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Heartbreak hotel

Just broken up with your partner? Freshly single and having to face the misery of a lonely Valentine’s Day? Help is at hand in the form of an alternative holiday for the heartbroken

The heartache before the hospitality. Photograph: Christine Madden

HERE IT COMES again, that most dreaded day of the year. Bad enough if you or your partner have to be frogmarched into shelling out for flowers, perfume, chocolates, aftershave, sex toys and dinners in overpriced restaurants. Excruciating if you’re single and think everybody else but you is having a passionate evening with a strings-heavy soundtrack. Devastating if you’ve recently broken up with your partner.

What can you do to escape the frilly, pink world of Valentine’s when your heart has been sledge-hammered? Luckily, you’re not alone when you’re alone. There are lots of new ways to avoid it.

One of them lies nestled in an Alpine valley that looks like a picture on one of those chocolate boxes sold for the dreaded day. Schüle’s hotel in Oberstdorf, a sport and health resort town in the southernmost tip of Bavaria, sits in the middle of a landscape that earns its right to the cliché “breathtaking”. Just looking at the ridge of snowy peaks against the sky feels like a mental peppermint, natural beauty like an intake of crisp air. The hotel features the “Ich bin ganz bei mir” – “Time for Me” – holiday offered by Liebeskümmerer, a German counselling service for the broken-hearted.

Breaking up is a trauma. You feel like the earth has collapsed under your feet

The founder of Liebeskümmerer, Elena Sohn, first approached Schüle’s about a year and a half ago with the concept. “At first, I had to smile,” says Karl-Arnold Schüle, the director of the award-winning, family-owned hotel. But after discussions with the Sohn and the hotel doctor, he realised that it was a service his hotel was ideally suited to provide. What makes it different from just another relaxation holiday or detox? “We tend to each person individually,” he says. The programme for each guest is tailor-made to suit their specific wishes and needs. And special touches are added for those still aching after a breakup, such as inspirational messages on cards left for guests on their pillow.

The Time for Me break includes a consultation with the hotel doctor, during which visitors can discuss which treatments would suit them best. These include a range of massages and Kneipp cure therapies, saunas, participation in Schüle’s many hiking and indoor and outdoor sporting activities and personal counselling.

From the front, the hotel looks friendly, inviting but not unusual. But the back of the hotel opens out to a valley sweeping towards the towering Alps. This view graces almost every public and treatment space in the hotel – from the tranquil indoor pool to the various spa therapy rooms to the saunas. Schüle’s also features a ladies-only sauna – open to men one day a week – and a “room of stillness”: Zeitlos (English: “timeless”). Apparently this room is so well insulated, the glass triple-glazed, that you can’t even get a mobile signal – so no chance of sending your ex a recriminatory text or scanning Facebook to see what they’re up to.

Ulrike Fohn, one of the Liebeskümmerer therapists. Photograph: Christine Madden

“Breaking up is a trauma,” says  Ulrike Fohn, one of the Liebeskümmerer therapists who works with the “Time for Me” guests. “It comes suddenly, you feel like the earth has collapsed under your feet. You’ve got to release the shock, the fear.”

Fohn is an alternative practitioner and healer of physical and emotional illness who lives and works nearby. Her voice is soothing, her warm smile full of empathy. The window behind her opens out to sunshine glinting off the mountain snow – a panorama radiating majesty and peace.

Hidden in the crisis of heartache, there’s an amazing opportunity to discover happiness

Many people traumatised by a breakup had focused their entire life and happiness on their partner. They feel like “the earth has crumbled beneath their feet”, says Fohn. “It’s like they’ve outsourced the fulfilment of their most important needs. Then their partner breaks the contract.”

Fohn treats her patients in hours-long sessions. “The key is: accept it,” she says. Struggling against reality isn’t helpful. She’ll assist you in recognising the unconscious thought and behaviour patterns that keep pushing you back into toxic situations and pain. Then, she says, “You have to treat yourself with understanding and love.” And not be afraid to seek help.

Elena Sohn, author and founder of Liebeskümmerer. Photograph: Christine Madden

Liebeskümmerer was the brain child of former PR consultant Elena Sohn. She launched the service after being left by her then partner in 2008 – “or maybe 2009, I’m really not sure anymore”, she says, indicating how far she’s come since then. At the time, however, Sohn was paralysed with grief. While visiting friends, she noticed that achieving distance was helpful. Why, she thought, is there a medical therapy for every little ailment but not for heartache? The name is a German play on words: Liebeskummer = heartache, kümmern = to take care of.

