Thursday, April 28, 2005

Back Online

For the moment, at least, I'm back online. Turns out the problem with the DSL fault! But of course it was! This is Germany and the customer is always wrong.

The DSL modem had died. The guy I talked to suggested I go buy another one. I asked him why I wouldn't get another one from Telekom. "Hey," he said, in that patented friendly Telekom manner, "you've had this one since 2001."

So today I went to a T-Punkt, and, after waiting about 40 minutes in line, was sold another one for a mere €89.99! There goes the food budget for the forseeable future, but at least it works.

And, last night as I was thinking about this, I remembered my very first contact with Deutsche Telekom and thought I should share it with you nice folks.

When I first got here, I lived in a succession of apartments (well, two) where the phone bill was automatically taken out of the subletter's bank account and I paid them back. But a sometime business associate was moving to Hong Kong and wanted me to take over his apartment, which was huge, so I happily did it. One thing, though: he had to put all the utilities in my name, everything but the lease. There was one problem: they'd had their telephone turned off a few weeks earlier, and this was a time when if you were lucky, it was an eight-week wait for a number, since for some reason there was a shortage of them.

So his wife ran down the street to one of the storefronts Telekom used to have all over the place, and she talked to the lady there, who looked in the computer and said "You're lucky: the number hasn't been reassigned, and we can turn the phone on for the new tenant." So they started setting me up with the new account and old number, the wife explaining that my German was very bad, and I'd authorized her to do this (I think I'd already signed something that said so). "Ward," said the Telekom lady. "Is he English?" "No," the other woman said, "he's American." The Telekom lady stopped filling out the form. "Is he a black man?" she asked. "Oh, no," she was assured. "Good," said Ms. Telekom, starting to rubber-stamp stuff on the papers. "Black people don't pay their bills."

And I wish I didn't have to end this story by saying that when this guy's wife told me of this encounter, she finished by saying "They don't, you know." But she did.

Anyway, lots of other stuff, much more interesting than my own travails here, to report, so I think this blog's going to get active again in the next few days, as we play Hide the Synagogue and report on Berliners' mental health. Now to catch up on the e-mails.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Another Catastrophe

So while I wait for Telekom to turn the DSL back on, due to happen today, but as of 2 pm not happening (and their free number for DSL service questions doesn't work today, which is encouraging), I've just had another horrifying catastrophe.

Yesterday I turned on the big computer in my living room, and after it did its thing and I didn't play with it because the DSL was still off, it went to sleep, making some odd noises as it did so. When I tried to reawaken it about an hour later, I got a gray screen. Further investigation turned up the fact that the machine couldn't find the hard disc. This may not be the end of everything on the computer (backup? what's backup?), but the fact is that I don't have the money to have it diagnosed, let alone fixed.

At the very least, it's going to be several weeks before I can do this, so right now what I would like is for any of you who read this and regularly correspond with me to please just drop me a pro-forma e-mail ("Hi, Ed," or whatever) to whatever address you're using (unless it's Compuserve: that went away ages ago) so I can re-build the old address book. I have plenty of addresses, but I think it'd be better to be safe.

I should be more shocked and depressed than I am, but it occurred to me, thinking about this as I looked at the poor old G4 tower sitting in the bright box it had been delivered in about six years ago, that I was never a computer user before I moved here, for various good reasons (although I probably would have changed in due time) but that the discovery of e-mail changed my life: I might have been thousands of miles away from my friends and business contacts, but suddenly Compuserve put them all in my lap. So, after moving here in August '93, a friend sold me his old PowerBook 160 (hey, trackballs! Remember them?) and the SXSW crew brought it over here when they visited MIDEM in January of '94. Been hooked ever since.

And, although a great deal of my older writing is backed up (I found a January '04 backup without really looking yesterday, and there may be a newer one somewhere), all the e-mail, photos, games, all the passwords for various websites and functions (like the links to Powells and Barnes and Nobel I post here), basically all my life since 1994 is contained in that silent, comatose block of plastic waiting until I can afford to take it to the doctor.

In other words, it's like some sort of period was placed at the end of a sentence. If there were ever a metaphorical event dealing with the necessity for me to get the hell out of here, boy, this is it.

Still lack the money and so on, and yeah, I'm going to have to get this at least diagnosed, and fixed if at all possible, but this metaphor may well be the reason I'm not rigid with grief and depression about this. It's like the cosmos went and reinforced something I already knew.

Of course, if someone waved a magic wand over it tomorrow and made it work again, that'd be a lot more satisfactory. But that's not gonna happen. If there's one thing this past decade has taught me, it's that there are no magic wands, very few miracles, and that luck is as likely to be bad as any other way. The solution is keeping on keeping on.

