Thursday, June 30, 2011

June 30, 2011: Berlin - Jewish Museum, Aquarium

In the morning I went to the Jewish Museum Berlin. As with yesterday's tour, there were dire historical objects and stark spaces and art evoking the Nazi Holocaust. But there was also other fascinating and fun history about the Jewish people throughout history, with a focus on their place in Germany - it was nice to balance out the sad with some good.

I was also particularly interested to visit the museum because the architect was Daniel Libeskind, who designed the Crystal addition for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I am not a fan of his addition to the ROM - it strikes me as architecture that hates people. There were many similar elements in his design for the Jewish Museum, but here they made sense - a discordant, disorienting, alienating experience is appropriate for a troubled history of discrimination and repression. Transplanting the same design elements to the ROM simply clashes with a museum of natural and general cultural history. It doesn't make me like the Crystal any more, but it isn't as baffling now how it originated.

In the afternoon Mark had some time off, so we visited the Berlin Aquarium. It wasn't the best aquarium we've visited, but it did have a very lively octopus, which we greatly enjoyed. After that we walked about a bit more. I had been hoping we could visit an exhibition by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, but our timing was unsuccessful. Too bad - their work is always fascinating.

For dinner we went for Chinese at a restaurant in the neighbourhood of our hotel. Not as good as we'd get in Toronto, but better than in France - not as much fear of a little heat and kick to the flavours!

An art installation at the Jewish Museum - metal disk faces cover the floor, like fallen leaves

A lonely space for contemplation

A memorial garden, with olive trees growing from the top of tall stellae

Like the ROM Crystal, it's the little details that drive me crazy - like this staircase of industrial metal (nice enough) next to drywall (big problem) - so unsuited to the wear and tear of multiple visitors - a public building like this needs more durable finishes!

I think the fish is more excited to meet Mark than vice versa

Playful octopus

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June 29, 2011: Berlin - Insider's Tour, Topography of Terror, Spree, Holocaust Memorial

In the morning I went on an "Insider's" tour of Berlin. It was led by a woman originally from Sweden, but she'd lived in Berlin for a number of years, so I guess that qualifies her as an insider. The focus was on the history of the Berlin wall and the division of the city into East and West. From today's vantage point it seems utterly improbable that a city could have been divided up so suddenly and thoroughly. That being said, I've visited the divided capital city of Cyprus, Nicosia, in 2000, so maybe it's not so improbable after all.

At the end of the tour I visited the Topography of Terror museum, which exhibitions about the division and the Nazi regime. It's built on the site of former Gestapo headquarters, with a large segment of the Berlin wall preserved.

In the evening Mark and I took a boat tour along the Spree river through the city. It was a beautiful evening, with warm weather and sunshine. Many people were hanging out along the river banks at the beach bars (imported sand, palm tree and beach chair lending a resort-like air). Berlin is a pretty diverse mix of old and modern architecture side by side - with all the warfare, there have been plenty of holes to fill with new buildings, unlike other cities we've visited in Europe.

Mark and I also went to visit the Holocaust Memorial, designed by architect Peter Eisenman (also the designer of the City of Culture in Santiago, Spain), which I'd seen earlier that day on the tour. It's such a striking design - as the height of the walkway changes, the stelae transform from horizontal grave-like slabs to tall, forbidding structures, and you feel lost in a city emptied of people. It was a very powerful and affecting experience.

Checkpoint Charlie - a somewhat Disneyesque re-creation of the crossing point from East to West Germany

A very moving combination of lonely sculpture, with exposure to sun and rain

The wall at the Topography of Terror

Classic East German Trabi cars for rent by tourists driving about Berlin

A plaque memorializing the location of the wall that divided the city

An overhead view of the Holocaust Memorial

And the oppressiveness from within the Memorial's depths

Beach bar along the Spree

A classic brick bridge over the Spree

Berlin's modern architecture

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

June 28, 2011: Berlin - Potsdam, Olive Wood, Caspar David Friedrich, Biergarten

Today I took the train out to the town of Potsdam, which had been recommended to me as a must-see while in Berlin. It has many preserved historic buildings, both palaces and townhouses.

