Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Film of the Year

When a loved one dies, a little bit of yourself dies with them. This is just one theme explored in Michael Haneke's latest film, AmourAmour is an unsentimental story about love and loss, and how the bounds of love and selfless devotion are tested when an elderly couple find themselves dealing with death. At times, Amour is painful to watch, but Haneke's skillful and minimal approach to film making elevate this film beyond the schmaltzy stuff that American audiences tend to get. Amour is my choice for film of the year. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The ABBA Museum in 2013

At long last, the pop music group that put Sweden on the map will have its own museum on Stockholm's Djurgarden Island. ABBA The Museum is scheduled to open on May 7, 2013. The new museum is expected to lure thousands of tourist a year and will feature holographic images of the group, their music, and interactive exhibits. ABBA's hits include Dancing Queen, Waterloo, and my favorite, Fernando. (BTW: I did hear the drums.)

For those of you too young to remember, ABBA defined 1970's music. At the time, ABBA was considered uncool and dismissed as frivolity. But over time, ABBA's music has gained respect and it continues to be played.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Berlin's Lucky Pigs for 2013

These two Schwäbisch Hällischen piglets are
Berlin's Lucky Pigs for 2013
Each year, Berlin's Animal Park (Tierpark Berlin) selects Berlin's lucky pigs for the coming year. (Does that mean they will be spared from the dinner plate?) Traditionally, pigs were viewed as good luck, especially at the New Year.

Pig charms are very popular in Germany and Austria, including gold and silver bracelets, Christmas ornaments, candies, toys, and post-cards. This notion of the lucky pig arose from the realities of the 18th century: pigs were a source of food and income. A farming family that kept pigs would never go hungry. There's something perverse in this logic since the pig was not lucky and would eventually be consumed. 
New Year's Postcard
from the Early 20th Century

Friday, December 28, 2012

Silvester (New Year's Eve) Celebrations in Berlin 2013

The year is almost over, and I'm going to miss yet another New Year's Eve (Silvester) celebration in Berlin. However, for those of you lucky enough to be in Berlin for Silvester, here are a few suggestions to while away the last hours of 2012. 

With over a million people, the Silvester celebration on the Straße des 17. Juni (17th of June Street) near the Siegessäule claims to be the biggest New Year's Eve party in the worldLive bands, light and laser shows, visual media, countless places to enjoy food and drink, and of course, a huge firework display, make this venue the place to be on New Year's Eve. Known as the Partymeile (Party mile), this mile long outdoor event has bars galore, international food stalls, music performances, and plenty of dance floors.

For those of you that want to celebrate New Year's in a unique fashion, there's Bohème Sauvage at the Wintergarten. This 1920s style theme party features period music and food. Get dressed in vintage 1920s clothing, dance the Charleston, drink a little Absinthe, play poker, and enjoy a stage show. Life is a Cabaret at the Wintergarten. 

For dance enthusiasts, the Kulturbrauerei has a Silvester Party featuring 15 dance floors. Whatever your musical taste, you'll find something at the largest indoor party in Berlin: Rock, pop, dance classics, R & B, House, and Electro.

Finally, celebrate Silvester with a concert at Charlottenburg Palace. The Beliner Residenzorcheser will perform Mozart, Strauss, and others. This baroque palace serves as a backdrop for the orchestra who will be dressed in traditional costumes. 

Life Begins Before Conception?

The Great Plains is certainly different. Politically it's deeply conservative. More conservative than I imagined. The other day, I had a discussion with a seemingly bright person that is active in local Republican politics. (He attended the 2008 and 2012 Republican Conventions, and even ran for political office.) He's not dumb nor is he atypical; but, he illustrates one of the many problems facing the Republican Party: a blatant disregard and ignorance of science.

