17 October 2017

Berlin Diary (Oct 13 - 15)

A warm spell, temps in the 70's, yanked us to the city's parks over the weekend. At Schloss Charlottenburg, a rococo palace which used to be a royal summer residence, we strolled along the River Spree, then meandered through the landscaped sections, admiring the rows of trees sporting fall foliage.
 A lively buzz came from families and tourists milling around on this bright Saturday afternoon. As we retraced the footsteps of Sophie Charlotte, first Queen consort of Prussia, accompanied by her friend, the philosopher Gottfried WilhelmLeibniz, Daryl summarized to me the plot of Prokofiev's L'Amour des Trois Oranges, our evening entertainment.

The silly, farcical fairy tale in which a hypochondriac, depressed prince is cursed by a witch to fall in love with three oranges which turn out to contain trapped princesses did not inspire enthusiasm for this, our 5th opera at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Nor did I care much for the non melodic, strange music. But, seated at perhaps the best seat in the house in the box section just above the stage, on Saturday evening, all preconceptions vanished instantly. Prokofiev's composition, I could see, was putty in the hands of a gifted choreographer. Success came from a stellar cast of actors with voices to match, in wacky and daring contemporary costumes, and visually arresting staging with black, white and the many shades of orange dominating. You get the distinct impression that the director had in mind an audience that came of age in the 21st century. A highly energetic performance to match the vivacious music, included cabaret, modern dancing, and amusing Berlin references. The three oranges were labelled after the three Berlin opera companies. Surely, even Prokofiev would've been gobsmacked by this riveting production!

On Sunday we awoke to a blindingly blue sky, which after weeks of mainly dull weather, required some adjustment. The antiques flea market across Tiergarten was a great way to enjoy the summery weather while browsing fine china, silverware, postcards depicting past eras, strange gadgets, paintings, etc. A quick stroll through Tiergarten, then to Kreuzberg for lunch. Boring options at Markthalle Neuen led to the discovery of a small Russian restaurant near Görlitzer Station.

Here, on their charming patio we sampled our very first blinis. It took a while for the meal to be prepared and when steaming plates of spinach and feta stuffed rolled up pancakes arrived we smiled in delight. We could see that they were carefully crafted, and indeed, the blinis were scrumptious.

We discovered several scenic places for walks in the afternoon. First, a leisurely stroll along the Landwehrkanal from the Prinzenstrasse UBahn stop, then, after coffee and cake at a hip cafe on Friedrichstrasse near Checkpoint Charlie (where everyone was glued to a MacBook), we hopped on a bus and alighted past the Reichstag where we found a path along the River Spree to Hauptbahnhof. A midsummer vibe could be seen and felt everywhere. At around 5:00 we returned to Tiergarten to enjoy the last bit of daylight over a beer with a canal view. And, as the sky took on rosy sunset hues we headed home for a quiet evening.

13 October 2017

Summer Vacation Part 2 - Edinburgh and London

 Aug 29 - Sept 9

Edinburgh (Aug 29 - Sept 1)

When I alighted from the train in Edinburgh, a day after its month long famous festival, I was greeted by a monochromatic grayness - grey sky, grey buildings, grey roads - and my spirits sank. Soon after I checked into my welcoming hotel on Princes Street, and showered and changed, the sky cleared up, and as I headed toward the commanding Scott Monument, my mood swung skyward. The sun brightened up the whole city, and I instantly saw beauty all around me. The combination of honey hued ancient architecture, cobbled lanes, public gardens, green parks, and a contoured volcanic landscape convinced me that my 4 days here were going to be intensely pleasurable. I crossed the Mound and entered the Old Town, pleased at the human scale of this compact city. The upbeat atmosphere from the Edinburgh Festival lingered. For instance, the temporary outdoor bar area on Princes Street buzzed with tourists in no hurry to leave. I strolled up the Old Town High Street, also called the Royal Mile because it connects Holyrood Palace (the Royal residence) to the Edinburgh Castle. 
Edinburgh Castle

From the castle, built on a volcanic outcrop, I took in the sweeping views down below. Obviously, trudging up to the city's many high points (volcanic hills) would be the best way to appreciate it. Leaving the castle I headed down the Royal Mile, past souvenir shops with their displays of tartan kilts, wool scarves and shortbread biscuits. 

