Monday, August 15, 2005

Sommerloch, Part 5

Saturday wasn't exactly the nicest day yet this year, but at least it wasn't raining, which is good, because I was out of coffee, and so I headed down to Galleries Lafayette to get some. Lest this seem a mind-boggling extravagance, I should add that the Malongo boutique there sells the best, and pretty much the cheapest, whole-bean coffee in town. It may no longer be the cheapest, what with the explosion of Starbucks-style coffee shops around town, most notably Balzac and Einstein, but I figure €11 for 750g -- 250g each of Columbia Supremo, Cuban, and Malabar Monsoon -- is an affordable bit of luxury. Especially if you've ever tasted the stuff they sell in the supermarkets here. Even more especially if you've had to deal with me before I get my two cups down in the morning.

Friedrichstr. seemed to be packed with Spanish tourists. I think there must be some sort of exchange program for all the Berliners who get inflicted on Majorca and the Costa Brava. But they were jamming into Gal Laf, and I had my work cut out just getting to the basement to the food department. And now, I'm almost sorry I did. They've doubled it in size, which didn't surprise me because it was underway the last time I went in, but what they've added is a huge refrigerated section with, basically, high-end French supermarket food in it. Need a pate en croute? Five or six to choose from! Five different kinds of olive spread? No problem! Many, many soft-drinks in strange but appealing combinations of fruits and flavorings, all three Euros or more per 33 cl. bottle? A wall of 'em! Damn, it was like being in a museum.

Anyway, clutching the coffee (and, okay, a bottle of walnut oil and some sort of turkey cutlet stuffed with mushrooms and cheese), I staggered out, thinking that the venerable food floor at Berlin's overrated KaDeWe must be wondering how they could catch up, I headed towards Alexanderplatz for another essential, but impossible to find in my neighborhood, cornerstone of my cuisine: Parmesan cheese. ("Zu exotisch," the cheese lady at the store told me once when I asked).

Inadvertantly, I'd chosen the wrong way to get there, and decided to cut down to Unter den Linden through what looked like yet another street-fair -- virtually unavoidable at this time of year. Well, not just any street-fair: it was the dreaded Gauklerfest. I doubt there's been a juggler seen at one of these affairs in years, but what was once a celebration of Berlin's street performers has turned into yet another excuse to set up row after row of bratwurst stands, bars, and knick-knack vendors. It would have cost me €2.50 to walk the block to Unter den Linden, and I would have had to put up with the caterwauling of some idiot with an electronic keyboard while I did it, so I took the long way around.

I wonder if the Russian Mob has taken Gauklerfest over, since they control all the street performers -- the legal ones, anyway. In order to perform in the street, you have to get a license, and as I understand it, the office is open for about an hour starting at 6:30 in the morning. You go in, pay your fee, and get a little yellow piece of paper that allows you to perform in any legal space in subway terminals, underground walkways, parks, and so on, for 24 hours. In theory, it's a great idea. In practice, a couple of guys go in and buy several hundred of them apiece, and then dole them out to performers who are willing to kick back a cut of their earnings. In addition to the license, you can get an education in short-changing techniques, always helpful for when you go into a bar with a hatful of change and ask if you can turn it into a few bills. And it does, also, explain why the majority of the street performers here are singing Russian folk songs.

At the fabulous Atomic Clock in Alexanderplatz, there was a bunch of action: a lot of kids dressed in red holding signs, a bunch of cops, and, at a little card table, some people from the NPD, Germany's furthest-right party, which I thought had been banned. Weirdly, though, the kids in red weren't, uh, Red. They were apparently promoting a new fragrance by Puma. The cops must've been there solely to observe the Faschos.

That was the highlight of the second half of the day. I went into Kaufhof and bought not just the Parmesan, but also another not-in-my-neighborhood delight, a steak, which was on sale. They're renovating Kaufhof in an interesting way, building a new shell around it while the old store continues to operate. This will remove yet another reminder of Alexanderplatz' recent commie past, since that waffle-iron exterior you can see on the webpage -- the very height of modern '70s DDR design -- will be replaced by something more 21st century. It's an interesting engineering problem, though, and I'm wondering how it'll work when they get to the last stages of the remake.


Another great Berlin club may be doomed, I hear. According to Elvis's Dad (and how cool is a German guy who names his kid Elvis?), who lives upstairs from Schokoladen, the landlord has decided the building is going to collapse, and is planning to chuck everyone out, including the club, the theater in the back, the residents of the building, and the long-time community newspaper Scheinschlag. Schokoladen really is an old chocolate shop, selling Zar chocolates back when they existed, and it's been a hangout and alternative venue for the past 15 years. Elvis's Dad tells me that the entire thing -- even the trees in the courtyard -- are protected by landmark status, and so the landlord may have a fight on his hands not only from the tenants, but also the landmarks people. The latter, however, seem to me to be, if not bribable, at least able to look the other way when the heavy machinery rolls in, particularly if big-time real estate speculation is involved. I'll keep on this one -- I walk past the place nearly every day -- and keep you informed. Nothing else to do, after all: it's Sommerloch.

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