Saturday, November 27, 2004

Willy Römer

It was a fruitless quest, but at the end of it, I had a new hero.

A guy in L.A. asked if I could find a poster of a rather famous Nazi propaganda sheet on "Entartete Musik, or "Degenerate Music," showing a top-hatted, rubber-lipped darky playing a saxophone, a Star of David prominent on his lapel (a tiny version of it appears here). I thought I'd seen it at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, which isn't far from my house, and promised him -- something like two weeks ago -- that I'd go and look.

Stupid idea. Of course they 're not going to be selling Nazi propaganda, except in books surrounded by texts pointing out how shameful it is, but this morning, I felt embarrassed by not having bothered to at least go look, so I did. Naturally, it wasn't there -- although a postcard with some kind of ad for coffee which was almost as offensive (but which was historic) was. Ah, well, I was on my way to Alexanderplatz to buy exotic goods (Parmesan cheese) anyway, so it wasn't exactly out of my way.

But the DHM has also got an exhibit called On The Streets of Berlin: The Photographs of Willy Römer, 1887-1979, and I'd been wanting to see it. Given that admission was only two Euros, I decided to go check it out.

Römer was not only a compulsive shutterbug, he also seemed to be in the right place at the right time in a way that any photographer would envy. He was fascinated by a lot of the same things I was: the city's oldest buildings (he himself lived in an old alley, the Krögel, which dated from the 14th century, and one of his pictures of it is number XI here), vanishing occupations, the historic moments he found himself caught up in, and the harbors and train stations of this central city, including the Stettiner Bahnhof, a major station that, I was amazed to find out about a year ago, stood at the top of my street: Römer, may well have been born very near where I live -- the exhibition said "north central Berlin." 1936 was the year of his downfall: his business partner was a guy named Walter Bernstein, and because of that, Römer's photography business was deemed "Jewish" and closed. In addition, the city decided to demolish the Krögel. Bernstein died (apparently naturally) two years later, and Römer found himself drafted and sent to Poznan to photograph for a Nazi paper there.

Not only did he survive the war, but his wife and children -- and the building they lived in, which housed all of his negatives -- survived, too, although the bombing of some nearby buildings cracked a number of his glass negatives, which had some of his oldest photos on them. He was pretty much unable to make a living after the war, which must have made those last 34 years pretty awful, but the DHM has paid him back in spades with this exhibit. I should have had a notebook and taken notes, but there were amazing photos of the workers' uprising in 1918 after the Kaiser abdicated, thousands of guys with rifles marching down Unter den Linden to occupy the Kaiser's Schloss; a transit strike that made kids get to school on roller skates; a bell-foundry; the Hinterhof musicians I wrote about a couple of days ago (as well as Hinterhof jugglers, dancing-bear owners, and ice-cream sellers); Hitler strutting around, and the USPD's opposition group (one of whose members is pictured with a Hitler-like brush moustache, so I guess it was considered fashionable back then instead of stupid). There are pictures of Berlin in ruins after the war, and traffic chaos in Potsdamer Platz, and there are portraits of Kurt Weill and Hannah Höch. There are tons of photos in this show, and they're all masterful.

It was the perfect diversion for an afternoon, and I didn't even mind skipping the others: one on Germany and Namibia, and yet another Burden of History one on the Second World War. One gets real sick and tired of the Burden of History when one lives here, lemme tell ya.

It was even warmish outside, and when I stepped back onto Unter den Linden, I saw that on the grounds of the old Schloss was a gargantuan Weihnachtsmarkt, so I walked over there and got a half-meter (19.6805 inch) Bratwurst (not even as big around as a nickel, though) on a baguette. I lucked out again: it was a real Thuringian one with powdered caraway in it. Not only that, despite the fact that I applied mustard to it, not a drop landed on my white winter jacket. Truly the gods were smiling on me.

And, in fact, after I got the groceries, I remembered I'd been promising myself an herb mill, which is so much easier than chopping parsley by hand, so I went to the housewares department (the groceries are downstairs) at Kaufhof and found just the one I wanted -- the only one left. It's €10 at Galleries Lafayette, this one had a €7 sticker on it, but when the woman rang it up it was only €3. I decided to scamper back home before the world caved in.

So I've decided my Christmas present to myself this year, assuming the folks who owe me pay me on time, will be the catalogue for the Willy Römer show (I'd post a link, but the best you can do is go to the DHM site and check the store: there's a nice big pop-up of the cover if you click it), since I opened it a couple of places at random and discovered plenty of photos that aren't in the show.

Amazing. No sauerkraut at all today! But...tomorrow is another day...

Thursday, November 25, 2004

A Night On The Town

My friend Natalie called me over the weekend to see if I wanted to earn €30. Like, duhhh. What she wanted me to do was to lead a Q&A session last night after the human rights film festival she's involved with (I'd post a link, but last night was the last night) showed a film about Steve Earle called, I believe, Just An American Boy. Earle's never been one of my favorites, but I said yes. The dough might have had something to do with it, but the people who were putting the festival on are all people I've known for a while, not just Natalie, and I'd really enjoyed their opener last Wednesday, when, after a really sweet performance by a theater troupe of Down's Syndrome folks, they showed a film called Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony. Between the South African accents and the eight-second echo in the church where they were showing it, it was pretty incoherent, but the echo made the music -- and there was lots of it -- sound like it had been produced by Phil Spector.

Anyway, last night's screening was at at the Jewish Museum, of all places -- not the easiest place to get to with public transportation, but not too terribly far from the house -- so I decided to walk. It was a crystal-clear night, about 30 degrees, no wind, and a straight shot down Friedrichstr., for the most part. So I bundled up good, and started walking.

The part of Friedrichstr. that starts at Unter den Linden is the one boosters hope will be compared with Fifth Avenue, so they've slapped up white Christmas lights all the way to Checkpoint Charlie and made big light-arches at either end of it with "Friedrichstr." written in nice old German letters. It looked nice, I have to say, especially enhanced by the meticulously lit up linden trees on the cross street. It's wishful thinking, of course: there are probably fewer shoppers in the luxury stores now than ever before, and there sure weren't many at 7:15 last night. The guy in the YSL store was staring out the window like someone who hadn't spoken to anyone all day, at least not in person.

At Checkpoint Charlie, I got to see one of the big controversies in town. Someone -- maybe the weirdly-agendaed museum there, Haus am Checkpoint Charlie -- had filled up a vacant lot with huge crosses, each memorializing someone who'd been killed trying to cross the Wall into the West. They're big, they're black, they're oppressive, and the city wants them down. But apparently nothing has been done, at least as of last night, and a guy was standing there, puzzling over the inscription. I was late, so I didn't cross the street to look any closer.

Across Kochstr. the nature of Friedrichstr. changes dramatically: it gets Turkish. There are fruit and vegetable shops, Döner Kebap stands, furniture stores, and travel agencies. It was like someone had turned off the lights, too: I suddenly missed the Christmas glitz. Some enterprising but clueless company has built a four-star deluxe hotel on this stretch, the Hotel Angleterre, with 157 rooms. Go figure. It was, as always, deserted.

But after I'd passed it, I began to think I'd made a mistake, because there didn't seem to be another cross-street for a long while and I needed to be one block over to the left. At the edge of a playground, though, appeared E.T.A.Hoffmann-Passage, a pedestrian-only alley past some apartments and a school, which, at night, frames the brilliantly illuminated facade of the Jewish Museum's entry building, a beautiful old townhouse. I felt good about what I was doing, going to help explain American culture to interested Germans.

