Friday, June 29, 2007

The Hidden Killer

Last Saturday, because we found ourselves each in possession of a couple of extra Euros that would permit a very inexpensive restaurant meal, the dancer and I decided to try the new ramen joint next door to Cuchi, the superb sushi place on Gipsstr. After all, it was under the same management, and ramen can be a wonderful experience.

Sad to say, this place wasn't. My soup was pretty bare-bones. Although there was some pickled ginger in it, and, unlike the place we usually go, there were the right condiment-adding things (chili and black sesame, a sesame-seed grinder) on the table, it just wasn't very interesting. Hers was even weirder: although I don't think any tomato was involved, it was very much like a thin version of spaghetti bolognaise, with ground pork and a reddish broth. Both soups had corn in them, which didn't endear the place to me.

But about three-quarters of the way through her soup, the dancer suddenly pivoted on her butt and lay down. (Fortunately, as she noted later, we had benches; otherwise she would have fallen out of her chair). "It's my circulation," she said. "It's just dropped way down." She was sweating and pale. Now, I know that every medical crisis in Germany is "circulation," just as every medical crisis in France is "liver," but I had a more exact diagnosis: MSG poisoning. Hardly surprising, of course, because MSG is a crucial part of Japanese cuisine, the "fifth taste," umami, and something you expect to encounter. You do not, however, expect to pass out as a result of eating it.

Eventually, she sat up and sipped some water the solicitous waitress brought over, and found the strength to get up and leave. We walked around for a while so she could get her "circulation" back up, and finally got her to the U-Bahn, where she headed straight home and to bed. And, she reported the next morning, felt fine.

What happened wasn't a "drop in circulation," though, but a spike in blood-pressure. I have high blood pressure, so I try to minimize my MSG intake as best I can because it (and, of course, all other sodium, like salt) will raise your blood pressure. Certainly I've always been sensitive to MSG, and that night, I, too, had symptoms of muscles bunching up and a sort of caffeinated feeling, lying buzzing for a couple of hours before sleep came.

The thing is, though, although few people realize it, MSG is everywhere in Germany. It's not just in the fake "Asia" food, or even the authentic Asian food; it's found its way into German food so pervasively that I often avoid eating in German restaurants. I read labels of all prepared food products. It really is everywhere.

What I'm looking for in the supermarket is "Geschmackverstärker E 621," which is in just about every brand of canned soup (which are already hideously oversalted), in plenty of sausages (I no longer buy from butcher counters if I can't read the labels), in the formerly delicious smoked pork chops known as Kassler, in some brands of Maultaschen (those fantastic overstuffed pillows of pasta, one of my favorite discoveries in Germany), prepared chicken broth (Fond), and even in such weird places as black olives.

But at the restaurants, I'm helpless. What has happened over the past couple of decades is that restaurants have stopped making their own sauces, using cheats marketed by food giants like Maggi and Knorr. No doubt they cheated before with other prepared products, but both Maggi and Knorr base their entire product line on MSG, and their offering up condensed sauce bases that a good cook could make from scratch in a couple of hours has ruined German food. Nor can you assume that you're safe at a high-end restaurant: friends of mine report strong MSG reactions after eating in some of Berlin's toniest joints.

Germans are notorious for the amount of salt they consume. My doctor tells me that the numbers for high blood pressure are adjusted upwards in Germany, because numbers that would cause concern elsewhere are fairly normal here. And no wonder: from the Wurst you eat for breakfast to the Döner Kebap you have for lunch, to the schnitzel with gravy you have for dinner -- not to mention the Bratkartoffeln and green beans boiled with Speck you eat alongside it -- you're at the minimum getting a ton of salt, and almost always even more sodium courtesy of the MSG in all that stuff.

The folks at the Wurst counter don't know what's in the sausages -- and, worse, they won't go look -- and in restaurants you can't even assume the server will ask the cook, or, if they do, that they'll tell you the truth. Is it any wonder German food has the awful reputation is does? People go to a restaurant to eat something that sounds excellent on the page, and wind up dizzy or otherwise distressed afterwards.

Anyway, I'll continue to make occasional visits to the ramen place on Alte Schönhauser, fully aware of what's in the soup, but my desire to eat out elsewhere is always tinged with apprehension. I wonder if any of the other diners at this new place had a similar reaction, and, if so, how many will have to pass out before the owners decide it might be a good idea to cut the aiji-no-moto in half.

Friday, June 22, 2007

House of World Stereotypes

Note to self: Stop trying to accomplish anything here, stop trying to do good things for people here, save your energy and use it to get the hell out of here.