Based in Berlin, Sohn now says, “I would never suffer so much from a breakup again”. She has also written two books: Schluss mit Kummer, Liebes! (No More Anguish, Dear!), and Goodby, Herzschmerz (Goodbye, Heartache). The latter describes her “Glücksherz” (happy heart) technique of getting over heartbreak – and never experiencing it so violently again.

But can you mend someone’s heart in a mini-break? “We no longer try to cure only acute heartache, but work with you to change your perspective,” says Sohn. “I urge people to see that, hidden in their crisis of heartache, there’s an amazing opportunity to discover what sources of happiness there still are in their life.”

Sites such as Never Liked it Anyway and Exboyfriend Jewelry will help you sell and turn reminders of your ex into cash

The attention you receive is personalised and indulgent. When Petra Stein’s (not her real name) six-year relationship came to an end after a devastating breakup last year, she wrote to Sohn. Having arranged her escape, Stein staggered into Schüle’s for a four-day visit.

As soon as she arrived, “the Schüle family took me into their care”, Stein says. Frau Schüle accompanied her on group hikes in the mountains. She had treatments and massages, revelled in the tranquillity of the hotel and its Alpine location and ate her fill every night at the restaurant. Before she got there, she says, “I hadn’t been able to eat for weeks and lost 16 kg”.

Special tub for a luxury bath at Schüles. Photograph: Christine Madden

Stein also partly met two other Liebeskümmerer clients who were visiting at the same time. They shared their stories, propped each other up – and continued to stay in touch after they left. Now close friends, they’ve since been back to Schüle’s for a return visit, and spent New Year’s – that other notorious holiday for making singles feel ostracised – together in Berlin.

After the huge popularity of the (body) detox, the concept of an emotional detox feels like the next big thing. It could be a way of reaching people who might not normally come for help, surmises Kate Curtis, a therapist practising just outside of Dublin, Ireland who has extensive training in various healing practices, such as reflexology, acupuncture, Celtic herbalism and holotropic breathwork. “I think it’s very clever, because it’s taking away some of the stigma attached from some of the psychology treatments that people might need to go for, that people would resist because of that stigma,” she says.

“A breakup is a huge shock,” says Curtis. “But it can be the catalyst for opening up the gates.” She cautions, however, that you should choose a practitioner very carefully, and follow it up. “You need to take care of yourself in the weeks afterward. Once a gate is opened, it’s important that it stays opened. It can contract a few days later, and that can be painful.”

On the way to Schüles, the Alps framing the landscape. Photograph: Christine Madden

At Chewton Glen Hotel and Spa in the UK, Denise Leicester – qualified nurse, aromatherapist, yoga teacher and yogic healer – also conducts emotional detox courses. “We are ‘feeling beings’, yet staying emotionally balanced and learning how to restore ‘emotional wellbeing’ is not often supported or even acknowledged,” says Leicester, who is also the founder and CEO of ila, an organic skincare, spa product and treatment company. “The emotional detox is offered as a gentle way to become more in touch with oneself and to enable toxic emotions to be released, restoring harmony and happiness.” The ila retreat at Chewton Glen “can offer space, support and nurturing in a healing environment where emotions can be released and balance restored.”

Although cohabitation seems to be reducing the divorce rate somewhat, it still remains high – there were, for example, still an average of 13 divorces an hour in England and Wales in 2012. There aren’t any statistics for breakups, but sales of ice cream, chocolates and Adèle albums have certainly not flagged. All fodder for the burgeoning breakup industry and its trailblazing services. The Breakup Shop, for example, will send a letter, email or text to your soon-to-be ex. In their shop, you can also order your ex a present, such as a Netflix gift card or box of cookies. (Their Poo Smell Card is currently sold out.) Facebook is currently trialling a new Take a Break tool that will help screen you from your ex’s feed (and your ex from yours) to help you achieve distance. Sites such as Never Liked it Anyway and Exboyfriend Jewelry will help you get rid of physical reminders of your ex by helping you sell and turn them into cash. Or you can donate them to the Museum of Broken Relationships (see panel below).

