A Travellerspoint blog

Day 6: A full day in one city?


sunny 80 °F

After sleeping later than I had wanted to – the previous evening’s shenanigans made this a touch difficult – I got out the door around 12:00 on Saturday, ready to spend significant hours in Berlin. Walking down to Oranienburger Tor, I stopped for an iced coffee and apfel danish, and walked further along past Friedrichstraße station across a bridge, under which I saw passing boats packed with tourists. I noticed a sign for “Berliner Ensemble” in the distance. Sounded artsy, so I decided to investigate. Exploring the building, I came to realize that I had happened upon Bertold Brecht’s theatre! Not having plans that evening, I checked the schedule, and found out that the show playing that night was… The Threepenny Opera! I confess that I don’t know the work well, but I’m aware it’s probably Brecht’s most famous piece, and Kurt Weill’s music is equally well known. The show is sold out, but I’m told if I come back one hour before the 20:00, I may be able to score a seat. I resolve to do this – seeing this work in Brecht’s own theatre is too good an opportunity to pass up!


I continue on walking toward the center of town, following signs for the Reichstag, infamous building of Berlin, which I remember hearing lots about in Mr. Twomey’s history classes, ca. 1988! On the way I come across a stunning sculpture of Jewish children being taken to the trains, and for the first time (with the possible exception of seeing the Pieta in St. Peter’s), I actually tear up at the sight of a sculpture. The piece is called “Trains to Life, Trains to Death”; there is a small girl about the same age of the children depicted who is beside the sculpture, holding an orange flower. It’s very moving, and I immediately embrace Berlin as a city who must continually be reminded of its past.


I continue on toward the Reichstag, passing by many German football fans decked out for the big World Cup match with Argentina, which starts at 15:00. (Those who know me know I’m emphatically not a “soccer” fan… but I will admit it’s pretty exciting to be in a town so wrapped up in the excitement of an "international event.") I notice people queud up to take a lift (the word Europeans use when they mean “elevator,” snark) up to the top of… well, something. I’m not quite sure what, so I ask, and am told it goes to the top of the glass domed Parliament building, the Bundestag, built behind the Reichstag. I decided to give it a go, wait in line for about 30 minutes, and walk the circular path up to the top, taking some nice photos of Berlin on the way. There’s an interesting mirrored section in the middle of the structure and I take some photos of me which reflect off of it. Walking to the bottom, I read about the history of the Reichstag building, which has housed Germany’s Parliament for years, yet is perhaps most famous for the “Reichstag fire” which Hitler blamed on Jews, thus leading to draconian anti-Jewish laws in Berlin, ca. 1938. It’s incredible to see photos of the area surrounding this building, so friendly and nicely maintained now, but scorched and torn apart after the bombings of WWII. Leaving the Reichstag, I take some photos of kids playing in a water fountain – it’s hot here!


Walking the opposite direction, I come upon the Brandenburg Gate, with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, perhaps the most famous landmark of the city. For years, entrance to the other side of this gate was closed off to Westerners by the communist government. Napoleon famously victoriously marched through this gate, humiliating the Berliners, back in 1806, and even had the “quadriga” statues from the top dismantled and sent to Paris. It’s also where JFK gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, in front of the gate which had been blocked, draped, and adorned with signs protesting the Western bloc.


At the other side of the gate, I come upon an intriguing sign for a “Room of Silence.” I enter and am greeted by a lovely older woman who invites me in. The Brandenburg Gate, it appears, was initially designed as a “gate of peace,” yet this certainly didn’t transpire, and this room represents an attempt to restore that legacy. Outside the glass door to the room is a sign proclaiming “peace” in dozens of languages. As I pass into the room, two men walk out, so I have the room to myself. I momentarily disregard the “silence” instructions and take some photos, then just sit in silence for a minute or two. Something about this is terribly moving – I’d been running around so much: town to town, street to street, and outside of feeling really good to just sit, the charged air in this town hits me directly. The simple work of art on the wall – what the woman told me represented “darkness turning into light,” felt overwhelming and peaceful. I leave a donation, buy a few postcards, and thank the woman.


