josh rosner

Archive for the ‘German Culture and Society’ Category

WAITING FOR SUNRISE

In Europe, German Culture and Society on June 16, 2013 at 10:44 am

Last night – if you prefer to be technically accurate, early this morning – I waited for the first glimpse of daylight. It arrived later than usual, given the lingering dark heavy clouds. I love the hour or so before sunrise. In European mythology dawn had its own goddess, separate to the sun deity. She must have been revered for her power to birth a new day, over and over, never once deciding, “Fuck it, I’m too tired.” Waiting for the goddess to awaken and begin her work, I thought about one very specific night I spent on a train between Paris and Berlin twenty-two years ago. In fact, it was twenty-two years ago today. I was poor then, purchasing the cheapest ticket available. It left me standing in a tight corridor for the twelve hour journey. Other passengers bumped into me as they headed to and from the restaurant car, speaking languages I recognised as well as those I didn’t. I was reading The Catcher in the Rye, leaning against a half-open window. Earlier that same day I’d found the book on a bench in Square Jean XXIII, behind Notre Dame. Shortly after pulling out of Gare de l’est station I vaguely heard a voice say, “What ya reading?” The persistent clickety-clack of the train masked his voice. I continued reading without looking up. He moved closer, repeating the question. “Oh, I didn’t hear you. Sorry,” I said. He was about the same age as me, tall, blonde, with the familiar leanness of someone backpacking around Europe on a ridiculously small budget. I showed him the cover of the book without speaking. “Awesome book,” he said, in what I would later learn was a Canadian accent. He wanted to talk about Holden Caulfield and whether, as a character in a book many high school students are required to study, he could be viewed as a role-model. “After all,” my new Canadian friend said, “he loves his sister and his heart is in the right place.” I was less convinced. I’d first read the book in my Year 10 English class. I loved it immediately and I’ve read it at least once a year ever since. But for me, the attraction lies less in the world Holden Caulfield inhabits and, for the most part created for himself, and more in the writing and the mystery surrounding the writer. It invokes, for me, a sense of a magical by-gone era in New York City. When I first visited New York, as a naive twenty-one year old, I used Salinger’s book as my guide, visiting the places Holden found himself. Today, there are Holden Caulfield tours and a myriad websites devoted to Holden’s New York, but back in my day the detective work was mine alone; unaided, unassisted and without any technology but the printed book. The Canadian and I moved on from Salinger to Thomas Pynchon. From Pynchon to Proust. From Proust to Victor Hugo. I packed the book away, sure that our conversation was far from its climax. We sat on the floor of the train, mostly oblivious to the people forced to step over us to pass by. We talked about our childhoods and unfulfilled dreams. He had a salami baguette in his backpack, forgotten until three am. It was Hungarian salami, the hottest I had ever tasted. I pretended to be an experienced eater of hot cured sausage. I didn’t care that it burned my tongue. I was hungry. When the train’s conductor came by and ordered us not to sit on the floor we dutifully stood up until he moved to the next carriage. Once out of sight we resumed our places in the corridor. He never returned. Our conversation moved to politics. I knew little about his country and he knew little about mine. We shared a queen and the Westminster parliamentary system. We were both often asked if we were American in former Eastern European countries. The similarities ended there. His nose was crooked, as if it had been broken as a child. I wanted to ask him to tell the story, but I didn’t. When his speech became highly animated he placed his hand on my arm, but not in a sexual way. We talked until the sun came up, still three hours before arriving in Berlin. I didn’t feel tired. I felt exhilarated, almost invincible, as if there was no challenge I could not surmount. As the train came to a stop in Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof we disembarked and shook hands. “Was great to meet you,” he said, before turning and walking away. I stood perfectly still, watching him until he was out of sight. It was not until he was long gone that I realized I didn’t even know his name. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not about the destination. It’s not even about the journey. It’s about the people who come with you on the journey and those you meet along the way. I never saw him again, but I’ve often wondered if he knew that most of our conversation had taken place on Bloomsday.

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TWO MICHELIN STARS. €300. ELITISM?

In Fine Dining, German Culture and Society on October 4, 2012 at 5:55 am

My favourite restaurant in the world has a view to die for. Its wood paneling and subtle tones of cream are stunning.

The service is impeccable. The food is incomparable. The Lorenz Adlon restaurant, located on the first floor of Berlin’s iconic Adlon Kempinski Hotel just metres from the Brandenburg Gate, is a two Michelin star restaurant with the most exciting degustation menu I have ever eaten. Yet such attention to detail, in all facets of the fine dining experience, don’t come cheap.

View of the Brandenburg Gate from each table in Berlin;s Lorenz Adlon restaurant.

The eight course menu, with matching wine, features dishes such as Halibut and Langoustine, Scallop and Pork Belly and Braised Rib of Nebraska Beef, all served with synchronised perfection by the wait staff, with a view of the Brandenburg gate from each of the six tables in the restaurant. At €300 per person, it is a fine dining experience that is out of reach of many travelers, to be sure.

