Monday, November 10, 2008

Last Crumbs From Berlin

As far as I can see it, there's one more, valedictory, post left to this blog before I close it down and start the one from France in a few weeks. But I've been collecting a few tidbits here and there I've been meaning to post, so here is a roundup.

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It Was Twenty Years Ago Today. It's true: 20 years ago I woke up in Texas, after a long trip back from Berlin, where I'd celebrated my birthday and done a little more hanging out, then boarded a flight from hell, which deposited me in Frankfurt, where it was announced that the plane taking us to New York was 22 hours late coming in from Bucharest. The airline made other arrangements for the New York passengers, but it was too late to catch any connecting flights, so we wound up in a JFK airport hotel. Finally, we got to Dallas, and eventually I got back to Austin, exhausted. I woke up the next morning, thinking that I had to pick up my dog from the Biker Chicks Kennel ("I like your dog," one of the gals down there commented. "He reminds me of my old man." I chose to see that as a compliment) a day late, and staggered out to the front lawn to pick up the paper.

The headlines, of course, were of the events of November 9, when an exhausted DDR bureaucrat had (maybe) inadvertently announced that the border checkpoints in Berlin were open for travel in both directions without a pass, and a huge party had happened all over town, most notably on the Bornholmer Str. bridge and the bridge on Invalidenstr. where some friends of mine, returning from a conference on radio in Berlin, got caught up in the celebration, not having a clue what had just happened. I had just missed one of the stories of my lifetime, which made me so upset I stood in the yard ranting and raving.

To outsiders, it must seem curious that yesterday's observances in Berlin were all about Kristallnacht, seeming to bear out my oft-repeated observation that Berlin chooses to emphasize the most negative narrative of its history possible, but in fact, Kristallnacht is an absolutely non-controversial subject. There are still plenty of people in Berlin -- on both sides of town -- who feel that reunification wasn't something to celebrate. Wading into that still-smouldering controversy would have forced discussions lots of people still don't want to have. The Wall still stands in many people's minds here (what the locals call Mauer im Kopf), and probably will until the generation that's never known it outnumbers the one that does.

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What's the favorite cigarette in your part of town? If discarded cigarette packs are anything to go by (and they probably are, given Berliners' casual attitude towards waste disposal), in mine, Jin Ling wins hands down.

Still, if you go looking for them at the local press/tobacco/lottery shop, you won't find them because they're not sold there. The yellow pack looks a lot like Camel's, but it has a mountain goat where the camel should be. The letters U.S.A. are printed in large type under the brand-name on the flip-top box, with the word "blend" in much smaller letters below. There's also the sentence "These fine cigarettes are made with the highest quality tobacco" underneath the goat, but the rest of the information is in Cyrillic. There's tar and nicotine numbers on the side, but no black-bordered warning.

According to The Organized Crime Corruption and Reporting Project, they are made in Lviv by the Baltic Tobacco Company of Kaliningrad, and are part of a galaxy of counterfeit and untaxed cigarettes imported by smugglers to Europe.

So where do smokers get them? I've had an eye on a guy in my neighborhood for some time. He's Vietnamese and hangs out all day long on a kind of neutral piece of ground with a lot of foot traffic. He goes out of his way to make eye-contact with people walking by, which I found interesting, but I've never had my suspicions proven until a few mintues ago, when a lady pushing a baby-carriage came up to him and said something. He reached into his bomber jacket and produced six cellophane-wrapped packs of cigarettes, broke the seal, and handed her one. I didn't stick around to see (if I could) what they cost, but chances are it was about half what a pack of brand-name cigarettes cost, which is €4.

(This brings up another interesting economic observation I've made around here. Recently I've been seeing ads for a major brand of cigarettes which advertises itself at only €3.70 a pack -- but the ad states that you only get 17 cigarettes. In the U.S., cigarettes are always 20 to the pack, and the price rises. Over here, the price stays the same and the number of cigarettes in a pack declines. A corollary of this is toilet paper. One day in the supermarket I observed someone walking away with one of those huge 24-packs of generic toilet paper. I'd just bought some non-generic myself, and noticed that the cardboard roll in the center of the generic was huge. So this person had just bought 24 rolls for what I'd just bought eight for, but...did they get more paper? And if so, how much?)

