Wednesday, August 30, 2006


You're invited:

(Click on the image so you can read it and see the right colors)

Service Is Not A German Word

Part one: American Service

The other night, realizing that I had not a single thing in the house to read, I remembered that a friend of mine had sent me the draft of a book he was writing and it was on my laptop. I had guiltily not dipped into it, mostly because I spend too much time in front of screens as it is, and I'm sort of addicted to paper. But this was sort of an emergency.

So I fired up the laptop and started reading. About 60 pages in, I was way past hooked: the (true) story of a bunch of wannabe playboy gangsters in Austin, selling dope, running whores, and robbing banks is my idea of a good read. Suddenly the screen started flashing like a strobe light. When it stopped, everything was frozen. I rebooted.

Five minutes later, it happened again. And then it happened again. And then it wouldn't start up at all. Damn, I was really into the book, but I wasn't going to read any more.

The next morning I posted the symptoms in the Well's Macintosh conference and within minutes, as usual, someone said "It sounds like a canonic instance of this." And I read the webpage, and was happy to see that it did, indeed, sound like that. Plus, I could get it repaired for free. My friend Karen recommended the Apple Hotline, and gave me the number.

So I called, got a young Berliner homesick for Mitte, but working in Cork, Ireland, where Apple's European headquarters is. We went back and forth, he hit some keys, went off to confer with his superiors, and came back to tell me that he wasn't sure my machine was covered under this program, but they'd authorized the free repair anyway. "Just take it to any of our service centers and they'll have the information for charging us back for the repair right at hand." He then did a search for whatever one was nearest me and came up with something I'd never heard of, Omnilab, which he swore was at the corner of Invalidenstr. and Chausseestr. I go there all the time, and had never seen it, but that doesn't mean it's not there. He gave me the address, Körnerstr., and wished me good luck. I thanked him profusely.

Körnerstr. didn't exactly turn out to be in the back yard, but the post zones here are misleading. I would have headed down there right away, but it was 5:06, and I know all about the German Work Ethic, so I decided to wait til the next day. Today.

Part two: German Service

I was a bit apprehensive as I left the house, because according to the map, Omnilab was near two U-Bahn stations which were perhaps going to be affected by construction from now until Christmas. There had been notices about this in the U-Bahn on Sunday, saying I should read the posters, posters, of course. I mean, the construction was only going to start on Monday morning, so why should they post them before then?

Sure enough, I had to get off at Potsdamer Platz and get on a bus, but I missed the part of the announcement saying where the bus was and realized, as I left the station, that it wasn't a very big walk. It was nice enough, given that it was grey and cold (we've had our six weeks of summer, I guess), so I thought, hey, I'll walk.

And I did. Potsdamer Str. is, once you cross the canal, about as depressing as West Berlin gets, but I made one nice discovery: a restaurant on Lützowstr., called Maultaschen Manufaktur. I may complain about German food (and I will again in a minute), but Maultaschen, the huge ravioli of Swabia, are one of my favorite things. This place, which is next door to Berlin's sleaziest old-time hipster bar, Kumpelnest 3000, has something like ten varieties available at all times. That's got to be worth investigating.

Half a block on, there was Körnerstr., too, and I found the building easily enough. It was very badly maintained, dirty, and scrawled with graffiti, but what else is new? There was a sign: Omnilab was on the 4th floor, and there was even an elevator. On the 4th floor, there was, indeed, a door marked Omnilab, and a bell to ring. Which I did. And nothing happened. I rang it again. Again, nothing. There was a sign taped to the door, which said that goods delivery and mail should be taken to the 5th floor, so I hiked up. There was an open door, and a lot of trash tossed around. I walked into a large warehouse-like room, and there were three people smoking cigarettes down at one end. "What are you doing here?" one of them challenged me. "I have a repair for you." "Well, what are you doing here, then," she shot back. "Repairs are on the 3rd floor." "There's no sign anywhere which says that," I told her, for all the good it'd do. "Well, that's where it is. Now get out of here."

So I walked down two flights of stairs and found a door propped open by a can. I walked in and found myself at a bar. Three guys were sitting around it smoking. "What do you want?" one of them said. "I have a repair for you," I said again. "George!" he hollered. "Repair!"

