Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Lausanne Calling

Late yesterday afternoon, the phone rang. It was Prof Dr Dr calling from Switzerland. "I need an investigative journalist!" he thundered. Being an actor and voice teacher, as well as a Prof Dr Dr, he thunders real damn good.

Now, if you were me, you'd figure that someone with a professorship and two doctorates achieved before his 40th birthday might be a bit out of touch with some of life's more mundane aspects, and such proved to be the case yesterday. Switzerland has not been good to Prof Dr Dr, and he's leaving, moving to Dublin to share a flat with a friend and start anew. I admit, I envy him. In order to achieve this, he asked his bank for a very modest loan, amounting to 1% of the value of his current flat, which he's selling, and on which they have the papers. They turned him down. Apparently, he'd "abused" his credit card a year ago, which I gather means he went over his limit. Hell, at least he's got one to abuse.

But, fair or not, this isn't the stuff of investigative journalism, and it fell to me to tell him so. It took him a while, but he did, in fact, calm down. The conversation got more general, settling on one of our common topics: why aren't either of us making any money or getting any work? He's got two doctorates, is a composer whose compositions have been recorded by reputable people, has acted in a few German films (once as a right-wing maniac American terrorist -- damn, I would have loved to have seen that one!) as well as on the stage (he did a perfect Texas accent, which blew me away, he being Welsh), has lectured on opera and written very amusingly on it for the magazine I edited, and is an expert on certain recherché aspects of Hinduism. Among other things. In the middle of his lament, he said something I found thought-provoking: "The only person in the arts I know who's doing well is a gay actor in Berlin."

No, he didn't go on to damn The Fag Cabal or anything; he's hardly like that. But this connected with my ignorance that Saturday was Christopher Street Day here. You see, probably the reason his friend was doing well was not because he was an actor, who'll chainsaw their grandmothers to get next to a gig if they have to, but because he's gay. And no, I'm not going to rant about The Fag Cabal, either. This is about community.

Berlin is the first place I've lived (after college, when I was far more naive) where I haven't had any gay people in my social circle. Actually, that's inaccurate: there are three. An English woman I never see any more, who worked on the magazine; a half-American woman who's a good friend but identifies as an American -- which is how I think of her; and another American who discovered his sexuality after moving here to be with a girlfriend. No Germans. I've been here almost 11 years. You'd think I'd have run into more gay people.

The other side of that, of course, is that segregation -- and we can assume theirs is a voluntary segregation -- promotes community and cohesion. Certainly this isn't a community forged through oppression, not here. And this brings me back to Prof Dr Dr's plaint: "Wasn't there once a group of us, a group of intellectuals, of writers, who helped each other out?" he bawled at one point. And the answer there is, yes, there was. And there isn't any more.

In the smaller sense, in Berlin, it's largely because most of those people have moved away. The arts withered, the ability to make money died, the interest of our home-town media turned elsewhere, and nearly everyone I knew began to wonder what the appeal of staying around a dying city was. I miss these people terribly, but I sure can't argue with their choices.

But I've noticed this in the larger world, too. There seems to be an unprecedented ferocity of competition these days among the community Prof Dr Dr alluded to, and this is, of course, linked to the diminishing number of opportunities. There's also more than a hint of ageism to this, too, I suspect, but that could just be my paranoia. There are fewer places to write for, and they pay worse than ever. Musicians are particularly unfortunate: just about anyone in the world can make a record, and it sure seems like just about anyone is, while at the same time the number of venues for live performance seems to shrink every day.

More and more, communities tend to be virtual: groups of isolated individuals meeting on-line. In many ways (and as a member of The Well , I'm by no means anti-virtual community) this seems to me to encourage solipsism and the wrong kind of individualism. There is nothing that beats like-minded people getting together in person and just shooting the shit together, particularly if beyond sharing friendships they are also focused on a project or idea. That, I think, is what Prof Dr Dr was talking about, and that's why his gay actor friend has an edge on both of us when it comes to getting work: there's a community for him to interact with that has one strong defining factor, and that's exactly what neither of us has.

Of course, if there were a woman in my life, that'd be a community of sorts, if only a community of two. But don't even get me going down that road today. And don't count me as one of those grumpy bachelors who says that people forming couples breaks up the Old Gang; all of the groups I've most enjoyed being in have included singles and couples. And, usually, straights and gays. And, here, Germans and Auslanders.

So I wish Prof Dr Dr a good re-start in Dublin, and solicit the wishes of you readers for my own re-start outside of this city sometime very soon. And if you have a couple of friends you haven't met for a beer in a while, pick up the damn phone and call them. I think you might like what happens.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Illegal Odors

So of course I can't just walk away with a reference to the Garlic Story and not tell it. And, since absolutely nothng happened today, it's a perfect opportunity.

Now, Americans I tell this story to don't believe it. Germans, however, do.

My first apartment here was a tiny shoebox with a very low ceiling (I could rest the palm of my hand on it without standing on my toes) and a narrow shelf with a mattress. It was in what they call a Neubau, a new building, and was devoid of any charm at all. The kitchen was so tiny I had to do my chopping on the table I ate at; there was no counter space at all.

Still, I managed to entertain from time to time, and to feed myself when I wasn't utterly broke. That was also where I had my dinners of peanut butter on crispbread and tap water, but once I discovered a decent grocery store nearby (it was where Mrs. Erich Honecker, the wife of the East German Chancellor, came across the Wall in her Volvo stretch limo to shop, I later learned) I was able to put together a good repertoire of stuff.

Much of which, both because of my background and because thanks to the EU the price was right, was Italian. Italian-American, to be honest; that was where my tastes were formed, and that's what I know how to make. And, as anyone who's lived in a Little Italy will attest, that means using copious garlic.

Now, small though this apartment was, it also had a lot of doors. There was a door to the kitchen, which I never closed because it made me claustrophobic, a door to the living room, which was just inside the front door, and a door to the bathroom. That's important to the story.

If you've lived in New York, you know who the super is, the building superintendant, the guy you call who's supposedly the landlord's on-site representative, who'll repair stuff or call the plumber or electrician when things go bad. In Germany, this guy is called the Hausmeister, and every building has one. The Hausmeister in this building was a little black guy, an American ex-GI. I always figured he came over here in the '50s, and stayed. Probably the reason he stayed was his wife. I think this was a very stereotypical love story, between a working-class Berlin girl with big tits and a rural-raised black guy who saw a white girl with big tits who went for him and figured he'd died and gone to heaven. Well, 40 years later, she'd grown into the tits. She was huge. Linebacker shoulders, flaming dyed red hair, and a mean look in her eyes. Every other Saturday, they'd drive down to Franklin Plaza to the PX and load up the car with two cases of Ballantine Scotch and four cases of Cup O' Noodles, and I assume that's what they lived on. Sometimes I'd walk past their apartment and hear her knocking him around, shrieking at him in low-down Berliner as he slurred "Bitte, bitte, bitte" POW! Absolutely not what I wanted to hear. Meanwhile, during the day he was impossible to find. And, although he was American, he refused to talk English at all, so I never really had much luck communicating with him. His wife, though, was a different matter.

Anyway, one afternoon I was going about my business when the apartment bell rang. Not the bell on the street, but the one at my front door. When I opened the door, there was the Hausmeister's wife, arms folded over that immense bosom, cigarette clamped in the corner of her mouth. Peering around her on either side were the building's little old ladies, which, considering that just about every apartment was occupied by a little old lady, meant just about everybody in the building. Finally one stuck out her finger and pointed at me. "Ja, IHM!" she said with vigor. "Es stinkt hier immer von Knoblauch!" ("Yes, HIM! It always smells like garlic here!")

The Hausmeister's wife tossed the cigarette to the floor and ground it out with her heel. "Mr. Ward, these ladies say your apartment smells always of garlic. This is against the law, and you must not do this." I was flabbergasted, to say the least. "When you cook, you must use the fan in the kitchen. Have you seen the fan?" Well, yes, I said, but it didn't work, and when I tried to turn it on with the pull-chain the thing was so rotten it came off in my hand. "The fan works," she said. "Use it." Uh, well, okay. "Another thing," she said. "You must close this door" and here she gestured to the door between the front door and the living room "so the odors don't get into the hall. If these ladies complain again, we may have to go to the police. Good day." And the crew all went down the stairs.

Go to the police? Was she nuts? Well, no: there's a law here about cooking odors, and apparently it's enforced. Had I been just a bit more savvy, I might have tried a counterattack. After all, every Sunday, no matter if it were in deepest winter or sweltering summer heat, the halls smelled of roast pork. A lovely smell, I think, but I've often wondered what would have happened if I'd stood up to her and claimed to be Jewish, and said that I was willing to put up with what to me was a nauseating smell in the name of good German-Jewish relations. Hell, most Germans have never talked to a real Jew, and this bunch would never have called me on it.

However, I did close the door from then on. The Berlin police are people you don't want to deal with, ever. Of course, when I had people over for dinner, this meant that I couldn't hear the doorbell from the street, which was something of a disadvantage. The other problem was that, following a law that's almost never enforced, our building locked the front door every night promptly at 8. This meant that I couldn't buzz anyone in if I'd wanted to. I had to drop what I was doing, go downstairs, and unlock the door. Now that I couldn't hear the bell, people had to call from the phone booth on the corner (this was pre-cellphone days).

