Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Who Spends the Most in Berlin?

Relative to other European cities, Berlin is a bargain. I often complain about the rising prices, but I shouldn't fret, especially when a cup of coffee can easily cost $6 in London, Paris, Milan, or even Munich. Low prices have made Berlin a budget travel destination with most people coming from other parts of Germany, England and Italy. But this may be changing as more and more overseas tourists are coming to Berlin seeking a luxury vacation.

Who are these big spenders? According to the Berlin Tourist Bureau, the Chinese are the most generous. On average, they spend 594€ per day ($820 USD)! They are followed by the Ukrainians (430€), Russians (366€), US-Americans (338€), Arabs (331€), Swiss (253€), and Brazilians (241€). And while these figures may sound high, bear in mind that the average hotel rate in Moscow is $407 USD (295€).

Monday, April 28, 2014

Kermit The Frog Visits Berlin

Kermit, the frog, was in town the other day to promote his new film, Muppets Most Wanted (Die Muppets 2). In an exclusive interview with the Berliner Zeitung, Kermit discussed everything from long-term relationships to eating meat. (He only eats the occasional fly, and only free-range. In fact, he considers himself a vegetarian).

An avid swimmer, Kermit spent his first morning, in the German capital, taking a dip at a local park pond, where he had the opportunity to speak in Amphibian (the international frog language) with a few of the other frogs. "Most people in the States don't realize that English is my second language. As a tadpole and young frog, we spoke Amphibian in the house. Of course, TV and Radio were in English, but Amphibian was what we used on a daily basis. It's still the language I feel most comfortable with."

Kermit also discussed his well-publicized relationship with Miss Piggy, his long-time partner and frequent co-star. (Marriage plans are not in the future.) According to Kermit, "relationships are always difficult, but add Hollywood, ego, and the pressures of stardom, and it's amazing we're still together."

And, at 59, Kermit still does his own stunts for film and television ("unlike Tom Cruise," which Kermit proudly emphasizes). In his new film, Kermit and co-star Tina Fey have a semi-nude scene (not really unusual since Kermit rarely dons clothes). On the subject of Ms. Fey: Kermit found her charming, professional, sexy, and not a Hollywood Prima Donna. Muppets Most Wanted (Die Muppets 2) opens this Thursday in Berlin.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Stereotypes Around the World

To some extent, we all have certain stereotypes and prejudices concerning other nationalities and people. For example: Switzerland = Tidy, Russia = Vodka, USA = Guns, and Norway = Expensive. Yanko Tsvetkov has written a series humorous books, The Atlas of Prejudices, that poke fun at some of these stereotypes with maps.

Alcohol Consumption: Beer. Wine, and Vodka

Sexually Uptight and Emotionally Inhibited

Friday, April 25, 2014

Vince Ebert: Physicist Turned Stand-Up Comic

Who says the German's don't have a sense of humor. Vince Ebert is a physicist turned comedian and makes science accessible by using humor, wit, and irony. All his topics are scientifically themed, but he adds politics, family drama, and of course, sex. He's Germany's answer to Carl Sagan, only funnier!

Ebert studied physics at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg with an emphasis in experimental solid state physics and a minor in astronomy. As a graduate student, he worked on phase transitions in mixed crystals of ferroelectric betaine. (I don't have a clue what that means, but I'm certain, it's something brainy.) 

According to Ebert:
"[studying mixed crystals] was an absolute blast topic! I sat up all night with a dimmed laser light, watching the crystal cool down to 20 Kelvin and then I measured it. Unfortunately, it became clear to me that I didn't want to spend 30 years doing this sort of thing." [My translation]
(Original quote: "Ein absolutes Knallerthema! Ich habe nächlange bei gedimmtem Laserlicht dagessen, Kristallsysteme auf 30 Kelvin runtergekühlt und dann gemessen. Dabei mir leider vor allem eines klar geworden: dass ich nicht 30 Jahre so zubringen wollte.")
After his university studies, Ebert worked briefly for a consulting company but realized his true calling was in front of an audience. At first, his performances bombed. But gradually, he honed his craft, and today, he's a sell out. 

