Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Immer Ein Koffer

I left Berlin twice. It might seem like I couldn't let myself leave, but the answer is more prosaic than that: I missed a turnoff.

Actually, I hadn't meant to leave so late in the day, but the movers had decided, while I was picking up the rental station wagon that would take the more precious items, that their truck was full, although it was far from it. I returned to find them battening the load down, and went upstairs to my apartment to see how much remained: a lot.

So it was about 4:30 in the afternoon when I left, already dark, of course. I'd like to say there were bittersweet feelings coursing around my heart, but in fact that had been happening bit by bit over the past couple of weeks, and I was done with it by now: all I wanted was to get moving on to my new life in France.

One thing I can't recommend enough if you're driving anywhere in Europe is Mappy, a map-generating service which calculates your route with scary precision. Owned by France Telecom, it even has speed cameras marked on it, as well as accurate tolls and gasoline costs, and up-to-the-minute detour information. It doesn't, however, help you much when you can't see what it's talking about, and somewhere near the ICC, I missed a turnoff which was signposted on a temporary sign which was leaning at a crazy angle. Somehow instinct kept me on the Berliner Ring, and somewhere around Schönefeld, I started following signs for Schöneberg and next thing I knew, the Fernsehturm heaved into sight again, and eventually I found the bad road sign and Berlin was in my past.

It would be easy enough to say that I hadn't meant to spend 15 years in Berlin, but it would be more honest to say that I didn't have a plan at all, that the entire decade and a half was an improvisation. And, although the past four or five years weren't the most pleasant, as my disaffection with the city became stronger and my dislike for Germany and its culture began to grow, I'm certainly not about to disavow the experience. Pretty much up to the end, it was an adventure, one that, yes, I'd very likely handle differently if I had to do it again, but one which changed my life in profound ways, many of which have been detailed on this blog over the years of its existence.

For one thing, I learned how to live in a foreign country, one enough like the one I was raised in that the little details didn't show up quite as obviously. There were things like the bureaucracy I had to deal with, but there were other things that were more fun, from learning how to get around to learning how to swim against the current without overly disturbing the neighors. There were the customs, from odd holidays (Pfingsten? What's that?) to knocking on a table full of friends when you entered a bar, thereby saying hello to one and all.

For another, I was extraordinarily privileged on a couple of accounts. One is that I managed to witness the aftermath of the huge change in Germany that the locals call die Wende, the turning. As I've stated, I was here, visiting, before the Wall opened, and just missed the event by a couple of days (although, as someone noted, my math was bad in that last post, and I can only blame pre-moving distraction for that), and managed to move to Berlin four years later, when the Wiedervereinegung was far from a reality. Three years after that, I moved to east Berlin in time to see the street at the end of my block change from Wilhelm-Pieck-Str. to Torstr. And if the yuppification of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg was what grabbed the headlines, it was the bafflement of the man in the street and the freezing out of the arts communities which interested me. I managed to reside Berlin from the day the Allies left to the day Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were househunting across the street from me.

Another way I was privileged was in being a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal -- and to a lesser extent the New York Times -- from 1994 to about 2002. Once I became a regular with the Journal, I was allowed an expense account for travel, hotels, and meals to go all over my territory (which was basically Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe) writing stories about art and culture. Particularly towards the end of the last century, it was as likely as not that a lot of the stories would be right at home in Berlin, as the city waged an ultimately unsuccessful battle to position itself as a "world city," as if that was something achievable through clever marketing and just saying it was true. I also loved doing slyly subversive stories for the notoriously right-wing Journal, and covered the fight to retain the Ampelmann on crossing lights (which, from his ubiquity these days, you'd never know was something Siemens fought like hell to keep from happening) and the 30th anniversary of the Puhdys, East Germany's most successful rock band, as much because these stories were about communist icons as because they were newsworthy. On the occasions I travelled, I usually had plenty of spare time to take in museums or other notable sights, and of course I tried my best to research the food situation, which sometimes, as in the trip I made to Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, didn't pan out like I thought: the food there was much better than my research led me to expect, and I'd go back in a minute.

It was only when this ideal setup began to crumble -- first with the utter inability of the company I'd founded in 1997 to provide an English-language information service with a magazine and an online component to find a single investor, then with the radio shows I'd had at JazzRadio (which had been very popular and had connected me with people I'd otherwise never have met) suddenly falling to new management and bogus "consultants," then the post-9/11 changes in the New York media landscape which left me without any gigs, and, finally, my ill-advised loan to a friend which also went south on that notorious date -- that life in Berlin soured and, without any relief from my surroundings, I began to see it in another way. Much of that view has been reported in this blog, to the dismay of some of its more Germanophilic readers. (Weirdly, I'd never met a single Germanophile until I moved to Berlin. I'd met Anglophiles, Francophiles, Italophiles, Sinophiles, and so on, but everyone seemed to have a "yes, but" attitude towards Germany).

Ultimately, the city and I just didn't get along. I became unhappy with the picture Berlin was painting of itself to the world, emphasizing the negative, emphasizing death over life, always twisting the narrative to avoid mentioning things the city should have been proud of. The weather, of course, could be brutal in the winter, and the winter seemed to last for seven months. The food, for most of my stay, was awful, although I have to say that's one thing which was definitely on the upswing in my last couple of years there. The architecture was relentessly grim, and, with the city sprawled out over an area that seemed the size of Los Angeles, there was an awful lot of it: this past March I'd just returned from Texas and France when I agreed to meet friends at a recently-discovered Chinese restaurant in Neukölln and took the Ringbahn from Schönhauser Allee to get there. I was really demoralized by the time I arrived from the endlessly repetitive vistas of depressing buildings and squalid streets, and this just fuelled my need to get out even further. And I saw all of this reflected in the faces of the residents, so many of whom look either desperately unhappy or lobotomized. I couldn't see myself getting older there, and given that one of my not-so-unconscious goals in moving in the first place was to find female companionship, I'd long since given up on finding a German woman who wasn't consumed with self-loathing or incipient mental illness. Not to say that they don't exist, but the only one I found wasn't a romantic prospect, although it was encouraging after all those years to discover there were occasional nonconformists.

I'd been planning my escape since about 2004, when I was probably at the nadir of my fortunes. And now that I've been gone for three weeks, having spent nearly every cent I could scrape together over the past four years to make it happen, I find myself pondering the question, as I prepare to end this blog, of whether I miss Berlin. And, like some sort of Bill Clinton-ish figure, my response is that it depends what you mean when you say "Berlin." In the past year or two, "Berlin" has been, for me, a circle of friends with whom I've become very close. I miss the hell out of them, despite the fact that nearly all of them blog and I read them every day. "Berlin" has been meeting up with these people, eating and drinking and talking with them and going to events with them. But then, I remind myself, that had happened before, around the magazine project, and then, eventually nearly every one of those people had left. Indeed, in the current circle, there are a couple who have already left and others who are making plans to leave. Berlin, it seems, is a place which doesn't seem to hold people: even a large percentage of the Germans I've known over the years have moved on, unable to achieve what they wanted to do in the negative atmosphere the place exudes. Berlin is broke. Berlin is huge. Berlin is ugly. Individuals can try to spend a part of their energy in resisting that, or they can move on. I made my choice.

I'm not sure of this, but I believe it was Gen. Lucius Clay who said "Ich habe immer ein Koffer gepackt in Berlin," which was his way of saying that he could never completely leave the city behind. I've always thought the image strange: if I leave a suitcase in some place as a way to have a setup available to me when I visit, I'm going to be discovering bits of the past every time I open it, and more so with each subsequent visit. That's not how I revisit places. I tend to live in the here and now, eager to see how a place has adjusted to the present day. I do, of course, bring my knowledge of a place I've lived with me, making it easier to negotiate the streets and know where I am, but I generally take my luggage with me when I leave. I expect I will, in fact, be revisiting Berlin. I hope so. And I'll be bringing my luggage and, I hope, leaving my baggage behind.

* * *

There will be one more post here directing those who are interested to a new blog I'll be starting in Montpellier as soon as I can get telephone service in my apartment, something which is far more difficult than in Germany because one needs a bank-account first, and, from what I've discovered, foreigners don't seem to be allowed to have them in France. (Oh, yes, there's material for a new blog here, you can count on it.) But I'm putting this up from a bar/cafe some people I know own, and it's not the most conducive place to write (this post was carried on a memory stick). I hope to have telephone service after the first of the year, and we'll take it from there. See you elsewhere in cyberspace!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Last Crumbs From Berlin

As far as I can see it, there's one more, valedictory, post left to this blog before I close it down and start the one from France in a few weeks. But I've been collecting a few tidbits here and there I've been meaning to post, so here is a roundup.

* * *

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today. It's true: 20 years ago I woke up in Texas, after a long trip back from Berlin, where I'd celebrated my birthday and done a little more hanging out, then boarded a flight from hell, which deposited me in Frankfurt, where it was announced that the plane taking us to New York was 22 hours late coming in from Bucharest. The airline made other arrangements for the New York passengers, but it was too late to catch any connecting flights, so we wound up in a JFK airport hotel. Finally, we got to Dallas, and eventually I got back to Austin, exhausted. I woke up the next morning, thinking that I had to pick up my dog from the Biker Chicks Kennel ("I like your dog," one of the gals down there commented. "He reminds me of my old man." I chose to see that as a compliment) a day late, and staggered out to the front lawn to pick up the paper.

