The Dilemma of an Opinionated Journalist

Previously published here.

„Don’t be a sissy, you’re not made out of sugar!“ Sara had been hearing that sentence all day long. It is the favourite saying of any German, whenever it starts to rain. This kind of weather is rather typical for a small town in Northern Germany. Especially, in the month of April and especially, when the whole town gets together in protest. Sara equipped herself with a rather colourful umbrella from the hotel lobby and stepped onto the wet pavement. She is a journalist for a rather conservative newspaper in Germany, with hopes and dreams of making a difference in the world. Or at least in German politics. Privately however, she would describe herself as left-leaning with some economic liberal tendencies. A clear clash between her workplace and her own convictions. As a journalist she knew that she had to be objective in her reporting, look at all sides of a problem, analyse and inform. That is why she did not think that it would be a problem for her to take a job in a conservative news outlet. She did not want to make her own opinions heard; she just needed to cover politics as neutrally as possible. Now, Sara had been assigned to cover the campaign trail of the right-wing populist party AfD, following around one of their leaders Frauke Petry. On that very rainy day, Sara had been expecting a small town-hall meeting type of thing, where voters could assemble to ask questions and voice concerns. Instead it turned into a rally with hundreds of protesters out on the streets. Wandering around between these protesters, she suddenly realised that she wanted to make her – rather unfavourable – opinion of the AfD heard. “Is that possible in the conservative newspaper I work for?”, she asked herself.

Certain AfD members are right-wing extremists, according to their statements. However, the party is part of the democratic spectrum and reaches many voters. For our journalistic work this means that the AfD has to be treated like any other party. – Thomas Hahn, SZ.de

 

Democratic AfD?

Firstly, however, it needs to be established that the emergence of the AfD has faced most quality media in Germany with the same dilemma. How to portray a party that is so obviously populistic? Even worse, so outspokenly right-wing, bordering on extremism? The Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), short AfD, was founded in early 2013. A year later they were able to gain entry into no less than 13 regional parliaments. Although the AfD is a right-wing populist party, they were recognized with having a strong economic liberalism.

The European Union has seen an increase of right-wing populist parties over the last years. Several devastating terrorist attacks, the economic crisis that endangered the whole Eurozone, as well as the refugee crisis, have shaken the continent to its core. Research suggests that more and more Europeans are voting for populists due to their fear of huge masses of immigrants yet to come to their borders. While left-wing populist parties use the emotion of hope for a better future to achieve justice and equality, right-wing populists fear foreigners and root this emotion in hatred and indifference. The AfD has developed an effective way of communicating this fear in a way that cannot be ignored, by strategically using negativity, breaking taboos, and disrespecting rules like political correctness. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach of a “culture of welcoming” and repeating her mantra “We can do this!” has left space for the AfD to fill. The party rose and scooped up all those scared voters who do not know who is entering their country.

This changed in the summer of 2015, when after months of severe power struggles over the leadership of the party, Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen became the heads of the AfD. Since then, the party has become highly nationalistic with drastic right-wing reasoning and at times a perceptible anti-Semitism. They are classified as Euro-sceptics and anti-feminists and most of the German quality media condemns them as populists. They are treated as an unwanted occurrence.

With this background, it makes sense that Sara was contemplating her new resolve to write more actively against the AfD. While she went through this inner struggle, she suddenly felt the mood of the crowd change. The chants became more obscene and there was a fury in the air that was palpable. It seemed as if the storm clouds had gathered, ready to explode. And explode they did. As soon as some of the AfD members, attending the meeting, exited the building, the crowd surged forward and Sara could see from behind that a full on brawl had evolved in the front. Two or three members got seriously injured before the police had a chance to break up the fight. And here was the struggle laid bare before her eyes. The AfD is an acknowledged party with the right to conduct meetings and go on the campaign trail. The crowd has the democratic right to protest, yet not to get violent while doing it. Suddenly, Sara was faced with a conflict of interest. That one act of undemocratic behaviour by the represented electorate in this small town in the middle of nowhere, made their claims against the AfD invalid. Sara’s personal conviction was the same as that of the protesters, yet she could never condone their violent behaviour. It felt like she was finally ready to write a piece that reflected “her” newspaper’s opinion as much as her own.

Where political leaning plays a role it is necessary to deal with it transparently. To be fair though, both sides of a point should be represented. – Kai Biermann, Zeit Online

 

Political Leaning vs. Role Perception

Talking to her editor Tom, when she got back to the office, she soon realised that he wanted her to make a big story out of that incident in the small town in the North. But Sara told him that she would rather write an opinion piece, to which he promptly agreed. So Sara wrote about the event that she had attended and how peaceful protest turned into a violent quarrel, condemning the undemocratic actions taken by the crowd. Her editor liked the piece and put it on the front page of the opinion section. For the first time in her budding career, Sara felt like she had made an impact at the right news outlet at the right time. However, her opinion of the AfD was still a bad one and she was not ready to give up the fight against them. A few weeks later, she encountered another one of those AfD rallies in a big city in Eastern Germany. It is well documented that voters in that part of the country are more prone to follow the AfD. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern for example, is one of the biggest supporters of the populist party. It was a completely different experience for Sara. Frauke Petry and other leaders of the party were celebrated at this event, there were crowds chanting in favour of them. The racist and misogynistic messages of the party were ubiquitous. Coming back from the campaign trail, Sara now had her mind full of doubts. Was she right to write an opinion piece that conformed to the political leaning of the newspaper? Should she write an opinion piece that fully reflects her own views?

If my political opinion clashes with the political leaning of the newspaper I work for, I usually pull the piece. I do this mainly, to not confuse the reader. They do expect a certain kind of opinion piece when picking up our newspaper. – Jacques Schuster, Welt Online

Some insight into this struggle was given by a study conducted at the University of Amsterdam. Here, the possible influences on opinion pieces were being investigated. German journalists frequently express their opinions about the AfD in the commentary sections of the major German online newspapers. Therefore it is interesting to find out, whether the political position of the newspaper is a bigger influence on an opinion piece, or whether German journalists’ role perceptions affect it more.

Journalistic role perceptions describe how journalists in different cultures and media systems go about their work. They have a strong influence on journalists’ professional behaviour, which in part explains the significant differences between news cultures. Providing political information is globally regarded as essential in the journalistic work field, as is the monitoring of the government and the reliable presentation of information. However, objectivism and the separation of facts from opinion play out differently in different news cultures. Western journalists generally do not promote any particular values, while non-Western journalists tend to be more interventionist. The “Worlds of Journalism” study has shown that the German and American journalism cultures are similar in their professional role perceptions in terms of wanting to report objectively. This goal of objectivity is deeply embedded in the German press code.

In this study, opinion pieces on the AfD from five major online newspapers in Germany – Spiegel Online, SZ.de, Zeit Online, Welt Online and Bild Online – were analysed. The findings provide a richer picture of how German journalists use opinion pieces to portray a right-wing populist party and show that the political position of the newspaper has a significant influence on the portrayal, as journalists are evidently affected by their workplace.

