Friday, March 30, 2007


Just when you thought every real estate bargain in Berlin was gone, up pops this one!

It's got a lot going for it. Location, for one: it's directly across Invalidenstr. from Nordbahnhof, which is twice as busy now that they have the tram line running. On one side of it, there's the historic Reichsbahn building, with its heroic statues of workers ready to build Germany's railroads, and on the other side, there's a nice park the locals use for sunbathing, with a kiddie pool that's jammed all summer long. So it's easy to get to and has nice green space.

Of course, the view's sort of hard to see, given that the windows are so high, but that's just a clue about the main thing it doesn't have going for it: if you look at the top photo, you'll see that there's a little sign high on the wall. It says WC.

That's right, folks: this is your opportunity to buy a genuine DDR public toilet.

It's been standing there, locked up and stinky, for as long as I've lived here. Not that that's stopped anyone; today as I shot this photo, I realized that the best sun was from the other side, and as I was headed in that direction, a gentleman from the building trades appeared, loosened his belt, and, um, proceeded to use the outside in the manner for which the inside was intended, if you catch my meaning here.

Maybe it's the jet-lag, but my normally rich creative faculties have frozen at the challenge of coming up with a use for this property, a reason to buy it. But I trust my dear readers will be able to think of something.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

I Might Have Dreamed This

But I'm pretty sure I didn't.

I landed in Paris Tuesday afternoon, and found the hotel I'd reserved with a service I'd never used before. Pretty dingy, as was the neighborhood, which was close to Barbes, the largely African quarter. If I'd had more time, like another day, I'd probably have gone in search of the place where a man who claimed to be "the spiritual leader of the entire Senegalese community here in Paris," told me, in perfect English, of his training with the French Air Force in Oklahoma and Texas. They had great fish baked with lemon there, and I bet they had other good stuff, too.

But I knew that in 24 hours I'd be back in a place which, next to California and Texas, would have extremely limited food options, and I wanted to celebrate the possibility of gastronomic greatness one more time. Which, considering I was in Paris, shouldn't have been too difficult.

If only. Well, okay, when I woke up from my jet-lag nap and splashed some water on my face and decided to get out of the nasty room and go look for something to eat I left my indispensable Michelin Map 11 behind, not the smartest move in a city I only know in bits and pieces.

I figured, hey, I didn't have a lot of money, so I should just find some brasserie or cheap joint with a blackboard out front with some appealing choices, go in, and enjoy myself. I was tired, I'd go back to the hotel, read a little, and pass out. Seemed like a plan. Surely the neighborhood, so close to the Gare du Nord, would have plenty of places like that.

So I walked down the street the hotel was on, the rue du Faubourg du Poissonnier. After a few blocks, I saw a tiny place that looked like it hadn't changed in fifty years, but the prices -- no "menu," or multi-course, single-price meals, a la carte only -- seemed a bit high. I glanced at it and moved on. And on.

I walked down the rue des Incredibly Fat Prostitutes and wondered whether the forty-ish men who were striking poses in Calvin Klein yuppie wear on the same block were in the same business or the girls' "business managers." I made a turn and found myself on the rue du Wholesale Clothing. I found a sign which said I was in the Marais, a neighborhood I not only know, but which is stuffed with restaurants, but I couldn't figure out where I was. An hour had passed, and I was now officially hungry, not to mention somewhat lost. But luckily, I almost always have a compass in my head, and it wasn't like I'd never been in this general neighborhood. It's just that except for kebab houses and the occasional designer sushi place, there didn't seem to be anything at all to eat.

Further walking brought me to République and loads of dining options: Quick, Mac Do, Kentucky Fried... This was getting ridiculous. I decided to head back to the hotel and hit someplace by the station. I found myself on the rue du Château d'Eau, which is one African barbershop after another, men's and women's alternating, with the expected amount of socializing. Even on a Tuesday night, it was churning. But nothing to eat.

All of a sudden, I was back on the rue du Faubourg du Poissonnier. Now, that place I'd seen hours ago -- well, 90 minutes ago -- didn't seem so intimidating. I hesitated over the menu, then said to hell with it and walked in.