The headlines, of course, were of the events of November 9, when an exhausted DDR bureaucrat had (maybe) inadvertently announced that the border checkpoints in Berlin were open for travel in both directions without a pass, and a huge party had happened all over town, most notably on the Bornholmer Str. bridge and the bridge on Invalidenstr. where some friends of mine, returning from a conference on radio in Berlin, got caught up in the celebration, not having a clue what had just happened. I had just missed one of the stories of my lifetime, which made me so upset I stood in the yard ranting and raving.

To outsiders, it must seem curious that yesterday's observances in Berlin were all about Kristallnacht, seeming to bear out my oft-repeated observation that Berlin chooses to emphasize the most negative narrative of its history possible, but in fact, Kristallnacht is an absolutely non-controversial subject. There are still plenty of people in Berlin -- on both sides of town -- who feel that reunification wasn't something to celebrate. Wading into that still-smouldering controversy would have forced discussions lots of people still don't want to have. The Wall still stands in many people's minds here (what the locals call Mauer im Kopf), and probably will until the generation that's never known it outnumbers the one that does.

* * *

What's the favorite cigarette in your part of town? If discarded cigarette packs are anything to go by (and they probably are, given Berliners' casual attitude towards waste disposal), in mine, Jin Ling wins hands down.

Still, if you go looking for them at the local press/tobacco/lottery shop, you won't find them because they're not sold there. The yellow pack looks a lot like Camel's, but it has a mountain goat where the camel should be. The letters U.S.A. are printed in large type under the brand-name on the flip-top box, with the word "blend" in much smaller letters below. There's also the sentence "These fine cigarettes are made with the highest quality tobacco" underneath the goat, but the rest of the information is in Cyrillic. There's tar and nicotine numbers on the side, but no black-bordered warning.

According to The Organized Crime Corruption and Reporting Project, they are made in Lviv by the Baltic Tobacco Company of Kaliningrad, and are part of a galaxy of counterfeit and untaxed cigarettes imported by smugglers to Europe.

So where do smokers get them? I've had an eye on a guy in my neighborhood for some time. He's Vietnamese and hangs out all day long on a kind of neutral piece of ground with a lot of foot traffic. He goes out of his way to make eye-contact with people walking by, which I found interesting, but I've never had my suspicions proven until a few mintues ago, when a lady pushing a baby-carriage came up to him and said something. He reached into his bomber jacket and produced six cellophane-wrapped packs of cigarettes, broke the seal, and handed her one. I didn't stick around to see (if I could) what they cost, but chances are it was about half what a pack of brand-name cigarettes cost, which is €4.

(This brings up another interesting economic observation I've made around here. Recently I've been seeing ads for a major brand of cigarettes which advertises itself at only €3.70 a pack -- but the ad states that you only get 17 cigarettes. In the U.S., cigarettes are always 20 to the pack, and the price rises. Over here, the price stays the same and the number of cigarettes in a pack declines. A corollary of this is toilet paper. One day in the supermarket I observed someone walking away with one of those huge 24-packs of generic toilet paper. I'd just bought some non-generic myself, and noticed that the cardboard roll in the center of the generic was huge. So this person had just bought 24 rolls for what I'd just bought eight for, but...did they get more paper? And if so, how much?)

The Jin Ling packs are everywhere, but most notably at workingmen's bars, on construction sites, and at places where the unemployed gather to talk their days away, like discount bakeries and parks. If you live in west Berlin, you may never see them, but they remain a potent reminder of how poor the overwhelming majority of people in this city are.

* * *

In the Utter Idiocy In The Press Department, we have two entries today. The first, filed under Berlin Remains Berlin, is from a story in the New York Times the day after the election, the expected roundup from around the world of reactions in foreign countries to Barack Obama's having been elected. As anyone could guess, the comments range from ecstatic to guardedly optimistic, except (you guessed it!) the one from Berlin:

"'We have so many hopes and wishes that he will never be able to fulfill them,' said Susanne Grieshaber, 40, an art adviser in Berlin who was one of 200,000 Germans to attend a speech by Mr. Obama there in July. She cited action to protect the environment, reducing the use of force and helping the less fortunate. In essence, she wants Mr. Obama to make his country more like hers. But she is sober. 'I’m preparing myself for the fact that peace and happiness are not going to suddenly break out,' she said."

Good for you, Susanne! Don't let the team down! Don't allow yourself a moment of good feeling before returning to the realization we've all had that there's a lot of hard work ahead and that the man does not, in fact, walk on water. After all, it's been eight years of horror for Americans, but you wouldn't want to acknowledge that catharsis is in order or that temporary intoxication is a good thing. Peace, no. But happiness? Guess that's still rationed here.

But the weirdest story anyone's sent me in some time was first spotted by a friend who didn't send the URL. It popped up a few days later on the excellent travel site World Hum. Written by a 16-year resident of the city -- one year longer than I've been here -- who's even married to a local, Erik Kirschbaum, this bizarre dithyramb is headlined "WITNESS: Berliners' Love Affair with America Grows Cold."

Not having noticed this phenomenon, particularly, I had to read it. As you can see from the link above, it takes up three web pages, and I dutifully went through his memories of the end of the Cold War, the unexpected spectacle of Berliners coming out in the thousands to say goodbye to the Allied troops, the moving response to the 9/11 attacks...and still didn't see anything until I hit the last page, which is all of seven short paragraphs long, in which he finally tells us why they hate us:

"So what went wrong?

"It was, of course, the dispute over the invasion of Iraq.

"Before that, U.S. presidents had always been welcomed in Berlin. However, in May 2002 George W. Bush needed 10,000 German police to shield him from 10,000 anti-war protesters."

Um, Erik, I don't know how to tell you this, but those security precautions were ordered by Bush. His handlers forced the Adlon Hotel, where he stayed, to find other accommodations for all their guests on the dates when Bush was there, and the Berlin Police had to examine every manhole, power outlet in street lamps, and any other opening and affix a seal with the inspecting officer's name and a rubber stamp on it. Instead of heading up to Gugelhof in a car, like the Clintons did when they had dinner with Gerhard Schröder, Bush walked in the center of a phalanx of armed security all the way across Pariser Platz to a nothing cafe for dinner. (Hell, he could have eaten in the Adlon. It's not that bad.)

UPDATE: I just heard from Kirschenbaum, who kindly informed me that this visit was before the invasion of Iraq. Thus, I have edited out the first sentence in the following paragraph. Sorry.

As he notes, there had been a huge anti-war demonstration in the Tiergarten on the day the invasion occurred. I was there with an American friend and his two sons. After a while, we left, and were walking through the Brandenburg Gate talking when a German girl, a college student, did a double-take. "What's wrong," my friend asked. "Oh, nothing. It's just...odd to hear people speaking English." "Well, you know, plenty of Americans are against this thing, too," he said. "Yes, I guess so. I was just not expecting this." She walked off, embarrassed. Hey, Erik, she was 20 years old and maybe not the most sophisticated person in Berlin. But I sure wouldn't paint her as typical.

Kirschbaum also notes that a quarter-million people turned up to hear Obama this year, but doesn't seem to think it means anything. Dude, there just aren't that many Americans here!

I'm not saying there aren't people here who don't like Americans. I've run into them from the day I arrived here, from the weirdo I worked with who said he hated Americans "because you did nothing to stop the Vietnam War," which was sure news to me, to perfectly average working men and women who resent the young Americans on the "two-year spring break" who come here because it's the cheapest city in Europe but don't make the slightest effort to integrate with the natives by learning even a smattering of German or understanding a bit of the city's history.

I don't understand why Erik Kirschbaum thought he had a story here, or why Reuters and the Times thought something with this little content was worth running. Perhaps it's because so few wire services and newspaper groups actually have people on the ground here that they'll accept any old crap from the reporters who are left.

Come to think of it, that explains all those hip! edgy! Berlin! pieces in the Times...

* * *

And finally, a sighting of my favorite street artist, Nike, with a piece which may be her masterpiece. I love the colors in this, and wonder if the smeared-lipstick effect is intentional or just Nike's, um, casual technique at work again. Naturally, someone has tried to deface this, due to the age-old Berlin belief that few can make something nice, but anyone can ruin it once it's been made. I'm going to move, Saturday, to a city with a couple of interesting street artists, and I'll be blogging about them, but I figure it's appropriate to close my last collection of crumbs with one of Nike's best works.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Going Like 60

Sometime over the past few hours, I turned 60. Actually, although I know my time of birth, I'm not sure exactly when the moment came: the U.S. was doing Daylight Savings Time, so where did that moment go?

The number is shocking enough; even more shocking was the realization the other day that I've spent 25% of my life (my life so far, I hasten to add) in this city. And now I'm leaving.

Actually, I was anticipating the kind of denial I'm feeling at the age thing, the realization that the likelihood of finding a partner is receding, and that the likelihood of fathering children has disappeared still haven't settled in. Perhaps that means that the former, anyway, is still possible, although I now know for a fact that Berlin wasn't a good place to look, which is one of the regrets of getting older, because it can't be undone.

What I didn't anticipate was the moving denial. With ten days until I'm planning to leave this apartment, I have yet to engage a moving company, and although much of my stuff is still packed from when I moved into this place -- I never once considered anything other than a temporary stop -- there's still lots to pack. So I sit here blogging, of course.

For those of you who may be anticipating moving, incidentally, I found a great resource: MyHammer is an auction site for a number of labor services, including movers, where you put up a description of the job that needs to be done and professionals bid on it. You've got ten days to accumulate bids, and then you pick a winner. Thanks, Josh.

