Top 10 Books of 2015

Better English language bookstores in Berlin than my California hometown mean I actually read a few real live paper books in 2015

Weekend newspapers and the literary internet have been brimming with best books of 2015 lists, which got me thinking about my favorite reads of the year. I’m not one of those people (who are those people?) who can keep up with the flood of good stuff being written so not all of these were published in 2015, even if that’s the year I got around to reading them.

1. The First Bad Man by Miranda July was my favorite book of the year: fresh, startling, gross, and very very funny. I didn’t think I’d find a more original female protagonist than Tiffany in Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, then I made the acquaintance of Cheryl, star of The First Bad Man. Goodreads review here.

2. The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink is a lightning-paced whirl of a flawed but addictive novel from a writer championed into prominence by the much-maligned Jonathan Franzen. Just read it. Or, if you must know more, read my longer Goodreads review here.

3. Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys by Viv Albertine is a memoir by the first lady of punk you’ve never heard of. She hung with Sid Vicious and received fashion advice from Vivienne Westwood, but if that’s not enough to get you interested it turns out this is a rather moving tome on living a creative life. I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic right after I read this—which I also enjoyed—and was struck by how much Albertine’s memoir is a gritty, real-life demonstration of the principles Gilbert espouses. Goodreads review here.

4. Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe is admittedly a niche read, but if you happen to be an Anglophile who’s a fan of Alan Bennett and London Review of Books (nevermind that the one time you actually read LRB a piece by Will Self made you want to stab your eyes out with pencils) and generally impressed by some vague concept of north London intellectuals, you won’t be able to resist Nina’s Stibbe’s real-life letters to her sister during her time as a nanny for LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. A Nick Hornby-penned adaptation is coming to BBC One TV screens in 2016.

Books 5., 6., and 7. are The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, A Place In My Country by Ian Walthew, and The Snow Geese by William Fiennes, which I guess means I have a thing for British male writers waxing lyrical about nature and the concept of home. Rebanks and Walthew also offer local insight into two iconic British landscapes, the Lake District and the Cotswolds, respectively, that most of us only know as visitors. Goodreads reviews here and here.

8. Outline by Rachel Cusk proves I also have a thing for solitary woman protagonists. Evocative of Joan Didion’s best fiction. Goodreads review here.

9. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit is a book of feminist essays described by a Twitter friend as a gateway drug for Solnit. She must have been right because I’m now reading Wanderlust.

10. Redeployment by Phil Klay, the lauded book of short stories by an Iraq war veteran and required reading for Americans. Goodreads review here.

Since it’s a Top 10 list I’ll stop here with a quick mention of two other books I enjoyed: Sarah Hepola’s drinking memoir, Blackout, and a collection of essays by writers without children, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, edited by Meghan Daum. Oh and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, who also happens to have an essay in the previously mentioned collection from Meghan Daum.

Here’s to a 2016 full of good books— may your nightstand runneth over.


An Atheist Goes to Church

The War Memorial in Northleach

By luck we were back in the Cotswolds last weekend for Remembrance Day, so we joined our village for the ceremony at the local war memorial followed by a service at our church.

While I’m an atheist for all intents and purposes, attending church in the Cotswolds has always been a non-issue for me. Perhaps because I was raised Presbyterian or perhaps because village churches are intricately woven into this Cotswold landscape I love, I’ve always found a sense of comfort in their drafty Anglican sanctuaries.

On this Remembrance Day I attended church out of respect and to sit for an hour in a still, sacred place.

If my use of the term “sacred” jars, allow it. I mean it in the dictionary sense of something that is both highly valued and important, and deserving of great respect. Of course we all know the reasons religion isn’t to be highly valued nor deserving of great respect. The list is as long as my arm, as old as the crusades, as recent as the ISIS massacre in Paris last night. But on this occasion church was sacred. It was also a reminder of how much work we have yet to do to create secular institutions that replace the sacred functions historically provided by the church.

These sacred functions were laid out in the major sections of the order of service: The Gathering, Listening for the Word from God, Praying Together, Remembering, and The Act of Commitment. With some secular adjustments—changing “Listening for the Word from God” to simply “Listening,” and “Praying Together” to something like “Sharing Hopes and Burdens”—it’s a blueprint for a secular approach to community.

