Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Crumbs Of Late Summer

It's always a bit astonishing for someone who moves to Berlin from more salubrious climates to notice that it's getting distinctly chilly by the third week of August -- the week in which I usually took my vacation when I worked at the newspaper in Texas because I knew that the psychological moment when I just couldn't take any more occurred in that week. But it's been a good summer, warm enough that I'm kicking myself for not planting jalapenos, a few other things, it's coming to an end. Herewith some miscellaneous observations.

* * *

The invasion of Eastern European street musicians ending is one thing I always look forward to when summer ends, something which occurred to me the other day, when, trapped under the U-Bahn tracks at Schönhauser Allee waiting for the light to change, I endured a group of two saxophones, two accordions, and a three-year-old dancing boy while a guy in a shiny green suit rattled a coffee-cup with some change in it under my nose demanding payment. These people have annoyed me so much over the years that I found myself incapable of sharing the general world-music endorsement of the various Orkesters and wedding bands churning out records a couple of years ago. I still can't listen to that stuff.

But...there is one mysterious virtuoso among us. His name is Stefan Daskalos, and he plays the gadulka, a metal-stringed bowed instrument from his native Bulgaria. I first caught him in that same under-the-tracks site, fat, bearded, and playing like a dervish. Part of the instrument's charm is its haunting sound: you'd never think something that small would make that much noise, but the secret is in the sympathetic strings, which ring in such a way that the instrument sounds like it's being played in an echo chamber.

I caught up with him this weekend as he sat next to the Kettwurstbudde on a nice day, sawing away. This time, I thought, I'd give him a euro or two -- I never give money to street musicians -- in return for standing and watching his technique for a few minutes. As I stood there, another guy, shabbily dressed, red-faced and missing most of his teeth, came and stood next to me. Then, unfortunately, he started talking to me in an almost-impenetrable accent. What I could make out was that he was from "Ost-Preussen," and that someone he'd known there played a "Geige" like this. I made it out because he said it several times. Then Daskalos stopped playing and Mr. Ost-Preussen started giving his spiel to him. Daskalos' gadulka wasn't very pretty -- there was no ornamentation at all and the wood wasn't at all polished -- but it was clear that it was a good instrument. To shut up Ost-Preussen, Daskalos started another tune, and I looked closer. He wasn't fretting the strings, he was stopping them with the two middle fingernails of his left hand, which had been reinforced with some sort of varnish that had turned a greenish-black.

After the tune, I made a hasty decision and handed Daskalos €10 for the double CD of tunes he was selling, figuring that would buy me an interview, too. He told me that the instrument was made -- by himself -- out of a single piece of wood (although I can't really believe this, given how thin the upper face has to be to resonate). It was clearly a homemade instrument, though, right down to the nut holding the strings. He and the gadulka were both from Bulgaria, and it was at that point that I started hearing "Ost-Preussen!" being shouted and things got a bit confused. There was something about a son and a financial catastrophe, and as our neighbor got louder, he picked up the bow and started another hora. I thanked him and went to the bank, and as I was walking there it occurred to me that I should take a picture for the blog.

Nope: he'd made twenty euros at one location (Ost-Preussen had also bought one), so it was time to move on. I saw him the other day under the U-Bahn -- it does have good acoustic properties -- but I didn't have time to stop. Sill, recommending a street musician is a new one on me, so if you see him, take a minute or two to listen to him and watch his astonishing technique. And if you're tempted to buy a gadulka, this guy has them for between $350 and $600, plus case and shipping.

* * *

In other live world-music notes, someone in my building has started playing the sitar. Since whoever it is doesn't seem to understand how to play an alap, fumbles the jod, and spends the gat showing off flashy, if fumble-fingered, technique, I gotta assume he/she is German. Still, I (unlike some of my neighbors) enjoy someone else's musical tradition being butchered instead of my own. The sound is still charming, even if the execution isn't. And we also have an oboist somewhere here who practices with the windows shut. He/she's very good.