So the plan at the moment is to get the movers in on the 12th, rent a car and fill it with the stuff I don't trust the movers with, like my computer, spend the night somewhere in Berlin, and drive to Montpellier the next morning, with a stopover for the night, perhaps in Beaune. I'm actively seeking someone to come along for this, not so much to share the driving, but to make sure I don't fall asleep at the wheel. I did that once, in Czechoslovakia in 1990, utterly destroying the car I was driving, but not myself or the two other people in the car, who had fallen asleep. Alpha waves are contagious, and I still remember the horror of that moment, and the vast relief that we were all alive and unharmed. (Bizarre coda to that: Sixt in Austria said they were sending up a guy with another car for us, which would arrive in Brno the next morning. Two days later, we still hadn't heard from him, so we called again. Turned out he'd arrived on time, and was waiting for us at the International Hotel, while we'd been looking for him at the Hotel International.)

At any rate, it'd be an adventure, and the co-adventurer could return the car, or I could turn it in at the Montpellier train station and they could get back on the train. Or, if they have patience, fly, which involves going to Stanstead and changing airlines.

I've got to write my landlord and tell him I'm leaving, I've got to send out change of address notices, I've got to go through boxes I moved with and throw stuff out, I've got to clean the place up a little, I've still got friends here I'd like to say good-bye to, and -- oh, yes -- I've got work that has to be done every day on this ghostwriting project I've taken on.

So...I'd better get moving.

But since I love to leave opportunities for procrastination open, there's one more blog-post of crumbs shaping up. I'll probably be banging that out when the movers get here.

Oh, and if anyone does want to take over the lease on this place, let me know immediately!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Long-Awaited Announcement

This morning at 11:30 I signed a lease agreement with a landlord for a 55-square-meter apartment in Montpellier.

The agreement goes into effect on November 1, although since my 60th birthday is Nov. 2 and I've celebrated 40 and 50 in Berlin, and want to say au revoir to my friends, I won't move in on that date.

What this will mean is that over the next few weeks, this blog will be winding down, and a new one will rise. Just think of it: a whole new country to complain about from scratch! Why, I've already ploughed through the catalog of offers Orange (France Telecom) has ready for me and am utterly and totally confused. Isn't there some way for me to get a landline, a mobile, and Internet service without cable TV? I don't watch television at all, and never have!

For the last five years, I've felt like I was treading water in Berlin. Virtually nothing I do can't be done elsewhere (except complain about Germany and Berlin), so why not do it from a much nicer place?

That's what I'm about to do.

I'll miss the real-life friends I've made in Berlin a lot, but I also have a sneaking feeling I'll be getting a lot of e-mails with the word "couch" in them. And yes, it looks like the nice couch will be going with me.

As for the cyber-friends, I'll try to get the new blog up quickly, and put a pointer here so y'all can join in the fun.

Anybody want to take over my lease? Anybody know what it'll cost to move? I sure don't...

More news as it happens.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

PostKomm '08

Sorry about the protracted absence; things have been just a bit nuts around here. Some of it, which involved getting a ghost-writing deal for a book finalized, isn't of much interest. And, when I finally got that settled, along came Popkomm again.

Since I am no longer much of a consumer of contemporary pop music, and have never been a consumer of European pop music to any large extent, Popkomm doesn't have much to do with me other than the fact that the executives of SXSW in Austin, for whom I do occasional work, come to town. Since these guys are old friends of mine, it's an excuse to hang out with them, hear their stories, and have a couple of very good meals.

The actual work I do at the conference here is simple: I'm the nut-catcher. While the Texans -- and our Irish-based UK rep and our Tübingen-based European rep -- run around having meetings with people who will be attending SXSW, in particular export associations of European countries who are interested in setting up showcases and trade-show stands, I keep track of where they are ("He said he was headed to Finland" -- meaning the Finnish stand, not, like, the actual country) and talk to people who drop by, most of whom are blissfully unaware of what we do or who we are. It's my job to interrupt their carefully-rehearsed sales-job for their band, event, service, or whatever and steer them into discussing whether SXSW has any value for them. It's also my job to make sure they leave a business card -- most of them have business cards, although I continue to be amazed by people who'd go to an event like this armed only with a stack of self-produced CDs -- because it's not my job to decide whether what they're pushing is of any value to SXSW or not.

I've been doing this for years, since Popkomm was in Cologne. Cologne in early September was usually a really nice place to be: drinking Kölsch by the side of the Rhine on a warm late-summer evening is an experience everyone should have. Now it's in Berlin, at the ICC convention center, having been bought by the city from the consortium who started it, just in time for the collapse of the record industry. Berlin: always such great timing. Still, this has meant that the music part of the conference, in clubs during the evenings, has expanded, which is good PR for the event, even though, from what I could see, the daytime part, the trade show and conference, is smaller than ever. (Rumor has it that the event won't be held at the ICC next year, and I'm wondering where it would be held, if not: Kongreshalle am Alexanderplatz? Maybe...)

My perspective, from the booth we were given (we do a trade deal with Popkomm, which represents at the SXSW trade fair), may have been skewed. We were almost in the corner of the hall, not terribly visible, between a royalty-collection service and an only-in-Germany merchandise provider called Deaf and Dumb, who were giving away t-shirts featuring a huge, well, it was hard to tell what it was, which wasn't a great advertisement for their printer. It appeared to be a star with wings, and I guess that's what it was. Once their freebie t-shirts ran out, so did their visitors. I wonder if they are even minimally aware of how bad the name of their company is: not only is it offensive to handicapped people (having had a father with tympanic sclerosis, I'm maybe a bit sensitive to all issues around hearing-loss), but giving a company a name which implies it can't hear you and is stupid to boot can't bring in many English-language-savvy customers. We were directly across from Music Catalonia!, whose impressive booth featured a mirrored wall with the group's logo on it, and it was a gas watching people coming into the hall stop to check that their image was right before walking on.

As always, the export agencies did well, mostly networking with each other, from what I could tell. Only two major record labels that I could see had stands: a modest one for Warner Records Group, and a much more ornate one at the other end of the hall from us for Universal Music Group, which had, to me, the coolest feature: a sign made out of water. Operating somewhat on the principle of a dot-matrix printer, this thing had a long tube high above the floor with many tiny holes in it which were lined up with the floor, on which there was a drain. Water pumped up the side was released in controlled bursts which turned the falling water into letters. It even had different fonts. Cool as it was, I'm just as happy we weren't situated next to the constant splash! splash! splash! the thing made.

The rest of the trade show was the usual mixture of junk-retailers (there's always some company which provides those out-of-copyright box-sets you see at discount stores), digital music services, merch retailers, we'll-get-you-on-radio services, trade publications, and miscellaneous doo-dads like the USB-stick concert-recording services, of which there were two, housed side-by-side in furious competition.

I stood (or sat) at our booth and watched the parade, such as it was, go by. (I'll wait for the final figures, but my guess is that this wasn't exactly the most-attended year of Popkomm by a long shot). Just down the way from us was the Icelandic national stand, and they were trapped in Berlin for three days while their country imploded. (They had set out some tortilla chips and dip, and, bizarrely enough, the tortilla chips were good. But were they Icelandic?) There are people who have been attending these things for years, the Conference Dogs, and I'm one of them. We all know each other and greet each other, even though, in my case, there's no way they're going to do any business with me or I have any business I can do with them. But they hustle around, renewing old deals, modifying current deals, getting new deals -- whatever kind of deals those might be.

The room was overheated -- or perhaps the ICC folks were caught short by the unexpected good weather. For the first time, there were no food stands around the halls, which didn't exactly make us happy. I went on a trek to see what I could find and came up with some curling bagel sandwiches in the entryway, something called China Express way way back at the end of the exhibition area selling "Asia food," which is an insult to both Asia and food, a tiny stand selling coffee and cake, and, out in front of the building, a cart selling cold hotdogs in cold buns. Eventually, someone mentioned that there was another place in a room no one had looked in, and sure enough, there were two bars, one of which was promoting Swiss coffee, the other of which was selling cocktails. Although there wasn't a single sign announcing it, the coffee folks were selling ciabatta sandwiches (not bad at all) and pizzas (grim-looking) and the cocktail people had trays of the usual chemically-treated prefrozen sushi for sale. There was also a smoking area outside this room, at which some really ganky-looking Bratwurst were being fried. Note to Popkomm: it can't hurt to inform delegates who are forced to be inside the ICC all day that these facilities exist. Note to facilities: doubling the serving staff might cut down on the number of non-Germans yelling at you because they're missing their meetings because of having to stand in line for 20 minutes to get a cup of coffee or a sandwich. (And no, I don't mean me; I live here and am well acquainted with the German sport of standing in line).

I didn't see any music, didn't acquire a single CD (although a band dropped off a press-kit on a 2-gig memory stick which has been cleared and is awaiting use on my desk), I didn't acquire any cool swag (nobody can afford it) although the cigarette lighter-flashlight that came in the registration bags was nice, and, unlike last year, I didn't get offered any apartment tips in Montpellier. I did, however, run into a couple of old friends and hear some good stories.

Here's one: a group from out of town was staying in a 4-star hotel, a small one out of the center, with a small lobby-bar. Returning late one night after an evening of clubbing, they decided on a nightcap before turning in, and the night-clerk brought them some drinks. "So we're sitting around this little table," one of them said, "and we have our drinks and we suddenly realized we were out of cigarettes. Just then, someone noticed a pack of cigarette tobacco and some papers on a table, so we picked it up. Imagine our surprise when, opening it up, we saw not only the tobacco, but a nice bag of weed. So we thought, cool, this is a nice nightcap and began rolling a joint. Just then the night-clerk walked back from his office and saw what was going on and ran over and started yelling 'Give me back my weed, dammit! That's mine!' We were just flabbergasted. One of our people speaks excellent German and really laid into the guy. Wonder if he'll have his job when this thing is over..."

