Thursday, December 8, 2011

Land Down Under 2011: Sydney

View of Sydney Skyline
from the Royal Botanic Garden
Since I arrived in Sydney on Monday, it's been pouring rain. Last year at this time, Sydney was bathing in sunshine. This visit, the blue skies and warm temperatures have been replaced with cool damp. The summer season is starting off wet; and according to the weather reports, this has been the wettest and coldest summer in decades.

Trendy Sydney Window Display:
Kangaroo Made Out
of Louis Vuitton Handbags
Even though Sydney is a beautiful city with magnificent harbor views and lovely beaches, it has always left me cold. It doesn't have the charm and culture of Melbourne or the livability and peacefulness of Brisbane. Sydney is a big city with high prices. Perhaps, Sydney is just too trendy and hip for my taste. 

On the other hand, Sydney does have an excellent botanic garden. Situated on a peninsula overlooking the harbor and city skyline, the Royal Botanic Gardens are next to the Sydney Opera House. And even though the various gardens have amazing plant collections, it's the wildlife that makes this place really special.

Bats at Rest
In the rainforest groves are thousands of Grey-Headed Flying Foxes (bats). When I visited yesterday morning, most of the bats were sleeping in the trees overhead. (Luckily, I had an umbrella. It came in handy, and I'm not talking about the rain.) These noisy fellas make quite a mess and are not friendly. Unfortunately, I was unable to attach the video I shot of the bats at play. Instead, I had to be satisfied with the video of these colorful parrots. They seem to be everywhere. 

In another area of the Garden are hundreds of colorful parrots and other “exotic” bird species. I even spotted some tiny Australian bees living in a tree stump near a colony of rare white butterflies. (Again, the video I shot of the bees and butterflies was too big for inclusion in the Blog.)
Parrots are like Pigeons Here

All in all, the Royal Botanic Gardens are something Sydney can be proud of. They have quaint places to reflect and relax, grand vistas, and clearly labeled plants for nerdy amateur botanists like myself.
Cottage Garden

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Your Name on Coke (But Only in Australia)

Coca-Cola has hit it big with its new marketing campaign in Australia. The soft-drink giant is printing people's names on millions of bottles and cans of Coke: the first time in its history. 

The “Share a Coke” advertising campaign has helped rocket sales of Coke in Australia since the end of September. 150 of the country's most popular names are now appearing on Coke labels. Unfortunately, Fernando is not one of the names. 

In Memoriam

Taken at the
Royal Botanic
Garden, Sydney,
(December 7, 2011)
A very special person who regularly followed my blog has died. Carol Evans died last week at the age of 73. Unlike many people her age, Carol was always open to new experiences and adventures. Carol kept her mind active by mastering the computer and Internet. In her later years, she traveled to the western and eastern parts of USA visiting family, even though she hated air travel.

I will especially remember Carol as a broad-mined and tolerant person who encouraged me in writing. She was soft spoken and always charming. Carol was very much a lady, and she will be missed.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Coughing It Up

Unlike Europe where everyone seems to smoke, there appears to be less smoking in Australia. Now, I know why. This graphic anti-smoking poster says it all: $16 for a pack of cigarettes. Unbelievable!


I was washing clothes at the neighborhood launderette, and this music video was playing on the TV. This is currently number 1 on MTV-Australia. It's funny but certainly not sexy! Take a look for yourself. BTW: Can you spot the real-life porn star? 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

World AIDS Day: Posters From Victoria

December 1st is World AIDS Day. More than thirty 30 years on, there are still thousands of new HIV infections each year, and AIDS still claims thousands of lives. The Australia State of Victoria holds an annual World AIDS Day Poster Design competition. Here are some photos of the top entries that I took outside the National Victoria Gallery at Federation Square. 

My Favorite:
It Says It All
Winner of the 2011
Victoria World AIDS Day
Poster Design Competition

Monday, November 28, 2011

Land Down Under 2011: On the Road to Ballarat, Daylesford and Clunes

View From Car Window
Ballarat City Hall
Ballarat is synonymous with Australia's gold rush of the 1850s. Just 1.5 hours north of Melbourne, Ballarat is a large modern city that has carefully preserved many of its gold rush buildings and landmarks. I was expecting to find a tacky gold rush town like those you would encounter in northern California (i.e., Nevada City, Folsom), but instead, Ballarat is a sophisticated city with fancy restaurants, wine bars, and cafes.

Lake Wendouree, Ballarat
Craig's Royal Hotel. Mark Twain stayed here.
Unfortunately, the prices in Ballarat match or exceed the prices you will find in Melbourne. It's like being in Norway! A small coffee will cost you $3.80 - $5.00, and a no-frills breakfast (for two) will run $35.00-$40.00. The cheapest dining option is Eureka Pizza (why gold rush towns find it necessary to have Eureka in their name has always been a mystery to me). Ballarat does have an interesting botanic garden and art gallery, but why people come to high priced Ballarat is perplexing.

