Category Archives: travelogue

#10wos 05: Parks, podcasts, protests, politics, privations and podiums (21-27 July 2014)

Parks: I found myself using parks to orient myself in Riga, for it is a city that has some charming green spaces. Some with lakes, others with temporary stages and free wifi. Flowers in some, playgrounds in others. They skirt the old town and provide both oxygen and places of reflection and shade. Once inside the winding streets of the old city it’s easy enough to lose your bearings, but if you enter from the right place you at least have a chance of getting where you want to be.

Podcasts: Those parks also provided suitable locations in which to catch up on some podcast listening. I’m a fan of podcasts and have some favourites that help me regulate my sense of time: marking the days as they pass by into weeks. Plenty of them are BBC based (Mark Radcliffe’s Folk Show; Aleks Krotoski’s Digital Human) or from The Guardian. Recent American entries include The TED Radio Hour and This American Life. Standing supreme and inspiring the most loyal of followings however is Welcome to Night Vale. I urge you to seek them all out.

Protests: After three nights in Riga I went back to Berlin for a single overnight stay, en route to Edinburgh. This time I pushed further east, making my way to the heart of Kreuzberg with its cafés, bars, alternative perspectives on life and a distinct lack of the sort of glass and steel to be found elsewhere in the city. There was also a protest going on: pro-Palestine and anti-Israeli aggression. Where else but a capital city to carry out such protests, where else to find like minded protestors but in such vibrant neighbourhoods? There is of course a particular Berlin historical context here, given the religious nature of the current conflict in the Middle East.

Politics: That historical context was apparent in my final Cultural (capital C) experience of the trip. I took myself to the Bauhaus Archiv in central Berlin, near various embassies. I hadn’t realised that the Bauhaus school had only existed for around 13 years, between the end of World War I and the installation of the Nazi government in Berlin. Compared to the Victorian and Edwardian era people, politics and cultures that took Europe into that conflict, the movement must have been a breath of fresh air to all its adherents. The designs are still fresh, the concepts still have the power to inspire and surprise. The Archiv is relatively simple: a relatively large space hosting a permanent exhibition of architecture, furniture design, photography, colour and shape; next to a smaller space for temporary displays, in this case work by and inspired by Kandinsky. I loved it, from the work itself to the sense of purpose, collective vision, pedagogical alignment and personal passion of the staff and students involved. The staff at the Archiv were also fully engaged: from the highly engaged reception and shop staff, to the highly efficient and watchful stewards.

Privations: My time was up and so I headed to Tegel Airport, in a Berlin suburb. It’s not much of an airport, considering the importance of the city it serves. That said, Heathrow was unable to cope adequately with a passing thunder storm and so everything was delayed and shunted around before, during and after my stay there. Everything is run on such a tight schedule that a delay somewhere in the system knocks everything out. My fate was to wait… yet somehow, after an hour or so getting rebooked onto a different flight, I found myself in the BA Lounge. After getting my bearings I checked that I could indeed indulge myself in as much free food, drink, wifi, food and drink as I fancied. More of that next time would be most welcome.

Podiums: Back in Scotland the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games were in full swing. There’s been such a build up to these Games and Glasgow appears to have grasped the opportunity with two hands. I made my way to Hampden on Sunday for an afternoon of Athletics: very entertaining, once I had made my way through the queue. Lots of running, some jumping and some throwing. Plus national anthems of the winners – everything you could wish for. Heading into Glasgow afterwards I took in some of the live sites, street markets and other goings on. I’m sure the memories of summer days and nights out on the streets live long in the people of the city.

#10wos 04: Share and share alike (14-20 July 2014)

On the Monday of this week I had my standard three meals, in a non-standard arrangement of three different capital cities. Kicking off, early, in Edinburgh I flew into London City Airport, shared lunch with a friend, then onwards from Heathrow to Berlin. Definitely out of the ordinary and all the more fun for that.

The next bit of sharing came courtesy of my Airbnb host, in Kreuzberg, Berlin. I was on the verge, the very cusp, of considering putting my own spare room up on Airbnb earlier this summer. That plan has been shelved as I’ve had flat mates for the past few months. As for the Berlin residence though all worked out very well. A welcoming host, who gives you enough information to settle in, plus enough privacy to feel at home, makes for a fine ally in a new city. Such was the experience in Berlin, in a fine apartment.

