Monday, March 20, 2006

Parking Garage Of the Darned!!!

Oh, well, I might as well start blogging SXSW backwards, if only to note this little adventure from which I escaped about 30 minutes ago.

Tonight, I was supposed to have dinner with my friends Patrick and Denise, and was running around crazily from place to place when my cell phone -- yes, I now have an American cell phone, too, dammit -- rang. It was Patrick. He has to go to a training in San Antonio at some ungodly hour tomorrow, and Denise starts schoolteaching again now that spring break is over, so we were going to dine early. I immediately became one of those people I hate: driving along merrily while talking on my cell phone. Grrr.

But I still wanted to see them, and when he mentioned perhaps dining out at Madam Mam's, I wasn't about to say no. This is one of my favorite restaurants in the world, and would be even if I hadn't known Sappachai, the owner, for 25 years, first as manager of my local grocery store, then as co-founder of Satay, Austin's first Southeast Asian restaurant, I'd still love the place. But that fortune this excellent smiled on Sap is just extra-wonderful. First there's the story of how it came to be. Then there's the location: right across from campus. The decision to keep it cheap, too, means that students pack the place out all day long, and the large varitety of tasty vegetarian dishes means you sometimes have whole huge tables of Indian and Muslim students getting together. There's everything from a five-chile-heat-rated catfish dish, which never fails to knock me flat, to dishes for the very timid.

We met at about 7:15, and at about 8:00 we paid and left. Patrick and Denise went to their car, and I went to mine, which was in a nearby parking garage operated by the University of Texas.

Now, you'll notice above I said that spring break will be over tomorrow. While it's on, this parking garage is open and free. Indeed, although the gate was up when I entered, I still punched the machine to get a ticket, but it didn't respond. Then I remembered why this was so, parked, and went to dinner.

When I got back, the gates were all down. Ah, well, I thought, they have pressure-sensitive plates. All I have to do is drive over one and the gate will open.


I went to the machine and punched it for a ticket, but the same pressure-sensitive plate told the machine there was no car there, so I was out of luck. Got back in the car and went to the administrative office for the garage. It was empty and dark. I tried each of the exits in turn, and no luck. I was trapped.

But I wasn't alone. Two young women were also trying to leave without luck. One was a bit chubby and laughed a lot, the other was more businesslike and didn't think this was so funny. She snapped open her cell phone and called some UT functionary, who put her on hold. Spring break, after all, doesn't end til tomorrow. After about ten minutes of what she described as "circus music," she was told that the only garage on campus with people who could do anything were at Jester garage, some miles away, and were short-handed, but would try to see what they could do. We were to wait. As if we had a choice.

Then another car pulled up, and the driver's-side window went down, revealing a handsome Middle-Eastern-looking woman. "What's the story? Can't you get out?" Like us, she and her date had parked while it was free. Now we were five. Her date, a short, intense guy, got out and made the same tour we'd all made: no one in the office. He pushed the help button on the exit, but that clearly just rang in the office. No go. But he had an idea. His date's car was outside. She'd roll up to the gate, extract a ticket, and hand it to him. If he got out, she'd do it for each of the rest of us.

Sure enough it worked. For him. I got the next one, and the exit ticket slot said ACCESS DENIED. (More like "Egress Denied," but I don't expect great literacy from UT these days). Puzzling. One of the other women tried, and had the same problem. By then, we'd been joined by a really skanky car with two very young Chinese guys in it. We told them what was going on, but, empiricists that they were, they had to try everything we'd tried. The businesslike woman called again, and was assured that help would arrive within 30 minutes.

Just then, there was a squealing noise, then another. A very expensive, new, Japanese car (not a Lexus, but something similar) appeared, with two very well-dressed Chinese student-age women in it. They quickly ascertained that they were in the same boat as the rest of us, conferred briefly in rapid-fire Mandarin, and the taller one walked to the wall, found the button marked POLICE EMERGENCY BUTTON, and slapped it with the palm of her hand. All holy hell broke out over the alarm system, then died down.

Moments later, a UT Police car showed up with a pigtailed lady cop, who disgustedly viewed the dark office, walked over to the exit, and discovered a key code which could be pressed. She tried it, and the gate swung open. One by one, we got in our cars and she punched the code and we left.

