Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Past Revisited

This blog is, in fact, dead, but nothing ever dies in the blogosphere. Thus, because I know people still visit here, I'd like to announce that a long article I wrote in 1994, fully aware that no magazine in the world would print it, is now available as a Kindle publication. Not only is the time long past, but the Germany I wrote about is also long past. It's a piece I've been proud of for a logn time, and I've always wondered what I'd do with it. The ability to put long-form journalism into digital publication form solved the problem.

Three Americans, one in search of his roots in a village on the German-Polish border with 400 people who'd never seen an American before, and only me and a taxi-driving friend from Berlin to try to interpret what was going on for both sides. History ensued. Check it out.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


My new blog is up. It's called City on a Hill, which is what Montpellier is, literally. As for figuratively, well, we'll see.

It's going to get tweaked a lot when I get back from Texas at the beginning of April, but in response to the many inquiries I've gotten, it's a start.

Thanks for your cards and letters. See you in France.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Immer Ein Koffer

I left Berlin twice. It might seem like I couldn't let myself leave, but the answer is more prosaic than that: I missed a turnoff.

Actually, I hadn't meant to leave so late in the day, but the movers had decided, while I was picking up the rental station wagon that would take the more precious items, that their truck was full, although it was far from it. I returned to find them battening the load down, and went upstairs to my apartment to see how much remained: a lot.

So it was about 4:30 in the afternoon when I left, already dark, of course. I'd like to say there were bittersweet feelings coursing around my heart, but in fact that had been happening bit by bit over the past couple of weeks, and I was done with it by now: all I wanted was to get moving on to my new life in France.

One thing I can't recommend enough if you're driving anywhere in Europe is Mappy, a map-generating service which calculates your route with scary precision. Owned by France Telecom, it even has speed cameras marked on it, as well as accurate tolls and gasoline costs, and up-to-the-minute detour information. It doesn't, however, help you much when you can't see what it's talking about, and somewhere near the ICC, I missed a turnoff which was signposted on a temporary sign which was leaning at a crazy angle. Somehow instinct kept me on the Berliner Ring, and somewhere around Schönefeld, I started following signs for Schöneberg and next thing I knew, the Fernsehturm heaved into sight again, and eventually I found the bad road sign and Berlin was in my past.

It would be easy enough to say that I hadn't meant to spend 15 years in Berlin, but it would be more honest to say that I didn't have a plan at all, that the entire decade and a half was an improvisation. And, although the past four or five years weren't the most pleasant, as my disaffection with the city became stronger and my dislike for Germany and its culture began to grow, I'm certainly not about to disavow the experience. Pretty much up to the end, it was an adventure, one that, yes, I'd very likely handle differently if I had to do it again, but one which changed my life in profound ways, many of which have been detailed on this blog over the years of its existence.

For one thing, I learned how to live in a foreign country, one enough like the one I was raised in that the little details didn't show up quite as obviously. There were things like the bureaucracy I had to deal with, but there were other things that were more fun, from learning how to get around to learning how to swim against the current without overly disturbing the neighors. There were the customs, from odd holidays (Pfingsten? What's that?) to knocking on a table full of friends when you entered a bar, thereby saying hello to one and all.

For another, I was extraordinarily privileged on a couple of accounts. One is that I managed to witness the aftermath of the huge change in Germany that the locals call die Wende, the turning. As I've stated, I was here, visiting, before the Wall opened, and just missed the event by a couple of days (although, as someone noted, my math was bad in that last post, and I can only blame pre-moving distraction for that), and managed to move to Berlin four years later, when the Wiedervereinegung was far from a reality. Three years after that, I moved to east Berlin in time to see the street at the end of my block change from Wilhelm-Pieck-Str. to Torstr. And if the yuppification of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg was what grabbed the headlines, it was the bafflement of the man in the street and the freezing out of the arts communities which interested me. I managed to reside Berlin from the day the Allies left to the day Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were househunting across the street from me.

