13 February 2018

My GVI Experience as a Volunteer - Part 2

I really wanted to love my experience with GVI (Global Vision International). The idea of doing volunteer work in exotic locations, helping vulnerable communities sounds so rewarding. However, my disappointment with the organization began as soon as I entered the house in which I'd be residing for two weeks. Lizzie from Scotland, 24 years old, and in training to be a GVI manager, had just fetched me and two other volunteers, Caroline and Lottie, from the Cape Town airport. It was a delightful midsummer January afternoon and all three of us were animated on the 45 minute drive to Gordon's Bay. But as soon as I stepped into the townhouse in the gated complex called Journey's End, my spirits plummeted. Though upmarket, with modern finishes like granite kitchen counters and porcelain tiled floors, it was the unbelievable shabbiness and lack of cleanliness that shocked me. Dirty, cluttered kitchen counters, unswept, grimy floors, unwashed dishes, filthy tea towels hanging limply on the stove handle, and upstairs, the dingy carpet was caked with dirt.

Lizzie showed 53 year old Caroline from London and me to an untidy room furnished with three bunkbeds. "This is your bed," she said to me, pointing to a top bunk bed. "And that one's yours," she said to Caroline as she pointed to the top bunk against the opposite wall.
Too shocked to speak, I just observed.
"And who else sleeps in this room?" asked Caroline, unsmiling, taut-faced.
"Zach, a 20 year old from the US, and Lesley Ann, a 19 year old. She's local and is with her family for the weekend."
My heart pounded with fury. I looked up at Lizzie, and said, "I committed to this program only after getting the assurance that I would have only one roommate, close to my age. I am not going to sleep in this room."
She shrugged. "I'm new here. I just started 2 months ago. The manager, Tilda, is away in Sweden and will only be returning on Tuesday. There is nowhere else for you to sleep since we are dealing with bed bugs in Mont Blanc, our other accommodation."
Caroline and I stared at her with dropped jaws. Bedbugs? Lizzie's face was expressionless.
When we stepped out of the room I glanced at the other two bedrooms upstairs. "That's Tilda's room," Lizzie said, pointing to one. "And this is mine."

She turned to go. "I'll give you a few minutes to settle in and then we'll go to Mont Blanc to go over some rules."

When I checked out the two bathrooms I was horrified at the stained toilet seats and filthy shower stall littered with shampoo and soap bottles. Toothpaste bits decorated the wash basins. Used towels were hanging everywhere. In the downstairs living room the hideous sofas looked like they were fished out of a township dump. Christ! I paid over $2,200 for this??

Most of the volunteers and staff resided in a neighboring gated community called Mont Blanc. GVI occupies three adjacent apartments and this was where all joint activities took place. Lizzie showed us the common areas including the kitchen furnished with a long table around which everyone sat every evening for the evening meal. If the state of Journey's End shocked me, well, Mont Blanc was in a different league.

Lottie, a 22 year old from Nebraska, who had arrived from the airport with me, had been dropped off at Mont Blanc earlier. After Lizzie was done explaining the house rules and daily schedule to us 3 newcomers, Lottie went up to her and demanded to be moved to Journey's End. She was not going to sleep with bed bugs. So Lottie joined Caroline and me at Journey's End.

In the evening the three of us new comers strolled out to the harbor, a pleasant 15 minute walk. It was a perfect summer day, warm, with just a slight breeze, and the sun in no hurry to disappear. We were all equally shattered by the shabbiness of the residences and desperate for some cheering up. The scenic harbor, framed by dramatic mountains boosted our moods. At an Italian waterfront restaurant, Antonio's, we ordered wood fired pizza and chilled local Chenin Blanc. Seated on their lively deck, with a breathtaking view of the water, especially as the sun began to sink into the water around 8 o'clock, our problems receded into the background.

One of the great benefits of participating in an international volunteer program is the opportunity to create new friendships with people from far and wide. Each of us chatted about our lives, and it was fun and interesting. As darkness fell, the delightful sounds of live 70's music led us to a cocktail bar. Sipping after dinner cocktails we chatted with friendly locals, while listening to two very talented musicians singing familiar oldies. For a small town, Gordon's Bay had an impressive night scene.

When we returned to Journey's End around 10:00 I had to confront my sleeping dilemma. What were my options? I decided to pull my mattress and bedding into Tilda's room. Since she would be returning on Tuesday I would have a private space for these first few nights. I now felt feverish with a mild headache. A good night's sleep just might prevent the onset of flu.