Details: Last year a couple of filmmakers in the States made a wonderful, if harrowing, film called Bound to Lose about the folk duo the Holy Modal Rounders, who changed my life in 1964 with their first album. They consisted of Peter Stampfel (fiddle, banjo, vocals) and Steve Weber (guitar, vocals), and were so far out there that they used the word "psychedelic" in one of their songs -- recorded in 1963! (I thought the word was "psycho-belly," but jeez, I was 15.)

The world of documentaries isn't an easy one, so if you want your film to get seen you have to enter a lot of festivals and do a lot of screenings. Thus, they're participating in the Rotterdam Film Festival in mid-September and bringing Peter along to perform, and, upon hearing this, I wondered if they were thinking of doing a screening in Berlin. Then it hit me: this was when PopKomm, the huge music conference, hits town, and, of course, so do the guys who run SXSW in Austin. Now, SXSW has a film conference, too, so I thought that a screening followed by a Stampfel show under the aegis of SXSW would be good for all concerned: SXSW gets to promote SXSW Film, the filmmakers get to promote their film, and Peter gets to introduce himself to a new audience.

So along with a friend, I started working on this after getting SXSW's blessing. Wow, an actual fun event during PopKomm! Never mind that not too many people would come: it would have a lot of competition. The theater we were thinking of for the film only holds about 100 people, and the bar across the way from it where we were going to do the show only holds about 40. But we'd be handing out flyers at the SXSW stand at PopKomm, and publicity is publicity.

Then Peter said that he was going to play a folk festival here and the promoters had forbidden him to perform so close to that event. Further investigation turned up the fact that it was part of a concert series in the House of World Cultures' New York program, which opens in August and runs through November. The HKW (Haus der Kulturen der Welt) is a mighty institution in Berlin, funded by the federal government to expose Germans to foreign cultures, and very often their exhibitions and concert series are superb: I've enjoyed many of them in my years here.

Peter passed along the name of the woman at the HKW he was dealing with, and I recognized her as someone I'd dealt with myself when working for the Wall Street Journal in the past. Peter was due to perform several weeks later, and it really didn't seem to me that our tiny show would hurt theirs. So I wrote her a letter (names have been changed to spare the guilty):

Dear Ms. X:

My name is Ed Ward, and I'm a freelance journalist here in Berlin. I think we've run into each other over the years, possibly through WOMEX or when I was the cultural correspondent for the Wall St. Journal here.

I'm writing you because in another capacity, as a representative of the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. I'm setting up a screening of a film about the Holy Modal Rounders as part of SXSW's presence at PopKomm this year. The screening will be held in a small cinema in Berlin-Mitte, and we were hoping to have a short performance by Peter afterwards.

Peter has informed us that you have asked him not to perform at this show because of a perceived conflict with an event at the HKW in October. He will be coming to Europe anyway at this time for a screening/performance in Rotterdam, and this is why we decided to set this up.

I'm asking if you could reconsider this prohibition. Peter is not very well known here, and this event could only build the audience for your event. Furthermore, he would be mentioning your event during his show, which could only help publicize it. The filmmakers are planning to go through with the screening in any event, but we feel that because the venue we've selected for the show is very small -- with a capacity of only around 40 people -- and because Peter will be in Europe anyway, it would be a shame not to take advantage of his presence and put on a short show which, as I said, could only enhance the visibility of your own, much higher-profile and better-publicized event.

If Peter were a superstar, or even a major cult figure, in Germany, I could certainly understand your position, as Peter has explained it. But we anticipate the largest part of our audience to be the Fachpublikum [*] who will be attending PopKomm, many of whom are not from Berlin (although the screening and the show will be open to the general public), and for many of these people it will be the only chance they get to see the film and Peter.

I'm hoping you can think about this and perhaps we can work out a solution that will be advantageous for both our small show and your (I hope!) bigger one.

With Friendly Regards,

Ed Ward

[* The word Fachpublikum doesn't translate into English easily, but it indicates a specialty or professional audience.]

And so, except for the fact that the mail bounced back because Peter had spelled her name wrong, and one of the filmmakers finally found her on the HKW website (I still can't find her there!), the thing went off as you see it above. "Your letter seems incredibly reasonable," one of the filmmakers said. Yeah, well.

Yesterday in the late afternoon I got the answer:

Dear Ed,

thank you very much for your mail to Ms. X. We appreciate your initiative to show the film about Peter Stampfel during Popkomm very much. Unfortunately we must insist on our conditions that he should not perform before his show at House of World Cultures in Berlin. Even if the cinema is small. As you also underline, Peter Stampfel ist not so well-known in Berlin, so his audience is also small. A show during popkomm would be less then 3 weeks before our concert. And we really want to be the fist ones who bring him here these days.
As for popkomm visitors: we are not sure how many will come to the cinema, don't expect too much of them.