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When an analysis is needed, your own political opinion naturally finds a way into your work. Ideally, the reader is aware of this and knows why he chose either SZ or Welt Online to read. – Hannah Beitzer, SZ.de

This leads to the assumption that Sara’s internal struggle is only natural in the world of a German opinion journalist. She believes that she has to inform and educate her audience, but not yet that she should also influence them. Of course, it is impossible to know if an article makes an impact on its readers. However, the medium of an opinion piece does give a journalist a fair shot at influencing the possible outcome of an election. Faced with the dilemma of either portraying her own opinion and probably ending up in a dark corner in the newspapers last pages, or showing the political leaning of the newspaper while being printed on page one, made Sara realize that the newsroom she works in will always have that kind of power over her. The question was whether she would succumb to that and only write what her editor wanted, or fight for her position and her right to express her opinion at the newspaper.

 

Sara’s decision

In the end Sara decided to write her opinion in the most extreme way she could think of. She asked the reader to not vote for the AfD and had to change her piece to the wishes of the editor. Disillusioned, Sara was thinking of quitting her job. But she couldn’t help but wonder, if she maybe could make a difference at this newspaper. And with time, maybe she would gain more rights to really express her own opinion. The realization that the political leaning of the newsroom really does influence the journalist more than their own role perception and political opinion, is something that should be kept in mind by the consumer of such media. Opinion pieces might be the real reflection of the actual journalist who has written them. However, they are conform to the newspaper’s ideology. So it can only be advised to read more than one newspaper, from different parts of the political spectrum.

Where animals make music and people spit on stones

Trying to bid adieu to my master thesis ennui, I recently spent 10 days in my hometown in Northern Germany. Whether it was the relief of finally looking up from a laptop screen or merely all the good food and drinks we had, I fell in love with Bremen…once again. It was like seeing an old lover that I had almost forgotten, scratched from my inner list of what to care about. I had moved on, found someone better. I mean, who can complain about living in Amsterdam? Only an insane person. And just to be clear – I’m definitely not complaining. I’m just saying, Bremen has its charms too and it is worth reminding myself from time to time. It also helped that I had some visits from my Amsterdam friends. Seeing a town through the eyes of a tourist changes your perspective. Suddenly you marvel at the beauty of its historical buildings. You discover things you have never seen before, although you might have looked at them a million times in passing. In honour of this enlightenment, I thought it would be nice to show you my favourite places and things to do in Bremen.

Take a walk in Bürgerpark

The biggest local park is in the middle of town and calls itself “park of the citizens”. Start at the Hollersee, with its enchanting view of Parkhotel and make your way up to Meierei. On your way, there will be a point where you can marvel at either establishment from afar, gazing over meadows and trees, standing on an old stone bridge. You’ll never want to leave.

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Experience the Viertel

The Viertel is the most alive quarter in Bremen. Quirky little bars, well-stocked retailers, cozy cafés and bohemian boutiques make the Ostertorsteinweg a place to spend your day at. If the sun makes an appearance get some ice cream at Panciera and stroll through the streets leading up to Osterdeich. Each house on the way has a different colour, each one will make you say: “Gosh, I could live here.”

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Kaffee & Kuchen at Café Tölke

Germans love their cake. It’s a stereotype because it’s true. At least this German does. Café Tölke is conveniently located in the Schnoorviertel, one of the oldest and most picturesque parts of Bremen. Explore these small cobble-stoned streets, shop for some souvenirs, squeeze yourself through the narrowest street – but for god’s sake – do not miss out on a Rumkugel from this cozy café. And this is the best way to catch up on some gossip. We even have a word for it in the Bremen dialect: Kaffeeklatsch.

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Sunset at the harbour

You need a car for this. Drive through Rablinghausen while twilight sets in, all the way to the end until you see shipping containers. And then a bit further, until you see the floating cranes. Park at what used to be Lankenauer Höft, put your car radio on loud and dance around to David Bowie and Prince. The colours of the evening sky will take your breath away.

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Catch a movie at Gondel

The Bremer Filmkunsttheater is a community of small-scale artsy cinemas in Bremen that mostly show European and/or indie films, sometimes even in the original version (don’t get me started on the stupidity of dubbing movies). The Gondel is my favourite one, as it has a bar attached to it with the flair of a Parisian café philosophique, where they serve delicious appetizers and unique drinks. Huge plus: you are allowed to take your wine glass into the screening room.

For a unique historical tour of this beautiful town give me a shout out. I’ve been told, I’m very good at it.

The Call

I know, I know. I haven’t been publishing for a long time. Again. Well, I was very busy with my master – which is nearing its end – and also (drum roll, please) attending my first ever writer’s class. I am writing a novel. This is of course just the beginning and I am still a bit too preoccupied with university stuff to fully commit to it right now. But I thought I might give you guys some tidbits of the first drafts I come up with. So please enjoy and give me any feedback you would like. This following bit of story was an in-class exercise, where we were supposed to come up with a potential first page for our novel. My storyline has already changed but I like this first draft. It does represent quite well what I want to do in my novel. As always, thanks for reading!

– – –

She had been expecting it. That call that would change everything. It was bound to happen eventually, yet she was still shocked. “Is this shock?”, she asked herself. “Shouldn’t I be crying or screaming? Trashing the place? You know, something they do in the movies when a call like this comes. This would be the moment where a melodramatic melody sets in, letting the audience know: it’s okay to be sad now!” She didn’t need to let anybody know, they had all been there, they knew already. Suddenly struggling for air, she unlocked the little gateway – acting as her front door – and went outside. Usually it was stuffy there too, but not right now. It had just rained buckets as it tends to do in this country. She loved those short but forceful torrential rains. The earth turns into red mush, transforming its usual state of red dust and the air becomes so clear you can almost forget the city and its huge cloud of smog. She let herself fall into the mud. “You’ll regret this later”, a small voice piped up. The washing machine was still not hooked up to anything. But it didn’t matter. Not in that moment. Her breaths became deeper and she relaxed a little bit. “Right, what to do now?”, she thought. Looking for flights was probably the most reasonable thing to do. So she got up, went into the bedroom, where Julius was still sleeping, changed into clean pants and slowly walked back into the living room. It was the only room in the house where the internet actually worked.

As she moved for the couch she remembered that she had been about to get some juice from the fridge when her cell phone went off. “Maybe something stronger”, she thought. The kitchen was a mess. They had had guests over for dinner the night before and Julius had made her wait with the cleaning up. “Come on”, he had said, “it won’t get dirtier over night. Let’s go to bed.” So she had let him drag her into the bedroom with one last frustrated look at the dishes. Automatically, she started cleaning them now. Sinking into her thoughts, the well-known movements of scrubbing a plate almost felt like a ritual. Images popped up in her head. Images of a beautiful narrow old house she used to call home. Her sister in one of the upper windows yelling something down at her. That familiar mixture of smells from her mother’s washing powder and the crazy kitchen experiment her brother was currently conducting filled her nose. Faintly, she even detected some dog food in there. The dogs…she would see how big they had gotten. The last time she had been home Malu was still a puppy.