I decide to walk back through the gate in the direction of football revelers, sitting at tables watching the now-started game on large screen TVs. I continue walking and after passing through security, realize I have arrived at the famous “Fan Mile” which my friends from the previous evening had advised me would be the most intense spot to catch the game. And they weren’t kidding – thousands and thousands of colorful characters walking around, drinking beer, singing songs, and generally being really happy, especially given that the Germans were already up, 1-0. I watch a minute or two of the game – and I’m not reneging on this opinion, but soccer (sorry, football), still bores me as a sport – I’m more interested in taking photos of the fans and just being there on such an exciting day of cultural pride for the Germans. During the break (intermission? interval?) between the halves, I walk along a parallel path and see dozens of guys lining up to relieve their beer-bloated bladders in the trees. I ask a few fans to get together for a photo; one fellow asks me in broken English “you are shooting for… New York Times?” Err... not hardly!


On the way back toward the gate I’m cajoled into buying a beer by some fans, and I stop to shoot some video. Passing through the gate again, I come upon a real find: “Museum The Kennedys,” a tribute to the legacy of JFK in Berlin. I enter and upon reading the dedication from my late senator Ted Kennedy, am again overwhelmingly moved (maybe it was the heat? lack of sleep?) that so far away from home, the legacy of a political family who so greatly shaped my own political outlook also seems a point of pride in Berlin. I pay the entrance fee and walk downstairs to the terrific displays of JFK memorabilia, including his keychain and suit, and all sorts of photographs documenting his life and that of Kennedy family (similar to the JFK museum in Boston), with a special focus on his time in Berlin.


There’s also a new exhibit by photographer Richard Avedon called “Obama’s people” (he did this for other presidents as well) which features all of the president’s advisors. What a wonderful museum... and I’m the only one there. On my way out, I purchase a book, and ask the two female staff members whether it was true that when JFK said “Ich bin ein Berliner!” he was actually saying “I am a jelly donut?” They smile, but clearly they’ve been asked this before. I leave and stop into a Dunkin Donuts for an iced coffee and “German victory donut” with the flag’s colors expressed in candy sprinkles.


I’m interested in making it to Checkpoint Charlie, but time is moving swiftly and I want to be back at the theatre by 19:00. Walking further downtown, the joy in the city is palpable: hundreds of fans lining the streets, cars honking horns with passengers draping flags out the window, spontaneous chanting and singing everywhere. I wave my little German flag which I found on the ground at Fan Mile. It’s so neat to be part of all this! I walk faster toward the Checkpoint, and come upon large signs which explain the history of the Berlin Wall. It dawns on me that a silly question asked by many Berlin tourists is probably “Where is the Berlin wall?” Um, they destroyed it, people.

I walk past the Checkpoint, where two costumed American GIs (I can’t tell if they’re actually soldiers or stand-ins) are posing for paid photographs.


With 19:00 only about 15 minutes away, I start running back toward the theatre, and find my way there by 19:05. After waiting in line, I purchase one of the only tickets they have available – a “standing room” ticket way up in the back, for five Euro. I’m relieved to know I’m going to see this show, but not looking forward to the prospect of standing for three hours. I walk back to Quynh’s place and grab a quick shower, gulp about 5 glasses of water (rather hard to come by around town, and it’s hot out), and make it back to the theatre with a few minutes to spare. Outside, I’m offered a ticket for an actual seat by a woman leading a tour group from a graphic design program based in NYC, and although I can’t get anything for my standing room ticket, I gladly pay her 15 Euro for the chance to sit down.


This production of was without question one of the finest, most fully realized works I’ve ever seen on stage. The production oozed with visual imagery, with a strong emphasis on groupings of parallel lines. (See the picture with the Die Dreigroschenoper title hanging from a scrim to see another reflection of this design.) The raked stage allowed for a sense of depth that was especially effective from where I sat in the top balcony, and every corner of the stage was used at one point or another. The opening montage sticks out in my memory, featuring a parade of characters silhouetted against concentric, electrified circles of red light, swirling and “burning” at different speeds and directions, with one grandfatherly narrator singing the famous “Mack the Knife” melody. Which really gets stuck in your head! Bulbs of parallel light (mostly white but also blue and red) were in almost constant use, first as stage dividers, and effectively, in the final scenes as bars for MacHeath’s jail cell. The first act alone was 2 hours, then after a short pause, the final act brought the show to just over 3 hours in length – far longer than I think most American audiences generally can deal with – yet the show moved at a brisk pace. (During the interval I have a German cheese-pretzel and a Coca-Cola… what’s with the glass bottles everywhere, Europe?) The acting was phenomenal – all sort of characters, ages and types (I counted 22 onstage at one point), all with a deep physical awareness and infinitely subtle range of motion. I also found the singing, although not flashy or operatic (thankfully), rooted in the acting, a perfect match for the tongue-in-cheek, presentational mode of theatre which Brecht helped to develop. What’s perhaps the greatest testament to this production I could offer, however, is that over that entire 3+ hours of the show, I didn’t understand one word of it. (Except for the lone English phrase spoken in the entire pay: "Don't cry for me, Argentina"... which perhaps had something to do with the earlier victory over the Argentinians?) Anyway, the language mattered not. The show still made sense, although it was interesting to hear the audience laugh on lines where I had to intuit actual meaning based on the physical expression of the actors. At the conclusion I walked around Brecht’s giant theatre taking photos, and thanked my lucky stars the winds had blown me to this town, on this night.