I saw Ebert being interviewed on TV, and he was an absolute riot. He's hyper, crazy, and so "not physics." He's currently touring Germany, Austria and Switzerland with his sixth solo program Evolution and will be in Berlin on April 29-30. (Unfortunately, I can't attend. All his performances are sold out!) The video clip I've included concerns the "scientific explanation" of how sexual attraction works. It's a hoot!

Mr. Ebert and his brand of humor is something the United States desperately needs right now: a vehicle that makes science enjoyable and part of public discourse. Of late, science in the United States has become a suspect topic laced with political implications. Whether it's climate change, evolution or energy, science is perceived as too "intellectual" and divorced from everyday life. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Andreas Schülter: Exploring Berlin's Baroque Art at the Bode Museum

Known as the Michelangelo of the north, Andreas Schülter was a baroque artist that help shape Berlin's architecture and art during the 17th century. To mark the 300th anniversary of his death, the Bode Museum is currently presenting an exhibition of his work. The exhibition has gotten a lot of favorable press but not many visitors.

I'm not particularly fond of Baroque painting, sculpture, or architecture, but I always enjoy visiting the Bode. The Museum was completely renovated a few years back, and this exhibition is a good excuse to see the Museum and its wonderful collection. A word of caution: the Bode emphasizes sculpture, so if sculpture isn't your thing, this museum is probably not for you. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Large Chocolate Easter Bunny

Easter always brings back fond memories. Easter wasn't a particularly religious holiday in our household, but we always had a special Easter dinner, which included ham or lamb. There was the occasional Easter egg hunt in the morning, perhaps a visit to Disneyland in the afternoon (this was southern California after all), and a viewing of The Robe on TV at night.

But my fondest memory was getting a chocolate Easter Bunny. Each year, the Bunny would get progressively larger; and each year, I waited with bated anticipation to see how big the creature would be. This annual practice ended when I was about 12 or 13. I was, of course, a teenager by then and much too sophisticated for such things.

Then, in my mid-twenties, right out of the blue, my mother sent me a huge chocolate Easter Bunny (2.5' tall). My mother had seen the Bunny in the shop window and couldn't resist. I don't recall how the Bunny tasted, but the memory of that gift still warms my heart all these years later. 

"The Trouble Notes" at Boxhanger Platz (Updated May 18, 2014)

There's alway something unique to see or hear at the weekend market at Boxhanger Platz in Friedrichshain. Yesterday, I came across The Trouble Notes, a band that combines Irish, Eastern European, and Latin American sounds. I enjoyed them so much that I bought their CD, Court the Storm.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Should the Roman Catholic Mass be Entertaining?

I was trying to find an uplifting post for this Easter weekend when I came across this YouTube video. It's the story of two Roman Catholic priests that transformed a dying parish church into a thriving success story using multimedia technology. (See the video. It's in German, but worth a watch.) 

Father Karsten Weidisch and Chaplain Christian Olding quickly gained fame throughout Germany when they added popular music, special effects lighting, and video to the traditional Mass ceremony. (Think Jesus Christ Superstar.) The German media quickly labeled their Mass a "pop spectacle" and Father Olding a religious "pop star." Mass attendance soared and young people began flocking to the weekly bible study classes. Emphasizing themes of tolerance and acceptance, especially for people living a non-traditional lifestyle, the priest duo were featured on a number of TV shows, newspapers, and magazines. 

Unfortunately, their message, and particularly their use of multimedia, was not uncontroversial; and recently, the pair were discharged from their church duties. On the one hand, entertainment and spectacle shouldn't supplant the message of the Mass. Yet, wasn't the Mass conceived, in part, as a spectacle for the people to be impressed. Why have incense, breathtaking architecture, elaborate vestments, orate statutes, wondrous music, and golden tabernacles if not to awe and dazzle? 