So, if Telekom ever gets the damn DSL back on, that's what me and the tiny laptop are going to do.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Telekom: The Larger Problem

I was in sort of a hurry yesterday, what with dealing with this internet cafe (from which I'm sorry to say I'm logging in again today), and realized this morning that there's more to this situation I'm currently in than just poor little me being shut off from my phone for a couple of weeks.

There's a societal problem at work here that's keeping Germany back, and it's something that may not be fixable. See, the main reason I got shut off is because I didn't do like most people here do and set up a regular draft from my bank account. This is because I never know how much I'll have in the bank at any given time. This is anathema to German institutions. You are supposed to have a regular income. It's virtually mandatory.

This is a huge problem, in my estimation. What it means, actually, is that you are to stay at a job until you retire, and that job is one where you work for someone else. That's assumed. And it's so ingrained that I once met a guy, an American, who was here working for a bank I won't name, teaching them how to communicate with their customers. It was a year-long project, something this guy is an expert at, which is why they hired him. So he moved to Berlin, set up his workshops, began training executives, and getting into life here. He also set up a bank account with the bank he was working for so they could pay him for his work, logically enough.

But then, one day, he got a note saying that they were terminating his account. The reason? He didn't have regularly-occurring deposits. The reason he didn't was that his contract with the bank for his work had him getting paid as he finished each segment of his training work, not on a weekly basis. So naturally he asked them what was going on. They told him that, yes, any bank in Germany (except one, which is where, coincidentally, I have my account) can terminate a bank account for this reason, and sorry, but that's what they were doing.

He realized, I think, that he wasn't going to get very far with what he was teaching, and left shortly thereafter.

My bank tried this, too, but fortunately I discovered they can't do it. There has to be one bank in the country which has to put up with this maddening individuality, and they drew the short straw. But the corollary to all of this is that if you can't work in a way where you get paid piecemeal, you're living in a society where you can't be self-employed. And what that means is that entrepreneurship of all sorts is discouraged by institutional fiat. Risk-taking is frowned on. I always bring up the quotation from a half-dozen years ago from the outgoing president of the European Bank, who said that Europe would never breed a Bill Gates because no young European would ever drop out of college because he thought he had a good idea.

Germans are already notoriously risk-averse, and I certainly discovered over the past decade how little they appreciate entrepreneurship, watching my own and others' attempts to start businesses get smothered by bureaucracy, unwillingness to invest in anything that wasn't a sure thing, and, in the case of a woman I know who tried to set up several businesses, the idea that women shouldn't go into business.

And another side of this attitude is that if all of your customers are good little sheep, they don't look at their bills as they get subtracted from their accounts. I like to know how much I'm being asked to pay, and why. In the past, Telekom has made mistakes on my bill, and they've behaved like they've seen old Lily Tomlin Ernestine the Operator skits and thought they were training films. I literally had one Telekom lady tell me that Telekom doesn't make mistakes. With a straight face. And people actually do submit to this.

Okay, this may be rambling. I have a hard time concentrating in this place, but I wanted to clarify some of what I wrote yesterday. I've got to find out when and if Telekom is going to turn me on, and I'm still not sure how that's going to happen, so that's today's chore. Time to pay another two Euros and head back to the house.

Meanwhile, if you've got a T-Mobile account there in the States, you might consider the company behind it. Bloated and arrogant, treating its customers in its home country as if it's still a monopoly with no one to answer to but itself. Deutsche Telekom.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Satankom Strikes Again

Bear with me. I have some nifty stuff to post, but I have to be at my desk, with access to various books and hyperlinks. Right now I'm at an internet cafe down the street, because I was a day late -- that's right, one day late with my phone payment.

This zero tolerance was also extended to two other people I know on the same day, and is, sadly, typical of Deutsche Telekom's relationship with its customers. Also, there's no negotiating with them: they turn you back on when they're good and ready.

There used to be a place, a storefront, where you could go pay your bills, but they don't do that any more. I guess there were too many irate customers coming in and threatening the workers. Wouldn't surprise me, at any rate. So I had to fill out a money transfer form, take it to the bank, and wait. That was Tuesday. Friday the thing finally went through, but of course there's no way Telekom works on Saturday, so I'm gambling they'll turn me on tomorrow. If not, it could be up to a week longer.

And, like I said, no way you can negotiate with them: I stand to lose €900 worth of work for a German government publication if I can't get back on this week, but this bit of information would make no impact whatever on them. They simply don't care what happens to their customers.

