Monday, December 11, 2006

So Why Not Another One?

I got an e-mail yesterday from a friend who read my post on that ridiculous New York Times story, and he had an interesting point:

"Figured the Times piece would detonate you. Would you say it was accurate as of, say, early 90s, but the economic collapse has made it outdated? Or was it ever true? Certainly Berlin has had that image since, say, a few years before the U2 Zoo album. Seems time for a counter-hype travel article puncturing the outdated image yet celebrating what, if anything, is there to enjoy."

And he's right. Much as I don't enjoy living here any more, I do have an affection for Berlin, and newcomers and visitors often take my famous walking tour of the central city, which starts at my house and ends up two blocks away at Berti Brecht's grave, if they last that long. In fact, that's what I was doing yesterday when this guy's e-mail came. When I put myself in the mind of someone who's seeing this city for the first time, I know there are a lot of things I'd recommend they do.

So for this proposed counter-hype story, some notes:

Stop ringing the hip! edgy! Berlin! bell. Sorry, it was like that ten or more years ago, but the coming of the government in 2000 and the attendant real-estate hype all but killed that Berlin. It used to be possible to set up an illegal club in some disused space, sell beer out of iced tin tubs, with a sound system and some minimal lighting, maybe some odd art from one of your friends, and have a little party a couple of times a week, the location spreading among the cognoscenti by word of mouth. But the disused spaces became objects of speculation and as the speculators displaced not only the club spaces, but the working spaces and living spaces for artists, those artists and the hangers-on and scenemakers moved on. I'm absolutely positive there are still illegal clubs, and little scenes here and there, but nothing like there were in the mid-90s and earlier. And, of course, there's the annoying fact that if you write about them in the media they get busted.

Instead, consider that just your normal everyday bar scene seems weird enough for the American readership, and that some of the most "authentic" experiences can be had in places hipsters either don't notice or take for granted. Stories are everywhere. Try to find some of them out. For instance, there's a rather nondescript restaurant/bar towards the top of Friedrichstr. I've walked past for years, the Bärenklause, I think it's called. Just the other day, I found out it was a secret meeting-place for a bunch of anti-Nazi workers who passed on information to the Allies during the war. The place up on the corner by my place, Honigmond, was a gathering-place for dissidents in the DDR. And the Kellerrestaurant am Brecht-Haus a couple of blocks away was, in fact, Brecht's basement (the house is a museum upstairs), and the food there is hardly innovative, but usually top-notch. Of course, being able to identify a schnitzel is sort of a basic requirement for being able to appreciate these sorts of places.

Nazis and Jews: that's what people come here to see. So give it to them! Look, it's a basic statement of fact: people don't come to Berlin to eat or to shop (especially the latter), so what's left? History. And the history that's here is pretty much all recent, which is to say Industrial Revolution and later. I can see taking a pass on the Jewish Museum, but what kind of travel writer are you if you can't find a new spin on the exhibition inside the New Synagogue or point out one of the many Nazi air-raid bunkers around town? Am I the only person who still notices the bullet-holes from the street-fighting as World War II came to a close here? How about fashioning some clever statement based on the fact that the deportation monument and Christian Boltanski's The Missing House are across the street from each other, or walking up to Koppenplatz and checking out that sculpture in the park of the table with the tipped-over chair, another comment on the deportations, as, of course, are the Klopfenstein brass memorials. Do you suppose the hip! edgy! writers even see these things? And there's even a humorous take on this stuff, if you want it: how awful Berlin bagels are, and how truly vile the food at the Beth Cafe, run by the local temple, is. I thought it was just supposed to be more authentic until I met an old man there who'd grown up Jewish in Berlin and escaped to Toronto in 1939. "My mother cooked Berlin Jewish food, and it didn't look like this, I tell you! What are these people palming off on us?"

Besides the Nazis and the Jews, of course, there's also the Communists. Although the Wall Documentation Center on Bernauer Str. is pretty incomprehensible to a non-German-reader (and who wants to read all those documents, anyway?), the Wall walk from Nordbahnhof to Mauerpark is lined with those trilingual plexiglass signs about the Bernauer Str. death-strip. There are two Stasi museums, apparently, and the new Museum of the DDR. And, on a lighter note, there's lots of DDR crap for sale in Ostalgia stores and flea markets.

Mista Issyvoo, he dead. And so is the world inhabited by David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Stop looking for it: it's not there. Instead of trying to force your own preconceptions on the city, why not look at what's actually there? Surely there's enough to say about the real Berlin that would attract a reader here. It's got more green space than any other city in Europe, per square mile. In the summer, that means tons and tons of lawn, forest, park. Places to sunbathe, walk, feed ducks, let the kids run around, or just read a newspaper under the sun. Go to a Wochenmarkt, where more and more organic stuff is beginning to show up, and where you can also buy some pretty neat non-food items a lot of the time. Take a few of the river cruises and figure out which ones are best. Is this stuff corny? Hay-ull yes! Is it fun? You bet!

