Monthly Archives: October 2015

Boycott Edinburgh

We headed north, just past Edinburgh across the Forth River Bridge to the Queensferry Hotel, just next to the north end of the bridge in the Kingdom of Fife, where we would stay for the next four nights, and where we had come to see the Blessing of the wedding we’d attended in Seattle. The hotel wasn’t particularly close to much, but we used the Internet to find Ashiq’s, an interesting Indian restaurant about seven miles away in Dunfermline, one of the major towns in Fife. One of Ray’s ancestors was born in Dunfermline.

On Friday, after a morning spent in Dunfermline doing laundry and having coffee, we explored Edinburgh. We probably should have left the car at the hotel and taken the train (or cheaper, at the free park and ride at the airport and taken the tram), because after our first 56-minute walk around we returned to the car to find a parking attendant who had finished writing a ticket (we’d paid for 44 minutes) and was about to put it on his car. I told him that this was the primary memory we would have of Edinburgh; to the extent he was “just doing his job”, his employer, the Council of Edinburgh, can take the blame for ruining his experience there. I really hope to dissuade enough people from visiting Edinburgh, depriving the Council of enough tourist tax income to offset the amount I had to pay for the parking ticket, about $50. I created a “” email address to use to tell them where to send the receipt. After this incident we visited two lackluster galleries, and returned to Fife for a delightful dinner with Katie and Andrew, the bride and groom, and Steve and Lorraine, the bride’s parents, at The Wee Restaurant in North Queensferry, in the tiny community near the hotel.

Saturday we woke up somewhat early so we could give Steve and Lorraine a ride to Leven, the town on the Fife coast where the blessing was to take place later in the day. They had much setting up to do. We whiled away the hours by driving up to St. Andrew’s, which has always had important churches, and is now known as the “home of golf”, with an international golf club which has authority of rules in most of the world (not the US) and several popular courses. We walked around downtown, buying some delicious cheese and tasting some “velvet” chocolate. St. Andrew’s Cathedral turns out to be a ruin, reminding us of the missions we visited in Paraguay, with a few stone walls still standing in a well-manicured green lawn. There were many gravestones on the lawn as well, including one from the nineteenth century featuring a man swinging a golf club. We walked to the St. Andrew’s Castle, which looked similar, a few stone walls on a lawn, and didn’t go inside. We returned to Leven via the popular Anstruther Fish Bar, and had haddock and chips (hold the chips), with the haddock having been caught that morning just offshore.

The blessing was an opportunity for Katie and Andrew to celebrate with their friends. Katie has been out here for ten years, and Andrew grew up here. And they have a lot of friends: there were probably 300 people in the “afternoon tea” after the blessing, and 200 at the party at the hotel. The blessing referred heavily to the wedding in Seattle; though only a few of us had actually been there, many people had watched the live video stream. The “tea” featured egg salad sandwiches (and other varieties) and lots of sweets. We went to a little homemade banquet dinner at a nearby church, then back to the Queensferry Hotel for the reception. There was an excellent trio who played guitar, violin, saxophone, and occasionally bagpipes. There were lots of dances which clearly were the historical basis for American “square dancing”. There was a table full of bad American candy, just in time for Halloween. And five hours of frivolity, with Scottish beer and whiskey.

Sunday we said goodbye to the party guests who’d stayed at the hotel, and drove west towards Glasgow. First we saw The Kelpies, enormous statues of two mythical demons taking the form of horses. Apparently they get lit up at night. From there we went to the Falkirk Wheel, an interesting modern attraction which swaps boats between the Forth and Clyde Canal, and the Union Canal. Perhaps there are some actual private boats which need to be transferred between the two canals, which run very near each other but are 24 meters apart in elevation. Most of the traffic functions as a ferris wheel, with visitors lifted or lowered from one canal to the other. If this had been made in the nineteenth century, or were actually useful today, it would have been a bit more impressive. Nearby was another Roman wall, which we took a quick walk along. We went to Ubiquitous Chip, a recommended restaurant in Glasgow. Apparently it is often recommended to tourists, since none of the people within earshot spoke Scottish; everyone was American or perhaps Spanish. Even the sommelier was from Kentucky. Everybody is from Kentucky this trip. The food was all very nice.

Monday we filled up the car with gas, the first time since we’d gotten it, on the way to return it at the Edinburgh airport. We carefully weighed all our luggage to make sure it was within the Ryanair limits, and checked the bag. We eventually boarded and sat down in the plane, sardine-style, for the 50 minute flight to Dublin.

The Wall

At the Newcastle station, we found a seasoned Virgin Trains agent on the sidewalk who gave us directions to the Europcar office a few blocks away. The compact car we’d requested had been upgraded to a Nissan Qashqai, a “compact crossover” not offered in the US. I felt a little trepidation about such a relatively huge car in Europe, and indeed some traffic lanes were somewhat narrow for it, but it worked out OK. It had an incredible amount of technology I’d never seen before. It beeped at me when I slightly strayed from traffic lanes; it showed me the current speed limit; it beeped at me when a speed camera was nearby; when parking it showed me a rear view with my steering-dependent trajectory overlaid, and a constructed “top view” showing me clearly where I was located relative to the lines of a parking space. So despite its size it wasn’t that hard to get into parking spaces with. I did have to look up “default speeds” in the UK, which turn out to be 30mph in town, 50mph on a single carriageway, 60mph on a double, and 70mph on a motorway. The signs which show “Speed Camera” and a circle with a slash don’t mean “end of speed camera zone”, they mean “beginning of speed camera zone at the default speed limit”.