House in Daylesford
Daylesford, a town northwest of Melbourne, is likewise uninspiring. Daylesford is part of “Spa Country.” This is the place where trendy Melbournians go for weekend getaways. You'll find art galleries, foodie outlets, holistic spas, and stores selling the latest in "new age" paraphernalia. The town and beautiful countryside remind me of Marin County in California: a bit precious and a tad too self-conscious about “image.” Daylesford and Ballarat aren't my thing, but then again, I'm difficult to please. 

Clunes (Sky Looks Almost Unreal)
The New and the Old
Clunes, on the other hand, is an authentic and unpretentious town of around 1,000 people. Just 40 minutes from Ballarat, Clunes is a place where time has stood still. Visiting Clunes is like traveling to the 1930s and 1940s. Its "downtown" has aging buildings with weathered facades and vintage signage. It's like visiting Mayberry without the southern accent.   

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Melbourne's Fitzroy Gardens

Secluded Corner
Melbourne is a very livable city. There are bicycle paths, jogging trails, plenty of opportunities for water sports, and lots of green open spaces. One of the nice discoveries this visit to Melbourne has been Fitzroy Gardens. It's a 15 minute walk from Melbourne's Central Business District (CBC) and just a few minutes from our apartment. Designed in the classic English style but with subtropical vegetation, Fitzroy Gardens is an ideal place to unwind after work or a great place to start your day. It reminds me of my carefree childhood in Southern California.

Two White Parrots
Being Affectionate
The strong scent of freshly cut grass and the occasional whiff of jasmine pervades the air. During the early morning hours, I really enjoy the chatter of parrots and other birds. 

The park isn't particularly big or unique, but there's something meditative, almost serene that makes this space comfortable and inviting. There are meadows to play sport, quiet nodes to read a book, play areas for children, and even an excellent cafe and restaurant to catch a quick bite. The park's unassuming style makes it a wonderful neighborhood escape.

The Faries' Tree
Melbourne's cultural attractions, diversity, temperate climate, and green open spaces makes me think that Melbourne might be a great place to live.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Images of Melbourne on Thanksgiving Day 2011

View of Melbourne Skyline From Southbank

A Turkey in the Window on Little Collins Street
is the Closest Thing to Thanksgiving
in Melbourne
It's Thanksgiving Day! In Australia, it's just another day: no festivities, no turkey, and alas no pumpkin pie. Here are some photos I took on this uneventful day in Melbourne. 

Collins St., 5 p.m. (National Gallery of Victoria) by Melbourne Artist
John Brack. Describing the ritualized drudgery
of nine-to-five office work, Brack shows people
leaving work and walking along Collins St. toward trams and 
trains that will take them home. Brack is also commenting on Melbourne's homogeneous society of the 1950s. Australia's immigration policy favored people of Anglo-Saxon descent and excluded people deemed "less desirable." 

Modern Street Sculpture on Collins St.
An obvious reference to Brack's Painting

Tram Signage. Beware of those
Runaway Streetcars

Street Sign.
Dame Edna Place is located just off Little Collins Street here in 
her home town of Melbourne. This is no ordinary street sign.
Her name is in lights. Dame Edna would expect no less!   

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Spin" Korean Style

As much as I admire America's talent in the field of spin-doctoring, I must admit that South Korea seems to have one-upped us. According to a recent article in The Australian, the South Koreans have produced a short educational video that they play for visitors to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The video looks for upbeat things to say about this tense, empty strip along the border, across which the two Korea’s stare at each other. “Once just a dreary minefield,” the narrator's voice intones, “now a natural wonderland!” Yes, thanks to the absence of humans, animals are flourishing. This, according to the video, is “the miracle of the DMZ.” I hope our politicians and spin doctors take note and learn from this fine example of spin. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Land Down Under 2011: Melbourne's St. Kilda!

St. Kilda Hair Salons with Decorated Roofs

It's the end of spring in Australia. There have been a few rain showers, but for the most part, the weather in Melbourne couldn't be more beautiful. The long days are a welcome relief from the short cold days of Portland. In Australia, summer officially begins on the first of December.

Another Hair Salon
About 6km (3.5 miles) from central Melbourne is St. Kilda. It's described by the locals as a shabby-bohemian beach town. Last year, when I visited Bondi and Manly beaches in Sydney, I wasn't that impressed. Manly and Bondi were certainly lovely places, but they had a sort of pretentious vibe. Not so in St. Kilda. From the moment I stepped off the tram, St. Kilda had a welcoming feel.

Fairy Penguins
There are restaurants ranging from the glitzy to the cheap. There are also a surprising number of cake shops with wonderful displays, and a few interesting retail shops.

