Sunday, 25 August 2013

Sunday - the German way

On the British Students blog here.

Sunday: the day of rest. A concept which is taken more seriously in Germany than in Britain, it would appear.

I discovered this to my disadvantage when I assumed that shops would be open on Sundays for me to pick up a few essentials. In Britain, corner shops and supermarkets can be relied upon to supply our needs seven days a week, and I blithely assumed the same would be the case here. Which, when you realise you have run out of toilet roll at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning, is a minor issue. Fortunately my neighbours were happy to oblige and found the whole situation hilarious – I doubt I’m the first British student in the flat to have made the same mistake.

So the lesson has been learned, and I now ensure that I’m sufficiently stocked on Saturdays to avoid any further embarrassments. At the beginning, the Sunday shutdowns were frustrating – I had to forgo the milk in my tea on a few occasions, and fried some slightly suspicious-smelling bacon in the absence of any alternative lunch options one time – but I’m beginning to warm to the idea of having one day a week in which you can do very little except relax and spend time with friends and family.

Plus, there’s an important exception to the Sunday closures: cafes and restaurants. And forgetting to buy groceries is the perfect excuse to go out for brunch and get a takeaway for dinner on Sundays. Strolling down the street on a Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere is far different to weekdays: shops which are usually bustling with activity are deserted and locked up, while the pavement tables of ice cream cafes and coffee shops are packed with families sitting together and enjoying Kaffee and Kuchen or huge spreads of eggs, bread, sausage (this is Germany, after all) and cheese.

It’s a concept which I think we’d do well to adopt back home. Certainly, a typical Sunday in Britain might see families tucking into roast dinners or enjoying a walk or picnic together, but these plans can always fall through in favour of a last-minute dash to the supermarket or a trip to the DIY store. In Germany, however, it’s universally accepted that things close down on Sundays and you can do very little except eat, sleep and relax. And I don’t see many people complaining.

The news of the death of an investment banking intern this week has really shocked me – not only was he working in the same field as I am, but he was also a German. Whatever the reason for his tragic death, it made me realise that I need to take my weekends for what they are supposed to be - time off. I’m glad that here in Germany I have little choice but to rest and recharge my batteries. This Sunday, I’m looking forward to a long lie-in, a leisurely brunch and lounging by the open-air swimming pool while the weather is still sunny. You might think me lazy. I’d like to think of it as cultural integration - doing Sunday the German way. Not that my German peers are lazy; far from it - it strikes me that they’ve found the right balance between hard work and time off. And that’s a lesson I know a lot of my fellow students would also appreciate learning.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

British Students

I'm now blogging for British Students - a website which, in its own words, "is a grassroots campaign to keep Britain in the EU". You can follow my posts here!

Monday, 12 August 2013

Bravo, EUYO

It was at the end of a hot, sticky Sunday in Berlin that EUYO arrived at the Konzerthaus to play to a sold-out audience. The opening piece, Ravel's Bolero, was well suited to the circumstances: its repeating theme echoed the oppressive, stifling heat; the snare drum rhythm, sounding from the centre of the orchestra, pressed on in relentless determination, with each ostinato mounting the tension.

A dramatic introduction to a dramatic concert. All of a sudden the continuous drum beat came to a halt, the rest of the orchestra stopped their playing, and doctors rushed onstage. The percussionist had fainted; silence replaced the steady rhythm and whirling melody as shock pervaded the room. You could hear a pin drop. The unwell player left the stage to a round of applause; the orchestra followed with apprehension.

What happened next is a testament to the togetherness and determination of this orchestra of young, exceptionally talented musicians. Five minutes later they were back onstage to play the next piece, showing no audible or visible signs of being fazed by what had occurred, all pulling together to perform a superb rendition of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 16 with soloist Alexander Romanovsky, which was met with rapturous applause. The players turned to each other with beaming smiles and gave each other hugs of relief and congratulation. Every single member had shown strength and determination, and it certainly did not go unappreciated.

After the eventful first half, we reseated ourselves with nervous anticipation - and watched with awe as the unwell percussionist returned to the stage to partake in Pictures at an Exhibition, deservedly patted on the back by his colleagues. For an orchestra whose membership is diverse - its players come from all 28 EU countries - their support for each other is both staggering and touching. They didn't just pull through - they pulled off an astounding second half, which concluded with the Bolero being played again to the very end, and the percussionist receiving a standing ovation from both the audience and his fellow musicians.