We spent the afternoon seeing some attractions in the area. First, we went to the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, a former flour mill which had some very large exhibits. In particular, there was a very long semi-trailer named “The Great Whale Jonah” with some cute sea creatures made out of glass inside. The interesting question was how they got it inside. There is apparently a lift so enormous at one end of the building that it can lift a truck containing a large or valuable piece of art to the intended level, which comes in handy if there is raining or looting going on outside. My favorite work of art in the museum was the pair of mirrors at the top and bottom of the stairs, called “Heaven and Hell” — the stairs extended up and down forever. Then we walked across the Gateshead Millenium Bridge, a cute modern curved bridge which tilts in order to let boats underneath. It is lit up in various colors at night. Then we drove just south of town to the Angel of the North, a massive steel statue of an angel with very straight wings, kind of like an airplane.

By then Jonathan, who we’d met on the 2006 Niger eclipse expedition, had gotten home from work, and we went to his house where he’d very kindly offered us his guest room. From there we walked to a pub, where I expected to have an English bitter, but it seemed the thing to have was an IPA. Such a small world. From there we walked to The Broad Chare, another pub with a very good restaurant upstairs. We had a selection of “bar snacks”, Ray had the “pork and pease pudding” special, and I had crab on toast. Everything was delightful and shall I return to Newcastle it’s likely I’ll head directly there.

Thursday morning Jonathan fixed us breakfast and headed to work, and we headed to Hadrian’s Wall, a Roman ruin of a wall which extended across one of the narrowest sections of Great Britain. We went on a three-mile walk along the wall (or The Wall as I referred to it in a Facebook post: Game of Thrones has been interpreted by some as an allegory of modern Britain). There were increasingly good views of a lake and the surrounding countryside as the fog cleared as the morning went on. We drove to Vindolanda, a ruin of a Roman fort and village, not that different than other ruins of Roman forts we’d seen all over the empire. The anaerobic soil had preserved hundreds of wooden tablets which recorded many details of everyday life, many of which were displayed in the nearby museum, among them a birthday invitation which is the oldest for sure women’s handwriting sample in the Western World.

Walking instead of Taking The Bus

The airbnb was a tiny three-story house surrounded by huge housing blocks. I arrived with Ray about 2am, and the Colombian women who live there were having a party with music and dancing and several friends. We were too tired to join it, but Ray had brought back a tin of patisserie desserts from Romania which weren’t going to last more than a day, and this was a perfect opportunity to share them while we still could, so I went down and had a local Stella and a nice chat with a guy named Sadik. It was quite inexpensive, and they say it is rented pretty much every day of the year. That will happen when you have a place in a city with a low price.

Sunday we planned to meet our friend Frank for an afternoon meal. We stopped in a cafe for breakfast, and then decided that rather than take the bus and decide what to do, there was plenty of time to walk. The walk took us past Battersea Power Station, defunct for 20 years but still standing, which is in the midst of becoming a huge development with many large new apartment buildings (and probably no new parking). We walked through Battersea Park and across the Albert Bridge to where Frank is now living, with his mother. An art-curator friend of theirs from Kentucky was there, Frank fixed a great meal of roast lamb and vegetables, and we listened to their grandly gossipy Kentucky tales. We did take the bus home.

We spent most of Monday at Tate Britain, where Ray wanted to see a couple paintings by Henry Scott Tuke. Wonder why. There’s lots of stuff there from the last 200 years, and we walked past much of it. Then we went up to Mayfair to see some Henri Cartier-Bresson photographs. Inasmuch as candid photography is either illegal, greatly frowned upon, or subject to endless litigation about privacy and ownership of image now-a-days, most of his most famous photos could not be taken in 2015, unless they were taken by security cameras, which capture every movement in urban England with no restrictions whatever.

There were tons of galleries there, and we happened on some other interesting places as well.

We met Val and Sue, who we’d gone birdwatching with in Trinidad in February, and had Indian food and then a little tour by car: I had no idea they’d rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe on its original site, and that London has the tallest building in Europe, the Shard. When Dubai purchases London, it will make a nice atrium piece in a building ten times the size, as with the Shot Tower in Melbourne.

There was no obvious thing to do on Tuesday. I took Ray down to Brixton Village for breakfast; it is difficult to find people who actually squeeze oranges in London. A little Jamaican health food place turned out to do that, and Ray found a place which sells outsider art and bought outsider post cards. We’d written down names of some other interesting shows posted on Time Out, and headed for the Royal Observatory where there was a nice exhibition of the winners of the Astronomical Photographer contest. The photos were all shown in a darkened room on really nice monitors; there were several really good ones. I was impressed by how much dust there is in Orion and how convenient it is to be able to take a 300 hour of the course of several months and matte the resultant images using software.

