Saturday, April 29, 2006

On Being A Tourist

I should probably add a few notes about last weekend's madness before it all totally fades from my head, and it also gives me a good opportunity to post a few more pictures. This was, as you may remember, the Secret Project Vic's Pop and I were dealing with, and it's not revealing too much to say that it had to do with food. We wanted to check out various regional specialties in Germany, so, thanks to Karen, who seems to know everything about Germany, we had some ideas about places to try.

Nürnberg is a great tourist town. It's picturesque, has a great museum, the Germanisches Museum, just loaded with fine art, particularly from the medieval period, it's got the Albrecht Dürer house (where you can only see poor imitations of his paintings, but you can buy a coffee mug with a wonderful Picassoesque doodle of a self-portrait he included in a letter to a friend), and, for those of a more contemporary bent, it's got the Nazi Documentation Center at the parade grounds where those famous rallies were held. The city was pretty meticulously reconstructed after having the living crap bombed out of it during the war, but the reconstruction has none of the sterility of the fake medieval quarter, the Römer, in Frankfurt, and it's a good place to stroll around.

It's also got food, famous food. At Christmas, there's a huge Christmas market there, and the famous Lebkuchen are for sale on every corner. These huge frosted cookies are made from a wholegrain dough of some sort, and naturally leavened and sweetened with honey. We searched for, but couldn't find, the famous place where they've been made from time immemorial. What we did find, though, was what we came to eat, Nürnberger Rostbratwurst.

Grilled over a beechwood fire, served with sauerkraut and potato salad, and with that fixture of Bavarian gastronomy, the bread basket where they charge you for everything you take out (not that I could resist one of those pretzels), these are the real deal, and you can get them at the two venerable restaurants there, the Bratwurst Glöcklein in the Handwerker district across from the railroad station, and the Bratwursthäusle across from the Rathaus. The half-seen beer in the photo was a dark Tucher, and rather uninspired.

Our next stop was in the east, not the south. Görlitz is vying hard to be the European City of Culture in 2010, and I hope they make it. For some reason it wasn't bombed in the war, and this means that the whole town has a refreshing Old Europe feel to it. The light was going when we got there, but here's a shot of the immense main market square, the Obermarkt, which gives a tiny bit of the feeling of the place:

The most notable thing about Görlitz -- and the thing that may make their getting the City of Culture prize hard -- is that there was nobody there. Astonishingly enough, there's this gem of a city, just a couple of hours away from Berlin, beautifully restored (or in the process of restoration), and...where are the tourists? There weren't even any German tourists, and that's saying something. Train takes only a couple of hours, and an advance booking would probably get you some sort of promotional fare.

Another problem is that only EU citizens can cross the bridge into the Polish part of town, although the border guards were sufficiently bored to let us over if we promised to come back through their post. There was nothing on the other side but a dingy bar and a lot of mud from the construction, so it wasn't hard to obey. Still, with a Schlesische Himmelreich (see the post a couple of days ago), the local specialty of ham, Kassler (smoked pork chop), and pork loin stewed with dried apples, apricots, and prunes and served with a couple of hearty dumplings, costing only €11 (or less; we saw it cheaper after we'd eaten), and doubtless other goodies available which escaped our investigations, it would seem to be a place to investigate further.

Also in Görlitz' favor is that it lacked the East German vibe we found in Cottbus. Of course, it was part of the east, but the tackiness and sort of depressing feeling you get in a lot of former east German towns was lacking. Yet another reason to visit.

Between Cottbus and Görlitz, as I mentioned previously, we hit a small fair in Burg, and were rewarded with a display of all of the various Wurstwaren and vegetable specialties of the Spreewald district. The Spreewald is famous for pickles, of which we sampled several types, sauerkraut, which we let lie, horseradish, and linseed oil, which is one I've never figured out: there's a local dish of boiled potatoes, quark, and linseed oil that people are wild about, but sounds boring to me. But there were little bottles of it at the same stand that was selling the pickles, and they weren't cheap.

Our last destination was Lübeck, and its port, Travemünde, which was something of a bust because the Autobahn there isn't completed, and neither the GPS system in the car nor my road atlas had a clue how to get us there. We'd be speeding down the Autobahn and the GPS would say, in its cultured British female voice, "Make a U-turn if possible." The Autobahn just ends at one point and there are no signs to Lübeck to be found. We winged it with help from the map but got hopelessly lost for about three hours on the way back, finally galumphing down a road of dirt and mud which I don't think was legally declared passable, to find the road back.

It was also a bust because we were starving when we hit Travemünde, which we went to first because it seemed to have the best shot at a fish restaurant. Unfortunately, the one we chose wasn't very good. It was some sort of fake Italian place, and Vic's Pop ordered bruschetta for a starter and it was made with some sort of fake garlic. Really: I think it was garlic powder. I didn't think anyone did that any more, but I keep forgetting: this is Germany, the land that hates and fears food. After that, we went to see a sailing ship in the harbor there (which dated from 1911: who knew they were still making sail-driven vehicles back then?), and finally we drove back down to Lübeck, which didn't really seem to have much in the way of food-oriented stuff to see, although there is, of course, Niederegger, the most famous marzipan in the world, whose store is a tourist attraction that draws the rudest little old lady German tourists on the planet.