But I'll be back and posting again as soon as I can. And working overtime to get out of this horrible place.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

April Crumbs

Boy, I feel like an idiot. Did I really think that Harald Juhnke's dropping dead would mean the end of the tabloids' long affair with him? I woke up the day after I wrote that post and walked to the bakery on the corner, and there were the ad boards for the newspapers, all competing to offer more coverage of the funeral than the next one. I saw one offering six pages of color photos of the funeral. Bet that was fun...


Much, including an essay by Mark Twain I've yet to read, has been made of the German language and its unbelievable complexity, but there are times when it just says something you can't say any other way. The best example I've run into recently was over the weekend, when my friend the dancer was over for dinner and, in the post-dinner conversation, she got curious about Arnold Schwarzenegger. "How," she asked, "could he have been elected governor of California after making all of those...those...Volksverdummerungfilme?" I was stopped dead in my tracks by the elegance of the word. Like all German compound nouns, it's just a bunch of words stuck together: Volk=people, Verdummerung=making stupid, and Filme=films. But the idea of filmsthatmakepeoplestupid is a great one, and although I don't know if my friend invented it or not, I sure hope she did. It's a great concept, anyway.

Another great German word, one which has made its way into English, since we never had a word for the thing, is Schadenfreude, literally "shameful happiness," but really just the nice feeling you get -- however briefly -- when something bad happens to someone you don't like. Thus, I should mention the demise -- or "hiatus," as they'd like us to believe -- of Tracks magazine, who I had a little run-in with a few months ago. As a friend, another veteran of the rock press for many decades, commented upon hearing the news, they were "run by rank in-crowders without a sense of adventure or taste," which pretty much sums it up. They were going to be the American version of Mojo, but I'm convinced that that's not the magazine to clone for the U.S., not any more. Nope, if you know someone with a whole lotta money (Tracks apparently burned through something like $5 million in no time), tell them to get and study Word, which is everything Mojo used to be, and more. Refinancing Tracks would just be throwing good money after bad, as they say.


The Pope came over yesterday to talk. No, not that Pope -- I don't let dead guys in the house. No, this was the Pope of Mope, a New Yorker and rock critic who moved here three years ago and has, I think, lived to regret it, although I also think he derives a certain energy out of being miserable. But he confirmed something I'd suspected, which is that the last great Berlin club of the golden era of techno, Tresor, is closing down this weekend. Once upon a time, caught there in the sort of no-man's-land between east and west, two clubs, Tresor and E-Werk, defined the Berlin sound and style. E-Werk was just what its name said, an old electrical generating station, mostly emptied out, with huge ceilings and a forbidding industrial vibe. Tresor, too, was what it advertised: the basement of an old department store, which had contained its vault. The building above Tresor had been pretty much bombed (although one story stood aboveground), and the basement (as you can see vaguely from the picture on their website) had a real mystery to it, stripped of anything which spoke of its previous tenants. The scenesters divided between E-Werk and Tresor partisans, but only Tresor was smart enough to really assemble a decent business infrastructure (the E-Werkers were the crowd that put on the Love Parade), starting a label, a clubwear line, and all of that.

Still, a lot of the folks who jammed the place back in '90 are 15 years older now, and the last time I was around Tresor, it looked like it had been invaded by what New Yorkers call Bridge and Tunnel People, the local variety being hicks who drive in from Brandenburg villages for a scary night out and plenty to drink. Yes, it appears Tresor will live on "in exile" somewhere over by Ostbahnhof, and sure, the label will continue, through Mute, to put out some of the harder-edged techno that's out there, but another institution from my early days here will fold on Sunday night, and I, of course, can't help but take that as yet another sign that it's time to move on and get out of here.

I'm working on it.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Mess At Checkpoint Charlie

Yesterday, the BBC reported that the Museum am Checkpoint Charlie has to tear down the memorial they've erected on a plot of land there. I walked past it a few months ago but didn't stop, so I figured that today, with temperatures approaching 55 and a nice clear sky, would be a good time to take a walk down there and see what all the shouting is about.

I visited the Museum am Checkpoint Charlie on my first visit here in 1988, endeavoring to be a good tourist during the hours my then-girlfriend was working. It's a pretty remarkable place, which certainly does document a lot of escape attempts and has a lot of cool artifacts, but there was a creepy feeling about the place I couldn't really define. A collection box solicited donations for an unnamed "human rights organization" there, and my girlfriend gave a short laugh when I asked what this mysterious organization could be. "Probably the Ku Klux Klan," she said.