Another way I was privileged was in being a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal -- and to a lesser extent the New York Times -- from 1994 to about 2002. Once I became a regular with the Journal, I was allowed an expense account for travel, hotels, and meals to go all over my territory (which was basically Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe) writing stories about art and culture. Particularly towards the end of the last century, it was as likely as not that a lot of the stories would be right at home in Berlin, as the city waged an ultimately unsuccessful battle to position itself as a "world city," as if that was something achievable through clever marketing and just saying it was true. I also loved doing slyly subversive stories for the notoriously right-wing Journal, and covered the fight to retain the Ampelmann on crossing lights (which, from his ubiquity these days, you'd never know was something Siemens fought like hell to keep from happening) and the 30th anniversary of the Puhdys, East Germany's most successful rock band, as much because these stories were about communist icons as because they were newsworthy. On the occasions I travelled, I usually had plenty of spare time to take in museums or other notable sights, and of course I tried my best to research the food situation, which sometimes, as in the trip I made to Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, didn't pan out like I thought: the food there was much better than my research led me to expect, and I'd go back in a minute.

It was only when this ideal setup began to crumble -- first with the utter inability of the company I'd founded in 1997 to provide an English-language information service with a magazine and an online component to find a single investor, then with the radio shows I'd had at JazzRadio (which had been very popular and had connected me with people I'd otherwise never have met) suddenly falling to new management and bogus "consultants," then the post-9/11 changes in the New York media landscape which left me without any gigs, and, finally, my ill-advised loan to a friend which also went south on that notorious date -- that life in Berlin soured and, without any relief from my surroundings, I began to see it in another way. Much of that view has been reported in this blog, to the dismay of some of its more Germanophilic readers. (Weirdly, I'd never met a single Germanophile until I moved to Berlin. I'd met Anglophiles, Francophiles, Italophiles, Sinophiles, and so on, but everyone seemed to have a "yes, but" attitude towards Germany).

Ultimately, the city and I just didn't get along. I became unhappy with the picture Berlin was painting of itself to the world, emphasizing the negative, emphasizing death over life, always twisting the narrative to avoid mentioning things the city should have been proud of. The weather, of course, could be brutal in the winter, and the winter seemed to last for seven months. The food, for most of my stay, was awful, although I have to say that's one thing which was definitely on the upswing in my last couple of years there. The architecture was relentessly grim, and, with the city sprawled out over an area that seemed the size of Los Angeles, there was an awful lot of it: this past March I'd just returned from Texas and France when I agreed to meet friends at a recently-discovered Chinese restaurant in Neukölln and took the Ringbahn from Schönhauser Allee to get there. I was really demoralized by the time I arrived from the endlessly repetitive vistas of depressing buildings and squalid streets, and this just fuelled my need to get out even further. And I saw all of this reflected in the faces of the residents, so many of whom look either desperately unhappy or lobotomized. I couldn't see myself getting older there, and given that one of my not-so-unconscious goals in moving in the first place was to find female companionship, I'd long since given up on finding a German woman who wasn't consumed with self-loathing or incipient mental illness. Not to say that they don't exist, but the only one I found wasn't a romantic prospect, although it was encouraging after all those years to discover there were occasional nonconformists.

I'd been planning my escape since about 2004, when I was probably at the nadir of my fortunes. And now that I've been gone for three weeks, having spent nearly every cent I could scrape together over the past four years to make it happen, I find myself pondering the question, as I prepare to end this blog, of whether I miss Berlin. And, like some sort of Bill Clinton-ish figure, my response is that it depends what you mean when you say "Berlin." In the past year or two, "Berlin" has been, for me, a circle of friends with whom I've become very close. I miss the hell out of them, despite the fact that nearly all of them blog and I read them every day. "Berlin" has been meeting up with these people, eating and drinking and talking with them and going to events with them. But then, I remind myself, that had happened before, around the magazine project, and then, eventually nearly every one of those people had left. Indeed, in the current circle, there are a couple who have already left and others who are making plans to leave. Berlin, it seems, is a place which doesn't seem to hold people: even a large percentage of the Germans I've known over the years have moved on, unable to achieve what they wanted to do in the negative atmosphere the place exudes. Berlin is broke. Berlin is huge. Berlin is ugly. Individuals can try to spend a part of their energy in resisting that, or they can move on. I made my choice.

