Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Berlinbites Sells Out!

You may notice little ads on the blog these days. These were inserted by our Technical Guru, Jonl, who's using the proceeds to upgrade the large machines which maintain the pages of this blog and whisk you to them over the Interweb. Anything left over will be used to buy a modest farmhouse in the Languedoc, which we will use on alternate months. I couldn't say no to this plan. What I know of HTML could be engraved on the head of a pin, with room for the complete works of Shakespeare left over.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Coffee and Crumbs

It turns out that that vacant lot wasn't the only disappearance in the air on that last trip to Galleries Lafayette. Today, I took advantage of the WM opening hours to go replace my coffee on a Sunday, only to find out that the Malongo boutique in Gal Laf is closing, and has sold out all its coffee; only tea remains.

This is a shame. One thing about the food floor at Gal Laf is that you can bet you're paying about 30% more than you would anywhere else for most items, but some of what they have is unique in Berlin. Thus with whole-bean Malongo coffee. Malongo isn't hard to find in France in supermarkets -- but only in ground form, and never in single-bean varieties. If Malongo's pulling out of Gal Laf is a store-wide event, then it's tragic; this is the best whole bean coffee I've ever had, better than what I used to get at Whole Foods. Cheaper, too; cheaper than any other whole-bean coffee I've found in this city.

And there's the problem of what to do next. I satisfied myself with a bag of Gold Coast from Starbuck's, but that's not going to be a regular thing. I have nothing against Starbuck's, actually, at least not here, where they're far from ubiquitous and don't, to the best of my knowledge, engage in the sleazy real-estate moves they've used in the States to get rid of established businesses that might compete with them. But they're way more expensive than Malongo, and not as good.

I guess it's time to start exploring some of their competition. I used to occasionally buy from Einstein, but they seem to discourage their workers from enjoying their product, or else they're selling hash under the counter, because all the service I ever encountered there was lethargic and stoned-seeming. There's a Balzac shop not far from me on Friedrichstr., so when what I've got runs out, I'll see if I can put together a decent blend from what they sell.

Ms. Choi, the Korean woman who works at Malongo and really knows her beans, said there's a place over on Uhlandstr. somewhere "which also sells herbs" and that's the only place in the city she recommends. I've got a transit pass these days which I'm not using to its full extent; maybe I'll whip over to the west and see what she's talking about. But I'm going to miss this ritual of walking down Friedrichstr. every couple of weeks.


Walking back, I took another look at that vacant lot, and now there's a sign up announcing that the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Center, a university library and media center, will rise there soon, and there's a nice architectural watercolor of the white glass-clad building.

It occurred to me that, for most people in the English-speaking world, the Brothers Grimm means fairy tales, while Germans invariably think of dictionaries, for it was these two brothers who compiled the first dictionary of the German language, the Deutsches Wörterbuch, which appeared in 32 volumes between 1852 and 1960. That's not a typo: the brothers only lived to see volumes A through Forsche, but they were the ones who set the scholarly apparatus in motion for the century-long project.

I also remembered the buildings which had stood in the lot, and feel a little better. No architectural monuments were destroyed in the preparation of the Grimm Center, although one, which seemed to be an old house which had been bombed and then repaired by encasing it in a concrete box, always piqued my curiosity.

And yes, I know most Germans refer, not to the Grimm, but to the much shorter Duden when it comes to dictionaries.


In fact, it was the long-lost Surfin' Steffen who contacted me with a fascinating footnote about having a pig -- ein Schwein haben -- which he found in...the Duden. Apparently, in contests in the old days, the guy who came in second was awarded a pig. Which, when you think about it, can be a lot more useful than a medal, so there's a sort of winning-by-losing connotation to it, I guess.


Had a couple of beers with a couple of Australians last night, one of whom had been on a river cruise (a great way to see this city in this weather) when Germany won the game yesterday. She reported that people started throwing off their clothes and diving into the Spree River, which, given the quality of the water in it, is tantamount to mass suicide. Wow, cholera! What a WM souvenir!