In the morning my first thoughts were about getting out of this program. I couldn't possibly stomach living in this environment for two weeks. But I didn't want to lose the money I'd paid. Over coffee I read through the fine print of the travel insurance. My only way out was to claim illness. I didn't want to go that route, even though I was already experiencing flu symptoms.
I had to somehow make this work.
After a breakfast of poached eggs on toast, Caroline, Lottie and I decided to shoot over to Pick 'n Pay, which was just down the road, a five minute walk, to purchase cleaning products, as well as some decent food items, like mangoes, bananas, and cereal. We spent all morning cleaning up the house and succeeded in creating a tolerable living space. However, there was still the issue of my sleeping situation.

I sent an email to the top person in the Cape Town head office, Richard Wilkes. I mentioned that I was promised a bedroom that I would share with only only one other person, close to my age. I also mentioned the unacceptable lack of cleanliness and hygiene at the residences.

On Sunday afternoon we met up with Lizzie for workshop training at Mont Blanc. It soon became clear that all the volunteers, with the exception of Caroline and myself, were between the ages of 18 and 24. They mostly came from Europe and the USA and seemed happy with the program. The lack of cleanliness and tidiness at these residences didn't faze them! The hired daily help had been off for Christmas holidays, and pretty much for an entire month nobody cared about sweeping, mopping, or cleaning bathrooms. Even the bedbugs didn't bother these youngsters. They were in "Africa", here to work in a poor township. This was the third world. They had arrived with low expectations. In fact, they were amazed that they were in a modern building with proper electricity and plumbing and could take hot showers everyday! As for the cost of the program, they were clueless. Their parents were in charge of their expenses.

My flu got progressively worse on Sunday. I longed for a clean, comfortable bed with fresh sheets. My mattress was so battered it sank all the way to the floor when I slept on it. I took a painkiller which helped reduce my fever. I was able to sleep through most of the night. The next morning, Monday morning, my fever returned and my voice more or less disappeared. I didn't want to miss my first day at the project so I took an Advil and got ready for a full day.

A minibus transported all the volunteers to the three project venues. We left behind the sanitized white world of Gordon's Bay with its swanky gated communities lining wide well maintained roads. On the outskirts litter strewn fields along the highway signaled our approach into the developing world. Overweight Xhosa women could be seen walking in the baking heat toward the city. Young black men at intersections urged drivers to buy their cheap gadgets. We drove past this tableau and fifteen minutes later we entered Nomzamo township. Produce stalls, street vendors, shacks, trash, narrow lanes, open gutters, the smell of meat cooking on open fires. Interspersed among this chaos attractive buildings and houses stood out defiantly.

Since I was in the Women's Empowerment program I worked at the Nomzamo Community Center in the morning. In the afternoon we merged with all the other GVI staff and volunteers at the Strand library. This was the pattern for the first of my two weeks. I've described my work days in detail in my previous post.

At Journey's End on Monday afternoon, my third day, I met the house cleaner, Winnie, who had just returned from a month's vacation. She was painstakingly heaving her way down the staircase. She appeared to be in her late 50's, seriously overweight and in terrible physical shape. How could she be expected to clean up all of the GVI residences and prepare the evening meal for over 20 people too? If I had thought the filthy state of the residences was due to Winnie's absence and therefore temporary, I just realized that I was dead wrong!

I had to move out. Especially since Tilda would be returning the next day. I found an Airbnb for $54.00 a night a mile from Mont Blanc. I emailed Richard Wilkes again and explained my reasons for moving out. Firstly, GVI did not deliver on their promise regarding my sleeping arrangement. Secondly, I couldn't tolerate the squalor. I requested pick up and drop off from my accommodation.

On Tuesday morning I told Lizzie I was moving out that afternoon. She smiled in relief. We discussed logistics. I expressed an interest in joining the group for evening meals. "When Tilda returns, maybe we can figure out a way to get me back home after dinner."
Her response was, "In this program you are meant to be staying here. We can't be expected to be a meal delivery service."
I calmly responded that I wasn't asking for my meals to be be delivered. I would happily take care of my own meals if I couldn't work out a plan to join the group.

Richard Wilkes responded to my email later that day. He apologized for the situation and agreed to take care of all my transportion. He also scheduled a meeting with me and Tilda later that day.

