Monday, January 31, 2005

Green Week Again!

About the only thing I regretted about my trip to France last week was that I might miss Green Week. Green Week (aka the Grüne Woche) is a Berlin institution that's been around since just after the War, a trade show for the grocery and gastronomy businesses which is also open to the public. It's a beloved event, because there are still people around who remember that it was possible to go there and get a free glass of milk and free samples of various kinds of food they might not see in their local stores -- at least not yet.

Today, it's another thing entirely. They've added on a gardening trade show, a pet trade show, a houseplant trade show, and a trade show for people who have Kleingartenkolonien, the little patches of land on which you can put a small shed or cottage and plant a garden. But the food show remains the heart of the thing, and the exhibitors come from around the world to show off stuff they think Germans might want to buy. In addition, the federal government puts up a huge exhibition in a hall where each German state shows off its regional specialties. Guess where most of the eating takes place.

In a way, it's wonderful: I've gone nearly every year I've been here, and come back with stuff I've loved. At one point, it was possible to get Tunisian olive oil, which is the best in the world: lots of the "Italian Extra Virgin" olive oil you buy is actually grown in Tunisia, but is packaged in Italy, where a legal loophole allows them to call it Italian. Unfortunately, the guy who was selling that stopped participating in the Tunisian stand, and I miss him: the stuff was not only good, it was phenomenally cheap. Then, a couple of years ago, I discovered Wattwurm, a company which makes long, skinny sausages that look like the shore-worms that swarm on the beaches here. The Wattwurm sausages didn't interest me as much as their Knobi-Knackers, which work just fine as Cajun sausages. Not as good as my old pal LeJeune makes in Eunice, but good enough. Some friends discovered Estonian mustard, which must be the most eye-watering mustard around. Then, the Estonians stopped selling it, although they'd put a tiny dab on your plate if you ordered one of their grilled sausages. You could get sharp cheddar at the Irish stand, a product notably missing here. And there were often other things that showed up, like the Finnish "sauna ham" we found one year, which was amazing -- and which never appeared again.

But in another way, it's depressing. It was particularly interesting to compare this year's with what I found just lying around in Montpellier's supermarkets, which were far more international than this year's Green Week. There's no getting around it: Green Week follows the Darwinian rules of capitalism: if people don't want it, they can't sell it. If they can't sell it, it doesn't get offered again.

It's also depressing because, as I've written before in an article a number of years ago, it shows how the Germans tend to reduce everything to a Pfanne of one sort or another. Pfanne means "pan," of course, but in practice, it means a gluey mass of stuff steaming in what looks to be an oversized wok. You have your Chinapfanne, your Asiapfanne, your Pilzpfanne, at every street fair, Christmas market, and in many snack bars. At Green Week, it gets ridiculous. There was a Kangaruhpfanne at the Australian stand, several other Pfanne at the Israeli stand, and variations of the Asiapfanne at the Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese stands. By reducing national cuisines to easily-understood stereotypes that Germans can accept, all of that cultural difference which other societies actually find interesting gets smoothed over. No wonder there are so many Thai sushi joints in Berlin!

And, because small nations can't afford to keep coming back if the Germans don't buy their stuff, real finds have become increasingly rare. Large nations, too, stop coming out of what must be frustration. The Americans once were represented by a doughnut maker, Samuel Adams beer, and some German wholesaler shilling for cheap California wine. (What was really cool was that the organizers invariably set them next to the Iranian stand, so dark looks shot back and forth over the figs and pistachios, the doughnuts and hot dogs). They were nowhere to be seen this year, although the Iranians had not only pistachos, but saffron. Japan, too, was missing, probably because they gave up trying to prove that Japanese people eat things other than sushi. South America was mostly missing, as was Africa (I once bought some coffee from Dahomey, I think it was, which was so good I found myself wishing I'd bought more).

