Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Royal Wedding

As I mentioned in my previous post, we get an extra Bank Holiday this year to celebrate the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. For the past 5 months, the Royal Wedding and the happy couple (who will be the future King and Queen of the Commonwealth realm) has been all over the news on the BBC to The Guardian, and of course, the London Evening Standard. We've heard about everything from the guest list (who's in and who's been snubbed?) to the flowers (lilies of the valley, peonies, English rose?), the music (what will she walk down the aisle to?), the wedding vows (will she obey?), and the procession route from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace. It's hard to believe that the Royal Wedding will be underway in just under 12 hours! So much excitement and buzz in London.

Most of my colleagues took advantage of the two long weekends to skip town (3 vacation days for 11 day holiday -- not a bad deal), leaving the office like a ghost town. I left work early today to indulge in some retail therapy on Regents Street. I purposely brought my camera along to take some shots around London and all the festivities leading up to the Big Day tomorrow. 
 Regents Street:

Regents Street was all decked out with Union Jack flags. Souvenirs shops sold everything from tacky commemorative mugs and plates, Royal Wedding flags, and other Kate & Will memorabilia. Even little shops and bars in my own neighbourhood in Clapham Common was decorated with Union Jack flags and congratulatory messages to the Royal Couple. In fact, Clapham Common is hosting the big Royal Wedding sleepover called "Camp Royale." I tried to get a glimpse of Camp Royale on my morning run yesterday, but as most of you know, I am vertically challenged and just couldn't jump high enough above the security walls to see the camping grounds. I suspect that it's going to be a messy weekend in the Common...good thing we're skipping town!
Shops around Clapham Common:

After doing some leisurely shopping on Regents Street, I decided to walk to Buckingham Palace via the Mall to see for myself just how crazy some people are to get a prime spot along the wedding procession route. Yep, crazy indeed, but then again how often does a Royal Wedding happen? The entire length of the Mall was heaving with overzealous British and overseas campers of all ages, size, and shape. Let's hope Mother Earth would be so kind that it doesn't rain in the next 24 hours.
The Mall and Buckingham Palace:

Westminster Abbey, where Prince William and Catherine Middleton will exchange vows in front of 1900 guests, also had a sizable group of campers, but not as crowded as the Mall. Like everywhere else in London, the Union Jack flag proudly waves ahead of the Big Day tomorrow. Well, I'll read and hear all about it once I touch down in Ljubljana tomorrow afternoon! Congratulations to the Royal Couple!
Westminster Abbey:
 Big Ben, London Eye, and Union Jack flags

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter in København

One of the perks of living across the pond is that we get Good Friday and Easter Monday so most of us in Europe get a nice long four-day weekend for Holy Week. This year in the UK, we also get an extra bank holiday to celebrate the marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton. If you haven't heard, there is a  Royal Wedding taking place in London on Friday 29 April and we get the day off! Lucky us -- two back to back four day weekends and of course, travel!


Easter weekend takes us to the Scandinavian city of Copenhagen. Beyond the clichéd tourist sites like the Little Mermaid (underwhelming) and Tivoli park (old-school amusement park), Copenhagen has a lot to offer from the cool bars and cafes in up-and-coming neighbourhoods of Vesterbro and Kødbyen (Meatpacking District) to alfresco canal-side restaurants along Nyhaven to urban parks and botanical gardens. As the host of the 2009 Climate Change Conference, Copenhagen is by far one of the eco-minded cities in Europe with 9 of 10 adults owning bikes and an impressive driverless metro system, which we didn't need to take as the city is very walkable. 

Copenhagen is also making headlines in the culinary world with Noma earning accolades as the world best restaurant on the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants. We weren't lucky enough to snag reservations at Noma, nor could our wallets stretch for an extravagant meal in one of the world's most expensive city, although Copenhagen is relatively "cheaper" than its Nordic neighbours. Dining out over Easter weekend in Europe is generally difficult, as most retailers and restaurants are closed for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Since the warm summer-like weather was so amazingly beautiful, we opted to spend most of our time in Copenhagen under the sun with picnics along the canals and urban parks.

