I’m an idiot

Today I was very much looking forward to a talk I’d been invited to at Friedrichstadt Palast.

The Palast in Berlin. Photo by Soenne.
The Palast in Berlin. Photo by Soenne.

I like everything about the Palast. The building is stunning and features the biggest theatre stage in Europe. It has hosted some of the biggest names in show business – Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Bassey, Joe Cocker, Phil Collins and Liza Minnelli to name but a few, and is visited by over 500,000 guests every year.

Its current grand show, The WYLD, is the world’s most elaborate show outside Las Vegas and features (rightly so) on The New York Times “Top 10 Must-See” places in Berlin. But it’s not all jazz hands and glitzy costumes – the Palast has principles.

Ambassadors of countries where people are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation are no longer invited to premieres. The Palast is also involved with The Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Anti-Semitism, the Alliance Against Homophobia, and the Berlin Against Nazis network.

Oh, and the General Director, Berndt Schmidt, is a complete and utter hottie.

He's the one in the middle.
He’s the one in the middle.

Anyway…

The topic for tonight’s talk was to be – Female decision-makers in dance and theatre: where are all the women? Seemingly, in Germany, less than a quarter of directorial positions in German theatres are held by women and less than one in seven of all German ballet companies are led by women. So what’s going on?

I had recently had a similar discussion with a group of students. They (mainly the women) told me that it just wasn’t possible to be a mother and a manager. You could be a mother and work, but a manager? No siree. Or madamee, I guess.

Frankly, I didn’t buy it. But then, I’m not a mother or a manager so what do I know? I was interested to hear what an international panel of experts had to say on the subject.

Right before I (almost) ran the child into a bench
Right before I (almost) ran the child into a bench

I showed up at around 17.45, fifteen minutes early (as usual). Oddly, the main doors were locked but there was a sign saying “Entry through the ticket office”. Those doors were locked too. Interesting…

I was about to go over to the ticket desk to ask what was happening, when I glanced down at the invitation in my hand.

We warmly invite you to our 2nd Palast-Talk being held on Tuesday, 2 June 2016. 

Tuesday. Check.

2 June, 2016… hold on a second, isn’t it still May?

Oh no! I wasn’t only fifteen minutes early; I was TWO DAYS and fifteen minutes early! I must have looked at the invitation and mainly taken notice of the day, not the date.  I wouldn’t mind but Germans are always getting Tuesday and Thursday mixed up so I really should have known better.

It’s hard to walk out of the ticket office of a theatre you’ve just tried to break into with your head held high but I think I pulled it off. Unfortunately, I have a class at the same time on Thursday so I won’t be able to go to the talk now.

At least I can feel secure in the knowledge that I got the year right. Right?

 

 

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Linda goes to the library

I love reading. This is due to the fact that my mother read to me when I was a baby (according to my mother). However, a bit like dating an Eastern European woman, my love is becoming rather an expensive habit.

While there are several excellent second-hand bookstores in Berlin, they’re either very far out of my way, or not really that cheap. Wandering around Dussmann leaves me dizzy with desire, high on “new book smell” and, usually, broke. Books from Amazon cost next to nothing, until you factor in the postage and packaging. And, before you suggest it, I abhor the idea of e-books; I’m old-fashioned like that.

Oh Dussmann, she sighed longingly... (Image taken from dussmann.com)
Oh Dussmann, she sighed longingly… (Image taken from dussmann.com)

So, what was a girl to do?

As you may have guessed from the title (clever you…), I decided to join the library. Armed with some free time and the determination to tackle yet another German institution, I walked five minutes down the road to my local Bibliothek.

Lankwitz Library
Lankwitz Library

Deciding that I would “save” my German for when it was absolutely necessary, I slunk past the reception desk to see what they had on offer, and yes, to see if there was an English books section. There was.

Joy of joys!
Joy of joys!

It was time. I eyed the two women behind the reception. One was rotund, jolly and bespectacled; the other was rake thin, had classic “Bürgeramt Face” and was also bespectacled – a bit like a German, short-sighted librarian version of the odd couple. Anyway, you can imagine which woman I chose to assault with my German language skills.

