Monday, February 28, 2005

Last Crumbs Of February

Just a couple of things to note here. The first is a rather nasty little send-off to Hunter Thompson by the San Francisco Chronicle's executive foreign and national editor, A.S. Ross. Thing is, much of what he says is right, and it got a lot of people on the Well all upset today because they felt it wasn't respectful. I don't think that's the problem at all. Like Sidney Zion's piece in the New York Daily News, it's a sort of knee-jerk dismissal of Thompson made from a carefully-crafted one-sided view of him. Zion just maunders, and his piece is easily dismissed. Ross', on the other hand, backs up his case with evidence, and damning evidence it is, too: Thompson at his most self-parodic.

He's also got quotes from a veteran of the times: John Burks, now head of San Francisco State University's journalism department, was the managing editor of Rolling Stone when I worked there. He was at least as responsible for hiring me as Jann Wenner was. He managed the fine pack of journalists he'd helped assemble, and turned them into a crack news team; I've always thought of John as my journalism school. One thing many of the people on this team (not me: I was in charge of record reviews and some industry news, for the most part) did was assemble a number of articles for which the magazine won the Columbia Journalism Award in 1971. Not one member of that group of journalists, including Burks, was still employed by Rolling Stone on the day Wenner accepted the award. As far as I know, he was never thanked or acknowledged. This may or may not figure into the quotes Burks gave Ross.

But finally, what's most glaringly missing from Ross's sour eulogy is compassion. I've joked that the only thing that's kept me from killing myself is the sure knowledge that my obit in the New York Times would be headed "Ed Ward, Rock Critic," and that's a fate worse than death. In other words, I know what it's like to get trapped by a situation you've created, whether inadvertently (as in my case) or not (as in Thompson's). I still have some control over this: I'm pretty obscure, so I may yet be able to write some things I'll be proud of. Thompson, on the other hand, created a monster. Sometimes we just don't have as much control over these things as we'd like, and the bigger the monster, the harder it is to wrestle it to the ground and make it cry uncle.

Ross probably has never had this problem. Maybe he never will. But that shouldn't make him dismissive of those who've struggled with it and lost.


On a much lighter note, the Pope of mope sends along an article about burritos in Berlin. I've walked past this place numerous times, but the thing that's kept me from going in is that they don't use refried beans in the burritos! That's inconceivable to me. As someone who's been eating the things since discovering Burrito King (2109 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles) in the 1970s and then seeing them perfected at San Francisco taquerias like Taqueria La Cumbre (Valencia between 15th and 16th) this is complete heresy. On the other hand, the lack of Mexican food in this town is severe (never mind the "Mexican" or "Tex Mex" places whose idea of "Mexican" food runs from Buffalo wings to paella to the abomination the Germans call "Chile Con Carne" with nary a taco nor an enchilada, let alone a chille relleno or tamale, in sight), and I'm sure I'm going to be pulled in some day on nostalgia alone. Will I then echo the Pope's judgement? "I ate at Dolores once," he writes. "You could taste the earnestness. But not the hot sauce."

Big surprise, that.


And in closing, let me say how shocked I was to learn that Billy Idol had put in an appearance at White Trash Fast Food. I'm well aware that my neighborhood contains drug addicts, alcoholics (lotsa them), probably more than a few wife-beaters, sexual deviants, and psychos. But Billy Idol??


Saturday, February 26, 2005

Even More Crumbs

February drags on, reminding me once again why it's such a hard month here. Currently, we're caught up in what seems to be an endless snow-slush-freeze-rain-snow cycle. The Eskimos' having 47 words for snow may be a canard, but it's rather surprising, given the immense variety of the crap that pours from the heavens here, that the Germans don't have a bunch of them.

Thing is, it can make walking very difficult because the sidewalks don't get cleared a lot of places, and you never know when the fresh layer of powder conceals a slippery re-frozen bunch of slush underneath it. Of course, a lot of places strew cinders to assure traction, which is nice, but you wind up bringing them back into the house on your shoes and the rug gets gritty overnight.

And, as if to prove that the photo-period thing is a myth, it's still slightly light at 6pm these days. Two weeks, and I'll be in Texas. Not that I'm, you know, counting.


One of my readers has pointed me to a very nice piece she's written in Salon, an interview with Hitler's last living bodyguard. If you want the famous "banality of evil," you need go no further. He's living in Rudow, which is the end-station of one of the subway lines here. I always wondered what was in Rudow, and now I know one thing that is. Read it: it's pretty fascinating.


A comment posted here that Podewil may be starting up again in April was very welcome news. Whether the organization will be based again in the building on Klosterstr. I don't know: it's in the middle of a bunch of court buildings, and I know the courts system has been trying to grab the Podewil building to stick its functionaries in ever since the government moved here from Bonn. They also tried to get the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which seems to have beaten them back for the moment, but we'll see what happens. Meanwhile, I've signed back up for their newsletter, so if anything interesting happens, I'll let you know.