Before the meeting on that Tuesday I had another rude encounter from a GVI staff member. At the Strand library where we all helped out with the summer program, when everyone went outside with the kids, I stayed inside. I was quite sick with flu, had essentially lost my voice, and badly needed to rest after my morning exertion at Women's Empowerment. Lesley Ann, 19 years old, with the absurd responsibility of running this summer program, marched into the library. In a surprisingly rude tone she told me I was needed outside. (Bullshit, of course, given the adult to kid ratio of 1 to 3). I said I had the flu and I wasn't going outside. What I didn't say was I had not signed up for this children's program. And that I wouldn't choose a job that I paid to do which guaranteed I would get migraines.
She repeated that she needed me outside. This unprofessional behavior was most bizarre. I repeated that I wasn't going outside.
"Then why didn't you ask to go straight back to the house?" she demanded.
I shrugged and said, "I didn't know that was an option."
She got on the phone and tried to call Lizzie, but Lizzie didn't answer. Lesley Ann heaved an annoyed sigh. I said, "Look, I'm fine resting here until the van comes for us. You are the one having a problem with it." She nodded, mumbled, ok, and left.

I sat down, stunned. After a few minutes I realized that Lesley Ann was just a kid entrusted with too much responsibility. She needed guidance. As did all the young staff members. Too many of them I observed, looked for ways to shirk their duties and palm them off onto the short term volunteers. The lack of adult supervision was a real problem.

After project I met up with Tilda and Richard in the room used as an office in Mont Blanc. Finally, for the first time since my arrival in Gordon's Bay, I'd be talking to adults in the program! They listened attentively as I told them my entire story. They were both clearly on the defensive, ready to be accommodating. They agreed that the cleanliness issue had to be addressed. They insisted that GVI had misled me and should have informed me that sleeping was dorm room style bunk beds. Tilda would drive me back to my Airbnb after dinner every evening in the GVI vehicle that she had been allocated. They tried to defend the bed bugs situation claiming it had absolutely nothing to do with cleanliness. They had done everything they could, and were continuing to address it. Before the meeting ended Tilda offered to have me share Lizzie's room. I said I'd think about it.

At my Airbnb that evening I reveled in the luxury of a spacious bedroom with large windows and stunning mountain views. A king size bed with crisp sheets, lots of cupboard space, and a shiny, squeaky clean bathroom. Finally I could rest properly and try to fight off my flu. That's all I cared about for the first few nights there.
However, later in the week the isolation got to me. I was warned not to walk in the neighborhood, and during my free time to get anywhere I'd need to order an uber ride. The Pick 'n Pay and harbor areas were no longer just a quick walk down the road.
So after a week at the Airbnb, I returned to Journey's End for my last 4 nights in Lizzie's room. Since she spent her nights with her boyfriend, I actually had the room to myself.

My two weeks with GVI were undoubtedly educational. Working daily in the heart of a township and interacting closely with locals allowed me to experience the warmth and friendliness of the Xhosa culture, and to witness their optimism and drive. Despite my skepticism of the effectiveness of GVI projects, I cannot deny how enriching it must be for western youngsters. Surely their life decisions and world outlook must be impacted by having come face to face with impoverished communities.

So, all in all, it was a mixed bag.

09 February 2018

Volunteering at Age 55 for GVI (Global Vision International)

 I have just returned to my home in California after spending two weeks volunteering with GVI (Global Vision International) in their Women's Empowerment program based in Gordon's Bay, South Africa. I'm a 55 year old retired teacher, keen to work in disadvantaged communities in the developing world. Before signing up with GVI last fall I had done extensive research on volunteer organizations. I found nothing but glowing praise for GVI. My research revealed that most volunteers for these international organizations are youngsters in a gap year. I'd had several telephone conversations with recruitment staff emphasizing my age, my expertise, and my desires.  I made it clear to GVI that I would only sign up if there were other "older" volunteers and if I could be assured of having only one roommate close to my age. I did not want to spend two weeks sharing dormitory style rooms with a bunch of youngsters. They assured me that my requests would be honored.

Well, after my two weeks as a GVI volunteer, I now have an opinion of this organization, and it is far from favorable!

It became clear almost immediately that the bulk of the $1,100 per week cost to participate in their programs was spent on salaries for those in high positions. The organization has a clever set up. Programs in impoverished communities around the world give volunteers the opportunity to interact closely with the locals. A carefully designed routine gives the illusion of doing something useful. In reality, the programs are contrived, and the impact is minimal.

My first week, the first week in January, schools in South Africa were not yet in session, and most people were trickling back to their regular lives after the festive holidays. In the Women's Empowerment program just two to three women showed up at the community center in the nearby township of Nomzamo. So only two of the five GVI workers - 2 volunteers and 3 staff - actually worked that week. Staff members - all aged between 18 and 25 - have committed to a longer term and don't pay to participate. They are given some leadership roles and are provided with free lodging, meals, and transportation.