The front room was very small. A tiny bar was off to the left, as well as a spiral staircase pitched so that I was praying they didn't seat customers up there. A very morose middle-aged Indochinese woman (I use the word because you could tell that the country she'd left behind when she first got to Paris was French Indochina) was bringing out some panniers of raspberries. An old woman sat on a banquette to the right wearing a fawn cloth coat which one could say had seen better days except that it was also evident that it had never been anything but drab. Next to her sprawled a large dog, boxer-like but with a graphite-colored coat. She held its head in her lap and was stroking it. Between her and the bar were the entrance to the dining room and a table loaded with stuff to be served cold: some sort of terrine, something jellied, and the berries.

A stout, no-nonsense woman with pixie glasses emerged from the dining room. "Are you still open?" I inquired. She stared at me, giving me a top-to-bottom assessment. "Of course," she said. "What are you afraid of?" Huh? Was my French that bad? "Well," I said, "I'm hungry," and she smiled and led me into the tiniest restaurant dining room I've seen. Part of the problem was a huge party of perhaps 15 people against the back wall had taken up a lot of the room. I wound up wedged over by the silverware and bread service, scrutinizing the same menu that had been posted outside. The prices were still stiff, but it seemed that you could do okay if you were careful. And surely there was a house wine so I didn't have to order a whole bottle of one of the three on offer.

So: from a very basic menu, two very basic choices. Rabbit terrine and beef Bourgignon "a la ancienne," made the old way. Like I was aware there was a new way. The stout woman's male counterpart was a short, busy man who was obviously her husband, and it was he who took my order. "No, no rabbit terrine," he said. "Poultry. Even better." His eyebrows shot up when I ordered the beef, and I asked him if there were a house red I could have a pichet of. The eyebrows went up again, and he said "Of course!"

The wine and a basket of excellent bread appeared right away. I have no idea what the wine was except I suspect it was a Bordeaux, and it was better than any house wine I'd ever had. The terrine appeared next, and it was perfect: lots of elements mixed in, pistachios and peppercorns, organ meat and meaty bits, the whole thing finishing with a slight tang of alcohol which I suspect was marc, the grape-skin liqueur. As I was savoring it, I was presented with a crock of cornichons, a touch I've never really gotten, and one I'd never seen before which was perfect: sweet-sour pickled cherries. You don't want to eat a lot of them, but they do wake up your tongue.

Monsieur appeared again to take the empty plate, and informed me, gesturing at the long table, that it would be several minutes before the next course arrived. That was fine with me. I sipped the wine, ate a bit of bread, and looked at my dining companions. I couldn't make sense out of the long table, and in fact the only definite impression I had was that I was going to bop the kid who was sitting nearest me, who took to leaning waaaay back in his chair to the point where his arms, which were behind his head when he did this, almost touched me. The group was mostly young, mostly very square-looking, and utterly forgettable. Not so the woman who was at one of the tables directly on the other side of the room from me, dining with a male companion who was impeccably dressed. She looked to be in her mid-40s, and her unlined face and high cheekbones bespoke a sense of humor and an intelligence which was telegraphed by her facial expressions on occasion as she talked with the man. She was wearing a ring with a stone which, if it were a diamond (and how can you tell from across the room?) would have kept me alive for a year. It was big enough that I wondered if it were real. Next to her were two guys, one young, one old, who were just finishing, and right by the entrance to the room was another pair of men who were always taking out hand-held devices and running figures. Both were speaking English, one with a notable French accent, one with the kind of accent native speakers get when they've been speaking another language for a long time. I never did figure out what kind of business they were in.

The Bourgignon appeared at last, and with it a round white thing with brown bits showing which turned out to be made up of potatoes, onions, and bacon, all molded into the shape of a cake layer. As for the stew, it was perfumed with the wine, cooked long enough that the bits of meat could be cut with a spoon, the whole thing topped with a few pearl onions and tiny carrots. I cautioned myself to go very slowly; this was too good to eat too quickly: the stew, the potatoes, the wine. It was, I began to realize, ridiculously old-fashioned, as was the decor. There was a shelf which went around the room on three sides. One part had ladies' straw hats, the one above me men's top hats, and the long wall against which the large party was seated was a hat miscellany which included a pilot's helmet and a diver's rig.

The two English-speaking guys were presented with a cheese plate and a new bottle of white wine, which they insisted on sharing with the hosts. Madame politely took a bit in a glass and they talked for a while. Finally, the American said something in French which ended with the word "mistress," and Madame straightened up, grabbed her glass and stalked from the room. I could see her, though, as she staggered up to the bar, finally able to let loose the laughter she hadn't wanted to let go in the dining room. She was laughing and gasping for air so loudly that the American wondered if she were okay. She eventually got herself under control, walked back in the room with a few tears still leaking out of her eyes, said something concise, and everyone laughed some more.

