The big surprise from the German elections was how bad Merkel and the ruling CDU did, and how well the deplorable far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party did.

Berlin is a lovely city, very optimistic and international. It also has little patience for AfD bullshit; I saw no AfD signs anywhere until two days before the election, and those only way up high out of reach on poles. There was a big demonstration last night in Alexanderplatz after the election; the AfD were having their party there so a few thousand Berliners turned up to, um, help them celebrate.

Some links that may be of interest

Now for the coalition negotiations. It's not clear to me if the SPD saying they won't join one with the CDU a negotiating tactic or if they mean it.

culturetravelberlin2017
  2017-09-25 17:26 Z

Ken and I are in Berlin for a few weeks, sort of working vacation. Been here about ten days now and have some impressions.

I’m really liking daily life in Berlin. We have an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg near Kollwitzplatz, a bougie neighborhood in former East Berlin. It’s all leafy streets and 1920s buildings and is totally charming. The nearby streets are full of cafés and restaurants and Kollwitzplatz itself is home to a terrific weekly farmer’s market. It feels worlds away from the inhuman scale 1960+s architecture you see in so much of central Berlin.

One thing I particularly enjoy in Prenzl’berg is how international it is. New York bagels, French cheese shops, English laundry, Vietnamese restaurants, Russian cafés, yesterday I had an Argentinian empanada in a repurposed 19th century brewery. I mean it’s still Germany, there’s a 100 year old kneipe just across the street from us serving Rinderouladen and Pils. But it’s also global and progressive. Which not only makes it easy for an American to get by but also makes it fun and not a historical museum like sometimes Paris can feel like.

I also appreciate being in a city with working public transit. And without thousands of dangerously insane people living on the streets. Having a bit of insulation from Trumpism helps calm the nerves. Big parts of life function better in Europe.

I’m also feeling a little unsettled, a phase I go through every time we do these long visits. A struggle between the feeling I should go out and be a tourist every day, consume the city in the short time I have. Against my desire to sit at home on my comfortable laptop and do my regular daily routine just like I would at home. Of course the happy medium is in the middle, some of each.

One goal I set myself for this time in Berlin was to learn more about older history. So much of Berlin is dominated by 20th century history, the Nazis and the Soviets. And that stuff is important and well represented. But I feel like I understand it from previous visits, so this time I’m looking for traces of 19th century Germany, of Prussia’s great gay king from the 18th century, of the very old city back when Cölln was a separate town. Learning the city from the time the waterways were the travel routes, not the U-bahn lines.

culturetravelberlin2017
  2017-09-18 08:34 Z

A new “urban art” museum just opened in Berlin: Urban Nation. Judging by their opening weekend show it is a fantastic collection of modern street art. I put a few photos of the works I saw on Flickr.

The event had an “art mile” with some temporary sculpture installations. Also some magnificent large scale street art works on Bülowstrasse itself, hopefully those will last awhile. I particularly liked Zezão’s alien calligraphy forms. Also liked some of the wildcat street art, I think a few lesser-known artists got some unauthorized paint up.

The museum show had a really thoughtfully selected overview of the best of modern streetart. C215, Deih XLF, Dalek, the obligatory representations by Banksy and Invader and Fairey. It’s terrific a museum is collecting these from all over the world; whoever is curating seems very plugged in. I wonder who’s funding the building and collection; the website only mentions some city of Berlin funding.

culturetravelberlin2017
  2017-09-17 18:20 Z

Ken and I went to Europe a couple of months ago. I spent a few days alone in London, then we spent a couple of weeks together in Portugal. So really two trips, but here in one blog post. As always Twitter has my memories and photos: here’s a Storify collection from London and another from Portugal.

My first time in London and I enjoyed it, would love to go back. I spent two full days at the British Museum. The part I remember best is the Enlightenment Room, a collection of miscellany presented as if you were in an 18th century library. It perfectly captures the optimistic spirit of the Enlightenment. The best part of Empire, when British scientists felt they could understand everything but collecting objects from all over the world and studying them. A good place to start a visit before seeing the grander “transported” treasures in the galleries. (My favorites of those: the Assyrian galleries and the Aztec masks.)

