Welcome to Wales – A Consonant-rich Environment

Not a lot of people visit Wales. I’m not entirely sure why that is. There are a lot of cruddy places crammed with tourists. Wales isn’t one of them. There are very nice castles, charming pubs, rolling hills, and lots and lots of sheep, and who doesn’t loves sheep? But nobody knows Wales. Wales is famous for leeks, Tom Jones, and what must be his cousin, Catherine Zeta-Jones. And Shirley Bassey. And the guy from The Americans, Matthew Rhys. That might be it. But cut them some slack, it’s a small country.

Well, it’s sort of a country. Wales is a country within a country, like Scotland. Together, Scotland, Wales, and England comprise Great Britain (although the United Kingdom also includes Northern Ireland). Scotland and Wales have their own legislatures, and they make many (but by no means all) of their own laws. Is everyone still with me or are you now quietly wetting yourselves with boredom?

Anyway, in addition to embodying a distinct national pride, Wales has an impenetrable language with a lot of guttural sounds. To make matters worse, Welsh regularly uses the letters w and y as vowels. The written language looks like somebody dropped a box of scrabble tiles on the ground and then rearranged them completely at random, pretending to spell words. You get many opportunities to read Welsh, because the Welsh legislature passed a law requiring all government signs to be bilingual, even though almost everyone also speaks English. My guess is that the Welsh cultivate this indecipherable language so they can talk about the English in front of them. They’re doing a pretty good job, though. There’s a Welsh BBC channel, Welsh soap operas, and Welsh rugby with Welsh announcers. It’s all very impressive, but I just want to sell all these nice people a vowel.

In sum, I really don’t know squat about Wales, although it seems exotic and I do love to learn new things. Also, our good friend Mark offered to host us, so it was an easy call. We were off to Wales.

It was a lovely visit. We kicked it off with a dandy dinner in a pub high up on a hill with an epic view of one of the many valleys that slices through the country.

The view from the hilltop pub.

The view from the hilltop pub.

We were able to spend lots of quality time with Mark, which included a visit to Caerphilly Castle, the second biggest castle in the UK (after Windsor Castle, since you asked). Caerphilly dates back to the thirteenth century and has two sets of moats, and the only thing better than an old castle is an old castle with two moats. They’ve done a great job restoring the place, so much so that you can now throw a wedding in the Great Hall. You wanna go to a huge castle without all the crowds? Go to Wales.

Caerphilly Castle - a most excellent castle.

Caerphilly Castle – a most excellent castle.

Mark drove us around Cardiff, Wales’s capital city, which has experienced a renaissance in recent years. It’s a charming little city of about 800,000, with some very nice architecture and a dockyard district that has been converted to condos and restaurants. It’s still a bit rough around the edges, dealing like much of the country is with youth unemployment, drug problems, and other social challenges. At the moment, Wales is gripped with a spate of grassland arsons – young people with nothing better to do than set fire to a hillside. But there is also a lot of energy as well as new construction everywhere, including the country’s first parliament building, which was built when a significant amount of power was devolved from the British Parliament in the late 1990s.

Our real peek into Welsh life came when we briefly experimented with metaphysics by attending Mark’s village church last Sunday. It was a lovely service, and it gave us a chance to meet a few of Mark’s neighbors. The congregation was on the elderly side – I’d say that our guest appearance that day temporarily reduced the mean age of the twenty or so people in attendance to about 75. They seemed an energetic and friendly group, however. At least half of them came up to us after the service to say hello. While the old church and its only slightly less old attendees were very traditional, the officiant was slightly less so. A very energetic fellow in his early fifties, the preacher seemed downright avant garde in his jeans and untucked knit polo shirt. During his very engaging sermon he referenced the challenges of keeping up with Twitter and email, a concept that might have eluded at least a few in the crowd. But there were old-school hymns as well, as if to provide balance. While I haven’t been inside a church for something other than a wedding or a funeral in as long as I can remember, I still found the whole thing quite nice.

We said goodbye to Mark and picked up a rental car for a drive through England up to Scotland, where we’ll meet my mother. Having met us earlier in the trip in Buenos Aires, she has become a jet setter in her golden years. We’re taking a week to meander north, stopping at inns (and maybe the odd castle) along the way.

Our first stop is Stratford upon Avon, where the only thing I could get tickets for was that great Shakespearean classic, Death of a Salesman.

Kitschy Nudist Commies and Other Berlin Delights

We can see the end of our journey quite clearly. In less than four weeks we’ll be back in our beds, and snuggling in with our dogs and our cat (well, not our cat because she doesn’t do that sort of thing). Perhaps that’s why the first thing we did when we arrived in Berlin was to go for Mexican food.