During “Remembering,” the group of people bearing the poppy wreath moved to the church’s War Memorial by the south door and, as The Last Post sounded, we, the congregation, turned to face them. An elderly gentleman, the leader of the wreath party, kept silence for a long time. Long enough to feel the grief of those long-ago wars and the grief of the world today. Long enough for me to appreciate the rare opportunity to grieve with others.

And of course there were hymns. Speaking on behalf of the tone deaf of the world, one of the unparallelled benefits of church is the opportunity to sing with abandon. And for anyone who loves language, it’s hard to beat hymns. I don’t remember the name of the hymn in question, but I do remember marvelling at seeing such an elegant use of the underused word “concord.”

Perhaps the most striking part of the service was the last, “The Act of Commitment,” in which the congregation is asked to say out loud that “we will” seek to heal the wounds of war and work for a just future of all humanity. I know they’re just words, but there’s a simple power in asking that people speak them in front of other people, without the virtual veil of Twitter or Facebook. And I know of nowhere else that I’d be asked to say aloud such radical things.


Stumbling Forward

“Look where you’re walking” is the phrase you’re most likely to hear my husband mutter not-so-under his breath while out walking around a busy part of Berlin. The primary offenders are tourists, looking for something in one direction while their feet propel them forward in another; pedestrians preoccupied with their mobile phones; and, most fearsome of all, pedestrians preoccupied by their mobile phone in one hand while wielding a lit cigarette with the other. Abstract the phrase slightly to “look in the direction you’re headed,” and it works on both a literal and figurative level. My husband’s irritated admonishment is transformed into a piece of advice worthy of a commencement speech: deceptively simple, pithy, equally pragmatic and profound. Much of the canon of canned advice—dress for the job you want, aim high, aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time—are variations on the theme.

And yet in Berlin there’s an exception to this rule. To see the Stolpersteine—German for stumbling blocks or stones—you have to look down, which is what I happened to be doing last Saturday, undoubtedly staring at my phone, when the glint from a trio of brass plaques caught my eye. I had just read about the Stolpersteine in ExBerliner, an English-language magazine targeted at expats in the city, and so I stopped to examine what I now recognized as miniature monuments to victims of forced deportation in Europe between 1933 and 1945, a group that includes Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, dissidents, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are thousands of them around Berlin, and yet I had somehow never noticed them before. Inscribed on each of the stones in front of me now was the victim’s name, date of birth, year of deportation, and what happened. Irma, Karla, and Ellen Rosenthal lived here, were deported in 1943, and murdered in Auschwitz at ages 38, 14, and 10 respectively. It’s a fair amount to take in when you were just walking to a movie.

The Stolpersteine are the work of a German artist, Gunter Demnig, who, since 1992, has been creating the plaques based on carefully researched nominations and funding from private citizens. People sometimes apply for a plaque on behalf of a relative or, in other cases, simply to acknowledge someone who once shared the same address. The reasons are personal but the content of the inscriptions is regimented, particularly when it comes to describing what happened to the victim. I was struck by the commitment to speak plainly and truthfully in Demnig’s instructions on the official Stolpersteine website:

“TOT (dead) or ERMORDET (murdered); for a fate unknown three question marks are used: ???. Instead of suicide we put FLUCHT IN DEN TOD (flight into death). We do not use the term “verschollen” (“missing”), nor the term “TOD” (“Death”) since it suggests a natural death. Nor do we use the term “emigration”. Instead, the stone will state: FLIGHT + year + the country of destination.”

(It’s impossible not to notice the parallels between his insistence not to use the term “emigration” and the current debate over the term migrant versus refugee.)

The intimacy of these memorials—each one’s origin linked to a private citizen, modest in size, and placed in front of what is or once was a home—stands in contrast to the city’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The latter is very much in the public space, near the Brandenburg Gate and across from the Tiergarten, comprised of undulating terrain between 2,711 concrete slabs that convey an abstract sense of the magnitude of what occurred. Both, I think, provide a required perspective, but it is the Stolpersteine that have captured me most because they are intertwined with the minutiae of my daily life.

There are eight victims memorialized on my street, including Abraham Fuss, who lived in or near the building that now houses a shop where I bought the bike I use to commute to work each day. He was a tailor, and each time I pass the wedding dress atelier of Andreas Remhardt farther up the block, I think of him. Jeanette and Ruth Grünberg along with Charlie and Golda Wisen lived near the shop where we bought the chairs we sit in every day around our dining table.

