Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Dust Bunnies

So how's the move going?


It's not. Or, rather, it is, sort of. On Thursday, I'll meet at noon with the heating people to figure out how to make the gas radiators work (and maybe have them check the stove to make sure it's okay), and then a truck should appear with a couple of students with a moving firm carrying two sofas I inherited from the sad closing of the McClatchey Papers' European bureau. So I'll have two couches in the apartment, and nothing else.

Yet. Clearly I have to get stuff out of here, but I made a couple of disheartening discoveries along the way. One, I didn't have as many boxes as I'd thought. And, with the current five-day holiday weekend in full roar, no way to get more. Two, once I did get some stuff in boxes, I didn't really have any place to put the boxes. So filling more of them doesn't make sense yet.

The phone gets transferred on the 2nd, probably (I'm waiting for confirmation from Deutsche Telekom...stop laughing), so it'll make sense to have moved in at least partially by then. I won't need most of the books and CDs yet, so I'm thinking a partial move over this coming weekend, followed by a fuller one later.

But today, I'm going to do next to nothing about any of this and relax and blog and try to digest this deep-fried Hungarian thing I got at the Weinachtsmarkt over by the nearly-destroyed Palast der Republik. That alone should take most of the rest of the day. Oh, and maybe throw a few more things into boxes. I can't not do that, as long as I actually have boxes to throw stuff in. Where they go, well, I haven't figured that out yet. The bathroom is full of boxes, and I have to get rid of them before I can put more in there. There's no room for more.

It's like working out a puzzle, only with some handicaps built in. For one thing, I've developed arthritis in my right knee as the weather got colder. For another, after hoisting heavy boxes, I discovered something: I'm almost 60, and I'm not as capable of sustained exercise as I once was. It was eleven years ago that I moved in here, and I've acquired a lot of stuff -- mostly books and records -- in the meanwhile. Getting them in was easy. Getting them out will be far less so. And figuring out where to put them, even in an apartment with one extra small room and an overall ten-square-meter gain on this one, won't be easy.

I wish I could push a button and have it done. But I can't. Stay tuned.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

My head hurts. I've just spent another hour looking at people's living spaces on Immobilienscout24, the website where people post offers of apartments and they have a search engine set up so you can find what you can afford in the neighborhood you want, plus sign up for an e-mail alert service which'll clog your in-box or your money back.

My first time through, I punched in some criteria: 1 1/2 to 2 rooms, in Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg, rent 200-400 a month, cold. Push the search button and see what comes up: 12 pages of offers. Now to winnow out the things the search criteria don't offer: not too many stairs (I've developed a bum knee with the cold weather, which clearly means I have to move to a warmer climate!); not in one of those grim communist Plattenbau or even grimmer post-communist shoeboxes; in a neighborhood I may actually have heard of (although this is proving a great way to discover places I'd never seen before). Then start reading the descriptions.

No, Wedding is not Prenzlauer Berg, although it may please you to think of it as such for the purpose of drawing eyeballs, Mr. Real Estate Agent. No, oven heating is not "romantisch," as someone put it. I prefer to think of it as "unhealthisch." No, I don't want to "live over the roofs of Berlin" if there's no elevator.

* * *

That's as far as I'd gotten with writing this post on Monday when the phone rang. It was a Makler, a real estate agent, calling to ask me if I'd like to look at one of the apartments I'd found on Immobilienscout24, a particularly affordable one on a street I'd checked out and liked in Prenzlauer Berg. Naturally, I said yes, and there went the rest of the afternoon.

It looked good, it really did. Not particularly light, I suspect (although by 3, when we met, the light was going anyway), but with a lot more space than I have here, and that particular object of lust for someone who likes to cook as much as I do, a gas stove. Easy stairs, shopping nearby (I can't believe how many people here live far from grocery stores and other necessities), and, well, I liked it. Met the landlord yesterday, and if the lease doesn't have any hidden trap-doors in it, I'll go in Monday to finalize the deal and pick up the keys; I can move stuff in gradually and the clock won't start ticking until January 1.

But what I wanted to do with this post was to outline, for those of you who are contemplating living here, what the various real estate listings mean by what they say -- at least, to the best of my knowledge. I'm sure smarter commenters will come along to refine and correct what I say, so read the comments. Given the number of searches for "long-time apartment Berlin" and "long-term rental Prenzlauer Berg" and so on, I know there's interest out there.

Now, the first thing you want to do is look at the rent. This is expressed as "Kaltmiet," or cold rent. In almost every case (except when the sole heating is coal), the landlord pays to heat the building and adds "Nebenkosten," or service charges, to the rent. Nebenkosten also include the fees for garbage and recycling pickup, cleaning the halls, and maybe cable television. So the rent on this place is €350 a month cold, €480 warm, including a €50 charge for the gas.

In addition, I'm going to have to come up with €833 as a one-time fee (Provision) for the Makler, in addition to the €500 "Kaution," or deposit, for the landlord. Note that not all apartments are offered through Maklers, and many folks who aren't in as much of a rush as I was like to avoid them. You can find "Provisionsfrei" apartments that are part of a co-op arrangement (Genossenschaft) or offered directly by the landlord. Another way to do it is through becoming a "Nachmieter," a term which doesn't really translate -- next-renter? The way that works is that one way you can get out of your lease quickly is to fine someone to take it over. If I remember how this works correctly, you have to come up with three potential renters, and the landlord meets with them. This satisfies the legal requirements, although some landlords will be happy to say they've met people they haven't or let you come up with two friends who have no intention of moving but go through the motions, then the person you've selected as your Nachmieter.

Once you've got your place, of course, the fun really starts. You have to arrange for electricity and telephone service. This last is the most fun because Deutsche Telekom likes nothing better than saying no. They'll take your order and then get back to you and tell you that, due to a lack of new telephone numbers, you'll have to wait until 2048, but they'll be happy to cut you a deal on a mobile phone (which the Germans call ein Handy, after the extremely early Motorola Handy Phone), the details of which, once you whip out a magnifying glass to read the extremely fine print, resemble three years' indentured servitude.

And then there's furniture, and, well, the most fun of all.


That's the part I'm really looking forward to. I remember when I left Texas, on the real crunch day of the move it was 107 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 41.667 degrees Celsius) and suddenly all the people who'd offered to help just weren't there. I'm sure there'll be a series of ice storms or something similar as this month draws to an end. But here goes another adventure.

Friday, November 30, 2007


Earlier this month, I visited a friend in Prenzlauer Berg for dinner. As I approached the apartment, a rat scuttled across the pavement.

Now, many of you probably aren't surprised by that; after all, Berlin is a big city, a dirty city, and that's just where you find rats. But one of the most surprising things about Berlin is simply its lack of rats. Even in the most wretched apartments here, or at least the ones I've been to, you just don't find them. The city is extra-diligent about cracking down on them, and on places where they could breed, and as a result, you're far more likely to see a marten or a weasel (especially in cold weather) than a rat.

But, as you might guess from the way my luck runs, I've had experience with them. My last apartment, which I moved into a little over twelve years ago, was a nightmare. I took it over from a guy I knew whose wife had gotten a job in Hong Kong, and it was a huge, ground-floor place in a particularly depressing part of Wedding. It was in the back, not on the street, but it was just exactly what I didn't want: two coal ovens, for one thing, each of which burned a different kind of coal, which, because the neighbors had destroyed the coal-cellar assigned to the apartment, I had to haul around 35kg of coal into just about every day. For another thing, there was nothing of interest in the neighborhood, or, as I discovered, for many, many blocks around. None of my friends wanted to go up there, but at least it was close to the U-Bahn.

Now, in the street-front was a shop which looked like it had been closed for a long time, given the dust on the windows, with a sign behind the grating indicating that it sold espresso machines wholesale. As the bitter winter, one of the coldest on record, faded into spring, there was activity there. Out went the espresso machines, and in went a bunch of burly guys, cleaning the place up. Soon, a sign appeared, saying that an Italian ice cream place would be opening. Certainly nothing too exciting about that; those places are omnipresent here, and, since I don't eat ice cream, I don't know if any of them are any good, although I suspect not many are. Finally the place opened, with a sign saying the ice cream was made on the premises, which I found surprising, since the shop was incredibly tiny and I couldn't see where they made it, not even when the back door, which opened onto my and my neighbors' living space, was open.

One problem that I had was that I was subletting this place illegally. I believe all sublets in Berlin are illegal, but some landlords are cooler with it than others. I was told that this place was owned by two sweet old ladies, one of whom had briefly taken English lessons from the guy who'd sublet it to me. At any rate, I never saw them. I paid rent to the guy I'd sublet from and he paid the landladies. My address was c/o him, as it had been at my previous sublets, and I never had any trouble getting my mail until one day we got a new postman. He was an ageing hippie, from the looks of him, John Lennon wire-framed glasses and a greying pony-tail. But looks can be deceptive. "I can't deliver mail to you because your name isn't on the post box," he said. I told him that the name of the guy whose apartment it was was on the box, and that should clue him which box to put it in. "No," he said, "you have to have your name on the box or I won't deliver it." I'd been warned not to do this, but it looked like I didn't have any choice. So I wrote my name on a label and pasted it onto the box.

