Monday, August 13, 2007

Expat Perspective: Chris in Freiburg - "One of the Most Stunning Places on Earth"

Welcome to the latest instalment of Expat Perspective, a series of posts by guest writers who come from X but are living long term in Y. Here's the second post from Chris Mavergames, an American librarian who's recently settled into family life in Southern Germany.

Basically, for this edition of Expat Perspective, I'll let the images speak for themselves. I'm originally from Georgia, USA which is a beautiful place in its own right and now live in southern Germany in the heart of the Black Forest, Freiburg. It truly is one of the most stunning places on earth and is also a culturally diverse and lively place with excellent food and drink.

Click here for a short video of the mountain area behind our house and views overlooking the city:

For more information,

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Havana, Cuba: "Cocktail Culture"

Cocktail Culture
by John Hardcastle © 2007

Havana smells like shit, piss, garbage, and rotting fruit … and leaded petrol … and sun baked earth … and rum and cigars … and, thankfully, like fresh breezes rolling in from the sea. It’s a city where you’re rarely more than arm’s length away from a phenomenal cocktail … or a bongo player … or a half-baked street hustle (I’ve never seen British pounds. What do they look like?). Upon first contact, Havana is both repulsive and alluring, with its more appealing features eventually winning out, for the most part anyway.

Boys of all ages play impromptu games of baseball in neighbourhood streets. Old men in Parque Central argue the outcomes of national league games. Antique Chevies and Oldsmobiles – some in pristine condition, others about to collapse – share the road with Ladas. Buzzards soar and circle high-rise hotels of a bygone era.

Ubiquitous images of pop icon Che Guevara, ‘the prototype of the new man,’ are as inescapable as CCTV cameras in London. His shaming eyes gaze beyond their furrowed brow as a moral warning to any citizen foolish enough to contemplate a counterrevolutionary thought. In support of Che’s vision, a multitude of murals insist "Fatherland or Death!" and "Eternal Glory to the Martyrs." Other slogans, such as the prevalent "We are winning!" are so ridiculously out of place amid the urban decay and poverty that you wonder if you’ve stumbled upon the boldest use of irony ever. After a while, all Havana starts to appear as a socialist art project set against the backdrop of a dilapidating mid-century modern playground.

At no time is this notion of crumbling-city-as-backdrop-for-party-line-art more evident than on May Day. Well before dawn, the buses roll in and endless streams of people take to the streets for the Plaza de la Revolutión. For even the most hardened free market capitalist, the sight is awe-inspiring. There’s no glitz. No glamour. Just people. Thousands upon thousands of people on parade. They carry handmade posters and massive banners proclaiming the virtues of the revolution and the vices of imperialism. They get their kids involved too. Little toe-heads with gleaming smiles enthusiastically tote cardboard signs reading "Bush is an assassin" or "Death to Verdugo".

This sort of public display of politics seems very grassroots and genuine until later when a local, desperate for an outsider’s ear, explains that "people have been harbouring so much vengeance for so many years that when things change, the streets will be filled with blood." According to this disgruntled Habañero, "The worst crimes in Cuba are to be comfortable and to own nice things."

By 9:30 the May Day parade is over. Good thing too because it’s already brutally hot with little shade to be found. Their slogan signboards discarded or carried at the side, the masses gather round the handful of ice cream and shaved ice vendors at the plaza.

Elsewhere in Havana, namely tourist-laden Habana Vieja, the vibe couldn’t be more different. Unlike the Plaza de la Revolutión, no scratchy recording of L'Internationale blares from loud speakers. Rather, small bands of trovadores make their rounds among the many bars and restaurants, playing their hearts out for tips from mojito-guzzling tourists. That this day is a Socialist holiday is not apparent. Cash is king. Any foreigner unwilling to part with a little here and there for the sake of social lubrication is an unwelcome guest deserving admonishment.

Of course, for ridiculously little money, tourists are personally serenaded by musicians whose talent and experience are more suitable for, say, Carnegie Hall than any hotel lobby bar or street corner: a live smell-the-sweat and feel-the-breath performance of a song costs less than the price of a track on iTunes. Ballads about black tears, rebel heroes, and unrequited love - accompanied by horses clopping on cobblestones and 50 year-old Buicks with blown out mufflers - for less than the price of a download.

Drinks are equally splendid and cheap. With respect to cocktails, Cuba has an absolute advantage: miles of sugar cane for sugar and rum, plenty of Caribbean sunshine for lemons and limes. That same sunshine makes sipping a cool drink in the shade almost mandatory. Perhaps this need for relief in the form of a cold alcoholic beverage explains why two of the world’s most celebrated cocktails, the mojito and the daiquiri, are Cuban creations.

These days, the mojito rules. And it’s easy to see why … and simply to order another. The right mix of mint, rum, sugar, lime, and fizzy water is a hard act to follow. However, resisting the urge to stick with the mojito and trying something else from a menu of coctales nationales does not disappoint. To think that the tastiest daiquiri in the world is just down the street from the tastiest piña colada is mind boggling, especially after sampling so many commendable runners-up. Less well known, but just as brilliant, mixes - such as the Mary Pickford and El Presidente - reward the willing imbiber with subtle flavour and ample kick.

A good buzz helps you to deal with Havana’s incongruities and to ponder all the inevitable what-ifs and whens that occur to anyone spending any amount of time here. Havana is a movie set city that shouldn’t be: too poor and desperate to be so wonderful and engaging, too dynamic and animated to be so sad.

All photography courtesty of John Hardcastle © 2007