Of course we would be very grateful if you mentioned the coming concert at House of World Cultures at the end of your film screening. We can also mention your screening at our website for instance.

Thank you very much for your cooperation.

Best regards,

Ms. X's Boss
cc: Grand Poobah, HKW

In other words, we have rules which are not bound by logic. Rules are rules and Ordnung muss sein. We said no, and thus we cannot be flexible. As for PopKomm, you know nothing about it (despite my having participated in just about every one of them since it started in Cologne). You don't know what you're doing, and we do, so stop.

Oh: please give us publicity.

Well, to hell with that. As of this moment, SXSW has pulled out, the filmmakers are going to Glasgow instead (I think), and a situation from which every one of the participants could benefit has been nullified. And, once again, official Germany has shown itself to be rigid, inflexible, uncreative, and self-defeating.

No, not everyone here is like that. Just the people who run things. No wonder the country has a brain drain.

And I have to remind myself: stop trying to accomplish anything here. You're just a stupid foreigner and your efforts are not appreciated or wanted. Use your energy to get out and start again somewhere else.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

In The Good Old Crumb-er Time

You can tell it's summer in Berlin because when it rains you feel disappointed instead of resigned. The wet seems to be related to a distraction of the Gulf Stream which is related to climate change, but more technical than that I can't get.

Still, you have to wonder how the rain affects Sandsation, the latest tourist attraction by the Hauptbahnhof, where a visiting Texan dragged me the other day. Massive sand sculptures by actual artists (some of whom appear to be professional carvers of ice, snow, and sand) are being made out of 2000 tons of the stuff dumped on the site, piled high, and carefully scraped into images. None of them are going to give Richard Serra sleepless nights, but it's an amusing thing to walk around.

There are sculptors from all over, including a guy from India who heads a sand-sculpting school there and is recreating the Taj Mahal in ridiculously authentic detail. The theme is "Welcome to Paradise," and sure enough, one of the Germans has sculpted an anti-paradise of miserable heads of boat people crammed into a tiny boat. Never enough misery, eh?

Most of the sculptors seemed to be spritzing their creations with some sort of stuff from an applicator that looked like the ones exterminators use. Maybe that's rain-protection, or maybe they're just resigned to re-doing their work from now until July 29, when the thing closes.

And inside the Hauptbahnhof, the Diplodocus skeleton has vanished, replaced by an information stand about the various (costly) wireless services German train stations are now offering.

* * *

On the rest of our walk, the Texan and I walked down Reinhardtstr., better known as Little Bonn, where I like to show people the Nazi air-raid bunker that continues to stand there because the price of demolishing it exceeds the value of the plot on which it stands. For some months, a luxury apartment has been under construction on the top of it, making me wonder who in the hell would want to live atop an ugly concrete hunk which is cold and damp inside. I got my answer last week in an article in the International Herald Tribune, informing me that an art collector named Christian Boros is moving into the apartment and housing his collection, which will be open to the public, in the bunker. I've been in this bunker, not when it was a gabba club, but afterwards when the irrepressible Hannes from the DNA gallery mounted a show in it a couple of years back. All I can say is, I hope Boros has some interesting stuff there, because this is one depressing interior.

Hope, however, springs eternal, etc: Best Western has just opened a hotel next door. That means guests have their choice of a view of the bunker or the Ukranian Embassy next door.

* * *

While we Berlin expats are seeking hamburgers now that Hazelwood seems to have gone the way of all good restaurants here, New Yorkers are warming to Currywurst. Really: a friend who works at the New York Times has declared it good, and just look at the rest of the menu:

The prices are even right. Not that I think I'll be visiting New York any time soon, and if I do that I'll be seeking out Currywurst, but I give these folks an A for effort.

* * *

Living alongside a straightaway on which speeding idiots race day and night, and given that Berlin drivers are hands down the worst I've ever come across (and yes, I've driven in Italy), I'm amused by the current anti-speeding campaign someone's mounted. I looked for images on the Web, but there don't seem to be any. At any rate, this features gorgeous women with their finger and thumb indicating a distance of about an inch, and the caption "Speeders are about this big." I know, Sigmund Freud was Austrian, but someone here has hit upon something I've suspected for a long time.

