Friday, August 27, 2004


Ahhh. The jackhammers have stopped. Whacking at that wall is bad enough, the clouds of dust settling on the parked cars until it looks like it's snowed is weird, but the bzzzzz. Bzzzzz. Bzzzzz. all day long is going to drive me over the edge. Fortunately, there's a weekend ahead.

Since the aim of this blog is to write and edit every one of these entries in an hour or less, sometimes I don't finish my thoughts, or leave out stuff I was meaning to write. This can be because I get interrupted by the mailman or a phone call, or, just as likely, my own brain failing to be organized enough. One of the things I meant to add to the construction piece was that there's also some in front of my building, so that you can't use the sidewalk. This has been there nearly a month, and I can't tell what they're doing, except it seems to have something to do with the sewers, because they're also in the basement of the building facing the street. And this, it occurred to me, may have something to do with the fact that the bakery on the corner seems to have ground to a halt in the middle of its construction. Somewhere waaay down in the blog, I mentioned that there was an ungodly smell that emanated from right in front of the door to the place, and now I'm wondering if they've stopped work until this sewer business can be fixed. I do know, however, that the people living in the €250,000 (asking price) apartments next door have to walk on a board over mud and sand to get to their front door. Lovely.

I also got some details on Hartz IV, the new unemployment rules, thanks to the mighty Walter Flaat, who has his own blog, and who had this to say:

"It's a reform of social security where the unemployment
benefits and the regular social security are made of equal
height so that they would both get the same amount each month.

"This makes for quite a financial drop for people on unemployment
benefits. Adding to that is the rule that says you only get 1
year of unemployment benefits.

"After that, you go in to the regular social security which states
that you can only have so much possessions (if you own a house
for instance, you have to sell it off).

"Now all these unemployed people have to find themselves a job
within a year or 'eat' their posessions, in practice that would
mean that people have to take any job they can possibly find."

The amount in question, I believe, is €345, which means that for a year, you get a princely €690 a month. More than I make most months, but unless you live in a cheap city like Berlin, hardly enough to live on. And among the things you're obliged to sell off is a kid's bank account: if your kid has over a certain amount in the bank you get the money. No wonder Chancellor Schröder got pelted with eggs the other day.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Bang Bang Bang

That's what woke me up this morning. Some guys with hammers knocking a wall apart about 200 ft from my head. No idea how long this one'll last, but nearly every week I've lived here -- and remember, that's 11 years -- there's been construction around me.

What I've found out, though, is that you can demand something called Mietminderung from your landlord, a reduction for the inconvenience. Apparently landlords and construction companies have insurance for this, so the landlord gets something from them, and you get your rent reduced. I wish I'd known about that when I first moved into this place, because there was work being done on this house seven days a week for over two years. The landlord, his mother, and his father, all banging away on things. In fact, they're pretty much compulsive builders even though they don't even live here. They'll happily come in from suburban Düsseldorf to tear stuff up. I say "they," but the old man got liver cancer and died a couple of years ago. Now it's just the landlord and his mother.

The compulsive work got me robbed, too. He insisted I needed a door in the rear of my ground-floor flat so I could go use the garden out back. I told him I was happy without it, but of course he wouldn't hear of it. He was going to put in some stairs, but two years later they haven't appeared: I have to sort of haul myself out the window when I go into the garden. He did, however, use the cheapest door he could find -- this seems to be a feature of most of the construction in this house -- and as a result, a kid popped it with a crowbar and snagged my laptop, my good luggage, and a bunch of currency which mostly wasn't any good. The smashed-up door got replaced with what I guess is a better one.

But when the house next door got renovated, I lost it: the houses on both sides of me underwent complete gutting and restoration over the years, and when someone told me that Mietminderung existed, boy, I went for it. And I got it, albeit not that much, and way too late. The money ran out on the renovation just after they got one building finished and the hole dug for the underground garage. It's now filled with rubble and detritus, and the billboard out back announcing a second building for this spring has faded and is covered with the branches of the trees growing next to it.

Still, there's another house across the alley that's had big old bubbles appearing in its paint job -- and by big, I mean about five feet long. This same house has dribbled bits of concrete onto the sidewalk on Torstr. over the years, to the extreme displeasure of the Turkish guys in the Döner Kebap stand, so I guess someone didn't do a very good job. Now they're banging it off bit by bit, and a couple of times today a cloud of yellowish dust, picked up by the wind, swept past my window.

The problem is, these workers start between 6:30 and 7 in the morning and don't seem to understand that others may not share their schedule. In fact, few don't, but few of my neighbors do business with the West Coast, where it's nine hours earlier at any given time. I remember when the house next door was being worked on, the foreman was named Ulli. I know that because my landlord hired him to put in the new door, for one thing. I also knew it because one of his workers drove in every morning at 6:15 in a car with glass-pack pipes and heavy metal throbbing on the sound system, opened the doors (without turning off either the engine or the music), and announced "OOOOLIIIIIIII! BIN HEEEEEE-YAH!" Dunno why he couldn't just walk up to Ulli and tell him. Or why Ulli couldn't hear the goddam music. Everyone else in the neighborhood could.

But, given the early start, there's an early end. Usually around 11. That's when they start to drink. I remember when I lived in the hellhole in Wedding there were construction workers who'd start passing around a bottle of vodka at 10. That was lunch. Then work was over, although they hung around for many more hours, drinking and talking. I'd just be getting out of bed at 10, so it was a horrid shock to see them already squanked as I was waiting for the coffee to brew.

And I'm afraid I'm not in a very good bargaining position for Mietminderung, being eight months behind in the rent at the moment. So I'll just have to get used to the shock of being hammered out of bed for a while longer.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Montagsdemo: The Next Generation

As I write this, thousands of people are sauntering on a nice warmish early evening down Torstr., the large street a few feet from my house. For a protest march, they're pretty quiet, although what drew me out of the house (after hearing the "clear the road" signal from police sirens) was a soundtruck with a strident man and a strident woman trading what sounded like slogans in that old, time-honored political tradition. Haranguing, in other words. Worse, they were followed by a burst of hideous jazz-rock.

