Halle was just as unattractive as I had pictured it. The difference between the two former halves of Germany is remarkable. Hideous gray concrete slabs masquerading as buildings, each in a color of gray more dismal than the next have been built in the city center, replacing what was destroyed in the war. The elevated expressway runs above a main pedestrian street, obscuring the facade of one of the few landmark churches surviving the war. The squares are dotted with especially ugly pro-proletariat sculpture. Outside of the city center, the houses are crumbling, decaying, many abandoned and left to rot. Frequently it felt more like the South Bronx than anywhere in Germany. The beginnings of a renovation of the entire city has begun, and construction is everywhere. Our theater was one of the first of these projects and one of few that have been completed, a brand-new crystalline jewel rising out of the communist-era decay.
That night at soundcheck, we stopped right in the middle and sang Happy Birthday to Patrick (who is slightly older than me, and I'll never let him forget it), and pelted him with streamers.
Unfortunately, the show didn't go over as well in the east as it had in the west, neither here or the next day in Dresden. Whether that was because a fluffy, escapist musical doesn't jibe with the people here - 10 years after the Wende (the change) and still struggling with a 20-percent unemployment rate and a cities of gloom, or because the official second-language of the GDR was Russian and no-one understood the show at all, I'm not sure.
Dresden was the next day, and this city looked like it would bounce back much more easily. Because of the Allied bombing raid in the spring of 1945, virtually the entire city was destroyed. The city center was mostly rebuilt, but the residential districts still bear the distinct look of 45 years of communist architecture. It was cold and rainy when we arrived in Dresden, but we weren't about to let that get in the way of our heading back into the center of the city to do a little sight-seeing. Our first impression of the city, driving over the Elbe river bridge, was of all the spires, towers and steeples making up the skyline. Upon arrival in the city center, we saw that these buildings were truly beautiful, but caked with 50 years of black soot. Again, the cleaning process has begun, and Dresden should be in 10-15 years time one of the most beautiful cities in Germany. Fortunately, the communist government left the city center mostly alone (except for the theater we played at, a big ugly squat building out of proportion to the rest of the square it sits on) so the city looks nothing like most of the East German cities we had been to.
Dresden was known during the 17th and 18th centuries as a cultural haven - the opera house (Which finished undergoing renovation in 1986) was where Wagner and Strauss premiered many of their operas. The outside is still black, but the ornate facade is still quite remarkable. All through the city are beautiful examples of Baroque and Rococo architecture, with many mosaics covering the sides of buildings. Along the edge of the river is an elevated promenade (built along the older medieval fortress walls), with a gorgeous view of the city wrapping itself around the bend in the river, as well as the palaces (now art museums) directly across. In the city center stands the largest construction site in the city. The bombing raids destroyed the largest church in the city, and for years, it was left in ruins as a monument to the war. After the Wende, the city decided that rather than leave the rubble, it would re-build the church according to original photographs using as many of the original stones as possible. The main market square in front of the church is now used as a storage facility, with row after row of shelving containing all the stones recovered, each sequenced and labeled for re-construction. The clock from the church is displayed over the rubble, as a symbol of the time passed since the church's destruction.
Rob, Brad, Myself and Betty Ann poked around this site for a while, then retired to a French Bistro on a little side street leading towards the river (This street is obviously welcoming the change to capitalism -- brand new bistros, steakhouses and all kinds of western eateries have sprung up, right next to the Amex Office and the Hilton.) The wind and rain kicked up during our late lunch, so we retired for the two hours or so left before our theater call in the German equivalent of Barnes & Noble, where we bought a few more English-language books, and had Kaffe und Kuchen (coffee & cake). Again at the show, the audience just didn't get it, and afterwards, we were told that our show in the east-German city of Chemnitz was cancelled (much to our relief - that would save us about 12 hours on the bus the following week).