Probably not them, but certainly that far to the right. I'd still recommend the museum to interested visitors, but their agenda is something else entirely. According to the documentation at the site, it's owned by the Arbeitgemeinschaft 13. August e.V., or the 13th of August Working Group, which doesn't reveal much, and this non-profit (which is what the e.V. stands for) was founded by one Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt in 1962. Dr. Hildebrandt died on Jan. 9, 2004, and his widow re-erected a length of the Berlin Wall on a lot he'd leased from the Berliner Volksbank last year, then filled in both that lot and one opposite it on Friedrichstr. with wooden crosses, each of which represents someone killed, not, as the BBC reports, crossing the Wall, but attempting to escape from East Germany. Some of them go back to 1948, well before there was a Wall, in fact.

There are a lot of placards, very badly translated by someone who was proud enough to sign his name to them, decrying the fact that the city wants this private display of righteousness torn down. As for the monument itself, it's mostly fenced off, so it's impossible to read the captions on the vast majority of the crosses, which are made of simple creosoted wood and stand about 8 feet high. The placards express outrage that the city sold the lot to the Volksbank, instead of to the museum, although this part of town was and is a place where the city is desperately trying to establish a business district (with the minor inconvenience that very few businesses indeed want to relocate to Berlin). Widow Hildebrandt also mentions the expense she's gone to to lay wreaths at the site, although most of them seem to be at a makeshift memorial to her husband, and she also urges people who want to know why Dr. Hildebrandt's ashes haven't been interred to ask the "red, red Berlin Senate" why they haven't been. (One wonders where she's intending to plant the old guy).

There's also a guy there collecting signatures from unsuspecting tourists on a petition to allow the memorial to remain. He was busy barking at a bunch of Bavarians when I was there -- and naturally they'd be sympathetic -- but the only people who seemed to be doing really good business were the assembled Egyptians selling Soviet and East German crap: medals, watches, flags, hats, and of course matryoshka dolls, questionable amber, and painted wooden eggs. (How the Egyptians managed to get a monopoly on this would probably provide a fine primer on the workings of Berlin's criminal underground).

The city is alleging bad taste, but that's hardly going to wash with a lot of folks. They also allege that there are already two memorials to the Wall and its victims, and that's true, because one of them is near my house at Brunnenstr. and Ackerstr. There, a section of the Wall was purchased by the Berlin Museum (a museum of city history which I don't think has a building at the moment, having given up their old one to the Jewish Museum), and restored, poorly, then bookended with slabs of brushed stainless steel. I once took American artist Richard Posner there, since he specializes in political statements in public spaces and he almost had an apoplectic fit over how much of an opportunity the creators of this empty genture had wasted. Furthermore, the entire neighborhood where this thing was erected was outraged by the inscription Helmut Kohl's right-wing government had put on it, which stated it was a memorial to the division of the city and the "victims of the Communist reign of violence." For the longest while, police were unobtrusively stationed around the memorial because people kept defacing the inscription. As for the stretch of Wall itself, it's been treated by a graffiti-proof chemical, although that hasn't stopped scratchers from tagging the stainless steel inside the place.

Across from the Brunnenstr. stretch of Wall is a documentation center I admit I haven't gone to see, although I did visit it when it was owned by the church, on whose land the memorial wound up standing once the post-Wall paperwork was done. Back then, it appeared that the most horrible crime the Wall had occasioned was the dynamiting of the Schrippenkirche, the famous church which had stood there and had been caught between the two Walls. (Yes, there were two: a rather plain one on the eastern side, followed by a stretch of no-man's-land which was filled with booby-traps, dogs, and patrolling soldiers, and then the Wall we all know from the pictures.) In conjunction with the opening of the current documentation center, though, a number of glass signposts were erected all along Brunnenstr., which, because of its location with residential neighborhoods on either side and a huge wooded graveyard at the point where the current memorial stands, became a notorious death strip, with numerous escape attempts, many successful, occuring along the street. Also, the first person shot while trying to escape, a 19-year-old who bled to death in full view of West Berlin police who were unable to reach him without causing an international incident, was on Brunnenstr. right near the Nordbahnhof checkpoint. (There were numerous checkpoints, but they were all German-German for people going east to visit relatives; international visitors either had to use Checkpoint Charlie or Friedrichstr. station).

Given the horribleness of the Brunnenstr. official memorial and its inscription still taunting its neighbors, the cry of bad taste for Frau Hildebrandt's mass of crosses just doesn't wash, though. What's at play is a bit more subtle. It's the thing that's still haunting this city, the condition the Germans call Mauer im Kopf, the wall in the head. There's no question in my mind that it exists on both sides. Easterners are nostalgic for a time of full employment, even though it often wasn't very fulfilling work and it would eventually have bankrupted the country, since it depended on subsidies from Russia. Westerners are nostalgic for a time when West Berlin had its own subsidies, provided by the West German government and the governments of the Allies which occupied West Berlin until 1994. But Mauer im Kopf also means shoddier goods sold in the east (one need only visit a grocery store over here to see that in action), a persistent stereotyping of the other guy (Ossis are lazy and dumb; Wessis are yuppified and snobbish), and a general refusal (predominantly on the part of the Wessis) to visit the other side of town. Why, on my way back from Checkpoint Charlie I ran into an American who's been here for ages, and he told me he'd just rented a studio over here in the East. "I'm getting to like this part of town," he said. For those of you who don't remember the exact date, the Wall opened on Nov. 9, 1989.