But they passed, and the people kept on coming. Grim police walked along the sidewalk, pamphleteers darted out of the march to hand out sheets of paper covered with thick slabs of prose in tiny type to unsuspecting bystanders like myself. There are helicopters darting around over the march.

I was out there for ten minutes, came back in and started writing at 17 past the hour, and it's five minutes later. Given that the sound is coming both from the front and the back of the march, it's still passing (I can't see it from my house, but I can hear it). I wonder how many people this makes.

What is this all about?

Truth: I don't know. Well, I do, a bit. It's about something called Hartz IV, and this is something having to do with unemployment benefits, which are much on the mind of people in the eastern part of this city and this country. Overall, the eastern states have 20% unemployment, but there are districts that are much higher than that. There's a fairly bland essay with a much better slide show in the New York Times today about this, and if you're curious what the surrounding countryside here looks like in high summer, you couldn't do better.

They're calling this a Montagsdemo, that much I know, and I do know something about the Montagsdemo, although it's not a Berlin thing. No, it came from Leipzig.

This is a sermon I give people when I give them my walking tour of Berlin. It's about why I never say "when the Berlin Wall came down" unltess I'm referring to a specific physical event. Because the events of Nov. 9, 1989, weren't about Berlin. Berliners were terrified to protest a government based in their own city. They were about Leipzig. You can -- and should -- look the full story up, or, better, go to Leipzig, and, after paying homage to Bach at the Thomaskirche, go immediately to an unprepossessing building halfway between the two main downtown churches and enter the virtually unpronounceable Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig, which bears a more forgiving name in English, the Forum of Contemporary History. There, you'll see an exhibit I first saw in 1994 at the now-demolished tourist center, which details the growth of the Swords Into Plowshares movement, the growing use of the church, most notably the Nicolaikirche, as a site for protest, and, finally, on September 4, 1989, the first Monday demonstration -- Montagsdemo -- there. From the 1200 who attended that first one, the crowd grew to 120,000 on October 16, when they occupied the secret police (Stasi) headquarters, an act of astonishing bravery that was probably the tipping point for the fall of the East German government.

Even if your German stinks, that exhibit is moving, and I do wish more captions were in English; the last time I was there, I found a couple of bewildered young Americans with their German hosts, whose English wasn't quite up to explaining it. I sort of mediated between them and was incredibly moved by the growing comprehension of the Americans and the growing happiness on the face of the young Leipzigers as they saw them get it. (It could have gotten very emotional, but it was closing time and we got tossed out.)

The story, though, is more than the simplifed Commie-bad, Freedom-good tripe the Reaganites and the Bush crowd tried to pass off, because the central cry was "Wir sind das Volk," "We are the people," and that's what, ultimately, is at the heart of the parade which has only now, 45 minutes since I first went out there to look, stopped filing down Torstr. Because das Volk felt that they owned something they'd be allowed to keep, a society that was also, after 50 years, a culture, and a political system that had, before the Nazis interrupted it, been a vital part of the political dialogue in Germany. Kohl and his bunch (not to mention the Republicans in power in the U.S.) were gung-ho to stifle that, and the "shock treatment" economic policies that were imposed on the entire east bloc after communism fell didn't succeed uniformly. For instance, they have brought us to the point where it's almost routine that on the average once a month I have a parade of unemployed people marching down the big street by my house shouting slogans and blasting bad jazz-rock from soundtrucks. (Ska, too, but that came later.)

But there's another issue bothering me at the moment, and I'm not particularly proud of it.

Because, as much as I've just told you -- and as much more as I could tell you -- about the context in which this event that's probably still snaking its way to the Brandenburg Gate is taking place, I can't tell you what, exactly, Hartz IV is. I almost got to learn yesterday, when a German friend and I were walking around town looking for buildings where she was going to be taking some classes, but after yelling at me for being ignorant, she began to talk about the previous Montagsdemo, and how she had been sort of offended when I talked to her about Berlin's fatal love of negativity, only to stand there and listen to a speaker say "no to Europe, no to West Germany, no to the Euro, no to Hartz IV," and realize that there was something to that.

But dammit, I should know what this is. Unfortunately, my subscription to the International Herald Tribune fell by the wayside when things got really bad, and there's a truly horribly written English-language weekly supplement on Fridays from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) that's usually got some sort of summary of the German news I can use to figure out what's going on around me.

This Montagsdemo, then, woke me up to the fact that in a way I've become so indifferent to this place, so angry at it, that I've put myself too far outside the loop. So I'm going to yell at a couple of friends and see if I can't find some explanation for Hartz IV (and maybe Hartz I-III, who knows?), and see if I can either post it or a link to a more fully-informed English-language explanation elsewhere, Real Soon Now.

I don't mean to be a dummy, but poverty and anger can do that to you. Something that, from what I can tell, some of those people in the street, too, might be well advised to consider.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Germans Sauerkraut, Too

Or...hmmm, maybe that's not the right word. This article (in German, natch) examines the prejudices Germans have about Americans and evaluates them. The 100% true one? American college students drink to excess. Worth checking out if you have the language skills. Thanks, Elektra!

On Cool

I had a beer with a woman from Vienna the other night at the Strandbar Mitte, a bar on the banks of the Spree River not far from my house. It appeared a couple of years ago when some enterprising folks dumped some sand on an unused piece of land, built a ramshackle bar, and set up some deck chairs, making an instant beach. The weather cooperated, and it became the hot bar of the summer. Now, I'd heard a lot about it, and I have to admit I was disappointed. The bar help was surly in the extreme, shouting at the customers, the drinks were expensive, the view of the Bode Museum on the tip of Museum Island was nice enough, but the clientele seemed to be lagered-up British louts and a sprinkling of this year's ubiquitous phenomenon, the Portugese tourist.