I'd forgotten about the extreme security at the museum, and, in fact, would have left my Swiss Army Knife at home if I'd remembered. Grim-faced Russians take your keys and other metal and give you a light pat-down before you go through the metal detector. I got my keys back, but not the knife: I was handed a plastic card for that. It was 7:45, and the museum was closing, which meant that the groups of guards and docents hanging out and talking would freeze into postures of non-admittance as I walked towards them. Hey, I was just looking for the auditorium, and, as with the visitor-unfriendly museum itself, it was very difficult to figure out where I was supposed to go.

But I found it, and there was Hannes, the guy running this program (Natalie had to be elsewhere). "No problem," he said when I noted I was running a bit late -- I'd said I'd try to be there at 7:30 -- "The film isn't here yet." It had been freshly subtitled at a subtitling house (one of the festival's sponsors) and was "underway." At 7:58 one of the Russians from the front door appeared with an oblong box. Showtime. I started walking into the room, and the black-clad young woman taking tickets wouldn't let me in. I needed a ticket, never mind that I'd been talking to the organizer for ten minutes. I went in and sat down and after a couple of minutes it occurred to me I should have a piece of paper to take notes in case there were some things I wanted to refer to later. I went out and Hannes got me a sheet of paper. The woman wouldn't let me in again -- it had been seconds -- until I showed her the ticket stub again. It may be a Jewish museum, but it's in Germany, baby.

It is really hard to communicate how bad this film is. Film buffs need only hear that it's an Amos Poe film and they nod their heads sagely. For me, Steve Earle is a good figurehead for some good causes, but he's surrounded by an aura of both self-satisfaction and self-importance that baffles me and puts me off. Certainly his songs are no big deal, from what little I could catch from the poorly-recorded soundtrack, most of which was done live. And the goddam thing is two! hours! long!

Q&A session? Ha! People -- and there had only been about 20 at the peak, before a few started walking out -- nearly got injured in the stampede for the door. What was left was a few random people, and, after Hannes introduced me, I made a few remarks and asked if there were any questions. A neatly dressed woman, clearly a member of the Constituency Of The Permanently Outraged, said "What did this film have to do with human rights? It's a two-hour rock video, and I want to know what it's doing in this festival!" As if I'd done the programming. It was downhill from there, but only for five minutes, after which I slunk out, along with evreryone else. I didn't have the heart to ask for the money.

Back at the entrance, I met the Flying Squad again, and they shuttled me into the entryway by the metal-detector. I gave one of them the card and got my knife back. Outside, the air was cold and crisp and I started walking home.

I chose another way home out of curiosity, since I don't know this part of the city too well, but I knew where I was, of course. Markgraffenstr. parallels Friedrichstr., and I walked up it all the way to the end, which was just behind the Gendarmenmarkt, the trio of buildings with a huge square in front of it which is considered Karl-Friedrich Schinkel's masterpiece contribution to Berlin architecture. The square had been fenced off to include the biggest Weihnachtsmarkt I've ever seen in this city, but of course it wasn't open.

But what made the evening for me was when I was almost home, I was at the corner of Oranienburger Str. and Tucholskystr. when I heard some really good-sounding, hard-rocking music. I glanced around and saw it was coming from a car which had stopped for the light. The driver -- it was a high-end BMW, of all things -- was a young woman, hitting the steering wheel in time, tossing her head around, wailing out the lyrics, having a great time. And wearing a Muslim head-scarf.

Back on Torstr. fia couple of minutes later, I popped into Bistro Tor, my local Döner Kebap place, to do the Döner-for-dinner thing, and the Big Guy (the most frequent employees I see there are the Big Guy, the Little Guy, and the Young Guy) was on duty, the friendliest of all of them. A short, nervous guy was talking to him in Turkish as fast as I've ever heard anyone talk, and the Big Guy was nodding, occasionally tossing a word into the rapid-fire flow. He must have shaved off four pounds of meat to stuff into that Kebap, so I didn't go to sleep hungry. As I fell asleep a few hours later, I felt pretty good about the city in general.

That ended a couple of hours ago, when I was out doing some errands and stopped into the supermarket to get a snack. I had my one little item in my hand, standing at the rear of a line with about 15 people with laden carts in it, when a new line opened up. I walked over there and a lady with a baby stroller hit me with the stroller to push ahead of me and disgorged about twenty items from various recesses in it. When she looked back at me to gloat, I smiled coldly and said "Danke." No doubt her child will grow up to be an exemplary Berliner.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Top Ten

In the nearly 40 years I've been writing about music, I've come to dread the year-end top ten requirement. Once, I dreaded it because there were more than ten records I wanted to draw people's attentions to at the end of the year, so every magazine that asked me for one got a different one, the lead item or two usually remaining the same. Then came the mathematical horrors of Bob Christgau's Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll, where you had to assign numerical values to each of your ten. Thank heavens I'm no longer asked to contribute to that.

Quantifying pleasure is a dullard's task, anyway, it seems to me, something which keeps away the real work of being culturally aware, of looking for connections with society at large and other art-forms. But, of course, that means being a critic, not a reviewer, and there are damn few critics out there anymore. How much more edifying to argue that the Morrissey record is two points better than the Lambchop one!

Of course, one of the salutary effects of moving over here has been my total disengagement from the music business and the rock critic business, so now I'm pretty well out of the highly-competitive but uninteresting world of the rock press. True, I've tried to put a toe back in to make money (see "Frustration"), but my listening to records has taken a real blow over the past few years. For one thing, I get very few new ones any more, although reissues continue to come in (thanks!) so I can do pieces on them for Fresh Air. What new ones I do get tend to be in the so-called Americana genre because I write frequently for two magazines, No Depression and Harp. Much as I like some of it, though, it's not something you can live on an exclusive diet of, and I do long to hear some weirder stuff a lot of the time.

The result is, I spend days without playing anything at all. Really. I look at the stack, see nothing that moves me, and sit down to silence. Silence is nice. Without it, you can't evaluate or really appreciate what you do listen to, in my opinion. (Take that, drones walking around plugged into a 40 gig iPod on shuffle!)

That said, both No Depression and Harp asked me to contribute a top ten this year, so I thought I'd share it with you. It's in no particular order, it's Americana-heavy, and has a lot of world music because the Wall St. Journal asked me to do a story about the two big world music labels and both shipped me huge boxes of stuff. I said it's in no particular order, but that's not strictly true: I feel very strongly about Jon Dee Graham's record, and if you're only going to get one on this list, I'd recommend that one. But hell, I recommend all of them, of course. It is my top ten, after all.

* Jon Dee Graham: The Great Battle. Yeah, his voice is hard to get used to, but he writes about things nobody else even gets close to. Possibly not for teenagers, either. Adult music by an adult who also plays darn good guitar.

*Various Artists: Por Vida, A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo. I've known Al for years, and was horrified by his illness. I saw him in March, and he seemed healthy and happy, although he admits he's still got problems. One problem he doesn't have is a lack of friends, and the talent assembled for this collection totally overwhelms my usual qualms about tribute albums being a mish-mosh of stuff thrown together so that you can't just sit down and listen to them. The high quality of his songs might have something to do with that, as might the fact that most of his friends are also extremely fine performers in their own right.

* Los Lobos: The Ride. Another thing I hate is albums of duets with "special guests." The Lobos lost me some time back when their albums began to be produced by West Coast weirdos (and with their unlistenable but inexplicably popular-with-critics Latin Playboys side-project), but, again, this transcends all of this. I resisted, but I soon caved in.

* Dave Alvin: Ashgrove. Not much to say about this: a great new album by one of my favorite performers. A double bill of Dave and Jon Dee would be worth walking all the way across town for. Not much chance of it happening here, unfortunately.