“I think that plate is clean now”, she suddenly heard form behind her. It was easy to startle her, all her friends teased her about it. The plate smashed into the sink but despite the noise of the impact it was unbroken. Turning, she softly said “ You scared me.” He came up and wrapped her in his arms. “Well you make it too easy”, he chuckled. “Good morning Lizzie” he said in his usual teasing tone, signalling how endearing he found her, despite all her faults, like loudly washing the dishes at 8 am. “Hey” she whispered and gave him a quick peck on the cheek already turning towards the sink again. “Something is wrong”, he stated matter-of-factly, not actually asking her but letting her know he was expecting an explanation. “All right, this is it”, she thought, “now I have to say it. If I let it into this place, my safe space, it will become real. Right now, it’s just in my head. I could wait a bit, enjoy this day.” They were supposed to meet Sophie and Michael in Jinja for lunch. They had found a fish restaurant with amazing views over Lake Victoria a few weeks ealier, on their way back from Nairobi. Would they still do that now? Shaking her head she became conscious of Julius’ expression. In those few moments she had been standing there, lost in her thoughts, he must have realised that something was really wrong. His dark brown eyes were full of anxiety. “Lizzie?”, he whispered. “My father is dead.”

21 andalusische Sommer

Weiße Bergdörfer, rote Schindeldächer, duftende Delikatessen – das ist Andalusien. Sobald ich das Flughafengebäude in Málaga verlasse, werden meine Sinne überflutet: der Taxifahrer, der in schnellem andalusischem Akzent auf mich einredet; die Rosmarinsträuche, die ihren Duft mit dem der Pinienbäume vermischen; oder das strahlende Blau, eines wolkenlosen Himmels. Diesen südlichen Teil Spaniens nenne ich Heimat. 

Als wahre Weltenbummlerin habe ich nicht nur ein Zuhause auf unserem schönen Planeten. Das kleine weiße Dorf an der andalusischen Costa del Sol, genannt Nerja, ist nun schon seit über 20 Jahren das liebste Reiseziel meiner Familie. Da ich in Nerja manche der schönsten Momente meiner Kindheit verbracht habe, hat sich auch hier meine Liebe zur spanischen Sprache, zu spanischem Essen und zur spanischen Kultur entwickelt. Ich bin mir sicher, ich werde noch als alte Frau jeden Sommer zu einem andalusischen machen.

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Abendspaziergang durch Nerja

Was ist es also, das diese Ortschaft so spannend macht? Die offensichtliche Antwort darauf wäre eine Auflistung der Hauptattraktionen Nerjas. Einige Beispiele wären der Balcón de Europa (Aussichtspunkt), die Cuevas de Nerja (Tropfsteinhöhlen) oder die Nähe zu den äußerst sehenswerten Städten Granada, Málaga und Sevilla. Für mich sind aber etliche andere Orte zu den Hauptattraktionen des Städtchens geworden.

Auf der Suche nach einem süßen kleinen Café, mit Aussicht auf den Balcón und das dunkelblaue Mittelmeer? Dann ist die Pasteleria Anahi in der Calle Puerta del Mar 6 die richtige Adresse. Das Frühstück ist hier ein Traum und wer seinen Kaffee gerne milchig hat, sollte unbedingt einen Café Sombra bestellen. Außerdem sehr lecker sind die Churros mit heißer Schokolade, denn die ist extra dickflüssig. Ein wahres Schlemmercafé.

Einen noch besseren Café Sombra (ja, ich trinke meinen Kaffee nur so) macht das La Fragata. An der Ecke zur Calle El Barrio, mit Blick auf den Plaza Cavana, gibt es viel Fußverkehr.

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Streunende Katzen an jeder Ecke

Familien auf dem Weg zum Strand; Touristen auf der Suche nach dem Balcón; alte spanische Frauen, die hinter ihren wedelnden Fächern den letzten Dorfskandal analysieren und die ein oder andere streunende Katze, auf der Suche nach etwas essbarem. Ob für ein spätes Frühstück, ein Sandwich Mixto am Nachmittag oder einen Absacker am Abend: hier wird man zu jeder Tageszeit glücklich gemacht. Und der Besitzer Miguel kann einem viele Geschichten über das Nerja der Vergangenheit erzählen.

Der größte Strand in Nerja heißt Playa Burriana und befindet sich direkt unter dem hügeligen Stadtteil Capistrano. Wer hier den Tag verbringen möchte sollte sich unbedingt den kleinen Luxus leisten, sich eine der Sonnenliegen unter Palmen zu kaufen. Vorrausschauend auf ein gutes Mittagessen, reserviert man sich die Liegen vor dem Restaurant Merendero Ayo. IMG_4415Denn hier gibt es die beste Paella der Stadt. Den Besitzer Ayo umranken einige Legenden. Man sagt er sei der reichste Mann Nerjas – und trotzdem serviert er noch selber die Paella, die ihn berühmt gemacht hat. Außerdem, sei er eines der Kinder gewesen, die die Cuevas de Nerja entdeckt hätten, Tropfsteinhöhlen, etwas außerhalb der Stadt. Und ist Ayo eigentlich sein richtiger Name, oder heißt nur das Restaurant so? Man kennt ihn eben als den Paella-auf-die-Teller-schmeißenden Koch. Kleiner Tipp: In den Sommermonaten gibt es dort jeden Mittwochabend eine Flamenco Aufführung, mit dem Stadt-Troubadour Fernando del Paso.

Fernando singt am Wochenende auch in einer kleinen Bar in der Calle San José, wo sich Sevillana-tanzende Spanier treffen um die Magie des ursprünglichen Flamencos zu feiern. Im El Molino kann man nicht still sitzen bleiben, irgendwann klatscht selbst jemand ohne Rhythmus im Blut im Takt mit.

Wer eigentlich kleinere Strände bevorzugt, sollte an den Playa El Salón gehen, rechts vom Balcón de Europa. Vor allem unter der Woche finden sich hier relativ wenig Sonnenbadende ein und noch weniger Touristen. Dafür ist er am Wochenende umso voller, denn es ist der Strand den die Einwohner am liebsten bevölkern. Hier gibt es keine Strandbuden, wie am Playa Burriana, dafür aber einen kleinen Kiosk, der Getränke und Eis verkauft. Und man ist ganz schnell wieder im Dorf, falls man eine kleine Siesta einlegen möchte.

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Felsige Strandbuchten inkl. fleißiger Sonnenanbeter

Überraschenderweise gibt es in Nerja mehrere indische Restaurants. Da ich mich bis zu meinem Lebensende jeden Tag von indischem Essen ernähren könnte, habe ich natürlich einen Favoriten. Das Haveli in der Calle Cristo serviert feinste Tandoori Küche auf einer kleinen Dachterrasse mit tollem Blick auf die Sierra de Almijara, die Bergkette die Nerja umgibt.

Um beim Restaurantthema zu bleiben: Eine Empfehlung habe ich noch. Das Mesón de Antonio in der Calle Diputación Provincial ist das beste Steakrestaurant an der Costa del Sol. Das Solomillo a la Pimienta zergeht einem auf der Zunge, während der hauseigene Rotwein den exquisiten Geschmack um ein vielfaches verstärkt. Die Plastikstühle sollten einen nicht abschrecken, ein absolutes Festmahl kann auch auf etwas unpassender Bestuhlung genossen werden.

