the view from here

I've barely left the flat today, pretty much situated in front of this assortment of books and notes since this morning. And I played guitar for an hour or so in there somewhere. Tomorrow? More of the same. The weather was disgusting today, though, so it was nice to be in my PJs, drinking tea and sitting next to the heater. By the end of the weekend I should be done with the book pictured here (Whiteley's Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity) and ready to crack open She Bop, a history of women in popular music. Third book from the top on the stack to the left.

That's about the extent of the excitement on this side of the pond at present, but later this week I'll be heading out for drinks with some friends and most assuredly getting into some new trouble - ahem - adventures.

HRH e. cawein


the scenic route

It was unseasonably warm and sunny today, and I had my windows open when the sun was setting at about 4 p.m. I leaned out and took this. Had some trouble capturing the color exactly as I wanted to, but these came pretty close.

Now, the fact that the sun started setting before 4 in the afternoon -- that's another blog post entirely.

HRH e. cawein


one small voice

Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed by music.

It's a loaded phrase, to be fair, but in this case I mean that I sometimes feel inadequately prepared to take on the sheer magnitude of what I've set out to learn in the course of this year. Something that has seemed simple and natural to me before now often feels frighteningly complex and incomprehensible.

But today, I felt a bit of that weight lifting off my shoulders. Today I played the piano and sang for an audience for the first time. It was an audience of just two, and my piano skills were anything but virtuosic. But I did it. And after the fact I felt motivated to take on more pieces, learn more about the piano and alongside that, my voice. I started to think seriously for the first time about the concert I will have to put together at the end of January, rather than relegating it to the back of my mind with the hopes of pretending it didn't exist until the last possible second.

Now, I feel excited and intrigued by the challenge and I'm ready to push my voice and my learning capacities to new places. The pieces I prepare for the January performance can draw from any composer or artist; later in the semester I will have to work with a student composer to create an entirely new piece to premiere at a final concert.

And today, in my surge of confidence and motivation, I started making a mental list of the songs I'd like to sing in January. "Strange Fruit" tops the list -- it was the song I performed today. It is followed by "God Bless the Child" and "Lady Sings the Blues." Sensing a pattern?

Suggestions for other good selections along the theme of women in jazz and blues would be welcomed.

HRH e. cawein

P.S.: Okay, I admit it. I screwed the pooch on the whole NaBloPoMo thing. It's hard to think of things to talk about every single day for 30 days! Maybe that's why it's a challenge. My apologies to those who've been checking for the past two days and have had to surf away disappointed -- especially Holly, who officially busted me in the comments section of the November 25 post. You might not be able to count on every day, but this month did give me a swift kick in the you-knows about being as creative, blog-minded and regular as possible. You can look forward to many more months of almost-everyday-posts, and that is a promise.


happy christmas (war is over)

Since I'm not going home until late in December, I decided I couldn't go that long without a little Christmas cheer. It's a little Charlie Brown, but it puts me in the spirit. And the tree skirt is a pashmina. So sue me. It's a loveable little tree.

Happy Christmas,
HRH e. cawein

scat solo

Last night my friend Lucy and I went to the Southbank Centre to take in a little live music as part of the London Jazz Festival. There are tons of concerts going on at venues around the city, but several gigs throughout the event were put on free in the Royal Festival Hall. It's a really neat venue, right on the Thames. I wish I could've taken pictures that would have better captured the mood of the evening, but it was a little too dark to make any picture that would do it justice -- here are a few I attempted anyway.

HRH e. cawein


the musical xerox machine

Today in Music and Text we talked about popular music musicology, or perhaps the somewhat oxymoronic nature of that very idea. I'll save you the musically geeked-out rambling on things like timbre and frequency and the notational centricity of classical music musicology -- I know, I said I'd save you and there I go anyway -- but at the end of the class we got into a brief discussion of our respective topics for the first essay of the course, due early next semester.

I knew I wanted my essay to focus on a popular music criticism, and of course one that would allow me to span genres and genders, as I'm not able to do in my dissertation. I mentioned to my professor that I was interested in the Adornian (Theodor Adorno, the guy who suggested all this stuff) views on familiarity as a basis for popularity in music. My professor suggested a discussion of repetition -- the use of the same chord progressions, harmonic structures, rhythms, tonalities, etc. -- and also the more recent phenomenon of sampling -- lifting an exact bass, riff, hook or melody line from a song and using it to develop a new creative commodity.

