Monday, September 28, 2009

Art for Kodak's sake.

You know what really frustrates me? Tourists. Don't get me wrong, I know I'm here as a tourist, and I see my own fair share of the popular sights (I went to Notre Dame twice). What I don't understand is tourists and their obsession with cameras and taking photos of anything even remotely famous – as if by taking this photo they can go home and show everyone how well travelled they are.

Take yesterday for example. I'm in Paris at the moment, and thought I would wander down to the Musee d'Orsay for a few quiet hours of perusing the gallery's Impressionist works. I am yet to see a Van Gough in the flesh, and this was the perfect place to spend a casual Saturday afternoon.

There was no queue to get into the d'Orsay and even as I moved around the gallery I noticed a distinct lack of large crowds. Where was everybody? As I moved upstairs it suddenly dawned on me that some of the 5th floor rooms were dedicated entirely to Van Gogh pieces.

Sure enough as I reached the top floor I heard the distinctive murmur of a room full of people.

Now I know Van Gogh had an excellent eye for colour and technique, but there were rooms full of Renoir's, Monet's and Manet's in other parts of the building, why was everyone so obsessed with this one? What made matters worse was I couldn't stand for two seconds admiring the skilfully applied brushstrokes before two or three Leica/Nikon/Canon lenses were shoved over my shoulder and started snapping away. I was appalled as I watched these people move around to almost every painting taking photos; of the canvas, themselves with the canvas and even their significant other with the canvas. Some even posed like models beside the painting. It’s like they didn’t even care about what they were standing next to. It’s a quick snap and then move on to the next one. Do they even know what they are photographing?

As I scanned the room I realised that other people were doing the same thing with small point-and-shoots and even video cameras.

I was so frustrated that I left the room in haste. As I walked downstairs I thought to myself; shouldn’t art be enjoyed because an individual finds it beautiful or evocative? Have we become so blinded that we only want to see an artwork because it appears on coffee mugs, t-shirts, mouse pads and tea towels? And to make matters worse, it seems that a mental picture is just not enough anymore.

I still vividly remember seeing my first Basquiat. I was in Barcelona and it moved me in a way no other painting has managed to achieve yet. I had to sit down in front of it and admire it for a while. It was by no means his best work, but I could not comprehend that he had stood in the same position I was now, Charlie Parker blaring in the background while he contemplated what to do next. That’s what I call an art experience. I will admit I took a photo of it, but it was the only one from the whole exhibition!

So to be perfectly honest I’m not totally against people taking Kodak moments of some art works, nor I am I going to tell someone to stop. They are free to do whatever they want, just so long as they spend time admiring it first, taking in the finer details and only saving their cameras for the ones they really take real pleasure in. I fear very soon that art may become so transparent that the magic will be forgotten, and people will take these pieces of work at their face value, rather than being awed by its deeper meaning. It would be an absolute travesty.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Terry's World.

It’s just after 9pm on a chilly Thursday evening and I find myself sitting at a square table in a small Bavarian bar down a back street in the heart of Berlin. I feel slightly out of place, due to the unnerving gaze of some of the locals. To the left of me sits Ziggy, a non-English speaking German who enjoys double denim and a cigarette poised constantly in his right hand. To my right is a man who I know slightly more about. His name is Terry Brewer. He dislikes bad grammar and frowns upon people with green hair and rings in their noses. He has taught me more about Germany in two days than any history teacher could achieve in two years.

As we sit chatting over a plate of German sausage and pickles with a side of beer Terry tells me that the last 20 years of his life have all but rolled into one. ‘Where has the time gone?’ he says.

Terry is an interesting character to say the least. He is nearly 74, served in the British Naval Intelligence and has been taking people on his famous Brewer tours of Berlin for over two decades. This means that not only did he see the fall of the Berlin wall, but he’s also seen the gradual rebuilding of neglected infrastructure that has begun to take place over the last 15 odd years. How many tour guides can proudly offer that kind of insight? Probably none, and yet Terry is as humble as anything.

‘It’s weird.’ He says. Barely 3 years ago this was empty land – just piles of rubble or crumbling buildings’ he motions at a large block of offices and housing estates. I struggle to comprehend what this place must have looked like until Terry shows me some photos of the vacant blocks at an information point nearby.

