Wednesday, 31 July 2013


Someone said to me this week that they found Berlin to be a bit spooky, with so much evidence still there of its past. I didn't find it to be that way. Instead I felt a burgeoning lightness. The way I saw it - there was a meditative quality to the parts of Berlin that we saw - as if it was quietly weighing its past to know what value, if any, to salvage from its history. There seems to be a desire to get on with life - to move on. There is an underlying seriousness to the city, sure, but enough life and youth to balance any heaviness. Without any loud announcements or fuss, it is a city with room for creating something new and fresh, with humour and warmth, yet without forgetting its painful past.

We travelled by train from Berlin to the Baltic Coast, where we were welcomed like royalty into Jenny's family home in Neu Karin, Northern Germany. Here we spent the most part of a week happily ensconced in the peaceful countryside of that part of the world.

Northern Germany

I'll always remember the stork nesting on a nesting pole specially built for it near the oldest house in the village of Neu Karin; I'll remember the thatched rooves, the cornflowers, daisies and poppies growing wild on the roadside and threading through the wheat-fields.

So many wind turbines reverently, sternly going about their business of churning wind into power. I'll remember the cobbled roads and the flapping sound of car tyres as they drove over them. The centuries-old buildings; the peace of the countryside; the chirp of sparrows and cluck of hens, the rabbits, the large shed stacked with wood, the laden tables, the sound of ping-pong games and the rolling, guttural sounds of the German language.

buzzard, stork and midge

A clucking hen in any language
sounds flustered.
Here in Germany the blackbird speaks
my language, so too the bees, the sparrows. 

Only the people talking in the kitchen
I cannot understand, their words
rolling like stones under the weight of water.
Recognisable, next door's barking dog

and as familiar as my own heartbeat
the sound of the soccer ball Max kicks 
against the wood-shed wall.
The rooster's crow, the crowded clothes-line, 

the jitter of leaves that prance 
like frightened fish,
I have heard and seen before,
until in the sky something strange,

like a shirt with torn sleeves
freed by the breeze 
from its washing-line mooring,
"A buzzard. It catches mouses."

And later a cry that interrupts 
the game of outdoor ping-pong, 
"Stork! Stork!"
as like ground crew at an airport 

an arm with a bat directs the gaze  
to where the stork slowly flaps 
an absent-minded return
to its nest. And this midge, 

unlike any I have seen before; as tiny 
and black as a poppy seed 
in the ocean of my cup of tea. 

Kay McKenzie Cooke

... in the nest are baby storks, snuggled down they weren't going to appear for us the day I was there with my camera ...

But mostly what I will remember, is the overwhelmingly welcoming and kind hospitality of Jenny's parents and family and their energy and determination to give us a glimpse, a sample, a taste of 'their place'. A lot of happy interesting times were spent with the family around the table.

The fare we were given was hearty and full of flavour and goodness. Meat (pork, sausages) cheese, eggs, fruit, vegetables and bread all featured in a large way. Jenny interpreted conversations and discussions back and forth, which we were thankful for. Even our son Chris was able to explain and interpret, which impressed us mightily.

We were also taken by Jenny's family on outings, including ones to the historical and picturesque city of Rostock and town of  Wismar.

We were sad to say good-bye to Jenny's parents, but all too soon we were boarding another train - this time heading farther east, to the border of Poland, where Jenny's grand-parents live. We left Jenny's family with the invite to come and visit New Zealand. I hope they it won't be long before they will take us up on the invite and we can in some way return the favour of their warm hospitality, by having them stay at 'our place'.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Departures and Arrivals

Meeting our friend the poet Rethabile Masilo and his wife for the first time 'in real life', at the cafe Au Chat Noir, Paris, before both Ret and I read at the Monday night poetry reading held there ...

Left Bank, Paris.

The next part of our journey was to leave Paris for Berlin by Easijet. To catch the plane that left from Orly, meant an early start. The night before we said 'au revoir' to Michael and Kate who were leaving later in the morning and going in a different direction to the rest of us. We all agreed that experiencing Paris together had been something special. Some of the highlights we talked about were the poetry reading, meals at Au Trappiste, sitting on the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower and the view over Paris we got from the top of Georges Pompidou Centre on our last night in that city. For me, experiencing the city with family and with friends Chrissie and Phil will be what I remember, with my Champagne Birthday Breakfast, the poetry reading night, meals at 'our local', a cup of tea and macaroons on the Champs Elysees with Chrissie and seeing the Eiffel Tower, all springing to mind as memorable moments.