I sidled up to the desk and told her that I would like to become a member. She smiled jovially at me, started shuffling things around on her desk and babbled away happily in German. Thankfully, I understood most of what she was saying. I dutifully produced my Anmeldung (registration document) and my passport. She explained some more stuff. I nodded, smiled and muttered “Ja” over and over again in an appreciative manner.

Then she surprised me by offering me a choice of colours of library card – have you ever heard of such a thing? I certainly hadn’t. I grinned at her and chose siren red. Or just red. Whatever…

I handed over €10 and she handed me my shiny new best friend.

It's so PRETTY!
It’s so PRETTY!

Even though we had conducted our entire exchange in German, she clearly wanted to give a nod to my native English-speaking ways, so she started rummaging around for some pamphlets in English. She managed to produce leaflets in French, Spanish, Vietnamese and Arabic but, sadly, no English.

I assured her I could understand the German version (probably) and scampered back over to the English books section to have a proper look. There was the usual fare like Michael Connelly, John Grisham, and Tom Clancy, chick lit (i.e. stuff I don’t read) like Maeve Binchy, Cecilia Ahern and Nicholas Sparks as well as a few classics and welcome surprises. I selected a couple of books and went back over to my new library mom.

She informed me that it was all electronic and that I had to do it myself. I looked dubiously over my shoulder at a computer.

Libhilde: NEIN! Not that computer! 

Me: Ummm…

Libhilde: Do you want me to help you? 

Me: JA! 

I promise I wasn’t faking helplessness. I’m just bloody useless at times.

Libhilde marched me over to a contraption beside the door and instructed me to place my card in front of it. I waved it around and the machine asked for my PIN. I entered it. Libhilde beamed. She then placed the two books on a scanner and both titles popped up on screen. I hit a button and we were done. My jaw dropped.

Technology…

Me: Wow, this is so much more modern than Ireland! 

Libhilde did that reluctantly proud face that only Germans can do and I left her to get on with her day. On my way out, I realised that the last time I’d set foot in an Irish library was probably close to three decades ago and they’d most likely updated things a bit since then. Still, at least I’d made someone’s day.

In case you’re wondering, my €10 gets me a year’s membership and I can use my card in every library in Berlin – there are a lot of them. If I want a book that isn’t at my local library, they can order it for me and I can either pick it up there or they will deliver it to my flat. There is a wonderful website (that I’ve spent half the afternoon playing with), where I can do pretty much everything from the comfort of my own living room. And, in the event I do leave my flat, they even have free toilets – a rarity in Berlin.

This might just be the best €10 I’ve ever spent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m going deeper Underground

Ever since I became friends with Dietmar, he’s been keen on the idea of me working for his Association, Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underworlds). There was just one small problem: the working language of the Association is German and being able to say my name and order white or red wine didn’t quite qualify as “working German”.

Fast forward a year or so and DD and I were conducting most of our conversations in German rather than English. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised, but the upshot was that DD declared me ready to start. Gulp.

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However, DD declaring it and it actually happening were two very different things. Obviously I had to go through the same process as every other new employee and, this being Germany, it’s a looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong process.

Meetings were had, documents were exchanged. Words like “Sozialversicherungsbeiträge”, “Vereinsbarungbestandteile” and “Lohnsteuerbescheinigung” were tossed around. I nodded sagely (and Googled wildly when I got home). After a few short months, I was ready to begin training.

Scheiße
Scheiße

For anyone who doesn’t know about Berliner Unterwelten, they offer a series of tours exploring Berlin’s underground architecture, including air raid shelters, caverns, disused railway tunnels and other places the public normally has no access to. I would begin my training on “Tour 1 – Dark Worlds”, which takes visitors through a maze of a WW2 bunker at Gesundbrunnen Station.

Every tour has a guide and an assistant and I would be starting as an assistant. Basically, the assistant is responsible for getting everyone in and out, making sure there are no tour pile-ups in the bunker, keeping people together and making sure nobody is doomed to wander the labyrinth forever, enforcing bunker rules, and responding quickly if there is some sort of emergency.

