I arrive in Berlin at Ostbahnhof, from where I catch the train to Alexanderplatz. They are ready for Christmas in the heart of the square, the wooden market stalls clustered on the wide expanse of concrete. Smoke and steam rises and the crowds stream and warm along the paths of an imagined village attempting to return the visitors to some mythological past on the very site where the leaders of a regime attempted to create a new mythology for the future. Is that what I think, looking down on the scene? Not really. Instead I think, like the people do, of a sausage and some glühwein, distracted by the bright lights of the department store, ushering in those of us who are searching for the perfect gift.
No shopping today – I am not sure who I would buy for – and so I walk away, towards Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße. It is darker here, just the street lights and their reflection in the damp pavement. Soon, at some point in the future, there will be fashion stores and burritos that will be exported to Wittenbergplatz, but not yet. Just the old Kneipe with the wooden benches outside and a cavernous kebab shop built by an investor who was ahead of his time. I wonder if, in years from now, he walks the Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße and regrets calling it quits. If he had only hung on a year or so longer…
Tomorrow morning we fly to the United States for a two week trip to two very different corners of the country; first to Orlando, Florida, and then on to Amherst, Massachusetts. It will be the first time I have set foot in the United States of America, although I have gazed across at it through the spray and the mist of Niagara Falls, and as with our journey to Paris last year, I am intrigued to see how this country that has played such a massive role in my own cultural life will live up to my expectations. Even more so than for the French capital, I think that it is an impossible task, as no other country lives so strongly in my imagination despite the fact I have never even been there. I cannot be the only one for, if you live in the west especially, American culture has been ever-present in our lives for the best part of a century.
In preparation for our trip I was looking through our bookshelves for something to read on the flight across the Atlantic, and I was struck by the number of books – and not just any books, but those formative books that shape your ideas and expectations – by American authors. However good certain books might be now, if I re-read them, they remain important to me because of the how and the when I first discovered them. Junky and Queer by William Burroughs, two slender volumes discovered on the shelves of Runshaw College library in my first year of Sixth Form. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, both bought at Manchester Airport on the way to Canada at the age of eighteen. Another Country, Giovanni’s Room and Notes of a Native Son, all part of a James Baldwin collection given to me by my dad during the first year of university and opened in the vast, cavernous hall of the Parkinson Building at Leeds.
We want to get home, to our attic apartment and the Christmas tree, but as we leave our friends’ house in Leipzig the snow that has been falling since early morning is coming down ever heavier, and at the tram stop the electronic board keeps shifting, first five minutes, then six, then four, then six again, and it is only when we see two headlights appear through the near-blizzard that we are sure we will even make it to the train station. The tram itself is packed and steaming, a wet dog smell and slush rapidly melting at our feet, and it creeps forward through a city where visibility is down to a couple of metres. Finally the station appears, looming above us, and we brave the crowds and the gathering of smokers who stand, huddled around the warmth of their glowing cigarette tips, towards the platforms and the slow train north to Berlin.
Sonic Iceland is the story of a journey by Marcel Krüger and Kai Müller to discover the music of a country. They collected interviews, pictures and notebooks filled with texts, which became the basis for a website and what will be a book. Here is Chapter 0 – the short introduction for how the idea for Sonic Iceland was conceived.
It’s a cold and miserable winter morning in Cologne, and I am grumpy. It is the day after Boxing Day 2009, and in recent years Christmas has not been a good time for me, so I don’t feel very motivated as I walk up the stairs of the subway station in Ehrenfeld and towards the Weltempfänger-Café. I’m supposed to meet my friend and former housemate Kai, who is planning to visit Iceland. He wants to create some kind of documentary about Icelandic music, and has asked me to join his project. I have no idea of what this whole thing is going to look like, but besides my holiday-grumpiness I’m stoked about the idea of combining a visit to one of my favourite travel destinations with good music. I enter the café, and as I see Kai, beaming and sitting beneath a large map of the world, my mood lifts even higher. After a short shake-hands and catch-up (he lives in Cologne and I in Ireland), we set to work.
Kai and I have been fascinated by Icelandic music for a long time. It was always surprising how many different sounds and styles such a tiny nation produces, compared to Germany, for example. Plus we have watched the “Heima”-movie of Sigur Rós once too often. So the idea for Sonic Iceland was born: to go and talk to the Icelandic musicians in their natural habitat, record the interviews and document this with pictures and text. We set up a blog and started talking to people to help us get to Iceland.
By Matt Lancashire:
In many ways, New Hampshire was the most libertarian place I have ever visited. The hints started as soon as you drive over the state line, past the sign saying “Welcome Bienvenue / New Hampshire / Live Free or Die”. The confrontational choice of slogan certainly reflects the seriousness of the sentiment for the state. Before long, there was another sign: “N.H. LAW / BUCKLE UP UNDER AGE 18”. The inverse implication that you don’t have to wear a seatbelt if you’ve survived your first 18 years took a moment to settle in. Before long, another official road sign appears, advertising that the next service station doubles up as a “state liquor store”, which a more meddlesome local government might consider a poor combination.