Since I didn't leave the house when it happened, I don't know if the spontaneous parade which erupted on Torstr. was clothed or not, but there was a huge roar of male voices singing something. Whether it was the alcohol or the lack of talent, or (more likely) a combination of the two, the melody and lyrics were impossible to make out, but there was stamping of feet, blowing of whistles, and the inevitable firecrackers.

Germany is still in the running, and I'm now feeling ambivalent about seeing them possibly win. Lord knows this country -- and this city, in particular -- is in a horrid mess, with a declining economy and massive unemployment, so maybe a WM win would actually be a good thing, in that it would be some positive news for a change, make some people feel better, and maybe the wave of good feeling might result in some things getting better.

Still, for the moment, I'm hoping Ghana goes all the way. Germany's in trouble, but man, talk about a country with very, very little going for it: Ghana really deserves something good.

Anyway, in two weeks it'll be over. And the Sommerloch will descend upon us yet again.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Places That Are Gone

Last week, I was returning from buying coffee at Galleries Lafayette on Friedrichstr. when I turned a corner and -- POW! -- there was a huge hole where something had been. I stopped and gaped. What had been there before? It was a district between the railroad tracks and the river, a sort of no-man's-land, but it was someplace I'd been many times before. Something was gone, yet I had no idea what. But that it was gone was absolutely certain.

I went back yesterday to shoot it, and by then the bulldozers had smoothed over the rubble. This is one feature of demolitions in Berlin: there's always something below, often ghosts of bombed buildings, their cellars, or their air-raid shelters. That's what I saw when I first saw this site, but nothing of the sort is visible in the shot you see above. Still, a huge hunk of a city block has just vanished, as you can see.

To write about Berlin is to write about what's not there any more. I'm not old enough to be able to remember what was there before the Allied bombings and the depredations of the Russian soldiers as they retook the city, but you don't have to be in your 80s to gasp in shock when you revisit a familiar block and see that it's gone. There's an absolute mania for tearing down the past here without spending much time thinking about it. It makes the future more accessible, even if there's not really a plan for that future at hand, and it also erases a past which is frequently filled with inconvenient facts.

A classic example is the Palast der Republik, the former headquarters of the East German government. PBS in America just did an interesting piece on it, 17 minutes long, and worth watching every second, although the guy soft-pedals the political affiliations of the people who want to rebuild the Schloss. (I also posted a long comment, and although I doubt they'll post it, maybe they'll show it to the filmmaker). The vehemence with which the pro-demolition forces pursue their agenda in this film is frightening, but all too common in a city whose motto is "tear it down today, worry about it tomorrow."

Incidentally, here's what the Palast looked like yesterday:

It'll be gone by this time next year, if not by Christmas.

But buildings are just buildings, and what I'm beginning to miss about Berlin is a sense of mystery which made it unique for me when I first came here and for many years thereafter. I used to work on Linienstr., just a block away from where I live today, and there was one block of that street on which every single building was pocked with bullet holes from the street-to-street fighting the Russians engaged in while taking control of the city. I used to walk down that street and imagine the sheer number of bullets expended, any one of which could have killed me if I'd been in its way. Nor was Linienstr. alone in this; plenty of other streets in the neighborhood shared this feature, although not necessarily on every building. But there was enough to remind one of the horrors of war far more eloquently than the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche near Zoo Station. That's just a war ruin. Walking down Linienstr. was like being in a place seconds after the war was over.

Today, it is nearly impossible to find bullet holes. That is absolutely mind-boggling to me, that no one has sought to preserve this most eloquent reminder of what war is like for the average civilian. Churches get bombed: we know that. It could be Coventry Cathedral, or it could be the Kaiser Wilhelm. But an obscure street with little traffic is not a landmark. Still, you were reminded, it happened there, too.

That was another facet of the suddenly-vacated lot I stumbled upon. There was an old building there, and the demolition had made its bullet holes suddenly a lot easier to see:

No doubt this building, if it's allowed to stand, will soon be scrubbed and sanitized and divested of its patina of history, too.

