A Night at the Ballet

After a year living in the cultural city of Berlin, I’ve finally been to the ballet. Last night I went to the Deutsche Oper to see a performance of The Sleeping Beauty by the Staatsballett Berlin.

Photo: Bernd Uhlig

I turned up in time for the pre-performance-introduction, offered before most concerts and performances here. I find them particularly helpful before operas, when you realise on entering the building that you forgot to read a quick plot summary before setting off and now face several hours of guesswork (although to be honest, love-betrayal-revenge-death normally covers it). However, often I can’t help feeling like I could be listening to a university seminar presentation. The speaker simply stands up, reassures the audience that there will still be time to buy drinks and food from the bar even if they stay until the end of the talk (a mixture of bribery and not-so-subtle flogging their wares me thinks), reads their speech from a sheet, before thanking the audience for listening and leaving the podium.  What they say is undoubtedly well-researched, but there is no audience interaction or opportunity to ask questions, and one gets the feeling anybody could have written it; there is no personal touch. But this seems in-keeping with the general formality of the music industry here in Germany.

Whatever you may have thought about ballet up until now, please indulge me for a moment. I decided last night that ballet really does provide something that will appeal to most people’s interests. For example:

Music – two and a half hours of wonderful orchestral music by Tchaikovsky
Costumes – incredible works of art – glittery, imaginative, detailed, bedecked with jewels.
Choreography – the fancy footwork was the work of Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato (Nacho being a shortening of Ignacio, which, incidentally, was the name of the chef that invented the famous Tex-Mex dish Nachos when hungry guests turned up after closing time leading him to improvise…)
Drama – dangerous spindles, wicked fairy godmothers, curses, vying suitors, the kiss of life…
Magic – I don’t want to give anything away, but the entrance of wicked fairy godmother Carabosse was impressive to say the least, aided by her Wizard-of-Oz-style creepy monkey sidekicks
Cross-dressing – the wicked fairy godmother is in fact…a man!
Staging/scenery – the set took us from a brilliant ballroom, into the woods, on a gondola, to the peacock-adorned palace.
People watching – the foyer is a fascinating place during the intervals, and the size of the auditorium means there is always lots of action just before the lights go down. I spent quite a while trying to work out whether one particular lady was wearing a hat, or whether it was actually her hair. And if the latter, how much hairspray had she needed to make it stay like that?!
Quiet time – even if it’s no more than an excuse to sit quietly in the dark for a while – one parent recently admitted to me that she actually quite enjoyed taking her children to see Captain Underpants at the cinema for that very reason – when else would she get an hour and a half undisturbed in the middle of the day during school holidays where she could just sit and relax or have a nap?
Wine – much is on offer and there is even more than one interval in which to enjoy it
Languages – there may not have been any speech during the performance itself (save one dancer commanding “Maestro”, which was totally unnecessary in my opinion) but around the building I heard at least German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages non-identified (by me at least).

Convinced yet?

In an attempt to encourage younger audiences, last night was one of the “family performances”. Apart from the fact that I believe children’s tickets were markedly reduced for that performance, I don’t really see what else made it especially child-friendly. It still started at 7.30pm and didn’t finish until about 10.15pm – surely a matinee would have been more suitable? I think there was a special children’s workshop earlier in the day; highly commendable, but surely a further guarantee that the children will not last until the end of the ballet? It felt like a late night for me, let alone a six-year-old. The three children in front of me did very well, but were fast asleep by the second interval (luckily they didn’t snore).

Fazit: I came out smiling. I could have sat through it all again. Go tutu the ballet!

Iana Salenko c_Yan_Revazov-
Photo: Yan Revazov

Uncle Tom’s Hut

It sounds either like an Enid Blyton title, or a rather seedy establishment that I would prefer to avoid. In fact, it is simply the name of one of the Berlin U-Bahn stations*. It has always intrigued me, and on Tuesday I finally checked it out. The station itself is nothing to write home about (oh, hold on…) but it does boast a rather splendid health food shop with a delicious cake counter – if they’re sold in a health food shop, they must be healthy, right?! Healthy or not, the Apfelkuchen certainly tasted good.

I didn’t really make the hour journey just for a slice of cake, though. Onkel Toms Hütte is within walking distance of Krumme Lanke, one of the lakes on the western outskirts of Berlin. The name refers to its crooked shape.

As I emerged from the forest after having been passed by lots of topless old men on bicycles, presumably on their way for their daily dip, I saw sparkling water ahead and began the eager hunt for a sunny spot to eat my sandwiches. I didn’t turn up until 1pm, so most of the beachy spots were already taken. There were no sun loungers in sight, but you know what the Germans are like 😉 Hence my search for a spot turned into a lap of the lake, which at least allowed me to enjoy the scenery from all sides. Apart from when I passed the FKK section that is, when I tried to keep my eyes fixed firmly ahead (N.B. FKK = Freikörperkultur = free body culture, i.e. nudism).