Since I'd also seen to it that Vic's Pop got a currywurst with chili sauce from Bier's, under the arches at Friedrichstr. station (my own recommendation for the best in town, the famous Konnopke's in Prenz'lberg notwithstanding), we finished with a Döner Kebap from the guys at Bistro Tor in front of my building. Not a bad culinary tour of Germany, given the time and economic constraints. But I haven't touched German food since. Gotta recover.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Now I've Seen It All #246

Last night, Mike, of Radio Free Mike, had his monthly Stammtisch, which can basically be described as a get-together for bloggers, readers of blogs, friends of Mike, and their friends. It was held at the Cafe Krüger in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, which is largely populated by people cooler than me.

At any rate, the beer flowed, as did the conversation, and at one point, I realized the beer had to flow out, so I went off to the men's room. There, I noticed that the toilet -- the sit-down one, as opposed to the stand-up ones -- had a table next to it. On the table was a slice of cake, a cup of coffee, a small glass containing a couple of cigarettes, a pack of matches, and an ashtray. I couldn't believe they were real, so I approached and very gingerly touched the top of the cake, a chocolate-looking thing (the lights were pretty dim) with a white layer sandwiched in the middle. It yielded, and was a bit sticky, although by no means fresh.

"Oh, yeah," Mike said, "sometimes there's a glass of wine instead of the coffee."

"There's a similar set-up in the women's room," I was further informed.

Germany has cranked itself up to celebrate Sigmund Freud's 150th birthday this year, so I'll leave the analysis of this odd art installation to the professionals.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Getting A Ticket

Sorry to have disappeared for so long, but I've been busy with a secret project. Not one that is likely to make me any money any time soon, I'm afraid, but one I couldn't ignore either. A guy we'll call Vic's Pop came to town and asked me to show him German regional cooking.

Not for me to cook it, of course; I can't do that. But over the past five days we went hither and yon in search of great stuff, and some of the travelogue will appear here anon.

To accomplish this most efficiently, he rented a car, a nice Audi with a good sound system and a wonderful climate control which allows each passenger in the front seat to choose a climate. I like it colder than he does, and we were both comfortable.

Now, one thing everyone knows about driving in Germany is that the Autobahn doesn't have a speed limit. Thus, you get used to tooling around at whatever speed is most comfortable for you -- in this case between 120 and 180 kph (74.56-111.85 mph). Thing is, when you get off the Autobahn, you're supposed to obey the speed limit, but it's not posted. You're supposed to know.

And there are other things that are inevitable when you drive, too, like you can get frustrated by poorly-marked roads and virtually unannounced road construction, so when you're in the clear, you might wind up driving too fast. I did.

This led to my first-ever encounter with the German Police -- and my first-ever speeding ticket.

We decided on Sunday to go to Görlitz, home of a dish called Schlesische Himmelreich, or Silesian Kingdom of Heaven. Thing is, Görlitz isn't so far from Berlin, and we had a nice day and lots of time. So I proposed a trip to Cottbus, which was on the way, the better to try to connect with the Wendish culture which lives in the deep woods and swamps of the area known as the Spreewald. The Spreewald is home to Germany's best pickles, as well as excellent Sauerkraut and horseradish, and a bunch of other essentials for the German table.

Turns out, though, that Cottbus isn't where to find it, its Wendish Museum notwithstanding. From bits and pieces of evidence, we gathered that a trip a bit further up the road to Burg might be in order. Thus, we got back in the car and headed up there, just in time to catch the tail-end of the Spreewald Marathon and the market which had set up at the finish line. We dutifully bought some pickles, tasted some other at a farmer's stand, looked at the various pork products in the portable smoker, and noticed that we were feeling more and more ready for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Now, one conclusion that I've come to after all this recent driving is that it's possible in Germany to get from A to B, from A to C, and from A to D, especially when A is Berlin. However, trying to get from B to C, or from B to D can be flat-out impossible, or else very difficult. There may be an art to manipulating the Autobahns to your favor which I still haven't figured out, but B to D can often mean a tedious trip through narrow two-lanes which drive you through tiny village after tiny village, with loads of roadworks along the way. One advantage of driving on a Sunday, though, is that you're unlikely to encounter a tractor or other farm vehicle.

You will, however, inevitably encounter the roadworks. And you will be happy when they end, which is why a young gentleman in a green uniform stepped into the road and held up one of those round paddles with a red light in the middle of it which they use here to flag you down. I pulled into a dirt lot and he came over. "Good afternoon, my name is Plaschke and I am a policeman. My partner and I are controlling speed on this road at this time. May I see your license and registration, please?" I handed it over. "Please step out of the car." So I did.

"Come with me," he said, and started walking towards the road. There he had me look at the machine they had set up there on a tripod. "This is our speed-controlling machine," he said. "We have a toleration zone of 18 kph over the speed limit, but I'm afraid you were over that. There is a fine which escalates for increments of speed over the limit, and because you were 17 kph over the toleration zone, and 35 kph over the speed limit, you must pay a fine of €35. Do you have money with you?" Actually, I didn't, but Vic's Pop did. "He wants 35 bucks," I called over to him. He was grinning at the whole thing, and, hearing me speak English, Officer Plaschke looked at my license and realized that it was from Texas. It's much smaller than a German one, so he must have realized it earlier, but I'm pretty sure he lives out in the boondocks he was patrolling and doesn't encounter many American tourists. "Oh," he said, in English, "do you speak German?" I'd been speaking German with him, but maybe he thought his explanation had gone past me. It was very important to him that I understand exactly what was happening to me.