Yesterday, Lucian Truscott IV had a rather dull little tribute to Hunter S. Thompson in the New York Times, in which he commented that his correspondence with HST back in the late '60s seemed completely concerned with money. This hardly surprises me. The nature of a freelance writer's life is that you're always worried about money. People never pay on time, often have to be cajoled out of just a few bucks, and the bills always seem to come faster than the checks. In fact, I just got another letter from my kind landlord reminding me that I'm now nine months behind in the rent, something I'd hoped to avoid with some of the work I've been doing, but of course I'm still sitting here waiting to get paid. There's some potentially good news on the horizon, though, which could not only pay all of this off but make a significant contribution towards getting me out of here. Nothing definite, nothing signed, no date as of yet, but enough that I didn't feel the dull stab of panic when the letter arrived. I still have to pay the electric and phone companies before I leave, and I'm not quite sure how I'm going to do that, but who knows? Stranger things have happened.


Seeing Wally, the guy who runs White Trash Fast Food, the club/restaurant on the corner by my house, while I was in the supermarket just now, reminded me of a story I'd wanted to post here. I've given them a hard time for their relentlessly ironic beating to death of what they call "white trash" culture, and what I call working-class American culture, and their inability to discriminate between poor people and "white trash," whatever that is, but Wally scored some points a month or two back when he was buzzing around the club and someone tapped him on the shoulder. "Are you Wally?" said a familiar voice, and there stood Mick Jagger. "I hear this is the coolest club in town," he said. "Oh yeah?" said Wally. "So how'd you get in?"

Good question, and a fine illustration of the futility and stupidity of being cool.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

A Taxing Woman

Today I had a visit from the tax folks. This was not a surprise. I've been getting, and not opening, letters from them for a couple of years. No, it's not the income tax folks. It's the TV tax.

This is an aspect of life in Europe that surprises a lot of Americans. Every radio-operated device you buy requires that you register it with an agency which regulates public broadcasting, after which you are asked to pay a tax on each device. For me, it was one radio and one television, and the levy was €35 every two months.

This money goes into a central account in Cologne, and is then disbursed into the various local, regional, and national public stations. Once upon a time, that's all there were here: commercial TV was only beginning to come into the larger cities when I first came here in 1988, and I believe (but don't take this as gospel) that commercial radio came even later. And, like the way NPR and PBS used to be in the States, it ensured a certain level of broadcast quality, and gave the stations money to do all manner of creative things. Karlheinz Stockhausen's early career was bankrolled by the regional radio station in Cologne, and most major cities had a radio symphony orchestra subsidized by this tax. Television stations had the budget to produce superb news shows and documentaries, and to acquire films to show, uninterrupted by commercials. One of my favorite memories was the all-garlic meal Les Blank cooked one night for a guy from WDR, who wanted to lease the rights to a couple of Les' films for a short while. Les figured to get him stoned on garlic (which actually has a tranquillizing effect when eaten in large quantity) and then hit him up for enough money that he could finish his work-in-progress, which became Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers. It worked.

In principle, I support this fee, of course (as if you couldn't tell from the preceding paragraph). If the U.S. had a similar program, PBS wouldn't have to prostitute itself to every corporate pimp with a dollar, and NPR could not only commission new works from deserving American composers, but the very show I work for, Fresh Air, would have enough money to pay me the high fees I so richly deserve. But I suppose the Republicans would screw this up the way they screw everything up, cutting off funds to stations that use foul language like "condom" or "breast" and declaring Rapture-oriented programming to be in the vital public interest.

But there's another aspect to the fee that I like less. I didn't know about it until a guy showed up at the door one day, showing identification from SFB, the local public station. I was puzzled. They owed me money for some work I'd done, but I didn't expect them to show up to pay me. It wasn't until he spoke that I realized what was up: "You have a television?" he asked. "A radio?" Uhhh, yes, I said. "Sign this." And there was a form that said, from that moment on, that I was registered with one radio and one TV at my house. The bills started coming immediately. Now, I'd been caught because I live on the ground floor, and the guy had seen the TV through my window. But they also patrol the streets with specially-outfitted vans, plainclothes, and scan people's apartments. Hmmm, two TVs playing in this place. Check the list: are they registered? And if not, they can fine you. I got off easily. (Worse, although I haven't seen this in Germany for what may be obvious reasons, but in other countries, they run ads on TV portraying people who aren't in compliance as criminals. I saw a Dutch ad one night where the cops came and took "Daddy" away while his kids watched, and the last shot was a tearful young boy asking "Why didn't he obey?" I asked my friends where the pot was, since I assumed this was a drug bust, but they told me it was just another heavy-handed pay your TV tax ad. Brutal!)

Anyway, I was caught, I wasn't hauled off, wasn't fined, and I paid the tax like a good German. But in the summer of 2003, not long after my financial catastrophe hit, my TV died. It was okay: I never used it to watch television. I've never been a big TV watcher, and I'd been renting videos and watching them on it. But one night as a friend and I were waiting for the commercials on a videotape to end the picture tube just winked out. Ah, well. Small loss.

But there was something I didn't know. Just as you have to register your devices (anmelden), you have to un-register (abmelden) them as well. And I didn't abmeld. And the fees just kept piling up. Now, paying these fees slipped right down to the bottom of my list of priorities: I didn't have the devices, and I didn't have the money. And I didn't know how to abmeld, either.