"Empowering" women in Nomzamo meant teaching basic computer skills. I spent each morning providing one on one tutoring on the fundamentals of Microsoft Office. After maybe 5 sessions, if a woman demonstrated the ability to use Word, Powerpoint, and Excel in a simple test, she received a certificate. And that was it. GVI made no attempt to actually help these women find jobs. There was no follow through. These women, who had been to high school, and spoke reasonable English, received no other preparation for office type jobs. Nor was there any research done to determine employment needs.

GVI volunteers are predominantly between 18 and 25 years old. They don't have the maturity to see the flaws of this organization. These youngsters from North America and Europe are thrilled to be in some exotic locale where they make new friends and have opportunities for a full social life. That they believe they are engaged in humanitarian work too makes the whole experience a fulfilling one for them. And that's why organizations like GVI thrive.

After lunch in my first week, a minibus transported me to a library in the suburb of Strand. All GVI volunteers and staff converged here in the afternoon to participate in a summer program. I quickly realized that this was actually a baby sitting program for about 25 kids ranging in age from 2 to 15. Judging by their shabby clothes, uncombed hair, snotty noses, and rough mannerisms, I could tell these kids lived in squalor. Their racial designation in the days of apartheid used to be "Cape Colored" due to their mixed Dutch and indigenous ancestry. Drugs, alcoholism, unemployment and split families have historically plagued this community.

The ratio of "adult" to kid in the Strand library was 1 to 3. A golden opportunity to run a decent, structured academic program to benefit these unfortunate kids. However, it was utter chaos that I witnessed every afternoon during that first week. There was no adult in charge since apart from 53 year old Caroline and myself, all the other GVI members were under 25 years old. Nineteen year old Lesley Ann, a local of Cape Colored heritage, had been awarded a scholarship by GVI to helm this summer library program. She clearly had no training and no idea of how to execute this task, which even for me, a retired teacher, would have been challenging. The other GVI staff seemed pretty clueless as well. And so the afternoons were spent attempting craft activities in an atmosphere devoid of discipline and structure, interspersed with outdoor games and songs. Glorified babysitting. GVI provided a safe place and lunch for a group of disadvantaged kids and that's all they cared about. The missed opportunity was what bugged me. GVI could have actually made a long term impact on these kids during the 6 summer weeks. What a shame!

In my second week with GVI, schools were in session for the new year, and my routine changed. Now a line of women waited for us  at the Nomzamo Community Center for the Women's Empowerment program. Each enthusiastically  and patiently waiting to have an individualized computer  session. Each carrying the dream of a respectable job. All five of us GVI volunteers and staff worked intensively through the mornings. Yes, we could feel good about providing one on one tutoring to women desperate to escape poverty. But, seriously, how was a week of Microsoft Office exposure going to help them?

I should mention that the residents of Nomzamo are mostly Xhosa. Their family homes are in rural parts of the Eastern Cape, and they have migrated west to urban centers for economic opportunities. Many of the residents live in informal tin shacks. There are also a fair number of decent homes of high standard, pointing to progress. It's a bustling township with numerous vendors and service jobs operating out of make shift sheds. The picture isn't totally dismal though, since signs of development and progress are visible.

At midday we left the community center and went to a preschool (called a crêche) in Nomzamo. Each day we went to a different crêche ostensibly to teach health and hygiene. Amazingly, the crêches, right there in the heart of this shabby township, were bright, spacious, immaculate, with cheerful wall designs and an attractive outdoor spaces. Two to three well dressed, educated women ran each class of about thirty kids ranging in age from three and five. The kids were well groomed and well disciplined. Why were GVI workers here? During our 45 minutes at each crêche we took the kids outside for light exercises and movement, and then back inside we discussed healthy living like how to brush your teeth. This, to me, was an obviously artificially created "job".

After lunch the Women's Empowerment team was transported to ACJ Phakade Primary School in Nomzamo township. When I first saw the beautiful campus I was astonished. A new two story brick building, big, with covered hallways, and immaculately neat. The welcoming carpeted library, called the media center, had large windows, new desks and lots of space. I learned that this school was built in the '90's from donated money when Nelson Mandela was the president. Twenty years later, with a generous donation, a new, modern wing was added and the result is most impressive.
GVI  runs several programs at ACJ. The sports and surfing program has had rave reviews over the years. Skilled staff are recruited to run these programs, so I believe they are quite successful. One on one tutoring in maths and English is also offered to needy students. During my week at this school I was involved in the Girls' Empowerment program, which took place after school. Sixth grade girls gathered in the library and we ran workshops on friendships and self esteem. As it was the first week of school, the program was just in first gear so I didn't get to have the full experience. Though this program showed promise, the young, inexperienced staff tasked with planning and executing filled me with pessimism. Can GVI not recruit an adult to take charge?