* The Gourds: Blood of the Ram. One of the worst times I had writing this year was trying to do a feature on the Gourds for the next issue of No Depression. Not that I don't love this idiosyncratic, deeply-rooted, bunch of Texas oddballs; I think they are to today what The Band was to 1969. But what to say about them? Fortunately, as I noted in the article, they're as easy to listen to as they are hard to write about, and if you've never heard them, this or Bolsa de Agua, from a couple of years back, would be the place to start.

* Doug Hilsinger & Caroleen Beatty: Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy . Now, here's a crazy idea: completely reproduce one of your favorite albums in your home studio. But...what an album! And...what an inspired recreation! Hell, Eno likes it. So do I. And who wants to argue with him, anyway?

* Mory Kante: Sabou. Here's one from the world music pile. Some years ago, Kante had a huge disco hit in France (and elsewhere) with "Yé Ké Yé Ké," with its irresistable beat and fluid melody being one of those irresistable forces -- except, of course, in America, where Good Americans don't buy records with songs in other languages. Me, I thought a lot of the success of the hit was probably due to the various French synthesizer players and so on who play on a lot of African dance hits. Boy, was I wrong: this is the first album of his I've heard since, and as you can hear, all the French guys did was sort of beef up what was already there. Joyful, rockin' acoustic music.

* Various Artists: World 2004. There are two schools of world music out there: the fusionists and the authenticists. The authenticists are happy to let ethnic popular musics do their own thing in their own culture unassisted by the outside, and this is a good thing, because it gives us albums like Sabou. The fusionists like to mix things up and stir them around and seven times out of ten what comes out is either reggae or trip-hop. The other three times, you can wind up with some delightful surprises, as epitomized by bands like 17 Hippies or (in the oldies but goodies department) 3 Mustaphas 3. This collection was assembled by Charlie Gillette who (along with the Mustaphas' Ben Mandelson) was at the meeting where the marketing term "world music" was coined, and who has a BBC radio show dedicated to it. Some fusion, some authentic, all superb. Hell, it's worth owning for the Terry Hall/Mushtaq track "The Hour of Two Lights" alone.

* Brian Wilson Presents Smile. Well, of course. Only someone with a heart of stone (or, rather only someone my age with a heart of stone) could dislike this. And now it's done. And you know what? It's won-won-won-won-wonderful. If this is the sort of thing that appeals to you, you might also want to check out my last year's number one record, to which I return often, the Swimming Pool Q's' Royal Academy of Reality, another "rock suite," albeit one far less known. Just as melodic and satisfying, though.

So there it is. What? Yeah, I know there's only nine on the list. Sue me. Thinking about the Swimming Pool Q's reminded me of something, too: some records take a long time to sink in (although that one didn't), and some you only discover later. I just listened to James Talley's album Touchstones over the weekend, because I had to write a short item on him, and I was reminded of what a great songwriter he is. Had it not been from 2002, it would be up there, too.

And that's just the thing: for some years now, everyone has had the technology to make, manufacture, and distribute their music. And, as Sturgeon's Law notes, 98% of it is crap. It's daunting to wade your way through all of it, and, if you're off the mailing lists, as I have been for some time now, extremely expensive. The bad news is, I've probably missed some fantastic stuff this year. The good news is, I've got the rest of my life to catch up with it. Enjoying what I play when I play it is, after all, far more important than being Heap Big Number-One Rock Critic.

(I'll devote a separate post to the reissues somewhere down the line, but not today.)

Monday, November 22, 2004

The Thirteenth Month

This week, all Germany is humming with energy. Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent, an event which is merely a statistic in most parts of the world, but resonates like the starting bell at a racetrack here. Already, the Weihnachtsmärkte have opened, Christmas bazaars selling handcrafts, traditional foods, knick-knacks, gew-gaws, and, of course, Glühwein and sausages. The most famous one is in Nuremberg, where I found myself a couple of years ago when I went there to do a story on the Nazi Documentation Center. I definitely needed cheering up after that, and headed back into town to the huge crowd (largely Japanese, for some reason) milling around there.

There's apparently another famous one in Dresden called the Striezelmarkt, which I missed despite being in that city at that time of year once. But pretty much every major city has one: I was assigned a boneheaded story on Christmas in Leipzig last year -- Leipzig not being famous for its Christmas stuff -- and found a very good-sized one strewn all over the market square and throughout the old town. Berlin has several: I saw the little huts being built last week both in Alexanderplatz and around the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche over by Zoo Station, and almost certainly the one by the Opera House on Unter den Linden will fire up again this year.

It's pretty certain that I'll wind up wandering through one of them, because they're so inescapable, and, as always, I'll probably check out the latest from Seiffen, a small town in the extreme southeast near the Czech border where the citizens turned to making hand-carved wooden toys when the tin ore in the local mines ran out in the 18th Century. (There's a good history of it here, but, unfortunately, no pictures). This was a major hard-currency source for the DDR back when it existed, and you've undoubtedly seen the nutcrackers -- albeit probably Chinese copies. But they also do these complex little figures called Rauchermännchen, or little smoking men. They come apart at the middle and you insert an incense cone, then put them back together. In a few seconds, the mouth begins to puff smoke. They come in all manner of forms, representing a huge variety of occupations: the year I was in Seiffen, the big deal was computers, which had basically just hit German consumers, and there were lots of little guys seated in front of terminals. The next year, they were using cell phones. One of my favorites was a little guy pumping gas -- uh, a little unclear on the concept, dude?

Because I don't eat much sugar, I miss out on the big attractions of the Weihnachtsmärkte, the food products. In Nuremberg, this centers around Lebkuchen, a flat piece of pastry somewhere between a spice cookie and a gingerbread which is made with leavening which comes from fermenting flour with honey. The firm which invented them back in the 1300s apparently still does this slow fermentation throughout the year in its basement. The Christkindlmarkt there is loaded with variations: frosted ones, chocolate-covered ones, with nuts, without nuts... There's also something called Früchtebrot, the distant and more palatable ancestor of our own fruit cake.

Dresden has its Stollen, which my mother used to make. This is subject to innumerable variations; my notes from Leipzig mention "Our Best" (no idea what that was about), Kunath Christstollen, Kunath Butterstollen, Dresdner Mandelstollen (with almonds), Mohnstollen (with sweetened poppy-seeds), and special Stollen for diabetics. Dresden's other contribution to the Christmas larder is Pfeffernüsse, tiny hard cookies made with black pepper which are usually made at home -- again, my mother used to make these, and they're not really good until several weeks after they're cooked, when they're hard as the nuts they're named after.

Berlin, of course, has no particular culinary tradition, so we get what we get: a mixture of all of the above, leaning perhaps a bit closer to Dresden -- I can get that exact Stollen on the link there in my crappy supermarket. There's always a huge wok-like pan of Grünkohl with Pinklewurst (kale with little hot-dogs) and vats of Glühwein (bad red wine mulled with plenty of sugar and spices), the very smell of which gives me a headache when I walk past them.

And these markets are packed from the minute they open until they close, as are the department stores and the shopping malls. The reason? Many (but far from all) German workers get something called Weihnachtsgeld, a Christmas bonus equal to a month's salary. Civil servants almost always get it, but so do plenty of private employees. A collective spending mania then descends on the general population right up to December 23, at which point it just stops. I'm wondering how much Weihnachtsgeld I'll be seeing this year, though, with Berlin currently suffering 20% unemployment. Guess I'll find out in a week.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Another Technical Note

Really Soon Now there'll be a couple of ads on the side of this thing for a book called The Rose and the Briar and the CD that goes with it. I have an essay in the book, in the company of everyone from Joyce Carole Oates to R. Crumb to (ugh) Stanley Crouch, and the ballad I wrote about is on the CD.

