Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Welcome to London

The EasyJet pilot took me to the wrong city. He did - I'm sure of it. I know this because I was supposed to be flying to London last weekend, but on a Saturday in the month of February the weather in London is not 62 degrees fahrenheit. If it is 62 degrees fahrenheit, it is definitely not sunny, and by sunny I mean not a cloud in the sky for the entire day. In February, the weather in London is in the upper 40's, lower 50's, with cloud cover, ALL DAY, and constant rain. And if it doesn't rain on Saturday, then it definitely rains on Sunday, right? I knew the pilot didn't fly me to London.

For whatever city I did go to, I arrived late on Friday night and took an hour bus charter into the city center where Hayley lives. For those of you who don't know, Hayley is one of my best friends from high school, is studying abroad in London through a Mizzou program, and has a flat in the city with 5 other girls. I got to call the living room couch my home for the weekend, which had a big plus and a big minus. The Plus: I am a cheap college student and did not have to pay for a hostel / had a place to stay for the weekend. The Minus: the London Tube (train) is incredibly noisely and just happens to be located 5 floors below and directly adjacent to their flat. No reason to bring an alarm - this makes for a wonderfully pleasant 6am "good-morning to you sir." Anyway, Friday night Hayley and I and some of her friends just sat around her flat, hung out, and eventually crashed for the full day on Saturday.

Saturday morning: I met all 5 of her roommates before 9am. Seriously, how the hell do you meet 5 (6 including Hayley) college students on a Saturday morning before the hour of 9am? One huge difference about London is the city is on a completely different time schedule than Berlin. For nightlife, pubs close at 11, 12 if you're lucky, and clubs usually close at 2 or 3. This means that you actually get in much earlier and do not wake up in the middle of the day. Kinda nice, although weird when at 9pm people are freaking out because you haven't yet found a bar to start your night. In Berlin, I would be getting into the shower at 9. Anyway...we woke up early Saturday morning and headed out into the city for a day of sightseeing. I literally came to London with no idea about anything in the city - what I wanted to do, history, tourist spots, etc. - so I just told Hayley to show me what she thought I should see. It worked out great because I saw a ton and everything is located relatively close together so you can pack in a full day. First of all (if you didn't catch on already), the weather was 62 and sunny all day - by far the most beautiful day yet in Europe and reminded me exactly of what the weather is like back on our California campus many days in the winter. To start the day, we headed to Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and then made our way back toward the Thames and walked along the river to the Tower Bridge. Luckily Hayley was still alive at this point after almost being impaled by a guard's golden sword at some random place we encountered earlier in the day. We were walking under an achway (no idea where we were) and upon exiting the other side there were two guards on horses on either side of the arch. Naturally, Hayley and I both turn around to look at them, when suddenly we hear a man yell, "STEP ASIDE FOR THE GUARD" in the deepest voice known to man. I turn around to see Hayley narrowly escape death by a few feet because this guard was not about to halt for anyone. After making it to the tower Bridge, where we passed by a sweet looking castle by the river, we hopped onto the Tube and made our way to Hyde Park. We grabbed a sandwich for lunch along the way and ate as we strolled through the park. Hyde Park is massive by the way - probably similar to the size of a Golden Gate or Central Park. After walking through the park for about half an hour, we stumbled upon a sizable lake packed with people in paddle boats. How could you not rent a paddle boat on a day like this - it should be a crime to pass this up. As you can imagine, we rented a boat and cruised about the river for a while as we mastered our crew skills. Being modest, I dominated Hayley in the rowing competition. The lake was great, but it actually is fairly difficult to navigate a little boat via a couple wooden oars that keep popping out of their harnesses. Upon leaving the lake, we walked to Harrod's - the world's biggest and most ridiculously expensive department store. (Random info: Berlin has the 2nd biggest with KaDeWe). We had the best chocolate sunday I've ever had - although I'll still take Rome's gelato over Harrod's ice cream any day. After an ice cream break, we made our way back to the Thames river, walked along and looked at Parliament and the London Eye, and eventually made our way to dinner...at 5 o'clock. The area below the London Eye was great - packed with street performers and vendors which reminded my a lot of the area along Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. We packed in almost more than possible Saturday, and as is fitting with London's early time schedule compared to Berlin, sat down to eat at 5.