But the right-wing mentality which operates the Museum am Checkpoint Charlie and is painfully obvious in the Widow Hildebrandt's public statements finds very little sympathy in official quarters in Berlin today. Yes, the Senate is governed by a coalition of the SPD (social democrats) and the PDS (successors to the communists, but really more a party of the left these days), and that, I think, actually does represent the feelings of Berliners who care to vote (and about 90% of them do, by the way). Frau Hildebrandt may want to keep the wall up in her own head, for very good business reasons as well as very questionable political reasons, but that doesn't mean she gets to trample the rights of the rest of us.

I say tear the damn things down.

Sunday, April 10, 2005


Boy, would I not like to be a tabloid journalist in Berlin right now; I'd be looking at a plate from which the meat and potatoes had been removed. (Everyone knows Germans don't eat vegetables).

Somehow, I missed the news that Harald Juhnke had died. For the scandal sheets, this is equivalent to Michael Jackson, P Diddy, and Britney Spears all perishing in a nightclub fire. One thing you could always count on: when the news slowed down, Juhnke would be in the headlines.

Not being German, and not being of a certain age, of course, I completely missed Juhnke's career. From what I've been able to make out, he was an entertainer who somehow survived the war, and built a postwar career as sort of Germany's answer to Frank Sinatra. Like Sinatra, he was a copious drinker, and like Sinatra, he recorded "New York, New York," only with new lyrics so that it came out "Berlin, Berlin." I've never had the pleasure of reading the words Juhnke pasted on to the song, but I'd like to give them a check for accuracy.

It was Juhnke's drinking that made the headlines, though. He was one of those people who'd drink in binges, who'd get blind drunk and keep on going for days. Unfortunately, unlike some people, he was a public figure, and he'd wind up pitching face-first into his dinner or collapsing in a hotel lobby somewhere and it'd make the news. One particularly horrible incident I remember was a series of photos with a screaming headline, "JUHNKE STAGGERS DOWN AN ALLEY." You could really see the pain and confusion on the poor guy's face; clearly he had no idea where he was, or what the flashing lights were all about as the vampires fed off of his disgrace. Vampires? That's being nice. I remember another front-page story which announed "We bought Harald Juhnke drinks to see what he'd do." Well, he did what you'd figure he'd do.

So as I spent my first few years in Berlin trying to figure out who this drunk was, I missed the fact that, when he was relatively sober, he was actually a star who commanded big fees, appeared on television, and all the rest. This was as much because German celebrity culture mainly focuses on people who are only celebrities in Germany as because German television, where I'd probably have caught his act, is so bad it dares you to watch it most of the time.

But because Juhnke showed up in the news so often, he was one of the few German celebrities whose name became part of the background noise here, and it didn't take long to figure out the cat-and-mouse game with the press, as well as the fact that he was famous for another reason. Then, he shocked everyone: he was going to retire. Apparently he'd made an ill-fated attempt to crack Hollywood (like they needed a middle-aged German alcoholic with no acting training) and then realized that maybe a dignified retreat from the scene was the wiser thing to do. He set a date for his farewell concert, and it sold out in mintues.

It was the farewell concert that brought to my attention that there was actually something to the man. As an opening act, he'd chosen Jocelyn B. Smith. She, too, is a local fixture, a black American singer who's decided that Berlin would be the place she'd make it in show-biz. Talented, but directionless, not averse to playing up the sort of weird exoticism Germany feels towards black people, an exoticism that's not quite racism and not quite not, she's always playing around, never quite breaking through. But Juhnke's gesture was moving; it was a sort of passing of the baton to the younger generation, giving her a chance to be seen by the faithful fans who'd stood by him all these years.

But when she took the stage, something horrible happened. Some of the audience started to boo, and others started yelling "Get the nigger off!" Juhnke stormed on stage and announced that he was not going to perform to an audience that behaved like that, that he'd chosen this singer himself, and that he was shocked and mortified that his fans would perform like this. It worked: the boos died away, and he got a round of applause, and Jocelyn went on with the show.

And, unlike a number of rock bands I could mention, Juhnke stood by his decision to retire. Not long afterwards, he entered a rehab facility, and it was announced that he wasn't in very good shape. Then he moved to a care facility, and there was much publicity as the press got all hypocritically concerned. And then, a few days ago, he died.