After the show a small group of us decided it would be fun to go out - the night-life in Dresden is supposed to be quite fun, and very different from any other city in Germany. We arrived at one club recommended by my guide book, but it was completely empty. The bartender explained to us that it was Wednesday night, and that particular night, there was a party at another bar nearby. He showed us on a map how to get there, and we left.
Upon arrival, it felt like walking into a small bar in the Village, except for the German schlager music playing (I've explained this phenomenon already when we went to a party like this in Bielefeld on Christmas), and the locals singing along and doing some highly unusual dancing (I leaned over to Rob and said - oh, look the natives are doing their traditional dance). Our company manager was there, and said to us: unless you're German or extremely drunk, you will never understand it. He was right. Nevertheless, everyone who went had a lot of fun. The music was loud and silly, the lights flashing and the beer excellent. Later in the night the bartender from the first club we were at showed up, wanting to make sure we arrived alright. I was told by our German Company Manager, the East Germans are just like that: Very friendly and open and not calculating. It's a feeling that I have encountered in the American south as well - I start to wonder why someone is going out of their way to be nice to me, and it's just because they are nice people. Later that evening, when we asked if there was still anywhere open to get a bite to eat, another bartender offered to drive us to a restaurant nearby so we wouldn't get wet in the rain. Dresden Hospitality.
In the morning, it was time to head back to the western half of the country - a return to Peine (one of the cities we played in our first week), and then on to Hagen, where we had a day off, and I took the opportunity to go to Köln.
Koln is one of the oldest cities in Germany, and certainly one of the largest (about a million people) and most vibrant. I got off the train and was struck by the mix of old and new - the Dom, one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world (and until the Eiffel tower was built, the tallest building in Europe), right across a square from a brand new electric blue performing arts center where the stage version of Saturday Night Fever had just opened (bad taste in theater is not exclusive to New York). On the other side of the square are what remains of the wall built by the Romans to protect the city.
Because of the driving rain that day, I was not able to take a picture of the towers of the Dom, but the twin peaks are unmistakable, and can be seen for many miles around. Inside the cathedral, leading up to the soaring heights of the arched ceiling, are a series of stained-glass windows, each commissioned by a different king with dates ranging from the 14th through the 19th centuries. The central focus of the cathedral is to house the ornate gold casket believed to contain the remains of the three kings - because of this relic, the city has been a pilgrimage site for nearly 600 years (when the relics were stolen from Milan), and was home to Charlemagne for many years.
The rest of the city is mostly modern, as it sustained heavy damage during the war (the Dom was nearly the only building in the city center left untouched), but still has a very lively pedestrian feel. It seems that every corner has a little cafe, and after dark, the streets are very much alive. Koln still produces it's namesake, Cologne water, and the original scent is still sold (although it's not a very nice scent) under the name 4711. I didn't stay in the city very long, because of the weather, but I do hope to return after we come back from Denmark.
Hagen itself, were we stayed for three days is a very unattractive city. It is part of the Ruhrgebet, a series of cities and towns that organized into one unit to lay the infrastructure for a booming coal industry at the turn of the century. We had already played some of the cities in the Ruhrgebet before, but were never here for more than one night: Dortmund, Essen, Bochum, Duisburg, Velbert, Recklinghausen -- all cities I have passed through, but though large, they seem to have very little of interest or cultural value. The whole area reminds me of nothing more than Elizabeth, New Jersey that stretches on and on. (or Orange County, California in perpetual rain) Hagen is no exception. The producers opted to put us in one hotel in a more central location and shuttle us out to our shows in the area, rather than change hotels every day. This makes sense, mostly, but with an urban area this large, the traffic on the Autobahn is horrendous -- it took us nearly 2 hours to travel 20 miles on one day and an hour the next to go 15 miles. (The area has about 8 million people in 54 cities). Fortunately, in the past week, the show has slowly come to find its feet - after 2 1/2 months, it finally feels like we're doing a real show. The audiences in this area were also great - understood the English, laughed at the jokes and usually forced us to come back onstage for a third curtain call (a nice feeling)!