When we lived in Japan we used to take a two hour train ride into Tokyo to eat at El Torito so that we could have Mexican food that was bad even by El Torito’s standards. But it made us happy because it reminded us of home. That must have been on our minds when we arrived here and were willing to spend ten bucks on a cab to take us to a Mexican takeout joint in Berlin. It was actually pretty good, considering the circumstances, but it was the symbolism of the act more than anything else that struck me.

We’re winding down. We’re starting to think of home. Does that make us bad people? I certainly hope not.

This is not to say that we spend our days huddling in the corner of our apartment, pining for the fog and the drought and the beginning of the presidential primary season. No, friends, we’re travelers and travelers travel. Throughout this trip, we have tried not to look too far ahead for fear of cheating the present. It’s getting a little harder not to look ahead, but we’re going to give it the old college try.

Herewith, then, are highlights of our relatively brief visit to Berlin.

We squeezed Berlin into the schedule because people just kept talking about it. It’s a new and vibrant city, people say. There’s opera, ballet, one of the best symphonies in the world, and an exciting new art scene.

All those things may be true, but what has struck me about Berlin is the wall. Of course the wall is gone. People wiped it away because it was bad. It divided a country, it divided families, and it was a terrible symbol of the stark difference in the lives of people from the same country who in some places lived just a few hundred feet from each other. Walking around Berlin today it’s hard to imagine that twenty five years ago there were one hundred twenty four miles of wall encircling West Berlin, whose purpose was to keep the population of East Germany out.

Our apartment in Prenzlaur Berg sits on the east side of the dividing line, just one block from where the wall used to stand. A casual visitor to the neighborhood couldn’t possibly tell that this was the poor side of town. There are malls, cute little cafes, movie theaters, and yes, Mexican restaurants. A time traveler from 1989 would fall over dead.

Maybe the most famous symbol of the border between east and west Berlin is Checkpoint Charlie – one of the few spots where people could cross from one side to the other. Of course it was impossible for regular East Germans to make the trip to the west, but westerners were allowed to cross, as were diplomats and other credentialed people. There’s nothing original left of the old gate (the real one is in a museum, so visitors have to satisfy themselves with taking photos of a replica, including the famous “you are leaving the American sector” sign). No matter, the fake gate looks real enough, and it’s not hard to imagine the tension inherent in two cold war powers staring each other down across a short no man’s land.

There's almost nothing original left at Checkpoint Charlie, but it is still a place where many people lost their lives trying to escape to the west.

There’s almost nothing original left at Checkpoint Charlie, but it is still a place where many people lost their lives trying to escape to the west.

If you have trouble conjuring up the image, there are no shortage of exhibits and museums that will fill in the blanks. The cheesiest is the DDR Museum – a kitschy exhibition of life behind the iron curtain. There you can sit in a Trabant, which was considered one of the world’s worst cars, but which was a symbol of East German engineering. (It famously didn’t have a gas gauge, as designers believed that what didn’t exist couldn’t break.) There is a replica of a standard-issue East German apartment (although I’m sure a great many New Yorkers would trade their hovels for one of these places, as long as they were still walking distance to Zabar’s), and some snarky displays about life in the East. It also included, inexplicably, a display on East German’s love of nudist camps, complete with a bizarre diorama.

A diorama of East German nudists playing volleyball - truly the weirdest museum exhibit I've ever seen.

A diorama of East German nudists playing volleyball – truly the weirdest museum exhibit I’ve ever seen.

The whole museum is a bit of a victory lap, but it’s an informative and entertaining one. The shocking bit is that until 1989, a time that many of us remember quite well, that’s what life was more or less like in the very neighborhood in which I’m typing these words. Now I can walk across the street and get a latte.

One of the great symbols of Berlin is the neo Baroque Reichstag building. The building was the home of German parliament from 1894 to 1933, when it burned under mysterious circumstances. After World War II, the West German government moved to Bonn, and the building sat here, unloved and disintegrating. An attempt at restoration in the 1960s was a bit of a bust, but German reunification in 1990 provided the impetus to restore the building properly as the seat of government was returned to Berlin. The British architect Norman Foster reimagined the building in very good ways, replacing the destroyed cupola with a glass dome, from which you can look all the way down into the legislative chamber. The bad news is that you need a ticket to get into the dome (although the tickets are free) and when we arrived to Berlin, the tickets were all gone. The good news is that there is a glorious loophole to the ticket problem. There is a restaurant in the dome and anyone with a reservation to the restaurant naturally gains access to the dome, so we went the loophole route. The bad news is that the food and the service aren’t quite as good as the view. But the good news is that the view and the free audio commentary provide a great vantage point to see the city and learn about its history.

