kat in giro

an american living abroad

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comparisons: view coming out of the metro in frankfurt & rome

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the first moments in a new place…

So, I don’t speak German. Perhaps I should start there. Like, I don’t speak any. 

Which constitutes quite a big change, in itself, from living in Italy previously, apart from all the cultural differences. I hadn’t realized I guess how much I had adjusted to Italian culture, even though it still felt “foreign” to me and I don’t think I changed myself to fit into it, necessarily. But you get used to being able to understand the other people on the bus, what people are complaining about and why, that this or that gesture means someone is speaking ironically. 

To go from that back to square one, “terra incognita,” is quite a difference. Yet at the same time, there are many more people here speaking English everywhere, and not just tourists, but a large expatriate community. There are also lots of people speaking Italian, Spanish, French, Turkish, on the street. There are a lot of little subtle things that remind me of New York, probably exactly because we have had such a German influence in the past. So these things feel familiar, though they are a slightly different version always. 

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Main-hattan, or so they sometimes jokingly call the skyline of Frankfurt-Am-Main

A simplistic, but quickly visible example is the street food. Most of what we consider “American food” actually has German origins of course: hot dogs, hamburgers, the big NY pretzels they sell on street corners from little carts. Here in Germany the pretzels are a slightly different shape and consistency, and you can get them not just with big chunks of sea salt, but poppy or sesame seeds as well. Hot dogs come in a variety of different types, sizes, shapes (the extra-long skinny ones are folded in half when served in a bun) and are tucked into a rounder, smaller bun. The overall culture of street foot is familiar though — it’s acceptable, whereas in Italy and Spain it’s usually considered rude to be eating on the street, unless it’s gelato, or in some cases pizza al taglio, folded and served like a sandwich to be taken on the go. I think even this is a recent adaptation however. 

Anyway, the first few days in a new place, I find myself cataloguing mentally all these little things, some of them trivial, superficial, others which become the clues to interesting, relevant cultural differences. It’s tiring, the first few weeks, just being somewhere foreign. “Like how standing in a museum is exhausting, even though you’re not really doing anything,” my mom described it. There’s so much input, sights and sounds and your own memories and associations coming back, and just taking it in can be like a job. 

Nevermind looking for an apartment in a country where you don’t speak the language, hoping to find other young foreigners with whom you’ll at least be able to communicate. At least there’s one concrete worry ticked off the list, when your work visa is finally officially approved, and it’s just a matter of continuing to wait while it’s sent here and then there and then back again. 

But the great thing about getting started in a new place, is how it’s actually sort of simple — just taking it one day at a time. A clear head, a beginning.

a different take on new & old architecture in frankfurt

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This is the first view you’ll get of Frankfurt as you step out of the central train station, the “Hauptbahnhof,” and it pretty much sums up my initial impression of the city, at least in terms of its physicality, its architecture. There’s a mix and a contrast of an old European city, with low-level buildings, in a classic style with decorative facades (some original and a lot rebuilt and abbreviated/modernized in style) — and the city’s 17 or so skyscrapers, mostly in an ultra-modern mirror-like style.

Frankfurt is the home to the European Central Bank (possible that tower in the back to the right) as well as a large stock exchange and financial sector, which accounts for the huge office buildings, commonplace in many parts of the US but an anomaly here in Europe — particularly “foreign” to cities like Paris or Rome which are justifiably concerned with keeping their historic character. To get ahead of myself, this aspect of the city’s economy also accounts for its prosperity as a small city, and it’s vibrant scene of small modern restaurants and myriad of lunch types of places and “happy hour” bars and cafes, another big difference from my last experience in Rome. 

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The facades of some old buildings, reflected in the modern European Central Bank.

