Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Few Crumbs Won't Hurt

The neighborhood loses another landmark. It used to be that on a nice summer's day, the best extreme people-watching used to be the sidewalk tables outside of C Matto, the restaurant/bar formerly known as Cibo Matto on Rosenthaler Str. This outpost of hip was owned and operated by the people who had the popular Kreuzberg bar, Bar, and the place next door to it, known for good burgers. It could be that the band Cibo Matto forced the name change, but that didn't stop the more colorful Japanese tourists from flocking there, nor the wildest-(un)dressed inhabitants of Mitte. But on a visit to the Wochenmarkt at Hackescher Markt today, I was walking back home and noticed that C Matto's windows had a garish paper covering all the windows, announcing the imminent opening of a "China Food" restaurant. Just what we need! More brown slime on noodles! I don't know if this is indicative of a decline in fortune for the Bar folk, Mitte's declining hipness, Rosenthaler Str.'s rising rents, or what. Now if you want really terrible "Asian fusion" food, you can go across the street to Mitte's worst restaurant (with the best design), Pan Asia. But don't.

* * *

Another sight on the walk was next door to Kunst Werk on Auguststr. Workmen have taken over part of the vacant lot next door, where some luxury construction project has been stalled for at least five years after a hole was dug for it, and, on the strip of land immediately adjoining KW, they are assembling a very old, weathered cottage. I figure it's either art or some Christmas shop -- or both -- but it's weird to see something that looks like it's on the verge of falling down being built instead of torn down.

* * *

I used to think that the worst name for any product ever was the line of children's bicycles built by PUKY, with which German toddlers endanger sidewalk users daily. That's changed, though, now that an Italian firm has set up over at the supidmarket selling stoves (which look wonderful -- if you have gas, which very few people here do any more) and refrigerators in colors that are guaranteed to make you eat less. Its name, emblazoned across the front of each refrigerator in inch-high chrome letters, is SMEG.

Incidentally, there really is a city in Albania called Puke, which, ironically enough, is supposed to be a delightful place.

* * *

Finally, thanks to Karen for finding me the Zyliss parsley mill on Click, click, and it'll be here tomorrow or thereabouts. (Well, maybe: I bought the dancer a birthday present, and Amazon decided it had been delivered, although she never saw it. Amazon, however, can't be contacted about this, so I'm out 15 Euros.) Thing is, that was money that could have gone to a Berlin retailer. Oh, well.

And as for the ultimate yuppie cooking item, Ben found that. Designer vitamin C?

Monday, November 27, 2006


I blame Bowleserised. She posted the results of her taking the Classic Dames Test, which determines which classic movie star you are. She also noted that they had something called the Dating Persona Test, and I clicked that instead.

Here's what I wound up with:

You embody the German principle of Konstantzusammenschaft, which is best described in English (without using the obscure English word "sammenschaft") as "eternal togethermanship".
The Loverboy
Random Gentle Love Master (RGLMm)

    Well-liked. Well-established. You are The Loverboy. Loverboys thrive in committed, steady relationships--as opposed to, say, Playboys, who want sex without too much attachment.

    You've had many relationships and nearly all of them have been successful. You're a nice guy, you know the ropes, and even if you can be a little hasty with decisions, most girls think of you as a total catch. Your hastiness comes off as spontaneity most of the time anyhow, making you especially popular in your circle of friends, too.

Your exact opposite:
The Billy Goat

Deliberate Brutal Sex Dreamer
    You know not to make the typical Loverboy mistake of choosing someone who appreciates your good humor and popularity, but who offers nothing in return. You belong with someone outgoing, independent, and creative. Otherwise, you'll get bored. And then instead of surprising her with flowers or a practical joke, you'll surprise her by leaving.


CONSIDER: The Window Shopper, The Peach

So if most girls think of me as a total catch, where are they?

I can think of three possibilities: my age (not much I can do about that, but it doesn't seem to put some women off), my looks (ditto), or my poverty (which I hope I can do something about...but am I interested in a woman who walks into the room singing "First I Look At the Purse?"

Oh, and there's a fourth possibility: German women. I have a theory about them, but this isn't the time or place to expound it. Unfortunately, though, I'm surrounded by them. That, too, I hope I can do something about before long.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Chopping Parsley

This shouldn't be hard, I thought. What had happened was that my parsley chopper, or, more accurately, herb mill, had broken. It was to be expected; it was a couple of years old, made of plastic, and had performed admirably. These things happen.

I had never really known I'd wanted one until I had dinner at a friend's house some years back. She'd been preparing to move away from Berlin, and had been going over her kitchen, which was a mess, looking for stuff to pack. In the process, she discovered that her mother had given her two herb mills, made by Mouli, a French company with a long pedigree of excellence. The down-side of all Mouli products, though, was that they were made from some cheap metal which inevitably sooner or later bent or broke; I'd gone through a dozen Mouli graters, the definitive Parmesan cheese tool, in my time.

