Rant Time: Over at the site

Hello all,

It went a bit quiet again there didn’t it? But don’t worry I’ve been having fun and think I finally got closure on the whole-stuck-in-the-airport thing after I wrote this:

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Music Time: The Aim, live in Berlin

Hi!

First of all, yes, it’s been ages again. What happened? Well, after I got stuck in Dublin airport, I went to Germany for the day on the ICE (lovely), London for 14 hours on the Eurostar (swishy, especially as I jammily got to go in First) and Luxembourg. Luxembourg’s going to get a whole post of its own due it being a Ruritanian mountain fiefdom with hedge fund managers instead of peasants, but I’m not in enough of a coffee-fuelled rage to begin to pen that yet, so let’s wait and see.

Yet more arty beer pictures

Also I’ve just been busy. There’s been cooking – I learnt to roast a leg of lamb – fine wine and dining galore and also lots of trips to the cinema. These have included excellent South Korean horror movie (but really clever metaphor for US involvement in the Far East) The Host and the cheese extravaganza that was Spiderman 3: The emo musical.

Also I have been reading. I haven’t done a book thing on here for ages but I’m definitely planning one on on Nicolas Freeling – I’ve been re-reading his books, especially the early Van der Valk novels, and thoroughly enjoying them. Also I purchased Neil McKenna’s ‘The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde’ when I was in Dublin, which is revealing that not only does my idol have feet of clay, he was also a total and utter cad. However the book is annoying me deeply with its conflation of certain events: Wilde ‘probably’ did x with y, he ‘almost inevitably’ must have met such-and-such in New York and ‘in all likelihood’ he did blah as well. Now look, I know we’re dealing with events happening last century and you can’t exactly pick up the phone and check BUT there’s only so much idle speculation I can handle in a work of biography.

Because I can’t just leave you with selection of post-lunch thoughts here’s a review I wrote a while ago of an extremely fun up-and-coming band called ‘The Aim’ playing live at an absolutely brilliant club called ‘White Trash’ in Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin.

The Aim

Berlin. It’s a city with one hell of a reputation, a glittering cabaret act of decadent debauchery – a lot for a group to live up to. But when Iturn up at a kitsch-filled proto-goth bar in a former Chinese restaurant in East Berlin, the vibes are good. And when The Aim come onstage, they’re excellent.

All four of the band look androgynously alluring in identical poker straight black trousers, dress shirts and flowing black cravats. Eyeliner is de rigeur for both the boys and the girl and the fact that the tiny stage is covered with their black-and-white target logos show The Aim are a group who understand that a sharp, sexy image matters just as much as killer riffs.

The audience is full of Berlin scenesters modelling a variety of looks from lost new romantic to trilby-wearing mod but everyone starts to move when The Aim launch into their edgy, angular brand of rock. Catchy hooks which recall mod, new wave and krautrock influences are brought to life by a stage presence which can only be described as pure energy.

The band’s myspace proudly refers to their ‘kick-ass live performance’ and the move form their native Copenhagen to the German capital has only revved their motors further. Songs follow each other at breakneck pace and frontwoman Veronica D’Souza is a sexy, sassy, hair-tossing frontwoman who could even teach Justine Frischmann circa 1995 a thing or two about how to move onstage.

The energy just builds and builds and by the last couple of songs, Veronica and bassist Greg are playing back-to-back with a frenetic enthusiasm which has even the most tryhard emo kids grinning with joy. Even though the ceiling’s barely high enough for us to stand, D’Souza launches into the crowd, whilst guitarist Adam and drummer R.R. – a man too damn cool to have a first name – keep the infectious riffs coming.

As the band leave the stage to wild screams I get the feeling I’m not the only person in the room who’s convinced Berlin’s a city where the spirit of edgy, sexy rock is as potent as ever – and that the The Aim are right on target to rock.

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Time Time: Better late than never…

First of all, sorry for being away for so long. I’ve been really busy and having lots of advantures which, whilst they were great fun to experience, somehow wouldn’t really make the transition to the printed word. I’m going to think about writing a few of them up – in particular tea and cakes with Litlove – but in the meantime here’s a hubristic rant composed in the wee small hours, fuelled only by coffee, from when I got stuck in an airport for 12 horus earlier this week. It’s good to be back!