As we walk further around he city it suddenly dawns on me what the people of Berlin have done to this city. They have given new life to an area devastated by war and civil unrest; the Berlin Wall is now an art space, derelict buildings have become studios or live music venues and properties once destroyed by bomb raids are being restored to their original condition. Admittedly this does mean that the whole of Berlin oozes a cold, industrial façade – but this is part of its history. Look beyond these walls though and you find a very complex metropolis. What surprises me the most are the great expanse of glorious parks and gardens. They form islands of green amongst a sea of grey.

In fact it’s incredibly hard to imagine that just over 20 years ago this city was so divided. It seems so peaceful now. Germans mix with Jews (even in Jewish schools), and members of allied countries are living and working here on their own free will. Remnants of past years are all but left to the pages of history and the glass cases of museums. It’s not that Germans are trying to forget the past, they are just moving on. For nearly a century now there has been no palpable way of life. Now they have a chance to show some pride in their country and their once war-torn capital.

I must admit, the locals still aren’t overly friendly, but I think this is a result of being more reserved rather than being a display of arrogance. One thing is clear - they’re certainly not French. As a slight consolation, when you do find a chance to talk with one of them you realise that most of the time their English is impeccable. The only German I know is ‘danke,’ ‘nein!’ and a collection of derogatory swear words. I could still have fluid conversations with all the locals, just so long as I slowed my abnormally fast-paced Australian accent to a coherent and understandable speed.

A waitress comes to remove our plates. Terry says something to her in German and she lets out a laugh. ‘I told her the service was lousy’ he chuckles as she walks away. I shake my head and smile. He is a constant source of amusement.

Terry really is an excellent guide, and I recommend anyone coming to Berlin to partake in one of his many daily tours. He is a wealth of knowledge and explains everything in such detail and with such an enthusiastic demeanour that you can’t help but become fascinated by what he is saying. Occasionally he will repeat himself, but this only adds to the learning process. I am soon infatuated with Berlin and its complicated history. I yearn to know more.

‘I know an awful lot about a lot of things, but I don’t pretend to know everything about everything,’ is Terry’s famous mantra. He repeats it constantly and he means it. He does know an extraordinary amount about Berlin, and the rest of the world for that matter. Just be intelligent and don’t ask an ignorant question is my suggestion. You’ll be praised as a result.

I take two tours with Terry in the seven days I am here. The second one is the most fulfilling. Our contingent consists of a Jewish-American boy that seemed two loaves short of a basket, Terry and myself. We’re being led on ‘The Third Reich’ tour which takes us through understanding the most evil of Hitler’s plans to praising the resilience of the people who opposed him. Terry seems intent on giving the Jewish-American and myself a hard time. We are constantly tested on our general knowledge. He means no harm though. These tours are a great form of entertainment and at the same time a great way to learn Berlin's history.

This expedition is meant to last 4 hours and instead lasts 8. The man can certainly talk. As is customary at the end of the day, Terry invites me to join him for a beer at his favourite bar that he fittingly likes to call ‘his bar.’ I graciously accept. This is where we sit right now.

An evening with Terry could easily turn into a free history lesson. But I soon find out this is no time to talk about Berlin. This is Terry’s down time. We watch non-specific European soccer and I listen to him talk fluent German to his many friends that either regularly frequent the bar or work there. He is well know and well liked. He can communicate in 10 languages. He is a legend in this city and it is an honour to know him really.

After a little while I turn around and find Terry fast asleep in his chair, a half empty glass of beer slowly bubbling away in front of him. I smile. He has had a long day and a longer week. I pay the bill and make a stealthy exit making sure not to wake him.

Please, if you ever find yourself in Berlin, make sure you find Terry. I assure you it will not be a disappointing encounter.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The fix.

You know what most places in Europe have that Melbourne doesn't? Terrible coffee. Like what I did there? Seriously, it's a disgrace. Maybe I was drinking my cup of Joe at all the wrong places or maybe the baristas' were having a bad day, but I just couldn't for the life of me find a decent daily grind.

Now I'm no coffee connoisseur, but I believe I have the capacity to tell a good cuppa from the next. I tried cappuccino, caffe latte and even espresso in over five countries, but all were horrible - even bordering on undrinkable. I thought the Europeans were renowned for their coffee making abilities! I was wrong. I even tried Starbucks...on both sides of the street.

Actually I stand corrected. Today I found my first decent coffee. I was in Berlin, waiting for the Ramones museum to open. I found a homely little cafe called 'Weinerei.' It was a last ditch effort and I put all my chips on the table and bought a double espresso. It was delicious. Perfect temperature with the slightest hint of caramel and chocolate.

This doesn't mean my argument is flawed however. One good espresso over an eleven week period of drinking coffee does not equate to good odds.