So yesterday's visit was the shortest I'd ever made. I had some goals, but I was also on the lookout for bargains, since it was the last day of the event. I did manage a huge chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, lots of Wattwurm Knobi-Knackers, a salami soaked in Barolo wine (this goes very nicely on pizza), and a tube of Estonian mustard after two years of their refusing to sell me any. I don't know what was different this year: I just asked nicely and they said yes. I got a tin of paprika from Szeged, where my friend Ray lives, and it had a little cookbook tied to it. (I just hope this isn't the stuff with the aflatoxins in it that was in the news just after last year's harvest). I also scored a nice bumper sticker from the Ukranian election, a big orange flag behind a picture of a father and son and the word TAK! in big blue letters. Nice historical souvenir.

But three hours later, I was walking back to the subway. No Irish stand this year, so no cheddar. No Tunisian guy (the Tunisians mostly sell incense and handcrafts), no surprises at all. Of course, what's on view isn't the real story: behind the scenes, as at any trade show, the attendees are talking to German grocery chains and food wholesalers and restaurant purveyors and setting up the deals that'll show up on the German food scene over the next few months. Free samples vanished years ago, so I was hungry at the appropriate time later in the day, and I wasn't interested in drinking until I got sick, which is probably the most notable non-professional activity at Green Week. It was okay, but not nearly as good as the one I attended 11 years ago, or even five years ago.

But you know what? I'll go next year if I'm here.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

A Goal

Yes, it was 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes, the wind was blowing out of the Alps at about 30 miles an hour, so the wind-chill was ridiculous. But the sun was shining, and I'll tell you one thing: Montpellier is beautiful. For some reason, I kept taking pictures of alleyways.

This won't be easy. It's going to take a minimum of €30,000, I'd say. I have no idea where I'm going to come up with that kind of money, but I'm going to try. Because from the way it looks to the way people act to the access to other places, this is the Europe I want to live in. Forever? I doubt it. Or maybe. Hell, I may be as irritated with Montpellier after 11 years as I am with Berlin. But it's less crowded than Paris, less expensive (although rents are about 20% higher than they are here and apartments are hard to come by when school's in session: half the population, almost, are students), and less visited by tourists. Not that I have anything against tourists, because I just was one for two and a half days. Of course, it's also less visited by various cultural attractions -- bands, museum shows -- and has a much smaller population. "Provincial" was the word one guy used. Of course, he owns an English-language bookstore there, and was shocked to hear we didn't have any in Berlin. Yeah, I know from provincial. And his was one of two I visited.

I'm still sorting through impressions and so on, but I did want to get a couple of pictures up because people have been asking for them.

More later. Meanwhile, here's another alley.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Ban The Bahn

I fired off a letter to Deutsche Bahn this morning before I packed for tomorrow's early-morning trip to Paris, using their service as far as Cologne. Here's what I wrote:

Dear Deutsche Bahn:

Thank you for your quick reply.

I should have known that, in typical German fashion, this incident would be made to be my fault. After all, it’s a byword of doing business here that the customer is always wrong.

I should never have expected that a Deutsche Bahn employee would volunteer the information that taking another train would allow me to save money. After all, that would be helpful, and who has time for that?

Nor should I have expected guidance from your website, which could easily have pointed out this fact. And I suppose I shouldn’t have expected you to address my question as to why anyone would buy a ticket from a website which doesn’t tell its customers how much a ticket costs. It’s too much to ask from a company which has no competition.

I will almost certainly be required to go back to Paris a couple of times this year, and for that I will fly. I don’t particularly like flying, but at least I can find out how much my ticket costs, and I haven’t been discourteously dismissed by any of the airlines yet.

Kundenfreundlich is a German word. You might like to contemplate it. My English-language readers may not know it as such, but I have no problem teaching it to them.

You have lost a customer. And I don’t think you really care.


We'll see if there's a reply. My guess is there won't be; that foreigners don't really count with them. This is more than just an idle guess; of the Big Three services, Deutsche Post, Deutsche Telekom, and Deutsche Bahn, only the latter is still semi-attached to the government, and it hopes to go public with its stock later this year or earlier next year. I can tell you from personal experience that Deutsche Post's service improved humongously when it went private and snuggled up with DHL (in fact, the yellow mail trucks are now DHL trucks), and, although I haven't had much contact with them in the last few months (and that's a good thing), my friend the dancer insists that they've become easier to deal with of late. But when they were still under the shadow of being arms of the government, with employees who could never be fired, with workforces up to 20% redundant as a result, they treated their customers with contempt, their foreign customers like contemptable retarded people. The thing is, most Germans took it, and the rest took it for granted that their institutions hated them. They didn't expect any better. But that's another rant, for another day.