We spent quite a while looking at them. The Prime Meridian is still out of kilter with WGS84.

We took the Docklands Light Rail to the Museum of London Docklands, which has two floors of exhibits of the history of London and the docks area, arranged in an annoying Ikea-style maze; we had gone there to see a photography exhibition and it took awhile to bail from the history section. IKEA has had a baleful influence on the designs of many spaces. The exhibition was about Christina Broom, a photographer in the early 20th century known for taking pictures of soldiers before and during World War I, and for documenting the suffragette movement. We tried to go to a third gallery located in a university, but we’d gone to the wrong campus. It wasn’t that far from where we were meeting our friend David and his family for dinner, so once again, we took the opportunity to walk there. We met them at Il Bacio, a Sardinian restaurant in Stoke Newington. His kids Zac and Jacob are a lot of fun.

Wednesday we headed to Kings Cross, a single subway journey from our airbnb, and boarded a Virgin train to Newcastle.

Uncompromising Hospitality

I left the Rentmeister loft on Monday morning before dawn, to go to the airport for my flight to Bucharest via Dusseldorf. I have a great prejudice against flying backwards on a connection, but it was only 80 euros. Germanwings charged me another 30 for checked baggage, which I hadn’t read in the fine print. A more correct flight would have been 200. All the connections worked and no luggage was lost and I arrived at Bucharest in the late afternoon.

The first thing you must know about the airport in Romania is that the ATMs don’t work. And of course no airport in the world is suitable for changing cash. However, you can buy a bus ticket to Gara de Nord and a train ticket to anywhere using your credit card. And, for some reason, the train ticket that I bought from the train office at Coanda Airport, for Craiova, with a credit card, was only 39 lei, while the ticket back from Craiova to Bucharest two days later, was 62.

That was second class. It was filled with workers headed for the suburbs of Bucharest. They disappeared and after that it was pretty empty and the passengers looked at me to figure out why I was there and I looked at them to see if they could be trusted. One guy in particular had the look that in Nancy Drew novels is called “swarthy”, and observantly arched eyebrows. I wished Mort Drucker were here to draw him.

The trip to Craiova, where my friends Dan and Cristi and all live, takes about three hours. I got off the train to be greeted by Dan and Laura and Andrei, who is 5. Andrei immediately told them that I was Santa Claus, and what did I bring him? I will have to work on that. Andrei is way cute. It also turns out he is a dancer. Laura has even put him in a dancing class for kindergarteners.

They all took me to my motel, and then to dinner. I wanted to split the check so I would have at least the opportunity to get cash that way; but nothing is more persistent than a Romanian who has decided to pay for your snacks.

Europeca is a gleaming budget hotel. The hotel I used to stay at, Jiul, has been turned into a Ramada. Craiova is trying to improve its image.

The next day, Dan and Laura had planned a full day tour of the nearest foothills of the Carpathians. Two caves, two monasteries. Lots of driving, for Dan. I never know what to say to thank them. The first cave, called the Women’s Cave for neolithic reasons, was a problem for visitors. There is nobody at the front door of the cave, and it’s locked. The cave attendant appears only on the hour (or slightly late) for a few minutes, to take everyone who has had the faith to wait at the front gate inside for a 45 minute tour. It’s about 800 meters long, the part that is configured for guests. We got there and left and had tea at a cafe and went back and waited and Dan called a number that didn’t answer and we were about to leave again when the attendant appeared. This should remind you have a Sufi tale about the gates of Heaven. (I am impressed that Andrei never melted down, at all this adult waiting.) The cave had all the usual cave features, various flows, fanciful names. Bats. There is something very right about bats in a cave in the Carpathians.

Near the cave is a monastery. It was very pretty in the afternoon light. I think the Romanians would like it to be part of the UNESCO presence in Romania, and to this end they have crafted a logo which looks much like the squared-circle logo of UNESCO, and they mark their national historic sites with it as a kind of sympathetic magic. I bought some post cards from a nun. The post cards showed the iconostasis which you aren’t supposed to photograph. The iconoclasts will never rest, not ISIS nor their brothers in image destroying, RIAA and Disney lawyers.

After that we drove to another cave. This cave was more self-serve; we walked in and walked out. It’s only half as long but at least you can stand up the whole way. The first cave requires lots of bending over. And after that, another monastery. This one had impressive murals all over the walls of the church, and an attendant about as old as the murals who could recite their history in English and also turned on the lights for me.

I asked Dan how come the monasteries weren’t destroyed by the Communists. Dan said “They were people.” Being a dad has made him so philosophical and even optimistic. Andrei runs all over him, you won’t be surprised to learn. Dan drove back. The Romanian countryside is as it ever was.

When the State department and the travel guides tell Americans not to drive in a country after dark, they mean that Americans lack the concentration to pilot a car at the level of detail of Romanian drivers. Avoiding cows, dogs, babushkas, donkey wagons, potholes, all while conversing, texting, and in many cases drinking. Dan doesn’t drink ever or text while driving, but the opposing drivers do. Romanian drivers (and Indians, and Guyanans) are actually paying attention to their surroundings. It looks like magic to us, that any of them make it to their destinations ever, in one piece. Americans drive with all the concern with which they await notification from UPS that a package they don’t care about has made it to Lexington, Kentucky. They expect the car and the road to send them an email alert, when it becomes important. It would not occur to a Romanian company to try to develop a self-driving car, in this century. The problem of driving in Silicon Valley is simpler.