* * *

Congratulations to Ben and Yuhang on their wedding! It, and the events around it, made me think a little about what it means to live in a foreign culture. Ben wanted a bachelor party, but quickly discovered there was no strip bar available for him to celebrate in. We started at The Bird, and I parted company with the merry crew as they headed to Oranienburger Str. for the "American" strip bar -- which I heard was a major disappointment. But at least he didn't dress up in a stupid costume and wander around a public place with his friends in matching t-shirts acting dumb, which is apparently a German tradition. I noticed it recently on a return trip from France, when I had two hours to contemplate the Cologne railway station and a woman, dressed as a scarecrow or tramp, was going around giving away little items which were tied to her costume as her friends handed out leaflets of some sort. There's probably a name for this ritual self-humiliation, and there's probably a deep cultural message in it, but I haven't bothered to think much about it.

Ben and Yuhang did, however, participate in another weird German tradition, the Polterabend. "Poltern," my dictionary says, means "to crash about," which perfectly describes the Poltergeist phenomenon, questionable though it may be. On Polterabend, your friends show up with crockery, which they then smash. According to Wikipedia, this is supposed to bring luck. But it got me thinking: would I want to do this if I were to marry a non-German here? (For the utterly clueless out there: Yuhang is not a traditional German name. Or an untraditional one, either. And Ben is American.)

The answer I came up with is no. Not just because years of poverty has made me wary of waste, which this custom certainly indulges in, but because it's like putting on a costume. Unlike Germans, who desperately don't want to be German, I've never felt that I've needed to assimilate in other than the absolutely necessary ways, like learning the language to the best of my ability, saying "hello" when I enter a shop (a kind of pan-European custom, actually), registering with the police when I move into a new place, and generally respecting others' rights to their traditions. It's not out of fear of losing my identity, but more taking pride in the bits of my identity that don't harm anyone's right to be who they are. On the one hand, I've certainly participated in Thanksgiving and Fourth of July meals -- which I've shared with Germans -- and I've also participated in German traditions like St. Martin's Day and the German version of Christmas. I even did the melted-lead fortune-telling thing one New Year's.

But I've also inadvertantly participated in a German tradition which may have colored my answer. On my 50th birthday, I invited a lot of people for a meal or a drink at my favorite restaurant, Honigmond. I made it clear that I was not following the German tradition of paying for it all: to "invite" someone in German means you're going to pay for it. I was simply asking people to show up, and they would have to pay for their own stuff. I made it explicit in the e-mail I sent around, in fact. It was a good party, I got some wonderful presents, and at the end, I gathered them up and went to pay for my meal and the beers I'd had and was confronted with an extra DM350 on the bill. One of the people I'd invited (and yes, Christian Maith, I know it was you, you coward) had invited a number of his friends, people I didn't even know, and they'd eaten and drunk on my tab and then left.

Ben and Yuhang's party was, but for the odd flying shard of pottery coming a little too close for comfort, a far happier affair, and I wish them much happiness. And I may yet think more about this, because last night I started another of William Dalrymple's magnificent books on India, White Mughals, which has started with a detailed overview of how the earliest colonizers and merchants in India were seduced by Islam (and, in rare cases, Hinduism, although Hindus don't convert, as Muslims do, believing one has to be born into the religion) and "went native."

* * *

Finally, earlier this summer, I had a visitor with whom I was walking up Brunnenstr., when we came upon, of all things, a new painting by Nike! It was even dated '08, so I know she's still working. Unfortunately, the picture this woman took never made it into my in-box for some reason, and I didn't get it until the other day. So here she is, Nike's new nude. Who, I should add, was missing a week ago when I went past the place I'd seen her. Nike: as collectable as Banksy? Hmm.

* * *

Oh, one more thing. This blog may come to an end in a few weeks, to be replaced by another with another name. I don't want to jinx anything, but I had a very encouraging talk with a landlady on Monday. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Missing Link

When I stuck a teaser in my post of a couple of days ago for yesterday's anniversary post, I promised an amusing link to go with it. And no, the picture of Öoby Döbi with hair was not it.