Right now, I have to throw a couple of things in a suitcase and get out of here at an obscene hour in the morning. The camera's going with me, and I'll be back late Friday night. Stay tuned.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Customer Service, German Style

When last we looked, our hero had discovered that he had been charged a whopping $400 for a round-trip ticket to Paris, despite having a 25% discount card and a further discount for international travel originating in Germany. Shocked, he wrote a letter to Deutsche Bahn's customer service division, who then suggested he copy the tickets and mail the copies to them for inspection. This he did.

Well, the reply came today, and it's not pretty.

"Based on our conditions of sale our employees compile the needed documents most carefully and our customers are obligated to prove the bought tickets accuracy," it says, setting up the classic "customer is always wrong" defense. "In case there has been a mistake it can be corrected immediately. No complaint can be accepted later." Can you believe that? But it gets better.

After informing me that I can go stand on line again and cash the German end of the tickets in (the others are non-refundable), it continues:

"Because Sparpreis tickets are only possible for the same return route, you have gotten Normalpreis tickets by using the route to Brussels and further with Thalys to Paris Nord. The return will be from Köln to Berlin with Deutsche Bahn. Thalys and Deutsche Bahn tarifs are separate and not always available at the same time. That is why our cleark has offered you that ticket for your requested travel."

Of course, the "cleark" could have pointed this out to me, but she didn't. She's a drone, and expected to behave like a drone. Note that this was presented as being completely my choice, although I was never presented with enough information to alter my decision. The customer is, as always, wrong.

There's a nice kicker, too: "We would be pleased if you would continue to prefer the ecologically friendly travelling by train and wish you pleasant trips on board of our trains." Play on guilt! That always works!

Well, I'm an ecologically and otherwise friendly guy, but I've just been screwed. Next time I have to go to Paris, EasyJet gets my business.

They also never addressed another issue: I fake-booked a ticket on this same route on the website and got as far as where I'd push the button to pay for it. No price was ever mentioned, yet they asked me to okay it so they could mail me the tickets. I asked them what customer in their right mind would buy something for which no price was quoted. They ignored that question.

If you think this is fun, you ought to try to reason with Deutsche Telekom some time.

Meanwhile, beware of doing business with Deutsche Bahn.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Another Nekkid Lady

I've been wanting to post some more shots of the graffiti around here, but I've fallen woefully behind in both processing the pix and figuring out which of them to put up. Meanwhile, my favorite graffiti artist, Nike, has been doing some wonderful work. There are two more I"ve been meaning to shoot (plus another one on Kastanienallee which is a true dud), but this one appeared very close to my house, and it's everything I like about her work: a kind of primitivism which nonetheless gets some really subtle observation about the woman's body just right -- and some wrong, as witness the hands here. I hope this shows up -- that picture of Rosenthaler Platz yesterday is a true mess, isn't it? -- and I'll try to shoot the others before too long.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Burden Of History: Jews And Cattle

Hey, Berlinophiles! Recognize this place?

That's right: it's fabulous Rosenthaler Platz, looking north from the traffic island in the middle of its south side. We see Brunnenstr. stretching to the north, and Weinbergsweg, familiar to those of you who've stayed at Berlin's best hostel/cheap hotel the Circus, which is just visible as a yellowish building on the far right. Running right to left is Torstr. I've been walking around there for eleven years and some, because starting in January '94, I worked not too far away on Linienstr. I've lived near it for eight years, and walk through it on the average of five or six times a week.

So how come I never knew until recently that it once played an absolutely crucial part in Berlin's -- Germany's -- history?