So I took it home and discovered that one of my least-favorite kitchen chores, chopping parsley, had gone from a five-minute task to a 30-second task. Excellent! But eventually, that cheap metal caught up with me; the parsley stems had bent a couple of the choppers and they wouldn't pass through the slots, so I had to get another.

The new one was much like the earlier one, but it was plastic. The way this tool works is that it has two parts, the body, which holds a bay for the herbs with a number of parallel slots through which the chopped herbs pass, and a wheel with a crank and an axle on which some thin blades are mounted, which, when turned, force the herbs through the slots while mincing them. The plastic turned out to be more durable, a technological improvement.

But I'm lazy. When I pull parsley leaves from the stems, I always think of my Arab-American friend Jim, who I knew in Texas. Jim came from Michigan, where there are a lot of Arab-Americans (he was, more specifically, Lebanese-American), and he fell in love with Jessica, a girl from Taylor, Texas, thereby uniting two of his favorite things, girls and barbeque, since Taylor is home to the great Louie Mueller, and was once home to another world-class barbeque chef, Vencil Mares. Jim was another world-class barbequer, just a talent he discovered he had, and I don't think any commercial barbeque joint has ever come up with anything like the briskets he used to cook.

But marrying into his family meant pleasing a lot of old Arab-American women who wanted to be certain the new bride could cook traditional dishes, and Jessica was asked to make tabbouleh, the classic cracked-wheat-and-parsley salad, in order to win their approval of the wedding. "Not one stem from the parsley in the tabbouleh, young lady!" was how Jim's grandmother put it. "Boy," she said later, "I was really sweating this, but I passed." Parsley stems are tough, and they get caught in your teeth, and although I wouldn't forbid my grandson from getting married for such a trivial thing, the fact is it's not just your teeth they can get caught in, it's also the teeth of the Mouli herb mill. That's what wrecked the metal one, and, a few years later, it's what wrecked the plastic one, too. I always reminded myself I was trying to please Jim's grandmother, but sometimes you get rushed, or you get lazy. Like I said, these things happen.

So a couple of weeks ago, I decided it was time to replace it. The plastic herb mill had been made by Zyliss, a superb Swiss maker of cooking equipment, well engineered and inexpensive; I'd used the Zyliss Blitzhacker to chop stuff for years, as much amused by its name as I was pleased with its performance. The herb mill, I've discovered from poking around that website, is the model 1400.

I'd gotten it at Galleries Lafayette, which always had a good range of Zyliss stuff, so one day I walked down there to get another. To my surprise, their whole cooking-utensil section had shrunk to one tiny display of mostly expensive stuff, and a whole lot of high-end Laguiole corkscrews. I shrugged; it was a nice day, and surely the big Kaufhof department store in Alexanderplatz would have one; they'd always had a good selection of Zyliss stuff. So I walked to Alexanderplatz.

The Kaufhof there had been a big department store with another name during the division of the city. I remember going there on my first trip to East Berlin, and the guy who was showing me around depleted some of the 25 East Marks you had to buy before they'd let you in on a fake hand-grenade, which was apparently used in some kind of high-school grenade-tossing competition. He used it later as a paperweight. Until recently, Kaufhof had had its original hideous East German facade, a kind of gridwork with no windows, but then a multi-year facelift happened, where they actually enlarged the store while keeping it open all the time, an interesting engineering feat.

More room, you'd think, would mean more stuff. So I was astonished to find that even though more square feet were available in the cooking-supplies section, Zyliss products weren't. At all. Now, for those of you who aren't aware of this, a lot of retail involves companies buying space. This happens a lot in groceries, where you pay the grocery chain for preferential placement where your product is more easily seen by shoppers, but it also happens in department stores, where your brand can buy square footage. Somehow, Kaufhof is all pots and pans and knives now, with gadgets, like herb mills, pushed to the side. They still have gadgets, but not as wide a selection as before. Furthermore, with Zyliss gone, in the gadget department that meant no herb mills.

This was something of a crisis. Americans may have trouble believing this, but here in Berlin there just aren't any stores which sell cooking stuff. You need a gadget, you could be out of luck; I went through this earlier this year with the amazing vegetable peeler I'd picked up in a store in Paris: I looked at it and realized that it was absolutely perfect, and so it proved to be: it never jams, it zips through potatoes and carrots and everything else with ease, and it fits in the hand so ergonomically that it's a joy to use. I wound up having to correspond with the company and then buying it online from Meilleur du Chef. (I notice they, too, don't have the Zyliss one, just a metal one, which looks too much like my first one).

