off on a young man's voyage.

To Edinburgh first, where my flight was. Edinburgh was glowing with heat and sunshine, packed full of jaunty tourists, and I had a splendid afternoon and evening enjoying drinks and looking at girls. My flight was the next morning, but at the sensible time of 11am. To Berlin? No, to Cologne.

I've been to Cologne before, for the 2008 World Cup. While it is true the game I saw there is the now-legendary 0-0 between Switzerland and Ukraine, two nations apparently desperate for dire loss in exactly equal measures, I was also graced with the stupendous Cologne Cathedral. This is an absolute beast of a monument, absolutely dominating the city as though a gigantic dragon nestled in the centre. Completely out of proportion with its surroundings, it isn't just that it is massive, it is that is conveys the very aura of colossal majesty. And yet, size is not its only grace, for it is also a work of art, a gothic masterpiece of astonishing perfection and detail. The following picture is a mere tiny sample.

I love it. Cologne Cathedral is one of the best buildings I have ever seen.

My time there was brief, however. Cologne was merely a three-hour stopover between Edinburgh and Berlin, and much of that time was spent trying to figure out the uncooperative train ticket machine. Thank God for young girls. I say that, on this occasion, because one helped me with the baffling options presented on the machine. If I could have thanked her with a kiss, I would have, but perhaps sensing this she didn't hang about for my gratitude.

Off to Berlin then, my first time there but with a generous portion of good reports to follow. I was met at the airport by young Mary, so it was a good start. Mary is a friend from my days in Korea, and is in now in Berlin doing a mixture of English teaching and internet stuff I can't pretend to understand. With her is her boyfriend Carlos, a fellow American, who also does internet stuff I can't pretend to understand. They seem to get paid for their internet stuff too, something I thought was an urban myth. Making money from the internet?

I was veering on the peckish side by the time we arrived at their spacious and charming apartment, so to fulfill my every desire we found a little place with seats outside and I had a royal dose of German sausages and beer. This was precisely what I was after. Further beers seemed a good idea, and we began on this path, but the sound of popping and banging piqued our interest: fireworks. We chased the sound, and soon we had sight of the greens, blues and whites, among other mainstream colours, filling the sky. This took us into a park, and alongside the whirring and banging, we could hear some grooving: music. A beat and shuffle, somewhere not too deep in the park, and after manouevring some dark paths (for the fireworks gave us scant light) we found ourselves at an impromptu party. A rave, one would have called it in 1990. There were maybe 100 people, assembled at the nub of a hillock, facing a tent with DJ, which was set in front of the still-distant (and purpose unknown) fireworks. Each time the fireworks exploded, the crowd did likewise in appreciation.

This pleasant scene - which included the capturing of a beer - lasted for perhaps an hour or so, but there were further plans for the night. Tickets to a nightclub had been secured, for a techy-glitch band called Mouse On Mars, very well renowned in knowledgeable circles. Alas, all the walking had done in Mary, and she was an invalid, but like the soldier shot down, she insisted her comrades went without her.

Thus we did. And the club - Club Maria - was most to my taste: dark, intimate (though still sizeable) and with character. I had several beers. After a live band played, the main support, a man called "T Raumschimscieemeherirer" (or something like that), played. Gosh, he was ferocious. Tech-punk-mania, I might describe it. And then Mouse on Mars came on for a while and pressed laptops and made a hell of a noise. Here they are (you'll have to imagine the sound - try gurgling):

By this time all this fandango was over, it was 5am, and I was somewhat tired. But Mary had slept and healed her wounds, and contacted us, and we all decided to go for breakfast. A splendid idea, although when breakfast turned out to be about a 2 hour round trip away I was less sure.

Nonetheless, breakfast was very tasty. I even had caviar; yes, really. I was at the point of passing out though. This photo doesn't lie.

Eventually, at 10am, we got back to the apartment and I got rest. A little. I was on the couch in the living room, which had very big windows but no curtains. It was somewhat light, and warm. I think I managed 90 minutes.

But no matter, for Sunday was a more gentle day. Myself and Mary went to a flea market in a park. This was a terrific flea market with all kinds of curios, and if I lived in Berlin would be here every week, stuffing my home full of remarkable junk.

I didn't buy anything for fear of getting carried away, but Mary bought a quasi-table, a vinyl record warped into a shell, a book about the past and future of Berlin written in the 1970s, and a purse. Here they are, as posed by myself (the beer was a temporary bonus to the display).

In the park, which was boisterous and fun, a man had set up a karaoke machine, a regular occurrence it seems. Quite a crowd had gathered. There was great enthusiasm. At one point, a marching band appeared, played the YMCA, and the crowd erupted.

We went for dinner after that, and enjoyed a naan-pizza hybrid, one I would like to see more widespread in the world. From then it was a quiet night, as I am getting old and need my sleep.
This I got, and the next day was tourist day. So, after a fabulous pizza (authentic Italian, though sadly without stuffed crust), I went to see the Berlin Wall with Mary. You may have heard of this wall, as it once divided Berlin into two halves: free world and Communism. I think it's a terrific idea and would like to see it implemented a lot more, but others disagree with me, and in 1989 they took it down. But some of it still stands. Sadly, the Wall, for all its historical significance, is just a wall, and a scrappy graffiti-covered one at that.