Vienna, I knew, is one of Europe's centers for experimental electronic music at the moment, and I'd heard there was a very nice art scene alongside it as well. It's been on my list of places to visit for some time now. But this woman told me her friends there envied her for being in Berlin. One thing they were really excited about was the Badeschiff, this summer's hot place to hang out. This is a barge anchored in the Spree on which someone has built a 30-meter swimming pool. Now, you can't swim in the Spree because it's too toxic. But being able to swim on the Spree is apparently the thing to do, and the media sheep anointed it an astonishing way to spend some time. She said the place was crammed to an unpleasant degree, that you couldn't swim at all because there were so many people in the pool it was all you could do to stand upright. She fled.

In Vienna over the past few years, she said, they've reclaimed the Danube to the point where you can now swim anywhere in it. But her friends thought it was way cooler to cram yourself onto the Badeschiff with all the other trendies. Go figure.

But the quest for cool, I believe, is what draws a lot of people to this benighted city. There's this belief that proximity to a scene confers the virtues of that scene onto even the most clueless person, and boy, do we see a lot of that around here. I've seen plenty of the supposedly cool places in Berlin come and go in my time here, and I'm still trying to figure some of them out. I remember Hop Sing, an illegal bar in the Kreuzberg district, named after the cook on Bonanza, all done up in faux cowboy, complete with swinging doors. It was underground, literally, in the basement of an office building, really hot and crowded, blaring country music over its sound system. I have no idea why it was supposed to be so cool, although I went there a couple of times.

One of the big magnets on my side of town has always been Tacheles, which was one of the original art-squats. It managed to get listed in a bunch of Let's Go-style guidebooks for the young and impressionable, who actually believed it was a hotbed of alternative culture, although the working artists in this area avoided it like rat poison, because it was swiftly taken over by heroin dealers and the Russian Mob. Eventually, the city asked them to buy it for one Mark per square meter (about 1/20th of the going rate) and the idiots in charge yelled "Art must be free! Give it to us for nothing!" and the police emptied them out. There's a new administration in there now, and it's pretty much 100% a tourist attraction, but my favorite memory of it was when an actual real artist from America was here looking for studio space and went there and got quoted a per-square-meter price for an unimproved, unheated, unlit studio that was above what he could have gotten space in any new, glitzy office building for. Anarchists, perhaps; capitalists, certainly. But the tourists still come.

The current mecca of cool is, unfortunately, right on the corner by my house. White Trash Fast Food is a relocation of a private club that used to be in Haus Schwarzenberg, run by a sour Angeleno named Wally. Certainly the place got a makeover in the move to what had been a money-laundering Chinese restaurant whose proprietors vanished overnight, leaving chopped vegetables still out in bowls. Not that anyone ever ate there, at least not twice. Besides money, it was apparently laundering immigrants, too, in an elaborate scheme I'm not clear about. But Wally and his crew took over, and I remember attending the opening party, which made me decidedly uncomfortable. "White trash" apparently means any Southern American working-class person, and among the giggly delights was a Hank Williams tape playing over the sound system. Clearly Wally doesn't understand his own culture, but he's imposing his ignorant vision on foreigners in the name of cool. It certainly works, if the crowds are any indication. It's the only bar/restaurant I know of that charges admission, if not the only one that screens its patrons, particularly by age. No way I could ever get in there again. But it may be on its way out: Blixa Bargeld and friends used to go there to play bridge on Wednesday nights (oh, the layers of irony! How cool can you get? Bridge!), but apparently they don't do that any more.

The thing is, though, that to me cool is passive. Hell, the word even implies that. The places I like better are where people who are actually doing things congregate. These places tend more to heat than cool: furious conversations, decor that changes every time you go in because people pay off their bar tabs with art, odd performances and happenings. Back when it was illegal, Eschloraque, the bar in Haus Schwarzenberg, was like that (although I understand they had to get legal as part of the process of the collective buying the place). You had to work to find it, you had to be recognized at the door to get in, but there was certainly nothing cool about what was going on inside, because it was where the local artists went to blow off steam after actually working on actual art-works in an actual art scene. Nothing like that at Tacheles.

I guess George Clinton said it best back in the late '70s when I was interviewing him a lot because my pal TV Tom was his publicist. "Cool? You gonna have lots of time to be cool after you're dead."

And heat, after all, is an indication of energy being radiated. Something that's sorely lacking in broke old Berlin these days.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Worth Reading

I don't seem to remember Jackie Heaton from my days in Austin, but fortunately my pal Stewart Wise does, and so she's on this Casa Grande mailing list over on Yahoo! that Stewart put together to bind together some of the folks who were around the house he and some other wild youth lived in (including Lester Bangs, for a while) during the punk era, when he and this mob published a now-famous fanzine called Contempo Culture. Anyway, Jackie wrote a very low-key, very moving piece about a friend of hers who's moving back to his homeland, Iraq, and it's on Stewart's wonderful blog, and I recommend it.

The Julia Child recipe for Coq au Vin below it isn't bad, either...

Friday, August 13, 2004

Yet More Crumbs

It's the Power of the Blog striking again: yesterday's tabloids blared that politicians were seeking to put an end to the Hitzefrei. Of course, it should be emphasized that these tabloids also frequently report discoveries of Neanderthals living in caves in the Philippines and provoke divorce scandals in the world of German "celebrities," but they also report actual real news. Astonishing that this should be an issue in a year when it's barely gotten above 80° F., but this is also a country where construction workers are sometimes not allowed to work in the rain.