My two weeks in Gordon's Bay in summary were terribly disappointing. I so badly wanted to love the experience and repeat it in other countries. The biggest disappointment was residing in the company of ill-mannered, disrespectful youngsters, who didn't clean up after themselves. The majority of the staff and volunteers, not yet fully fledged adults, didn't have the required maturity and commitment. They had been sent by their well-meaning parents to make the world a better place, and they believed they were doing exactly that. But, really, they were more interested in going out drinking and having a wild time. That's what they spent all their time talking about. They showed no intellectual curiosity about the local culture and the country's rich, turbulent history.

On the plus side, there were a few committed staff members. Tilda, the project site manager at Gordon's Bay worked from 7:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. every day.  Her responsibilities seemed insurmountable. She designed and ran all the programs, delegated duties to staff members, took care of every issue that arose in the apartments or at the sites, ferried people that had to do essential errands, etc., etc. Tilda was also young, in her late 20's, and seemed too starry eyed and naïve to ensure practical decisions.

Another positive thing was the location. The Western Cape of South Africa has stunning mountain ranges hugging the coastline and creating a dramatic landscape. The little harbor was an easy walk and further on there was a lovely beach. Cafes, bars, and shops along the waterfront provided welcome entertainment.

My next post about my GVI experience will focus on the accommodation.

04 December 2017

Christmas Markets and Tannhäuser in Berlin (Dec 1 - Dec 4)

Christmas markets have flooded the city. Vibrant and colorful they are delightful distractions from the chill and grayness. Stepping outside with temperatures now close to freezing has become an exercise of willpower. The lure of twinkling lights, mulled wine, hearty hot food, baked goods, and interesting crafts yank us out of the toasty apartment. Thankfully. Otherwise, I'd be like Eliza in My Fair Lady, "sitting abso-bloomin-lutely still on my sofa, with lots of chocolate for me to eat."
Many of the markets are set around historic monuments creating a picturesque overall impression. Like this at the Kaiser Wilhelm Church at Breitscheidplatz, the scene of last year's terrorist attack.
Now concrete barriers line all market perimeters. This striking church, damaged during the WW II, is flanked by a pair of towers with stained glass facades, and is now a memorial of war and destruction.

The Austrian themed market at Schloss Charlottenburg has quite a "wow" factor. After browsing the many holiday and winter crafts we escaped from the chill. In a sheltered, toasty cafe we indulged in apple strudel served with custard and steaming quince punch.

Der Hahn ist tot

Every Friday evening we seem to discover a new excellent restaurant in Berlin. This city's gastronomic scene is truly impressive. Der Hahn ist tot (The hen is dead - a line from a French nursery rhyme) blends French, German, and Nouvelle Cuisine in their dishes. Their thrust is hearty, healthy, rustic, homestyle cooking featuring bold, satisfying flavors. And these attributes featured abundantly in each of our 4 courses at this restaurant on Friday evening (Dec 1). Creamy sweet potato soup with bread that tasted like it came straight out of the hearth.A salad of crisp greens sprinkled with pomegranate and toasted pumpkin seeds.

For mains, a parsnip chestnut ragout, featuring roasted parsnips and chestnuts in a brown, umami rich gravy and pumpkin potato mash. Dessert was a spicy baked apple stuffed with walnuts and served with custard. We gorged on this utterly delicious meal in an interior that felt like a French farm kitchen filled with animated diners. Traditional French décor and a combination of long wooden tables and small tables, allowing for both communal dining and privacy. A perfect ambience for a damp, frosty winter evening.

Opera (Dec 2)

Why were we underwhelmed by Tannhäuser on Saturday evening? Was it because of the breathtaking production we'd seen at the Met in New York two years ago? (The conductor was James Levine - how terribly sad he's fallen from grace too!) Could it be that the last eight richly rewarding operas we attended at Deutsche Oper Berlin, elaborate, inventive performances displaying the city's avant garde nature, primed us for something stupendous? The opening scenes of Venusberg during the overture held promise. Such elegant choreography as the knight, Tannhäuser, descends from above into the world of carnal pleasure. After that, for most of the opera there was no stage scenery. Sparse, minimalistic. At times there was an army of grey clad knights suspended over the performers. At other times there were devils hovering over the scene. Yes, we get it. Medieval Christianity's idea of good and evil. To yield to natural instinct is evil. Purity, and the ability to suppress primal desires are good. In the opera's final scenes the stage turned bewilderingly into a hospital scene, filled with patients on white beds. What was the point?
But the music, oh the music, so sublime, the singers exhibiting mellifluous voices. The Rome Narrative and Venus Song arias were splendid. And really, isn't Wagner all about the music?