Nothing happened. Finally, a young woman got up from her desk and motioned me over. "What have you got here?" she asked. "A repair. Apple recommended this place," I said. "I have a case number you're supposed to look up and it will tell you everything." She ignored that and called up a repair blank on her computer. I gave her my name, address, phone number (she was amazed I didn't have a cell phone number -- I do, but I never use the damn thing), and the case number. She then spent some time trying to open the laptop up from the wrong end. I showed her how to do it, but told her it would make no sense to start it up because it was dead. Some guy wandered over, smoking, and looked at it. "What's this all about?" he asked. I told him this was a repair under the Logic Board Repair program. "This machine's a piece of shit, you know," he said. "You should get another one." And he walked off.

Finally, the woman printed out the repair order and I left the machine with her. I'll probably never see it again. Doesn't matter; it doesn't work anyway.


Now, right about now, I can see Olivier, my reclusive neighbor, regular reader, and that rarissimus of aves, a Germanophilic Frenchman, sitting down to send me an e-mail which says "What makes you think this would be any different in France?" Since he actually knows something about the place, I always take his comments very seriously: what if France is worse than here? But I do have an answer: I don't expect it to be better when it comes to things like bureaucracy, service (although certainly there's better service in restaurants), or public utilities. But to suffer these problems in a place where the food is better, the weather is better, and the general attitude of the populace is better would, I believe, make all the difference in the world.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Soft Opening

Just a quick post to say that my friend Susan, after years of struggling against the odds (she's a foreigner, she's a woman), has finally opened her business, TeaRoom Berlin. Once all the pieces are in place, it ought to take its place as one of the city's hot spots: the theme is China and England, two of the world's leading tea cultures, so she'll have authentic British pastries and authentic Chinese dim sum, as well as many kinds of tea, including bubble tea (heretofore unknown here as far as she can determine), and a modest bar serving, among other things, the latest hot drink the marteani.

Right now, though, she's only in the first stages, although things will be different in a week. Tomorrow, Saturday, there'll be a "soft opening," starting at around 7, with some freebies and some non-freebies, and, she hopes, lots of interesting people. To that end, I'm extending an invitation to readers of BerlinBites to show up and mingle, since I'm planning to be there. Tell your friends and come say hi.

TeaRoom Berlin is on Marienburger Str. right off Prenzlauer Allee, on the left hand side of the street next to the Japanese restaurant. See you there!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Sommerloch '06, Part 7

I've been hearing rumors that the summer is over, and certainly it's cooled down here over the past week, but I'm not giving up yet. I do, however, think that the heat-spell we've had is over, but there'll be a few more nice patches before the nasty weather-as-usual closes in on us again.

One thing that I've been wondering about is whether the hot weather did any good for this year's German fad: flavored beers. This thing just appeared out of nowhere; all of a sudden there's a whole refrigerator full of the stuff at the supermarket, and billboards everywhere. Becks led the way, with Becks Chilled Orange and Level Seven Energy Beer, flavored with lemon grass and guarana. It being Becks, the beer which can induce a headache just from my looking at it, I haven't tried either. Not to be outdone, Warsteiner, which, last I checked, was Germany's second-best-selling beer (at least it's drinkable), has a whole raft of horrible mixtures, from Alt-Cola (Altbier is a West German specialty), to Hi-Light (low-calorie beer) and regular Warsteiners in Cola, Lemon, and Orange flavors. Someone else introduced something called Green Lemon (incidentally, these names are all in English, which means they're being marketed to young folks), which was lime-flavored. (Technically, they're right, incidentally: unless you are lucky enough to live somewhere you can get "key" or "Mexican" limes, you're getting "Persian" limes, which are a species of lemon and don't really taste like real limes. They are, however, large, and much easier to squeeze and this should show you what I'm talking about.)

It's enough to make you want the Reinheitsgebot back. Well, almost.

With this sudden glut of products (some of which existed quietly in the past, mostly in the hands of small breweries) I now wonder if we're about to see the tabloid press worrying about the health of Germany's children. The so-called alcopops, sweet alcoholic fizzy drinks like Smirnoff Ice and the various Bacardi Breezers, have been available here for some time, yet I've never seen anything here comparable to the group of 13-year-olds I encountered once on the London Underground drinking some hideous blue alcopop and getting pretty obviously snockered. Maybe it's that, as with sex, the German educational system has a sane attitude towards alcohol and is actually able to deliver the message.