Even with the uptight bourgeoisie splayed against the back wall, I felt right at home in this place, which was inexplicable because I wasn't really interacting with anyone. But there was nonetheless a feeling of being guests, not customers, and it was a groove that was easy to fall into. Before long, though, I was finished, and being uncertain of the eventual bite, I declined dessert or cheese. Monsieur presented the bill, a whopping €44.40 -- 14 more than I'd wanted to spend, and just about half the money in my pocket.

I knew I was returning to extreme financial uncertainty, the possibility that I'd be completely out of money when I got back to Berlin. I knew I didn't have any work ahead of me, and only one magazine owed me money and was so overdue that I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever see it. I had no ideas what bills would have come in the mail while I was gone. I suspected I'd have a letter from my landlord waiting -- he hadn't heard from me since December, after all -- and as it turned out I was right.

But none of that mattered right at that moment. I'd had one of the best meals of my life, in surroundings that were eccentric and redolent of an age that's definitely past. I'd felt at ease and happy to be alive. That's what I'd paid for, and you can't put a price tag on it.

Monsieur had opened the front door and was standing outside on the sidewalk. What, I asked him, was that potato thing? "Gallette Lyonnaise," he answered. "Potatoes, onions, bacon. You put it on the plate to look like a cake, which is why the 'gallette.'" "And the potatoes make it Lyonnaise," I said. "Exactly." The air was cool and bracing. "You are at a hotel?" he said, pointing down the hill. "The hotel," I said, pointing up the hill. "Ah, rue Lafayette," he decided. I didn't disabuse him. He extended his hand. "Well, my friend, thank you very much. Come again." I told him I would and he went back inside. I started the climb to the firetrap I was going to call home for the night.

* * *

Post script: In writing this, I pulled out my bill for the first time since I'd paid it. Weirdly, it looks like the wine, at 19.80, was the most expensive thing on the ticket, since I remember the terrine at 7.80 and the Bourgignon at 16.80. Clever trick, although I can't prove anything because Monsieur's handwriting is totally unreadable. And this Frommer's review confirms that this wasn't just a lucky find -- if nothing else, the award from the French tourism folks confirms that there may be some calculation in what I saw. Still, the chef's credentials from places like the Cordon Bleu were genuine, and showed. It was a great way to end the trip.

Restaurant de la Grille, 80 rue du Faubourg Poissoniere, 75010 Paris. Reservations: 47 70 89 73

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Las Migas de Austin y Califas

And the debate on the websites continues about SXSW -- did they shut down parties they didn't control by releasing a list of them to the police and fire departments? is music doomed? did Iggy suck or not? -- while I think that the most shocking music-related shark-jump happened sometime in the last year without anybody telling me about it: Gibson Guitars seems to have donated a bunch of 8-foot-tall guitars for local "artists" to paint or otherwise decorate under the aegis of a corporate sponsor in much the way that Berlin's got its stupid bears, Chicago its stupid cows, and so on. Ever since Austin declared itself the "live music capital of the world" I've been waiting for the city to make a really boneheaded gesture in that direction, and now I can relax, because they sure have.

* * *

Food in Austin's been mainly on the go, with no great new discovery yet, although it's wonderful to see that my pal Sappachai has opened a Madam Mam's in South Austin. I've known him since he was the manager of my local supermarket in Austin, and got passed over for promotion and was certain it was racially-based. He decided to open a Thai restaurant, of which we had none at the time, and arranged a partnership with a cousin, as well as backing from some rich Thai guys. He confessed, though, that he was scared: they didn't think Americans liked spicy food. I told him that the solution was to take them to a Mexican place -- I think I even recommended one -- because the first thing that would happen would be that the waiter would plonk down some chips and salsa (and I recommended a place with good fiery stuff). When the Thais noted all the gringos (and farangs) around them nonchalantly eating fire on chips, they'd get the picture.

And thus it was that Satay was born, a sort of pan-Southeast Asian restaurant which spawned a family of sauces and other jarred groceries. Sap and his cousin argued, though, and he went over to the UT campus area and opened a little hole-in-the-wall place called Thai Noodle, which, despite its near-inaccessibility, did very well. But a long-lost romance re-bloomed in Thailand, and Sap went back for a while, returning married to his high-school sweetheart, whose mother, Madam Mam, was a masterful cook. Along with his new wife, he had a bunch of Madam Mam's recipes, and, in an incredibly audacious move, he rented a huge storefront on Guadelupe -- "the Drag," as UT students call it -- and opened a vastly expanded version of his old Thai Noodle joint, with entrees starting at $3.00 and going up to $14 for an astonishing catfish soup with an incendiary, fruit-infused broth that rated 5 or 6 chiles on the menu (which markings are to be taken seriously) and remains one of the most amazing things I've ever eaten.