I should add that the one old lady who wasn't in the bunch was my next-door neighbor, whose name is oddly appropriate to this story: Frau Streiter. Streit means argument, quarrel, conflict. I never had any with her, but I did have several great conversations, because in her seniors' group (she was 76) she was learning English and Turkish. "German," she once memorably said "is very, very hard. You must always know the der, the die, or the das for a word. But English, English is easy! Everything in English is...duh!"

There's a couple I know in Paris who have one of those classic Portugese concierges in their building, and she seems always to be cooking. Every time I visit them, I inhale deeply as I pass her door. A fine experience, and one the Germans have legislated to insulate themselves against.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Protect And Serve

So I may have giggled about the cops in Karstadt yesterday (which -- d'oh! -- was Christopher Street Day, so no wonder all the action), but on my way back from Karstadt I saw, on the tabloid newsbriefs on the little screen in the subway car, a truly worthwhile use of the money paid to the Berlin Police, more vital than the Police Big Band or their award-winning trick motorcycle-riding team: this weekend, the Grill Police are out in the Tiergarten!

The Tiergarten is one of the wonders of this city, a central park much safer than Central Park, but just about as big. It starts at the Zoo and spreads out until just before the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, encompassing all manner of gardens, and flat lawns perfect for picnics.

But you'd better not grill. Nope: grilling is, if not actually illegal, very strictly regulated here. Now, given that about 100% of Berlin's buildings are concrete, brick, or stone, this may seem a bit odd, but it's not just about fire. The screen (it's written by the Bild Zeitung, one of the more moronic tabs) said it was about garbage, and unfortunately they're partially right.

Still, it's not like grilling is a part of Berlin life. In fact, neither grilling nor broiling has much to do with the local cuisine, although I just got back from a "grill party," about which more in a minute. I've never owned a stove with a broiler, though. Broiling lets the fat drip off the meat, and the preference here is for as much fat as possible. Maybe it has to do with the harsh winters, or maybe Berliners metabolize the stuff better, because you'll see more morbid obesity in Buffalo than in Berlin.

Grilling is something you do with sausages and tough cuts of meat (neck-steaks, they're called, a part of the pig Americans know as sirloin chops, described in a recent Cooks Illustrated as "tough, dry, and tasteless"), more rarely with chicken, and never with beef. Sausages make the most sense because the charcoal here is dead in minutes. And where you do it is in the country, at your allotment-house, or at the beach, not at home. If you do, you have to notify the neighbors, any of whom, I believe, is allowed to veto your plans. You are allowed to do this exactly twice in a twelve-month period.

But, like I said, it's not like it's something that's a German tradition. But it is a Turkish tradition, and that's the subtext of the police fanning out in the Tiergarten this weekend, handing out €20 tickets for unauthorized grilling, or grilling in unauthorized places. I used to live right next to the Tiergarten and do my daily exercise walk through it, and on weekends, it reminded me of Texas, where you'd drive through a neighborhood on a weekend and it was like jumping into a huge pile of brisket. The Turks -- and the Kurds and the Arabs and the various Balkan folk -- grill their little heads off all weekend long in the Tiergarten and anywhere else they can get a few square feet of space: Görlitzer Park, over in Kreuzberg, which is heavily Turkish, smells like the biggest Turkish barbeque in the world.

And although Berlin's multicultural, that multi-cult applies to the Germans, too: there are several German cultures here, and while one of them is the one that attracted me here, being intellectual, curious, and (all too) willing to put on the trappings of other cultures, there's also one that's xenophobic, close-minded, and punitive. Guess which German culture contributes the police?

But lest you get all bleeding-heart on the grillers, I have to say that because I regularly passed among them, not only in the Tiergarten but in the Volkspark Wilmersdorf, near my next apartment, there's a sad tendency to eat and run on the part of a lot of them. Naturally, where grilling isn't allowed, the parks authority isn't going to erect garbage cans big enough to dump a picnic's worth of trash, either. But I've come upon whole lamb carcasses, picked clean and just dumped in a pit dug into the lawn, and huge pyramids of plastic bottles, soda cans, plastic cups, and food leavings just sitting there. An awful lot of these immigrants are from very rural areas, and have never lived in a city before, and since no one here seems to want to talk gently to them and explain things, they just do what they'd do back home.

That said, the vast majority of the Turks, Arabs, and so on who sit on sunny days in the parks and grill kebabs and such pick up nicely after themselves. I may not like their food much (it smells better than it tastes, in my experience), and I may bristle at the way the women do all the work while the men sip tea and crack open pistachios, and then get to eat what's left over once the men are full, and I admit I did get very upset one day when a girl, flirting with a boy, pretended to steal his bicycle and he grabbed her and beat her to the ground while a dozen men yelled "Yallah!" and applauded (I couldn't very well have done much, I keep telling myself), but the piles of waste were the exception, not the rule, not with that many people on that huge an expanse of green.

Still, rules are rules, and Turks are Turks, and must be controlled. One of the few ways you can become a German citizen if you don't have German blood is to demonstrate a German sense of Ordnung, which is, loosely, order (although it has a much wider meaning than that). So if you lack the Ordnung to control your urge to grill, you will be fined.

As far as grilling at home, that's about the food odor laws, which means that if I go into that, I'll have to tell the Garlic Story. Better to save that for another day. Suffice it to say that the grill-party I went to was deep, deep in the 'burbs, down in Alt-Mariendorf, so far south in Berlin that it's practically North Munich, and the grill was placed a long distance from the house, and not used very long. It was Karen and Michael's daughter Amalia's second birthday party (although her birthday was actually Friday) and Karen's double-dynamite pasta-and-tuna salad was on hand, as well as those grilled Bratwurst. I guess I was poorly placed for any food odors, but then, the Wurstchen only took a few mintues, and Michael's dad did a great job with them.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

More Nibbles

It's the power of blogging! Or else maybe the stars have shifted to a more favorable configuration! I went to the bank today in the vain hope that a transfer had come in overnight (although it occurred to me that the computers are shut down over the weekend), but wow! There was money in my account, according to the screen readout! I went over to the antiquated statement machine, which prints out a dot-matrix statement and it ground and whined for a while and, miracle of miracles, I'd been sent €55 and change by Jungle World! I don't know if anyone reading this harrassed them, or they had an attack of conscience, or if nine months is their usual lag between publishing something and paying for it, but I'm a happy guy.

* * *

Naturally, with that in hand, or a bit of it, I decided to lay in some food for the weekend, and squandered two Euros on a subway ticket to Karstadt in Hermannplatz. This is in the middle of one of my least favorite neighborhoods, Neukölln, but there's no denying that it's probably the closest best place to shop for "exotica." The main thing I was looking for was Old El Paso salsa, hot. Okay, I realize it's not the best around, but there's nothing better I've ever found here, and at least this tastes like Pace, which my local supermarket used to carry, and I'd already decided to make potato-and-egg breakfast tacos with homemade flour tortillas for my Big Breakfast on Sunday, tomorrow.

There was some sort of demonstration going on, pissed off teenage lesbians, from what I could tell. Pissed off beause the speech someone was droning, obviously reading from a paper of some sort, was about being mistreated. Lesbians because there was a float decorated with gold foil that said something about "gay girls," and there was no mistaking lots of them around. I assume teenage from the fact that non-teenage lesbians would use the word "women." On the way back from Karstadt, a group of lesbians got off and one was dressed absolutely perfectly in a New York Police Department uniform, so much so that I started, until I remembered that the police here wear green. Like the two who were walking into Karstadt as I was leaving, batons at the ready. Teenage lesbian shoplifters! Thank you, Mr. Policeman, for protecting me!


I wish what was inside Karstadt was as interesting as what was outdoors. There seems to have been a blanding-out of all these "gourmet" departments all of a sudden: no salsa in any flavor other than mild; no MSG-less chicken broth, another Karstadt fave; no chili peppers (they're very sporadic); no sharp cheddar cheese. I was tempted by a bottle of the best wine I've had in months, an amazing tempranillo from Spain's Extremadura region called Castillo de Valdestrada, but at over seven Euros a bottle, I didn't feel right, not yet. I settled for a four-Euro Primitivo from Puglia I'd never tried. From the evidence, Karstadt's bought a container of the Valdestrada, so I probably have some time. Now...wonder where in this Weltdorf I can get hot salsa...

Friday, June 25, 2004


No big bites today; just a few snacks.


The sushi the other night was great. This guy Rolf has definitely learned some of the real hard stuff, like making the rice the ideal consistency so you can work with it, how to use nori, and how to choose fish. I'm not particularly surprised, since definitely one of the best sushi places I've ever eaten at was the old Mäcky Messer on Mulackstr. here. The guy who ran it was from Hamburg ("so of course I understand fish," he said -- and indeed a common friendly insult for a Hamburger is "Fischkopf," or fish-head) and although I never found out where he'd gotten his training, he was great. One of his little tricks was razor-thin slices of daikon radish in the shape of a shark, the eye having been made by a pinhole. Last time I was in there, a young but clueless Korean couple was running it, using pre-sliced frozen fish, and it was as bad as most of the other places here. The space is now a not-bad Vietnamese restaurant. No idea where Herr Fischkopf disappeared to.


