I could not believe my eyes when I sat on the bus my very first day in Berlin and saw this alternative bicycle going past the Brandenburg Gate. Gregor Robertson (the mayor of Vancouver), this will blow your “bike friendly Vancouver” mind.Read More
I didn’t really do any sightseeing on Monday, except for a trip to my neighbourhood grocery store which is located in the coolest old brewery, now called “KulturBrauerei” (=cultural brewery, if that wasn’t obvious). I will have to take photos of its courtyard another time.
Going to the grocery store is fun here, and I am not as eager to go out to eat alone, so I will be unintentionally frugal here and eat mostly at home. I’d rather spend the money on events and sightseeing. But it’s strange living here on my own as an adult. Ever since I finished my degree in graphic design I have been in the workforce continuously for over 20 years, I make a decent living, I have been together with Jeff for almost 20 years, he makes an even more decent living. So I am no longer young or poor or single, yet I feel like an unattached bohemian art student here. This morning I woke up at 5:30 am — still that jet lag — and did a charcoal drawing in my room. It totally reminded me of art school, working late into the morning hours in my room to hand in drawings and paintings and essays. I like this feeling, processing the day’s impressions by doing a piece of art. I have no obligations here, except to get a few client projects done. What a strange and wonderful break from my ordinary life this is.
Speaking of work, some client deadlines needed to be dealt with on Monday, and I also wanted to get going on using the laundry machine, because it’s tiny and I can only wash a few things at a time. I had trouble getting it to work because it looked like a mini version of the top loading North American machines, but there is a drum inside that needs to be latched. I did not realize that, so my first load came out sopping wet and not clean, a bad combination. I was too young, or possibly too lazy to get to the doing-laundry stage before I moved to Canada with my parents, so in many ways I don’t know how things work here in Germany. This is one of them.
So I had to email my landlords for help with the washer. Ironically, they are an L.A. couple, although one of them is German. They bought this apartment 10 years ago when this area was still very East Germany-like. They told me it was one of the first buildings that had been renovated in this area. And I do remember walking around the crumbling East Berlin in 1992 and 1993, the only two times I’ve visited Berlin before.
My guess is that many of the buildings here are from around 1900, so pre-date the world wars and the DDR, but since so much of Berlin was destroyed in WWII, there must have been a lot of reconstruction in the late 40s/early 50s. Or not.
It was much warmer on Sunday, so I managed to do a longer outdoor sketch. I picked the metro station of the U2 line in my neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, the Eberswalder station.
Later that evening, I watched a movie on Vimeo I’d been wanting to get around to: the 1990 documentary Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg by Petra Tschörtner. To my surprise, repeated scenes of this very subway station figure prominently as a symbol of this old district of Berlin — starting with the opening clip from which I am showing a still below. The documentary deals with the 3 months of 1990 leading up to the monetary union of East and West Germany. It’s completely in German, so if you speak German or are from Germany, it’s well worth watching this 80-minute film. If not, you may still enjoy seeing the East Berlin of 1990 which was still as it had been under the socialist regime in all its crumbling urban beauty. It’s a document of a pivotal time in German history. But mainly it shows how the people of Prenzlauer Berg, many of them interesting personalities, dealt with the sudden conversion to a capitalist system. The movie shows the people with great compassion and focusses not just on young people, but all age groups. I can’t say enough about how wonderful this film is. Maybe it was not a coincidence that I had just drawn the subway station that appears in the movie.
After the sketch, I walked and biked to Unter den Linden where I saw an exhibit at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin on Impressionism. Works by Picasso, Cézanne, Marc, Miró, Brancusi, Kandinsky and others. Small but elite. This is the last exhibit of the Guggenheim before they close. Apparently their partnership with Deutsche Bank who are hosting the space for these exibits, is no longer seeing eye to eye on what kinds of art to feature. Hm, a failing marriage between art and commerce? Say it isn’t so.Read More
How lucky am I to be here for three months?
I have so much time to see a lot of this city, yet I already worry that I won’t get to all the things I want to see. This is why I am making a list here. I don’t want to be anal about doing EVERYTHING on this list, but it will remind me what I want to see and do, and as I’m doing it, I will cross it out on the list and create a link to the blog post where I describe the activity.
This is how I feel: like a kid in a candy store. Berlin is amazing. I am dizzy with all the options for things to do. If I am not careful, I’ll overindulge and get a tummy ache. But so what — bring it on!