We had dinner with a couple of her friends at an Irish pub where we also watched the Man United game. I played the role of your stereotypical tourist and had fish-and-chips (f.y.i. - chips=fries, crisps=chips, and biscuts=cookies). After dinner, we made our way back to her area and went out with some more of her friends to a couple pubs before finding a bar/lounge type place in East London. Hilarious moment (one seems to happen on every trip): we are leaving the lounge at the end of our night and for some reason everyone wants to go get hotdogs. Really? I get it that we are all drunk at this point and people want food, but seriously, a hot dog? Anyhow, we pay 18 pounds for a taxi to take us to Picadilly Circus where the owner of the hot dog stand knows half of our group by name and gives them discounts for being regular customers. Unfortunately, I do have to admit this was the best hot dog I have ever had - so thank you to our drunken hosts who dragged my reluctant self to a hot dog stand in the middle of the night. (And sorry if these moments aren't actually funny - I am sure that they're probably much funnier in my own memory).

Sunday morning we were out of the house by 10 to go to a market that we thought would be open. Theme of the trip: it was not open. This is not necessarily the theme though because of this particular market. This was the theme because the London Tube sucks! Apparently the train works great during the week because the city of London does not shut down lines during this time so that it does not interrupt the working day. However, on the weekends they shut down probably about 20% of the lines to do repairs, construction, whatever, and most of these lines happen to go to the tourist spots. Not exaggerating, we probably had to take round-about ways 1/2 the time we travelled in the city because a certain line we needed was closed. It was comical for the weekend, but it would drive me insane if I lived there. So after getting to the awesome food market that was not actually open, we made our way to Abbey Road and saw the Beatles recording studio and where the famous album cover was shot. Not much to see, but cool to be in the spot of one of my favorite groups of all times. The first music purchase I ever made was 2 Beatles cassettes, "The Magical Mystery Tour" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely," so it was personally cool for me to walk across a seemingly random intersection just for those purposes. To finish up the weekend, we went to a pub as one should to watch the Fulham football match before I caught my bus back to the airport. Great and fitting way to end the weekend - the pubs were one of the things I loved most about London. There is literally a pub on every corner and everyone has their local pub they go to regularly. After the game, I unfortunately had to say goodbye to London as I truly did not want to leave.

After having now visited three cities outside of Berlin, London is the only place I can actually say that I wish Berlin were more like. Most of this stems from the program that Hayley and the other Mizzou students are in - so I'm actually saying I wish our program was more like theirs. First of all, they all live together and in the center of the city. More so, all the other Mizzou students live in surrounding flats within only a few blocks. In Berlin, everyone is very spread out for living quarters. Personally, I am in a very residential area, which unfortunately I grow to dislike more and more every day. Luckily though, I am moving in the spring quarter to a very commercial area that I am sure I will enjoy the new location much more than my current spot. Also, because it will be commercial, it will be extremely nice (like London) to have pubs, restaurants, cafes, and stores on every street. Another thing I really like about their program in London is that they have class in an actual London university. This makes it exponentially easier to make friends and get connected into the local scene. Not to mention here in Berlin our university is way out in the suburbs, which has very polarized pros and cons. After leaving London, I now have a much more keen perspective on what is good and what is not good about our program here in Berlin. In most ways unfortunately, I'm starting to wish it were different. However, don't confuse this with the idea that I do not like the program I am in here. I love most of it. I'm just more aware now that there are many ways in which I would change it to make it better and more receptive to college aged kids.

All in all, I'm extremely glad I went to London. London is a city that I would have never visited had Hayley not been there, so thank god she was because it is now my favorite city I have travelled to. It is not necessarily the best time in a city (Rome is almost untouchable in that category) but definitely my favorite city. There is nothing in Rome or Istanbul that I would wish to bring back to Berlin (except Roman gelatto, which Berlin has, just not as tasty), but there are aspects of London that I would love to see here in my northern European home. I would also go back to London in a heartbeat if I knew that it was going to be 62 and sunny again, but being realistic that is rather unlikely to happen. Anyway, thanks to Hayley for a great time in a great city. I'll definitely be back.