The decision to discharge these two enthusiastic priests seems foolish especially when the Church is still recovering from the pedophilia scandals of the past and also losing membership in western Europe. You would think the Church would be trying to shake its image of inflexibility, rigidity, and bigotry instead of emphasizing it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Lung Cancer in Berlin

According to a recent government report, Berlin has the highest rate of lung cancer of the east German states. That's not much of a surprise. Berlin is home to many groups that tend to smoke a lot: young people, immigrants, and low income people. Cigarette smoke in Berlin is as common as coal in Newcastle. It's one of the things that still bothers me. Luckily, smoking is now prohibited inside restaurants, cafes, and public accommodation's. It can still be troublesome especially when trying to enjoy a coffee or meal at an outdoor cafe. Oh well, it's Europe, and it's something to expect when living here. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Easter Thursday in Germany: Grüne Soße

Easter Thursday or Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles. In Germany, and particularly in the German State of Hessen, Grüne Soße (Green Sauce) is part of the traditional meal eaten on this day. Grüne Soße is made from hard-boiled eggs, oil, vinegar, salt, sour cream, and seven herbs (borage, sorrel, garden cress, chervil, chives, parsley, and salad burnet). The sauce is served cold and usually accompanies potatoes, beef, or fish. It's difficult to find outside of Hessen, but I recently had a taste at a local food market in Berlin. It's a bit tangy but very tasty!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The First World War in Color

Französiche  Truppen rücken aus zur Front
(French Troops Back to the Front)
Paris, France 1914

2014 marks the centennial of the beginning of the First World War. "The War To End All Wars" killed an estimated 6 million people, left millions homeless, and sowed the seeds for the Second World War. To mark this somber anniversary, the Willy-Brandt Haus in Berlin is showing Der Erste Weltkrieg in Farbe (The First World War in Color), an exhibition of 93 color photographs from the First World War. Last year, the Willy-Brandt Haus celebrated the 125th anniversary of the National Geographic Society by exhibiting 55 of the magazine's iconic photographs. That exhibition was a huge success, and the Willy-Brandt hopes to repeat that success.

By all accounts, the First World War was a horrific blood bath that killed an entire generation of men. So I was surprised that this exhibition failed to convey any of the carnage and futility I that associate with the war. And while I found the photographs interesting, they were more picture postcard than documentary. (Of course, there are some truly gruesome pictures too.)

Taken primarily by French and Australian photographers, the photos were used primarily as propaganda and present a sanitized version of war that's disconnected from the reality of the louse-plagued trenches of the front. (For a more realistic view of the First World War, I recommend Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. It's a powerful and poignant look at the "Great War" and its aftermath. A true classic!)

Der Erste Weltkrieg in Farbe is free to the public (passport required for entrance) and is open Tuesday-Sunday 12-6PM until June 1, 2014.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Discovering "Life After Life" at a Traditional Bookstore (READ: UPDATE)

My local bookstore, the Buchhandlung Friedrichshain, stands empty. I suspect that it's another victim of online retail. Of course, shopping online is cheaper and offers more variety than the traditional brick and mortar bookstore. However, there's something special about browsing at local bookstore. Perhaps, it's discovering that unexpected treasure tucked away on a dusty shelf or just wandering the cluttered aisles. In any case, it's the coziness of the local bookstore that I like and will miss.

With the closure of the Buchhandlung Friedrichshain, I now trek to Dussmann, Berlin's largest bookstore. Don't get me wrong. I love Dussmann's. It has everything you could possibly want, including a wonderful English language bookstore on the ground floor. But Dussmann's isn't like a neighborhood bookstore. It's not intimate and certainly not quirky. 

On the other hand, it's at Dussmann's where I recently discovered Kate Atkinson's remarkable novel, Life After Life. I wouldn't have found it online. Life After Life is moving, perceptive, and even funny. Can parallel universes exist? Is time-travel a possibility? Is there such a thing as destiny? Atkinson's ingenious novel is not a light read. There's plenty of detail and intricate plotting. It's about the fragility of life and having chances. Specifically, about having a chance to relive life again and again. It's a book that stays with you, long after you've finished it. 

May 9, 2014

Buchhandlung Friedrichshain is now Shakespeare and Sons selling used books and offering bagels. I haven't had the opportunity to go in, but it looks very interesting. I'll post a review soon.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Xerxes" is an Opulent Feast for the Eyes and Ears

The Komische Opera's 2014 production of Xerxes, Händel's baroque masterpiece, is a feast for the senses. It's The Muppets and Beach Blanket Babylon meeting the 16th century. Its opulent sets, costumes, and lighting are spectacular. It's the way opera should be for the 21st century: entertaining. Using a revolving stage that quickly moves the sets and scenes, Xerxes never lags. And above all, Xerxes is very funny.