Yesterday I woke up very early again, at 3:00 a.m. and did not go back to sleep, so I had a lot of time to post photos to my blog, and to read up on Berlin until the night was over. Once I got out, I walked for a bit, across Danziger Strasse and down Kastanienallee where I had a coffee and sandwich at a bakery to start my day. I saw funky shops and artist studios everywhere. Some of the photos below show the artist presence that is felt everywhere in this neighbourhood, as well as their anti-establishment messages.
Art vs. capitalism in Berlin
I can see clearly what is happening, at least in this former East Berlin neighbourhood: artists were the first to move into run-down buildings and enjoy cheap rent over the last 15 years. Due to the relatively low cost of living in Berlin they were able get by with just doing art and maybe odd jobs. They created a vibrant culture which attracted more and more artists, some of them becoming established in the art world. And at some point, the uppies started to move in (I count myself as one of those), which creates a demand for renovated buildings, which prompts developers and investors to seize the opportunity to make money. All that is driving rents and property prices up. It’s an obvious, often-repeated scenario in many cities. Unfortunately for the artists, commerce rules the world, not art. It’s the same in Vancouver, except much, much worse. Berlin artists have had it pretty good for years compared to other big cities, but I am sure they don’t see it that way.
That is always the trouble with art, you have to make it with your soul and not care about money. If you are so “lucky” as to ever get established, your art may become a commodity, and the influences on your art may change from personal to commercial ones. Galleries want to sell work that looks like what sold well before, so they put pressure on you to continue producing the same work.
I have the greatest respect for artists who stick to their own vision. The world is set up against them, and yet they persevere.
The urban sketcher strikes twice
When I was done pondering art, I hopped back on a bike to zip downtown, caught the City Bus tour again (the ticket is valid two days) and left the tour at Kurfürstendamm where I did a drawing, remarkably without freezing my fingers off. I also walked into a Falke store, where I bought two pairs of the most excellent fine Merino wool socks for €14 a pair. I normally don’t spend that much on my regular sockage, but I think it’s a fair price for high quality socks. You can bet those Falke socks would run me twice that in Vancouver. Buying socks was also on my to-do list. I may go back and get more if things work out sock-wise, then I can retire some of the old socks I brought. Have you noticed yet that I really like socks?
Not shown in the photos below is that I went to the Museum of Photography and saw an exhibit about the late Helmut Newton, a famous fashion photographer. I can’t say I’m a fan or knew much about him, but I respect his work, even though its appearance is macho and sexist. But I think the prerogative of the artist should be to make art that comes naturally. Who knows what influenced him from way back in his childhood. If it is true art, it will speak beyond the first impression.
Then I walked into the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus Des Westens), Germany’s most famous department store and headed straight up to the fine foods department on the 6th floor. It’s one big floor mostly dominated by foods from all over the world, meats, cheeses, pastries, seafood, sweets. It was around 6 pm and I was hungry and exhausted from ongoing jet lag by then, so I ate at one of the many food bars that dot the floor. I opted for something relatively affordable: a plate of potatoes baked with cheese and mushrooms for €9. It was yummy and so filling that I couldn’t eat it all. Of course, one can probably get caviar and oysters up there as well. But we get great oysters and seafood in BC, I am not here for that.
Me, myself, and I is a crowd
I normally don’t have trouble going to lunch alone, I do that regularly, but I felt a bit awkward sitting at that bar by myself for dinner. Still, I overcame my inhibitions and even worked up the guts to pull out my sketchbook and draw the scene. I am struck by how the drawing with the single plate in the foreground and all the people huddled in the background conveys that feeling of isolation really well (and besides that, my favourite vertical format still rocks). I will just have to get used to this. I think it’s good for everyone to be on their own once in a while. I’ve been part of a couple for almost 20 years now, which is a great thing, but it’s still vital to have occasional encounters with oneself. At least I think so, but hey, I am a bit of a Jungian.Read More
I had a difficult time sleeping on my first night in Berlin, in spite of being exhausted with jet lag. I woke up at 2 a.m. and just stayed up, surfed the web to read about Berlin, did yesterday’s blog post, and got a few more things sorted out. I also started cleaning the the kitchen since it was a bit grimy. If I was here for just a few days, I wouldn’t bother, but I will be here for 3 months.
I also did a bit of work and talked to Jeff before he went to bed, so by the time I was dressed and ready to hit the town, it was 1:30 pm. Without any trouble, I was able to borrow one of the City Bikes. Their iPhone app tells you where the bikes are and whether there is one available, and lets you reserve a bike before even heading out the door. But that wasn’t necessary, it is late November and below freezing in Berlin. But then again, the streets are full of people. Even the outdoor eating places, like sausage booths and beer gardens, are teeming with people having a bite or a drink. Some places have open fire pits which helps.