* * *

I can tell the way this week's going: today I took my last €40 out of the bank, hoping that one of the several firms I've worked for recently will be paying me soon, and went down to the market at Hackescher Markt. Standing waiting to cross at Rosenthaler Platz, a driver changed lanes so he could drive through a puddle and douse me head to foot. Undaunted, I pressed on, bought some Parmesan from the pasta ladies, bought some olives from a "Greek" stand, and headed home, at which point I realized that my wet hand had apparently stuck on a €10 note, and a quarter of my bounty was gone.

That's okay. It's going to rain all weekend anyway.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Just Another Day In Berlin

I was awakened around 8 am yesterday by a call from a friend in Prague, announcing that a friend of his, from Texas originally, would be coming to Berlin later in the day. After the call was over, I went back to sleep. I had a lot of work to do, and wanted to be fresh.

By the time I had had my coffee and was checking e-mails, the friend-of-a-friend had written me, and we went back and forth until we had a meeting set up later in the evening in Friedrichshain, where he was staying. Then it was time to get to work: totally rewriting a sample page of a brochure for a school here so it wouldn't be so stuffy and yet would appeal to the right kind of students.

This, it developed, took a couple of hours, but I figured if the school green-lighted the project I'd have made a significant score. And I'd find out: the woman in charge was leaving for vacation at the end of the day. So after I'd whipped it into shape and e-mailed it to her, I realized I'd be stupid to sit around the house waiting to hear from her, so I strapped on the trusty Nikon and went in search of the Acid Icon artist's other work.

It was just past Rosenthaler Platz, on the south side of Torstr. but proved maddeningly difficult to photograph, as you can see:

This gives a hint of the colors, especially in the face, but it obscures the majority of the piece.

This, on the other hand, gives an idea of the scale of the piece. The only proper way to photograph this would be from inside the industrial courtyard, unfortunately. Still, there are a couple of clues here. First, it's copyright by Super Blast, which explains the SB on the other icon's field. Second, the idiosyncratic spelling of "Maschine" makes it pretty certain the artist is German. And the mysterious inscription "Thanks to Play Station" doesn't, I hope, mean that Super Blast was part of that lame promotion of a few weeks back. If so, there's nothing overt in either image that indicates it.

I grabbed another couple of shots as I headed back home -- the defaced Ronald McDonald, which I added on my post about the McDonald's closing a couple of weeks ago, and a shot for bowleserised's all-things-pony blog, The Ponyhof. She and I then spent an amusing couple of hours trying to figure out how to download the goddam photos from Gmail.

Finally, since it was getting towards 5 and I knew just how fast Germans depart the office on Friday, I called the school, only to discover that I'd been in competition with some other writers and the school had gone for one who had a degree. Because naturally, making your living by writing for over 40 years doesn't mean that you know a thing about language. I wasn't even particularly surprised, since I know how much store Germans -- and, I suspect, Europeans in general -- put in such things. Hell, I'd have graduated from college if I'd understood the weird experimental educational project they'd put me in. Or not, I don't know. (It doesn't matter now: the damn place is closing).

So the next order of business was to eat some dinner and head off to the bar to meet this guy, which I did. The new tram line by my house makes it easy to get to the hip! edgy! district of Friedrichshain, where every second person is from America and nobody's much over 30. Trouble is, the new tram line, like all the tram lines in my neighborhood, are closed for the next couple of weeks for track work. Thus, I was wedged into a bus that was loaded well beyond its legal limit with drunken teenagers and ferried most of the way across town, where we were dumped to meet the part of the tramline that was running. Then I got there and there was a sign on the bar that there was a private party going on.

This turned out to be because apparently the place is officially not open for business, so I won't identify it further, but at any rate the Texan finally made his appearance and we talked for a while until the trust-fund hipster vibe got to me and I realized that I'd be repeating the same arduous journey back home, so I said good-bye and caught the tram.

Boy, did I feel smart: by the time the (mostly empty) bus pulled up at the terminus at Nordbahnhof, I could see lightning flashing in the sky, and by the time I was half-way down my block, tiny raindrops were intermittently hitting my skin. I opened a nightcap beer, sat and read with the windows open as gentle rain started to fall, and then went to bed.

Now, I don't know about you, but thunderstorms, for me, are like the best sleeping-pills ever invented. I think it's the rapid drop in air pressure that does it, and I was asleep in no time.

The beer, however, wasn't, so after lying there listening to a really bad storm pounding down, I got up to recycle it. Although all the lights were out, I could see that the entire bathroom floor was slick with water. Worse, it was copiously studded with dark lumps. Yes, folks, the sewer had backed up, the toilet had overflowed, and my bathroom was covered with the Waste of Others.

