Saturday, October 29, 2005

Who, Me?

All of a sudden, the neighborhood's been blitzed with a new advertising campaign. The billboards I saw first were all the same: a picture of a familiar aged man, and the words "Du bist Albert Einstein. Du bist Deutschland."

Well, a whole lot of the Germans I run into every day sure aren't Albert Einstein, or even anything close, but then, who is? And, more to the point, what was going on here? I've mentioned before that pride is a sticky issue here, that the word pride, Stolz, is never, ever heard under any circumstance. But clearly this was some sort of pride campaign, which meant it was risky for whoever was doing it. And, given that the German colors were present as a sort of logo/squiggle, I figured it was the federal government.

Turns out I was right -- and that I'd already written about this campaign for that self-same government, albeit a different wing of it. This is all part of Partner für Innovation, which I'll get to in a moment. Du Bist Deutschland, however, is the public face, and from the website, it appears that it's got a whole lot of television commercials attached to it, as well as a bundle of billboards.

Strangely, the second one I saw, of the many they're going to put up, was the one that's bound to be the most controversial:

For those of you who don't live here, the name Beate Uhse will draw a blank, but she was, in the waning days of the war, a Luftwaffe pilot. After the war, unemployed, widowed, with kids to support, and looking around at the devastation of Germany, she took what little funds she had and printed up a booklet giving women straightforward information about birth control, a very controversial subject in those days, which she sold for a nominal fee via mail-order. Busted for obscenity, she stood trial and defended herself with common sense. She won, and began selling birth-control devices -- condoms and diaphragms -- through the mail. From there, she moved into other sex-related areas, and finally added bricks-and-mortar shops to her empire, selling sex toys, erotic clothing, and lots and lots of pornography. Today, it's a very small town indeed which doesn't have a Beate Uhse shop in it, and she'll probably best be remembered by East Germans as the name on the first piece of mail they got after their government fell: the Beate Uhse catalogue. Some of the very first capitalistic businesses in the East, too, were her shops, setting up in quonset huts and containers until she could get a more stable piece of real-estate. When she died a few years back, she must've been a billionaire: among her holdings is a virtual supermarket over by Zoo Station here in Berlin which also contains her Erotic Museum, which was once the collection of an erotica specialist in Munich. He offered to donate the whole collection to the city of Munich, and when they sniffed at him, Beate Uhse stepped right in and bingo! Instant museum. The real estate it's on isn't cheap, either: it's as centrally located as you get in West Berlin.

Which is to say that, next to some of the other choices -- Michael Schumacher, Otto Lilienthal, Albert Schweitzer, and our pal Herr Einstein -- she sort of sticks out.

But what's most intriguing here isn't using Beate Uhse as an exemplar of German initiative -- she's actually a very good one, as the copy on the sign makes clear -- but that this campaign is seeking to sell Germans the idea that they're actually worth something. This is something that's bothered me since I've lived here: the fear that, by being proud of your country and its culture, you run the risk of slipping down the greasy slope into full-blown fascism again. The idea that national pride equals nationalism seems pretty much universal here, although I would think that, having been there before, they'd be in an excellent position to stop the train well before it pulled into that station.

If you think I'm kidding about what's going on here, and if you read German, go check out the campaign's manifesto. It's all "Come on, big feller! You're okay! Things look bad, but you're really stronger than you think!" It skates around a lot of dicey issues -- dicey to Germans, anyway. You can't invoke the past, because, uh, well, it was dicey, some of it. You can invoke the "Denker und Dichter" (thinkers and poets) image, although you have to use people like Lilienthal and Frau Uhse because there's been a certain lack of universally-loved authors since the war, nobody reads poetry, and nobody pays any attention to philosophers -- particularly post-war German ones. So instead of talking about national pride, it invokes rooting for your football team (not nearly as loaded with fascist baggage as it is in, say, England or Italy, although a meeting of rivals here can still scare the crap out of visiting Americans due to the massed singing and chanting -- and the rioting which sometime erupts when a left-wing team like St. Pauli meets a right-wing one) and waving flags for Formula 1 driver Michael Schumacher.

The other half of this campaign, which is the one I wrote about and which is where the money comes in, is the one which is trying to hook researchers up with industry, thereby beefing up Germany's wobbling industrial and technological infrastructure. This Partner für Innovation campaign publishes a little booklet Deutsche Stars (which you can download as a big old PDF file on the home page), which consists of descriptions of "fifty innovations which everyone ought to know about" which were made by Germans. Some of it reaches kind of far: I'm not at all willing to concede television, automobiles, beer (Saddam Hussein, call your lawyer! Babylon's being besmirched again!), or the computer to the Germans, but I was convinced that toothpaste and coffee-filters, to name just two things I use daily, were German, as, of course, was the Currywurst, an invention few outside the country know aoout, and one of the few culinary delights here I think might have a wider audience. (Curiously, the book does not mention the Döner Kebap, a fake-Turkish fast-food invented here in Berlin by a Turkish restaurateur and now a stock European fast food).