I rode 15 minutes to get to Alexanderplatz with its famous TV tower in the city centre and returned the bike to a drop-off point. I walked around a bit, then booked one of those hop on/hop off double decker bus tours because it was cold and I was jetlagged. The tour gave me an overview over some of Berlin’s tourist sights, I took notes and photos and plan to go back to some of these places I saw to explore them in more detail.
The following photos tell a bit about my first full day in Berlin as a tourist.Read More
I had a great flight from Vancouver – Frankfurt where I chatted for almost the first 5 hours with a delightful older woman who sat next to me. She was my mother’s age and equally feisty and energetic. Her husband died quite a long time ago, but at 82, she is travelling as much as she can. She was flying on to Istanbul to go on a 21-day cruise to Israel, Egypt and Oman. We had a great time, and the flight attendants kept plying us with drinks. We were so animated that we kept hitting the attendant call buttons at both our seats. The flight attendants kept visiting us to find out what we wanted and got a little grumpy about the false alarms. For years I had always wondered who those annoying people are who keep buzzing the flight attendants. Apparently that is me. After the Lufthansa welcome cocktail, two glasses of wine with dinner, and then a cognac, we started to fade a bit. And this was just economy. I can’t even imagine how
wasted spoiled the people in business class were.
We arrived in Frankfurt a bit late, but I managed to get on my tight connection to Berlin. I was crammed in between two business men. When we landed in Berlin, I really wanted to let out a “whooo-hooo!”, but I didn’t want to startle them, nor have to explain my excitement. But I should have — there are so few occasions in life to whoot.
It took me a while, but I had no trouble finding my way to the apartment on the bus and metro. I had a good look at the city from the bus and got an impression of grandeur. I picked up the keys at a neighbour’s home, huffed and puffed my 50-lb suitcase up the three flights of stairs, and excitedly put the key in the lock. For about five minutes, I struggled to open the door and started getting a bit worried. I finally got it open, and it turned out there was a doormat stuck tightly under the door on the inside. Phew.
The apartment is perfect for all my needs. It comes with high ceilings, a balcony, a full kitchen, bathroom, and a large sleeping/eating/living area with a sofabed. I was exhausted but determined to stay up until 7 or 8 pm, so I unpacked everything, got my laptop set up and internet working on all my devices, and caught Jeff on Skype for a quick hello around 4 pm as he was getting up to go to work at 7 am in Vancouver.
Suddenly it was 5 pm and the jetlag was hitting me so hard that I was tempted to just crash into bed, but I dragged myself out to go get some groceries and pick up a Sim Card for my iPhone at a Lidl store. I had done some research from Vancouver on where to get the best deal and options for my mobile phone.
The walk in chilly -1˚C weather woke me up a bit. It was dark, clammy and foggy as I started my errand, but I felt great. There were parents walking their kids around for the German equivalent of “trick or treat”, except you carry pretty lanterns instead of wearing ghoulish costumes, and you sing songs door-to-door in order to receive treats, instead of threatening evil deeds. This is St. Martin’s Day.
I also saw many people on bikes, quite a number of them had trailers or other contraptions attached for transporting goods or children. The neighbourhood has a funky, friendly, artsy feel. I saw many interesting shops, cafes and restaurants. I also felt quite safe. The only time I got a bit tense was when I walked through the middle of a small park; it was already dark and a group of down-and-out-looking men were standing around, drinking and talking loudly. On my way back, they were still there, so I walked around the park.
Is Germany really that cheap, or is Canada just incredibly expensive?
It is always a thrill for me to buy groceries in another country. I love checking out the shelves and picking out something to eat. And from what I could tell, here in Germany the groceries are about 1/3 to 1/2 the price of what we pay in Canada. I bought this loaf of bread for €1.49. Here are some other prices, with our Canadian pricing in brackets:
- 1 L milk: €0.54 ($1 or more in Canada)
- 1/2 lb butter: €0.95 ($2 and up)
- 800 g jar of Nutella: €3.59 (about $8)
- 1 lb Italian Spaghetti: €0.49 (about $2)
- 1 bottle of red wine, Beaujolais Villages: €3.59 ($19 at the BC Liquor Board)
And best of all, my mobile Sim Card was €4.95 and enables me to use my iPhone in Germany. The card gives me a German phone number and with that, prepaid calling costs only 9 cents a minute. I also signed up for a €6.95/month unlimited data plan. OK, so after 500 MB they throttle you severely, but I never use anywhere near that much anyway. So I may get away with spending a total of €25 on my cell phone during my full three months here! I am liking this start, I need to stay on a budget while I’m here. I am not here to eat at the best places and buy the coolest clothes, I want to spend my time and energy on seeing the art and culture.