Lost Suitcase 

Robert's suitcase still hadn't turned up. We were leaving on an early flight – too early for the Lost Luggage Department at Orly airport. It turned out that there had been an attempt by Lufthansa to deliver the suitcase to Paris, but lack of phone or internet meant that any attempt was always going to fail. The saga continued after we got to Berlin and discovered it wasn't actually at Orly, but at Charles de Gaul. To cut a long and tedious story short, the suitcase finally caught up with us at the most faraway and northern point of our whole trip – delivered by a small courier van to us at Jenny's parents' place in North Germany.

View over Paris. (Photo by Jenny Jakobeit).

On To Berlin

In contrast to Paris, Berlin seemed spacious and less frantic and drivers were definitely more courteous towards pedestrians.
After landing and getting a train into the part of the city where we were going to be stationed, we sought out a cafe (with internet) and enjoyed a hearty German breakfast.

I left some Poetry in the Waiting Room cards here. (Photo by Jenny Jakobeit).

I think what I will take away from our time in Berlin is the room it gives for freedom of expression. Part of this was tagging. It kind of spoilt the look of things in much of the city – nothing (apart from monuments or things that deserved more than the usual respect) seemed exempt from waves of ugly fat squiggles and jags that wash over any available surface - sides of bridges, walls, doors, sign-posts, train carriages … even the rooves and eaves of houses aren't exempt. Berlin isn't the only city where this occurs, but it seems particularly rampant there. However street art is also predominant and creative use of it appears to be both accepted and encouraged.

Part of the East-Side Gallery where graffiti as well as 'legit.' art covers the eastern side of what remains of the Berlin wall. (Photo by Jenny Jakobeit).

A hole cut into twenty years of posters pasted one of top of another on a Berlin pole. 

It looks like a core sample has been taken. 

Brandenburg Gates. (Photo by Jenny Jakobeit). 

Part of the Holocaust Memorial. (Photo by Jenny Jakobeit).

Apart from the history evident here, Berlin is a city of many areas with each area having it's own character. On our walks we passed through districts that were in turn, trendy, vintage-trendy, grunge, alternative, arty, family-friendly, working class, touristy and multi-cultural.

In one of Berlin's more funky districts, Michael painted this shop's sign when he and Kate were here a year and a half ago. (Photo by Jenny Jakobeit).

Our stay in Berlin ended on 2nd of July, late morning, when we caught a train for Jenny's home village of Neu Karin in North-eastern Germany. We got off the train at the town of Bad Doberan where Jenny's father met the train. It was a working day for him, but after a cup of coffee at his office, he drove us to a nearby beach resort for our first glimpse of the Baltic Coast.

(Photo by Jenny Jakobeit).

... to be continued ...

Saturday, 6 July 2013

C'Est La Vie

We headed for Au Chat Noir in Bellevue. It seemed to us to be a part of Paris that was creative, friendly and inclusive. There was a sense of freedom there. We made ourselves at home. The regular poetry reading was on and I was keen to participate.

Notre Dame. Paris

I'll always remember the frustrating feel to our first morning in Paris. We frantically tried to fit in a meeting with MnK so we could use their internet connection to find out about the progress (if any) re the missing suitcase, as well as fulfilling a planned rendezvous with our UK friends. The journey involved trains and walking. Trains and walking. (A pattern we were to get used to). In the end we got a taxi back to the apartment – which turned out to be a good chance for Robert to try out his French when he got into a discussion about rugby with the taxi driver.

We did make our appointment with Chrissie & Phil, meeting them as arranged on Pont Neuf, albeit half an hour late. It was a happy reunion as we hadn't seen them for seven years. We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon with them wandering central Paris, the Latin Quarter, the Left Bank, the Sorbonne district …

I found myself trying to get to grips with Paris but no matter how hard I tried, any connection or bonding with the city, seemed to keep slipping away. The city was turning out to be just a backdrop to the celebration of my 60th birthday. As a background to being with family and friends, it was working beautifully; but sometimes it seemed I was missing the connection I usually make with places. After all, Paris was a city I had been to before and had long-dreamed a return.