I did some very light poking around on the subject immediately after class in the library and online, and was surprised at my own lack of knowledge on the history of sampling. I was unaware of the very beginnings of the practice, and also through my reading found a few songs that I'd never realized were products of it, because the riffs sampled were just one to two seconds in length and almost unrecognizable if one isn't listening for it.

My essay will, of course, center around the Adornian critique and the role that sampling plays in the proof of his views. But I also imagine it will be colored by my own distaste for sampling, and may end up taking on some discussion of the true effects of sampling on musical innovation and thus, the future of popular music. I don't know that it can be argued as regression, because the technology we use to lift the riffs and bass lines is ever improving, but my initial impression is that it represents one of two things: A.) that creative production has slowed in the music industry, or is less valued; or B.) that with a limited amount of pieces to work with, the musical puzzle can only be put together in so many ways and eventually, we must start repeating ourselves.

I think there's quite a bit of support for the latter statement, based simply on the natural evolution of music and the overlapping connections between older musics and new; but it also ignores the problem of new technology producing new instruments or techniques/sounds, and thus an ever-growing range of timbres, pitches and frequencies to combine in a musical form, resulting in a constant stream of new melodic possibilities.

Whoops. I think I just went back on my promise to refrain from a musical geek-out. I'll just say this: I'm not sure entirely what it means yet, but I loathe the practice of sampling music because I think it represents the collective dumbing down of our musical consciousness. Kids hear the opening smooth bass notes of a song called "Suicidal" by some punk named Sean Kingston and think he's a musical genius, when really the credit belongs to Ben E. King and the producers who worked with him on "Stand By Me."

Same goes for songs like Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious" ('Edge of Seventeen' by Stevie Nicks), "SOS" by Rihanna ('Tainted Love,' Soft Cell), "Funky Cold Medina" by Tone Loc ('Hot Blooded,' Foreigner) and many others, including the worst of the bunch, "I'll Be Missing You" by Puff Daddy, the moment little Gordie Sumner got branded a sell-out in my book, even though I was only in the sixth grade. Of course, years later when he sold out for a Dodge Stratus or something with that Indian guy doing Middle Eastern yodeling about the rain while a sedan drove around a mountain, I thought, eh well. He would've sold out eventually, so maybe it was for the best. I mean without his love for money, the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy might never have had the chance to tap dance wildly and without any discernible skill on the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards while a giant overhead screen displayed still photos of the late Notorious BIG, who was no doubt rejoicing from the heavens that his untimely death had earned his best friend a fat paycheck, a house in the Hamptons, and eventually Jennifer Lopez and a mediocre reality series where poor kids from the projects have to walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn for cheesecake. I imagine there was another point to that show, but that's what stuck with me.

All that ranting was leading up to this question: what are your thoughts on sampling? Good, bad, indifferent? If you're in the pro camp, what is your favorite example of sampling gone right? And if you're in the con camp, what song's sampling do you loathe most, and why?

HRH e. cawein


thanksgiving at st. paul's

When I woke up this morning it looked like it was going to be a dreary Thanksgiving, but by the time I arrived at St. Paul's Cathedral it had cleared up and was becoming a gorgeous morning.

I was at St. Paul's to meet up with a group of American expats who I found online at meetup.com, and have been meaning to get together with for a few months now but just haven't been able to make it work. So when an e-mail came around inviting everyone to a special Thanksgiving Day service at historic St. Paul's Cathedral, I thought there couldn't be a better way to spend my first Thanksgiving away from home than with as many people in the same boat as possible.

I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of attendance, but the place was packed. The service was nice, as church services go; billed as non-denominational, but fairly tame and Church of England-y. Parts of it were presented by members of the American Church of London, and there were some remarks given by the American Ambassador to the United Kingdom which were quite nice. At the close of the service we sang "America the Beautiful," giving me the harsh realization that I know only one of what is -- who knew? -- a four verse song. Huh. It was a nice moment though, because there'd been other hymns throughout the service that had been sung in the way hymns tend to be, with low mumbled voices who aren't quite sure about the exact rhythm and melody until the last line of the last verse. So to hear all those voices then singing this song, loudly, proudly, knowingly -- well, the first verse at least -- was a bit inspiring, I have to admit.