As for me, whenever I see one of these hideous things, I Just Say No.


Too good to pass up, yet the mass of sauerkraut which invades my brain every time I contemplate commenting on it prevents me from doing so: the BBC reports that the German birth-rate is the lowest in Europe. Insert your own sauerkraut about dating Germans here.


As for news of the neighborhood, we've suffered a loss these past few weeks. I'm sure I've made reference to Bistro Tor, the Döner Kebap place on Torstr. near my house, home of one of Berlin's best kebaps, and, for my money, the best because it's a half-stumble from my doorstep. I'm not crazy about Döner, which is the Turkish name for the ubiquitous meat-on-a-stick-served-in-bread dish that the Greeks know as gyros and the Lebanese and Palestinians call shawarma. (Incidentally, there's enough tension in that part of the world at the moment and I'd just like to emphasize that Döner, gyros, and shawarma are, indeed, separate items, not different names for the same item). It's too filling for a mid-day snack, but not enough for dinner, and too many of them are just soaked in MSG, to which I'm pretty reactive.

That said, the Bistro Tor guys do a good one (although there's MSG in the meat, and unless you dissuade them, they'll add additional "salt" to it which also contains MSG), and, in fact, one of the great meals I've had here was a take-out from them. I was working at JazzRadio, and it was some kind of holiday, perhaps New Year's Day, and I'd been unable to make dinner. I came back from my shift at 11, starving, and saw that the lights were on at Bistro Tor. Ah, I thought: Döner for dinner! But I got there and the place was jammed and there was a sign on the door: Private Party. At a Döner Kebap stand! Fortunately, one of the guys saw me and waved me inside. "This is a party to thank all the construction workers who've patronized us all during the year," he told me. "We made a special kebap for this, and I think you'll agree it's the best you've ever had. Would you like me to make one for you? To go?" I said yes, and he went to a foil-lined tray in the middle of the room which was laden with bits of meat. "Just meat. No sauce, no salad, just meat. But you don't need salad or meat with this!" He was right; I only regret that I was so hungry that I gobbled it down when I got home without taking any notes, mental or otherwise. All I can remember is how good it was. And that it cost over twice what their normal kebap did.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, a friend from Austin was visiting, and he was also hanging out with a childhood friend of his from San Antonio. They were at my house and said they were hungry, so I pointed them to Bistro Tor, where the Austin guy had already been once. (The other guy lives in Düsseldorf, so presumably he'd had a kebap once or twice himself). So they went over there, had lunch, and came back. We hung out and talked for a while, and then they left. Some hours later, I left the house and noticed something unusual: Bistro Tor was closed. Over the next couple of days, a dumpster appeared out front, and filled up several times with plaster and so on, as if the walls were being destroyed inside. Then the dumpster went away, and the little storefront next door sprouted a pizzeria. Late last week, a couple of young Turkish guys were messing around with the Bistro Tor sign, and then it vanished. The window, in which the guys wielded their long, razor-sharp knives, was coated with an opaque material. And it's been almost a month, and we are still without kebaps.

This, incidentally, is something in the nature of an emergency. From what I could tell, at least half the people in my building got their evening meal there -- every day! Not maybe the healthiest meal on earth, but it's gotta be better than the other staple of the evening, which I think maybe 50% of my neighbors consume, frozen pizza. There are two other Dönerias on Torstr., one of which is so sleazy I wouldn't think of going there. Well, actually, I did once many years ago and it was unspeakably vile, but what made me steer clear of it was one evening when I was coming home about 4am, and there were a couple of guys out front of it. One wore an expensive suit and was carrying an attache case and wearing sunglasses, the other was on his knees, babbling fast in Turkish, while the other guy kicked him in the mouth, and, when he fell over, in the ribs. I crossed the street. The other place is in the other direction, and seems to be a hangout for children. It also doesn't seem very clean.

I was hoping some day to document the construction of a Döner at Bistro Tor by one of the guys, taking photos every step of the way, and publish it here. I still hope I can. I just hope those two Texans didn't murder the business.

Although I have to wonder: what was the last kebap like?