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Frankfurt was bombed heavily during World War II and a lot of the architecture was destroyed — particularly in the large original Medieval neighborhood near the central “Rom” square and the cathedral (not pictured). All except one I believe of these medieval-style houses that you can see today are re-creations (“You can tell because all the lines are actually straight!” as someone pointed out to me), as was the famous landmark of the Alte Oper (operahouse), which is seen below. It was destroyed and this one was built replicating the original in the 1970s.

Above you can see how a lot of the rest of the city coped with the destruction: what appears to be a building half-destroyed in the war, with the left in the original style, and the right half built with a nod to the old architectural elements, but unabashedly modern.

Personally I really like this idea — the destruction of war is obviously an awful thing, but it has also given Frankfurt an opportunity that many European cities like Rome don’t let themselves take, to carve out a new 20th and 21st century identity, looking solely forward. New buildings that break with old styles are not aberrations to be debated by the city and inevitably hated by half the citizens, but they are an inevitability. 

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The small number of towers, loosely spaced around the center of the city, lets you actually get a look at them as well, unlike in a place like New York where it’s a tourist move (and a quite literal pain in the neck) to look up and try to get a sense of the scale of the buildings. The center also has a large amount of green space to help you breathe a little oxygen, the result of an interesting twist of history that I will write about soon!

So this is a first little look at Frankfurt, as I am still finding my footing in the city myself. I know of course, and have no illusions, that it is not a city with the grandeur of Rome, but I am quite looking forward to what it will have in store for me, in part because it is so vastly different from what I’ve seen before. 

a bit of a change…

Since my last post, about a month ago now, I have actually had the opportunity to move for a new job. So I find myself now in Frankfurt, Germany, once again back at square one in terms of having no idea what the people around me are saying! A little bit overwhelming, but also quite an adventure so far…

I still have a lot of pictures and stories of day trips and so on in Italy, so I’ll continue to post about Rome as well as my new life here, as well I’m sure of the many comparisons I will find between the two. I’m also going to keep working on a “city guide” for Rome, which you can find in the right column over there.

Thank you for continuing along the journey with me! Now I’ve got to get back to searching for apartments in a language I don’t know, and the rather less exciting activity of waiting for my work visa to go through (involves a lot of crossing fingers). 

gagosian gallery: made in italy

Though I have been here for a while, I am still very American when it comes to certain things. One of them is that I leap at the chance to see any modern or contemporary art, particularly by non-Italian artists, here — while for most Italians “art” is synonimous with all their amazing Renaissance and Baroque paintings and there’s no point arguing that it can get better or more interesting than that. Alright, agree to disagree. 

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Therefore I was very quick when I got here to Rome to get on the email list of places like the Gagosian Gallery to hear when they have new shows, check out the alternative bookstores that advertise contemporary and international art exhibits and performances, as well as cultural centers that have film screenings, lectures, book readings and so on. The Gagosian Gallery is of course an institution I know from New York, where they have three locations both uptown and in Chelsea, and which hosts a lot of fantastically curated shows, which I was able to become familiar with when in another lifetime I worked in a small private gallery in NYC. 

I have been to several other openings at the gallery in Rome in the months I’ve been here, some being better than others. A highlight was a Takashi Murakami show of two immense murals of dragons back in the fall, and well I won’t go into any lowlights. This current exhibit was titled "Made in Italy" and is a group show of over a dozen international artists of the past century, each with a work tied to Italy in some way, in celebration of 150 years of Italy as a unified country (yes, they are technically even younger than us Americans in terms of statehood!). 

The entryway (above) included a Cindy Sherman self-portrait as Caravaggio’s Bacchus, a Richard Prince illustration over a lithograth of a Roman statue (Venere del Canova), and busts by Giacometti and Jeff Koons

Please excuse my awful quality iPhone photos — anyway I suppose I was trying to catch the ambience more than anything. I’ve tried to link to as much of the art as possible if you’d like a better look at anything. 