But maybe it’s best to start at Schüle’s with a caring, indulgent break as an antidote breakup. As you enjoy the five-course dinner with a book, take note of your surroundings: you might see that the couple at the next table hardly exchange a word. Maybe being single isn’t such a bad thing after all.

A version of this article appeared in the magazine N by Norwegian in February 2016

Other destinations for the dumped

Different phases of breaking up call for different antidotes. Feeling hungry? Adventurous? Or gleefully vengeful? Try a break at one of these locations

Museum of Broken Relationships

When Croatian artists Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić ended their relationship, a joke about what to do with the object left behind turned into a museum. Since starting up in 2006, it’s gone on tour all over the world. Next tour starts this month [February 2016], or visit the museum in Zagreb.

Tuscookany – cookery holidays in Tuscany

Now that your ex, who always did the cooking, is gone, it’s time to learn how to make fantastic pasta yourself. Where better than in a cooking course at a villa in gorgeous Tuscany. Get occupied, learn something new and bring back a skill to make your friends (maybe even the ex?) jealous.

Anti-Valentine’s Party

Want to turn sad into mad? Dry your tears and head for the annual Anti-Valentine’s Party at Birds Café and Bar in LA. They serve food and special drinks – such as blackheart martinis – and previous parties have featured male and female piñatas to bash and possibly voo-doo dolls. Having fun is the best revenge.

The Chocolate Museum, Cologne

Need to indulge? Short of taking a bath in chocolate, you can visit the Chocolate Museum in Cologne, near its famous mediaeval cathedral. Take the tour, overwhelm your senses with the sights and smells, let one chocolate after another melt across your tongue, visit the cathedral and expiate. Then start over.

Exotics Racing / Nürburgring

To get your heart racing again, why not drive an exotic luxury car around the Nevada desert? At Exotics Racing in Las Vegas, you can drive a Lamborghini, Ferarri, Porsche and more – or be driven in one. In Europe, the Nürburgring racetrack offers a broad palette of motoring experiences, including watching racing or speeding down the track yourself.

Gelato Museum

All wrapped up in a duvet to eat ice cream by the pint? Soothe your heartache the classy way and visit the Gelato Museum just outside Bologna. After learning about the history of ice cream, getting introduced to the art of Italian gelato, sample the artisan product and melt away.

Schüles Hotel, Oberstdorf, Germany: a winter paradise. Photograph courtesy Schüles Hotel

Serenity: the care put in by the Liebeskümmerer. Photograph: Christine Madden

Lola Montez: a superstar ‘not even Madonna can reach’

Version 2ONCE upon a time a fine, spirited wee girl was born to her Irish mother and Scottish father in 1821 in Grange, Co Sligo. Or perhaps she was placed in the cradle by the fairies, because little Eliza Rosanna Gilbert grew up to change her name and nationality several times and travel the four corners of the world in search of excitement and adventure. When she died, at the early age of 40, the world knew her better as Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer. As such, apart from gaining notoriety in Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, she became a countess in the central European country of Bavaria, started a revolution there and toppled its government three times.

“Next to Queen Victoria, Lola was the most famous woman in the world,” asserts German director Jürgen Kuttner, whose new production – with co-director Tom Kühnel – of the musical Lola Montez, by Peter Kreuder and Maurus Pacher, has just premiered at the Cuvilliés Theatre in Munich, Germany. “She was a superstar not even someone like Madonna could reach.”

Already a legend during her lifetime, Lola thrust herself into a whirlwind of adventure, excess and scandal that would make a society reporter blush. At 16, Gilbert eloped with a British lieutenant, but the couple separated shortly thereafter. She relaunched herself under her new identity as Spanish dancer Lola Montez and travelled across Europe, trailing scandals in her wake. In 1846, she arrived in Munich, the capital of the kingdom of Bavaria (now a state in the Federal Republic of Germany).

She sought an audience with King Ludwig I and, when he asked if her chest dimensions were real, ripped open her bodice to prove it. The 60-year-old king became besotted with her. He had her portrait painted and placed in his “Gallery of Beauty”. When Lola, reviled by the populace and government alike, wished for more power and acceptance, Ludwig made her first a Bavarian citizen, then the Countess of Landsfeld, an imaginary place. To accommodate her wishes, he dissolved and reformed his government twice. Ludwig presented her with a palace in a chic city-centre location and showered her with money. But rather than keep her head down to avoid further antagonizing an irate and begrudging population, she wore black and smoked openly in the streets – both taboos – while walking her enormous Great Dane.