I'm still reeling from the implications of this campaign, and may well have more to say about it in further posts here, but meanwhile, I'll look around me and see if it seems to be working. I'm not going to hold my breath, however.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Power Story

Last Wednesday, I got a surprise visit: a guy from Bewag, the power company, holding a turn-off notice. This was odd, because I always get two warning notices before they send someone out and I hadn't had one yet. In a very loud voice, he told me, almost as if he were reciting it, that I HADN'T PAID MY BILL and that if I didn't HE WAS AUTHORIZED TO COME BACK IN A WEEK AND TURN OFF MY ELECTRICITY.

Wow, Mrs. B must've really enjoyed that performance.

Anyway, I realized that it had been a while since I'd heard from Bewag, but, since they've just been taken over by the Swedish firm Wattenfall, the bills might've gotten lost in the mail during the change-over.

But the next day, I got a printed bill in the mail that included the €42.55 charge for the guy's visit. That was absurd; it must have been mailed before he showed up. Trouble was, I didn't have the money to pay the bill. Best to have some ammunition before you go talk to these people, I reasoned.

This morning, though, I got an e-mail which indicated that I'd have plenty of money by week's end, so I figured, okay, I'll go all the way across town to the Bewag offices and see if they'll let me pay the whole thing by Friday, which seemed reasonable. I had to change trains twice, and the weather was cold and wet, but I made it down there to Bismarckstr. and took a number. You always have to take a number.

Mine was only three away from the number being dealt with, though, so it only took a half hour for me to get to the desk of the guy who'd hear my case. Which he would have if he'd bothered to listen. I asked him why I'd been billed for the guy's appearance on a bill that must have been mailed the day before, and he clicked around the computer and told me I'd gotten three warning notices, which, in fact, I hadn't. "You must have," he said with a smug expression. "The computer says they were sent." Impasse.

Okay, I told him, I would have the money by the end of the week, because I was getting more than enough to pay it. "Congratulations (Ich gratuliere Sie)" he sneered, "but you have to pay by the 26th." Can't you be a little flexible? I asked him. "You can pay half of this by the end of the day tomorrow in cash," he said, fixing me with a steely gaze, "or we turn you off on the 26th."

Well, if I pay half of it I won't have any money for food, but I can scrape it together. The guy spoke in rapid German, even though I asked him several times to speak slower. This only make him speak louder. You know, foreigners understand better when you yell at them. So I have to repeat this tomorrow and hope for the best.

The dancer was over for dinner yesterday, and at one point we started talking about how there were two Germanys, one made up of people who had no social mobility, who were in the working class with no chance of escaping it due to the class system and the educational system, and another Germany made up of educated, aware people. The first class also includes the bureaucrats, people like this guy, whose face slammed shut just as soon as he realized I was a foreigner. These people use their minimal education to secure jobs within a system from which they can't be fired, but can, if they play by the rules, be promoted. Some day, this guy may wind up in a cushy job like the fat gentleman with whom I had to register to get my number for the line. Until then, he gets to be completely inflexible, unfriendly, and severe. That's what pays off.

And hell, I've gone without food before, and I can do it again.

It was a weird trip there and back. On one train, a girl was crying uncontrollably, as people edged away from her. The billboards at the stations were loaded with "Bewag is now Wattenfall!" ads showing happy Germans doing this and that, happy, no doubt, because the city's deficit-ravaged company had been sold off to merry Swedes. I hope they make their invstment back. They're doing it on the backs of people like me, and at the expense of our good will.


I knew there was one item I forgot to post yesterday. I recently criticized the Berlinische Galerie for mounting yet another show about the group of painters known as Die Brücke, after the Neue Nationalgalerie had had a boffo show on just this group a few months earlier. As it turns out, on closer inspection of the BG's posters, they're housing the Brücke Museum, which is usually located in the borough of Dahlem, at the moment. No doubt the Dahlem location is being renovated or something. So the BG gets out of having to mount a new show for the fall and winter, sure, but it's not as confusing or stupid as it appeared. My apologies to all concerned, and if you missed the NNG show, you might want to go check this out.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Catchup Crumbs

Been leaving too many loose threads around here, so I thought I'd take up some of Sunday afternoon to tie some of them up. And to celebrate the 200th post here. I know that's not much for a lot of blogs, but considering how damn verbose I am, it's not half bad.


No sooner do I mention Chinky the Chinaman than his sister shows up on the cover of this week's tip magazine. tip is one of the two biweekly listings magazines, the more yuppie-friendly and lifestyle oriented, as opposed to Zitty, which is more politically inclined, but their deep dark secret is they're essentially the same company, as you discover when you ascend their twisted business structure. Anyway, Chinkette can be seen a little ways up from the bottom of this page, although she's a lot more, uh, striking full-sized or on the posters tip has up all over town. And now I hear I'm about to get an ad for a new "soul" radio station here which will be the Afro equivalent. Hmmm.