And when the sun's not shining -- 89% of the time -- the continuing reshuffling of the museums here has presented some great opportunities for culture-vulturing. I'll be the first to admit I've been remiss in checking them out in recent years, and with the Bode Museum now re-opened, just a few blocks from my house, I'm totally embarrassed that I don't have a clue what's in there these days. But the city's current poverty notwithstanding, the Prussians were some acquisitive bastards, and the city's holdings reflect three centuries of a royal family that grabbed what they could and commissioned the rest.


So you see, there's a lot of stuff these stories miss in their headlong rush to perpetuate a long-dead stereotype, stuff that could be made attractive to the crowd they're writing for. There's another problem, though, which lies in the last sentence of my friend's e-mail, a sentence I purposely left out:

"But who would run it?"

Indeed. I can't think of a single travel magazine aimed at people who travel the way I and the vast majority of people I know travel: not so much "budget" as not spending unnecessary money; not so much "adventure" as guided by a curiosity about out-of-the-way places; not so much voyeuristic as open to learning something about where we are on the earth, knowledge which can come from every one of our senses, as well as our intellect. Me, I've given up hope that such a magazine will ever appear. For one thing, where would you get advertising for it? Not from the big cruise lines. Not from the huge resort chains. Not from luxury jewelers. Nor, more than likely, from Cadillac Escalade and other high-end SUV makers.

So you're not going to read the story about the real Berlin -- or the real Paris or the real Kyoto. Instead, you're stuck with people who don't know a sausage from a schnitzel and think salads can be plump. And who, incredibly enough, still get to write for the New York Times.


Anonymous said...

i concur that you will not find that story in the pages of some fading paper or travel rag catering to the vacationing SUV set. but those of us who want to know where we are (coordinated in time and space) also know how to research our interests and how to network with others who share our passions. for the rest, the experiences they will have is the one that has been created for them by their personal (or impersonal) shoppers. iMomus has similar thoughts regarding the experience of place (in his case Edinburgh) over at Click Opera:

Anonymous said...

by the way Ed - what is up with your syndication? I was using but that doesn't seem to work anymore!

Marie Javins said...

WT--check the address in the menu bar. Berlinbites is now a blogspot and you need to update!

Anonymous said...

Ed, quite right. I'm so bored of Berlin pretending that the Isherwood-thing is alive and well. To my amazement, my brother-in-law, the most conservative man under 110 in the UK, started singing Berlin's isherwoodian praises to me on a recent UK trip and imagined I spent my whole life taking opium and having sex with the neighbours etc. etc. And the hip-and-trendy thing... I'm sure Ljubljana has hip and groovy bars too. It's not newsworthy.

Jon Lebkowsky said...

Second what Marie said.

In fact, the syndication feed at hasn't been updated since August, when it was changed to read "Berlin bites has moved, and so has its RSS feed, which is now located at"

I just moved to a different server, and figured by now everybody had updated, so I didn't move that pointer. ~ jonl, Ed's pal and occasional webmaster

Ed Ward said...

William, yes and no. There's a long tradition of travel writing which isn't just about sharing tips, although that would be at the heart of the magazine I was envisioning. It's also about reading well-written, insightful pieces about places you'll almost certainly never visit. About the pleasure of reading as much as the pleasure of travel, if you will. And I don't think the internet's ever going to replace that.

As for Isherwood, I just learned that the plaque on the house near Nollendorfplatz is actually on the wrong house: it should be on the one next door. Can't they do anything right here?

Anonymous said...

oh i certainly enjoy reading well written, insightful pieces - but i can do that online as well as off. jonl - thanks for the tip, will update the string. meanwhile i gave up taking opium so i could have sex with the neighbors (or landlords or whoever)! ...of course the problem there is that they then know exactly where you live...

Anonymous said...

First of all, Ed, I found this post the most poetic of any I have read by you--thank you. Berlin may not be the superlative in many categories (it does have more bridges than Amsterdam in addition to having the most greenspace), and it may have a plenty of faults, but a lot of us are in love with it.

For me, it's because I'm a Cold War junkie, and I spent my formative years there in the 1970s as a member of the USAF 6912th and then as a poor expatriate civilian living in a coal-heated apartment in Schoeneberg, never ever planning on returning to the States. Poverty and marginalization finally chased me back to education and employment, but Berlin was the armature around which my life turned. That's what happens when you come of age in a city.

Oh crap, I'm sounding positively sentimental and totally uncool.

Well, the spell was not broken when I returned in 2005, and now I'm committed to at least visiting Berlin regularly, and maybe living there again. It's the only place that has ever really fascinated me while still feeling like home.

