lisbon (un)bound

After such a restful time in the countryside, I’m a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of heading to the city.  Add to that the fact that I am reading  Jose Saramago’s Blindness right now and you’ll understand why I am even more unsettled. (The Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese novelist’s haunting story is about an epidemic of white blindness that strikes the city and upends civilization entirely.)  But Lisbon is relatively calm – and absent the roving packs of blind scavengers that have been haunting my sleep lately. I’m staying at a Four Seasons, too, so really, life ain’t so bad. The hotel is just off Avenida de Liberdade, a grand avenue similar to the Champs-Elysees, or more accurately, Berlin’s Unter der Linden, with four lanes of traffic divided by landscaped promenades large enough to be considered proper parks.  It cuts down the valley towards the port on the Tagus River, dividing the hills of Lisbon on either side.  To get my bearings I go for a stroll; there will be lots of time for exploration tomorrow but today I just want to ramble and figure out the landscape of the city.

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ich bin ein berliner

If you’re lucky enough to be in Berlin this Saturday, I am gnashing my teeth in jealousy.  January 30th is Lange Nacht der Museen – or The Long Night of Museums for those who don’t Sprechen sie Deutsch – a highlight of the cultural calendar in a city that takes its Kultur very, very seriously.

About 60 museums and galleries across the city  – including the incredible Museumsinsel, or Museum Island, in the former East Berlin, Deutsche Guggenheim, and Schloss Charlottenburg, to name but a very few – open their doors late into the night, giving visitors an all-you-can-see buffet-style evening of exhibitions, guided tours and special events.  This year’s theme focuses on Berlin as a capital city of science and each location will offer a site-specific program dedicated to that theme in addition to their regular exhibitions.

Although many museums are within walking distance of the central City Hall meeting point, many more are spread out across the city.  Practical as ever, free shuttle buses are on hand to help you navigate your way between museums and see as much as possible. Best of all, every bus is manned by a blond, blue-eyed steward who’ll answer all your questions.  OK, maybe that last line is a bit of wishful thinking — however the all-incluseive €15 ticket price is not.

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at the movies: a single man

Isherwood Watching Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man, put me in a Berlin-flecked, Isherwood state of mind last night.  (by the way, not only is the film as beautifully shot as you’d expect, but Colin Firth’s performance as a man come undone by the death of his long-term partner is wrenching – especially when Ford allows the camera to linger on the actor’s face in extreme close-up.)

I’d never appreciated Christopher Isherwood until relatively recently.  I was in Berlin for work – my first trip to the sprawling German capital – and was staying in Schoneberg, the old, leafy “gayborhood.” In search of breakfast one morning, I literally stumbled upon the house where Isherwood lived and worked on Nollendorfestrasse.  The building served as a model for what is perhaps his best known work, Goodbye to Berlin, which was subsequently adapted into a play and later the film, Cabaret.  Trying to decipher the plaque that marks the structure, it struck me how Isherwood was part of the gay pantheon, and yet I knew almost nothing of his work – only a few prurient details regarding his personal life.

I picked up a copy of The Berlin Stories soon after and was surprised to find a fresh, modern style of writing that would be ripped off and imitated frequently throughout the 20th century.  The narrator functions as a camera – hence I Am A Camera, duh – observing the world around him in documentary fashion; and even more interesting (to me) the narrator’s true journey happens in camera; that is, in a private place – secreted away from the action.  (I could pun on this for a while, so I’ll just put it out there how the word “cabaret” derives from the Latin “camera,” too.)  Isherwood’s style of writing fundamentally altered our perception of how fiction could function, so it’s a shame he remains so under-appreciated.  I hope the success of Ford’s film might pique a renewed interest in his oeuvre.

In addition to chancing upon Isherwood’s house, I also found myself living smack in the middle of Folsom – Europe’s largest gathering of leather enthusiasts.  Somehow it seemed fitting that in the middle of this subdued residential neighborhood one taboo was being brought into the daylight while down the block an English writer was doing very much the same thing some 75 years earlier.

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