28 November 2017

Berlin Weekend (Nov 24 -26)

Friday, November 24

After a spate of chilly days, temperatures rose a bit at the end of the week. So a Friday pre dinner stroll on the Ku'damm with Julia and Fabian was fun and pleasant.(Daryl stayed home fighting the beginnings of a cold.)
This elegant boulevard, Berlin's Champs E'lysée, is all lit up for the festive season. Twinkling lights around enormous 3D metal figures, adorning Christmas trees, and strung across the street provided a cheerful atmosphere. A welcome distraction from the early onset of darkness. Sunset is now at 4:00 PM. We peered into high end designer stores and scoffed at the absurdity of actually making purchases at these places.
Dinner at Nabucco, an authentic Italian restaurant near our apartment, was delightful. A friendly Italian waiter served up crusty bread and olives as soon as we were seated. Fabian's browned goat cheese drizzled with honey accompanied by a salad of vegetables and fruit was a hit. My tagliatelle with fungi porcini and Julia's ravioli were faultless.

Saturday, November 25

The chill returned on Saturday morning. Our local farmers market lacked its usual vibrancy. Fewer vendors, fewer customers, but still rewarding to browse and make purchases. White asparagus from Peru - plump, healthy spears at €1 a bunch - were impossible to resist. I thought "global" and helping the Peruvian economy felt right! Other purchases included deep orange persimmons, tender baby brussels sprouts, and juicy mandarins. For dinner I roasted the asparagus (after removing the outer fibrous layer of each individual spear) and OMG (!) the creamy, delicate taste was incredible!

Sunday, November 26

A €15 Sunday brunch at the upscale vegan restaurant, Kopps, convinced us that this has to be the best place in Berlin for this popular weekend tradition. A staggering assortment of meticulously prepared plant based cuisine displayed on two tables promises overstuffed tummies when you crawl out the door. On the cold foods table there were cereals, vegan yogurts, fresh baked breads, "cheese" and "meat" slices, fruit, spreads, and dips. Hot foods consisted of soup, tofu scramble, chili, polenta fries, grain salads and an assortment of vegetables. Thoughtful creativity and high quality in full evidence. Sweet stuff included pineapple pancakes with accompaniments and a few types of cakes. I served myself really small portions of pretty much everything. So why did my tummy feel like it contained all the meals for an entire week?

Hours later, when we could actually function again, it was time to head out to Deutsche Oper Berlin for Giacomo Meyerbeer's Le Prophete.

Photographer: Gregory Kunde (from Deutsche Oper Berlin website)
Of course we expected to love it. The music itself is so delightful and in the hands of a world renowned company and a highly esteemed director, Olivier Py, we were sure to spend four hours witnessing something extraordinary. Intrigue is already embedded in Meyerbeer's multilayered libretto, encompassing so many themes -- a love story, a complicated mother-son relationship, a despotic count, religious manipulation by corrupt anabaptists, the oppression of women, and power, power twinned inevitably with corruption. Beautiful, innocent Berthe is in love with Jean, a humble innkeeper. A cruel count denies her permission to marry, and imprisons her. Three conniving anabaptists sway Jean into believing he's a prophet. His power corrupts him, turning him against Fidé, his devoted mother. Berthe escapes and plots to kill the cruel Prophet who had taken over Munster and who, she believes, had killed Jean. Arriving at the palace with explosives she discovers the truth that leads to her suicide. Jean turns remorseful, seeing death and destruction of the palace with all its inhabitants as the only solution.
In this production, more layers were added to make this 17th century story relevant today. No time to let your mind drift and just focus on the music. The stage was constantly moving, revealing multiple scenes on different levels of the dull grey buildings. A constantly changing panorama revealing themes of abuse toward women, debauchery, suffering, poverty, manipulation, the greed and cruelty of powerful men, and crowds swayed by populist messages. And the ending was changed. We saw no deaths or explosions. But the crowning of an autocrat sent chills through us. An elaborate production with a huge cast of maybe 200 actors and singers.

And that brought to an end another exciting Berlin weekend!