"The Photo Collection" album from January has been updated.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Die Filmfestspiele Berlinale

21:51 on a Sunday night. I have officially finished/concluded/survived a breathtaking, exhausting, thrilling, and even angering film festival. As I slowly drip into my delirious, sleep-deprived state of mind, describing how I feel about this festival should be hard based upon my current abilitly to process my thoughts, but it's actually easy. The Berlinale was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Really - I'm not exaggerating. Before I ever go back to Rome, Barcelona, Istanbul, wherever, I would undoubtedly first come back for another 10 days at the Berlinale. It was honestly that good.

First of all, let me give you a quick brief on the Berlinale. The Berlinale is Europe's second biggest film festival after Cannes, and is the largest publically attended festival. This year was the 59th annual, and it lasted from Febuary 5-10. The actual films in the festival are divide up into different categories:

1) The competition hosts big budget films that will likely be in the box-office within the next year. This years opening film was "The International" featuring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, which hit theaters midway through the festival.
2) Panorama brings an international flavor with films from across the globe (all sections have numerous international films but this section is the main focus for such). Here, you can get the best feel for where cinema is headed throughout different countries and what social issues are pressing in each.
3) Forum: strong focus on East-Asian films but has a variety of American and German films as well. Probably one of the harder sections of the festival to describe - usually not as big of a budget as the competition and panorama, but still some quality films.
4) Berlinale Shorts consists of just that, short films. I really liked the short films because it's extremely interesting to see how a film is going to make an impression on you with only 10 or so minutes of run time.
5) Generation K+ and Generation 14+ focus on the younger age groups but the 3 I saw would easily be rated "R". Again, I really enjoyed these films because they cut through all of the politically and morally correct BS, and instead of pretending that drugs, sex, etc. don't actually exist, they show teenage life for what it actually is.
6) Perspektive Deutsches Kino gives an array of all German films and shows where German cinema is heading. This was my favorite portion of the Berlinale because on the whole I found these films to be better than any other section.
7) Retrospektive: this year's section brought back cinematic classics that were filmed in 70mm. To put this in perspective, normal box-office films are 35mm, meaning that 70mm has double the width and way more visual quality. It is astonishing to watch a 70mm film - basically the equivalent of watching a VHS versus DVD, or you could compare it to watching an IMAX film.
8) A collection of other German films are shown as well as entries into the festival that focus on mixed media and film experimentation.

They way the Berlinale worked for me was that through my Stanford film class we were given passes to the festival. These granted us free tickets to most screenings; however, this did not mean that we just got to pick the films we wanted to see without having to work for them - it just means we already paid. The ticket office opened at 8:30 every morning in the heart of the festival at Potsdamer Platz, but to get tickets for the main showings you had to be in line early. I was in line almost every morning at 6:45 where I would either nap once in line or work on German for a couple hours. This was the only way to guarantee that there would be tickets for the screenings I wanted. After this, I would head to the Stanford villa and go to class from 11-1, then usually head back to Potsdamer Platz or wherever my screenings were to watch 3-4 films a night. The films would usually end about midnight, which means I would get home at 12:30 then get up at 6 then next morning to head back to the ticket line. That said, working on German lasted for the first 2 days in line - after that naps took over.