The reason for this is very simple: if it's not meant for making German food, it's going to be very hard to find. The stuff you need to prepare German meals are available in any supermarket, although you can buy better-quality examples at places like Kaufhof. Now, you'd think that the yuppification of Berlin would override this, particularly in such a yuppified neighborhood as Prenzlauer Berg. And, in fact, there is a cooking store in Prenzlauer Berg, and I went there the other day to see what they had. All too typically, the woman running the store was on the phone gossiping with a friend when I got there, so instead of asking for help, I walked around, looking for my herb mill. This place is an object lesson in the German attitude towards cooking: lots of expensive pots and pans, lots of expensive knives, a selection of Laguiole corkscrews in a locked glass vitrine -- in short, lots of expensive stuff you can display in your home, whether you actually use it or not, to advertise the fact that you've got money and an interest in food. I made the circuit of the store three times before I could figure out where in the hell the herb mill -- which I knew had to be there somewhere -- was, and I finally located it displayed among a range of the most expensive kitchen utensils you can buy in Germany, gleaming stainless steel items that you can buy for 1/3 to 1/2 the price anywhere else. And yes, it €18, or at least twice what a Zyliss would cost. In the great German service tradition, the woman never got off the phone during the entire 15 minutes I was there. All I can tell you is that some guy she knows is going to be surprised by divorce papers soon. Oh, and I can also tell you I'm not going back there. But you probably figured that out.

But I want to get back to that first sentence in that last paragraph. Is it bad that "if it's not meant for making German food, it's going to be very hard to find?" See, this is something I've been thinking about when it comes to moving to France: culinary traditions are traditions because people keep them going through the generations. Great culinary traditions are perpetuated by people who are notoriously uncurious about other great culinary traditions. Most French towns are like Henry Ford and the Model T: you can have any kind of food you want in the restaurants as long as it's French. I remember reading an anecdote in the New Yorker by a guy who was living in Rome with his two young sons. One night, just for variety, they went to a Chinese restaurant in their neighborhood. To their surprise, the waiter was Italian. The father asked him what was good on the menu, and the waiter drew himself up and said "You don't think I eat here, do you?" No, of course not.

Nor should I assume that even though it's not particularly to my taste a lot of the time, German cooking isn't a great culinary tradition. I would love to hear someone defend the local brand of cooking, which is hardly as sophisticated as the cuisines of Swabia or Bavaria (and they're not really all that sophisticated), but I'm willing to concede the point. This is, after all, about taste.

But Berlin is a Big City, or so we're told. (It's large, I'll grant you that). Furthermore, it's got some world-class Italian restaurants because Germans are inveterate vacationers (sure: they get six weeks' vacation!) and a lot of the younger generation (ie, my age or younger -- I mean in the grand scheme of things) took to vacationing in Northern Italy, where they discovered the food and wine were to their liking. Thus, the yuppie food-gadget store has pasta machines and ravioli trays, and we can assume those Laguioles are opening at least as many Barolos and Chianti Classicos as they are Qualitätswein mit Predikat. At least nominally, in other words, Berlin is tentatively multicultural in the kitchen. Not that they'll be embracing the likes of Eric Gower any time soon (which is a shame). But, dammit, most of the time I'm mincing parsley, it's for Italian food.

So I'm stuck. At some point I'm probably going to head off to the giant KaDeWe department store to see if they've got this thing, but since they're now owned by the same gigantic concern which owns Kaufhof (and three other major department-store chains in Germany), I'm not too sanguine about having any success. Maybe fate will allow me a short trip to Amsterdam or Paris or Montpellier in the near future, places where I'm certain I'll find what I want. Meanwhile. I'm mincing parsley with the excellent knife I bought in Kyoto five years ago. It's a great knife, but the task is still a pain in the ass.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Happily Do Again: Last night I participated in something called the Black Market for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge, which is continuing tonight at the Hebbel Theater 1 (HAU). I'm not quite sure what this is supposed to be, but the setup was that the audience area of the theater was filled with tables, each of which had an electrical outlet and a light. "Experts," who had been recruited to prepare a half-hour talk on a topic, were seated at the tables, and attendees could buy a one-on-one session with them for three Euros.

I prepared a little talk called "American Music in Black and White: It's Not That Simple," which was intended to demonstrate that the division between "black music" and "white music" in America has always been a very porous membrane. I actually gave this as a 90-minute lecture at the University of Delaware some years back, and it went over well, with musical examples from John Work's field recordings of very old black dance music which sounds identical to "old timey" country music, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys playing "White Heat," and a discussion of how "Matchbox Blues" got from Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927 to the Beatles in 1963 (via Carl Perkins, whose recording I discovered I don't have in my library anywhere). I also played some Jimmie Rodgers and would like to have had time to play a Charlie Pride (or, better yet, Stoney Edwards) tune. As it was, both of my clients (or whatever you'd call them) were flabbergasted by the photo I showed them of Charlie Pride and Dolly Parton together. (Wonder how they'd have reacted to the picture of Dolly with the Village People Chuck Krall sent me last week?)