When I got back to the apartment, I realized that the director of Die Dreigroschenoper was in fact the great American Robert Wilson, frequent collaborator of Philip Glass (they co-produced Einstein on the Beach, the music of which I studied for this original piece last year), and one of the most legendary theatre directors in the world, especially with regard to design. And I concur.

Not wanting to end the day just yet, I ventured out past partying people, prostitutes and pimps, chanting and singing and blaring victorious car horns still, and walked in the direction of Alexanderplatz, an area which I had been advised to see, but in my rush to the theatre hadn’t had time for. It ended up being further away than I had expected, and once I was there it was already quite late, so I walked around, stopping outside Berlin Cathedral and taking some photos along the water. The clubs felt a bit too “Miami” in contrast to the chilled out area I had been in the previous night, so I didn’t stop. I walked back to my home neighborhood and down past Aufsturz, but it was late and there would be no second meeting of the Potato Döner Club.


By 2:00 or so I headed in, stayed up another hour or so, chatted with my friendly hosts about my extraordinary day in Berlin, and planned my adventure to Prague for early the following morning. I packed my things and collapsed in a heap by 4:00am, with every intention of leaving by… 7:45. Gulp.


Posted by coolmcjazz 18:26 Archived in Germany Tagged photography Comments (2)

Day 5: Berlin, my true friend…

(where your author discovers unknown powers of extroversion)

sunny 80 °F

Now, where was I? Jokes aside, I left some terrific things when I departed from Amsterdam. I have yet to have any sort of significant interaction with an uninteresting person, and Amsterdam will always remain one of the highlights of the trip – from the host-by-proxy, Rome-born Danilo, and the actual host, Surinam-born Chris (who I didn’t meet until the following morning, and whose terrific place couldn’t have been in a more ideal area, a few blocks from the train station, though those Amsterdam stairs are narrow), to my new Houston, or was it Austin, or maybe Omaha travel buddy Rachel – Amsterdam was an incredible experience, perhaps slightly ironic seeing as it’s the first country in which I’ve traveled alone without knowing the native language.

After sleeping in Friday morning, I walked to the train station to purchase a ticket to Berlin, where I had made my reservation for the next two nights. The queue (this is the word Europeans use when they mean line, snark), sadly, was well over an hour, run by a deli-style numbered ticket system, and therefore I wasn’t able to take my remaining two or so hours before the train to explore some desired activities in Amsterdam, most prominently the Van Gogh museum and a canal cruise. (But still, regrets I have none.) I bought a yogurt shake and a falafel (nice to have one of these in Amsterdam as I’ll be reminded of it next time I’m at “Amsterdam Falafel” in Adams Morgan!) and finally got my space in line. Bought a ticket for the next train to Berlin, which left in 25 minutes, scrambled back to Chris’s place to pick up my bags, and got back just in time. As people are boarding, I stroll up to the conductor and hurriedly ask: “Sorry, can you tell me where my seat is?” The man, with his white grizzled whiskers a true son of Northern Europe frowns and says :”Where are you coming from?” Me: “Amsterdam.” “No, where do you live?” “America.” “Ah, yes, but you are in Holland! And here… we speak Dutch!” Me: “I’m really sorry, I’ve been asking that of everyone, but I was in a rush…” “Well you did not ask it of me. This is your train. Harumph.” (Alright, I added that last part. Still, let’s call this Strike 2 on the Clueless American Quotient.) I felt as though I were paying penance for all clueless Americans who had come this man’s way in the past. After being away from the UK for a few days now, the question “Do you speak English?” – usually said with my hand to heart in a sort of subtle gesture of apology – feels nicely ingrained.