I'm not sure of this, but I believe it was Gen. Lucius Clay who said "Ich habe immer ein Koffer gepackt in Berlin," which was his way of saying that he could never completely leave the city behind. I've always thought the image strange: if I leave a suitcase in some place as a way to have a setup available to me when I visit, I'm going to be discovering bits of the past every time I open it, and more so with each subsequent visit. That's not how I revisit places. I tend to live in the here and now, eager to see how a place has adjusted to the present day. I do, of course, bring my knowledge of a place I've lived with me, making it easier to negotiate the streets and know where I am, but I generally take my luggage with me when I leave. I expect I will, in fact, be revisiting Berlin. I hope so. And I'll be bringing my luggage and, I hope, leaving my baggage behind.

* * *

There will be one more post here directing those who are interested to a new blog I'll be starting in Montpellier as soon as I can get telephone service in my apartment, something which is far more difficult than in Germany because one needs a bank-account first, and, from what I've discovered, foreigners don't seem to be allowed to have them in France. (Oh, yes, there's material for a new blog here, you can count on it.) But I'm putting this up from a bar/cafe some people I know own, and it's not the most conducive place to write (this post was carried on a memory stick). I hope to have telephone service after the first of the year, and we'll take it from there. See you elsewhere in cyberspace!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Last Crumbs From Berlin

As far as I can see it, there's one more, valedictory, post left to this blog before I close it down and start the one from France in a few weeks. But I've been collecting a few tidbits here and there I've been meaning to post, so here is a roundup.

* * *

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today. It's true: 20 years ago I woke up in Texas, after a long trip back from Berlin, where I'd celebrated my birthday and done a little more hanging out, then boarded a flight from hell, which deposited me in Frankfurt, where it was announced that the plane taking us to New York was 22 hours late coming in from Bucharest. The airline made other arrangements for the New York passengers, but it was too late to catch any connecting flights, so we wound up in a JFK airport hotel. Finally, we got to Dallas, and eventually I got back to Austin, exhausted. I woke up the next morning, thinking that I had to pick up my dog from the Biker Chicks Kennel ("I like your dog," one of the gals down there commented. "He reminds me of my old man." I chose to see that as a compliment) a day late, and staggered out to the front lawn to pick up the paper.

The headlines, of course, were of the events of November 9, when an exhausted DDR bureaucrat had (maybe) inadvertently announced that the border checkpoints in Berlin were open for travel in both directions without a pass, and a huge party had happened all over town, most notably on the Bornholmer Str. bridge and the bridge on Invalidenstr. where some friends of mine, returning from a conference on radio in Berlin, got caught up in the celebration, not having a clue what had just happened. I had just missed one of the stories of my lifetime, which made me so upset I stood in the yard ranting and raving.

To outsiders, it must seem curious that yesterday's observances in Berlin were all about Kristallnacht, seeming to bear out my oft-repeated observation that Berlin chooses to emphasize the most negative narrative of its history possible, but in fact, Kristallnacht is an absolutely non-controversial subject. There are still plenty of people in Berlin -- on both sides of town -- who feel that reunification wasn't something to celebrate. Wading into that still-smouldering controversy would have forced discussions lots of people still don't want to have. The Wall still stands in many people's minds here (what the locals call Mauer im Kopf), and probably will until the generation that's never known it outnumbers the one that does.

* * *

What's the favorite cigarette in your part of town? If discarded cigarette packs are anything to go by (and they probably are, given Berliners' casual attitude towards waste disposal), in mine, Jin Ling wins hands down.

Still, if you go looking for them at the local press/tobacco/lottery shop, you won't find them because they're not sold there. The yellow pack looks a lot like Camel's, but it has a mountain goat where the camel should be. The letters U.S.A. are printed in large type under the brand-name on the flip-top box, with the word "blend" in much smaller letters below. There's also the sentence "These fine cigarettes are made with the highest quality tobacco" underneath the goat, but the rest of the information is in Cyrillic. There's tar and nicotine numbers on the side, but no black-bordered warning.