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Frigiliana: Das schönste Dorf Andalusiens

Das letzte Highlight, das niemand verpassen sollte, der sich in diesen Gefilden aufhält, ist ein Trip nach Frigiliana. Es ist eines der schönsten pueblos blancos (weiße Dörfer) in La Axarquía. Die engen Gassen dieses Bergdorfes sind mosaikverzierte Treppenstufen, die sich bis an den höchsten Punkt ziehen, wo es eines der besten Restaurants in Andalusien gibt. Nach einem leckeren Abendessen im „El Mirador“, mit Blick auf die im Licht der untergehenden Sonne liegenden Berge und das in der Entfernung schimmernde Meer, sollte man sich Zeit nehmen beim Abstieg. Es gibt viel zu bestaunen: die blauen, türkisen und grünen Türen, farbenfrohe Blumengirlanden und alte Männer, die sich auf Holzhockern vor der Haustür zum abendlichen Plausch eingefunden haben. Die gemütliche Stimmung in diesem wunderschönen Bergdorf verzaubert einen und man würde am Liebsten für immer bleiben.

P.S.: Meine Schwester hat ein Vlog Tagebuch von unserem letzten Urlaub in Nerja gemacht.

Venturing into the North

First appeared on Jutland Station.

Northern Jutland. A mystical, fairytale place – said to have traveling sand dunes that will transport you to the desert, a strip of land at the end of which two waters meet and some of the most delicious seafood you will encounter on your travels through Denmark. It is easily accessible from the heart of Jutland, preferably by car, so you can catch up with your inner explorer and discover landscapes and small towns unreachable by train.

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Sand dunes near the Svinkløv Badehotel

What you need to do as a first step to escape the hectic city life that you are probably usually accustomed to, is finding a cozy hotel on the seaside, far enough from small settlements that you will feel like you are the only person on that particular beach, but close enough to all the places you want to see so that you don’t spend more time in your car than necessary. Obviously, you should also consider the weather and opt for a rain free weekend, or at least bring your rain boots. To us, the perfect place became real in the form of the Svinkløv Badehotel. A very traditional, hidden-in-the-dunes kind of place, with an understatement philosophy apparent in their easy-going atmosphere yet five-star-worthy kitchen. It is a simplistic concept with high quality products – everything the Danish mentality has to offer. Due to no wifi availability it is the ideal weekend get-away. Though not exactly cheap, it is well worth spending the extra crown on.

When you have had enough relaxation in the laid-back hotel, it is time to take a trip to Aalborg, the fourth biggest town in Denmark. With its cute shops and many cafés you need to be prepared to want to spend more time here than what was planned. Let yourself get lost in the little alleyways of the old town, pop into the occasional church, have a look at the historical cloister and wander the grounds of the red and white castle. After that you could head up to Skagen to see the tip of Denmark and on the way explore other beaches on the northern coast.

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Bunker ruins between Løkken and Lønstrup

Løkken beach has some amazing views with its long white-sand stretches and distinctly blue ocean. What is special about taking this route is that you can drive directly onto the beach with your car and not only that, you can also continue on your way to Skagen with the wind-swept dunes to your right and the sun-glistering waves of the ocean to your left. Just remember to drive up when you reach Lønstrup as that is presumably the last possibility to reach a cement road again. Be prepared to get some stunning sightings of half ruined bunkers, sunk down from the dunes, sprayed with graffiti. You will not believe your eyes when you see the first one. Reaching Skagen, you should continue straight to Grenen and walk on the sandbar toward the pointy end, where the Skagerrak and the Kattegat seas meet. Watch the sky change its color to some pastel wonders and slowly stroll back into the village of Skagen. The yellow houses there with many small shops make it an endearing village.

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Sunset in the marina

Head towards the marina and find a seat in the setting sun in front of one of the red fishing huts that have been converted into a promenade of fish restaurants. On those rustic wooden benches, in the midst of drunk Swedish sailors, you need to go for the rejer or honestly any other seafood they offer. It is great. If you’re lucky, a live band will start playing and you will feel like you have died and gone to heaven – Danish style. 

On another day you should take your car and drive in the other direction, towards the Western coast. Take a trip to Klitmøller on a windy day, otherwise known as “Cold Hawaii” because it is the European kite and surfer’s paradise. On the way there, the scenery is more than stunning, crossing the Limfjord with its shallow waterways and many small islands. If you get the chance, try the very tasty Limfjord oysters.

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Cold Hawaii Calling

A good final destination here is the beach in Vorupør with colorful fishing boats and some innovative ice cream flavors. Back at the Badehotel, take a last long walk on the beach, watch the intense sunset and sip on one of their superb wines, while still pushing away thoughts of your coming week back in reality. Relish those last moments in the North and plan to come back as soon as possible.

Beyond Nazism: A Guide to German Cinema

Outside of Germany, the term German cinema tends to be immediately connected to a dark period in the history of our country. We, as Germans, know how important it is to educate about the holocaust and learn from past mistakes. But we have also slowly regained our ability to celebrate our culture without being stigmatized. These 13 movies are the result of that.

First published on Cafébabel Aarhus.

Der bewegte Mann (1994)

This comedy was produced by Bernd Eichinger, the late mogul of the German film industry. The director Sönke Wortmann usually focusses on his dream career football in movies like “Das Wunder von Bern” and “Deutschland. Ein Sommermärchen”. Fun fact: Both of them have cameos in the next movie on this list. The moved man, literally translated, is responsible for one of the most famous scenes in German cinema: The naked Til Schweiger squatting down on a sitting room table. He plays Axel, a guy that can’t keep his fingers off other women although he loves his girlfriend Doro (Katja Riemann). After she catches him in a compromising situation he has to move out. Axel moves in with his homosexual friend Norbert (Joachim Król) who might like him a little bit too much. But when Doro finds out she is pregnant, she realises that she wants Axel back. Full of sexy innuendos, cultural clashes and witty banter this movie is deservedly one of the most successful in Germany. 

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (1997)

Two fatally ill cancer patients find a Tequila bottle in their hospital room and go looking for lemons and salt. When one of them (Til Schweiger) discovers that the other (Jan Josef Liefers) has never seen the ocean, they make a run for it and steal a car that belongs to some gangsters on a mission (Moritz Bleibtreu and Thierry van Werveke). Chaos ensues as the police follows the gangsters, the gangsters chase the cancer patients and they try to get to the seaside. It is just the right combination of drama and comedy and will leave you wishing you could see the ocean for the first time as well. The director Thomas Jahn was a taxi driver, before meeting Til Schweiger in a book store in Cologne. Schweiger had already accumulated some fame due to the huge success of “Der bewegte Mann” and Jahn told him that he wrote movie scripts in his free time. When Jahn sent Schweiger the script for this movie he immediately agreed to produce it and they revised the script together. Sadly, Thomas Jahn could never again land such a big success, but still works in TV today. By the way, Til Schweiger borrowed the fitting title of this roadmovie from Bob Dylan’s song.

Lola rennt (1998)

An exciting thriller, written and directed by the very talented Tom Tykwer, who went on to direct masterpieces like “Perfume” and “Cloud Atlas”. It is the story of a young woman (Franka Potente) trying to save her criminal boyfriend’s (Moritz Bleibtreu) life in under twenty minutes. The movie shows the events of those twenty minutes in three different scenarios. It is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Solino (2002)

Ever asked yourself why Germans love Italian food so much? Watch this movie and you will understand. It is the story of the Amato family, who emigrates from the south of Italy to the Ruhrgebiet, a region in North Rhine-Westphalia. It is part of a huge movement of Italians moving to Germany in the 1960’s as Gastarbeiter (guest workers). Parts of the Italian culture have in this way embedded themselves in German culture. The father of the family Romano comes to Duisburg to work in the mines but soon discovers that he misses his dolce vita. By divine intervention he realises that his wife’s cooking abilities have spread through the whole street and they open up the first Italian restaurant named Solino, after their home town. The movie shows us where the family is at every ten years and describes the struggle of the two sons to fit into German society, still feel connected to their Italian heritage and finding out where they belong. The director Fatih Akin is personally one of my favourite directors of all time. He was born in Hamburg as the son of Turkish immigrants, so naturally the theme is an intimate one. He told a story of the search for one’s identity, nostalgia for a lost time, brotherhood and home coming. You will fall in love with the characters, however flawed they may be. 