It had all the makings of the world's lamest horror film there for a while, but hey, 90 minutes to get out of a parking garage? What a way to spend an evening. I'd like to find the bureaucrat who decided to go home early and ended spring break at 8pm on Sunday night, myself. I have a horror film for him.

Friday, March 10, 2006

An American In Paris

I just got back from a four-hour walk, mostly through parts of Paris I'd never seen. It was intended, first, to let me figure out how to get to the Maison du Radio France, where I'm going tonight to see a concert of electronic music, which includes my pal Carl Stone. I just wanted to figure out things like where the front door is and so on. After that I figured I'd just wander.

So I walked a while, and got to the Seine, which I had to cross to get to the hall. To my amazement, there was the Statue of Liberty. I'm such a dolt, I forgot to take my camera, but I could have gotten a great shot of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower together. It was one bridge up from where I was, so I didn't get to inspect it closely and see if it were an early model for the one in New York, or made later, or what. But it was odd.

Just as that was clearing from my head, I stepped onto the Avenue John F. Kennedy, which is where the hall is. Okay, now I knew where I was going later. Fine.

As I continued walking along the banks of the Seine, the name of the street changed to Avenue de New York. Hmmm. I wanted to get away from the water, get up the hill a bit into the sunshine, so at the Trocadero, I made a turn, and, just to make sure I wasn't going too far out of my way, I looked at the map, and saw something called the Musée du Vin, the wine museum. That sounded good, so I headed off towards it. It seemed to be on the rue Charles Dickens. When I got there, though, it gave off horrible tourist trap vibes -- which wouldn't have dissuaded me normally, but it also seemed to be a restaurant instead of a museum. Pass.

Wandered into a really ritzy neighborhood called Passy (apartments start at about a million Euros), and found myself walking down the Avenue du President Wilson. which dumped me back on the Avenue de New York, passing a statue of Benjamin Franklin along the way.

Unfortunately, I was back on the water again, so I walked past some embassies and came to a big street and turned away from the water. It appeared that now I was on the Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt. Just as I was adjusting to this, I noticed that the road leading off to the right was the rue du General Eisenhower. Just past that I spied a familiar icon and there was the German Embassy, and I walked past a park called Parc du Berlin.

Moments later, I was (for only the second time in my life, which shows you how unconventional my visits to Paris are) on the Champs Élysées, where, after walking for a while, I was relieved to see a statue of Charles de Gaulle.

Relieved? Yeah, I was beginning to think the French didn't have any heroes of their own!*

And then, as I was trying to figure out how to get back across the river so I could head back to my hotel, I found another bit of the Statue of Liberty, something which seemed to be a full-scale reproduction of the top of her torch, with the flame beautifully gilded. Couldn't get close enough to that -- it was on a traffic island -- to see what its story was, either.

Ah, well. Tomorrow I'll be in Austin, so I can go see if the French Legation is still there. But that's another story, which involves Mexican gold and shooting a bartender's pig.

* Please note: this is intended as a joke.

Bye-Bye Zoo Station

Dang, I should get out of the house more. Wednesday, as I was helping travel writer Cynthia Barnes get to first her hostel and then the giant ITB travel trade show, we took the S-Bahn out of Friedrichstr. and I saw that Lehrter Bahnhof was sporting huge glass-clad towers, which means it's almost ready.

What this means specifically is that after ping-ponging around for years, Berlin will actually have a central train station. When the city was divided, West Berlin was served by Zoo Station (Zoologischer Garten, to be precise), which became a center for all kinds of scuzz, as German train stations will do -- ever been to Hamburg? (Part of this is due to the fact that they invariably have at least one grocery store that's open late -- ie, til 10pm -- and it will sell alcohol). Zoo was made famous in the film Christiane F., which was based on the true story of a teenage junkie girl who published her autobiography detailing her life there. I remember when I first moved to Berlin, wandering around that area and coming upon some vending machines behind Zoo Station that were the same as a lot of cigarette machines (which are attached to the outsides of buildings in a lot of Berlin) except it was selling needle-cleaning kits, sterile disposable syringes, and things like that, an admirable effort to halt the spread of AIDS, but a nice indication of who was lurking around.