Then there was one which happened to me. I was coming home on the Ringbahn, and stopped off one station early to do some banking at the Sparkasse office in the Gesundbrunnen Center. After I'd done my business, I walked back home over the bridge which spans the giant cluster of tracks by what used to be the Wall. As I got to the bridge, there was a guy shouting at me, very excited. I got closer and he asked me if I had a cell-phone. As it happened, I did, but one of the things I'd done at Gesundbrunnen was to buy some more credit because I was down to four cents. I hadn't loaded it on yet. But this guy was yelling "Look down there! Quick, we have to call!" Sure enough, on a side-line there was an S-Bahn train, kept ready for an emergency replacement at Gesundbrunnen, and as I stared at it, I realized that it was being covered with graffiti, very quickly and very efficiently, by three tiny black-clad figures working with incredible precision and teamwork. The tags weren't much to look at but the way they were working was. "You have to report this to BVG!" the guy was yelling. "They'll give you €60!" But it was too late. Their work done, the crew signed it and, with a speed which announced how well they knew the territory, they were leaping tracks and third rails like a bunch of steeplechase horses, heading towards the housing projects of west Berlin. From what I could see of them, they appeared to each be around eight years old.

* * *

As for the moving project, I've been telling people it's an astrological problem. Three planets need to be in conjunction: Enough Money, Available Apartment, and that most difficult one, Trusting Landlord. It's almost impossible to convince French people that an American my age who's self-employed is a good risk, although currently things are going very well indeed for me. Only the Enough Money planet is currently in place (and of course the third one depends on finding the second one), but I'm still getting e-mail alerts (and, in fact, got one while I was writing all of this) and if the frequency picks up as I suspect it will in the next few days, I could be back in Montpellier waving cash in front of a landlord as soon as next week.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

New Old Blog

In September, 2001, I took a three-week vacation in Japan and kept a journal. I also took a bunch of photos, and when I got back, I sent the results to my friend, the late Bob Watts, who was art director of Salon, and he fashioned the whole thing into a website with an astonishing border made up of odd Japanese art.

It occurred to me not long ago that this was, in its primitive way, a blog, and so I decided, at some point, to turn it into one. As of this moment, the text is up, and a very few photos, but I'll be building it up a bit more in the days to come.

It is, for reasons I'll explain when I get around to writing a 2008 introduction, a bit of an odd document, but if you're interested, it's over here, at least in the early stages.

I'll post again when it's finished. There may also be another announcement this week. Or not. It's too early to tell.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Tacheles Closing: Who Cares?

Back in 1998, I was the head of a group of people trying to put an English-language magazine together in the wake of Zitty having killed the one I'd been editing, Metropolis. At one point, we decided to dummy up a cover, and our genius art-director, Tanja, whipped out a nice image, a nice logo, and...all we needed was some headlines. So, looking at the current events around town, I came up with the one above. Unlike some of the other headlines on that cover dummy, there was no article to go with it.

Life imitates imagination, or something: a couple of people have e-mailed me a Guardian article on the latest crisis in the life of this unhappy space, and, after reading it, my response was familiar: who cares?

A little history: Tacheles was an idea ahead of its time, a shopping mall. Europeans were familar with market halls, in which food-vendors gathered in a covered space to protect themselves and their wares from inclement weather, and arcades, covered single-story collections of merchants, were also not unknown: see Leipzig, for instance. But a multi-story collection of varied businesses, including fashion merchants, was a new idea, and it didn't work. Before the bombs damaged the building, it was already derelict, since its promoters had gone bankrupt. And, like most of Oranienburger Str., it stood empty during the post-war DDR era. The communists didn't quite know what to do with Oranienburger Str., due to its Jewish history, other than to use the Neue Synagogue for peace-oriented rhetorical statements.

They also didn't know what to do about various derelict buildings all around East Berlin in the days when it was becoming evident that the government was about to fall. Communists are great when it comes to drawing up plans, less so about executing them. A list of old buildings scheduled for demolition was prepared, but there was a serious shortage of workers to actually perform the demolition. Immediately after the Wall opened, a photocopy of the list was circulated among people looking to squat East Berlin, and a number of prominent squats -- Eimer on Rosenthaler Str., the Italian art-junkies on Auguststr., the complex on Castanienallee -- were the result. But Tacheles was the first, inhabited by people who styled themselves artists. Who knows, they may actually have been artists at first. But by the time I caught up with Tacheles, it was just another squat, albeit one which loudly proclaimed itself for artists.

The thing is, I actually knew a lot of artists, and they didn't take Tacheles seriously -- not past its bar, anyway. The people who lived there seemed more provocateurs with dimly-defined politics than creators of anything serious. At one point, the city tried to normalize its status, offering, according to a long Berlin tradition of dealing with squatters which went back to the Charlottenburg squatters in 1968, for a token rent in exchange for the squatters bringing it up to fire and sanitation code. A split developed in the Tacheles crowd, with some wanting to take the city's offer, and others screaming "Art should be free! Down with the pig capitalists!" Word on the street was that the latter group involved a heroin-dealing ring tied to a larger organized-crime operation, and there were, in fact, several overdoses on the premises during this time.

The provocateurs wound up in Poland, I heard, trying to build a spaceship on a beach somewhere in the north. I also heard that those who stayed had reached an accommodation with a Swedish investment group which had bought the larger parcel of land, and were paying a token rent and improving the place. But, as the Guardian article points out, that deal is due to expire.

A little perspective here: an art-historian friend in Philadelphia e-mailed me some years ago that an artist from that city, armed with some grant money, was coming to Berlin to make some art, and game me his e-mail address so he'd know someone when he got here. He was looking for studio space at the same time some businessmen I knew were looking for office space. When the artist, who'd read so much about Tacheles, insisted on going there to inquire about a studio, he reported that they were incredibly hostile to him because he was American and because he had a grant. They also quoted him a price per square meter that was just under half what the businessmen had been quoted for space in one of the less expensive skyscrapers in Potsdamer Platz. Given that the Tacheles crew was paying a euro a year to Berlin for the property, someone was doing very well.

Thus, I had to laugh at the so-called artist who told the Guardian "This is the last place where you are free to be an artist." Puh-leeze. It might be the last place in Mitte -- except it isn't. When I first came to Mitte twelve years ago, it was heaving with alternative art spaces: Die Aktionsgalerie, Berlin-Tokyo, Haus Schwarzenberg, Eimer, and others which never had a name. Of these, only Haus Schwarzenberg remains, and in very different form due to the real-estate war which they won by going legal and buying their property with funds from an angel. But, much as I hate to break the news to the guy at Tacheles, behind the locked metal gate in Haus Schwarzenberg are a couple of wings in which actual real artists who have a place in the local and international art worlds work on art. No, there's no gift-shop there. They have galleries. And much as one hates to agree with the Berlin city cultural bureaucrat who said "Tacheles used to be a very exciting place with major cultural importance, but it isn't any more," he's telling the truth. About the only real cultural value the decaying hulk has any more is that occasionally Cafe Zapata will book a good band, but, as the article points out, Cafe Zapata and Tacheles only share space; they don't talk.

One other salient detail. The Guardian's headline calls Tacheles the "last stand of Berlin's bohemians," which is not only hyperbolic, but inadvertantly points out Tacheles' failure. Not to be too pedantic about it, but bohemianism is not a permanent state. It's a stage of development some people go through which may lead to a way of life, usually in the arts. But there's usually a point when each bohemian realizes that it's time to either get serious about their life-project or put on a suit and start looking for work. Tacheles' residents are bohemians, nothing more. They're not artists, no matter how many "galleries" of welded distorted shapes and weird photographs the place has. Bohemians, as residents of Montmartre and Greenwich Village know, are easy to sell to tourists. That keeps the tourists from disturbing the artists.

So Tacheles is soon to close. Who cares? I don't. Well, I do, but only in that what will replace it will be another episode in Berlin's vain chase for the upscale tourist dollar, which is almost certainly bound to fail. Oranienburger Str. has long since lost its hip! edgy! cachet to the pub crawling EasyJetters and mass-market clothing stores. And I care because I have memories of when the area was actually culturally vital, before real-estate speculators moved in and turned Berlin-Tokyo into the Beverly-Hills-on-bad-acid of the Rosenhof. But I've packed away those memories, just like I've packed away the memories of the magazine which was going to bear that headline. As long as Berlin stays poor and cheap, there will be bohemians and artists taking advantage of that fact. And once they've made a neighborhood interesting, the real-estate sharks will move in and the artists will move on and the bohemians will have their tough choices to make again.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Another Restaurant We (Probably) Won't Be Eating At

Jay Rayner, a food critic at the Guardian, had an unusual experience at a Chinese restaurant which he felt worthy of a blog-post the other day. To summarize, he ate at a place, liked it very much, decided to review it, and was shocked when the paper's photographer was denied permission to photograph it. Poor Jay can't imagine why this happened, why this Szechuanese restaurant (or maybe not: see the comments) didn't want his publicity.

I sure can. And I say this as a former professional restaurant reviewer myself.