The "Do Not Ask" sign on White Trash across the street went down shortly after I mentioned it, and we got yet another in the seemingly endless stream of temporary art shows, this one entitled "seven +: Eleven Positions of Contemporary German Photography." I've always been put off by this "positions" word, since what it seems to mean is "this stuff's not real interesting to look at, but we've got these really interminable and unreadable essays by the artists and various art history PhDs in this big thick catalog which explains what's going on and what makes it art." Now, I'd call the show "Eleven Contemporary German Photographers" and let it go at that, but then, I don't even have a Bachelors degree. Nor can I figure out why a show of 11 photographers gets called "seven +." If you're showing there, are you one of the seven, or one of the others?


I've been told that one reason for all the horrendous lack of anything at all at the last race at the Hoppegarten is that the track has once again filed for bankruptcy. I have no details on this at the moment, but it could well be that all concerned weren't actually anticipating that the race would go on until the very last minute, although, come to think of it, that's pretty unlikely considering the fact that the big BMW race was happening that day. Will it be there next year? Wait and see, I guess.


The rain has started falling, hard enough to wake me up last night, as a matter of fact. Right now, Berlin is beautiful because all the deciduous trees are changing color. We've got about a week of this before things really turn ugly, but it's worth going out and suffering a little bit of precipitation to see it before it all turns grey and bare.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Another Night On The Town

I tell ya, I spend all week waiting for various people in various countries to get back to me about various projects, and nothing doing. I could have been working! But no, nothing doing. Then, all of a sudden, I have three things to do in one day.

Mid-afternoon yesterday I headed for Berlin's hinterlands, where I jumped into a car with a couple of my friends and their young daughter and headed out to the middle of nowhere to the Havelpark, a gigantic shopping mall. The reason? My favorite German winemaker, the ebulliently eccentric Heribert Kastell was, for some reason, selling wine there.

I first met Heribert when a couple of friends of mine here made an ill-fated investment in a restaurant. It was a superb restaurant, in a superb location, but they got screwed by some legal technicalities relating to the sale, and lost everything they had -- another Berlin success story: no matter how good you are, someone will come along to make sure you don't succeed. But before it all crashed, they invited me to a dinner and tasting with Kastell, and said he was their favorite winemaker, so, knowing their exquisite taste, I agreed to show up. Heribert was in fine form, opening various wines, and matching them perfectly with the food. I was dead broke, so I couldn't do anything but nod approvingly and remember his name.

Then, a year later, I was both writing for the Wall Street Journal Europe and heading to Cologne. His headquarters is in Bingen, an hour or so south of town, and so I headed down there with a friend who was living in Cologne and did a story on him. He drove us to the land he'd inherited from his family and told about how, after skipping a generation while his father was a butcher, he'd decided to reclaim the family business. Not only the family business: the Rheinhessen, where he's located, has a very poor reputation for wine in Germany, and he was out to rehabilitate that, too. No more weak, sweet wines like Grandma liked. Nope: he was going to use his experience apprenticing at Schlossgut Diel, one of Germany's top estates, to good use. The idea of bigger, drier wines was an idea whose time had come, and now he was advising younger winemakers on how to turn their production around. By the time I visited him, in 1997, he was selling out nearly everything he was producing, to clients like Deutsche Bank's main executive dining room. That didn't stop him from loading me up with enough stuff to take home and try that it took me a couple of years to get through most of it, and I saved a 1994 Riesling Sekt, his answer to champagne, for the 1999/2000 New Year's evening, when I enjoyed a tremendous wine, redolent of hazelnuts and flowers, as the Millenium changed.

The next year, I was back in Cologne for PopKomm, and one of the guys from SXSW, with whom I was working, declared he'd never had a German wine he'd liked. We had an extra day, so I called my friend and he agreed to drive us down there. We got to Bingen, I called Heribert's house, and was fortunate to get his brother, an archaeologist specializing in Native American archaeology, and based at the University of Wisconsin, on the line. Heribert had just packed off for a wine fair near Frankfurt, and his brother was loading the car with more wine and said he'd meet us there.

We walked into the fair, and there was the Kastell stand at the end of a row of stands. Heribert saw us coming and waved. "Heribert," I said as we got there, "my friend from America here says he's never had a German wine he liked." His eyes lit up and he grabbed a couple of glasses. "I hope you have a little bit of time," he said. As much as he was willing to spare, we said. A couple of hours later, we weaved away from the stand, my friend wondering how he'd ever get so many bottles through customs.

But I lost track of Heribert for a while after that, and it wasn't until my suburban friends announced earlier this year that he was coming to visit them over lunchtime that I saw him again. This time, it was obvious that he'd made great strides. He had a Kastell Klassik Riesling, which was, simply, the Platonic ideal of a German Riesling. He had begun experimenting with other grapes, including the Blauer Portugeser, which produces some of Europe's worst wine, out of which he made a rosé with amazing vanilla and floral tones. This being a classic German granny tipple, it was typical of his attitude towards winemaking: it's universally derided? Time to give it a spin! There were also a couple of others, very limited editions, which were just as astonishing.

Yesterday he didn't have as much in the way of avant-garde goods, but he did have some good solid stuff, including a couple of reds, one, a Frühburgunder (Pinot Noir), which I swear has a nose of gunpowder -- or, rather, gunpowder after it's gone off. I bought three. Yes, German reds.