The days got warmer. Finally, in July, it got downright hot. A friend came to visit and when he got in the apartment he said "Man, those are some mellow rats out there. They didn't even budge when I came walking by." I looked out the window, and sure enough, there were a few grey lumps in the lawn. When he left, I watched him go, and he stamped his foot. The rats scurried a bit, then settled down after he was gone. This didn't look good. That night, as I left for work, I noticed that there were a bunch of empty cans out back of the ice cream joint. The labels indicated they'd contained peaches in heavy syrup. No doubt that's what had attracted the rats. The ice cream guys couldn't be bothered to walk a few steps to the garbage cans and throw them in.

I got off work at about 11, and I'd go to Zoo Station to catch the subway back up to Wedding, and it was there, among some of the most unsavory residents of Berlin, that I noticed more rats. They were between the tracks, the same color as the pebbles, but unlike the pebbles, they moved. They'd run for the sides when trains approached, then come back out again, scavenging for who knows what. I guess I just hadn't noticed before.

It started to cool off again, following the usual pattern of warm days but increasingly sharp nights. I was sitting, reading, one night when I heard a sound from the kitchen: eeeep eeeep. From my time on the Lower East Side in New York, I recognized that immediately. When I checked, I found a couple of turds. They were big enough that I knew the animal I was dealing with, and it wasn't a mouse. I went to a hardware store the next day and bought a rat trap and baited it with peanut butter. Don't mess around with cheese; go for the stuff they really like. That night I was awakened by a snap, some high shrieking, some rhythmic flopping, and then silence. I fell back to sleep.

The next morning, there was, as I'd expected, a large, dead rat in the middle of the kitchen floor. I picked it up and went outside to the garbage bins, which were overflowing with empty cans left by the ice cream guys. As I deposited the rat, there was the sound of scuffling inside the bins. I bought another couple of traps. It was getting colder. The ice cream guys would be closing down. They'd want in, somewhere.

A few days later, the doorbell rang. It was the hippie postman. In his hand was a bill from the electric company. "I'm not going to deliver this," he said. "You shouldn't be here." And with that he walked off. Now what?

I bagged a few more rats. This was getting unpleasant.

Soon, a letter, registered mail, arrived for the guy I was subletting from. The word "Hausverwaltung" was in the return address. It was wrong, but I suspected I should take a look at it. After all, he was in Hong Kong. And it was what I'd feared: the bill the postman had refused to deliver had been sent back to the electric company as undeliverable. They, in turn, had alerted the landlady that Herr Ward had apparently skipped town. The landlady checked her records and saw there was no Herr Ward on her books. She checked the mailboxes and saw my label on the box. She terminated the lease.

I faxed Hong Kong. The guy filpped out. He told me to get out immediately and cursed me for losing him his big, cheap Berlin apartment. He announced he'd be back in a couple of weeks to close the apartment down. I had to be out by then.

I was hardly heartbroken, but the timing could have been better. I had a lot of work to do, and this was just complicating things. Still, it was time to look for a new place. And there were the rats.

In late September, the ice cream shop closed for the season. The cans were no longer being tossed out the back door, or in the garbage bin. I headed to Zoo Station at 8 one Saturday night to catch the first batch of Berliner Morgenposts to check the apartment listings. There weren't many, but there was one from a woman in Mitte who needed someone to take over her lease. I wasn't sure I wanted to live in the east, but things were, it's true, cheaper over there. I called the next morning. It turned out that not only was she a journalist, not only did she speak English, but she recognized my name from the magazine. I looked the place over. It was fine. We set a date to meet with the landlord.

The furious guy from Hong Kong was still due, and the woman in Mitte was having trouble moving out. I moved some of my stuff in, and left some in Wedding. A friend had rented a place in Neukölln that he'd partially furnished but couldn't yet move into, for some reason. He let me have it for a couple of days, just to sleep in, while things shook out. I'd go to Wedding, pack some, call a cab, and move it to Mitte. Finally the day came when a friend rented a truck to take everything, and I woke up early, and went to the apartment to start getting things together for the big move. When I got there, there was excitement in the courtyard. One of the garbage bins was on fire, and the neighbors had a bucket brigade going. I reflexively looked to see if I could help, but it appeared things were going well, so I went inside.

About twenty minutes later, the doorbell rang. I opened the door to see an old woman leaning on a cane, and a well-dressed younger man with her. The woman started shouting. "You started that fire! I'm calling the Kripo [Kriminalpolizei] and having you charged with arson!" And who, I asked the man, are you? "I'm her lawyer." Do you speak English? "Yes." Does she? "No." Good, let's speak English. I hope you're being well-paid for this. "Not nearly enough," he sighed. I told him I'd been asleep in Neukölln when the fire had started and only wanted to pack my stuff and leave that place for good. The guy who had the lease had missed his plane in Bombay, I think it was, and would now be a few days late, but she could deal with him when he got here. "You'll really be gone this afternoon?" the lawyer asked. I promised him that as soon as he got the old bat out of my presence, I'd go back to packing and they'd never see me again. "Have a nice day," he said, and steered her towards the courtyard.

So that's how I found the place I'm leaving now. People are always surprised when I tell them that this -- rats, coal heating, being informed on by my postman -- happened in West Berlin instead of East Berlin, but someone recently theorized that the postman could well have been ex-Stasi, given a job where he could do no harm. Possibly. Another friend who'd been studying law and had dropped out to work in the Post Office later told me that the postman had broken something like eight federal laws. No doubt.

I hope there aren't any rats in my next place. With four, three, or two legs.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ginglish On Musemsinsel

So while I'm looking for a new place, life, and work, goes on. In recent days, I've picked up a guidebook gig, and one of the chapters I have to do is museums. Which is great: I love museums, and if I had it to do all over again, I might well give in to the impulse I had in my teens to go to musem school and wind up making some dough. I've always loved the way a museum, properly done, is an alternative way of arranging knowledge. I'm used to doing it with words, but museums have to do it with objects. Just as there is with a book or essay, there's an implicit agenda in a musem's ordering of objects: a curator is arguing a position, and the viewer is obliged to sort out the information and react.

I started on Tuesday with a visit to the Deutsches Historisches Museum because although I've been to a bunch of shows in its I. M. Pei annex, I had yet to see the new permanent collection in the main building itself. Plus, I woke up that day feeling depressed and decided, on the principle of the blues, that immersing oneself in another's misery might make me feel better.

Dunno if it worked, actually; I left the place feeling like my head was going to explode. But that's getting ahead of myself. The permanent collection is divided in two: Roman times to World War I upstairs, and postwar through reunification downstairs. Right off the bat, there's something odd, in that prehistory isn't even touched on, and, thanks to the Neander river valley, if nothing else, Germany has a starring role in that. And anyway, those Germanic tribes must've come from somewhere. But you're only a few meters inside by the time the Christians come on the scene, and the long road to the Holy Roman Empire isn't far away. And so you stroll, as Teutonic knights head off to the Holy Land, Martin Luther nails his theses to the church door (an event the captions claim almost certainly didn't happen), the French fight the Germans, the Germans fight the French, the Austrians fight the Turks, the Swedes fight the Poles, the Germans fight the French, the French fight the Germans, the Germans fight with themselves, and here comes the Congress of Vienna! Pretty soon it's time for the Industrial Revolution, paintings give way to photographs, there's a nice little pair of rooms up a flight of stairs with Jugendstil stuff in them, with a film of German soldiers jamming into trains on their way to the front playing on the downstairs wall just inches away. Next thing you know, you're back on the landing and it's time to go downstairs.

I went through the downstairs rather quicker than I would have liked to; closing time was looming in an hour or so, and I also knew this part of the story better than I did the other half (not that I knew the first half much better after a couple of hours with it, for which I blame my education as much as anything). I also had more tools with which to assess the artifacts, and I have to say, the collection is amazing. Also, the way they partition the post-war stuff the way the country was partitioned is done extremely well; you can see the stuff on the other side, but getting there is another matter, although it's easily enough achieved, of course. (I should mention, though, that the struggle to end the DDR is infinitely better-presented at the almost-unpronounceable-by-non-Germans Zeitgeschichtlisches Forum Leipzig, which is almost reason enough to visit Leipzig all by itself).

But as I walked out into the dark of Unter den Linden, I was experiencing a sensation not unlike vertigo because of all of the captions I'd read. Now, there was a time when all of Berlin's museums' captions were in German only, and there was no way to know what was going on unless you could read German. (Lest this seem a bit of xenophobia, I invite you to go into your nearest American museum and see how much information there is in any other language but English). Now, however, as Berlin's museums are slowly integrating collections divided by the Wall, bilingual German and English captions are showing up. The weirdest of all, though, are in the DHM, which erupt into inexplicable italics every now and again. And it's not because the words are untranslatable German ones like Heimat or Lebensraum, because they're not. They're just random words italicized (a practice I've now demonstrated enough and will cease; you're welcome), in both the German and the English texts. I don't get it, but it sure does slow you down.

The next day I went to the Bode-Museum, which is practically my next-door neighbor. I had no idea what was in it, because back before it got dome-to-dungeon redone, the best anyone could tell me was "coins and stuff." Well, the coins are still there, but so is a load of Byzantine and medieval and early renaissance sculpture, painting, and bits of architecture. I made the acquaintance of the amazing woodcarver Erasmus Grasser, who flourished in Munich between 1474 and 1518, and was boggled by an entire room of stuff by Tilman Riemenschneider, whose ability to represent facial expressions and even emotions is unparallelled in his time. The Bode is all about space, which is why it's particularly good for sculpture; there are two domes letting daylight in, and a gigantic "basilica" with "chapels" on the sides which allow for the display of groupings of renaissance and baroque religious statuary, paintings, and altars.