Eventually finding herself at the centre of public hostility and warring student fraternities, Lola convinced King Ludwig to close Munich’s university. The tumult, fed by the widespread revolutionary spirit of 1848, became so great that Ludwig had to abdicate in favour of his son Maximilian to save the monarchy. Lola fled the country. The cigarette she smoked and flung away when she escaped was scooped up by an eccentric count and is still on display in the Munich City Museum.

Kuttner and Kühnel take the originally twee musical and mash it up with references from popular culture to present Lola Montez, one-time Irish rose, as a sexy, street-smart heroine and role model for contemporary women. “She was the first femme fatale,” Kuttner enthuses. “She broke through the limits of what was possible for women. She was a template for Marlene Dietrich. The first vamp.” Kühnel chimes in: “The first Lola.”

The production conceptualises her as going through a “time-tunnel from the future”, explains Kuttner. “She lands in this bucolic, idyllic Munich where men drink beer and women are at home raising the children, and she blasts into it all like a UFO.”

As an operetta, Lola Montez owes more to music video culture than to Gilbert and Sullivan. The stage Lola has cloned herself – there are two of them, portrayed by Katrin Röver and Genija Rykova ­­– and she/they act/s like a raven-haired Marilyn Monroe playing Lisbeth Salander in a Lady Gaga music video. Lola-Lola belt out sections of the S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valerie Solanas (the radical feminist who shot Andy Warhol) and ‘I am a Cliché’ by the 1970s punk band X-Ray Spex.

A German pop culture personality in his own right, Kuttner appears on stage as ringmaster with an energetic, mischievous philosophical rant. The Munich-based post-punk singer and musician Pollyester (alias Polina Lapkovskaja) and her band perform electronic/percussive musical backing for the actors. A nod to Montez’s time in India, the two Lolas deliver the song ‘You are my Chicken Fry’ by Bappi Lahiri, with a portly, wigged King Ludwig I jiggling and undulating his rotund figure to the Bollywood hit.

In Kuttner and Kühnel’s production, these slices of pop culture collide with slapstick and Bavarian kitsch, delivered by a lavishly costumed cast. A chamber quartet on stage provides a distressed version of the original music. It’s an uneven success, requiring a bit of the discipline that Lola presumably never had, but still remains an entertaining, hallucinogenic night out. And it presents an Irish adventuress as a feminist prototype for contemporary women while having breathless fun at the same time. If she were alive today, Lola would probably be thrilled with it.

Published in The Irish Times on 4 February 2013: Sligo girl reviled by Bavaria: the musical

Stripping for Spencer, or making art in Munich

Photographer Spencer Tunick in the thick of his Ring image installation

Photographer Spencer Tunick in the thick of his Ring image installation

WHAT was I doing, standing shivering and stark naked – except for a shimmering layer of gold body paint – in the middle of Munich at 6am Saturday morning? No, it wasn’t the humiliating aftermath of a night on the tiles. The latest installation by photographic artist Spencer Tunick took place in front of Munich’s Nationaltheater – and I’m in there somewhere, trying to blend in. And, thanks to 1,699 fellow participants covered from head to toe in red and gold, I certainly did.

Photographer Tunick is known – or perhaps notorious – for his massive installations of nudes in urban and natural locations all over the world. Its potentially pervy element renders it an instant headline-grabber, but flaunters, voyeurs and anybody jiggling their relevant bits are categorically unwelcome – as the organisers make clear from the start. Not only to protect participants, but also because Tunick seeks “to continue the tradition of celebrating the nude and treat the true forms of real humans no differently than the classical, vitruvian ideal”, he explains.

The Bavarian State Opera commissioned Tunick to do a photographic installation inspired by their new production of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, directed by Andreas Kriegenburg. Including an event like this is an upgrade for the audience, says artistic director Nikolaus Bachler, because it calls on the Munich audience to take part.