While discussing the abortion issue, I asked him when he thought life began. His response was interesting. He said, life begins "before conception." (Did he mean to say that individual sperm and ovum constituted life and should be afforded legal protection?) I tried to inquire further, but he soon became flustered, and it was apparent that his knowledge of reproduction and science was extremely limited. Ignorance can be excused in most people, but it shouldn't be disregarded or unaddressed, especially when spoken by a person in an "influential" position. (This person happens to be an Evangelical minister.)

Was I surprised by his response? Not really, since he had earlier stated that "Christianity should be the national religion." (Whatever happened to "Separation of Church and State?")

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Visiting the Heartland of America

Plains Kansas Library
Visiting the US Great Plains is like traveling to a foreign country: the food is hearty, the people friendly, and the folksy American accent is prominent (and to me, I must confess, a bit irritating). The flat and almost desolate landscape gives way to a farm here and there. The long stretches of highway crossing the prairie can be monotonous; yet, I find them soothing, almost calming.

End Table Made With Encyclopedia Books
at the Plains, Kansas Library
I'm in Plains, Kansas for the holidays, and it's a world away from the excitement of Berlin. WiFi is difficult to find, but fortunately, the modern and stylish Plains Public Library has an excellent WiFi connection. For a town with only 1,100 inhabitants, the Plains Library is excellent. Take a look at the end table, made of encyclopedias, in the library foyer. Wow!

BTW: Mama Fina's, the Mexican restaurant in town, has the best pancakes I have ever had. Who would have thought!
Lake Meade

Friday, December 21, 2012

The "Best of Berlin" App

Where are the best Cafes in Berlin? Where is the best nightlife? Or where can you find the best museums and theaters? For those of you with an iPhone, the Tagesspiegel has just come out with the "Best of Berlin" App. It's available in both English and German. It's a great way to acquaint yourself in Berlin. I found it particularly useful for finding special events. It's a free download and includes thousands of places to discover. Just click: Best of Berlin

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

There's Been a Run on Ammunition

I've tried to avoid news about the recent Connecticut school shootings. I've heard it all before and nothing ever changes. It's a tragic commentary on the state of our country. Today, as I was waiting for a haircut, I overheard an unsettling conversation between two men discussing the fine points of ammunition. (They sounded to be hunters.)

According to them, the school shootings have resulted in ammo becoming hard to get. There's been a run on the stuff as people stockpile it in fear of future government restrictions! One fellow boasted that he had 50,000 rounds stored in his house in case of an emergency, and the other guy offered to buy 10,000 rounds right then and there. His offer was politely refused.

They both spoke in hushed tones, and lamented that the government would likely impose stricter limits on the sale of ammunition and perhaps impose higher taxes on it! One mentioned a friend in New Hampshire who had over 500 guns and rifles, and the problems he was facing. Perhaps, this kind of paranoia and veneration for weapons is the reason political action is so difficult, and why I expect nothing to change. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Pony Takes Subway Ride

One can only guess how this pony got on Berlin's S-Bahn (subway) last Thursday. Most passengers are unimpressed by the unusual traveler, but the situation is bizarre enough for a few people to whip out their cell phones and take pictures. The pony appears to be well-behaved; nevertheless, large animals are prohibited on Berlin's transit system. Transit authorities issued the pony's companion a warning but no fine. It's unclear whether the pony had a valid transit ticket. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Two Movies Worth Seeing This Holiday Season

I remember my mother mentioning to me that one of her favorite Christmas movies was It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947); yet, I somehow never managed to see it until last night. It's hard to believe that there are still movies out there as brilliant as this one that have been overlooked. It's an unpretentious movie about kindness, generosity, and social responsibility (a common theme in many 1930s-40s movies). This small masterpiece turns out to be unforgettable in its depiction of the positive side of human nature. Sure, it's Hollywood cliche and pure treacle, but it tugs at your heart strings in a touching and soft way.