Portugal was great. We spent a week in Lisbon and Porto and another week poking around the countryside. Porto was my favorite place; a small city with beautiful topography and a lot of youthful optimism. I becamse fascinated with azulejo, the painted tile that’s a centuries-long tradition. Our visit to the smaller towns wasn’t as successful; Portugal still is a relatively poor country and the vernacular of food and accomodation is variable. But I’m glad we go to see some of the more remote monuments and the countryside was quite pleasant.

culturetravel
  2017-07-29 14:20 Z

Oktoberfest is a remarkable event; 100,000+ people together drinking heavily, and yet few problems. It’s crowded though, so crowded your neighbor’s back rubs gemütlichkeit against yours at the beerhall. If you can find a place to sit. I don’t love crowds, here’s how we coped.

Go when it’s less busy. It’s not complicated: weekdays and earlier in the day are quieter. Monday early afternoon was pretty mellow, by which I mean the tents were only 75% full.

Consider a small tent for dining. After drinking our fill at the Augustiner tent (population 8500) we wandered off and found a tiny restaurant tent that sat 200. Most of which were staff on break from the Ochsenbraterei tent next door. It was still festive but plenty of room to have a comfortable lunch.

Drink wine! When the crowd got too much we found our way to the Weinzelt tent. It’s a big tent but an odd one, serving mostly wine. It’s a bit smaller, maybe 2500 people. Best of all instead of back-to-back benches, everyone sits at their own booths for 8-10 people max. Way more comfortable. Great music and party too! The drawback is that it’s expensive; 75€ for a bottle of wine instead of 11€ for a liter of beer. But it's a good choice if you want to trade off money for comfort.

culturetravel
  2016-09-29 07:52 Z

Ken and I took a lovely tourist trip to Scotland. Here’s a Storify of photos and comments; I tend to use Twitter like postcards while travelling, it works great for that. Scotland is a nice mix of modern European city and remote coastal landscapes. And so green! (And rainy.) Our trip broke down into two kinds of experiences: cities on either end, and lots of driving around the west in the middle.

We started in Edinburgh, a wonderful city. Highly recommend 3+ days in that city, it’s just beautiful and lots to enjoy. We ended the trip in Glasgow, which was also great. They say Edinburgh is the pretty sister. But Glasgow is the sister you’d want to hang out with in the pub. More of a regular city but a vibrant one with lots to offer. Also a city on the upswing.

Our countryside trip started with a couple of nights in Inverness. There’s not much to the town but it’s a convenient base for travelling to Speyside in the east and Loch Ness and the Great Glen to the southwest. Culloden made a big impression on us, the historical monument there is very well done. Loch Ness was a bit of a letdown, it’s just like all the other beautiful lakes in Scotland only this one is full of tourists so you can’t park to see anything.

The Isle of Skye is primary recommendation if you want some remote countryside tourism in Scotland. It’s beautiful and the northern parts feel very remote and sparse, the landscape reminded me a bit of the Faroes. Only there’s lots of hotels and restaurants and decent enough roads. The Clan Donald visitor center made a good impression too, much smarter than you’d expect a family-funded history museum to be. Most of the western part of the trip was just driving around remote roads from beautiful site to site. Lots to enjoy.

We stayed in some fantastic hotels along the way, see the map link above for details. Also ate at some great restaurants. The finest meal of all was at Martin Wishart in Loch Lomond, excellent Michelin star level food and service that executed perfectly. For less demanding dining we very much liked the Scran & Scallie in Edinburgh and the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow.

culturetravel
  2016-08-10 23:04 Z

Just got back from vacation in Hawaiʻi. Last time was the Big Island, this time was Maui and Oʻahu. Here’s some photos and tweets.