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A lot of people came out for the opening: Elegantly dressed older people who were quite familiar with the pop art pieces from their own youth, or in some cases more familiar with the original Roman or Italian art that they are based on. (Roy Lichtenstein’s series of studies of Laocoon, above.) There were also of course younger people, some drawn most to the contemporary, purely conceptual pieces, others looking at the “classics” with the eyes of those who still study them as the epitome of the history of art. 

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A juxtaposition of Andy Warhol’s Mona Lisa lithographs, and to the left two versions of Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.”, a tourist postcard print of the Mona Lisa with a mustache drawn on. The title, of course, has the double meaning of “look” in English, and read aloud in French it sounds like “elle a chaud au cul”, which I will leave to the franco-parlanti to understand! Oddly enough, I personally found that I associate the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) more with France than with Italy, because it is at the Louvre I suppose.

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One of the things that I really liked about the show was that there were so many different artists, with completely unrelated styles and subject matters, all just loosely tethered to the idea of Italy. An abstract painting, and a large scale aerial photograph of beaches, and a display of dozens of fish preserved in formaldehyde don’t have very much to do with each other, sitting one by one along the wall, but it’s sort of nice that each piece really gave you something completely new to think about, unlike thematic or stylistic shows where you can sort of go on autopilot from one painting to the next.

Everything was tied to Italy in some way — though sometimes exactly how was precisely what made you think — and it was a truly diverse show. Italy today can be sometimes a country with a bit of an identity crisis, too much of their perceived cultural value lying so far in the past (at least in the eyes of many of the Italians I know) so to see so many of the associations the country and its culture have for artists around the world, all in one room, had a very positive message to it.

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The Gagosian Gallery in Rome can be found at: Via Francesco Crispi, 16. 

And of course online: Gagosian Gallery 

blending the old and new in italian palazzi

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I try to see as many art and design exhibits as I can here in Italy in small galleries and palazzi (old buildings build for aristocratic families in centuries past), because I am often disappointed by the larger museums. A great post on another blog about the incorporation of contemporary art into chateaus in France made me think about one of the aspects of these small galleries that I like the most — the perfect eye that curators and exhibit designers often bring to mixing and contrasting the old, history-laden spaces with new art, new creativity, and a hyper-modern way of presenting it. I always find that the shows I like the least are those that try to stay all historical, or all contemporary. Neither exists without the other, and a country like Italy or France has a unique ability to incorporate this into exhibits that galleries in the US unfortunately do not. 

One of the best examples of this I’ve seen was an exhibit held for just two days in Milan’s Palazzo Marino last year by Dolce & Gabbana to celebrate 20 years of their menswear collections. Elegant rooms with painted and sculpted ceilings, frescoes and portraits and marble covering every inch, were filled with slick chrome and glass walls, multimedia displays flashing through their history in images and quotes, as well as interactive photo galleries and huge books to flip through everywhere. The exhibit celebrated Dolce & Gabbana, their cutting edge style and quality of craft, but framed this perfectly in the context of the many centuries that Italy has been at the greatest heights of art and design and embellished details, renowned for its tradition of valuing beauty. 

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Embedded in plexiglass around the halls were dozens of iPads for flipping through the image galleries at your own pace. 

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The old, delicate details of the old palazzo were also contrasted by rough, mismatched wood used in these book stands. 

My favorite detail of the exhibit though was how they very literally brought the nostalgia of craftsmanship together with modernity: in a side room a tailor sat on a very slowly turning platform, working on finishing a hem or buttonhole or other details, as people passed through and watched. Next to him on a little table a radio played those classic, instantly recognizable Italian songs from the 50s and 60s, and around the room were finished tuxedo jackets on mannequins, patterns pinned up, all the accoutrements of a classic tailor’s shop. Something you can still see in fact if you happen to pass by an open sartoria door today. The whole thing might seem a little kitschy I suppose, but personally I found it sincere, a tribute to the often forgotten detail work, which in a lot of ways is what has made this country great. I guess I had a personal attachment as well though, as once upon a time I studied pattern-making and sewing in night classes in New York. 