Meanwhile, his partner was inside their VW bus with a clipboard and some other paper. This turned out to be my ticket, a statement of what it was on top, with perforated strips underneath which could be torn off:


and so on, alternating between the normal paper color and a garish fluorescent pink. Vic's Pop paid him, he ripped the ticket at the appropriate place, and then took his pen to point out "This states that this is a citation for speeding. This is the date, this is my name, Plaschke, and this is the location." He then informed me that the limit was 70 kph (43.49 mph), and said, as people who speak a little English inevitably do here, "Have a nice day." I will, I told him, and I won't speed. He smiled.

I relate this in this much detail just to contrast it with a similar encounter one might have in America, a terrified cop yelling at you through a grille-mounted bullhorn, the whole hand-on-the-gun approach, and all of that. Given what I know about the Berlin police, this was an incredibly civilized exchange.

And I didn't speed, either, although the Kingdom of Heaven awaited.

Here it is:

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Long Good Friday

As I was walking home from the store last night, I realized I'd forgotten something. I really have to start writing everything down, it appears. Ah, well, I told myself as rain began to pelt out of the sky, I'll get it tomorrow morning.

But I wouldn't, actually. Because today is Good Friday, and Germany is closed.

This happens to me every year. The vagaries of the church calendar around Easter, and the fact that I live in a country with a state religion (two state religions, actually, depending on what part of the country you live in), means that I always get caught up short. I knew when Easter was this year because someone told me a couple of weeks ago in relation to something we were working on, but which days are open and which are shut still eludes me.

It would be a courtesy, I think, to post these closings. I remember back in America, you'd see a sign saying "We will close at 6 pm on December 24 and will be closed all day December 25. We wish you a happy holiday." And I'd think "Well, duhh." But now that I find myself in this bewildering situation, I think that maybe a guy who's just arrived from Bangalore or Bahrein might appreciate this little notice.

Actually, I should have figured this out, I realize in retrospect. When I got to the store yesterday at 6:15, the lines were all the way to the back of the store. I don't know if it's some sort of postwar memory, or maybe just a post-Wall memory, but there's this sort of ceremonial looting of consumer goods before long weekends here that smacks of a fear that supplies are so limited they may vanish forever if you don't grab as much as you can right now. I call it the Rathausrinderfleich Syndrome. Rathausrinderfleisch (City Hall beef) is rather hard to find these days, but it goes back to the immediate postwar era, when meat was very scarce and the Allies brought in canned meat and sold it at the Rathaus. The gold cans were beef, the silver pork, and except for information stamped into the top of the can, there were no labels on it. It assumed a nostalgic cast, and people got to like it, even though it was notably inferior to the fresh stuff. You can still find it in some stores, still unlabeled, but no longer a necessity. Who knows; maybe it's essential to some dish I'm not aware of, some inspired improvisation that eased the hard times fifty and more years ago.

This will happen again, in I think six weeks (not that I'm sure) when Pfingsten, or Whitsun, comes along. Once again, there'll be no warning, and there'll be hordes of people building up their stashes. And, if I'm not careful, once again I'll get caught short.

As it is, there's a solution available to me, one I'm not at all looking forward to: I'm going to have to walk down to the Friedrichstr. station, where there's a grocery store, and buy what I need. The rationale for this is that travellers need their supplies, so the government allows limited opening hours for stores in train stations. They're inevitably jammed with people like me who have been inconvenienced by this capricious state of affairs.

And there's a subtext to all of this, too. You're just plain Supposed To Know. If you don't, you're a foreigner, and you don't fit in this culture. You deserve what you get for your ignorance. People shouldn't have to tell you. In the end, once again, it's your fault.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

But Of Course

Just a footnote on yesterday's post.

I was walking around Oranienburger Str. today on other business, and came to the vacant lot in front of that blot on the local landscape. There was a sign standing there that said that the artist who'd committed it was from Vancouver, and his art consisted of putting up his poetry in visible public sites. So that's art and poetry, in case you didn't recognize it.

At the bottom of the sign was the logo of the current Berlin Biennale, marking it as one of the exhibitions in it. I thought it was suspicious that the New York Times could devote an entire article to it yesterday without actually, like, mentioning much of the art.

Guess I should take my notepad and hit the damn thing myself. I managed to avoid the last one, but the first two were really something to be ashamed of for a city that trumpets itself as an art center the way this one does. Stay tuned for a long post dripping with venom.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Ah, Spring!

You know, people actually think, some of them, that all this complaining I do about Berlin is about me. I'm just projecting my internal unhappiness on what I see around me; it's very possible to live here and have a wonderful life. In fact, they say, I've gone so far that I can't see any positive thing about this city, although it's universally recognized as one of the greatest in the world. In other words, it's not the city's negativity, it's my negativity.

And I think, what if they're right? What if it's just my own messed-up self?

And then, like a message from heaven, something happens to make me realize that I'm right, dammit!

Although today isn't maybe the best example of it, spring has actually happened here, and the trees are budding and the random crocus or early daffodil has made an appearance, at least in dog-poop-free areas, such as there are. There are different birds starting to hang out in my back yard, and I've bought my first bundle of fresh asparagus. It feels more like March, but the calendar clearly says April.

So the other day, when I walked to Galleries Lafayette and Alexanderplatz, I saw this sign of spring. And it just summed up the whole life-denying, negative, repressive, juvenile, unhealthy culture that obtains here.

