Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Weekend in Germany

Our weekend in Germany was very eventful. It started with the already-blogged Autobahn drive. What I didn't mention in the post was what happened next... we got lost. Well, sort of lost. I bought a GPS a few weeks ago, so technically we knew where we were, but we couldn't get in. Turned out our hostel only opens for check-ins three hours a day. They have a smug sign on their window informing them of this. I won't bore you with the details of what happened next, but if I did it would include details of how every hostel and hotel in Duisburg was full, so we had to drive to Oberhausen, where still almost everything was full. And we were forced to stay in the Mercure which is, uh, a little outside our price range. We're hoping to claim it on travel insurance. Too bad we can't claim for the five hours of driving in circles it took us to finally get there. At least when you go to bed at 3:00am you always seem to get to sleep right away.

Our first day was spent in Oberhausen, which, unfortunately, sucks. They have Wicked, they have the largest mall in Europe, and they have absolutely nothing else. Seriously, nothing.

Good thing we saw the matinee... we were in Dusseldorf by sunset. I'd read earlier that Dusseldorf isn't a particularly cultural city. So discovering their modern art gallery was awesome was a welcome surprise! Still, the city itself wasn't much to write home about, and we felt like we'd seen plenty when we headed on to Cologne 24 hours later.

The main feature of Cologne is its cathedral. We were lucky enough to see it in absolutely stellar weather. Unfortunately, my iPhone clapped out and I lost all my photos... but here are some similar ones from the interweb (thanks random bloggers).

The same afternoon, we had gelato for lunch in the main square (I know it's good for you because the calories get frozen out), then walked down a bustling pedestrian-only shopping street to the art gallery, which was another goodie.

The next day, our last in Germany, we decided to make use of having a car and go for a drive. We drove through the countryside to some cute German villages and ate lunch (followed by tortes, of course). Stopped briefly for a walk in a cemetery. Strange, I know, but it was nice. We paused at the WWII graves, uncertain if we should feel sorry for those underfoot or not. The jury's still out on that one.

Back in Cologne, we checked out the Botanic Gardens, which were amazing!

Then, crossed the Rhine in a gondola. It also goes over the autobahn, which is a little strange. Very cool overall though, I highly recommend it. Although if you bring kids, get them to look the other way at the end when the gondolas go over a nudist swimming pool. No kidding... it was hilarious.

We stocked up on German chocolate for the flight home.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Review: Wicked: Die Hexen Von Oz

One Sentence Summary:  German version of the popular Wizard of Oz prequel.

Trivia:  The original German Elphaba, Willemijn Verkaik, is considered by just about every critic I've read to be the best Elphaba ever. Just in case you need proof... check out this video!

Best thing about it:  Realising that watching something familiar in another language is just like watching a foreign movie with subtitles: you forget you're doing it after a while. I don't know a word of German, so being able to laugh at the right moments anyway was a really surreal feeling!

What they could change:  Those poor Germans have to make their syllable-heavy language fit into English melodies. It's particularly amusing when Glinda pops out with "heissgeliebt" for popular. Unfortunately, changing the German language isn't really within the show's control.

We left thinking:  Wonder if the Germans grasp the Nazi subtext more than the average English audience?

Verdict:   The show translates surprisingly well, and it's just as enjoyable in another language. A solid 9 / 10.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Autobahn

My driving skills have been put through the wringer in the past three months.

First, in America I had to drive on the wrong side of the road. Then, in the Lake District of Northern England, I had to teach myself how to tame a manual. Now, in Germany, I have to do both at once. On the autobahn.

I was driving 130km/h most of the time, which meant I was relegated to the granny lane with all the trucks and minivans.

But I couldn't drive on the autobahn without experiencing it properly at least once, so when we reached a long straight stretch, I put my foot down, and after about 20 seconds was rocketing along at 180km/h.

Before long I had no choice but to head back into the granny lane, as the car behind me was most unimpressed with my speed. As soon as I left his lane, I was eating his dust. I had no idea you could get that fast in a VW Beetle!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Review: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

One Sentence Summary: Three Australian drag queens take a road trip through the desert and pop music ensues.

Trivia: Based on the 1992 movie by the same name.

Best thing about it: it's high energy, and if you decide not to care that it's bubblegum, it's also super fun.

What they could change: We saw the Auckland production a few years ago and enjoyed it more. This one was just a little too slick, the one-liners allowed pauses for laughter and unfortunately broke the illusion of reality a bit too often.