What to say? I knew it was inevitable. Napoleon had Waterloo. Harold lost his eye at Hastings. Scooch thought they could make a decent fist of Eurovision. And me? I’ve spent the last twenty five years of my life being daringly late, thumbing my nose at father time and his snivelling minions punctuality, check-in and ‘margin of error’. Oh how I mocked them, how I admired myself as I shimmied through security, costs swishing in my wake, sunglasses on head and ridiculous shoe-stuffed valise in hand.

I knew it couldn’t last forever, that look of secret complicity I shot myself as we ran past sock shop, as my name was called over the tannoy. I thought I’d pushed it too far leaving Munich the time I discovered the joys of on-line check in, only to forget that check-in doesn’t magically shrink the airport, you still have to go through security, and, ultimately if you turn up at the airport when boarding’s started you’re going to have trouble. Luckily, however, it was bank holiday and only six people took the flight — which further fuelled my belief in my own teflon time keeping.

I read somewhere once that lateness is a form of vanity, that it stems from a desire to make a narcissistic entrance. I’d agree that waltzing into the pub an hour late to be greeted by whoops and cheers from your friends is always nice, but I’ve never been applauded by cabin crew, still less the severe young ladies who stand by the Eurostar in grey hats. No, this travel lateness is more an unwillingness to leave, to continue the journey in space and time. That last kiss before parting, the final drink before boarding and the parting glimpse of a moonlit city before the night train creaks out the station; they’re moments to be preserved in memory’s aspic.

It’s all down to a reluctance to leave the present, and fate has decided to repay my arrogance in a particularly cruel fashion by abandoning me to the eternal present, the limbo non-space stateless hell of the airport. I write this full of joyless frozen overpriced pizza looking into the generic grey vacuum of a standard European airport lounge. A few glassy-eyed fellow travellers sip coffee, their stares challenging hope to remain. The sweet but confused Polish girl tells everyone it’s her first day as she screws up their orders. Its everyone’s first day, my dear; we’re in an airport, where every day, every trace of feeling, from the tears of the asylum seeker being interrogated by immigration to the triumphant honeymoon smiles of happy couples, back from the tropics with decades of joy ahead of them, are wiped out with the next morning’s first check-in. You’ll never see me again, any more than I’ll encounter the nice young Dubliner who’d just had to shell out 400 euros for a new passport and ticket to his brother’s wedding in Barcelona. The prospect of the night here fills me not with fears of sleazy men and stolen credit cards: rather, its the prospect of remembering who I am, after 12 hours straight in an airport that fills me with dread.

Perhaps this is it. Cutting it fine, taking it to the wire and all those lastminute taxi rides weren’t so much vanity as a foolish immature rebellion designed to show I was above their rules. And today a scowling woman in an offensively bright green jacket told me I wasn’t, and that even though my plane would not be anywhere near the sky for a full 35 minutes there was no chance of letting common sense prevail and allowing me to run for it. No, rules are rules are rules.

It’s a lesson I needed to learn and I shouldn’t complain really – statistically I was due to miss something sooner or later. But there’s not even an exciting story – I was a little bit late setting off, then the bus got stuck in traffic, then the airport was crowded. Not glamorous, not sexy, not “Oh I was late because I was drinking cocktails at the Ritz til 2 am” — just, you know, lateness, expense, and boredom. I’ll see you soon – and I’ll be on time.

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Bear time: Knut, Knut, ALLES IST GUT!

Wow. Just wow. I’m writing this on the train, ensconced in a comfy corner seat on the miracle of ferrovial perfection that is ICE. My original plan was to go to the BordBistro and have a huge lunch but my fellow travellers were quicker off the mark and the Maitre D’ – or Speisewagenuberhauptkontrollman – told me to wait until Hannover. So in the meantime, you get my thoughts, hungry but happy, on the Bear, the Berlin, and the Beers. Knut, for those of you who’ve been living in a shack in the woods, is a wickle baby polar bear whose sad story can be read here. He is very much in demand and several times today it looked as if the cruel hand of fate would stop me meeting his fluffiness. Here is a near-realtime account of my ursine mission, or as I prefer to call it, DER KNUTQUEST.

08.30: Wake up. Realise that drinking champagne until the wee small hours and dancing to underground German electronica in the Ur-kitsch surroundings of Prenzlauer Berg’s finest nitespots was a manifestly foolish idea and may even impair my bear location skills! Crisis.

09.30: Check out of hotel and drink some miraculous German life-giving vitamin juice.

10.00: Get taxi to Hauptbahnhof and check in bags. Scan the day’s headlines for latest Knut-updates. Tell taxi driver I am seeing “Der Bar”. He nods sagely.