So I've been caught again. The dancer came over the other day, lured by my offering to buy her a bowl of ramen at the spiffy new totally authentic ramen and yakisoba joint, Makoto, over on Alte Schönhauser Str. 13 (not a paid commercial, but damn sure a recommendation), and helped me fill out an Abmeldungsformular and write a letter to the local TV authorities. Then, as we prepared to go out for some good hot soup, she helped me sneak the corpse of the TV out into the alley, where it vanished in a matter of hours.

When the tax lady came this morning, she was exasperated in a friendly way by my clueless-foreigner act (which is how they expect you to behave anyway), asked me some questions as she filled out a form ("Do you own a house?" she asked with a grin. "Do I have to tell you about my castle in the Loire Valley now?" I asked. "No, that's in France," she said and kept writing), and said (I think: she had a really, really thick Berlinisch accent, which can be impenetrable) that she'd see if there were some way I could pay off the €386.49 I owe twenty Euros at a time.

It could be worse. I once visited a couple in England the day they finally solved a huge problem with their cats, who'd not only been getting their asses kicked when they ventured outdoors, but were attracting other cats who'd come in the cat door, kick their asses some more, and then eat up all the cat-food. The guy in this couple, like me a total gadget-head, had found a door that worked in conjunction with radio-controllers mounted on cat collars. He'd spent quite a lot on it, took out the old cat-door, and installed the new one. The gal had gotten the collars on the cats, and so now it was time for a cup of tea and reading the manual.

"Oh, no," he wailed. "We've just bought two low-powered transmitters and have to add them to the telly fee!"

No cats, no television. No money, either, but that's only temporary.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Boy, talk about having enough!

No, I didn't know him. I may have been introduced to him once; those days are a blur for a number of reasons. But a couple of people have asked for my take on him now, and I'll give it.

The arrival of Hunter Thompson at Rolling Stone came right about at my departure. Six months after the hiring spree which had included me, I think editor/publisher Jann Wenner was doing a number of things, most notably changing the magazine around and cutting back on stuff. One thing he cut back was Earth Times, an "ecology magazine" he'd started soon after we'd moved from above the print-shop at 746 Brannan and into our new office building at 635 3rd St. Jon Carroll had been overseeing it, and he was now back on the Rolling Stone side of things, but people were still getting fired. Rumors spread through the office, always a hotbed of gossip, and Jann saw fit to call a meeting in the reception area (the conference room wasn't finished yet). "I just want you to know that rumors here have gotten out of hand. Yes, we've had to make some changes here, but no, there will be no more people let off."

Twenty-four hours later, Carroll was fired.

Jon Landau came in from Boston and hunkered in Wenner's palatial office with him for a couple of days. The rumor mill said he was after my job, which would explain why he told me he was going to have it. John Burks, our mainstay managing editor, was fired, a terrible blow to morale. I was 21 years old, and had no idea what was happening, or what I'd do. To put it mildly, I was scared, but the magazine still had to come out. Wenner was on a tear, impossible to talk to, secretive and barricaded in his office.

One day I remember he'd gone into the (finally finished) conference room to interview someone. Who was it? Some weird guy with a Beatle wig, they said. Scary guy. He'd left strict orders that he wasn't to be disturbed, but at some point I had something he absolutely had to have, so I asked his secretary, Gretchen Horton, what to do. "Take it in there," she advised. "It'll be okay." So I knocked on the door, opened it when I heard Wenner bark "What?" and handed him the copy. Sure enough, there was a guy smoking cigarettes through an FDR-like cigarette holder, hair looking weird (the wig had come askew), wearing blue-tinted glasses. I handed Jann the stuff, he thanked me, and I left.

This isn't the time or place to tell the now-famous story of my firing, but it happened very shortly afterwards, and I had a pretty hard nervous breakdown, which I tended at some friends' farm in Elmira, Oregon. A strange artist known as Mr. Peanut showed up at one point, a guy who was living with a friend of mine in L.A., and I caught a ride back down to San Francisco with him. At loose ends, I got pretty paranoid, and developed a strong hatred for Rolling Stone and everything associated with it.

That's why, when they began serializing Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, I pretty much ignored it. Not that I was unaware of Thompson's work: I'd read him in Ramparts and its successor/competitor Scanlan's, and I'd also read Hell's Angels when I was still in college. The straight journalism pieces he did I rather admired, because it was of the same first-person, edgy style and voice that I, along with dozens of others of my colleagues, was trying to evolve. (Someone mailed me an early piece of mine from Creem last year, and I cringed when I read it; I wasn't imitating Thompson, but I was imitating myself). I thought Fear and Loathing was awful, self-indulgent twaddle (and boy, having committed enough of it myself, I thought I knew from twaddle), and I was pissed off that Jann's pursuit of celebrities had resulted in his giving Thompson the licence to waste space with it in the magazine.

I still have no desire to read it, and I loathed the film they made of it, but once Thompson started covering the Presidential election in 1972, I enjoyed reading his dispatches. But there was no doubt about it: he was getting weirder. Particularly after the articles were collated into a book and he retreated to Aspen and ran for sheriff, I began to get tired of him.