German mop technology, I'm sorry to say, isn't very good. All I have is a so-called Wischmop, a primitive thing with semi-absorbent cloth shreds which need to be wrung out every couple of seconds. Over the next 90 minutes, until after 3 am, I was angrily swabbing, pushing the, um, souvenirs, against the wall, and praying not to get cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A, or some other dread disease. When things were somewhat under control, I took a long, hot shower and collapsed back in bed, where I remained until 10:30.

Why the city of Berlin's sewers are so bad, I can't say, although you've got to admit that a city so broke that it's begging other police departments for their cast-off uniforms probably can't maintain them. This kind of thing has happened before, but it's never escaped the toilet before, and I was genuinely glad upon rising to note that there wasn't much of a smell. I spent my early afternoon swabbing the bathroom down with Mr. Clean (Mr. Proper over here) and a healthy dose of Clorox (DanKlorix), and, while it dried, went off to buy some coffee.

Some time ago, I lamented the demise of the Malongo Coffee boutique at Galleries Lafayette here, where you could buy superb whole-bean coffee cheaper than at Starbucks or Einstein or Balzac or any of the other similar "quality" coffee joints. Well, in the past few weeks, they've returned as a presence at the bakery counter there. The prices have risen so that it's no longer €4 for 250g, but more like €5, so they're on par with the others (except Starbucks, which is €6), but I can once again make my famous blend and breakfasts here at the house are far more enjoyable.

Walking home, I made sure to avoid Friedrichstr., which has apparently been entered in an international competition for auto and pedestrian inaccessibility, and instead made my way over to Museum Island. At Bebelplatz, there was a book fair going on, and if I'd stayed til 4, I could have met Rolf Hochhuth and punched the old man out for awakening an interest in Germany in the teenaged me, but instead I wanted to get home. Walking up Tucholskystr. I saw yet another horror: a Hollywood Boulevard-style star, with a Vanity Fair logo, for Damien Hirst sunk in the sidewalk outside a gallery. Yet another there-goes-the-neighborhood moment -- and Brangelina have yet to move in, as far as I know.

I was contemplating the messages the past 24 hours had brought when the doorbell rang. A young woman in a Deutsche Post uniform handed me a large, soft package of the sort I never get. It was postmarked Montpellier. In it was a huge towel, with embroidered on one corner. I was puzzled until I realized I'd won it weeks ago in this contest, which I play when I'm bored in hopes of winning. (Yeah, I know the page doesn't work all that well and most of the "clue" links don't work: it's French, for heaven's sake!)

And it occurred to me: the students are leaving Montpellier right now. The apartments will be available all summer. Once again it's time to strike.

Now to raise the €12,500 I need to do it with.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ousman Sembene, RIP

So this morning I found out that one of my favorite authors, Chinua Achebe, had won the Man Booker Prize. It said so on the BBC, so it must be true.

This made me happy, although I was sorry to hear of his paralysis. Achebe drew me into the world of Nigerian authors writing in English, which drew me into a world of my very own language, artfully re-cadenced, where aphorisms said things in a way that deflected anger: "Since men have learned to shoot without missing, said the bird, I have learned to fly without perching." Chew a kola nut and think about that for a minute.

Anyway, as I often do when I hear news, I headed over to the Well to post this in the Books conference, where I was astonished to see there wasn't a topic devoted to African literature. Surely I'm not the only one of those folks reading this stuff when I can find it! And I concluded my post by saying that now that Achebe had the Booker, it was time to get a Nobel into Ousman Sembene's hands before it was too late.

A couple of hours later, another fan of his work noted that it was already too late.

My reaction to this is twofold. First, I urge you to go out and find any of this great man's books that you can find. Second, I urge you to rent as many of his films as you can find, because he was an amazing filmmaker as well as an amazing novelist. Usually he'd write a novel, then film it, but be warned that his early masterpiece, God's Little Bits of Wood is, thank heavens, unfilmable. Nor is it an easy read, but in order to understand Western Africa, and Senegal in particular, it's a mandatory one.

Now, what does this have to do with Berlin? Something. Because after reading that superb obituary, an anecdote came back to me, and I stuck it on the Well, and now I'll put it here.

There used to be an African restaurant here in Berlin on Pappelallee called the Chop House. It served West African food -- Senegalese and Ghanian, for the most part -- and, like many restaurants in East Berlin, scammed tax credits by being a "gallery," in this case for African artists.

Because it was cheap and good and one of the few places where they'd actually put enough chiles in stuff, I went there often, and one night I went there with a couple of friends, only to find out there was some sort of gallery opening going on, and most of the tables were filled. We were seated at one with some Germans and Africans talking animatedly and minded our own business until one skinny, tall African guy said "Hey, are you speaking English? I need to practice my English because I
have a scholarship to a university there."