As I started my second lap, I found a satisfactory place to stop – sunny, not to near the nudes, and with a good view. Having said there were no sun loungers, I did come across one lady who had brought an inflatable beach mattress larger than my own bed – not one I wanted to mess with. I sat and watched the glistening water and the green treetops gently waving in the wind, feeling very content. Other than some stroppy teenage ducks, it was peaceful. I ate my picnic, bathed in the sun, until I couldn’t really put off the inevitable any longer; there is something quite magical about swimming in a lake – so refreshing and liberating. I know that I love it once I’m in, but that doesn’t make getting in any easier! Still, having watched pensioners and a pregnant woman who looked ready to pop all manage it, I really had no excuse.  And it was actually much less painful than I had feared! After a few “lengths”, I walked back to the U-Bahn feeling refreshed and ready for some cake.


*I am aware that there is a novel entitled Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe ad published in 1852, it is an anti-slavery novel set in the USA. I haven’t read this book, which is why, unfortunately, the station name for me seems to draw more connections with “Peeping Tom”, perhaps not in itself irrelevant given the FKK…

Anyway, it turns out that in 1885 a pub was erected near today’s current U-Bahn station. It was demolished in 1979, but the then landlord had erected little cabins in the beer garden in case of bad weather. These came to be known as Tom’s Hütte, or cabins, and as Beecher Stowe’s novel was by then very well-known, the pub soon came to be nicknamed Onkel Toms Hütte.

A trip to Norway…..well, almost

Today was a first for me – my first Norwegian church service!  This may seem like a somewhat random thing to do in Berlin, but to put it in context, a Norwegian friend of mine was having her baby baptised. It was an interesting experience; I didn’t understand much of the spoken Norwegian, but combining my knowledge of German and of the Church of England order of service, I didn’t do too badly with the service booklet.  It was interesting to see the connections between German and Norwegian. I’d actually be quite keen to learn a Scandinavian language; it’s just a shame there isn’t much opportunity to speak one, without moving to Scandinavia.

I felt a little like an imposter as the church service segued into a parade, ahead of the Norwegian National Day on May 17th, complete with national anthem and flag waving.  I tagged along anyway and I think I got away with it – no one stopped me at the cake table anyway 😉


Due to the celebratory occasion, there were several fine examples of the Norwegian traditional dress, otherwise known as the Bunad.  This isn’t unlike the German dirndl and lederhosen, with women wearing beautifully embroidered long dresses and shawls, and men wearing knee-length trousers, long socks, jackets and waistcoats.  My pew neighbour explained that there are around 20 different traditional bunad patterns, and the one you wear depends on where your family is from.

Norwegians have bunads, Bavarians (and English tourists on stag-dos in Berlin, as I’ve found out) have Lederhosen, Scots have kilts, the Welsh have wonderful hats; why don’t the English have a national dress?  It could solve so many problems – away the embarrassment of turning up in the same dress as another guest – that’s the point; gone the trouble of deciding which dress to wear; no more trying to remember at which wedding you last wore a particular dress / whether the people present will have already seen you in this outfit.  And they look so elegant.

After some delicious cake, I left Norway behind and headed into the Berlin kiez of Schöneberg. A lovely stroll took me through parks, past picnickers (some complete with folding tables and chairs – how efficient!), via sunny benches, and then headlong into a street party. I jostled my way through the stalls along with hundreds of others, sampling the various jams, cheeses, and cordials (I declined the inevitable sausages), and then sought refuge from the crowds in a quiet Mediterranean cafe.

Walking through the streets I was again struck by the bizarre mix of architecture to be found in Berlin – ornate facades side by side with grey, uninspiring blocks of flats.  Also, the prevalence of graffiti, even in smart residential areas, and the poor state of repair of many buildings.

Puzzle of the day: today was Muttertag (Mothers’ Day) in Germany. The increase in floral advertising and the subsequent response of many Berlin citizens over the past week has made me revisit a question that has been puzzling me for a while – why do Germans carry bunches of flowers upside down?

As far as I am aware, when one buys flowers in the UK one then proceeds to carry them home as one would if presenting them to the recipient, i.e. stalks downwards, proudly displaying the wonderful colours of the petals.  Yet here, bunches of flowers are wrapped up and then always carried heads downwards, almost condescendingly. I’m sure it really doesn’t matter, but it is something which has stood out to me nonetheless.