Here, the captions weren't annoyingly italicized, and for the most part the English was pretty good. Well, until the one where it really wasn't. My eyes were glazing over on the second floor, what with an oversupply of baroque bronze sculpture, but I did stop to read about how they were mass-produced, and I came upon this: "The bronze-smith then prepares the metal to be porn into the mould at this time." The "then...at this time" is bad enough, but...ummm... The piece used to demonstrate this is a naked statue of Mars, anatomically correct, and the first thing that came to my mind was that it isn't porn til it's poured.

This leads me to give voice to what I'll call Augustine's Complaint, because it's been voiced over and over by reader and commenter here Steven Augustine. There are tons of underemployed writers and editors, native English-speakers, here in Berlin. Pay us to proofread this stuff, and we'll turn it into idiomatic English that won't embarrass you. Really. We may not have doctorates in English, but we do read and write it quite fluently, idiomatically, and we offer really, really affordable rates. However, time and again, it's the "qualified" Germans who render this English text, and it shows. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who wrote for a (now defunct, I hope) terrible magazine published by Berliner Tourismus und Marketing for distribution in hotels which were BTM members, called Berlin|Berlin. It was German and English...sorta. My friend, a journalism school graduate, raised bilingually in America, and veteran of some of America's top magazines, wrote an article for them and was told by the editor that her English was terrible. The "corrected" article, of course, was a total howler.

At any rate, I ended this week's museum-going at the Pergamon, whose holdings aren't of as much interest to me, although it's swallowed the Museum of Islamic Art from West Berlin, and you can't help but be awed by a museum that contains not just artifacts, but whole complexes of ancient buildings and a huge hunk of the city wall of Babylon itself. There, the English captioning is often inscrutable and nearly always polished for maximum dullness. They're going to do renovations there in the not-too-distant future, and I wonder if this will mean dealing with this problem. Probably not; they have a reputation to uphold, after all.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Killing Ghosts

When I sit on my couch, if I look to the right, there's a pile of magazines. The face of the late saxophonist Steve Lacy stares up at me, or somewhat past me, actually, wearing a melancholy expression. It's the last issue, October, 1996, of Metropolis, a magazine I briefly edited. I remember that issue well; Lacy set up an interview, and I went to his house, somewhere at the end of the Ku'damm, a bit tense at the prospect of talking to this august figure. When I got there, the door was wide open, and there was nobody in the apartment. I wasn't sure what to do, so I left, not bothering to close the door in case someone would be right back. As it turned out, all was well, after a fashion; Lacy's wife had stalked out after an argument and he'd rushed off -- to Paris -- to talk with her, in such a hurry he hadn't even bothered to close the door to the apartment. The housekeeper took care of that, eventually, and a few days later Lacy and I sat down and did a pretty nice interview. With the cover story done, we did the rest of the magazine and went to press.

Of course, it's the nature of monthly magazines that once one is done, it's time for the next one, and so I called an editorial meeting at the office for the usual time. Coming home from my radio show late one evening, for some reason I decided to check my e-mail, and there was one from one of the writers telling me that the meeting had been cancelled (hello? I thought I was the editor...) because the owners were folding the magazine.

I had only moved into this place a week previously and was happy because it was a block from the magazine, and a couple of blocks from where the radio station was rumored to be moving. Back then, the neighborhood was extremely exciting, filled with top-notch galleries, hidden spaces where illegal bars thrived, and surprises of all sorts. But...the magazine, dead? It had just started to make money! Surely Zitty, who owned it, wanted it kept alive to see if the trend continued.

But they didn't. I got the word out that we'd have a meeting anyway, and figure out what to do, and in short order, we had a plan. A magazine tied to a website tied to a media bureau, each module synergistically reinforcing the other. Now all we needed was a business plan and some money.

Thus began a three-year roller-coaster ride. I had my radio show three times a week, I had a regular freelance gig as the regional cultural reporter for the Wall Street Journal Europe, and I had this project for those few moments I had left. I made a bucket of new friends, had a couple of love affairs, wrote some nice stuff, saw a load of art and heard tons of music. I watched the neighborhood grow and prosper, had dinner with officials from the American Embassy, travelled to places I never thought I'd see (like Bulgaria), and realized I was very lucky to be in Berlin right then.

And then it ended. The signs were in the air: there were people in the company we'd started who had just shown up and taken over various functions without being asked. Since we didn't have any money, we couldn't fire them, and if they could get us money, I reasoned, let them do it. But I found out that all they were interested in was the internet end of the thing, even though they didn't know anything about it other than it was something that was making people in the States rich. I discovered that they weren't mentioning me or the magazine in any of their meetings for funding ("You're too old to be bankable," one of them told me), and that they were misrepresenting the thing in their presentations.

Came the new millennium, I walked away from it. I terminated my latest relationship, with a deeply depressed and neurotic woman, and announced that the company would have to get along without me. I also disincorporated it, since I had that power, and I didn't want my name on a company that was obviously headed off a cliff. (Its corpse can be viewed here). Things around the radio station, which had indeed moved into the neighborhood, were weird, with an inexperienced British guy having taken over, and in March, 2000, I came back from my regular trip to Texas to find out I'd been fired for not telling them I was going, although I had, in fact, told them. It was just a ruse to prevent having to tell me to my face. Cowards are like that.

The Wall Street Journal Europe lasted another couple of years, but the parent paper suffered greatly due to 9/11, which made a huge hunk of their downtown New York real-estate unavailable, and my editor was replaced with another, who decided to clear the decks.

So for the past five years, I've been inside these walls, looking at the ghosts of what happened here. The prospect of having to leave is unpleasant, the prospect of having to search for a new apartment is depressing, and the prospect of perhaps having to learn a whole new neighborhood -- not to mention having to load all the accumulated crap of a decade onto a truck and then unload it again -- is really unpleasant, especially when I'd much rather be moving to France, which I could do if I had a book deal in the works.

No, it's not going to be fun. But every time I sit on that spavined, stuffing-leaking couch and see Steve Lacy's face, I realize that I'll be much better off in a place where I can make some new ghosts.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Wohnung Gesucht

It's been ten years since I've had to move, but it looks like it's that time again.

So, although much of what follows won't make much sense to those outside of Berlin, here's what I'm looking for.

At least 50 M2, not too high up (lots of stuff to schlep, so 2OG or lower), rent around 500, maybe a little more if warm. Ideally, I'd like to stay in the neighborhood I'm in and only move a block or two, but failing that I'll take Mitte generally, Prenzlauer Berg if I have to, and I'm open to other ideas, although K36, Neukölln, Wedding, and Friedrichshain are of no interest. Also ideally, a Nachmieter or Untermieter situation, although the latter may be hard because I have furniture and books, etc.

Move-in between Jan. 1 and Feb. 1, 2008.

E-mail address is right there on the page.

I suspect that neither the search nor the move will be a whole lot of fun, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Friday, November 02, 2007

State of Mindless

I promised, so I deliver.

I managed to go to the New York State of Mind exhibition in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt this week, and even surrendered five euros to see it. I have to say, having covered similar events for six years for the Wall Street Journal and having been to plenty of others as a civilian, it's been a long time since I've seen a show as incoherent and empty as this one. Since it closes on Sunday, I'm saving you the trouble of going.

Now, someone who grew up in New York like I did can be expected to be prejudiced when it comes to a show like this. You can bet that there will be expectations unmet. You might also expect that observations will be put forth with which a native New Yorker will disagree. And, reviewing a show like that, you have to take all of that into consideration yourself and work to block those prejudices. So that's the attitude I walked in with.

But...what was this show about? I wasn't offended, didn't disagree, because I honestly didn't understand what the hell it had to do with New York City. You see, any museum show should allow any reasonably intelligent member of the public to walk through it and understand what the curators were thinking, what they decided to show, and, perhaps, evaluate the degree to which they succeeded in presenting the material at hand. If there weren't signs telling you this show was about New York, you'd never catch on.

The first thing you see when you walk into the main room is one of Marcel Duchamp's multiples, where he packed miniature versions of his Greatest Hits into a box, which he then sold through a gallery. No explanation is given for this object's presence. It's true that Duchamp spent time in New York and made his breakthrough at the infamous Armory Show in 1913, but he's alone in representing his generation and pretty much everything else he stood for here. The other works in the room vary wildly in quality, although for the most part they're mediocre at best. Exceptions are a wall of photos by Mary Ellen Mark, whose little girls with Batman photo is one of the images being used to sell the show on its posters. There's also a video by Gordon Matta-Clark which caught my eye, but it's mounted at floor level with the sound turned way down, so I had no chance to experience it.

Other than that, this main room contains numerous photographs by a German photographer of various lectures and conferences and panel discussions he attended in New York -- hardly riveting stuff -- and a couple of charts purporting to show the march of art and the march of Carolee Schneemann, who is also represented by a bunch of stills from her performances. You'd think she was the only important New York artist around from the attention she's given here. There's also documentation of a couple of performance pieces, like the Chinese artist who lived out of doors in New York for a year, and someone else who apparently distilled and bottled his own sweat. There are some grainy videos, and one by a Berlin artist shot from his bike as he rides the wrong way in traffic in New York, New Orleans, and Berlin. Above the main exhibition area is an installation involving spilled paint and potting-soil bags with Martin Luther King's face on them.