So, I suspect, did he. Certainly he did over the next decade. He became a cartoon character in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury. Interestingly, the Doonesbury home page today has this HST quote: "A lot of people want to grow up to be firemen and President. But nobody wants to grow up to be a cartoon character." Trudeau has often said that Uncle Duke wasn't literally Thompson, and I'm sure Thompson knew it, but as Thompson's writing came harder, he hit the lecture trail and, well, acted like a cartoon character. He'd take the podium with a bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand and rant and rave about whatever came to mind, collect his fee, and split. He'd be swarmed by admirers, usually young men with nascent substance-abuse problems and literary/journalistic aspirations, and hang out with them -- or not -- and eventually go on to the next gig. I felt embarrassed for him, because I thought he could probably still do good work if he could bat the demons, and the preppie leeches, back.

I also had cause to think about this because I'd been good friends with Lester Bangs, whose legend is similar to, but somewhat different than Thompson's. I recently read John Morthland's fine collection of Lester's work, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste and was amazed at how much passion was in Lester's writing, and how much thought he put into what masqueraded as spontaneous composition. Had Lester lived another ten or twenty years, he might well have found himself a celebrity, and although writer's block had never been a problem of his (or mine, for that matter), he could be pretty easily seduced into partying. Would he have wound up a caricature of himself?

Would Thompson ever find the thread again? I wondered from time to time. Because what he suffered from was an addiction, the same one performers suffer from, the desire for adulation and exposure in a field where that mostly comes quietly and passively. It's easy enough to say he should have turned his back on it, but let's face it, most of us have never been in that position, and who's to judge just how easy that might have been?

I certainly know what it's like being depressed when you look at the ruins of your career, and wondering if it's possible to put it back together, and, if so, if it's worth it. Fortunately, I've never had a fascination with guns, or with living in solitude, or with chemically enhancing myself past the boundaries of good sense, although I understand its attraction. So perhaps I have an insight into what happened there the other day.

Or not. Frankly, in the end it's not as important as the work he left, and it's none of my -- or your -- business. I hope he's found peace and that he's happy, and if his sad end serves as a sober-up call for some of the idiots who thought the liquor and the pills were what made the writing, then it's not entirely tragic.

What is tragic, though, is that if a similarly distinctive and unusual voice appeared on the scene today, the world of print would have no place for it. Long articles are long gone, replaced by bite-sized chunks for the ADD generation. Magazines don't take risks because they don't want to offend and lose advertisers, and anyway, they're making little enough money, so they depend on staff writers to do the whole book. Freelancers don't have a chance, even established ones. Nope, a Hunter Thompson today would be tempted to put the gun to his head before his name ever appeared in print. And that's a tragedy which needs attending to, I'd say.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


I don't know about that T.S. Eliot guy, but for me, February has always been the cruellest month. Nor am I alone in making this observation: I tossed off the comment in an e-mail to a friend in the States and she wrote back that she'd already heard it twice that week, both times from writers. Maybe it's the unfairness of paying the same rent for 28 days that you pay for months where you get 30 or 31 days for your money or something.

Last Monday, I opened the roll-down shutters to a landscape of white and had a surge of good feeling. Finding that odd, I tried to figure it out (I was still half-asleep, after all) and the phrase "snow day" came into my head, a relic of childhood when too much snow would close the schools. This was probably due to having been in touch with my sister about the death of the last of our aunts the week before, but it didn't take long for the feeling to go away. It was gone before I'd finished my coffee, in fact.

February in Berlin seems endless, and this is odd. After all, scientists say that Seasonal Affect Disorder is linked to photo-period, the amount of daylight in a given 24-hour period, and yet in December, when it started getting dark at around 3:35, I was still in a pretty good mood most of the time. It may have been dark a lot, and it was certainly cold, but the mood wasn't oppressive. Even January seemed pretty okay.

February, though, isn't.

Nor is it just me: this is the time of year when people get really down. I check in with friends and find them weary and depressed. One friend has just suffered a serious meltdown, and a couple of others are missing in action. You get worried when stuff like that happens. You get worried about yourself: I found I was sleeping nine hours or more each night these past couple of weeks, which is one of the symptoms of actual clinical depression. Why get up?

I spent a lot of yesterday in transit or just walking around, due to a couple of things I had to do, and it came to me clearly, the source of the February malaise: I've had enough. It was right around freezing, the ground had patches of ice and snow, the wind blew so that there was no sense of warmth anywhere, my nose was running, and the sky was a dirty white color not unlike that of the snow. From time to time, some sort of moisture would blow in my face, and although it didn't stick on the ground, it was unwelcome.

"I've had enough." For me, right now, that means I've had enough cold, enough dull light, enough wind, enough crappy weather. What worries me is that some people just think they've had enough, period. There's a sense of needing to move on, of wanting stuff to happen that just doesn't seem to be happening, and just the same, you can't seem to make it happen.