With only 30 minutes, and music selections to play, it was quite a challenge, but both the clients really got into it and seemed to have picked up a lot of ideas. I'm just sorry they didn't ask me to do both nights -- after all, I'd gone and burned a CD and put together a photo gallery, and my second presentation was way better than the first, so I was just getting into the groove. Getting a 25-Euro honorarium didn't hurt, either; it bought me a couple of more days before things get bad again, and maybe in the interim some of the money I'm owed will finally make it to the bank.


Congratulations to Gordon W, of Imbiss W fame! In a strangely short article in the New York Times, he got not only the top mention, but a photo of people eating at his joint on a much warmer day than today. Not bad for a former roadie for the late Bismillah Khan!

I've known Gordon for a decade, first and foremost as the proprietor of the Scharfness Institut ("scharf" in German usually indicates heat, but can also mean there's garlic somewhere near), which devoted itself to hunting down chile pepper-infused cooking in a city dedicated to blandness. He found some wonderful places, although they rarely lasted very long, and he also became involved in a couple of restaurants where he didn't last very long. Finally, he opened his own place, based on the portable tandoori oven he used to take to parties and events, making naan bread and tandoori salmon. Now he's got the naan pizza down cold and a devoted clientele. It's meant that the Scharfness Institut is in abeyance, though, which is a shame, because we need it now more than ever.

That said, the rest of the article's sort of a bust: only two more places to buttress the contention that street food in Berlin is changing, and one of them is in a shoe store!

But street food is changing, at least on my street. I knew last night that I was going to be hungry after my gig, and I also knew I didn't have any money until I did the gig to buy anything with, so I decided it was time for the Döner for Dinner routine, since a Döner is good and cheap, if not exactly health food. With the Turkish guys in front of me having vanished suddenly and been replaced by this Toco Rouge Chinese place, that meant I had my choice of a place near Bergstr. that seemed to be a hangout for teenagers after school, or the place closer to Oranienburger Tor. I chose the former, because the latter was where, coming home at 4am after who knows what kind of debauchery, I'd witnessed a well-dressed Turkish guy with a briefcase in his hand kicking a younger Turkish guy who was on his hands and knees, pleading with him, in the ribs. Most of the time you want to discount the stories of kebap shops as fronts for crime as the usual racist clap-trap, but this was actually happening before my eyes, so I crossed the street to avoid walking past.

Then I went out and discovered that the Bergstr. place had vanished overnight, too, although there was a "for rent" sign in the window.

I'm sure the last remaining place has undergone a few changes of management -- the current bunch running it seem to be German -- but it smelled so bad when I walked past last night, even though I was hungry, that I passed it by and went to Toco Rouge. Couldn't really afford it, but it was top-notch, and they seemed to be doing good business.

Still, where am I going to go for a Döner when, every six weeks or so, the urge hits?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Diplodocus Disappears

I'm supposed to be doing something tonight. In fact, I'm supposed to be doing two somethings, but I'm not going to do either.

The first something is the opening of the One World Film Festival, a human rights film festival some friends of mine work hard for months on. If I felt like going to an event where I'd have to endure a number of formal speeches in German followed by a stridently political film about people whose lives are awful, I'd go. But I'm not really in the mood for that, although I do like the organizers and wish them well.

The second something is our usually-twice-monthly bloggers' get-together, organized by Radio Free Mike, which is a very welcome chance for me to get out of the house and talk with smart folks, something I rarely do any more because, as I've said before, most of the smart people I've known here have moved away because they can't make a living here or have stopped enjoying living here. But it turns out that my ill-advised trip to America has cost me far more than I'd anticipated, so I'm broke, carefully rationing out my last five Euros hoping they'll last the weekend even though there isn't much on the shelves or in the refrigerator any more, and I certainly can't afford a couple of beers, let alone the tram-fare.

But I'm going to do something tomorrow.

The other night, as you know if you read the post (and yeah, it's a bit dry and boring), I went to a meeting about the future of Berlin's Amerika Haus. I walked there, as I'd do whether I had tram-fare or not, because it's pretty much a straight line from my house to the Rotes Rathaus, and it's not if you take public transportation. And when I got home, I found a surprise. On the windowsill of my bathroom window, someone had perched a plastic dinosaur, about a foot long. I'm calling it a diplodocus, because I know that there's no such thing as a brontosaurus, but I'm not sure just why that is. But it was a goofy thing to see, and it cheered me up. I can't figure out who put it there, because I don't know that many people any more, and there's only one who just drops in, and he was supposed to be at the Amerika Haus meeting but had another meeting he had to go to.