Herr Lehmann (2003)

A tragicomedy based on a novel of the same name by Sven Regener (singer of “Element of Crime”) that depicts the self-deprecating attitude towards life of young adults in West-Berlin just before the fall of the wall. In the 28 years that Kreuzberg had been cut off from the rest of the city, a lethargic sub-culture has formed among the constant bar hoppers, bohemians and crumbling buildings. Christian Ulmen plays the laconic Herr Lehmann brilliantly and you almost wish you could have one of the pointless yet entertaining beer conversations with him. Leander Haußmann has created a true gem of a movie.

Goodbye, Lenin! (2003)

What would you do if your mother wakes up from a coma during which the socialist country you lived in has fallen and your people were reunited with the West? If she was an ardent supporter of the Socialists and too weak to cope with the truth? Right, you would try to hide the facts. Not an easy feat in a country that is changing fast and adapting to Western culture. Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl) grew up in East Berlin and has never seen the city without the wall. Germany reunites while his mother is in the hospital. A tragically funny film about an important part of history and how normal people dealt with it. 

Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (2004)

Strictly speaking this movie could qualify as Austrian due to its director Hans Weingartner. But because it mostly takes place in Berlin we can compromise on a German-Austrian cooperation. A young love triangle, consisting of Jan (Daniel Brühl), Peter (Stipe Erceg) and Jule (Julia Jentsch), become big city revolutionaries fighting the bourgeoisie by breaking and entering big villas, rearranging the furniture and leaving notes like “the fat years are over”. The political statements and generational struggles will make you think.

Gegen die Wand (2004)

Fatih Akin, the son of immigrant parents, recurringly chooses the topic of integration in his movies. And every time he does so, he gives us insights into subcultures that mostly stay under the radar. Here we are immersed into the world of Sibel (Sibel Kekilli from “Game of Thrones”), a young woman that suffers under her family’s demands to find a husband and settle down. She becomes so unhappy that she tries to kill herself. In a hospital, she meets the middle aged drunkard Cahit (Birol Ünel). Both are German Turks and Sibel sees her chance to fashion a deal. She proposes a formal marriage to get her family off her case. A drastic turn of events forces her to flee to Istanbul. As a viewer you suddenly are confronted with the pain of not belonging. How do children of immigrants define themselves? Where do they belong? What is their culture? The hopelessness of the characters is underlined by the artful soundtrack, which by the way has been the inspiration for a music documentary about musical influences in Istanbul: “Crossing the Bridge – The Sound of Istanbul”. This cultural and emotional roller coaster is a true masterpiece of German-Turkish cinema, and only the start in Akin’s unfinished trilogy on “Love, Death and the Devil”.

Das Leben der Anderen (2006)

It is not surprising that this movie won the Academy Award and the BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film. Living in East Berlin during the 1980’s you knew that you could not trust anyone. Not your neighbours, not your friends, sometimes not even your family. The playwright Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) become the object of Stasi observation, after they have made themselves the target of the regime’s suspicion. The secret police bugs their appartment and from then on events unfold through the (closely listening) ears of Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe, who died shortly after the Oscar win), who soon becomes too attached for his own good. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s full-length movie debut is not to be missed.

Robert Zimmermann wundert sich über die Liebe (2008)

Germany’s answer to “The Graduate” with a cameo by Art Garfunkel’s son James. Already noted down on your list? Well, let me tell you more. Another one of Leander Haußmann’s funny depictions of aimless young men falling helplessly in love with the wrong women. Tom Schilling’s shining performance will stick with you and the soundtrack will leave you wanting more. Most songs are from the Band “Element of Crime”, whose lead singer is Sven Regener, author of “Herr Lehmann”. And you will definitely become a huge fan of Russian underground folk singer Vladimir Vysotsky. 

Soul Kitchen (2009)

Another one of Fatih Akin’s brilliant films, this time about two Greek-German brothers and their sketchy attempts to save their restaurant. Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos) owns Soul Kitchen, a shabby restaurant in the Hamburg harbour. His incarcerated brother Illias gets special leave from prison and uses the restaurant as a work alibi. When tax inspectors make Zinos’ life a living hell, the brothers pull together and transform the spot into a gourmet cuisine with the help of a crazy knife-throwing chef (Birol Ünel) and their quirky staff. Akin was inspired by Bousdoukos real life Greek restaurant, which he used to go to regularly. This movie is a love letter to Akin’s friends and to his city. Hamburg has never looked more beautiful. 

Oh Boy (2012)

The talented Tom Schilling as a drop-out student, lost in his search for self, wandering the streets of Berlin. The bleakness of the black and white tragicomedy is reflected in the themes of the melancholy big city atmosphere and he cannot seem to get a grip on his life. Schilling brings an unassuming charme to his aimless character, the witty and often philosophical dialogues challenge the audience. A true arthouse piece of work. An impressive feat by Jan Ole Gerster, considering it is his final assignment for the Film Academy in Berlin.

Victoria (2015)

Sebastian Schipper directed this work of art in one single continuous shot, leading through the pulsing streets of Berlin. The Spanish girl Victoria has been living a lonely life since she came to the German capital three months earlier. After a night of partying in one of Berlin’s numerous clubs, she meets a group of young men and spends the night in their company. What starts as an innocent youthful adventure soon turns into an action-packed thriller, giving you no time to catch your breath. Frederick Lau as Sonne gives a stellar performance and his rugged charme makes you understand why Victoria goes along with the events that unfold after they meet. This movie should have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Unfortunately, it was disqualified for its high percentage of English being spoken. A huge mistake, but Oscar or not, this is one of the best German movies ever made.

How to travel through Nicaragua in 10 days

The largest country in Central America is the perfect place to get to know this part of the world. It is safer than its neighbour Honduras, yet less touristy than the bordering Costa Rica. Full of possibilities (and volcanos), the landscape is breathtaking and the cities are historically important.

Day 1:

Leaving Managua is advisable in your first days. In general, you should try to come to the capital in the company of a local. The rumours that Managua is quite dangerous are not only hearsay. We have actually been robbed on our very first day in the city. Admittedly, it was in an overcrowded bus and we were not paying enough attention to our backpacks – mainly due to the fact that it was more worrisome being touched in all the inappropriate places imaginable, while not being able to tell who of the 10 Nicaraguans pushed up against you is harrassing you.

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Bus in Managua

To avoid this experience is not really possible I think. You just learn to adapt and hide your valuables in better places. So do yourself a favour, take the next bus out of the hectic capital, head south and enjoy a couple of beach days after your (long) flight to Central America. Tip: Take the express bus from Mercado Huembes directly to San Juan del Sur. If you can’t catch that, you will need to stop at Rivas.