All in all, Copenhagen was a nice little excursion from London. Of all the Scandinavian cities I've visited, Stockholm is still my favourite. Don't get me wrong -- Copenhagen is nice, but it lacks the regal and the cool sophistication of Stockholm. If there is one word to describe the Danish culture, according to our waitress, is hygge - a distinctly Danish term to describe "cosy" or a feeling that evokes something warm, comforting, and calm. Feeling hygge can be anything from enjoying a warm fire over a cup of tea or hot chocolate, having a leisurely meal and conversation with friends and family, or sipping iced-cold Carlsberg on a sunny day. It is a state of mind as it is a physical state, and very Danish.  So to share my hygge with you, here are my suggestions of things to do in Copenhagen:

1) Bicycle - While in Copenhagen, do as the Danes do -- bike. It's good for the environment and for your waistline. The city is flat as a pancake and have miles of dedicated bike lanes. The free bike scheme in Copenhagen must be really popular, as we couldn't find one single bike available at any of the city centre bike stands.
2) Eat smørrebrød - the quintessential Danish smørrebrød of open-face sandwich on thin rye bread, usually consisting of marinated herring, crab, shrimp, roast beef, ham, liver pate and garnished with cucumbers, tomatoes, sliced radishes, and sprouts. Eat a smørrebrød washed down with cold Carlsberg or Tudor beer and don't forget to save room for a "Danish pastry." Recommended places for traditional smorrebroad, which were unfortunately closed for Easter: Ida Davidsen and Aamann's. Other restaurant recommendations around town: Madklubben (Danish), Kodbyen Fiskebar (Seafood), Kofoed (Modern Scandinavian), Halifax (Burger), Fiat (Italian), and Mothers Pizza.

3) Touristy Copenhagen: Tivoli and Little Mermaid - As a tribute to Hans Christian Anderson, the well known children's book author, visit the Little Mermaid statue on the harbour. It's a bit underwhelming, but a must while in Copenhagen. She was a guest at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, and now sitting pretty back at the cold harbour. Tivoli, an old school amusement park, has been open since 1843 and is one of Copenhagen's most popular tourist attraction. It also host concerts and plays during the summer months and conveniently located next to the Central Station. Grab some cotton candy and a ride around the merry-go-round.
4) Day tripping - There are several possible day trips around Zealand. The two obvious excursions are Frederiksborg Slot, a Dutch renaissance castle built in the early 1600s, and Kronborg Slot in Helsingør, otherwise known as Hamlet's Castle. Both are approximately 40-55 minutes by train from Copenhagen. Keenan, as a lover of Shakespearean literature, wanted to visit Helsingør, so off we went on a beautiful Saturday morning to Hamlet's castle. We got tickets to see Sam Mendes' Ricard III starring  Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic in August -- can't wait to see it. 

Helsingør is a quaint little port city and across the Oresund Strait, you can see its twin sister city, Helsingborg in Sweden. Here, numerous ferries shuttling back and forth between the two cities. Because alcohol is prohibitively expensive in Sweden and must be purchased at the Systembolaget, thirsty Swedes come here to stock up on "cheap" booze. No joke -- we saw a family stock up a mini-van full of liquor!

Helsingor - Hamlet's Castle:

5) The Slot (Castles) and Palaces - On your walking tour, don't miss the 17th century Rosenborg Slot near Kongens Have, home to the Danish crown jewels. There is also the Amalienborg Palace (top photo) on the waterfront, home of the Danish royal family and Christiansborg Palace, seat of Denmark's parliament (bottom photo).

6) Hanging out at Nyhavn on a sunny day - The canal is quite lively on a sunny day. Grab a seat at any of the alfresco restaurants or pick up some beers at the local grocery store and chill out on the canal.

7) Retail therapy on Strogot - Main shopping artery in Copenhagen. Enough said. 

8) Urban Green Spaces - If you're in the Norreport neighbourhood, drop by the Botanical Gardens (it's free) and take a leisurely walk around the garden. And, if you are into botany, there is a glasshouse growing various tropical plants. For a moment there, I thought I was back in Brazil -- wishful thinking I suppose. There is also Kastellet near the Mermaid statue, which is also quite lovely.

I think that pretty much sums up our time in Copenhagen. Next weekend, we're off to Ljubljana to visit a friend Keenan met some 12 years ago in Tokyo. I think I could get used to four day weekends...lucky for us, we get another four day weekend (extra bank holiday) in 2012 to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Leipzig: An Update from the former East Germany