There's also another area where there lives a large, loud installation that's very disorietning, which I guess could be argued is also a simulation of New York City at its most bustling and confusing. Next to that is a room with photographs by German photographer Josephine Meckseper (who, admittedly, lives in New York), including one of two icy blondes in a ridiculously luxurious apartment, one wearing a necklace with the letters CDU and the other wearing one with CSU. Now, that's New York! As you leave this area, there's a video installation about Rome.

Like I said, if the signs everywhere didn't tell you this was about New York, you'd never guess.

What it is, as far as I can tell, is Theory run amok. German intellectuals are big on Theory as the wellspring of all action. It never occurs to them that some creative people just create, nor does it occur to them that sometimes theorizing is a dry and sterile action. Someone got so carried away with the theory behind this exhibition that it escaped the bounds of gravity and soared into the intellectual stratosphere, away from any bonds tying it to the subject matter at hand.

Ah, well, I should complain. It appears that the New York end of this is mostly about classical music. Whether that's all they could think of, or whether it's all they were offered, I don't know. But if New York State of Mind is a preview of what the new, improved Haus der Kulturen der Welt is going to offer, it's not going to be a place I visit very often.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Autumn Crumbs

Some interesting developments around here which'll have to wait until around the end of the week to be revealed (mais, hélas, pas des nouvelles de France), but a couple of things in the meanwhile.

* * *

First bit of news is that yesterday, the New York Times actually published an (almost) accurate, well-informed article about Berlin. As the author notes, he did some growing up here, so he's not just another ignoramus flying in and hitting a few hot-spots and crowing about the hip! edgy! Berlin. He's somehow moved Tacheles to Prenzlauer Berg, but I wonder how the representation of Berlin in New York is going to square with that show at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which I still haven't seen. I have a feeling they've done more than just move Tacheles up the hill, so to speak...

* * *

A bunch of you may have gotten invitations from me to join Shelfari, a new online community/social networking site devoted to reading. A whole bunch of you, in fact. I apparently sent out about a thousand invites to all my "friends" in my gmail address book. I'm happy to say I'm not the only one, since this poor guy got caught before I did and wrote a nicely humorous piece about it.

What's even worse is that at least 50 of these people have accepted "my" invitation, and Shelfari makes it almost impossible to figure out who they are. Very few of them are people I correspond with regularly -- or even remember. It doesn't help that I get an e-mail from Shelfari headed "Bill F has accepted your invitation," because that's how people are listed there. Bill F? The worst was Park S, which has me awake at night fearing that I've befriended the entire population of Park Slope, Brooklyn.

At any rate, if you got one of these, and if you decide to join, please read that article before you start inviting folks to join you. A very poorly designed website.

* * *

Speaking of books, though, I've added a widget to this page (it's way down there) that has the perhaps incomprehensible for some of you word Wunchzettel on it. This is my Amazon.de wish list, added just in time for my birthday on Friday and, of course, Christmas coming up. It's as much recommendations for books I haven't read as a wish-list, though. And yeah, a lot of cookbooks up there. Because, among other things, Christmas is a rather festive season in these parts, and I wind up doing a bunch of cooking for people. And, of course, myself.

* * *

Finally, speaking of food, not catering my next party (and not just because I'd want to do it myself) will be these folks. Honestly, y'all, learn the lesson of that famous American metal band Das Damen and research the foreign language you're using first.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Folked Up

Sorry to have disappeared like this, but it's been a crazy few weeks here, with visitors galore and lots of stuff to do. It's always nice having visitors, and the stuff to do was free, thanks to the generosity of the PR guy for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt's music series which accompanies their re-opening New York exhibition.

Now, as readers of this blog know, I've had my problems with the organizers of this series, but after they screwed my plans up, I let it go. After all, there was nothing further I could do. But I was, on the other hand, offered tickets to any shows I wanted to see, so I took full advantage.

The series of shows I attended got off to a rocky start. Little Jimmy Scott is 82 years old and has never been in the best of health, but I knew it'd be at least an intermittently good show because he was travelling with his regular band, the Jazz Expressions, who are a tight, traditional post-bop band. Plus, it was the dancer's birthday, and I suspected she'd enjoy this. The opening act could have gone either way, the weird combination of trombonist Roswell Rudd and acoustic ragtime guitarist Duck Baker. Well, it went one way: straight down. The series of concerts this was part of was the Broadway unit, so Rudd and Baker spent over an hour allegedly improvising a medley of Broadway tunes. There were some which were recognizable, and it started and ended with "Lullaby of Broadway," but inbetween was pure wankery. My take on it was that Rudd and Baker know each other socially and when one of them -- probably Rudd -- got offered this gig, he went to the other and said "Wanna make some easy money and go to Europe at the same time?" Like an idiot, I sat through the whole thing, and it was excruciating. After the break, on came the Jazz Expressions, with a local tenor guy substituting for their regular saxophonist, and doing a good job at it. Finally, Jimmy Scott came out in a wheelchair, looking horribly emaciated. It was clear from the beginning that his breath control, pitch, and intonation are in pretty bad shape, although he did briefly catch fire during "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." All I could do was remember the early gigs I saw in 1991, when John Goddard at Village Music in Mill Valley flew him and the Expressions in for one of his parties at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley. I've got those memories -- and, somewhere, the album he did shortly afterwards -- but the Berliners in attendance (and there weren't too many) only got to hear shadows.

The next night, I was back. I'd seen Maria Muldaur hanging around during the set-break the night before, and she was looking good, so I was looking forward to her gig. This time, I was prepared for the opener, which turned out to be one Masha Qrella, a local indie-rocker who had somehow convinced the people curating this event that she could do Broadway tunes. She, another guitar-playing woman, a guy with some odd-looking keyboards, and a drummer slunk onto stage, and wisps of feedback started, followed by a drone. "I have often walked/Down this stret before," she intoned, "But the pavement always stayed beneath my teeth before." Okay... I was up and out of my seat before the song ended. The schtick was "What if Joy Division played Broadway tunes?" Unsurprisingly the audience loved her. There's always a market for gloom here, after all. I'm happy to say, though, that Maria was much better. She apparently hadn't been aware that she was booked for the Broadway, and not the Greenwich Village series, and only learned that she was expected to play Broadway tunes when she landed. The fact that that's not what she does didn't seem to faze the organizers, who seem to have spent very little time trying to understand the music they were booking, and to her credit, she managed to come up with a bunch of material that could conceivably fall under "Broadway," like playing a Fats Waller tune and reminding us that the revue of his songs called Ain't Misbehavin' was a success on Broadway. She was backed by a fantastic band, anchored by bassist Ruth Davis, and featuring a number of her long-time associates, and among the gems she pulled out of her song-bag was an obscure Leiber and Stoller number called "Some Cats Know," which I have decided should be the Older Guy national anthem. Once again, though, the house was small -- and smaller after the Qrella bunch left.

Next up was the Greenwich Village series, in which a few well-known names were paired with total unknowns that none of my New York sources could identify. This series was apparently co-curated by Jeff Lewis, who isn't exactly a household name himself, but is apparently a neat songwriter, if Peter Stampfel's word is to be trusted. Lewis led off the series himself, along with a poet named Professor Louie, but I missed the show. I did, however, respond to an invitation to see Bob Neuwirth do his thing, because one never knows what kind of odd song he's going to pull out next, plus I was told that he'd be performing with David Mansfield, who's as great a side-man as you could ask for. Opening was a talent-free (and totally un-folky) young guy named Ish Marquez, who brought along a large claque which he used as an excuse to stay on stage well past the time he was supposed to have left. This meant that Neuwirth's set, which was being recorded by Radio Eins, wouldn't be broadcast in its entirety, which is a shame, because it got better as it went along, except for the brief moment when a drunken middle-aged blond woman stood up and loudly declared "Dave Von Ronk." This stopped Neuwirth in his tracks. "Dave van Ronk...um...so?" She just repeated the name (not getting it right on subsequent tries). Finally she sat down. The late start for Neuwirth's set meant that I was too tired to stick it out, so about 12:30 I headed home, just as Mansfield began playing his fiddle. Damn.

To show how totally clueless the curators of this series were, the next booking was Joe Boyd, who's touring Germany in support of the German translation of his book White Bicycles, and had brought Geoff Muldaur (Maria's ex-husband, and Joe's childhood friend and college roommate) along to provide musical interludes during the reading. Which is fine, except for one thing: this series was allegedly about the Greenwich Village folk scene, and the Cafe Global, where the folk stuff was presented, had been made over into a fake club with "Greenwich Village Folk Club" signs. And, if you've read Joe's book (and by all means, you should: just click that link up there!), you know that he was firmly on the Cambridge side of the great Cambridge-vs.-New York folk debate, excoriating people like Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger and Dave van Ronk and building up, among others, the Jim Kweskin Jug band, which the Muldaurs were part of. Ah, well. At least the reading -- in English and German, with a German reader -- went well, and I must say Geoff Muldaur is in astonishing voice even today. Apparently he'd been touring in Holland, and had I known how good he was, I would have thought about going to see him. As it was, four or five numbers were clearly not enough to satisfy me.