Ethnic restaurants are often there primarily to provide a service for an ethnic clientele, a taste of home far from home, a place where people not living in the extended families they came from can enjoy Mom's (or Grandma's) cooking, as best it can be replicated elsewhere. I don't know London well, so I can't say if Bethnal Green is a part of town with a large recently-arrived Chinese immigrant population, but it's entirely possible that it is. Rayner makes the point that he and his companion were the only two non-Chinese in the place. Well, yes. And while I'm willing to assume that Rayner knows his Chinese food, I'm far from willing to make that assumption when it comes to his foodie readership. If a lot of them show up, they're likely to stick to a few dishes, or even complain if what they get isn't to their taste. Like the guy who owns the joint should care.

This, Rayner should realize, is what reviews do. I remember when a friend's restaurant got a four-star review in the San Francisco Chronicle: he said it was the worst day of his life there. They were mobbed for about a month with people who never came back but made insane demands on them anyway. The regulars were driven away because they couldn't get in. And, of course, after the sheep headed to the next hot place, they were empty. He and the crew solved this by going to places in town where they were known and ordering a beer or a sandwich or something and loudly going "Wow, I'm sure glad the rush from the Chronicle review is over" so that word got out that they'd like to see some familiar old faces in the place.

There's also a more sinister possibiltiy to why Gourmet San's proprietor doesn't want attention. On the corner near my old place, where White Trash started, there was, for many years, a restaurant called Kaiser des Chinas, which was so bad even Germans wouldn't eat there -- or, not twice. But it was huge, and it stayed open for years, even though hardly anyone went there. One morning I went to take out the trash, and in the trash bin were a bunch of waiters' wallets -- empty. I wondered where they'd come from, then, later that day, noticed that Kaiser des Chinas wasn't open. There was no note on the door or anything. And it stayed closed. Then, when Wally was moving White Trash in there, I stopped to say hi, and asked him if he had a clue what had happened. "Not really, but they got out in a hurry. Here, come in the kitchen." And there, in a long line of bowls, were things like mushrooms and onions and so on, all withered up, but all measured out as they would be if an order came in.

I mentioned this later to someone who knew a bit about the Berlin underbelly, and he said "Of course, don't you know how places like that work? They open up, they've got, say, eight staff, all of whom have legal ID they've acquired legally. But they count on the inability of the Berlin cops to recognize other races: they all look alike to them, so that although there's a guy with a card that says Li Weng, Li's cleared out long ago to another city, and an illegal immigrant has taken his place. As soon as the organization's found a place for New Li Weng, another one takes his place. It's not only the Chinese and Vietnamese places, the Indian ones do this, too." Legal Li probably has a way to replace his "lost" papers once he gets to Cologne or whatever the next stop is, and he's now a step up in the organization. That also explains why the food in these places is no good: they're not predominantly interested in the restaurant business, so they all work off the same template of recipes.

I prefer to think that Gourmet San is like many another ethnic restaurant: they welcome knowledgeable non-ethnic patrons, because they're there for the food, not because it's a hot new place someone's discovered. They treat the proprietors and other patrons with respect, and don't impose cultural stereotypes on their experience there. This goes equally for the Indian guy who goes to a good French restaurant and the British patron who walks in Gourmet San's doors. (And, although I don't want to get into German-bashing just now, it's part of the reason why there are so very few good ethnic restaurants in Berlin). And, the title of this post notwithstanding, I'd go there, especially if I could go with, say, Fuchsia Dunlop, whose amazing Szechuan cookbook has provided me with a disproportionate number of good meals since I bought it. (And I suggest you click the link and get it yourself). Or with anyone else who spoke either Szechuan or Mandarin.

Finally, a word of advice for Mr. Rayner: any restaurant reviewer who doesn't want to get "rumbled," as he says, shouldn't allow his or her photo to appear anywhere, ever. This is such a basic thing that I'm amazed I was staring at his face right there on the top of the page. But that's part and parcel of why he was shocked Gourmet San didn't want his review: he's under the impression it's about him. And it's not.

(Thanks to bowleserised for the tip!)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Crumbs Of Late Summer

It's always a bit astonishing for someone who moves to Berlin from more salubrious climates to notice that it's getting distinctly chilly by the third week of August -- the week in which I usually took my vacation when I worked at the newspaper in Texas because I knew that the psychological moment when I just couldn't take any more occurred in that week. But it's been a good summer, warm enough that I'm kicking myself for not planting jalapenos, and...like a few other things, it's coming to an end. Herewith some miscellaneous observations.

* * *

The invasion of Eastern European street musicians ending is one thing I always look forward to when summer ends, something which occurred to me the other day, when, trapped under the U-Bahn tracks at Schönhauser Allee waiting for the light to change, I endured a group of two saxophones, two accordions, and a three-year-old dancing boy while a guy in a shiny green suit rattled a coffee-cup with some change in it under my nose demanding payment. These people have annoyed me so much over the years that I found myself incapable of sharing the general world-music endorsement of the various Orkesters and wedding bands churning out records a couple of years ago. I still can't listen to that stuff.

But...there is one mysterious virtuoso among us. His name is Stefan Daskalos, and he plays the gadulka, a metal-stringed bowed instrument from his native Bulgaria. I first caught him in that same under-the-tracks site, fat, bearded, and playing like a dervish. Part of the instrument's charm is its haunting sound: you'd never think something that small would make that much noise, but the secret is in the sympathetic strings, which ring in such a way that the instrument sounds like it's being played in an echo chamber.

I caught up with him this weekend as he sat next to the Kettwurstbudde on a nice day, sawing away. This time, I thought, I'd give him a euro or two -- I never give money to street musicians -- in return for standing and watching his technique for a few minutes. As I stood there, another guy, shabbily dressed, red-faced and missing most of his teeth, came and stood next to me. Then, unfortunately, he started talking to me in an almost-impenetrable accent. What I could make out was that he was from "Ost-Preussen," and that someone he'd known there played a "Geige" like this. I made it out because he said it several times. Then Daskalos stopped playing and Mr. Ost-Preussen started giving his spiel to him. Daskalos' gadulka wasn't very pretty -- there was no ornamentation at all and the wood wasn't at all polished -- but it was clear that it was a good instrument. To shut up Ost-Preussen, Daskalos started another tune, and I looked closer. He wasn't fretting the strings, he was stopping them with the two middle fingernails of his left hand, which had been reinforced with some sort of varnish that had turned a greenish-black.

After the tune, I made a hasty decision and handed Daskalos €10 for the double CD of tunes he was selling, figuring that would buy me an interview, too. He told me that the instrument was made -- by himself -- out of a single piece of wood (although I can't really believe this, given how thin the upper face has to be to resonate). It was clearly a homemade instrument, though, right down to the nut holding the strings. He and the gadulka were both from Bulgaria, and it was at that point that I started hearing "Ost-Preussen!" being shouted and things got a bit confused. There was something about a son and a financial catastrophe, and as our neighbor got louder, he picked up the bow and started another hora. I thanked him and went to the bank, and as I was walking there it occurred to me that I should take a picture for the blog.

Nope: he'd made twenty euros at one location (Ost-Preussen had also bought one), so it was time to move on. I saw him the other day under the U-Bahn -- it does have good acoustic properties -- but I didn't have time to stop. Sill, recommending a street musician is a new one on me, so if you see him, take a minute or two to listen to him and watch his astonishing technique. And if you're tempted to buy a gadulka, this guy has them for between $350 and $600, plus case and shipping.

* * *

In other live world-music notes, someone in my building has started playing the sitar. Since whoever it is doesn't seem to understand how to play an alap, fumbles the jod, and spends the gat showing off flashy, if fumble-fingered, technique, I gotta assume he/she is German. Still, I (unlike some of my neighbors) enjoy someone else's musical tradition being butchered instead of my own. The sound is still charming, even if the execution isn't. And we also have an oboist somewhere here who practices with the windows shut. He/she's very good.

* * *

Congratulations to Ben and Yuhang on their wedding! It, and the events around it, made me think a little about what it means to live in a foreign culture. Ben wanted a bachelor party, but quickly discovered there was no strip bar available for him to celebrate in. We started at The Bird, and I parted company with the merry crew as they headed to Oranienburger Str. for the "American" strip bar -- which I heard was a major disappointment. But at least he didn't dress up in a stupid costume and wander around a public place with his friends in matching t-shirts acting dumb, which is apparently a German tradition. I noticed it recently on a return trip from France, when I had two hours to contemplate the Cologne railway station and a woman, dressed as a scarecrow or tramp, was going around giving away little items which were tied to her costume as her friends handed out leaflets of some sort. There's probably a name for this ritual self-humiliation, and there's probably a deep cultural message in it, but I haven't bothered to think much about it.

Ben and Yuhang did, however, participate in another weird German tradition, the Polterabend. "Poltern," my dictionary says, means "to crash about," which perfectly describes the Poltergeist phenomenon, questionable though it may be. On Polterabend, your friends show up with crockery, which they then smash. According to Wikipedia, this is supposed to bring luck. But it got me thinking: would I want to do this if I were to marry a non-German here? (For the utterly clueless out there: Yuhang is not a traditional German name. Or an untraditional one, either. And Ben is American.)

The answer I came up with is no. Not just because years of poverty has made me wary of waste, which this custom certainly indulges in, but because it's like putting on a costume. Unlike Germans, who desperately don't want to be German, I've never felt that I've needed to assimilate in other than the absolutely necessary ways, like learning the language to the best of my ability, saying "hello" when I enter a shop (a kind of pan-European custom, actually), registering with the police when I move into a new place, and generally respecting others' rights to their traditions. It's not out of fear of losing my identity, but more taking pride in the bits of my identity that don't harm anyone's right to be who they are. On the one hand, I've certainly participated in Thanksgiving and Fourth of July meals -- which I've shared with Germans -- and I've also participated in German traditions like St. Martin's Day and the German version of Christmas. I even did the melted-lead fortune-telling thing one New Year's.