The weather continues to suck. I harvested all my cilantro yesterday and got about a tablespoonful. It was all skinny stems, and the leaves were turning a reddish brown before drying up. I have no idea whether it's the weather or not, but I'm going to plant another crop. It managed to struggle up to 61 degrees today before it rained. The basil on the windowsill is probably developing roots carrots would envy, but the shiso in the pot out in the garden seems to have sprouted. Now if we can just avoid a killing frost...


If yesterday's mail is anything to go by, I'll be seeing Lutz again. Lutz is a huge man, nearly spherical, with a big round red face and tiny eyes, and the mien of a drinker. For all that, he's a nice guy, and he sighs when he talks to you, possibly because his job is collecting for BEWAG, the local power company. If he is a drinker, no wonder. I'm €325.31 in arrears to them, and it's unlikely that any money will arrive before Lutz does. There'll be about half of that to pay if I want to keep the electricity on -- and believe me, I do! -- but I'll be given about 48 hours to find it. Again, I'm not even optimistic about that. But Lutz is a reasonable guy and we even duzen each other -- call each other by the familiar du. Jeez, when you know the name of the guy who shuts off your power and are that familiar with him, something's wrong.


Not that it'd do much good, but this all reminded me of Jungle World (and if you think I'm going to provide a link to them, think again). In September, they contacted me about doing an obit for Johnny Cash. Trouble was, they needed it overnight. Fortunately, I was in my usual state of poverty, and I could provide it that quickly. The editor, one Andreas Hartmann, thanked me heartily, did a good translation, and that was the end of it. I've been trying to get paid -- and folks, we're talking about a whopping €60 here -- ever since. I dropped him a line yesterday to remind him. Maybe you can remind him, too...

Of course, it's a hard-left magazine, and although you wouldn't expect it (if you're at all sympathetic to their politics, anyway), they're the worst at this sort of thing. When I first came here, I wrote a piece for the venerable lefty mag Konkret (also about country music, which seems to be a lefty obsession here). Not only did the translator -- a friend of mine who worked for them -- change some of what I wrote because he disagreed with it, it took them a year to pay me. Apparently the left in Germany is only friends with some working men. Those who work for the left, they apparently feel, are okay to screw. But then, most of them have never had jobs, so what do they know?

Thursday, June 24, 2004


Incidentally, I would love comments, or questions, about anything I've posted here. Especially if you edit a magazine or want me to write a book, but also if you're thinking of expatriating or just have questions about Berlin, Germany, or Europe. I also wouldn't mind a London-based agent who would be intrested in helping me sell some magazine articles until I get up to speed with some book proposals, but then, I'd like to win the Lottery, too. You can reach me at my e-mail address and I'll get back to you.

Expat Blues, First In A Series

I got an e-mail yesterday from a friend who reads this blog, and it got me thinking about some stuff I believe lots of people don't consider when they fantasize about moving abroad.

This friend was expressing severe disenchantment, both with the small village he'd moved to originally, and the mid-sized city in another country than he'd originally though he was moving to. (This is because his wife, in order to take early retirement, has to do a couple of years' service abroad). He was saying he'd rather be back home, or in Amsterdam, or in Montpellier, the place I'm fantasizing about moving to, a mid-sized city with a large university in a country with decent food.

Now, I don't know what's really eating him, and I won't til we sit down and actually talk it out, so let me just tell him that the following comments aren't aimed at you at all, dude: don't take 'em personally.

The fact is, though, that unless you're someone who's spent lots of time in another country and then decides to move there -- and I mean lots of time -- then you're in for some surprises. Chances are, they won't be pleasant ones, either. For instance, after I moved to Germany, I discovered a number of interesting things people never talk about. There's no free speech, for one thing. What that means in practice is that you can't espouse Nazi positions in public, give the stiff-armed "heil Hitler" salute, possess a copy of Mein Kampf or any number of other pieces of memorabilia. Nor can you belong to a number of banned political parties, many of which are on the left. I actually perpetrated a hate crime, I was told, when in perfect innocence I said on my JazzRadio show that I found Chick Corea's proselytizing for Scientology obnoxious. At the time, Scientology was recognized by Germany as a religion, and it was the same as if I'd said I found Jews obnoxious. Or Catholics, for that matter. More insidiously, there's no civil rights law here. When Karen and Michael had their restaurant, their kitchen help was mostly Bangladeshi (this is true in many fine restaurants here, incidentally), and she tried to get them apartments. Karen called one ad in the paper after another, stating that this was for her kitchen help, and was told, cheerfully and straightforwardly "We don't rent to black men." Sorry.

These are things I have to live with, just as I have to live with registering my address with the police. That law is absolute, as much an infringement on my privacy as I, as an American, may feel it is. But I did it. I had to. Likewise (although an order of magnitude lesser) I put up with the absurd store-closing laws, enacted, it was claimed, to keep families together: if people have to work on Sundays, well, who knows what might happen to society?

One thing that I know bothers my friend is the lack of black and other non-white faces in the street. I've tried to explain to him that he's in Europe, which is, like, where white folks come from, but I can't stop his visceral reaction to it. (And, true, it's not nearly as much the case in Berlin). When the number of these faces reach a certain tipping point, you wind up with frightened people electing virulent right-wingers like the ones who've taken over the Danish government. The German CDU, the conservatives, play on this fear in very insidious ways, especially in the days just before the elections.

But then I think, hey, someone from here who emigrates to the U.S. is going to get some rude shocks, too. The fact that you can espouse Nazi opinion in public, for instance. Or the absurd liquor laws: no, you can't walk down the street drinking a beer or have an open container of alcohol in your car, even if you haven't had any of it and it's just a bottle of wine in the back seat that you're bringing home from a friend's house. You can't take your clothes off to sunbathe in the park, either.

I think the solution to this is to find a balance. You find the different things that are good -- the farmer's markets, the art, the music, the holiday traditions, the soccer fever -- the things that are excitingly different, and you concentrate on them. Or you leave. Because just as you're not going to stop the people where you are from speaking their native language and you have to learn at least some of it in order to cope (although I've got a friend who's been here five or more years and still has literally learned not one word of German), you have to deal with the society you've chosen to live in. I don't know anyone at all who's trying to change the free-speech or civil rights situation here, and, maybe because I'm not a black Nazi, it's not such a big deal to me. If you're in the right place, the trade-off won't seem so onerous. If it seems like it is, it's time to figure out which you'd rather change, society, yourself, or where you live.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

A Short Disquisition On Eating While Poor

So today I got some money. Not a lot: $95. That's enough for me to pay $65 in storage fees and take €20 to eat on, which is good, because I was down to about €0.18 cash on hand.

Now, the way I finesse this is, when I get a lot of money -- say €50 in discretionary spending money -- I stock up on what I call stores. Canned tomatoes, olive oil, regular (corn) oil, eggs, Parmesan cheese, canned tuna, rice, flour, stuff like that. This gives me the building blocks for meals to come, and although it may deplete the initial capital, the add-ons are usually very reasonable: fresh vegetables on the day I'll use them, meats in the market that are on their last sell-by date to be used that night, stuff like that.

There's a third category of goods, too: things which deplete slowly. Mostly these are cleaning articles or health articles: blood-pressure medication, toothpaste, toilet paper, razor blades, laundry detergent. They tend to be rather expensive, except for the toothpaste, but I hate running out of them.

I always know almost exactly how much I have in my pocket. It's been this way for two years. I unconsciously add up a subtotal as I shop, and you can often see me putting things back on the shelf as I do a mental triage: how important is this right now, today?

And that's what I found myself doing today. I was out of Parmesan, and I have a nice big basil plant (and a whole bunch of infants sprouting in the window-box, I'm happy to note) and a box of ravioli, so...pesto. I had to walk 20 minutes, a couple of miles, to Alexanderplatz to buy some more, since Parmesan, except for nasty pre-grated stuff, isn't available at my neighborhood supermarket. This meant that, with a big €20 in my pocket, I was headed to Temptationland. And sure enough: I found myself sweating over a package of Italian sausage, salsiccie, a product which has only recently started appearing in these parts. It's something I miss dearly from the U.S., and this stuff, although it's made from chicken, is imported from Italy. Because it's exported to Germany, it lacks hot pepper and fennel, but that's easily enough added in the cooking process. The damage on this package was all of €1.32, but I'd already committed to about €6.30 for a nice hunk of cheese. I was also interested in a superb bottle of wine -- a Primitivo from Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, where they've woken up to the fact that people pay top dollar over here for American zinfandels and the Primitivo grape is the same thing -- for €3.99. That twenty was threatening to disappear, and there's still some basic stuff that has to be bought, and the next few days to think of, because there's no projected income for a while. I'd also had a light breakfast, and some Japanese rice crackers were beckoning to me. They were €1.49.