The Jin Ling packs are everywhere, but most notably at workingmen's bars, on construction sites, and at places where the unemployed gather to talk their days away, like discount bakeries and parks. If you live in west Berlin, you may never see them, but they remain a potent reminder of how poor the overwhelming majority of people in this city are.

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In the Utter Idiocy In The Press Department, we have two entries today. The first, filed under Berlin Remains Berlin, is from a story in the New York Times the day after the election, the expected roundup from around the world of reactions in foreign countries to Barack Obama's having been elected. As anyone could guess, the comments range from ecstatic to guardedly optimistic, except (you guessed it!) the one from Berlin:

"'We have so many hopes and wishes that he will never be able to fulfill them,' said Susanne Grieshaber, 40, an art adviser in Berlin who was one of 200,000 Germans to attend a speech by Mr. Obama there in July. She cited action to protect the environment, reducing the use of force and helping the less fortunate. In essence, she wants Mr. Obama to make his country more like hers. But she is sober. 'I’m preparing myself for the fact that peace and happiness are not going to suddenly break out,' she said."

Good for you, Susanne! Don't let the team down! Don't allow yourself a moment of good feeling before returning to the realization we've all had that there's a lot of hard work ahead and that the man does not, in fact, walk on water. After all, it's been eight years of horror for Americans, but you wouldn't want to acknowledge that catharsis is in order or that temporary intoxication is a good thing. Peace, no. But happiness? Guess that's still rationed here.

But the weirdest story anyone's sent me in some time was first spotted by a friend who didn't send the URL. It popped up a few days later on the excellent travel site World Hum. Written by a 16-year resident of the city -- one year longer than I've been here -- who's even married to a local, Erik Kirschbaum, this bizarre dithyramb is headlined "WITNESS: Berliners' Love Affair with America Grows Cold."

Not having noticed this phenomenon, particularly, I had to read it. As you can see from the link above, it takes up three web pages, and I dutifully went through his memories of the end of the Cold War, the unexpected spectacle of Berliners coming out in the thousands to say goodbye to the Allied troops, the moving response to the 9/11 attacks...and still didn't see anything until I hit the last page, which is all of seven short paragraphs long, in which he finally tells us why they hate us:

"So what went wrong?

"It was, of course, the dispute over the invasion of Iraq.

"Before that, U.S. presidents had always been welcomed in Berlin. However, in May 2002 George W. Bush needed 10,000 German police to shield him from 10,000 anti-war protesters."

Um, Erik, I don't know how to tell you this, but those security precautions were ordered by Bush. His handlers forced the Adlon Hotel, where he stayed, to find other accommodations for all their guests on the dates when Bush was there, and the Berlin Police had to examine every manhole, power outlet in street lamps, and any other opening and affix a seal with the inspecting officer's name and a rubber stamp on it. Instead of heading up to Gugelhof in a car, like the Clintons did when they had dinner with Gerhard Schröder, Bush walked in the center of a phalanx of armed security all the way across Pariser Platz to a nothing cafe for dinner. (Hell, he could have eaten in the Adlon. It's not that bad.)

UPDATE: I just heard from Kirschenbaum, who kindly informed me that this visit was before the invasion of Iraq. Thus, I have edited out the first sentence in the following paragraph. Sorry.

As he notes, there had been a huge anti-war demonstration in the Tiergarten on the day the invasion occurred. I was there with an American friend and his two sons. After a while, we left, and were walking through the Brandenburg Gate talking when a German girl, a college student, did a double-take. "What's wrong," my friend asked. "Oh, nothing. It's just...odd to hear people speaking English." "Well, you know, plenty of Americans are against this thing, too," he said. "Yes, I guess so. I was just not expecting this." She walked off, embarrassed. Hey, Erik, she was 20 years old and maybe not the most sophisticated person in Berlin. But I sure wouldn't paint her as typical.

Kirschbaum also notes that a quarter-million people turned up to hear Obama this year, but doesn't seem to think it means anything. Dude, there just aren't that many Americans here!