I opted for a guided bus tour of the town, since the major sites were fairly widespread. We had a chance to get out at all the stops and walk around, which was nice, although I didn't really get to see any of the downtown. The train station, unfortunately, is on the outskirts.

Happily, however, I did accomplish a shopping goal while in the train station - I purchased a lovely olive wood salad bowl set. I'd been looking for one for ages, convinced I would find one for sale in France, but never did - any olive wood bowl I found was very small. Somehow Mark and I had gotten fixated on the idea that this would be the perfect wedding gift for friends of ours, but I'd given up hope we would find it. But there, in the station, was exactly what I'd been looking for. Turns out all the big olive trees (or at least the ones being cut down, rather than harvested for olives) are in Africa (Tunisia, if I remember right).

After returning to Berlin I stopped in at the Alte Nationalgalerie, because it has paintings by a favourite artist of mine, Caspar David Friedrich. It was smaller than the museums I'd visited in the days prior, which is probably just as well, as I was starting to get a bit museumed out.

In the evening I met Mark and his colleagues from the university at one of the local Biergartens. There's certainly something a lot less formal about eating out in Germany, compared to France, that reminds me of being home in Toronto. It's just about time to return to Canada...

Sisters (but not, I think, twins) on our tour, dressed identically

Edible chard in the ornamental flower border

A roof with "eye" dormers

One of several palaces that we visited

Potatoes left at the grave of King Frederick II, who persuaded his subjects to eat them by setting up "guards" around his potato patch (making a formerly suspicious new plant suddenly desirable)

 Caspar David Friedrich "The Lone Tree" 1822

A detail of the painting - such a diverse array of colours in the green meadow

Monday, June 27, 2011

June 27, 2011: Berlin - University, Dom, Neues

Another day of museum-going for me.

I visited the Cathedral (Dom), a beautiful building, with a rooftop tour route that gave me a great view over the city. They also had an interesting exhibition about the various designs for the cathedral over the ages, with detailed models.

After the Dom I visited another of Berlin's famous museums, the Neues Museum. Evidence of the damage from World War II has been preserved throughout, with bullet holes and patches missing from frescoed walls and ceilings, which gives a fascinating contrast of recent history compared to the ancient items on display.

In the evening we went for dinner with one of Mark's colleagues from the university in Berlin. It was a casual little place, where we sat on an outdoor patio on a more residential street - it felt more like being at a restaurant back home in Toronto than anything we'd experienced in France, and it made me a little homesick. After dinner we took a stroll past one of the nearby preserved palaces, which was lovely at night.

The Dom

A view of nearby green roofs from the top of the Dom

Clever Berliners made a giant heart

A detailed scale model of the Dom, complete with mirror to reflect a view of the domed ceiling

Statues atop the Dom

Damaged walls and pillars inside the Neues

A display of German prosthetic glass eyes from the 1800s

Pair of Ancient Egyptian sculptural hands

One of the museum's most famous artifacts - a calendrical Bronze Age gold hat that enables counting of years, months, days and a a 223-month cycle of lunar eclipses

 Charlottenberg Palace

Sunday, June 26, 2011

June 26, 2011: Berlin - Signage, Pergamon, Kangawurst

Mark's schedule at the university would keep him quite busy through the week, so I was on my own for sightseeing during the days. Since Berlin has dozens upon dozens of museums, what else could I do but go on a museum binge?

I found my way downtown, using the conveniently located subway system (there was a station just across the street from our hotel, which was not particularly central). Although the subway itself was easy to use (and by the way isn't it ironic that I can buy any kind of transit ticket I want in cities all over the world using my credit card and an automated machine, except in Toronto?! And a week-long ticket starts on the day I purchase it, not limited to the calendar week?!), I found the signage frustrating - I was constantly setting off thinking I was headed in the right direction in the station, but along the way would miss the turn-off, or end up with no indication of where to go.

When I got off and started walking through the city it really wasn't any better. The worst was Museum Island, an island with several major museums. Unless you take the right bridge, you can't get to the museum you see on the map, since there aren't any internal connecting pathways - each museum fills its block of space right to the island's edge. I must have spent 30 minutes walking in a giant circuit around the island before I hit upon the Pergamon.