Next up was Peter Stampfel, the artist I'd tried to present, only to be shot down. I can't be particularly objective about Stampfel, a huge influence on my teenage years as a part of the Holy Modal Rounders, and a living repository of incredibly embarrassing stories about the New York folk elite, so I won't be. He called me when he got to town, and I took him to the bloggers' Stammtisch on Thursday, which he enjoyed. The show itself was pretty wild. Openers were another talent-free act, a husband-and-wife duo (he on guitar, she pounding on a couple of plastic buckets) who call themselves Prewar Yardsale. It became painfully obvious after five minutes why they were so obscure, and why they deserve to remain so. Stampfel came on, yowling and banging away at a guitar -- and, later, a banjo -- offending the musical, cultural, and general taste of the audience, who began filing out after a while. He's been writing a lot recently, and some of his new songs are just great. And he encored with "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," of all things. That really confused the people who were left.

The series continues this coming weekend with David Peel and the Lower East Side (who knew Peel was still around? And who'd go see him in this day and age) with Roger Manning, the stalwart anti-folk singer, opening, a clear case of bad priorities, on Friday, and Saturday sees Eric Andersen, who I understand has been living in Scandinavia for a number of years, with someone called Langhorne Slim (no relation to the great Greenwich Village folk guitarist Bruce Langhorne) opening the show. And I missed last night's show by Biff Rose (although I got to meet him while waiting for Stampfel's set to start) and the no-doubt well-named Dufus.

However clueless the music programming has been, though, it appears to be well overshadowed by the cluelessness of the exhibition which it supports. I've only seen one room of it, and it was completely incoherent. I'm planning to go back, though, and file a complete report here.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Excuses, Excuses

Thanks to Kean for connecting the dots on this one.

I've suspected Potsdamer Platz was in trouble for some time. An early symptom of this was when the strange "music experience" show downstairs closed precipitously. Not long after, a Sony Records person I knew from the States came over here to find out why Sony Records Germany employees didn't want to move to Berlin and work at the Sony Center. Apparently morale was horrible, but it did, it must be admitted, pick up: Sony, at the start of merger negotiations with Bertelsmann, moved to Munich.

That's right: besides the fancy branding-store there, there's no Sony in the Sony Center.

Nor, apparently, is there any Daimler-Chrysler in the Daimler-Chrysler Center these days, since this article hints pretty strongly that both the Sony Center and the Daimler-Chrysler complex are on the market. And that's mostly what there is to see at Potsdamer Platz these days.

Besides the architecture -- which I think is best seen from afar, for the obvious reason that you can't see a skyscraper when you're standing next to it -- there just isn't much at PotzPlatz. There are the cinemas, of course, which are essential to the Berlinale, and the don't-call-it-a-mall-or-we-fire-you Potsdamer Platz Arkaden, and a few luxury hotels, which are also essential to the Berlinale -- or at least the egos who attend it. But the place has been a bust when it comes to commercial space. And why not? There's commercial space everywhere here, most of it cheaper than PotzPlatz.

Let's face it: the city's in trouble. At this point, even the city is admitting it. The link to the PotzPlatz article came after Kean sent me an almost unreadable exerpt from a speech due to be delivered in Sydney by Adrienne Goehler, identified as "a former senator for arts and science in Berlin." I have no idea which party she represents, and she could be a CDU-er sniping at the SDP's leadership, but if I discern (through what may be a lousy translation) correctly, she's right in scoring the unemployment (17% overall, but, as she doesn't mention, well over 33% is some parts of town), debt (€60 billion), and what she calls an "old-boy network" and I call entrenched anti-entrepreneurialism as problems.

So woo-woo, we have a lot of artists. Frau Goehler even admits that there's a lot of art made here but no way to sell it: for that you have to leave town. I'd actually advise her to take a look at what's in some of these galleries here. She might not be so optimistic if she'd take a walk around some of the galleries I see every day, too. And yeah, I know, there are a lot of artists who rent cheapo space here so they can build their stuff and ship it out without showing it here.

Ah, well. At least she admits "As impressive as the numbers are which officially document the strengthening of Berlin's creative industries, it is equally visible to the naked eye that there isn't and won't be enough paid work in this city to counter the jobless rate. For some years now, this shortage has forced mainly jobless artists and academics into new forms of working and living that arise from a lack of money and a simultaneous surplus of ideas." Which sort of doesn't make me feel too bad that nobody I know can make a living here, myself included.

But unlike Sony, I haven't made a sale or a merger that allows me to put my apartment back on the rental market. Yet.

Monday, September 24, 2007

PopKomm Ate My Brain, and other music news

Hmpf, I thought I'd have a lot more to say about PopKomm this year, but it was almost spectacularly uneventful. The trade show was put into larger quarters, which meant there were larger stands, but except for Sony/BMG, which had a huge, almost empty area all done in sparking white, none were terribly notable. There were almost no freebies (this is usually when I recharge my cigarette-lighter supply, but no luck this year), and almost no gimmicks, although the light-up martini glasses some Swedish company was using for their drinks were cool.

Overall, it seems attendance at the conference and trade-fair was down, and a number of countries whose export agencies are usually quite visible -- most notably Ireland -- were missing. For those of you who are interested, the export agencies are, obviously, government bodies in charge of promoting goods made in a given country to potential customers in the outside world. In a number of countries, particularly in Europe, pop music is perceived to be one of these potential exports, which means that a band or performer working abroad can, at least theoretically, get some support from the export agency, since any success will mean money for live shows and/or records coming into the country. It's a good idea, and has worked well for Holland and France, to name just two.

In fact, the main event during PopKomm was one that didn't happen there: Steve Jobs came to Berlin to hold a press conference announcing the iPhone partnership with T Mobile, and to talk about iTunes' German store. (Hey, Steve, what about that Apple Store that's been supposed to be opening here for the last five or six years?) This event is such a natural to have happen at PopKomm that I can only wonder why it didn't. Has PopKomm got so little visibility in the international tech and music worlds that nobody at Apple knew about it? Is it visible but considered unimportant? It's inconceivable that an event like that would ignore SXSW, the folks I was working for at PopKomm, because events like this are where the early adopters are -- not to mention that iTunes is a music-biz behemoth.

Which brings me to yet another gripe, although not a PopKomm one, for the most part. Once again, the list of attendees with their contact information was on a CD-ROM, which is a bad idea because it's so easily scanned by spammers, and once again that CD-ROM was Windows only. So was the DVD given away in the bags, called See the Music! Berlin's Music Industry in a 3D City Model, developed for music-in-berlin.de by Berlin Partner, the Berlin KommunikationsForum e.V., the Senat's Department for Economics, Technology, and Women's issues, the Senat's Department for Urban Development, and funds from the European Regional Development Fund. Any of whom could have walked around the room and noticed the disproportionate numbers of Macintosh computers in use, and most of whom, I would think, would also know that it doesn't cost any more to put together something like this in a hybrid form. A complete and total waste of money the city doesn't have. Which I'd probably also be saying if I could play the damn thing.

As always, I skipped the live music in the evenings and went home to rest up for my 7-hour shift at the SXSW stand during the day. PopKomm never brings in anything I want to see anyway (hell, I'm not interested in 90% of the stuff at SXSW, either; aging does have its up-side), and this year was certainly no different.

* * *

Meanwhile, Tesla, whose troubles I outlined earlier, has decided to fight back. Here's the latest press release from them, orthography and all intact:

call to action

in light of the current threat to t e s l a 's existence, we call upon artists, audience, and colleagues, to communicate to the state of berlin what the city risks to lose with this decision. learn more about the current situation at http://www.tesla-berlin.de , write a letter or an e mail to mr andre schmitz, the state secretary for cultural affairs, and please remember to send a copy to t e s l a , as well, for our documentation. you will find the necessary addresses at the end of this mail.

rather than generic protest letters, we particularly encourage qualified statements on the meaning and importance of media art, on the need for venues for artistic production, presentation, and reflection, on support for media art in berlin, and on t e s l a 's role in both a local and international context. in the coming months, we will increase our efforts to attain support from the state of berlin for this branch of the arts, and we hope that this action will make it clear that a real need and a broad interest exists.

we thank you for your support. we hope that this campaign will reach those responsible for cultural politics and demonstrate to them the vital need for a competent center for art and media in berlin. please forward this call trough your mailing list. please address any questions to moritz von rappard (pr and press) at 030. 247 49 788 or public@tesla-berlin.de.

andreas broeckmann, detlev schneider, carsten seiffarth

Herrn Staatssekretär André Schmitz
beim Regierenden Bürgermeister von Berlin
Senatskanzlei - Kulturelle Angelegenheiten
Brunnenstraße 188 - 190
10119 Berlin

t e s l a
media > art < laboratory
podewils'sches palais
klosterstraße 68
10179 berlin

I gotta say, I wish them well, but I've been here long enough to suspect this protest will be given polite attention and then ignored.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

PreKom Krumbs

I'm sitting here waiting for the phone call that'll tell me that the SXSW crew is in town and it's time to head off to the ICC to put up the stand in the trade show for PopKomm, which opens tomorrow. So I've got a couple of very minor things to post here before that all happens, and I'll likely have an overall PopKomm post this weekend.

* * *

First, some good news. My favorite street artist, Nike, hasn't been much in my eye recently because her pieces have started disappearing at an alarming rate. Hell, if I knew how to take them down, I would have nabbed the girl with the green hair not far from my house before someone else got it. But over the weekend, I was up in Prenzlauer Berg, and found the first of her paintings I've seen dated 2007 -- the latest one I've seen til now was 2005 -- and the good news is, she's still painting babes:

Just...not that kind of babe.