When we got back to Craiova, it was late again. We went to a Romanian Restaurant. Their cousin Edy was there. I always like to see Edy. I always like to see all of them. Edy asked me what I thought had changed in Craiova and I said “nothing”, but that was before they took me to Santana Row.

By this, I mean that Craiova is trying for the title of European Culture City of the Year in 2021, an honor which no major city would want, or if they did want it, it would end competition, so it is left for the Fort Waynes and Fresnos of the world to battle over the title. This is were Hotel Europeca comes in, and Romanian Restaurants with singers whose vibrato subsumes Yma Sumac’s entire range. Also loud. I theorize, the band plays loud to give a break to Romanians speaking to their foreign guests. Most older Romanians learned Russian and now they have to negotiate in English with Germans.

The ciorba was not sour. Cristi said he didn’t like sour soup and neither did a lot of Romanian kids so the restaurants have been toning it down — expecting you to add vinegar at the end. Arrggh. This is what happens to all foreign restaurants in new countries, even when the foreign country is the past. The mamaliga was good to touch base with though it was drowned in meat and tomato sauce which would have been OK had there been less than a pound of it. Less than a quarter pound, say.

And then, a walk in Santana Row. In order to impress the Europeans that Romania is a worthy part of Europe, the city of Craiova has torn down a bunch of blocks downtown. It’s no different from what Ceausescu did, but instead of putting up Stalinist Georgian palaces, they have expanded the fountain square to read: Europe. There are now two or three blocks of mall along the lines of Disney Downtown, or maybe Santana Row, generic Belle-Epoque, shops with houses above. Nobody really goes there. Some gypsy girls wanted us in their picture. Craiova has done this with a 24% local tax on everything. Holy Cow. It doesn’t look so bad, in that Santana Row sort of way; I think it could become popular, but, Craiova? Craiova actually has a look, already.

The next morning, I went with Dan to one of his job sites while he directed preparations for a concrete pour. Again, Andrei showed no signs of boredom. Also we went to Dan’s maternal grandmother’s house, that he built for her. She gave me a quince. Raw quinces are not exactly road food. We had lunch next to the office of Cristi and Ana-Maria’s newspaper.

I got on the train to Bucharest at 2 and was there by 5. Checked into the Hello Hotel. The Hello Hotel is probably the best value for money hotel in the world. It is a full-on business hotel, with all the Wifi and USB and a real desk and a real bed and real staff speaking real English and en suite bathroom facilities and it’s only about 30 Euros a night. And, it’s 400 meters from the train station.

Bucharest turned out to be a night off from Romanian Friend tourism. Bogdan was in the middle of a severe family emergency: his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s had turned violent, he couldn’t be left alone for a minute, and he needed to assist in placing him in an asylum in the morning. The grandfather doesn’t recognize anyone, or speak, any longer. The whole thing is an awful tragedy.

I got on the late morning train to Iasi the next day. It was nice. The train sellers are of the type who lay a bunch of key chains and playing cards down on the seat, walk away, and when they come back, they see if you have taken anything and charge you for it. A hotel mini-bar, in essence. (Fantasy of an American train: the sellers come into your compartment and instead of laying down cards and cigarette lighters and pens, they lay out founder’s stock, lip rings, memory sticks, Adderal, iPhones, guns, and friend requests.)

Butza picked me up from Pascani near sunset. Pascani is the convenient stop to go to Iasi without changing trains. Convenient for me, for him it’s a drive of 50 or 60 kilometers but as I have mentioned every time I go there, it is impossible to get any of my Romanian friends to compromise on anything when it comes to hospitality. Or on entertainment, which is unnecessary as I am already entertained. They also have cute kids, Luka and Sofia, and parents who are doing interesting things with polymers.

Iasi was setting up for St. Parascheva. I have been to that celebration before. The town fills up with pilgrims, sleeping in their cars and waiting for hours in lines to see the relics. The residents of Iasi make them food. Some of it is free but there are scads of sellers. I missed it this year, but I saw lots of the kiosks being set up selling furs and icons.

Nicoleta has opened up a second branch of her pastry shop. There must be some trick to making perfect little petit-fours. It would take a real person about 45 minutes to assemble each one and most of them would be wrecked anyway and she makes hundreds per day.

We went to a place called Pink Elephant that has 500 kinds of beer. The descriptions are given in English, in many instances. I had one that was GM-hoppy it was so intense.

The last day I suddenly became so full I couldn’t eat any more, not of anything, hardly even water. It was bound to happen. I skipped the last meal, just staring stolidly at a Frenchish sort of restaurant as every else managed to put it somewhere in them. I really don’t understand people. They aren’t fat. They aren’t digging ditches, and they are eating constantly as the default social interaction.