Stolperstein for Jenny Theis, a singer who lived
around the corner from me, murdered on this day in 1942

Berlin is a city that’s always looking forward, as marked by the permanent presence of cranes in the landscape. And yet it also strikes me as a city that has taken pains to look backwards to remind itself of its past, not just in the Memorial to Murdered Jews in Europe and the Stolpersteine, but on plaques that show up on buildings all over the city to tell the stories of victims of National Socialism and, later, the Stasi. Despite its constant reinvention—currently as a hotbed of hipster-ism in Europe—it is a city trying to keep itself alert to the possibility that, at any moment things, could go terribly wrong. The fact that aerial bombs left over from WWII are still discovered, often during construction, and defused on a regular basis is one very real manifestation of the threat. Berlin is a city that is literally sitting on bombs.

The city’s reminders to itself, whether deliberate monuments or unintended remnants of war, seem to show up in its current handling of the European refugee crisis. According to recent reports, approximately 1,000 refugees are arriving in the city each day. Germany is expected to receive upward of a million refugees this year, of which Berlin is obliged to accept 5%. It’s a challenge for which the city’s collective memory, held in part in the Stolpersteine, will need to be tapped.

Books Cotswolds

Report from Cheltenham Literature Festival

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the Cheltenham Literature Festival in the Cotswolds. I spent the first night of the festival at an intimate evening with the bald spot on the back of a gentleman’s head and the much maligned Mr. Franzen.

Before he began to read, Franzen noted he was in the fourth week of touring to promote his new novel, Purity, and admitted he he had hit a wall just before the start of this event. Despite his fatigue, he still managed to charm. I particularly enjoyed hearing him read from a scene in the book where a couple has sex on a nuclear missile in Amarillo, Texas.

However, an opportunistic journalist hoping for another Iraqi-war-orphan-esque gaffe would have been rewarded towards the end of the Q&A when a woman in the audience asked him about his relationship with his mother. He started his answer by offering his gratitude for the middle-class privileges his parents had bestowed on him, including an education and disapproval of his writing—which he said gave him “something to prove.” Then he went on to note that on top of all that, they were also nice enough to die when he was in his thirties, liberating him to write things he could have never written when they were still alive, including The Corrections. I can just imagine the headline: “Franzen Glad His Parents are Dead.” The audience seemed to take the answer in the spirit in which he intended, though. No gasps or tutting as far as I could hear, and the line for his book signing was still out the door by the time we finished dinner and moved on to the next event of the evening.

I spent the next hour in a much more intimate setting, just 30 or so audience members, the moderator and Nell Zink, Franzen’s literary protégé who was profiled in The New Yorker earlier this year. My friend headed to the tent next door to see the wildly popular Caitlin Moran, and the uproarious laughter from that crowd occasionally seeped into our venue.

Nell Zink reading from The Wallcreeper

Zink was funny, too. Not necessarily ha-ha funny, but odd and awkward and charming and all over the map. At one point she veered off in an explanation of a character’s hairdo in The Wallcreeper to enlighten us about an eighteenth-century hair condition amongst German peasants that included dreadlocks and was referred to as Plica Polonica (a Polish braid). There appeared to be little filter between her darting to-and-fro mind and her mouth, which was a good thing as far as I’m concerned.She was, in short, exactly how I imagined someone who had written the lighting-paced and weird and wonderful The Wallcreeper to be, and I would have been disappointed if she had been any other way.

Cotswolds Cycling

Playing Dress Up with The Guvnors’ Assembly

All about the details: custom fenders and champagne-cork-topped handlebars

Lastweekend we made a special trip back to Cotswoldia to take part in a “sporting event” I’ve had my eye on since last year: The Guvnors’ Assembly’s annual Jolly in the Wolds. The Assembly is a group of cycling enthusiasts who hail from all over Britain and distinguish themselves with sartorial elegance. This elegance begins with the choice of bike—a Pashley Guv’nor for the men and a Pashley Princess for the ladies—and extends into every other imaginable detail, from cat-eye sunglasses to the waxed tips of a mustache.

My love affair with Pashley cycles began in 2011 in Berlin—somewhat ironically since Pashley Cycles’ headquarters is in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is more or less the north Cotswolds—when I purchased a periwinkle-blue Pashley Poppy. She cost more than was strictly necessary to transport myself around the city, but, at roughly the same price as a designer shoe and infinitely more practical, the purchase was easy to rationalize. I like to think of her as the Jimmy Choos I’ll never own. My Poppy has followed me as we moved from Berlin to Boston and finally back to California, turning heads everywhere she goes. Sadly, when we moved back to Berlin this time around, we left Poppy in our California garage to enjoy a brief sabbatical.