Bianca and Lars
Lars and the Real Girl (2007) is a quirky and genuinely original movie about a man who falls in love with a sex doll. (It's not what you think.) And although it's not a Christmas movie in the traditional sense, Lars and the Real Girl is imbued with all the values associated with Christmas: compassion, understanding, and sense of community. Ryan Gosling is perfection as Lars, and Bianca is completely convincing as the Real Girl. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Berlin vs. Portland Sidewalks

In Berlin, sidewalks are lively places with vendors, musicians, artists, and an ever changing cast of characters and attractions. I love walking in Berlin, even though the ever present cigarette smoke can sometimes make walking an unpleasant experience. By contrast, walking in Portland is relatively smoke free; but like many American cities, Portland has its own problems: the scores of homeless and mentally ill people populating the sidewalks. 

With 3.5 million inhabitants, Berlin certainly has its share of homeless and mentally ill people, but for some reason they're not obvious. (I can barely remember seeing more than a handful.) In Portland, a city of only 64,000, they are plainly visible all around us. This morning as I was walking to the gym, I saw beggars asking for money on almost every street corner, sometimes two per corner. What a contrast. It's a shame that our cities have become the dumping ground for our most vulnerable and neglected citizens. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Berlin's Classic Coffee House / Ein Traditionelles Kaffeehaus in Berlin

Bis jetzt gab es kein Kaffeehaus - wie Erich Kästner oder Kurt Tucholsky gefallen hätte. Jetzt Berlin hat Kaffeehaus Grosz!

Experience a coffeehouse/restaurant from the roaring twenties (Die Goldenen Zwanziger) at Kaffeehaus Grosz, Kurfürstendamm 192/194. Named after George Grosz, the artist known for his caricature drawings of Berlin life in the 1920's, Kaffeehaus Grosz has just opened after extensive renovations. (A drunken Grosz died nearby after falling down a flight of stairs in 1959.)

Sonnenfinsternis (1926)
(The Eclipse of the Sun),
George Grosz
Heckscher Museum, New York
This place has atmosphere: marble floors, art-nouveau columns, high ceilings, dark wood bar, and waiters and waitresses dressed in traditional black and white attire. Fresh croissant are baked by French bakers twice a day, and if you're in a drinking mood, order the "Earl of Cumberland" (gin with Earl Grey tea). Kaffeehaus Grosz is a place to experience the ambiance rather than the coffee or food.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

World's Largest Weihnachtsmarkt

The largest Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) in the world is not in Germany but in Birmingham, England. It attracts over 5 million visitors during the Christmas season and is run by Kurt Stroscher, a native of Heidelberg. The German Weihnachtsmarkt has become such an export success that there are now 20 similar Weihnachtsmärkte throughout the U.K. 

Birmingham tries to keep its Weihnachtsmarkt as authentic as possible and avoid "Disney-Kitsch." However, there's one major difference with the exported Weihnachtsmärkte: the almost complete absence of vendors selling alcohol. Luckily, Mr. Stroscher was able to convince the Birmingham city elders to have a Glühwein stall set-up. I mean, what would a Weihnachtsmarkt be without Glühwein. 

Circumcision in Germany Amounts to Bodily Harm

An intense debate over circumcision has been raging in Germany since early June when a Cologne court ruled that circumcision of a young boy on religious grounds amounted to grievous bodily harm and therefore illegal. The court found that children have a fundamental right to physical integrity. 

The decision outraged many German Jews and Muslims who questioned their lives and acceptance in Germany. The German Medical Association subsequently told doctors across the country to stop performing the procedure. The Berlin Senate subsequently introduced legislation that would allow boys to be circumcised once both parents have given written permission and shown proof of the "religious motivation and religious necessity of circumcision." The Central Council of Jews in Germany rejected the proposal, which does not allow traditional Jewish mohels to perform the procedure.

