Thursday, 29 September 2016

New York, New York

New York City has a power of its own. It is a city with character, with ambition and will. It is full of possibilities. It is a metropolis, without a doubt. It feels like the centre of the universe, like all the different strings of the world come together in this magical place. I love NYC, and I love it even more after spending two weeks in June there. It was not my first visit, I spent almost a week in NYC during my first trip to the States close to ten years ago. We did all the touristy must-sees, a lot of museums, and spent time with our friends, with whom we were also staying. (That last part was also true for this trip and made it all the more enjoyable.) Back then New York was the last stop of a three- week journey starting in Chicago, all the way to Des Moines in Iowa and to the Niagara Falls. It wasn't necessarily the highlight of the journey, it was one of them, and I believe that's why I wasn't able to appreciate it in all its glory.
This time, New York literally took my breath away. I wanted to pinch myself each and every day, just to make sure I wasn't dreaming. The city is incredible. It has a palpable energy, there's 'something in the air' that gives you a feeling of invincibility. Frank Sinatra knew what he was singing about: 'If I can make it there I can make in anywhere.' There is so much to see and do, it seems endless. I was surprised by the effect the city had on my creativity - it made me want to read and write, to get together with like-minded people, to explore the arts and different cultures. It is an inspiring place.

Then there's the architecture. I don't know if it gets any better than NYC when it comes to architectural miracles. By walking around any part of the city you get to marvel at these buildings, old and new, wondering how it all fits together, how it was (and is) possible to build like this. It looks like a perfect puzzle where all the pieces have found together. It is never finished, however. As much as the buildings impressed me, it was also fascinating to see so many building sites and cranes in between an already dense spread of skyscrapers. The word 'urban jungle' truly fits.

We can't forget the arts, of course. New York has everything, and not just a little bit of it. We didn't overdo it museum-wise this time, the weather was simply too gorgeous to spend too much time indoors. Even so, we got to see a fascinating mixture of classic and contemporary art, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art to the fancy galleries of Chelsea.

New York would be nothing without New Yorkers. The term 'melting pot of nations' may not be the catchiest one, but it does truly apply. The mix of different cultures, the co-existing of various backgrounds, nationalities and religions, all of this makes New York. All the people that came in the past brought pieces of their culture and history to the city, as will the future arrivals. And that gives the city its rich character. The city is the sum of its people. And that is what makes New York so amazing. The writer Jason Diamond wrote the following in an essay collection: 'Hemingway wrote about Paris being a moveable feast, the kind of place that stays with you for the rest of your days once you've truly experienced it. That's what this place feels to me. No single city truly affects a person like New York does.'[1]  There is definitely some truth to that. New York is still on my mind, and I'm sure it will be for quite a while, maybe until I get to go again. Until then, I'll just write about it some more.


[1] Never can say goodbye. Writers on their unshakable love for New York, ed. by Sari Botton, NY: Touchstone, 2014, p 21.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Hader plays Zweig

A few days ago I watched the film Vor der Morgenröte (eng. Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe), a depiction of Austrian author Stefan Zweig's life in exile during the second world war. When Hitler rose to power, Stefan Zweig, being a Jew, was forced to flee his home country. His books were put on the list of banned books, he himself became a banned author. He resettled in Brasil and took his own life in 1942, together with his second wife, Lotte. These are the facts, the things I learned in school. The film, however, doesn't concentrate on educating the audience about these facts.
There is no narration, no voice-over, no background information. As a film, it is very basic, almost raw; everything is stripped back so that the essentials remain in their purest form. It is a film about the second world war, or at least about its effects on people. As such, it is astonishing that there is not a single war-like image in the entire production. There are no flashbacks to show us the horror the protagonists had to leave behind, and no parallel storyline to demonstrate the conditions in Europe at the time. The entire storyline takes place in a safe space - exile. Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, New York City and Petropolis are the locations of this film, places that are beautiful and would seem idyllic under different circumstances.This creates a strong juxtaposition between the world outside and the feelings inside of the characters. The terror of wartime is portrayed more strongly by not being physically shown.

I always thought this to be true: the genuine horror lies within the effect something has on other people, not within the actions itself. At a funeral, a mother crying for her dead daughter causes me to feel more sorrow than I could explain. The fact that someone has died is devastating on its own, but the realization of its consequences in other people makes it truly tragic.
Films often use this technique. I saw one taking place in New York a few years ago. I don't remember which film it was, but it featured the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. It didn't show the towers crashing down. It showed us faces of people witnessing the collapse of the skyscrapers. The pain, fear and panic in their eyes made the audience feel what they were feeling, it made it relatable and truly disturbing to watch.
This is also a trend in reporting. I don't watch the news, I prefer to read or listen to them. But generally, the hard facts are being upstaged by personal stories; interviews with people who have watched their parents get shot, eyewitnesses of a terror attack, survivors who have lost everything except their lives. Frequently, as it was with the devastating shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the victims are being presented to us, their stories told, by relatives and friends, with pictures and touching music. Now, I'm not saying that these aren't important stories to tell, on the contrary. Stories of victims and survivors might be the most important ones. But: They are agonizing to watch or read or listen to. They appeal to our core as human beings: our ability to empathise. While empathy is absolutely necessary for us as humans to connect to each other, it can also become too much, and cause us a great deal of pain. Especially if these reports are being shown to us on a daily basis, in print media, on the radio and online.
Back to the film. The helplessness Zweig feels translates achingly beautiful onto the screen. The dialogues are simple and direct. Zweig travels to New York and visits his first wife, Friderike. She tells him about the letters she has been receiving, from friends and acquaintances back home, asking for help to flee. Zweig struggles with this. If he tries to get visas for all these people, some of which he doesn't know well or like, he will have to use his connections and he will be indebted to a lot of people. He is overwhelmed in every sense of the word. Friderike tries to tell him, they only write because they need help. He responds: "Everyone over there needs help." Friderike then tells her story of fleeing, crossing the Pyrenees on foot, struggling through crowded train stations and waiting at the dock within a mass of people, having to wave goodbye to their friends who were left behind because they weren't on the list. She was fleeing with her children and recounted how many times they were forced to take separate routes, never knowing when, where or if they would come back together again. This reminded me of the current situation of Syrians having to flee their country. People arriving in a foreign country, leaving war and persecution behind, not knowing where they are exactly and possibly having lost family along the way. I realise that these are two very differents wars, but refugees are refugees. The film illustrates the immense difficulties they have to face: the uncertainty of not knowing where you are or whether you will be able to stay and what happened to the family you had to leave behind. Zweig tells Friderike he keeps sending money to a friend, without knowing whether he's still alive. There is so much pain in that statement.  