But it did. A few months ago, I read an amazing book, The Pity Of It All, a history of the Jews in Germany by Amos Elon. Although there's a fascinating chapter at the beginning about the first Jews to come to Germany (I was blown away to learn that there were Jews in Cologne before there were Germans, but, since it was a city artificially created by the Romans -- Colonia -- as a colonial outpost, and doubtless included Jews from the Roman Empire, it makes sense), the book really starts in 1743, when a 14-year-old boy left his home in Dessau and came to Berlin to study.

At the time, Berlin still had its medieval city wall, which stretched along what is now Torstr. and it was studded with gates where armed guards took note of who came and went in the name of security. We're all familiar with the Brandenburg Gate, and just down Torstr. from me in the other direction is Oranienburger Tor, where a gate stood until the 19th Century. "Tor," in fact, means "gate," but except for a few which are memorialized by subway stops these days -- Schlesischises Tor, Hallesches Tor -- only the one which appears on German coinage is still standing.

So imagine my surprise to read the opening words of Elon's book: "In the fall in 1743, a fourteen-year-old boy entered Berlin at the Rosenthaler Tor, the only gate in the city wall through which Jews (and cattle) were allowed to pass. The boy had arrived from his hometown of Dessau, some one hundred miles away in the small independent principality of Dessau-Anhalt. For five or six days he had walked through the hilly countryside to reach the Prussian capital."

The boy, we learn in the next paragraph, was Moses Mendelssohn, one of the preeminent figures in modern Judaism, the philosopher who managed to show his fellow Jews that the ideals of the Enlightenment were compatible with Jewish thought. He fought for tolerance for the Jews in Berlin and won it, albeit grudgingly in some quarters. He founded the first secular, co-ed school for Jewish children, translated important Jewish texts into German, and is rightly revered as one of Germany's greatest thinkers. The revolution he started is the subject of Elon's book, and it is arguable that the history of the Jews in Germany is the history of Berlin, since Berlin was the Jews' central German city, and, as Germany unified into a single country, a place where Jewish artists, writers, businessmen, and politicians were increasingly prominent and powerful.

(Incidentally, Mendelssohn did almost too good a job: his children mostly converted, adding the name "Bertholdy" to his to show connections to a Gentile in the family tree, and his grandchildren Felix and Fanny became famous musicians -- Felix even writing Christian church music and conducting the famous revival of Bach's B-Minor Mass in Leipzig.)

So where do you suppose the Rosenthaler Tor, gateway for cattle and Jews was? Duhh.

And why did I have to wait until 2004, which is when I read this book, to discover that this place where several streets come together in my neighborhood held the gate where a man whose school is near me, whose family's banking business virtually built a whole street near me, and whose grave is just a few blocks from my house, came to this city?

Berlin has a very odd attitude towards its own history, I think. There is no lack of signs and monuments to the bad things that happened here. The city has allowed an artist from another city to come here and install his "Klopfensteine" (stumbling blocks), small golden squares hammered into the cobblestones in front of various buildings giving the names of the Jews who had lived there and were deported, the dates of their births and deaths. Berlin is building a mammoth memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe near the Brandenburg Gate. Wittenbergplatz has its list of concentration camps hanging outside the subway station. Nollendorfplatz has its bronze monument to the homosexuals murdered in the camps. Just next to the park where Mendelssohn's grave is, formerly the first Jewish cemetery in Berlin, there's a monument to the Jews who were collected in a building which used to stand there, an old-age home run by the Jewish community, and then deported to the camps. East Berlin is studded with small plaques memorializing Communists -- many, but not all of them, Jewish -- who were arrested and disappeared during the Nazi era.

So why isn't there a sign telling us where a very good thing happened to Berlin's Jews?

Because, as you turn Elon's pages, you realize that lots of good things happened to Jews in Berlin, despite waxing and waning periods of anti-Semitism (incidentally, Elon and several others I've read trace the origins of classic anti-Semitism to France, not Germany). Jews wrote poetry, ran salons (in the case of many notable women), filled the orchestras, made revolution, advanced science. Yes, the story has a sad ending, and that's why Elon named his book The Pity Of It All, but I guarantee anyone reading it will be uplifted and inspired.