A collection of Pashley Princesses

This left us in a dilemma over what to ride when we joined the Assembly at the weekend. We were in possession of some rather garishly colored road bikes, but we worried they would tarnish the aesthetic of the collective. The Assembly may have been worried about this possibility too, because, despite the fact that we were complete strangers, a longstanding member, Mr. Corky, offered to lend me a Pashley Princess and my husband something he called the tweed steed: a completely custom affair hand-upholstered in the finest Harris Tweed.

Bikes secured, we moved on to the question of what to wear. Berlin does vintage well, and it didn’t take me long to secure a 1950s-style sundress of yellow gingham with a cheerful cherry print. Husband relied on a more traditional Cotswold clothier, Pakeman Catto & Carter, acquiring a pair of tweed plus twos in their summer sale. (Curiously, shooting apparel does double duty very well as vintage cycling apparel.)

1950s me

Despite our efforts, when we arrived at our point of embarkation—a very fine pub called The Royal Oak Tetbury—husband and I were cowed by the collective splendor of the Assembly. The ladies didn’t just have elegant vintage dresses. They had gloves and hats and flowers and bunting strung through their baskets. They wore heels! Standing there in my sundress and very sensible white plimsolls, I felt like Sandy at the slumber party in Grease, only instead of The Pink Ladies I was surrounded by a gang of early-Mad Men Betty Drapers.The Rizzo of the group (I’m only calling her that since she organized the event with her husband, thus making her the gang leader of the Betty Drapers) soon put me at ease by offering me a lucky dip from the assortment of mini-cans of G&T and Pimms residing in her wide-mouthed bicycle basket. Another of the ladies, who goes by the moniker of Sussex Bob, offered to lend me her cycling cape (yes, a cape!) should the weather turn inclement that afternoon.

The men were equally as welcoming and well turned out. There wore braces, flat caps, cravats, and a smattering of the Assembly’s very own custom-made, vintage-style wool cycling jerseys. The bikes wore accessories, too, from bespoke wood fenders to a honking loud horn that, unfortunately for the ears of all those visiting the countryside that day, was attached to husband’s borrowed bike. One of the founding members of the assembly, Gent Cyclist, chose a more subtle attention-getting device: a cylindrical chrome police whistle attached to a perfectly patinated piece of twine.

The Guvnors’ Assemby assembles outside The Royal Oak Tetbury

After posing for pictures, we were off on our jolly. And it was a jolly—speed is not the point of an Assembly outing, although at 35 miles it wasn’t exactly a dawdle either. Manhandling a Pashley Princess up a Cotswold hill in blazing sun is serious business. These substantial bikes are elegant if not agile, squeaking on the ascents like a group of convivial mice at a tea party. Luckily for me the Assembly abides by a policy of “no man or woman left behind,” and regular stops ensured everyone could catch up.

The Assembly waits patiently for me

One such stop was for lunch at the Red Lion in Cricklade, where husband and I chatted more with G., one of The Pink Ladies/Betty Drapers, and learned her commitment to looking this good extended into everyday life. “I get dressed like this to walk the dog,” she told us. “My neighbors think I’m mad.”

Lunch stop at Red Lion Inn Cricklade

Seeing our group trundling around the Costwolds wearing woolen clothes and hats and heels as the temperature swelled into the eighties, you may well have thought us mad. But mostly people who saw us smiled and honked and waved and took pictures. The Assembly seemed to make people happy and the feeling was mutual. Maybe it was the just the tight bodice on my sundress, but as I rode my Princess I found myself sitting up straighter than usual, head held high. The air was filled with streamers of hay from passing trailers piled high with the
stuff and the occasional burst of dandelion confetti. Riding with the Guvnors’ Assembly felt like being in a countryside ticker-tape parade.

The Details

The Group:
To join the Guvnors’ Assembly for a ride, check out upcoming jollies on their website here.

The Gear:
More about Pashley Cycles here.

The Guide:
Our 35 mile loop started by heading southeast out of Tetbury on the B4014, tracing a shallow bowl of a route through Minety and up into Cricklade (about 15 miles). Leaving Cricklade we headed west through the beautiful village of Ashton Keynes, skirting the Cotswold Water Park before passing through the charming village of Oaksey. We continued up to Culkerton before turning left on the main A433, which brings you out just north of Trouble House. Turn right out of Trouble House and continue for 2 miles back into Tetbury.