He managed to exit at about the same moment as the Pope did, which is probably why I didn't notice. The press, for their part, had tried to find other scandalous people to write about, but it just wasn't the same once Harald was off the set, and now he was gone for good. Pretty soon it'll be July, and we'll be moving into the Sommerloch, the "summer hole" where nothing happens. This was usually the time when we'd see the Harald headlines, but for the past few years, they haven't been there. And now they won't be, ever again.

I guess the moral of this is that everyone likes a scapegoat for their own failings, and that more than one drunk was moved to point at him and think "See, I'm not so bad." I have no idea what gifts this man may have had, but I do thank him for alerting me to the nature of celebrity journalism in this country. And I still do want to see those lyrics to "Berlin, Berlin."

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


I'm still mulling over my trip to the States and my return, but I also wanted to write about the city I left from and returned to.

At least until those new direct flights I mentioned come on line you can't fly to the States directly from Berlin, so it's much cheaper to fly out of a place that does have direct flights. like Amsterdam. Plus, I had friends I wanted to see on each end of the trip there, and I could afford the train ticket. Train travel is wonderfully relaxing, and I needed to relax.

There was a point at which I thought I was going to move to Amsterdam: my friend Alex had discovered that a major newspaper there was going to launch an English-language magazine and needed an entire staff. This was perfectly suited to what I knew how to do, so I hotly pursued it. A good job in a city I'd come to like sounded pretty good, although in the end, both this project and another that cropped up simultaneously with it turned out to be chimeras.

But after this latest trip there, I somehow feel I dodged a bullet. I still like the place, and I'll happily visit when the opportunity and means coincide, but I don't think I'd like to live there. And since I know it's a place a lot of Americans fantasize about moving, maybe I should explain that a little better.

Part of it is the stairs. If you've ever been to a house in Amsterdam, or even some hotels, you know what I'm talking about: they're incredibly narrow, making it impossible to really stand on the step with any authority, and they're pitched at an incredible angle. Me, I've got acrophobia, and I've stood at the top of a couple of Dutch staircases and felt that cold sweat coming on. Not everywhere in Holland: mostly Amsterdam. The reason, Alex informs me, is that taxes on houses were levied based on how wide the house was, so you wouldn't want to have too fat a house or you'd be paying too much to the government. I'd also conjecture that the lots aren't too deep, either, since otherwise the stairs could be pitched more liberally. It's a little thing, maybe, but it sure was odd seeing my friend Mike climbing the stairs in his place like a ladder, stretching out his arms and pulling himself up by his hands as much as he was using his feet. But he got up and down fast.

That seems like a little thing, but big things are made up of little things. There's a parsimony about Dutch culture that I'm not comfortable with, and it goes way back, as Simon Schama proves so entertainingly in his book The Embarrassment of Riches, a lovely account of how the Dutch Calvinist religious beliefs started conflicting with their day-to-day life once the nation became one of the biggest mercantile powers on earth. Things have changed since the 16th Century, of course, but some of the basic issues remain. It seems perfectly logical to me that they'd make their staircases dangerously steep to save a bit of money -- and that they'd levy a tax that made it seem necessary.

Of course, you don't see that walking around. And I did a bunch of walking. For my return, I'd gone and given myself a treat -- two nights in a five-star hotel via Priceline for $88 a night. Unfortunately, I'd checked not only the button for "Central and Museum District" but also "South," so I wound up at the Holiday Inn by the RAI convention center, way south. A few minutes with a map showed me that I was theoretically only 45 minutes' walk from the central section I knew well, and after 12 hours on various airplanes and my refreshing jet-lag nap I was ready to take that walk, especially since at the end of it was the Spui and the fabulous Kantijl en de Tiger, a great Indonesian restaurant (most of the time: there seem to be two chefs, one better than the other, and I lucked out this time). So off I went, finding Beethovenstraat easily enough, and started the hike.

One reason I don't own a bike (another thing that'd get me funny looks if I lived in Amsterdam) is that I really do enjoy seeing things at a walker's pace, from a walker's perspective, without having to worry about traffic all the time. I look in shop windows, peek in apartment windows out of the corner of my eye, and let myself free-associate about what I'm seeing. And as I made my way up Beethovenstraat, something came to me: I was surrounded by the less picturesque Amsterdam, the part of town where people might actually live -- where I, for instance, would almost certainly have wound up if I'd gotten a job there. Out of nowhere, I got a strange feeling: these apartments were small. They had to be: there were a lot of them. Now, I knew, intellectually, that Holland is the most densely populated country in Europe by a long shot, but all of a sudden I had that made visible. My apartment here in Berlin is small, too, but I get the feeling that it'd be larger than average in Amsterdam.