As we stood and sampled, I watched the heavily-laden Friday-night shopping carts being pushed along by the Brandenburgers who come to Havelpark to shop at Kaufland, surely one of the largest supermarkets I've seen in Europe, filled with about 85% stuff I'd never consider eating. It seemed that the more heavily-laden a cart was, the worse the nutrition represented by what was visible in it. The bad nutrition was also evident on the faces and bodies of the customers, and it reinforced my observation that this part of the country is one which takes no pleasure whatever at the table. Even so, it should try to feed its families better.

We were there for about two hours, sampling things Heribert poured -- I don't use that much white wine, so although it was interesting to taste, I wasn't blown away enough to actually buy any -- and watching the parade. Finally, we made our purchases and left. I'd bought some Riesling Klassik, and some of that good Pinot, and Heribert had given me another couple of bottles to try. My friends, who are headed to Frankfurt soon, made tentative plans to visit him in Bingen, which is only 60 km away, and we headed out to the car with the booty.

My next stop was a Halloween party, although 3-year-old Amalia didn't approve, it not being Halloween yet. This invitation had come out of the blue, with a phone call earlier this week. I'd been expecting a call from a British guy working on a very interesting project (the remastered Harry Smith Anthology), and when the voice on the other end had a British accent, I assumed it was him. It wasn't: it was Alex, the owner of Another Country, a used book store I'd been hanging out in at the end of last year and early this year, as Alex tried to cobble together some sort of expat community non-profit organization. The trouble was, each conversation took hours, and I had to be there in person, and, after a long hiatus, my time was actually getting used up doing actual work for a while, so I stopped going. I really don't think I'd talked with the guy since about January, and here he was, inviting me to his Halloween party.

It was tons of fun, as I sort of half-expected, with the store's regulars, mostly sci-fi fans like the owner, all in costume, mostly Goth-y stuff, as one would expect. What one wouldn't expect was a huge amount of great food, all prepared by our host, who was on the verge of collapse, as you might expect. I met Heidi, a strapping young woman who'd lived in Austin and was now living in Schöneberg, and Bernie, an affable Jamaican slightly older than myself, who'd gone from St. Catherine's to Harvard just as the '60s began to ripen in that area of the world, and who had known Richard Fariña.

Trouble was, I didn't get to stay as long as I wanted to there, because duty called. I had helped put together the Bubblegum Film Festival, which was essentially a screening of a strange bootleg film called Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, based on the book of the same name. Because the film is, let's not mince words, illegal, showing it is, too, except if it's part of a larger event. So it was decided that D Strauss, music editor of the otherwise-crappy local English-language rag The Ex-Berliner, would read an excerpt from the book and then DJ a few hours of bubblegum music.

The event got picked by lots of our local media, but as it turned out, there were only something like four paying customers. Strauss was jet-lagged all to hell, and apparently had forgotten he was supposed to read, so he slurred his way in a monotone through a text which wound up being pretty much word-for-word repeated by the first few minutes of the film, which, at around two hours, was waaaaay too long. Each artist, and I use the term loosely, as about half of them were cartoon characters, was represented by two songs, which, in some cases, was two too many. As the lights went up, most of the audience bolted for the doors so fast you'd think the Berlin Marathon had just started. As I was out on the sidewalk afterwards, waiting for some friends to conclude some business inside the cinema, along came Heidi from Another Country. "Hey! This is my neighborhood! Is this where the bubblegum thing was? I'm sorry I couldn't come. But I gotta love this town." She pointed at the Klingon ears which poked out of her black-dyed hair. "I just rode all the way back here on the U-Bahn and nobody even noticed this." Heidi, stick around. You'll see much scarier aliens on the U-Bahn. Try Zoo Station at about 11pm.

So I think in the next couple of weeks I'll take some books I don't want down to Alex and shoot the breeze with him and see if he's gotten anywhere with this thing. I'm already in exit mode, I can feel it every time I walk into another part of town I haven't been in recently and wonder if this is the last time I'll see it for a while. But with the reduced daylight, the coming of horrible weather, and all, this is the time when community does make a difference in Berlin. It won't get better for six months, if that. It helps to have others around.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

More Graffiti!

I've been meaning to post some more results of my wandering around the neighborhood documenting graffiti, and I've finally gotten over the depresssion caused by the crash of my hard-drive in April with hundreds of pictures I never posted here. Like the graffiti itself, they've just gone away. Unlike graffiti, there's a good chance I'll pay to have them -- and much else -- recovered. But until then, there's always the new stuff.

Since there's always evolution in art, my favorite new graffiti artist is the nut-case who's posting dolls. Actual 3-D graffiti. There are three of them on Rosenthaler Str just below Rosenthaler Platz. Here they are:

I'm sure there must be more of them around, but I haven't found them. Thinking about them this morning, I was reminded of the artist, whose name I've long forgotten, who built the little adobe buildings in odd locations in New York in the 1970s. But that was a "serious" artist, with art-world support, although as I remember, the locations weren't publicized, except, of course, for the ones that wound up in the Whitney Biennale.