However, the Pergamon was worth it - a fantastic collection of antiquities from the East, a museum of Classical, Near East and Islamic antiquities. Although, once again, the signage to get into the museum was perplexing - there is construction on the front of it, so you have to walk in on the correct side of the bridge. And if you pass through the entry/gift area, looking for something to eat before going in, you end up directed back outside, where you have to cross that same bridge again on the other side, then return across it once more to get back to the entryway. Argh. But after a quick wurst (sausage, in a bun - better than a hotdog) and a drink I was refreshed and ready to tackle the museum.

The Pergamon was huge. It has Roman-style classical sculpture and architecture familiar to me from my art history studies, as well as unfamiliar ancient Eastern and Islamic art. Whole buildings, walls, gates and other mammoth structures have been dismantled and installed in the museum (usually when the local government couldn't maintain it in good condition, and requested its safekeeping - the museum was fairly scrupulous about detailing how the pieces came into its collection). Seeing whole architectural structures inside a building was quite extraordinary - even the Met and the British Museum don't have anything quite on that impressive a scale.

I went back to the hotel to meet Mark after his day at the university, and we headed back downtown for dinner. I'd spotted an Australian-German restaurant that intrigued me. They served a uniquely Australian version of the famous Berlin currywurst - kangawurst! Yes, a kangaroo sausage, with a curry-flavoured ketchup-like sauce. Quite tasty!

Looking across the river to museum island

One of the many "beach bars" bordering the river - lounge hairs, potted palm trees, and happy revelers

Enormous ancient stairs and an arcade, inside the Pergamon

A fantastic frieze from the Pergamon Altar

A model of architecture in its original location

Fantastic glazed tiles creating animal decorations on the Ishtar Gate

I love this system of modular bricks, each one with a different part of the animal - make multiple copies, and you've got many identical animals decorating your structure

A terrible modern-day fire shattered these ancient statues into a multitude of pieces...

and yet, years later, they've managed to reconstruct them remarkably well

Saturday, June 25, 2011

June 25, 2011: Grenoble/Berlin - Good-bye Grenoble, Wolf Hall, Indian Food

As we rolled our suitcases over to the bus depot this morning, we stopped so that I could pop over to the market for one last baguette. We ate it, along with the last of our Comté cheese as we waited for the shuttle to the Lyon airport, a last good-bye to the good life in France. A maimed bird that we called Limpy hung about eating our crumbs.

At the Lyon airport I aimed to start spending our accumulated Euro change, finding what snacks and useful items for sale that could use as much as possible. If only the vending machines took the 1, 2 and 5-centime pieces!

I bought as long a book as possible to read en route - Wolf Hall - hundreds of pages of English historical fiction in a compact paperbook format. I had to divest myself of a book to make room for it in my bag, leaving it on an airport waiting room chair, hoping someone would pick it up. I had considered slipping it into the shelves of the bookstore - wouldn't that play havoc with the store's inventory, if someone tried to purchase a book that they didn't have in their system?

When we got to Berlin we checked in to our hotel and then went in search of food. We ended up at an Indian restaurant not far down the street. Our waitress didn't speak much English, and we know almost no German, but the names of all the dishes were familiar from Indian restaurants already. She managed to gesture to us that she was concerned we'd find the garnishes too hot and spicy, but we thought they were great.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Things French People Like

After living in Grenoble for a while I started making a list of things particularly beloved of the French. And they all seemed to start with the letter "s". Of course I couldn't help but try to shoehorn other noticed items into the list. So here it is!

Scarves: everyone wears them, all the time, regardless of weather, age, or sex. Now I wear them too, feeling like I'm wearing a disguise to blend in, yet am learning to like it. I bought a very lovely silk scarf in Lyons. But I know I'll feel odd continuing to wear them when we move back to Toronto.

Smoking: so many more people smoking than in Canada. Particularly odd to have a merchant selling fresh vegetables to you at the farmer's market blow smoke in your face.

Scooters: the kind you push with your feet, like a skateboard with a handle (not the motorized scooters). Everyone rides them, young and old. I've seen a mother and young child riding a scooter together. Mark thinks we should get matching scooters for ourselves.

Singing: People sing much more freely here. I see kids and parents singing songs together as they walk along the sidewalk. Rowdy drunken people at the bar sing out loud at night. The birds even seem more musical.