It's certainly odd to be away from home today, but it's been a one-of-a-kind experience. At work, during one of our meetings before we started calling, one of my workmates said, "Isn't it Thanksgiving today?" And when I said yes, that it was, everyone started wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving. And I don't know if it was just because they were British, or because I was witnessing a moment at which despite our common language we are truly different peoples, or perhaps even just because I needed to hear it more today than on any Thanksgiving before, but it made me feel good.

Thankful, even, for being here, and for what I've got. Even if what I've got ain't turkey or cranberries.

HRH e. cawein


not even a cornucopia, part II

Yesterday I gave you a brief listing of a few things for which I'm thankful as an American expat in London. In part two of this special blogging extravaganza of thankfulness, I'm going to take a slightly more serious tone.

So, without further ado:

I'm thankful for...

...wireless internet and every social networking web site in existence, which together allow me to keep up with my friends and family in the states in a way that wasn't possible for me during my summer here in 2005;

...the technology that my brain can't even wrap around that somehow lets me make phone calls to people in other countries and hear them as if they were standing in the next room;

...my parents, whose unending encouragement, support and belief in me has made everything in my life possible, and who have long instilled in me the sheer balls to say I'm going to do something, and then make it happen;

...mail from the United States of America;

...the opportunity to be the kind of musician that I've always wanted to be, but thought I forfeited a chance at a long time ago;

...marathon e-mails from my best friends;

...looking into the future and seeing a blank page, and the excitement of knowing I can write the story however I choose, and even change my mind about a thousand times if I feel like it;

...getting reacquainted with me;

...the upcoming holiday and a trip to the states, to see all the people who make it my home.

HRH e. cawein


not even a cornucopia

In honor of my very first decidedly non-pilgrim-and-Indian Thanksgiving, I've decided to do a two-part blog on a few things for which I'm thankful. There may not be paper mache turkeys hanging from every light fixture in the British Wal-Mart, but I'd say gratitude translates pretty easily into any culture.

Part one of this turkey day blog special will focus on London and other travels.

I am thankful for...

...Delight Food and Wine, the off-license grocery around the corner from my flat where I have been known to purchase 99P frozen pizzas at 4 in the morning after stumbling off the night bus and punching a drunk perv in the eye teeth;

...the Transport for London Web site, for always keeping me up-to-date on what the train times should have, could have or perhaps would have been, had there not been an incident involving a person underneath a train in the time it took me to close my laptop, leave my flat and get to the tube station;

...the Metropolitan Line, for knowing just when to jostle me awake from my tube naps so that I don't miss my stop on the way to work;

...my work mates, who never fail to keep me thoroughly entertained during the 17 or so hours each week I spend calling to chat with people about the exciting world of cancer;

...and come to think, cancer, for keeping me employed;

...the Post Office, where you can change international currency for free, thus making jaunts to places like, say, Berlin, a little easier on the pocketbook;

...Germans, just in general;

...being a Londonder, which allows me to do things like meet a friend on the weekend for a free jazz festival, walk down the Thames and watch street performers on a lazy afternoon, look at the Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament any time I want, practice my British accent on a seasoned lot of judges, ride the tube, spend a Saturday on Oxford and Regent Streets, head 'round to the pub and get rained on, daily;

...economy airlines like RyanAir, EasyJet and any number of other country-specific carriers that turn hopping around Europe from a dream into an absolute reality; and

...English breakfast tea, because the only thing I know with certainty about each new day here is that at some point, the kettle will be on to boil and a tea bag with my name on it will be steeping.

HRH e. cawein


it's official.

It is no longer safe to leave your homes. I learned this the hard way in British Wal-Mart today, when I attempted to share one aisle with the entire population of the London borough of Brent simultaneously.