It never fails to amuse me the way English words get inserted into German. The Germans are far less uptight about this than the French, who, last time I checked, were still calling a computer a "numérator digitale," at least officially. The first English I saw in wide use here is a term I still wish would catch on in America: cell phones here are called Handys. I think this was a brand name of an early portable phone which, like kleenex and xerox in English, wound up as a common noun. The next one I noticed was "trendy," which is almost always used with at least a touch of irony in America and Britain, but not here: one often sees ads reassuring potential customers that something is "vollig im Trend" (literally "fully in trend"), and there's a store not far from me which calls itself Trendy-Shop.

But the cake was completely taken this morning as I fished the garbage out of my mailbox. Call-A-Pizza has a short but distinguished history here. They were the first pizza delivery company -- the first food delivery company, for that matter -- in Berlin. On my first visit here, to hang out with my new German girlfriend, her boyfriend (listen, it's a long story) was amazed at a Call-A-Pizza menu that had appeared in his mailbox. "I ordered one right away. It was wonderful: they brought it right to the door and it was hot. It was a terrible pizza, but just think, you can have it brought to your house." In 1988, this was hardly an innovation for Americans, but then, I didn't get touch-tone dialling here until 1997. What made Call-A-Pizza's reputation, though, was that another company with a very similar name appeared almost immediately. It disappeared after it was discovered, after several months, that the "Pizza Colombiana" they were selling for 50 Deutche Marks wasn't really a pizza at all! It was a gram of cocaine.

But back to this menu before I toss it. I won't even go into the disgusting combinations available here, although the "Pizza Papparazzi" with tomato, mozzarella, and fresh basil sounds remarkably like what I made from scratch the other night. But for a limited time only, Call-A-Pizza is offering the Pizza Yuppie! Now, what do you suppose might be on this? Is it Atkins Diet compatible? Can you put designer water on a pizza? Heirloom tomatores, right?

No, no. Sorry. German yuppies are different than the ones back in the land that invented the word and gave it pejorative status. Our Pizza Yuppie has "special tomato sauce, cheese, sweet-sour pickles, fresh onions and baked sausage."

Like German yuppies themselves, something of a disappointment.

Thursday, August 12, 2004


Where was I, exactly 11 years ago? I can answer that. It's now 6:48pm as I start this, and I was probably just getting up, in my new apartment in Berlin, having arrived that morning and walked into a bunch of chaos. I was looking forward to what was ahead. Little did I know.

About a week ago, I met a friend for lunch at the cafe attached to the S-Bahn station in Friedenau, after picking up some confiscated promo CDs at the Postal Customs, who like to make me come down there every couple of months just because they know it pisses me off. She directed me to walk down Hauptstr. and then turn left into Sponholzstr., which ends at the cafe, and as I did, memories started coming back.

I'd made the decision to move here some time earlier, and at the beginning of 1993, I'd landed a job with Berlin Independence Days, a music conference/festival similar to, but much smaller than, South by Southwest, for whom I'd worked for years. BID represented SXSW in Europe, and SXSW represented BID in the States. It wasn't exactly a fair trade, given that nobody in the US wanted to go to Berlin, but it meant the channels of communication were open.

But with the job offer in hand, I took the money I'd made from that year's SXSW (I was a part-timer) and bought a ticket to Berlin in May. The idea was to stay at my friend Volker's apartment while looking for a place I could rent for the six months I thought I'd be staying. This isn't as hard as it sounds (renting a short-term apartment, not staying at Volker's): there are numerous Mitwohnzentrale here, agencies that rent either rooms or whole apartments by the day, week, or month -- or longer. I figured with a three-month lead, everything settled, I'd be able to step off the plane in August when I arrived and get right to work.

And sure enough, one of the places I'd registered at came up with a perfect apartment. It wasn't in the edgy east, like I'd wanted, but back then hardly any East Berlin apartments that even had indoor plumbing (it was in the hall). This was a huge place, late 19th century, and if I'm not mistaken it was on Sponholzstr. The couple were in their 40s, childless, and about to spend six months in Burgundy learning the Burgundy wine business, after which I think they were going to come back and open a restaurant or a high-end wine shop if their marriage was still intact. They liked me, they said my bringing my dog would be fine, we talked about food and wine and how envious I was of what they were doing, I left them Volker's phone number, and I walked back up the street noting that unlike October and January, when I had been here before, Berlin in May was a symphony of green. Plus, I'd worn a long-sleeved shirt and a t-shirt, and I was sweating like a pig. It was warm!

So all was well until 24 hours before I had to leave. Then I got a call from the couple on Sponholzstr. "We're very sorry, and we're very ashamed," they said. "Our landlord refuses to allow us to sublet to a foreigner. Not all Berliners are like this." I was surprised, but it was just the first of many, many incidences of this attitude I was to encounter in the next 11 years. Volker very reluctantly decided to rent me his apartment, a tiny, 30-square-meter box (if it was even that big) with a very low ceiling (I could palm the ceiling without standing on my toes). I realized I was going to have to leave my dog behind.

On August 11, 1993, I got on a plane, probably American Airlines, which in those days had an Austin-Chicago, Chicago-Berlin link that was amazingly convenient. (Nowadays you can't fly here directly from any city in America. It's only the capitol of Germany, after all). Volker was going to meet me at the airport and get me set up. I had the maximum allowable baggage, packed to the maximum amount of volume. Six months until I'd see Austin again.

It was a warm, sunny day, I remember that. And Volker wasn't there -- I definitely remember that. I waited and waited. I had no coins to use the phone with, only a bunch of bills. And I had all this luggage. He had a car, a big one, with which he hauled the records he imported for his record store, and I was hoping I could just load in and get going. Finally, I got a cab and gave the cabbie the address of the record store, which we got to in about 20 minutes. The cabbie was Iranian, and his German was as bad as mine. I remember shouts of "Shah war besser!" as we pulled up at the store, and I asked him to wait. With all my crap in the car, he knew I wasn't going to burn him.