Rather autumnal thoughts for the gorgeous summer weather we've been having (although there are always threatening-looking clouds in the sky and a forecast of rain always hovering a day or two off, nothing's happened so far), but these, I'm afraid, are the sorts of thoughts that you get when you live in the middle of a place with this sort of heritage. But since I now have a good camera, I'm going to be documenting a lot of this stuff in the neighborhood, because I know it probably won't be there much longer.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

WM Outrages Of The Day

First, thanks to Hudson for the pics of assorted WM players' girlfriends in incredibly stupid outfits, none of which is as stupid as the dress I mentioned a couple of posts back. I guess I'm going to have to go back there and photograph it.

Then, I was walking by Butlers today, the store with the four-Euro-per-roll football-patterned toilet paper, if you remember, and saw a grill painted like a football. Cheap tin, and I'm sure it wouldn't last until the finals under regular use, but then, grilling is illegal almost everywhere in Berlin, so I'm sure nobody will be able to find out for sure. Still: hideous.

And, finally, Kevin sends along this short video, which will be incomprehensible to most of my readers, both because it's in German and it's sung in a speeded-up voice. Also because, for reasons I have never been able to discover, having a "Schwein" means having an unexpected bit of good luck. With Germany facing Poland in an hour and a half and reports from Dortmund of fan clashes in the streets there, a defeat for Deutschland tonight would be all the Schwein I need today.

And for a little relief, I want to thank the estimable Static for finding this video of one of my favorite bands, one which only played once in the U.S. -- and long before they got this good -- featuring a teenage-looking Nick Lowe.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


I just got back from a short walk down Friedrichstr. and the whole area is a sea of yellow and green. Which prompts a question: can these people all be Brazilian?

I'd imagine that a lot of them are, just because I imagine that airlines did cheap charter flights and travel agencies put together flight-hotel-ticket packages, and although there's plenty of poverty in Brazil, it's not exactly a Third World country. Proof positive comes from the amount of Portugese being spoken (I think that's what it is; it's not a language I'm terribly familiar with, but it sounds kind of like Spanish, which I am familiar with) on the street.

But I'd also imagine that a good number aren't; they're German. The reason? Brazil kept Germany from the championship last time.

This was the fulfillment of an awful lot of Germans' dreams. Two World Cups ago, I cooked hamburgers for a friend who'd invited a number of his friends and their wives over to watch a game and eat dinner afterwards, and I asked him who he was rooting for, naively enough. "Well, nobody in particular," he said, "although I think what everyone here agrees on is that Germany should lose. It's just not healthy if they win. The coach is a pretty low-down right-wing type, and so are a lot of the guys on the team. Kohl's been talking the team up a lot, and you know what I think of him. Winning the WM would just encourage Germany's worst nationalistic, right-wing tendencies, and there's enough of that going around here at the moment."

That was eight years ago, and the coach has changed to a rather New Age-y guy who lives in America, but coincidentally enough, the same political party is back in power, although the faction Frau Merkel represents is far from the reactionary, blockheaded, (aw, go ahead, say it!) Bavarian wing of the party. Furthermore, I think the current nationalisms out there, including the American flavor, have been sufficient to quell all but the most recalcitrant German stirrings -- or at least suppress them.

But one way that gets done is by actual Germans being anti-German. And one healthy, sportsmanlike way to express that is to cheer on the team which beat Germany last time. (Oh, and it's no problem urging anyone on to beat Croatia, where crypto-fascist elements are right up on the surface, with war veterans who fought with the Nazis getting a much higher pension than those who fought with the resistance, and one or two out-of-the-closet fascist parties standing in every election). It's that German self-loathing, which, I have to say, is at least in part therapeutic and probably commendable to some degree, which is causing people to wear all that yellow and green. Not to mention joining some of the world's stiffest samba schools and turning caipirinhas into a long-lasting fad.

And boy, are those Brazilians friendly, I thought, as I returned home. Look you straight in the face and smile these big smiles... And it wasn't until I took my hat off and noticed that it was the one I bought from some weird Japanese artist at the Yokohama Biennale in 2001 that I realized it was...yellow and green.