Important Technical Update

As you may have noticed (if you're lucky, or if you're one of those people who stares at the URL as a page loads) the address of this blog has changed.

You might want to change your bookmarks.

The blog:

The new syndication feed is

This frees up space on jonl's server, something he's been wanting to do for a while. I'd like to thank him, not only for forcing me to do this in the first place all those years ago, but for being so very patient in explaining stuff to me, and, more importantly, implementing twiddly changes now and again.

Okay, now back to the Sommerloch, which has a little while yet to run...

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Sommerloch '06, Part 6: Mauer im Herzen

Sunday came, and with it another painful anniversary. Not, I hasten to add, painful for me, for a change. But it was the 45th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. A friend of mine was here with a high-school group that evening, staying in Kreuzberg, and he remembers waking up in the pension where the group was lodged and looking out the window to see a wall that hadn't been there when he'd gone to sleep. That's really how fast it went up.

It being Sunday, I had, of course, forgotten one grocery item crucial to my evening meal, which meant a trip to a major train station. With Friedrichstr. torn up to the point of near-unnavigability, I decided to go to the Hauptbahnhof instead. This meant walking down Invalidenstr. and over the Sandkrugbrücke, a painfully ordinary bridge over the river, but one which had only been rebuilt since unification, since it was a border. And there, on the western side of the bridge, was a monument I'd seen before, to someone who'd been shot by border guards trying to escape East Germany after the wall had been erected. Days after, in fact. The little monument, which resembles a gravestone, says he was the first person shot trying to escape, which conflicts with my own understanding that the first person shot was on Bernauer Str., near Gartenstr. In both cases, the story was the same: the escapee managed to get into no-man's-land, was shot by East German guards, and bled to death slowly as Western observers looked on. They were powerless to do anything: stepping into the no-man's-land would be tantamount to invading another country, and they had no jurisdiction over the space between the walls. (Yes, there were, in most places, two walls running parallel, with this area between them).

But on Sunday, there was something extra besides the little gravestone and the quadralingual glass historical marker (German, and each of the Allies' languages): there was a wreath with a black ribbon tied around it, the ribbon printed with gold letters. Almost before my eyes could focus on them, I knew what this was: a gift from the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. I've written earlier about the crosses the woman who runs the museum erected on property she'd leased near the museum to commemorate the people who died fleeing East Germany, and her battle to keep them up even after the lease ran out and the bank that owned the site wanted to build on it. She's obsessed, and her obsession is with reminding people that the old East German regime killed people.

This is a scab not worth picking, in my opinion. Lots of people have stood trial over the things they did back then, and lots of them have gone to jail. Others have had their lives ruined by decisions they made out of pure human weakness. And, although it's so obvious it barely seems worth writing, as bad as some of the things the old regime did were, they pale in comparison to what the regime before that did, and, as Günter Grass has proven this week, there are still plenty of people agonizing over that time, even when their choice was to join the army or be shot -- not much of a choice for a 17-year-old.

And perfectly innocent East Germans are still suffering, even though some of them may not realize it. The east still gets the worst food in its stores, it's still got the worst unemployment in Western Europe, and, worst of all, it still gets snubbed by the vast majority of West Germans who resent having to pay for the creation of a whole new political and social life for people who speak the same language they do and, in many cases, to whom they are related by blood. This attitude is called "Mauer im Kopf," the "Wall in the head."

What the Checkpoint Charlie dame has is worse: Mauer im Herzen, a Wall in the heart. She'll never forget, never forgive, never stop trumpeting her gospel of guilt. That's all Germans need, more guilt.

Do yourself a favor. When people come to Berlin, it's hard to avoid going to Checkpoint Charlie just to see the damn thing, I agree. And I agree you should go there. But don't go in the museum. Don't let yourself be battered over the head by this harpy's propaganda. Instead, head to the actual, government-run Documentation Center on Bernauer Str., where the facts are presented a lot more clearly and without emotion or an ultra-right-wing political agenda to cloud the picture. Enough people have already suffered because of this thing, and not just the ones who were caught and killed or jailed. There's a famous picture of a border guard hopping over the barbed wire towards freedom in the West. He made it. He also shot and killed himself a few years ago. Who knows what was going on there? A great honking concrete wall may not trumpet the fact, but there's nuance to this story. Don't let Germany's ultra-right wing convince you otherwise.