In other graffiti news, I was going to photograph a "new" painting by Nike, the amazing primitive painter of female nudes, who had a masterpiece painted on a signboard for the Süddeutscher Zeitung on a fence by the corner of Rosenthaler Str and Weinmeisterstr. that was serving as a sort of odd public outdoor gallery. It was a nude facing the ocean on a tropical beach, with the sun shining, and it was dated '04, which made me wonder if she'd stopped painting. But it was only up a couple of weeks, and last week when I went there with the intention of photographing it, it and all the other paintings and artworks had been taken down and some fake paper graffiti some theater has made were up instead. I despaired of seeing any more of her work, especially since the few remaining examples had all been hideously defaced, like this, her first piece, which has been hanging by Friedrichstr station for over a year:

But imagine my surprise this afternoon when I walked out of my house to see a brand-new Nike, affixed to the wall right across the street, on the wall of what had been White Trash Fast Food!

No, her skill hasn't improved -- look at that neck! -- but I'm hoping this means there are a bunch more in the process of going up. Some graffiti, after all, just creates urban blight. But, as the dollmaker and Nike show, some of it can really brighten a place up.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Chinky & Co.

A friend visiting from the West Coast last year got really offended as I gave him directions to my house from the hostel at Rosenthaler Platz where he was staying. "Just go out the door, cross the street, and if you see Chinky the Chinaman you know you're on the right side of the street," I told him. He made some odd noises, but when he finally showed up here, he said "Hey, sorry for all of that. But you were right. Chinky the Chinaman."

What I was referring to was this:

Now, if that's not Chinky the Chinaman, I don't know what is. The most annoying part of this is...well, it's hard to say just what the most annoying part of this is. This is an exquisitely-decorated Chinese restaurant, although the food it serves is the usual German Chinese crap. It was also, according to an ad campaign that was all over Berlin last year, assisted in its creation by a Federal initiative to encourage business start-ups. That campaign just used the motif of a tongue with those five characters on it (and any Chinese experts out there, I have a question: are those or aren't those archaic characters? Certainly they're not the ones in common use, are they?).

But what's really annoying is that no one is upset by Chinky. In fact, it's been a lot worse. Four or five years ago, McDonald's went on an ethnic rampage, featuring new sandwiches every ten days or so in various "exotic" combinations. There was an Indian sandwich, a Mexican one, a Greek one, and each one was, of course, advertised by a saturation billboard campaign. Now, of course, a billboard isn't a subtle medium, and you have to get your point across fast, so yeah, the Indian one was advertised with Hindu-like lettering, the Greek with squared-off blue and white letters, the Mexican one with a sombrero. But the Chinese one was done with one-word posters with a little explanatory text below. The first one I saw, right near my house, announced LIESIG! and of course used fake-Chinese type. I reeled when I saw this, because, knowing German, I realized that the word they were using was "riesig," giant. It wasn't until I saw a second one that said RECKA! ("lecker," delicious) that I started getting mad.

Soon after this McDonald's campaign was all over town, I read an article in some left-wing paper here about it, which at least reassured me that I wasn't the only Caucasian who'd gotten offended. They interviewed a woman who was the head of some Chinese-German association, and her response was "It's annoying, but there are bigger issues we have to deal with." That kind of disappointed me; the idea of a bunch of Germans in coolie hats picketing McDonald's had occurred to me, but hey, if Frau Lee wasn't going to get excited, no one else would. Although, on reflection, it seems to me that starting with such "little" issues, you can bring attention to the bigger ones. Well, whatever.

It's undeniable, though, that this sort of racism -- Orientalism, to give it its proper name -- is acceptable here. There's a snack food that comes in "Thailandische süss-scharf" (sweet-hot) flavor, and features a "Thai" on the package wearing a coolie hat, slanty eyes, a pigtail, and those kind of Japanese wooden shoes with the two platforms, the kind that geishas wear. It's an offensive stereotype, but it isn't even a remotely accurate offensive stereotype.

I usually learn my multiculturalism at the table, and the "Asia" restaurants here have had my back up since I arrived. The "Asiapfanne" is a mess of pork and noodles and a couple of vegetables, including bean-sprouts, seasoned with soy sauce, that's ubiquitous at the Asia Imbisses (snack-bars) here, and it's wildly popular: I see people cramming it into their mouths every day. It's of no known nationality, created, like chop suey, by Asians themselves for the society they find themselves in. I'd reckon that the majority of Asia Imbiss owners are ethnic-Chinese Vietnamese, because there was a huge number of Vietnamese who came to the West as refugees around the time of the Vietnam War (thanks to Germany's once-liberal refugee policies) and to the East as "friendly socialist workers," and, just as the Chinese in America invented chop suey, they invented Asiapfanne.

Eventually, they opened restaurants, so people could come in and sit down, but the fare in there was just further variations on Chinapfanne. And when other ethnicities came into the mix, it was no better: I once went clear across town for dinner because I'd found a Vietnamese restaurant, the first I'd seen here. Nothing on the menu -- or on the plate I ordered -- was even remotely Vietnamese. In fact, it was indistinguishable from the "Chinese" food I'd had.