We left thinking: It was nice to see something from our side of the planet.

Verdict: An enjoyable night, but if you're in the mood for depth, try something else. 7 / 10

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Life Lesson #26 - Don't Take Furniture on the Tube

Yesterday I got the bargain of the century. Our room is sorely lacking furniture, and everything is so expensive that I've been putting my stuff on the floor beside my bed every night rather than pay £20 for a set of dusty plastic drawers from the variety store to use as a bedside table. I figured that eventually someone nearby would sell a real bedside cheap on eBay, and decided to be patient.

So, for the past six weeks I've had my eBay eye on all bedside tables within 10 miles of here. And yesterday, I set my alarm to go off one minute before a pretty good one closed. And won it for 99p!

My 99p bedside table.
The only issue was how to get it home without paying for a taxi (which would defeat the purpose of getting a bargain). You can see where this is going.

Apparently it's a security risk to take furniture on the tube because "I could have anything in there". Well, that's what the guard said to me anyway. Once we traded funny looks and I showed him my bedside table was empty, he let me on.

There were no seats on the train so I popped my bedside table in the wheelchair space and sat on it. I got some seriously memorable looks!

This repeated itself several times as I had to take two tubes and a bus to get home. My favourite part was the escalator.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Review: Chicago

One Sentence Summary: The prison-in-the-20s jazz musical that the Oscar winning film is based on.

Trivia: The West End revival of Chicago is closing in August after 13 years.

Best thing about it: The music is still great, this cast is excellent, and the revival version is perfectly deconstructed, forcing the audience to use their heads.

What they could change: Just a few dodgy accents.

We left thinking: Few 40 year old shows have aged so well.

Verdict: A fantastic night out, and all that jazz. 9 / 10

Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Love Never Dies

We almost didn't see this show. It's been panned by critics and audience alike. But, we knew we were bound to see it eventually, and the original guy playing the Phantom is amazing, so we decided to see it now to make sure we didn't miss his performance.

One Sentence Summary: Sequel to the Phantom.

Trivia: The show has been extensively rewritten since opening.

Best thing about it: The cast are great. It's unfortunate that, like so many recent shows, they have so little to work with.

What they could change: Where do I start!? The plot. It would be good if they had even one storyline that wasn't based on what happened in Paris 10 years earlier. I fell asleep about six times in Act I and somehow missed nothing. Also 95% of the music is dull. And they spell everything out too much, which miscarries the mysteriousness of the first show. Where before the Phantom character was both the protagonist and the antagonist, now he is neither. You just don't care about him at all. And interesting side characters, like Carlotta, are simply non-existent.

We left thinking: Sequels to a musical are always a bad idea. No wonder they're practically giving tickets away and still half empty.

Verdict: Avoid this show. 2.5 / 10.

- Author's Note-
I reviewed the London production of LND. I've heard that the Melbourne one (that coincidentally opened today) has had significant improvements. So, it may not be quite so bad. But view with caution.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review: End of the Rainbow

One Sentence Summary: Tracie Bennett in the performance of her career as Judy Garland in her final weeks.

Trivia: The show is transferring to Broadway next season, with Tracie Bennett. I was lucky enough to see her as Madame Thenardier in Les Miz five years ago.

Best thing about it: The best performance by an actress I have ever seen. I cannot rave enough. She becomes Judy so completely... and it's just mesmerizing from start to finish.

What they could change: Absolutely nothing. This show is perfect.

We left thinking: No wonder we couldn't find a review under five stars.

Rating: 10 / 10

Heigh Ho, Off to Work I Go

First day of work today. Caught me by surprise really. I had expected my contract to be sorted on Monday, so when my recruiter was still mysteriously "resolving things" on Tuesday I started to worry that something was wrong. I could just imagine the phone call "sorry for the mix-up Mr Allen, we actually wanted the other guy", or "oh you actually want a paid position. Oops."

So, when my phone rang at 6:00 last night I was in Tesco, and fully expected that the best case scenario was lower pay than we'd discussed.

Not so. My recruiter is an absolute trooper. Not only did he negotiate £5 per day higher than the window we'd agreed on, but they wanted to know if I could start today! I just about crashed my trolley.

So, like a whirlwind, suddenly here I am.

NS&I has a friendly vibe. Everyone is welcoming, but it does feel a bit like a library where you can't make too much noise.

It's been a fairly typical first day really, health and safety, forms to sign, meeting lots of people and remembering none of their names.