So there it sat, yesterday and most of today. Although I'm very depressed about the state of my finances and the state of my life, I had this tangible evidence that someone had a sense of humor, and I liked that. In fact, it occurred to me as I walked out to do an errand this afternoon, I should probably bring old diplodocus inside and install him in my bathroom, where he'd be a bit of decoration in an otherwise undecorated room.

When I returned, my landlord's mother was just leaving on her bike, and her face screwed up in the usual rictus of disgust. It's hard to explain how unpleasant it is living somewhere where one of your neighbors feels it's her sacred duty to gurn at you every time she sees you, and how much more unpleasant it is when she's the mother of someone you owe five months' rent to, part of which you just threw away on a business trip to New York which produced absolutely nothing.

Anyway, after I got back I did some of the usual things I do when there's nothing to do: I did some laundry, and prepared way early for a presentation I'm going to be giving. I also waited for the mail, which usually doesn't come on Thursdays, for some reason, but it was true to form and didn't come. At about 4:30, after checking one last time for the mail, it occurred to me to go out and grab the dinosaur. So I did, and it was gone. The pavement was wet and smelled of disinfectant, and I knew exactly what had happened; the cleaner had come and Mrs. Ugly had ordered him to get rid of the dinosaur.

So I know what I'm doing tomorrow. I'm going dumpster diving for a diplodocus. And if anyone wants to know what I'm doing I'm going to tell them that this plastic dinosaur belongs to my non-existent girlfriend's non-existent young son, and I'd left it there so she could drop by and get it, because he's very upset that he forgot it when they came to visit. And that the harridan next door, obsessed with order for the sake of order -- because that very German trait is exactly what's happening here -- had it tossed.

And that's also the reason I'm not going out tonight. Because I'm really on the edge here. I'm disgusted with the people I'm surrounded by, people totally lacking in what I consider a sense of humor, people who value order -- with or without a reason -- above all else. I unloaded some of this on the dancer when she called to invite me to dinner on Saturday, and she went into her defense of Germany and Germans. But I didn't back down this time, or even apologize. She'd realize, if she'd ever spend some time outside this country, that people elsewhere can be much more relaxed about things and yet still live in a fully functional society -- or as fully functional as human society gets. It's possible to be a little less rigid, a little more forgiving of deviation from the usual, and still get by.

So forgive me if I pass on pompous speeches and a hectoring film in German tonight.

I will, however, miss the fellowship and the beer.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Whither Amerika Haus?

In German cities -- excuse me, make that West German cities, the Amerika Haus was something you just always assumed was there. Exactly what it was was hard to figure out: was it an adjunct of the government, a propaganda tool, a reference center for Germans needing information on the States, or what? The answer was, yes, all of the above, and doubtless, especially in Berlin, just a bit more, if you catch my drift.

The Amerika Haus here was a squat, ugly box visible from the tracks of the S-Bahn at Zoo Station, sitting on Hardenburgstr. separating Zoo's sleaze from more upper-crust offerings like a Steinway showroom and an art college. Word soon got out among expats settling here that it had a great lending-library if you could negotiate the German harridan who reigned over it, and so did the British Council just a few doors down. It also had a small auditorium to which authors and other speakers came from time to time (I once saw Paul Williams of Crawdaddy give a lecture on Bob Dylan there, pretty much the first time I'd seen him since I'd quit the magazine in 1967), and a nice exhibition space which hosted a fine show of jazz photography by William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, and William Claxton which I covered for the Wall Street Journal, and, in the process, got to interview and meet these great masters -- three of the coolest old hipsters it's ever been my pleasure to hang out with.

Signing up for the library remained one of those things I was going to get around to doing (hey, they were cool enough to have a copy of Rock of Ages, the book I'd co-authored), and one day a friend was raving about Alan Lomax's book The Land Where the Blues Began, and recommended I get it from the Amerika Haus library, because it was a pricey item. I went down there and discovered...all the books had been sold off the previous weekend. In fact, the place looked gutted; there was almost nothing there; a few computer terminals dedicated to study overseas for German students, some pamphlets, and that was it. I later found out that the attitude of the American government was that since we'd won the Cold War, there was no more need for an Amerika Haus, although a couple of them had opened in cities in East Germany and were being maintained for the time being.

I thought this was awfully short-sighted, since after all Berlin was one of Germany's most important cities, half of it had been isolated from all things American for fifty years, and there was an intense interest in the country on the part of Ossis I knew who could now travel or study there. At one point, trying to raise money for my English-language magazine and website project, my colleagues and I visited there to talk to some kind of "information officers," and they all wished us luck and told us the institution was broke and they were all being transferred at some point.