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One of the somewhat controversial blendings of old and new in Rome however is the Museum of the Ara Pacis. It is an “altar to peace” from ancient Rome, amazingly preserved, which several years was housed in a very modernly designed museum, designed by American architect Richard Meier, to protect it from the elements. Romans are understandably finicky about adding anything to change drastically the look or character of their city, particularly when it comes to their ancient architecture, but I think that the simplicity of the design — all glass, metal, crisp white walls and neutral stone — is a fitting way to house the monument stylishly without detracting from it, allowing much of the altar and sculptures to still be visible to anyone walking by. A beautiful fountain in front of the museum has turned it into a gathering place as well, especially beloved by children exhausted by the hot sun. 

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The Museum of the Ara Pacis, Rome. 

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A few days ago I was in Bologna, seeing my aunt and uncle who are traveling in Italy with friends, and again the museum which stands out as most successful in my mind is the Palazzo Fava: a beautiful old house famed for its Renaissance frescoes showing the story of Jason and the Argonauts and Medea, but which filled much of the rest of its space with contemporary art. I particularly liked a series of sculptures of cypress trees, a quintessential feature of the central Italian landscape, in blocky marble, wood and even one made of thin blades of rusted sheet metal. On the top floor of the palazzo there was also a small exhibit about the design of a new concert hall being built, which itself takes its asymmetrical shape from the old outline of the city walls of Renaissance Bologna: a perfect tribute to history. 

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Cipresso e la sua amica pioggia, by Angelo Micheli, 2009, at Palazzo Fava, Bologna. 

notte dei musei

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Last night Rome held it’s annual “Notte dei Musei” — Night at the Museums — where a long list of museums around the city are open from 8pm to 2am, free of charge. I took the opportunity to try to see some of the museums I still hadn’t visited, including the Mercati di Traiano (Markets of Trajan), a part of the Roman Forum. 

I also went to see the an exhibit of Poussin at the Villa Medici (Académie de France à Rome), and a show of 100 works from Romanticism, Impressionism, Expressionism, and more from the Stadel Museum of Frankfurt, which was held at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (let’s just say it was a long night, with a lot of walking). Unfortunately pictures were not allowed inside at either of those! So below you will find some of my photos from the Mercati, which was certainly the highlight of the night, a site that benefits the most from the strange experience of seeing it in the middle of the night.

(Above is a view of the Vatican and another church in Rome, illuminated at night, as seen from the hilltop Villa Medici.) 

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Detail of an ancient sculpture in Mercati di Traiano.

When my parents came to visit me back in the fall, I took tours of the Coliseum and Forum, but besides that I have not seen too much of the ancient art, except of course that you see it out in the open all over the city (the Pantheon, Largo Argentina, Tempio di Adriano, etc.). The Markets of Trajan are a nice way to see more, because it combines the preserved architecture, with a little bit of ancient art and marble from the original building, with spectacular views of the rest of the Forum from an outdoor terrace, and they often hold events, such as an aperitivo (cocktail hour) or concerts. 

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As with many of the museums participating in Notte dei Musei, there were short concerts spread throughout the evening, with a great trio (piano, bass, singer/guitar) playing in the main hall. 

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While the music added an incredible ambience to the evening which was already buzzing with tons of people, couples out on a date, little kids up past bedtime, the best experience was walking out through the exhibits, the music slowly getting softer, to the terraces which overlook not just the market itself, but the rest of the Forum, the famous Column of Trajan, and the Vittoriano (the “new” monument built in the 1800s). 

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These ruins, the half columns mixed with those quintessentially Roman trees, are always lit at night and I’ve seen them as I’ve walked by, but the view from above, from within the ruins yourself, is much much better. 

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All in all, Notte dei Musei was certainly popular, an excellent opportunity for the mostly Italian crowd (I believe the event was only advertised in Italian) to see the beautiful sites that are usually so overrun by foreign tourists (well, like me). 

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