What it was was this article, which the Pope dug up from who knows where. It's an inadvertantly revealing look at a lot of the places I knew early in my Berlin experience, although the article was published a year before I'd ever set foot here. One reason I was so familiar with these places is that both the guy I rented from and his girlfriend and the Times Berlin bureau were on Grolmanstr., so it was natural to go to dinner at Florian (which was still good the last time I was there), or to grab a drink at one of the bars, although the most picturesque, Zwiebelfisch, I wasn't introduced to for some years, because you really should go in there for the first time with a regular -- it's that kind of place. Another place I didn't get to until much later was the last-named, Galerie Bremer, where I went with some of my colleagues at Jazz Radio, back when we were all getting along. I doubt it still exists in the same form, but what an unusual -- and perfectly West Berlinisch -- place!

Anyway, there's hip! edgy! Berlin from twenty years ago. Oh, how times have changed. Not for the better or worse. Just changed.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fifteen Years

On the morning of August 12, 1993, an American Airlines jet landed at Tegel Airport in Berlin and I got out.

I was excited, or as excited as someone that tired could be. Something like three years of planning, saving, working, scheming, and, in the end, meticulously pulling details together had culminated in this moment. On the other side of the glass wall by the baggage claim was a guy with a key to an apartment, an apartment I'd be living in for the next six months as this experiment in expatriation progressed. After that, I'd see if I wanted to stay. But right now, I was here.

Which made me one up on the guy with the key. As the crowd outside thinned, I stood there with my densely-packed luggage, looking for him. Maybe there'd been a parking problem. Maybe he'd just gotten up late and was still on his way. I sure hoped so; I hadn't bought a lot of Deutsche Marks before I'd left Texas, since it was easier to get them from an ATM here as soon as I could access my Sparkasse account. I made a furtive check of the cash-on-hand. Would this be enough to take a cab? And, if so, where would I go? Since I'd bought the Marks at my bank, there were no coins, so I couldn't even make a phone call. Okay, I said, I'll take a cab to his record store and see what's up.

The cabbie was Iranian. His German was even worse than mine, but he insisted on talking all the way to Schöneberg. I remember his repeated assertion that "Shah war besser!" as we parked in front of the store. I hoped this wouldn't take long; the meter was still ticking. But it didn't: Tim the assistant was there, and whipped out the key.

He also filled me in on what had happened. The reason I was able to rent this flat in Moabit was that this guy had moved in with his girlfriend long ago, but, long programmed by the West Berlin scarcity mentality, never gave up the little student flat he'd rented when he and his former girlfriend -- now also my former girlfriend -- moved to Berlin some years earlier. And the reason I knew I wouldn't have to move out was that he and his current girlfriend were going to have a baby. Which, most unexpectedly early, had just happened, and not only that but there had been an all-night emergency when something had gone wrong and the mother was teetering between life and death. They seemed to be out of danger by now, Tim said, but the doctors weren't sure.

Well, that put the kibosh on the rising irritation I'd been feeling.

The Iranian whipped me through the Tiergarten and around the Grosser Stern, and pretty soon the familiar lawn of Schloss Bellevue went by and we turned into Melanchthonstr. I gave him nearly all the money I had, unpacked, and loaded my stuff into the tiny elevator. I wasn't going to walk two floors at this point. And, when I got into the apartment, the first thing I did was crash for a few hours.

Fortunately, I had stayed here quite a bit. I had first moved into the place on my first visit to Berlin, which is when I'd gotten the first intimations that the woman I'd fallen in love with was, perhaps, going to be a bit of a problem. Besides being with her, my reason for coming here in late 1988 was because of a music conference, Berlin Independence Days, which had been founded by journalist and radio personality Wolfgang Doebeling as a way of scamming some of the vast quantities of money the West German government was handing out on the supposed 750th anniversary of Berlin's founding. Among the uses that money had found was flying me in as a representative of South By Southwest. I was ecstatic: a free trip to Europe to stay with this amazing woman! Unfortunately, however, that same old West Berlin housing problem had caused a snarl. She'd long been broken up with her last boyfriend, but he was still in residence, since apartments were so hard to find. And, in order not to make trouble, she'd decided that all three of us were sleeping alone. Given that her apartment was huge -- well over 100 square meters, I think -- there was plenty of room, but I wasn't exactly pleased. After two nights, she came up with the solution: this flat not too far away that her business partner and ex-boyfriend had. So I was still sleeping alone, but in another apartment.