And so to the airport. Iasi is still working on upgrading its departure lounge and runways. The current departure lounge has no signs at all. Plenty of ads, for the mall that Radu might have to go manage. But no board anywhere upstairs that indicates where a flight might depart from, whether it is on time, where it is going, any of the things that departure boards have indicated over the years through evolving technologies. Ultimately I just surreptitiously glanced at other people’s tickets and found the ones who were going to Luton. The flight to Luton got me on the ground about 2300 and on the last train into London and to the airbnb about 0200 on Sunday. A big party was going on. I didn’t feel like going, so I sent Dave with the pound of sweets that Nicoleta had insisted I take with me.

Working And Drinking

Tuesday was my day to leave early for the airport; I took the enormous duffel bag, which had been made one kilo lighter by Ray having taken the peanut butter we’d brought for a friend in Romania. A bus, an S-Bahn, and another bus did the trick.  The flight on Ukranian National was uneventful.  A limo picked me up at the Kiev airport, and took me to the Holiday Inn, by far the fanciest hotel we’d stayed in this trip. I repacked stuff slightly, and took a tote bag to Global Logic, where I spent about 32 out of the next 75 hours working with several of my colleagues, many of whom I had known only as e-mail addresses. They have old-school cubicles, but they are packed full of people. My 4×8 cubicle was shared with another guy; the three Pro Tools tech leads shared the next one, an 8×8 cube. Tuesday night, after working a few hours, we went to a fancy Georgian restaurant. Three of us split chacha, homemade Georgian grappa, as far as I can tell. Strong stuff, but the apple juice chaser dilutes it. We ordered lots of khachapuri, which is a bit like pizza with only crust and cheese, and bits of several other things.

Wednesday and Thursday I just worked. We ate around 5pm, one day in a little “health restaurant” in the building, and another with food delivered to the little break room steps from my cubicle. I worked on into the night, giving me a chance to communicate with my California coworkers.

Friday was a bit of a break. In the morning, three coworkers met me at my hotel and we went to Pirogov, a park outside of town with exhibitions of village building styles from the last several centuries from all of the regions of Ukraine. There were windmills (with non-pitched blades) which were like little houses which rotated on their pedestals; beehives in front of houses; a building with a circular horse treadmill which through gears turned a flour mill (gee, I guess that’s why they call it treadmill); lots of little houses that we could go in and see objects which might have been there. And a few actually operating churches. After a couple hours, we returned to work, and I looked into some bug reports and took some time and care to determine that none of them seemed to be a threat to shipping the next version of the program. 7pm rolled around, and a group of us convened on the roof for some privately brewed beer and Serbian-style burgers. After that, and after dropping off all my stuff at the hotel, the pub crawl began. A taxi took us to a pricey modern crowded bar, where I had a very nice concentrated blackcurrant drink. Later another taxi took us to a “hipster bar”, only slightly less crowded, where a DJ was just packing up; I had a Boulevardier. It seemed nice enough, but the leader of the group moved on to another bar which featured live music, here I got a pint of Ukranian beer. The music was mostly 80s covers, competently played; I wasn’t annoyed by any wrong chords. My cubicle-mate lived about a block from my hotel, so we walked back together. By the time I got to my room it was 4am.

Saturday I checked out, the limo took me to the airport, I checked in (checking in online while I waited in the shorter Bag Drop line), then got on the British Airways plane and sat in an exit row.  Arriving at Heathrow Terminal 5, they are very proud of the sheer massiveness of the place. They forgot to mention “massively long line for ALL PASSPORTS”; it took 25 minutes to get through it, which is about par.  I got an Oyster card, and took the Underground and a bus to our airbnb just off Brixton Road in south London.  After walking around Brixton Village, with tons of crowded little restaurants intermingled with closed farmer’s market stalls, I went up to meet Ray at Blackfriar’s where he arrived after landing at Luton airport at 11pm.

More Working And More Vacationing

Monday and Tuesday were two more productive work days for me. Monday night we walked to Parkstern, a really excellent little local restaurant. They seemed to be featuring ceps, a large European mushroom. We ordered a main course of beef with ceps, and a menu for one with pumpkin soup, pork ribs, pork shoulder with ceps, and a lovely dessert, splitting it all as usual. Tuesday night we joined our friends Lindsey and Kevin at Transit, a hip eatery in Mitte which was basically a tapas place, but pan-Asian. Then we walked to the Clarchens Ballhaus, which had sustained damage during WWII. The front half had become a courtyard; the lower floor of the back half was a fully restored ballroom / restaurant / bar, and it was Tango night, with many people of various ages and genders dancing. We had a drink there, and then peeked at the upper floor, where they feature other dances, and dance instruction. This room had been left pretty much the way it was. The GDR showed little interest either in tearing these places down or fixing them up.

The rest of the week I gradually accomplished less and less. Wednesday we arranged to meet Philipp and his friend Betty at Kimchi Princess, a hip Korean eatery, and decided to walk there for exercise and to see more details than we’d see on a bus or tram. There was a shoelace crisis, and all the time padding we’d made got used up shopping for new ones. The main courses were all really good, though there were only five side dishes and they were all brown.