According to The Organized Crime Corruption and Reporting Project, they are made in Lviv by the Baltic Tobacco Company of Kaliningrad, and are part of a galaxy of counterfeit and untaxed cigarettes imported by smugglers to Europe.

So where do smokers get them? I've had an eye on a guy in my neighborhood for some time. He's Vietnamese and hangs out all day long on a kind of neutral piece of ground with a lot of foot traffic. He goes out of his way to make eye-contact with people walking by, which I found interesting, but I've never had my suspicions proven until a few mintues ago, when a lady pushing a baby-carriage came up to him and said something. He reached into his bomber jacket and produced six cellophane-wrapped packs of cigarettes, broke the seal, and handed her one. I didn't stick around to see (if I could) what they cost, but chances are it was about half what a pack of brand-name cigarettes cost, which is €4.

(This brings up another interesting economic observation I've made around here. Recently I've been seeing ads for a major brand of cigarettes which advertises itself at only €3.70 a pack -- but the ad states that you only get 17 cigarettes. In the U.S., cigarettes are always 20 to the pack, and the price rises. Over here, the price stays the same and the number of cigarettes in a pack declines. A corollary of this is toilet paper. One day in the supermarket I observed someone walking away with one of those huge 24-packs of generic toilet paper. I'd just bought some non-generic myself, and noticed that the cardboard roll in the center of the generic was huge. So this person had just bought 24 rolls for what I'd just bought eight for, but...did they get more paper? And if so, how much?)

The Jin Ling packs are everywhere, but most notably at workingmen's bars, on construction sites, and at places where the unemployed gather to talk their days away, like discount bakeries and parks. If you live in west Berlin, you may never see them, but they remain a potent reminder of how poor the overwhelming majority of people in this city are.

* * *

In the Utter Idiocy In The Press Department, we have two entries today. The first, filed under Berlin Remains Berlin, is from a story in the New York Times the day after the election, the expected roundup from around the world of reactions in foreign countries to Barack Obama's having been elected. As anyone could guess, the comments range from ecstatic to guardedly optimistic, except (you guessed it!) the one from Berlin:

"'We have so many hopes and wishes that he will never be able to fulfill them,' said Susanne Grieshaber, 40, an art adviser in Berlin who was one of 200,000 Germans to attend a speech by Mr. Obama there in July. She cited action to protect the environment, reducing the use of force and helping the less fortunate. In essence, she wants Mr. Obama to make his country more like hers. But she is sober. 'I’m preparing myself for the fact that peace and happiness are not going to suddenly break out,' she said."

Good for you, Susanne! Don't let the team down! Don't allow yourself a moment of good feeling before returning to the realization we've all had that there's a lot of hard work ahead and that the man does not, in fact, walk on water. After all, it's been eight years of horror for Americans, but you wouldn't want to acknowledge that catharsis is in order or that temporary intoxication is a good thing. Peace, no. But happiness? Guess that's still rationed here.

But the weirdest story anyone's sent me in some time was first spotted by a friend who didn't send the URL. It popped up a few days later on the excellent travel site World Hum. Written by a 16-year resident of the city -- one year longer than I've been here -- who's even married to a local, Erik Kirschbaum, this bizarre dithyramb is headlined "WITNESS: Berliners' Love Affair with America Grows Cold."

Not having noticed this phenomenon, particularly, I had to read it. As you can see from the link above, it takes up three web pages, and I dutifully went through his memories of the end of the Cold War, the unexpected spectacle of Berliners coming out in the thousands to say goodbye to the Allied troops, the moving response to the 9/11 attacks...and still didn't see anything until I hit the last page, which is all of seven short paragraphs long, in which he finally tells us why they hate us:

"So what went wrong?

"It was, of course, the dispute over the invasion of Iraq.