On subsequent visits, it became my pied a terre in Berlin. I'd come in, he'd meet me at the airport and drive me there, and I'd have my own place, for free. As for the girlfriend, we broke up not long after that first visit, as she got weirder and weirder, first getting into a smorgasbord of esoterica of which astrology seemed to be the nexus, and then announcing that she'd become a fully-committed lesbian: "This is me! This is who I am, and you must accept it!" she declaimed during one of our last marathon arguments at the Cafe Berio around the corner from the store where she still worked despite her feeling that it was more and more immoral to espouse such a worldly thing as popular music. "This is not a fashion you can put on and take off like this year's dress!" It's worth noting that this pagan wild-woman lesbian is now a happily-married mother of three (two her own, one who came with the husband) who goes to Mass twice a week.

But another of the side-effects of that first trip was that a second guy from SXSW went to BID (the boss -- rightly -- thought I'd be blinded by my own obvious agenda) and was dazzled by it, and when we returned with our report to the boss, he decided we had to form a partnership with them. BID represented SXSW in Europe, and SXSW represented BID in the U.S. It was a fairly lopsided proposal, since many more Europeans wanted to try their luck in the States than American bands wanted to try to crack the German independent label market (which was what the "Independence" in the title was about).

And so it was that every October we'd load up our propaganda, fly to Berlin, and enjoy BID. I'd come over early to help out on the program book attendees got, which always included a bunch of essays in English about the various issues being discussed on the panels. BID '89, in fact, had a lot of representatives of the East German pop press milling around. "Next year," one of them said to me in very good English, "you'll be doing this on our side of town." Preposterous! I managed to stay around afterwards -- I had a free apartment, after all -- and help with the post-conference cleanup, not to mention the post-conference partying at the Pinguin Club on Wartburgstr. in Schöneberg, which was home to a nicely odd collection of expats and Germans. I had my birthday party there in 1989, in fact, and stayed around a while longer, then headed back to Texas.

The day I landed, the Berlin Wall opened up. I'd missed one of the greatest stories of my life by 24 hours.

With a free apartment in Berlin, I came as often as possible. And with the Wall coming down, there were many, many great things to see and do. I befriended a young female taxi driver, a grad student, and in April, 1990, we drove to Czechoslovakia to see the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. She was an exception, though, to the prevailing attitude of the folks I knew in West Berlin. They wanted nothing to do with the East, and made no bones about it. There was nothing there! And, for a while, I bought into this. I'd been across on my first visit, and East Berlin was extremely depressing, especially the neighborhood where the guy who took me over and I went to meet a friend of his, a neighborhood called Prenzlauer Berg, where there were still loads of bombed buildings just laying there, weeds and small trees growing out of the wreckage, and people lined up in front of grocery stores because you had to use a basket and there were a limited number of them.

But eventually, some of the folks I knew around the Pinguin, including one of the owners, started spending more time over there. As the guy at BID had predicted, the next year there were BID showcases at a place called Tacheles (there was no electricity, so a generator had to be rented and installed, to Wolfgang's great chagrin), the Haus der Junge Talent, and a venue called Die Insel, which was so far away nobody really knew where it was.

I was curious to see all of this on an ongoing basis, because I thought there were stories to write that folks in the States would be interested in, although I'd already had a very chastening experience when I'd hurred back to Berlin in late January 1990 and researched a story on the changes West Berlin would be seeing as the city began to unify. I got a great story, great quotes, and even interviewed an East Berliner who'd been a dissident and had forced the government to expel him to West Berlin on the eve of the opening of the Wall. I'd written it up as soon as I got back, and was shot down by every magazine I submitted it to, none of whom lost the opportunity to explain, as to an idiot, that I'd missed the real story, which was how happy the East Germans were to be free of communism and how they were looking forward to freedom and a bright new day. Of course, this wasn't strictly true, but then, I'd been to Berlin and these editors hadn't.