Needless to say, with a menu that pleased both impoverished students and high-end foodies, not to mention one so vegetarian-friendly that whole tables of various Indians and hippies were a full-time feature, he started printing money, so it was with great pleasure that I accompanied Patrick and Denise down to his brand-new joint for my second meal here on this trip. Denise really scored with a special, which I've just returned from enjoying myself: a sort of coconut custard made with salmon and a fine spice mix, with chunks of salmon stirred into it and a bed of collard greens. Again, an incredible achievement.

On the other end of the spectrum, I had another great oyster po'boy from Gene's, which I so loved last year. My love was somewhat diminished by the fact that it took me an hour and forty-five minutes to get my sandwich. There was a young guy who entered after me who'd phoned his order in and he left with his order with five minutes to get back to work. It's a great place, but apparently not at the end of the week.

* * *

And what's a trip to the States without some bumper stickers and t-shirts? There are many, many Republicans for Voldemort bumper stickers around Austin, but the one that had me chuckling most was non-political and said "Yes, this is my pickup truck. No, I will not help you move." And anyone who's been around bands on their way up will appreciate the t-shirt on a kid who got on my Denver-Austin flight on the way back from California: "Silence is golden. Duct tape is silver."

* * *

The California trip was short and sweet, mostly concerned with meetings and hanging around Village Music, having dinner with some folks from the Well, and having lunch with legendary CREEM writer Jaan Uhelski at Viks Chaat, which I'd long wanted to try. I'll have some photos of all of this later, but if you're looking at their page, the Dahl Batata Puri was the winner, and I scored a couple of killer tiny Indian cookbooks at the grocery store next door, which was paradisical -- if impractical for my Berlin-based Indian cooking needs. More different kind of dal than I'd ever seen, though. And I also had a great meal cooked by my friend Bob, whose long service as art director of Salon hasn't diminished the talents that once made him the Bay Area's best-kept secret chef, at whose restaurants the celeb chefs could be seen dining contentedly on their days off. All in all, a nice trip.

There's more, but it involves photos that are hard for me to download at the moment, so stay tuned.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Magic Question

So today's thinking exercise was going to a SXSW panel called Covering Music In New Media, moderated by my pal Jason Gross. The participants were Michael Azerrad from eMusic, Erik Flannigan of AOL, Amy Phillips of Pitchfork Media, mighty Mark Pucci (one of my favorite publicists) and someone I think was Nick Baily of Shorefire Media, another great publicist. The panel description ended with this sentence:

"Without a reliable and financially sustainable model for online media, what is a rock critic to do?"

Well, yeah.

Naturally, all the folks with dogs in the online media fight -- Azerrad, Flannigan, and Phillips -- sought to assure everyone that their online publications were as viable as the print ones, as opposed to the many unreliable bloggers and fan-sites. The talked about coping with the flood of product, the fight to maintain some sort of credibility in the face of illegal uploads and rumor-mongering. They said that discussing which online sites will eventually work and which won't is like asking if Rolling Stone would survive in 1973 -- a good point.

What they did not discuss is what every single writer I've talked to here has been talking about: there is no paying work. Anywhere. Rumors of magazines going broke abounded, and the most-spoken sentence was "Man, I can't remember when it was ever this bad." When I'd respond that I couldn't, either, I got a shocked look, since I was writing about music something like 20 years before any of these other folks came on the scene. Nobody is making a living any more. Nice to have spent your life learning a trade you can no longer practice and can't make a living at, eh?

"Great audience at this," commented the irrepressable Jim Fouratt, who's been in this business even longer than I have (well, by a year or two). "Half of 'em are dinosaurs and half of 'em are 18-year-olds." And what we old folks had in common with our spiritual grandchildren was that neither of us can figure out how to make a living doing what we want to do. What we did not have in common with them was that once, we actually did, even if it was never a good one.