21 November 2017

Truffles, Museum Barberini, Beethoven (Nov 17 - 19)

Friday, Nov 17

In Berlin it feels like winter has really arrived. I rarely notice any blueness when I look up at the sky. The air bites back. Hat, scarf, gloves and a warm coat are essential when you step out. Sipping piping hot chocolate while walking is pretty helpful.

Kicked off the weekend at Francucci's, an elegant Italian restaurant in Charlottenburg, a ten minute walk from our place.

Devoured their legendary house made pasta served with generous shavings of white truffle. Heady damp forest aromas whacking the nostrils before your tastebuds catch up. Lekker! The exquisite pizza blanketed with thin grilled slices of eggplant was satisfying too. Italian reds - full bodied, but fruity - matched well. For dessert, a velvety tiramisu, drenched in liquor, clearly the product of an expert. Digestifs of grappa and limoncello helped settle our tummies and gave us time to reflect on the explosion of flavors we'd just experienced.

Sunday, November 19

A culture filled day, starting with a visit to the Barberini Museum in
Potsdam. Julia's birthday present to me ready to be redeemed two months later. She'd had in mind the current exhibition: Behind the Mask: Artists in the GDR
What a treat it turned out to be! Julia's pampering actually started the evening before in Michendorf. She prepared a dinner feast starting with creamy white asparagus soup made with local asparagus that she froze back in the spring especially for us. The taste so overwhelmed us all, especially Fabian, we gulped each heavenly spoonful in silence. When the veggie schnitzel, roasted potatoes, romanesco and broccoli arrived, we dove into serious topics. Homelessness, poverty, immigration. A 2010 Chianti, dry and robust, went well with the meal. Dessert was a scrumptious homemade cheesecake - the German version made with quark, not cream cheese. Herrlich! But ... I digress ...
The Barberini Museum, newly opened, and situated in the Old Market Square facing historic buildings that had been bombed and rebuilt, is a Potsdam treasure. On this chilly, drizzly Sunday, we were warmed by the many thought provoking works displayed in a welcoming space. East German artists in the years between 1945 and 1985 employed extraordinary creativity to express themselves under authoritarianism. Many used abstract self portraits sporting provocative expressions. Influences of Old Masters and other significant painters could be seen in various arresting works. The Palace of the Republic gallery was the highlight with its recently restored mural sized works newly on display for public viewing. It evoked works by the great Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and Orozco. Rich depictions of strong political themes, messages, symbols, dichotomies, peasant life ... impossible to take it all in one visit. The third floor provided magnificent views of Old Market Square down below -- St. Nicholas Church, the Roman obelisk, and the Old Town Hall, with the gilded statue of Atlas holding the world on its dome.

From visual art to classical music ... Back in Berlin we experienced another sumptuous building early Sunday evening. The Pierre Boulez Saal is a new concert hall in Berlin. While the faćade is an existing old building that blends with the other structures in the Gendarmenmarkt area, the interior is completely new, designed by Frank Gehry. A first glance of the auditorium immediately reminded me of LA's Disney Concert Hall also designed by Gehry. But the Pierre Boulez Saal is like an improved version with an oval shaped seating arrangement, tiered above the stage. It feels intimate, as if designed just for chamber music. Two achingly beautiful Beethoven concertos were performed by the renowned pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. He used the piano that bears his name because he had it especially made for him. Hi son, Michael Barenboim, accompanied him on the violin, and Kian Soltani played the violoncello. A third, inaccessible to us, contemporary piece by Borowski was also performed.

So Sunday was certainly a full day of cultural immersion.

Fittingly the weekend ended with a truffle meal. This time, at home, with a black winter truffle acquired from our neighborhood Saturday farmer's market. (There are always new, irresistible things at this market. The French cheese vendor now has Mont d'Or which we bought and will have soon.) I was astonished when I opened the refrigerator on Sunday evening. I was hit by the overpowering earthy aroma of the truffle even though it was wrapped in a paper towel and stored in an airtight container. Turns out the smell is actually stronger than the taste. So inhale deeply as you scarf down truffle!

13 November 2017

Wagner, Etc.