Throughout the Berlinale, I saw 31 films (10 of them were shorts). I also was unable to go to any films today as our passes do not work on the last day of the festival since it is open to the public, and did not go to any the first day (we just got back from Istanbul) or yesterday because I was at the Hertha BSC vs. Bayern Munich game. In other words, I saw 31 films in 7 days at the festival and was/am thoroughly exhausted. What I didn't realize before the festival is that film festivals in general are about more than just the films themselves. It's really a whole experience. For instance, the sleep deprevation definitely plays a huge part. I took it personally when a film did not do a good job, and became very analytical about film. However, this also makes you appreciate even more the films that make you laugh, grab onto your seet in fear for what is about to happen, etc. Outside of the films, I lived off an Asian restaurant in the Arcaden and at the festival ate an Asian fast food dinner for 5 of the 7 nights. I actually enjoyed (oddly enough) that I basically tried and was completely aware of the fact that I was trashing my body with a fast food dinner and a 1-1/2 liter of diet coke every night during the screenings. Not to mention I usually had a bag of knock-off M&M's with me too. Mixed with the sleep deprevation, I'm actually surprised I'm still breathing today. The festival is also unique because of the internation crowd it draws which creates a distinct atmosphere. There's a certain buzz in the city that you thrive off of and without knowing it become addicted to. You realize only now that it existed when sitting at your computer with the festival over, and even though you can barely keep your eyes open, can barely stand up from your chair to go to the bathroom, all you can think about is, "damn I should have seen more films" or "damn I wish the festival was still going on tomorrow." And then you realize, "damn, I just had an awesome week."

Among all the films in the Berlinale, my favorite was a film that came out in Germany in November of 2008 called, "Der Baader Meinhof Komplex." It is a phenomenal film about a 60's German post-WWII terrorist organization. The film is up for an Oscar in 2 weeks for best international film. A comical/memorable film experience was on the first Sunday of the festival I headed over to the Babylon Kino to see a Generation 14+ film titled "Cherrybomb." I had really no idea what the film was about, just had read the short 2 sentence description and decided to get a ticket. Upon arriving, I could not even get into the kino because of a red carpet laid out in front of the doorway. So, I decided to wait amongst about a million teenage girls while I laughed at the idea of waiting for what I figured was going to be some tight-jeans German teen movie star with a fohawk stepping out of the car and onto the red carpet. As the car pulled up, every single teenage girl started screeming and out of the car pops Rupert Grint (aka Ron Weasley from Harry Potter) for the world premier of his new film. I have to admit, even I got a little excited. That was one of the cool things about the festival: I saw 7 world premiers of films and most every film had a Q&A with the director and cast afterwards. It definetely adds to the viewing experience and makes you appreciate film even more.

It's sad now that the Berlinale is over - I loved every second of it and have to figure out a way to return in the future. Even though some films were god-aweful, I'm still glad when looking back that I saw them...well, all of them except one. If "Rage" ever makes it to the box-office in the United States, and even though it stars Judi Dench, Jude Law, Dianne Wiest, Steve Buscemi, and Eddie Izzard which makes you feel like you should buy a ticket, don't. If you do buy a ticket, I will be more than willing to personally fly back to the states to burn your ticket for you to save you the time. It is the only film in my life I have ever walked out on, and I will passionately argue anyone who dares to think a ticket to the film is worth any more than 5 cents. Other than "Rage", I had one of the best weeks of my life at the film festival. With absolutely no idea what to expect having never been to a film festival before, the Berlinale completely caught me off guard and gave me no choice but to love every aspect of it from the first day. If you ever find me in a bad mood in the future, just say "Berlinale" and I'm sure a smile will come to my face.

How Bazaar: Istanbul

So...this blog is long overdue and I appologize for not posting it up sooner. I have been ridiculously busy (as you will see if I get the Berlinale blog posted tonight) and have not had any time for much of anything since returning to Berlin. But, that being said, here is my two cents on Istanbul:

First of all, while technically Istanbul splits between Europe and Asia, I would actually say that it is neither. It definitely does not feel like a European or Asian city. Rather, Istanbul is definitely Middle Eastern. A lot of this comes from the fact that Istanbul is predominantly a Muslim country and therefore that dictates much of their culture and way of life. This was by far the most different city that I have ever been to in my life, and I'd say for the first time I probably felt a bit of culture shock. Our entire Berlin program was able to go all-expenses-paid thanks to a very generous donor, so we had a phenomenal time being there as a group of 32 students.