WM Gripe of the Day: Attention all Berlin bars, kneipes, restaurants, hotels, dives, temporary spaces, church gardens, outdoor wide-screens, and so on. You do not have WM LIVE, as you advertise. You have it on television. It would be a very good idea for you to remember the distinction between television and LIVE. The only place that has WM LIVE is the stadium, where the little men down on the field are, as they play, living. That's what LIVE means. Thank you for your prompt attention to this.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Ghost Town

Okay, I surrender. Only two days into the madness, and I realize that if I'm going to write about Berlin for the next month, I have to include the World Cup. Not that I want to, but it's really all that's happening here, all anyone talks or thinks about. Of course, as someone who knows exactly zero about the subject, I'm both at an advantage and a disadvantage. The disadvantage is obvious: I can't talk about the game, or the players or anything like that. I can't have an opinion about the sport. The advantage is, all I can really attend to is the ephemera around the thing, the epiphenomena, if that's the right word. I'm trapped inside it without being at all interested.

For instance, today. A friend asked me to join her at a church, where a friend of hers, a soprano, was giving a recital with something called the Berliner Ensemble for Old Music. So I figured sure, this would be one venue where there was sure not to be a big-screen television showing the day's games. To get there, I walked, since nobody has paid me recently, and two Euros is too much to invest in a trip I can walk in an hour. Anyway, the weather's gotten much nicer, and the sun was out, so why not?

The route was pretty straightforward: down Friedrichstr. to the end. (Actually, on the way down, I took a detour which added ten minutes to the walk, but that's neither here nor there). It was pretty amazing: I left at 3, which is when the day's first game started. The streets were largely deserted, but not entirely: there were scores of Brazilians walking around. They were there yesterday, too, when I took another shorter trip down Friedrichstr., but the ones I saw yesterday were hyping some sort of Brazilian outdoor bar with a big-screen TV, and handing out little ribbons that they said were "Brazilian good-luck charms." Today's Brazilians, though, were fans, singing songs, wearing stupid hats and t-shirts, and generally ogling Berlin. (And yes, it's true: Brazilian women are impressively good-looking, even the ones who are football fans.) But the Germans -- and, I guess, all the other nationalities -- were inside, watching television. Or outside watching it at a sidewalk cafe. Or outdoors watching it on a huge screen in Potsdamer Platz. Friedrichstr., the part of it not talking Portugese, was deserted. Auto traffic was a fraction of normal, although many of the cars that were out were flying German flags.

Which is interesting, because 90% of the shops were open. One salutary side-effect of the WM (Weltmeisterschaft, an abbreviation I'm going to use because it's quicker to type than World Cup, and yes, I'll call it football because most of the world does) is that shops have been given the option of staying open until 10pm on weekdays, and opening from 2-8pm on Sunday. I'm waiting to see what the fallout from this will be. The stringent opening-hours laws are on the books because the shopkeepers' union insists that they preserve the German family by giving workers time to spend with their spouses and kids. When closing time on weekdays was extended from 7pm (but everyone closed at 6) to 8, there were posters all over town screaming that this would mean the end of the German family as we know it. Further, family-owned businesses were allowed to stay open until 10, a boon for your average Turkish family running the little corner shop. But if the upsurge in business is big enough, and the German family doesn't dissolve in a month (and I want it noted that Dad is probably out in a bar watching football), this temporary measure may re-surface, particularly as Christmas comes.

At any rate, the concert was so-so, but the venue was one of these huge brick churches built at the turn of the last century, so the Berliner Ensemble for Old Music sounded like they were performing in a tunnel, or as if they had been produced by Phil Spector. The sonic environment swallowed up the Baroque music, so I left at the break and walked back home. It was there that I saw, in a boutique, the so-far most hideous bit of WMsploitation I've seen (although this contest has a whole month to run, folks!): a dress, in black and white, little footballs sewn to its skirt, and, at the bust, two half-footballs for the breasts. This is a perfect illustration of why the words "fashion" and "Berlin" rarely appear in the same sentence, and no, I do not want to meet the woman who buys this. The dress beat out yesterday's entry, the heads of iceberg lettuce at my local supermarket, wrapped in cellophane with a pentagon pattern on it, so they resemble green footballs. I was thinking of kicking one around until I realized that this was a game I'd never played and likely was very bad at.