I walked into the store, and Volker wasn't there. His assistant (soon to be partner, I think), Tim, was. And Tim told me that Volker's girlfriend had unexpectedly gone into labor early in the morning, something had gone wrong, she was in critical condition, that it was still touch and go, Volker was at the hospital conferring with the doctors, and Tim was waiting by the phone for news. Volker had, however, stopped in the shop on his way to the hospital and left the key. How cool was that?

And so I found myself on Melanchthonstr., a cobblestoned street named after a sparring partner of Martin Luther's, not far from the Spree River, Schloss Bellevue (where Queen Elizabeth would wave at me a few months later), the Tiergarten, and the House of World Cultures. I was in heaven: I'd actually moved to Europe, and was on the verge of a great adventure. Later that night, as the gas lights popped on along the street, I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen next.

As bad as I want out, these days I still don't regret it. Many cool things happened in the next couple of years. Things that couldn't happen to someone moving here this afternoon. Things that are, like so many things here, gone.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

King of Sauerkraut, Tourist Division

Hey, you think I indulge in sauerkraut, get a load of this guy. Thing is, he's almost 100% on the money with this. Berlin is a monolingual city, even in its tourist attractions. There are no bus maps. People do want all foreigners, particularly tourists, go to away.

He screwed up badly twice, though. First, he should have bought the Time Out Guide, and this is coming from someone who contributed to five editions of it only to be visited by the editor, whom he thought an old friend, and told flat-out that he wasn't going to be contributing to the next one because his writing simply wasn't good enough. (The editor wound up having to write a significant part of it himself, apparently, since there just aren't that many English-speaking writers here willing to work for what Time Out pays, and he's alienated several of us). This is the only guidebook in English that I know of that bothers to update every two years -- and actually does so. Rough Guide doesn't seem to have updated any of their German stuff for five years, a significant failure .

Second, the superb Falk Plan (on which the Stadtplandienst website linked over there on the right is based) is available for I think €7 everywhere in town, even at newspaper kiosks. It's the best city map of Berlin which exists, super easy to read, and totally up to date. The natives use it. 'Nuff said.

His failure to find the Zoo is also very peculiar. It's at the extreme west end of the huge Tiergarten park, right next to the mammoth train station called, believe it or not, Zoologischer Garten, and, although it only has two gates, it's surrounded by a fence through which can be seen ostriches, camels, rhinos, and the occasional secretary bird, all clues that you might be getting warm if you follow the fence by the convenient footpath. And, in this weather, there's another way to find it. I'm reminded of a friend who lived in an architecturally significant house on the Zoo's periphery. "It's a lovely neighborhood," he said, "but in the summertime you get way too familiar with the smell of lion shit."

Still, read it and weep.


Which, as all who live in Germany know, is a word signifying a day off from work because of the heat. There are all kinds of arcane labor laws here, and the Hitzefrei is one of them; I remember one summer -- it might even have been last year, when it was good and hot for a long time -- when the local government just ground to a halt for an extended Hitzefrei.

As for me, I've been doing a lot of work, with a bit more on the way, and today was just a day between, with nothing much to do and all day long to do it in. So after doing a (very little bit of) tidying up, I decided to go for a walk. My specific goal was way up past the Gesundbrunnen Center, a huge shopping mall that landed a couple of years ago in a deserted urban wasteland, to a few of the Arab and Turkish vegetable shops in deepest Wedding, once a communist anti-Nazi stronghold in the '30s and now a teeming mass of Muslims. I'm looking for okra, eaten by some Turks (who call it bamyasi, if I'm not mistaken), which I want to cook on the 21st for a Cajun meal I'm holding here (in the back yard, if I'm lucky and the predicted rains don't come).

The walk started off well: a new piece of urban art has appeared near my house, three pieces of rough unfinished wood, each with an identical painting of a nude woman in a yoga position. One is signed "Nike," leading me to wonder if she knows Zeus, creator of my other local favorite piece of street art, the exact outline cast by a no parking sign next to a street light on Auguststr.

So I was invigorated enough to check the walls as I turned left at Rosenthaler Platz and made my way up the right-hand side of Brunnenstr., but there was scandalously little new work to be seen. Instead, as I approached the border of Wedding at Bernauer Str., I began to see loads of Kurdish women, identifiable by their head-scarves, which most Turkish women don't wear here. It must have been a Hitzefrei for them, too, since their husbands let them leave the house for something other than shopping. Said husbands can usually be seen in the dozens of social clubs, behind darkened windows or in basements, playing cards, drinking endless tea, and smoking. As I approached on my way down the street, the women turned their heads so I wouldn't look at them. Not that I was terribly tempted.

So it was depressing to notice that a fashion show for the clothing these women wear is coming to town, the Walk of Islam. I'm so glad they have a website, because otherwise people might not believe me. There are, in fact, a lot more Turkish acts coming to town this summer than rock acts, from what I can tell. Of course, in the fall, we get Ian Anderson playing "orchestral Tull" with the Neue Philharmonie Frankfurt. Can't wait for that.

These headscarved women seem even more defeated than their German sisters, who also tend to walk around looking like they're on their way to be executed, but except for the ones wearing polyester, I bet they're keeping pretty cool in this weather (which, to be honest, only went up to 81° Fahrenheit today). But Wedding really does get me down, with its endless parade of cheap goods on sale, "discount" stores selling odds and ends that fell off of containers, kebap stands, box-store supermarkets, and tanning salons. When the Gesundbrunnen Center hove into view, I went in.

I guess it was as much to see what German air conditioning would be like as anything, to be honest, but I'd recently seen some incredibly cheap DVD players advertised on, so I wanted to see what the prices were like in the electronics supermarket there. There was no way to tell if they were all-region (and anyway my TV blew up last year and I haven't replaced it -- but when I do I'm going to need all-region), and of course no sales help, but I jotted down some numbers and left.