On the train ride I took in the German countryside, or at least the parts which ran along the train tracks, spotting many windmills and much greenery, and after a short while I started to sense that I was officially “in” this country which plays such a large role in world history, especially for me with my background in classical music. I am happy to report that the German countryside appears exactly as Gustav Mahler wrote it. (Listening to his 6th Symphony on headphones only underscored this fact.) Though it ate up precious battery life on my laptop, I watched some videos about the great songwriter Elliott Smith, and, searching my hard drive for films with a German angle, started what already seems like a terrific movie in The Lives of Others, with deals with spying in a repressive German Socialist government.


We finally arrive in Berlin and I get out at this enormous train station with a roof impressively designed with a criss-cross pattern and emblazoned with “BOMBARDIER – Wilkommen in Berlin” – which in typing it off the photo I only now realized that I misread as “bombadier” which had struck me as a slightly ironic thing to name your train station given the history of the city. (Clueless American Quotient, point 3.) Passing by, of all things, a Dunkin Donuts, which makes me feel a bit closer to home, I make my way to a map to figure out how to get to my host’s apartment. Unlike the London tube map, which took me about a minute to process, the Berlin subway map seems a jumbled mess of foreign-ness, and it takes me much longer to figure out where I am. (At one point, presented with the situation of having to transfer to one train, but not knowing the direction, I randomly chose one of the two in the station which were about to leave, which turned out to be wrong and I had to turn around at the next station. I did get to experience on that train, however, the slightly jarring scene of a few college-aged kids drinking beer quite openly on the train.)

I make it to Oranienburger Tor, and my host, a lovely young Vietnamese woman named Quynh (pronounced “Quinn”) and her boyfriend Tung, come to meet me at a Subway sandwich shop. Quynh is studying international tourism and Tung works in IT. They have a nice flat on the fourth floor of a building in a great area, fairly close (as I would find out the following day) to the major centers of the city. After getting settled in (and plugging in all my dying electronic devices), I venture out to explore the unknown city. Quynh recommends a place down the street called Aufsturz for good beer selection, and I make my way there, weaving around prostitutes, who are unmistakable. (In fact, that’s my major knock on the city – prostitutes and pimps all very actively work the streets, which although no one gave me any trouble and I correctly avoided eye contact, does lend an impression of at least the potential of danger, especially as a solo traveler with an expensive camera a bit naïvely slung around his neck late at night.)


At Aufsturz, I ask for “something good and local” for my first German beer and the waiter presents me a Brauhaus Tegernsee Spezial for the whopping total of… 3 euro. Over the evening, I find that it’s true what they say about German beer – all really good, all really cheap as compared with options in America. I sit alone at the edge of a outside table, taking numerous photos of “my first German beer” – I suppose I didn’t need that “I’M A TOURIST, MAKE FUN OF ME” sign after all? At this table, everyone’s speaking German and I start to question this whole “travel alone without knowing anyone” thing.


Hearing a few English words at a table nearby, I muster the courage to approach a table of five, asking if I can join them. They oblige, and we have an interesting conversation about work, the local scene, and visiting the US. Thomas is studying to be a policeman in Berlin, and tells of working border patrol, and the things that get people in trouble in crossing borders. (I had remarked that I was surprised there was no customs check-in between Holland and Germany, but he explains that the EU has mutuality agreement once one is already inside the country.) I write down my blog link and Thomas says he will check it out – if this is true, Thomas, please leave a comment so I know you were here! And get your butt to the US already! (Also shown in the picture are Marten and his girlfriend Sandra, both very nice.)