What this means in general is that I've been accepted by's Associates program, and that I can link to products (books and records in particular is what I was thinking of) that I refer to and if you click on the link and wind up buying the item, I get a check. I think the maximum they'll give you, though, is $25 on an individual sale, so I didn't bother to see if Amazon sells Ferarris.

It also means I'll likely be talking more about books and records here, which I've wanted to do more of, and I'll likely post a year-end top ten list, too, all clickable, great for last-minute Christmas giving or something.

Speaking of which, The Rose and the Briar makes a great Christmas gift! Love and death! What could be more Christmassy than that?

Thursday, November 18, 2004


Okay, I'm a lazy bastard, so I didn't go take pictures of the site next door, and now it's too late. German workmen can work fast, and this crew certainly has. (And, unlike many work crews in this town, these guys really are German instead of Czech or Polish, both of whom work cheaper and aren't in German unions). So we'll have to resort to the magic of words.

One really good, if totally obscure, movie about Berlin is called The Big Lift, a 1950 fiction film about the Berlin Airlift that was Montgomery Clift's first role. It was shot on location, at Tempelhof Airport and on the streets of Berlin. It's not a very important film, other than exposing the Eternal Perfidy of German Women and having a wonderful scene set on the U-Bahn (subway), but one institution it deals with is the brick-women. Even in 1950, it wasn't hard to find a scene of desolation in which to film, and in these blocks of bombed-out apartment buildings, hundreds of women were at work, picking up bricks, knocking the mortar off, and stacking them up to be recycled into new buildings.

Or, rather, this was what happened in the American, British, and French Zones. The Russians had a different idea: they would build the new society on top of the rubble of the old one, new, daring, beautiful Socialist architecture without a single reference to the past. Which they did, in the more visible parts of town, except calling it new and daring was maybe a stretch.

But the first time I went to East Berlin, in the company of someone who was something of an Eastophile, we went to Prenzlauer Berg to meet a friend of his who lived there. From what I can remember and figure out in retrospect (because who'd have thought I'd ever go back, let alone live near there?) it must have been Prenzlauer Allee, because I marvelled at the Planetarium in Ernst Thälmann Park, a masterpiece of Socialist Futurism that looked like it could launch itself into orbit. There was a real constrast between that and the buildings along Prenzlauer Allee, which apparently hadn't been bombed, and the side-streets. There, lots still contained the rubble of bombed buildings. Weeds grew up among them, and small trees had established root-systems in the ruins. The West Berliners rebuilt. The East Berliners paved over the wreckage or just let it sit there.

Now, as I've mentioned, the construction next door has started again, with the scooping out of a big hole which had been dug some years back and just let sit while the company developing the project apparently went out of business. And, as I reported earlier, the Countess in our building had said they were just going to smooth the property out and plant grass. I think she was half right: the proposed second building isn't going to be built (the existing building is only half-full as it is, and has gone from offering apartments for sale to offering rentals as well -- never a good sign. But they've dug out what appears to be a passageway for the underground garage that was advertised, and now they're putting in concrete forms that look like walls for it. That's the noise you hear in the background as I type.

What the digging uncovered, though, was bricks, thousands of them. And as I looked at it, I realized that there had almost certainly been a building behind Borsigstr. 4, as with most buildings in this city. Depending on the lot, you either had several buildings, one behind the other (I've seen up to five consecutive buildings), or you had a sort of E-shaped arrangement without the central bar. The buildings were called Vorderhaus (front house), Hinterhaus (rear house, and, if there were more than one, zweite Hinterhaus, dritte Hinterhaus, etc.), and, for the one on the side, Quergebäude (side-building). Since the blocks are bigger, you don't get the same building pattern as you do in New York, for instance, so the Hinterhof (rear courtyard) model makes sense.

In fact, the Berliner Hinterhof is a beloved insitution. I feel very fortunate to have seen one aspect of this, in the first apartment I lived in. A guy with a hurdy-gurdy (well, actually a small barrel organ with one leg and a strap holding it to his body) came to the neighboring building and ground out a melody. The windows opened up, and tissues wrapped around small change rained down on him from the old ladies living there. Several histories of Berlin have pictures, by Zille and various photographers, of a man and his kids performing in a Hinterhof for the residents, playing instruments, singing and dancing. Another aspect I've taken part in many a time is the Hinterhof party, where everyone just gets out there in the summertime and (with permission from all the residents, of course!) grills, eats, and drinks. One of the many silly things in the German Pavillion at Expo 2000 was a huge room where you went in and were transported into the middle of a Berlin Hinterhof party via film projected all around you. It was a pretty weird party, though, because people of all ages were there, and black people and Turks and Orientals. I only know one person who gives parties like that, and he's considered very special -- and even Turks don't come to his parties.

Anyway, this is getting far afield from the bricks in the lot next door. I know this neighborhood was bombed because the building across the street is brand new, as is the one across Torstr. from it. If a building was only damaged, it would be repaired, as my house was (I assume). But the Hinterhaus at Borsigstr. 4 was flattened, and the place where it had stood was covered over and turned into a lawn that stood there up til the time they started developing. To see this ghost appear -- the cellar, in particular -- is very odd.

I used to see a lot more of this sort of thing earlier in my stay here, of course. Once the city was unified there was an astonishing amount of work to be done, and there was (I know this is hard to believe if you've been here recently) far more construction than there is today. One danger was the UXB, the unexploded bomb. I used to exercise in the Tiergarten, our Central Park, when I lived next to it, and there was a bunch of construction in there. Imagine my surprise when I read an article that said they'd dug out a couple of UXBs from a trench I used to pass every day. Or there was the little incident where a bombed building was being dealt with over on Frankfurter Allee and the guy with the backhoe hit a UXB. Half a block got vaporized, but amazingly the only fatality was the poor worker who'd hit the damn thing. The pictures in the paper were pretty impressive, I'll tell you.

Of course, not all the ruins were dangerous, and some were downright cozy. Tresor, one of the first techno clubs to open over here, was the safe and the storage area in the basement of a department store. But the store had been bombed to the ground, so there was only a small building on top, and then the other dance floor downstairs in the vault. And I'll never forget the bombed-out lot next to Friseur. Friseur was, as its name implies, a former hairdressing salon. (East German businesses, being communist, didn't have names, which was one of the things I found so disorienting about walking down East Berlin streets, since it seemed like you were walking in circles -- didn't we just pass Friseur? -- when you weren't). While it lasted, Friseur was a rock club, a stuffy, hot, and uncomfortable one, but after the show, you would walk into the lot next to it, and, if you were lucky, you'd see a couple of candles burning on the ground. Walk over to them, and you'd see a hole with a stairway in it. Walk down the stairway, and you'd be in an amazing illegal club run by a bunch of insane Brazilians which may or may not have been called Favela. (That was the name of the bar they opened afterwards). They introduced the caipirinha to Berlin, and it remains one of the city's favorite drinks. I (sort of) remember an amazing evening there with the all-female rock band Die Braut Haut Ins Auge, who were friends with an old friend of mine here after their gig at Friseur, and walking up the stairs at the end of it all, and, as my head emerged from the hole, noting that the sun was coming up. I paused at ground level, seeing the lot and the city beyond it from a mouse's eye view, then continued up the stairs, onto the street, and, with the rising son at my back, proceeding through the Brandenburg Gate back to my apartment to try to catch a few hours' sleep.

I was once approached by someone on behalf of Seiji Ozawa and asked to recommend some clubs "on the edge" he could visit after conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, and I enthused about the Brazilians. Wonder if he ever went there?

But that real estate was too valuable to remain like that. I think the building where Friseur was still stands on the edges of Potsdamer Platz, but the lot is long since built on, and I wonder if I could find it today. Still, it's a measure of the devastation of this city that it could be 2004 and a long-buried cellar right next door to me would come to light.