In a way, I'm lucky. Writing about art and culture for the Wall Street Journal for all that while liberated me from rock criticism, and I'm less and less interested in writing about (and listening to) music these days. Rock criticism has always paid less than any other cultural commentary, and that hasn't changed: one major indie-rock mag pays its writers a dime a word. That's what I got in the early '70s, and those dimes were worth a whole lot more back then. If I can make the right connection (and getting out of Berlin would help me subject-wise), I've got a lot more to write about than ever before. A lot of the poor souls trudging around here are a lot more committed to one subject than I am, or they really don't want to write about anything else. Or can't. I'm itching to write about a whole lot of stuff, and I've already proven I can.

But where? As general-interest magazines die like there was a plague going around (and actually, I guess there is), the options get more limited, and there are more people competing for less space than ever before.

I sure don't have any answers, but then, after an hour and a quarter, neither did anyone on Jason's panel. You either wrote for a website with good writing that doesn't pay, or you squeezed yourself into someone's idea that 700 words is just about all anyone needs to write about anything and got paid commensurately. Blender, the reigning paper rock mag, doesn't allow record reviews of over 80 words, for the most part.

I've currently got two book proposals out, neither for a music-related book. I hope one of them will give me the lifeline to make the changes I need in my life so that I can keep on doing the only thing I know how to do well enough to get paid for it. Neither has an agent who's committed to it yet, though, so I'm living in suspended animation.

And posting on my blog.

Which doesn't pay.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Las Migas de Austin, Part 1

I'm grabbing a moment before I have to head in to the Austin Convention Center to interview Joe Boyd to jot down some of the stuff that's happened so far on this trip.


Paris was okay, although the restaurant I ate at wasn't worth noting (although it was inexpensive and not bad). The hotel was convenient to the Gare Montparnasse, which is where the buses to the airport leave from, and it occurred to me that Montparnasse is worth a walk when I have time. There was a nearby bar called Le Chien Qui Fume, whose neon smoking dog I'd have liked to get a picture of, although whether or not I have the skills to do this is quite another question.

I saw a number of election posters for Segolene Royale, the Socialist candidate (and, potentially, France's first woman president, although her chances don't look too good a the moment) with the slogan "A fairer France is a stronger France," and I mused that this is a slogan both stirring and, uh, empty. Think about it: what on earth does it meant?

The bus to the airport has a video loop it plays, presumably to distract you from the not-so-inspiring scenery after you leave the city limits, and, as on the other trips I've taken on it recently, there was a longish public service announcement about pedophilic sex tourism. A good cause, of course, but a strange thing to see over and over, the litany of how many years in foreign jails various men have gotten. Do a significant number of Air France's passengers to Charles de Gaulle Airport have sexual predation in mind at their destinations? That seemed to be the message.

Spotted on the way out of town, another Parisian eatery we won't be patronizing: Cheaper Food Sandwiches.


I haven't seen much music yet here, mostly because I've wanted to re-read Joe Boyd's book White Bicycles to prepare for this afternoon's interview. Jon Hardy (who was turned down yet again for a showcase here this year) recommended I see some of his friends from St. Louis who'd moved to New York, a band called the White Rabbits, and it was a good tip. They feature a very intense piano-playing guy, a more serene guitarist, and three other guys who move back and forth among bass, keyboards, percussion, and three drum sets. I didn't catch enough lyrics to see if the songwriting's there, and there's a bit of sameness to the material which ought to even out when they write more songs. I'd be very interested to see them in a year.

Last night, of course, there was no choice: I had to at least try to get into the Stax show at Antone's. Although the line went around the block, by some miracle I got in, and at long last got to see Booker T and the MGs, who are probably the greatest band-as-band America has produced. I mean this in kind of a jazz sense: the way the four original members, Booker T. Jones, Donald "Duck" Dunn, Steve Cropper, and Al Jackson, Jr. (who was murdered years ago: his place was taken by one of his cousins)(and yes, I know Lewis Steinberg was the original bassist), interacted almost telepathically and could raise material as bathetic as "More" and "Summertime" to astonishing heights. Forty years later, Cropper's let the guitar-hero thing go a little bit to his head (Steve! It was all about the minimalism of your playing!), Booker seems less invested in the results, and Dunn is still the greatest bass player around, but hey, what do you want after all this time? An hour of Booker T music was something worth waiting for.

William Bell has still got it, too, and his snazzy pinstripe suit, dark sunglasses, and soul-man show was way too brief. Hunger got me out of the building during Eddie Floyd's set. I know he's not as young as he once was, but this "clap your hands" schtick gets old fast. And I'd seen what I'd come for, and was glad.