I'm luckier than most. In a little over two weeks, I'll be headed to Texas for a couple of weeks, participating in South By Southwest in Austin, where at the best it'll be sunny and warm and at worst humid and thundery. A nice break, because when I get back it'll still be February here, the superficial name-change to March notwithstanding. Not so for most folks here, though. And I've got to say, just taking possession of the documents for my plane ticket, my hotel reservation, my registration for the conference, has energized me, given me something to hang on to as these days of February grind on. Because make no mistake about it: it's not the photo-period at all. The days have gotten longer; it doesn't get dark until 5-ish these days.

That doesn't make it any better. Just longer.

Berlin is at the same latitude, I once figured out, as Edmonton, Alberta. (For comparison, New York is a little bit south of Barcelona). No wonder people here will gather at outdoor cafes, still wearing thick coats, as soon as the sunshine gets a bit more prevalent around the end of March. No wonder you can't open a film here in the summertime: nobody will go see it, because they'd rather be outdoors as long as they can. This is what the concept of the beer garden is all about.

This all seems unimaginably far in the future. It feels that way every year. Right now, yeah, I've had enough. But very fortunately, enough is not yet too much. In a week, February will be wearing its March name. I'll be counting the days until I get on that plane.

Thursday, February 17, 2005


I expect the e-mail box to start filling up with pointers to today's New York Times story about the cultural renaissance in Berlin, a story which must have been kicking around for ten years, from the looks of it, and updated with a couple of details by its author, Alan Riding, sometime this week. [Note: I have changed this link so it won't expire, so don't freak when you see it's the Herald Tribune instead.]

There's very little in the story which is outright incorrect, mind you. Sure, he posits my neighborhood, Mitte, as the art center of the city, when the fact is that rising rents here have forced most artists and other culture types first to Prenzlauer Berg, then to Friedrichshain, in search of affordable housing. But there are facts, and there are facts, and the article is deceptive.

It's only on the article's second page (as measured on the website; those of you reading the dead-tree version have another measurement) that things get weird, when, after discussing the problems of reunification with what's become almost journalistic boilerplate, and talking about the crisis in the symphonies and particularly the opera houses and how they've been dealt with (one hesitates to say "solved") he moves on to the world of visual arts.

It is, as Riding notes, a Good Thing that the city's once-divided museum collections have been assembled under one roof, and that the resulting mass of objects will soon be rationalized in an oh-so-Prussian way by being divided between the various new and old buildings which exist to house them. By the end of the decade, if all goes well, we should be able to visit specific eras of art history in different museums dedicated to those eras. It's also good that the Neue Nationalgalerie will be turned into a venue for temporary exhibitions, since the building is a mess: originally designed by Mies van der Rohe as a building which would house Bacardi's main rum-producing facility in Cuba, the plans were bought by the city of Berlin and jiggered into an art museum. As an art museum, it makes a great corporate headquarters cum distillery: the impressive ground floor is an empty cavern, and one can only hang art downstairs. Wasted space in a museum is not a Good Thing.

I'm less convinced by Riding's paean to the new visual arts. He lauds the Hamburger Bahnhof, the old train station converted into a contemporary art museum, and, while it's a great space for shows, it's rarely on my list of must-see places, even though it's about a ten-minute walk from my house. The reason? The shows there suck. And while the blame for this may rest at least partially on the shoulders of its curators, the main impediment to anything worthwhile showing there is the fact that, like most other cultural institutions here, the museum is broke. The last show I went to there was called Face Up!, supposedly a survey of hot young artists from Australia, but if this is the state of Australian art, I recommend the Australian government subsidize immigration by artists, because currently they don't have any. What was a travesty like this doing in Berlin? The whole thing was paid for by Australian cultural foundations and the government. It didn't cost Berlin anything.

It's true, as Riding says, that there are galleries all over the place, particularly in the east: there's still a city subsidy for anyone who wants to open a cultural space in the east, and initially, this led to the establishment of a red-hot gallery district in the Scheunenviertel, the triangle more or less bounded by Oranienburger Str., Torstr., and Rosenthaler Str. Ten years ago, a friend who was monitoring the situation warned me never to sign a lease in the Scheunenviertel without having it looked at very, very carefully by a lawyer, and would that the majority of these galleries had listened: one by one, the truly excellent ones, the ones who truly cared about showing innovative, interesting work (and, thus, weren't either a rich man's folly or a money laundry) closed up and moved, victims of sudden and brutal rent increases. Of my favorite galleries from that period, only Barbara Blickensdorff is left, although I'm happy to see Hannes Nowak's DNA across the street (and happy to see him quoted in the Times, savvy media dude that he is). Nowak, I think, is there because of the settlement of his dispute with the city, which forced both his amazing Aktionsgallerie (a great hangout in the old days: a rockin' bar upstairs, and an anything-can-happen gallery in the basement; DNA stands for Die Neue Aktionsgallerie) and his equally fascinating Mori Ogai Gallerie (in an apartment upstairs once occupied by the revered Japanese translator of Goethe and Hoffmann -- revered by Japanese, that is, since no one else has ever heard of him) out of the building they occupied.