For a second I even caught myself thinking, "Well, I shouldn't be surprised. It's the Sunday before--"

And then I realized, no. No, it is not the Sunday before anything. It is the Sunday before Monday. And then Tuesday and Wednesday and eventually a regular old Thursday, but definitely not anything other than November 22. And while it's been a little strange and a little tough coming to terms with the effect my new expat life will have on Thanksgiving, I was kind of hoping it might mean I got to avoid the Christmas bloodbath for a week or so longer.

I was wrong. So, so wrong.

On the positive side of the madness, Christmas decorations are up everywhere, including down the high street in Kingsbury. Pictures soon.

HRH e. cawein


my friends all drive porsches, i must make a-mends

Most of my day today was spent curled up with Sheila Whiteley's "Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity." And when I say curled up, I of course mean seated at a table in Starbucks, drinking inappropriate amounts of coffee and using two different colors of highlighter in a copious note-taking frenzy.

I got four chapters read this afternoon, which I was really happy with, the bulkiest of which was about this gal.

From the moment I set my mind to a gender study in popular music, I knew that Janis Joplin would be a major focal point. But I don't think I understood quite how much until today. She is both my dream and my nightmare in terms of this work, because in one moment she proves every hypothesis I have about gender behaviors in rock, and in the next she contradicts herself completely and disproves them all. While her stage and musical persona are clearly in the masculine style -- even down to the rhythms and chordal progressions of her earliest records -- she was forced to be "one of the boys" because she didn't fit in to feminine gender expectations of beauty and gentility. Essentially, much of her masculinity comes from her own feminine insecurities.

The questions I'm now asking are, what does that mean? And of course, does that devalidate her apparent masculinity? I am also interested to look more at the chronology of her career, because it seems on later works, particularly the posthumously released Pearl, her music matured in what can only be seen as a feminine manner; she gained more control of her vocals and the composition of the songs, she became more in tune and aware of herself in the midst of the blues rock genre.

After taking six pages of notes on Janis today I can say with confidence that Whiteley's book will be one I will turn to again and again throughout this whole process. It's a very comprehensive discussion of women in pop, getting down to the roots of feminism, second-wave feminism, the counter culture and how all of those things affected the societal image of women and the woman's place in the music world. Next up -- chapter six, Joni Mitchell.

HRH e. cawein


dispatches from the sixth zone

Feast your eyes on the Gaskell Building, where I spend most of my time on campus. It's the home of the school of arts, and all my classes are held here.
Next, a view of the main drag of campus. On the left, the Hamilton Centre, which has shops, a bank, restaurants, a bar and houses the student union. Straight ahead, the Lecture Centre and to the right, the business building and the Bannerman Centre, home of the library.
The man himself, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. His parents must have really loathed him.
A closer shot of the place I spend the rest of my time on campus when I'm not in Gaskell -- the library. Five stories of books. In a word? Glorious.
The main reception building, with the towers of the Boiler House in the background. The bus from Uxbridge station drops me off right in front of this building.
One of my favorite places on campus, the inside of one of the four practice rooms in Gaskell. This one happens to be kept at sub-zero temps, as I discovered today when I got frostbite practicing the piano.
And then I got a little shutter happy.

I call this one F7.

I practiced for about two hours this afternoon and managed to teach myself my first jazz ballad on the piano. It was exciting, to be putting my fingers on the keys in the right places and hearing beautiful sounds that made sense, instead of just random notes or "This Land is Your Land," which up to date was the extent of my ability on the piano.

So there's instrument No. 2 on the self-teaching list. And I still need a name for my new guitar, so don't be shy with suggestions.

HRH e. cawein


the culture barrier

I lunched today with Alison, a former colleague of mine from my summer at the Association of British Orchestras. She left the ABO not long after my time there ended and has since been working on a masters in ethnomusicology, among other academic pursuits. We ended up getting into a very interesting conversation about communication styles and the student-teacher relationship as they relate specifically to the British and the British sensibilities.

It was something I'd thought quite a bit about since starting my course, but hadn't necessarily talked about with anyone until today. The problem is perhaps not that shocking -- that British professors seem distant and uninterested -- but nonetheless troublesome to the learning process, particularly for someone like me.

Throughout my education, from my first day of kindergarten to the day I became a college alumna, I have thrived on positive relationships with my teachers and professors. I wanted approval, yes; but more importantly, I needed praise when I did something well. I needed more than cursory conversation with my professors. I needed two-way communication, and to feel comfortable in doing so. And in the states, I always got what I needed. The more demonstrative American style lends itself well to open communication between tutor and pupil, and even a more personal bond.