* * *

Two more restaurants we won't be eating in:

Bogus Restaurant, on the corner of Choriner Str., Oderberger Str. and Schönhauser Allee. Since I've never seen anyone other than the odd service personnel in here, it may be accurately named.

Restaurant Nemesis, Haupststr. corner of Helmstr. in Schöneberg.

You gotta wonder: what are these people thinking?

* * *

Finally, a quote from the old Dame herself: David Bowie allegedly told people he liked Berlin because it was a "city full of bars with sad and disappointed people." No argument there, Dave, but I fail to see the attraction.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Berlin Avant-Garde Takes Another Hit

Once upon a time, the 18th Century Podewils'sches Palais, built for Count Podewil, whoever he was, was the headquarters of the FDJ, an arts-and-crafts center, and the place where East Berlin bands wanting permits to play passed their proficiency and ideology exams. Starting in 1990, however, the former "House of Young Talent" became just plain Podewil, an arts center specializing in media art, avant-garde music, and dance. The music program in particular, curated by a woman named Elke Moltrecht, who must know everything there is to know about the current "out" scene, brought some amazing shows to town, and it was there that the Transmediale Festival held its first few years. Podewil also had money from the city to provide grants to artists wishing to work in Berlin, and the city's cultural scene was enriched by this. (Or, in some cases, not. But that's how it is with the avant-garde).

Now, I don't follow this city's cultural politics too closely, but somewhere along the way, a split developed between the more visionary (Podewil) and more academic (Transmediale) factions, and the latter won. Moltrecht and her merry crew were exiled to Ballhaus Naunystr. in Kreuzberg and the other folk moved into the Palais as Tesla at Podewil. Not that they were exclusively dull, although I never really saw anything on their e-mail newsletter that would induce me to walk over there for a show, because one thing they managed was to produce Zeitkratzer's famous live concert of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, at which Reed famously showed up himself. But far more frequently, Tesla showed the tired old art-proceeds-from-theory symptoms which make so much artistic production in Germany so dull.

Last week, though, Tesla got some bad news: the city, after only two years of funding, had decided to pull the plug. As they put it in their latest newsletter (original orthography preserved): "kulturprojekte berlin gmbh, which commissions t e s l a with the cultural program in the podewils'sches palais, has decided, together with the senator for the arts, to reverse a previously confirmed extension of t e s l a' s contract until 2008. our yearly budget of 500.000 euros will be completely redirected towards use for a cultural education program, the details of which remain to be more clearly defined. we will lose our space and our financial support at the end of this year."

I'm not positive, but there might be a subtext lurking here. Besides the city's wanting to save money -- they've been slashing away at the cultural budget without really addressing the question of how many opera houses we really need here, and if there isn't something that can be done with the orchestras, both of which suck up a lot more money than Tesla ever did -- there were several incidents in the past when the Podewil group were threatened with eviction so that one or another branch of the federal bureaucracy could move into this nice building. (Nice facade, anyway: behind it stretches a lot of rather grim DDR addition).

As for Ms. Moltrecht, she's hanging on, and her Interface Festival, which started Friday, is more star-studded than anything Tesla's done recently, but if you check the posters hanging around town, she's also gathered together an impressive array of sponsors to help her produce it.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Berlin's reputation as a center for artistic innovation owes plenty to Podewil and Tesla. No amount of play-it-again-Wolfgang opera productions is going to change this. Without support from the city, this scene can easily pick up and go somewhere it's wanted, and Berlin will cease to be so hip! and edgy! and become the provincial backwater so many elements here want it to be. The avant-garde thrives on synergy, so having a city chock-full of art galleries but no venue for cutting-edge dance and music is an empty triumph.

One wonders if anyone in the Rathaus cares.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

And Of Course There Was Food, Vol 2

Because it seems I already have a post with that name.

At any rate, before the unexpected deliciousness of the food I had in Holland utterly vanishes from my memory, I thought I should mention a few of the discoveries I made during this vacation on the polders.

As I noted in the last post, one of the first things I did after landing in de Meern was to go to a bakery for some bread and a butcher's shop that also had a modest selection of cheeses (and was right next door). The bread was quite surprising: it was dark, but quite soft, and the crust had been topped with coriander, caraway, and cumin seeds along with some rolled oats and sunflower seeds. The cheeses next door were pretty standard: there's really only one kind of cheese in most Dutch cheese shops, but it gets varied by additions and aging. Thus, you can buy a medium-aged cumin Gouda or a young stinging-nettle Gouda (a prize for the first human to figure out how to use those nasty plants as food), and plain Goudas in all ages. I bought a very old one, and its salty, sharp taste was like nothing I've experienced in Germany. The cumin Gouda, young, was a big hit with the Americans.

I came to Utrecht expecting less than nothing from the food. Dutch home cooking isn't a whole lot different than German home cooking, after all, and so I was very pleasantly surprised by what we turned up. There were two major conditions to finding a place to eat. First, Brett has unaccountably become a vegetarian (a fake vegetarian, let it be noted, because he also eats fish) since last we hung out. Second, if Carole were along, the place had to be accessible, which not only lets out the several canal-side restaurants approachable only by a steep wooden staircase, but actually anyplace with a step much over an inch high. Knowing Carole has brought another dimension to the way I see the world: for many, many people, one step is one step too many. Except when we stub our toe or trip over it, most of us don't give it a second thought.

Anyway, it was just Brett and me for the first place we hit (although it's accessible), a modest joint called Opoe's Eethuys at 't Wed 3, right by the Dom. There's no getting around it; dinner in Utrecht is going to run about €25 a person, but in a place like this it's worth it. I had mussels and fries (good ones!) with two mayonnaise-based sauces, and Brett had a fish, which came with a garlic mayonnaise. Like the Belgians, the Dutch are big on mayo, but it sure is good. I don't eat dessert, but Brett does, so he ordered a concoction of vanilla mousse with a mango compote, something that's way too avant-garde for Berlin, I'm afraid. He was impressed enough with the presentation that he had me photograph it:

For our next meal, Susan and Carole joined us, and we didn't have a lot of time. We settled on a bar called 3512, Kortejansstraat 4, which didn't look like much, but had sidewalk tables and heaters which made it a good choice. When I noticed that one of the appetizers was trout mousse with red grapefruit and rye bread, I thought it might actually be interesting, and indeed it was. Nobody had that, but between the grilled salmon with teriyaki sauce (a bit too strong, Brett said), my beef carpaccio (excellent), and Carole's salad of beef filet with sesame dressing and sugar snap peas, we were extremely happy. Service was also superb, and, as with Opoe's, the selection of beers (mostly Belgian) was fine.

The next night, Brett and I were on our own again, and we picked the place next door to Opoe's, Lokaal de Reünie. This was quite inexpensive, since we avoided the steaks. He had a salad topped with huge head-on, shell-on shrimp sauteed in garlic oil that was very tasty indeed and I had a kipsate, a Dutch adaptation of the classic peanut-sauced chicken-on-skewers that was nicely spicy, accompanied by yet more fries-and-mayo and a lovely sour "koolsla," which was half carrots and half cabbage.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention two Utrecht bars of note. The België Bar has about 100 Belgian beers in bottles and about 25 on tap, and is on the Oude Gracht. The crowd can be dodgy, and the place is packed enough at night that we never actually succeeded in drinking there, but I'd like to go back to investigate. And Le Tres Petite Café, also on the canal, was a nice place to watch crowds, incredibly atmospheric inside (and yes, it's very, very small) due to both a pair of small DWA (Dogs With Attitude) and the fact that it's been there since 1702. If the descent to the rest rooms was any more precipitous, it'd be a fireman's pole, though.

Amsterdam is another matter, of course. It's the Big City, and priced accordingly. I was determined that Brett and Carole, who've spent time on Bali (Brett plays in a gamelan orchestra back in Oregon), experience one of my favorite Indonesian restaurants in the city, Kantjil en de Tijger. (The other, Puri Mas, is up another fear-inducing staircase, and has a fairly different menu). Brett had some tofu thing, while Carole and I tucked into their biggest rijstaffel:

With a little help from Brett on the fish and veggie dishes (including a remarkable shrimp saté I didn't remember from last time), it was pretty well demolished by the time we surrendered.

The next day saw us, of course, on line at the famous Vlaamse Frites place at Voeltboogstraat 31, between the Spui and the Leidsestraat, and I'm happy to report that their samurai sauce, a deceptive pink mayonnaise, is as fiery as ever. Dinner was at a famous traditional Dutch place that's been there on Spuistraat since the 17th Century, where I had an excellent stoempot, mashed potatoes with lots of stuff mixed in, with beef stew and a sausage on the side. Carole had a hearty pea soup -- another traditional Dutch dish. Did I catch the place's name? I did not. But given that it has one entrance on Spuistraat, one in the alley, and one on the parallel street, you can probably find it fairly easily.

The Dutch have had a notable inferiority complex about their beers for some time, and it's only in recent years that they've given the Belgians any competition. For news on this, I always head to De Bierkoning, at Paleisstraat 125 in the shadow of the palace, where they have a mere 950 beers for sale, including a wall of some of the new Dutch craft beers. As seems to always happen, we ran into a customer who was eager to help, and he mentioned a bar where these beers can be sampled, a newish place called Biercafe 't Arendsnest, which has a dozen on tap and 150 in bottles, all Dutch. This was up a series of stone steps, so we didn't go in, but the card is in my file for my next visit.