Like most operas, the story is unrealistic. But opera is really about music and fantasy, which Xerxes serves us in spades. My only complaint with this particular production was the casting of women in the two principal male roles. That's not necessarily a problem, but it creates an imbalance in the vocalizations (no countertenors), especially when all the leads have high voices.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Unsafe At Any Speed

I recently had a posting about bicycle safety in Berlin. Having dedicated bike lanes and a flat terrain makes Berlin a bicycling paradise. However, in today's Tagesspiegel is a photo slide show (half way down the article) highlighting the most dangerous bicycle lanes in the city. Not surprisingly, I'm all too familiar with these particular lanes. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

German Political Posters

"I Can't When Someone is Watching"
A call for more government

Elections for the European Parliament take place on May 25th, and political posters are popping up around town. Like the USA, it's good marketing that helps win elections in Europe. The Europeans have learned from the Americans that catchy slogans and clever advertising are the key to political victory.

Often a successful political slogan has little to do with reality or have a particular meaning. It's all about impressions. Remember President Obama's "Change" message and President George W.'s "Compassionate Conservative"? On the other hand, political messages contained in posters can also educate, clarify, and be an art form. 

"Europe Brings Opportunities
For All"
"Climate Protection Without Borders"

"A Europe of Democracy, Not For Paternalism"

In Germany, the three major political parties have crafted the usual vague and rather meaningless political posters. The Conservative Democrats (CDU) stand for a "Europe that brings opportunity to all," while the Social Democrats (SDU) want a Europe without "paternalism." The Green's are a bit more specific by reiterating their same old message of "protecting the environment." 

"No Tax Money for Gambling Banks"
"Refugees Protect, Not Drown"
"Prohibit Armament Exportation"

The Linke (the far Left Party) have come up with the most straightforward of posters. (When you're number four in the polls, you need something to get voter attention.) Their posters let you know exactly where they stand on immigration, arms selling, and finance reform. And whether you agree with them or not, you have to admire their willingness to actually say something. 

"Between Fear and Courage

Lies only a Heartbeat"
Standing for a united Europe

"Borders are so 1980s"
A call for an undivided Europe.

However, my favorite posters come from the Pirate party. The Pirate's were successful a few years ago by getting into the Berlin Senate. Now, they're looking to representation in the European Parliament. They advocate unencumbered access to the Internet, net neutrality, privacy rights, and government transparency. They tackle issues largely ignored by the other parties.

The Pirate party posters are biting, humorous, and substantive. In one poster, they use the famous peeing boy statute with a caption that reads, "I can't when someone is watching." It's a direct reference to closed door politics. In another Pirate poster, it reads, "Borders are so 80's," an illusion to a pre-Iron Curtain Europe that was poorer and less unified. Whether these posters translate into votes is a good question.

Monday, April 7, 2014

How Many Trees Are There in Berlin? (Wie Viele Bäume Gibt es in Berlin?)

Berlin's Grunewald Forest
Every Sunday, the Abendschau, Berlin's evening news show, tries to answer a question posed by a viewer. This Sunday's question (Die Sonntagsfrage): How many trees are there in Berlin? (Wie viele Bäume gibt es in Berlin?). Surprisingly, no none seemed to know the answer. Odd, since Germans keep statistics on everything!

Officially, there are approximately 439,000 street trees in Berlin, but that figure doesn't count trees found in private gardens and in Berlin's forests, which experts estimate at 20 million. Many people don't realize that Berlin has lakes, large green spaces, and forests. Most of Berlin's trees were destroyed or used as fuel at the end of WWII, and 69 years later, the city is again verdant.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Flower Culture Berlin

It's common for many German households to have freshly cut flowers decorating a room or two. And in Berlin, there's seems to be a flower shop on almost every street. Perhaps it's the gray and drizzly weather that makes people want to add color to the environment. In any case, Berliners love cut flowers, and lots of flower shops means lots of competition. I recently bought a bouquet of 10 tulips for €3 ($4 USD). That's not a bad deal for a week of color. 