Maybe it's because I'm a snob then. A snob that knows nearly nothing about coffee, just one that has been spoilt by Melbourne's selection of marvelous morning mud.

Alliteration aside I make a valid point. Last year Starbucks announced it would be immediately closing 61 of its stores across Australia. It is an extraordinary number, considering it reduced the overall number of stores to just 23. I even did the research on which stores are still open. Queensland has 8, New South Wales 10 and Victoria a mere 5. This leads me to the conclusion that either Brisbane and Melbourne have great coffee or that people from Sydney have no taste. Either way there was something greater than a 'troubled economy' driving the Green Giant away from Melbourne. I know what it was. Do you?

I even found an anonymous quote that stated 'In America you can buy bucket-sized cups of coffee in any flavour you like other than coffee-flavour.' Hilarious. Case closed.

I'm sorry, I had to get that off my chest. It's me bothering me for weeks.

To end this brief rant I just want to say one thing: Melbourne, as far as I'm concerned, makes the best coffee in the world. Cherish it. Think about it next time you travel abroad. You will long for it dearly.

I will happily talk to anyone who feels they can prove me wrong. I think I have a certain friend in New York who may like to discuss this topic further...

Until next time, espresso yourself.


Monday, September 14, 2009

The streets of Lisbon.


Whoa. Has it really been this long since I posted my last entry? Time sure flies when you are traveling. I have so much to tell now. Where should I start? Does anyone even bother reading this anymore? If you do, settle yourself down as this could take a while.

I think I’ll begin where I left off. Barcelona – a city that somehow managed to captivate me into a nine-day-stay and no end of stories to tell.

We traveled a long 10 hours to ‘Barca’ from Nice by bus. I love coming to a new city in a new country. It’s like you’re starting completely from scratch. Almost always I know nothing about the city I’m entering and it’s this naiveness that excites me the most. Learning a new language, sampling new foods and anticipating the pleasure of immersing myself in a new culture. Naturally I couldn’t wait.

We were staying in a nice hostel, near the top of the infamous ‘La Ramblas’ street known for its pick pockets, prostitutes and performers (sounds like Athens all over again!) Around the corner was a Gaudi designed house and a bit further up the road was his masterpiece La Sagrada Familia. This was sounding good already.

Barcelona is one of those cities that reminded me of home. It is stylish, young and bursting with culture. Every corner you turn you find small bars and cafés or people selling artisan goods or food in small stalls. The streets are clean, and the people are friendly.

I even adopted my first soccer team. FC Barcelona were playing an exhibition match at the famous Camp Nou during our week here. Somehow we became so immersed in the excitement for this game that we promptly bought tickets, a brand new ‘away’ jersey and a soccer ball. Go Barca.

I spent the next few days in the El Raval and university districts, which bordered two fantastic galleries. One gallery, the CCCB, was showing two uniquely different exhibitions. One was titled ‘ The Jazz Century’ and explored the rise of Jazz from the beginning of last century until now, using a chronological combination of vinyls, posters and art works including my very first Basquiat.

The other exhibition was particularly intriguing as it took a look at ‘Gangs of the 80s’ focusing exclusively on Spanish juvenile delinquency cinema which peaked between 1978 and 1985. The exhibition was a great insight into how Spain as a country has developed over the years, specifically through its youth.

They had even set up one room like an old arcade parlour.

Funnily enough, it seems that most of Barcelona is of a youthful age. I rarely ever saw anyone older than fifty. This is obviously a reflection of the vibrancy of this city – it has so much energy, it’s no wonder I enjoyed my time here so much.

I especially loved the food. There was one night in particular where I was absolutely ravenous. I went out in search of food to satisfy my hunger. I knew there had to be something, wait, anything. I was looking for the kind of restaurant that you find three corner-turns down a back street, the one you spend 25 minutes searching for and are more than always rewarded for your efforts. It was 10.17pm (a normal time for eating in Spain) and I was ravenous. I came so close to abandoning the search when out of nowhere appeared three large red neon letters – W-O-W-! they spelt. It had to be good.

It was a dark street and there were lanterns on the tables. They didn’t speak much English. They mistook my order of a vegetarian burger for a beef one. Yet the beef burger was superb, the beer was delicious and the atmosphere was perfect. I certainly wasn’t complaining.

Barcelona is definitely a city I will return to. It was so welcoming and friendly and so hard to leave. I take with me a new sports team and a plethora of new ideas and influences. I love this place.