Day 2: 

In San Juan del Sur we stayed at the newly established Hola Ola Hostel. It’s a very cozy place, with a great terrace overlooking the stunning bay, a small pool, lots of parties and a very cute house dog called Ola. San Juan is of course a surfer’s paradise with a number of deserted beaches in the area that will take you breath away. But it is also a great place to meet fellow backpackers, kick back in a sun chair, have a beer at noon and just enjoy the easy life. We actually celebrated New Year’s Eve here and it was one of the best parties I have been to, until I fell asleep at midnight from all the exhaustion. But I was told the fireworks over the bay and especially the Jesus statue were a rare sight. Tip: There are shuttles for surfers organised daily from town. Just ask around!

Day 3: 

After a night of drinking and dancing you should start the day with a hike up to Jesus. Believe me, you will curse yourself on the way up but the view from up there is unbeatable. And getting a blessing after a night of sin is never a bad idea.

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Jesus’ view on the bay of San Juan

Tip: Just remember to bring some Córdobas to pay for entrance. When you get back you should try the typical Nicaraguan breakfast “Gallo Pinto” consisting of black beans and rice. The perfect hangover food. If you have the time walk around San Juan a bit more, it is a cute town with all its colourful houses and hip restaurants. One of my favourite spots was “El Gato Negro” combining cozy café and library. Now, it is time to say goodbye to SJD and continue on to Isla de Ometepe. The last ferry from San Jorge leaves around half past five in the evening so you need to calculate that in your travel time. From San Juan regular busses go straight to Rivas. In Rivas you can either take a bus to the Ferry Terminal in San Jorge or share a Taxi with other backpackers. Our destination was “El Zopilote” in Santa Cruz so it made more sense to take the ferry to San José, but you can also easily go to Moyogalpa and once you’re on the island figure out your way to your accomodation.

Day 4:

“El Zopilote” is the coolest place I have been to in Nicaragua. The self-declared “Finca Ecologica” is an entirely self-sustained farm and hostel. It will not be the most sanitary experience but who cares? Taking a shower in the middle of the jungle or stumbling to your little hut with only the moonlight to guide your way you will soon feel like Robinson Crusoe stranded on his deserted island. Only this island is not deserted and there is a lot to do. On our first day we just stayed inside the farm and explored the grounds. My favourite was the look-out on one of the highest points where I spent a lot of time writing down my thoughts about this bustling country. Tip: Try the pizza and the rum Flor de Caña with the hibiscus juice. You will never want for anything else in your life!

Day 5:

Because it is a must-do on Ometepe we went to Ojo de Agua but due to overcrowding we were not convinced. It is nice to take a swim but after that we went back to the main road and took a taxi back to Santa Cruz. The beach front there offers a great array of seaside restaurants. The first one, coming from Ojo de Agua, is a vegetarian restaurant that served some of the best food I had in Central America. You need to try this one out.

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Santa Cruz

Getting back to our hostel was an adventure. We couldn’t find a bus. Instead we found an elderly woman that looked so fragile under her big backpack that we offered to help her as she was headed in the same direction. She was very friendly and tried to tell us about the island. In general, Nica people are some of the most open I have met on my travels. Everyone is game to talk, show you around, have a drink etc. Sometimes not taking the fastest way opens up other opportunities. Back at “El Zopilote” we enjoyed their great food one last time and prepared to leave in the morning. Tip: Definitely book a shuttle to the ferry. Ask around for fellow travellers, we found a very nice American couple to share the shuttle with and one of the most memorable conversations of the journey.

Day 6: 

Supposedly, there is a direct ferry from Ometepe to Granada on some days of the week. We were not so lucky and took the ferry back to Rivas. From there we actually took a taxi to Granada, because we were sick of crowded spaces, but to save money it is easy to just take an express bus from Rivas. In Granada we stayed at Oasis Backpacker Hostel, a laid-back cozy space with hammocks lining the courtyard and an inside pool. Unfortunately, there was no time to relax. Instead we went sightseeing in this beautiful colonial town.

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Catedral de Granada

The churches are all worth a visit but especially Iglesia La Merced will take your breath away with its splendid view from the top of the stairs leading up to the entrance. In the evening Granada turns into a bustling gastronomical hub. You can really get your foodie on. Some of my favourite spots were “El Pizzaiol” with some of the best hummus I ever had, “The Garden Café” serving tasty juices and “Imagine”, a bar dedicated to John Lennon. Tip: If you need to get cheaper food just give the Mercado Municipal a visit and try the fresh fruits offered here. A Pali (the local supermarket) is also around the corner from there.

Day 7:

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La Laguna de Apoyo

Have you ever dreamed of swimming in a volcano? No, you’re not crazy, right?! Well, I did it and let me tell you, it was quite surreal. I’m talking about Laguna de Apoyo, a lake inside an extinct volcano. So no horrible lava scenarios. We spent a whole day there, most of the hostels in Granada offer a shuttle. Tip: Bring your own food and drinks, the restaurants around the lake are quite expensive.

Day 8: 

This is where I have to confess that we have been unbelievably lucky. My friend, who had actually volunteered at a hostel in San Juan del Sur, knew someone whose family owns a coffee farm in the mountains surrounding Matagalpa. He took us on a tour of the Hacienda San Rafael and to his uncle’s place, which was basically a cowboy farm.

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Mountain air

The beauty of those mountains, the aromas in the air there, the outstanding hospitality of the family are things I will never forget and that have made our journey through Nicaragua all the more special. When you sit on a veranda of a ranch in the middle of nowhere in Central America and hear the horses whinny, you finally understand the meaning of life…as a cowboy. I know that it is quite a long trip to these mountains but it is definitely worth it, so please don’t miss out on it.

Day 9:

After a Nica breakfast at the farm, we drove down to Matagalpa and spent the day there. It is not as conventionally pretty as Granada but it is mired in history, which you should read up on before you come here, especially the Sandinista movement. Tip: A great book about that era is Salman Rushdie’s “The Jaguar Smile”. Matagalpa is a very colourful town with some nice spots to eat and party. Try out El Palacio de los Batidos, they make some crazy blends of fresh fruit and vegetables. La Buena Onda, the Hostel that we stayed at, was the only one that we did not really feel comfortable in.

Day 10:

On the way back from Matagalpa to Managua we admired the landscape one last time before returning to the big city. In the capital we stayed at a bed and breakfast close to the airport. Our last activity was the Mercado Oriental which is a great place to buy cheap souvenirs and observe sleeping Nicaraguans who are supposed to work. A last(ing) impression of the Nica way of life.

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The national sport: Sleeping while working.

 

The Land of Ice and Fire

or: “We almost died and I still love this country.”

First published on Cafébabel Aarhus.

I can assure you, we did not travel to Westeros to marvel at the utter massiveness of the Wall, nor did we drive to the edge of the Flint Cliffs, near the Iron Islands, to gaze at the Sunset Sea. So, why do these amazing photos look exactly like those places, you may ask. Because we have travelled to a land of sheer beauty, breath-taking landscapes and biting cold. We are not characters out of George R. R. Martin’s novels (I would be Tyrion), but journalism students from many corners of this planet we call earth and we have decided that Aarhus, Denmark was not cold enough – no, we needed to experience a “Game of Thrones”-like cold. And being frozen to the bones and still happy about it…well, I would make a strong argument that is only possible in Iceland. Seven days, five friends, one Peugeot 108, zero legroom. We were in for an adventure.