But it leads me to a thought that's both historically accurate and, for me, a part of my own history: this city is mostly about where things used to be. For Heinrich Zille and for me.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Just a quick one today, since there's work to do and more on the horizon.

I did go the dentist, and he did agree to replace the shattered plate for free. That was the good news. He grilled me about my financial situation, saying that what he'd really like to do would be put in implants for a mere €20,000, but even though I had over €50 in my pocket at the moment, I didn't think I was quite ready, thanks. He then indulged in the great Berlin tradition of the-customer-is-always-wrong and told me that it was because my gums were now so healthy -- thanks to him -- that the old plate had loosened up. Then he took an impression and told me the new plate would be ready in 24 hours.

It was. It didn't fit, of course, so he had to modify it, twice. Each time I could sense him getting angrier and angrier at putting in free labor when he could have had a paying customer in the chair, and in the end, they weren't totally snug, but he said -- and I believe him -- that my mouth will adjust. He practically ejected me out of the room.

The adrenaline was so great after this that I walked back to the subway station (which was the end of the line) up Britzer Damm. Britz is said to have some of the oldest structures in Berlin, although I've pinpointed them to a different area than I was walking through. Still, I saw a couple of old farmhouses that had been turned into city dwellings, as well as a couple of the early 19th Century townhouses, two stories and lots of frosting, that I'd also seen up in Pankow last year. Might be worth going back to look for those old houses, but not until the weather gets better.

In a great happy-ending conclusion, this morning's e-mail brought one from Goldapple in San Francisco, giving me the name of his former dentist here, a nice Jewish girl with a degree from Tufts, much more centrally located. And that Tufts degree means that she's in the same great tradition as another great dentist, my maternal grandfather!

Tomorrow I'm going to try to photograph the construction next door (given how it wakes me up every day, I might as well get something out of it), because it's unearthed an entire bombed building.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

A Few More Words About Bread

Since moving to Germany, one of the local tics I've picked up is eating a German breakfast at least a couple of times a week in the cooler months. In case you've never experienced it, you get bread, cheese, cold cuts, maybe some quark (insufficiently described as "yogurt cheese"), maybe some smoked fish. I let it get out of hand in the early days and wound up with a bellyache most days I tried it, but now I've got a good routine, involving cream cheese (the Germans are masters of this) and one kind of cold-cuts (currently apple-onion liverwurst, liverwurst being another thing these people excel at).

Naturally, what you need for this is bread, and of course German bread is famous, although Berlin is renowned throughout Germany as having the worst bakers in the country (true, from what I can tell). When I first experimented with the German breakfast, I'd buy Brötchen, or rolls, because then I could get a couple of kinds of bread. But I wound up eating too much, mostly because I liked the bread too much, so I bought too much of it, and when I re-upped on this program, I discovered the best way to do it: buy half a loaf, which any bakery will happily sell you: half a pound (250g), stays fresh for a couple of days.

Trouble was, when I first moved to this neighborhood, for the first time ever, there wasn't a bakery on the corner. In fact, there was only one bakery, about four blocks away, and it was terrible, a relic of the old East German times. There was a health-food store about three blocks in the other direction, but it didn't open until 10, since it was run by lazy East German hippies, and I often get started earlier than that. There's a supermarket (of sorts) across the street from me, an old Konsum from the DDR days, but the bread they sell there is total crap.

Then, out of the blue, one block away on Torstr., a store called Brot & Mehr opened, selling a mass-produced "bio" line of bread products. (The concept of "bio" as opposed to organic, which is "öko," is so nuanced that I can't understand it at all: suffice it to say it's not organic, but it's also not too bad). Their bread was pretty good, so that's where I started shopping. The place was always full of breakfasters, the Brötchen were good, and it was nice having a place that close. A couple of other bakeries further away opened, too, but they're of the usual kind around here: they get half-baked stuff and finish it in on-site ovens, or they get frozen stuff and bake it as needed. The quality of the bread at these places is awful, but Berliners will eat anything.

So earlier this summer, I mentioned that the cursed building on the corner of my street, which had sat empty for years looking for a tenant, and which has an awful smell that hangs around the outside, finally got rented, and a sign went up noting that a bakery would open soon. It took them forever to renovate the place, which had been a second-hand TV shop. Just as I started noticing things like shelves and so on going in, something odd happened: a block away from that, in the other direction, a former art gallery got a sign in its window announcing that a bakery would soon open there. And, two blocks in the other direction, a long-vacant storefront papered its windows over and put up a sign. Guess what it said?

The place on the corner opened last week. It's a Turkish bakery, which is excellent, not because they make such great bread (they do, huge round loaves called peda, with sesame seeds or nigella seeds -- or both -- on them, but I haven't seen any peda in this place yet), but because they make wonderful savory pastries, which make a great light lunch. I managed to gum down a nice little cheese turnover today, for instance, and there was a "tomato strudel" and a "spinach strudel" sitting there, too.

But the place two blocks away also opened last week, and it's puzzling. Bio freaks need only go half a block to a health-food store for an array of bread that's uneven, but often includes the justly famed Munich Hopfisterei bakery's products. Brot & Mehr isn't far. And this place also has expensive snacks and drinks, like candy, potato chips, soda and beer. The only way that works is if it's "family owned," and, as such, is allowed a loophole in the opening-hours law, but when I walked past it at 5:30 today, it was shuttered tight.

The other place, which is far from finished, is even more of a mystery. It's around the corner from a bio-shop which advertises aggressively, and which also carries the same mass-produced bio-bread as Brot & Mehr.

This is the mystery of capitalism in Germany: the copy-cat syndrome that had three Italian delis opening in one block (as I noted in the post entitled Deutscher & Digideroos). How are all of these going to co-exist? I can see that Brot & Mehr and the Turks have such widely different lines that they'll be able to get along, and both are on Torstr., which is a big street. But this other place? Doomed before it opens, unless it has a concept.

And Germans aren't big on concepts. I remember when Oranienburger Str. was undergoing its first boom, and two people I knew were involved with one of the restaurant startups there, which some guy was pouring boxcars of money into. One friend was helping him with his business plan. "It's gonna be great!" he told me. "You should see the decoration!" (My other friend was doing this, so I knew it'd be good). Fine, I asked him, what kind of restaurant is it? And he gave me a blank look. "What do you mean?" Well, I said, there are already all kinds of restaurants opening up in that row, and he'd better have something different if he wants to make a go of it. So the guy went and asked the owner, and the guy told him "Just good food."

It's now an "American-style lapdance club," in case you're looking for it. Closed almost as soon as it opened.

I dunno, I don't feel particularly sorry for people who waste tons of money on things they haven't thought through. And, as happened with this restaurant, sometimes friends of mine catch some of the trickle-down. But I'd feel a lot better about the mentality of the people I was living among if I felt that they gave a little thought to what they were doing.

In any event, there'll be lots of bread in the neighborhood. For awhile, anyway.

Friday, November 12, 2004


Aw, man, just when things were looking brighter...

But this is just a temporary glitch, I keep telling myself.

Two weeks ago, I was eating a tortilla chip and one of the little plastic teeth on my bridge -- which is basically most of my lower front teeth -- popped out. When I got home, I called the dentist. He was gone for two weeks. I was sort of glad; this is not one of my favorite people in this city. But I did need it fixed, so I made an appointment for this coming Monday, his next day in the office.

Then, last night, I was eating a salad, for heaven's sake, and the bridge just snapped. It's art. Unfixable.

The good news is, I already have my appointment. Also, no major dinner parties to attend; I can slop around here until Monday.