I'm very much in favour of historical preservation, and respect for antiquities, but the Berlin Wall pushes me to the limit. It is ghastly and ugly and without anything to redeem it architecturally. If I was head of Berlin council, I'm afraid I wouldn't be trying to preserve it. But I'm not, and whoever is had decided to repaint it, with "nicer" pictures over the graffiti. Mary was appalled this, believing the graffiti to be of historical worth. I don't know what to think. The graffiti was ugly, the new pictures were mostly average, and the wall doesn't have much going for it. Bulldoze it in the night, I say.

I hope they don't bulldoze the following, though:

Or this either:

Allowing Mary to go and do some work, I visited the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag alone. These are good buildings. I would have got a good front-view photo of the Brandenburg, but they had a stage show set up with live music, and lots of people. The Reichstag had lots of people also, with the queue about an hour to get in, so I chose not to, and just enjoyed looking at it. A neo-classical building built, I believe, in the late 19th century, it fairly recently got Norman Foster to rebuild its destroyed central dome. I like Foster's style usually, but I think his glass and metal dome a little incongruous for this grand, stone building. Like making a beautiful woman wear a silver showercap.

After a little searching, I then found the Holocaust Memorial. For those of you clued up on your history, you may recall the Germans were a little naughty for some the 20th Century, although they seem very nice these days. Anyway, I'll moderate my words, because I'm hoping to get my blog published and become one of Oprah's recommended reads, and I don't think she's big on Holocaust humour. And the Memorial was suitably on the heavier side of life too. Resolutely non-flashy, it was simple, very effective, and genuinely disconcerting when wandered into the midst of.

Next, it was Berliner Dom time. This is a big cathedral, and I like big cathedrals. It has a disappointing history though: built in the late 19th century after lots of falling-outs and financial wranglings, what we see is kind of a compromise, and they never went the full hog with the plans. It's still a great building, but it's disappointing when you realise - as you did upon seeing its small museum inside - it could have been so much better.

It had a great crypt, with loads of grand coffins of kings, princes, and that kind of folk. And lots of little baby coffins too. I can make jokes about dead babies, because that's socially acceptable these days. However, on this occasion, I choose not to.

And so, effectively, ended Berlin jaunt. I had a final meal with Mary and Carlos after, and then it was a plane to London the following morning. I flew Ryannair, my first experience with them. Oh dear, they're not very good. Cheap, yes, on time, yes, comfortable, classy, professional, God no. The flight was rampacked, there was no way to sit comfortably, and they sold scratchcards onboard - what? At least the flight attendants seemed to be enjoying themselves (to the exclusion of all else).

In London, I was there to see my cousin and her husband, but first of all, the British Museum. It has a collection of artefacts from all around the world, and I've been keen to see it for some time. It's got little Easter Island men, stuff nicked/saved from the Parthenon, lots of Egypt stuff, the Rosetta Stone, and tons of pottery. And lots more. The British Museum is great.

I met with my cousin upon her finishing work, at 5.30pm, and had several beers with her and her colleagues. Several, oh yes. Her husband joined us, and we had several more beers. Several more, oh yes. The plan for the evening was to see a band called "The Twang". When I asked my cousin what kind of music they were, she said "They're... a band..." and I couldn't get anything further. It turned out they were jangly-indie-ladrock, something I would usually cross a street to avoid, but the combination of the good company, the good venue, the good atmosphere and enthusiastic crowd, and of course the several beers made for a very enjoyable gig. We then went out an had more beers. Details become hazy, but I recall having a genuinely terrific night. I don't recall the following photos, which were two of about fifty taken on the subway back.

I woke up in a lovely big double bed the next morning, after my first full sleep in days, and felt surprisingly healthy. I had a daytime plan: visit the British Museum again, and this I did. Later in the afternoon, I met with two old friends, Burness and Rosie. To give a one-line summary of either character cannot be done, so you must simply assume they are both pleasant individuals. Poor Burness had broken his collarbone in three places in a mountain biking accident, and was in considerable pain. Nonetheless, he was still going to a Nine Inch Nails concert later that evening. I enjoyed a few splendid drinks and banter with them, before meeting again my cousin, her husband, and my aunt and uncle, for a pizza. Drinks followed, but I could see my poor cousin and husband wilting as they had had a full day's work after last night's session, whereas I'd slept fitfully and spent the day savouring world culture.

I left them to catch my sleeper train, departing at just before midnight, but had enough time to catch a pint. There I did a good deed. I got chatting to a gentleman, who it transpired was in the process of emails and phonecalls to various people, including his wife, as he'd just returned from Dubai and all his cards were cancelled. It seemed he needed his cards not just to get money, but to retrieve the train tickets bought. So, my good deed on 2009: I lent him the money, £80. He promised to pay me back. I have no doubt his situation was genuine, so we will see not just if he is honest, but if the world is ultimately a good and just place. If I don't receive the money, I will lose my faith in man, and if I do receive the money I'm going to pour gin over a hooker.

And that is that. My sleeper was fine, though could have done with curtains, but was much more civilised than flying, which is barbaric. I am safe at home, in an especially grey Aberdeen, but not for very long, as at 6am tomorrow I'll be flying away for a short jaunt in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Just a wild guess, but I think they may be a little different from Berlin and London.

1 comment:

Eileen said...

Fantastic photoshopping on Koln Catherdral