It's easy to go to a concert and hear technical excellence, but rare that such passion and resolve is made so tangible by the musicians. EUYO managed both: musical excellence despite tough circumstances, and a sense of collaboration and devotion to their playing that moved certain audience members to tears.

As the players hugged each other once again, with a mix of sweat and tears running down their faces, the cultural differences between them amounted to nothing. EUYO unites its members in the spirit of musical collaboration, and the evening proved that it has well and truly achieved its goal. As cultural ambassadors to an organisation that wishes to achieve the same among its member nations, the EUYO musicians prove the power of working together in the face of adversity. It might be idealistic to hope that their example could be translated into the political arena, but their efforts nonetheless serve as a shining example of the success that can be achieved when nations pull together in difficult circumstances. Listening and watching EUYO last night made me feel a proud European: our combined strength is formidable, and something we ought to take heed of more often.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Opera auf Deutsch

Carmen in German? I must admit I was sceptical. It’s not that opera doesn’t work in German – Wagner certainly saw to proving the contrary – but I’ve always felt that the passion and glamour of Carmen is closely connected to its sundrenched Seville setting. Transplanting it to Frankfurt, amid a backdrop of modern skyscrapers and with an audience of bankers and businessmen, just wouldn’t  come off in my opinion.

Our first impressions upon arriving at the venue seemed to confirm my thoughts. The doors to the botanical gardens, where the concert was being staged in an outdoor arena, were opened an hour before it was due to begin. We arrived a respectable three quarters of an hour early, to find that the majority of the seats had already been reserved with typical German efficiency. We tottered past rows of couples in shorts and sandals, feeling ridiculously overdressed in posh frocks and heels, and settled for a side view.

It wasn’t all bad though – the couple next to us immediately offered to share their picnic spread of Brezel, Bratwurst and Weißbier, and we readily tucked in. It wasn’t a glitzy champagne and oysters affair, but neither was it pretentious and snobby. As I chomped a little too eagerly on their offerings and spilt curry sauce down my blouse, our new friend Herr Fischstein slapped me on the back and lifted his beer glass, proclaiming ‘Prost!’

But how would Bizet’s opera sound in German? Would the beauty of the French original be lost in translation? Even as a German speaker, I struggle to find the phrase ‘ich liebe dich!’ as charming as ‘je t’aime!’ But funnily enough, as the overture set in and then the first few lines were sung, I barely noticed the change in language. The well-known music remained the same, the powerful scenes continued to entertain, and our sausage-savouring companions even showed an unexpected sense of humour as Carmen eclipsed poor Frau Fischstein by sitting on her husband’s lap and helping herself to a generous gulp of his Bier.

It seemed that neither German opera stars nor its spectators take themselves as seriously as I’d anticipated. During the interval, the chorus joined us for mugs of Apfelwein and freshly barbecued sausages, entertaining us with tales of various rehearsal mishaps and performance mistakes. The tiny daughter of the first violinist was seated in the front row throughout and knew every piece off by heart, prompting an audience member to lift her in the air as we applauded the orchestra. Above all, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves – from the drunken parties portrayed onstage to the couples watching from their picnic rugs.

But the powerful and moving scenes ought not to be overlooked either. There was something ominous about the drunken revelry, with the women outlandishly displaying neon-coloured underwear, clutching a gun in one hand whilst caressing a man with the other. The jealous tension that ultimately drives Don José to kill the woman who has tormented him so intensely was so ingrained in his character that we held our breath at every entrance he made. Even as Carmen paraded around the stage, ostensibly revelling in her command over the male protagonists, ominous undertones to her behaviour remained tangible. The inevitable culmination, a dreadful stabbing that imposed a sudden, horrible end on the intoxication, stunned us into a silence that transcended all language barriers and differences.

They say that music is a universally spoken language, and I’m inclined to agree. My mother, who speaks only a few words of German, left lauding the talents of Frankfurt’s Kammeroper, and has already booked tickets to their next production. This time the beers will be on us.