Finally, I made it up to Stettiner Str. (Brunnenstr. having changed into Badstr. by then -- you can follow all of this on the map linked next to this screed now: thanks Jon!) and there was my Turkish market. There was a crowd outside, but that's because one of the guys was giving away the thinnest slices of watermelon I've ever seen. Nobody ever gives anything away here, so a guy slicing off a teaspoon of watermelon on a hot day attracts a mob. Me, I don't like watermelon, even the smell of it.

And there was no okra, either.

So two hours later I'm back here, having enjoyed my Hitzefrei and getting back to work on trying to get some more work.

Pretty dull day, all in all.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Failed Crops

One thing I always try to do each year is grow some things I can use in cooking. Given the amount of space I have -- two windowsills and a back yard that I've got to share with my landlord's mother's occasional flower garden -- it's not too easy. I'd love to grow jalapeño peppers, for instance, but they require more soil than I have, and more heat than this climate can muster.

But in the past it's always seemed like both cilantro and basil did real well. Every year, Berlin holds something called Green Week, a ten-day-long food convention that's actually a place for producers to show vendors what they have -- the real action is the restaurant wholesalers and the grocers meeting with the representatives of various companies, especially foreign ones -- but which has been a long-time favorite of the public, which goes to eat and drink (especially drink) and dream of spring, because Green Week happens in mid-January. It's this last aspect that concerns me here: there's a huge gardening show which has attached itself to Green Week (also a pet show and, usually, some other peripherally-related event), and this is the only place I've found where I can pick up seeds for basil and cilantro. I know where there's a specialty seed shop in Leipzig, but not in Berlin, weirdly enough, and the racks in the supermarkets and drugstores rarely have basil, let alone cilantro.

Last year, a remarkable cook named Eric Gower, whom I was aware of from the Well, published a great cookbook, The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen, which mixed common Japanese ingredients with North American and European ones to produce some completely new tastes. I made one recipe from it and was hooked. Trouble was, that was about the only recipe in the book I could make without tracking down some Japanese specialty grocery stores. In particular, I was in search of an herb called shiso, also known as perilla.

At first, I went to the "Asia" supermarkets here, Asia Mekong and Vinh Loi. A friendly guy at a Japanese store halfway across town where I'd gone on a fruitless search had told me that Vinh Loi had connections in Holland with specialty growers, and got their fresh vegetables and herbs in on Thursdays, so I schlepped up to their closest store one rainy, cold afternoon, and saw dozens of things I couldn't recognize, but nothing that looked even remotely like shiso. I asked a young woman working in their wholesale division if they ever had it, and she'd never heard of it. I walked over to the small cookbook section in the store, and there was a Japanese cookbook with a picture. She shook her head. Nope, never seen it.

"If Vinh Loi doesn't have it," the Japanese guy had told me, "you won't find it in Berlin. Hamburg probably, Düsseldorf, with all the Japanese there, definitely. But there's no demand for it here because all people want in Japanese restaurants is sushi." And Vinh Loi didn't have it.

But when I got to Texas in March, Eric very kindly went to a Japanese hardware store in the Bay Area, bought a packet of shiso seeds, opened it up to steal some for his own use, and mailed the rest to me. I, in turn, smuggled it back to Berlin, and, at the first sign that it was warming up, went out and bought a plastic flower pot, a rather large one, for four Euros. Very carefully, so as not to overcrowd the plants, I stuck some of the tiny seeds in the soil.

The warm weather lasted about a week, and then it started to rain. Lots. Every day. I'd also planted basil and cilantro, and was hoping for the best. But, as you know if you've been reading right along here, it stayed cold pretty far into the summer. The cilantro was incredibly anemic, sending up a couple of feeble leaves before shooting up the feathery ones which portend flowering, seeding, and death. I harvested the entire batch for garnish for a single dish and re-planted. The basil was hugging the ground, sending down roots, in case it ever warmed up, so it could shoot straight up and make with the leaves. And, in the flower pot in the back yard, the soaked soil revealed little dots of green, right where the shiso seeds had gone.

A couple of weeks ago, it warmed up again, this time for a while: the current weather report says it'll last at least a week longer, and my guess is we're probably okay for the next month. This'll give the basil lots of time to turn into a luxuriant jungle and me to get sick enough of pesto that I'll start freezing it. As for the cilantro, the second planting's even more anemic than the first. Unless it beefs up considerably, this is going to have to be declared an out-and-out failure. Of course, these seeds were a year old, since I didn't make it to Green Week this year due to an onset of poverty, but I thought the reason the last planting failed was that the plants were too crowded. These aren't, and they're keeling over from sickness or something.

But the shiso, well, it went to town. Huge bunches of leaves started appearing, but...they didn't look anything like shiso! Instead of the maple-like shape, the notches in the leaves, these things are ovoid, smooth around the edges. A gardener on the Well finally identified them as sorrel, which I seem to remember from French cookbooks. The explanation? Somewhere during the packing process, the two bags of seeds, which were alphabetically sorted, were next to each other, and, thus, got mixed up.

Not at all what I wanted to hear, of course, but I must say, these things are doing very, very well out there. Of course, I have to lower myself out the window to get to them, which is another story about my construction-obsessed landlord's putting in a back door with no steps, which didn't stop a thief from breaking in early last year and helping himself to my laptop and a bunch of foreign -- mostly obsolete, pre-Euro -- currency and my good luggage.

Anyway, I guess I'd better look for those sorrel recipes and hope I like the stuff. I'm sure going to have enough of it. And fortunately the Vietnamese guy next door to the supermarket always has cilantro.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Surf Constanta!

No, really! I like the taste of my toenails!