Lohengrin at Deutsche Oper Berlin (November 9)

What's it like to watch a Wagner opera in Berlin? Four intense hours of Lohengrin stirred up predictable emotions.
Photographer M. Lieberenz from Deutsche Oper Berlin website
It felt a tad intimidating to sit among people who'd been fed this music since infancy and could probably hum every note. In contrast to the jovial Italians years ago at Verona's Arena, who smiled adoringly and applauded uproariously during a performance of Turandot, here at Deutsche Oper Berlin I felt an intensity around me. Rapt eyes following every action, symbol, nuance. How is this producer handling the opera's messages of nationalism and political ambition? A sister, Elsa, wrongly accused of the murder of her brother by a knight seeking the throne. A charismatic knight in angel wings, arriving on a swan, exploiting love and a vulnerable, innocent Elsa to further his ambitions. Ortrud, the pagan witch, plotting Elsa's fall. And the constant reminders of war, wars from different eras, starting with the prelude when the curtain opens to dead soldiers (World War 1?) strewn on a field and grief stricken female relatives searching for loved ones. Lashings of rich, moving music throughout, but this opera was way too long, with boring stretches in the middle. The tenor, Klaus Florian Vogt, was breathtaking in his effortless handling of the demanding arias. His unusually youthful voice was captivating. This despairing story of manipulative rulers and ruthless politics and ever present wars, a story repeated throughout history, combined with its German nationalism, evoked discomfort at frequent intervals. It was, after all, a favorite of Berlin's most notorious resident. I'm reminded of Stephen Fry who explained in a documentary why he loves Wagner. This is a quote of his from The Guardian some years ago:

You can't allow the perverted views of pseudo-intellectual Nazis to define how the world should look at Wagner. He's bigger than that, and we're not going to give them the credit, the joy of stealing him from us.

Other Stuff ...

Yes, it's stollen, photographed before the whole darn delicious thing disappeared! Despite much effort to suppress Christmas craziness until November 26 (after the Day of the Dead), food shops in Berlin are packed to the gills with tempting ways to give you cardio events! Every bakery has its version of stollen, desperately trying to convince Germans that Dresden, from whence this cake originated, does not hold the number one spot for taste and quality. All week we've been pigging out on this marzipan stollen that Daryl brought back from the famous Café Frisch in Heidelberg. I'm afraid, when this baby is gone, it will promptly be replaced by a local version. Then another ... and another ... We'll be experts when next you see us! 

On Saturday, a chilly grey day, we spent the afternoon with Julia and Fabian in Michendorf. It's so amazing that an easy 25 minute train ride from our Charlottenburg place in the city gets us out into this peaceful village. Lots of forests and a large lake make the area perfect for long walks - when the weather is pleasant. But, on Saturday we stayed indoors. Daryl helped assemble an infra red sauna and Fabian, when his help was no longer needed, got into a deep, political conversation with me. This eleven year old has always been precocious. The recent gun violence in America was on his mind. Why do Texans love guns? What is the Constitution? Why was President Obama's pick for the Supreme Court not selected? So I had to give him a condensed lesson on American politics. From politics we switched to the developing world. I told him about the women's empowerment volunteer program I'll be doing in January in South Africa. This impressive kid found it interesting, asked questions, and could have gone on with the conversation. However, we had dinner reservations and had to catch our train back into the city.

It was our second time at Lucky Leek on Saturday evening (Nov 11). Our first time was a few years ago on a previous Berlin visit, when it hadn't yet received a Michelin star. This was my TripAdvisor review that first time:

Lucky Leek in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood has to be the trendiest vegan restaurant in the world. A very yummy amuse bouche served on a slate platter promised a meal to savor and remember. And yes, our high expectations were well rewarded. Just studying the menu brought us immense pleasure. Carrots and Hazelnut Praline. Caramelized Feta Cheez. Braised seitan filet. Austrian dumplings. How to choose? The menu is small, changing every week according to what produce has been just harvested. Too bad we were in Berlin for just a week. We sat on the terrace, enjoying chilled local beer and cuisine that made us feel like royalty. Because it was midsummer and the weather was blissful, there was quite a lively atmosphere in the area. So we had it all - ambience, fine food, and attentive service.

Saturday evening's experience was different. A bracing November evening meant a toasty indoor ambience. Instead of chilled beer we had a wine pairing more suited to the comforting flavors of cold weather cuisine. We were pleased to see that they've maintained their high standards. A set menu showcased an impressive variety of autumn vegetables prepared with exquisite flair. Bold flavors inspired by cuisine from all corners of the globe provided heft and immense satisfaction.

We ended the weekend at The Story of Berlin museum which took us through 800 years of the city's history. Multimedia rooms showed us Berlin's growth from a medieval trading center to a bustling metropolis and how major world phenomena like the industrial revolution, the wars, Fascism, and the Cold War shaped it. 
A tour of a nuclear bomb shelter built in the 1970's was a head scratcher.. Only 1% of Berlin's residents could be protected in the city's 16 shelters? 

Winter is here!!! Temperatures in the 40's Fahrenheit. Snow is forecast for next week. Brrr!