But I've also inadvertantly participated in a German tradition which may have colored my answer. On my 50th birthday, I invited a lot of people for a meal or a drink at my favorite restaurant, Honigmond. I made it clear that I was not following the German tradition of paying for it all: to "invite" someone in German means you're going to pay for it. I was simply asking people to show up, and they would have to pay for their own stuff. I made it explicit in the e-mail I sent around, in fact. It was a good party, I got some wonderful presents, and at the end, I gathered them up and went to pay for my meal and the beers I'd had and was confronted with an extra DM350 on the bill. One of the people I'd invited (and yes, Christian Maith, I know it was you, you coward) had invited a number of his friends, people I didn't even know, and they'd eaten and drunk on my tab and then left.

Ben and Yuhang's party was, but for the odd flying shard of pottery coming a little too close for comfort, a far happier affair, and I wish them much happiness. And I may yet think more about this, because last night I started another of William Dalrymple's magnificent books on India, White Mughals, which has started with a detailed overview of how the earliest colonizers and merchants in India were seduced by Islam (and, in rare cases, Hinduism, although Hindus don't convert, as Muslims do, believing one has to be born into the religion) and "went native."

* * *

Finally, earlier this summer, I had a visitor with whom I was walking up Brunnenstr., when we came upon, of all things, a new painting by Nike! It was even dated '08, so I know she's still working. Unfortunately, the picture this woman took never made it into my in-box for some reason, and I didn't get it until the other day. So here she is, Nike's new nude. Who, I should add, was missing a week ago when I went past the place I'd seen her. Nike: as collectable as Banksy? Hmm.

* * *

Oh, one more thing. This blog may come to an end in a few weeks, to be replaced by another with another name. I don't want to jinx anything, but I had a very encouraging talk with a landlady on Monday. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Missing Link

When I stuck a teaser in my post of a couple of days ago for yesterday's anniversary post, I promised an amusing link to go with it. And no, the picture of Öoby Döbi with hair was not it.

What it was was this article, which the Pope dug up from who knows where. It's an inadvertantly revealing look at a lot of the places I knew early in my Berlin experience, although the article was published a year before I'd ever set foot here. One reason I was so familiar with these places is that both the guy I rented from and his girlfriend and the Times Berlin bureau were on Grolmanstr., so it was natural to go to dinner at Florian (which was still good the last time I was there), or to grab a drink at one of the bars, although the most picturesque, Zwiebelfisch, I wasn't introduced to for some years, because you really should go in there for the first time with a regular -- it's that kind of place. Another place I didn't get to until much later was the last-named, Galerie Bremer, where I went with some of my colleagues at Jazz Radio, back when we were all getting along. I doubt it still exists in the same form, but what an unusual -- and perfectly West Berlinisch -- place!

Anyway, there's hip! edgy! Berlin from twenty years ago. Oh, how times have changed. Not for the better or worse. Just changed.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fifteen Years

On the morning of August 12, 1993, an American Airlines jet landed at Tegel Airport in Berlin and I got out.

I was excited, or as excited as someone that tired could be. Something like three years of planning, saving, working, scheming, and, in the end, meticulously pulling details together had culminated in this moment. On the other side of the glass wall by the baggage claim was a guy with a key to an apartment, an apartment I'd be living in for the next six months as this experiment in expatriation progressed. After that, I'd see if I wanted to stay. But right now, I was here.

Which made me one up on the guy with the key. As the crowd outside thinned, I stood there with my densely-packed luggage, looking for him. Maybe there'd been a parking problem. Maybe he'd just gotten up late and was still on his way. I sure hoped so; I hadn't bought a lot of Deutsche Marks before I'd left Texas, since it was easier to get them from an ATM here as soon as I could access my Sparkasse account. I made a furtive check of the cash-on-hand. Would this be enough to take a cab? And, if so, where would I go? Since I'd bought the Marks at my bank, there were no coins, so I couldn't even make a phone call. Okay, I said, I'll take a cab to his record store and see what's up.

The cabbie was Iranian. His German was even worse than mine, but he insisted on talking all the way to Schöneberg. I remember his repeated assertion that "Shah war besser!" as we parked in front of the store. I hoped this wouldn't take long; the meter was still ticking. But it didn't: Tim the assistant was there, and whipped out the key.

He also filled me in on what had happened. The reason I was able to rent this flat in Moabit was that this guy had moved in with his girlfriend long ago, but, long programmed by the West Berlin scarcity mentality, never gave up the little student flat he'd rented when he and his former girlfriend -- now also my former girlfriend -- moved to Berlin some years earlier. And the reason I knew I wouldn't have to move out was that he and his current girlfriend were going to have a baby. Which, most unexpectedly early, had just happened, and not only that but there had been an all-night emergency when something had gone wrong and the mother was teetering between life and death. They seemed to be out of danger by now, Tim said, but the doctors weren't sure.

Well, that put the kibosh on the rising irritation I'd been feeling.

The Iranian whipped me through the Tiergarten and around the Grosser Stern, and pretty soon the familiar lawn of Schloss Bellevue went by and we turned into Melanchthonstr. I gave him nearly all the money I had, unpacked, and loaded my stuff into the tiny elevator. I wasn't going to walk two floors at this point. And, when I got into the apartment, the first thing I did was crash for a few hours.

Fortunately, I had stayed here quite a bit. I had first moved into the place on my first visit to Berlin, which is when I'd gotten the first intimations that the woman I'd fallen in love with was, perhaps, going to be a bit of a problem. Besides being with her, my reason for coming here in late 1988 was because of a music conference, Berlin Independence Days, which had been founded by journalist and radio personality Wolfgang Doebeling as a way of scamming some of the vast quantities of money the West German government was handing out on the supposed 750th anniversary of Berlin's founding. Among the uses that money had found was flying me in as a representative of South By Southwest. I was ecstatic: a free trip to Europe to stay with this amazing woman! Unfortunately, however, that same old West Berlin housing problem had caused a snarl. She'd long been broken up with her last boyfriend, but he was still in residence, since apartments were so hard to find. And, in order not to make trouble, she'd decided that all three of us were sleeping alone. Given that her apartment was huge -- well over 100 square meters, I think -- there was plenty of room, but I wasn't exactly pleased. After two nights, she came up with the solution: this flat not too far away that her business partner and ex-boyfriend had. So I was still sleeping alone, but in another apartment.

On subsequent visits, it became my pied a terre in Berlin. I'd come in, he'd meet me at the airport and drive me there, and I'd have my own place, for free. As for the girlfriend, we broke up not long after that first visit, as she got weirder and weirder, first getting into a smorgasbord of esoterica of which astrology seemed to be the nexus, and then announcing that she'd become a fully-committed lesbian: "This is me! This is who I am, and you must accept it!" she declaimed during one of our last marathon arguments at the Cafe Berio around the corner from the store where she still worked despite her feeling that it was more and more immoral to espouse such a worldly thing as popular music. "This is not a fashion you can put on and take off like this year's dress!" It's worth noting that this pagan wild-woman lesbian is now a happily-married mother of three (two her own, one who came with the husband) who goes to Mass twice a week.

But another of the side-effects of that first trip was that a second guy from SXSW went to BID (the boss -- rightly -- thought I'd be blinded by my own obvious agenda) and was dazzled by it, and when we returned with our report to the boss, he decided we had to form a partnership with them. BID represented SXSW in Europe, and SXSW represented BID in the U.S. It was a fairly lopsided proposal, since many more Europeans wanted to try their luck in the States than American bands wanted to try to crack the German independent label market (which was what the "Independence" in the title was about).

And so it was that every October we'd load up our propaganda, fly to Berlin, and enjoy BID. I'd come over early to help out on the program book attendees got, which always included a bunch of essays in English about the various issues being discussed on the panels. BID '89, in fact, had a lot of representatives of the East German pop press milling around. "Next year," one of them said to me in very good English, "you'll be doing this on our side of town." Preposterous! I managed to stay around afterwards -- I had a free apartment, after all -- and help with the post-conference cleanup, not to mention the post-conference partying at the Pinguin Club on Wartburgstr. in Schöneberg, which was home to a nicely odd collection of expats and Germans. I had my birthday party there in 1989, in fact, and stayed around a while longer, then headed back to Texas.

The day I landed, the Berlin Wall opened up. I'd missed one of the greatest stories of my life by 24 hours.

With a free apartment in Berlin, I came as often as possible. And with the Wall coming down, there were many, many great things to see and do. I befriended a young female taxi driver, a grad student, and in April, 1990, we drove to Czechoslovakia to see the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. She was an exception, though, to the prevailing attitude of the folks I knew in West Berlin. They wanted nothing to do with the East, and made no bones about it. There was nothing there! And, for a while, I bought into this. I'd been across on my first visit, and East Berlin was extremely depressing, especially the neighborhood where the guy who took me over and I went to meet a friend of his, a neighborhood called Prenzlauer Berg, where there were still loads of bombed buildings just laying there, weeds and small trees growing out of the wreckage, and people lined up in front of grocery stores because you had to use a basket and there were a limited number of them.

But eventually, some of the folks I knew around the Pinguin, including one of the owners, started spending more time over there. As the guy at BID had predicted, the next year there were BID showcases at a place called Tacheles (there was no electricity, so a generator had to be rented and installed, to Wolfgang's great chagrin), the Haus der Junge Talent, and a venue called Die Insel, which was so far away nobody really knew where it was.