So we did the conversation thing, and of course, I asked him where he was from. "Senegal. Dakar," he replied. "I've always wanted to go to Dakar, ever since I saw a film by Ousman Sembene called Xala," I said. The guy's eyes got real big.

"Ousman, he is my father! He is my mother! He saved my life!" I figured this was metaphorical, but he went on. "I was a little boy, living on the streets. I never knew my parents, like a lot of street kids in Dakar. They just throw us there and if we live, we live. And I lived by begging, because Muslim tradition is to give to beggars.

"One day, I went into a bookshop and begged the man behind the counter for some money. He laughed at me. 'You're a strong young man,' he said. 'I'll give you work if you want it.' And of course, I told him yes. 'I edit a magazine, a literary journal, and it's printed across town. I never have time to go pick it up for my shop here, and they've just told me the latest issue is out. I can make money if I have copies here to sell, but I have no time to get them. I have a cart in the back. If you can go to the printer, I'll give you a note you can hand them, and they'll load the cart with my magazine. Then you bring it
here and I'll pay you.'

"So I did. It wasn't hard work, and when I got back to the shop, he asked me if I'd like a copy. I had to tell him I couldn't read.
Naturally, he said that a young man like me should be in school, and he knew a church-run school that would take me. He told me that once I could read, he'd give me a job in the bookshop, and that was how it was: I learned to read, and I lived in the back of the shop.

"Now, that man was Ousman Sembene, as you've guessed. But what you probably didn't guess is this: Do you remember the scene in Xala where the businessman is arguing with his daughter, who says he should stop speaking French and talk to her in Wolof?"

I said I did.

"And you remember that there's another child at the table, doing his homework, his son, who's younger than the daughter."

Yes, I remembered that. The kid was obviously having a horrible conflict between the father he idolized and the sister who he knew to be so smart.

"Well, that child, that boy there, that was me! Mamadou! And that was really my homework!"

He's not listed in the IMDB, and Senegalese can be notorious scamsters and hustlers, and it had been 20 years since I'd seen the film, but I figured it was okay to believe him. Because what if it were true?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Writing On The Wall

So why do you suppose Berlin has so much graffiti? Does it contain large gangs of disaffected black or Latino youth? That's one demographic from which graffiti springs in the States, and although I do think there are some Turkish-German posses behind it, that's only a part of the answer.

And why do you suppose so much of Berlin's "graffiti" actually falls under the rubric of "street art?" Sure, there's a large contingent of international artists who work in this fashion, and even the suddenly oh-so-fashionable Banksy has his rats around my neighborhood, but that, too, is only part of the answer.

And I'd say that another part of the answer that's being ignored is simply this: because Berlin's official public art sucks. Really: I've never been in a place with so much bad outdoor sculpture, eye-straining murals, and, of course, all those damn bears.

So I want to spend just a minute here examining three works of art. The first is public:

This sucker sat under a tarp for I don't know how long before being unveiled at the Hauptbahnhof a few weeks ago. It should have stayed there. There's a plaque on the side, which explains that it's a memorial to the Lehrter Stadtbahnhof which used to stand where the Hauptbahnhof now does, and was created by a Prof. somebody or other using stainless steel and "high-tech elements" to symbolize, ummm, this and that. The horse has a clock-like face set in its side with bad mask-like faces which revolve, so I guess having an electric motor is high-tech. Underneath, in the base, are various gears the "artist" has modified with more faces, as well as bits of the brickwork from the old Lehrter Stadtbahnhof, although whether they're original brick from the old building or part of the multi-million-Euro reconstruction which was torn down a couple of years after it was finished is hard to tell. The whole thing, towering over an outdoor eating area, is of such amazing ugliness that it's breathtaking. Hard to figure how the Ponyhof missed something this size.

Now, Exhibit B is a very small piece, currently hard to find because trees obscure it.

Yup. Nike again. What's disarming about these paintings, besides the lack of formal skill, is the feeling one gets when one comes upon them, always in an unexpected place, and almost always cheering you up by the very act of discovery. That's something I think public art should do, and it informs my own reactions to things like, say, the wall rabbits or the long-gone, intricate cutouts by the New York master (mistress?) Swoon.

And then there are the works which proclaim mastery:

I have no idea who's behind this (and another one I've found), but a huge Russian icon-on-acid popping up on the corner of your street (this is at the end of Torstr. at Oranienburger Tor) is something you notice. It's taller than I am, and, needless to say, many times wider. The palette of color is quite basic, but used with the kind of skill any commercial artist would envy. And the subject matter, well, it makes you think.