The arresting St. Giles Cathedral, with its crowned steeple, dominated the central part of the Royal Mile. I continued down to Holyrood Palace, home of the royal family. Directly across, the striking contemporary Parliament building, stood in contrast. 

In the evening I encountered Edinburgh's sophisticated food scene at David Bann, an established vegetarian restaurant. My dinner of aubergine, chickpea, and cashew koftas checked all boxes for excellence. As I headed back to my hotel, I, along with a cluster of tourists, took in sunset views of Calton Hill and its monuments from North Bridge.

My second morning started at Burr Café on George Street with a strong cappuccino and lemon poppyseed muffin. The Scottish National Gallery hogged the rest of my morning. I liked Scottish artist, Alexander Nasmyth's Princes Street. Landseer's original "The Monarch of the Glen" (deer with antlers) was a delight, and so was John Singer Sargent's "Lady Agnew of Lochnaw". I'd seen this exact painting two years ago at the DeYoung in San Francisco during a special exhibition of European art on tour. Seeing it again in its home was cool.

At the vegan café, Holy Cow, my lovely niece, Lily, served me the most delicious vegan burger I've ever had. Every part of it was lovingly made in house and fresh healthy flavors could be tasted in every bite. I needed a very long walk after this substantial meal. After admiring the Georgian architecture and layout of the New Town, I headed to Calton Hill, for its Greek temple like monuments and panoramic views. 

My energy level still robust in the late afternoon, I breezed past the Parliament building to Holyrood Park for the trail to Arthur's Seat. Climbing up the steep, very green hill was terribly exhilarating and at the top, the views stretching across the city and out to the sea, were breathtaking. 

Surely, after all this vigorous activity I deserved another proper meal! I decided to try out the popular Guildford Arms Pub near my hotel. This traditional pub, over a hundred years old, had an amazing ceiling, full of pretty designs, and a rather lively atmosphere. It offered a great selection of ales and a Scottish menu adapted for the hipster. My vegetarian wellington, perfectly cooked and seasoned, encased in a light pastry, blasted out all notions of stodgy Scottish food.

I returned to Burr Café for breakfast the next morning since I'd be boarding a coach from just across the street. An older American lady sitting next to me reacted with utter surprise when I asked her if she was enjoying Edinburgh. "I live in London and nobody strikes up a conversation with me there." We chuckled about Londoners looking straight into the distance when walking on Hampstead Heath and keeping their eyes peeled on their smartphones on the tube. She told me she was an art historian and spent most of her time at art museums and galleries. I told her about my Scottish National Gallery visit and how much I enjoyed the landscapes of William MacTaggart. "I really liked The Storm. So interesting that he was influenced by John Constable." This Suffolk artist's Salisbury Cathedral and a few other works were displayed in the same room for a compare and contrast. Her nod of agreement, conveying a respect for my intellect, pumped up my ego. On the coach ferrying me to the Highlands my thought bubble went, "Wow! Your ability to engage in meaningful conversation with random strangers all over the world is most impressive!"
"To meet interesting people, you have to be interesting," I once remarked to my Sydney brother with shameless immodesty. It was in January right after President Obama ceased to be our president, and a solemnity had engulfed the whole world. I had just returned from an engaging dinner conversation with a young lawyer couple on the terrace of a Turkish restaurant in the Pyrmont neighborhood of Sydney. He was of Pakistani descent, she was white Australian. Within minutes of initial, hesitant smiles that people seated at adjacent tables exchange, we dove into the current state of racism in the west and the impact of a deepening nationalist movement. It felt therapeutic then to unleash bitter sentiments, but now, months later, on vacation in Edinburgh, I welcomed the cheerful topic of art.

My all day coach tour out of Edinburgh provided an opportunity to stroll along the "bonnie" banks of Loch Lomond, a lake we've all heard of since childhood. I'd never actually pictured it before, but its largeness surprised me.
Entering the Highlands, carpeted in late summer heather, I got a sense of the country's dramatic landscape. On a future trip I hope to spend days hiking through this countryside.

When we stopped at Stirling for a visit to the Castle, I strolled through the old town, admiring its historic buildings and ending down at the Robert Burns statue. I had to have a photograph of a favorite poet from my teens!