In order to be able to do this, I had to do three tour “walk-throughs” with various trainers, a technical and a bureaucratic training session, and a final test. In German.

Trainer: How do you think you did? 

Me: I think I was awesome.

Anyway, I passed.

Time to celebrate!
Time to celebrate!

Yesterday was my first day. I quickly realised that my Underworld small talk could use a little polishing.

Me: Do you want to be a “Führer” some day?

Assistant: We prefer to use the word “Guide”. For obvious reasons. 

Me: Right you are. 

My first group was a German one. I opened the door successfully (yay me) and counted people in as I checked their tickets. While everyone was busy listening to the guide, one woman came over and sat on the steps. Uh oh.

We moved on to the second room. She immediately came over and sat on the steps in there, too.

Woman: Can you please let me out? I don’t feel well…

I’ve been on countless Unterwelten tours and not one person has ever had to leave. Just my luck.

Thankfully, we weren’t far from the front door so I led her out and asked her if she was OK. She responded by vomiting all over the ground. I took that as a “NEIN”.

It did not smell of roses
It did not smell of roses

Despite being trained in getting people out as quickly as possible in situations just like this, I realised that I had no idea what to do with them once they actually were out. My bedside German (or English, for that matter) is pretty much non-existent so I made a few sympathetic noises and handed her a plastic bag, just in case there was a round two. I told her there was a restaurant nearby and she could go there and clean herself up a bit. She asked me to get her friend.

So, on my very first tour, I had to interrupt the guide, speak loud German in front of a roomful of Germans and escort the friend out of the bunker as well. Baptism of fire. And puke.

I called the office to tell them what had happened and they suggested I dilute the vomit by pouring some water on it. I did and improvised by placing a couple of tissues over it, too. It looked ten times worse but there wasn’t much else I could do. I went back in, did the rest of the tour and everyone emerged alive at the end of it. In short, a roaring success.

The two tours I’ve done since were, mercifully, less eventful.

Guide: It is forbidden to take photos anywhere in the bunker.

Japanese tourist 1: Can I take a photo?

Me: NEIN.

Japanese tourist 2, 3, 4, 5…: Can I take a photo of this?

ME: NEIN!

***

Guide: Please do not touch the paint in the next room. It’s a special type of fluorescent paint and mildly toxic. 

Spanish tourist: Can I touch the paint?

Me: (Why on earth would you want to touch toxic paint??) No, lo siento. 

Anyway, I live to assist another day. I’m not sure I’ll ever rock the “safety orange” vest I have to wear, but they’re not paying me to be a bunker fashionista. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to spray some more perfume up my nose.

 

 

 

Oh, Vienna (3)

€22 (plus tip) poorer, we started to wind our way back to the hotel. It was then that we came across, arguably, one of Vienna’s greatest “unsung” (heh heh) treasures – the Opera Toilet.

Very cultural city, Vienna...
Very cultural city, Vienna…

Yes, the toilet actually plays opera to you while you do your Sitzpinkel or plop onto the lovely poo shelf. (They have them in Austria too, as I’m sure you’ve been wondering since the start of this epic saga.)

To celebrate this wonderful find, we stopped off at Cafe Grav for a Spritzer (or three). We hadn’t been there long when an American couple sat at the table opposite. I figured these are the type of people “estimated walking times” in guide books are invented for. You know, when it says “walking time – 13 minutes” and, in reality, it actually takes three minutes, unless you’re an American tourist.

Anyway, they were adventurous enough to try the local cuisine so I gave them kudos for that. Their Schnitzel and potato salad arrived.

Homer: Um, where’s the sauce?

Waitress: It doesn’t come with sauce. 

Homer: But… where’s the sauce? 

Manfredas: It doesn’t come with sauce. That’s the traditional Schnitzel. You use the lemon to season it. 

Homer: Huh. Alright. Are the potatoes supposed to be cold? 

Waitress: Well, not cold but not hot. 

Manfredas: Yes, traditionally it’s lukewarm.

Homer: Huh (and probably wishing they’d gone to McDonalds).