The funhouse mirror effect of standing in the dome of the Reichstag.

The funhouse mirror effect of standing in the dome of the Reichstag.

We also made time for the Bauhaus Archive, which displays a collection from the famous school of art and design, where so many modern design ideas got their start. From furniture to architecture to everyday household items like lamps or even chessboards, Bauhaus designers created work that was meant to be inexpensive to produce, practical to use, and beautiful in its simplicity. Much of today’s so-called “design thinking” owes a huge debt to Bauhaus, as does the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and almost every Airbnb apartment, furnished as they invariably are at Ikea, which is full of Bauhaus-inspired stuff, whether they realize it or not.

A Bauhaus chess set - the pieces tell you how they move.

A Bauhaus chess set – the pieces tell you how they move.

Two meals stood out during our visit. The first sounds awful but was really, really great. At the advice of a friend of Janine, we skedaddled over to the Kaufhaus des Westens (the department store of the west), more popularly known as the KaDeWe, a department store that has served Berlin in one form or another since 1907. Department stores are fine, but this one has a food hall that makes it a real destination. There are counters sprinkled around the sixth floor in between butchers, fish mongers, and sellers of wine, produce, and other good stuff, including, by far, the stinkiest cheese display I’ve ever laid nose on. The counters serve up an equally wide array of gourmet goodness, and after much consideration, we settled on a food counter that specialized in, of all things, potatoes. Janine had a baked potato the size of a basketball, and I opted for pickled pork in aspic served with thin sliced potatoes that were cooked in bacon and onions. Our stools at the counter provided us with the perfect vantage point of the dish as it was being constructed. A chef would ladle some liquid lipid into a pan, then he would toss in a big pile of sliced potatoes, then some bacon and onions, then more viscuous grease, and then cook it until the whole pile was brown and delicious and deeply dangerous. The dark brown German lager with a foamy head like a dirty blonde afro rounded out the dish, and my silhouette.

If I keep eating like this, I will be in no condition to either bicker or love.

If I keep eating like this, I will be in no condition to either bicker or love.

And now a word about the second meal, Berlin’s most famous food item, currywurst. The word is…meh. Currywurst is simple, but this is a reminder that simple isn’t by definition good. Currywurst is a hot dog cut up into inch-long pieces, sprinkled with curry powder, and drowned in ketchup. It was fine, if you like that sort of thing, but honestly I just don’t see what the big deal is. On the other hand, I saw a guy selling hot dogs from a portable grill that was hanging around his neck. Now THAT’S dedication in service to an important cause. More grilled hot dogs, I say, and less currywurst.

Currywurst. Not the best.

Currywurst. Not the best.

And so, having not nearly done Berlin the justice it so richly deserves, we pack our two bags and make for Wales, where we will visit our dear friend Mark and try to convince him that Wales needs to buy a vowel.

After that we are off to Scotland and then London, and then home on May 11. Hard to believe.

Drinking hoppy beer and eating hoppy kangaroo – the joys of Sydney.

When you visit Australia, what’s the one thing you must do? Obviously, you need to eat their national animal, the kangaroo, right?

Australia and New Zealand. They go together like peanut butter and jelly (or jello, as they call it here). Frick and Frack. Shields and Yarnell.

They’re really quite similar, aren’t they? For starters, their flags are practically identical.

Aussie on top, Kiwi on the bottom.

Aussie on top, Kiwi on the bottom.

They both say “g’day” and “no worries.” In both countries a double espresso is a “long black” and a cappuccino is a “short white.” Their accents are pretty similar, although Kiwis say “fush and chups,” which is how I tell them apart. From now on, if I can’t tell if someone is Aussie or Kiwi, I may be forced to trick them into saying either “fish” or “chips” or, if I’m lucky, both. My sense is, however, that Kiwis have a bit of a chip (or chup) on their shoulder about their bigger, richer neighbor. While we were in New Zealand, we heard more than a few barbs aimed at the folks next door. Eec/ Dare I say it? New Zealand seems like Canada to Aussie’s America, which is to say that the place is nicer, safer, and cleaner, and all that pisses the Kiwis off just a bit. As far as I can tell, the Aussies don’t seem to notice.

Anyway, notwithstanding the shocking similarities, seeing as how we made it all the way to New Zealand, it made sense to give Australia a chance to show its stuff.