The Grub:
We lunched at the excellent Red Lion Inn in Cricklade, which conveniently has its own microbrewery, The Hop Kettle Brewery.
Red Lion Inn
74 High Street
Wiltshire SN6 6DD
+44 (0)1793 750776

Refreshment was taken at the best-named pub in the Cotswolds, Trouble House. I stuck to lager and lime, but will be returning to taste the delicious-looking cakes.
Trouble House
London Road
Gloucestershire GL8 8SG
+44 (0)1666 502206

Supper was back at The Royal Oak Tetbury, where both service and food was outstanding.
The Royal Oak Tetbury, aka TROT
1 Cirencester Road
Gloucestershire GL8 8EY
+44 (0)1666 500021


Garden Party

Our visit to the Cotswolds last weekend happily coincided with Miles’ annual-ish summer garden party. It was a perfect Sunday afternoon for that kind of thing: blue skies and sun bright enough to warm but not wilt the men in attendance, most of whom would deem it unseemly to remove their linen blazers no matter how high the mercury soared.

Summer scene in Cotswoldia

Miles always makes it clear in his invitation that the party’s occurrence depends on the whims of English summer weather, issuing a go or no-go in an email sent out the day before. His excuse is that is his cottage is too small to host the party in the event of rain, but I’m not so sure. As anyone who’s ever hosted a party in their first shoe-box-sized grown-up apartment knows, it doesn’t take a lot of space. I think it’s more that a garden in English summer requires only a bit of bunting to look festive while hosting indoors would require Miles to actually clean his house.

To be clear, I’m incredibly fond of the disheveled interior of Miles’ home. The route to the bathroom—the only reason you’re allowed to enter during the course of the festivities—includes a walk past a small kitchen where the tap is broken and, as a result, constantly running. It’s been this way since at least 2011 when I was last at his house for one of these soirées. In drought-riddled California he would be locked up for this offense, but I suppose it’s less of an issue in this perpetually sodden part of the world.

Next you go up dust bunny-strewn stairs with pairs of his shoes laid out neatly every few steps, each pair pointing in the downstairs direction as if to make it easier to dress on-the-run as he exits the house. A presumably dysfunctional shotgun rests in the corner at the top of the stairs, it’s barrel half hidden behind a white curtain billowing in the breeze. In the current climate of mass shootings in America its presence would be threatening; in England it’s merely decorative, as is the salon-style hanging of photographs and prints and paintings in the interior of the loo. If I wasn’t sure he would like it so much, I would be tempted to call Miles a bohemian.

Who needs a glass?

At first it seemed that Miles’ laissez faire attitude towards housekeeping extended to the selection of hors d’oeuvres, which were strictly limited to squares of plain buttered brown bread with smoked salmon or egg salad. (At one point I did spy something mayonnaisey-looking—prawn?—resting in a fluted edible cup. It seemed out-of-keeping and I demurred on that basis.) On reflection, though, I can see that the choice of food and the timing of its appearance served a very specific purpose, which was solely to absorb the copious amounts of rosé and white wine in constant circulation. One type each of rosé and white were the only options and why not? The whole affair was a lesson in the elegance of minimalism for any hostess who’s ever struggled with being the most-est.

Of course the success of any party depends not just on free-flowing chilled wine and fine weather, but on the congregants. It was as if the characters of Americashire had reassembled unwittingly on my behalf. Amongst the usual suspects of Cotswoldia was a farmer who wore a pith hat without irony. He also wore a rose in the buttonhole of his canvas blazer, and when I complimented him on it, he expounded at length about his daily selection process from his garden and his exasperation with his gender for failing to realize that a flower is exactly what a buttonhole is for. Other topics of conversation included an obligatory WWII story—this one about attempting to blow up Hitler’s bunker, a long ago road trip to a game fair in the Loire, and whether or not the pattern of lips on my dress was indicative of the fact that I would like the gentleman inquiring to place a kiss in every spot where the lips appeared. Charming and creepy is a blurry line, but he meant no harm. There was also a puppy, whose antics provided a useful escape route from at least one conversation.