* * *

And I was hungry. I've gotten some good food here, and will probably do a full post on it later, but so far the big discovery was just a couple blocks from my hotel. My friend Scoop, whom I hadn't seen in eons, has moved here, and he came in from his Rancho Deluxe in Bastrop County to have lunch with me. We headed for the Tâm Deli, the superb Vietnamese place Jean Caffeine turned me on to last year, only to find it closed Tuesdays, so we decided just to cruise until we found a taqueria. Buried in a strip-mini-mall, bundled with a convenience store, an auto insurance agency, and a pool hall, was Jefe's, which I picked because they also run a taco truck, which was parked out front. We had tacos al pastor, which is marinated pork, and the order came with two squeeze bottles of salsa, one kind of brick colored, the other a pale green. Both were astonishing, the red having citrus undertones and hellfire overtones, the green subtly fiery with a wonderful herb combination. Four tacos, $4.99. I'm going back.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Yet Another Decent Interval

So tomorrow morning I'm off to SXSW again. Last year I said I'd be reporting from the scene, but got so weirded out by culture shock that I never got around to it, so this time I'm not making any promises. I'll probably be uploading some food reports to Dishola, and I'll undoubtedly expand on them here, especially if I find some great new places, but usually the nights of music leave me so exhausted and depressed with the sheer volume of mediocre stuff that I lack any enthusiasm for writing about it afterwards. Or that's what happened last year.

Actually, one of the more interesting SXSW-related activities is happening before the event, in the form of a blog discussing the impact of technology on the record biz. Even if you don't follow some of the more intricate details, you'll be able to pick up on how dire things are even for those heroic little guys who're supposed to be profiting from the dinosaurs' malaise. And this year I'm actually on a panel, or, rather, I'm conducting one of the live interviews with an old hero of mine, Joe Boyd, who's probably produced at least one of your all-time favorite records, even if you haven't heard it yet.

I'll also be headed off to Marin County (got a super-cheap ticket) to pay my respects to the about-to-vanish Village Music, but unless I win the lottery in Texas offering my respects is about all I'm going to be able to do. But I'll be seeing some folks from the Well, as well as some old friends from when I lived there. Then it'll be back to Texas for a couple of days, and back here at the end of March.

And a couple of days after that, you just know I'll be pissed off at Berlin again.

Monday, March 05, 2007

More History Gone

There it goes: another piece of Berlin history is biting the dust.

That's right, folks: by the time I get back from the States, the Tränenpalast will be no more. Apparently Deutsche Bahn has decided that this memory of the old East-West border has to be demolished immediately, the easier to excise the memory of what the building used to be.

I know for a lot of people, the Tränenpalast was a curiously-named entertainment venue, one which, if the experience my friend Gary Lucas had when he was booked there a few years ago is anything to go by, was horribly managed. In fact, practically from the day it opened in that incarnation, I heard sordid tales about the management, and the new managers didn't seem to be any better than the first ones.

My first time there, though, wasn't exactly for entertainment. The building's name, "Palace of Tears," came from its use as the processing terminal for Western visitors leaving East Berlin on their way back home. In retrospect, this seems like an odd name: Friedrichstr. station was an international checkpoint (the other being Checkpoint Charlie, further down Friedrichstr.), not a German-German one (which were scattered all over town), so the story that it saw the tearful separation of families who had come over to visit doesn't hold water unless these families were from countries besides Germany.

When I made my first visit to East Berlin, it was in the company of a guy who apparently had raised some red flags at Checkpoint Charlie, and had suffered a cavity search on his last time over. He decided it might be easier to try Friedrichstr., and indeed it was, so my first view of East Berlin was the Admiralspalast theater. We quickly headed on to the Pergamon Museum, Alexanderplatz, and Frankfurter Allee, where we marvelled at the grandiose Russian-style apartment buildings.

But our ultimate destination was Prenzlauer Berg, where we met up with a guy named Norman. Norman was part of a group of vegetarians who met occasionally in East Berlin with some folks from the West, including some British and American soldiers, who were also vegetarians, for big dinners. Apparently (by which I mean maybe, see below), the day before, Norman had seen one of these guys on the street and waved to him. The morning of the day we met him, he'd been awoken by the Stasi secret police and interrogated for six hours. By the time we met up with him, Norman was a wreck.