Amerika Haus just sat there, and my trips up and down Hardenburgstr. became rarer and rarer, so it wasn't until a couple of days ago that it came back into my life. A friend forwarded an invitation to a meeting in the Rotes Rathaus which was to be chaired by some people who wanted to turn the now-empty building into a center for cultural diplomacy. As much because I was curious about the interior of the Rathaus, Berlin's central administrative building, which dates to the 1860s, as anything else, I headed down there last night to see what was up.

The meeting started with a summary of the current situation: this past October 1, the U.S. Embassy, which had paid the lease on the building, which it was renting from the city, had stopped their €7000/month payments. The city, therefore, had decided to put it on the market -- yet another piece of real estate for the impoverished Berlin government to get rid of -- and they want €22,000/month for it. All of the Amerika Hauses in Germany had been closed, although many in the West had been taken over by something called the German-American Institute. In Munich, which had dearly loved its Amerika Haus (I attended an election-night party there in 2000 -- they had the temerity to serve Michelob!), it was taken over by the Bavarian American Center, an organization funded by the State of Bavaria which has pretty much continued the cultural program the U.S. had paid for previously. The one in Frankfurt is sitting empty, its future uncertain.

Unofficially, the City of Berlin would like to keep the building as some sort of German/American center, although it will be putting the thing up for bids at some point in the indefinite future. The group sponsoring the meeting, calling themselves The Committee Amerika Haus Berlin, coordinated by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, is hoping to gather some non-governmental agencies (NGOs) who'd like to have a central office space, have them take the upstairs offices, maybe stick in an American cafe in the old cafe space on the ground floor, and maybe even combine it with an American bookstore -- which would be the only English-language bookstore in town selling new, as opposed to used, books. The auditorium could be used for performances and lectures, and the exhibition space, too, could be used for its old purpose.

One interesting aspect of this is that "America" is being broadly defined to include at least Canada -- the guy in front of me was a representative of the government of Quebec -- and maybe the other Americas. They're also searching for European groups interested in exchanges with the Americas.

But what they're really searching for is money. They made no bones about it: Berlin is so totally broke that a porno shop or a mattress warehouse could -- at least theoretically -- rent the place tomorrow if they saw fit, as more than one speaker mentioned. (With Beate Uhse's porn mega-supermarket and museum just around the corner, I sort of doubt it'd go to porn, but I should never underestimate the stupidity of local entrepreneurs). At the moment, though, some potential sponsors and tenants have identified themselves, including Duke University, a student-exchange program called Lexia International, another one called SIT Study Abroad Berlin, and, weirdly, a magazine called Pulse Berlin, which, if I heard the fast-talking ICD guy correctly, is partially founded by Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, as well as by the ICD themselves.

It was a weird collection of people, from the pony-tailed ICD guy to the hard-bitten right-winger from the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation, but it's an intriguing proposition. As more than one person noted, Hardenburgstr. and the Zoo Station area in general is hardly a sexy address these days: Zoo Station itself is already being partially dismantled as its function as the city's central station has been taken over by the glitzy new Hauptbahnhof. But cultural input of all kinds is starving here in Berlin, and the right combination of people working together might well revitalize both the cultural scene and the ugly old box (under landmark protection, I was surprised and amused to find out) of Amerika Haus.

They're going to have to move fast; the city wants to hear something in 30 days. I signed up to stay on the story, because it's a sort of quintessentially Berlin one, even though I doubt there's anything I could do at this point. Plus, of course, every single project I've involved myself with here has either been hijacked by idiots or crushed by the conservatism of Berliners.

In fact, I may not be around to see how it ends. I ran the numbers the other night once again, and the magic figure is €12,300. That pays all the debts, rents me an apartment with a new couch and washing machine, and gets me out of here. And that's where I'm putting my energy these days.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Death In The Streets

As if life in Berlin isn't grim enough, with help from the forthcoming James Bond movie and Germany's biggest publicity-hound self-anointed artist, we get to look at corpses everywhere we turn.

Many of you may already be familiar with Gunther von Hagens, the "plastinator" who has mounted a big box-office show of human corpses (for the most part) whose flesh has been replaced by plastic, thereby preserving them indefinitely. Von Hagens partially dissects the bodies, arranges them into arty poses, and then does the "plastination." As I understand it, his "Body World" show is currently touring the United States, although oddly enough it doesn't seem to have occasioned any protests. Although, you might think, as long as it's not in bad taste, why should it?