Turning Sixty in Paris

Sometimes your grey is a wall, sometimes
it is a way in, but I have to work at it.
I am in two minds about you, Paris.
I cross your bridges, I walk your streets
as if walking the lines of a song;
'... off the Boulevard St Michel'.
Hard to reach or affect, you are old
stone yet warm with flowers.

'Where do you go to my lovely?'
I need time
you are not prepared to give
and I don't have. You turn a cold shoulder.
Perhaps you will always be
the city that once, a long time ago
now or so it it seems, I left
behind in the rain.

Quoted lines are from the song, 'Where Do You Go To My Lovely?' as sung and written by Peter Sarstedt, 1969.

Kay McKenzie Cooke

That night we attended a regular Monday-night poetry reading in Paris. Also, I was meeting Ret a fellow-poet and on-line friend of some years. The 'real-life' meeting with Ret and his wife was amazingly natural. He and his wife were just as I expected; charming, softly spoken and unpretentious. Both of them were great company; down to earth, open-minded, warm and friendly people. Hearing Ret read his poetry was a real treat and certainly a highlight of our Paris experience.

Thankfully I felt calm and relaxed when it came my turn to read. I don't always feel that way. Maybe my confidence had something to do with the mojito that Phil handed me (with the words, “Hemmingway's choice of poison”) before I went up to read. In fact it was due to the support of family and friends in the audience. Jenny asked me later why I didn't introduce myself as having come 'all the way from New Zealand'. I didn't have an answer for her right then, but thinking about it later I realised my reluctance probably came from the response of the m.c. when I signed up for the reading. I'd cheerfully introduced myself to him explaining how I was 'from New Zealand', to which he replied, “Congratulations”. Slightly sarcastic, I thought, but laughed along anyway. However it must've put me off mentioning it again.

Another Paris highlight was my surprise champagne birthday breakfast that 'the kids' (as we took to calling MnK and CnJ) put on for me on the morning of June 25th. (The champagne bottle was aptly named 'Robert de Montey'). Before my eyes, the table at our apartment become magically laden with pancakes and all the trimmings with a beautiful bunch of roses placed in the middle. Chris had had to use a fork to whip the cream for the pancakes, which he said took him forty minutes.

Rose petals were scattered as a music box played Edith Piaf's ' La Vie en Rose' and a wondrous 'cake' of seperate cream cakes with a lit '60' candle, was walked in. I blew out the candles and made my wish. Messages from our son Steve and from home were relayed. We would have loved to have skyped Steve & E and the grandkids in Japan but were defeated by the skimpy internet. We did manage a tantalisingly short 'Happy Birthday Gran'ma' from a just-awake R. at midnight that night. (A. was sick so we tried for a Skype with her next morning – and hereby hangs another tale ...)

We headed off to an internet cafe to try and Skype granddaughter A. - to no avail as it turned out – and in our haste, locked the key in the apartment. Why only the one key between six people? was a cry we often heard during our stay there. Chrissie had her bags inside the apartment and was due to leave for the UK after lunch, so it was vital we get back in before then. Using the cafe's phone, a panicky call to our host resulted in 'this is a big problem' response from her and a very long wait for us until her husband could deliver another key. (Thankfully it was in time for Chrissie to get her bags).

Ah well, c'est la vie!

The Champs-Elysees was another planned event, this time for Chrissie and me – a walk down it to a cafe where thanks to a friend of Chrissie's we could 'play ladies' and treat ourselves to macaroons and a cup of tea. Chrissie and I have been penfriends since we were eleven years old, so a cup of tea and time together is rare and always special.

Another highlight was our trip (on my birthday) to the Eiffel Tower. But would you believe when we got there it was 'On Strike'?

Ah well, c'est la vie!

Old Eiffel delivered anyway, its intricate network of metal lace living up to all expectations. It didn't really matter that we couldn't go to the top. It also meant no crowds and no queue, so it couldn't have been better planned.

And if C'est la vie! Then it's actually a pretty good one.