By Matt Lancashire:
Maine is not one of the more obvious destinations in the US for the European traveller, even though the state slogan repeated on local car licence plates is simply “Vacationland”. However, I found myself there last month to visit a friend, and was startled at how much the area appealed to me. To most people who have any thoughts on the matter, the word Maine appears to conjure images of lighthouses, lobsters, and moose. The state feels to align itself into two camps along these lines, between the sea and the woods, or fishermen and hunters. The locals are stereotypically hardworking, stoic, and raised in close contact with nature. They have a consciousness that they’re stuck out on a limb at the very eastern edge of the country, and you suspect they probably wouldn’t want to have much more to do with everyone else anyway. Slightly aloof, they make a point of distinguishing between those born and raised in the state and everyone else, who will forever be described as From Away, and cannot hope to be considered a Mainer. While I found a definite grain of truth in this reputation, it seemed that if you are just open and show your own true colours, everyone will get along famously.
…but hello to Berlin and the return of Under a Grey Sky. We hope that there will be lots of other wonderful tales of adventures beyond the front door to come as normal service is resumed.
On the final morning in Sweden we were sitting by a lake somewhere in the south of the country, at a campsite we had discovered the previous evening once we had reached over halfway in our journey between Stockholm and our ferry port at Trelleborg. It was a beautiful and quiet spot, a basic camp site with just a few pitches for caravans and those monster mobile homes, and a reception that doubled up as a kiosk for the mini golf. No-one was playing in the morning, as most of the nearby town were at school or work and the campers were still having breakfast on the grass or the balcony of their mobile home.
I opened my notebook to jot down some thoughts and I was struck by how little I had written during the three and half weeks in Sweden. Perhaps it was because I knew that I would be coming here once we returned to Berlin, to write about the different places and experiences on Under a Grey Sky so there was no need to commit any thoughts to paper. In any case, over the next few weeks there will be a number of different posts about our time in Sweden, plus other interesting things that have been collected and submitted whilst I was away.
This will be the last article on Under a Grey Sky for four weeks, as we close up the shutters for our summer holiday. When we started back in the dead time between Christmas and New Year, I wasn’t sure how far or how long we would go. I knew that I would need support, both from readers and contributors in order to create the type of website that I was aiming for. I wanted Under a Grey Sky to be collaborative project, and eight months on when I look down the list of contributors and have a read through the archives, I think that we have achieved this.
I am hoping that by the time we open things up for business once more, the Grey Sky inbox will be filled with words and pictures from the diverse and dispersed group of friends around the world. And hopefully Katrin and I will have our own stories to tell from our journey north to Sweden. It is exciting, because for the first time since our daughter was born we are camping during the drive to a small house on the edge of a forest, and as with our trip to Paris via Saarbrücken earlier in the year, the journey is once again part of the excitement of the trip, not just the destination.
A journey to Scotland, by Sheila Scraton:
It all began with one of ‘those conversations’. “If you could have a holiday this April anywhere in the world where would you go?” Well, having thought of Cuba, Costa Rica and other destinations that have always been on my wish list, I suddenly said “ Well, taking all things into consideration, what I’ve always wanted to do is rent a van and go to Scotland!” So, with partner in agreement the planning began and just before Easter we set off to pick up our rented vehicle in a little village called Saline, near Dunfermline, Scotland. Early April is always a weather risk in the UK but we were given great confidence by the unseasonable heat wave that hit Britain in March. However, as we packed to move north, snow was forecast with weather warnings reverberating around our ears. I’m sure all who know us were saying, “A camper van in April in Scotland – you must be mad!”
We had decided to focus on the Ardnamurchan peninsular containing the most westerly point of the British mainland. Ardnamurchan (Áird nam Murchan, headland of the great seas) is one of the most stunning and remote parts of the Scottish coast. I have always loved the west coast of Scotland, walking and climbing in the Cairngorms, Torridons, Glencoe, Skye, Kintail. It just feels so special with dramatic, rugged mountains rising up straight from lochs and the sea, inspiring feelings of remoteness and majesty.
(above: Camp above the incomparable machair and beaches of west Harris, photo: Brian Wilson)
Alone in his tiny kayak, Brian Wilson set off on an 1800-mile adventure around Scotland’s grand cliffscapes, unspoiled shorelines, fearsome sea passages and Hebridean islands. The story of this journey is told in Blazing Paddles: A Scottish Coastal Odyssey, published by our friends at Two Ravens Press. With their kind permission we publish this extract:
Independently of archive and history text, the tradition of Hebridean hospitality has happily retained living substance, so that soon after approaching the little croft at the head of the bay with my request for a gallon of water I was seated by the fire at the kitchen table of Mrs Catherine Ross.
Her ‘You’ll be staying for a cup of tea’ was more of a forceful suggestion than a statement of ‘second sight’, but Hebridean ‘tea’ equally deserves a place in immortal folklore and is not to be missed, for the reference of the word is far wider than on the mainland. Within minutes I was tucking into homemade scones, oatcakes and several mugs of strong, hot brew under the jealous gaze of Bobbie the labrador, who could apparently see no reason why such service was denied to him.
The homely chat and kitchen warmth began to make me drowsy and I was concerned that the kayak should be hauled securely above the incoming tide; but I was only able to leave that croft by accepting a bag of fresh scones and butter and promising to let Mrs Ross know when my journey was safely completed, for until that time she would not sleep for worry. ‘It’s a good thing you’re not married – and it’s sorry I am for your poor mother!’ Smiling, I made my way back to the tent, my hands warmed by the scones only slightly less than her kindness had warmed my heart; but it was not ‘kindness’ that I ate so gratefully for breakfast next morning.
Outside the shelter of Loch Finsbay a heavy swell began to trouble me as I headed towards Renish Point, the southern tip of Harris. An increasing south-easterly from the Minch, and decreasing visibility, made the five-mile journey to Rodel a hard push and by the time I reached the shelter of the small harbour my lungs were heaving. Continue reading