Overall, the thing which surprised me about the food on this visit was the willingness to experiment with flavor (that trout-and-grapefruit thing at 3512 was worthy of Eric Gower) and not shy away from the dramatic effects which result. The Dutch, of course, were spice merchants for centuries, so it should come as no surprise that there's more spice in their cooking. But as Mike, whose grandmother lives in the southern part of Holland, remarks, there's also more of a tendency to identify with France in the traditional cooking of that part of the country (as there is in Belgium to the south), not just boiling a bunch of stuff up, but working a bit on sauces and seasonings. That the menu in a provincial city like Utrecht is as interesting as it is seems to be proof of this, and, no doubt, the more sensual approach one finds in Catholic Europe instead of the dour, self-denying approach of Protestant Europe (very noticable here in Berlin) plays a part as well. Yes, the Dutch gave the Catholics (ie, the Spanish) the boot long ago, but they cannily kept the good parts -- the music and the food, for instance. Who'da thunk it?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Polder and the City

Doesn't exactly look like Vacation Paradise, does it? Even disregarding the blue sky, it's exactly what it looks like: a suburb. A suburb of a suburb, in fact; a recent development on the polders outside of de Meern, which itself is one of the ring suburbs put up after World War II around Utrecht, Holland. Still, it's where I was based for most of the past week, and there was a real good reason for it. It was free.

My friends Brett (whom I hadn't seen in several years) and his wife Carole (whom I hadn't seen, she pointed out, in ten years), who live in Portland, Oregon, had done a house-exchange with the family who lives here, one of whom is a former Portlander. Complicating things was the fact that Carole lives in a motorized wheelchair with a ventilator, owing to muscular dystrophy. Making things much simpler was the fact that this Dutch-American family has a son who also has a chair, meaning that the garage in their house was converted to a bedroom with all accessible amenities. For a Dutch house, it's huge, so I had a place to sleep. And it's also not far from a bus stop whose bus will deliver you to Utrecht Centraal, the train and bus station downtown.

I arrived on Thursday evening, and wound up schlepping my luggage all over Utrecht, because another good reason to go last week was the Utrecht Early Music Festival, and Brett, who is a music critic who does a lot of classical reviewing (and is working on a much-anticipated biography of the late American composer Lou Harrison), had an extra ticket for that evening's concert by the Orchestra of the 18th Century. Unfortunately, the program was an all-Beethoven affair, and neither of us much likes Beethoven, myself in particular. But he had to go to it and he didn't have time to head back to de Meern before showtime. Beethoven's not my idea of "early music," but the orchestra did fine.

After that it was time to find something to eat, and we wandered around until it was too late, settling for some of those inimitable, indigestible Fried Things the Dutch specialize in at a bar featuring a fine selection of Belgian beers. Hey, they had onion rings, and they were good.

Carole's battery charger had blown earlier in the week, so she and her caretaker Susan were pretty much housebound until the technology could be worked out, but they were still up when we got there (Carole: "I don't do mornings.") and we sat up late talking and getting up to date. She'd also managed to bring her iPhone -- the only one in Europe, practically -- to use the Airport wireless system they'd set up in the house, and I was really eager to play with that.

The next morning, while waiting for everyone to wake up, I walked to the outskirts of de Meern to find a bakery and a butcher they'd told me about so I could buy some bread and cheese for breakfast. Dutch bread isn't like German bread -- it's far softer -- but makes better use of herbs and spices. And Dutch cheese, well, let's just say that the cumin Gouda and three-year-old aged Gouda I picked up were a hit.

Brett had tickets for a 2pm show in the Dom, the huge cathedral that dominates Utrecht's skyline. Clarino is a small ensemble of soprano, violin, cornetto, trombone, dulcian and basso continuo, and it wasn't done any favors by the Dom's huge, echo-y interior, but the program, of works by composers at the Danish court of Christian IV (Dowland, Schütz, and Weckmann), was excellent, although the way the soprano buzzed her r's was a bit annoying.

After that, Brett had a concert but no plus one, and I opted for a free concert of music by Salomon, who wrote some gorgeous Jewish liturgical music in the Renaissance. I wish I'd heard it; the church were it was being presented didn't look much like a church, unfortunately, and I wandered and wandered until it was too late. So I wandered some more. Downtown Utrecht is all old buildings, with two major canals alongside of which are some great cafes. I spent most of the 90 minutes I had to use up trying to figure out how the town was laid out, but those canals can be disorienting, and, of course, I got disoriented. I did find a few interesting spaces, and one of them was the Museum Catharijneconvent, a museum of Catholic and Protestant life in Holland, located in a former cloister, which I resolved to go back to. Next door to it was a building from the 15th Century, the "new slaughterhouse," whose entertaining mascot, which I dubbed the "Death Steer," I hope you can see in this photo:

After Brett and I met up at the Dom, I successfully talked him out of his one-ticket Freiburger Barockorchster Mozart show (again, not what I -- or he -- consider "early music") in favor of grabbing some dinner. Carole had gotten her charger fixed at long last and she and Susan were due to head in to see a performance of Debussy's "Chansons de Bilitis" at 10:30 with Brett (not of great interest to me and anyway, how on earth can you consider Debussy "early music?"), so we managed to time it so that we found a great, affordable restaurant, had a fine meal, and Brett dropped me off at the bus station while waiting for the girls. Fortunately for me, my brain kicked in just as he was disappearing into the huge mall that's part of the Utrecht train station and I got the house key.

Given that it was looking a lot like rain by the time I got to de Meern, I was shocked to see the two women waiting forlornly at the bus stop there. Apparently, only a few of the buses on the routes into town were accessible, and they were still waiting for one. One pulled up while I was talking to them, but it didn't have a ramp, so they went to another nearby bus stop for the next bus, and I wished them luck. Almost as soon as I got back to the house, the rain pounded down, but as luck would have it, they made the ramp-equipped bus before this happened and it didn't rain in Utrecht at all.

Saturday's early bit was spent shopping for food at the nearby supermarket (the Americans couldn't get it through their heads that everything really, truly, does shut down on Sunday), and mid-afternoon Brett and I met at the Jakobkerk for the concert I'd been waiting for (although I didn't know it at the time), by the Holland Baroque Society. This is one exciting group. Other than the fact that the composers represented were Muffat, Corelli, and Lully, I'm not entirely sure what was played, but then, that shouldn't make any difference. I know that the Corelli was a concerto grosso, a soloists-and-orchestra kind of piece in which various soloists and duos get to show off instead of a single soloist being featured, and led off the program. In seconds, it became apparent what was so cool about this band. Yeah, band: like a good jazz or rock band they paid attention to each other a lot. The lack of an actual conductor (there was a harpsichordist up front, who conducted a few moments of transition and started up each movement, but he could hardly be called the "leader" during much of the performance) meant that everyone had to be aware of what was going on. Particularly fascinating were the two lead violinists, a brown-haired woman and a blonde, both of whom were playing off each other like two jazz greats trading eights. Lots and lots of eye contact, and, overall, a sense of swing, which you could watch happening as the brown-haired violinist violated all classical protocol by occastionally tapping her feet, propelling the energy up into her hands and making sure that the kind of metronomic monotony so much Baroque music suffers from was a distant memory. They don't appear to have recorded, but they do appear to tour Germany every now and again, so I'm going to watch for them.

Saturday evening Brett and Carole had tickets to a staging of a Vivaldi opera by another young ensemble called B'Rock, so we met the ladies over at the "Deranged Rabbit," a sculpture I'd managed to miss over by the post office. You do have to wonder what people who commisson public art are thinking sometimes; this actually did look like a skinny rabbit with a really bizarre expression on his face. We wandered around a little and settled on an inconspicuous-looking place in a studenty neighborhood, and were surprised by yet another fantastic affordable dinner. (I'm going to do a separate post about food on this trip). Susan and I headed back to the polder after dinner, and apparently what we missed was a blood-and-guts fest with only minimal connection to the text (which was in Italian anyway). That was okay; I'd had my musical treat for the day.

Sunday was the festival's last day, and the grand finale concert, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, was sold out. Brett had a ticket to the Concerto Copenhagen's peformance of Handel's Acis and Galatea at 4, but I was determined to see some of the museums that were open, including the Museum Catharijneconvent. We had cards, left by our hosts in de Meern, which got us into museums for free, so we headed off and not only got that in (some extremely nice woodcarvings that had been spared the wrath of the Reformation, and a very nicely balanced view of the whole Catholic/Protestant debacle in Holland, given that it appears the administration of the place is connected with the Catholic church) but almost had time to take in the whole National Museum of Musical Clocks and Street Organs, which is truly amazing. I headed to a concert by a mostly-Polish Baroque trio, and we had one more excellent meal before returning to de Meern to start packing.

The next day found us in Amsterdam, and here I got to play local expert, although, to be honest, I'm not really an expert. I did, however, know more of the city than Brett and Carole, and managed to bring back memories of their stay in Indonesia with a trip to the legendary Restaurant Kantjil en Tijger, one of my favorite Indonesian places in the city (the other one being up a flight of stairs that scares me, let alone Carole). Tuesday I gave them my best attempt at a city tour, as we fought to indulge Brett's insistence on finding poffertjes, which turn out to be heavy little dollar pancakes drenched in butter, and to wander through the Jordaan district, which I don't know at all. We wound up enjoying a beer in the sunshine before it vanished, and then some extremely inexpensive traditional Dutch food at a restaurant whose name I clean forgot to get, on the Spuistraat near Kantjil.

