Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bring Back The Berolina

Few people know that the Berolina, an allegorical female figure symbolizing Berlin, once graced Alexanderplatz. The Berolina was erected in 1895 and stood 7.55 m (24.77 ft). It depicted a woman dressed in a crown of oak leaves with an outstretched hand. It was one of the most famous landmarks in Berlin and used as a meeting point, a function now served by the famous Urania-Weltzeituhr (Worldtime Clock) erected in Alexanderplatz by the East Germans.

Even today, many elderly Berliners still remember the statue. Because of its popularity, the name "Berolina" is used by many companies throughout the city. There are even several songs, poems, and plays named "Berolina." Unfortunately, the Berolina was dismantled in 1944 and melted down for war purposes.

In 2000, the "Wiedererstellung und Pflege der Berolina e. V." (Recreation and Maintenance of Berolina e.V.) was created with the aim to rebuild the statue. If Berlin can spending millions to rebuild the Berliner Stadtschloss (project of dubious merit), it seems worthwhile to bring back this grand old dame. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Visiting Riga

Riga Cathedral
At first glance, Riga, Latvia, seems more Scandinavian and less Soviet-influenced than Vilnius, its neighbor to the south. That's odd since over half of Riga's residents are Russian, and the remainder Latvian. The result is two communities appearing to lead completely separate lives: they read different newspapers, listen to radio and television stations broadcast in their own languages, and have discrete neighborhoods. Yet, these two distinct cultures harmoniously co-exist. As I was sitting in the hotel lobby, I couldn't help but notice how easily the person behind the front desk switched effortlessly between Latvian, Russian, and even English.
Cat House,
Old Town Riga

Me Standing in Front
of Riga Central Market
What makes Riga special is its architecture, from the Northern Gothic and Art Nouveau, to the utilitarian influences of Soviet-style design. In addition, Riga's picturesque cobblestone streets, well-preserved buildings, and abundance of cafes and restaurants makes it one of Europe's hot summer destinations. Riga has a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It has the architecture and feel of Prague, the style and sophistication of Paris, and the cosmopolitan flavor of Berlin. And even though it's pricier than Vilnius, it's still a real bargain compared to the rest of Europe.

Old Town Riga
Like Vilnius, visiting Riga in November has its shortcomings. The days are short, and the bracing cold wind from the Baltic Sea can make outdoors unpleasant. Yet, I'm not sure I would enjoy Riga as much if I had visited during the summer. There are fewer people now, and it's easier to see the beauty of the city without the crush of tourists.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Vilnius: A City Embracing the 21st Century

Modern Buildings Dot the Vilnius Skyline
Vilnius is a city in transition. It reminds me of East Berlin as it was fifteen or twenty years ago, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some run-down buildings, even ruins, standing side-by-side with beautifully restored buildings and new modern structures. Soviet style architecture still dominates the city and there's lots of gray; but here and there, you find bits of color as Vilnius and all of Lithuania embrace the 21st century.

Vilnius has a surprisingly good technology infrastructure, and unlike most of Western Europe and the USA getting connected to the Internet is fast and easy. Free WiFi is everywhere. Whether you're in a shopping mall, small cafe, or hotel, you're just a click away from the web. Moreover, prices aren't astronomical like London, Paris, or even Berlin, for that matter. It's an affordable city that won't bleed your pocketbook. 

Of course, visiting Lithuania during the winter has its drawbacks. Right now, the days are short (sunrise 8:00 AM and Sunset 4:00 PM), and the weather is wet and cold. Vilnius doesn't have a wide selection of restaurants either. What they have is fairly standard fare and not particularly noteworthy. However, I did find Radharane, a cozy Indian vegan/vegetarian restaurant in the heart of the city offering tasty dishes. 

Lithuanians also appear to drink a lot. I was at the supermarket, and noticed that I was the only person in the check-out line without a bottle of Vodka. Perhaps, that goes along with Lithuania's dubious distinction of having the highest suicide rate in the EU.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

London's Giant Cock

Katharina Fritsch's giant cock sculpture is hard to miss in London's famous Trafalgar Square. The Square commemorates the British victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar and is dominated by Nelson's Column at its center.

Trafalgar Square has a strongly male character, but Fritsch calls her large blue rooster a "feminist sculpture," and is intended to be a humorous comment on London's historically male culture. I liked it. Its deep blue color counterbalances all the gray in the area and adds a bit whimsy. The Blue Cock will be on display until the end of the year. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Mousetrap: "But What Stupendous Good Fortune!"

The Cast Members 2014
Agatha Christie Challenge:*

Kitschy? Definitely. Predictable? Without a doubt. Fun? Resoundingly, yes! That's how I would describe Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, the longest running play of all time. It's been running in London's West End since November 25, 1952. Today, the play is a cultural institution. 

When I lived in London in the early 1980s, I had plenty of opportunities to see The Mousetrap, but I took things too seriously back then, and sneered at people who bothered with such claptrap. Theater had to be profound -- full of meaning. Forgive me, but I was young and cocky.