But even fantasizing enough money for something bigger, the density is something that's going to be with you every time you leave the house. It's one of the good things about Berlin: because until recently they couldn't build much higher than five stories, and because the place is sprawled out like Los Angeles, it's a big, populous city, but it's just not as dense. It's broken up by the largest per-square-mile ratio of green-space of any European city. I've never felt jammed in here. And I have in Amsterdam, and in Paris, too, for that matter. It's not exactly oppressive, but it is annoying, and that could escalate.

Offsetting that, of course, are a lot of positive things about Amsterdam. It's genuinely multi-cultural: on the way from the Holiday Inn I saw posters for the upcoming Zimbabwean election, since, presumably, expat Zimbabweans were going to cast absentee ballots just as I had back in November. (I also saw a lot of posters slapped up here and there with a picture of a stern-looking Middle Eastern man and the caption JIHAD IS OVER IF YOU WANT IT, which I thought was pretty good). The Dutch are, to a point, tolerant (although the impulses that made Pim Fortuyn a star bubble beneath the surface, just like they do all over Europe), and this is something I appreciate. The people are by and large friendly, and I have to say that the women seem happier than Berlin women, who always strike me as looking like they're voluntarily reporting to their own execution. And there's a whimsy to Dutch culture that I think Americans notice, certainly an unknown quality in Germany, where the same impulse tends to come out either as kitsch or scatology.

But...could I live there? I don't think so. My Dutch friends hate it when I say this, but, in the end, it's another Germanic culture, if we divide Western Europe up into Germanic and Latin cultures, which makes sense to me (Belgium, for instance, is right on the border of the two). There's a Protestant rectitude, a certain amount of uptightness that no quantity of semi-legal pot from a coffeehouse is going to relax, underlying the vibe in Amsterdam, and for the moment I've had enough of that. And there's also the little problem of having to learn Dutch -- not just as a courtesy, which is why I'd do it in the first place, but in order to get a residence permit now you have to be able to speak it, and I'm just not interested in learning yet another language, one that very few people in this world speak. And yes, I know they all speak English there. It's the mandatory aspect that gets my goat.

Nope: like San Francisco and Paris -- but deeply unlike them as they are unlike each other -- Amsterdam's the proverbial nice place to visit that I wouldn't want to live in. And next time I'll know how to game Priceline better, too.

Friday, April 01, 2005

What It Was Like, Part 1

"So...what was it like?" It's what everyone wants to know when you go on vacation, after all. So, not to promise there'll be a Part 2 to this, but here are some impressions, sort of free-association-like.

There was extra security at the airport, and the airport folks felt perfectly fine about letting us know that it was because we were flying to America that they had to ask all these questions. It seemed to vex them no little amount. Once in the air, though, there was a definite damper on the mood. Maybe I just drew a cranky flight crew, but levity of any sort was discouraged with icy looks, and there's a new protocol for using the bathrooms they didn't explain to us, so I almost caused an alarm in the middle of the flight when I tried to get to the john forward of where I was sitting instead of going to the back. The tension certainly does accrete during a ten-hour flight, so I was jumpy when I got off.

Of course, for the 20-minute flight from Houston to Austin, we had to change buildings, so after dropping off my luggage and hiking to the building where the new gate was, there was additional security to go through, and here they made us take our shoes off. This remains the stupidest part of airport security, in my opinion. Have they ever found anything in shoes? Further, this was supposedly implemented after that British half-wit tried to light alleged bombs in his sneakers, and yet according to the signs I saw on my way out of the country, it's only starting on April 15 that people will not be allowed to carry cigarette lighters on their persons or in their carry-ons. But making people take their shoes off is a major inconvenience, and focuses one's attention on the fear that's so important to this administration's retaining control. One friend noted that the practice was discontinued in the Austin airport for a while, but reinstituted just before the election. Aha.

The next major problem came at the hotel. Although my hosts had arranged to pay for it, the hotel required $50 or a credit card for "incidentals" like phone calls. Due to my financial catastrophe, I've lost my last credit card and it's very unlikely I'll ever have another. In Europe, this isn't such a big deal, but in America it means you're either a nobody or some species of criminal. Since it was Saturday night, and late, I didn't have access to my bank, so I asked if I could perhaps have my phone turned on until I could get some American cash. The answer was no. "It's our percedure," the robot-like girl at the desk said. And there was no way of talking her out of it. She, however, was a trainee, so I figured the day shift would be better. And it was. The woman turned me right on, and I went about my business all day, doing the usual things to get set up for a week's stay in a hotel: buying coffee and breakfast stuff, and, of course, getting set up to see some friends for dinner. Getting back to the hotel late, I found a message from Ms. Percedure telling me that the three calls I'd made amounted to $1.50, and that my phone had been cut off until I could pay it. Having checked my e-mail, I discovered that of the nearly $3000 I was owed, not a cent had made it in yet, so I was stuck with about twenty bucks in cash. I wasn't about to give in on this one. Neither, unfortunately, was she. It took two days and a visit from someone who had much, much better things to do than deal with this before it was made clear to the hotel that I was not a sleazy criminal, that I would, in fact, pay my incidentals bill (which came to something like $6.00 on the day I checked out), and that if I skipped, he would pay.