Once they’d stopped questioning and started eating, they seemed to enjoy it though.

When we got back to the hotel, I asked Manfredas how much the bill had been.

Manfredas: Oh god, I didn’t pay.

Me: WHAT?!

Manfredas: Yeah, you were in the bathroom, I was messing around on my phone and when you came back, we just left.

Me: Oh god! 

As I was meeting my friend, Wyoming, we decided to pick him up along the way and go back to Grav to settle matters. The owner, who had waved us off as we left the first time, was relieved to see us again and laughed off the incident. Since he was so nice about it, we decided to put a bit more cash his way and stayed for a few more Spritzer.

My friend, Wyoming, had recently moved from Berlin to Vienna so it was interesting to see how he was getting on. I imagine both are a big change from the turkey farm he grew up on. Anyway, it was great to see him doing well and enjoying life there, and also to have a “local” to show us where the nightlife was at in Vienna. We headed to Schwedenplatz to party the night away, AFTER we’d paid the bill.

On Sunday, we woke to a gale-force wind whipping around the hotel, but not to worry, as we were off to cosy Cafe Sperl for a late breakfast.

Cafe Sperl
Cafe Sperl

As well as an illustrious history dating all the way back to 1880, Sperl is famous for having been used as a location in “Before Sunrise”. The ban on mobile phones they enforce probably also ensures most people remember to pay before they leave…

Mozart
Mozart

Fed and watered, it was time to go to one of Vienna’s most famous landmarks – Hundertwasser House. This was a commission for the architect to try to jazz up the existing block of council flats. With colourful facings, various protuberances, onion domes and a “war on the straight line”, I have to say Hundertwasser did a spectacular job.

After a pit stop at Gasthaus Wild, we decided to go and visit our new best buddy at Cafe Grav again. Naturally he remembered us and there were tears and jubilations at our return. We both ordered the Zwiebelrostbraten mit Bratkartoffeln and, of course, a couple of Spritzer. Unfortunately, our new friend was so happy to see us that he gave us a complimentary Spritzer just as we were about to leave, which meant that we wouldn’t have a lot of time at the Secession museum. We still drank them, though.

Model of Secession with its famous leafy dome
Model of Secession with its famous leafy dome

Secession is home to the monumental frieze by Gustav Klimt, and takes its theme from Wagner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. At €9.50 to get in, it would want to be bloody impressive, and it is.

With our “culture between Spritzer” rule satisfied, we had time for one last drink before heading to the airport. In an effort to come full circle, we went back to the first place we had been to, fervently hoping that Helmut wouldn’t be there. He wasn’t but an even crazier version was. This guy thought that the Russian mob was after him, babbled on about how painful love is, and kept trying to tell us his life story despite our strong protestations.

After practically running out of there, we went back to the hotel, picked up our bags and got the amazingly efficient public transport back to the airport with its Arnold Schwarzenegger lift.

DSC00661

Danke, Vienna (and Manfredas) for the perfect weekend.

 

Oh, Vienna! (2)

After a quick freshen-up at the hotel (and a chance for me to use one of the thoughtfully-packed teabags), we caught the bus to Kahlenberg, a hill which offers the best views of Vienna. The bus ride alone, up winding cobbled streets with views of forest, vineyards and glimpses of the city, is well worth it – just don’t eat too much before you get on.

Suitably shaken and stirred, we hopped off at the last stop, just in time to catch sunset over the valley. The views of the city, although a little misty that evening, were spectacular.

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With the sun gone, there was a decided nip in the air, so we got back on the bus to Grinzing, the most famous of Vienna’s wine villages – and so pretty it’s hard to imagine real people actually live there.

I’d chosen one place but, just as we were about to go in, a coachload of Spanish tourists showed up – NEIN! No way was I listening to that for the night. Luckily, you’re spoiled for choice in Grinzing so we just went across the road to the next ridiculously picturesque restaurant.

Crushed, no less. I like their no-nonsense approach.
Crushed, no less. I like their no-nonsense approach.

We found a table and ordered some much-needed food – and, of course, local wine. I had the goulash, which I ate too quickly to take a photo of but, I can assure you, it was delicious.