The Esplanade hugs the beach with a historic pier. At the end of the pier is a Fairy Penguin refuge. At sunset, we were told, the penguins come out in force and you can hear their distinctive chatter. We happened to be there at mid-day; even so, we were lucky enough to spot three young chicks hiding in the rocks. It's the first time I've seen penguins in the wild. No flash photography please (it frightens the birds and also damages the retina of the chicks)! Fortunately for us, it was bright and sunny, and we had no need of a flash.

Luna Park and Me
One of the first things you see when you arrive in St Kilda, and impossible to miss, is Luna Park, an amusement park with an old fashioned wooden roller coaster, and a dramatic entrance.

Inside the Esplanade Hotel
Nearby, and easier to overlook, is Hotel Esplanade. Once a chic and fashionable hotel, it's difficult to describe its current condition. It's been broken up into several bars and performance spaces. The whole thing is so informal that it actually feels like you might be walking through an abandoned building. Yet, there's a bar with people having drinks on the balcony and there's a restaurant near the entrance. The run-down look of the place has come about the natural way, not contrived by some faddish designer. It wasn't my thing, but it was worth seeing.

Galleon Cafe
in Background
Perhaps, the best find in St. Kilda came about when we overshot our tram stop and made one of those serendipitous discoveries, the St. Kilda Galleon Cafe. The Galleon Cafe is a real neighborhood diner full of locals. Crowded and full of life, the Galleon has atmosphere and really good food at affordable prices. Try the sweet potato, basil, feta hash served with wilted spinach and chili chutney. Absolutely delicious!

St. Kilda Pier. The Penguin Refuge
in Background
I highly recommend St. Kilda for an enjoyable day trip. I hope to return next week and go kite sailing!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Es ist Nicht Vorbei

Unlike American TV, which has become an abyss of schlock, German TV still has some thoughtful programming. Last night, I watched “Es ist Nicht Vorbei” (“It's not Over”), an excellent TV drama about the infamous Hoheneck Prison in the former East Germany.

It didn't take much to get sentenced to Hoheneck (for example, an exit visa offense), and as the title suggests, memories of Hoheneck can last a lifetime. Twenty years after leaving prison, Frau Weber's memories of Hoheneck return when she attends a dinner party hosted by Dr. Limberg. Is Dr. Limberg, the prison doctor who injected her with powerful psychotropic drugs, which, as she puts it, “left black holes in your head, making you barely able to walk, and leaving you in a state of blurred reality?”

The movie is part mystery, part documentary, and part thriller. Do we believe Frau Weber? Can she really remember a voice from twenty years in the past or is she delusional and accusing an innocent man? The mind can sometimes play tricks.

Anja Kling is compelling as Frau Weber and Tobias Oertel is excellent as Dr. Limberg. Two fantastic performances! The film also has Ernst Georg Schwill who plays the former Stasi Officer, Weihe. In real life, Mr. Schwill was once a member of the Stasi (East Germany's notorious secret police). The film is available for viewing for a limited time on Das Erste. Even if you don't understand German, watch a few minutes.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Lenin Monument in Berlin (Das Lenindenkmal Berlins)

Das Lenindenkmal, circa 1980s
I recently wrote how the French following WWII wanted to destroy the die Siegessäule, one of Berlin's most famous and historic monuments. Luckily, that didn't happen. However, another famous Berlin monument wasn't so lucky. Twenty years ago, on November 8, 1991, the Lenin monument (das Lenindenkmal) was disassembled into 129 parts and buried in a sandpit outside of Berlin. Following German reunification, many people felt that a monument dedicated to Communism had no place in a democratic Germany.

Overhead View of Lenin Square
Located in the former Lenin Square (renamed Platz der Vereinten Nationen), the Lenin monument was erected in 1970, stood 19 meters high (approx. 62”), and was made of Ukrainian red granite. More than 200,000 people witnessed its unveiling, including representatives from over 100 nations. When it was decided to remove the monument, many East Germans, including prominent artists and politicians demonstrated but without success.

The former Lenin Square Today
Today, an undistinguished stone fountain is located where Lenin once stood. The fountain, surrounded by five granite blocks symbolizing the five inhabited continents of the earth, rarely attracts attention and is easily overlooked. 

The Head Weighed 3.5 Tons!
The Lenin monument was certainly a piece of East German culture and art. East Germany lasted for 40 years, and Lenin shaped much of the 20th century political landscape. East Germany was no nirvana. It quashed political dissent, practiced systematic terror, and permitted little economic and personal freedom. It wasn't a symbol of good.

Nevertheless, how would you feel if the country you grew up in, totally vanished: its social fabric eradicated and symbols destroyed? We learn from the past, and symbols serve as reminders of both good and evil. Simply eliminating those symbols doesn't change the past or improve the future. Yet, should all symbols be preserved? For example, should a statue of Hitler or Stalin be publicly displayed? I'm not sure I know the answer. 