Meanwhile, back in von Hagens' homeland, we're being socked with these posters, which show a quartet of his plastinated people sitting around a table playing cards. The posters show a scene from the upcoming James Bond film, Casino Royale, which the Bond franchise has apparently decided to remake as a serious film instead of the lighthearted, acid-soaked caprice it was in its 1967 version. But the posters aren't for the film. They're for von Hagens' "Plastinarium," which is going to open on Friday in a four-story exhibition space in the German/Polish border-town of Guben, whose previous fame was as a manufacturing center for textiles.

Now, I've got to come clean here. I have a visceral reaction to von Hagens that has nothing, really, to do with him. It's a long, complicated story which I'm saving in all its details for my book, but essentially, I had arranged to cover an art show for the Wall Street Journal Europe back when I was writing for them. It was a group show, curated by a very prestigious figure in the German art world, and, not so coincidentally, featured an artist who was part of the team working on my English language magazine/website project. Sneaking her name into print could only enhance the project's prestige, I thought (although when I saw her pieces, I realized I would have commented on them no matter who'd done them). Anyway, there was a grand opening, I had a deadline of the next day, and I was in sort of a rush. For some unknown reason, I checked my e-mail just before leaving the house, and to my horror, there was an e-mail from someone from my dimmest past, someone who had meant a lot to me, and its subject read "Good Bye." Yup, an e-suicide note.

I dashed off a "don't do it" reply, calculated the time back where this person lived, had no idea of the phone number, or if this person's spouse was around, and, breathing deeply to calm down, I decided I'd just done about as much as I could have done. So I grabbed my hat, walked a few blocks, and entered this art show. And the first thing I saw was a guy standing, naked and dissected, with his skin casually draped over his arm.

The second thing I saw was a guy dressed exactly like that overrated icon of 20th century German art, Josef Beuys if Beuys had affected an undertaker's air. People were flocking around him, and I just knew this was the artist, as indeed it was. I quickly rushed around trying to find my colleague, and, when I did, told her in a rather out-of-breath way about my e-mail and my subsequent encounter with Mr. Skin. "Oh," she said in her perky upper-class British way, "there's several more of them scattered around the show. Have you seen my pieces?" I was happy to be led to them. And she was right: not only did von Hagens have several more of his plastic people on view, he had a corner with a desk, a catalogue of stuff for sale (to medical schools and other educational institutions), and a place an assistant would help you fill out the necessary legal forms so you could sign up to get plastinated after death!

Okay, I know the function of a lot of art is to give you the kind of sensory punch that can leave you feeling off-center, but I'm not alone in feeling there's something cynical about von Hagens' approach. The Sauerkrautmeister, having apparently just discovered Ananova's ability to deliver you custom news, yesterday sent me an article from a couple of weeks ago about a priest in Guben who's protesting the Plastinarium, predictably enough, and when I told him my story (my friend, incidentally, was fine, and continues to be fine, and long may that continue), he passed on some diary musings from when von Hagen's first three-ring circus Body World show hit town in 2001. With his permission, I quote from this document:

"It’s like something from Auschwitz. Auschwitz as a theme park; the politically correct Auschwitz: the victims weren’t Jews, or even alive when it happened, so: progress.
. . .

"Why nobody seems to see this “Korper Welt” nightmare as on a continuum with the morbid experiments of Mengele and his colleagues -- it’s “educational” in the same life-cheapening way -- I can’t grasp. Leave it to Germans, who dwell in a Literalist and Mechanistic Universe of frightening coldness to strip the human body of every grace note of metaphor or mystery. Yes, the body is just a machine."

But there's something more to this story, and it's something that hasn't been adequately investigated, because it's not illegal: where von Hagens gets his corpses. He refuses to speak about it, claiming privacy issues on behalf of the dead, but the disturbing answer seems to be that they come, largely, from China. That would explain why the ones I've seen have been so short, I guess, but...where do the Chinese get them? So von Hagens is buying corpses from a country which has untold numbers of people in prison and executes them on a regular basis, where environmental strictures are so loose that people die of pollution-related causes. Far from the innate grisliness of the objects, that's something I find deeply creepy.

Of course, I guess by now some of them could've been the art-lovers signing up at that show in Berlin. But all I know is that yesterday, without really leaving my neighborhood, I walked by four posters, one of which was a big-ass billboard, all advertisting the Plastinarium. An entertaining weekend out with the kids, or a cheap holiday in other people's misery? You decide. Me, I'm counting the days til the movie opens and they put up something else.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

How Bad Is It...Really?

First, a couple of caveats. I'm not an economist. Neither have I read the local press much over the years. But one thing is crystal clear: Berlin is in serious trouble.

It's not exactly headline news; anyone who's spent a little time here knows it. As the once-and-future capital of Germany, it wound up absorbing a hugely disproportionate percentage of the costs of reunification. With less than seven years remaining until the government moved from Bonn, Berlin had to get its transportation system, telecommunications system, water and power lines, and, well, just about everything else up to world-class speed before 2000.