11.00: Ask for metro ticket to get to zoo and see the Knut. The Deutsche Bahn lady says how cute he is. Disappointingly they haven’t started making special Knut-passes to the zoo and I buy a normal Tageskarteregeltarif ticket for the Verkehrsunternehmen.

11.15: Get out at Tiergarten station, run downstairs, and into the street. Realise that although my special linguist powers tell me this means ‘animal garden’ it is the wrong station and I should have stayed on to ‘Zoologischer gartem’. Feel a bit stupid and get some lemon fanta.

11.18: Arrive at the zoo station. Ask a trendy Berlin scenester who is parking a bike where the zoo is. He points at the station. “Nein,” I say. “Ah, das Zoo, mit Knut und alle,” he says, the sun glinting off his aviator shades. “Ja,” I say, and follow his excellent directions, as the realisation slowly dawns on me, that no-one from the hippest Replay-clad club kid to the white-haired granny in front of me in the queue is immune to the cuteness of the Knut.

11.47: Buy zoo ticket

11.51: Scorn rhinos, ibexes and otters as I rush towards der fluffmeister’s enclosure.

IMGP4440

12.03: Let out cry of “nOOOOoooooOOOOOOooooooOOOOO” which upsets even the hyenas as I learn that Knut is having a nap and not coming out til 2 o’clock! Disaster! Whilst the furry little fellow is being played Elvis songs by his keeper, my day is thrown into disarray. My train leaves at 14.51. Can I risk missing the day’s only connection to Brussels to see a small, fish-eating bruin?

12.04: Clearly I can. Picture the faces of my grandchildren, transfixed with joy as I tell them, misty-eyed, about how I saw Knut.

12.05: Look at the other polar bears. One of them must be Knut’s mother, her heart as cold as the arctic floes upon which she once resided. Give all bears a dirty look so she’s aware of my disdain.

12.06: Decide I have been unjust in my decision to snub the zoo’s other inhabitants. Go for a wonder and realise I haven’t been to a zoo for years. It’s fascinating! Nature is amazing. Consider evolution and the fascinating twists and turns it’s taken. Take ostriches. Birds’ main advantage and their evolutionary USP is that they can fly. They can escape predators, build nests in trees and do all sorts of great stuff.

Ostrich

So why, over the course of several millennia, did ostriches evolve so that instead of being able to fly like their relatives, they can run fast – not a good situation when all the things that want to eat you can also do this, often better – and look really, really stupid? Why have they survived? Why do they have such silly-shaped bodies? Why do their knees bend backwards? What’s going on?

12.50: Buy Knut poster, postcards, but not Steiff bear. That’s just silly.

13.04: Look at ring-tailed mongoose running round and round and round and round and round and round in its little jungle playground cage and think serious thoughts about human existence, or, as Hegel would have called it, a Mungomenschlichzusammenhangdenkbarhietmoment.

13.20: Feel a bit sorry for the big cats, they must be lonely and miss hunting stuff on the plains of Africa. It’s alright if you’re an otter and have a massive water park to play in but it doesn’t seem fair on the lions and leopards. Improve language skills by learning the German for ‘Don’t stand too near the cage or the lion might wee on you’. Heed warning.

Watch out for lion wee

13.30: Become aware that rest of zoo is getting emptier and emptier.

13.48: See massive, huge, first-day-of-the-sales size queue. The crocodile snakes round and I ape everyone’s bullish behaviour by leapfrogging several crabby people to get a bird’s eye view (do you see what I did there?).

13.55: Listen to speech about Knut, how he’s doing, what he’s been up to, get told not to scare him.

13.59: He’s coming

14.00: Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! He’s here!

14.01: Experience a sort of cuteness epiphany, a cuddliness transcendence. Nietzsche, I’m sure, would have named it a Niedlichheitursprungdaseinerlebniss – but let’s face it, if old Friedrich had seen anything as cute as Knut, he would have cheered up and become a sort of Teutonic Beatrix Potter.

Knut

14.02: Knut follows his keeper round on his hind legs. The keeper pulls his sleeves over his hands so he has big giant paws and they roll round on the ground play fighting. I hear the sound of several hundred people sighing simultaneously.

14.03: Knut, Knut, alles ist gut…

14.10: Realise I have to catch a train in 41 minutes, and that my baggage has to be picked up as well. Panic and get lost going out of zoo. As I leave, I realise the cuteness has affected me and I am dizzy and disoriented. My efforts to escape the zoo are continually thwarted as I find myself at the flamingos again and again and again… Hilfe!