Circumcision is a delicate issue due the religious passions involved, and it could take years before the issue is finally resolved. How does one balance the rights children and of parents. Balancing these two contrasting fundamental rights is complicated. Moreover, male circumcision isn't the only religious practice based on religion. Polygamy is another practice, as is the prohibition of blood transfusions among Jehovah's Witnesses, or the compulsory veiling and female circumcision of women in parts of the Islamic world. Why is one practice banned while another allowed.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Sunday Shopping Ban in Germany is Plain Crazy

Ring Center Friedrichshain
It's three weeks before Christmas and you would expect Berlin stores to be crowded with holiday shoppers, but in fact, they're empty. What's going on? It's Sunday, and German retailers, including grocery stores and pharmacies, are not permitted to open.

In 2006, Berlin attempted to chip away at the Sunday shopping ban by permitting retailers to open on ten Sundays a year, including the four Advent Sundays preceding Christmas. However, Germany's Constitutional Court overturned the Berlin law, and upheld a complaint made by the country's Catholic and Protestant churches based on a clause in the German Constitution that Sunday should be a day of rest and "spiritual elevation." 

The Court declared that the ban allowed people to "synchronize with society" (to be with one's family) on a least one day a week and had the positive effect of protecting workers from harsh working conditions. (The Court did permit some limited Sunday shopping. Currently, shops can open 4-5 Sundays a year from 1:30 pm-6:00 pm.) Most commentators welcomed the Court's decision as giving relaxation, rest, and "spiritual elevation" precedence over consumerism and profit. 

As a child, I remember when most stores were closed on Sunday. There wasn't a law, it was just tradition. But as women entered the workforce and single parent households became more common, retailers had to adjust their schedules to reflect the realities of modern life. Sure, it increased profits, but it also increased flexibility and lessened hectic Saturday shopping. 

The German shopping ban is just crazy. The law not only interferes with a person's individual and economic freedom, but it's also pretty patronizing. It tells people when they are allowed to shop, and when they are not. Why not let the customers decide if they would rather spend Sunday in a crowded shopping mall, at a church, or at home watching TV. 

For single people and for families where both partners work, the Sunday shopping ban makes life more difficult, and if anything, it adds stress. My Saturdays are crammed with grocery and retail shopping. It would be nice to have some rest on Saturday after working Monday-Friday.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Aunt Benny: Canadian Cafe in Berlin

For Canadians seeking comfort away from home, there's Aunt Benny, a small cafe in Friedrichshain featuring Canadian food. (Canadians have their own cuisine too. Who knew.)

Run by two Canadian siblings, Aunt Benny is a bright and stylish place offering brownies, cheesecake, apple crisp (not apple pie, but close enough), grilled pannis, bagels, and the usual coffees, teas, and juices. There's free Wi-Fi, plenty of reading material, and great music. The friendly atmosphere and good service is right on.

Aunt Benny is located at Oderstraße 7, Enter Jessnerstraße, Berlin 10247 (U/S-Bahn Frankfurter Alle) 
Tue.-Fr. 9am - 7pm,
Sat.-Sun. 10am - 7 pm. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Advent Calendars

Typical Commercial Variety
with Chocolate Treats
Behind Each Window
Advent is a Christian observance that begins this Sunday. It's a period of preparation, extending over the four Sundays before Christmas. Advent comes from the Latin advenio, "to come to," and refers to the coming of Christ.

Homemade and Reusable

Fold Out Type

An Advent calendar is a special calendar usually given to children that is used to count the days in anticipation of Christmas. Many Advent calendars take the form of a large rectangular card with 24 "windows" representing the days of December leading up to Christmas. One window is opened each day to reveal a treat, usually a small toy, piece of candy, chocolate, money, or prize. The last window frequently has the best treat, either money or a special gift. (I remember getting a 1969 commemorative coin of the moon landing. I still have the coin too. )

Advent calendars come in all shapes, sizes, and prices, but I prefer the homemade ones. They're more imaginative and long-lasting. I still have the Advent calendar from childhood. It was made of wood and purchased at a flea market. The paint was peeling and the windows were difficult to open, but it had style
Homemade and Creative