[A quick Google consultation suggests that it could be so that the water stays in the blooms, however, surely one could argue that the petals / flower heads are also more likely to fall off…?]

Na ja, another thing to add to the “curious German habits” list.

A rather appropriate station at which to change trains today, oder?

Off to Bamberg

20-22. Januar 2017

Having spent a year studying at Würzburg University in Franconia, northern Bavaria, it is always a pleasure to return to the south of Germany.  And so being sent by work to Bamberg, another lovely Franconian town about 100km east of Würzburg and 4.5 train hours from Berlin, seemed like a pretty good deal.

A city of 70,000 inhabitants, Bamberg is spread over seven hills, which has led to it being nicknamed the “Franconian Rome”.  Much of the historic centre is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and under beautiful blue skies, shining sun and a crisp carpet of snow, it was definitely not leaving any room for doubt of its worthiness of such a tag. Klein Venedig  (“Little Venice”) is particularly attractive, a row of half-timbered fishermen’s houses from the 19th century along one bank of the river Regnitz. I also like story of the Altes Rathaus: legend has it that the bishop didn’t grant the citizens of Bamberg any land for the construction of a town hall.  This prompted the townspeople to ram huge wooden beams into the bed and build their town hall there, creating an artificial island. The Old Town Hall is painted with really impressive frescoes and 3D trompe d’oeil effects – unfortunately I didn’t take any photos so you will just have to take my word for it.

One of the things that Bambergers are extremely proud of is their resident orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony. This is proven by the fact that an impressive 10% of the city’s population have a subscription to the orchestra’s local concert series!  Far from being a mere provincial ensemble, the Bamberg Symphony is one of the most-travelled orchestras in Germany.  Their recent tour to the USA reminded me of the Jesus College Cambridge Chapel Choir trip a few years ago, where the choristers nearly didn’t make it back in time for Christmas due to uncooperative weather.  I missed out on this tour as I was…on my year abroad in Würzburg.

The Bamberg Symphony also founded the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, the first winner of which was the then-unknown Gustavo Dudamel in 2004, now world-famous, not least for his involvement with the Venezuelan music education programme El Sistema.  He is also the Music Director of the LA Philharmonic and on 1st January 2017 was the youngest-ever conductor to lead the Vienna Philharmonic’s famous New Year’s Day Concert (he is 35).

Jakub Hrůša
Jakub Hrůša

The Bamberg Symphony also has a young conductor: in September 2016, 35-year-old Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša took over the position of Chief Conductor from Jonathan Nott.  Consequently, the orchestra has been celebrating a return to its Czech roots: the orchestra was formed in 1946, mainly from Germans who had been expelled from Czechoslovakia, previously members of the German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague.  Over the years, the Bamberg Symphony has often been recognised for its “Bohemian sound”.   Perhaps fittingly, their first recording with Jakub Hrůša is a (superb) interpretation of Smetana’s Má Vlast.

Some of you may be interested in reading this Q&A with Jakub Hrůša, recently published by The Arts Desk.

The concert on Saturday evening was fantastic, but to avoid boring those of you who have already found this post too long, there will be more on that later.  Sunday featured a guided tour of the town, a long-overdue catch up with one of my Cambridge contemporaries, who is currently studying a Masters degree at Bamberg University, and a long train journey back to Berlin after a lovely weekend.

Berlin im Schnee

Happy New Year! Or as the Germans would say, I hope you had a good slide (into the New Year). I have been back in Berlin for a week now, although somehow it feels much longer.  Berlin is looking very white at the moment – there has been lots of snow. My bike has been relegated to the cellar, yet I’ve been surprised at the number of people who are still cycling.  It has also been very cold – which makes my pre-Christmas-indulgence in a pair of warm, red, lace-up winter boots feel more than justified. Today it was -8°C, and gosh my fingers knew it. As much as I can never wait to get to work, approaching the exit staircase of the tube station aka icy wind tunnel is really not at all pleasant.  Still, it makes the hot cup of tea on arrival at work taste even better.


I met this chap on the way back from the supermarket today:


Lebkuchen and Spekulatius biscuits are nearly all but gone from the supermarket aisles.  I imagine they will be quickly replaced by Fasching (carnival)  costumes.

Silvester, or New Year’s Eve, is meant to be quite an experience in Berlin. As I spent New Year in England (Alnwick to be precise), the only evidence I have to go on is the detritus now left half-buried on the snowy streets, which certainly implies great celebration took place.  I’ve heard tales likening it to a war zone, with rockets and bombs exploding erratically on all sides.  Maybe next year I should stay here to witness it myself –  the general advice seems to be avoid the streets between 8pm-3am and seek refuge on a roof-top balcony, from where you can admire the firework displays but are less likely to come face to face with a ferocious firecracker.