"Before that, U.S. presidents had always been welcomed in Berlin. However, in May 2002 George W. Bush needed 10,000 German police to shield him from 10,000 anti-war protesters."

Um, Erik, I don't know how to tell you this, but those security precautions were ordered by Bush. His handlers forced the Adlon Hotel, where he stayed, to find other accommodations for all their guests on the dates when Bush was there, and the Berlin Police had to examine every manhole, power outlet in street lamps, and any other opening and affix a seal with the inspecting officer's name and a rubber stamp on it. Instead of heading up to Gugelhof in a car, like the Clintons did when they had dinner with Gerhard Schröder, Bush walked in the center of a phalanx of armed security all the way across Pariser Platz to a nothing cafe for dinner. (Hell, he could have eaten in the Adlon. It's not that bad.)

UPDATE: I just heard from Kirschenbaum, who kindly informed me that this visit was before the invasion of Iraq. Thus, I have edited out the first sentence in the following paragraph. Sorry.

As he notes, there had been a huge anti-war demonstration in the Tiergarten on the day the invasion occurred. I was there with an American friend and his two sons. After a while, we left, and were walking through the Brandenburg Gate talking when a German girl, a college student, did a double-take. "What's wrong," my friend asked. "Oh, nothing. It's just...odd to hear people speaking English." "Well, you know, plenty of Americans are against this thing, too," he said. "Yes, I guess so. I was just not expecting this." She walked off, embarrassed. Hey, Erik, she was 20 years old and maybe not the most sophisticated person in Berlin. But I sure wouldn't paint her as typical.

Kirschbaum also notes that a quarter-million people turned up to hear Obama this year, but doesn't seem to think it means anything. Dude, there just aren't that many Americans here!

I'm not saying there aren't people here who don't like Americans. I've run into them from the day I arrived here, from the weirdo I worked with who said he hated Americans "because you did nothing to stop the Vietnam War," which was sure news to me, to perfectly average working men and women who resent the young Americans on the "two-year spring break" who come here because it's the cheapest city in Europe but don't make the slightest effort to integrate with the natives by learning even a smattering of German or understanding a bit of the city's history.

I don't understand why Erik Kirschbaum thought he had a story here, or why Reuters and the Times thought something with this little content was worth running. Perhaps it's because so few wire services and newspaper groups actually have people on the ground here that they'll accept any old crap from the reporters who are left.

Come to think of it, that explains all those hip! edgy! Berlin! pieces in the Times...

* * *

And finally, a sighting of my favorite street artist, Nike, with a piece which may be her masterpiece. I love the colors in this, and wonder if the smeared-lipstick effect is intentional or just Nike's, um, casual technique at work again. Naturally, someone has tried to deface this, due to the age-old Berlin belief that few can make something nice, but anyone can ruin it once it's been made. I'm going to move, Saturday, to a city with a couple of interesting street artists, and I'll be blogging about them, but I figure it's appropriate to close my last collection of crumbs with one of Nike's best works.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Going Like 60

Sometime over the past few hours, I turned 60. Actually, although I know my time of birth, I'm not sure exactly when the moment came: the U.S. was doing Daylight Savings Time, so where did that moment go?

The number is shocking enough; even more shocking was the realization the other day that I've spent 25% of my life (my life so far, I hasten to add) in this city. And now I'm leaving.

Actually, I was anticipating the kind of denial I'm feeling at the age thing, the realization that the likelihood of finding a partner is receding, and that the likelihood of fathering children has disappeared still haven't settled in. Perhaps that means that the former, anyway, is still possible, although I now know for a fact that Berlin wasn't a good place to look, which is one of the regrets of getting older, because it can't be undone.

What I didn't anticipate was the moving denial. With ten days until I'm planning to leave this apartment, I have yet to engage a moving company, and although much of my stuff is still packed from when I moved into this place -- I never once considered anything other than a temporary stop -- there's still lots to pack. So I sit here blogging, of course.