But the idea of standing around and having a chat about my weekend, politics or even the weather, with my professors at Brunel -- well, I honestly can't see myself doing it.

It's not that they are cold or completely uninviting necessarily, it's just that the difference is beyond noticeable. And there is certainly a spectrum, in that some professors fall toward the more communicative and more supportive end and others fall on the less communicative end. And to be fair, I know that all the professors have my best interests at heart and want to see me make use of the course in whatever way will most benefit me and bring me the most personal success; it's one of the things I like the most about studying here, the flexibility to create an academic environment most helpful to you.

But, every once in a while, I just need a "good job." Or, "that's a really good idea." Or just not to feel intimidated to walk into a professor's office, and then to forget at least 25% of the English language upon entering. I need to be told I'm doing well or I'll assume I'm doing poorly. I need casual laughter, open conversation, to maybe even get to know my professors a bit on a non-academic level.

I'm sure you could fill a library with books on the differences between British and American communication styles. My friend Stephanie said it best. She said that Brits, when they're drunk, are like Americans when they're sober.

I'll just get them to the pub first, then ask them what they think of my essays.

HRH e. cawein


at last

She's a little banged up, but she plays. And once I get her tuned, she'll sound perfect.

I found her on Gumtree for 20 quid. I'm so happy to finally be able to start playing again. With two months already gone I'll probably be reteaching myself most of what I'd learned, but I don't care. I'm just thrilled to be able to feel the strings on my fingertips.

She needs a name. Something scrappy and feisty, a name that makes you think of a tough broad who's been through hell and back and still looks like a million bucks. Or, in this case, sounds like a million. Her looks have certainly seen better days.

Any ideas?

HRH e. cawein


on the horizon

This is in my future.

Oh, and definitely this, too.

HRH e. cawein


the name game

Gather the kids, it's another special edition of Things To Know About Brits and Europeans!

The Brits love nicknames. They can't get enough of 'em. Though I suppose one could question whether it's actually the British people demanding these nicknames or just the British media delivering them free of charge, the fact remains: if you're in the news, you're getting a nickname.

You could be a run-of-the-mill underaged boozing celeb, like Lindsey Lohan -- better known here as LiLo. Are you the crazy ex-wife of a rock legend who flips out on national television? Well, Heather Mills McCartney, we'll just call you Macca. And what about Sharon Osbourne, who judges the popular TV show "X Factor"? In the papers, she's Shazza.

But it doesn't end there. The story of the moment right now, stealing the top headlines in all the newspapers, no matter where they fall on the least to most trashy spectrum, is a murder scandal involving a young English student, her American flatmate and a few other seedy characters. The English girl was murdered while her flatmate was in the kitchen, covering her ears to block out the screams. I'll save you all the details here (feel free to follow the link), but the reason I bring up this sordid tale now is that one of the primary suspects in the case, the American flatmate Amanda Knox, was only 'Amanda Knox' in the papers for about 24 hours.

From then on, she's been known as Foxy Knoxy.

I wonder if the name'll stick when she's in the women's penitentiary?

HRH e. cawein


Month Two

I call them 'holy shit moments.'

They usually happen when I'm doing something really mundane or ordinary, like washing the dishes or folding laundry, or trying to stay awake on the train on the way home from work.

It just hits me. It hits me all at once, what I've done, where I am, how far I've come, how much I've grown, the sheer kahones it takes to even think about picking up and moving across an ocean, thousands of miles and to a completely different country, culture, people, way of life.

And for a moment, I'm a little stunned. A little taken aback by myself, by the decisions I've made. But then, it's time to rinse another plate. It's time to put my clothes into my hamper and head back to the flat. It's Wembley Park and I have to shake my sleepies and get off the train to head home.

I find myself thinking in a British accent fairly often now. If it were a foreign language, people might say that meant I was fluent. Those polled on the matter so far have said this just means I'm crazy.