And the stupid slogans continue apace, too. Memo to Esprit: "The World Is Our Culture" is a phrase utterly without meaning, and sticking a football on it doesn't make it make any more sense.

Oh, and today, when I was reading the forum at The Languedoc Page, people were commenting that the French were being fairly subdued about the whole thing; no flags flying, no overt show of interest. I commented that that sounded good after Berlin, and someone responded that France hosts the WM in 2007, with games in, among other places, Toulouse, Marseille, and...Montpellier.


Monday, June 05, 2006

Pfingsten Pfragments

Neato Keano Photo

You thought I was kidding about the pill behind the Reichstag, right? Well, here's your evidence. There are even more of these abominations around town, all in that pallid sickly color. The most recent one I've seen is behind the new Hauptbahnhof, a pair of sneakers. I bet you didn't know the Germans invented sneakers, did you? Someone alert Chuck Taylor! Worse, so as not to offend any company and invite a lawsuit, these giant galumphers have been designed so that they look like immense bronzed baby shoes with velcro tabs.


Yeah, I said I was through with it, but what else is there to write about? In fact, what other reality does Berlin have at the moment? Anyway:

Worst World Cup slogan so far goes to Coca-Cola Germany for its "It's your Heimspiel! Make it real!" Although, to be honest, it shows how strong the use of English is in marketing to youth in Germany; this would never be allowed in France, where any English is an ad has to sport an asterisk and a translation below in legible type (my favorite: "Do You Yahoo!?"* *Est-ce que vous etes Yahoo?" Well, actually, no, but I wish I were, looking at the latest stock quotes). The bizarre mixture of English and German only where it's absolutely necessary (as in the word Heimspiel, which took me a while to figure out, but which means that all the championship games are being played in Germany) is ubiquitous in the advertising of sneakers, clothes, music (especially downloadable) and soft drinks.

Does this mean that the average German high-school kid speaks English? Hahahahaha! Stop! You're killing me!

Although, y'know, more of them speak more English than American high-school kids speak German. Or French. Even the ones who are studying those languages.

You can read about yesterday's trip to the races at Hoppegarten here and here, although I just want to say that comments like "everyone lost money" are rank jealousy. Just because I'm a manly enough man to be able to collect my winnings in cash without need of a bodyguard is no reason to get sniffy. And factoring in everything, I think that €24 made me break even. At any rate, it's nice when a long-shot horse pays off on your first bet. Not so nice when none of the rest of them do.

And, to be fair, these folks take better pictures than I do.


That's all for today. Have a pfabulous Pfingsten, pfolks!

Saturday, June 03, 2006


It was almost nice yesterday, with a little sun which warmed you if you stood in it, and a friend came over babbling about how cool Berlin's new main train station, the Hauptbahnhof, was and how I should really take a look at it. My position had been that I'd go see it when I had to leave for somewhere from it, but with the weather so nice and nothing to do, really, towards the end of the afternoon, I realized that it wasn't more than 15 minutes' walk away, and so I hoofed over there.

So what's it like? It's big.

How big is it, Ed?

It's so big that it's got a Burger King and a McDonald's in it, and you know how much those behemoths like being too close to each other.

The other thing is, it's dark. I don't really understand this, what with all the glass up top, but the interior of the station is downright gloomy, so that going downstairs to board a north-south train (as opposed to upstairs for the east-west trains) is like descending into a coal-mine. Yeah, there are lights in the ceiling, but they're more like spots, and don't really dissipate the darkness all that much.

