16 April 2012

A Tribute to Jackie Robinson

Yesterday, the major leagues held their annual tribute to Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player to play in the Major Leagues.  It's been 65 years now since Robinson integrated baseball, and the game, and the world has been the better for it. 

It should be noted that Robinson was chosen to play (by Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers) not only for his baseball abilities, but for his character and personality.  His ability to hold his tongue while having taunts and objects thrown at him by fans (opposing and his own) and players made the "Jackie Robinson Experiment" a success and allowed other teams to integrate black players into their ranks in the following years.*

Robinson actually started his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers with their minor league affiliate at the time, the Montreal Royals, spending the 1946 season there.  While Robinson experienced a great deal of racism while the team was on road trips in the US, at home, Robinson was revered by the Montreal fans.  I'd like to think that this reflects well on Canada, and our openness to all races and ethnicities.

In 1947, he was brought to the major leagues and suffered the slings and arrows of American racists, both on the field and off.  However, as Branch Rickey told Robinson before he was signed to a contract, he was the player who "had enough guts not to fight back."  While some objected initially, his teammates eventually united behind him and were there to support him in his daily battles with overt and subtle racism.

Sculpture of Peewee Reese and Jackie Robinson in front of MCU Park in Brooklyn, NY
Another story has the Jewish baseball star, Hank Greenberg (by then at the end of his career), whispering words of encouragement in Robinson's ear after a collision at 1st base. 

Within 2 or 3 years, most major league teams had become integrated.  Yes, if Jackie Robinson had not been the first black major leaguer, someone else would have held that distinction.  However, if the "Noble Experiment" had failed, it may have been years before another general manager would have been willing to try.

Jackie Robinson's integration of baseball was an important symbol to the American people that black people could be more than just society's underclass.  Like integrated swing orchestras in the 1930s (including Jewish clarinettist Benny Goodman's bands), the integration of baseball was one link in a chain of events that led to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. 

While American (and Canadian) society isn't perfect, let's all think about where we would be if the southern US states still practiced segregation.  Living in Europe for the last several months, I can see an ugly racist streak rising again in the form of "Christian Democrat" parties.  A conversation I had yesterday with a friend from Sweden told me that these racist parties are looking to push out immigrants, particularly Muslim ones.  These parties are not saying anything new.  They are stoking the fires of heterogeneous nationalism** that, you can argue, were the cause of of almost all of the violence on this continent since the beginning of the 20th century. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently declared that multi-culturalism in Germany is dead.***  Perhaps the Europeans need to look to the painful struggles of black people in North America, and the examples of exceptional human beings like Jackie Robinson to understand the contributions that ALL citizens can make to society.

I hope everyone had a happy Jackie Robinson Day.  The Blue Jays won.

* In a rather shameful display, the Boston Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate.
** See Niall Fergusons "The War of the World" about war in the 20th century.
*** http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/17/angela-merkel-germany-multiculturalism-failures

10 April 2012

Sibling Rivalry

So my brother has been traveling.  He actually got a passport and has ventured outside of our home and native land, taking advantage of his vacation time, visiting London, and, starting tonight, Berlin.  Except for his trips to Quebec, this will actually be his first time (since visiting Israel with our family when he was 8) visiting a country where they don't speak English.  No, England English doesn't count as a different language.

He's also been blogging on his travels daily, which kind of makes me want to keep up with him.  However, since my daily existence at this point consists of trying to "when i get sick, I just stop being sick and be awesome instead,"* not much is going on except trying to ride out the sick.  I do have a rehearsal with Euro-KlezFactor today.

Now, I actually won't be in Berlin for most of the time my brother is.  I'll be up in the north coast of Germany in the city of Rostock giving a guest lecture at the Music Conservatory there (the Musikhochschule).  My bro arrives in Berlin tonight and leaves Saturday morning, and I leave for Rostock at 8:45 tomorrow morning, arriving back in Berlin on Friday around 1:15pm (German trains are nothing, if not punctual).  Since I can't be around to show baby brother around Berlin (and translate for him), here are Mike's tips and recommendations for Avi's Big Adventure.

1. Berlin is not really Germany.  Like New York does not really represent America, and London does not really represent England, Berlin is an urban, cosmopolitan centre that doesn't reflect "traditional" German culture.  The fact that Berlin is hundreds of kilometres from Bavaria, the place that has become the stereotypical representation of German-ness is irrelevant.  Berlin's cuisine is exemplified by the great Vietnamese and Turkish eateries (had a great bowl of Pho yesterday -- the Vietnamese answer to chicken soup), and by the Doner Kebap in particular.  In the "touristy" areas, the Doner Kebap can go for as much as 3 Euros, but is significantly cheaper in the Turkish areas (Kreuzberg, Neukolln).  Anyways, if you do want "Bavarian-style" eateries, there's a place called Hofbrauhaus near Alexanderplatz on Karl-Liebknecht-strasse.