We arrived in Istanbul at about 3 o'clock local time and immediately took a bus from the airport to a boat tour on the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus is the dividing line for the city of Istanbul and Europe and Asia, so technically I guess I've been to Asia now since we were on both sides of the strait, although I'm not really going to count this. The boat tour was awesome because we got there in time to see the city in dailylight and then had awesome nighttime views of the city and Bosphorus bridge at night. It was definitetely a great welcome to the city. Later that night we had a phenomenal meal at at government owned resteraunt on the river. The Turkish government owns many of their own restaurants and provides extrememly nice food at a cheap price so that the lower class can enjoy a nice meal. For instance, we had an extremely good 5 course meal for a total of 900 lira (450 euro) and that was for 4o people. Basically, for 10 euro you could have a meal that in the States at a nice restaurant you would pay minimum 40-50 usd. After the meal we transfered to our hotel which was on one of the nicest streets in Istanbul (one with the lights in the photo album) - also a big plus because we were in the main nightlife district.

While in Istanbul, we had several academic discussions with members of the Turkish government, local professors, and presidents of local companies. These were on Monday and Tuesday, and in between we did some sightseeing as well. Most of the talks were usually bland and fairly uninteresting, but a few were pretty good. Then again, I was there for the sightseeing and was not necessarily interested in an academic discussion. Sightseeing: on Saturday we went to the Blue Mosque, and then Sunday went to the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar. The mosques were cool to see just because I have never been in a mosque before, but even though they are extremely historic, they were just another thing to see for me and weren't really anything too special. That being said, the Grand Bazaar was awesome and was my sightseeing highlight of the trip. The Grand Bazaar has everything from silk cloths to pottery, carpet to clothing, etc. You can literally find almost anything in the Grand Bazaar. Never pay anything more than about 60% though - you are expected to barter with the store owners and therefore can get things for very cheap. For instance, I bought a Fenerbahce (local club team) scarf that was marked at 15 lira for 8 lira, meaning I only paid 4 euros for it. It's also pretty hilarious to get into a heated bartering match with the store owners as they are all saying "for you my friend, best price." If you take your time and look around between stores, all the prices are the same.

Random things about Istanbul: police. The police walk down the streets with semi-automatic weapons on their waist. I did not have the nerve to make eye contact with them. Traffic: insane. Traffic will not stop for you and drivers will willingly hit you without thinking twice about it. Also, drivers are complete assholes - sorry for the colorful language but they are. They do not wait, will honk at about a rate of 10x a minute, and make hand gestures constantly to other automobiles. The city is also a major traffic jam - there is no room to drive and millions of cars with seemingly no order fly around the streets. Candy: Turkish candy is pretty good and apparently famous (don't know about this but most people seemed to think so). Anyway, I liked it. Sufi ceremony: we went to a Sufi ceremony and I can honestly say it was one of the most painful 2-hour experiences of my life. First of all, Sufism is apparently a religion, although I would argue otherwise. Upon entering the place of worship, women and men are seperated; women have to sit upstairs and men sit on the main floor. I definitely felt very awkward with the seperation and was fairly mad about the gender segregation (freakin modernize and move into the 21st century people!). Sorry, I honestly hated the Sufi ceremony. Anyway, about 12 guys in white cloaks come out into the room and spin in circles for 2 hours while in an adjancent room a group of old men play drums to make so called "music." There's literally nothing more to it - you just watch these men almost puke from spinning in circles for 2 hours. Leaving the ceremony was probably one of the greatest moments in my life.

Overall, I had a great time in Istanbul. It was awesome to have such a large group there not to mention we had all expenses paid. It's hard to comment on Istanbul nightlife since we were there on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights, but we definitely made the most of what we had. (Random hilarious moment: after a night that saw Joe smoking a cigarette while swinging from the pole in the club [he looked like Popeye the Sailor], we leave at 5 in the morning and on our walk home find Jonah wondering the streets of Istanbul like a homeless man. After trying to find his way home for over an hour, we take him with us where he purchases a french fry sandwich which to this day he still swears was the most delicious thing he has ever eaten). While it was a great experience, Istanbul is definitely a place that I could never live in and don't care to ever return to. It's hard to state my exact feelings on the city because I actually didn't really like the city much at all, but since I was there with such a good group I had a great time. So, I guess I'm saying it was a great trip but not a great city. Anyway, Istanbul was a good time but not recommended to anyone thinking of travelling there. But then again that's just my opinion.

Pictures are posted on the "The Photo Collection" page from January.