18 January 2012


Well, today, I discovered one of the down-sides to the vandalism that is rampant in Berlin. 

While I might not have mentioned it before, it's everywhere, and you kind of stop noticing it after a while.... although the bus stop right near my building had the little glass casing covering the map of Berlin smashed last week.

Anyway, this one inconvenienced me much more.

I spent the early afternoon stripping the sheets from my bed, the pillowcases, the covers on the duvets, and packed up my bag to go do my laundry.  The closest "waschsalon" that I've been able to find is a good 15 minute walk from my apartment. 

So, I walked the 15 minutes, heavily laden with bags of laundry and my box of detergent until I arrived at my unattended* Waschsalon.  What do I find?  I sign on the door that says that "due to an act of vandalism" they are closed.

Fuck you, Berlin hoodlums.

*As far as I can tell, no one works there.  The place is all automated.

13 January 2012

A very klezmer weekend

This weekend (it's Friday afternoon at the time of writing) is going to be a great weekend for "getting my klezmer on."

It's already started out on a great note, with the first rehearsal of what will probably become the initial European version of KlezFactor (yes, I'm keeping the "c" . . . I already own the domain name). 

I didn't necessarily know what to expect, particularly since I had only met the drummer and bassist, both from Buenos Aires (no names yet, people), through the mysterious internet.  I had put up a posting on the couch-surfing website looking for "serious" musicians for this project, and the drummer had replied.  I knew they would be professional caliber players from the sound files they sent me, but would they be the "right" kind of professional players - flexible enough to be able to play KlezFactor's music.  Well, the tunes that they really had time to prepare were rock solid, and even the ones that we were looking at without preparation started to groove pretty quickly!  An excellent beginning!

On guitar is an Italian jazz player that I met at a couple of the jazz jams here in Berlin.  He's very solid reading chords and I'm sure once he can bring his effects and gear to rehearsals, he'll have no trouble rocking out!

On violin is a very special Hungarian player who is not only bringing her classical training (gained while she studied at the Glenn Gould School in Toronto), but her experience playing Hungarian folk music!  I can already hear some of the wonderful Hungarian inflections that I can hear when I listen to Budowitz, and it gives me goosebumps!  And she improvises!

So, as any band-leader knows, now comes the hard part.  Booking, scheduling rehearsals, managing scheduling conflicts, etc. 

Also on the klezmer docket this weekend is another klezmer Stammtisch in Berlin at Cafe Oberwasser.  That's going to be Sunday night, and hopefully it'll be as much fun as it was the last time!  I'm also going to be getting together with Franka Lampe (the great accordionist) to play some klezmer tomorrow afternoon!  Which reminds me... need to get little gifts to drop by my neighbours so that they know I'll be making noise, and that I appreciate their understanding!

8 January 2012


After being here for just about a month, I feel like I've been able to get a decent sense of the pulse of Berlin.

Berlin is like that scruffy, dirty stray dog who follows you home and charms you so much that you can't get rid of him. 

While Berlin won't be mistaken for a "beautiful" city, it is definitely a unique place.  What makes it so special, both within Germany and Europe, is the energy and life in the city.

There are parts of the city that have been cleaned up for the benefit of tourists, Alexanderplatz, and the tourist sights (mostly in the Mitte region) for example, but most of the "lived in" Berlin is more than little grungy, and graffiti ridden.

Part of this is due to the overall, "anything-goes" attitude that pervades Berlin.  Marijuana is sold freely in the some of the parks (I was offered 3 times within about a minute in one), alcohol is sold and consumed literally anywhere (see the thousands of bottlecaps filling in the spaces between the cobblestone sidewalks), smoking is allowed in some bars, and clubbers party well into the following day's daylight (which comes late here).

Because of the high unemployment, the low cost of living, and the number of people who are just "hanging out" in Berlin, the city has a "laissez faire" attitude where, for the most part, people do what they want to do and are living for today rather than opting for a life in the suburbs, saving for their retirement.

Berlin is a really international city (for Europe), and doesn't really feel "German" like other places in Germany does.  There are many immigrants, and while German is the language, many people speak English and I know several expatriates who have been here for years without actually learning the local language.  You can get pretty much anything you want here (although the selection of soap in bar form is rather limited), and practically no one is actually from Berlin (even the Germans).

Things I like about Berlin:

U/S Bahns -- transit is really easy, and with the exception of a few areas that require multiple transfers, I can get to just about anywhere within about 30 minutes from where I live.

Super cheap! - Berlin has one of the lowest costs of living in Europe, and is by far the cheapest place to live in Germany.  At the grocery store (all prices are in Euros), a .5L bottle of beer will cost you around 1 Euro, and a bottle of soda will cost about the same.  100g of chocolate can cost as little as 0.35 (for the bad kind), and a particular kind you can get in Canada (Ritter Sport) will usually clock in at under 1.00 (usually $2.50-$3.00 in Canada).  Fresh fruits and vegetables are about comparable in price (although of lesser quality here), but milk, meats and cheeses can be very cheap relatively.  I also recently bought an umbrella for 2.75.

Cafes/Bars/Pubs -- they are all over the place, and usually busy at night.  Most offer cheap beer (usually .5L for around 3 euros) and coffee, and all of them are unique.  There probably are cookie cutter Irish or British style pubs, but even in Germany they're a little unsual, and something out of the ordinary. 

People -- The people who live here are generally very open to meeting people and are very friendly and will invite you out for drinks in a heart beat. 

Things I don't like:

Drunk Assholes on the weekends -- I live on a fairly busy street with the windows of my apartment facing the street.  This means that when drunk assholes are walking down the street, singing in the middle of the night, it pisses me off.

Dog poop all over the streets -- people don't really pick up after their dogs. 