2. There's ALWAYS something going on in Berlin.  Berlin, unlike London (which likes to delude itself in thinking it), is actually a 24 hour city.  I know of a club that's open from Thursday night until Monday morning (haven't actually been in it though).  Buses run 24 hours, and on the weekend, the trains run 24 hours too.  I HAVE had a falafel at 4am.

Whether it's cool things to see during the day, or cool things to do at night, Berlin has become a party Mecca for Europeans looking to drink all night.

3. Don't let your Canadian sensibilities scare you.  People drink EVERYWHERE here.  On the streets, in the parks, and particularly, on the subways.  It is legal.

4. Unlike Toronto, Montreal, and London, the transit system works on an honour system (mostly).  You buy your ticket, validate it, and then have to present it when asked by transit officials. There are no gates that open when swipe or scan a ticket. In about 4 1/2 months, I've been asked to show a ticket about 5 times.  The fine is 40 Euros the first time.  I HAVE seen people caught and had to pay the fine.

5. Berlin has a lot of history, ancient and recent.  Ok, ancient is kind of stretching it.  But Berlin has been settled as early as the 12th century, and a regional capital as early as the 15th century.  While most of the city was destroyed in WWII, there are loads of places to go to check out the Imperial, Fascist and Communist eras of Berlin.

     5a) Schloss Charlottenburg - This is a palace that was used by the Hohenzollern Prussian dynasty.  I still haven't been yet.
     5b) Tiergarten - This huge park is has my favourite monument in Berlin - the Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven Gedenkstatte (monument).  This 3 sided statue not only celebrates 3 of the greatest composers hailing from German speaking lands, but the photos at the information board has an amazing picture of the monument as it was in 1945 after the war.  It wasn't fully restored to it's early 20th century splendour until about 2005.
     5c) Siegessaule - this large monument (in the Tiergarten) was built to commemorate a German victory over France in the late 19th century.  Basically this was the last victory monument you'll see in Germany. Also supposedly very impressive is the Soviet monument in Treptower Park.  Been to the park.  Didn't see the monument though.
     5d) Brandenburger Tor - The Brandenburg Gate is THE tourist site of Berlin.  It's pretty impressive.  It's at the end of the Unter den Linden Promenade.
     5e) There are plenty of Nazi museums and tours (although I haven't been to any).  You can go to Sachsenhausen (concentration camp) outside the city.  Near Checkpoint Charlie, there's the "Topography of Terror" museum, there's also a monument to the burning of books by the Nazis on Bebelplatz off Unter den Linden.
     5f)  I would also highly recommend the Jewish Museum (also fairly close to Checkpoint Charlie).  I HAVE been here, and the museum looks both at Jewish life in Germany historically (since Jews settled here), as well as the destruction of the Jewish community during the Holocaust.
     5g) If it's more recent history you're interested in, Berlin has many memorials and museums to commemorate the communist history of half the city.  I'd recommend the DDR Museum (just off the Museumsinsel (museum island)), although it's not a particularly big museum.  I also recommend the Stasi Prison.  A bit tricky to find though.  They have excellent English tours.
     5h) The Berlin Wall.  This icon of recent history can be found in several places.  I would recommend the Bernauer Strasse memorial in Prenzlauer Berg.  Here, you can get a good idea of what the wall looked like with its watchtowers, and "death strip".  You can also walk the Mauerweg, a kind of park that traces the entire length of the wall (all 170 kms of it) around the city.  There's the kitschy, touristy piece of the wall that they've put at Potsdamer Platz, along with the guy in an East German uniform to go along with it.  Finally, there's the East Side Gallery on the East side of the Spree River that extends from Ostbahnhof to Warschauer Strasse S-bahn stations.

6.  You don't need German in Berlin.  The city is so international, but also so tourist-oriented that German is not needed at all.  It is helpful, but not necessary.  English rules!

7. The aforementioned transit system is excellent.  If you're only here for a few days, you'd probably want to buy day tickets.  They're about 6.30 Euros for a day and allow unlimited travel on all S and U bahns, trams, and buses.  Unlike London, the transit system follows LOGIC.  And, the transit was built first, not haphazardly as it was needed to relieve over-flowing and over-burdened subway lines like in Toronto.

8.  I'm sure you'll discover more cool stuff about Berlin on your own.

So there it is.  Welcome to Europe, Avi/Adam, or whatever your name is.  See you in about 12 hours.


*bonus points if you can spot the reference.  Another excellent line from the same place is "I'm fine.  My nose is just overflowing with awesome and I had to get some of it out."