My boss had to show me how to work the watercooler, which was a little embarrassing. Guess I failed that test!


Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: Legally Blonde

We spent the day in London with Emily today, spending quite a lot of time at the Tate Modern before grabbing an amazing dinner at Ping Pong before the show.

One Sentence Summary:  Bubblegum musical adapted from the Reese Witherspoon movie.

Trivia:  Thanks to the MTV recording of the broadway version, I have seen Legally Blonde about fifty times. I can't help but love it!

Best thing about it:  The music is great, and it adds something special to the movie, making it more successful than most movie>theatre transitions I've seen. It probably ties with Hairspray on that count.

What they could change:  The Savoy Theatre is a lot smaller than the Broadway venue, so it's had to be scaled down a lot, but in their defense, they've done a pretty good job. A few of the costumes slip into cliche as well (everything Paulette ever wears), but overall it's hard not to love.

We left thinking:  Susan McFadden (as Elle Woods) is perfect, and thank God this show (or at least the cast we saw) hasn't yet fallen victim to silly stunt casting.

Rating:  8.5 / 10

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Weekend in Scotland

On Friday, straight after The Mousetrap, we caught the overnight bus up to Glasgow for the weekend.

We booked the trip for this weekend so we could see Paul's cousin Zoe perform in a cabaret she'd written as part of her studies at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. The 8 hour bus trip was hell, but we'd expected that. Luckily the first thing we did with Zoe (and her new German bf Daniel) was walk through town to grab breakfast and a great coffee at the little cafe where she used to work. After breakfast, we checked out the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art, and then Paul and I caught the train to Garrowhill while Zoe rehearsed her cabaret.

I've always wanted to visit Garrowhill, because it's where my granny lived as a young girl, before she moved to Australia. She was born in 1939, the first year of WWII, and one of her earliest memories is of wearing a Mickey Mouse gas mask during a bomb raid, in her house in Garrowhill. We sat on the curb opposite her house for about 20 minutes, and I told Paul stories. We looked the other way when the lady who owned the place pulled up - didn't want to weird her out! She might remember my granny, as she popped back in a few years ago to have a look at the house she once knew.

After catching the train back into the city, we had a bit of time to kill before meeting up with Zoe and Daniel again, so we checked out the local mall, Buchanan Galleries, where I found a great shop and bought a whole new wardrobe for my new job. I figured the two shirts I brought with me might look a little tired by week three.

When we caught up with Zoe and Daniel again, we hopped on the train again, this time to Edinburgh. I had no idea Glasgow and Edinburgh were so close - less than an hour away!

Edinburgh is a beautiful city. We met up for coffee with Paul's other cousin Mimi, who lives there now, then took a walk around the city. It was amazing how different it was from Glasgow! It just oozed history. We capped off our great day with a Scottish pub meal, then caught the train back. 

In the morning we slept in, then Zoe cooked us pancakes which we smothered in Manuka honey and nutella. Not at the same time. Zoe's cabaret was on in the crypt of an old church that's been turned into a pub. We walked there in the afternoon, and checked out the nearby botanic gardens while she did her sound check. The show was great. There were four students performing 25 minutes each, and it was great. Zoe was in hilarious form, and she even sang Dave Dobbyn's Welcome Home, which was a special treat. I had it stuck in my head for the entire 8 hour bus trip home.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: The Mousetrap

One Sentence Summary: Agatha Christie's classic murder mystery, set in a country manor on a blustery English winter's night.

Trivia: The Mousetrap opened in 1952, and is the longest running play in the world.

Best thing about it: The casts have just rolled over, so we saw a surprisingly fresh show, given that it's been performed continuously for nearly 60 years.

We left thinking: Modern crime dramas owe a lot to Agatha Christie, so it was great to see her done properly.

Rating: 8 / 10

Friday the 13th

Best Black Friday ever... I got a job! I have a 9 month contract at National Savings & Investments as a Campaign Development Manager. They're a government owned investment bank, kind of like Kiwibank.

The role doesn't appear to be as interesting as what I was doing at Westpac, but it's paying a lot more, so that's a welcome surprise! I had been warned by just about everyone here to expect a significant paycut and possibly demotion, so am feeling very, very relieved.

Paul's not been so lucky today, and was targeted by a scam company that preys on graduates by signing them up to a pyramid scheme paid only on non-existent commissions. Luckily, he was clever enough to google them and get out before getting caught up in it.

