Archive for October, 2014


We traveled to the capital of Scotland in the middle of the Edinburgh Festival which was our intent:  Ben had promised to show me his birthplace  (in nearby Kelty) and to take advantage of the literally thousands of different plays, musicals and book readings just outside the door of  “The Cally”.  (Our hotel was The Caledonian, a frightfully expensive converted Victorian train station, but as Ben says, “if its good enough for Sean Connery, its good enough for me!” )

We also landed in the middle of the Independence vote, which frankly, was not our intent.  Oh, we had heard something about the vote on September 18, but we were unprepared for such an impassioned  debate. (These are Scots after all:  one wag described his people  as ”stoic, serious and dour like a church of Scotland minister on a wintry Sunday morning”. Not to mention their legendary frugality.)

We attended a slightly veiled piece of propaganda for the “Yes” side,  a play about a man who, after much soul searching, decided to decline the offer of a knighthood from the British crown.  It was brilliant:   all raw emotion and playing on heart strings. Afterwards in the pub,  a Scottish/British couple overheard us trying to make sense of the arguments.    Their exasperated view was that it was simplistic and even dangerous to assume all will be sunshine and roses if the “Yes” vote won.

But that was indeed what the leader of the “Vote Yes” movement, Alex Salmond was promising:

Above all – and this was an audience heavy in writers and intellectuals – there was a sense that voting Yes for Scottish independence was somehow more authentic, more daring, and more exciting than going for the stodgy status quo or paying attention to those boring arguments about economics or self-interest. Never mind if the amount of offshore oil (much less who it really belongs to) is open to question. Never mind whether taxes in Scotland will have to go up to maintain the same level of services. Perhaps Sean Connery, a long-time supporter of independence, who lives in Monaco, will move back to help pay the cost of what he says is a promise of “inclusivity, equality and core democratic values.”   Margaret MacMillan  Oxford Professor of History and a Canadian

Mmmh, perhaps that explains why Sean needs to stay in a hotel when he comes to town. But I digress.

When we toured the site of the Battle of Sterling Bridge, you could almost hear the haunting sound of  bagpipes, wafting over the battlefield.  It was here that a virtually unknown William Wallace won a stunning victory over the British and was subsequently appointed the Commander of the military and the leader of diplomatic efforts in Europe to secure support against England.  This battle took place in the 13th century,  when deeply entrenched medieval rules of  hierarchy meant it was remarkable to have a “mere” knight hold power over the  Scottish nobles.  Those same Scottish nobles when faced with no hope of success in the struggle against England,  gave a collective shrug, held their noses and signed the oaths of allegiance to Edward.  All except Wallace  of course.  He would not acknowledge the King as liege lord,  and so was branded outlaw and traitor.  I won’t relate the details of his gruesome execution except to say that traitors had a particular piece of their anatomy removed. I see Ben wince.

To get to the top of the Wallace monument  you must ascend a steep, narrow circular set of  246  stairs.  But there is respite from the climb:   on the first floor, there is a recounting of the William Wallace story, and the centrepiece is his impressively large 700 year old 2 handed broad sword. (Based upon the weight and height of the sword, it is estimated that he had to be at least  6’ 6’ :  a fine height for a hero. )  Further up the stairs (and yours truly was grateful for a break)  is a room with more heroes:  busts of some of  the great intellectuals from the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Smith (my personal hero), David Livingstone, and Sir Walter Scott are side by side with the inventor James Watt who developed the steam-engine.

Although medieval in style, the  tower was constructed in the 19th century during one of the first waves of Scottish nationalism.    I actually sensed  a “tartan tinged”  design behind the steep narrow staircase and the conveniently placed “Hall of Heroes”.  I’ve been in the spin doctor business:  I know what manipulation looks like.

But what is the curious appeal of nationalism?  After all, the idea of being part of nation, as opposed to a clan or a tribe, is less than 200 years old.  However, for good or ill, historians weave together myth and legend, fact and fantasy to create a compelling story that goes well beyond the factual, the rational and the pragmatic.    Far easier and much more romantic to wave a sword in the air crying “they’ll never take our freedom” ala Mel Gibson in Braveheart, than to worry about paying the bills when they come due.

A nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view of the past, and a hatred of their neighbours. The Uses and Abuses of History. quoted by Margaret MacMillan.