Back in Edinburgh in the evening I sampled another of its famous restaurants, Wedgwood. I didn't have a reservation, but managed to get seated at a tiny table near the door. My main course, baked celeriac with oyster mushrooms, blue cheese, pair, and walnuts was easily Michelin star quality. 

I yielded to temptation and ordered an irresistible dessert - raspberries in a whisky sauce layered between crispy sheets, served with a sorbet. OMG!! Surely the best dessert I've ever had??

My last day in Edinburgh began at the café of the National Gallery with a strong caffe latte and a still warm Mull of Kintyre Cheddar scone. A fantastic view of Princes Gardens added a magical quality to the experience. I worked off the calories on a long stroll down to the Botanic Gardens. I loved the mild temperatures, despite the persistent threat of drizzle. Taking in deep gulps of fragrant air, I strolled through the lush, landscaped vegetation with a satisfied feeling. I had enjoyed pretty much every moment of my time in this delightful city.

Return to London (Sept 1 - 9)

I spent my final week of summer vacation in London getting a cultural fix, interspersed with long walks through scenic parks, and pub visits.

At the National Gallery I sort of followed the advice of an artist I'd met two years ago on the East Coast. His strategy at major world museums was to hone in on one painting and study it for a long, long time. So after a quick look at the Van Gogh's and French Impressionists, I spent the rest of my time in the room containing paintings by English giants John Constable, J. M. W. Turner, and Thomas Gainsborough. Depth over breadth as we educators like to say!

At Tate Modern I started out with the early 20th century stuff (Miro, Dali, Picasso). Then, to two special exhibitions - Alberto Giacometti, famous for his elongated nude sculptures, and Soul of a Nation, a collection of post civil rights Black American art. I crossed the bridge to the new wing - the striking pyramid shaped Blavatnik Building. From the viewing deck on the 10th floor you get 360 degree views of the city. At one angle I was staring into designer living rooms of luxury apartments that appeared empty. 

My cultural highlight of the London week had to be the BBC Proms concert at the venerable Royal Albert Hall. Mahler's Symphony No. 4, surely the most beautiful symphony ever composed, was sheer magic. It was a different interpretation, a slower tempo, to Claudio Abbado's, whose Youtube video I've obsessively watched ever since Daryl and I first heard this piece performed about five years ago by the Danish Orchestra in Santa Barbara. A retired ballerina who had been standing behind us in the queue to enter the Arlington asked us if we were excited. "I came to Santa Barbara for this concert," she told us. And afterwards we understood, when we ourselves craved another performance, carefully checking the classical concert listings of nearby cities for years, but luck eluded us. So, imagine my excitement when I saw Mahler #4 on the BBC Proms program? Daryl had to be at a math intensive in Marseille, so Troy happily agreed to accompany me. Preceded by a relaxing stroll along the Serpentine in Hyde Park on a warm, late summer day, and great conversation over a tasty al fresco Italian dinner, a joyful mood had already been cast before the concert. For days afterwards, the melodic, energetic, exultant music stayed in my head, keeping me in a state of euphoria.

On my birthday, which I'd spent by myself for the first time in my life, I went to see the play "Oslo", which had received glowing praise in The Guardian. Sitting next to me was a play director from Brisbane, who had come to London with his partner for 10 days of cultural immersion. He told me the hype was due to the play winning a Tony Award this year for its production at the Lincoln Center in NYC. Despite the unexciting subject matter focussing on the behind the scenes lead up to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords and the famous Clinton/Arafat/Rabin handshake at the White House, the play was thoroughly engaging, with an outstanding cast. Toby Stephens, in a lead role, my neighbor informed me was the son of Maggie Smith. Two California references made me laugh. One was a comment about Norway's hostile weather. "Too bad it wasn't the Californians behind these talks!" Another comment was during a disparaging rant about the people in Tel Aviv sipping their wine and enjoying the good life  pretending they were in California!

London's weather in the first week of September had a late summer softness which invited long ambles. From Belsize Park I clocked many walking miles through Hampstead Heath, Regent's Canal, and Primrose Hill Park. Every moment out in these beautiful parks provided a reminder of what a truly remarkable city this is.

I often rewarded myself with a pub visit after my long walks, sipping an ale in an atmospheric terrace. On my last Friday, the jolly crowd outside The Marylebone drew me to this old, historic place for a gin and tonic. A fitting way to end my time in London, I thought.