All in all, a nicely relaxing time off from Berlin, thanks to my friends' generosity in buying the train ticket and picking up tabs here and there. It reinforced my decision that Holland isn't somewhere I'd want to live, although it's nice to visit. That's the problem: it's too damn nice. There's a lack of an edge there that I think would make me nuts if I had to live with it 24/7, something I couldn't quite make Brett understand. The niceness, of course, is a byproduct of living so close together. There are no wide open spaces in Holland, and no real countryside. People are packed in, and in order to make that work, they've had to rein in some of their instincts. That's not a bad thing at all, but there's a resultant blandness that gets to you after a while, not only out on the polder, but in the cities, too.

That said, it could well be that Brett and Carole will be back in two years when the other family is ready to do a house-exchange again, and by then I hope I can sell someone on a story about the Early Music Festival. It's the biggest one in Europe, and one of the oldest, and if the less than half-week I saw is anything to go by, it's an undiscovered gem -- as is Utrecht, for that matter. I'd gladly go back. It's just that I wouldn't want to live there.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Another Interval, At Last

Tomorrow morning I'll head off to the station and get on a train to Amersfoort, in Holland, where I'll transfer to another train and wind up in Utrecht. Not exactly my top pick for a holiday spot, but it has several advantages. First, a couple of friends from the States I haven't seen in years have done a house-exchange with some people in the suburbs there, and they were nice enough to buy me a ticket to come join them. Second, it's the time of the annual Early Music Festival in Utrecht, and, although I don't have a press pass (boy, is it hard to sell stories like this!) there are plenty of free fringe activities with some younger groups, and that should be fun. Third, we'll go to Amsterdam for a couple of days and I get to show my friends around a place I actually do know something about (I've only been to Utrecht twice and didn't leave the station the second time, because the nightclub Jon Dee Graham was playing in was actually inside the station). And fourth, it's demonstrably Not Berlin. This will be my first trip out of the city limits since March.

I'm going to try to blog from the festival, and I'll be taking the camera along, although I won't post any photos until I get back here on Wednesday. Okay, maybe Thursday. Meanwhile, if anyone knows anything to do in Utrecht between concerts or knows any good restaurants there, let me know!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Still Silly

Or, of course, what you call the dog days. Supposedly ruled by Sirius, the dog star, which is strong in the sky at this time of year. But whatever you call them, they're days not exactly filled with excitement around here. Nervous tension, yes, but excitement? Nope.

Still, one has to do this and that, and so here are three extremely silly things I noticed in recent peregrenations around hip! edgy! Berlin.

* * *

Like that huge poster on the building they're renovating on Rosenthaler Platz, which gets sold to one advertiser or another for a while. Current occupant is Coca-Cola, and the part of the ad I see, doubtless having something to do with some download scheme or another (I think they've got something going with iTunes, actually), and it screams "Music on the Coke Side of Life!"

You can tell this is an ad aimed at younger folks, of course. The rest of us who lived through the '70s have had quite enough of music on the coke side of life. Every time I pass that thing I think "What, do you want to chain me to a chair and make me listen to David Crosby albums?"

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Rosenthaler Platz, the derelict building across from the Coke billboard, which once housed a Beate Uhse and then part of Sony's ill-considered street-art cooptation, sprouted some ghostly inhabitants a few weeks back:

But I guess they wanted privacy, because the last time I walked past, the place looked like this:

* * *

One of my weirder international moments came one night in the '80s in London, as some friends and I were passing through Soho, and they -- all British -- stopped and pointed. "Wow, look at that!" I saw a very well preserved '52 Mercury. "Cool car," I said, and they all gave me a weird look. "It had Texas number plates!" someone said. Well, I'd just come from Texas the night before, so that didn't even register: most all the cars in Texas have Texas license plates.

Still, it was a valuable lesson in paying attention to where you are, which is why I did a double-take while waiting for the light yesterday at Friedrichstr. and Unter den Linden. A genuine Ford Crown Victoria with New York Police Department markings, a visibar on top, and what looked, in the seconds it took to turn the corner, like two of NYPD's finest in the front seat.

Turns out it lives here and you can rent it for special occasions. Like, I dunno, arresting your ex or something.

Not that they have a monopoly on this. There's a more generic, Blues-Brothers-y, black-and-white for rent at Sage Cars, who have a lot on Brunnenstr. I pass often. They've also got a yellow Checker cab, which brings back memories of the Checker Metropolitan I once had. But that's another post.

* * *

Advertising in this country has always made me a little crazy, but then, it's not aimed at me. That's been driven home by the creepiest ad campaign I've seen in a while, BVG's "Augenblicke" posters. As you can see from the website, it's sort of a lonely-hearts thing, where you submit the story and they illustrate it. The artist is so bad that the posters attract attention to themselves, actually, so while whether he/she's capable of actually rendering a human visage so someone would recognize it is questionable, it might (shudder) accidentally work.

Ah, well, it's better to look out the window anyway, right?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

August: The Silly Season

Most depressing event of recent weeks: For a while the dancer and I were splitting a lottery ticket each week, figuring that, with our respective occupations, the chances of making money doing what we do and the chances of making money on the lottery were just about even. Of course, we never even got close to winning anything and eventually we stopped.

That doesn't keep me from occasionally feeling like I should throw a couple of Euros away, though, and a few weeks back a really powerful urge came over me. But every time I'd stop at the newsstand where we used to buy our tickets, I'd take a close look at my cash-on-hand and decide against it. The pot was -- for Berlin, where the lottery jackpots are nothing next to what people in the States see -- quite high. But I decided not to.

Then, I noticed a sign in the window. Someone had won €39,900 and change there. It took every bit of logic I had at my command to convince myself that if I had played, that someone would not have been me.

(Of course, that's not really the most depressing event of recent weeks, but I've decided to keep the really depressing stuff off of here for the time being, since there's nothing to be done about it, as far as I can tell.)

* * *

Thanks to my eagle-eyed former college roommate JZ off in the wilds of Los Angeles for spotting a couple of news items which will be in the dog-bites-man category for anyone living here.

The first one notes that "German workaholics may be suffering from a lack of sex, according to a university study published Friday." The story went on to say that "A survey of 32,000 men and women by researchers at the University of Göttingen found over 35 percent of those reporting unsatisfying sex lives tended to use hard work as a diversion." Which, of course, explains all those Beamten with their desks piled high with rubber-stamps, who, I have long decided, are only allowed to mate among themselves, because it's the only way they can perpetuate their species. It's not like anyone wants a job like that.

The second one tells the sad story of a young Berlin woman named Dora, a professional model who is apparently the face of Deutsche Telekom's Call & Surf Comfort promotion. Dora, it will surprise absolutely no one to learn, has been waiting three months for Telekom to set up a telephone line in her home, and, in despair, she turned to the media, publicly giving them one week (which'll be the beginning of next week) before going to another provider. The Reuters story says "A Deutsche Telekom spokesman could not be reached for comment," although you could really leave off the last two words there and it'd be just as accurate. One bit of advice, though, Dora: if my friends' experiences are anything to go by, you won't be any happier with Alice, whose own spokesmodel has, I hope, fired her agent.

* * *

The doorbell rings. I buzz the person in. Nope, it's not FedEx or UPS with a package, it's yet another person with an incomprehensible accent jamming little bits of paper into the mailboxes as fast as he can. What a way to make a living.

Nobody who's lived here for the past ten years is going to believe this, but when I first came to Berlin in October, 1988 for a visit, the city's first pizza-delivery service had just started up. Now, this isn't to say that there weren't places that'd pack up a pizza to go, but you had to go get it. (I remember a place that I think was called Four Brothers, run by four guys from Philly down in Zehlendorf who mustered out of the Army and opened a place to serve American food, specializing in pizza and fried chicken. Long gone now, of course.)

I remember this because, in my jet-lagged haze, I came upon the guy who was sharing the apartment I was staying in carefully perusing a thin brochure he'd gotten in the mailbox. "I'm deciding which pizza to get," he said. "It's not very good, but they bring it to you!" Dang, I thought, this country must be behind the times. Just a few weeks earlier, I'd house-sat for a friend in New York and practically had to use a shovel to get the Chinese menus out of her mailbox and get to the mail I was saving for her. Early on, there were only a couple of companies doing this, one of which got busted for its inordinately-expensive (DM 50) "Pizza Colombiana" which included a gram of cocaine. (I actually saw the menu for this place, which just had a telephone number, and I don't think you would have had to be Sherlock Holmes to have cracked this case).

But the reason I bring this up is because the vast majority of the guys who stuff mailboxes these days are advertising appliance repair services, and well before pizza menus, these little cards were ubiquitous, numbering up to four or five a day. And I've been wanting to ask for a while: does anyone know anyone out there who's actually used the services on one of these cards? Wouldn't you ask a friend or someone you trusted instead of just picking up one of the thousands of cards you've gotten in your mailbox over the years (two reside in my box at this very moment) and calling some random stranger?

It's August, with so little happening that these are the kinds of things you think about...