(To be cont'd)

Friday, 5 July 2013

Three Countries In One Day

I Thought I Was On A Train

(Saturday, June 22nd, 2013)

With the three white balloons still flying from our lone suitcase, we caught the train that took us into Munchen. I started clicking the camera, taking shots of the different-looking buildings – so straight-backed, such pastel colours – and of German signs. Such long names.

It seemed so long, so far away since early morning in Dunedin travelling to the airport in Ro's car, the heater not working, the windshield fogging up and Ro wearing a bright red scarf warmly wrapped three times around her neck.

Once on board the big jet leaving Auckland for Hong Kong, I watched a couple of movies, but listening to music held more appeal. Our seat-companion was a chatty (too chatty for my liking) academic with teeth that matched his mustard jacket. Rather than movies, the 'Easy Listening' stream was my choice. Predictable, but at least it distracted me from thinking about the plane's rivets coming apart. I kept it loud in my headphones to block out the screaming toddler up front; at the same time I did feel more than a pinch of deep sympathy for the poor parents.

Going by the overhead announcements at Hong Kong airport, they are paranoid about people smuggling milk powder. At this stage we were blissfully unaware that Robert's suitcase had been left in Auckland. At one point we walked a long way the wrong way (the fact that we were the only non-staff should've been a clue) until we were pointed in the right direction by a clutch of airline hostesses. I felt proud because I'd suggested to Robert (the one who always knows where we are and where we should be heading) that maybe we should have headed upstairs and it turned out I was right.

From HK to Munchen is where I tried to sleep. At one stage, just for a split second, I thought I was on a train. (Jet lag setting in). While sitting high in the plane at the airport waiting for the plane to take off, we could see it raining heavily outside. We found out later that my suitcase (but not Robert's, because as I mentioned before, unbeknownst to us it wasn't there ...) was at that point being rained on as it was transferred from the terminal to the plane's luggage-hold. When I opened the case in Munich, I was dismayed to discover damp clothes and papers. (And so another traveller's tip learned – use waterproof suitcase-liners for things you don't want to get wet).

(Sunday, June 23rd, 2013)

As always in a large plane, it didn't feel as if we were travelling. Squashed into the very back seat, I was on the verge of claustrophobia, especially when the woman in front pushed her seat back into recline-mode. I fought the panic by concentrating on trying to sleep and I succeeded. I didn't sleep much, but it was enough to feel the softening effects sleep brings to skin cells and muscles. 

The Lufthansa crew were relaxed and casual which, quite frankly, I didn't expect on a German aircraft. (How prejudiced of me). Weirdly, the notion of the sheer distance we had put in in the last twelve hours, started to make me feel traces of homesickness. Part of me deep down pined for Ro in her red scarf; for wintry Dunedin; the grandkids' voices on the phone. Sometimes it would be good to have the capacity to be in multiple places at one time.

At Munich airport Chris and Jenny were there to greet us with smiles and three white balloons with the words, Welcome. To. Germany. Because of the lost luggage fiasco, we'd taken ages to emerge and they were beginning to wonder if we'd missed our flight. Even the balloons appeared a little bit deflated. However, warm hugs, a coffee and some traditional German sausage cheered us up. 

We spent some more time at the airport (unlike in town, the shops there were all open) buying Robert necessary garments and toothpaste. Lufthansen promised to fully compensate all toiletries and half of any clothing we bought, as long as we provided the receipts. Even so, we refused to pay fifty dollars for a pair of undies.  (We did find some that were cheaper).

As it had been such an early flight, before the trams had started to run for the day, CnJ had biked to the nearest train stop instead of taking the tram. After the train-ride from the airport, that's where they picked up their bikes again, putting us on the tram with our suitcase and biking fast alongside for as long as they could, hoping we'd easily follow Jenny's written instructions and get off at the right stop.

We did (of course) and from there it was a short walk pulling the wheeled suitcase behind us, to their apartment. After the bikes had been stacked away on a clever bike rack that acted like a toast rack, we took the lift to their cute little apartment on the second floor. (Chris only needed to take two steps to show us around).