Still, this European experience was beginning to open me up to some new possibilities, and they finally knit together into an insight one day when, on assignment from several magazines, I was in Antwerp, Belgium. I was wandering around the old harbor area, which hasn't been a working harbor in many years, but still has loads of picturesque buildings, all of which, I suddenly noticed, seemed to be for rent. Seriously: there were signs in just about every window above street-level, and it hit me -- what would it be like to live here? Why should I be doing these travel stories -- because that had become an increasing amount of the work I was getting -- by flying from Texas to Europe when I could be based right in Europe, getting the kind of knowledge only someone on the ground could get, and get to places a lot quicker and cheaper than someone who'd have to fly in?

This became even more urgent a question when, on my return, I was stripped of my last Austin-based gig for no particular reason. I spent the day this happened furious, and the fury wore me out. I slept like someone drugged that night and woke up in one of those states you have after a particularly memorable dream -- except that I didn't remember it. I did, however, have a solid revelation: you don't have to live in Austin any more. You can move to Europe.

And on that day, I started my planning. My idea was to save enough to survive for six months, get a job doing whatever I could, and see what it was like. As for the job, that would probably be no big deal: my brother-in-law's cousin edited the major English-language magazine in Brussels, an ideal location for me because my French was pretty good. I dashed off a letter to her and, by return post, she dashed my hopes: the publication had just been bought by a media conglomerate which was only keeping her on because her mother had founded it and she'd been editor for ages. "I couldn't live with myself if I got you a job with these people," she said.

Fair enough. What was Plan B? Um, Plan B was Berlin.

Not that I really wanted to move to Berlin, but it wasn't out of the question. I had friends here because of BID, expats and natives alike. I had an apartment, although not the one I wanted. (I'd responded to an ad in tip and talked to a nice couple with an immense place in Friedenau they were going to sublet while they took a year to educate themselves about French wine by spending the time going from one area of France to another. We loved each other, and I was happy to have found such a wonderful place. Then the landlord refused to let them sublet to a foreigner. Which, yes, is legal. I'd just learned my first lesson about Germany, although I refused to believe it at the time). I didn't really speak or read German, and, well, I wasn't sure I really liked the place. But there was no doubt that the whole post-1989 opening of eastern Europe was exciting -- my Czech trip had sure proven that -- and one heard there were very cool things happening in East Berlin. Job? There would be a BID, the fifth one, in 1993. Although I couldn't speak German, there were certainly things to do.

And I started doing them the morning after I arrived. That year, BID had joined together with some world music types who were going to put on a satellite event called WOMEX. (Wolfgang despised -- despises -- world music, but it was the only way he could get this thing funded again). There was an office on Köpenicker Str. near Schlesisches Tor ("Say that correctly," a German friend had said, "and you don't need to worry about your accent any more."), and an office full of people, some of whom I knew and some of whom I didn't. It was August, and we had an event to put on in October. We got to work.

That was 15 years ago tomorrow. A great education was about to begin, and the future would soon take some completely unpredictable twists. Somewhere in West Berlin there's a 15-year-old boy I've not seen since he was an infant. I don't see his parents any more, nor practically anyone I knew back then. And soon, I hope, I won't see much of Berlin anymore. I wouldn't trade the past 15 years for anything, but it's long since been time to move on.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Great Timing

If you've been around Berlin, you know what Bionade is: a soft-drink made with natural fruit flavors in ingenious combinations.

And if you know Germany, you've been anticipating the onslaught of attempts to copy that success. Well, one of them rolled out today in my local supermarket. Nice-looking bottles, odd flavor combinations (the one I noticed was green mango-kiwi, which made me wonder if it was made with amchur powder), and a big old free-standing display everyone had to maneuver their gigantic baby limos around.

Shame about the name: Spirit of Georgia.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Meanwhile, Back In Berlin...

Owing to the PayPal debacle last time I was there, and the loss of $1500 worth of work due to one screw-up or another, it'll be some weeks before I can get back to Montpellier to continue looking for an apartment. Well, that and the fact that I've only had one offer since I've been back, and it was more than I could spend.

So that means staying in Berlin a bit longer. Not that, in glorious summer weather like we haven't seen in many a year, that's a completely horrible thing. Although, of course, Berlin remains Berlin.