With Portugal following Ireland and Greece as the latest eurozone member to request a bailout from the European Union (with Spain faltering economically and Italy collapsing politically in its own increasingly strange ways) and with France and the United Kingdom leading a yet to be clearly defined NATO mission in Libya, Germany has maintained economic, financial, and political composure during the tumult of the first few months of 2011 and is transforming into a reluctant superpower of Europe.  Recently diverging with its NATO allies by abstaining from the Libya vote while also being accused of economic bullying through its design and compulsory implementation of economic bailout terms and conditions to the most fragile eurozone members, cautious, pragmatic, and fiscally responsible Germany seems to be among one of the only nations in Europe right now that is not embroiled in the hyperbolic semantics of military interventionism or domestic economic catastrophe.  Furthermore, following the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, Germany is leading the way in Europe for alternative renewable energy sources, making an example of itself by shutting down 7 nuclear plants, much to the chagrin of France who relies on nuclear energy for nearly 75 percent of that country’s energy. 
Through all of this Germany is taking a considerable amount of criticism from its friends and neighbors for both its perceived actions and inactions.  In fact, when it comes to the eurozone, Germany seems to be edging closer towards isolation from former partners, assuming sole economic supremacy and overstepping France as the traditional and historic pillar of stability in Europe’s currency union.  As events continue to unfold in Europe and indeed throughout the rest of the world, it will be intriguing to watch how Germany approaches her potential new role, likely with a continued balance of hesitance and decisiveness.
Having traveled to Germany numerous times, mostly for work, I have appreciated the efficiency and productivity that seems to lack in many other markets in which I have conducted business which is why I never mind coming back here.  I think I have probably been to every corner of Germany at this point with Leipzig finally rounding it out last week.  Last year I had a work engagement in Dresden during the dead of winter and last week returned to the Saxony region of Germany for another assignment.  Since I had spent a considerable enough amount of time in Dresden last year I only stayed there one night on this trip and was able to base myself about an hour west in Leipzig.  Ranked as one of the New York Times top places to visit in 2010, I was curious to see what all of the hype was about surrounding this city.  It was also an opportunity to experience another city in the former East Germany and to compare against what I already knew of Dresden and for the cities of the former West Germany.     
Leipzig combines the edginess of Berlin with the Saxon history of Dresden, offering little that one would come to know of other German cities such as Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt or Munich.  Because of this Leipzig is truly unique and often feels more Eastern European than it does Western, certainly a nod to its more recent history as a post-war industrial outpost of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.  Gritty and developing, the cities of the former East Germany are almost nothing like their western counterparts and there is a tremendous amount of treasure and effort being spent on bringing this region in line with the rest of Germany.  Characteristics that I have come to know and associate with Germany as a whole are less apparent in places like Leipzig and Dresden.
Overall, I am still surprised by how cheap east Germany is in contrast to west Germany.  After over two decades since reunification, remnants of communist architecture and planning are abundant, but investment and modernization programs do seem to be working for the most part.  Unemployment in Leipzig however still hovers above 20 percent, which is over twice the national average and the standard of living still remains considerably lower than in the rest of the country.  In many ways, the wealthier and developed cities of in former West Germany still feel like a different world from places like Leipzig and Dresden in the former East Germany.  There is still plenty of work to do, but I am impressed with how far they have come with the development programs up to this point.  
Where Goethe wrote Faust in Leipzig
While Germany continues to invest aggressively in the former East in order to raise it to the standards of the West, it now seems to be expanding its burden of teacher, disciplinarian, and guardian to the rest of Europe as well, albeit reluctantly.  Memories of the first half of the twentieth century are still fresh and the Germany of the twenty-first century seems eager to avoid any comparison or likeness to the darker version of past.  Although this is natural and probably a well-balanced and much needed humility required for strong leadership, it would be a shame if Germany allows the fears and anxieties of its own history to prevent it from commanding the much needed voice of pragmatism, stability, and discipline in a European currency union that is edging ever closer towards irrelevance and illegitimacy (outside of the core countries of course).  With their inconsistent handling of the financial crises of the last several years and their confused diplomatic responses to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, Europe should be doing a better job both economically and politically.  The European Union should be a powerful performer on the world stage and it looks like Germany might need to take control of the show, even if she doesn’t want to.    
PS – It has been an incredibly busy start to the year and even busier since arriving back from Brazil.  Below are some snapshots and captions from some work trips over the First Quarter 2011.      
Certainly more industrial than Nice, Marseilles has a unique vibe all its own which is very separate from anything else I have seen in France.  As a major port city and with a very large Arab and African population, these influences are seen throughout town and in its architecture and food.  If you can afford it, try the local Bouillabaisse which Marseilles is famous for.  I tried to go to Chez Fon Fon which comes highly recommended, but they were closed for lunch unfortunately so I would suggest calling ahead before making the trek out there.     
Lastly, earlier this year in Brussels, I was able to pay an old favorite spot of mine a visit.  A couple of years ago my Dad and I went on a beer trip to Belgium and stumbled upon a quaint, local little beer house called “Au Bon Vieux Temps”.  We spent the afternoon drinking fantastic Belgian beers and mingling with the locals along with the charming owner, Madame Trieste.  When I found this place from memory and presented my face after two years I was happy to see Madame Trieste in good form and was surprised that she remembered my Dad and I very well.  After a couple of rounds of Westleveren on the house, her welcome back gift to me, I headed back to my hotel, quite pleased that I now had myself a “local” pub in Brussels.