Thanks to the estimable Brian Buchanan of the First Amendment Center for pointing out that Romania does, in fact, have a coastline on the Black Sea. Although the Dunarii Delta looks a little swampy, according to the Times World Atlas that lay conveniently within reach as I typed yesterday's ignorant entry, the 39-kilometer stretch from Eforie Sud to Mangalia, according to my AA 2001 Road Atlas of Europe, which was on a shelf across the room, is well worth seeing, even the four oddly-named towns Neptun, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. Trajan's Wall is nearby.

My ignorant remark was based on the fact that at the travel agency on Frankfurter Allee, the friend who had come across to East Berlin with me burst into laughter: "Beaches! In Romania? Ho ho ho ho." He'd just come back from there, so I thought he knew what he was talking about. Of course, I subsequently read his book on his Iron Curtain travels and saw that that was the least of what he missed.

And I'm embarrassed to say that I checked, after hearing from Brian, not with either of these superb reference works, but with a beach ball printed with a globe map, which a friend had inflated over the weekend. It had come in the mail as a promo for American Airlines, and I was keeping it around for the day when I just had an overwhelming urge to blow up the world, but she beat me to it. Even the beach ball had it right, although Austin's in a kind of weird location.

The road through the planets does, I note, lead to Bulgaria, and I have friends who've stayed at the beach there, in either Varna or Burgas. I actually spent several days in Bulgaria some years ago, and I ought to find the postcard I wrote from there to e-mail to friends and post it one day when I'm really feeling lazy. Of course, I was clear on the other side of the country, in Blagoevgrad, nestled in the Rila Mountains, with a view of war-torn Macedonia from the top of Communist Party headquarters, now housing the American University in Bulgaria, a division of the University of Maine.

But that bit of surrealism is for later. I'll just observe that you learn something every day. Yesterday most of you learned there were two Frankfurts in Germany. Today I learned about the Romanian seacoast.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Hard Times At Cafe Moskau

Here's where I was last night. Not in the middle of the street -- only for a moment as I crossed. But in that low building in the middle, the one the Fernsehturm, the big knitting-needle-on-a-stick, seems to be rising from.

What you're looking at is Karl-Marx-Allee in the middle of the '60s. (Image courtesy of the mighty Francesca Ferguson, who sent it as her Christmas card last year). There's an improbable number of cars in the picture, given the ten-year wait for even a Trabant (that blue-and-white number in the foreground is a Trabi, as are the white ones all in a row on the other side of the whitish station wagon with the yellow stripe), but this is East Berlin's Miracle Mile, the showpiece of the Warsaw Pact, and, now that renovations have taken care of the worst of the damage, still a breathtaking view of a communist utopia that never arrived.

Its state of preservation has made it hip. Commie chic is still big here in Berlin, particularly among the former East Germans who've gone on to accomplish something, thereby proving that being an "Ossi" is no handicap. They live over here, socialize over here, and maintain, not without reason, that there was a part of the culture in which they were raised that's worth retaining.

If you were to turn yourself around from this picture and keep walking, you'd soon be at Frankfurter Tor, the beginning of the most beautiful part of this collection of buildings. Once past that square, the name of the street turns to Frankfurter Allee, indicating that it leads (as it does) to Frankfurt. Not Frankfurt am Main, the horrendously dull city of financiers and Germany's biggest international airport, but Frankfurt an der Oder, a city I wasn't even aware existed until I moved here. Yes, Germany has two Frankfurts.

Frankfurter Allee is amazing, lined with imposing apartment houses that were designed to house all segments of society under one roof. Special apartments for artists, workers, intellectuals, handworkers, and so on, shaded in the front by huge trees, facing each other across the wide boulevard with the park down the center. I walked down this street in 1988, and found it disorienting: there being no private ownership, the shops on the ground floors of these behemoths all had the same name and the same artwork, so you'd be walking along, past Hair Salon, Fruits & Vegetables, Hardware, Bookshop, Travel Bureau (I remember scenes of a beach in Romania in one of these: anyone locating an ocean in Romania is urged to get in touch), Sausages, Fruits & Vegetables, Hair Salon...wait, weren't we just here? But the street is a straight line, so no, probably not. In fact, this street, which, in the other direction, is known as Karl-Liebknecht-Str., Unter den Linden, Strasse des 17. Juni, Bismarckstr., Kaiserdamm, and Heerstr., is Route 1, and runs to the Polish border, which, by the time you get to the Berlin city limits, is only about 40 miles away. It's the route the Russians took when they crossed the Oder near Seelow and marched into Berlin.

But last night, I didn't get that far, because my goal was the low, flat building in the picture there, the Cafe Moskau. Once, this was the pinnacle of Commie Chic: the finest expression of '60s DDR public architecture, it was a cafe/restaurant/nightclub serving the finest Russian food and drink. Some parts of it were a bit hard to get into if you weren't, shall we say, the right kind of person, but it reassured the Russians that their German friends loved them. Which, you know, they sort of had to. When I first came here, the restaurant was still in full swing, but the word was that there was much better Russian food to be had just about anywhere else. Then the restaurant closed and things behind the glass got dusty. Still, the polished wood on the walls was still there, the porcelain bas-relief of Moscow, with the dove flying over it. There was a Sputnik replica on one corner, all polished and neat, but it tarnished.

Several friends of mine looked into reopening it as a club at various points. They all walked away: the owners were very certain they had a major cultural treasure here, and priced it accordingly. That it was falling apart while they dithered didn't seem to matter. That the place would need a couple million in repairs before it could see any use bothered them not. And so it sat.

It's in use now. My pal Ina throws her swing parties there every second Thursday of the month (next one is Aug. 12), and last night was the opening of an art show there called Hip-Hop Immortals, which a photographer a friend of mine represents was in. It was definitely a strange contrast, a notably incompetent German DJ doing violence to beats while a (very) few invited guests milled around, possibly wondering who'd be dumb enough to open a show like this in a place like this at a time like this when everyone who can rub two Euros together is on vacation.