As for the city itself: a grand capital, of which only the surface was scratched. I’ve posted a few photos already, given the urgency of showing that I was there when the German team brought home the World Cup. The story of the trip was a lot of walking, many fine buildings of varying vintages, some very friendly folk and a lot of good times, food and drink. Berlin is definitely a city to return to, to explore its neighbourhoods, galleries and open spaces. It’s an open city for the most part when the architecture is given space to breath and be seen. The transport system works well and the main railway station is a splendour to behold.

No one can escape the history of the city, nor are they allowed to. Berliners, visitors, city planners and civic leaders are continually re-evaluating their relationship to the political, social and architectural events of the past 100 years. The was government is run, its relationship with the people and the international perspective that pervades city life is constantly being negotiated and opened for discussion. There was a wall running through the city for a generation (actually two walls and an deadly no man’s land in between) which has left physical and psychological legacies across Berlin. The experience of living and being in Berlin now is shaped by the division which only started to be resealed 25 years ago. Then from the windows of an S-Bahn train you see long, thin areas of parkland and you know that they are now for every man and woman.

Sharing Berlin was also achieved with Amy, as you can see in the photos. Hopefully we’ll be back there before too long.

Keeping the Airbnb theme going I went on from Berlin to Latvia, initially to Riga and then on to the Positivus festival which features in lots of photos and posts already on this blog. This time a different type of accommodation sharing: my host wasn’t staying in the same place at all, so I had the whole place to myself. Rather than wallowing in the space I headed into town, getting a taste of the historic heart of Riga, its parklands, squares, cafés and culture. I was unaware that I was heading to this year’s European Capital of Culture, but such it is. Opera in the park, choirs on every corner, galleries and exhibitions all over town.

But then I had to depart for Positivus: a subject I’ve covered in plenty of depth already on this blog.

Latvia’s walls and doors, windows and floors

A flickr set of photos from Riga, taking in July 2014. With its mix of architectural styles, stages of renovation and changing uses for the historic built environment, there’s a lot to see around Riga that links the present to the past. There’s also a lot of colour, particularly on the sunniest of summer days. (If there’s no neat flickr slideshow below please refresh the page!)

 

Positivus, in words and photos (part one)

From Riga by bus to ‘Positivus’, a friendly, sunny and well run weekend music festival in northern Latvia. I’ve optimistically labelled this as part one, even though we’re only 40% of the way through the festival. Kraftwerk are still to come you see, alongside plenty more treats (and perhaps some rain) so these are mere opening shots to set the scene.

Positivus is opening my eyes to what can be done with a music festival. The mix of local, regional and international artists is warmly welcomed by the audience, as is the €60-70 entry fee I should imagine (including camping). Sure, there are plenty of branded outlets, which I guess helps keep the price down and the artists big. The brands aren’t resting on their laurels though with mere free samples and the like. Coke want you to play their game; Tuborg the same; someone has a ball pit and Garnier are dishing out sun cream. The crowd are lapping it up (not literally in the case of the sun cream) and it certainly adds to the atmosphere of the place. Straight in the gate you’re confronted by all this stuff en route to the stages.

Just before you get there though, leave a little time to charge your phone courtesy of Lattelecom. They’re the same people providing ample free wifi. Expectations are such that the festival crowd would notice something amiss where they not to enjoy these basic human rights. Like I say, this is new to me at this kind of event, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it.

Speaking of the crowd, I’m just about the oldest person here who isn’t (a) performing, or (b) accompanied by children. Everyone’s been very kind to me though; maybe someone will offer me their seat later tonight when I start looking tired.

Photos: the bus pick-up point in Riga; the festival; last night’s headliners Elbow; the beach (one minute’s walk from the main stage); festival goers; and, my little tent nestling in among the neighbours.

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Positivus, in words and photos (part two: Kraftwerk)

Maybe I’m becoming more like my father, maybe my memory is more unreliable than I care to believe and perhaps I’m simply growing older. During the course of this trip to Berlin and Latvia I’ve been drinking beers that share an aroma with the kind of brews my dad used to drink when I was growing up. Not that I used to join him in their enjoyment for my age was but in single figures, but it’s a bitter smell and taste that I’ve not become accustomed to, yet. Plenty of time to investigate further of course.