I was curious to see all of this on an ongoing basis, because I thought there were stories to write that folks in the States would be interested in, although I'd already had a very chastening experience when I'd hurred back to Berlin in late January 1990 and researched a story on the changes West Berlin would be seeing as the city began to unify. I got a great story, great quotes, and even interviewed an East Berliner who'd been a dissident and had forced the government to expel him to West Berlin on the eve of the opening of the Wall. I'd written it up as soon as I got back, and was shot down by every magazine I submitted it to, none of whom lost the opportunity to explain, as to an idiot, that I'd missed the real story, which was how happy the East Germans were to be free of communism and how they were looking forward to freedom and a bright new day. Of course, this wasn't strictly true, but then, I'd been to Berlin and these editors hadn't.

Still, this European experience was beginning to open me up to some new possibilities, and they finally knit together into an insight one day when, on assignment from several magazines, I was in Antwerp, Belgium. I was wandering around the old harbor area, which hasn't been a working harbor in many years, but still has loads of picturesque buildings, all of which, I suddenly noticed, seemed to be for rent. Seriously: there were signs in just about every window above street-level, and it hit me -- what would it be like to live here? Why should I be doing these travel stories -- because that had become an increasing amount of the work I was getting -- by flying from Texas to Europe when I could be based right in Europe, getting the kind of knowledge only someone on the ground could get, and get to places a lot quicker and cheaper than someone who'd have to fly in?

This became even more urgent a question when, on my return, I was stripped of my last Austin-based gig for no particular reason. I spent the day this happened furious, and the fury wore me out. I slept like someone drugged that night and woke up in one of those states you have after a particularly memorable dream -- except that I didn't remember it. I did, however, have a solid revelation: you don't have to live in Austin any more. You can move to Europe.

And on that day, I started my planning. My idea was to save enough to survive for six months, get a job doing whatever I could, and see what it was like. As for the job, that would probably be no big deal: my brother-in-law's cousin edited the major English-language magazine in Brussels, an ideal location for me because my French was pretty good. I dashed off a letter to her and, by return post, she dashed my hopes: the publication had just been bought by a media conglomerate which was only keeping her on because her mother had founded it and she'd been editor for ages. "I couldn't live with myself if I got you a job with these people," she said.

Fair enough. What was Plan B? Um, Plan B was Berlin.

Not that I really wanted to move to Berlin, but it wasn't out of the question. I had friends here because of BID, expats and natives alike. I had an apartment, although not the one I wanted. (I'd responded to an ad in tip and talked to a nice couple with an immense place in Friedenau they were going to sublet while they took a year to educate themselves about French wine by spending the time going from one area of France to another. We loved each other, and I was happy to have found such a wonderful place. Then the landlord refused to let them sublet to a foreigner. Which, yes, is legal. I'd just learned my first lesson about Germany, although I refused to believe it at the time). I didn't really speak or read German, and, well, I wasn't sure I really liked the place. But there was no doubt that the whole post-1989 opening of eastern Europe was exciting -- my Czech trip had sure proven that -- and one heard there were very cool things happening in East Berlin. Job? There would be a BID, the fifth one, in 1993. Although I couldn't speak German, there were certainly things to do.

And I started doing them the morning after I arrived. That year, BID had joined together with some world music types who were going to put on a satellite event called WOMEX. (Wolfgang despised -- despises -- world music, but it was the only way he could get this thing funded again). There was an office on Köpenicker Str. near Schlesisches Tor ("Say that correctly," a German friend had said, "and you don't need to worry about your accent any more."), and an office full of people, some of whom I knew and some of whom I didn't. It was August, and we had an event to put on in October. We got to work.

That was 15 years ago tomorrow. A great education was about to begin, and the future would soon take some completely unpredictable twists. Somewhere in West Berlin there's a 15-year-old boy I've not seen since he was an infant. I don't see his parents any more, nor practically anyone I knew back then. And soon, I hope, I won't see much of Berlin anymore. I wouldn't trade the past 15 years for anything, but it's long since been time to move on.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Great Timing

If you've been around Berlin, you know what Bionade is: a soft-drink made with natural fruit flavors in ingenious combinations.

And if you know Germany, you've been anticipating the onslaught of attempts to copy that success. Well, one of them rolled out today in my local supermarket. Nice-looking bottles, odd flavor combinations (the one I noticed was green mango-kiwi, which made me wonder if it was made with amchur powder), and a big old free-standing display everyone had to maneuver their gigantic baby limos around.

Shame about the name: Spirit of Georgia.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Meanwhile, Back In Berlin...

Owing to the PayPal debacle last time I was there, and the loss of $1500 worth of work due to one screw-up or another, it'll be some weeks before I can get back to Montpellier to continue looking for an apartment. Well, that and the fact that I've only had one offer since I've been back, and it was more than I could spend.

So that means staying in Berlin a bit longer. Not that, in glorious summer weather like we haven't seen in many a year, that's a completely horrible thing. Although, of course, Berlin remains Berlin.

For instance: Since there still isn't a decent public transportation link to where I live from the Hauptbahnhof -- Berlin's main train station is still working out its transportation kinks -- I take a cab there and back when I'm travelling. And, after a 16-hour train-ride, it's an excusable indulgence. After my first trip in June, I found myself welcomed back in typical Berlin style: I got in the cab, the guy tripped the meter, and then asked me where I was going. I told him, and he started arguing. He'd never heard of the street or the neighborhood: was I sure I was headed there? Yes, I said, I live there. Well, he'd never heard of it: could I point it out on his map? Of course I could. And I did. The meter now read €3.80 and we hadn't budged. He eventually got me there, all right, but wound up blaming it on my horrible accent. Which, not to be vain about it, was better than his, since German was clearly not his first language, either.

In contrast, the driver two weeks ago knew just where I was going, got me there via an ingenious short-cut, and, as the surroundings penetrated his brain, began to talk to me in English. After all, what other kind of foreigner lives in this 'hood? I kind of saw his point a couple of mornings later, when someone was noisily CLANK recycling bottles CLANK one at CLANK a time out in the courtyard. The prompted an angry response from someone -- perhaps the unemployed gentleman a half-floor above me in the Halbetreppe apartment who seems to spend his time inducing hangovers -- and there was a pause in the recycling noise. Finally, the recycler said "Um, can you speak English?" and, after a half second, there came the reply: "Yes. Kann you plizz do zat LAUTER?"

Of course, there's another stereotype for residents of this neighborhood, and it came to mind when we got plastered with small handbills with some photographs on them. What had happened was that, last September, a woman had met a man reading a history of the Holy Roman Empire while riding on the U-Bahn. They had chatted, and she had had a failure of nerve, because she was so attracted to him. Now, almost a year later, she'd decided to find him and had printed up these flyers and pasted them onto building fronts. There was a picture of the book he was reading, what looked like a police sketch of him, straight on and in profile (that's what attracted me to the flyer: I thought it was a police sketch and we were in the middle of a crime wave), a picture of her, and a picture of someone I guess is a movie star as "Doppelgänger." And, of course, her phone number. I almost sent her an SMS asking her if she'd considered the possiblity that the guy was batting for the other team, but figured the idiom would be beyond her.

Yes, ladies, and although I'm never spotted pushing a €10,000 baby buggy down the streets, I'm not one of them. But they're there, in my building, along with the Americans (and I suspect the two groups overlap, too). And to tell the truth, the guys who have been playing the same three ABBA songs day and night at ear-challenging volume ever since I came back would be bad enough even if they didn't get about 3/4 of the way through each one and then start it over again, which is at least as annoying as breaking bottles one by one. Maybe they'll stop when Mama Mia leaves the local movie theater. Naaah...

So it's back to the usual: reading breathless accounts of hip! edgy! Berlin in the media, most disappointingly Gary Shteyngart's breathless account of the city as observed from his cushy post at the American Academy earlier this year. Jeez, for someone who nailed trendy expats so neatly in his great first novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, ol' Gary sure drank the kool-aid on this one. At least it's not as bad as the more recent tour of Berlin music history the Guardian printed, filled with enough typos that you'd think the information was gleaned from a bad telephone connection.

Still, over dinner the other evening, someone posed a nice, barbed question: what if the current state of affairs is as good as it's ever going to get here? Excellent point: there are a lot of reasons to believe that things are going to get worse for most Berliners as the economic decline neatly pegged in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal progresses. The fact that the expats on what this same person has termed "the two-year Spring Break" here haven't been touched by this speaks only to their isolation from the native population and the fact that the problems haven't reached far enough into their daily lives. But it's not inconceivable that they will, especially as real estate values escalate in their neighborhoods and they're forced into daily propinquity with large masses of the hard-core unemployed with whom, as our bottle-breaker found out to his great embarrassment, they're unprepared to deal. As the arts subsidies decrease even further, and as the cheapness of living in Berlin gets to be outweighed by the increasing gloom of a city circling the drain, those who are here for fun are going to be faced with unpleasant choices if they wish to stay. Since my guess is that they'll choose to leave, and they'll have to find another Eurotopia in which to have their cheap holidays in other people's misery.

So it looks like in a week, I'll be passing my 15th year here, barring both an economic and a French real-estate miracle. Expect a post with some wry nostalgia and at least one very amusing link on that day.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Food Again (And Drink)

Before I utterly forget everything about last week, I should stick some of my food notes here.