This is still going on: what got me to finally sit down and write this rant was the discovery in my mailbox this morning of yet another take-out menu. This one is from the newly-opened Mai Bistro, and offers "China-Japan-Thai" cooking. Its contents are so horrible that I shudder to re-open it to give examples, but I will. First, in the Chinese section, there are seven varieties of Chinapfanne, plus four more "fried noodle" dishes which are indistinguishable from them. This is followed by fried rice in a number of varieties. Bami Goreng and Nasi Goreng are also listed under noodles and rice, respectively, although they're European Indonesian dishes. Then we're on to the chicken, beef, duck, and shrimp dishes, each with its chop suey, curry, sweet-sour with pineapple, and peanut-sauce variations, not to mention bamboo shoot, carrot and glass-noodle stir-fries. Under Thai, we have our choices of green curry, red curry, fried noodles, and fried glass-noodles, with the same meats as the Chinese stuff. The Japanese menu is truly amazing: Katsu (breaded, fried chicken-breast) with curry, hot, sweet-sour, hot-sour, or "Braten" (which I presume means the nebulous brown MSG-laced Maggi sauce) sauces, or Topia (chicken cubes) done the same way. Then chicken teriyaki, chicken yakitori, fried chicken cubes, chicken chop suey, and chicken "Mai curry." Finally, we have the shrimp, Ebi-Katsu-sticks, it says here, shrimp breaded and fried in oil, with tartar sauce.

I will not be calling them any time soon.

This cultural confusion isn't helped by the fact that the sushi industry here is dominated by the Thais, and the "Thai-Sushi" sign is practically all you see. (There are a few restaurants in the west which cater to Japanese businessmen, including the wonderful Sabu, and here you can get normal donburu and tonkatsu -- things Japanese people actually eat). In fact, the nearest place to my house where I can buy sushi is a restaurant called Südostasien, or South-east Asia. Thai-sushi is cut in factories, placed on waxed paper, and frozen to be delivered to these places. Long gone is the magnificent sushi-joint Mäcky Messer on Mulackstr., where a maniacal German guy from Hamburg made some of the best sushi I've had outside of Japan.

In fact, I've met actual educated intelligent Germans who have argued with me that the predominant starch in Chinese diets is noodles, and that there's really no difference between Chinese and Japanese and Thai food. This confusion goes well beyond the table, too, since they're confused that there's a difference between Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam on the one hand and Indonesia, or China on the other. Worse, they don't see why this exasperates me.

Now, you could argue that this is a culture which hasn't had much first-hand experience with these ethnicities, and I'd argue right back that if we were in a small city like Seelow, hard on the Polish border, it would be one thing, but this is the supposed "World City" of Berlin. And yeah, it's so much easier to deal in stereotypes, and if we but admit it, we can fall into this way of thinking sometimes, and yeah, if I were discussing Amazon Indian tribes, I might make stupid mistakes because I've never really studied them or, needless to say, experienced their culture or known any. I'll even grant you that Laotians haven't made much of an impact on Germany, maybe. (The Vietnamese made enough of an impression that right after I moed here, the German government deported something like 15,000 of them, in an effort, they said, to "cut down on crime." Sure.) But China? Japan?

The fact is, there's a current of lazy racism under German -- and, I'm willing to bet, most European -- culture. My favorite restaurant has a hotel attached to it (two, in fact), and in the window of its office, there's a little sculptural ensemble of happy darkies playing instruments, red lips and all. I guess I cut them slack because I know they're good people and because they've built a former dissident Ossi bar into a lodging and gastronomy empire, but I do wince a bit every time I walk past this little group. And there's no denying that, when I made my first visit here, in 1988, the apartment I stayed in had a box of chocolate-covered domes, with a cookie base, the dome filled with some sort of awful white cream, which were labelled Negerküsse, "nigger-kisses." Nobody I mentioned this to could figure out what I was on about: that's what they'd always been called.

However, when I finally moved here in 1993, I went looking for them in the supermarket. The name had been changed. Now they were Maurenküssen -- "Moors' kisses."

Now, that's progress.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Mrs. Badvibes

And it was such a peaceful summer...

But now the apartment across the hall is occupied, and anyone who knows me knows what that means: Mrs. B is back. Of course, it's her apartment, so it's not exactly unusual that she'd be living there, but things are a whole lot nicer when she's not.

She's my landlord's mother. She was all smiles, cheery, effusive, and even helpful, when I first moved in. At the time, the whole family was involved in the ongoing renovation of the house, since they seem possessed by Winchester Mystery House Syndrome. The sound of pounding, sawing, and people shouting at each other over the din went on from 7 in the morning until about 4 in the afternoon, when the older Mr. B would go off to the store, buy a little bottle of something, and start getting pickled. He was a nice enough old geezer, and thought it was pretty comical that I was so unhandy with tools. He and the Hausmeister, the handyman-cum-property-manager who lives in the house across the courtyard, really got a kick out of that.