The police did what they could to clean up Zoo, particularly after the Christiane F. scandal, but there's no way you can clean up a place with that much traffic through it. Indeed, as we waited for the subway to come on Wednesday, Cynthia and I were approached by a whey-faced junkie who said he needed money for, uh, lunch. He reminded me of the days when I had to wait there at about 11:30 at night for the train to my old apartment and there was a gang of junkies run by a guy in a top-hat and badly-tattooed face that roamed around there. They fought the other junkies from time to time, and I was always scared one of them would push another in front of an oncoming train. I contented myself by watching the rats running around in the gravel between the tracks and was always relieved when the train came.

After unification, of course, the eastern stations opened up. Lichtenberg was, I believe, the first central station out there. It was where you left for Prague from, I know that. No services to speak of, no shelter from the elements, it was a grim place to catch a train which, more often than not, was going to another grim destination in Poland, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary. But soon after I moved to Berlin, Ostbahnhof opened up, a bit further west, a station built specifically for the modern traveller. Hell, there was even a McDonald's in it, and it was walking distance from a lot of the best parts of east Berlin. In fact, it was so modern that for a while, it was called Hauptbahnhof (central station), although it clearly wasn't, since anything headed west usually left from Zoo.

Then, after the city government had spent something like 35 million Euros restoring the old Lehrter Stadtbahnhof to its 19th century glory, it was announced that it would be demolished to make way for a new Hauptbahnhof. This station is sort of halfway between Ostbahnhof and Zoo, and is in the middle of absolutely nowhere. If you want to go to the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum of Contemporary Art you'd get off there (and be treated to a rather sterile and didactic collection -- lots of Joseph Beuys! -- with occasional good visiting shows), but there's really nothing else in the neighborhood, since it stood in the no-mans-land between East and West. (Incidentally, yes, the museum is in an old train station, one of several claiming to be the oldest in Europe).

Anyway, as this article from the International Herald Tribune makes clear, it's another boondoggle for Berlin which may, in a decade or so, pay off. But plans are underway to shut down Zoo and Ostbahnhof as end-stations for long-distance travel in the not-too-distant future, and I understand there are even plans to demolish at least part of Zoo. The closure of Zoo and Ostbahnhof, too, will wreak a certain amount of economic chaos in their immediate neighborhoods, since each has a nice little support system of businesses in the streets surrounding it which has sprung up over the years. This will inevitably lead to a lot of folks becoming unemployed, which is just what Berlin needs: more unemployment!

Now, I have to say, Lehrter -- which is now being called Hauptbahnhof, making me wonder if they took the signs down at Ostbahnhof and stored them so they could put them up at Lehrter -- is pretty near my house, and will be easier for me to get to than either Ostbahnhof or Zoo, but I doubt it'll be open before I move. Those office spaces in the glass towers will have to be filled, and businesses selling food and all the other things you find in railroad stations here will have to be courted, and maybe the bits of the surroundings which aren't government land will find some idiot speculator to build a hotel or a retail court or something so Lehrter doesn't seem so isolated. But the end of Zoo Station is the end of yet another era in Berlin, the '60s through the '80s, and one can only wonder where the junkies in west Berlin will congregate after it's gone.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Off Again

Good heavens, it's been a while. I've even got stuff I want to write, but the paying stuff has to come first, and it's wonderful to even have paying stuff. So I did it, and I'm even getting paid for it.

This should make the next few days a bit more painless. I have a visitor tomorrow, whom I have to pick up at Tegel Airport at a little past 8am, not my accustomed rising-time, to say the least. Then, other friends from Bavaria may or may not show up, depending on whether they could dig out from the snow they just got. In the late afternoon, Heribert Kastell, the great winemaker, is in again, and a few of us are going out to pay our respects to him, and the whole evening ends with the entire cast of characters, plus some, at a restaurant to be named later.

And the next morning, I wake up early again, sling my new suitcase onto the road, and head to Paris, where Carl Stone is involved in a very interesting-looking concert the next evening. I think we're hooking up for lunch the next day, and, since this is all in a corner of the city I've never even seen before, it'll be cool to do some exploration.

Saturday sees me get on a jet and off to Austin for a solid week of SXSW. Also my annual haircut and reunions with people I only get to see once a year. Plus all the Mexican food I can eat.

After that, depending on whether or not the money is around and the airfares are affordable, I just might take some time to go to the West Coast and visit friends in San Francisco.

So I'll be here intermittently laying down the things I've seen and done, but those who come in search of Berlin-based vitriol will have to wait until I return at the end of the month. Given the contrast effect between Paris, Austin, San Francisco, and this place, I'm quite sure that sauerkraut will ensue.