9 April 2012

(was) Livin' in a HELL HOLE!*

Well, for those of you wondering how things have been over the past week or so, since my return from England, they have been pretty shitty.  Much of the shitty can be traced to the room I was really cheaply subletting at the Circus at Postbahnhof (right near Ostbahnhof).  I figured I had about 2 weeks to put up with the room, and then I'd be back in Canada for a while.  I had "roughed" it before and experienced the 2 minute walk on a cold night to get to the toilet at many years at KlezKanada, so that certainly wasn't a deterrent. 

Basically the room is one of 3 or four small rooms/apartments that is housed underneath the rail line.  However, as I discovered very quickly, while others may be ok staying there, my particular complex of allergies makes it a nightmare situation for me. 

Many out there may say, "allergies?  What allergies?" Well, I'm allergic to most animals (in particular Dogs, Cats, Horses, Rabbits and Rats), as well as dust-mites and one or two kinds of mold.  Since the lack of sleep over in England (particularly at the end of my trip) has resulted in my traditional "lack-of-sleep cold), I was dealing with a cold, as well as the difficulty I was having breathing at night due to the allergies in the Circus Room(TM).  I thought that this would pass, but sadly, it just got worse.  Finally, Sunday morning, I woke up at 6 am, struggling to breathe and went to the aforementioned toilet.  When I saw myself in the mirror, I noticed that I had red blotches over most of my face due to the allergens. 

I decided that I would not be able to continue in this living situation, and put the call out to some friends for help.  Thankfully, to my HUGE relief, the wonderful, amazing violinist in my band, Dea Szucs was going out of town until after I go back to Canada and offered me the use of her place Prenzlauer Berg.

So now, I can breathe a huge sigh of relief (literally as well as figuratively), and recover from this cold!


* if you don't get this reference, go see "This is Spinal Tap" NOW!

5 April 2012

Jolly Old

Last week I was in England.  I went for the Leeds International Jazz Educators Conference (where else?) in Leeds.  However, due to logistics and costs, I ended up flying in and out of London, and taking the four+ hour bus ride to Leeds.

In the almost 2 days I spent in London, I had a chance to catch up with some old friends.  Gregg Brennan* has been living in London for the last 3 years and we got together on both of the days that I was in London (sandwiching the 3 days in Leeds).  And since Gregg is a loyal reader of the blog, Hey Gregg!  It was good seeing you!

Impressions of London:

- Crowded
- Lots of Construction
- Do NOT want to go back until after the Olympics are over.

But I've been to London before (you should check out the original Adventures in Klezmer blog if you want to read up on that), so I didn't feel the imperative to do the whole sight-seeing thing.

I will make special mention of the hostel I stayed at: the White Ferry.  In addition to being located very close to the Victoria Coach Station (where I caught the bus to Leeds), the staff was very friendly.  When i couldn't find a locker to stash my stuff at the end of my trip, they were kind enough to allow me to leave my stuff in their luggage room, from which I could pick it up at 3am before getting my bus out to Stansted Airport for my early morning flight back to Berlin.

As a side-note.  Apparently London is so paranoid of being blown up by bombs left in lockers by terrorists, there are no lockers to leave bags in while you go about your business around town.  There are "left luggage" kiosks at bus and train stations, but they close at midnight, thus making things inconvenient for anyone who needs to pick up their bags any later. 

The conference in Leeds was interesting.  There were some great jazz performances (particularly by the Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu), and interesting papers, although, coming from the field of ethnomusicology, some of the papers on jazz pedagogy and theory were a little outside of my interest zone. 

The real benefit of going to these conferences is to meet the interesting people who show up.  Not only were there cool British people, but I met musicians and academics from Brazil, Portugal, Germany, Austria, and several other Canadians and Americans.

As for Leeds itself, I was expecting a lot worse.  It seems to be a university town, so the nightlife is skewed to the young, and there's a cool pedestrian shopping area in town.  The main problem with Leeds is that there isn't much in terms of sights to see.  The town hall is nice (although dirty), but we weren't around there in time to go inside and see it.  I've been told that York is the city to go to in the north for the sights.

The last thing I'll say about England is that the whole "driving on the left" thing messes you up. 

I've decided that the side of the road that people drive on not only influences the flow of traffic (and the direction that you look when crossing the road), but there's a whole cultural paradigm that surrounds it.  It's quite disorienting.  So, my message to the Brits is: conform to the rest of the world!  Or else!

Oh.  I took a grand total of 2 pictures in England -- both on my phone, and I can't be arsed to transfer them to my computer.  Imagine away!

* You may remember Gregg as the original drummer in KlezFactor.  You can hear him on our first album, The Golem of Bathurst Manor.  Available on iTunes, Spotify, Last.fm, CD Baby, and many other fine vendors.