Boycott the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sommerloch '06, Part 5

Yesterday came and went, the anniversary I was desperately hoping to avoid.

I've now been in Berlin 13 years. As I was panicking the night before, I quickly did some math, and realized I'd been in Austin 13 years and 10 months, so I'm still hoping to be out of here before that exact anniversary rolls around.

Why am I still here? I realize I haven't mentioned the actual reason. Last June, which is to say June '05, I heard that an old colleague from my newspaper days was now a literary agent, and started corresponding with her. We quickly decided that I should whip together a book proposal based on this blog and my stay here in general, a memoir of expatriation, a narrative of the post-unification years in Berlin, and an inquiry into the whole expat mindset in general. This proposal whisked back and forth in cyberspace, and as last year drew to a close, I started formulating a plan: the book would be sold early this year, and I'd have the advance in time to start looking at rentals in Montpellier when the students left at the start of this summer. So as this year started, I began making plans, putting inquiries in various places for apartments, and so on.

There was one problem. The agent kept disappearing, sometimes for over a month. I assumed she was doing her job, and I was quite happy with the way the proposal was taking shape, confident that after the next revision it'd be ready to take to New York and sell. But these absences started to disturb me. At any rate, in March when I went to SXSW, we had a good meeting, and she was sure it'd just be a little while before it was sold. Not as quickly as I'd hoped, but I was content.

Only one snag remained. She was working with another agent, learning the business, and he wanted to see the proposal. Okay, I thought, fine. So she sent it to him. And there was a resounding silence. Finally, he sent it back with comments. Very strange comments. For one, he wanted the first-person out of the whole book. What? That made no sense at all. Couldn't we just forget that and get the damn book on the market?

Well, no. She finally confessed that she wasn't actually an agent, and couldn't do anything without his okay. In other words, last summer she'd misrepresented herself to me and I'd been laboring under a misapprehension that wasn't my fault.

So I fired her.

Really, I had no choice; I don't know whether her boss was drunk, whether he had no interest whatever in the book idea, or what, but there was no way I could do what he wanted.

And I was left with a pretty good book proposal and no way to sell it. Which caused me to get pretty depressed; I was clearly going to miss the summer recess at the university in Montpellier, and, unless I found some money pretty quickly, I wasn't going to be able to move at all this summer. Plus, I was now firmly committed to doing this book and had no idea what to do next.

I was rescued by the PEN International conference here in early June, and by a friend who'd just sold a book for a good chunk of dough. The first brought me into contact with a bunch of writers, who heard my story and were sympathetic. I told them I only knew one person in the publishing business, and mentioned her name. "But she's now [incredibly responsible job] at [incredibly major publisher]," one of the authors said. "You should just send it to her directly and see what happens." So I contacted her, and she politely agreed to look at it, noting, however, that she'd be gone until after July 4 on vacation.

This gave me a month to go over the proposal and make it exactly what I wanted it to be instead of what someone else thought it should be. I'm happier now than I've ever been before with it, and sent it off on July 6. Meanwhile, I asked my friend if his agent was taking new clients, and wrote the guy, who said sure, he'd look at something by me. So it went off to him, too, around the same time.

And that's where the story ends for the moment. I've heard nothing since, although, given the glacial pace at which publishing works, that's hardly surprising. So I'm waiting.

I'm not happy about this, but what can I do? I'm thousands of miles away from the American publishing scene, barely publishing at all, sending out article ideas to magazine editors who don't answer queries. None of the magazines I do write for pay very much, certainly not enough to pay the rent each month without a lot of effort.

The only thing that keeps me going is the hope that this situation will change soon, that I can get a decent advance and finish the book, and pay off the debts I owe and still have enough left over to put down a deposit on a new place to live in a new city in a new country. The minute I get that far, students or no students, I'm off to talk to real estate agents in Montpellier and to rouse some of my contacts there to see what they know about places for rent.

Until then, I'm stuck.


Achtung, Deutsche Telekom!

In case you hadn't noticed the World Cup is long gone from our city and our country. Yet your hideous pink football design remains on the Fehrnsehturm in Alexanderplatz, a blot on the city's skyline. The championship has been awarded to Italy. Thus, you have only two choices here:

* Remove the pink pentagons and restore the tower to its silvery glory, or
* Re-do it as a giant polpettone (meatball) dripping with sauce and dusted with Parmesan cheese.