I put the salsiccie back, and then picked it up again. It would be just plain stupid not to buy this. It was the wine I had to put back. I've pretty much stopped drinking unless I go out, and I'm sorry to say I haven't stopped smoking, but these decisions have to occur organically if they're going to work, and one day when I had to take a case of empty beer bottles back for the €3 deposit it'd bring me, I spontaneously decided not to buy any more for a while. The beer I had the other night with the guy from Toronto was the first in a while. And, although I'm already feeling guilty about it, I bought the rice crackers and ate them as I walked back home.

I've now got €7.52. I'll have to go to the local market later, or at least stop by the Vietnamese guy's vegetable stand, which is always dependable, and buy some lettuce and tomatoes to make a salad to go with the pesto. I also want to get a melon and a lime for breakfast to go with my cereal (although that introduces another factor: I almost always cook stuff that makes leftovers, and I only eat half a melon in the morning, so the price amortizes over two days), and I really want a basket of strawberries, too, because the season is here, they're all organic and local (from Werder), and they're mostly very good. They also seem to have reached a price of €1.99 per basket, and that's a lot if the melon costs the same and the lime is thirty cents. Again, they last two days -- if they don't rot in the fridge, which the really ripe ones often do.

It's amazing to me that I'm able to eat as healthily as I do, although I'm relatively flush at the moment. There have been weeks recently when I ate biscuits for dinner (flour is only 35 cents a kilo) or went into the stores so hard that I was literally out of everything, right down to salt, at the end of the period of poverty; it took a fifty just to re-stock the place.

That I'm tired of this, that two years of doing it every single day of my life is well enough at my age, goes without saying. That it's almost certain to continue for the forseeable future is also almost inevitable: people who were supposed to help me hook up with editors have vanished and I'm so busy dealing with the minutiae of my life, as detailed above, that the leisure to sit back and dream up good new workable ideas and figure out where to sell them simply doesn't exist. There's a possibility, I suppose, that I'll go under because of this, but that, I think, is a ways off, assuming my health holds. The work I'm doing now often surprises me when I sit down to do it because it's so good. It hardly matters that I'm writing for a dime a word -- the same rate I was getting thirty years ago, when a dime bought more -- because I enjoy writing so much. I may be overly optimistic, but I believe I can write my way out of this hole and move on. I'm still looking for a hungry agent who can look a couple of years into the future and see a lucrative relationship with me. I'm still betting I can come up with, and execute, the ideas and the work that will allow that to happen.

But right now, I've got that €7.52 to shepherd. Maybe make it last through tomorrow, except I now realize that I also need nuts -- I use pistachios -- for the pesto. And after that? It's anybody's guess.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Blue Food

Just a quickie today as I prepare to go to dinner with some friends, a dinner at which the host will have us making sushi.

In order to not feel like a clod, I offered to bring something that would complement the sushi, knowing full will that the great Eric Gower would happily suggest something I could make from locally-available ingredients. He sent me a recipe for a Japanese-style cole slaw, and I ran to the store earlier and got some red and white cabbage and a carrot to combine with the other stuff I had around the house: rice vinegar, maple syrup, various oils, ginger.

After I made it, I filled the container of the food processor with water and went about doing some other stuff. About an hour later, I went into the kitchen and noticed that the water had turned blue. As I did the dishes, I was sticking my hands in blue water. This led me to one inescapable conclusion: red cabbage (Rotkohl) is, in fact, actually blue.

Now, anyone who's taken Psychology 101 knows about the experiment with dyed foods, and they know that the food which supposedly tasted the worst was the blue food. If it's not a berry, nobody wants it to be blue. And yet, this staple of the German diet (a staple that's one of the few I can't stand) is...blue food!

I rest my case. And no, that's not Sauerkraut, it's Rotkohl.

Report on German sushi, maybe, tomorrow.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Grand Tour, Chapter 957

I really do try to post here daily, but yesterday I had a visitor from Toronto, a young editor who'd worked on a magazine I tried to get into, and he took me up on my standing offer to visitors to go on my Justifiably Famous Walking Tour. I started it seven years ago when I moved into this house and the brother of a friend, a guy who described himself as "a paranoid New York Jew," asked if I could show him around. I've done it dozens of times since then, and it just gets more, well, professional, I guess. It takes about four hours now, starting at my house, going on to the pathetic Berlin Wall memorial and then threading down into the Scheunenviertel with its many Jewish memorials and onwards to Alexanderplatz, the Prussian court, the Gendarmenmarkt, Friedrichstr., Unter den Linden, the Brandenburg Gate, then back across the river to a real live Nazi air-raid bunker, and ending up two blocks from my house at Brecht's grave.

The thing that I found disturbing this time was that more and more, I'm pointing out things that aren't there any more. Oh, I don't mean things like the former Jewish old age home that was used by the SS as a collection point for Jews being shipped off to the camps, or like Christian Boltanski's superb Missing House, but, rather, things that have gone missing in the ten years since I moved here, places where artists lived, worked, and showed their stuff, underground bars and clubs (okay, illegal bars and clubs), funk that's been covered over with a veneer of glitz in hopes the property can change hands before it starts to fall apart again, little businesses that have been driven out by lunatic spiraling real-estate prices. These are things that can't be replaced at all, things that made living in this grim place worthwhile.

The book-burning monument at Bebelplatz is in the middle of a sea of mud (excuse me, construction for a "vitally needed" underground parking garage, ahem), and, along with the Boltanski, it's a truly wonderful meditation on a piece of unpleasant history. But instead, thanks to an odd lack of traffic on Karl-Lieibknecht-Str., which we sprinted across, I spontaneously added Rosenstr., where there are two major things to see, the site of the SS prison where Jewish men married to German women were imprisoned and then freed by the womens' protests (it, along with the Bebelplatz monument, is also here) and the site of the first synagogue in Berlin, something I've walked past dozens of times without seeing. And no wonder: there's a historical marker there, but it's facing away from the street so you can't see it! The lengths this city goes to screw itself up are truly awe-inspiring.

The tour ends at the graveyard a block and a half from my house, where Brecht, Hegel, Paul Dessau, and many other notables are buried, and that brought it conveniently close to the supermarket, so I could lay in some supplies for the weekend. The editor and I still hadn't talked business, and he graciously offered me dinner at the restaurant on the corner just up from my house, which, since this post is notably light on sauerkraut today, I should mention. (Incidentally, before you click on that link, be aware they've added some awful music, and the English text is decidedly in need of work. Hmmm, maybe a trade-out in my future?) Honigmond is, simply, one of the best restaurants I know of. It's inexpensive -- I think the top price for an entree is usually €13 -- and the basic philosophy is normal German dishes with an unusually creative fillip. I had to eat there for the first week I lived in this apartment because the kitchen wasn't ready yet (oh, I didn't have to, but I did), and I've used it since then as a meeting place for when we were doing our English-language magazine project, as a place to celebrate my 50th birthday, and as somewhere to go if I was travelling on an assignment and got back too late to shop for dinner. I've even gotten to where I look for a "Honigmond" in any city I travel to (I've found one, Weinstock, on the market square in Leipzig, and although they don't get creative with tradition, certainly the atmosphere qualifies Chez Paul on the rue de Charonne in Paris). The hotel, both the pension upstairs, and, I assume, the "Garden Hotel" a block and a half away, is affordable and very welcoming. In fact, once I move away from this hellhole, that's where I'll stay when I come back.

After dinner, we decided to have a couple of beers -- my first in some time, owing to the current level of poverty. Unfortunately, I've banned myself from what used to be my "local," Jarman, because of an unfortunate series of events involving me and a brilliant, but apparently self-destructive young woman who works (and drinks) there. It's probably not a complete tragedy: Daniel Jarman, the owner, has apparently done some stuff that's made other people I know shy away from the place, and he's acted odd to me on a couple of recent occasions. Anyway, a rather new place called Altes Europa on Gipsstr. looked attractive, so we went down there. Nice enough, but rather unpopulated on a Saturday night, and so it was hard to judge what kind of crowd it was.

So that's my excuse this time. Let's see what tomorrow's is.

Friday, June 18, 2004

99 Rooms

This is a magnificent piece of web art. I'm blown away by how well these folks have captured an integral part of this city. Just imagine, as you explore these pages, that it's cold, and that there's a pervasive dampness that you won't be able to shake even after you're back in your overheated apartment, and you'll have a deep Berlin experience in the comfort of your own home.

Warnings: Flash-intensive (Germans assume everyone has broadband, because they all do); music (but not obnoxious, for a change); very, very addictive.

I Want My Summer!

Okay, it's late June, it's a little after noon, and it's 58 degrees Fahrenheit out there. We've been having intermittent torrential rains, the kind that screw up the sewers and cause the water level in my toilet to yo-yo up and down until you get these columns of water out of a Winslow Homer painting and flecks of something dark drying in puddles on the floor. The last weather report I saw says we're in for about a week more of this (although it changes fairly often, so this may not be the case when you look).

This pisses me off, because one of the undeniably good things about Berlin is the summer, short as it is. Berliners love the outdoors, and start sitting at tables along the sidewalk as soon as ice stops forming on the puddles in the gutters. When the sun comes out, as I've said previously, they flock to the parks and cast their clothes off, sometimes entirely. (Let's face it: these people are unreconstructed pagans deep down, and in many ways, that's not a bad thing at all). And, because we're so far north, often the last light doesn't fade until well after 10pm, and the day's heat lingers and resolves at a pleasant 70 degrees or so. This is what the beer garden phenomenon is all about, although the cramped city makes it difficult for there to be many of them. But there's just something about sitting outdoors with a bunch of friends, drinking and talking and generally feelling physically comfortable, something that's pretty much impossible in, say, February, that creates fond memories.

Also, given Berlin's huge amount of green space -- more per square mile than any other European city, I've been told, although I think Berlin cheats by including huge forests like the Grunewald, Tegler Forst, and Berliner Stadtforst within the city limits -- it's just a pleasant place to see. Grim as the buildings here are, few as the pleasant groupings of them may be, you don't have to be among them very long if you're in motion, be it on a bike, on a bus, or on foot, because shortly you'll come to an expanse of green and an involuntary psychological effect comes into play and you just feel better. No matter that these places are as anally meticulously planned as any housing project: it's green, there are trees and bushes and often flowers, and you get the feeling that things aren't as bad as you actually, in your saner moments, know they are.

When the summer actually gets hot -- over 90 degrees -- it also gets dangerous here. People's tempers fray quickly, the drivers, who are already among the worst in Europe, get worse, and no beer garden or forest offers relief. I remember one year being on the subway when a guy exploded at some Balkan woman after one of her kids had crashed into him. He yelled at her for not taking care of her kids, told her she should be sterilized so she couldn't have any more children, that she shouldn't be here in the first place, and she should be deported. The rest of the passengers just looked on in disbelief, but they didn't do anything: the guy was huge, but at the end of his tirade, his face was a color I more commonly associate with unaged steak, so maybe he's not harrassing people in the subway any more. But on hot nights, I can lie in bed and hear domestic disputes turn violent and the skid of tires on Torstr., hardly an uncommon sound, often end with a crunch, followed by sirens.

These spells never last long, because the summer starts dying early in September, so the vast majority of the summer sees temperatures between, oh, 70 and 82 during the day. Every time the mercury climbs to perilous heights, spectacular thunderstorms come along, echoing like bombs through the buildings with their open courtyards. I'll get up the next morning, and the Lesbian Threat's garden will have sprouted a whole new species of flowers that weren't there yesterday. It's telling that nothing whatever has happened over there so far this year, although they both spend plenty of after-work time out snipping and trimming and murmuring to each other. My cilantro grew about two inches high and turned brown. The basil has sprouted close to the ground and is doubtless making huge roots to compensate for the leaves it's not going to develop. And the shiso hasn't shown signs of life for weeks. I wonder if the seeds are dead.

But wiser folks than me tell me that this is all part of the change that has been erroneously termed "global warming." It's not global warming so much as it's climate change, they say, and this summer cold has to do with the Gulf Stream, I believe, or perhaps it's the Atlantic Current. Whatever it is, it's a catastrophe in the making, and, for me, yet another reason to want to get out of this place. It's depressing enough in the winter, but if the summers are going to be wintry, too, that's a deal-breaker.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Another Good Thing

I got a couple of photos today that actually look like me. With luck, one of them will replace the picture of that grumpy old bastard with jet-lag that currently graces this project.

The Bantus Are Back

Okay, time for something good. I got a call from Karen on Saturday saying she'd run into Latif on the street and that he and Mario were back in business. This is good news indeed.

It was Karen and her husband Michael who alerted me to the Bantu Bar, just a short distance from my house. Mario and Latif are from Portugese-speaking Africa, although I've never been sure if it's Angola or Mozambique. Could be either, though, because "Bantu" turns out to be a general term covering a large number of peoples throughout central Africa. Anyway, these two guys kept hanging around Las Cucarachas, the Mexican restaurant Karen and Michael had, and asked Michael smart questions about opening a business. Then they disappeared, and the next thing Michael knew, they were being invited to the opening of the Bantu Bar.

It was a fairly tiny place, but in a good location, where there was very little competition for a hip, young crowd. There were pictures of Malcolm X and South African travel posters and a conga drum people could beat on if they felt so moved, but the thing everyone remembers about the Bantu Bar was the peanuts. Every day I'd see Mario, the taller one, shopping at my supermarket and buying several kilos of peanuts in the shell. When you sat down at your table, the first thing that would happen would be a basket of peanuts would appear. It took a while for the fastidious Germans to learn that they wanted you to throw the shells on the floor for atmosphere or something, but people eventually caught on.

Mario and Latif were really friendly and although I never went for the expensive and ornate cocktails that were their main money-makers, I was always welcome for a couple of beers, and given its proximity to my house, it was the bar where I'd take people. I've had a few memorable evenings there, one of which got hairy as a reporter friend who had been to cover the war in the Balkans got rather hammered and started saying, over and over, "I saw bad things. I saw bad things..." It was also a good place to take out-of-towners for a dose of exotic Berlin atmosphere without going to one of those black-walled dives where permanently depressed people smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and acted like they were in absinthe comas.

Several things combined to make me stop going to the Bantu. First, a genial Scotsman took over a bar closer to my house and ran it somewhat like an English pub, which I found refreshing. Second, I was on my second try with the English-language magazine, and I'd asked a journalism professor friend in the States if he knew any students who might be interested in helping me launch the thing. Unfortunately, he did.

The guy he put me in touch with had a girlfriend in Germany he was planning to move here to be with after graduation, which was fortuitous, but he was also something of a prize student, so it looked like I was doubly blessed. He turned out to be a huge bear of a black guy with dreadlocks, which I certainly hadn't anticipated, but he had a few meetings with me, seemed smart enough, and so we started hatching a plan. I took him to the Bantu one night, gave him some research to do, and went about trying to find investors. He found a place to live through Karen and Michael, and then the horrors started. The first thing he did was to break up with his girlfriend, whom I'd met and rather liked, but she was in Bonn and locked into some program of studies that she couldn't or wouldn't transfer to one of the Berlin universities.

Anyway, this guy had noticed something about Berlin: big black guys with dreadlocks get a lot of action, or a lot of offers. And then he disappeared. He stopped paying rent at his apartment, and the next thing I knew, he'd moved up the hill from me with a small Croatian woman who, he proudly said, wanted him to be her pimp. After all, to a lot of people here, that's what black people are good at: pimping, rapping, and playing basketball. They don't even see this as racism; they've never actually been around many black people, so they take their cue from the media.

Another suggestion she made, one he actually took her up on, was to start living more naturally, eating organic foods, and not taking synthetic drugs. Including, I didn't find out until much, much later, the powerful anti-psychotics he'd been on for years.

Well, one thing led to another. He was living on Zionskirchstr., and yes, there was a church there, a great big one, with the name Zion on it, and yes, he started fixating on that and decided that he was going to take it over and preach salvation to the Germans. He'd long ago stopped thinking about the magazine, as had I, with no one to help me out with it. He'd lost the painstakingly-assembled research I'd liberated from the last magazine project. Instead, he rampaged around, drinking heavily, smoking tons of pot, hanging out with derelicts, eating meals in restaurants and walking away, and I guess this is the place to mention that Zionskirchstr. was only a few blocks from the Bantu Bar. Naturally, he started getting picked up by the police, who were no more savvy about black people than anyone else. Maybe less so.

Thus, when Mario, tall and dreadlocked, and, yes, black, would be walking to work, he'd sometimes get rousted. Cops started coming into his bar and asking him about things that this American had done, thinking he'd done them himself. And, the wacko guy himself went to the Bantu and caused a few scenes there, once accusing Mario of screwing his Croatian girlfriend. Finally, one day Mario saw me in the street and raged up to me and demanded to know who this American was, why nobody could control him, and when was he going to be jailed or deported. I told him I'd been in touch with his parents, and they were in total denial, and I was trying to avoid him myself. Mario was cool about it when he saw I was on the receiving end of a lot of this, but after that I didn't feel comfortable going to the Bantu unless I was with a bunch of other people, not even after this guy abruptly disappeared, so far for good.

Even so, I was shocked a couple of months ago when I walked by and saw the Bantu was empty. I asked Natalie, who lives around the corner and used to go there on occasion, about it, and she hadn't heard a thing. Karen asked Michael, but apparently Mario had given up his cell phone as too expensive and there was no other way he knew to reach him. I knew it wasn't them redecorating when the Miller Lite sign went up. And sure enough, a few weeks ago, the brass rod with the lace curtain hanging from it was in the window, a big Schultheiss sign outside, and some really decayed looking old Germans were hanging from the bar. "Ein ganz' normale deutsche Kneipe," Natalie reported with some surprise, but I'd already figured that out from the curtain and the Schultheiss sign.

And that's how things stood until Saturday. Karen said the place would open at 11pm, and, although I wasn't in the best of moods, I decided I had to pay them a visit. They've moved to a really great location, the basement of a building on Torstr. called the Alte Seifenfabrik (the old soap factory), not very far from the old place, very close to Rosenthaler Platz. It's being operated as a club, though, which means a live DJ, a chill room, a doorman, and art direction -- but there are peanuts! They weren't 100% ready to open (surprise!), but they did anyway, and there was a pretty good crowd. I stayed long enough to wish them well, but I only had about one Euro in my pocket, so I couldn't very well stay, even for a beer. Still, they're going to be open Thursday through Saturday nights, and I bet Thursdays are slow, so I might stop in with some folks one of these days. Give 'em some time to get started, and wish them well. After what they've been through at my hands alone, they deserve it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Deutsche Telekom, Minion of Satan

More sauerkraut today, but I have a right to it. It's been over a week since I posted here, and that's because it's been over a week since I could post here. I mentioned a couple of posts back that I'd gone and spent some money I'd gotten that probably should have gone to the phone bill, but I was sure I'd have it made up in time. I was wrong: the guy who owed me the crucial dough vanished over the weekend. Tuesday everything was back in order, so, after doing some stuff that needed to be done, I walked down to the bank, deposited the cash, dumped the transfer order into the appropriate slot, walked back, and...I'd been turned off.

Oh, the phone was already off for outgoing calls. That had happened earlier. But, from another poverty-stricken friend here, I knew that the DSL was owned by a different wing of Telekom and they rarely turned it off. It had been a lifeline for this friend, who used e-mail to raise money to get the phone back on. So I blithely assumed that was the case.

It took me 48 hours to get to a phone where I could call Telekom, and on Thursday I did. The first call, the recording told me to hold for the next available operator and then cut me off. The second call said the lines were all busy and I should call back later. (Feeling confident about this company's technology?) The third time was the charm. I got a nasty-sounding woman on the other end and asked her if there were any English-speaking employees I could talk to. I'm very, very bad at conversing over the phone, because my German's just good enough that I can put over some more complex points with body language, but I stumble and sweat on the phone.

"Nein!" she snapped, impatiently. Okay, I explained, I've found that my DSL was cut off, and... "Customer number!" Oh, and I read it off the bill. "Don't go away!" Sound of keys tapping. "Yes, you've been disconnected for not paying your bill." Well, actually, I did pay my bill on Tuesday. "No you didn't." Uhhh, but I did. It's been taken off my account: I checked before I called. "It says here you haven't paid your bill." Well, I'm sure it will show up. When can I get my DSL turned back on? I'm a foreign journalist and I'm on deadline. "This isn't our problem. You should pay your bill. If you're not lying to us about having paid, and we see the payment tomorrow, it should be within 48 hours. Of course, not the weekend, so you should have your service on Tuesday." And she hung up. Funny, they have no problem cutting the phone off on weekends.

German charm and German efficiency, all in one swell package: that's Deutsche Telekom. There isn't a single person in this country who's had phone service who doesn't have a story about them, and there's not a single positive story in the bunch. They're the most mean-spirited, customer-hating company I've ever encountered, and the most amazing thing about this is that when I first started having troubles with them -- almost immediately after I had service with them, needless to say -- the head of the company was a man named Ron Sommer, who was either American or had been educated there.

Not speaking foreign languages is a point of pride with them. I once got a questionnaire about Telekom's service, which I filled out with incredible glee and I sure hope got read. One of the questions was "What other language, besides German, would you like to see Telekom information in?" The choices were: Greek, Turkish, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, and Polish. The official language of the EU was, ahem, conspicuously missing. Not that I'm a language asshole: I fully admit that my bad German is my own fault, largely due to my having been 40 before I even attempted to learn and compounded by not studying it in a systematic manner once I landed here because I couldn't afford classes. I'm just saying, this smacks of provincialism.

So, in fact, does my favorite Telekom story of my own. Early in my stay here, I was being evicted from a sublet because the landlord had to renovate. No hard feelings on anyone's part, but I just had to go. A guy I'd worked with was being transferred to Hong Kong, though, and was looking for someone to take over his huge apartment in the dreary Wedding district -- a whole story in itself. Anyway, this was good for a number of reasons: It was a big place, the telephone number was one a lot of folks knew because it had been the SXSW Europe number for years, and the rent was ridiculously low because he and his wife had been there for ages and ages. They'd had their phone shut off in preparation for the move, but it just made sense to see if I could get it transferred to my name, both because it was familiar and because this was soon enough after unification that there was an 8-week wait just to get a number.

Anyway, the guy's wife, knowing my German was bad, took it upon herself to go to the Telekom storefront, back when they were actually doing that (you could pay bills, set up accounts, do all kinds of things at them, but they were discontinued when the company became private), and see to the transfer of the number. The lady there asked why I hadn't come along, and she explained that my German wasn't up to it, that she'd take the papers and help me fill them out, and then I'd be back with them so they could make the transfer. "Oh," the Telekom lady said, "he's a foreigner?" Yes, the wife said, he's an American. "Oh, wait: is he black?" No, he's white. "Oh, well, that's good," she said. "Black Americans don't pay their bills, after all. Let's get those papers ready."

I should add that the wife saw nothing at all odd about this exchange.

But Telekom is doomed: since it went private, it's done all sorts of underhanded things to hobble the competition, mostly having to do with the fact that Telekom does, after all, own the infrastructure. Fortunately, it's been caught. Part of the deal I have for this DSL line is that Telekom loses money on it. They posted an insanely low rate to undercut the competition, and those of us who signed up early get to keep that rate as long as we keep the service. Every month, Telekom loses money on me, and that just warms my heart. Because of the labor laws here, it also has about 20% more employees than it needs, so that costs, too. Someday, somehow, its evil customer relations, better deals from the competition, and trogloditic business practices will bring it down.

I hope I'm not here by then, but wherever I am, I'll raise a toast to its crash.

Monday, June 07, 2004

I Hate Sundays

No, I didn't post anything yesterday. That's because it was Sunday. There was nothing to post. Sundays in Berlin are the Dead Zone.

First off, nothing is open. At least, nothing retail. The museums are open, of course, and they're packed to the gills, which is actually a good thing. To live in a place where people consider museums important to visit whether or not they have a blockbuster like the visit of New York's Museum of Modern Art to the Neue Nationalgalerie is, I think, a very good sign. There are flea-markets, but the one near me, threading along the bank of the Spree River on Museum Island, isn't nearly as good as it was when all the old East German stuff was in all the booths. I got my Mitropa pasta bowls there -- calculated to bring a grin to any German who eats here, thanks to memories of the food on the East German railroads -- for a couple of bucks apiece, and passed on more good stuff than I really want to think about, including great old signs for Berliner Pilsner.

Second, if it's nice weather, Berliners flock to the great outdoors. Actually, I suspect that the ancient nature religion never really left the Germans. They revere trees -- and number them in the parks and on the sidewalks so that there must be some repository somewhere that will, in the great German bureaucratic tradition, identify any tree in town. (Not that this stopped them from cutting down a whole pocket park just south of Friedrichstr. station and putting up a mammoth empty building nobody will rent for years and years, but that's another story). They also tend to take off their clothes a lot in sunny parks, a far less appealing thing than it might sound at first. So much sizzling flesh laid out on the grass isn't something I want to do on a Sunday.

Third, the few people I still know here will be elsewhere. There won't be any nightlife because everyone will be getting ready for the week ahead. Everyone, that is, except me.

Because my weekend lasts a bit longer, even when I'm working, which I'm not at the moment. I deal with the U.S., where the weekend lasts until 9am New York time and then rolls across the country. That means that the West Coast isn't awake until 6pm Monday, my time.

Which has made today even more frustrating: Compuserve died sometime yesterday, a fact Andy Horn reported to me today. The office in Munich assured him it'd go back up "during the course of the day," but the failure is in the U.S., and they couldn't even hazard a guess when that course would start. So I can't pick up e-mail to answer so that people will find it when they get into work today.

Add to that the fact that my phone is off for the want of €144.52. I can get incoming calls, but can't call out. I have to restore my service as quickly as possible, and for that to happen, one of the guys who bought my stuff on eBay has to pay up. Oh, and the work I did last week in a hurry for Kevin has to pay off. Kevin called at noon, and swore he'd be here by 1:30. Unfortunately, I knew what that meant, and I was right: he pulled in at 3, too late for me to go to the bank and pay the phone bill so that I could fax them the receipt and get the ball rolling. It'll be ten days before they turn the outgoing phone back on in any event, a little power-play Telekom uses to remind its customers who's boss. Fortunately, the DSL, being run by a different wing of the company, stays on a little longer. Oh, and there's the PayPal problem: I have $100 sitting in a PayPal account, but I never got any notification of it. Somehow, I blew the password and so it denied me access. Now I have to set up another account, but first I have to cancel the one I have and they have to transfer the money into the new one. But I can't assign my bank account to the new one til they cancel the old one. I asked them just how I'm going to get this done, and they may have answered but...I can't get my e-mail because Compuserve is down.

If I lose my phone and my DSL, I might as well just jump in front of a train. But Telekom doesn't care, Compuserve doesn't care, and so all I can do is sit here and type my frustrations out, hoping that something will give before I do.

Suspenseful, ain't it?

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Give Us This Day

I noticed a couple of weeks ago that the storefront on the corner that had been standing empty for the past two or three years had its windows papered up, and walking past it, I saw signs saying that a bakery would open there soon. Took 'em long enough.

Bread is central to life in every European country I've spent any time in, and the variety is staggering. In France, I think there's a law that a certain percentage of the population has to be armed with a baguette at any given time during bakery opening hours, citizen soldiers against the enemy of hunger. In Scandinavia, crispbread was invented because it keeps throughout the long winters; in Denmark it comes in big rounds with a hole in the middle so it can be hung from a peg. But nowhere has the variety of bread I've seen in Germany.

According to what I've read, the main meal here comes in the middle of the day, the meat-and-potatoes meal. On either side of it stand breakfast and Brotzeit (bread-time), and both revolve around bread. At breakfast, bread is spread with cream cheese or quark, and eaten with bland cheeses, certain cold cuts, and jam. (Soft-boiled eggs are also traditional, as can be yogurt and/or Müseli). Brotzeit will see stronger cold cuts and cheeses, as well as smoked or pickled fish and maybe one of the nauseating "salads," which consist of sweetened mayonnaise and chopped fish, meat, or vegetables. Beer will also likely play a role. (For the record, I don't know anyone who actually eats like this, nor do I see traditional restaurants filled at noon and deserted at night. But this is what the books say, my experience notwithstanding).

It's a poor store that doesn't offer seven or eight kinds of bread, and a good bakery will have that many at all times, with several being in rotation due to seasonal or other traditional demands. It's sold by weight, although most loaves are standardized at 500g, and can be bought in halves. For breakfast, there are also Brötschen, bread rolls, of various sorts, and that's what I had this morning.

The trouble is, Berlin is notorious among Germans for having the worst bread in the country. Much is made of the famous Berliner Luft (Berlin air), but nobody seems to like to admit it's one of the central ingredients of Berlin bread. I was reminded of this today, when I sliced into the Brötschen I bought at the bakery a block from my house, Brot und Mehr (Bread and More), an outlet for the Märkischer Landbrot chain, a mass "Bio" bakery. (Bio isn't quite organic, which is "Öko," and I'm not sure exactly what criteria you have to meet to be Bio, except that I believe they're standardized by Brussels). As the knife cut into my Brötschen, they squished. Sigh.

There is one good bakery in town, Weichardt-Brot . Weichardt started as a hippie commune and turned into a multi-million-dollar business. I used to live near their store, and learned a lot about German bread from the grandmotherly salesladies there, who showed me how the chopped nuts or seeds distributed through the bread kept it fresh longer by exuding oils into the bread itself, and were militant about the strains of sourdough used to leaven them. One of the founders used to double-park her Mercedes outside and walk into the store, her bulk covered by flowery dresses, her fingers dripping with huge jewels, and everyone would take notice. But, I see from their website, Weichardt doesn't have a reseller anywhere near me, although they do have a stand at a Bio-market on Thursdays not far from me.

Even easier is the Bio store that I pass on my way to the supermarket, which gets regular deliveries from Hopfisterei , Munich's legendary organic bakery. Bread here is sold by weight, with most loaves being an even 500g, and nearly all being available in halves. Hopfisterei sells gigantic 2 1/2 kilo wheels of bread, and sometimes when I'm flush I'll buy a quarter of a likely loaf, but it costs about twice what regular Bio bread does. What's depressing is that bread this good is all over Munich, and, to a lesser extent, most other German cities. Hell, the bread in the breakfast room in the hotels in Munich beats the pants off of Berlin Bio-bread, and you know that's the cheapest crap they can buy because it always is!

Anyway, after years of having no bakeries within walking distance here, Brot und Mehr opened about a year ago, and now they're going to have competition a short block away. I have no idea if this will be yet another of the huge chain bakeries that have taken this city over (they killed the first bakery I ever went to, down the block from my first apartment), but it's another example of the weird German approach to business that was exemplified on Linienstr., a couple of blocks from my house, where the magazine I used to work on was located. One day, someone opened one of the little Feinkost shops that are all over the place. These joints could be called delis: a refrigerated case with olives, cheeses, salamis, sun-dried tomatoes, and the like, about twenty kinds of wine, and things like expensive pasta and so on, since they're invariably Italian-themed. Before long, another one opened two doors away, in a cellar. Three months after that, a third one opened, about six doors down in the other direction. Although the two newcomers affected French names (Le Marais and Domaines), it was the same old thing. How many of these could one short section of the street support?

The answer came in about nine months. First the original place shut down (it was a divorced woman who'd opened it with her settlement money -- a not uncommon scenario for these places -- and I heard the little Algerian guy who was there most of the time drank the profits away), and then Le Marais went under, possibly because it was invisible. Domaines, which was the least impressive of the three, is still in business. I've seen this same thing happen over and over, mostly with Feinkost joints, but also with (invariably) Italian restaurants. The idea of offering something different never seems to occur to people here: "Say, he's making money with that! So let's do the exact same thing and make money, too!"

Anyway, before this devolves into Sauerkraut, let me just say that I'm worried about the new bakery. We haven't had any really hot weather yet, and I bet the real-estate agent is really happy about that, because the reason I always thought that this spacious property on a main street hadn't rented (besides the fact that the Berlin economy is in the toilet) was because it stunk. I seriously thought something had died and been buried in front of the place: every time I turned the corner I'd get nauseous. The smell's still there. Maybe the new tenants are betting that it'll take more than that to put the neighbors off their daily bread.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Weltdorf Berlin

I actually meant to check in yesterday, but I was afraid if I did it'd just be more Sauerkraut, because it was a pretty frustrating day. Recounting the story, it seems small enough, but it's symptomatic of something that's a large source of frustration for a lot of us here.

Having been so very broke for so very long, one thing I know is that half of it is psychological, so when I found some money in my bank account yesterday, I realized that I had the opportunity to take some out and spend it on non-essentials. Oh, sure, the phone bill needs paying (I can't call out, and pretty soon it'll be off), but there's more money due in today that'll take care of it, so I decided to pull a little bit out and go shopping for exotic groceries. About 40 minutes from here, as the S-Bahn travels, is another world: Steglitz. Steglitz is a little sliver of the old West Germany right here in Berlin, the kind of affluence and ostentation that you find in any city in the west: I remember Munster as being block after block of it, as was Hannover. Steglitz is in Berlin's southwest, and has a huge shopping block on Schlossstr. I was headed towards Kieler Str., however, because that's where Expat Shopping is.

Expat Shopping is, in theory, a very good idea. Bring in, for the homesick Brits and Americans, the comfort foods they miss, and some of the idiosyncratic things no one outside of the home country is likely to want to stock, things like pickled walnuts or grits. Go for standard products, because fresh, unprocessed stuff doesn't have the shelf-life you're after. But if you've been to the website and looked at the stuff being offered, you're in for a huge shock when you walk into the large store in Kieler Str. None of it is there.

There were two things I was after, things I'd bought at the place before, both of them in the range of what I consider luxuries here. One is shredded wheat cereal. I'm sensitive to sugar, and there's virtually no low- or non-sugared cereal for sale in Germany unless you want to eat unsweetened Müseli, which, thanks, I don't. I'm Ed, not Mr. Ed. All of the tiny English grocery stores here have it, but they keep moving and disappearing, and tend to be in very out-of-the-way locations. The other thing I wanted was something I've only seen in two places, and Expat Shopping is one of them: cornmeal. Just plain old Quaker cornmeal, nothing organic or stoneground or anything like that. True, the Turks sell a cornmeal, but the grind is too fine. You can also buy polenta, which is too coarse. I regularly smuggle cornmeal back from the States when I visit, and it's on my list of things I want people to bring me when they visit. I love cornbread for Sunday morning breakfast.

It took me about five minutes to ascertain that neither of these items was in stock, however, and may not have been since my last visit in January. All, and I mean all, that this place has is sugar. Jam, jelly, hideous stuff like Marshmallow Fluff that I believe people expatriate specifically to get away from, heavily sugared children's cereals, cake mixes, Thai and Indian sauce mixes (sweetened to the British taste), baked beans, treacle, golden syrup... That the stock is 7/8 British doesn't bother me. That it's so unrepresentative of Britain and America does.

But I wasn't defeated. Through a clever series of connections, I found my way back up to central west Berlin, to Wittenbergplatz and the mighty KaDeWe, the department store that used to be Berlin's top tourist attraction, whose food floor was often mentioned in the same breath as Harrod's. The first time I went to the KaDeWe, in 1988, they had bear meat for sale. The prices are ridiculous, but by now I was willing to go up to €8 for the cornmeal; the shredded wheat was a casualty, since the KaDeWe doesn't have a British section. Well, they did have Hellman's mayonnaise, €3.95 for an 8-oz. jar, but...the "American" section has been taken over by "Mexican" stuff, which means fifteen different kinds of flour tortillas for "wraps." And Paul Newman's salsa at eight bucks a whack.

In fact, the KaDeWe is no longer an independent operation, and is owned by the same cartel that owns nearly all of the department stores in Germany (Hertie, Kaufhof, Karstadt, Wertheim) and Otto, the country's largest mail-order firm. All of these department stores have pretty well-stocked food departments, usually on the lower level, and I depend on them for the exotic items (beef, Parmesan cheese, ravioli) I can't find at my neighborhood supermarket. Once upon a time, as the bear meat so eloquently and bloodily attested, you could get anything at the KaDeWe, but these days it just looks like a larger version of any German department store. For all I know, this could also be true on the other floors, with fashions and home furnishings. And it's true that the KaDeWe's wine and liquor departments tend to focus on the very highest end of the spectrum: there were few California wines below €29.95 -- and few higher, either. But aside from some small touches of exotica in the vegetable department, it was just a Karstadt on steroids.

Now, what this is a symptom of is something that people who don't actually live here tend not to believe: that Berlin is a provincial, small-time backwater. Moving the government here didn't change things, either: the bureaucrats just exchanged one small town for another, albeit one that sprawls practically to the Polish border. It's not just that you can't buy cornmeal (which is readily available in Amsterdam, for instance), but there isn't an English-language bookstore here. There's a tiny French-language one a couple of blocks from my house, but it's subsidized by the French government, and there's another tiny one, also subsidized, next to the French Embassy on Wilhelmstr. Getting foreign-language newspapers (except Turkish and Russian) used to be almost impossible; now it's just difficult. The non-German options on cable TV are slim: you'd better like CNN, or BBC World, which is CNN with a posh accent. Signs on public transportation tend to be mostly German/English, although the ones telling you about the frequent disruptions in service are only in German. Museums and cultural institutions are pretty much German-only. And on and on.

My friend Andrea is back in town from London visiting friends and cleaning out her storage locker, and when we were chatting the other day she told me how amazed she was at how provincial Berlin seemed after a year in the U.K. In fact, at first, she was intimidated by London's cosmopolitan atmosphere, but she's not the kind of gal to let that last long, Now, she can hardly see how anyone can stand to live here, and I know just what she means.

One of my favorite party tricks is to carry a cigarette lighter you can buy at Zoo Station at the tobacconists' shop that proudly says WELTSTADT BERLIN (world-city Berlin) on it. I hand it to people who live here when they ask for a light. It never fails to provide a laugh. Hamburg, Munich, Cologne -- hell, even Munster -- can more easily claim that title than Berlin can. And Berliners' inexperience with foreigners can make some visitors very uncomfortable. No wonder there are so few of them.

Okay, it's certainly no better in the States, where monolingualism and monoculturalism are marks of pride. But compare Berlin to Paris, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, or Copenhagen and you'll see what I mean. It's a Dorf -- a village! Only without the amenities and social structures that attract people to villages.

I said no Sauerkraut, didn't I? So sue me. Maybe tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

A Limit To Sauerkraut

One of the brilliant ideas Kevin never implemented at Checkpoint/Metropolis (see yesterday) was a column called Sauerkraut, in which some disaffected expat (or, hey, a German: we weren't prejudiced!) could vent on something he or she hated about Germany. You could've let me loose on opening hours (stores back then had to close at 7, but most chose to close at 6 so they'd have time to clean up or something; Saturdays they had to close at 2pm so they closed at one) and I'd have produced a Pulitzer-worthy contribution.

But despite the name of this blog, and despite some of the stuff I've been going through in the past couple of weeks, I don't want this place to become a repository of my personal Sauerkraut. There'll be plenty of it, but after I'd decided to do this, some of the strongest impulses I had to get it going came after long walks in the unemployed afternoon, walks on which I'd discover still more corners of this city I'd never before seen. It's hardly surprising that there are these undiscovered corners, because this place sprawls like L.A., but even so, there are amazing things still to be found even within walking distance of the place I've rented for over seven years.

And now, it's warming up. It's rained off and on since last night, but the sky seems to be clearing, and the current forecast is for days in the high 70s for at least most of the coming week, and I've planted the herb garden (let's welcome our newcomer, all the way from Japan: shiso!) and the Lesbian Threat next door have got their garden going (I'm no fan of flower gardens, but these gals have a real touch with planting successive waves of things that assume different forms and colors as the year goes on), and any day now one of my dwindling band of friends will make the observation that someone makes every year about this being the time that makes living in this hellhole all worth it and they'll be right.

And yes, I don't want this to be Sauerkraut exclusively, because I want to talk about some other stuff, like the psychological effect of expatriation (I'd even like to offer counselling to people seriously considering moving away from the U.S. for whatever reason, because it's not like you think it is), like food (both local and in general), and other general observations.

But don't worry: the way things are going there'll be enough Sauerkraut for even the hungriest Germanophobe.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

The FAQs

Why Berlin?

As I usually say to people, it's a long story that begins with the words "There was a woman..." and rapidly gets boring. But it was a woman who first inveigled me to this city for a visit in 1988, and it was her involvement with a music conference called Berlin Independence Days, and my involvement with South By Southwest, and SXSW's subsequent involvement with BID, which got me coming back even after she'd left me for another woman.

Why did you move there?

I moved here because I'd been doing less and less music writing and more and more travel writing. There was a day in about 1990 when I found myself standing in the old harbor of Antwerp surrounded by gorgeous old buildings, all of which had FOR RENT signs in their windows, and I thought "Hmmm, wonder what it would be like to live in Europe for, say, six months?" My first choice was Brussels, because my brother-in-law's cousin edited the Bulletin, the bi-weekly English-language magazine there, but she refused to hire me because the magazine, which had been started by her late mother, was now in the hands of a conglomerate she hated working for, and she told me she could never live with herself if she hired me. The only other place I had connections was Berlin, so I asked Berlin Independence Days if they needed someone for the '93 show, and they offered me a job.

As I said, the original plan was to stay for six months, til SXSW came along, then re-assess things. It didn't work out that way. In December, three months into the experiment, my landlord in Austin woke up to divorce papers from his wife, along with a demand that he move out of the house he'd built for her. Since his only other property was my place, he asked me to leave, effective April 1, so that I could come back for SXSW and clear out. I had a place here, and I didn't have one there. Easy.

Why did you stay?

Poverty. After BID shut down and I was stiffed my last month's salary, I began to look around for work. There wasn't any. But, I reasoned, I had an advantage: I was an American journalist in Europe! Surely people back home would like to read about what goes on over here! And I had a head start: at MIDEM in Cannes in January 1994, I got a PowerBook 160, purchased from a friend in Oregon, and acquired a Compuserve account. This completely revolutionized my life. Well, as much as it could when Deutsche Telekom wasn't sabotaging Compuserve connectivity to try to get people to switch to their online service. There was no internet access through them yet, but the forums provided me with one stupendous adventure which I turned into a story nobody wanted to publish (it remains a wonderful snapshot of rural east Germany), and the ability to file a story within seconds was heaven to any lazy writer.

There was also the fact that I discovered something of an expat community here through a magazine called Checkpoint, which had been started with money from Time Out and Zitty (one of the local listings magazines) by an American named Kevin Cote. Kevin had been reluctant to let me write because I didn't have a journalism degree (obviously he'd spent too much time in Germany), but once he heard I'd worked at Rolling Stone, he became enthusiastic. Too enthusiastic: it's only been in the last couple of years that I've broken him of the habit of introducing me as "Ed Ward from Rolling Stone." But Checkpoint died briefly when Time Out pulled out, only to be reborn as a subsidiary of Zitty as Metropolis (a name a German friend of mine suggested), and, later, when Kevin was tapped to become editor of Zitty, I became editor of Metropolis. Which Zitty then killed, but that's another story.

By this time I was beginning to work a lot for the Wall Street Journal's weekend arts page, and I'd also had a job with JazzRadio here doing between two to five shows a week, so I was doing okay, if not great, financially.

I should also mention that at the time, Berlin was a very interesting place to be. The east and west were still feeling each other out, and it was like the early days of a love affair when you're constantly discovering something new about the other person. A lot of unresolved real estate issues meant that there were tons of illegal and underground spaces (sometimes literally, like Favela, the Brazilian bar in the basement of a bombed building which had been levelled, a bar visible at night only because you could see the candlelight coming from the hole in the middle of the empty field) and artists and other marginal types from around the world coming here because of cheap rents and squat possibilities and the chance to interact with others of their type. Even at my age, there were nights when I didn't make it home until well after the sun had come up in the summer because I'd been out with friends at one of these places.

But Berlin's not like that any more. That's why I want out.

So why don't you leave?

Poverty. JazzRadio collapsed first, firing me when I was out of town at SXSW, a trip they'd known for three months I'd be making. The new management was in thrall to a pear-shaped so-called consultant from New Jersey, who turned it into all-Diana-Krall-all-the-time, and managed to alienate the large, affluent, educated audience the brilliant Dutch woman who'd started it had found. Then, two years later, I lost my connections at both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times due to office politics in both places that had nothing to do with me. Unfortunately, I had also loaned a great deal of money on a 60-day agreement to a friend who needed to secure a lease for an American company which backed out on Sept. 12, 2001. If this person ever recovers from the financial shock that followed, as one after another German firm was approached (but...Germans don't invest!), I'll get paid back. But I can't sit on my butt and wait for that to happen, and the work just isn't coming in. Surely there are travel magazines who want good stories from Europe, and surely there are other magazines where my unique cultural reportage, the stuff Wall Street Journal readers used to like so much, could appear. I'm still trying to find them.

As soon as I have the war chest together, I'm out of here, moving to France. Berlin was once a vibrant, edgy, exciting place to live.

Today, Berlin bites.