I'm not saying there aren't people here who don't like Americans. I've run into them from the day I arrived here, from the weirdo I worked with who said he hated Americans "because you did nothing to stop the Vietnam War," which was sure news to me, to perfectly average working men and women who resent the young Americans on the "two-year spring break" who come here because it's the cheapest city in Europe but don't make the slightest effort to integrate with the natives by learning even a smattering of German or understanding a bit of the city's history.

I don't understand why Erik Kirschbaum thought he had a story here, or why Reuters and the Times thought something with this little content was worth running. Perhaps it's because so few wire services and newspaper groups actually have people on the ground here that they'll accept any old crap from the reporters who are left.

Come to think of it, that explains all those hip! edgy! Berlin! pieces in the Times...

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And finally, a sighting of my favorite street artist, Nike, with a piece which may be her masterpiece. I love the colors in this, and wonder if the smeared-lipstick effect is intentional or just Nike's, um, casual technique at work again. Naturally, someone has tried to deface this, due to the age-old Berlin belief that few can make something nice, but anyone can ruin it once it's been made. I'm going to move, Saturday, to a city with a couple of interesting street artists, and I'll be blogging about them, but I figure it's appropriate to close my last collection of crumbs with one of Nike's best works.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Going Like 60

Sometime over the past few hours, I turned 60. Actually, although I know my time of birth, I'm not sure exactly when the moment came: the U.S. was doing Daylight Savings Time, so where did that moment go?

The number is shocking enough; even more shocking was the realization the other day that I've spent 25% of my life (my life so far, I hasten to add) in this city. And now I'm leaving.

Actually, I was anticipating the kind of denial I'm feeling at the age thing, the realization that the likelihood of finding a partner is receding, and that the likelihood of fathering children has disappeared still haven't settled in. Perhaps that means that the former, anyway, is still possible, although I now know for a fact that Berlin wasn't a good place to look, which is one of the regrets of getting older, because it can't be undone.

What I didn't anticipate was the moving denial. With ten days until I'm planning to leave this apartment, I have yet to engage a moving company, and although much of my stuff is still packed from when I moved into this place -- I never once considered anything other than a temporary stop -- there's still lots to pack. So I sit here blogging, of course.

For those of you who may be anticipating moving, incidentally, I found a great resource: MyHammer is an auction site for a number of labor services, including movers, where you put up a description of the job that needs to be done and professionals bid on it. You've got ten days to accumulate bids, and then you pick a winner. Thanks, Josh.

So the plan at the moment is to get the movers in on the 12th, rent a car and fill it with the stuff I don't trust the movers with, like my computer, spend the night somewhere in Berlin, and drive to Montpellier the next morning, with a stopover for the night, perhaps in Beaune. I'm actively seeking someone to come along for this, not so much to share the driving, but to make sure I don't fall asleep at the wheel. I did that once, in Czechoslovakia in 1990, utterly destroying the car I was driving, but not myself or the two other people in the car, who had fallen asleep. Alpha waves are contagious, and I still remember the horror of that moment, and the vast relief that we were all alive and unharmed. (Bizarre coda to that: Sixt in Austria said they were sending up a guy with another car for us, which would arrive in Brno the next morning. Two days later, we still hadn't heard from him, so we called again. Turned out he'd arrived on time, and was waiting for us at the International Hotel, while we'd been looking for him at the Hotel International.)

At any rate, it'd be an adventure, and the co-adventurer could return the car, or I could turn it in at the Montpellier train station and they could get back on the train. Or, if they have patience, fly, which involves going to Stanstead and changing airlines.

I've got to write my landlord and tell him I'm leaving, I've got to send out change of address notices, I've got to go through boxes I moved with and throw stuff out, I've got to clean the place up a little, I've still got friends here I'd like to say good-bye to, and -- oh, yes -- I've got work that has to be done every day on this ghostwriting project I've taken on.

So...I'd better get moving.

But since I love to leave opportunities for procrastination open, there's one more blog-post of crumbs shaping up. I'll probably be banging that out when the movers get here.

Oh, and if anyone does want to take over the lease on this place, let me know immediately!