One good thing: this north-south, east-west nexus. Deutsche Bahn has been crowing that Berlin will be the crossroads of European rail travel, where the Stockholm-to-Rome trains meet the Moscow-to-Paris trains, which is nice, I guess, in its own way, but it really does centralize the process of getting somewhere. Having Intercity access to Leipzig at long last has sliced a half-hour off of the travel time, and I presume other amenities of that sort will follow. The signs, all screens, are easy to read, and you can even find the track you need. This hasn't been a feature of German train stations in a lot of cases.

But one reason I was there was because of an idiosyncratic law we have here which says that shops in train stations should be open to meet travellers' needs. This includes grocery stores, and the Hauptbahnhof has a Kaiser's. (For you American readers, that's the company which owns A&P). And with a three-day weekend in the offing (yes, it's Pfingsten again), I just know I'm going to run out of something by Monday. After all, I always do.

For some reason, the Kaiser's was filled with photographers snapping pix of the groceries. I may even have gotten my photo taken while looking at the pathetic wine selection, but the rest of the store seemed adequate for emergency fillups. It was the rest of the retail space that gave me pause.

Now, a shopping mall in a train station is nothing new here. Leipzig has a three-level one, and it's populated by the same sort of mall rats you find in America; presumably Leipzig's teenagers have nowhere else to hang out. The Hauptbahnhof, however, is out in the middle of nowhere, so I wonder if that'll happen here. A lot of the retail is clothing stores, not the kind of thing I imagine travellers having a whole lot of use for. Crystal jewelry? Got it. A couple of shoe stores? Right here. Women's clothing in three or four locations. Two newspaper shops, one with a thin selection of international press, both operated by Relay, which I think of as a French company because they're in all the French railroad stations. Loads and loads of bad food: Pizza Hut, a Döner Kebap place, several chain bakeries, a muffin-and-doughnut shop, and the scarily named Asia Gourmet, which is your usual non-specific glop-provider. There's a sushi shop which sells bentos, which is a train-station concept I endorse, even if they're not even close to being as cool as the bentos you get in Japan.

But most of what's for sale there looks like someone conceived of this huge building on the edge of the government building district as a destination for shopping, which is ridiculous, especially since the word is that Deutsche Bahn had to clobber people over the head to get them to rent there -- very few contracts were signed as recently as three months ago. In other words, I wonder how long most of these joints are going to last, especially since the exact same stores are available all over town, there not being much variety in German retail.

There's also an oyster bar, which wasn't open, but I feel must be doomed because Berliners sure don't eat oysters -- or any other shellfish -- and what appears to be a brewpub, although I couldn't find it from the inside.

It does seem to be fulfilling its promise as a public space, though, because lots of people were sunning themselves on the steps, only natural on one of the first sunny days we've had this year. And I imagine a lot of the foot traffic was curiosity-seekers drawn by the novelty of the place. We'll see how this plays out. I'm not terribly optimistic, I have to say.

I left by the portal which faces all the government buildings, and they were erecting a stage there for the free concerts they're putting on this summer: the Scorpions (good lord, are they still around?) and good old Schlager gal Nena (yes, there's life after "99 Luftballons"). As I walked back towards my part of town, I passed a bar with an artificial beach which seemed to be run by the Agriculture Department as a way of promoting German produce, and some folks from Debitel who were running a "free bicycle rental" for people who want to cycle around town advertising Debitel. Unfortunately for them, I'd already spent €15 on a card to top up my cell phone from O2, because they'd sent me a notice saying that if I didn't, I'd not only lose my number, but I'd also lose the €35 credit I still had in it. Seemed like highway robbery, but I do take the damn thing on trips.

As a footnote, I wound up over by Charité Hospital on the route back, and saw that its campus was open, the part where Humboldt University has its research and teaching facilities. Having never been in there, although it's quite close to my house, I wandered around, looking at the 18th and 19th Century buildings there (including the macabre 18th Century dissection theater, which has cow's skulls as its identifying feature), the statues of German medical men, and its gloomy, tree-shaded premises. It's creepy enough that I'm going to go back there with the camera and shoot it.

If, that is, it ever warms up and stops raining. Maybe in August.