Saying hello and good-bye (but only when in the same space): If you enter a shop, you say hello to the shopkeeper, and good-bye when you depart. If you enter an elevator, you say hello to the occupant, and good-bye when you exit. But you don't say hello (or nod, or make eye contact even) when passing strangers on the street. It's quite the opposite of the usual Toronto social interactions.

Simple hair and make-up: I often feel a little understated in Toronto, but in Grenoble I'm just one of many women with simple hair and make-up. It's great - it all feels very natural and easy-going. When you see someone with noticeable eyeliner you almost do a double take.

Set menus: all menus, lunch or dinner, offer a three-course prix fixe option, with starter, main and desert. And they're generally great deals, especially for lunch. I love how it encourages desert at lunch - how decadent.

Scooping (not!): Sigh. There is dog shit on the sidewalks everywhere. The government has installed "espaces de chien", little fence-enclosed gravel plots, but they seem to go unused. Over time I have developed a radar for it. Thank goodness it wasn't sandal season my first month in France.

Small dogs: Dogs are everywhere. Cafés, restaurants, shops, markets, parks, transit. They are generally small and quiet, so they blend in to everyday life easily. It is unusual enough for dogs to be forbidden from establishments that prominent signs have to be posted, warning people not to bring their dogs in. It is regarded as a right to be able to bring your dog everywhere. We'll miss this when we return to Toronto and get a puppy. It's just now occurring to me how few places we can take a dog in Canada.

Shopping for food: weekend market mornings are hopping. Old, young - everyone is out early to shop for food. They all have their own baskets (big wicker baskets, that you picture an 1800s milkmaid carrying) and carts that they bring along. There are entertainers at the market. It's a party every time. I love it. If all we did was go to the market to shop it would feel like a weekend well spent.

Sidewalk parking: Sidewalks are fair game for parking, since there are never enough spots. It makes being a pedestrian a surprising challenge at times.No one seems to fear being ticketed, maybe because they're just one in the crowd of drivers doing the same thing.

Small coffees: I'm not a coffee drinker, but even I have noticed that coffee is always served in very small cups. But I'm told that it's good, so I guess that makes up for it.

Subway: It's the only North American fast food chain that seems to be widespread in Grenoble. Which is surprising, considering how good French baguette sandwiches are, and how easily obtained. A submarine sandwich just can't hold a candle to it. Maybe Subway uses French baguette bread here, but I'm not going to waste my time finding out - no Subway for me, please!

Subtle wines: We wanted to love the French wine - it's so easily accessible and reasonably priced. But it always seemed a little underwhelming. And then we traveled to Spain and had fantastically tasty wine. I guess our tastes run to something bolder. Or we just need to spend more time in France, trying more wines, to really learn what's out there. We did our best, aiming to drink a bottle a day during our four months, and we just about succeeded.

Salad greens: I have never so many varieties of such beautifully fresh and perfectly displayed lettuces as in France. And every salad I eat is made of what must be freshly picked leaves. They're also very inventive about what goes in a salad - slices of quiche, pickled beets, corn kernels, pickles, cheese, large slices of prosciutto, green beans - salad greens are really a plate for a mixed bag of delicious foods.

Shower spray: No hotel or apartment in France seems to be designed to keep the water from your shower contained. Spraying all over the bathroom is to be expected. Prepare to have wet feet any time you step in the bathroom. Surely a curtain, door or small wall wouldn't be such a crazy invention?

Sweets: Desert with lunch and supper. Bakeries, pastry shops, chocolate shops. This is a country that loves its sweets. Breakfast is designed for sweets - virtually all cereals contain chocolate. When I told my friend Anne that I found it odd for anyone other than children to have chocolate at breakfast she looked at my like I'd said something utterly baffling. I have taken to ordering hot chocolate at my morning French language meetings, and I'm not the only one doing so.

Things We Miss About Canada

Couch: We miss having a couch to sit on together in the evenings. We only have hard-backed kitchen chairs and the bed. We don't like lying down in bed to watch tv. We're really looking forward to relaxing on the couch when we get home.

Cereal without chocolate: I'm not much for sweets at breakfast, and Mark even less so. I've only found one satisfactory cereal without chocolate, and it's at a store that is rather far away. I've bought several boxes at a time to stock up, but one run of boxes was all stale - then we had four boxes to get through. Of course this is a country that regards breakfast as nothing more than coffee and a pastry. At best you might have a variety of breads, pastries and jam. So hoping for a hearty, healthy cereal is a bit of a stretch.