The bad news is...well, it's this dentist.

Last Feburary, I came down with the most excruciating toothache I'd ever had. It was so bad it was screwing up my vision, that's how bad it was. I called my doctor and asked him if he could recommend a dentist, because much as I trust the Germans, I want all my medical procedures in a language I can understand no matter how many drugs I'm on or how much pain I'm in. Sure enough, he knew one.

So I went to see the guy, and he took one look at me and told me flat-out that my life was in danger. I'd sort of read about this possibility, that you could have abcesses so bad that they could break loose and head for your heart and kill you in a second, but this guy was really, really persuasive, and the X-rays didn't lie: the abcesses were there. Anyway, he talked about how he could pull the bad teeth, fit me with plastic ones, and all at a price that wasn't so bad. I'd have to borrow the money, true, but I didn't see that I had much choice. He told me to come back so he could make an impression and start making the new teeth.

So I did, and as I sat there in the chair -- this office looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise -- he casually asked me if I wanted the extractions now or later. I said later, living dangerously, but it's a good thing I did. After he'd taken the impressions and informed me that I could come back in a couple of days for the bridge, he started in about money. I told him I'd be able to pay him, albeit not in two days. "Well," he said, "I'll do no further work until I'm paid. I've had really bad experiences with people in this city running out on bills, and I don't trust you." Instantly, I began to dislike him.

But what could I do? I was over the proverbial barrel, and he had me. The price -- €800 -- seemed very low, given what I'd heard elsewhere, but I still didn't have it. A friend offered to loan it to me, though, and so I was able to go back there and get my new teeth.

He sat me down in the chair, got out all these needles, filled them with anesthetic, and in no time, my head felt like a block of concrete. A very strange feeling indeed. And as I sat there feeling weird, he stripped off his rubber gloves and extended his hand in my direction. "Right. The money. Let's see it. Now!" I took it out of my pocket and he moved to where I could watch him count it, loudly snapping off each €50 bill and saying the sum. Four times. Then he put on some fresh gloves and got to work.

And this, and no other reason, is why I'm dreading Monday. A friend tells me there may well still be a warranty on the bridge, and I hope so, because I'm currently owed a bunch of money which hasn't materialized. If I have to wait until I have a few hundred Euros, I'm going to be gumming my food for a week or two. And, to be honest, I'd rather pay my landlord or the electric company if some dough comes in. But I've got to have teeth. And if he pulls this weird stuff again, I won't have any until someone pays me.

One thing, though: I've resolved that once this gets straightened out, I'm going to redouble my search for an English-speaking dentist here and give him my business. It's bizarre: most people fear the dentist because of drills and pain and so on. Me, I thought his array of technology was astonishing, and when he used it on me, it was totally painless, thanks to the drugs and his skill. When it came time to do the extractions and fit the bridge, I went down to his office -- a 45-minute trip -- had the procedure, and came back, all on one two-hour subway ticket. Of course, I was illegal for maybe the last 20 minutes of the trip, but that's how fast it all went.

Nope, it's not the pain. It's the bread.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Literary Note

In a couple of days (or maybe sooner) I'll have figured out how the Amazon Associates program works, and then I'll write some stuff about a couple of books I'm involved with, as well as some of the ones I've been reading recently. The links there will connect you with the listings at Amazon, and if you buy from that click-through, I get paid! Doesn't cost you a nickle more, either. I expect to be at least a dimeonaire very shortly. But first I gotta figure out this complicated system. Stay tuned.

It Was 15 Years Ago Today...

Well, yesterday, actually, but I didn't find out until too late. Or, rather, I knew, somewhere in the lizard part of my brain, but it never surfaced. It wasn't until I read the BBC News headline that I remembered: Nov. 9 was the day the Wall opened up.

And so, like everyone else who lives here, I get to tell my true story about the Wall's end. I missed it.

That year, 1989, like the year before, I was in Berlin at the end of October for the Berlin Independence Days music conference, which was held this time in the House of World Cultures, an imposing structure in the Tiergarten (Berlin's Central Park) not ten minutes' walk from the Brandenburg Gate, and, thus, the Wall. And, for the first time, there were attendees from the DDR, most notably from DT64, the rather daring "youth radio station" in East Berlin, and Junge Welt, a newspaper for young people. Even weirder, some of them spoke English, and I remember one of them saying "Next year, we'll have this on our side of town." You're awfully optimistic, I replied. "Not optimistic. Right."

Wrong. We had it in the same place the next year, and it wasn't until the next year that it was held in the House of Soviet Science and Culture on Friedrichstr.

But I was aware, vaguely, of reports from Dresden and Leipzig that said that there were huge protests in the wake of Gorbachev's visit. I ignored them; the Communists were good at crushing this sort of thing, and anyway, things had liberalized a little recently, and that was shocking enough in and of itself.

One thing I was going to do was to stay in Berlin afterwards to celebrate my birthday on Nov. 2 and try to figure out what was going on with my supposed girlfriend. A party was arranged at the Pinguin, at that time all my friends' bar of choice, and the back room was set aside for it. It was, as I remember (and I don't remember much, thanks), a very successful party, with indoor fireworks at one point in the evening, a great chocolate cake that tasted wonderful despite an odd shape, higher on one side than on the other, and all my oddball friends (who, come to think of it, rarely needed an excuse to go to the Pinguin). I can't even remember if my girlfriend was there. Probably not.

I'm also not sure how I spent the next few days, although I know I didn't jump right on a plane. But early on the morning of the 8th, I took a cab up to Tegel and started the trip back to Austin.

Now back in those days, West Berlin was an island surrounded by the DDR. This meant a number of things in terms of getting there. For one thing, the city wasn't part of Germany: it was a city jointly administered by four occupying powers, the U.S., Britain, France, and Russia. Thus, West German things -- like mail from your draft board, which was delivered by a separate postal system owned by the army -- weren't allowed in. That meant that all those handy flights on Lufthansa from the States had to land elsewhere, so you'd fly to Frankfurt and then change to a U.S. or British carrier for the short flight to Berlin.

It was also the same way leaving, so I got on my plane, flew to Frankfurt and...found that my connection to Dallas, which was coming in from Bucharest, was nine hours late due to an equipment malfunction. There was nothing to do but wait. It was cold, so the idea of going into Frankfurt and looking around didn't appeal (there's virtually nothing there anyway), and I exhausted the airport's diversions in almost no time. There was a dimly-lit long-stay lounge for people with similar problems, and I remember a Nigerian guy collapsing in a heap into one of the chairs and opening his briefcase, from which a large and very healthy cockroach sprung and headed off to explore Germany. I read and read and was soon out of stuff to read. Nine hours passes slowly enough in a plane, but time almost seemed to have stopped at the Frankfurt airport.

Then the plane came in, we finally boarded, and we headed off to New York. By the time we got there, it was late in the day, and there were no more planes out to Dallas, so we were issued vouchers for meals and a hotel room, and sent to a hotel at JFK. I remember a bunch of Russians, who were definitely novelty items in those days, eager to get to Brooklyn, which, they determined after looking at a map, wasn't that far away. After checking in, they decided to walk, at about 10pm. I advised them against it, but they were sure they would have a fine time. I may have been one of the last people to see them alive, for all I knew.

The next day, the 9th, was similarly plagued with problems. It had snowed, a freak snowstorm, and there were conflicting reports of whether or not we'd be able to land in Dallas. By mid-afternoon, the snow seemed to have burned off, but, as it developed when we got to Dallas, there was still the question of whether we'd be able to land in Austin. That, too, eventually got settled, and I remember it was dark when I got home. I'd suspended the newspaper delivery while I was gone, and it was due to start up the next day. I was tired, glad to be home, trying to figure out what was going on with my girlfriend, eager to see what had come in the mail, what was on the answering machine...and before long the exhaustion hit me and I crashed.