After showers and while Jenny cooked us a beautiful, tasty meal, Chris showed us around his new neighbourhood. It appeared to us to be quiet, sedate and established. Maybe this is partly because it was Sunday with everything closed. People slowly meandered. Leafy trees whispered (reminding us that we were no longer experiencing winter, but summer again). Birds chirped. There was very little traffic and a lot of bikes. No-one wears helmets. Some bikes have baskets in the front. They all have bells.

Empty wooden tables and chairs that make up a beer garden, emerged from the shadows under large green trees. An old woman visiting a grave in the well-tended cemetery, lit an incense stick and the smell filled the air.

And It Was Still Sunday

(Sunday, June 23rd, 2013)

Once it became evident that the internet was bad, my spirits sank. How were we going to communicate with both MnK as well as our UK friends already in Paris somewhere, waiting for us to send confirmation of times and meeting places? With no way of communicating, all of a sudden a large city seemed to me an impregnable morass of closed lines and doors and miles of walls between those I wanted to be near. Thus began my uneasy renewed acquaintance with this city of Paris.

Mid-afternoon, with CnJ, we caught the train that would take us from Munich – Paris. A six hour trip lay ahead. We passed through German farmland full of wheat fields and villages clustered around a single church; always sufficiently different so as to be distinct from the church we had just passed up the line, yet similar enough for it to be identified as a German church.

As the train crossed an invisible border and entered France unannounced, it was green fields under low, thunderous-looking clouds, all the way to Paris. We found entering Paris this way had no 'Ta-Da!' effect but was more of an incremental approach of ecru concrete and uniform high-rise, upstanding rectangles. Surprisingly non-dramatic. I scanned the horizon for a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, but it wasn't to be seen in the murky grey of the city's skyline.

Disembarking from the train we felt the excitement of arriving in Paris at long last after all the dreaming, planning and saving. But immediately there was a hurdle – a misunderstanding about being picked up at the station entrance by our AirBnB host, resulted in us standing lost and forlorn at the entrance with the realisation dawning that we weren't going to be picked up at all. (Reading the email later I saw how I'd simply mis-read the instructions). In the end (after a confusing phone call to our host) we hired a taxi, arriving at our Paris accommodation an hour or more late.

The next hiccup was then to locate our son Michael and his wife Kate who were going to meet us there (an hour ago). Upon arriving, we saw that there was no front door for them to knock on. This was a French apartment block with a heavy street-door locked and impassable. Our planned rendezvous time had come and gone. Because of all the horror stories I had read about the impossibility of getting SIM cards in Paris, we had no phones between us. We had planned to use internet messages on Facebook and emails, but after our AirBnB host had shown us around the apartment, we'd instantly ascertained that the internet there was hopeless. Jenny was a little worried too because she was relying on the internet to send off a work deadline.

The apartment was not as glam as I thought it looked in the photos. But I soon warmed to its basic French charm and squeaky wooden floors. It had space, light and best of all a kitchen for us to cook our own meals. Here we could be independent and there was plenty of room for all of us.

Jenny said, "We can make it look nice with flowers". Chris pointed to a large blackboard in the passage and with a sweep of his hand said, "We could get some chalk and write, 'Happy 60th' in big letters".

We decided to make for the nearest MacDonalds to see if there was internet there – instead (surprise!) we found Michael and Kate – a very happy reunion and relief all around. By now it was 10.00 pm and despite it being summer, cold. Rain was spattering the very busy and loud Paris streets. Being young and undeterred, MnK and Chris (Jenny was still back at the apartment finishing off her work assignment) were keen to head into the centre and find somewhere to eat. This was my first introduction to the Metro, Paris' underground train system – a system I still remain none the wiser about. The whole time in Paris, I followed behind members of my family whose brains are more smartly wired than mine: my husband and sons have an enviable sense of direction and a finely-tuned capacity to work out systems. An ability I rely heavily upon when in large foreign cities.

And that is when we found our Paris 'local' – Au Trappiste – specialising in mussels and beer. And it was still Sunday - was it only yesterday we left New Zealand? Robert and I realised we had been in three countries in one day. It was good to be there. Good to all be together there. Good to be in Paris. (Pinch me now!)

(To be Cont'd) ...

Clocking Out

 I have been neglecting this blog for some months. I think perhaps I should face facts and accept that it is indeed time to retire this blog...