Saturday, February 28, 2015

As the Sun Returns to Berlin

The cold dark days of winter are receding as the sun returns to Berlin. Today, we celebrated that with creme fraiche and summer fruit from the Turkish market, sitting in the bright breakfast nook of our kitchen above bustling Neukolln. Warm light streamed through the big windows, and Flash lounged lazily beside us.

And here are a thousand photos of Flash!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

On the Train to Prague

While living in LA, we yearned for the ease of travel within Europe that living here would afford. We took a trip to Italy from LA in 2011, and the flight alone cost us thousands. We hoped that life in Berlin would mean brief, inexpensive stays in historic places, planned with spontaneity and on short notice. So far we've had a few weekend getaways, and this coming spring we'll be heading to London and Rome, respectively. But on the spur of the moment, we decided to take a trip for Valentine's Day. Prague has a reputation for beauty and is just hours away from Berlin by train, so it was a perfect fit. We booked the train and an Airbnb flat, and a week later we were on our way!

The train to Prague left from the Hauptbahnhof (the main train station) in the center of Berlin. It's an immense station, larger than most we've seen and very modern in design and architecture. It feels a bit futuristic to walk around inside of the echoing structure, as it has multiple levels rising up from deep below ground to high in the air, with many escalators moving in all directions and the constant swooshing sound of both city and regional trains. We often go through this station as a part of our daily life, and we always tempt each other with the prospect of just jumping on a train to Budapest or Amsterdam. They're just right there! So it was another wish fulfilled to go down to the lower platforms where the regional lines arrive, and board a big red train early on a Saturday morning.

It's been gloomy in Berlin for the past few months, so sitting by the window with the morning sun breaking unexpectedly through the clouds and hitting our faces as we glided out of the city felt glorious. We sat across from each other in a six-seat cabin. Most of the 2nd-class cars were composed of these cabins rather than open seating. If, like us, you don't pay extra to reserve a seat, then you have to hunt a little for a cabin with open spots. Fortunately, there were a few on this train.

The countryside between Berlin and Dresden was mostly flat and agricultural, with little towns here and there, and a few abandoned old industrial buildings. After Dresden, we followed the Elbe River through beautiful scenery and dramatic cliffs, and soon passed into the Czech Republic. Without a map we could tell we crossed the border because the signs outside and the train conductor's announcements changed to Czech (though the conductor continued to speak in German and English as well).

We rolled into the Hlavní nádraží (main train station) in Praha (Prague) in the early afternoon, ready for our Valentine's weekend adventure!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Berlinale 2015 World Premiere of Ixcanul

February. Berlin doesn't know what it wants right now, hinting at spring but still lodged firmly in winter. Snow lies on the rooftops when we wake, rain pours when we walk to and from the U-Bahn, and sunshine blinds us off and on. It seems that Berlin is torn between pleasing its people with sporadic breaks in the clouds, and torturing its visitors from warmer climates with freezing wind. And that brings me to the theory that the organizers of Berlinale, the yearly film festival, deliberately schedule it for February, a pretty miserable time in the city: they want to keep Berlin to themselves for the rest of the year. If they showed the city off in its most pleasant, warm, and vibrant months (May through October), these filmmakers and producers would never leave. I can't fault them - I may be an expat, but that doesn't mean I want to share Berlin with just anyone and everyone. It deserves to keep its magic for as long as possible.

So... this weekend we went to the world premiere of Ixcanul (Volcano), written and directed by Jayro Bustamante, and the first film from Guatemala to ever screen in competition at Berlinale. This premier screening had appeared to be sold out, but we happened to be looking at the website when they released another batch of same-day tickets, so a few a hours later we were walking down the red carpet at the huge Berline Palast next to Potsdamer Platz.

Ixcanul is a complex and often harrowing portrait of life in a very rural part of Guatemala, following a Kaqchikel Maya girl who lives with her family under the shadow of a volcano, picking coffee beans on a plantation to survive. The actors are all non-professionals, and the performances by the girl and her mother were both remarkable. The two of them appeared at the screening, and (as in the film) they could only speak their native Kaqchikel language and a few rehearsed lines of Spanish.

Early in the film, there is a scene of a pig being slaughtered for a feast, and it was clear that it was not faked. This was an effective tool to convey the desperation, helplessness, and sense of captivity felt by the film's protagonist, but it was very disturbing and shocking to watch, and we questioned the ethics of the filmmaker. Aside from that, it was an excellent film, and deserves to be in competition this year.

We're hoping to see one or two more films before the festival ends. There are so many movies screening at the Berlinale that it's totally overwhelming, and unfortunately too expensive to see more than a few. But with any luck we'll be here for next year's festival too!