So while you're suffocating under a pre-Easter overload of fuzzy bunny rabbits and yellow chickies, spare a moment to think about what the return of spring means to the enlightened burghers of Berlin.

Anybody got some balloons, some paint, and a catapult?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

And Of Course There Was Food

There you are, a modest lunchtime repast for two at Smitty's in Lockhart, Texas. Actually, for some reason, I wasn't feeling too good that day, and wasn't able to do my share, but what I did manage was superb. The deal with Smitty's, for those who don't know the saga, is that for years Kreuz Market in Lockhart was in the hands of the Schmidt family, and when the last Schmidt to own it died, he left the building to his daughter and the business to his son. Trouble was, the two siblings hated each other, and the business was evicted from the building. The son took the fire, which had been burning for over 100 years, up the road to a new building he'd built and the daughter renamed the business Smitty's, which had been her father's nickname, and started a new barbeque dynasty. The happy upshot of this is, if you don't have any favorites in the dispute, Lockhart now has two of the best barbeque joints in Texas. The pork chop, in particular, was moist and luscious, the ribs had some sort of sweetish glaze applied very subtly, and the brisket was...well, I'm afraid it was pretty tough that day.

Yes, this was a pretty good trip for eating, although the only two places besides Lockhart I dined in were Austin and Paris. Let's do Austin first.

A lot of the people I had dinner with at SXSW were in a hurry to catch an 8pm show somewhere, and I discovered that Hoover's Cooking could get us in and out quickly, although it filled up later in the evenings. (And what's up with Hoover's website being down? doesn't seem to work, although you might try it if you're reading this later). The thing that's so great about Hoover's is that it's what Threadgill's used to be. The fact that it was Eddie Wilson at Threadgill's who first recommended I check Hoover's out says volumes. Hoover Alexander was going to retire when his son talked him into opening this place, and not only is it the most reliable chicken-fried steak in town, it also has creditable barbeque. Further, the blackboard specials can be amazing: I had a crawfish etouffee there that was ridiculously good. Their hamburger is now probably the best in town, and the breakfasts they serve on weekends are also first-rate: the garlic cheese grits I had there were very memorable indeed.

Location also dictated that Polvo's also became the default Mexican restaurant, although I also still swear by Curra's, especially for breakfast. (Unfortunately, the one meal I had at a former favorite, Botanita's, way down on S. First, was a disappointment, with poorly-prepared food and indifferent service). And I made a nice discovery on someone's recommendation of Azul Tequila, hidden away next door to a Target in South Austin, although I found the mariachis distracting. I'd have liked to have more time to research some of the newer Mexican places, but time and money dictated otherwise.

There's been a huge surge in Austin's South Asian population since I left, and I figured that had to mean at least a couple of good new Indian restaurants. First one I found was Bombay Bistro, recently raved about in the Austin Chronicle. It was a decidedly mixed experience: excellent samosa/pakora plate for appetizer, and a great tilapia curry with whole charred chiles in it. Unfortunately, the waitstaff doesn't seem to speak English, and they gave me the wrong side-dish and couldn't understand why I didn't want it. The lighting is low, mostly, I suspect to deflect attention from the fact that the place is pretty beat-up. And I suspect it was my meal here which left me feeling not so hot the next day.

Much better was Madras Pavilion, a south Indian vegetarian place. I've had better -- in London -- but this is a place I'd frequent if I lived in Austin these days. I had a thali, a meal with a bunch of small dishes, and every single one of them was superb. Next time, I'll start hitting the menu in detail.

I didn't eat many lunches, but after I had to move out of the hotel and was staying with friends on the East Side, I discovered Gene's, a "Cajun" restaurant in the neighborhood. It's Creole, not Cajun, of course, but that's a quibble; the oyster po-boy I had there was just like the one I had in New Orleans, and again, this is a place I'd like to go back to and check out in detail, especially the fried chicken.

And the truly great lunch I had, with an old friend who's going to have her wedding rehearsal dinner there, was at Tâm Deli, where we feasted on jicama summer rolls (a masterpiece!), banh mi sandwiches, and noodles stuffed with pork. I definitely overate, and now I'm wondering why, with all the Vietnamese places now opening in Berlin, someone doesn't open a joint like this. Are you listening? Berlin needs banh mi!

I think that just about sums up the Austin experience (except for my traditional lunch of phô at a place whose name I can't remember, with a friend who lives near it). I'm hoping to get back there later this year to take care of some business, and now I've got some new favorites to explore.


I left from and returned to Paris, which is problematical in terms of food because it's easy to spend way too much, and yet you just know at any given time that there's something in the vicinity that rocks. Added to this was the fact that the reason I was there at the start of the trip was to see Carl Stone perform at the Maison de Radio France at their Présences Electroniques series, and that's in a weird corner of the city. I wound up PriceLine-ing a hotel across from the Paris Expo, by the Porte de Versailles, which didn't help, yet the red Michelin book pointed me to Le Murier, 42 rue Olivier de Serres, Paris 15, and I decided to check it out. A great coarse terrine to start, very subtly flavored with some kind of eau-de-vie, followed by pork roasted with honey and "spices," which drove me nuts as I tried to figure out just what they were. Excellent cheese selection, mediocre wine, and the whole thing set me back 32 Euros.

On the way back, I stupidly booked myself an extra day. This wound up allowing me to take a walk through Paris just as the students were preparing their demonstration against the new labor law, so that everywhere I went there were either cops getting into position or students painting their signs, so that wasn't too bad. I'd PriceLined another hotel, this one incompetently run, over in Clichy, another neighborhood I knew nothing about, but at least it was close to the Gare du Nord, from which I had to leave.

This time I didn't have my red Michelin, but on a hunch, I signed up for Via Michelin, their online service. I typed in the address of the hotel and in seconds it came back with a bunch of restaurants, in order of their proximity. Amazing. So I selected one and went there. Le Bistrot de Théo, 90, rue des Dames, Paris 17 was just what the doctor ordered, although you'd do well to get there early: at 8:30 I was practically the only customer, but it was jumping two hours later when I left. I started with Blutwurst mid Himmel und Erde, only this was called boudin noir with a nice puff of mashed potatoes with apples, fried just enough to keep it in one piece, laid on a bed of salad. I thought it was a bit underseasoned, but maybe that's my German experience coming out. The main course, though, was extraordinary: a piece of venison with a berry chutney subtly enlivened with curry powder, and, in a separate bowl, little cubes of fried potatoes which were redolent of garlic and parsley. I've got to learn how to do this; previous experiments haven't been too satisfactory. Again, the cheese course was superb, and the only down note came when I handed my Bank of America debit card to the guy and his face fell. My French hadn't quite come back, and I was jet-lagged, so he'd helped me with a touch of English. He must have thought I was British, and was disappointed that he'd been kind to an American. But that's where our stock is these days, and now I know I'll have to wait a while to go back there.

Michelin also sent me to another place the next night, which I wouldn't recommend because of the perfunctory service and the fact that foreigners get stuck in the back room while the regulars get better treatment up front. The meal started with a jambon persillé which finally made me see what this dish is supposed to be, and the main course was sort of a pot au feu using beef and red wine that was very well done. But I suspect this sort of stone traditional fare isn't too hard to find in Paris (even at the low price), and I'll go somewhere else next time I'm looking for it.

Anyway, it felt good to get back here and start cooking for myself -- if nothing else, it's a whole lot cheaper -- although I look forward to the day I can just go to the supermarket and get the kind of ingredients with which I can make stuff like this. I just hope it's sooner that later.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Vanishing Berlin

This morning, I noticed that the pound of coffee I brought back from Curra's, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in Austin, was almost gone, so it was time to go to Galleries Lafayette and get some more. When I got to the corner of Friedrichstr. and Unter den Linden, though, something was...wrong. There was the noise of construction, but, oddly enough, that didn't alert me to what was happening: it's omnipresent here and eventually you just sort of tune it out. But I finally did notice, and sure enough, on one corner, the Hotel Unter den Linden was being demolished.

I know some of you have stayed there, because it was absolutely the cheapest accommodation in that particular part of town, although its grim DDR facade didn't really promise anything much in the way of comfort. But I'm told that the rooms really weren't all that bad, especially for forty bucks a night, and they really had made the cafe downstairs look pretty attractive. But the steam shovels were ripping the rooms apart, and traffic, already a nightmare on Friedrichstr., was down to one lane each way. The thing I always liked about the Unter den Linden had vanished long ago: it once had little shields on top with the logos of the various East Berlin theaters and operas, the Deutsche Theater, the Komische Oper, and so on. These disappeared when the hotel got taken over by a new owner, though, presumably the one which made the place livable.

But the real shock came after I'd left Gal Laf and headed towards Alexanderplatz, where I had to buy a new telephone, since my wireless will no longer hold a charge for more than a minute or two. As I crossed one of the forks of the Spree on Werderstr., I was horrified to see that the Palast der Republik was also being demolished.

This is a major tragedy, for reasons Mike hits squarely on the head. The Palast, former headquarters of the DDR government, and possibly the only major political structure of its type to feature a public bowling alley in its basement, was am emotion-fraught symbol to East Berliners. It represented their government, which many still feel had some positive aspects along with the more obvious awful ones, and it had lately become a center of resistance to them, one more piece of their life scheduled for demolition. At first, it was going to be demolished because it was filled with asbestos, but some savvy Ossi discovered that the proud Western ICC had exactly as much in it. So the ICC got de-asbestified, and then the empty hulk of the Palast did. There was an exhbition of the terra-cotta warriors from Xian, China there, and then various art exhibits, and a guided tour in several languages operated when it wasn't otherwise occupied.

Besides the obvious "screw you, we won" aspect of the demolition, though, a more insidious agenda is at play here. The Palast was built over the ruins of the old Hohenzollern palace, which was actually a collection of buildings dating back to one erected in 1410. Bombed a bit in the first World War, it was more severely damaged in the second, and in 1951, the DDR just up and levelled it. After unification, a shady group of "patriots" decided that the old Schloss (palace) should be rebuilt -- they even had the plans, since Germans are demons for filing stuff away, and there was plenty enough to go on. At one point this bunch built a superstructure of piping on the site and had someone do a very nice trompe d'oeil rendering of the Schloss on some canvas, which they hung on the piping. At sunset, it actually did look like there was a building there if you stood far enough away. Just what they wanted to do with the Schloss was the question. Many Germans felt that it was a symbol of the old Prussian militaristic mind-set, and opposed its resurrection, whether or not they supported the demolition of the Palast. At one point, it was suggested that the Schloss should have a shopping mall inside it (I am not making this up). But the Förderverein Berliner Schloss e.V., whose rather transparent website shows their political and social agenda nicely, must feel pretty good right now. I hear they're broke. I hope they stay that way.