I stayed long enough to note the incongruity and admire some of the photos, although I have little love for the performers or the music. But after a while, I left. One of these days, I hope to end a visit to this part of town by walking further, through Frankfurter Tor, and to the CSA bar, the former headquarters of the Czech National Airlines, which is the best Ostalgia art-directed place I've ever seen, and gaze into the eyes of a lovely East Berlin maid.

But tonight, I just watched for traffic (not a Trabant in sight) and walked across to the companion building to Cafe Moskau, the Kino International. This was East Berlin's grandest movie palace, and one of the tragedies of the current Berlin Film Festival is that it's all concentrated in Potsdamer Platz, that Jersey mall on steroids, and filmgoers don't get to go to the many idiosyncratic little (and, in this case, big) screens around town.

Kino International is currently playing Fahrenheit 911, and there was a line out onto the sidewalk.

I refuse to draw any conclusions.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Shadows of Sunshinehouse-Berlin

I had to go to the Postal Customs office today, which is a whole other story I'll sauerkraut about one of these days, but on my way, I saw something remarkable.

Postal Customs is on Wexstr., way down in the Friedenau district, and the facility itself lies in the shadow of the RIAS building, where Radio In Allied Sector broadcast American propaganda and pop music for years, as well as subsidizing one of Europe's better symphony orchestras. It's a sort of nowhere part of town, with Wexstr. parallelling a big Autobahn, but with good public transportation to the rest of the city just a short walk away.

But one of the things I always dreaded about visiting Postal Customs -- besides the narcotized, xenophobic bureaucrats inside it -- was the refugee camp. Behind tall fences garnished with several strands of barbed wire, a hastily-constructed series of two-story buildings housed very scared-looking people, most of whom I assumed were refugees from Bosnia. Most seemed to be Muslim, and all were very, very poor. Burned-out autos lined Wexstr., as well as burst-open bags of garbage, and there was always at least one smashed TV, no doubt a piece of dying second-hand crap sold to someone in the camp by a fellow-countryman or one of the other low-end dealers who prey on the very poor here. There was only one way in, past a guard-house with a second barbed-wire-adorned gate between the visitor and the inhabitants. Someone had, in that annoyingly cheery German social-worker way, painted scenes of sunshine and flowers on one of the blank walls of one of the houses, but the paint faded almost immediately, and in mid-winter, it was very hard to see it as anything but an irritation, or at the very least a cruel joke aimed at the people trudging around inside.

Germany has always had a very ambivalent attitude towards foreigners, as I well know, but for many years there was a clause in the constitution here that said that anyone could come for asylum and be accepted. Just before I moved here in 1993, this clause was amended, a major triumph of the Kohl government, and the rules for asylum-seekers were made much harder. The reasoning the right-wingers used was that there were too many poor people in East Germany who hadn't been assimilated yet (yeah, and whose fault was that?) and that Germany was for Germans, like the repatriated Russian Germans, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of German Hanseatic and other merchants who'd set up trading posts in Czarist Russia and stayed. With a war on our doorstep in the former Yugoslavia, there was a potential for an unlimited flood of these poor, mostly Muslim, dark-skinned, asylum-seekers.

Not that this stopped them. After all, your country is on fire, you're going to run. You've heard that ten years ago someone's uncle got treated nicely in Germany, you're not going to stop to buy today's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to see what the current situation is. So they came. And they were put in camps. And, a lot of them, they got deported. Lots of Romanian gypsies mixed themselves in with the Bosnians, too, which really got the right-wingers' backs up, and I'd see them begging with a piece of paper purporting to show their Bosnian citizenship, a fifth-generation Xerox of some document in some foreign language or another, with no photo. There was a woman who made her way with a wheeled shopping cart through my neighborhood early every morning, hitting every garbage can she could, knocking apples off the apple tree behind my house before they got a chance to get ripe, and, in blackberry season, showing up with four of her kids to denude the blackberry bushes. That's the reason there's a padlock on the garbage can for my building.

But today, Wexstr. had a surprise. It had been cleaned up a lot, and, where the camp had been, there was a sign reading Sunshinehouse-Berlin. A coat of yellowish paint had been slapped on the buildings, the mural was gone, someone had planted some flowers, and the sign also added "Rentals for construction-workers and young visitors to Berlin." Photos showed a model sitting on a bed, a small but efficient kitchen.

Yes, folks for as low as €22 per night, you can rent a tiny apartment -- 18 to 20 square meters -- in a former refugee camp, nearly all of them non-smoking rooms (which you can bet they didn't use to be), a shower stall between every two rooms, and in the middle of each complex of four, a small kitchen with stainless steel sink, electric stove, refrigerator, and cooking implements. Looking at the pictures on the website, you wonder how you could fit Mom, Dad, and four kids in one of these rooms and keep them there for years at a time. But this is where they lived.

Interestingly, the web-page shows options for German, English, Dutch and Polish, with only German and Polish being up as of this afternoon. But then, there are likely more construction workers than Dutch and English tourists looking for a place here.

Frankly, it creeped me out, because the immediate though that leapt to my mind was what had become of the previous residents. Had they been successfully integrated into German society, at least by the lights of the social agencies? Or, as was more likely, were they told that there was no more war in the Balkans, herded to Schönefeld Airport, and put on one of those cargo planes and deported? Maybe some of the ones who got to stay are working as maids and maintenance men. I've got to say, it makes the surrounding area look nicer, what with all that yellowish paint and all, but I remember when sunshine was at a distinct premium around what is now Sunshinehouse-Berlin.

And, Sunshinehouse folks? Lose the barbed wire: there's still some on the fence over on the corner by Innsbrucker Platz.