For those of you who may be anticipating moving, incidentally, I found a great resource: MyHammer is an auction site for a number of labor services, including movers, where you put up a description of the job that needs to be done and professionals bid on it. You've got ten days to accumulate bids, and then you pick a winner. Thanks, Josh.

So the plan at the moment is to get the movers in on the 12th, rent a car and fill it with the stuff I don't trust the movers with, like my computer, spend the night somewhere in Berlin, and drive to Montpellier the next morning, with a stopover for the night, perhaps in Beaune. I'm actively seeking someone to come along for this, not so much to share the driving, but to make sure I don't fall asleep at the wheel. I did that once, in Czechoslovakia in 1990, utterly destroying the car I was driving, but not myself or the two other people in the car, who had fallen asleep. Alpha waves are contagious, and I still remember the horror of that moment, and the vast relief that we were all alive and unharmed. (Bizarre coda to that: Sixt in Austria said they were sending up a guy with another car for us, which would arrive in Brno the next morning. Two days later, we still hadn't heard from him, so we called again. Turned out he'd arrived on time, and was waiting for us at the International Hotel, while we'd been looking for him at the Hotel International.)

At any rate, it'd be an adventure, and the co-adventurer could return the car, or I could turn it in at the Montpellier train station and they could get back on the train. Or, if they have patience, fly, which involves going to Stanstead and changing airlines.

I've got to write my landlord and tell him I'm leaving, I've got to send out change of address notices, I've got to go through boxes I moved with and throw stuff out, I've got to clean the place up a little, I've still got friends here I'd like to say good-bye to, and -- oh, yes -- I've got work that has to be done every day on this ghostwriting project I've taken on.

So...I'd better get moving.

But since I love to leave opportunities for procrastination open, there's one more blog-post of crumbs shaping up. I'll probably be banging that out when the movers get here.

Oh, and if anyone does want to take over the lease on this place, let me know immediately!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Long-Awaited Announcement

This morning at 11:30 I signed a lease agreement with a landlord for a 55-square-meter apartment in Montpellier.

The agreement goes into effect on November 1, although since my 60th birthday is Nov. 2 and I've celebrated 40 and 50 in Berlin, and want to say au revoir to my friends, I won't move in on that date.

What this will mean is that over the next few weeks, this blog will be winding down, and a new one will rise. Just think of it: a whole new country to complain about from scratch! Why, I've already ploughed through the catalog of offers Orange (France Telecom) has ready for me and am utterly and totally confused. Isn't there some way for me to get a landline, a mobile, and Internet service without cable TV? I don't watch television at all, and never have!

For the last five years, I've felt like I was treading water in Berlin. Virtually nothing I do can't be done elsewhere (except complain about Germany and Berlin), so why not do it from a much nicer place?

That's what I'm about to do.

I'll miss the real-life friends I've made in Berlin a lot, but I also have a sneaking feeling I'll be getting a lot of e-mails with the word "couch" in them. And yes, it looks like the nice couch will be going with me.

As for the cyber-friends, I'll try to get the new blog up quickly, and put a pointer here so y'all can join in the fun.

Anybody want to take over my lease? Anybody know what it'll cost to move? I sure don't...

More news as it happens.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

PostKomm '08

Sorry about the protracted absence; things have been just a bit nuts around here. Some of it, which involved getting a ghost-writing deal for a book finalized, isn't of much interest. And, when I finally got that settled, along came Popkomm again.

Since I am no longer much of a consumer of contemporary pop music, and have never been a consumer of European pop music to any large extent, Popkomm doesn't have much to do with me other than the fact that the executives of SXSW in Austin, for whom I do occasional work, come to town. Since these guys are old friends of mine, it's an excuse to hang out with them, hear their stories, and have a couple of very good meals.