Escape route to the side garden

Calling on the old adage that it’s best to leave while you’re still having fun, Rupert, Ralph, and I eventually managed to persuade husband it was time to go. As Rupert, our designated driver, chauffeured us back home in his convertible through the nearly harvest-ready countryside, there may have been several wine-soaked exclamations of delight: “Now THIS is summer in England!”


The German Way of Death

A favorite monument in Friedhof II der Sophiengemeind

My favorite walking route on my morning commute takes me through a Protestant cemetery. Like much of Berlin the exterior walls of Friedhof II der Sophiengemeind are covered in graffiti, but just inside is a woodland oasis. There are flowers, but they are the flowers of a landscaped yard—rhododendrons and hydrangea—rather than the sanitized cut arrangements you often see in an American cemetery. There are some grand monuments, but mostly the landscape is unruly: full of rambling ivy, shrubs, and, in summer, leafy boughs bisecting your line of sight. Most striking is the contrast of the German predilection for chaos in death versus their stereotypical Teutonic rigidness in life. Perhaps in his final resting place, a German finally lets himself go.

A typical grave

As a non-German speaker, I look for clues about the culture of my host country outside of language: in the aisles of a grocery store (I’m not sure what condiments in a tube tells me, but I’m sure it’s something), the walls of a gallery, and even the paths of a cemetery. Still, the paths of the Friedhof II der Sophiengemeind remind me of one bit of language a co-worker taught me. It’s a Swabian saying, “schaffe, schaffe, Häusle baue” that means “work, work, build a house.” According to my colleague, the saying captures not just the hard-working nature of Swabians, but also the more universally relatable ideal of a house in the country.

In Mitte, the central district of Berlin where the cemetery lies, there’s no such thing as a standalone house; the streets are lined with five-story apartment blocks. But here in Friedhof I like to think the residents have finally built their house. It’s a lovely, rambling affair and as far outside the city as you can get without leaving.

Watering cans near the cemetery entrance

An Evening at Longborough Festival Opera: Glasto for the Middle-Aged

Opera-goers mill outside the theater, a former barn, during the interval

Last Saturday night I finally did something on my Cotswold bucket list: attend a performance at Longborough Festival Opera. (OK, it’s not actually on that list, but it should have been.) If you haven’t heard about Longborough, it’s in the vein of Glyndebourne’s country house opera and one of those Cotswold gems you wouldn’t believe until you pull into the grounds and see it for yourself.

One of the “guests” roaming the grounds

Upon arrival we were greeted by a rooster strolling amongst the other festival-goers, many of whom—unlike us—were wearing black-tie as they sipped pre-show glasses of wine. Nobody gave our casual dress a second glance, though; they were all too busy taking in the stunning views of the countryside in show-off British summer weather.

Even if the climate hadn’t cooperated, the show would have gone on. Longborough has its own permanent theater in the form of a converted barn complete with seats salvaged from a remodel of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, a pink stucco facade, and statues of Wagner, Verdi, and Mozart. The barn sits right across from the home of the couple, Martin and Lizzie Graham, who are responsible for the whole endeavor and seem to fit the mold of the stereotypical British eccentric rather well (read more about them here).

Despite my enthusiasm for the setting at Longborough, I confess that I’m not particularly interested in opera. Yet for reasons I can only attribute to the lingering effects of my bourgeois upbringing, I keep dragging husband to performances. Most recently we saw A Rake’s Progress in Berlin, which proved to be an excellent opportunity for him to catch up on his sleep. Occasionally he would wake up long enough to wonder aloud if the admittedly bizarre performance had licensed the use of the Disney characters whose likenesses made random appearances on stage. Thankfully the Longborough production of Rigoletto had no such ethical quandaries, not counting the cheating-on-and-murdering-of-an-innocent-young-woman aspects of the plot.

Our new hamper after we’d demolished
everything in it but the Eton Mess

The point is that the draw of an opera at a country house in England is not just the opera itself—which turned out to be stunning even if husband did have a little lie down in the box in the second half—but also the atmosphere: the grounds, the breed of very serious spectators making opera buff small talk that goes way over your head as you murmur affirmative throwaways, and, weather willing, the interval picnic.

Nobody does summer picnicking better than the British, a fact I attribute to the abysmal weather for much of the rest of the year. What else could motivate people to pack up most of the contents of an indoor dining room and transport them to a field in the middle of nowhere? (Things I’ve seen produced out of a British picnic basked include an eight-armed silver candelabra and a garland of paper lanterns “for atmosphere.”)