For instance: Since there still isn't a decent public transportation link to where I live from the Hauptbahnhof -- Berlin's main train station is still working out its transportation kinks -- I take a cab there and back when I'm travelling. And, after a 16-hour train-ride, it's an excusable indulgence. After my first trip in June, I found myself welcomed back in typical Berlin style: I got in the cab, the guy tripped the meter, and then asked me where I was going. I told him, and he started arguing. He'd never heard of the street or the neighborhood: was I sure I was headed there? Yes, I said, I live there. Well, he'd never heard of it: could I point it out on his map? Of course I could. And I did. The meter now read €3.80 and we hadn't budged. He eventually got me there, all right, but wound up blaming it on my horrible accent. Which, not to be vain about it, was better than his, since German was clearly not his first language, either.

In contrast, the driver two weeks ago knew just where I was going, got me there via an ingenious short-cut, and, as the surroundings penetrated his brain, began to talk to me in English. After all, what other kind of foreigner lives in this 'hood? I kind of saw his point a couple of mornings later, when someone was noisily CLANK recycling bottles CLANK one at CLANK a time out in the courtyard. The prompted an angry response from someone -- perhaps the unemployed gentleman a half-floor above me in the Halbetreppe apartment who seems to spend his time inducing hangovers -- and there was a pause in the recycling noise. Finally, the recycler said "Um, can you speak English?" and, after a half second, there came the reply: "Yes. Kann you plizz do zat LAUTER?"

Of course, there's another stereotype for residents of this neighborhood, and it came to mind when we got plastered with small handbills with some photographs on them. What had happened was that, last September, a woman had met a man reading a history of the Holy Roman Empire while riding on the U-Bahn. They had chatted, and she had had a failure of nerve, because she was so attracted to him. Now, almost a year later, she'd decided to find him and had printed up these flyers and pasted them onto building fronts. There was a picture of the book he was reading, what looked like a police sketch of him, straight on and in profile (that's what attracted me to the flyer: I thought it was a police sketch and we were in the middle of a crime wave), a picture of her, and a picture of someone I guess is a movie star as "Doppelgänger." And, of course, her phone number. I almost sent her an SMS asking her if she'd considered the possiblity that the guy was batting for the other team, but figured the idiom would be beyond her.

Yes, ladies, and although I'm never spotted pushing a €10,000 baby buggy down the streets, I'm not one of them. But they're there, in my building, along with the Americans (and I suspect the two groups overlap, too). And to tell the truth, the guys who have been playing the same three ABBA songs day and night at ear-challenging volume ever since I came back would be bad enough even if they didn't get about 3/4 of the way through each one and then start it over again, which is at least as annoying as breaking bottles one by one. Maybe they'll stop when Mama Mia leaves the local movie theater. Naaah...

So it's back to the usual: reading breathless accounts of hip! edgy! Berlin in the media, most disappointingly Gary Shteyngart's breathless account of the city as observed from his cushy post at the American Academy earlier this year. Jeez, for someone who nailed trendy expats so neatly in his great first novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, ol' Gary sure drank the kool-aid on this one. At least it's not as bad as the more recent tour of Berlin music history the Guardian printed, filled with enough typos that you'd think the information was gleaned from a bad telephone connection.

Still, over dinner the other evening, someone posed a nice, barbed question: what if the current state of affairs is as good as it's ever going to get here? Excellent point: there are a lot of reasons to believe that things are going to get worse for most Berliners as the economic decline neatly pegged in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal progresses. The fact that the expats on what this same person has termed "the two-year Spring Break" here haven't been touched by this speaks only to their isolation from the native population and the fact that the problems haven't reached far enough into their daily lives. But it's not inconceivable that they will, especially as real estate values escalate in their neighborhoods and they're forced into daily propinquity with large masses of the hard-core unemployed with whom, as our bottle-breaker found out to his great embarrassment, they're unprepared to deal. As the arts subsidies decrease even further, and as the cheapness of living in Berlin gets to be outweighed by the increasing gloom of a city circling the drain, those who are here for fun are going to be faced with unpleasant choices if they wish to stay. Since my guess is that they'll choose to leave, and they'll have to find another Eurotopia in which to have their cheap holidays in other people's misery.

So it looks like in a week, I'll be passing my 15th year here, barring both an economic and a French real-estate miracle. Expect a post with some wry nostalgia and at least one very amusing link on that day.