When I first started working at the call centre I could hear myself saying some words here and there differently, but I still sounded very much American. Perhaps too American. After about the third person called me out on being American and demanded to know where I was calling from, I decided life might be easier if I did as the Romans do. So now I don't just have a phone "voice" -- I have a phone persona. The perks of practicing my accent for hours on end are clear, though. It fools even random Londoners now, not to mention the unsuspecting women on the other end of the phone. It's definitely my newest party trick.

The past month has been a good one; a settled one. My dissertation topic was approved and the first four of countless books were checked out from the Brunel library. I decided to focus solely on vocal for the performance aspect of my degree, with an ounce of trepidation but an ocean of excitement, curiosity about what the next year -- and the exploration of my voice as my instrument -- will bring. Ich bin nach Berlin gefahren; ich habe mich in Berlin verliebt. I've grown closer to some of my work mates, and some school mates, as well. I've been inappropriately caressed on the night bus. I was greeted by the morning sun coming up over misty hills in Kent. I've become more a Londoner every day.

I find myself worrying about having to leave here, and reminding myself that it's only November. And it never really helps. I'll be the first to admit that I'm excited about being home in a little more than a month, because there are a lot of things, a lot of people, that I miss very much. But the idea of leaving here to never live here again? It's like contemplating the afterlife; I mostly choose not to do it.

I know that ultimately I will be back in the states. I care too much about seeing the people I love often to live somewhere that would geographically and financially prohibit that. One of the things I've realized this month is just how much I miss the ease of communication of living even in the same country as someone else. To be able to pick up the phone and call someone whenever you need to -- whenever they need you to -- is an invaluable thing. The internet has kept me more than connected with my friends and family, but pictures and words can only do so much before you need the real thing. And I'm a real thing kind of girl; I know this, and it's why I knew from the beginning that it was only temporary.

But the thought that this amazing phase of my life will at some point end still gets to me a bit. I just know that when I left here two years ago, I felt regret. I felt sadness at the things that could have been, the experiences I could have had, the people I could have met, had I only lived the summer to the fullest. I don't want to feel that again.
When I leave here, I want to feel satisfied. I know I'll feel sad, that much can't be helped. I love this place. But I want to feel fulfilled. I want to be comforted by the knowledge that every chance I had to better myself, to get to know me, to have an incredible experience, to get personal with this city -- that I took it.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised I'm having these pangs for a future loss already. It's very in my nature to anticipate the missing of things before they're even gone. But maybe this time I will use those feelings to push me on to even greater heights, and never look back at the ground.

HRH e. cawein

in case you were curious

This is the most apt comparison I could come up with for the dancing Germans at the Depeche Mode Party.

And, let's be honest, a lot of other Germans, too.


tonight, we party like it's 1989 (part IV)

This is a statue of Mstislav Rostropovich, a world renowned cellist who traveled to Berlin on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall to play an impromptu concert. The photos behind the statue are of Berliners, Eastern and Western, coming together atop the wall that same day.

The display is from the Checkpoint Charlie museum, situated just a few feet from the actual checkpoint. The museum began as just two rooms in 1962, not long after the wall was originally constructed, and has been expanding ever since. Though it is still rather compact as museums go, the amount of knowledge, insight and artifacts preserved there is absolutely mind boggling. If you read every word, you could be there for hours.

As I walked through the museum, I was overwhelmed by my own ignorance about exactly what went on in Germany post-WWII. I don't recall ever discussing the conditions extensively in any history class, other than perhaps the reasons the wall was built and the fact that it came down in 1989. After my weekend in Berlin, I would equate that to knowing why we sent troops to Vietnam and that we brought them back in 1975. There's a little something missing there -- the real story.

As Americans, I don't think we can have any concept of what it was like to be German, or be a Berliner, in the years following the second World War. Obviously, because we weren't there. But also because I don't think we have a collective experience that can ever compare to what it feels like to have your city cut in half, to be governed by not one, not two, not three, but FOUR different countries, to be separated from your aunts, uncles, cousins, girlfriends, boyfriends, best friends, because they picked the wrong side of the city to live on -- and to be shot dead for trying to change any of it. Children drowned swimming in the river because the shore belonged to one side but the water itself to another; thus no one would help a struggling child for fear of being shot.