Maui is rural and full of natural beauty but with some upscale tourist hotels as well. We stayed down in Wailea which has nice resorts, restaurants, and beaches. We also drove all over. The famous Road to Hana made much better with this audio guide, although I regret not planning more time to stop and go swimming in the waterfall pools. Also Lāhainā which is interesting for its 19th century history. The helicopter tour of Molokaʻi was also phenomenal.

Oʻahu is much more urban. The North Shore has some nature but we never left Honolulu. Waikiki is remarkably convenient for a simple carless visit, I totally understand why people go just there for short vacations, but then Hawaiʻi has so much more to offer than one tourist mall! One highlight of Oʻahu was the Heart of the USS Missouri tour at Pearl Harbor, crawling around the engineering rooms of a 1940s battleship. The other was the Bishop Museum’s phenomenal collection of Hawaiian cultural artifacts, made more special by visiting with a friend who is an anthropology professor. We’re not really relax-on-the-beach tourists so it was nice to have some more organized activities in Honolulu.

We are food tourists though! Got some great advice from folks. On Maui my favorite meals were at Monkeypod and Mama’s Fish House. Spago was also very good although not particularly Hawaiian. On Oʻahu the most interesting local meals we had were at The Pig and the Lady and Mud Hen Water. We also really enjoyed Hy’s for wood-fired steaks and La Mer offers an excellent fine French dining meal.

culturetravel
  2016-03-07 22:19 Z

The Louvre is one of the world’s great museums. It is enormous and full of riches and totally worth several repeated visits. I particularly like the sculpture, but I discover something new every time. The Louvre is also a poorly designed tourist experience. Some notes below on making it better.

My discovery this last visit was the Marie de Medici cycle. Phenomenal series of 24 enormous Rubens paintings of the life of Marie de Medici, commissioned by Marie herself in 1622 for the Palais du Luxembourg. It’s painting on a scale that can only exist in a place like the Louvre. The story they tell is fascinating, you could spend a whole day looking at these paintings with Wikipedia’s competent explanation. Long story short she married the King of France and took over as regent when he died. When her son wrested power from her she was exiled. Part of her securing her legacy was having Rubens make these elegiac paintings telling her side of the story. They’re particularly unusual in that it’s a woman being lionized. They are fascinating. And being Rubens, they are amazingly well executed.

My other discovery at the Louvre was how difficult it is to get inside the door because of the security theater. This article describes your options. The tacky Carousel de Louvre mall seems best. While it only has a single security line, it has fewer visitors. The fancy main entrance is an hour+ disaster, the Porte des Lions is often unstaffed, and the Rue Richelieu entrance requires a hard-to-buy advance ticket. Past security, the fastest way to get a ticket is from an automated machine. Don’t follow the sheep; look for the machines without a line.

Once inside the Louvre not everything is available; rooms are regularly closed. Why? Hard to say, but much of it appears to be staffing. Also be sure to check the Louvre is open at all; sometimes some part of the staff goes on strike and the whole museum is closed.

One should approach the Louvre with a plan but I never manage. “Avoid the crowds” is a good heuristic; the Mona Lisa is lovely but the experience of shoving in to see it is not. This time I amused myself taking bad snapshots of painting details: one and two. Next time I should finally get to their ancient Egypt collection.

One last thing: a plan for lunch. You need a break. Unfortunately there is no longer a good proper restaurant in the museum, just some mediocre cafeteria options. We did well heading outside to the Brasserie du Louvre, surprisingly well really. Best salade niçoise I've had in awhile.

culturetravel
  2015-10-11 18:48 Z

Ken and I went to India in February, a three week wealthy tourist’s trip. Absolutely loved it, would like to go back, enthusiastically recommended it. I documented most of the trip on Twitter as I went. I collected all the tweets in a Storify page; quite readable with lots of photos.

