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.

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