But there's something Riding misses in the story. If, as he says (and I'm not going to dispute this as hotly as I might), Berlin has become a magnet for young artists because it's cheap and open, I'm here to tell you that artists don't just do art and go to sleep. They want a scene, a place they can get together, clubs, events, hangouts. The city of Berlin pretty much systematically eradicated the ones in my neighborhood one by one. The Aktionsgallerie scene was only one of them. Berlin/Tokyo went. The Glowing Pickle, Spätverkauf, and Schmalzwald were hounded out of business. A half-dozen other dives whose names I've either forgotten or never knew vanished. Maybe similar things exist in Friedrichshain these days, but that's an awful long ways to go.

And what about the case of Podewil? This center for avant-garde music and art set up in an 18th Century townhouse over behind Alexanderplatz under the inspired direction of a woman named Elke Moltrecht. In just a few years, she turned it into a place that had musicians around the world fighting each other to get programmed in the various festivals she put on. But Podewil kept getting starved by the Berlin Kultursenat in order to feed redundant opera houses and keep the Hamburger Bahnhof from shutting down. At one point Moltrecht announced that they'd have to leave the house, but Podewil would remain as an institution, curating events and festivals. But in December, they died. Podewil, as far as I can determine, is no more. One of Berlin's signature outposts of the avant-garde has been shut down. And, as much as the grungy art-spaces like Berlin/Tokyo, with which it often shared musicians, Podewil was a place where you'd see the artists and gallerists who were putting Berlin on Alan Riding's map.

Berlin is famously €40 billion in the hole, and I loved the quote Riding has towards the top of his article: "'I think culture is the only real force for renewal that Berlin has for the next 50 to 100 years,' said Barbara Kisseler, the city's under secretary for culture.' At the moment, we have more problems than we need. But these are only financial problems, not problems that cannot be resolved.'" Waitaminnit, lady: the next 50 to 100 years??? The only real force for renewal?

Yikes. really is that bad. And there's no money to put where their mouths are, either. Last one outta here turn out the light, okay?

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Last Pix From The Trip

Time to move on to this blog's real purpose: saying terrible things about Berlin. And I will, I promise!

But just because I know people always like audio-visual aids to long print presentations, here are the last three Montpellier pictures I'm going to post until I go back. The next pictures you see here will either be Berlin graffiti or...well, that would be telling, but I got a good 'un saved up that won't get done until it warms up just a tiny bit more.

This is the Arc de Triomphe I mentioned. I've got my back to the great view. And the wind.

Antigone, looking towards the Polygone. This only hints at the fascist vibe, and the reproductions of famous classical statues are a fairly nice touch. Elsewhere, there are grotesquely out-of-proportion columns set into buildings that are really creepy.

The Comédie. No idea who the dude in the foreground is, but he seemed convinced I was taking his picture. But you can imagine a sea of tables in the summertime out in front of that huge building in the background.

For more pix, take the virtual tour here, which doesn't have half as nice photos as mine, in my opinion. The Polygone entrance can be seen in the Tourism Office panorama, but I wish the view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe was 360 degrees. Ah, well.

Some Words About France

I realized the other day that although I've posted some nice pretty pictures of Montpellier, I haven't written anything here about what the city's like. So to avoid dozens of repetitive e-mails, here's what I like and don't like about the city, and other assorted thoughts.

I was very lucky to be introduced to CC, a professor of English at Montpellier University, by a mutual friend, and even more lucky to be invited to stay in his house, a huge sprawling apartment in a 16th Century hôtel, a word the French use to indicate a mansion in a city. There are lots of these in Montpellier which have been carved up into apartments, and naturally this is what I've got my sights set on for my own future home.

CC proved to be a great guide, meeting me at the train station and walking me back to his house, pointing out things here and there as we walked. He had to go teach an afternoon class, but I had no problems with roaming around the city by myself, because that's how I learn places, and it's one of my favorite things to do, the single thing (besides the money) that I miss from doing stories for the Wall Street Journal Europe.

As he explained, the inner city, the old part, is called the "escutcheon," because it's shaped roughly like a shield or the template for a coat of arms. At one point, this was the part of the city ringed by the city wall, bits of which still exist. Obviously, the city escaped these bounds long ago, so some of the outlying areas aren't so bad, either. But the centre ville, of which I've posted photos, is magical.

It's also very hard to get an apartment in, although reading the signs in the windows of real estate places proved that it's hardly impossible. The cost of an apartment there is about 30% higher than in Berlin, but some of the other costs are less, most notably telecom charges, which are the lowest in Europe, or so he said: €30 a month gets you a telephone, cable, and DSL. The reason the centre ville looks pretty uniform is that much of it was burned during the military campaign against the Cathars, religious breakaways who dominated the Languedoc region of France, of which Montpellier, because of its ancient university, was the intellectual center.

In many ways, it's just a typical French city: loads of bakeries, a central covered market with local produce, and, on the periphery of the escutcheon, a couple of very nice parks. There's a huge square called the Comédie, which ends at one of the city's opera houses, and which looks to be a very attractive site for cafe sitting when it's not below zero outside. But the Comédie curves around and funnels into a street which takes you to the Polygone, a huge shopping mall. I like having the thing there: it's not obtrusive (its most notable building is a weird pyramid-like one which turns out to be a huge bookstore), but it houses everything from the Gap to Galeries Lafayette to Inno, a supermarket that almost had me in tears, it was so loaded with good stuff.