This sort of surly, no-exceptions, humorless vibe, I found, was all over the place. Do what you're told, the feeling was, or we'll fight. Weirdly, nobody seems to mind.

The other motif of the trip was overconsumption and overproduction. This was evident on my first full day, when I went to pick up my rental car. I managed to get a PT Cruiser (the most-stolen car in Holland, I later learned), which looks cool but is actually an adolescent SUV, especially as regards gas mileage. Man, what a hog! But I wasn't aware of that as I stood by it waiting for the guy to fill out the paperwork, and stared at the vehicle which was filling -- and I mean filling -- the rental agency's carwash. It was called an Armada. Later in the trip, I got to see numerous idiots driving Hummers bedizened with enough chrome to make oncoming drivers require sunglasses. Gas is over two dollars a gallon; what are these people thinking?

Probably the same thing I noticed when I drove through my old neighborhood and saw where old houses had been demolished to make room for structures that filled every square inch of space on the lot they were built on. No yards for the kids to play in, but then, people who live in houses like that don't let their kids play outdoors unless it's an organized sports activity for which they'll get extra credit and thereby make it easier for them to get into college. The houses seemed to be constructed from some sort of plastic material, but I didn't bother to touch them for fear of setting off an alarm.

I got to eat out a lot, in part thanks to friends who bought me meals as I continued to wait -- and wait -- for my checks to come. As I often do when I'm worried about money, I ate too much. Even so, it was hard to finish the portions in most restaurants, and I'd get that unpleasant sweaty feeling of being over-full before the plate was cleaned. That said, I noticed fewer morbidly obese people than I have on previous trips. Either people are getting back into shape, or they've died off. But trips to the supermarkets confirmed that the cheaper the food, the larger the container you can buy it in. I saw sacks of potato chips that'd take two people to lift.

Of course, I spent my whole time in Austin (with the exception of one trip to San Marcos to see a panel on Grover Lewis and to celebrate his widow's donating his archives to Texas State, as well as the publication of Splendor in the Short Grass, the new collection of his writing), and thus I think I avoided a lot of the worst culture-shocking I might have encountered had I ventured too far past its city limits. Not that I think I could live in Austin again, but the worst of the right-wing theocratical mind-set is pretty alien to the place still. I'm not convinced it is up in, say, Dallas. But then, why would anyone go there?

As to overproduction, it was very evident at SXSW, as it has been for some time. There's simply too much music out there, and, for me, at least, sifting through it has ceased to be any fun at all. The sheer noise when one walks down 6th St. during SXSW -- music pounding out of just about every structure on the street at maximum level -- is extremely disheartening. Not to mention that with something like 1400 performers on deck, it's impossible to figure out if any of it's worth listening to. I found some (Susan Cowsill, Jason Moran, a strange band from Cincinnati called the Heartless Bastards who may have to change their name if James McMurtry's long-standing band hears of their existence), but in the end, the amount of game I caught wasn't worth the irritation of the hunt.

Or maybe I was just worn down from arguing with hotel robots and compulsively checking my bank balance (one of the checks -- the really big one -- hasn't shown up yet, four weeks later) and waiting for the folks I was supposed to meet in Louisiana to get in touch (they never did, so yet another year has gone by without my getting over there, dammit -- not that I'd have had the money to do it this year anyway), and wondering at the new Whole Foods Market in Austin, the most over-the-top food store I have ever seen, with its $18 pasta bar and huge underground parking garage and incomprehensible layout, a far cry from the homey, friendly place just down Lamar where that gigantic chain started out, a place so friendly that when it was flooded in 1983 (I think it was), people volunteered their time to help them dig out. Nowadays, if that happened in this place, I imagine the response would be quite different.

I dunno, there must be some good things about this trip to remember, but they're just not coming at the moment. I'm sure I'll have more to add, but I'm also aware that the snow has gone from Berlin and I have something I've been wanting to write for some time that's dependent on my taking photos of the bare ground, more evidence, if you need any, that Berlin bites.

Stay tuned.