On this visit to London, I hadn't planned on seeing the play, but just by chance, I was walking by the St. Martin's Theatre a half hour before a matinee performance. On impulse, I popped in, and I had a wonderful time. There are plenty of cliches, clever dialogue, and suspects to keep you guessing until the end of this fun murder mystery. (I did guess the murderer fairly early on, but then I've read Agatha Christie books and seen basically every TV adaptation.)

I won't spoil the play by saying anything about its content. I'll just say that seeing a live performance of an Agatha Christie work was thrilling. 

*As part of my Agatha Christie Challenge to read all of her works in publication order, The Mousetrap is out of sequence. While visiting London I took the opportunity to see The Mousetrap. It was first performed as a radio broadcast in 1947 and then as a play in 1952. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"Two Lives" Asks the Question: Do You Really Know the One You Love?

It's difficult for non-Germans to fully appreciate the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall. November 9th marks the 25th anniversary of the Wall's demise; and in many ways, it signaled the end of the Cold War and the fall of Communism. During the 20th century, Germany suffered through two world wars, Nazism, and Communism.

Two Lives (aka Zwei Leben) (2012) is a German/Norwegian production and is available on Netflix streaming. It's based on actual facts and captures the multi-faceted perplexities faced by Germany during the last century. Two Lives provides plenty of suspense, surprises, and history to keep you absorbed until its fateful and emotional conclusion. It blends two dark chapters in 20th-century German history. One chapter involving the Lebensborn program that paired SS officers and Aryan woman to produce "racially pure" babies for the Fatherland. The second, a more recent chapter, concerns East Germany's notorious Security Service (Stasi), and its exploitation of orphaned children. As this mystery slowly unravels, the movie takes on a personal and tragic dimension, where there are no evil people, just victims of a repressive society. 

Two Lives stars the superb Juliane K√∂hler and the iconic Liv Ullmann. It is far and away, the best movie I've seen this year, and a fitting movie to see on the anniversary of the Wall's collapse.  

Friday, November 7, 2014

Helping Baby Bats

Bats generally conjure up images of vampires, Dracula, and scary Halloween monsters. People don't think of bats the way they do of cuddly kittens and puppies; and over the years, bats have gotten a bad reputation. Despite the myths, bats aren't vicious, blood thirsty creatures, but docile, shy animals that are essential to the ecosystem by controlling mosquitoes and pollinating plants. In many parts of the world, including the USA, bats are a threatened species due to loss of natural habitat, sport hunting, and disease

The Tolga Bat Hospital in Atherton, Australia, rescues and releases hundreds of bats each year. Last year, about 300 orphaned bat pups were cared for by Tolga and safely returned to the wild. A baby bat usually becomes orphaned when its mother becomes too sick to feed it or when it falls ill to tick paralysis. The care for these winged babies is very similar to that of human babies. They drink milk from a bottle, love to be swaddled in a blanket, and are bathed regularly. After a bath, baby bats also like have their fur combed. 

In addition to caring for babies, Tolga also rehabilitates injured adult bats. The hospital relies solely on volunteers and donations. It also offers tours, which cost $18 for adults and $10 for children.

In the USA, we can help bats by building or buying bat houses for our property. It's relatively inexpensive and easy to do!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Restaurant Revolution: Serving Discarded Food

Rub & Stub (Rub og Stub, which translates as 'lock, stock, and barrel') is a Copenhagen restaurant that has taken the phrase "waste not, want not" to a new level by serving dishes made entirely from food about to be thrown away.

The idea for Rub & Stub came from Denmark's freegan community, people who eat discarded but edible food. There's a tendency in the developed world to buy only the freshest, most beautiful produce in the supermarket, which forces vendors to throw away food that might not look flawless but still safe to eat. As much as 20 percent of all foodstuffs sold by retailers is discarded for purely aesthetic reasons (misshapen bananas, tomatoes not completely red, lumpy potatoes, imperfect apples, Christmas food after the holidays).

The creators of Rub & Stub thought that they could use the so-called 'waste food' for their restaurant, and so far it's been successful. The menu at Rub & Stub is planned on a day-by-day basis according to what surplus food has been donated that day. This non-profit restaurant has about 100 volunteers, and the restaurant's proceeds go to humanitarian development projects throughout the world. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Wir Wollen Spielen" Berlin Goes After the Olympics

Let's face it, hosting the Olympics Games is a big money loser. Just ask people in Atlanta, Barcelona, London, Vancouver, Montreal, or Athens. So when Berlin announced last summer its intention to seek the Olympic Games, Berliners were a little surprised, if not outraged. You see, Berlin is so cash-strapped that it's had cut city services, reduced education funding, and eliminate a number of major infrastructure projects just to keep afloat.

Public opinion polls are unanimous, a majority of Berliners don't want the Games. Berliners know the Olympics is all about prestige and has little to do with economics. In fact, the only real winners in the Olympic Games extravaganza are the real estate developers and city insiders.

Yet, that hasn't stopped city officials from going forward with its bid to host the Games. Today, Berlin unveiled its Pro-Olympic advertising campaign. With a motto, "Wir Wollen Spielen (We Want to Play)," Berlin hopes to convince the Olympic selection committee that it's the best choice to host the 2024 Summer Games. Good luck to them, and bad luck to Berlin if it's awarded the Games.