The actual work I do at the conference here is simple: I'm the nut-catcher. While the Texans -- and our Irish-based UK rep and our Tübingen-based European rep -- run around having meetings with people who will be attending SXSW, in particular export associations of European countries who are interested in setting up showcases and trade-show stands, I keep track of where they are ("He said he was headed to Finland" -- meaning the Finnish stand, not, like, the actual country) and talk to people who drop by, most of whom are blissfully unaware of what we do or who we are. It's my job to interrupt their carefully-rehearsed sales-job for their band, event, service, or whatever and steer them into discussing whether SXSW has any value for them. It's also my job to make sure they leave a business card -- most of them have business cards, although I continue to be amazed by people who'd go to an event like this armed only with a stack of self-produced CDs -- because it's not my job to decide whether what they're pushing is of any value to SXSW or not.

I've been doing this for years, since Popkomm was in Cologne. Cologne in early September was usually a really nice place to be: drinking Kölsch by the side of the Rhine on a warm late-summer evening is an experience everyone should have. Now it's in Berlin, at the ICC convention center, having been bought by the city from the consortium who started it, just in time for the collapse of the record industry. Berlin: always such great timing. Still, this has meant that the music part of the conference, in clubs during the evenings, has expanded, which is good PR for the event, even though, from what I could see, the daytime part, the trade show and conference, is smaller than ever. (Rumor has it that the event won't be held at the ICC next year, and I'm wondering where it would be held, if not: Kongreshalle am Alexanderplatz? Maybe...)

My perspective, from the booth we were given (we do a trade deal with Popkomm, which represents at the SXSW trade fair), may have been skewed. We were almost in the corner of the hall, not terribly visible, between a royalty-collection service and an only-in-Germany merchandise provider called Deaf and Dumb, who were giving away t-shirts featuring a huge, well, it was hard to tell what it was, which wasn't a great advertisement for their printer. It appeared to be a star with wings, and I guess that's what it was. Once their freebie t-shirts ran out, so did their visitors. I wonder if they are even minimally aware of how bad the name of their company is: not only is it offensive to handicapped people (having had a father with tympanic sclerosis, I'm maybe a bit sensitive to all issues around hearing-loss), but giving a company a name which implies it can't hear you and is stupid to boot can't bring in many English-language-savvy customers. We were directly across from Music Catalonia!, whose impressive booth featured a mirrored wall with the group's logo on it, and it was a gas watching people coming into the hall stop to check that their image was right before walking on.

As always, the export agencies did well, mostly networking with each other, from what I could tell. Only two major record labels that I could see had stands: a modest one for Warner Records Group, and a much more ornate one at the other end of the hall from us for Universal Music Group, which had, to me, the coolest feature: a sign made out of water. Operating somewhat on the principle of a dot-matrix printer, this thing had a long tube high above the floor with many tiny holes in it which were lined up with the floor, on which there was a drain. Water pumped up the side was released in controlled bursts which turned the falling water into letters. It even had different fonts. Cool as it was, I'm just as happy we weren't situated next to the constant splash! splash! splash! the thing made.

The rest of the trade show was the usual mixture of junk-retailers (there's always some company which provides those out-of-copyright box-sets you see at discount stores), digital music services, merch retailers, we'll-get-you-on-radio services, trade publications, and miscellaneous doo-dads like the USB-stick concert-recording services, of which there were two, housed side-by-side in furious competition.

I stood (or sat) at our booth and watched the parade, such as it was, go by. (I'll wait for the final figures, but my guess is that this wasn't exactly the most-attended year of Popkomm by a long shot). Just down the way from us was the Icelandic national stand, and they were trapped in Berlin for three days while their country imploded. (They had set out some tortilla chips and dip, and, bizarrely enough, the tortilla chips were good. But were they Icelandic?) There are people who have been attending these things for years, the Conference Dogs, and I'm one of them. We all know each other and greet each other, even though, in my case, there's no way they're going to do any business with me or I have any business I can do with them. But they hustle around, renewing old deals, modifying current deals, getting new deals -- whatever kind of deals those might be.