The stories of people who were killed trying to cross the wall were gripping, but perhaps even more telling were the accounts of the lengths people went to in order to cross the barrier successfully. Flying machines, underground tunnels dug tediously over weeks and months, jet-propelled water escapes, hollowed out car engines and trunks, devices you can't imagine someone conceiving of in their own basements and attics; but then again, you can't quite feel the same urgency they did, can you?

One of the earliest devices to keep people from crossing the wall was an motion-activated machine gun that was attached a few inches from the wall, set to fire as soon as anyone entered its path. I can't decide what's more chilling: that someone would attach such an apparatus to the wall to anonymously kill, or that later guards -- people -- would be asked to do the same thing.

One of the most talked about victims of the wall is a man named Peter Fechter. Fechter and a friend attempted to cross the wall, and though his friend made it, Fechter was shot in the pelvis while atop the wall and fell back onto the Eastern side. He was in plain view of on-lookers on both sides, but none of the guards would help him for fear of entering the danger zone. He cried out for help and after about an hour, finally bled to death. People watched him die and did nothing out of their own fear.

But death might have been the route of less suffering for some of the Berliners. It was practically commonplace in East Berlin for children to be taken away from their parents and put up for adoption, most often without the parents knowledge of where the child was going. This could be punishment for any number of sins that demonstrated lack of support for the Soviet cause, most notably attempted to cross over into West Berlin with a child. This particularly would brand you as an unfit parent who wasn't teaching her children proper Soviet principles, and the child would be taken from you. Families were ripped apart by the wall, but by forces like this, too, for decades. Some parents never saw their children again, like one woman whose story was told vividly in the museum. Her son was kidnapped during a family outing and never truly investigated; it later came out that the files on the case were ordered to be destroyed.

The internment camps didn't end with Hitler, either; the museum housed records of thousands of Germans who died in the camps during the time of Soviet occupation.

Just outside the museum is the brick foundation of the wall, which remains in the ground around the entire perimeter of the former West.

After we left the museum, we bopped back down to Unter den Linden, eventually found a suitable pub and had a few beers and some dinner -- bratwurst and sauerkraut for me! We wandered around the city a bit more that evening, found a place for coffee and dessert and then headed home. It was late, and I had to be up at 7 in the morning to catch my flight out at 9:30.

Not a moment of the weekend was wasted, and for that I owe all thanks to my fantastic host and tour guide. I won't say I didn't feel the urge to write a letter to Shelby County Schools about stepping up the game on post-WWII Germany, because I did; but I'm kind of glad I went into it the way I did, knowing so little. Because I left knowing so much, and knowing it because I had the opportunity -- as much as one can in 2007 -- to really feel it.

HRH e. cawein


tonight, we party like it's 1989 (part III)

The club we went to on Saturday night was quintessential 80s punk/pop. For one, it was underground with the entrance in a strip mall. There were plenty of locals (average age 35) dressed in all black, many with boots and highly gelled hair, and enough strobe lights, green flashing lasers and artificial smoke to make anyone start belting out the chorus to "99 Luft Balloons."

The music was fantastic. Plenty of Depeche Mode, of course, but also The Clash, The Cure, Tears for Fears and plenty of Euro-techno pop to go around. But the thing that stuck in my mind as we left the place wasn't the music or the strobe lights or the outfits, or even the fact that anyone would literally have something called a "Depeche Mode Party." Instead, it was the dancing.

When these Germans danced -- and when I danced with them -- it was so different from the way I've always danced in the states. You certainly can't drop it like it's hot to The Cure, but it wasn't just that. All the dances, the proms, the mixers, the parties I've ever been to, you dance to have fun, sure; but you also dance to impress. To show off. Hey, look what I can do. Look how much rhythm I have, how much soul, how talented I am. But when these people danced, it was only for themselves. Almost none of them faced another person, in fact most of them were facing the same direction. They looked down, they looked around, they looked almost into themselves. One girl seemed so enamored with her own crotch I thought she might need to excuse herself to the ladies' with her beer bottle at any moment.

But funny as it was, it was kind of inspiring. They were dancing for the sheer joy, the entertainment of their very movement. The way the music made them move. No one was judging anyone else or even concerned with anyone else. It was about each person's body, moving how that person wanted to move, simply because it felt good to dance.