One big difference between this trip and the previous ones was that after my first night, I moved into a thing called MySuiteInn, way out on a traffic circle about 30 minutes' walk or a 10 minute bus-ride (when the buses weren't on strike, and between 6:30 am and 8pm) from the center of town. Across the circle was a big Champion supermarket, hardly upscale, but nonetheless superior to anything in Berlin. As I said before, not paying ten or 12 euros for breakfast was a good deal (although I spent the same amount getting back there at night with a taxi). The French have little ready-made toasts called petits pains which can be spread with cream cheese or jam, and their yoghurt is immeasurably better than German yoghurt -- even the commercial stuff.

I had several lunches at the Vert Anglais in the Place Castellane, where Nick the owner is trying to punch up his lunch business. I ate there not just to support him, but because, as I said last time I was down, it's really good. Their salades composées are superb, although the Caesar needs work (and I've already e-mailed him my Caesar dressing recipe, so if he uses it, it'll be the first public place you can taste it, since the other place is on Bob Dylan's tours). There's also a Vert Anglais burger I'm anxious to try, and a cold pile of shrimp which looks like it'd hit the spot.

The best dinner was private, cooked by Miss Expatria one evening. Not only is she a good cook, but she's good company, as is Bart. She improvised a pasta sauce from some tiny tomatoes, a French concoction called farce which is a ready-made meat mixture you can use to stuff tomatoes or peppers, some fresh basil, and some red chiles.

My regular fave, Bistrot d'Alco, was closed for vacation, but I hit La Chêneraie (excellent, although I thought I'd taken notes as to what I had and didn't) and L'Escalier (my last meal in town, it was a perfectly-cooked onglet de boeuf with a stupendous wine-and-shallot reduction preceded by a soupe de poisson that wasn't anywhere near that at La Tomate from last visit). It's still astonishing to me that you can get out of one of these places for around €20 for two courses and wine and I found myself wondering what some of the slightly higher-priced places would be like. I'm sure I'll have a chance to find out some day.

There were also a couple of new places. At one point I developed a swelling of my gums on one side of my jaw which vanished as quickly as it came, but sure was a drag while it hung around, so I went looking for stuff that was soft. One idea someone floated past me was to get mussels, so I headed to the place he recommended, Chez Elia, which looks like a Brazilian restaurant and, in fact, is, since Elia herself is Brazilian and half the menu is things like feijoiada. I had moules Provençal, which was mussels cooked in Pernod with minced fennel strewn in it. Excellent, and only 11 euros. I'm told that Elia and her French husband are moving back to Brazil in December, so catch this place when you can.

The other sore-gums place was someplace nobody I'd talked to had ever been, La Ferme, which drew me in by offering tartiflette, a dish of baked sliced potatoes cooked in cream with bits of ham in it and hunks of cheese melted over it. Not hardly a summer dish, but I was hurting, and it was soft. It was served with a separate plate of ham and dry sausage and salad, and hit the spot, although before recommending this place to the less dentally-challenged, I'd want to try something else, too.

But the place I'm most anxious to try again was the one everyone referred to as the New Bar because it had just opened. If I've got my bearings on the map right, it's on the rue St-Côme, near another standby bar of the expat community, Mi Barrio. It's got a name -- something to do with Léon, probably Chez Léon -- but people are probably going to wind up calling it something else. It's run by an affable Spaniard, Manu, and his family, and is notable by its long awning with the words "Restaurant Agricole" on it, as well as the boxes of fresh produce -- potatoes, onions -- sitting right on the curb. Just about everything is organic, there are plants on the tables -- ours had fresh oregano and a chili plant -- and besides huge salads and cold soups, it has a prominent rotisserie which, on the night I was there, was turning out lamb, chicken, and rabbit. I started off with a salad that combined tiny strawberries, cubes of watermelon, and a slice of pineapple (probably not locally grown, ahem) with a dressing of crème fraiche and fresh spearmint. I don't even like watermelon and I ate it all. After that, on everyone's urging (we were a party of about nine), I got the lamb, mostly because I usually don't like it, and everyone was raving about it. It came accompanied by a bowl of roasted vegetables which had been strewn on the floor of the rotisserie, absorbing the fats from the roasting meats. There were also jars of mustards, including a grape mustard which married well with the meat and the superb house red, which was fruity and light, a perfect summer red. Once again, the price was amazingly low. I wish these folks luck, because I'm selfish: I want to revisit this place often.

I may never straighten out all the Languedoc wines in my head, although I'm going to make a concerted effort, since so many of them are phenomenal and way underpriced. My favorite for some years has been Mas de la Seranne, from the village of Aniane, not far away. There was a British importer, Pic Wines, which was bringing it to England, but they went out of business earlier this year, so the only way to get it now is to get it in France. They make several cuvées, from the cheapo €5.60 Ombre des Figuiers ("Shadow of the Fig-trees") to the mezzo €12.60 Clos des Immortelles to a few more above that. The idea that I could live in a place where I could just pick up a bottle of that stuff for less than six euros is almost enough to make the move worthwhile right there. Admittedly, my tastes are very New World, and this is a big, fruity, start with a dazzling number of complexities (the more you pay, the bigger the after-show on your tongue is) afterwards that I still haven't gotten a fix on.

On this trip, I also discovered an even more local wine, Terre Megere, but I've yet to find it in a shop, so I'm not at all sure what it costs or what varieties it comes in. This is an actual Montpellier wine from Cournonsec, less than ten miles to the southwest. Google gets me all kinds of people selling it in Britain and elsewhere, but the exact bottle I tried doesn't seem to be among the reds and whites they have listed. The distinguishing feature of the label was that it looked like it had had dirt splashed on it, carefully printed on.

But my best discovery came on not this trip, but the last one. I'm not the kind of hearty drinker many of my friends at the Vert Anglais are, especially before a meal, but I did want to be sociable. I was about to order a Campari and soda, but thought, wait a minute, I'm in France. Surely there's something local that's comprarable. Jody the barman brought out a couple of shot glasses of possibilities, a vermouth (too sweet) and a ghastly-looking substance which he said was called Suze. Nicely bitter, with a hint of sweetness, and a really complex taste (it's made from gentian root, of all things, and is a bizarre psychedelic yellow color) which unpacked after he'd poured some Perrier onto it and tossed in a couple of thin slices of lemon, it's low-alcohol enough that it doesn't destroy your head or your tongue before dinner. I also had the distinct advantage of the fact that nobody else at the bar liked it, but I wound up drinking enough of it over the space of these two visits that the bottle was drained. I assume it had been tapped before, but I'm not sure if Nick will order another (he really detests it) until I actually get an apartment down there. Still, sitting in the shade, coming off of a 90-degree day, hanging out with good folks and watching the street-life of Montpellier at the end of a workday, it's a good drink to sip.

Can't find it in Berlin. Time to move.

Friday, July 25, 2008


Yes, the obligatory Obama post.

Of course I went. I'd seen Clinton in...'94?...and couldn't remember a word he'd said and wanted to see if Obama could do better. Opting for comfort (a relative term in a situation like this) over being metal-detected and waiting in line to get into the main venue, we stopped at the first video screen we came to on 17 Juni, and that turned out to have been a great decision.

The trade-off, of course, was suffering through the pre-show "entertainment," a reggae-oid band and a standard-issue rock band which sounded like a fourth-generation xerox of U2. Although, I have to admit, finding rock bands in Europe with the credentials to get the kind of security clearance you'd have to have to play a gig like this couldn't have been easy. Asking them to be good would be too much, and not having them would have meant more of the DJ, who got extra points for tone-deafness for sticking on some remix of "Sympathy for the Devil" shortly before Obama hit the stage. (Actual last song before he spoke, though, was Bowie doing "Let's Dance," and I think I can now live without hearing that one ever again. Talk about dated...)

As for the speech itself, the New York Times summed it up nicely in their morning headline: Obama, Vague on Issues, Pleases Crowd in Europe. The thing I had to keep remembering as the blurry phrases piled up around the wall metaphor he'd set up at the start (the Wall and the Berlin Airlift were the two leitmotifs) was that this was a speech for Americans, not the Germans who'd taken off from work early on a nice Thursday afternoon to hear him.

It was good to hear him defend a military presence in Afghanistan, which is something a sizeable number of Germans, with their knee-jerk anti-war attitudes, don't want to hear, but he was right: this is a golden chance, already mostly-blown by the US, to restore a country devastated by war to a functioning, and peaceful, state. It was good to hear him denounce nuclear weapons, not just in Iran (where they don't have them) but around the world. And it was really good to hear him emphasize that the US and Europe have to listen to each other, and to reject unilateralism: that part of the speech was for the Europeans.

If the speech was, in the end, the proverbial Chinese food ("you're hungry an hour later"), it was still a good PR move by the man who will very likely take the reins of the US government next year. The weather was beautiful, and by delaying his speech til a little after 7, he was helped by a setting sun rich in red tones, which burnished his skin into a nicely metaphoric medley of colors.

I got what I needed -- a (bootleg, I think, since it was being sold by some people also selling t-shirts for a sauna company) button I can attach to myself discreetly in Ameriskeptic contexts (read: France) -- and we left right after the speech, while the video screen still showed him shaking hands with the crowd. As we headed up 17 Juni, the loneliest man in Berlin stood, a 60-something-year-old guy holding an umbrella, from which little McCain signs depended. Germans were mocking him loudly, and I almost felt sorry for him except for the fact that he was, in fact, advocating a continuation of the horror the US has lived through for the past eight years.

And yes, an hour later I was hungry.