Prenzlauer Berg

Saturday 24.09.16

Word of the Day: die Kastanie(n) = chestnut(s)

Today was my first free day in Berlin. I decided not to go into the centre of Berlin to do touristy things, as I have a very special visitor arriving next weekend and I am sure that sight-seeing will feature during her stay.

Instead I went for a walk around Prenzlauer Berg, the area where I am currently staying. I say currently because it is only a temporary solution, whilst I look for a more permanent flat. First impressions were very pleasant. Relatively little of Prenzlauer Berg was destroyed during the war, unlike other parts of the city, so most of the buildings are still in the altbau style – lovely old houses with attractive and ornate façades from the beginning of the 20th century. Coupled with the cobbled streets and wide, tree-lined avenues, I felt like I could have been in France. I particularly enjoyed walking down Kastanienallee, a large cobbled street lined with chestnut trees, under which small children were eagerly searching for shiny conkers. There were lots of cafés with people sitting sipping their cups of Kaffee outside in the sun, as well as boutique shops, galleries and small parks.

Although little of the area was destroyed during the Second World War, the area was rather neglected during the time of the German Democratic Republic. The East German government chose to focus its attention on constructing large, new Plattenbau blocks of flats, in order to try and deal with the accommodation crisis. As a result, the older houses gradually fell into disrepair. Many families chose to move away, and it got to the point where people often didn’t know which buildings were habitable, let alone to whom they belonged. Enter the squatters. It provided a perfect opportunity for musicians, artists, grassroots activists and students, who moved in and took over the abandoned and dilapidated buildings. Over time, Prenzlauer Berg developed into a hotspot for the “alternative” and a focal point of the Berlin art scene.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of the buildings that had belonged to the GDR state-owned housing associations were bought up by private investors. A period of intense renovation began, and the Altbauten in Prenzlauer Berg once again began to shine. From the 1990’s, the area began to see a distinct gentrification; rents rose significantly, and students and artists were gradually priced out of what became a highly sought-after district among young families, professionals, and more affluent people from Southern Germany. As a result, today the district has a cosmopolitan, European feel to it, and the number of prams, slings and balance bikes would definitely entitle Prenzlauer Berg to being nicknamed Nappy Valley.

A closing remark: whoever knew that dog ice cream was a thing?! I found a shop dedicated to it on my explorations in Prenzlauer Berg. Sounds very “Northcote Road-esque” to me (London reference…)



Los Geht’s!

Here we go!

I am currently sitting in a café at Stansted Airport, eating what will probably be my last scone in a while.  After 32 hours of travelling yesterday (more on that later) , I am feeling a little worse for wear, but also excited about the adventure that lies ahead.

Ever since I returned from Germany in 2011 after a year studying at Würzburg University, I have felt a desire to return.  I wasn’t quite sure if, how or when this might happen, or why I felt such a strong connection with Germany, but the pull in my stomach never went away.

Wind forward four and a half years to January 2016 and I am in London, starting a new job with WildKat PR, a PR agency that specialises in classical music.  This was quite a change after having been organising concert and educational tours for Club Europe Group Travel for two and a half years, but it was exciting to be working with professional musicians, getting an insight into the press and media industries, and facing new challenges.

At the end of June, I was asked if I’d be interested in transferring to our Berlin office  (WildKat have offices in London, Berlin and New York).  I hadn’t been expecting the opportunity to come so soon after having joined the company, if at all, but I immediately said, Ja!  It was initially suggested I might like to move over at the end of July, but, enthusiastic as I was, that did seem rather soon. I also had various client projects over the summer with which I was keen to stay involved, and also attend. This brings us back to the 32-hour journey.  The way things worked out, I was away working for a week in Devon at the Dartington International Summer School and Festival (check it out – it’s amazing!), then had one week left to finish up in the London office as well as move out of my flat, and then I would have moved across to Berlin had I not, many months earlier, booked a fortnight’s holiday to Croatia and Slovenia for two weeks, blissfully unaware I would end up having to move countries less than 24 hours after having returned on a coach, sleep-deprived, flat-less, and with a case of dirty washing.

Still, this scone is definitely helping.  I’ll be in touch again once I have settled in a bit and have hopefully managed to navigate my way through some of the German bureaucracy that is bound to lie ahead.  I envisage lots of form-filling, queues, and, to use a German stereotype, vigorous stamping of forms by authoritative looking officials…

In the meantime, here are a few snaps from my holiday (click on the photos for captions).  My camera is currently packed somewhere in my luggage, but I couldn’t tell you where, and these are much nicer than shots of Stansted Airport would be anyway: