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.

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