Bad musicians on the subways -- I get it.  There's lots of unemployment in Berlin.  You came to Berlin because you think a) you have talent and something to say, or b) it's a cool city and you don't need much money to survive and party here (see the comment on Drunk Assholes).  Here's the thing.  I don't want to hear you on the subway strumming your crappy guitar and singing off key.  I also don't want to hear your accordion in my ear. 

Anyways, I probably have more to say about Berlin, but nothing is coming to mind.  However, I will leave you with the tantalizing information that this week, I actually begin to play music in contexts that could lead to potential public musical consumption.

I've been asked to join a little chamber group that plays music from the 1920s because their clarinetist is leaving the group, and we'll rehearse this week.  Also, the first rehearsal of what potentially could become Euro-KlezFactor takes place on Friday.  The future awaits.

1 January 2012

Happy 2012. Just Keep Your Head on a Swivel

The final day of my exile from Berlin involved going to Hamburg.  A friend had suggested that we go to see New Year's there, and any opportunity to escape the drunken foreigners in Berlin every weekend was most welcome.

Hamburg actually surprised me a lot.  All I knew of Hamburg was that it was an industrial and shipping centre for Germany.  That, and where the Beatles honed their chops.

I was actually quite amazed by the city's park spaces, the canals over confluence Alster and Elbe rivers, and the lovely churches.  The Reeperbahn reeked of kitsch, although I got the impression that the kitsch was actually somewhat intentional and self-aware at this point.  I also had lunch at a cafe where there were scores by Gyorgiy Ligeti (one of my favourite living "classical" composer) hanging on the wall.  More pictures.

After a rest, it was time to head down to the Elbe river for New Year's festivities.  However, since this is the one time of year that fireworks are permitted, people kind of go crazy.  The city became a place where mass chaos reigned, and the very loud reports of fireworks made it sound like actual gunfire.  People set them off anywhere, literally throwing them at the feet of others, intentionally or not.  Now, I understand the attraction to things blowing up.  I'm a fan of Mythbusters.  But the idea of just setting off fireworks wherever and however you want, particularly when the safety of others is concerned kinf of pisses me off.

Basically walking down to river, and back from it, from and to the U-bahn involved keeping an eye on your surroundings at all times to make sure you weren't going to get a firework shot or thrown in your general direction. 

What was supposed to be a professional fireworks show (which can be outstanding -- I have fond memories of sitting on the Charles Bridge in Boston with my friend Philip, watching the 4th of July fireworks show) seemed to be a show of fireworks launched by anyone and everyone who had the foresight to visit a store in the preceding days to buy some.  Wherever you stood, you were surrounded by explosions and an impressive light show which got more eerie and less effective as the sky filled with smoke and fog.

Fireworks bursting between two light standards, on a photo taken on my phone.
The sheer chaos abated, and the streets were littered with the remnants of fireworks and beer bottles, to be cleaned up today, January 1st.  I'm glad I went to Hamburg, and would like to get back to see more of it someday soon.  I'm also glad that I got to see a "German-style" "Silvester" celebration.  I do have to say that I prefer the less insane Canadian version, and the big public parties aren't my scene, but it's good to have experience the Hamburg New Year.

So, to my loyal readers in Canada, Germany and around the world, Happy New Year.  May 2012 bring you all you wish for.

Kicked Out of the Apartment

Well, ok, not exactly, but it's an eye-catcher of a title, isn't it?

I actually knew that I'd be "kicked out the apartment" when I rented it.  There were two prior bookings on the "Ferienwohunung" (Vacation Apartment) that I'm renting.  Thus, between December 27 and 30th I needed to be out of the apartment.  I figured I wanted to travel a bit, and I went to see "West Germany," the part I've actually never been to yet.  I had spent plenty of time in Bavaria (Bayern to those who speak the lingo), seeing Munich and Nuremberg, and the "East" in Weimar, which is in the state/province of Thuringia (Thüringen).  I hadn't seen the "West," particularly the Ruhr Valley (Ruhrgebiet), which seems to be the most densely populated part of Germany, and home to many well known cities like Cologne (Köln), Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Bonn, and Dortmund. 

I accepted an invitation to stay with a friend in Wuppertal, a mostly industrial city about 50 km from Cologne in the heart of this area, and used this as a hub for my travels.  After relaxing a bit in Wuppertal (and riding the famed Schwebebahn, or hanging train), I spent my second day in Cologne, visiting the Kölner Dom, or the cathedral, which survived multiple Allied bombings.

Climbing the 533 stairs to the viewing area of the Dom, passing the cathedral's bells along the way, I got a great view of the city.

After walking through the city to try to get to the Synagogue, only to find out that it was closed, I hit a traditional "Kölsch" (Cologner) Kneipe (pub) for a dinner of local beer and Grünkohl and Bratwurst.

The next day, I was off to Bruges, Belgium.  How close everything is in this part of Europe really astounds a Canadian boy, where 250km to go to Kingston, Ontario and back in a single day is not such a big deal!

Bruges (or Brugge in Flemish) has been called a "fairy tale" city, being one of the most well preserved medieval cities in Europe.  With astounding churches, a beautiful main square with clock tower, charming parks, canals, and LOTS of chocolate shops (and tourists), Bruges actually lives up to its reputation.  Allow the pictures to tell the story.

I've been interested in visiting Bruges since seeing the film (funnily enough) called "In Bruges."  The film is a very black comedy about 2 hitmen from the UK who are sent by their boss to Bruges to lay low after a hit goes very wrong.  This very funny (yet also very sad) film features outstanding performances by Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleason, and Ralph Fiennes, and was one of my favourite films of 2008.  If you haven't seen it, go see it. 

I'll be writing about seeing in the New Year (or Silvester to the Germans) in Hamburg in my next blog entry.