As we had been walking around town, we kept seeing posters advertising various art shows, and at this point we had a list of things we wanted to see. Thursday we attacked the list, returning to Mitte to see a Cindy Sherman show at the Me Gallery. She invents all these characters, most of them ugly in some way, makes herself up to inhabit them, and then takes photographs. She’s the ultimate selfie artist. At the gallery there was a fantastic exhibit of various collected objets from all over the world and several centuries, displayed as a Cabinet of Curiosities. Around the corner there was a gallery showing Joel-Peter Witkin prints, always a lot of fun.

For the last several years, we have had our eyes out for parodies of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The mother of Ray’s college friend collected the former, and we’ve been continuing to look for them even though she’s sadly no longer around. A Stanford art professor emeritus collects the latter. One of the shows we’d noticed was “Botticelli Renaissance 2015-1445”, which was a show consisting entirely of works based on Botticelli (with many of his works as well) The Birth of Venus was the most often “referred to”. For us that was the can’t miss show of the year, and we spent the rest of the day there. We bought the 2 kg catalog to send home along with Sandro’s poster collage. After we saw the show, we sprinted through the permanent collection of Old Masters’ works.

We were on our own for dinner, and Google Maps recommended a Nigerian place not too far away. It must have recommended it to another group of Botticellians, since we were recognized when we arrived. It was delicious; there were many different sauces to have with ground yam (starch to be eaten with your fingers). We tasted our tablemates’ “bitter leaves” sauce, which turned out to be better than either of the things we actually ordered. Bitter leaves aren’t bitter. Next time. We returned to the studio and Thomas and Bibo were there, after a brief vacation on the North Sea after all the work preparing for the exhibition.

Friday we saw a few galleries we’d missed: a tiny show of Slavs and Tatars, and the “gay museum” (mostly showing time-based media). For dinner, Thomas took us to Schwarzwaldstuben, a Bavarian restaurant in Mitte, the third time that week we’d been on that two-block stretch of the same street. He’s apparently a regular there. It was quite good, especially the wild sausage. As we drove back he complained that “everyone in Mitte is young and good-looking. I hate it.”

On Saturday Lindsey and Kevin hosted a festive brunch at their amazing apartment with two large living rooms and a large dining room and a kitchen. I didn’t even see the bedroom. It rents for less than $1000 per month, and is in a great Kreuzberg neighborhood, not far from Tempelhof. Bibo drove us down there, quite a sacrifice on her part since she wouldn’t be able to drink mimosas. There were about 10 people there, besides us all thirtysomethings doing design or IT, mostly but not all US expats. Everyone had interesting stories and were fun to talk to. After six of the bubbly bottles had been consumed, we walked over to Victoria Park a block away, and learned what Kreuzberg meant: it’s a “berg”, a hill, located in this park, with a “kreuz”, a cross. At the top of the hill is a monument to the war that liberated Germany from Napoleon. The monument is like a church steeple with no church. Further down the hill is a larger wooden cross. The other two or three bubblies were gone by the time we returned. When we got back Ray and Bibo fixed a snack of the various vegetables in the refrigerator.

Sunday we’d arranged to spend with an old friend from college I hadn’t seen in about 40 years, who’d lived in the same big house on campus at Stanford. Bob and his wife Marion live in Potsdam, a city which was just outside the Berlin Wall. It has a large park with palaces that the court of Frederick the Great occupied; we toured them last year. This time we just visited Bob and Marion in their neighborhood Babelsberg, famous for having a large film studio. We walked around its a large park, with several little castles, next to a river, a scenic place to catch up on everything which has happened. Bob is a geologic researcher for the government, and Ray got to have yet another conversation about the chemistry of geology, in this case about tin deposits in Swaziland.

Early on Monday, Ray left for Romania. He’d packed up the poster collage the day before with other things we wanted to send back. Monday morning Thomas got out bubble wrap and cling film and tape, and did a super-good job wrapping it all up. Since he’d just taken his car in to get fixed (for some problem other than the fact that it is a deceitful diesel Volkswagen) he strapped the package onto his bike, and we rode to the DHL/Post office. They’d given us a quote for how much extra to pay for the 5cm of excessive width, but it turned out that only works for air freight. (Our gift of art thus became even more expensive.) We paid the fees, and sent it on its way. (The next step shown on the tracking site is “The shipment will arrive in the destination country.”)

Having enjoyed the little ride to the post office, I asked if it was OK to ride to have lunch with Philipp, about half an hour away. That was fine with Thomas, so I quickly learned most of the etiquette of riding bikes on Berlin streets, and how to recognize bike lanes. Philipp and I went for sushi so I’d still have room for a meal later in the day. After that, I was trying to decide where to go; Lindsey suggested Templehof, and that sounded perfect. Once I got there, it seemed a lot like Burning Man: a big flat space with people riding somewhat randomly on beater bikes. After awhile she met me for a drink: I ordered a rhubarb soda pop which I’d seen an empty bottle of earlier, it was delicious. We left just in time for me to get back before dark. After awhile, another SF ex-pat Quentin sent an email, and I found him and we had enormous burgers, and discussed the lives of Americans in Berlin.

Vacation from Working Vacation

Thursday I picked up a rental car (an hour on buses and S-bahn down to Neukölln, 45 min back to get Ray). We drove west, stopping by two World Heritage sites, according to our algorithm for what to see.