If I were running this city (and there's a nighmare I've yet to have) I'd discreetly channel funds to the likes of Nike, Swoon, and the Acid Iconist in hopes that they'd continue to beautify what's not a very beautiful cityscape. The more obscure the place beautified, the bigger the fee. Meanwhile, it's encouraging that you don't actually have to walk past the Iron Horse to catch your train, although it's hard not to cast it a glance if, as I do, you take the bus to the Hauptbahnhof (well, when I have luggage I do, anyway). And it's further encouraging that these other artists are out there, continuing to surprise us.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Go Directly To Jail

When I first moved here, I lived in a neighborhood known as Moabit. The name is a corruption of the French term "terre maudit," or cursed land, but it's most familiar to Germans as the name of a prison, which, sure enough, stood right up at the end of the block. It was where many of the Baader-Meinhof Gang were held, for instance, and, during my tenure in Moabit, it was the home of the famous folk-hero/extortionist known as "Dagobert," which is what the Germans call Scrooge McDuck. Dagobert had extorted money from several department stores, and kept getting away with it. Once, the cops were hot on his trail, and in a very Berlinisch moment, lost him when they slipped in dogshit on the sidewalk while chasing him. One of the buildings there is quite old, and has classic barred windows. Women gather in the park across from the prison on good days and have their kids wave at Daddy.

So I thought that was all there was to Moabit Prison, and my obsessive walking through the neighborhood during several months' total unemployment saw to it that I knew the surrounding area very well. Leave it to Berlin, though, to confound that idea.

Last week, I had an appointment on Kantstr., way over in scary West Berlin, and, for old time's sake (and because I'm once again totally without work), I decided to walk. The easiest way is to head to my old neighborhood via Invalidenstr., past the Hauptbahnhof, then across the Spree and follow the S-Bahn. I gave myself lots of time so I could take the occasional diversion down back streets for old time's sake.

But I'd no sooner gotten just past the Hauptbahnhof and all the myriad new streets the tunnel there has spawned, when I found something which must have been there in the old days, but which I'd totally missed. It was now a new park: Moabit Prison Historical Park. I took a glance in and told myself I'd be back. And today I was.

The bland outside, it must be said, masks an even blander inside. Had it not been for the glass-encased explanatory posters, I'd never have guessed what this was. I was shocked to find that it had once housed Wilhelm Voigt, the "Captain from Köpenick" himself -- the Dagobert of his day. Several notable Socialists were also thrown in the klink there by the Nazis as was one of the 1944 Hitler plotters. But most of the inmates were just run-of-the-mill criminals, something Berlin never had a shortage of in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Inside, there isn't much to see, mostly because the thing was almost totally destroyed by Allied bombs. Instead, it's filled with symbolism.

I forget what the cube represents, other than the center of the buildings' wings. The trees planted within the walls all have symbolic meanings, as, no doubt, do the small concrete posts with constellations etched into them. A couple of the building's wings are represented by trenches, one of which you see here. I kept having to run outside to one of the entrances to see what symbol I was standing next to at any given time. There's a dolorous poem whitewashed across one of the walls, the beginning of which is visible here:

The tall building is one of the houses where the "civil servants" (ie, the guards) lived. I have no idea why the signage uses that name. Here, however, is where most of the folks lived:

Well, not actually. That's a reproduction of the dimensions of one of the cells, and, according to the list of symbols, contains a sound installation. I not only couldn't hear it, I couldn't find any means by which it would be broadcast, so maybe that's a coming attraction.

Although the place is pretty stark and uninviting, there's a climbing wall and see-saw for kids, and a couple of nicely shaded picnic tables. Despite the fact that it was a nice day, I was usually sharing the park with no more than two other people -- on one occasion two huge women and their three huge dogs, one of whom came up to me to get his ears scratched, which I did, but apparently not enough, since he refused to leave until he felt he'd been properly appreciated.

Maybe it just hasn't been discovered yet: it only opened last year, apparently. Or maybe the symbolic sculpture and landscaping make it hard to use. Or maybe Berliners are getting tired of feel-bad monuments, since this one certainly does evoke the starkness and isolation of imprisonment.

Naaah. Can't be that last one. Berliners love to feel bad.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Clash Of The Organic Titans

For a city that doesn't like food, Berlin's sure got some action on that front these days. Maybe it's just the dream of grabbing the tourist dollar, but a lot of new restaurants and delis (many with the inevitable English "Free Wireless Internet" signs) seem to be opening up, and not just the faux-French ones I commented on a while ago.

More to the point for residents, though, is the war shaping up on and near Senefelderplatz in Prenzlauer Berg, where two well-funded organic food shops are practically next-door neighbors.