A solution to this is near at hand, in Paris. If you've walked around Paris, you've undoubtedly noticed these shield-shaped plaques on buildings, headed "L'Histoire du Paris." There are plenty of them, and if you're just randomly walking around Paris, you can be surprised by chancing upon a gem. I was walking down a street there once because my map said it was the quickest way to get from A to B, and there was a very ornate building in the middle of the block. Thanks to the shield, I discovered it was once the city's central market for buying and selling horses, and that everything from dray-horses to fine purebreds were sold there.

The thing about these Parisian shields is they don't take up a whole lot of room, they're succinctly written (indeed, some of them don't make sense without a certain amount of context), and there are a hell of a lot of them. Berlin could do the same thing, but I suspect it never will.

So that's why I was at Rosenthaler Platz today, risking life and limb to get that shot. Just imagine young Moses walking down Brunnenstr. to the gate, nervous at the interrogation he was about to undergo (Jews without money were turned away, and pedlars were forbidden), eager to meet the rabbi who was sponsoring his education.

But there's something about this city which squirms when positive, uplifting, or optimistic stories are brought up. No, it says, I prefer to shoulder the Burden Of History. It's my fate, my duty.

Well, it's not mine.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Sauerkraut (Lunch Portion)

Been doing a lot of running around, both on the Net and on my feet, this week, trying to set up this trip to Montpellier on the 24th. On Monday, I walked down to Friedrichstr. station to buy the Berlin-Paris ticket, and as I walked into the so-called "service center," I noted that there were about 15 people in line. In the 20 minutes it took me to get to the head of the line, that number increased to 27. As always, there were four counters, but you'll never find all four open at the same time.

Anyway, I drew an old woman who seemed to be the epitome of German civil service: bored, slow, and inefficient. Hearing that I wanted to go to Paris, she disappeared into the back room for a while and came out with a huge loose-leaf book that she spent a long time consulting. It took her 25 minutes to write up my ticket, and the woman next to her handled seven customers while she fiddled.

Since I was two weeks out from the trip, I figured I'd be saving some money, especially since I have a 25% off Bahn Card with Rail Plus, a mysterious add-on that's supposed to save money in other countries on trips booked from Germany. She took my credit card, and I swear I heard her say €119 as the price, which seemed low, but not worth bothering to check. It wasn't until I got home that I looked at the receipt and saw that it was €319. That's over $400.

I was on a couple of deadlines, but I took to the Internet as soon as I could. Deutsche Bahn has a very weird interface, and it took me a couple of days to figure out how to order an imaginary ticket to Paris and back, only to get to the very last step, at which point I was going to abort, and discover that they would take my credit card and mail me a ticket -- but were forbidden to tell me how much that ticket cost!

Someone suggested I do it in reverse, so I went to the French railroad site and ordered a ticket to Berlin. This, with no discounts, cost €163. That did it: I'd paid too much.

So this afternoon I walked back down to Friedrichstr. and stood in line for another twenty minutes (but with fewer people, because this time there were even fewer windows open) and watched a young woman ahead of me completely lose it, screaming about how she was missing work and why couldn't they staff this place right, and, when they finally opened another window, breaking down in huge sobs while the guy at the desk waited impassively for her to stop.

When I finally got to the window, I explained that I was pretty sure I'd been overcharged. The woman looked at my ticket, and expressed concern, then fiddled with the computer for a few minutes. Then she disappeared into the back room, and came out again. "Sorry, it all looks correct." Really? With the discounts and everything? "It is correct." The last time I went it was a hundred Euros cheaper. "Well, you probably were taking advantage of a sale or something. This is correct." This is very expensive, I told her. Next time I guess I'll have to fly. She shrugged her shoulders.

Now, I knew she wouldn't care if I liked what she had to say or not. I'm used to that in Germany: the customer is always wrong, and, moreover, is a pain in the butt. But she offered no advice ("If you took a later train..." or something) and offered no explanation. Her job was to get me to go away.

And, having searched the great Mobissimo, I've found that even at this late date, I could book a flight on EasyJet for €209.98 that's both later in the day and cheaper.