These folks leave and I make my way across the patio in search of other English conversations, with the courage that one successful interaction brings. I start taking some photos and a girl teasingly admonishes me for taking photos without asking permission, which is a good point. I mention, however, that I’m not taking individual shots, but more taking in the ambiance of the place, or something to that effect. I end up sitting and having some good times and some great beers with my new friends including Nicole (how, Nicole, did I neglect to take a photo of you?), Jan, Andre, Anna and Franzi. (I know I’ve forgotten a few names.) Conversation flows freely, and I learn the German for “happy birthday” (which escapes me now, imagine that), I defend Twitter (even over here they incorrectly think it’s about telling people you just brushed your teeth), and I find out that this whole group went to college together, and are reuniting in Berlin for the evening. I feel a little guilty upon discovering that English is the language of choice only because I’m there, and a few people whose English isn’t as good aren’t talking as much. (I very much agree with the overall sentiment that Americans have it easy only having to speak one language!) Everyone’s shooting me beer recommendations, all of which are great, including Berliner Kindl, which seems to be the default late-night choice for many, but one that blows me away is Barbar (meaning “wild one” or “barbarian”), a Belgian brew made with honey, suggested by Jan.


We close down the place around 2am, and Nicole, Jan, and Andre decide to take the American on a journey to find a place which makes good “döner,” a local sandwich fancied by the late-night crowd. “Döner” is pronounced “dooner,” which is also last name of a college fraternity brother of mine, someone who I would not want to associate anything edible with. I also neglect to tell them I’m a vegetarian!

We find one place across from Quynh’s, they order, and as I’m watching sliced potatoes being dropped into the pita, I hear one of ours whispering – someone grabs me and says “run!” The sandwich makers yell “Hey!” I don’t know what’s going on, I’ve just been told to run and I’m following instructions! One of our group proclaims, “They don’t know what they’re doing. There’s no potatoes in a döner!” We run blocks before stopping, and I'm caught in a riotous moment of inspired juvenilia. We tell the story to each other over and over – why is it so much fun to goof around in a strange city with people you hardly know? We walk toward another happening neighborhood( avoiding prostitutes the whole way), and find another place that does make “correct” döner. I order a falafel and a Kindl and they look mystified, but are fine once they realize I don’t eat meat. On the way back, I have a revealing discussion with Andre, who was fairly silent at the table – he talks of growing up in a city haunted by the legacy of the Nazis, and how although they obviously had nothing to do with it, he says many Berliners worry about how they’re perceived. This is a city of great pride and heritage, and the thuggery of the Nazi era seems universally abhorred throughout the city. We walk past the Jewish temple, which I’m moved to discover keeps two guards slowly striding back and forth across it’s front entrance at all hours.

What a fun night with a new group of friends. Hope to see you guys if and WHEN you make it to the US! And remember… "nobody puts potatoes in a döner!"

Posted by coolmcjazz 02:12 Archived in Germany Tagged photography Comments (2)

Day 4: I have but one thing to say.

(shortest entry ever though it probably could be the longest)

sunny 80 °F

What happens in Amsterdam... STAYS in Amsterdam. :)


Posted by coolmcjazz 14:06 Archived in Netherlands Tagged educational Comments (2)

Day 3: Lessons Learned?

(otherwise known as “the day that shall not be named” or “hopefully this is the low point of my trip” or “i wouldn't say i'm an expert traveler”)

sunny 80 °F

I awoke Wednesday morning after only a few hours sleep, and opened a message in which I’d been offered a luxury flat in Paris for two nights, for the grand total of $79! I had put myself on a “standby” list for Paris accommodations, and anyone who is on that list can be contacted by anyone looking to fill their rooms, making them a “special offer.” Though this centrally located, gorgeous flat was normally listed for $180 a night, the owner was offering me the place for the special rate of $40 a night! Although it seemed too good to be true, I figured it was a last-minute move on her part to fill the room on two weekday off-nights. Shuffing off the plans where my first impulse had directed me – which was to stay with a normal-seeming American couple in Ghent, Belgium, I accepted the woman's offer, packed up my things, hopped in a taxi to the St. Pancras/King’s Cross train station, and purchased an expensive (179 pounds!) train ticket to Paris. I order a nutella crêpe and cappuccino, and start writing at a table in the station.


[We now interrupt this blog post to refer you, gentle reader, to the GIANT ASTERISK of a pause in the flow of writing in yesterday’s entry.]