Rather than be mocked for my lack of proper kit, as I once was when I arrived at a Cotswold picnic carrying ice in a plastic Tesco bag, I opted to order our dinner from The Old Butchers in Stow-on-the-Wold. As if the nuts, olives, charcuterie, smoked salmon, potato salad, Chinese chicken salad, and Eton Mess weren’t enough, I am now the proud owner of the hamper in which it was delivered: a polka-dot-lined affair complete with tea cups, silverware, and china plates. It’ll be just the thing to disguise a Tesco bag filled with ice—and maybe even a candlestick or two—on our next visit to Longborough.

Picnic with a view
Europe Walking

Walking to Paris

Making strides in his campaign
to convert me to his pedestrian ways

Last month we walked to Paris. To be more specific, we walked the mile and a half from our apartment in Berlin to the Hauptbahnhof, boarded a grey and red Deutsche Bahn train to Cologne where we changed to a burgundy-colored Thalys train to Paris, then disembarked at Gare du Nord and walked the two-and-half miles to our little hotel on Île Saint-Louis. Three days later we did the same in reverse.

The decision to walk from our apartment in Berlin to the Hauptbanhof was merely pragmatic; construction in the city has rendered a good section of the route impassable by car. But I had long thwarted my husband’s ambition to walk—he’s an avowed pedestrian—from Gare du Nord into the center of Paris based on the belief that it was too long which, perversely, was a view I had formed while making the same trek through the traffic-snarled streets of the City of Lights in the back of a taxi. When I finally looked up the route on a map, I was shocked to find it was less than three miles. I could hardly say no.

Adding to the decision to make our journey to Paris one in which we cleaved to the earth rather than ascended to the heavens was the spate of recent airline disasters. A German Wings pilot had just crashed a plane into the Alps and I was still unsettled by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 a year earlier. Despite the fact that a rail ticket cost about three times more than a flight, I had no problem justifying the expense. In the words of Will Self in his memoir Walking to Hollywood, “I could no longer cope at all with the infantilizing demanded by…air travel. It was over. No more would I dutifully respond to those parental injunctions go here, go there, empty my pockets and take off my shoes. Never again would I take my underpants to see the world, which meant in turn that never would the world witness them espaliered on a hedge.”

Serious walking gear

Instead my underpants would be folded neatly into a sage-green backpack I had purchased for the express purpose of our ambulatory adventure, along with a pair of pink-and-white-striped slip-on sneakers that, while not exactly Parisian in sartorial tone, seemed a better option than the American-in-running-shoes cliché. In addition to being a way to avoid death in the skies, walking to Paris had also been an excuse to go shopping.


There is something extremely liberating about arriving at your destination and stepping onto the platform with nothing more than a backpack, a superior smirk your only concession to the lengthy taxi line you pass as you head straight out to the street and on your way. I had hoped to stop for a drink at Albion, a wine bar near the station, but it was not yet open for the evening. Still, I liked the idea that, on foot, serendipitous stops could be accommodated.

Mistinguett at the Moulin Rouge
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Instead we headed down the old Roman route of Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin, dotted with hair salons catering to women of African descent and Turkish coffee shops filled with men playing cards. A lone boutique had raised the flag of gentrification with its window displays of artsy journals and minimalist housewares. It’s the kind of shop you might just as soon find in Portland as in Paris and for which I am loathe to admit I’m a target market, but we had somewhere to be and didn’t linger, even when we passed the spindly beauty of the 10th arrondissement’s city hall or through the arch of Porte Saint-Martin, a war monument erected by Louis IV. After the fact I read about two more landmarks we had passed on the street, the theater Le Splendid, where Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett (a contemporary and competitor of Josephine Baker) once performed, and Lévitan, once a Jewish-owned furniture store that was turned into the Paris annex for Drancy, an internment camp, during WWII. Along a single street we had managed to walk the history of Paris.

la porte Saint-Martin

Before long we emerged into the piazza of the Centre Pompidou, then zig-zagged through the narrow boutique-lined streets of the Marais and onto the island where, after attempting to check into two hotels that weren’t ours, we finally made it to our room in the Hôtel Des Deux Iles. By five o’clock we were back in the Marais, firmly planted in the brasserie-style chairs in front of Au Petit Fer à Cheval and drinking the pichets of Chablis we ritualistically use to commence a weekend in Paris. We had arrived but, as the saying goes, it was the journey that mattered.