14.20: Get taxi to Hauptbahnhof. My taxi driver, like every single one of his colleagues I encountered during my 4 days in Berlin, was polite, friendly, interesting and kind. Having reassured me that, of course, we would make my train, he pointed out all the embassies we were driving past and answered all my questions about German history.

14.40: Get baggage

14.51: Get train and enjoy seven hours of such pleasant travel, such delightful surroundings and such delicious food it’s a whole other blog entry… Bis bald!

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Train time: 575km/h of TGV goodness

UPDATE: In the time it took me to write that I couldn’t find this on the web, it got put on YouTube – chouette!

You can see the France 2 programme here – skip to about 13.15 to see the really fast bit…

I just watched a little bit of transport history in the lunchtime news on France 2 - the TGV just set a new speed record for trains-on-rails (maglev trains can go faster but purists say they’re not on rails – I say pragmatically that I can go on the TGV any time I want but it’s a bit trickier for me to get to China, so this is more exciting) of 574.7 km/h.

That is seriously bloody fast.

I just booked some tickets to go on the ICE so that’s double European high speed train joy over two days. Princess is super fast and international – and on the Thalys tomorrow too! Wow, technically that’s triple train excitement – I’d better go and lie down in a darkened room…

Isn’t this exciting? Trains are getting faster and faster and more and more comfortable. I love planes as we all know but trains are great as well. In fact a train journey gives you more sense of travelling, and you just turn up at the station rather than being forced into holding pen and made to buy sunglasses for hours on end at airports. Even better, when we all have to stop flying in a few years because there’s no oil left the train will still work (even if we have no money for tickets as the global economy has stopped).

Cooler still, they set this new record on the sexy, brand-spanking new TGV Est track between Paris and Strasbourg – I wonder if its as smooth and fast as Paris-Marseilles? And I wonder how long it is until public services will go this fast – I could totally eat some high speed canapés at 550 km/h…

Here’s a video form yesterday getting excited about the record attempt:

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Museum time: Blicke auf Europa, Brussels Fine Art Museum

I’ve been having some seriously cool weekends recently, and for once I feel like I’m really getting the value out of the city where I live. Fun adventure time in Brussels has definitely been the order of the day – and night – so I’ll start off with a very good exhibition of German paintings I went to 3 weeks ago. I know this is a long time ago but I don’t think it does any harm to go away and thing about paintings for quite some time after you’ve seen them, because then you only remember the most striking ones.

Italia und Germania

Blicke auf Europa’ – (Views on Europe) is about ‘Europe and German Painting in the 19th Century’ and one of the most impressive curatorial efforts I’ve ever seen insofar as loads of absolutely huge German museums have worked together to loan Brussels really fabulous selections of paintings. Jo and I were lucky enough to have two exceptionally knowledgeable guides in the form of Frank from Frankfurt and Markus from Munich (no, honestly) who gave the whole exhibition a special je ne sais quoi (or more precisely an Ich weiss nicht genau was). Frankly, I was educated – did you know the King of Greece was Bavarian? Well you do now…

The exhibition is divided up into German paintings of different European countries from the 19th Century, along with a brief description of how they were viewed and the virtues (and vices) embodied. I found the descriptions a little coy about certain aspects (i.e. the Franco-Prussian war, Bismarck, going on a reactionary realpolitik spree after the fall on Napoleon) and a little over-enthusiastic about some (young German painters going to Italy, rivalry with Sweden during the thirty years’ War, being excellent Europeans) but overall it was excellently put together and you can’t really blame them for having a strong political message when the exhibition is also called the “central cultural contribution in Brussels of the Federal Republic of Germany to its Presidency of the Council of the European Union during the first half of 2007”.

Because I’m no art historian I’m just going to talk about my favourite painting from the show; I’d like to apologise for my general lack of proper fine arts knowledge right now.

Moench am Meer

Monk by the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich.

I got all excited when I saw this painting. “Ooh, I’ve seen this one!” I exclaimed with all the joy of your great-aunt realizing her favourite episode of ‘Midsomer Murders’ is being repeated. Frank and Markus gave me a look that can only be described as ‘Teutonic’ before pointing out that Herr Friedrich actually painted this picture five times, and I had no way of knowing if this was the same one I was so quick to claim acquaintance with.