Thank you very much, although yes, I know, it's not your policy to listen to your customers.


An end to evil? I was asking myself that earlier this week after the doorbell rang shortly after 10pm. I was making dinner at the time, and so I wasn't much interested in receiving guests, most of whom would know that this was when I usually eat. So I did a rare thing and picked up the intercom. A very young woman's voice was at the other end, talking quickly and none too well, but I understood a couple of words, and buzzed her in.

Soon, my front doorbell rang, and there stood a teenager, between 14 and 16, I'd say. She had on a punky t-shirt and a leather jacket, and I think she must have had on braces because the words hissed a lot as they tumbled out of her mouth. "I'm wondering if you've seen my grandpa," she said, "Herr Böse. We were supposed to go out today and he's not answering his telephone and he's not answering his doorbell and..." I told her there wasn't much I could do, that I wasn't the Hausmeister, and that the Hausmeister lived across the courtyard. "I guess there's nothing for me to do but to call the police," she said. I apologized for not being able to be more helpful, and went and finished making the meal. As I was putting the dishes in the sink afterwards, I saw a commotion in the courtyard, and a fat cop was standing by my window. He knocked on it, and asked if I could help them find the Hausmeister, and I said sure. I went to put some shoes on.

Now, the big mystery here was this: who exactly was Herr Böse? I am generally here during the daytime, and so I've taken in packages for pretty much all my neighbors in this building, the other half of my building, and the building next door. Not a one of them could possibly have been the grandfather of a teenager -- or a grandparent at all. There was one guy, a skinny fellow whose hair was either as badly styled as it could be or else a horrible wig, who drenches himself in cologne and goes out a couple of times a day to get food or a newspaper. If he was wearing a wig, he might be old enough. If I had had a kid at 20, and my kid had had a kid at 20, I could just be old enough myself.

Anyway, things were complicated by the fact that I can never remember the Hausmeister's name and the fact that it wasn't on the doorbells. His wife/girlfriend's name, though, was, as well as a scrawled note next to the buzzer which said "Haus W," which stood for "Hauswart," the DDR equivalent. The cops thanked me and I went back inside.

Now, I'm not one of those people who stands at the window and snoops, unlike a lot of people in this country. But there was a commotion, including people trooping up and down the stairs, radios going, an ambulance siren turning into the street, and, best of all a whoomp! Whoomp! WHOOMP! like someone trying to break down a door. (Having once locked myself out of this apartment and having had to call a locksmith, I'm extremely pleased with the security afforded by the doors in this apartment, since the poor locksmith, without a skeleton key, spent nearly an hour getting my door open). Then there was more noise on the stairs, more radios, and a lot of pounding upstairs.

And that was it.

All I know is that Herr Böse's name is still on the mailbox and the guy with the bad hair said hi to me yesterday as we were checking our mail at about the same time.

Still: two encounters with the police in one year is two more than I've had since I've been here. At least this time I didn't get a ticket.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sommerloch '06, Part 4

It's election season again, with a mayoralty race both for the whole city and for each separate borough (Bezirk) thereof. This means that some of the most hideous faces in the entire country are peering down at us from lampposts, each assuring us of their deep commitment to the city and its future. The one word which everyone seems to be using is "konsequent," which sent me to the dictionary, since there are loads of words in German that don't mean what they'd seem to mean in English (my favorite being "Konkurrenz," which means competition). Sure enough, it means "consistent." Now I'm trying to see any race for any office in America being hyped by placards announcing the candidate's "consistency" in so many words. And failing.

The other lesson these posters teach us is how Photoshop can be misused. The CDU candidate, in particular, needs a new art director. Or a new face.


I walked into a Butter Lindner shop the other day and had two shocks. The first was paying €3.50 for a prosciutto sandwich, approximately twice what one would cost at the superb Marcann's in my neighborhood, but I keep forgetting that Butter Lindner is a very high-dollar chain and that it served me right for being so damn hungry right at that moment. But the second shock was that, in the manner of Starbucks and all the other coffee establishments, Butter Lindner was selling CDs called Swing With Jazz Radio 101.9.