By the way, my wife and I went to Tacheles (mentioned in the NYT piece) to see Laura Veirs in a clubspace (Cafe Zapata) that was jammed to the gills and a freaking fire hazard. I'm too old for that scene, but I have to confess to liking Ms. Veirs music, even if we only lasted part way through the evening. Chief among my disappointments was that Berlin audiences used to really punish artists if they didn't meet expectations, and I thought that this crowd was awfully forgiving of Ms. Veirs. "What happened to you" I asked a young Berliner as we were leaving. He just shrugged.

Okay, so it's not so hip! edgy! anymore, and certainly wasn't three decades ago. But it's not like anywhere else, even with the wall coming down, the capital moving in, the economy circling the drain, and stupid NY Times bits recycled annually that are the product of writers who have never had a city break their hip shrunken hearts.

I'll never be able to give it up. Corny? Yes, but Berlin bleibt doch Berlin. Immer.

Jeez, Ed. I wish I knew some idiot millionaire who could stake a real magazine for the city. Any benefactors out there?

Anonymous said...

loved the "counter hype" story & my "Guided tour of Berlin" is not disimilar from yours...I love taking/guiding friends who want to see Hip! Edgy! Berlin! on my favortie paths through the city.

One of those paths is the review of what I belive are called "Stolpersteinen" - those brass plaques - in your neck of the woods...

what really struck me was your citation of the juxtaposition of the "missing house" with the deportation memorial on Gross Hamburgstrasse... I'd been there several times but that exact aspect had not struck me before

Ed Ward said...

Lovely response, Olaf. But no, there aren't any millionaires who want to fund an English-language magazine here. Germans don't invest. At all. That project took three years out of my life and at the end we had one guy who was willing to invest 35,000 Marks as long as we didn't use it to pay writers. And then he decided against it.

And narrowback, you're right: those are Stolperstein. I'd been calling them Klopfenstein, but that's the right word. Product of a guy who's funding it all himself, all over Germany. He's banned in Munich, though. Figures.

Anonymous said...

“Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense,
And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” Romans 9:33

Last year I was in a small town outside Frankfurt for business with a colleague from Israel. It was his first trip to the Fatherland and he was understandably a bit nervous. He was somewhat reassured after I showed him a few Stolpersteine and we had dinner at a bad Thai restaurant. I myself am a bit uneasy with them since trodding on the dead is less than respectful where i come from.

Anonymous said...

Ed, Olaf: Tacheles is exactly what I was thinking when Ed mentioned speculators buying up all the cool places. That place was so great only four years ago, shortly after I arrived in the city, even. (I was at that Veirs show too, btw--with my GF, the fan--and I have to say that audience was a far cry from the Tacheles crowd of yesteryear (well, 1999 yester). More adoring Mitte kids than the angsty squatting undergrounders of yesteryear, also a dying breed.)

It's funny though, I always said I would leave Berlin as soon as I got bored and I couldn't understand the Berliners who were always bellyaching about it being better in the mid Nineties, late Eighties, whatever.

I think it does have a lot to do with time and place and how you position yourself in the Berlin Bohemian promise (fantasy?) which I don't think has actually changed that much since the 20s even if the city itself has. I guess that's what public relations companies are for. Or Wowi jabbering on about poor-but-sexy and the like.

The fun is still here to be had, though, I have no doubt about that. Finding it gets harder sometimes when the new is always turning into the old. Is that a metaphor for life? (OK, I have to stop now before this nostalgio-philosophizing gets out of control.)

Ed, how often do you give these tours? Averse to any come-alongs?

Anonymous said...

when I first, literally, stumbled across the stolipersteinen they piqued my curiosity. In a short period of time I got myself up to speed regarding the concept, artist and history.

IIRC it is exactly william thirteen's reservations about "trodding on the dead" that's the basis for the prohibition in Munich. While I can't argue against that perspective I still think its a exceedingly unique and poignant means of memorializing those who would otherwise be generally unknown or to paraphrase Stalin "a statistic".

I'm with Olaf...there always has been, is and will be a lot more to Berlin than the "hip! edgy!" tripe cranked out by hack travel writers

Michael Scott Moore said...

Ed, I couldn't help but notice that you came back from New York the other month grumbling it was nothing but a playground for the rich. That might explain why the Times thinks Berlin is "like New York in the '80s." Wrong, but that's their perspective: Berlin is Hip and Edgy because American cities are even more gentrified.

Anonymous said...