If you go out the back of the Polygone, you're in Montpellier's most controversial district, Antigone. Frankly, I had a weird shock of recognition, because this almost brand-new development looked eerily like Berlin's own Frankfurter Allee, where the Russians replaced the bombed-out buildings with astonishing Stalinist apartment buildings to show their dedication to the new society they were building. (Its former name was Marx-Lenin-Allee, and it makes a great stroll, especially during August's annual Bierfest). Antigone, though, is supposed to be ironic, according to the architect. Other people use the word "fascist." The good thing about Antigone is that it's close to the centre ville, not to mention the fact that not too many people want to live there, so it's relatively easy to find an apartment. The bad thing is, it ends at the river, and the river floods.

Off on the other end of the escutcheon, Montpellier has its own Arc de Triomphe, which has pictures of Louis XIV, I believe, crushing the nasty Germans and Austrians. Through it is another park, which ends at a long, long aqueduct in the Roman style (but 19th Century) that brings water from somewhere far away to Montpellier's many fountains, which fountains were encrusted in ice while I was there. Looks like a nice park: Montpellier is, as its name implies, up on a hill (mont), and the park looks off into the distance from atop that hill, with the whole north end of the city visible, not to mention some mountains way in the distance. If the wind hadn't been so cold I could have stood there for a while looking at it, but it's pretty exposed up there, so I scurried back to the shelter of the old buildings.

There were a bunch of random things to see, and I'm sure I missed a lot of them, but it had been ages since I'd seen anyplace that looked like this (since I went to Italy about 15 years ago, to be exact), and I confess to being seduced into a tourist-like state. The icy weather did save me from taking too many photographs, though. In the time it took me to whip out the camera and turn it on pain was coursing through my fingers.

In the end, the story seems to be this: there are about a quarter-million people living there, and 90,000 of them are students or connected to the University, which means, among other things, according to CC, that the only time you have a decent shot at an apartment is during the six weeks school is out in July and August. I talked to people in the city's two English-language bookstores, and one word that came up repeatedly was "provincial." I had to assure them that Berlin was provincial in its own way, although I realize that Montpellier doesn't have three world-class museums and an internationally famous film festival. On the other hand, I almost never do anything around the film festiva, and I only hit these museums four or five times a year, if that. (Montpellier also has a very good museum, I'm told, but it's being renovated head to toe and won't re-open until next year). But the population is a fraction of Berlin's, and I can see that as being good and bad.

The city, though, is served by two discount airlines, Ryanair and Buzz, and there's TGV (fast train) service virtually nonstop to Paris, which takes three hours and 15 minutes and isn't all that expensive. It's also easy enough to get to Marseille, Nice, or Barcelona. It's clean, as cities go, and I'm told that when the wind isn't blowing out of the Alps in the wintertime the climate is very, very nice: it gets up into the upper 80s in the summertime, but the houses are built for that, and the Mediterranean isn't too far away.

There is, however, something I can't allow myself to forget: it has always been my contention that you move to somewhere because there's something there for you, not away from someplace because you don't like it. I have yet to find the thing to move to. As it is, I only know one person in this place, and I've only seen a fraction of it. I have an idea for a project I might be able to mount there, but I have no idea if I could get any help, if there would be funding, or even if it isn't a bit presumptuous for a newcomer to jump right into something like that. When I moved to Berlin, I had a job waiting, starting the day after I landed, which was good for three months. I don't believe there's any such thing possible in Montpellier, and wouldn't know where to go about looking for it if there was. On the other hand, when I decided to move to Berlin, I didn't have a clue how I was going to do it, or what I'd do when I got there. Much like I am now, in other words.

Clearly, more research is necessary, both here and there. I'm not sure how I'm going to do it, but the question is moot for the time being, since my next trip will be to Texas in a month, and I'll be there for a couple of weeks. Maybe around mid-May, though, answers to some of these questions will have begun to come into focus. One thing's pretty certain, though: with the state of American media as it is, it's unlikely I'll be able to raise the funds doing what I've been doing for a living for the past 40 years. That in itself is frightening, but there's no current demand for writing about places and events beyond the U.S. borders, so introverted has the country become since 9/11, and what little space there is in magazines wants short, dumb articles for the most part.

Two things are absolutely certain, though: this is a challenge, and I'm up for it.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Crumbs And Catchup

Lord, it's been a while since I checked in here. I wish I had a better excuse than the one I have: I had a difficult project to do this week and I did it, after which there were chores to do and an important meeting yesterday at breakfast-time. Just not interesting enough to write about.

A couple of people wrote me to question my figure of €30,000 to move to Montpellier, and there were enough doubters that I sat down and re-counted. Actually, that first figure I just pulled out of the air, but once I actually started adding up my current debts and inventing some fanciful figures for this as-yet unfound apartment (three months rent, deposits for the telephone and utilities, possible purchase of a couple of appliances, since it's not unthinkable that there wouldn't even be a stove in the place when I rented it), it began to appear that I could do it for a little over half that. The main thing is I want three months' living expenses in the bank to make up for the work I won't be doing or getting during the transition.