Kale: Why is there no kale for sale in this country? I actually did a Google search and found someone else who wondered the same thing. There are many other beautiful greens: cabbage, lettuce, arugula, spinach. But we miss the stronger taste and texture of kale that makes it such a great green for sauteing. We're looking forward to picking it from our garden when we get home - we should have at least three varieties to choose from.

Keyless exits: We have to lock our apartment door with a key in order to keep it shut. Which means you have to find your key in order to open it and exit. I have horrible visions of what happens in a fire, as you search for your keys in the smoke, hoping to get out in time.

Microwave: I miss having a microwave in the kitchen for fast defrosting of ingredients and easy re-heating of leftovers with drying out the food. I have, however, developed a method for defrosting frozen berries for our breakfast cereal, by adding a bit of boiling water, and it does give me superior results to the microwaving I used to use.

June 24, 2011: Grenoble - Last Day, Bank, Clean, Laundry, Last Dinner, Band

Last day in Grenoble. I returned our carte bleue to the bank; when we return to Canada we'll contact them for the transfer of our remaining Euros. I cleaned the apartment and got rid of things we won't be bringing back (we return home with the same number of suitcases as we arrived with, so very little room for souvenirs). I did a last batch of laundry to get us through the next 10 days of travel before we actually arrive back home. And we went out for a last dinner of pizza in the town square. There was a pop-up band that played nearby during dinner, which was a final, wacky touch.

Grenoble - it's been great. There are some who say Grenoble isn't a beautiful French city - it does have its share of awkward concrete, modernist structures that haven't aged well. And it doesn't have a grand central square or a stunning cathedral. But it does have multiple small private squares, hidden around unexpected corners. And it has its fair share of charming old buildings, and a history going back almost 2000 years. And finally, its Alpine surroundings can't be beat for stunning scenery and amazing food. I'm sad to go and hope we'll have an opportunity to return - there's still so much that I haven't seen or fully savoured.

But, now that we know we're on our way home, we're getting eager to get there. First we travel to Berlin, where Mark will give some lectures at the university. Then we'll pass through Manchester, to pay a visit to Mark's relatives.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

June 23, 2011: Grenoble - Last French, Last Lunch, Last Scrabble

And another day of Grenoble "lasts". I attended my last Café Français in the morning, where, even though I was departing, a new member joined us (and I was able to correct his mistake that the United States is "Éstat-Unis").

From there several friends joined me for a last lunch, at a fantastic restaurant suggested by Bernard - Le 18/36, the brasserie of the Fantin Latour restaurant which is one of the best Grenoble restaurants. What a fantastic meal - beautiful surroundings, lovely service, good conversation and delicious food. This was probably the nicest meal I had in Grenoble - what a way to end!

And after lunch a last Scrabble game with Sheree. It may not be easy to find myself another such well-matched partner when I get back to Toronto.

The beautiful interior courtyard of Le 18/36 (unfortunately rain prior in the day prevented us from eating outside)

From left to right: Bernard, Viv, Sheree, me, Linda (and Masato, behind the camera)

The pond at Caserne de Bonne, on our last evening stroll

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

June 21, 2011: Grenoble - Last English Coffee Chat, Fête de la Musique

This is my last week in Grenoble, so I'm starting to hit the "lasts". Today was the last Open House English Coffee Chat get-together - I said good-byes to those friends who won't be at Thursday's Café Français.

And in the evening there was a festival, celebrating the summer solstice - the "Fête de la Musique". There were musicians playing all around town (including at the end of our street, with very loud amplification). After dinner we walked to the old city centre to check out the crowds and the sounds - there was a range from avant-garde jazz, to family-friendly chansons, to hard-core metal rock. The night ended with a downpour, which dampened but didn't seem to end the festivities, but it sent us home early to bed.

Dancing in the streets

Crowds in one of the city squares

A rollerblader weaving through a tricky course

One of the local hot-spots - Subway! But not the sandwich chain - this is a bar. With a rather taco-bell-esque fluorescent sign (see left side of awning).