Jeffrey Dunn, our director was booked to come back to check up on the show here, but his plane was delayed, and by the time he arrived at the hotel, the show had already started. With him was Jonas, our new replacement for Jonathan Tilly, who had given his notice on the show. (After the new years break, a number of the ensemble members gave their notice, Jonathan the first to leave). We met them both in the hotel lobby after the show, and with a certain degree of anticipation on both parts -- Jonas had been at the audition, and had seemed a little arrogant there, and after Jeffery's last week on the road with us, we were all a little apprehensive about his return. In both cases, we didn't have to worry. Jonas has picked up the show relatively quickly, and is very friendly and eager to fit in with the cast. Jeffrey eventually did see the show, and his comments were intelligent, encouraging and brief. A week later, the show is now playing better than it ever has, which is a good feeling. On our last show in the area, we had a real treat - our tour jackets arrived (3 months after they were ordered, but at least they're here
On Monday, we traveled to Aschaffensburg, just outside of Frankfurt on our day off. I knew next to nothing about this little town and was very pleasantly surprised. The town fans out along the north side of the Main river, spreading out from the huge red sandstone Schloss at the center. We checked into our hotel, the Wilder Mann (a popular name with our cast), and I walked out onto the bridge to get a better look at the castle. The rest of the city is also charming. With the rest of the afternoon off, and the weather somewhat cooperating, Brad, Rob and I decided to head into Frankfurt to do our banking and have dinner in a real city.
Frankfurt has the feel of a city much larger than it actually is. It is the banking center of Germany, and the skyline reflects that -- perhaps the only city in Germany with such clusters of high-rise buildings in the center city. As it lies on the banks of the Main river, the city has the nickname of Mainhattan. I had never been into the center of Frankfurt before, although I have changed planes here (as just about anyone who has ever traveled in Europe has, at the busiest airport on the continent) on several prior occasions.
Our train arrived in around 4:00 in the afternoon, just enough time to run to the American Express office and get traveler's cheques to send back to our US bank accounts. (Since we're finally having 6 shows a week, every week, we suddenly have enough money to bother with this). After our banking was finished, we walked through the main pedestrian area, in search of a place to eat. With nothing but cheap fast food in sight, Brad asked someone coming out of an apartment door where we could find a good Italian dinner in the neighborhood. He steered us in very much the right direction. On a little, non-descript side street sat a restaurant with an unappealing facade, but inside, the space was large graciously appointed, and most importantly, the Lasagna was excellent. The food and atmosphere were so nice after a full week of sitting on the bus, or in dingy, dirty Hagen, that we lingered over dinner, dessert and coffee for nearly three hours.
We were originally going to try to see an English-Language film but the only one that we found was American Beauty, and by the time we finished dinner, we had missed the last English showing. Instead, we walked around the city pretending it was New York. (Not all that hard to do after 4 months in other German towns: this one had Graffiti, Hookers, Junkies, Beggars, High-Rises and pretentious little bistros and cafe's. Just like home.) We had a few drinks at a bar before catching the 10:30 train back to Aschaffensburg.
Upon arrival back at the Wilder Mann, it was obvious that we had missed a large, large party. Our hotel lobby was filled with other cast members in varying advanced stages of intoxication. Apparently, there were two different parties: Girls night at the Mexican Restaurant, and a bowling expedition that had both ended shortly before we arrived back, and now those remaining standing had converged on the hotel bar. Since we were the only group in the hotel, there were no other guests to disturb, and the hotel staff had joined our cast in the festivities. I had a beer with some of our crew members, but they were extremely drunk, and I was entirely sober by that point. The conversation was a little unbalanced, and after one drink, I decided to head upstairs to bed.
The next day, the weather was not cooperating any longer, so I chose to spend the day inside, reading until hunger forced me out. The Show was uneventful, and afterwards, most of the cast went back to the Mexican restaurant for a little more food (but a quieter evening than the night before). In the morning, we headed back to the Ruhrgebet, this time to a northern suburb of Dusseldorf (or a southern suburb of Essen). I have heard that the center city of Dusseldorf is quite nice, but we had no easy way of getting in, and the foul weather persisted, so I chose to pass this time.