Later we found the location of the smoke jets when we mistakenly sat right in front of them. But then we realized what amazing photographic opportunities were available and thus took full advantage.

At a little after 3 a.m., we hopped a bus home. I'd been up for 24 hours, and they were some of the best of my life.

I know I promised Sunday's adventures today, but I'm knackered and ready for dinner and bed. The saga continues tomorrow.

HRH e. cawein


tonight, we party like it's 1989 (part II)

After my first run-in with Berlin Wall, we headed to Alexanderplatz and then into downtown. We walked through the Marx-Engels-Forum, a gorgeous park in the center of the city.

Which, of course, featured this lovely homage to its namesakes.

From there, we bopped over onto a cobblestoned side street where we had lunch at a little Italian restaurant, and I had my first stein of German beer!

On this little street was also a beautiful old church we checked out, and a statue of the bear, which is the sort of mascot or symbol of the city of Berlin.

After lunch we headed out on foot again, just seeing as much as we could. First, the Berliner Dom, the top of which is seen in one of the pictures from the park.

We kept walking, past the contemporary art museum, a few other monuments, the state opera house and a university, among other things, and came to this, one of the neatest monument concepts I've ever seen. The monument sits in a huge empty cobblestone square. The square was the site of the 1933 Nazi book burnings. This monument has no markings, no explanatory plaque. It is simply as you see it below: a foggy glass opening that looks down onto rows and rows of empty bookshelves. Stirring, to say the least. As Megan told me a few times during the weekend, nothing in this city was done without forethought or purpose. In everything, there is symbolism.

We continued on our journey, down to Unter den Linden, a famous thoroughfare in the city center. There we stopped for some Gl├╝hwein (mulled red wine). Tasty!

Then we continued down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate.

Through the Brandenburg Gate, hang a right and down to the Reichstag, the home of the German congress.

It was all happenin' at the Reichstag apparently. We saw these people from afar, and because of the stone's-throw nature of the Swiss Embassy, we suspected they might be hot, uniformed Swiss men. A few photos were attempted from afar, but when we realized they were gathering on the steps, we went in for a closer look. It was then that we realized that not only were they not hot or Swiss, many of them were not even men. And there were some children involved. Whoops. So perhaps a little less exciting, I present you the German Red Cross.
In front of the Reichstag was this small monument, to the 94 politicians killed in WWII.
Just across from the Reichstag, a small memorial to the people killed while trying to cross over the Berlin Wall. Hang on until I post about the Checkpoint Charlie museum for all my thoughts on the wall.
We started walking toward Potsdamerplatz in search of a hot cup of coffee and a place to warm up and dry off a bit, and stumbled upon the Holocaust memorial on the way there. No picture could do this any justice at all, but essentially it was a large square lot full of cement pillars of varying heights. The lot dipped down into a bowl-like shape, so that from the outside all the pillars appeared the same height, but once you walked into the monument you were consumed by them. You could wax poetic for hours on the symbolism of this thing; the confusion you felt, the solitude of walking one by one, the disorientation, the inability to understand how deep it was until you got into it. Thought provoking to say the least.
In Potsdamerplatz we came across this Austrian Christmas village, with tons of crazy Germans dressed in liederhousen and selling many varieties of hot, spiced alcoholic beverages. But the main attraction was this huge, man-made, snow-covered hill. You could pay to get an inner tube and slide down.
We stood and watched this for a little while, because those rubber mats never did a very good job of stopping the speeding inner tubes, and there were some pretty fantastic collisions and near-misses. And of course, in perfect logical order, the Easter Bunny also made an appearance with a Cirque de Soleil looking clown. They skiied down the hill and were probably inches from beheading each other. Now that's entertainment!
After we wandered around the village a bit, we headed into a little log cabin to have a few beers and listen to what can only be described as Bavarian muzak versions of popular songs. And there was drunken dancing, too!
And just as we were finishing our second beer, what to our wondering eyes should appear?
Drinking on duty is apparently A-Okay for the German Red Cross. I love this country.

Tomorrow: the infamous Depeche Mode party and my insights into German dancing, and tales from Sunday, including brunch, Checkpoint Charlie and the 1989 theme party.

HRH e. cawein