Given that half the city had been East Germany, that meant that the eastern part of town got a lot of preferential treatment: I never had touch-tone dialling before moving to the former east in 1996, for instance. But I got it because the East Berlin telephone system was so out of date it couldn't be updated. It had to be replaced. The equipment had already been manufactured before the unification even happened, and it was reassigned to the east.

This caused several problems. For one, taxes were raised to help pay for all of this, and much muttering was heard in the west about having to pay for those damn lazy Ossis, who didn't make enough to even pay those taxes. For another, Helmut Kohl's government made some serious mistakes, starting with a one-for-one currency exchange: one Ostmark for one Deutsche Mark. As I said, I'm not an economist, although I've read numerous accounts of why this was a very bad idea (not only in Germany, but in other East Bloc countries where "shock therapy" tactics were used), and if I understand correctly, it helped dig the hole we're in a little deeper. There was also the matter of some of Kohl's buddies buying up eastern properties and flipping them for huge profits, and there was also a bank some of them were in charge of that went belly-up. Predictably, nobody involved in any of this actually did any hard time.

And the government coming here meant a building boom. Not only the Spreebogen complex of hideous Alphaville buildings stretching along the (rebuilt and rechannelled) Spree River away from the Reichstag, which itself was given Sir Norman Foster's new dome, but a huge amount of retail and residential space went up for all the people who'd be living and shopping here once Berlin became the gleaming new hub of Europe. That explains the eyesore that is Potsdamer Platz, and the mighty scrubbing Friedrichstr. between Kochstr. and Unter den Linden underwent. This was another disaster: plenty of ex-Bonners hated Berlin, and never moved, preferring to rack up frequent flier miles between Berlin Tegel and Cologne-Bonn Airport. And while it's true that Sony, for instance, established their European music center here, very few of its employees wanted to live here, either, and once the merger with Bertelsmann looked like it was happening, they scampered off to Munich, happy as can be. That big old Sony Center at Potz Platz has lots of vacancies, if you're looking for office space. Of course, if you are, there's lots cheaper office space to be had, too. Lots.

As someone covering the culture beat here, as I did for the Wall Street Journal Europe from 1996 to 2003, it all became distressingly obvious after the Millenium. Suddenly, the culture funds started disappearing, and the support the city used to give just dried up. I remember the night this became crystal clear: I went to cover an exhbition of new Australian art that was the keynote of the new arts season at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, and it was so godawful the editor rejected it. How on earth did this atrocity get mounted, anyway? And then it dawned on me: it had been 100% paid for by the Australians. All Berlin had to give was the space. And that's the way it's been ever since: the big museum shows here have either been wholly assembled elsewhere and set up here (the Museum of Modern Art show of a couple of years ago was the template for that), or else some curator has just re-shuffled Berlin's own holdings into a show.

As for the music scene, that was a scandal, too: the city voted to keep supporting three opera companies, despite the fact that one is almost totally artistically moribund, and totally de-funded Podewil, the scrappy little avant-garde outfit near Alexanderplatz which attracted worldwide audiences and worldwide attention because of them. And forget popular music: that never had any government support at all, and with people's incomes declining, attendance at gigs tapered off so badly that most touring acts totally skip Berlin these days.

Here's the bottom line, though: Berlin is 60 billion Euros in the hole. You read that right. The other night a bunch of us were sitting around and some lightning-fast calculator heard that figure and, after a minute, said "Uh, that's three-quarters the GNP of Australia." Yup. And even higher than the debt of the state of California, which is considered a scandal in some quarters in America.

The schools here, I hear, are falling apart. I do know that the new U-Bahn line that was supposed to run between the Reichstag and Alexanderplatz, the U 5, can't be completed now, even though enough holes have been dug for it. (Exactly why we need to connect the Reichstag and Alex, however, hasn't been explained).

That's why I love it when people extol Berlin's virtues to me. "It's so cheap to live here!" Sure, dude. You're probably too young for the phrase "a cheap holiday in other people's misery" to resonate.

And, just the other week while I was in the States, a small item in the Times caught my eye: the German equivalent of the Supreme Court denied Berlin's appeal for money to help alleviate the debt. Nope. Not gonna happen.

So when I say I need to get out of here, it's not just personal. It's about living in a place where everyone is depressed by the lack of opportunity, not just me. It's about wanting to live somewhere where people are more likely to be employed than not, where you can start a business and maybe have it succeed because people have money to spend.

If you look at people's faces here, unhappiness is written large on a striking number of them. I don't want to become one of those people, scowling, mouths turned down, shuffling along the street. I'm not sure how I'm going to do it (no, I didn't sell my book and I don't know if I actually have an agent to do it, thanks), but it's going to happen. And, I hope, soon.