On the way to the show in Dusseldorf, we were told that our final show on the tour would take place April 12th in Zurich, Switzerland, and were asked to consider from where and when we would like to leave Europe. I decided that since the tour was cut short, and our Italian dates cancelled, I still wanted to go there, so I will go to Venice for 4 days after the tour is over, and then fly out of Milan on the 17th. I'll spend 2 weeks back in the states visiting family before moving back into my NYC apartment on May 1.
After Dusseldorf, we returned to Hameln, and stayed once again at the campy Hotel Bergkurpark. It is nice at this point to return to places we have already played -- we know where the restaurants and supermarkets are, we know what the stage will be like -- everything is just a little easier. The show went well, and once again, the hotel kept the large pool area open for us after the show for a pool party.
In the morning, we returned to yet another suburb of Dusseldorf, Remscheid, and were blessed with warm weather and sunshine for the day. We were looking forward to this city because we had stayed in this hotel before early on in the tour (although we didn't play the same theaters), knew it was nice, and would be there once again for three days. The town itself is not very attractive or large enough to be culturally interesting, but it was certainly a pleasant place to spend three days. Our first show was up in Duisburg (another of the large but faceless Ruhrgebet cities). Because our director wanted to have a short rehearsal with once of the scenes that everyone but myself and Betty Ann is involved in, we went across the street and found a wonderful little Argentine steakhouse: a perfect way to fill up before the show.
The next two days, the weather soured again, and we spend most of our time inside the hotel. The shows went well in this city, once again, we were called out to take a third curtain call (both nights in Remscheid), and after the show the cast dispersed rather quickly to the various restaurants between the hotel and the theater. On Monday (Valentine's day, but over here, who's keeping track) we traveled to Verden/Aller, which was one of the nicer surprises we've come across on our travels.
The sun had come out again, and the small but charming village sits beautifully on the banks of the Aller river. Most of the town survived the war, and the Rococo town hall sits handsomely on the main market square, with the Cathedral of Verden on one side of the main street, and the Protestant steeple sticking up on the other end. Many of the original towers still stand along with the city walls, and the narrow cobblestone streets twist their way down to the river, lined with historic half-timbered houses beginning to lean off-center. The cathedral itself is enormous. Much simpler than the Gothic masterpiece in Koln, it has the simple clean lines, large windows, and bright interior (white walls with a blood red arched ceiling) of many of the churches I have seen in northern Germany, but on a much larger scale. Because of renovations on the main entrance, one currently enters through a Romanesque monastery attached to the side of the cathedral, passing through several courtyards and columned passage ways to get to the interior. After leaving the cathedral, I walked down to the river and walked back towards our hotel that way. The theater where we played was also a pleasant surprise - although small, it was brand new, and built as a part of the new town government center: New town hall, library, theater and equestrian musuem all a part of the same complex.
In the morning we returned to Cloppenburg - one of the stops we had made in December. Being a known commodity, most of us had our two days planed out in advance: Buby's baguettes for lunch, the swimming pool and waterslide in the afternoon, and the Balkan steakhouse for dinner. The dinner was perhaps the best meal I have eaten on this entire tour - the steak was cooked perfectly and so tender it practically melted inside my mouth. Even the wine, a Serbian red was excellent. Though expensive for a German restaurant, after all was finished, it still only cost $25 per person for the entire evening. Only a few cast members came here the first time we were in this town, but the word had spread in the last 2 months, and this time around, almost the entire cast and crew showed up in small groups throughout the evening.
The next day, the weather had turned back again, and I spent the day doing my banking online, writing emails and preparing to go to Denmark -- repacking, buying food and a few bottles of wine (alcohol prices in Denmark are nearly 3 times those in Germany), and converting my Deutsche Marks into Danish Krone. We will be in Denmark for nearly two weeks, and I am excited about it.