Our solution to this was to get him as drunk as possible. This was also the solution to another problem: the 25 Marks one had to exchange one-for-one at the border. Eastmarks were worth nothing, and there was nothing much you could buy with them, but you weren't allowed to take any back with you, either. To burn them up, we bought Norman dinner and found a bar where we drank ourselves silly. Finally, it was almost midnight, the time by which we had to be out of East Berlin, and we were just about out of money. We slipped Norman our spare change, and headed to the checkpoint in the building which is now called the Tränenpalast. Norman was still traumatized by his treatment at the hands of the Stasi, and was begging us to find him a black Jewish woman to marry. "That way, if the state tries to keep us apart, I can charge them with racism and anti-Semitism!" We tried to explain that black Jews of any gender were thin on the ground, let alone ones who might be inclined to marry him, but he told us we were lying, covering up for our unwillingness to help him.

On the one hand, Norman was being ludicrous, but on the other, I never forgot this rather intimate view into life in East Berlin. The guy I went over with later published a rather icky book called Once Upon a Time in the East, detailing the wacky fun he and his friends had had travelling in the East Bloc before the Wall came down, eating bad -- but cheap! -- vegetarian food in places like Romania and Czechoslovakia and generally behaving like the boorish British tourists they were. Norman's story was in there, too, along with an interesting postscript. When the border to Hungary opened up, Norman was one of the first to leave East Berlin, and travelled the long way around, through Czechoslovakia, Austria, West Germany, and then back to West Berlin, a trip of hundreds of miles to achieve a journey from Prenzlauer Berg to Schöneberg. But once he was there, he began acting very strangely, and there are some among that circle who think, today, that Norman was a Stasi agent keeping track of them, and that it's not impossible that the whole interrogation story he told us that day had been made up.

I have no idea, but I do think of Norman, who was last heard of living with his mother back in Prenzlauer Berg, when I walk past the Tränenpalast.

Or, as with so many other things here, maybe I should put that in the past tense. Once again, an uncomfortable souvenir of Berlin's past is extirpated. In two years, no doubt, there'll be a little pocket park there (to compensate for the one on the other side of the station, on which rose yet another untenanted office building), or maybe a Tränenpalast Museum sponsored by Deutsche Bahn, where the story the exhibits tell might not jibe exactly with the memories a bunch of aging people seem to have of the reality. The Palast der Republik is pretty much down by now, the Tränenpalast is going down...What's next?

On Sunday, one of the tabloids had a headline screaming that Deutsche Post is going to tear down the Fernsehturm. It'll take a little more than the Berliner Kurier to convince me of this, but after what I've seen here, I'm not ruling it out, either.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Crumbs From Behind The Wall

First, I would like to make extra sure that readers of this blog realize that it has nothing to do with the dining-out column by the same name in the wretched Ex-Berliner magazine. It's really not even worth wasting electrons on those people and their amazingly myopic view of Berlin's anglophone communities, but it probably is worth highlighting their astonishing lack of originality.

Those who are interested in my dining-out experiences here should a) wait until I can afford doing it again and then b) check over at Dishola, the Austin-based experiment in restaurant blogging or whatever it is. I'm the official Berlin Editor over there, and I've really got to get some stuff up about Toca Rouge and that ramen place on Neue Schönhauser and a couple of other places I'm thinking would appeal to their readership.

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As promised some time ago, a new work by Nike, this one on Brunnenstr. near the park. Is this an hommage to Gaugin, or...?

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I'm headed to Texas and California via Paris for a couple of weeks, starting in a week, and walked over to Hauptbahnhof recently to buy my ticket to Paris and see if I could get beaned by a piece of falling steel so I could sue Deutsche Bahn and get myself free tickets for life. I did manage to accomplish one of those goals, but it was the one that cost me money, not the one that cost them money. Whatever: I'm leaving this place for a while, and that always feels good unless I'm headed to someplace even worse like Frankfurt/Main.

At any rate, I was amused by a rather ambitious currywurst budde over there which calls itself Around the name are listed cities: New York, Dubai, Paris, and so on. Interesting; an entrepreneur actually attempting to franchise Berlin currywurst around the world? That actually could be a winner (although not in Dubai unless the sausages were beef). Naturally, as soon as I got home I hit the URL, and was disappointed, as you no doubt will be. It is emblematically Berlinish, though, to hop on a trend without really understanding it. I remember years ago when a new office supply company opened here in Mitte calling itself Naturally, they hadn't registered the URL, and didn't even have a website. But that dot-com stuff was trendy, right?