And next time I will, most likely. But I've been looking forward to the long journey for too long, looking forward to reading a stack of magazines that have piled up, watching the scenery -- such as it is -- out the window, and listening to some CDs of radio shows David Gans sent me (no, they are not Grateful Dead shows!). Is that worth a hundred Euros? No, but it's worth a hundred Euros not to have to go back down to Friedrichstr., stand on line yet again, cancel the ticket, wait for the cancellation to show up on the card, and then pray that EasyJet still has a fare that cheap. I have my entire passage to Montpellier in my hand, I have an e-mail from the guy whose house I'm staying with that gives me directions ("When leaving the station, take the large avenue (lined with palm trees and where the streetcar runs) up to the main square..." Whoa! Palm trees?), and I have a week to do liner notes for the forthcoming Best of Son Volt CD for Rhino and maybe one or two other things before I go.

Sometimes you just learn your lesson and cut your losses.

Hit Me With Music

After a satisfying week of work and a somewhat less satisfying day buying my ticket from Berlin to Paris and back, I went over to Blaise's house last night because his landlord's girlfriend was having some people over, and, since they're interesting folks, I figured it'd be a good evening.

It was: I showed Blaise how to cook my famous hamburger curry (not one of those yellow curries, but a weird dish, allegedly Burmese, although it isn't, that was the first thing I learned to cook, and is closer to chili), and he showed me some of his latest paintings, which have amazing color and textural things going on in them and make me think he's definitely on to something these days.

We then went over to Rainer and Rike's apartment, and Blaise was given the job of making Buñuel Martinis. Not being much of a martini maven, I'm not sure what made these different, unless it was the touch of Angostura bitters, but they were real good. A few of Rike's filmmaking colleagues were over and as the evening progressed, we talked about a whole range of things. Rainer gave me an impassioned speech about how he's astonished that he can stay in one place and watch the drama of the world, and how the Internet (something most Germans have only recently discovered) gave him access to a huge range of things that he'd always hoped to be able to know, all for free. At one point I recommended he check out the Worldchanging blog as an example of what the medium he calls "der vay vay vay" (which is how you say www in German) has to offer. (I recommend it to you, too, of course).

Then we ranged on to other things, Rike put on Eno's Another Green World
and Rainer said his two musical heroes were Frank Zappa and Brian Eno, so I told him the story about the day Brian Eno came to my house in Calfornia to do an interview but had laryngitis and spent the time nibbling nasturtium leaves, which caused him to roar with laughter (well, there's a lot more to it than I just let on). Eventually, we were all pretty toasted, and I noticed it was 2:15 and remembered I had a FedEx package coming today. Well, you know the rule: if I'd gone to bed at midnight, the package wouldn't have come til four in the afternoon, but if I went to bed at 3am, it'd be here at 7, right? So I said my good-byes and left.

Blaise told me there was a taxi stand down by the hospital nearby, and although there were taxis on the street, I wasn't 100% sure where I was in relation to my house, so I figured that would be the best place to go. It was only two blocks, so it wouldn't have made much difference one way or the other. Sure enough, after a bracing, frosty walk the lights of the taxis appeared. There was one in front, and the driver had two other people in his car -- probably other drivers he was chatting with, I thought.

As I walked up on it, I saw he was Turkish, and so were the other guys. He saw me, said something, and the other two started to leave. I got up to the taxi just as they got out, and I panicked. Both were holding heavy sticks, with a knob at one end. Baseball bats! Something was definitely wrong. Not much baseball gets played in Berlin, but a lot of baseball bats get sold, mostly to young hooligans on the right and left who find them most useful in skull-cracking. But what were Turks doing with them?

Nothing, as it turned out, because by now the taxi driver was out, and he had a violin in his hands and was rushing to the trunk to stow it. The baseball bats suddenly turned into very odd flutes, with a ceramic or plastic knob facilitating blowing into one end, and I'd say they were dilsiz kavals, although one might have been a dilli kaval or a ney. Clearly, I'd interrupted a jam-session. So I turned to the two kaval players and said "I'm American, so I know nothing about Turkish music. Are those flutes?" The guys said no, they were (something). "That's real interesting," I said, lamely. "Our friend plays the fiddle," one of them said, "and if you want to learn more about Turkish music, I suggest you get in his cab and talk to him. Have a good evening."