A city of four million with the history that Berlin has can't ever be compressed to simply fit the hype-machines of commoditized, checklist-style, upscale travel. I just wander around when I'm there, and there's always something to stumble into that while not hip! edgy! is nonetheless worthwhile and memorable. And everything in Berlin seems accessible to an ordinary schmoe like me, unlike the feeling I get in some other big cities. Compared to the desolate strip-malled, stucco-fucko wasteland that the West here in the US is becoming, Berlin is wonderfully complex and strange. It's the real thing--all its scars are showing, and even the Sony Centre can't cover them up.

I gotta stop thinking about Berlin. I'm so desperate to get back that I may do something irrational.

Ed Ward said...

Actually, Olaf, there are fewer and fewer scars; the bullet holes in the buildings have been surgically excised, and this place would gentrify in a hurry if there were any money around. But there isn't, so Mike's observation is acute.

But you know you're irrational if you want to come back here at this time of year. (I had to pause to blow my nose in the middle of writing that sentence...)

Anonymous said...

Gawd, how I remember those short, dim winter days. The only times it wasn't drizzling and dark, the temperature dropped into the teens and the sun in the blue, blue sky was just ironic punishment--it gave not a watt of radiant warmth. When it managed to snow, it was beautiful, though...for a day. And, of course, given the dreadful, damp cold all winter, every shop and restaurant was overheated so that you could never strip off enough to be comfortable. Even though I now live at 7000 feet, I've never been colder than those years in Berlin.

Until I spent three weeks in winter in Stockholm in 1998. Good god! No wonder the Swedes are so stoic.

Anonymous said...

Ed, Olaf...have you forgotten such places in the States as my current city of residence Chicago, the Tug Hill plateau in Upstate NY, or the UP of Michigan?...I've been to Berlin in December and January and while the short amount of daylight does have its adverse effects the weather isn't all that fact during my visit last January it was actually warmer in Berlin that it was back in Chicago

Anonymous said...

Ah Olaf, you're not in love with Berlin but with your youth and nothing can bring that back!

Anonymous said...

What, Munich won't have the brass cobblestones because they think it would be disrespectful to tread on the dead?

Given that other cities in Germany have them, methinks the Bavarians protest too much...

Not that I don't worry about them getting smeared in dog shit.

Walking on them – by accident, then realising what you've done – could be argued to be a poignant memorial in itself, no? Artists like to provoke emotion. I suppose you could say that by accidentally walking over a memorial and feeling guilty you're being made to feel in some way complicit with those who *would* forget. And that's a lesson in itself?

Does that make sense? I'm not very articulate just now because still ill.

Anonymous said...

oh don't get me wrong, i love the Stolpersteine. and how they sit like gold teeth in the broken and bleeding mouth of the streets. it is this discomfort that is an element of the background noise of eastern europe in general (and berlin in particular). each one is an invitation to reflect on man's ability to engage in unimaginable cruelties to his fellow man. or perhaps they are only too imaginable... as far as the weather goes, all bets are off really. given the onrushing climate change, we should soon have quite the balmy city here by the Spree. Perhaps all those Strandbads were on to something!

Ed Ward said...

Olaf, I think Olivier may have hit on, err, an inconvenient truth.

The Global Village Idiot said...

Hallo Ed. Appreciate the take on Berlin. Reminds me very much of how i felt watching SanFranDisco destroyed by the internet bubble and then the burst. Been living near Köln for five years, and haven't yet gotten to Berlin. Will change that soon. May you be washed with all waters.

Anonymous said...

Bowleserised...your comment about provoking emotion is one of the points about the stolpersteinen. Art is intended to provoke a reaction in some form or manner.

When I've been on photo shoots in the Hackescher Markt area I've found that even my act of stopping to photogragh one then sparks the interest of other passer by (tourists in most cases) to lok and then ponder what I was shooting a picture of.

Anonymous said...

Ed and Olivier, I might agree that I was bemoaning lost youth if I didn't find that being thirty years older made me appreciate Berlin even more. And I don't miss my youth--my life has improved with every decade and I was a dumbshit of the first order in my 20s. Frankly, I'm embarrassed about my youth.

Nope, sorry, no nostalgia here. Life's never been better than it is now. Berlin, to me, is the FUTURE!
(I know that's gonna make Ed chortle.)

Anonymous said...

Olaf...tho' Berlin had always been on my radar as one of THE places I wanted to visitI didn't make it there until my 40's...yet I found it even more inteersting & intriguing than I had ever imagined. maybe one could consider me as a "control group" with perceptions unaltered by recollections of a misspent youth in Berlin

Anonymous said...

Narrowback...thanks for saving me from the label "nostalgia." I can think of no other city with a more fascinating--or horrifying--history that is not ignored or glossed over or sanitized. It may be romanticized a bit by Isherwood fans and Cold War junkies (myself included) but no one ever calls it pretty, or nice, or charming. It's still raw enough for all our worst and best fantasies...and realities.

Bowleserised said...

How come I've changed from Bowleserised to Anonymous? Fecking beta!