It started about a year ago, when viv BioFrischMarkt opened pretty much next door to the former Polish Consulate, which is now a (very good) pizzeria. It wasn't one shop, but three: a Drogerie (a term meaning basically a drugstore only without drugs: cosmetics, brushes, stuff like that), a "Lounge" (ie, a restaurant-cafe), and the aforementioned BioFrischMarkt. I investigated the latter, of course, and found it a nice, if unexciting, health food store. (A note on the term "Bio," incidentally. It does not mean "organic." That's öko. Bio is a step just below. It could be that the EU has more stringent "organic" labelling laws than the U.S., too, and for something to be öko it's got to jump through more hoops. My readers being who they are, I'm sure we'll all find out in the comments section soon...) One decided advantage was that it didn't have That Smell. I don't know what it is, but it's found in most health food stores. (Some speculate it's from brewer's yeast, which might be true). But it also didn't have anything particularly interesting that would induce me to walk all the way over there.

Then, on the triangle of land where Kollwitzstr. and Schönhauser Allee come together, an apartment building started going up. As soon as the outer walls were firm enough to hold it, a big vinyl sign announced that LPG would soon open "Europe's largest Biomarkt." And open they did, albeit a month later than announced, and, being bored, I decided to head up there this afternoon and see if they'd started fighting yet. (Two Italian restaurants in my neighborhood once had a showdown with knives right in the middle of the street, after all, so I was wondering if mellow organic German hippies might become similarly riled).

Well, LPG's new store may be the largest in "Europe" until tomorrow, when Whole Foods London opens up (unless England's no longer part of Europe: it's been a while since I've been there). But, more to the point, it's not much more exciting than viv is. Oh, it's got an escalator you can take your shopping cart on. But so does that supermarket in the suburbs I visit with friends when Heribert Kastell gets a wild hair and sells wine in the mall. It's got organic frozen pizza, so they know their neighborhood (I estimate that around dinner-time, at least 30% of my neighbors on any given evening are cooking frozen pizza). It's got a good selection of organic wines and beers -- every organic beer I've seen in Germany, in fact, is in stock. It's got lots and lots of potatoes and not very many green vegetables, and lots and lots of bread. Upstairs, it's got a lot of stuff in jars (including -- gack! -- natto), but, the Japanese stuff (yes, natto!) aside, nothing else exotic, not even Indian stuff, which is the backbone of a lot of organic food stores these days, Indian food being heavily vegetarian and all. And while viv segregates its Drogerie in a separate shop, LPG segregates what looks like a women's-and-children's store with low internal walls, which I found distinctly unfriendly.

Now, maybe it's because I grew up with Whole Foods in Austin (John Mackey ran the organic grocery store a block from my house before he joined with the others to open the first Whole Foods down the hill), and have sort of internalized their philosophy, but the reason I'm not moved to consider either viv or LPG for my shopping is simple: their stock is boring. Whole Foods always introduced new items, and always had someone on hand with samples. There was, eventually, a sampling station where either a WF team member (they don't call them employees) or a representative of the product being sampled could stand and give stuff away. This meant that people were gradually introduced to new flavors, and, over time, added them to their shopping lists. I remember when Dean (the vegetable guy -- now a vice president) introduced me to jicama. If jicamas didn't weigh about ten pounds I'd have had one on call all the time: that stuff's good.

But Germans, by and large, don't like variety in their food, and certainly don't like trying unfamiliar things: someone giving away samples of something unusual would probably stand there all day watching the stuff go bad. If the local cuisine (which is not to say I mean all German cuisine by this, just the local variety) were something precious, I'd say this is a good thing: this is how traditions get preserved. But it always disheartens me to realize that the yuppies who, by and large, make up the Prenzlauer Berg population may be young, may be affluent, but they really don't have any interest in expanding their culinary boundaries past German and their conception of Italian food. LPG isn't going to challenge that, nor is viv. And Whole Foods, during their promotional blitz for their London flagship, announced that, while Europe is definitely on the list to conquer, Germany, in particular is not.

The other thing that'll discourage me from LPG is that it's yet another extremely expensive co-op. Check out the membership costs: €51.13 to join (and where'd they pull that number from?), and €17.90 per month for a normal adult, €12.78 for low-income and unemployed adults. A single person would have to do a lot of shopping there to make that worthwhile -- and, like I said, the stock doesn't invite that.

Not my problem, anyway. There's no way to get to either place with public transit, which means I'd have to walk. I've got two places (with That Smell) within a couple of blocks, although I rarely shop at them, either. But lifestyle wars like this do interest me, so let's see who's the fittest and who'll survive. And if the knives come out.