Grinzing - where men wear Lederhosen unironically
Grinzing – where men wear Lederhosen unironically

With some local musicians now in full swing in the bar area, we moved to another table to be closer to them – and ended up sitting beside the mayor, as you do. He took a shine to me immediately and every time Manfredas’ head was turned, he took the opportunity to give me a come-hither gaze I found rather amusing – and also declined.

Still, he and his party were friendly enough and we chatted away for a while; the only problem was his dog who had a tendency towards rather smelly ausfahrts. As soon as another table cleared, we hot-footed it over and, by now, were right beside the musicians.

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While they might have looked a bit Latvian on the outside, they were really nice people and, in no time at all, we were nattering away. It turned out that the musicians aren’t professionals; they’re just a group of locals who get together once a month to keep the old folk tunes alive. We just happened to get lucky by choosing that particular bar on that particular night. The lady on the right and I became pally as she loves Ireland, visits regularly, and sings Irish traditional songs with her local choir. For anyone interested in instruments, a piano accordian like this one will set you back up to €15,000.

DSC00572
Pricey hobby

All in all, we had a fabulous night. We were the only tourists there and there was something really cool about being welcomed into a local tradition that we’d wandered into purely by accident.

Dinner: €8

Wine: Can’t remember

Listening to actual yodelling in a bar in Austria: Priceless

We got off to a slightly later start the next day (as you can imagine). After several cups of tea and a bite to eat, we took the train one station past Schloss Schönbrunn (Palace “Beautiful Spring”) so we could walk back through the palace gardens. The day turned out to be much nicer than we had expected and the gardens were beautiful.

This is probably down to the scary man cycling around, who shouts and blows his whistle at anyone who dares to go near the grass. Despite there being signs everywhere, people are stupid so I can’t blame him for being snarky.

If you think the gardens are impressive, wait until you emerge into the massive courtyard between the palace itself and the Obelisk Fountain. While it’s hard to take photos while your jaw is dragging along the ground, I did my best.

We felt like we’d definitely earned a Spritzer (or two) before heading back into the city so that’s exactly what we did. Feeling like I needed to work that off before indulging in the famous Viennese Sacher Torte, we had a wander around a park and took in the awe-inspiring buildings that surrounded it.

Me: Gawp.

Parliament Building
Parliament Building

Me: Gawp.

The Rathaus
The Rathaus

Me: Gawp.

KK Hofburg Theatre
KK Hofburg Theatre

Me: Gawp. Sneeze.

Yes folks, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for – THE CAKES. When in Vienna, it doesn’t pay to do things by halves on the Kaffee and Kuchen front so it was off to the famous Café Landtmann. (Well, if it’s good enough for Sigmund Freud, it’s probably good enough for me.)

Caaaaaaaake...
Caaaaaaaake…
People eating caaaaaaaaaaaake
People eating caaaaaaaaaaaake

We found a nice outdoor table and waited for the menus. OH. MY. GOD.

Caaaaaaaaaaaake...
Caaaaaaaaaaaake…

They looked even better in person (or “in cake” – how does that work?).

Dear lord...
Dear lord…

DSC00635While I wanted to try everything, I felt that, this being Vienna, I should have the Sacher Torte. While we waited, I tried to figure out the pecking order of the waiters. (Manfredas probably missed awe-struck, silent Linda at this point.)

They have guys in black jackets and guys in white jackets. I think how it works is the “black” guys take your order, the “white” guys do all the carrying, and the “black” guys bring the bill and take the money at the end. I could be wrong though.

Who cares?! Caaaaaaaaaaake!
Who cares?! Caaaaaaaaaaake!

Feeling magnanimous and hopped up on chocolate, I offered to foot the bill for this one. Smugly loaded with a €20-note in my hand, I waved it at the snooty (but funnily so) waiter. He asked me for another €2. Erm, WHAT? €22 for a Sacher Torte, Apfelstrudel, a coffee and a tea bag in water… OK, it was worth it for the experience but I may have had a little weep.

This is turning into a Lord of the Rings-style epic – apologies! Part 3 coming soon!