Wedding-Cake Style Architecture
My favorite flower shop is Le Flower on Karl-Marx-Allee 136. It recently moved from its Warschauer Straße location; and like everything else in my neighborhood, higher rents forced Le Flower to move. Personally, I like the new location. It's brighter, bigger, and located in one of the wedding-cake style buildings that line Karl-Marx-Allee. 

As a child, my mother would never buy flowers for the house. She would say, "it's just a waste of money. The flowers are going to die in a few days." She was right, of course; but then again, nothing lasts forever and a few days of cheer is worth the price of a few dollars. 

Riding a Bike in Berlin

Spring has arrived in Berlin, and that means, it's bicycle time. Flat topography, dedicated bicycle lanes, and alert automobile drivers make this city ideal for cycling. However, narrow streetcar rails, broken glass scattered on the streets, and wayward pedestrians pose problems for the Berlin cyclist.

During the last two days, I've witnessed three bicycle accidents: a cyclist hitting a tourist that had wandered into a bike lane, a bike getting caught in a streetcar rail, and a cyclist sliding into a crowd of people. So when riding a bike in Berlin, always be cautious and always wear a bicycle helmet! Just because Berlin is bicycle friendly doesn't diminish the dangers associated with riding a bike in a big city.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Soy Rebels in Berlin

Berlin is the vegan capital of Germany. So it's not surprising that it's also home to "Soy Rebels," a food manufacturer that specializes in homemade, CO2 neutral, and organic tofu in Berlin. Founded two years ago by five friends, Soy Rebels is part of the Berlin "vegan revolution." Their motto is "We Love Tofu." 

Unhappy with the tasteless industrially manufactured tofu found in most supermarkets, Soy Rebels wanted to change tofu's reputation as being unappetizing. Operating out of a small kitchen in Berlin's Lichtenberg section, Soy Rebels has quickly gained a reputation for fresh and inventive products, including herb, chili, coriander, and parsley flavored tofu. Soy Rebels has an ethical mission as well. It wants to make people aware that animal products harm the environment and contribute to animal cruelty.

Soy Rebel products can be purchased at the Kollwitzplaz weekend market, the LPG-Market, and at the Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg. After tasting Soy Rebels tofu, you won't want anything else. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Revisiting "Brideshead Revisited"

Today, as I was riding my bike through Berlin's famed Tiergarten Park, I was reminded of Brideshead Revisited, the television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel. Somehow, the landscapes found in the Tiergarten reminded me of the Oxford countryside depicted in the series. I'd seen Brideshead  back in 1982, and again, just a few months ago; but seeing it a second time, especially now as a middle aged man, I could appreciate its nuanced qualities. The performances, the writing, the musical score, the costumes, and the set decoration all ring true. There's not a false note in the entire production.  

Like Graham Greene, many of Evelyn Waugh's works are rooted in religion and the English class system. Yet, Brideshead is foremost a story about thwarted love and finding "grace" through God's redemptive power, not subjects easily tackled on the screen, let alone on TV.

It's a tribute to the screenwriter (Derek Granger) and the directors (Michael LIndsay-Hogg and Charles Sturridge) that the series was able to capture the subtlety and delicacy of Waugh's writing without compromising the novel's integrity. It's one of television's true masterpieces.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Snake Island: No Place to Visit

Golden Lancehead Snake
Snake Island

It's April Fools' Day, but I'm not fooling around with this story. I was surfing the web and came across this seemingly exotic paradise. The Brazilian island of ilha de Queimada Grande looks like an Eden on Earth, a warm and alluring tropical destination. But looks can be deceiving. You see, this island is home to the highly venomous Golden Lancehead snake. If you were to set foot on this island, you would always be no more than 3 feet away from one of these deadly creatures. These snakes are literally crawling all over the island. And with an estimated one Golden Lancehead per square meter, it's not surprising that the place is devoid of humans and off limits to visitors. The venom of the Golden Lancehead is so powerful and fast-acting that it can literally rot away human flesh surrounding the bite within minutes. With no known predators, these snakes rule the island.