The film also explores the problem of guilt. Zweig knows that, under the circumstances he and his family are very lucky. They are safe and able to continue with their lives. They can't, however, enjoy their fortune. Toward the end of the film, it is Zweig's birthday a friend asks him how he'll celebrate and he answers that in times like these there is no room for celebration. The flight from their home country and the continued wave of bad news from Europe stay with them, follow them around like a dark shadow. They see no solution, no way of continuing to live like that. So they take their lives, Stefan and Lotte Zweig, and they are found by their housekeeper, dead in their bed in their house in Petropolis together with Zweig's note:

“Every day I learned to love this country more, and I would not have asked to rebuild my life in any other place after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself.
But to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom – the most precious of possessions on this earth.
I send greetings to all of my friends: May they live to see the dawn after this long night. I, who am most impatient, go before them."
This is where the film ends. The whole film is beautifully shot, especially the final scene. Again, we are presented with other people's reactions to Zweig and Lotte's death before we see a glimpse of them, and even then it is only through a mirrored door. Hader's acting is exquisite. He is able to show so much emotion without saying anything. There is a scene where he is being welcomed by the Mayor who organised a marching band to surprise Zweig. They play the Donauwalzer (The Blue Danube), arguably the most Viennese piece of music. They play it horribly, out of tune and rhythm, but still recognisable. Zweig watches and listens, he doesn't say a word. His expression, however, speaks ever so loudly. It shows the pain, the sadness and the homesickness for a place he can't return to because it no longer exists. That one minute might the most emotional scene in the entire film, and it is all thanks to Hader's brilliant abilities.

The film touches upon a lot of other issues that I am unable to cover, for example, the writer's role in politics, life as a writer in exile and the future of Europe. It is an extremely relevant film at the moment which shows scary parallels to our society today. Zweig believed that there will be a united Europe where passports will be a thing of the past. He also knew that he wouldn't live to see it.

Watch the trailer here on the official homepage of the film.  

Sunday, 21 August 2016

A powerful mug

This morning I made coffee, just like any other morning. And just like any other morning, I had to make the tough decision of which mug to drink from. I have quite an extensive mug collections, most of them from my travels. I reached for a fairly new mug I got in New York City just a few months ago. I got it at the Museum of the City of New York, and it looks like this.

It immediately reminded me of where I bought it. By that, I don't mean NYC, but the exact spot in the museum gift shop where I stood, holding it in hand, deciding if I should buy it. It reminded me of the way I felt that day, what I had seen before, what I did afterwards. And it made me want to write about it. Write about that day, about my time in NYC, about my travels in general. I haven't been writing here for a long time and I am unsure why that happened. But this little moment this morning reminded me why I wanted to write about travelling in the first place: because I like to revisit what I've experienced. We move so quickly these days that it's sometimes difficult to fully be in just one place. Travelling usually allows us to focus on the new adventures ahead and not worry about the six different things we should be doing at the same time. But as soon as we get back home, back into the routines and deadlines, we sometimes almost forget what we've seen, visited, tried just a few weeks ago. We take pictures to remind us - but we hardly ever look at them because they are all on our phone or computer. People ask us 'How was your trip to NYC?' and we say 'Amazing, I loved it.' and often that's that. I write so that it doesn't end there. That is my motivation.

To say I don't know why I stopped writing is not completely true. There have been a lot of moments these past months where I thought about it. But to be perfectly honest, it didn't seem right, posting about my holidays with everything that's going on in the world at the moment. Not a week goes by without horrible news. People fleeing, getting injured, killed. Political situations all over the world are moving further and further to the right, even in my home country. I thought it was immoral and wrong to pretend it wasn't going on. At the same time, I didn't know how to talk about it. I was stuck - and wrote nothing. I'm realising now that this wasn't and isn't the way to deal with the situation. To bury my head in the sand won't help anyone or anything. I love to write and the global situation doesn't change that. It might, however, influence the kind of topics I'd like to write about. Travelling is one of my passions, that will never change. But there are a lot of other things close to my heart, and I might want to write about them from time to time as well. I thought I'd write about this mostly as a reminder to myself, should I ever lose sight again of why I'm doing this. Let's raise our mugs to the power of the written word.