Fagus-Werk in Alfeld is a shoe factory, and was the first major architectural project by Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus school of architecture. One minor distinguishing characteristic was that there were no structural supports in the corners of the building, so that the windows on each side could meet with only minimal frames. They had a ten-room museum there, but we were only able to get to about four of them before it became 4:00 and everything closed. Sigh, next time.

Then we raced up to Hildesheim to see the cathedral, which was open until 6:00. It is famous for having the oldest known rosebush in the world, climbing on the cathedral wall, known to be at least 700 years old. We also saw St. Michaelis, a cute church nearby.

There are various approaches to the restoration of buildings which have been destroyed by Allied Bombers or Nazi sappers or Taliban. You can put them back together just the way they looked at their prime — Old Town Warsaw was done that way — or you can leave them exactly as they were found, as with much of Hattusas and the Kaiser Wilhelms Gedächtniskirche, or you can restore them partway and indicate somehow the boundary between the ruins and the restorations. Often the restorations are undecorated but of the same color as the remaining artifacts. This is what has happened in Hildesheim, but it seems as if there wasn’t a lot left, so the effect is of blank walls with occasional old bits sticking out.

This is pretty much what walls looked like before the 19th century discovery of Ruins as a Profit Center. You would build your wall from bricks and cornices and capitals and stelae and busts and whatever was lying around from the city you had just conquered and that was that.

We headed to Bremen for dinner. Bremen has an incredibly cute town square, in the “build it back the way it was” format. The Old Town Hall was boarded up during the war and it and the main church survived pretty well although Bremen was 60% destroyed.

European countries have long used a credit card scheme called “chip and PIN”. Instead of signing a credit card receipt, you enter a PIN number on a small terminal. You never lose sight of your card; in a restaurant, the waiter brings tbe terminal out to you at your table. Until the last year, America has used the magnetic stripe, and made you sign a receipt. In the last year, they have put chips in the card, though chip readers have been slow to appear. In Europe, these cards operate in a “chip and signature” fashion, where the terminal reads the chip, but then prints out a receipt for you to sign.

In Bremen, we stayed at the “Motel 24h”, which used to be a Formule One. After 10pm, one must interact with a kiosk to gain entry. First, one must enter a code to claim one’s reservation. The code on our confirmation from was not recognized as valid, and we had to press the “emergency” doorbell to get the manager to come down. She took the form and typed some stuff into her computer, then we saw the invalid code being typed by her remotely onto the kiosk, and then recognized as valid. Great. We took over from there and started inserting our “chip and signature” cards, and even our “stripe and signature” cards into the little reader. But none of them were accepted. Faced with having to find another place to stay and a cancellation charge, we pressed the “emergency” doorbell again; the manager came back down, opened the office, put our “chip and signature” card in her other reader, which printed out a receipt for me to sign. I think I actually have a Wells Fargo credit card which operates in “chip and pin” mode, but I forgot about that when selecting the ones to bring on the trip. Next time I’ll bring it for sure. In the near future, you may read the review on Trip Advisor, though this will scroll out of sight by next year. The Formule One logo was still shown on signs on the rooms and bathrooms, and they still promised that the toilets would automatically clean themselves. But I never saw any red lights indicating that was happening.

Our original plans for Friday were to go up to the beach at Dangast to see a statue. But Bibo told us that she grew up in Worpswede, an artist colony near Bremen, and we decided to go there first in the gloomy morning. It’s a delightful little place, with art museums all over the place. We bought a ticket covering four of them, and went to see what was there. This group of museums was featuring the work of three women born in the late 19th century, doing most of their work in the mid-20th century. The first was Ottilie Reylander, whose most striking work was done in Mexico from 1910 to 1927. The next featured Käthe Kollwitz, who made paintings and drawings and sculpture about worker’s rights and social justice, and whose work was suppressed by the Nazi government. The third featured Jeanne Mammen, who grew up in Paris but then moved to Berlin, drawing illustrations for fashion magazines. Her work was also suppressed, and became more abstract, closely tracking the styles of the day in her later years. We also visited the “Cheese House”, a dome-shaped wooden house with an amazing collection of stuff inside.

Then we drove to Dangast, crossing the inlet north of Bremen through a tunnel. Dangast has a little monument on the beach in the form of a square brick pedestal with a perfectly sculpted penis head on top. We got several pictures. But it’s a good thing we went to Worpswede: the sun came out in the hours we spent there, and shone on the monument. More importantly, the tide fell and was extremely low when we got there. The beach would have been under water if we had gone in the morning.

And then, the reason for the Bremen excursion in the first place: we went to Thomas Rentmeister’s opening for his “Hostal” exhibition in Delmenhorst, which he had been setting up the previous days. First we looked around in a room in a side building which had works on paper. The best was a wavy closed curve made out of the little shavings from colored pencils by a manual pencil sharpener. It’s a bit “Under The Bridge” or “Stairway To Heaven” to say this — it’s the unrepresentative work which gets the most downloads. Mostly Mr. Rentmeister works in whites and off whites.

