Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Weekend in Berlin

 A few years back, I made a starring turn in the show Cabaret as 'guy #2'. Thought my performance was less than memorable, it did awaken a desire to visit the city of Berlin.

I think I'd probably need to visit Berlin again (or with the right people) to properly discover the underground, bohemian hangouts like the Kit Kat Klub from Cabaret. But this time, at least, I was pretty happy exploring my first German Christmas Markets.

My favourite thing about the Christmas Markets is the smell: pine and cinnamon. Every second stall sells glühwein (mulled wine), and I even found glühwein flavoured boiled sweets! The whole thing feels a lot more genuine than, say, a row of amusement park stalls, because you can see them cooking everything in front of you, be it bratwurst, fudge, pastries, or fist sized balls of layered doughy biscuit filled with cream and covered in chocolate icing (a particular favourite!).

The glühwein sweets

A nativity scene with the Television Tower behind
After wiling away the morning sampling every treat at the Christmas Markets, we crossed the river to the Berliner Dom. In history class I saw photos of it looking significantly worse for wear after the Allied bombing of Berlin in 1940, so it was quite fascinating to see it in person.

The unofficial mascot of former East Germany is Ossie Crosswalk Man. He was the subject of a massive campaign after authorities proposed axing him a few years back. I wish all crosswalk guys wore fedoras!

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a sight to behold (yes, that's actually its name). 2,711 enormous concrete slabs. They get taller as the ground slopes downward. It's very quickly dwarfing and disorienting.

By mid-afternoon, I was really regretting leaving my thermals at home. We took refuge from the icy wind inside the Neue Nationalgalerie. We thought their exhibition was from a guy called Geteilte Himmel. Turns out, that's German for Divided Sky, and it was an exploration of German art between 1945 and 1968. Fascinating.

It was long dark by the time we left the gallery, so we hopped on the metro to Alexanderplatz - the largest Christmas Market.

Dinner was bratwurst and glühwein, followed quickly by a creamy hot chocolate by the open fire.

The next morning we got up early and walked the longest remaining length of the Berlin Wall. It's only 1.3km long, but officially the longest Art Gallery in the world.

From the end of the East Side Gallery, we crossed the river to the Jewish Museum.

Stopping along the way only when completely necessary.

The Jewish Museum is a very... unusual experience. I was expecting it to explore the holocaust a little more, but it was more aimed at capturing the longer history of German Jews. Probably more effective for the German public, and definitely less morbid, but not quite what we were hoping to experience.

An installation in one of the empty spaces at the Jewish Museum.

A quick bite to eat at a German bakery followed (why is German bread so delicious!), then a visit to Checkpoint Charlie - the main crossing from West to East during the cold war.

Afterwards, a visit to the Reichstag. Another building I remembered well from History class. As I was trying to imagine what it would have felt like to be one of the thousands of young men in straight lines watching the Führer speak from the steps, my hair did something freaky.

So attractive.

Though tired, we walked from the Reichstag through the Tiergarten to the main art gallery, where, I have to admit, I completely ran out of steam and felt it hard to concentrate as Paul slowly circulated through hundreds of enormous rooms!

The Brandenburg gate as seen from the Tiergarten.

Easily the best part of the weekend was the last part. My friend Phil from performing arts school moved permanently to Berlin just three days earlier, and we met up with him in Alexanderplatz, along with his lovely girlfriend Stefanie. We had several mugs of glühwein along with potato pancakes, country potatoes and currywurst before it was time to go.

With Phil and Stefanie in Alexanderplatz

I can neither confirm nor deny whether we finished our eggnog and glühwein on public transport. Or whether we opted to forsake the €2.50 mug bond in favour of taking some genuine German glühwein mugs home with us!

We'll definitely be back in Berlin. Phil says he can even take us to the Kit Kat Klub!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Weekend at Paris Photo

Earlier this year when we visited Dubrovnik, the place I'd always dreamed of going, I asked Paul what was #1 on his list. He only had one answer: Paris Photo, the world's biggest art photography fair. 

2011 is its 15th year, and for the first time it's in the Grand Palais. Though I'd been to Paris before, I was only too happy to oblige and return!