At this very moment, I received an email from the woman in Paris, stating something to the effect that she “never agreed to rent me the place for $40 a night” (which she obviously DID…) and that she’d be happy to have me stay two nights for 300 Euro. Oh, how kind of you, Madam Bait-and-Switch. After a flurry of emails to her and to the not-open-for-another-three-hours airbnb headquarters in San Francisco, I realize I’ve been had. Perhaps not intentionally – I do believe this woman made an honest mistake, and didn’t know that when a “special offer” is made at a certain price, and a tenant accepts the offer, that should lock in the deal – but ultimately I was the one inconvenienced. Airbnb writes me to say that the woman is going to cancel the reservation, and I wasn’t about to travel to Paris without secure lodging in place. Unfortunately, the airbnb “support team” wasn't very helpful; after numerous requests for assistance they barely responded and weren’t very sympathetic to my situation, apart from implying it was a mistake so I should just suck it up. [Note: Since this time, they've contacted me and been a bit more apologetic, but still...] I canceled the train ticket to Paris; luckily since the ticket had been so expensive, it was fully refundable (phew), save for a 3 pound fee. I contacted the woman in Ghent in an attempt to salvage some travel plans, but of course by that point it was too late to book. After a morning spent booking travel plans, I wasted an entire afternoon at a train station, not going anywhere. And of course, my computer battery was dying. I hung my head, gathered my stuff, and headed back on the tube to Waterloo. The parallels to a defeated Napoleon were only too obvious. Also, I figured I could now squeeze in the eight miles I needed to reach my June goal! Sadly… THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN. Streak broken. :(

Back at Des’s, and resolving to DO SOMETHING and get the heck out of Dodge, I immediately got online and researched getting to Amsterdam. I figured that unless I made an effort NOW to travel toward the direction of Germany, if I traveled straight south to Paris and Toulouse, I probably wouldn’t make it that far west. I happened upon a terrific idea: I could take an overnight ferry to Amsterdam from Harwich, about a 2.5 hour train ride from London. Impulsively, but decisively (were these the winds I had been waiting for?), I booked the ferry and train tickets and got out the door, tubing it to Liverpool Station (hey, home of the Beatles! not really) and making the 21:30 train. I enjoyed the architecture of the Liverpool train station – like Waterloo, the station is indoors but appears to have originally been outdoors – look at this photo with the sign "HOTEL" adorning a building with is clearly inside, right next to the electronic schedule board!

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On the train, I sat next to a pleasant teenage girl who had just been to Wimbledon – said she paid 70 pounds for her ticket months ago, and had been offered 1,000 for it that day! All was going according to plan... however I departed at Manningtree for a transfer to Harwich, and when I walked to the track of the transfer train, found out that that train was… wait for it… broken. I wait for the replacement bus, sitting on picnic tables in the chilly, middle-of-nowhere station with a handful of locals and travelers. After some time, the bus picks us up, and the driver goes about 90mph trying to get us to the ferry. (I think someone even flipped him off on the road.) We passed through quaint English villages with ancient church graveyards, towns with British-sounding names like named Mistley, Ipswich, and Colchester.

Finally we arrive at the ferry dock, where I and another traveler get off the bus and head to the ferry. OK now – anyone want to take a stab at where this story is heading? At the gate, we’re told that although the ferry is still in the dock – we can see it just a ways ahead – the loading plank is up and no more passengers are being allowed on board. (The voice in my head asks “Even for desperate American travelers who already have one severely blundered travel story today?”) The guard tells us there’s another ferry leaving at 9am the following morning, and that there’s a b & b not far up the road, which sullenly I slink off to with a nice fellow named Bram. Bram is Dutch, friendly, and his even-toned demeanor has a nice calming effect on my pent-up frustration. He reminds me of Larry, the chess-playing manager for Franklin’s, a brewery I used to work at in Hyattsville, MD. Bram, however, has a PhD in Protein Crystalization – an area which I don’t even know enough about to know how little I know about it – but his work has something to do with the 3D imaging of protein molecules in order to build better pharmaceuticals, and he sells machines to enable this. We knock and the b & b owner comes down – he had “just retired” (which is what the English say when they mean they had just gone to bed, smirk), and he agrees to let us in at the rate of 60 pounds (and no less) for a room with two twin beds. We walk in and the smell of “old English house” hits me. Thankfully I had hit the cash machine before leaving Waterloo, and had exactly 30 pounds on me, and Bram scratched enough together to please the owner. I sleep in the surprisingly comfortable bed along with the sounds of the English countryside in my head – deep silence, an infrequent car engine, finally penetrated by yammering gulls in the early morning hours. We have a well-put together breakfast which for me features traditional baked beans, toast, and Weetabix, (“you don’t want any meat?!”) and have a chat with Don, the roly-poly, ruddy faced proprietor, who is in keener spirits at this hour – as am I after a good night's sleep, admittedly. Don purchased this guest house seven years ago and his wife died suddenly shortly after they moved in, and it’s moving to hear him tell this story, providing a nice human counterpoint to the annoyance I had about having to pay 30 pounds for the price of a bed a few hours previous. Hey, business is business, right?