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Peugeot for 5 by Teresa Weikmann

 

Snæfellsnes peninsula

Driving through this country you are constantly reminded of movies and books. I can’t count how many times I yelled out: “Guys, this looks exactly like that scene when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli arrive in Rohan” – much to the annoyance of my own fellowship. Of course, this stems from the fact that many authors have been inspired by Iceland’s landscape, which is infused by old legends and sagas. Jules Verne even made one of the volcanoes – the Snæfellsjökull – the starting point for his adventure tale “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. And that is exactly why it was also our first stop. The peninsula Snæfellsnes has not been called “Iceland in Miniature” for nothing. It compiles all of the major sightseeing spots Iceland has to offer in one strip of land: rugged cliffs, windy beaches, quaint villages and a volcano. Major plus point on top is, how easily it can be reached from the capital Reykjavík.

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The Cliffs at Hellnar by Teresa Weikmann

Here you can really get lost in the raw magnificence of the countryside, looking at long stretches of lava debris which suddenly turn into massive mountain passes covered by snow and as soon as you have passed those, you suddenly drive down into a valley of green pasture, always in the direction of the wild sea. The cliffs between Arnarstapi and Hellnar seem tucked away under the grasslands leading up to the North Atlantic, but you only need to drive close enough to the edge and then you will see them. Preferably, to the soundtrack of Damien Rice’s “The Blower’s Daughter” as we have done – goose bumps are guaranteed. On the way back you should definitely take a detour to see Stykkishólmur, a village that is repeatedly shown in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. Getting out of the car in this colourful but forlorn place seemed like we had stepped onto the end of the earth. And it is a lot of fun, watching the movie when you are back home and seeing those places you have been to.

Golden Circle

Another must-do in Iceland is the quite touristy Golden Circle. The most impressive here was the Gullfoss Waterfall, the golden waterfall. Though in winter it looked more like the frozen waterfall. I have never seen this many shades of white and blue and I have never been this afraid of walking on a common tourist trail. I saw so many people fall on the ice, it almost wasn’t funny anymore. 

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Gullfoss Waterfall by Teresa Weikmann

Thingvellir, an earlier stop on the circle, also stuck with me. The canyon there marks the place where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge lies, separating the Eurasian and the North American Plate – or as some American tourist pointed out to us: Europe AND the U.S. in under five minutes…bucket list completed, am I right? Driving through the snowy vastness of the Thingvellir National Park you should put Sigur Rós on repeat and just try to take it all in. What rather disappointed me was the Geysir. It did not erupt. Of course, Strokkur, the fountain geyser right next to it, erupts every ten minutes or so. Still I was not impressed due to the closeness of the actual Geysir. The geothermal area in itself though looks straight out of a fantasy novel, while smelling a bit peculiar. All in all the Golden Circle is worth the drive, just be prepared for actually encountering other human beings.

Reykjavík

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Hallgrímskirkja by Teresa Weikmann

The northern most capital in the world is smaller than my hometown, even smaller than Aarhus. With its small colourful houses, the old harbour, its many cafés and the Hallgrímskirkja it is definitely worth a daytime visit. But it is most alive when it gets dark. Then, it suddenly turns into a thriving and bustling town, full of opportunities – to drink rather expensive beer, have a hazy conversation with a crazy Icelander or dance until the sun comes up. We had a lot of fun in a gay bar called Kiki, where the music was fantastic and the people some of the most open I have met in Scandinavia (of course, this could lead to a whole discussion on whether or not Iceland is actually part of Scandinavia – just for argument’s sake I say it is). Please, don’t miss out on a night of partying in Reykjavík, even if it seems really expensive to get drunk here. Make a game out of getting drinks without paying, which is always fun.

Northern Lights

We got stuck in the snow in the middle of the night, we were almost blown away by the force of the wind, we lost our way in the dark and we tripped over a lot – all in the name of chasing the aurora borealis. We were very lucky and saw the polar lights twice in one week. On the very first night and on our last night. It was like aurora decided to welcome us and bid us farewell, magic on an entirely new level. The first night we just started driving away from the city into the dark, got lost on the way and ended up being stuck because our car was just too tiny for all the snow. Pushing a Peugeot out of a pit in the middle of the night with an ice-cold wind blowing in your face sounds like pure horror, but it wasn’t.

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Gazing at Aurora by Teresa Weikmann

 

And when on our last night, which we spent at Keflavík airport (not a good idea, google it!), one of our friends discovered that the northern lights were visible just a few minutes from the airport, we started running. With all of our luggage we hurried across the snow-covered grounds, always towards the darkness. And then when you finally see the green light, out of breath and bruised from slipping and falling on the ice, it is the most indescribable feeling of triumph and wonder. A fitting end to an amazing trip.

Travel Tips

  • From Aarhus we took the bus to Copenhagen airport. From there, WOW air offers the cheapest flights to Keflavík airport.
  • We booked a Peugeot 108 with a Toyota engine at Green Motion, which by itself was an amazing car, but in Iceland you really should invest in a bigger car, preferably with a four wheel drive. Also: use every gas station available, in some areas they are quite a rare sight.
  • When you are as many people as we were, it definitely pays off to look at the Air BnB listings, although the hostels in Reykjavík also offer reasonable prices. What you should take into consideration is the time you spend driving in and out of the city, is it really necessary to stay inside the center or will you spend most of your time on the road anyway?
  • For a half-day trip from Reykjavík drive south towards Selfoss and continue onto Stokkseyri. These are some enchanting villages with the famous black sand beaches that even look amazing during winter. 

The Wegeners – Love or Friendship?

First published on Cafébabel AarhusAlso, read my review of “The Danish Girl” here.

This is the true story of the Danish painter Wegener. No, not Einar Wegener, more famously known as Lili Elbe – or these days as “The Danish Girl”. It is rather the story of the wife Gerda Wegener, played by Alicia Vikander in the recent Hollywood movie. Although Vikander plays her role superbly and has deservedly won an Oscar for it, she has not portrayed Gerda rightfully. Of course that is not her fault – an actor’s performance is only the product of the script they work with. “The Danish Girl” is based on a fictionalised novel by David Ebershoff, narrating Lili Elbe’s journey to self-discovery in a highly altered manner from the real events, as described in Elbe’s autobiography “Man into Woman”. Naturally, her story has touched many around the world, even more so with the movie out. Einar Wegener is celebrated as one of the first people to actively try to change their physical appearance to match their inner conviction of who they are. When Einar realised that he had always been Lili and stopped fighting against this fact, Gerda was the one supporting her spouse without hesitation. So who was this woman, fearlessly leaving her house at the turn of the century, with her husband dressed as a woman. In artistic circles it might have been easier to overcome prejudices and be who you want to be, but still the 1920’s in Denmark were only the beginning of a long fight for gender equality. So how come that the Wegeners lived their truths so openly and unashamed? They certainly are an example to follow. 

Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb was born in 1886 and grew up close to the city of Grenaa, on the east coast of Jutland. Her talent was discovered at an early age and soon she moved to Copenhagen to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. There she met Einar Wegener, already successfully working as a landscape painter. The two got married in 1904, when Gerda was only 18 years old and Einar 22. Gerda suddenly was part of the thriving arts society in the Danish capital. Her husband was widely celebrated as one the best Danish landscape painters of his time, while her works of erotic art were mainly frowned upon and criticized.