Our trip started in Delhi. From there we took a luxury tourist train through Rajastan for seven days to Mumbai. Then flew to Kolkata, then to Varanasi, then back through Delhi to home. So many amazing experiences. Some tourist sites that stuck with me most are the Qutb Minar in Delhi, the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, the Elephanta Caves in Mumbai, the Marble Palace in Kolkata, and offerings to Shiva in Varanasi.

But what really struck with me is newfound respect for the sophistication of India. I had no idea what to expect. India is an enormous place. With a very rich and complex cultural history and a colonial period that was not entirely rapacious. Modern India is a dynamic, exciting, upwardly mobile place. With nearly 1.3 billion people. We all know China is the up-and-coming economic story but India is close behind it. I met a lot of Indians with pride, pride in their cultural history, in their intellectual history, in their new prime minister.

On a more mundane level I also came away with excitement for the diversity of Indian cuisine. The Indian food we get in the US is one specific type of cuisine: Mughlai, butter and cream and earthy rich flavors. But there’s a huge variety of other foods. Coconut milk in South Indian cuisine, sour fruits and shellfish in Kerala cuisine, strong mustard sauces in Bengali food. A particularly great day was cooking lessons in Delhi with the author of a Chettinad cookbook. There’s a lifetime of technique to learn just in the art of tadka, the way spices are precisely roasted or fried at various moments in preparation.

culturetravel
  2015-07-04 15:49 Z

Ken and I went back to Paris for the first time in a few years, visited a bunch of old favorite spots. Some sadly in decline (Le Caveau du Palais), some still good. And a couple of new experiences.

Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes
Rustic, hearty restaurant. Specializes in cassoulet presented with pride in giant copper vats. It was a delicious cassoulet and definitely satisfied our hunger for same but I have some reservations. Cassoulet is never a light dish, but the quarter inch of grease floating on top of my bowl was a bit troubling. OTOH the goose leg confit was just amazing. Comfortable room, nice people, I will gladly go back.
Au Bourguignon du Marais
One of our old favorite restaurants, still delicious food. It’s a bit more interesting than the usual bistro menu, well prepared and with good wines. We went on a Saturday night and it was intensely crowded and about 80% tourists, which put us off a bit, next time I’ll go at a quieter time.
Le Relais de l’Entrecôte
Another old favorite, the basic steak frites experience. Perfect lunch for a day of wandering around Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Ma Bourgogne
A fine bistro under the arcades of the Places des Vosges, this has been one of Ken’s favorites for years. Personally I thought it was good but nothing particularly distinguishes the food. Reliable and pleasant though, and you can’t beat the location.
Taillevent
One of Paris’ famous temples of food, two or three Michelin stars for years and years. I go back and forth on how I feel about this place. It’s a bit too traditional, uninspired in the kitchen. There’s no complex molecular gastronomy and radical flavor combinations you’d expect from high end chefs. On the other hand every single experience I or my friends have had there has been excellent, something I can’t say for some of the other super fancy restaurants in Paris. So I enthusiastically recommend it if you want to experience the very pinnacle of a French dining experience, albeit without being on the forefront of gastronomic exploration.
Hotel de Vendôme
Good luxury boutique hotel with an excellent central location, friendly staff, and very comfortable rooms. Also terribly expensive, although for this class of hotel it’s better value than you get from the competition. Sometimes you can get lucky and get a pretty good rate (€350 / night), particularly mid-week. The furnishings are starting to feel a bit worn and the Internet didn’t work as well as it should, so not perfect.
Musée Carnavalet
The Paris city museum, the quirkiness of random stuff the city has collected makes it one of my favorites. It’s not well organized, the quality varies highly, parts of the museum are closed at random intervals because someone went to lunch. But there’s a feel of discovery in the museum, finding an unexpected 1871 painting from the Commune or a beautiful wooden cradle in the shape of a boat or a collection of 25 little busts of Spinoza. It helps that it’s free and situated in the Marais where you’re probably wandering around anyway. You can just pop in for 30 minutes and see a couple of rooms, then leave without feeling like you had to see everything.
culturetravel
  2014-10-16 14:39 Z