On closer scrutiny, this proved to be exactly what I thought it was: a quasi-bootleg featuring out-of-copyright performances gathered by some firm which does this sort of thing. Sleazy but cheap, which fit the sponsor. It was the first indication I'd had in some time that Jazz Radio 101.9 was still functioning. But sure enough, it seems to have a website and everything.

Actually, a German asked me about this a few weeks ago when I was talking about having had a show there for a number of years. "Did Jazz Radio actually once play jazz?" he asked, dumfounded. Well, yes, it did. And it also was a class act, started by Wilhelmina Steyling, a crusading Dutch woman who had a vision of a network of jazz stations all over Europe. It also saved my life.

I was starving to death, having discovered how little American media wanted in the way of stories from Berlin that didn't involve Nazis or Jews, but I was also doing a little writing for the local English-language magazine Checkpoint, and hanging out in their offices because my apartment was so small that it felt good to get out of it. There was an ad salesman there named Michael, and one day I was at home when he called. "A Dutch woman has started a jazz radio station here," he said, "and she wants an English-language DJ who knows about jazz. Interested?" Does it pay? "Sure." I'm interested.

So I went down to meet Wilhelmina, and she was doing her Dragon Lady act. Not friendly, not unfriendly, but not inclined to suffer fools. She asked me to put together two two-hour shows on paper that would show what I would play, one for the jazz show she wanted done, and one for a blues show for Monday evening that I'd suggested. I cobbled the lists together and handed them in, and then heard nothing. Hardly surprising; it sounded like a longshot.

Michael called a few days later just to chat. At the end of the conversation, I said how it was too bad I hadn't gotten the job. "What do you mean?" he said. "You start Tuesday night. You'd better get down here quick." Since it was Monday afternoon, he had a point. So I rocketed down to the storefront they'd rented near Savignyplatz and checked it out, which wasn't very difficult, except for figuring out the difference between CDs and vinyl.

In the early days, the station was on AM only. AM frequencies are fairly easy to get because nobody here listens to them. We naturally didn't have an advertising budget, so we had to figure out how to let people know we existed. We'd sponsor events, and I think we managed to get an ad or two in Checkpoint, but it was rough. When it came time to apply for an FM frequency, of which there are very few in this city, we got lucky: we were in the finals, and our competitors were a Turkish cultural group and the tax-supported state church. Which didn't bode well, but someone decided that the church had enough publicity and maybe so did the Turks, so we got our frequency and never looked back.

When I finally get around to writing this book (which is to say when I finally sell the idea to a publisher) I'll have lots of reminiscences about Jazz Radio and those who sailed with her. But for my purposes here, the best part of it was, we got paid. And that sudden rise in my fortunes allowed me to be solvent enough so that when the Wall Street Journal Europe asked me to be their arts and culture correspondent for this area of the world, I could afford the train tickets until they got around to paying me back. I could take a date out to dinner if I wanted. And when I had to move, I had the money.

And I have to say, my little blues show really evolved into something. Blue Monday, as it was called, eventually had a following of 25,000 listeners on a Monday night. It (and the jazz show) also gave me the time to listen to music I hadn't paid as much attention to as I'd wanted, and, thanks in large part to the vast number of killer soul reissues coming out of England, I was discovering and rediscovering some great, great music.

One thing I don't understand about capitalism is how someone can force you to sell a business and you're powerless to resist. So I can't say why Wilhelmina had to take on, as a partner, a rather dissolute English guy, wealthy, son of a member of the House of Lords, and utterly incompetent. I guess it was because, in the great German tradition, none of our advertisers bothered to pay us in the first two years. (The theory here is that if the little company you're burning goes out of business, you don't have to pay your bills, so you can help them by not paying them in the first place. A lawsuit takes three or four years to get heard here anyway.) But why she had to sell out completely to him I don't understand. I do know that it wasn't what she wanted, it was what she had to do. I also know that the first interaction he had with me was propositioning me, which I found rather bizarre.