Further desecration was just a short walk away, as the Fernsehturm has been given a new look in Telekom pink, transformed into a big pink soccer ball in preparation for June's World Cup games here. I already knew about this, because the thing is tall enough that you can see it from nearly everywhere in my neighborhood, but the closer you get to it, the tackier it looks. I'd say Deutsche Telekom should be ashamed, but then, it goes without saying that they have no shame at all.


One "landmark" that may not be leaving Berlin any time soon is me, unfortunately. I did the math today, and fell into a sharp depression. I'd been hoping to sell a book based on this blog and my time here, and in October I contacted a former co-worker who was now a literary agent. She's also one of the slowest-moving people I've ever tried to do business with, and although I now have (with her help) a good-looking proposal ready to shop, apparently her business partner disagrees and wants extensive changes in it. I have no idea if I'll consent to them, though; I don't know this guy, and I'm afraid he might want something so far from what I have in mind that I'll have to walk away. But there's more to it than that. Even if it were to sell in a couple of weeks, the money would probably not get here in time for me to find an apartment in Montpellier during the crucial late-May-to-mid-August period when the town has vacancies.

To put it simply, I cannot face the prospect of another year here. I hate this place more every day, and the only thing that got me through this last winter was the knowledge that I'd be moving. I'm not giving up, not yet. The amount I need is only a few thousand Euros, and, although I have no work at present, there are a couple of projects besides the book that might pay off. I'm willing to do anything legal to raise the money to move, and I'm open to suggestions.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

SXSW, At Last

I guess there are several reasons I've put off writing about SXSW's 20th anniversary this year. One is that I've already talked about it so much in conversations during and after the conference, and I've always found that that diminishes both the desire and the focus needed to write about something. Another is, well, that thinking about it is so damn...depressing.

Some of what depresses me is personal. I was a co-founder of SXSW, and have never even been mentioned in that context. There are reasons for this, having to do with personal politics between me and some of the other directors which don't need to be made public, but I must admit that, as I was pawing through a pile of stuff here earlier this year, I was cheered to find a laminate from the first year that said ED WARD, DIRECTOR. At least it wasn't a hallucination.

For a number of years, I was in charge of assembling the panels, cajoling reluctant music biz panjandrums into attending, often using the great weather in Austin as a bludgeon. After that, I was given the title "International Coordinator," which involved encouraging (mostly European) bands and panelists to attend, and that only ended when I moved over here. I don't at all regret that I never became part of SXSW, Inc. because I've always been clear on one thing: I'm a writer, and that's what I do. And I've been treated well by the conference in exchange for solving various logistical problems and such imponderables as standing at the booth during PopKomm and answering the inevitable "Are you a record company?" questions while the other folks go about doing business, which is what they came there for.

Still, I haven't been asked to participate further than that in a number of years, despite suggesting panel ideas and, through my connection to Fresh Air, being something of a public figure in the U.S. (And, incidentally, now Berlin, where NPR has taken over an FM frequency and is broadcasting over it, a sure sign that I will, indeed, be moving soon, since I've never lived in a place where I could hear myself: KUT Austin only started running Fresh Air after I moved away).

Nonetheless, that's personal stuff. What depressed me while I was on the scene was the way SXSW has changed. That's a little more subtle, and, I guess, possibly personal in the end.

The thing that made SXSW the world's top music conference was its educational content, I've always thought. In the beginning, I used to joke that we showed people that anyone could make a record, and, dammit, that's just what they did. We also helped acts learn how to take charge of their careers, and, in so doing, were a potent force in starting a movement which has all but doomed the major labels' model of doing business. And that's all for the good.

Second was the fact that a wide variety of musical acts played; not, perhaps, as wide as I'd have liked, but wide enough that the evenings couldn't have been tagged a "rock festival." There was something I wanted to see every night (usually three things all in the same time-slot on at least two occasions each year), and I got to see it. Sometimes the clubs were a bit crowded, but the eternal vigilance of the Austin Fire Marshalls saw to it that SXSW was careful not to over-crowd them, a little bit of contention that always raised tensions with both the attendees and the general public, which usually managed to get excluded from the more popular shows.

Maybe I wasn't paying attention last year, but this year seemed to be quite different. One thing I noticed immediately was that the panels program had been cut way back, with a number of celebrity interviews (Neil Young, Judy Collins, Chryssie Hynde, k d lang, Billy Bragg, Kris Kristofferson, Morrisey, and others) replacing panel discussions. This was disappointing because the subjects get to pick the interviewer, and the questions are invariably softballs. This represents a kind of hierarchy I had thought SXSW was empowered to break down. But of course the subjects wouldn't assent to be interviewed if they thought they would be made uncomfortable.

My take on this was that this may be the only way the conference can get asses in seats for the daytime activities. There have always been informal daytime events sponsored by record companies and management firms, a sort of counter-conference for those who didn't or couldn't get showcases, and I'd always ignored them for the most part because the conference activities seemed more compelling. This tendency has now escalated to the point where the conference helps arrange a lot of them, working, in my opinion, against its original remit. On the other hand, if what's going on in the Convention Center isn't compelling, you might as well Go See Bands.