Later tonight, we're seeing an Agatha Christie murder mystery play, then taking the midnight bus to Scotland from Gate 13.

A fitting way to spend Black Friday.


I said Black Friday, not Black's Friday you egg.
I hate that song.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Day Three in Madrid: The Real Palacio

Drama at the hostel this morning when the owner arrived. We knew he was coming, because the guy who runs the place finally got around to checking us in (and taking our money) last night - our third. The owner was one of those slimy types who tried to charge us €4 just to leave our small bags in the back room for a few hours. We didn't stand for it.

The main thing on our agenda today was the Real Palais, which is the Spanish equivalent of Versailles, except it's right in the city.

I enjoyed it more than Versailles. Mainly because the crowds weren't as ferocious, so you could actually see stuff, but also because they have an armoury where you can see hundreds of suits of armour. The little boy in me absolutely loved it!

As we were leaving the armoury, the resident peacock even started showing off.

After the palace, we popped into the massive Catholic cathedral, then grabbed some tapas for lunch in a nearby cafe and headed to the airport.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Day Two in Madrid: The Spanish Way

After the bedbug incident, I'm not really in the mood for an Art Gallery this morning. But, because it's the Reina Sofia, and they have Picasso's magnum opus, Guernica, I make the effort to be chipper.

The sculpture in the lobby is of a paintstroke. Paul fell in love and took about 100 photos.

The Reina Sofia was huge, and free because it's Sunday! We weren't so lucky at our next gallery, the Thyssen Bornemisza. Because they're a private collection they charge too much all the time. I decided not to go, as I felt I'd had my fill already from three enormous galleries in two days! Paul spent the afternoon there while I checked out the markets near our hostel.

In the evening, we made good on our promise to have proper tapas in Spain, and walked to La Latina, where there's a street of the cutest little Spanish tapas bars you ever saw. As we walked through Old Town, I finally felt like I was in Spain. The rest of Madrid is fairly non-descript, and could really be any modern city. But Old Town (and La Latina) couldn't be anywhere else, and I loved that.

We feasted on three tapas and drinks at three different bars. My favourite dish was like a potato quiche with a crunchy top that I plan to find a recipe for. And, since discovering them not so long ago, I've believed that a good caipiroska is one of life's best treats. And though they're mainly a South American drink, I can tell you that the Spanish make a great one! I love the the way the fruit is muddled, rather than blended, so it's like a cross between a cocktail and a fruit salad.

When we got home, there was a huge party at our hostel. It's totally that kind of place. Knowing we wouldn't be able to sleep (and not wanting to be reacquainted with the bedbugs too soon), we decided to join in and get to know the people in the hostel. It was worth it - by the time we got to bed (way too late, as per usual), we'd had a great night.


Life Lesson #25 - Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite

I woke up this morning covered in bites. There are at least 20, all over my body. They're bigger and itchier than mozzie bites... the closest thing I can compare it to is 20 bee-stings. I've had chicken pox before, and I'm pretty sure they're just bites because I don't feel unwell.

So, I'm just incredibly uncomfortable. I love this hostel.

I would kill for some of this.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Day One in Madrid: The Rain in Spain

My first impression of Madrid by daylight wasn´t great. We headed straight to the Prado  (Spain´s major art gallery which includes Las Meninas, a work often called the greatest painting ever). Unfortunately, it was raining and we didn´t have an umbrella. We also weren´t expecting queues that snaked around the building (damn you Lonely Planet for saying it would be empty!)

The museum itself was great (and enormous). Once we left, naturally we headed straight to the next gallery! Caixa Forum is a lesser known gallery but I would totally recommend it. It features a wall garden (pic below), and mainly newer works including (at the moment) a really cool photography exhibition covering the life of a prodigy photographer who started at the age of 8, in 1905.

The garden wall at Caixa Forum. Not posed. I actually did look this stupid.
 The sun had decided to come out to play by the time we left Caixa Forum, so we headed into Parque del Retiro, the Madrid equivalent of Central Park, and wandered around for an hour. The highlight was the Crystal Palace, in the middle of the park. Being inside it feels like standing in the centre of a palatial greenhouse!

We were hoping to find a nice tapas bar for dinner, but there were no decent ones near our place, so we had a really nice kebab instead, and promised ourselves we´d do tapas tomorrow.

Life Lesson #24 - Life is Like a Box of Dominos

Today, at 3:00am, I snuck through three locked doors into an enormous dorm in a Spanish hostel without checking in, picked an empty bed, and slept there.