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Gerda Wegener’s erotic art during the 1920’s

 

She only began to accumulate more appreciation after her studies and mainly outside of Denmark. The rather conservative Danish society at the beginning of the 20th century found it hard to see a woman declare her sexuality so openly. Not only as an artist but also as a woman, Gerda was ahead of her time. That is probably why the couple started travelling extensively and finally ended up in Paris, where Gerda found her much deserved success. The années folles in the city of light gave them the freedom to discover themselves as artists, public figures and even as a married couple. Einar actually supported Gerda’s success by sitting for her as a model. Her portraits of Lili are, until this day, her most revered works and the art world was shocked, provoked, even excited to find out in 1913 that Einar was actually the girl in those paintings. He dialled back on his own achievements to focus on his wife. Their bohemian lifestyle was accepted, if not celebrated, in France’s capital and for a time they were happy there. 

“Once one has found Paris, one cannot imagine living anywhere else. Although I love Italy, when I return and smell Paris, then I am happy.” 

– Gerda Wegener, 1924

This changed when Einar discovered that he could become Lili permanently. In 1930 he went to Germany and was one of the first medical cases to have a sex reassignment surgery performed on them.

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Photo Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Lili Ilse Elvenes was born. Not an artist anymore, but one of the first transgender women to have survived the transitioning surgery. Later that year the Danish king Christian X. dissolved the marriage between Gerda and Lili, as they were no longer husband and wife. Both found new partners. Lili started a relationship with a French art dealer, whom she wanted to marry and have children with. At this point she was already 48 years old. The wish to carry children must have been impossible to overcome, so Lili once again contemplated surgery, this time a uterus transplant. In 1931 Lili Elbe died, following the progressive high-risk surgery. Gerda remarried that same year and went to live in Morocco. Her second marriage did not last long and she returned to Denmark in 1938 almost penniless and with her artwork out of style. Two years later she was also dead, only aged 54. 

So what was it that kept Gerda and Lili together for so long? The movie seems to have the answer. There, Gerda Wegener is depicted as a woman that would do anything for her husband out of unconditional love. In reality, she was supporting Einar to become Lili just as he was supporting her with her unusual art. Theirs was probably a marriage of convenience. It is widely speculated that Gerda was at least bisexual due to her depiction of lesbian lovers in many of her drawings. And why would it not have been a union of practicality? They were a good team, supported each other through highs and lows of their respective careers, through personal life choices and created a space of unconstraint for each other. Who is to say whether they loved each other romantically, but they definitely did love each other. And isn’t this the ultimate of friendship goals, as we like to call it today. Gerda Wegener was a woman of utmost talent and vision, unafraid to live her truth and support her loved ones unconditionally. Certainly someone to be admired, just as much as her spouse. 

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“Sur la route d’Anacapri” – Gerda Wegener, 1922

Until May 16th of 2016, The Arken Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen displays one of the biggest exhibitions of Gerda Wegener’s work up to this date. 

Review: “The Danish Girl”

This review is part of the collected movie reviews for all of the nominees of the 88th Academy Awards. At least the ones I am able to watch. It will be a useful guide for the Oscars, summing up what you need to know about the films, the actors and even the odd bit of trivia. Have fun reading and stay awake for the Oscars 2016.

“The Danish Girl” is the transitionary story of celebrated painter Einar Wegener into the woman Lili Elbe. Depicted is his realization that he was born into the wrong body and his then life-long struggle to become a woman and eventually be able to bear children. The movie is not quite true to the actual story behind it, yet it carries an important message of self-acceptance and the power of unconditional love.

Deservedly, this movie is nominated for four Academy Awards:

  • Best Actor – Eddie Redmayne
  • Best Supporting Actress – Alicia Vikander
  • Best Production Design
  • Best Costume Design

The_Danish_Girl_(film)_posterOnce again, Eddie Redmayne has proven his extraordinary talent to the rest of us mere mortals. After having won the Oscar last year for his stellar performance of a young Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” it is no surprise that his winning streak might continue after watching this film. The transition of Einar Wegener into Lili Elbe is so subtle that as an audience member it is quite hard to detect the moment that he fully becomes a woman. In retrospect it seems that he has always known who he was, “she” in fact. Lili is inside Einar and has bubbled up since early childhood as we find out during the movie. As a painter Einar has become a popular character in Copenhagen of the 1920’s, living and working happily together with his artist wife Gerda Wegener. And this is the really captivating part of the movie. The continuing story of love and support between Einar and Gerda and later Gerda and Lili. Although this storyline is not true to the actual events – as I have found out after watching the movie – it does give the viewer an important look at how such a transition could and should be handled between two people.

Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener is luminous. She perfectly displays the delicate awakening to her husband not being who she thought he was. At first it is hard for her to understand the reoccurring appearances of Lili, especially when Lili starts a sort of relationship with another man. There is a powerful scene here, where Einar declares that he is not able to control Lili and for the first time it becomes obvious, that his urge to be a woman is rooted very deep and is in no way related to his love for his wife. Because he does love her but cannot change how he feels. Later on, when they have moved to Paris – where Gerda’s career as a professional painter picks up – Lili takes over and there is a scene where Gerda asks to talk to her husband and Lili explains that Einar is not there anymore. Sometimes these scenes are difficult to interpret. Why did Einar create Lili? Is it a way of separating his life as a man from his wish to be a woman? Or was Lili always there and Einar is in fact a facade to keep up appearances? Watching the process of Lili taking over is fascinating. She suddenly seems to have been the “true Einar” all along. What stuck with me was the way Gerda comes to support her husband. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when Gerda and Einar finally find a doctor that is actually willing to help. Here, Gerda finally fully admits that she believes her husband to be a woman trapped inside the body of a man. And from that moment on she supports Lili in her quest to change her body. Lili Elbe really was one of the first transgender people in history to be operated on. In real life Lili dies because of a failed operation trying to implant a uterus. She desperately wanted to be able to have children. Once more she was ahead of her time. I will not spoiler what happens in the movie, but especially the last scenes are beautifully shot. The cinematography in general is breathtaking.

Finally, the Production and Costume Design have both rightfully been nominated. Especially the costumes are wonderfully done. As Einar, Redmayne already has a touch of femininity in his air and his clothes definitely accentuate this although being men’s wear. The transition to Lili then is of course mostly underlined by the change of clothing. MV5BMTg2NTc0MDU5Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzcwMzkyNzE@._V1__SX1170_SY685_And also here it is visible how subtly this picture achieves the process of changing Einar into Lili. What struck me also, were the paintings Gerda created of Lili – the main reason Gerda became a known painter. These were accurately done, all according to the style of the real Gerda Wegener.

I believe that this movie – although it is not entirely true to the real story of Lili Elbe – is an important contribution to the education about transgender people and reminds us of the important fact that in the end we are all just human beings, trying to live our own truths. The most important thing is that our loved ones support us, no matter what, and that we in turn also give our support. Please watch this gem of a movie. But make sure to read up on the real-life fascinating Lili Elbe.

On a side note: I have fallen utterly in love with Matthias Schoenaerts. A brilliant Belgian actor. Please watch him in “Far from the Madding Crowd”! Superb film adaption of the Thomas Hardy novel.