Weekend in Leipzig

Once part of the GDR, Leipzig played a crucial role in the downfall of East Germany that’s often overshadowed by the symbolism of the fall of the Wall in Berlin. These days, along with Berlin and Dresden, it’s one of the most vibrant cities of the former East.

Courtyard of Hotel Fregehaus

Arrive in style
Leipzig’s grand Hauptbahnhof lends credence to the theory that train stations are the penises of urban planning. It’s a short walk from the city center, where we stayed at the Steigenberger Grandhotel Handelshof. The hotel spans a city block and was impressively remodeled four years ago. While I suspect they will regret some of interior design choices—the black Lucite chandelier over the bathtub comes to mind—there was no faulting the extraordinarily friendly service from the hotel staff. For a more intimate experience, try the stylish Hotel Freghaus situated in a historic house around a courtyard flower shop. Its neighbors include a terrific vintage store and Leipzig’s stunning Museum of Fine Arts.
Hotel Fregehaus, Katharinenstraße 11, 04109 Leipzig, tel: +49 341 26393157

Café at the Museum der bildenden Künste

Regardless of where you’re staying, the Museum of Fine Arts (Museum der bildenden Künste) is worthy of at least an afternoon musing the world-class collection whose origins date back to early nineteenth century. These days the collection intersperses new with old in a stunning modernist setting. The architecture that houses the collection, designed by Karl Hufnagel, Peter Pütz and Michael Rafaelian, is as special as the collection itself, which includes a swathe of contemporary artists who are either from or working in Liepzig. My favorite “discovery” was local painter Neo Rauch, which I promise has only the tiniest bit to do with his first name. Rauch has a studio at the Spinnerei, a former cotton mill that’s been converted to an art complex of studios and galleries in the western Leipzig district of Plagwitz. Both the neighborhood, centered around Karl-Heine Strasse, and the Spinnerei are worth a visit.
Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, Katharinenstraße 10, 04109 Leipzig
Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei, Spinnereistraße 7, 04179 Leipzig

The Spinnerei
City of Music

Our weekend in Leipzig coincided with a festival celebrating the 1,000-year anniversary (yes, one THOUSAND years – in your face, America) of the first recorded mention of Leipzig. The festivities included everything from really bad American rock bands to choral music, only the latter of which is fitting for the city that was once home to Bach, Wagner, Schumann, Mahler, and Mendelssohn. Bach conducted choirs at both St. Thomas Church, where he is buried, and St. Nicholas Church, whose pale pink and green ceiling is as pretty as a box of macarons from Ladurée. Under the parsonage of Christian Führer, the church also played a central role in the 1989 demonstrations that helped lead to German reunification.

Faustian Feasting

Our most memorable meal of the weekend was in Auerbach’s Keller, located at the bottom of a flight of stairs in the entrance to Mädler Passage, a shopping arcade whose roots begin in the sixteenth century when the rector of Leipzig University opened a wine bar in the courtyard (how very civilized). The restaurant is famous for being a setting in Goethe’s Faust, scenes from which are depicted in murals on the restaurant walls. It’s definitely touristy—mannequins of historical characters astride wine kegs in one corner of the building do nothing to lift the tone—but the food and the atmosphere were still hearty. We feasted on soups made from root vegetables, beef roulade, and potato dumplings then immediately went back to the hotel and slept as if we had tilled fields from dusk til dawn. On my next visit, I’m looking forward to trying some lighter fare at the recently opened Tacoholics in the Plagwitz neighborhood.

Auerbachs Keller, Mädler Passage, Grimmaische Str. 2-4, 04109 Leipzig
Tacoholics, Karl Heine Straße 58, 04229 Leipzig
Signage outside Tacoholics

Spy Story
On our final morning in Leipzig we visited the former local headquarters of the Stasi which has remained largely intact as a memorial and museum, the Runde Ecke, since the fall of the GDR. The displays are in German, but 4€ rents an audio guide in English. The technology employed by the GDR to spy on its own citizens is so outdated it looks laughable, but there’s little that’s humorous here—aside from the can of Florena Action aerosol hairspray in a display case dedicated to disguises. The whole experience is more poignant in light of recent revelations about the NSA and makes the Germans’ empathetic view of Ed Snowden entirely comprehensible.
Museum in der Runden Ecke, Dittrichring 24, 04109 Leipzig

“Everything in view” at the Museum in der Runden Ecke

More pictures of Leipzig here on Pinterest.