It all started when we forgot to check which gate our Ryanair flight to Madrid was leaving from. At most airports you'd be fine, but at Stansted they have a shuttle train system followed by one-way escalators to ensure that idiots like us are screwed.

Eventually we figure out how to call security, who send a jolly old guy that takes us through a whole bunch of security doors on to a bus, then drives us across the Tarmac to the correct gate.

Needn't have rushed. Apparently there were flights backed up at Madrid, and after the plane was loaded, they kept us grounded for two hours.

Which meant we landed after midnight, missed the last bus, and had to negotiate the Madridian (is that what you call it?) subway system across three lines to our station. We made it in the nick of time before their 2am shutdown.

Have you ever heard of a hostel with no external signage? I hadn't, until last night, anyway. That's why we were wandering around downtown Madrid for nearly an hour, exclaiming "but it should be right here!" every few steps.

Eventually we realized it was an unsignposted part of a dark apartment building, and that reception had closed at midnight. luckily for us, 5 minutes layer two beautiful Serbian girls arrived home, each carrying a red rose from her date, and helped us inside.

Apparently everyone, including the staff, had just gone to a bar down the road. We waited in the kitchen for what felt like an age, then decided just to nick two empty beds and fess up in the morning.

I was so tired I didn't even wake when everyone got home from the bar.

The inside of our very small, very strange hostel.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review: Les Miserables on the West End

One Sentence Summary: The epic musical about the Student's Revolution in France, which, despite excellent music, is getting very creaky with age.

Trivia: last year, for the 25th anniversary, there were three different versions of Les Miz performed in London on the same night.

Best thing about it: They were better than these guys:

What they could change: Everyone looked like they'd done it a hundred times before. The sound wasn't immersive at all, despite excellent seats we still felt like all the sound was coming from the orchestra pit. Eponine was whiny, Marius' wig was unbearably bad, Valjean did high notes in falsetto, Enjolras was flat, and a chorus member actually called him "Enjol-rass" on stage. Wow.

We left thinking: It's sad to see a show get so successful that all involved become lazy. We've heard that this is happening to Wicked too, and hope to god that's not the case when we see it.

Rating: 5 / 10

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Not Working

I had a Skype interview today. Literally, an interview with Skype.

It's not as cool as it sounds, I was just there testing their new product for an hour for £40. I signed up with some research companies a few weeks ago in the hopes of earning some cash to make being unemployed sting a bit less. I casually asked if they have any vacant marketing positions... but I doubt that will come to anything!

Meanwhile, I'm meant to find out tomorrow about a job with NS&I, a government banking arm kind of like Kiwibank. It's a good role, and a bit of a promotion, but not overly exciting. I've got a few dream applications out there (Google being one). Here's hoping I can land something soon, I want to start booking my Summer travel before I run out of cash!

Paul's been applying for lots too, and is really gutted today because he missed the submission deadline for an awesome job at the National Portrait Gallery by two hours. (Who closes submissions at 9:00am??). He sent it in anyway, on the off-chance that someone will read it. Worth a shot.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Archipelagos and Cinammon Buns

Our last day in Gothenburg is the one I've been looking forward to the most. The West Coast of Sweden is made up of a series of rocky archipelagos, and near Gothenburg many of them are inhabited, so its quite easy to catch a commuter ferry from the last tram stop out to see the islands.

You see few tourists in Gothenburg, and even fewer when you get out to the archipelagos. We took the ferry right out to Vrångö, the furthest one. It has around 300 inhabitants but the rocky landscape feels deserted in a really alien way.

Unfortunately the wind was coming from the north today, so we were too frozen to spend as much time there as we would have liked, but that didn't stop us from enjoying the baguettes with ham and Swedish beetroot salad that we'd brought with us from the mainland.

When we arrived back in Gothenburg we still had several hours before our shuttle, and there was no questioning how we would spend it.

Spending the afternoon in Haga with a perfect coffee and a fresh cinnamon bun was the first thing we did when we arrived, and despite costing more than the average lunch in NZ, repeating it was the perfect end to a delightful long weekend in Sweden.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Life Lesson #23 - Mayday, May Day

Today I learned that Mayday is more than just a maritime distress signal. Turns out it's quite important to the Swedes, they hold enormous public parades, and it's a bonafide holiday so they even close half the city down for it. Including the museums, art galleries and markets. No prizes for guessing what we were planning to do today.