The day before the vote,  Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister and a Scot,  rose to the challenge and gave the speech of his career, indeed, possibly his life, without resorting to notes or teleprompter. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J39bBV7CBJk   His goal was to win over those who might be sitting on the fence.  It  was also a brilliant piece of nation building, which is rather ironic.   And for those who lost to the “No Thanks” side, well, they can take consolation in the knowledge  that they have Westminster over the proverbial barrel and can extort whatever concessions they desire.  Much like Quebec does to the rest of Canada. But I digress again.


We will of course return to this charming historic town: it’s very walkable,  the people are friendly (even if the Scottish brogue is as thick as stale oatmeal) and it’s where my recently minted husband is from!






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Last fall, Ben and I were contacted via HomeExchange about swapping our Mexican home for a “Hamptons” style villa on a private lake in Germany.  My finger was all set to press the polite “no thank you” button.  We like to explore cities when on holiday, so the idea of parking ourselves in the country for a week for some quiet time may appeal to some but not to us.

And then I noticed that these two men also had a penthouse condo in downtown Berlin!

Berlin has always intrigued me as a destination, and it was on Ben’s “bucket list” as well. My grandfather Bill, or rather Whilhem Richart, was a soft spoken kind German man, who pulled me up onto his knee and gave me a special doll one Christmas.  She had a hand painted face, lacy pinafore and beautiful blonde ringlets:  it was one of my fondest childhood memories.

So we decided to create an “Ancestry Tour”, starting with a week in Germany, then 5 days in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival and to visit Ben’s family, and then finishing with 3.5 days in London to honour the other side of my family, the Young’s. This post is the Berlin portion of the story, with more to come.

Thomas, the self styled “Jay Leno” of Germany, a standup comedian with his own TV production company, (a German comedian, almost an oxymoron) and his partner, Wolfgang, owner of an Internet marketing company, have a condo that is perfectly situated in Kollwitzstr, a leafy but urbane part of the former East Berlin. Wolfgang greeted us warmly at the door, gave us a quick run around the condo and then departed. (Exchanges are  built on “the golden rule”:  they trust you to treat their lovely home with the same respect and consideration that you expect from them.)

Everything in the condo was “top drawer” and so well thought out, providing every creature comfort.  There was forty five feet of velvet blackout drapes on a remote, Obus form pillows, radiant heating on the bathroom floor, heated towel bar, a bath tub for 2,  induction cooktop, expresso machine, and a really high end music system that we did not dare touch! (Our rule for exchanges is that if they don’t you tell how to use it, they don’t want you to use it.) The kitchen drawers were a marvel of custom organization, and when I opened the sliding drawers outside the bathroom (with the owners’ permission, looking for some eye drops) I gazed in wonder at the 20 or so clear plexi glass boxes, all thoughtfully marked in German as to their contents and purpose.

After a brief rest, we headed out to explore:  our hosts had thoughtfully provided a map of their trendy neighbourhood with their favourite restaurants marked. There were 11 of them on the map, and that was only half of them:  my kind of  ‘hood.   At Zum Dritten Mann, an Austrian place with excellent Rieslings, our jet lagged brains barely registered the enormous wiener schnitzel with potato and cucumber salad sides.   It was our introduction to German style portions for which we are still paying the weight gain price.  Having said that, very few of the Germans we saw were obese, or even over weight.  It might be due to the emphasis that the German Government (Chancellor Merkel is affectionately called “Mother Merkel” after all) have placed upon physical fitness, and specifically bicycling.

We took a 4.5 bicycle tour of the city to get our bearings. Berlin is mostly flat, and curiously, like many capital cities, (Washington & Rome & Mexico City come to mind) it is built on a swamp or tidal plain.  (If memory services me correctly, British diplomats that were posted to Washington in the 19th century were able to claim “danger pay” because of the likelihood of contracting malaria.  But I digress.) We were warned about pedestrians and of course cars, but curiously, our biggest cautions pertained to other cyclists.  The same thing was said before we went on a “Trabi” tour, that Russian built plastic car with 2 stroke engine aka sewing machine.  Having sat in a cafe or 2 afterwards, observing the flow, it became clear to me:  cyclists own the road.  Sitting upright with perfect posture, they sail by,  barely acknowledging other traffic, even pedestrians, secure in the knowledge that everyone else has to make way for them. 100% right of way! (Trabi Tour for 2 88 euros:  Bicycle Tour of City including bike rental for 2:  44 euros)

A few highlights of our weeklong trip to Berlin:

Gemaldegaleria: at this gallery of 1000 old masters my particular favourite were the realistic portraits by the Dutch Baroque painters, such as Frans Hal and Jan Vermeer.  In the 17th century, the Dutch Republic experienced a meteoric rise in prosperity, and apparently every newly wealthy burgher, dressed in stiff white ruffs and severe black frocks, wanted their portrait or their family grouping painted.  However, I observed that many portrait painters were certainly not playing to the vanity of their sitters:  in fact, my reaction to the lifelike renditions of drooping eyelids, fleshy facial paunches and oversized ears was “How did they (the artists) expect to get paid for this!”