We make it to the 9am ferry by 7:30 and I have a pleasant chat with an Irish/Australian fellow in front of me in line named Paul, who is carrying his bike in a bag! Formerly he was on the Australian biking team, but crashed at 70mph in Tasmania, losing the ability to move his right arm significantly. He knows Boston via his knowledge of the Dropkick Murphys. (Doesn't everyone?) Presently I’m writing at a table across from Bram, and I can look out at the pleasantly passing waters of the English seas. I have a place booked in Amsterdam tonight, though sadly I won’t arrive until around 6pm – had the correct train been operating last night, I would’ve been there by 10am and had the day to spend. But… I’ll make the best of it and see what I can see tomorrow. Perhaps the Van Gogh museum? There are worse things. Also, I booked a cheap room for two nights (ooh) in Berlin for Friday and Saturday. I have left England and given yesterday’s battles I see this as a major victory. Lesson learned for future travel? Planning ahead pays off and helps to avoid situations like what transpired on Day 3. Anyway, onward and upward. A fine Belgian ale can’t make it to my lips quick enough!

Posted by coolmcjazz 01:32 Archived in England Tagged photography Comments (3)

Day 2: London, continued...

(in which I realize that the inside of a London flat is strikingly similar to the inside of a Washington, DC apartment)

sunny 80 °F
View European Adventure, June-July 2010 on coolmcjazz's travel map.

Well, I'm only partially being tongue-in-cheek, here, friends. Truth is, I think needed a good day of relaxing to counteract all the continent-leaping I'd been doing, and I took full advantage on Tuesday. As mentioned previously, I woke up a bit groggy from those hand-pulled ales (2, count em) Monday night, but the time spent at Greenfield's polishing up that mammoth first post (sorry) cleared my head out just fine. I then headed back to Des's and spent a few hours uploading photos and getting the post up. Suddenly I realized it was… 5pm (er, 17:00) and that a good portion of my day had been spent not sight-seeing. Blech. However, I put on my cultural awareness cap, opened up the magical interwebs, and happened upon a terrific concert opportunity within a few hours in London: Haydn's gorgeous and mammoth masterwork "The Creation" (Die Schöpfung), performed at St. Paul's Cathedral at 8pm (er, 20:00), by the terrific Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. I went online and booked the cheapest ticket available, way on the side ...

We interrupt this blog post from a train traveling from London to Harwich Town, England, calling attention to the fact that a GREAT BIG GIANT ASTERISK, which will be explained in Day 3, needs to follow the final clause of the preceding sentence. Carry on.

… of the giant church, in the furthest row back.

At this point it dawns on me that I in order to maintain my monthly running goal (a streak I have stubbornly kept up with since January), I must run 14 miles by the end of the month. Which is tomorrow. So… after scarfing down half a pizza and a cappuccino by Des's place, I lace up and bolt out the door, with the intentions of running toward St. Paul’s so I know where I’ll be for the concert. It’s a nice 6 mile run over the Chelsea Bridge and through loping, windy streets, passing numerous pubs (“why am I running when I could be joining these fellows?”) and people trudging home at the end of their work day. I run to King’s Cross, which I did not yet know would figure handily in the following day’s events.


After returning home and showering, I briskly walk-run over the same path I had so recently conquered, and after finding my way through windy, ancient alleyways, arrive at St. Paul’s, yet another giant edifice soaring toward the sky. The British seem to like things that are very high; the broad, ornate exterior reminds me very much of the colossal churches of Rome. I’m there precisely at 8:00, and concert ushers standing on the giant steps direct me toward the ticket booth inside. I’m handed my ticket and just following a prayer (rather unfamiliar for a classical concert) and just before the conductor strides in, I hand my ticket to an elderly usher who whispers “walk straight up, turn left.” After taking another quick “cathedral punch” to the gut (see Westminster Abbey, Day 1), I pass by about 40 rows of people sitting in the center section all who have paid considerably more than I. I follow instructions and turn left, but as I do, I notice that the far right four chairs of the central section are, quite conveniently, unoccupied. Screw it, I think. What’s the worse they’ll say? “Is that your seat?” I’ll just say the concert was ready to start and I didn’t want to be walking around in search of my seat, which is the truth anyway. With the opening downbeat starting in about 10 seconds, I plop down. Somehow, I’ve scored 50 pound seats in the front row of the center section, about 15 rows back from the stage. What’s the English word for “win?”