The next morning dawned warm, as if the freak snowstorm had never happened, and I walked out onto the lawn to get my paper. As I opened it, I saw the headline: the Berlin Wall had opened, thousands of East Berliners were surging through to take a look at the city they'd lived next door to for ages, families were being reunited, people were dancing on the Wall, etcetera etcetera. I couldn't believe what I was reading. Sure, I knew there had been protests, but...did that guy from Junge Welt know something I didn't? (Well, sure he did, but did he know for sure?)

Then, at 3 in the afternoon, the phone rang, and it was one of my friends in Berlin. "Hey, where are you, man? We're having a party!" I grumbled something, but I was already making plans to get back over there as soon as I could.

In the meanwhile, though, I almost got to be a part of the story even from thousands of miles away. Another guy called about a week later. "They're planning to have a big concert at the Brandenburg Gate," he said, "and they've asked me if I could get Z Z Top. I think you know them, right?" Well, I knew Billy Gibbons, and, more importantly, I knew how to put a formal request into the ear of their management very quickly. Which is how it had to happen: the concert was scheduled just a few days hence. I told the guy to hang on, and went to work. Gibbons was beyond enthusiastic: he grasped the historic importance immediately. But it was up to Bill Ham, their manager, to formally say yes, and Ham was out fishing somewhere. One day went by...two days went by...finally, I heard from my contact: Ham was ready to send the band, so I was to give him the contact names. And yeah, they'd fly me along just for setting it up. I was jazzed and called Berlin. "Oh, I was about to call you. Someone else came up with Joe Cocker, and he's much more popular. Sorry." Not as sorry as I was.

And I did get back soon: at the end of January, after the MIDEM conference in Cannes, France. I took a train up there as fast as I could get there from Paris, whipped out my notebook, and started to report a story I was absolutely sure I could sell: how West Berlin would change without the Wall. I knew that the subsidy-fat, anything-goes nature of West Berlin was doomed now, that money had to go into rebuilding (or in many cases, building) the infrastructure to unite the two cities, I knew that there was going to be immense culture shock (brilliantly explored by a German acolyte of Gilbert Shelton's, Gerhard Seyfried, in a graphic novel called Flucht aus Berlin, which I got as a birthday present the next year), and I knew that nothing was ever going to be the same for any of my friends there. I had an interview with a guy who'd been a dissident in East Berlin and had become such a pain in the regime's ass that they actually threw him out. I talked to lefties, barflies, and members of a band that had played tons of gigs in East Germany and had banked the Ostmarks they'd earned there in the Landesbank because you had to do something with them, only to discover that they were now going to be exchanged for Deutsche Marks one-to-one: they were rich!

It was a great story, and it taught me a valuable lesson. Don't try to upset the media's simplistic understanding of world events. After I wrote it up, I sent it all over the place, only to get the same rejection everywhere: I'd missed the story. The story was that the East Germans were ecstatic not to be Communists any more (not true, of course: many of them felt -- and still feel -- that they had an authentic culture with many valuable things they lost in unification), that the West Germans were welcoming them as long-lost brothers (instead of shunning them like the ignorant, unwashed swine most Wessis I knew took them to be), and that Berlin was the forerunner of a massive freedom movement that would sweep Eastern Europe (well, sort of true, although it was Leipzig where the action was, and I think I've blown that riff before on this blog so I won't do it here).

Nearly everything my story predicted came true: the real estate boom; the underhanded dealings around the Treuhand, the agency set up to deal with state property from the DDR; the "Mauer im Kopf" (wall in the head) attitudes on both sides; the weird tension that hung in the air as everyone waited to see what would happen next. Unfortunately, I no longer have the story: I'd bought a Xerox word-processor that recorded stories on huge 5" floppy discs, so when my last paper copy went out to its rejection grave I didn't worry. Of course, the disc drive failed, and nobody could recover anything from the discs.

It wasn't a waste of time, though, because I lived through it and still remember that trip. In a way, it was better than being there when the Wall opened up, because things were way more complex, and, therefore, more interesting. And that spring, I was back, in a rented car, ready to drive to another newly-liberated territory, Czechoslovakia. But that's another story.

Friday, November 05, 2004


Well, that certainly was a crappy birthday present, people!

I actually achieved a sort of Zen-like above-it-all feeling after I mailed my absentee ballot off, and stopped reading polls and following any campaign news. What would happen would happen, and I'm afraid it did.

The immediate results for me are that it's probably going to be a lot more dangerous to be identified as an American in a lot of places over here, because Bush's mistaking another squeaker for a mandate will mean that his crew of fundamentalist lunatics will almost certainly be pushing for an invasion of Iran or Syria within the next few weeks, and there will be angry Arabs and other Muslims around who have had their suspicions that Christian America is on another Crusade to eliminate them from the earth confirmed by over 50% of the American electorate. My long-held dream of moving to Southern France, in other words, becomes more perilous. At least in Berlin most Muslims are Turks, and they're not as likely to be poorly-educated products of madrassas. Algerians and Moroccans, on the other hand...

The dollar, also, will probably continue to sink as the debt piles up. I noticed this morning that the Euro has now climbed up to $1.286, and I predict it'll break $1.30 by the end of the year. Given that I work mostly for dollars, this is catastrophic. My €504.30 rent now costs me $648.33, which is pretty awful considering that when I moved here it was less than the same number of dollars. The rent hasn't changed, either.

This, of course, is the point in the post-election cycle where people start talking darkly about wanting to leave the country, and my guess is I'm going to be hosing a lot of them down with reality. Most of the people I've seen talking about it don't even speak another language, and seem to think that Canada or England will welcome them. Canada has an on-line test you can take, and I know I failed it, even with a knowledge of French, although just for the sake of fun, maybe I should take it again now that the passing grade's been lowered. England is impossible. Just forget it unless you have such stellar qualifications that they'd be stupid not to take you. Others dream of New Zealand, probably having overdosed on Lord of the Rings and not considering the deep implications of the phrase "more sheep than people." Not to mention how extremely far away it is from, like, everything.

People also forget about the finances, and I would urge any potential expat of the moment to read those figures for the dollar versus the Euro again and consider how many currencies are tied to the Euro rather than to the dollar. It costs a lot to have your stuff shipped over here, especially if you don't want to wait a few months for some ship to tie up in Marseilles or Bremen and then offload it into a warehouse where it will be "inspected" by folks who'll help you on your quest for Nirvana by lessening the burdens of so many material possessions before sticking it on a truck that'll take its time. You'd also be surprised at how few people are willing to rent apartments and houses to foreigners who don't have jobs, especially when they don't speak the language. They're also shocked by the amount of taxes they're going to pay, not to mention the price of gasoline. But hey, it's an entertaining fantasy, and if you're serious about doing it, I'm always ready to offer counselling.

Anyway, election night I decided not to go to any of the election parties around town, which turned out to be a very good idea. The tension of the day prevented some of my well-intentioned friends from taking me out to dinner, which was also fine with me, because that's wound up with my learning where some of Berlin's worst eating establishments are. Last year's was a Cuban stand-up snack bar (Stehimbiss), and while the rice and beans were good, if someone had told me that the piece of pork I got with them was actually a piece of boiled wood, I would have believed them. So I stayed home and made Gong Bao Chicken, which was what I wanted.

But waking up the next day certainly was depressing once I started to read the news. Clearly, something has gone very wrong in the country I grew up in, and I spent Wednesday pretty much incapable of doing anything, although I do have two stories due early next week. I finally found the solution, and guys, ask the gals in your life if you need confirmation: shopping works as therapy.