Once he'd acquired the station outright, things began to go to hell. All manner of "improvements" started happening, but the worst was Ed Stout. Stout was a pear-shaped individual from New Jersey who was supposedly a radio consultant, and he took it upon himself to totally re-jigger Jazz Radio. Expensive speakers were brought in to do day-long seminars on how to be a DJ, seminars that I didn't attend, since I figured my numbers were good enough to show that I knew what I was doing. Rules for the other DJs began to appear: no chat, no naming the individual musicians on a track, no nothing but title, artist, and constant repetition of the station's name. Oh, and you also had to play exactly what the computer told you to play.

I was worried. Since I knew a couple of legitimate radio consultants, both here and in America, I asked them if they knew this guy. Nobody'd ever heard of him. "It sounds like he's ruining your station," one of them said. My worries came to an end in March 2000, after six years at the station. I came back from SXSW -- a trip I took each year, and dutifully informed my bosses about weeks in advance -- with my suitcase bulging with stuff I was going to play, including some sacred steel recordings for the next day's Easter gospel show. If I'd had my mail held, I would have walked into the station and discovered someone else doing my shift. But there was a letter with Jazz Radio letterhead sitting on my pile, so I opened it up and discovered I'd been fired for "inexplicable absences."

I also found out, in the days to come, that all the other DJs who did their own programming had been fired, and that the receptionist was instructed to tell any of my listeners who called that I'd quit, nobody knew why, and they were as shocked as anybody.

So it was with a certain amount of satisfaction that I witnessed the station's rapid decline, its move out of the luxurious headquarters it had built, the sale of its record library which it had meticulously built up, and, the crowning ignominy, its inability to pay the GEMA license (similar to ASCAP and BMI in the States) that would allow it to play copyrighted material. Jazz Radio became a series of CD jukeboxes loaded with non-GEMA CDs and 50-plus-year-old music, a computer, and a closet in the former Schultheiss Brewery in Kreuzberg.

And truly, I hadn't given them a thought in years until I went into Butter Lindner to buy a sandwich. It was a good sandwich, but I think I'll stay out of there for a while. I miss Blue Monday about as much as I miss anything I've ever done, and I wish I could do it again. I wish I'd saved some recordings of the show so that if I ever get the chance to present the idea to a satellite broadcaster or just some small local station I can show them just how wonderful it could be when it was good.

And I don't like getting so stirred up again because it just reminds me of my belief that no matter how well you might do something in this city, someone's just dying to tear it down.


Cheers to Bowleserised for alerting me to the existence of the 50th anniversary edition of M.F.K. Fisher's The Art of Eating, which I started reading last night. It's a lot like eating a box of very, very good chocolates, so you can't go too fast, but I did find the following last night and thought it was apropos to explaining the great culinary tradition I find myself living amidst.

"Frederick the Great used to make his own coffee, with much to-do and fuss. For water he used champagne. Then, to make the flavour stronger, he stirred in powdered mustard."

This from a chapter in Serve It Forth entitled "Pity the Blind in Palate." She maintains that that might have been his problem. Not me. I live here.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Sommerloch '06, Part 3

Linienstr., a block from my house, has been undergoing some sort of awful renovation for most of the year. The street is impassable, several businesses have closed during the day because the dust and dirt flying through the air makes customers stay away, pedestrians get diverted from one side of the street to the other almost randomly (and you have to watch when making the crossing that one or another Berliner driver, made psychotic from the heat, doesn't aim at you and try to run you down), and the whole thing is a ghastly mess.

That's why it was very cheering to walk along it on Sunday, when someone did this:

The perpetrators of this outrage against Berlin's mandatory impassability and ugliness may be spied in the next to last photo, two young Japanese folks with a tripod camera. I know they weren't just photographing it because the woman had a large straw basket with her which contained a few more tulips. I didn't even bother to check whether the tulips, all absolutely perfect, were real. If so, this was one expensive art project.

Needless to say, it was all destroyed first thing Monday morning.


While I was shooting that, I decided to shoot the graffiti mural going up on the wall by my building. There's more to it now -- a green head with a very sad expression on it has been sprayed between the two monsters, on the ground -- but more sure isn't better. I do like the way it invokes the Wall, but my heart sinks every time I come home and see the aggressive ugliness and lack of content in this thing. The artists -- there seem to be two or three -- sport horrendous blotchy "tribal" tattoos, which should have been a clue to someone that they lack all esthetic sense. But I guess I'll have to live with this until I move -- or until some other taggers come along to spray their critiques.