I’m not sure I can describe the music I heard last night. I’ll try to be brief. The opening chords, written by Franz Joseph Haydn just over 300 years ago, seemed to transport the entire hall and everyone in it to that period, especially given the dramatic atmosphere of St. Paul’s, where Haydn himself visited. (Sidenote: I remember discussing with Airplane John that I didn’t think London was known to be a great Mahler town, but it certainly is a great Haydn town, perhaps stemming from his own activities in this city. In fact, Haydn was inspired to write "The Creation" after two visits to London in the 1790s!)

Haydn wrote “The Creation” as a three-section oratorio, which attempts the rather weighty goal of depicting the world at its birth. To the extent that the aesthetic potential of Western classical music might be possible of such an undertaking, I think he succeeds. I must confess that I don’t know this piece all that well – I love Haydn’s piano sonatas, and I dutifully trudged through his tuneful trumpet concerto in high school competitions – but his music, the epitome of the classical style, has always seemed a touch on the “polite” side of the ecstatic spectrum for me. Not enough angst. Yet there it was last night: drama and passion and majesty, the quintessence of craftsmanship – I think perhaps it took hearing this music in its natural environs for me to “get it.” I wasn’t familiar with the Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer, but he was a real winner – sort of like a young Simon Rattle, a tuxedo-tailed marionette coaxing infinite gradations of tonal color, nuance, and ensemble blend from a clearly engaged orchestra of around 60, chorus of close to 100, and three exquisite vocal soloists. I love watching vibrant conductors who love what they do, and who conduct not just with their hands but with their entire bodies. Also, I particularly enjoyed the soloists, each one of whom led urgency, personality, and rock-solid technique to their solo and recitative sections – and, perhaps, most fittingly, the young, resplendent Welsh soprano Julia Doyle, while singing “The Creation,” was herself pregnant! Hearing this music will perhaps be my first entrance in my "Top 10 Musical Experiences of the 2010s" – anyone who read this entry on my other blog knows that that's pretty high praise from me.




After the concert finished I took a few minutes to walk around the large cathedral (though perhaps not as massive as some of the churches I’ve seen in Rome), snapping photos. This technically wasn’t allowed, but no one said anything until I was just about ready to leave anyway. I found out that the concert of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony slated for July 8 was already sold out, which may end up altering my travel plans later in the trip – at the least, I’ve now seen St. Paul’s. (Though I neglected to look for the burial spot of cathedral's architect, Christopher Wren, whose epitaph states: "Reader, if you seek his memorial – look around you.")


Outside the cathedral I spent a while taking photos of statuary, experimenting with camera angles and my 50mm-1.8 lens, then walked a bit around Paternoster Square, where I came upon an interesting, fairly recent statue ("Shepherd and Sheep," by Dame Elisabeth Frink), which I noticed had been dedicated by the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin. A rather bold statement put in a prominent location, but I liked it.




After walking around the cathedral to take it in from different angles, I called it a night and walked back toward Waterloo. On the way I passed by a café where a young man was struggling mightily through “Heart and Soul” on a beat-up piano that had been left as part of a citywide piano festival. (There’s a similar thing going on in NYC right now, I believe.) After he left I played a few tunes myself, including Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day (in London Town)” and garnered some applause from passersby. I took a few artsy photos of the piano, walked back over the bridge to Waterloo and called it a night. When I got back to Des’s flat, I felt the strong urge to get a move on, feeling that apart from the great experience of St. Paul’s I’d wasted too much time not sight-seeing on Day 2. I spent time attempting to book some lodging options in Paris on the afore-mentioned "airbnb" site for the following evening, and got to sleep around 4am, excited about where I might end up the next day.


PS – I have loads of pics from Day 2, but am about to dock in port, so will try to upload later. Still trying to figure out best photo uploading/maintenance system. {editor's note from Amsterdam: done and done.] :)

Posted by coolmcjazz 05:14 Archived in England Tagged photography Comments (4)

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