The room was overheated -- or perhaps the ICC folks were caught short by the unexpected good weather. For the first time, there were no food stands around the halls, which didn't exactly make us happy. I went on a trek to see what I could find and came up with some curling bagel sandwiches in the entryway, something called China Express way way back at the end of the exhibition area selling "Asia food," which is an insult to both Asia and food, a tiny stand selling coffee and cake, and, out in front of the building, a cart selling cold hotdogs in cold buns. Eventually, someone mentioned that there was another place in a room no one had looked in, and sure enough, there were two bars, one of which was promoting Swiss coffee, the other of which was selling cocktails. Although there wasn't a single sign announcing it, the coffee folks were selling ciabatta sandwiches (not bad at all) and pizzas (grim-looking) and the cocktail people had trays of the usual chemically-treated prefrozen sushi for sale. There was also a smoking area outside this room, at which some really ganky-looking Bratwurst were being fried. Note to Popkomm: it can't hurt to inform delegates who are forced to be inside the ICC all day that these facilities exist. Note to facilities: doubling the serving staff might cut down on the number of non-Germans yelling at you because they're missing their meetings because of having to stand in line for 20 minutes to get a cup of coffee or a sandwich. (And no, I don't mean me; I live here and am well acquainted with the German sport of standing in line).

I didn't see any music, didn't acquire a single CD (although a band dropped off a press-kit on a 2-gig memory stick which has been cleared and is awaiting use on my desk), I didn't acquire any cool swag (nobody can afford it) although the cigarette lighter-flashlight that came in the registration bags was nice, and, unlike last year, I didn't get offered any apartment tips in Montpellier. I did, however, run into a couple of old friends and hear some good stories.

Here's one: a group from out of town was staying in a 4-star hotel, a small one out of the center, with a small lobby-bar. Returning late one night after an evening of clubbing, they decided on a nightcap before turning in, and the night-clerk brought them some drinks. "So we're sitting around this little table," one of them said, "and we have our drinks and we suddenly realized we were out of cigarettes. Just then, someone noticed a pack of cigarette tobacco and some papers on a table, so we picked it up. Imagine our surprise when, opening it up, we saw not only the tobacco, but a nice bag of weed. So we thought, cool, this is a nice nightcap and began rolling a joint. Just then the night-clerk walked back from his office and saw what was going on and ran over and started yelling 'Give me back my weed, dammit! That's mine!' We were just flabbergasted. One of our people speaks excellent German and really laid into the guy. Wonder if he'll have his job when this thing is over..."

Then there was one which happened to me. I was coming home on the Ringbahn, and stopped off one station early to do some banking at the Sparkasse office in the Gesundbrunnen Center. After I'd done my business, I walked back home over the bridge which spans the giant cluster of tracks by what used to be the Wall. As I got to the bridge, there was a guy shouting at me, very excited. I got closer and he asked me if I had a cell-phone. As it happened, I did, but one of the things I'd done at Gesundbrunnen was to buy some more credit because I was down to four cents. I hadn't loaded it on yet. But this guy was yelling "Look down there! Quick, we have to call!" Sure enough, on a side-line there was an S-Bahn train, kept ready for an emergency replacement at Gesundbrunnen, and as I stared at it, I realized that it was being covered with graffiti, very quickly and very efficiently, by three tiny black-clad figures working with incredible precision and teamwork. The tags weren't much to look at but the way they were working was. "You have to report this to BVG!" the guy was yelling. "They'll give you €60!" But it was too late. Their work done, the crew signed it and, with a speed which announced how well they knew the territory, they were leaping tracks and third rails like a bunch of steeplechase horses, heading towards the housing projects of west Berlin. From what I could see of them, they appeared to each be around eight years old.

* * *

As for the moving project, I've been telling people it's an astrological problem. Three planets need to be in conjunction: Enough Money, Available Apartment, and that most difficult one, Trusting Landlord. It's almost impossible to convince French people that an American my age who's self-employed is a good risk, although currently things are going very well indeed for me. Only the Enough Money planet is currently in place (and of course the third one depends on finding the second one), but I'm still getting e-mail alerts (and, in fact, got one while I was writing all of this) and if the frequency picks up as I suspect it will in the next few days, I could be back in Montpellier waving cash in front of a landlord as soon as next week.