But, dammit, most of these people can Go See Bands all the time. Further, that's what the evening is all about and always has been. This year, though, it seemed like SXSW had become the spring break it takes advantage of in Austin, only with an indie-rock focus. Bands, all day and all night.

And here's where the Old Fogey Factor comes into play. I simply don't find most of these acts compelling in any way. It's a statisical inevitability that most of them will be literally mediocre. The screening process sees to it that a higher standard is applied (although I must admit that, with 1200 acts selected, I was pissed that the one I wanted to see most, Jon Hardy and the Public, were rejected, although I was told they "tested well," and "we liked them," whatever that means), so the mediocrity is therefore of a higher standard. But based on what I've been hearing, there's an urgency, a committment, missing from most of the stuff out there. The music seems to be about itself, never a healthy sign. With self-creating having become so damn easy, too much of what's created is about oneself. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course, but there seems to be little desire to connect: take what's here or leave it. Hardly a sound basis for (pardon the etymology again) popular music. If the past decade has taught me anything, it's the value of community, and as someone who was an enthusiastic consumer and observer of popular music both during the '60s and the punk era, I'm feeling a void at the center of the current indie-rock stuff.

Of course, as an Old Fogey, I'm alienated by a number of touchstones of the current scene. The near-domination of the MP3 format and the iPod blast-it-directly-into-your-ears playback method is something I'm planning to write a large essay on sometime soon, if only to clarify and structure my feelings about it. The desire to be surrounded by sound all the time bleaches any emotional connection to it and deprives it of what one would hope, at least, is the creator's intention. But the sameness of a lot of this stuff seems to indicate that it's not intended to raise emotions, just to soothe. How weird: muzak at 110 db.

At any rate, there was nothing compelling me to go out and see very much, and at one day-party I attended, I retreated to a quiet space when a band started to play. (The other didn't have any live music). The first night, I chickened out, I'll admit it, by going to see two old Austin favorites from the Old Days: I saw Kathy McCarty play a raft of her new songs with her old bandmate Brian Beattie helping out, and then went down the street and saw the newly-reunited Standing Waves, who hardly seemed to have taken 20-odd years off. By then it was midnight, and with nothing else calling my name, I went back to the hotel.

The next night, Tom Lunt of Numero talked me into seeing his buddies The Love Experts from St. Louis, who were entertaining, but playing in a venue where a non-credentialed friend couldn't get in. I went looking for him afterwards and got into a club so packed I could hardly breathe, being told at the door that most of the people were there to see some band I'd never heard of that was going on some hours hence. Having lost this guy, I went looking for a Bobby Bare show, since this legendary country singer had come out of retirement recently and was doing a few shows. I had stupidly mixed up East and West 6th Street, but so had a friend of mine who was also going to see Bare, so we hopped into a pedicab and made it midway during Bare's show. This was the most depressing show of the whole event: Bare is not a young man, and his voice is almost gone. His band is extremely sympathetic, and his son, Bobby Bare, Jr., who's developed into a major entertainer himself, engages in lively banter with the old man. The show was packed, and...everybody was talking. In the back of the club, where we were, we couldn't hear the show for all the chatter. I wanted to yell "Do you know who this man is? If not, why the hell are you here?" As the show ended, I left, and went down the street to see what I'd heard was a Jon Dee Graham show, but turned out to be a show by the songwriter collective he's in, the Resentments, who, it turns out, are not well-served by a 40-minute showcase slot. Tired again, I retired.

Friday I did a very smart thing: I went to only one show, but it was several hours long. The Ponderosa Stomp is a roots fan's paradise, a festival where legendary names from scratchy 45s take the stage and (usually) blow minds. SXSW had a mini-Ponderosa Stomp at the Continental Club, and I got to see such famous names as Tommy McClain (who's turned into a first-class wacko), Barbara Lynn (excellent), and Roy Head (demented -- almost scarily so) alongside lesser-known but amazing talents like L'il Buck Senegal and a very strange guitarist named Classie Ballou. The band, C C Adcock's Little Band of Gold, distinguished itself by being able to back each and every one of the musicians on stage, which was astonishing, perhaps slightly less so because the alto saxophonist on the very left of the stage was none other than Richard "Dickie" Landry, formerly of the Philip Glass Ensemble, no less, and a veteran of touring soul bands in the mid-'60s. It would be great if this condensation of the Stomp becomes an annual event at SXSW, if only for us Old Fogeys.

And the next night, I stayed home with a couple of bottles of excellent Sierra Nevada 2006 India Pale Ale and a great biography of Benjamin Franklin and, having transcended the need to Go See Bands, probably had as good a time as I would have had parading up and down jam-packed, noise-polluted 6th Street.

Okay, I know: SXSW isn't put on for the likes of me. It's put on for people in their 20s and 30s who are the hot center of the music biz today. It's also increasingly a place for foreign buzz bands to get seen (this year, KT Tunstall and the Arctic Monkeys, both gargantuan in England, played showcases) and launch their assault on America. It's also, with the exception of the odd event like the Ponderosa Stomp, largely ahistorical, which works against my bias and my gig as a historian. So the question now becomes, should I go again next year if I'm not going to be on a panel or otherwise involved? I guess I'll just have to wait until next year and see what happens. But the urgency isn't there any more, and that's a shame. Somehow, I feel like I've lost something, or something's lost me, and I'm still trying to figure it out.