People like me, who spend their disposable income on opera, non-economy-class travel and fine dining tend to be labelled an elitist and a snob. I can live with both labels. It’s my money and I’ll spend it how I like. But as much as I enjoy fine dining, the number of Michelin stars a restaurant has tends not to be what drives my decision. I have eaten in one star and two star restaurants, but as of yet, not a three star restaurant. When I travel I tend to choose restaurants based on local recommendations, published reviews and quirky menus. I certainly eat in more ‘standard’ eateries than I do fine dining establishment.

Nonetheless, I do find the cult of the celebrity chef and the fight to achieve a Michelin star disturbing. It is certainly something to be applauded that your average Joe now knows and understands more about food than his or her parents did, but I lament the decline of our culture to a point where chefs are spending all their time on television, rather than in the kitchen, held up as an authority, dolling out advice on all manner of topics unrelated to food.

Last year, chef Olivier Douet of Le Lisita, located in the southern French city of Nimes, gave back his much cherished Michelin star. At the end of the day, pragmatic economics won out. With a Michelin star comes an expectation that a certain level of service will be offered, alongside the quality of the food. Better service means a bigger staff means increased prices for dishes. Douet decided he preferred having customers more than he loved his Michelin star. He turned his gastronomically demanding restaurant into a humble brassiere. The clientele came flocking back.

In 2003, France’s most famous chef, Bernard Loiseau, owner and head chef at La Côte d’Or, finished a full day’s work in his kitchen then took a shotgun and shot himself in the mouth. France’s Le Figaro newspaper had published an article hinting that Loiseau was about to lose one of his three Michelin stars. It’s said the loss of a Michelin star can cost a restaurant as much as twenty-five percent of its business. Conversely, business at La Côte d’Or increased by sixty percent when Loiseau won his third star. Nine years after his death, it has maintained its three stars.

So is it snobbery or elitism to eat a €300 meal in a two Michelin star restaurant? Probably. But so what? We are all be free to spend our incomes as we see fit, as long is it isn’t illegal to do so. I choose occasionally to spend it in on the perfect meal.

WAGNER IN ISRAEL … OR NOT

In Classical Music, German Culture and Society on June 6, 2012 at 1:20 am

I was disappointed to read this article about a cancelled performance of Richard Wagner’s music this week at Israel’s Tel Aviv University.

Bowing to pressure from the Centre of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors, the university’s president banned the June 18 concert from the university’s hall. The organization also lobbied musicians from the private orchestra hired to play, urging them not to perform music by Wagner.

No Israeli orchestra has ever played the music of Wagner on Israeli soil, although in 2011 the Israel Chamber Orchestra traveled to Germany and played Siegfried Idyll at the famed Wagner festival in Bayreuth.

Daniel Barenboim in action

In 2001, the Argentine-born, Berlin-resident, Jewish composer and conductor, Daniel Barenboim – who I have seen in concert in Berlin a number of times – conducted a performance of Wagner at the Israel Festival. Barenboim did warn the audience that the orchestra was going to play a single Wagner piece and he offered to wait until those who might be offended could leave. Although some did leave, claiming later to have been offended by the very notion, many also stayed a gave a standing ovation at the end of the performance.

Although I can certainly understand that many Holocaust survivors might be offended by an Israeli orchestra playing Wagner on Israeli soil, particularly since the Nazis played Wagner’s music in the concentration camps, I also believe that so many decades have past, in which so many Jews continue to define themselves by that one moment in history.

It was a tragic time in world history. I’m not trying to deny that. But it was also seventy years ago and I don’t believe clinging to trauma – particularly trauma from so long ago – is healthy. It is not healthy for individual Jews, for Holocaust survivors, or for the future of Israel as a nation.

Aerial view of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Like most things in a democracy, those Israelis who believe listening to Wagner might offend them, should stay away. They are not forced to attend. The music was not to be pumped through sub-woofers located on every street corner.

Hitler is dead. He has been for sixty-seven years. By continuing to maintain a ban – official or otherwise – on music Hitler may or nay not have favoured, by a musician who died six years before Hitler was born, only gives credence to the notion that Hitler continues to exert power of some elements of the world – particularly Jews and Germans – and it fuels the racist agenda of neo-Nazis the world over.

On a personal level, Wagner is far from my favourite classical composer. He is difficult and complicated and requires an intellectual investment that lingers. I’d rather listen to Mozart over Wagner most days. But that is a personal choice based on my taste in classical music. Continuing to ban Wagner’s music in Israel makes no sense. Not any more. When the last Holocaust survivor has passed, will the music continue to be banned? If so, Hitler has won the real war, decades after he death.

Daniel Barenboim succinctly summed up the ridiculousness – and hypocrisy – of Israel’s position when he said this week:

“The entire Wagner debate in Israel is linked to the fact that steps toward a Jewish Israeli identity have not been taken; all concerned continue to cling to past associations which were absolutely understandable and justified at the time. It is as if they wanted to remind themselves by so doing of their own Judaism. Perhaps this is the same fact that does not allow many Israelis to see the Palestinians as citizens with equal rights.

“When one continues to uphold the Wagner taboo today in Israel, it means in a certain respect that we are giving Hitler the last word, that we are acknowledging that Wagner was indeed a prophet and predecessor of Nazi anti-Semitism, and that he can be held accountable, even if only indirectly, for the final solution.”