Then Mr. B died of liver cancer. The family actually lives in suburban Düsseldorf, so that's where she went to mourn. Her son, my actual landlord, showed up from time to time to deal with new tenants, various crises with the plumbing, and so on, but mostly the apartment was empty. After a while, though, she apparently missed the place, and so she came back, This was when things got bad. She'd stop people in the halls and lecture them. As an American, I got to hear her opinions on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. "Think of the children!" she shrieked. "Think of the children!" She'd have me backed up against the wall, jabbing with her finger. Nor did she restrict this to the residents of the building: friends of mine who came over would get trapped by her, too, and apparently to Germans she espoused some particularly ugly right-wing political positions.

This makes a certain amount of sense. Her family, she once told me, was from Radeberg, a suburb of Dresden known for its famous beer, which was the only one in the entire Deutsche Demokratische Republik considered good enough to export to the rest of the world. There, her family (or maybe she and Mr. B) owned a mill, but when the communists came, they kicked them out of the mill. How they wound up in suburban Düsseldorf I don't know, nor do I know whether it was just Mrs. B who was the Radeberger, but apparently when the records were opened and searched after reunification, the family discovered they owned an apartment building in Berlin, and so, fired with Winchester Mystery House Fever, they came, they stayed, and they renovated.

When there was no renovation to do, in the days after Mr. B Senior's death, she got restless. She has a bike, which she rides all over town, and she also has friends who come visiting and make whooping noises, and giggle and talk very loud, doubtless because they're old and some of them are deaf. Anyway, one day, she showed up at the door and asked if she could come in, not giving a reason. I hesitated and she pushed me aside and came in anyway. I'd been away on various assignments, since this was when I was travelling every other week for the Wall Street Journal Europe, so the place wasn't in very good shape. This she acknowledged by walking around, her hands raised to the heavens, shrieking at the top of her lungs "FURCHTBAR!! FUUUURRRCCCCCHTBAAAAR!!!" ("Terrible, awful, dreadful," says my dictionary). She then started coming at me, her finger cocked and loaded. "You have to clean! You have to spend at least two hours a day cleaning your house, every day! You have rats!" (This was a pure product of her imagination). She then stomped out.

I was shook. I called a friend, who informed me that Mrs. B had just violated one of the most basic landlord-tenant laws. If someone like the landlord wants to inspect the property, they have to give you written notice, and a very good reason. You can also, under some circumstances, deny them entry. And she wasn't even my landlord. But, of course, he got in touch. I wrote back a letter telling him that I had been away, and that I had cleaned up since her visit, and that she hadn't been given permission to enter the apartment.

That did it. The next time she visited, she got me against the wall again. "You lied! You lied to my son! You should be ashamed of yourself for being a liar!" She was howling at the top of her lungs. After about 20 minutes of this -- I'm not kidding -- I got away.

From that day onwards, she's made it a point to make a horrible grimace at me every time she sees me, and to tell everyone she can corner what a horrible human being I am -- so dirty! And this has now been going on for at least five years. She comes here, messes around in the garden, and snarls at me. It's impossible to avoid her, and it's not a whole lot of fun being around someone whose face twists into a rictus of disgust every time they see you, who heads back into her apartment if we're leaving at the same time and slams the door, waiting until I've gone. I've also stopped planting things like basil and coriander because she steals the pots. Apparently, although the garden is allegedly half mine, everything in it belongs to her.

How a saint like her son sprung from her loins -- he's spotted me rent during all of the horrible times here, and I've been up to a year behind at times -- I cannot say. (Nor can I converse with him because he never opens his mouth when he talks and talks very, very quietly: I can't understand a word he says, and never have been able to). But when she's here, I try to get out of the house as much as I can. You can feel the hatred burning through the walls. The one thing we have in common is we both can't wait for me to move away from here.

The good news is, she's rarely here longer than a week, and she arrived on Friday. Other good news is, leaving the house, I've taken the camera, and there will be some photos and stuff, both here and on Flickr as soon as I get around to it.

Oh, you read the headline and thought I was going to write something about Angela Merkel? Well, not only did Jane Kramer scoop me some weeks back in the New Yorker (sorry, but the story doesn't seem to be online: it was in the Sept. 19 issue, and it was, unsurprisingly, very, very good), but I must say that Frisco Mike has a much better comment than I could make.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Another Race, Another Country

Monday was, besides the 15th anniversary of the diplomatic protocol which united East and West Germany, the last day of racing out at Hoppegarten. All week, the weather forecast had been for rain -- and there'd been a lot of rain all week -- but when I woke up on Monday, that had all changed: a cloudy, but dry, day was forecast. Blaise had been asking about going to the races, so I got in touch with him and told him it was on.

I bought a three-zone day-pass (weekend) for five Euros, and we headed out, almost to the end of the public transportation system. We got there about 30 minutes after the first race, stood in the usual interminable line, and paid seven Euros to get in.

That's when it started to go wrong. The shed where the programs and racing forms are sold -- and there's only one -- only had a dozen programs left and no racing forms, which had already sold out. This was a problem: without the statistics in the racing form, there's no way to accurately attempt to pick a winner. Without that, there wasn't much point in making any bets. And without making bets, there wasn't much point in going to the track.

But we were there, so we stood in line for a sausage, it being that time of day. It was a very long line, twenty or more people, but it was the shortest of the lines at the several sausage stands. Germans, of course, love to stand in lines, it being a favorite pastime, but the closer we got, the more obvious is was that they were already running out of food. At 2:30 in the afternoon!