The driver was much younger than the two guys who'd been jamming with him, and got very uptight when I asked him whether he played Turkish music. "I'm studying the violin," he said, "and I love all kinds of music. I play Turkish music, yes, but I also play jazz. And my great idol is Paganini." Ah, I said, but we don't know what he really sounded like. "People said he was the devil," the driver said, "so he had the power to entrance people who heard him. That's what I want to do." On the stereo was a Turkish violin player, very emotional, with a synthesizer set to sound like a kanun accompanying him, and I asked if it was a santur. "No, santur is Iranian instrument," the driver said. "This is more like what the Germans call a zither, a kanun." The violinist we were listening to, he said, was the greatest violinist in Turkey, and had been his teacher. Then he asked me if I'd ever heard of Chiat Askin. "Is he Turkish?" I asked. "Syrian Kurdish!" the driver snapped back, but he added that he, too, was a great musician.

It was about then that I realized I wasn't quite sure where we were, but the meter was still pretty low, and the driver asked me why I was so interested. I told him I was a music journalist and wrote about all kinds of music, but, being American, I didn't know much about Turkish music because there aren't many Turks in America. (Whenever I remind the guys at the Döner Kebap stand in front of my house about this fact, their eyes fill with dollar signs; I wouldn't be the least surprised if one of them eventually heads to the States to turn people on to this staple of German lunchtime). He had a hard time believing this, and went back to praising Paganini. That was when I snapped to the fact that, being a young guy, he didn't want me to think that just because he was hanging around with two old men who played shepherds' instruments, he was "country." And confirmation came very shortly, just as Alexanderplatz swing into view (whew!).

"Uhhh, I haven't been driving very long. This is my third day," he said. "No problem, I know just where we are and how to get back to my house from here." He sighed with relief. In fact, I'd say he hadn't even been in the country very long, but he did sort of know how to drive (or perhaps he drove like they do in Turkey, ie, even worse than Germans), and we got back to the house safely.

As I paid him, I gave him a big tip. "Young music students need to eat, too," I said. "You bet," he said, and drove away.

Sunday, January 09, 2005


Wow, has it actually been a week since I posted anything here? Sorry: there are, after all, people who read this -- a couple of hundred, from the statistics I get -- and I apologize to one and all.

The excuse I offer, however, is the best one possible; work has been coming in like crazy, and I'm bashing it out as fast as I can. There's rent to pay, bills to pay, groceries to buy...I'm living like a human being again.

And I'm planning my trip to France at the end of the month. I'll be taking the train to Paris on the 24th, staying overnight and meeting some friends from the Well for dinner, and taking the train to Montpellier (check the nifty webcam there, and click on "Visites Virtuelles" here) the next morning. A friend-of-a-friend, who teaches English and American Studies at the university there, has kindly offered me his teenage daughter's room while she visits her mother in Paris, so I won't even have to get a hotel room, and I intend to spend Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday researching such dull stuff as the neighborhoods, the rents, the cost of living, cultural and social resources, and the like; fantasizing that I'm actually moving and taking down numbers to crunch.

I'm pretty sure those numbers will be daunting, at least as far as my current projected income is concerned, but the place is totally an abstraction to me and it's absolutely necessary to gather some reality-based information at this point. I'm sure I'll be discouraged in some ways, and encouraged in others, but the aim is to consider how I might fit into the life of a new place, and I've got to do it.

As I've said (probably even said here), just getting out of town tends to jump-start my brain, and it could well be that this trip does nothing but shake up the fragments of stuff lying around doing nothing and rearrange them in new and more useful ways which might well lead to my coming up with an idea that could wind up financing a move, or at least bring me closer to making one. I had one scare this week when the author of a not very good book asked me if I'd help him do some revisions for the paperback edition -- which were due tomorrow -- and I offered to do it for $15,000, based on an insubstantial rumor about the advance he'd gotten and the fact that several major sections would have to be rewritten from the ground up. He gulped and said no, but I have to be ready for the possibility that a similar project could come along at any moment.