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One thing you can always say about Berlin is it's a really safe city. Violent crime here is almost unknown in most places, and I've only been burgled once, which was pretty much my landlord's fault. But that's not to say there isn't an undercurrent of anger here which blossoms forth every now and again in unpleasant ways. Currently, the trend seems to be throwing paving stones (easily dug out of the sandy soil here with a pen knife) through windows. Just in the past couple of days, I've seen smashed windows at the hookah bar on Chausseestr. and Tieckstr. (although this is probably just the tip of a larger story involving the huge number of these places and shops to supply them which have sprung up virtually overnight: do people really enjoy sitting around sipping sweet tea and smoking perfumed tobacco if they're not Arabs?), at the huge SAP software company building on the corner of Rosenthaler Str. and Gipsstr. (where you can see the place they dug the stones right in front of the building), and at the former Beate Uhse porn shop on Rosenthaler Str. This last suddenly sprouted some weird art-like installation in the windows almost within minutes of the Uhse folks pulling out, and it was apparently part of some viral marketing scheme by one of the game box companies -- I've lost track of Playstations and Nintendos and so on, but one of them has put up fake street art, opened a fake art gallery on Torstr., and now this. Not only did the windows go, the bricks were still there when I walked past, and someone was filming it.

I have to admit, I understand how street artists can get irked by this sort of thing, because the paper art with the URL was just bad enough that it stood out as fake. It was as annoying as the ad campaign for the new Toyota auto which has -- and I'm not exaggerating here -- taken up about 95% of all advertising space in this city for most of this week, and which will, if there's any justice, disappear tomorrow when the car is actually introduced. The Toyota campaign is yet another one which presupposes the utter stupidity of the consumer, the "Hey dumbass, buy this" attitude that's at the basis of so much German advertising, as opposed to the "You're clever enough to want this" approach the Brits pioneered and the Americans eventually figured out. Trouble is, there aren't enough paving stones to take this one out.

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Yes, I know Berlin is changing, but... One night not very long ago, I was walking down Invalidenstr. and there was cheesy pink light streaming off a ginormous disco ball inside the staid walls of the old DDR post office. A couple of weeks later, I saw that Volkswagen was staging an event there. Now, when I first moved here, that was my local post office, and I've (naturally, because it's what one does at the post office in Germany) stood in lines there many a day, admiring the strange metal sculpture on the polished marble walls. After Deutsche Post went private and the post office moved into a MacPaper outlet (I am not making this up, for those of you who don't live here), the building was empty for a long, long time. But apparently it's been rescued by a club which will give the lie to all those reports of hip! edgy! Berlin! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Bangaluu! (Warning: cheezy handbag house music when you click the link). Opening a branch of this -- or even an imitation of it -- would soon empty Friedrichshain of hipsters, and the flights back to Williamsburg would be packed. I kept clicking links on that site out of sick fascination. And to think it's right next door to where, many many years ago in the Paleolithic Era, the Technics Club was...

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And finally, the pictures to explain the headline. Some months ago, I posted a picture of some graffiti "artists" spray-painting the wall of the building next to me, which I have to walk past on my way to my front door. I thought they were done -- surely it couldn't get any more hideous than that -- but they kept working at it until there were all sorts of horrible details: a little green head of some depressed-looking guy, a woman-robot...who knows what they thought they were doing? But they signed it and left their phone numbers, in case anyone else wanted their house desecrated.

Then, as I guess artistic collaborations do on occasion, this one went south, and one of the "artists" came back and obliterated his former partner's work and re-did it to his own liking. Not only that, he also went to work on the wall next door to it, so now we have a diptych with the theme of the Berlin Wall. Now, just why someone would want to spray-paint a new Wall, I cannot tell you. In fact, besides the eyesore factor, the depression this horrible set of murals sets off in me every time I have to see it (which is, of course, every day) is hard to even verbalize. What is the point of this? Who on earth would pay someone to do it? And just in case you think I'm making this up, here's the wall closest to the street:

And here's the wall on the rear building:

There's only one solution I can think of. The original Berlin Wall attracted graffiti artists from around the world. Not just the collection who did the stretch known as the East Side Gallery (which was all post-Wall anyway), but Keith Haring over by the Gropius-Bau, and the French guy who did all those heads that wound up in Wings of Desire on that stretch in Kreuzberg. So maybe Nike can come and stick a nude or two up on this "Wall" and make it that much less depressing to look at.

I still liked our wall better when it had a big billboard on it featuring the Puhdys shilling for Berliner Pilsner.