Finally, somewhat refreshed, we headed over to the paddock area to watch the horses for the next race -- all 15 of them -- being led around. There was really no way to tell which was which, just do the usual check for kidney sweat and obvious drug mania, so I just picked a couple at random and played them. Surprisingly, they did pretty well, although they didn't win. The next race was a much smaller field, but again, I had no idea what was going on. This time, I got lucky: I not only picked the favorite, but the one I liked went off at 10 to 1, and won. Paid for the whole day.

The next race had a field of four, and was the big €50,000 BMW German Unification Cup, featuring the unbeaten Horse of the Year from 2004, Manduro. Here, I was tempted to place an exotic bet, boxing three of the four. In other words, if they came in, in any order, I'd win. These kinds of bets can pay off in the thousands, but not in a four-way race; at best I'd double my money. But I chickened out and only boxed two, and then watched the one I'd eliminated come in second. Ah, well: I still came out ahead.

But the racetrack was a mess, the whole day through. Lines everywhere, like I've never seen them. Food concessions running out, drink concessions running out. And, although I'm loath, 15 years on, to blame this on the usual East-versus-West thing, the inevitable conclusion is that the bad planning was simply down to the stereotypical Lazy Ossi way of doing business: the forecast was for rain, so we won't buy enough sausages, enough racing forms, enough beer, because nobody's going to come. Never mind that the sausages would eventually get grilled and the beer drunk, and I'm sure the newsagent takes returns.

Ah, well, there's always next year, although I don't think I'll be around for much of the season. And the nearest races to where I'm moving seem to be in Toulouse, which is a pretty far piece away. This gorgeous racetrack out in the countryside is one thing I'll miss about Berlin.


The past, they say, is another country. I know: I've been living there all weekend, courtesy of a combination Christmas/birthday present I bought myself, The Complete New Yorker. Every page of every issue of the magazine has been scanned and transferred to eight computer-readable DVDs, and a complete search engine, along with abstracts of every single article, cartoon, poem, and piece of fiction, can find you anything they've published.

And, while it's nice to be able to find all four parts of Truman Capote's original publication of In Cold Blood, save them to a custom reading list, and read them later, or to read Janet Flanner's mysterious Letter from Paris, which had become a total relic of another era by the 1960s, or to find, as I did just randomly flipping around, a great two-part article from the '60s by the previously unkown-to-me John Brooks (who seems to have mostly covered business) on the history of the New Jersey meadows with an emphasis on muskrat trappers there, or to come upon a piece by the great Joseph Mitchell I'd never read before, what's really astonishing is the ads.

And it's not just the prices. Sure, I was amazed that you could get the best seats at a hit Broadway show for $6.35, or fly Pan Am from New York to Paris and back in 1965 for $400, although someone who knows about such things reminded me that $400 in 1965 was equivalent to $2300 and change today. But the things being advertised amazed me. Lots and lots of liquor. Lots of it, and a high percentage was what most people today would consider pretty down-market stuff, particularly the Scotch. There was a really weird ad for California wine which basically said that foreigners drink it, so how bad could it actually be, huh? There was glassware to serve drinks in, martini recipes galore, a company in Maine offering oranges in syrup (oranges in Maine?) for use in Old Fashioneds, and, of course, stuff to eat in canapes while you drank: cheeses and the inevitable Vita Herring Snacks.

In case you didn't want to do your drinking at home, there were ads for nightclubs (Lena Horne! Benny Goodman!) and restaurants, two of which, Emily Post's and Peter's Backyard, I vaguely remember eating at as a kid. There were ads for travel urging us to "See Beautiful YUGOSLAVIA!" and to travel Russia with Intourist, both of which rather surprised me. A bit closer to home, Jamaica was putting on a major promotion, as was a group of hotels in Barbados where you could stay for as little as $16 a night, double, which, even with inflation, is a damn good bargain. And even closer to home, there were ads for the Greenbriar Resort in suburban Washington (illustration of a co-ed target shooting group), and hotels in Boston and Philadelphia.

Flipping through all of this at fairly high speed, looking for goodies or just randomly wandering through a bunch of issues, the cumulative effect eventually gave me several weird dreams. It's not like this is the return of the repressed, really: I never saw these magazines when I was a kid. I did have a best friend whose parents, I think, got the New Yorker, and for certain they had the cartoon collections, which my friend and I would race through looking for Charles Addams. It's more a case of being thrown into a random barrel of pop culture and consumer goods from a long-vanished era, and that serves as some sort of abrasive to loosen things long thought gone in my subconscious.

And not so long gone: my friend's parents had pinned up in the house somewhere a New Yorker cartoon that stayed with me. A couple is leaving a cocktail party, and she turns to him and says "Why do you have to mention that you're a Democrat and cause those long silences?"

Thing is, if I had the New Yorker software fired up at the moment, I could actually find that cartoon by typing "Democrat" and "long silences" into the search function. No question about it: this is the biggest time-waster I've found for the computer since Marathon. And, for all its equal power to disturb, more intellectually enriching.