I've also been busy with some business for SXSW '05, which is coming up in just a few weeks, and which I'll be attending. Last year's was a total disaster for me, but it was also the first time I pulled the handle on it and it came up all lemons; this year's could be completely different. I'll be warier of preppies with rock magazines that don't pay their bills, and editors of big magazines who get off on making promises they have no intention of keeping. I'd love to take a side trip to San Francisco and/or New York and/or Montreal, too, but I think keeping the ambitions modest and keeping focused might be a better idea.

Anyway, postings here might be quite sporadic over the next couple of weeks, although I do have one or two pieces I want to write and photograph that I just haven't had time to do. Stay tuned, and I'll be back just as quickly as I can.

Sunday, January 02, 2005


Ahh, I was going to post some pictures of the post-Silvester mess, wasn't I? Well, I didn't. I did go out for a walk with an eye towards finding some particularly awful scene of destruction, and I did it early enough -- 1 pm -- that it would have been pretty much in its natural state, but it had sort of drizzled all night, which had the combined effect of muting some of the revelry (once the church bells stopped at about 1:30, I went straight to sleep, which is unusual for December 31) and of turning what remains there were into a reddish-brown mush: evocative, but not really photographable. The mush is from the sawdust used to pack the firecrackers and help with the explosion, and it was a good quarter-inch deep in front of a couple of buildings; my boots left footprints in it. The Thai-Indonesian restaurant at the end of Torstr. by Chausseestr. showed the remains of what looked like a thousand firecrackers, almost certainly the staff's doing -- they're pretty wild and crazy folks. And there was the usual complement of shattered bottles and kids excitedly picking through the rubble in search of unexploded things they could go off and explode. But...not exactly a great photograph lurking in there. Not that I'm close to being even a good photographer.

Then I had the idea of summing up the year, which I'm coming to think of as perhaps the worst I've lived through, both personally and professionally -- not to mention the despair I felt watching my native country choose to isolate itself from the rest of the world even further. But the whole idea of rehashing a doomed romance with a woman who turned out to be an alcoholic (I've seen her twice in recent weeks, staggering down the street; it's hard to retain any animosity against someone so clearly ill); the promise I felt coming back from my annual visit to Texas with the hope burning within me that the editor who'd taken me to lunch and promised to help me make contacts at a some important magazines would, as he said, be in touch in a couple of weeks, only to never hear back from him after repeated e-mailing, and then, much later, to discover he makes a habit of doing this to writers for reasons only he can comprehend, and never follows through; finally touching down this summer when I found myself collecting bottles in vacant lots to return for 8 Euro-cents apiece at the supermarket, counting and re-counting the change in my pocket, living on biscuits and tap-water. Who'd want to re-live that? Who'd want to read about it? Most importantly, what could anybody do about it? It's over. The important thing is not to let it happen again. I'd still like a girlfriend, and lord knows I need those magazine contacts, because I'm overflowing with ideas, and I'm ready to write them up, and I could actually erase the six months' back rent I still owe my landlord with just one article in the right place. (Well, I could if the dollar doesn't fall much more than it already has. But that I can't control.)

But that's for the days ahead. Right now, my plans are modest. I have a number of small articles to write, and I'm going to write them. If the magazines which owe me money pay me (and they will) and the money comes in on time (and I suspect it will), I'm going to take off the last week of this month and visit Montpellier, the place to which, for no particular specific reason, I've been thinking about moving. I'll meet some friends in Paris coming and going, and spend three days walking around the city fantasizing that I'm shopping, looking for an apartment, and figuring out where I am. There's no way I can actually move, of course, not with things as they are. But, just as one article could wipe out my debt to my landlord, three could put me ahead of the game. A book project could give me the money to leave Berlin. And, as I discovered both times I left here last year -- Texas in March and Austria in September -- something about travel loosens up my brain and brings ideas bubbling up. True, I should probably give this money to my landlord instead, but I'm gambling with the only capital I have -- my own talent -- that this will ultimately pay off.

I mean, it beats playing the lottery.

But then, I've been doing that, too. The odds are about the same.