This said, it’s a painting worth painting five times because it says more about the human condition, about the nature of loneliness, and about romanticism as a movement than the traditional thousand words. There’s this idea – certainly one I used to have – that romanticism is all about forests and love poetry and waterfalls. But the fact is that Werther shoots himself and you only have to spend a certain amount of time alone with nature before it reminds you how tiny and insignificant you are; the the sea in particular is this massive force which could crush us all like puny ants tomorrow, if you think about it.

When I saw it – or one if its four siblings – before, it was in an exhibition called ‘Melancolie’ in Grand Palais in Paris which had set itself the not insignificant task of tracing ‘Melancholy’ as a cultural concept through Western history form Ancient Greece to the present day. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen but even in a captivating collection which included loads of Picasso, Bosch and Odilon Redon (a real weakness of mine) galore – not to mention the actual gates of Beldam – this painting stood out.

Gratuitous Redon because it’s the internet and I can:
Les Yeux Fermes

There’s something about the huge expanse of blue sky, which takes up almost the entire tableau, that’s at once so oppressive (we’re all subordinate to natural forces) and so liberating – it’s a space filled with potential where you’re free to dream. I mean what’s the monk even doing there? OK he could be contemplating chucking himself in but how do we know he’s not feeling wildly exhilarated after an energetic stroll up from the Abbey to the headland? What if he’s waiting for a boat full of dancing girls to collect him and take him off to a life of earthly pleasures? What if he is and the boat doesn’t come?

When I was at university I wrote my dissertation Baudelaire and Huysmans and the development of the flaneur and dandy – two figures who couldn’t exist without romanticism. Mainly it was an excuse to read lots of books in the secret inner sanctum of the University Library but by the end I came to the conclusion that without the movement’s definition of itself in opposition to society, you wouldn’t have the existentialists and their doctrine of free will either. This Monk is a quintessentially existentialist figure in my view – away from the paraphernalia of society, he’s there by sea. Looking at this painting makes you think about who you are, what you want and what you believe – which is why it’s such a great inclusion in this exhibition about the creation of a national identity over the space of 100 years.

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Paris: Ghost Town

Paris is one of my favourite cities of all time: imposing, seductive and constantly surprising. I love the way that the second you alight from the train there you know you are. The haussmanian facades of the building, the rich ladies from the 16th in fur coats, the apron-wearing waiters bustling round with glasses of kir and the shop windows filled with everything from food so expensive it seems slightly obscene to glittering mountains of costume jewellery.

This said, Paris has its downsides. The raving derelicts in the metro, the endless piles of dog poo, placed like anti-Kurt Geiger landmines all over the pavements – where there are pavements – and the traffic. The neverending stream of loud, honking, smelly traffic, which is almost entirely driven by people so angry they’re one step away from violence, and composed mostly of buzzing mopeds, unserviced delivery vans with no road tax, and taxis driven with gay abandon (I once had a taxi ride where the driver played the flute for us, driving with his knees. At the traffic lights on Boulevard Saint-Germain he reached for the guitar but luckily Becca and I talked him out of it).

So Paris without traffic is a pretty attractive proposition, but one which is never, ever going to happen (and let’s be honest, it would be attractive until you needed a taxi coming out of les Etages at 4am, a time when you need a taxi more than food, air or water). But I did get a sneaky glimpse of what it would look like one evening last July…

I had been watching France play Italy in the World Cup final. The mood was euphoric. Cars had been driving round with tricolores waving out of sunroofs since 3 in the afternoon and the entire city was ready for a victory party on the Champs-Elysees, with Zinedine Zidance the elevated to the status of ‘legend’ amongst the glittering stars of the French soccer firmament. Nick and I drank our beers in ‘La Ville de Paris’, cheering on Les Bleus, on a balmy summer evening, and all was bien dans le monde.

Then it went to extra time. It was about then I began to realise it could all still end in tears and getting the last train back to Brussels might not be such a bad idea.

But when I left the bar a few minutes later, the enthusiasm was still there: they could turn it around, Zizou would score, there’d be time for sparklers and sparkling by the Arc De Triomphe, wouldn’t there?

Having decided the last train back to Brussels was the only sensible choice, I realised a taxi was the best way to get there. And after I got one in record time, it then got me from metro Grands Boulevards to Gare du Nord in a little over three minutes, and without any Claude Lelouche-style driving. There was nothing else on the roads so I took a video – sorry for the amateurish, handheld quality: but look at rue Lafayette sans voitures – it’s the utterly familiar transformed into another place entirely devoid of life as twilight settles. Another little surprise from this beautiful beguiling, bustling city.

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