That's the part of what I do that I found the hardest to learn. In the days before e-mail and the ease with which computers deal with magazine layout and design and printing, there was the Three Month Rule: I could be sitting pretty today, but not have any work. This meant that in three months, I wouldn't have any income, so I had to plan for that the best I could. Things have speeded up these days. Not only can you get a magazine out quicker, but e-mail has eliminated the week-in-the-mail (and maybe it'll get lost) factor with the stuff you write.

But operating on the tiny margin I currently operate on, that sort of insurance is important to a move like this. In fact, as I write this, I'm a bit anxious because I don't have any pending work. I like to work. And it's not just the money.

Although I gotta admit: money's nice, too.


The saga with Deutsche Bahn finally reached its ignominious end this week as a letter appeared in the mail in response to my last one. "Dear Mister Ward," it began, "thank you for giving us the opportunity to explain the happened difference in the pricing for your travels Berlin - Paris and back. Deutsche Bahn offers ist costumers [sic!] special prices." They then went on to say that there are a limited number of cheap tickets and they'd been sold out by the time I reserved. Of course, they failed to address the fact that they never bothered to explain this or offer an alternative.

Stapled to the letter was a document resembling a train ticket which was headed "Kulanzgutschein." Gutschein, I knew, meant coupon, but what was Kulanz? Guilt? My dictionary rather stumbled on this one, defining it as "obligingness, accommodatingness, generousness, fairness," only the last of which I recognize as an English word. "Kulanzleistung," the next word in the column, is defined as "gesture of good will," so I get the idea. Anyway, for the next year, I have a €20 coupon to use against a ticket.

Not exactly the kind of solution I was hoping for, but hey, it's a Kulanzleistung.


I had another run-in with German officialdom this week, too. I'd been corresponding with a friend in New Jersey about the horrible state of travel magazines, the fact that there isn't a travel magazine published in America that meets the needs of any of the travellers I know. Basically, these days you have varying degrees of travel porn, led by Conde Nast Traveller's "Paris on $3500 a day" mentality and descending to various flavors of "how to find the Eiffel Tower during your one day in Paris" kinds of articles. In short, they all seem to be about travel as conspicuous consumption and not about travel as a learning experience, a way to connect with history, or a way to have an in-depth experience of another culture.

As it happens, she and I are of two different, but hardly incompatible, schools of thought. She's a backpacker and adventure traveller, while I believe that human beings have been endowed with the intellectual and technological wherewithal to invent comfortable hotels, good food, and flush toilets. Don't think for a minute that I didn't enjoy reading about her latest adventure, nor that I wasn't almost as upset as she was that the book she proposed to write afterwards was pretty much dismissed out of hand by the agents (let alone the publishers) she submitted it to.

Anyway, this dialog reached the point where she threw a couple of magazines into an envelope and mailed them to me so I'd have some idea of some of the things she was talking about. Now, you'd think this would be the sort of thing that'd slide right through customs: a couple of back issues of magazines, both of which had obviously been read. Nope: I got a notice from the postal customs bureau that I was to present myself to them within seven days of their receipt of this mysterious package (which turned out to have been clearly labelled as to its contents on the little green sticker) to explain what it was. Further, I was to bring duplicate copies of any order form so they could see how much I'd paid for it, and, if said forms were not in German, I was to bring an authorized translation.

Now, I deal with this crap all the time. I frequently get promo copies of CDs because of my radio and journalism work. As often as not, they just come directly to me. Sometimes they get opened by an inspector, who then tapes the package shut and sends it on.

I hate going to postal customs because it's 20 minutes away, way the hell down by the building from which RIAS (Radio In Allied Sector) used to broadcast. Once you're in the building, time stops. To say these people are in no hurry to deal with you is an understatement. It took me 40 minutes to get called on.

You'd think that after 11 years they'd recognize me, but no. Or, rather, they keep it quiet. The boss, in fact, once waited on me when I had a package of CDs to explain, back when I had a radio show three times a week, and, after looking at the CDs, said "I listen to your show. I like it." And let me go.

Anyway, this time a far meaner guy threw the package down on the counter and barked "What is it?" Old magazines, I think, I replied, noting silently that it had already been opened and sealed. "Open it!" So I did. See? Old magazines. "You realize that when we call you here you have to come in," he said, fixing me with a steely gaze. "You can go."

And no, I don't think this aspect of things is going to be different in France. Small-minded civil servants are a fact of life everywhere, and in societies like we have in Europe, where a job with them is a guaranteed lifetime sinecure, where no amount of incompetence can get you fired, this is the way these people act.

Not too much different from Deutsche Bahn, when you get right down to it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

A Few More Pix

I'm on a horrendous deadline at the moment, but I prepared three more pictures to put up here, so I will.

Just a street. Nothin' special.

That's actually a medium-steep downhill grade there, but I liked the little house at the bottom.

Again, nothing special. These corner shrines are found in all of Europe's Catholic countries, but I didn't see many of them in Montpellier.

Okay, back to work.