Step two in this generational time shift was made real on Sunday night at Positivus with Kraftwerk headining. My understanding has always been that dad was a fan of this band, but I’m not sure if that came from him or from other people or simply my over active imagination. He spent seven years in Germany during his youth… ‘ergo he must be a fan of all things German!’ Well, it’s taken a while but in the past six months I’ve become a fan myself, largely thanks to my renewed subscription to a popular online music streaming service. The 21st century youths of Positivus proclaimed their enthusiastic support, so that’s the generations united then. Fantastiche.

This performance was part of Kraftwerk’s ‘3D’ experience, which has been taken to many an interesting location around the world. In the post-MTV world of experience economy live performances and unique happenings, it’s quite something to turn four stationery men into the most engaging two hours of a festival. As we dribbled, then streamed, then flooded towards the main stage a rapid logistical exercise went into action to fashion everyone with 3D glasses. These had all been personalised for Positivus: it’s all in the detail. The clocked ticked around to 23:00 and we all enjoyed playing with the glasses, taking selfies and feeling the crowds swell behind us.

Then the show. Four men, each with a standing desk (very zeitgeist), who barely moved through the whole two hour set. One had a headset microphone, over on the far left: he ‘sang’, to the extent that Kraftwerk tracks involve much singing. Everything was very controlled, ordered, planned and beautifully executed. The sounds swelled, the melodies built and it sounded as though you were listening to the CD (or your streaming service of choice). It was brilliant. I loved it.

The visuals stole the show at times though. Satellites that swept over your head; lines and shapes and colours that held you transfixed; footage or models and Le Tour de France (to go with the music in question); a cartoon Autobahn that seemed to pit a VW Beetle against a flashy Mercedes (though I’m not sure if we were supposed to be taking sides). Kraftwerk tracks do not make use of a complicated vocabulary, they have no need. It didn’t take much to put them up on the screen therefore, so we could all sing along: track one emphatically confirmed that we were, indeed, the robots.

They played for two hours. That’s a lot of standing around for the crowd, if not the performers. All around me were people simply thrilled to have seen it all, from the teenagers getting a history lesson in the basic tenets of modern music, to those original fans from the first time around, wearing their matching Kraftwerk T shirts.

I’ll get back to the streaming once I’m home, reliving the performance and delving deeper into a back catalogue that sounds fresh, innovative and anything but static.

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Positivus, in words and photos (part three)

While at Positivus I met up with a couple of my students, which was lovely. We only had time for a 15 minute chat, but it was enough time to discuss the changes that the festival has seen in its eight years. It’s now a more commercial proposition, with its sponsors and crowds and stages and so on. It won’t have been the only festival to have experienced similar changes over the same period, and it takes a strength of will to oppose the forces of big business and progress. (‘Meredith’ in Victoria, Australia comes to mind in this regard.) My argument that this helped keep the ticket price down didn’t seem to win the argument!

The beach was recognised as something special though, on which we all agreed. My decision not to swim in the sea was supported though, for apparently the activities of some other festival goers render it relatively polluted. You’ve been warned.

Mention must be made of the campsite: a sprawling, flat, fallow field of a place without tree coverage. It did have the advantage of being a nice consistency for tent peg insertion, which is always a relief. The campsite was across the road from the festival, a road which serves as the main coastal route north from Riga. It’s only single carriageway though and the police oversaw the crossing point for hour after hour, so it could have been worse.

There’s always going to be some costs and some benefits when pitching one’s tent. Further from the entrance means a longer walk to the festival and to the toilets, but closer in means more human traffic past your front porch and you’re closer to the toilets. This particular campsite had the bonus feature of a DJ stage next to the food stalls, a stage which had an audience of thousands well into the early hours, after the festival had shut up shop. I took myself away, towards the far end of the site and crossed my fingers that that anonymous, replica tents I found myself among would be quiet, civilised and (if required) friendly. Well, they didn’t score too highly on any of those fronts, but we got along ok. Sadly the all too common feature of leaving tents to die and simply clearing out when you’re done with them seems to be an international problem.

And so it came to pass that the final morning of my Positivus arrived. With a beating sun drying the dew off the tent I took my time to put my stuff together and caught the festival bus back to Riga: we left early this time. So long Positivus: you will long remain in my unreliable memory, and I shall look out for next year’s line up.

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Berlin, in photos

Blue skies, happy locals and the small matter of a World Cup victory parade accompanied our visit to Berlin to this week. I’ll write more words when I get the chance, but for now here are some photos.

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