I will say that the bar was sitting a bit high. New Zealand was lovely. We covered almost 1200 miles over the two islands. Here’s the final route:

Our route through the Shire.

Our route through the Shire.

The people were almost comically friendly. Eighteen seconds out of any downtown in New Zealand and we were back in Middle Earth. The whole country is basically one big Shire full of happy hobbits. Top that, Oz!

On the other hand, we’re city people, and as it turns out, our first stop, Sydney, is an excellent city.

We hit the ground running. In December when we were still in Egypt (which feels like lifetimes ago) I bought tickets to the February 13 Paul Simon/Sting concert in Sydney. We landed, dropped our bags at our hotel (after three weeks in an RV we got to sleep in an actual bed again!) and dashed over to the arena for three hours of real, live popular culture. The walk back to the hotel took us through some of the gritty sections of downtown, complete with more than a few clubs of ill repute, drunken revelers, and other non-Kiwi like experiences. Unlike Wellington, New Zealand, which is just a nicer version of Victoria, British Columbia, Sydney has an underbelly.

In addition to all the fine culture, the nice people of Sydney also served us what may be the best meal of the trip so far, if you don’t count Peter Lugar. We went to a place called Monopole, in the Pott’s Point neighborhood. Despite its name, which brings to mind the central feature of a strip club, it delivered a near-perfect meal. We started with a scallop ceviche, served with grilled avocado and corn and topped with a buttermilk avocado cream and a hint of fresh tarragon. Damn, friends, this was a good dish.

Then there was that kangaroo. It seemed kind of rude to come to Australia and eat their most famous animal, but I just couldn’t help myself. They served us a simply smashing kangaroo loin in a red wine reduction with a dandy little raw beet salad. The ‘roo was tender and tasty and I don’t care who knows it. I promise, however, not to eat koala. (For the record, Janine wants me to remind everyone that there are lots of kangaroos in Australia and that eating the national animal is not against the law or anything.)

Sydney is known for its Asian food, and we went all in, searing our innards at a northern Thai place called House. Isan food from northern Thailand is known for being fiery, and let’s just say that the House burned down, despite the copious amounts of India Pale Ale I used to attempt to put out the flames. We also had really good ramen at one of the very many good looking ramen joints in town.

We went on to sample even more culture in Sydney. After touring at least a half dozen theaters in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Argentina, we finally saw a show. At one of the six theatres in the Sydney Opera House, The Sydney Theatre Company (run by Cate Blanchett’s husband) presented a strange but good production of Tennessee Williams’s play Suddenly Last Summer starring one of Australia’s most beloved actresses, Robyn Nevin. The production employed a very weird technique – half the time the actors performed behind a white cyclorama, but the live performance was captured by cameras and projected on the screen. Every so often, the stage would rotate and the audience could see the actors directly. The technique distracted me from the (mostly) great acting, but Janine felt it gave the wordiness of the text some oomph. I’m happy to say that we disagreed unbickeringly. No matter, this was risky theatre done with verve and I give them points for that.

We also saw Tosca at the Opera House, which reminded me why I have come to really like opera. It was a huge production with massive sets, a cast of more than fifty, an enormous and wonderful orchestra, an overwrought love story, and great big, unamplified voices. Opera audiences are almost as fun as the show itself, and Sydney’s didn’t disappoint. There were dowager empress types, old guys with short ties and pants up to their necks, and a goodly assortment of the aged and the aging out for a night on the town.

The Sydney Opera House really is all that. It’s every bit as dramatic from the inside looking out as it is from the outside looking in. As you might imagine, building it was no picnic. Before the opera, we dug deep for the guided tour, in which we learned of the tribulations of its construction. For any of you out there who have remodeled your house, or, heaven forbid, built one from scratch, take heart – this project went ten years and $70 million over budget. The architect quit two thirds of the way in. When they poured the foundation, they didn’t actually know how they were going to build those famous sails. I’m here to tell you that it was worth it. When Washington, D.C. wanted to create a big performing arts showpiece, it settled for the square, boring Kennedy Center. Sydney built this. These are my kind of people.

The Sydney Opera House - worth every penny.

The Sydney Opera House – worth every penny.

There was so much we didn’t see or eat in Sydney, which in addition to being cultural and delicious is also a truly beautiful city. It’s got harbors, hills, some really lovely neighborhoods, and the famous Bondi Beach. What’s not to like? I’m only sorry that we didn’t have more time. We are told that Melbourne, the big city to the south, is more elegant, more hip, and even more delicious. If that’s the case, we may never leave.