But...didn't you eat barbeque?

Of course I did. I'll be posting about some of the food I had and various other issues of culture shock in the next few days.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Back Again At Last

Wednesday night at 8 the train pulled into Zoo Station, and, like it or not, I was back. I was jet-lagged as could be -- it's much worse coming this direction than going to the States -- so I was very happy to see the dancer, who'd been taking care of my mail in my absence, there to greet me and help with my luggage. I was particularly concerned about the luggage, because one piece had in it my new Mac Mini. I know the thing's well-engineered, but I was scared something would shake loose. As it turned out, I needn't have worried. We had a nice dinner at Honigmond and then said good-night. She was packing for her own trip, to Basel.

Thursday began the biggest string of screw-ups I've seen in a long time. I woke up and started some coffee, since another great thing I'd brought back was a pound of Oaxacan blend coffee from Curra's in Austin. I then plugged in the iBook to get my mail, just to see what was what before I took the momentous step of setting up my new computer and transferring the data. There was an e-mail from someone I'd never heard of with the title "Pass Gefunden." Huh? A scam? I quickly checked my bag and...the leather wallet I use to travel with, containing all my tickets and other documents wasn't there. But some honest person had found it on the tran and had taken it with him. I called, and we agreed to meet in Alexanderplatz at 5. On this one, I have only myself to blame. If I'd had money for a coffee on the train, I would have been alert enough to remember to check.

Speaking of which, the smell of the Curra's coffee was pervading the house. I went into the kitchen to get a cup and...the water had heated, but it was still in the machine. Only a tiny bit had trickled into the coffee-pot. My coffee-maker was dead. Ah, but I was going to Alex later; I could buy another one there. I improvised and soon had hot coffee.

Once buzzed, it was time for me to set up the computer. It's amazing how easy this has become since I last had to do it, painfully transferring files with floppies, taking all day. In just under an hour, everything was where it should be, except... no internet access. I kept getting a message that said "Authentication failed." Now, I'm not a novice, although I'm hardly an expert, so I figured I could beat this. I was wrong. Nothing worked. Frustrated -- and very glad I'd bought Apple Care -- I called the States after I'd returned from Alexanderplatz with my travel wallet and a nice-looking new coffee-maker. One honest young German was now ahead a very good bottle of Languedoc wine.

The Apple Care guy who ran me through the paces was good. We worked hard for an hour trying every possible permutation, and then he called in one of his superiors to see if he'd forgotten anything. "At this point, I think we can say that one of two things is wrong," he said at the end. "Either it's your ISP, or the plug on your computer is damaged somehow." The latter was highly unlikely, and my ISP was...

Deutsche Satankom.

[Parenthetical anecdote. At one point during this hour we were waiting for something to happen, and he said "This isn't the weirdest call I've had this week. The other day this guy called and was like 'My computer's on fire and there's smoke coming out of it!' and I'm like 'Dude! Don't call me, call the fire department!'"]

So, with deadlines looming, no e-mail for several days, and a mounting sense of panic, I went to bed.

Yesterday, I started by calling a friend to see if he had any ideas about what was going on with my access. "I just went to Gravis [Berlin's main Mac dealer] because I wanted a new machine and they talked me out of getting one of those Intel Minis," he said. "They told me 'You can't get on the Internet with one of those.'" What? This sounded insane. But, given that Satankom controls access to the DSL network here, not entirely impossible.

I was beginning to panic after a couple of other phone calls and several trips to the questionable internet cafe down the street. Finally, I induced a friend with good German to call the tech support number. (There used to be an English support number, but it was discontinued in favor of Russian and Turkish. Why they couldn't have all three is beyond me.) Naturally, the tech guys said that it was my fault, that I didn't know how to configure the Mac for access, and they told me to do the exact same things I'd done with the Apple Care guy the night before. Frustrated at having to continue to deal with a customer, they sent a tech checking into my line. He came back and told me I'd been trying to log on with a 7-number password instead of an 8-number one, which was utter baloney: I'd transferred the same information from the old computer which had worked when I'd used it Thursday morning. I patiently re-typed my number, and guess what? I was on.

My analysis of this situation is that there's some kind of change Deutsche Telekom has to make on its DSL lines to make them compatible with Intel Macs, and since they figure that's such a small number of users, they don't bother. Why else would the people at Gravis have said you can't use them to get on the Internet? Clearly I wasn't the first person who'd had this problem.

So, I told myself, I was back again. I'd braved freezing rain on Thursday, dodged now-defrosted hunks of dog poop everywhere, threaded myself through a couple of construction sites (Alexanderplatz is the world's largest mud puddle at the moment), started coming down with yet another cold, and been treated like dirt by Telekom. Surely, though, this chain of disasters had reached its end.


I woke up in the middle of the night, head so full that I realized I had to relocate to the couch so I could sleep sitting up. This happens a couple of times a year, and is no big thing. And as I settled down on the couch-cushion there was a sharpness and then a pop underneath me.

My glasses.


Yes, I'll be posting about SXSW, although not what you might think. I'm still mulling it over, and I'm afraid I've talked about it with a lot of people, which almost always dilutes what I write, or, at any rate, makes it harder to write. I've got some paying work to do this weekend if I haven't missed my deadline, and some loose ends still to tie up around here. But I'm back, and I'm more anxious than ever to get the money together by May 15 so I can start looking for my new apartment in Montpellier.