Another case showed a large variety of labels cut off of various items of white clothing shown in another room. The main building had exhibits on two upper floors, and on the lower one a long presentation by the museum’s curator in German, which we didn’t understand and wouldn’t have even had it been in English. Art theory is not something you can just walk into. Cultural critics expect art and philosophy to be instantly accessible in a way that they don’t expect of medicine and quantum mechanics. There are probably some papers about this.

The show had a “hospital” theme. There was a structure made from rusty square steel tubes connecting the exhibit rooms. One part of it had five impossibly-short bunk beds. One room had a wall of white shelves, each with haphazard piles of white clothing and other white things. Some other Rentmeister signatures were there, like a cube covered with Nutella, and another one with Penaten. Some ceramic blobs, one in the shape of a snowman, were scattered around for comic effect. The food served continued the hospital theme, featuring delicious chicken soup and other snacks.

Saturday morning we checked out of the Motel 24h and drove to Dennis’ father Klaus’ house in Braunschweig, and immediately proceeded to Wolfsburg, where Dennis’ brother Thomas was celebrating his birthday. We had some tasty Thai food, and spent awhile touring “Phaeno”, the local discover-science museum. It had many exhibits made by a project of SF’s Exploratorium, most of which are also there, including a black and white tile optical illusion wall like in the Exploratorium’s bathroom. Highlights here included Ray’s hair on end thanks to a Van de Graaf generator, and a fire tornado. You don’t take your hand off a Van de Graaf generator to brush the hair out of your eyes, by the way, and then expect to put it back. I knew this already but it slipped my mind.

It turned out we missed the exhibition of old pinball machines, oh well. Klaus works at Volkswagen, so you can guess what a major topic of conversation was. We drove back to Braunschweig and had a large afternoon snack, then rejoined Thomas and Daniele and Sebastian at Braunchweig Im Flammen, a fireworks show at the local swimming lake (this time of year it’s too cold to swim). I hadn’t seen a local close-up fireworks show for a long time. It was quite nice.

Sunday we had a leisurely breakfast, and then headed to Goslar. The downtown was kind of cute, and was having a little Renaissance faire, with people in old costumes and food booths. The main reason for going there was the World Heritage Mine at Rammelsberg, where they had extracted several minerals from seabed deposits for hundreds of years. There weren’t any English Language tours at the times we had allotted for the visit, but we did walk around the exhibits. As we approached them, a man was standing there with his young son, and asked if we’d like to know anything. He is a mining engineer at a nearby mine, and knew everything about this one. He had a long conversation with Ray about the different ways over time the various minerals were separated from each other and from the rock in which they were contained. We probably could have left at that point, knowing everything, but we looked at the pretty rocks in one building (inside and amongst huge tanks), the cultural-historical exhibits in another, and the cute little Christo packaged mine car in a third. By the time we got the rental car returned in Berlin, it was 9pm, seemingly too late to do anything; we had Turkish food by an S-bahn station as we went back to the studio. When we got there we saw that Sandro had made two more pieces of poster art, one for us and one for Thomas. The mission for the week would be to figure out how to get the one for us back to California.

Working Vacation

When we were planning the trip, I wrote to our friend Thomas Rentmeister in Berlin, and asked how one would go about finding a place to stay with a fast internet connection, so that I could do actual work. He said that he would be gone setting up exhibitions, and that we could stay at his place. It’s a fabulous warehouse/loft/studio space in the Weißensee area. We arrived, his girlfriend Bibo was there, as well as Sandro, an artist from Sao Paulo. Our friend Philipp came over as well, bringing a monitor for me to use for working. We stayed in Thomas’ attic bedroom, up a spiral staircase from his enclosed office area. The large space is somewhat austere: the kitchen is tiny, there isn’t a lot of furniture. But there is plenty of room to work, and plenty of light, and Thomas makes large art. Sandro was also spending the week working. He tears layers of accreted posters off neighborhood walls after the rain has softened the glue. Then he picks out the ones which best serve as backgrounds, or visual themes, for his pieces.

Sandro had come to Berlin because a customer wanted pieces made from German posters, and it was cheaper to bring him here than to send the posters and finished art back and forth across the Atlantic. It is, too.

Tuesday and Wednesday were work days for me and for Sandro. Bibo took a bus to join Thomas where he was setting up the exhibition near Bremen. After setting things up to use Avid’s European network connections, access was quite usably fast, and I was able to dive into the problems of the day. Tuesday night Philipp took us all to Zur Haxe, a fairly nearby Bavarian restaurant serving large plates of pork knuckles and potato dumplings. On the way home, Ray’s phone fell onto the backseat of Philipp’s car. I discovered this using Find My iPhone; it was very sweet of him to drive it all the way back. We could have got it tomorrow, but everybody acknowledges now that phones are more important than children, not to leave in the back seat of somebody’s car.

Wednesday Ray and I walked to the corner store, picked up some sausages, and Ray fixed dinner for us all, using up some of the vegetables lying around the house. Sandro had a deadline of Friday to deliver two pieces to a German collector, and realized he really needed to work all night to get them done. When we woke up Thursday, there they were: posters, dimmed by wax, with painted figures in the foreground.