The most poignant portrait for me was of a six year old girl from a wealthy family pictured with her wet nurse. She had a gleeful smile and her nanny too was smiling broadly which was very unusual for the time. I stood in front of it for a while, wondering how the artist got them to smile so unreservedly in a culture where restraint and control was all.   Later in the gallery, purely by serendipity, I saw the same girl at 16, in a life sized wedding portrait that was hung beside her stern looking husband. Was that happy child inside the solemn young woman? I thought not. (13 euros each adult,included audio guide)

Berlin’s Organic Market:   I had booked the cycling tour for 11:30 on Saturday, so I wanted to be out the door early for this once a week experience. It was literally outside our door, but as at 9:30, not so much going on.  Things were just getting started by 10:00, and we took the opportunity to stand around, savouring an expresso and a croissant and observing. Frankly, I was surprised.  Most Saturday markets back home are pretty much over by noon:  if you have not handed over a small fortune for your  “hand picked by virgins ” mix of organic greens by 11, you’re done. This place was all very casual, no rush, no hurry.  We  lingered at the cheese truck, uncrowded, sampling this pungent cheese and that nutty one.  We settled on 2 bottles of dry Riesling,  a selection of German cheeses, some interesting cheese dips, a bouquet of wild flowers and 6 free range eggs. All in all, a much more relaxed experience than say the frenetic Brickworks in downtown Toronto. (About 30 euros)

A Russian restaurant around the corner called Pasternak:  we ordered a sampling of Russian dumplings filled with ground veal, spinach and potato.  The potato dumpling sent me down sensory memory lane to my mother’s kitchen.  Now, for my taste, it would have been improved as my mother cooked it, with the addition of “just to the point of burnt “ bits of onion and bacon, finished with a liberal dollop of sour cream.  Western style decadence of course.  As an aside, the wifi password was Perestroika:  that made me smile. (Lunch for 2, 47.40 euros)

KaDeWe:   Rumoured to be the largest department store in Europe, it was filled to the rafters with all sorts of luxury goods and on the 6th floor, a veritable cornucopia of food related goodies. Think Harrods food hall, only not as busy.  After walking slowly past all of the gleaming display cases and stations that offered foods of the world, we decided to belly up to the bar where potatoes reigned supreme.  Roasted potato soup, Rosti, Bratkartofflen (thick slices of potato fried in a single layer for 20 – 30 minutes until golden and crispy), and our choice to share, a plate of potato cubes smothered with” monk”  cheese and dotted with smoked ham and run under the broiler just until golden.  Decadent, rich, and full of buttery goodness. Aren’t we lucky that butter is back in dietary favour?

The Museum of Film & TV:    An homage to Marlene Dietrich, G. W. Pabst,  Fritz Lang and all other pioneers who invented the ground breaking German film industry.  Including the American born Louise Brooks:  she was incandescently lovely,  intelligent  and self aware and a bit of a naughty piece of work too.

“If I bore you, it will be with a knife”

Louise died in Rochester, NY at 78:   in one of her last interviews,  she said she thought that Marilyn Monroe (another incandescent beauty) committed suicide “because like many beautiful women, she became achingly aware of just how stupid she was”.  Oh my.  (7 euros adult entry)

Currywurst:    The iconic street food of Berlin, it is a sausage smothered in ketchup (tomato sauce) & sprinkled with paprika & curry.  It is an abomination, to be scarfed only by hung over young people, emerging from one of the many night clubs who cram them in at nightfall and spew them out at dawn.  Bleh.

Berlin is a magnet for young people from everywhere, with its hip art scene, flashy clubs, and compared to London, New York or even Toronto, a reasonable, or at least attainable,  cost of living.  There is the ”well heeled” young professional set, pushing prams and shopping for organic courgettes right along side the tattooed, blue haired and pierced. Except for the other tourists, I rarely saw anyone over the age of 35, perhaps 45 at the outside.  Since I have become accustomed to a sea of Baby Boomer grey hair , it was oddly discomforting and comforting at the same time.




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