Inviting the public to be performers as well as spectators is, Bachler adds, “not an uncomplicated logistical exercise”. This becomes obvious upon arrival at the installation’s meeting place at 3 in the morning on 23 June. From the end of the 500 metre queue of participants aged 18 to 80, you could see the floodlit Marstallplatz, where early arrivals had already assembled into the ad-hoc garrison to prepare. When you arrived, you got handed a small tub of body paint, red or gold, and directed into a compound according to colour. I got gold and shuffled forward to get a welcome cup of tea provided on the sidelines. Despite it being the beginning of summer, it was still only about 10 degrees, and I wasn’t much looking forward to peeling off my clothes.

But it could have been worse. A previous Tunick installation took place on the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland, and in my crowd mingling, I came across someone who had taken part in it. What was that like? “Cold,” he says. But nudity was nothing new to him. As a naturist who often does things in the buff, he had once gone on a nude cycle through London with his mother-in-law. He showed me a picture.

Participants get into position for photographer Spencer Tunick's Ring installation

Participants get into position for photographer Spencer Tunick’s Ring installation

Then the games commenced. Tunick addressed the red group, telling them to “listen up” as they received precise instructions about how to apply their body paint and where they were going. He abruptly became fierce: no one who was intoxicated would be allowed to continue. He indicated into the crowd: “I’m serious!” he bellowed into his megaphone. “Das ist mein verdammter Ernst!” the translator roared into his. Several people were ejected.

As the encroaching dawn softened the darkness, the magic began. The opposite crowd suddenly went from a massive gathering of people to a throng of bare bodies squirming in the gloam. I blinked, and the opposite half of the square was filled with red devils, their teeth gleaming white, their eyes lurid, almost daemonic in the half-light. It was like being backstage at the theatre: you’re in a familiar world, and then you’re not, as if a wrapper had been peeled off the known universe and you’d entered an alternative reality.

On a signal from Tunick’s assistants, the red horde trooped, dancing and cheering, out of the square toward Odeonsplatz for the first photos. We yet-to-be-goldies applauded them on their way. A long wait, while the dawn whisked out the darkness, and then it was our turn.

We laughed and rubbed gold paint on one another

Again, the masses around me went from being an everyday crowd to a swarm of flesh rapidly disengaging from final bits of underwear. It was my turn. I stripped down to what god gave me, stirred my gold body paint with my finger and slapped a handful on my stomach.

The paint was cold and gloopy, but a heady sense of abandon filled the square. It felt like Glastonbury, like toddlers in crèche going wild with the finger paints. We laughed and joked and rubbed gold paint on one anothers’ backs. Within minutes, the square was filled with gold statues. It was like nothing else on earth.

Tunick had previously described these projects as “euphoric”, and the joy of taking part increased exponentially as the hours wore on. We weren’t just watching an event– we were the event. His work has inspired a wave of followers. A woman had come from Israel to take part, a message on Tunick’s Facebook page announced. His assistant Lauren Russell said there was an 80-year-old man who had been to all the installations, and had pictures of them at home on the walls. A shoot in Mexico City included 18,000 participants – and still they had to turn people away. “My recent installation in the Dead Sea of Israel is something I am particularly proud of,” Tunick confides. “Whoever thought there could be naked people en masse, making art in the Middle East?”

Streetcars passed, dinging their bells at us as we encircled the monument in front of the Nationaltheater. One driver stopped her streetcar in the middle of the track to take a picture with her smartphone; we cheered. Tunick yelled from atop a towering cherry picker, “There’s always a car! Get that car out of here!” and an assistant shooed a taxi away. The red mob joined us in ringing the statue and for a photo on the steps of the opera house. And then my gold paint paid off: I got to join a group of women for photos inside the Nationaltheater – on the marble staircase, and inside the sumptuous Königssaal. Something resembling a climbing frame at a playground had been set up in the middle, and we – gold statues with a pulse – draped ourselves around it to form a golden mountain.

The Bavarian State Opera will show a film of the making of the installation in July and exhibit the photographs in January, when they bring back the Ring for the Wagner bicentennial in 2013. Looking at these images that juxtapose the ordinary with the unexpected, the viewer gets jolted out of the sameness of everyday life. “Imagine the power of a live photographic image with thousands of real, human bodies,” says Tunick. The beauty and the buzz were well worth a few hours of braving the elements with your kit off.

Published in The Local on 25 June 2012: I stripped for Spencer: making art in Munich


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