I hit Lands End for a pair of gloves (they have a German store, although they almost backed out when the government here sued them for their money-back guarantee on the grounds that -- get this -- it stifled competition, because, you see, German stores might have to actually serve their customers a little better, and, as anyone who's endured German the-customer-is-always-wrong service knows, that would go against years of tradition), and then I took a bit from the bank and called a friend and went to Centro Italia, the Italian wholesale market. So now I've got enough pasta and olive oil to last me until the 2008 election, or close enough, and let's face it, I'm not living in America, and so I don't have to look at the faces of my fellow citizens and wonder which of them believes Al Qaeda lives in Iraq or that the economy's in great shape or that gay marriage trumped every other issue troubling the country. Or which among them are still ossified by the amorphous fear that's been cranked out to distract them from the horrors being perpetrated on them and in their names.

And so now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to open one of my Italian cookbooks (remember folks: you can never have too many Italian cookbooks or too many Duke Ellington records!) and get to work.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Crumbs, Part XIV

What did I say? The Berlinbites Tech Team spared no effort, so the PayPal link works again. Our thanks to the toiling multitudes for their unstinting efforts.


Had a conversation with the Countess von Pfeil yesterday concerning the construction in the back yard. Actually, she lives in my building and is a friendly 20-something-year-old with a nearly Valley Girl American accent due to the years she lived in the U.S., but she was as concerned as I was about the noise, and discovered in talking to the construction workers that the land speculator who bought the building is insolvent, that the underground parking garage isn't going to happen as promised, and that they're just going to plant a bunch of grass in the area where the other buliding that would cut off my light was going to be. Of course, they also told her that this work would be over in a week, and that was two weeks ago. All I know is, if I'd paid all that money for an apartment in this building, I'd be pretty steamed by now. No wonder half the building isn't sold or rented yet.

As for their being a Countess in my building, there's royalty all over Germany, and it rarely means anything. There was a Baroness in one crowd I was running with when I first moved here, and I didn't know about it until I had to call her one day and picked up the phone book and saw that's how she was listed. "Oh, please don't bring that up with her," one of her friends told me. "She's really embarrassed by that." And then there's my friend Fred, the No 'Count Count, over in London, whose family extends to Texas and the plot against Hitler and lots of other interesting historical stuff. But he's got a day job just like loads of other people. As far as I can tell, there are very few titled people in Germany with any money or position, and having a title doesn't seem to help you, at least not with anyone who counts, although one does see little old ladies reading magazines devoted to some of the wealthier sorts and their loves, lives, and horses.


I suspect this is going to be a long day. Apparently a lot of my friends are going to a party sponsored by Vote 44, one of the innumerable expat get-out-the-vote organizations, not far from my house, and I'll be joining them there. One friend who won't be there is working the overnight shift at Deutsche Welle, the German equivalent of the BBC World Service, and boy would I like to be a fly on the wall there. But I guess we'll all know more by this time tomorrow. Let us hope for good news. And if you'd like to see it expressed more eloquently than I can at the moment, attend to words of the guy who's been running the Electoral Vote blog, another expat who would like to go back to living a normal existence instead of having to deal with seeming to represent a bunch of bloodthirsty, arrogant morons.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Technical Note

Just so you don't think it's your fault, the PayPal button up there doesn't seem to work right.

Our highly trained technical personnel are on this like white on rice, and they'll have it fixed in a jiffy. And I'll let you know, with luck in a post that's not as miserable and angry as the one below. Sorry about that; it was One Of Those Days.

Birthday Begging

No, this doesn't have anything to do with that PayPal button up there. That just got added because several people have told me they often contribute to blogs they like, and so I thought, hey, I'm not getting paid for the things I write for money, so why not? After all, if all 100 of the people who read this blog regularly sent me €300 apiece all at once, I could move! I might also add some Google Smart Ads, but first I'd like to figure out just how tiny the click-through rate is. And, given that I'm involved with two books coming out this month and another one next April, I might also offer people the chance to buy them through Amazon or Powell's or something on an associate program.

But that, as the Germans say, is future music.

Right now, I'm trying to cope with the oh-so-predictable pre-birthday depression, which has been on me like a soggy blanket for the past few days.

Some of this is due to having been completely broke for the past five days, waking up to 14 cents in my pocket and nothing in my bank account. However, I had a notice in my mailbox on Saturday that there was something needing my signature up at the post office, and sure enough, a nice International Money Order for over €200 was there. Hey, money orders are already paid for, so this could be instantly negotiable, I thought, and headed to my bank. I carefully explained to them that I needed this cashed immediately, but would put half of it in my account. The woman couldn't understand the words International Money Order and had to talk to a colleague. Then she came back, typed a bunch of stuff into the computer, walked away to pick up a printout, came back and told me the money was in my account. "So what about the money I need now?" I asked. "Oh, it takes three days for foreign checks to clear." "That wasn't a check. It was a money order." "It was a check. You'll have your money in three days. Next!"

Fortunately someone loaned me a very little bit to make it through til then, but boy, was I steamed.

And it was totally congruent with everything else going around in my head. I mean, tomorrow, Nov. 2, I turn 56. I find myself not the slightest bit improved from last year at this time: still writing small articles for tiny amounts of money, although when I get the chance, I'm writing better stuff than ever. Still behind in the rent -- eight months -- and every cent I make goes to the landlord, the phone company, the power company, or the grocery store, in about that order. I'm having to realize that I'm going to spend the rest of my life alone, since women tend not to want to form relationships with men who can't support themselves at the age of 56, and who can blame them? There might be yet another female psychopath with a substance abuse problem come along, as there was earlier this year, but I hope this time I can see the danger before it hits. And because so much of my life is spent in the hunter-gatherer mode, as it is right now (it took me four hours to deal with this money order thing today!), the leisure to dream is absent. I'm trying to stay focused on moving to France, on the idea that two well-paying articles back-to-back would clear up the whole back rent situation, but that would mean finding an outlet or outlets that actually honor their commitments. I'm hoping against all logic that a break will come that will allow me to finally get back into living a real life again. I'm not too optimistic, but consider the alternative.

So that's the pre-birthday depression.

Now for the begging.

I was born on Nov. 2, 1948. That day is famous for having produced one of the most famous headlines in history, the Chicago Tribune's DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN blooper. (Well, actually the headline came out on the 3rd). But it was, like this one is, a very close election. Neither party stooped to the filthy tactics the Republicans have made their trademark over the past decade back then, since politics was a game of, if not gentlemen, at least people with minimal ethics.

Once again, my birthday falls on Election Day. Now, I've already voted absentee, and with luck Deutsche Post and the USPS have gotten the oversized envelope to the Travis County Courthouse in Austin. But, as an American living overseas, it is particularly important to me that the junta that seized power in 2000 be defeated. Even ignoring the horrible cost to the United States in soldier deaths, out of control debt, environmental disaster, media censorship and Big Brother-like spying that four more years would bring, it would literally endanger every American living outside the country. I don't need to repeat the cliches about how the Bush Administration squandered the outpouring of sympathy the world had after 9/11, but I do get tired of having to explain to people over here that I'm no more like the Bush crowd than they themselves are like Nazis. (That always gets a swift intake of breath, at the least, and usually a defensive "Well, I never implied that..." remark afterwards). I get tired of people making the assumption that I'm of a mind to be arrogant and pushy, that more than a small number of Americans actually think like the junta, or that anyone who identifies as a Texan (as I usually do, with even less justification than Dubyah himself) has to be One Of Them.

So I'm hereby asking for presents. Or one big present.

If you're American, you know what it is. Now go do your best to deliver it, okay? Thanks.