Unlike the USA, Germany places greater restrictions on symbols and political parties. America has always leaned toward more expressive freedom. Let the people decide what's good or bad.

Recently, on the 20th anniversary of the monument's dismantling, a few local residents voiced support for re-erecting the Lenin monument. Link to the video. It's in German, but I think you'll understand its meaning. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Amerikanisches Frühstück in Berlin (American Breakfast in Berlin)

I heard this rumor that there was a Kneipe (local neighborhood pub) in Neukölln that had an authentic “American Breakfast.” I'm not sure what's an American Breakfast, so I decided to find out.

Neukölln is a neighborhood that I rarely visit. It's home to a large Turkish population; but increasingly, it's becoming a popular place for young people as rents in other parts of Berlin are skyrocketing.

I was told that Lagari's owner was from California and that the chef was Scottish (an interesting combination). I was also told that the service was exceptionally slow; but having lived in Portland, I'm used to slow service.

I'm not sure I can adequately describe my experience at Lagari. It was neither bad nor exceptionally good. In a word, it was surreal. I was in Berlin; yet from the moment, I entered Lagari, English was the predominant language. The waiter greeted me in English, the menu was written in English, and the customers were having conversations in English (albeit with a German accent). I tried to order in German, but the waiter replied in English.

The menu included blueberry pancakes with Canadian maple syrup, Heuvos Rancheros with black beans, French Toast, a vegan plate, and some egg dishes. I guess these items qualified as “American,” but why Canadian maple syrup? Isn't Vermont maple syrup good enough?

The place was definitely a neighborhood bar, but there were additional touches intended to give it an American feel (checkered tablecloths, film posters). Hmm?

Despite the warnings, the service was excellent. It was friendly, quick, and efficient. Certainly better than most places in Berlin, and, without a doubt, better than any restaurant in Portland! The food, on the other hand, was unexceptional. I ordered the “egg plate dish.” The hash browns were okay, the pancakes mediocre, the Canadian maple syrup watery (they should have used Vermont syrup), and the toast not really toasted. The eggs were fine but how bad can eggs be?

To be fair, I didn't order Lagari's specialties: the blueberry pancakes or Heuvos Rancheros. I'll certainly visit again. According to its website, Lagari also has exhibitions, music events, and even a pool table.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Der Foto Des Tages: Der Herbst in Berlin (Photo of the Day: Autumn in Berlin)

in Neukölln, Berlin

Destroy die Siegessäule?

I remember living in San Diego and never visiting its world famous animal park. It's one of those oddities in life. You live a city and take it for granted. It's like living in Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower or living in New York City and not touring the Statute of Liberty. 

Today, I decided to rectify an omission and visit Berlin's Victory Tower (Die Siegessäule). I've passed it at least a hundred times but never stopped to go inside.

The Siegessäule was built to commemorate the Prussian victories over Denmark, Austria, and France during the 1860s-70s. It's an impressive monument that today symbolizes a unified Berlin. Earlier this year, it was re-opened after a massive restoration. If you climb to the top, it has excellent views of the Tiergarten, Brandenburger Tor and the Regierungsviertel (Government Quarter).

Surprisingly, the Siegessäule escaped destruction during WWII. However, after the war, France (one of the four allied powers occupying Berlin) wanted the historic monument destroyed and erased from the face of the earth. France's proposal was of course vetoed by the other occupying powers. It seems France didn't want a reminder of its loss to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War. 

If any country had a reason to destroy a German monument dedicated war victories, the most likely candidate was the Soviet Union, not France. The Soviet Union's military and civilian casualties during WWII were over 24 million people, almost 14% of its population! In addition, many of its cities were razed and infrastructure completely dismantled; yet, the Soviet's vetoed the idea of destroying the Siegessäule.

France, on the other hand, wanted revenge. Even though France was side-lined during most of the war, had limited war casualties, and actively collaborated with the Nazis in deporting Jews, Gypsies, and political "undesirables," it saw the destruction of the Siegessäule as another opportunity to humiliate a defeated country.

France had a grudge to settle and also a short memory. One factor that led to the rise of National Socialism and ultimately to WWII was the harsh treatment of Germany by the victors of WWI (especially France and Great Britain). Thanks to the level-headed thinking of the USA, Great Britain, and the USSR following WWII, past mistakes were avoided and the Siegessäule spared. Today, we can all enjoy the Siegessäule, including the Frenchies. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Picture of the Day: Is Berlusconi Next?

I saw this sign on the side
of an Italian Cafe in Kreuzberg.
Over the years, scandal prone
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
has managed to cling to power.
Will he follow in the footsteps of
these former leaders?