I'd never visited the Grand Palais, and found it hard to comprehend such an enormous glass structure could have been built over 100 years ago. It made a majestic setting for an incredible art fair.

There were hundreds and hundreds of stalls, and almost all of them felt unmissable. We spent six hours visiting all of them and still felt like we'd only just scraped the surface. My favourite work was by a Swiss photographer called Christian Tagliavini. His work involved elaborate, surreal costumes and models who appeared to have impossibly long necks.

After leaving, we grabbed an almost raw hamburger from the cheapest place on the Champs-Élysées (not recommended!) Just before nine o'clock we raced towards the beams of light we'd been able to see canvassing the sky all evening, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower doing its hourly sparkle.

It was further away than we'd thought, and I started to lose hope of making it, when suddenly we reached the Seine and were greeted with the glorious sight of the glittering Eiffel Tower across the water. Definitely a moment to remember!

After the debacle with our accommodation last time in Paris, we were determined to stay somewhere more central. Because we didn't have much money to spare, we opted to spend the night near La Defense, the futuristic quarter of Paris. It's cheaper because most tourists are looking for the romantic, historical side of Paris. Having experienced that before, we were happy to try something new.

On our second morning, we explored La Defense to see the Grande Arche, a modern architectural marvel created to be a 20th century version of the Arc de Triomphe. A monument to humanity rather than the military.

Given its proximity to the financial heart of Paris, the Grande Arche is the natural home for the Occupy Paris movement


Looking from the Grande Arche with the Arc de Triomphe visible in the distance.
Occupy Paris protesters to the right, and their police minders in the foreground.

After leaving La Defense, we caught the metro to the Père Lachaise Cemetery. Basically, if they're French, famous, and dead, you'll find them here. It's possibly the most famous graveyard in the world because of its elaborate gravestones and rustic beauty.

We realised very quickly that Autumn was the right time to come here. The crisp Paris air made the leaves crunchy under our feet.


Walking around such an old graveyard is a very strange feeling. I kept thinking of my favourite painting ever: Orphan Girl at the Cemetery. Naturally, being a little theatrical, when we stumbled across her artist's gravestone, there was only one pose I was going to strike!

The highlight of the visit was definitely Oscar Wilde's grave. It's an inspiring sculpture of tarpaulin and scaffolding at this time of year.

As we left the cemetery, the sun made our shadows longer, and the light started to soften into a warm haze like all those old French paintings.

We walked to Belleville Parc, stopping in a patisserie on the way. I bought this incredible sweet, despite having no idea what it was. It turned out to be two large meringues stuck together with a thick white chocolate cream and coated in coconut. Perhaps I was just starving, but it may have been the most delicious thing I've ever tasted!

By the time we collected our bags from the hotel it was dark. We deliberately ran early for our airport bus so we could catch the grand Paris Opera House by night.

I had the Phantom of the Opera stuck in my head all the way home.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: Ghetto Klown

John Leguizamo is probably best known for his roles in Baz Lurmann's Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, but he's been writing and performing in one man shows since the 80s.

Ghetto Klown is his fifth one man show, the first to come to London.

Part of the attraction to see it (besides the great reviews) was that it's home theatre on Broadway was on west 45th street right next to our hostel. We had to walk past it several times a day, but couldn't have seen it without giving up one of our other eleven shows!

I'm glad we were given a second chance, because it's a excellent piece of work. This is his first truly autobiographical piece, and it covers most of his life.

The most entertaining retellings are of being lectured at by Al Pacino when he tried to change a script, and of eating three bowls of crickets at a country bar in Nebraska, and then throwing them up all over Patrick Swayze in drag on the set of American-Priscilla Too Wong Foo. Apparently it was like a biblical plague of locusts.

But there are also poignant moments. When he makes his father cry. When he realises his best friend has been using him for years. When he has a nervous breakdown and leaves the business for a few years.

All in all, a frank and honest insight into the life of a fascinating man who is much more than a comedian.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wicked the Sixth

Yep, I saw Wicked again!

I know I've seen (and blogged about!) it twice already this year, so I won't bore you with the details... except to say that Rachel Tucker is a fantastic Elphaba and I unfortunately can't say as much for the understudy Glinda.