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 " 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.