Another great thing: there is no TV in the apartment. That means less distractions and more time to work on art projects.
It is 9:30 am in Berlin, and I have been up since 2 am, thanks to jetlag. I am going to start exploring the city today, especially with the limited daylight hours in the winter and work on some client projects this evening.
Until next time!Read More
What is art, anyway?
I spend a lot of time thinking about art, probably more than I spend making art. And that’s OK. Art often happens in the head first. On the other hand, as I’ve learned only in the last few years, it is also valid to just let my subconscious take over and trust that it knows what it wants, to be OK with not knowing what I am going to draw when I put the pen (or the digital stylus) down on the drawing surface.
When I think about art, it often boils down to these two questions: what is art? and what kind of art do I want to make?
Below is my sort-of answer to the first question. The second question will have to wait until next time.
Oh, that Damien
Damien Hirst is one of the most critically acclaimed, highly paid artists in the world. He is known for his shark in formaldehyde and his $50 million diamond-encrusted skull which may be the most expensive piece of art ever sold. The superlatives abound. Many articles have been written about him. He wants to elicit a reaction in the viewer in order to question the origin of that reaction. He also insists that art as pure decoration is OK. The result is that sometimes his work shocks with its depiction of brutality, and other times with its sheer banality. He also does not create many of his pieces himself anymore, he has a studio full of assistants who assemble, shape, or paint his work according to his directions. Here’s a 37-minute video interview which is illuminating. It increased my understanding of and respect for his art. That said, Damien Hirst is by no means one of my favourite artists.
Contrast this with Thomas Kinkade, who recently passed away, but was another well-known artist from the same generation as DH. Thomas Kinkade also had an assembly line of assistants working for him, painting his paintings, which he would then sign. His art is loved by millions of people, is very affordable, and has made him a rich man. But TK’s art is infamous among high-brow art critics for its kitsch: pastoral landscapes dotted with deer, babbling brooks and twinkly-lit cottages, all infused by an other-wordly, in my view rather creepy glow, for which he became known as “the painter of light”. These paintings are meant to please and lull, rather than offend, or even question anything in any way. I personally abhor that kind of art, but even Damien Hirst, the artworld-approved artist, says it’s OK to be decorative. So what makes Thomas Kinkade’s a lesser art than Damien Hirst’s? Or are they both equally valid?
This is where I give the answer to everything
I have my obvious opinion on DH vs TK, but on the other hand, I could never be totalitarian about it. I will say that I believe that art, ideally, should introduce a unique point of view of the world not previously considered, and besides that it might raise questions, offend, challenge, evoke emotions, entertain, generate pleasure, and so much more. To me as an artist, the question “what is art?” is on the same level as “why are we here?” or “where do we go after we die?” It is one of the big questions, none of which can be answered with 100% certainty. But they allow for great discussions, and the search for answers results in the construction of art movements, philosophies, and religions — all of these are nothing but delightful byproducts of the human quest.Read More
I must acknowledge the U.S. election outcome. While this going-to-Berlin thing, and this blog, is all about me, I am somewhat aware of my surroundings and current events. Based on my personal and political convictions, I am pleased that Obama won. But as a Canadian, I am not sure Obama is the best result for my country. He’s been quite protectionist of U.S. trade and business. And a friend pointed out that the continuation of “Obamacare” could mean a brain drain for Canada. That sucking sound you hear is Canadian doctors heading south, magically pulled by significantly higher wages and lower costs of living. It’s a complicated, interconnected world.
And even though I am excited to go to Berlin, explore my German roots, and soak up art and culture, I am still a Canadian. I love my country in all its awesomeness and with all its flaws and would not want to live anywhere else in the long term.Read More
This morning our cat Raisin tried to jump from the floor onto the bathroom counter. In mid-jump, she floundered, hit the counter at an oblique angle and fell back down to the floor. Needless to say, she had scared herself witless and took off like a streaker at a Whitecaps-vs-Galaxy soccer match.
It’s always surprising to me when cats are clumsy. They normally have a great sense of balance and awareness of their surroundings. So while I was amused by Raisin’s failure to negotiate her jump, I also looked at it as a metaphor. Did she lose heart and give up mid-jump? I know she can clear the counter. She’s done it many times before.
Of course I relate this to my life. Going to Berlin. Jumping into the life of an artist. Taking the leap. Don’t lose faith. If you don’t try, you don’t succeed. And so on.
But then it occurred to me: Might Raisin simply be getting a bit too old for those jumps?