The Berlin Avant-Garde Takes Another Hit

Once upon a time, the 18th Century Podewils’sches Palais, built for Count Podewil, whoever he was, was the headquarters of the FDJ, an arts-and-crafts center, and the place where East Berlin bands wanting permits to play passed their proficiency and ideology exams. Starting in 1990, however, the former “House of Young Talent” became just plain Podewil, an arts center specializing in media art, avant-garde music, and dance. The music program in particular, curated by a woman named Elke Moltrecht, who must know everything there is to know about the current “out” scene, brought some amazing shows to town, and it was there that the Transmediale Festival held its first few years. Podewil also had money from the city to provide grants to artists wishing to work in Berlin, and the city’s cultural scene was enriched by this. (Or, in some cases, not. But that’s how it is with the avant-garde).

Now, I don’t follow this city’s cultural politics too closely, but somewhere along the way, a split developed between the more visionary (Podewil) and more academic (Transmediale) factions, and the latter won. Moltrecht and her merry crew were exiled to Ballhaus Naunystr. in Kreuzberg and the other folk moved into the Palais as Tesla at Podewil. Not that they were exclusively dull, although I never really saw anything on their e-mail newsletter that would induce me to walk over there for a show, because one thing they managed was to produce Zeitkratzer’s famous live concert of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, at which Reed famously showed up himself. But far more frequently, Tesla showed the tired old art-proceeds-from-theory symptoms which make so much artistic production in Germany so dull.

Last week, though, Tesla got some bad news: the city, after only two years of funding, had decided to pull the plug. As they put it in their latest newsletter (original orthography preserved): “kulturprojekte berlin gmbh, which commissions t e s l a with the cultural program in the podewils’sches palais, has decided, together with the senator for the arts, to reverse a previously confirmed extension of t e s l a’ s contract until 2008. our yearly budget of 500.000 euros will be completely redirected towards use for a cultural education program, the details of which remain to be more clearly defined. we will lose our space and our financial support at the end of this year.”

I’m not positive, but there might be a subtext lurking here. Besides the city’s wanting to save money — they’ve been slashing away at the cultural budget without really addressing the question of how many opera houses we really need here, and if there isn’t something that can be done with the orchestras, both of which suck up a lot more money than Tesla ever did — there were several incidents in the past when the Podewil group were threatened with eviction so that one or another branch of the federal bureaucracy could move into this nice building. (Nice facade, anyway: behind it stretches a lot of rather grim DDR addition).

As for Ms. Moltrecht, she’s hanging on, and her Interface Festival, which started Friday, is more star-studded than anything Tesla’s done recently, but if you check the posters hanging around town, she’s also gathered together an impressive array of sponsors to help her produce it.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Berlin’s reputation as a center for artistic innovation owes plenty to Podewil and Tesla. No amount of play-it-again-Wolfgang opera productions is going to change this. Without support from the city, this scene can easily pick up and go somewhere it’s wanted, and Berlin will cease to be so hip! and edgy! and become the provincial backwater so many elements here want it to be. The avant-garde thrives on synergy, so having a city chock-full of art galleries but no venue for cutting-edge dance and music is an empty triumph.

One wonders if anyone in the Rathaus cares.

And Of Course There Was Food, Vol 2

Because it seems I already have a post with that name.

At any rate, before the unexpected deliciousness of the food I had in Holland utterly vanishes from my memory, I thought I should mention a few of the discoveries I made during this vacation on the polders.

As I noted in the last post, one of the first things I did after landing in de Meern was to go to a bakery for some bread and a butcher’s shop that also had a modest selection of cheeses (and was right next door). The bread was quite surprising: it was dark, but quite soft, and the crust had been topped with coriander, caraway, and cumin seeds along with some rolled oats and sunflower seeds. The cheeses next door were pretty standard: there’s really only one kind of cheese in most Dutch cheese shops, but it gets varied by additions and aging. Thus, you can buy a medium-aged cumin Gouda or a young stinging-nettle Gouda (a prize for the first human to figure out how to use those nasty plants as food), and plain Goudas in all ages. I bought a very old one, and its salty, sharp taste was like nothing I’ve experienced in Germany. The cumin Gouda, young, was a big hit with the Americans.

I came to Utrecht expecting less than nothing from the food. Dutch home cooking isn’t a whole lot different than German home cooking, after all, and so I was very pleasantly surprised by what we turned up. There were two major conditions to finding a place to eat. First, Brett has unaccountably become a vegetarian (a fake vegetarian, let it be noted, because he also eats fish) since last we hung out. Second, if Carole were along, the place had to be accessible, which not only lets out the several canal-side restaurants approachable only by a steep wooden staircase, but actually anyplace with a step much over an inch high. Knowing Carole has brought another dimension to the way I see the world: for many, many people, one step is one step too many. Except when we stub our toe or trip over it, most of us don’t give it a second thought.

Anyway, it was just Brett and me for the first place we hit (although it’s accessible), a modest joint called Opoe’s Eethuys at ‘t Wed 3, right by the Dom. There’s no getting around it; dinner in Utrecht is going to run about €25 a person, but in a place like this it’s worth it. I had mussels and fries (good ones!) with two mayonnaise-based sauces, and Brett had a fish, which came with a garlic mayonnaise. Like the Belgians, the Dutch are big on mayo, but it sure is good. I don’t eat dessert, but Brett does, so he ordered a concoction of vanilla mousse with a mango compote, something that’s way too avant-garde for Berlin, I’m afraid. He was impressed enough with the presentation that he had me photograph it:

For our next meal, Susan and Carole joined us, and we didn’t have a lot of time. We settled on a bar called 3512, Kortejansstraat 4, which didn’t look like much, but had sidewalk tables and heaters which made it a good choice. When I noticed that one of the appetizers was trout mousse with red grapefruit and rye bread, I thought it might actually be interesting, and indeed it was. Nobody had that, but between the grilled salmon with teriyaki sauce (a bit too strong, Brett said), my beef carpaccio (excellent), and Carole’s salad of beef filet with sesame dressing and sugar snap peas, we were extremely happy. Service was also superb, and, as with Opoe’s, the selection of beers (mostly Belgian) was fine.

The next night, Brett and I were on our own again, and we picked the place next door to Opoe’s, Lokaal de Reünie. This was quite inexpensive, since we avoided the steaks. He had a salad topped with huge head-on, shell-on shrimp sauteed in garlic oil that was very tasty indeed and I had a kipsate, a Dutch adaptation of the classic peanut-sauced chicken-on-skewers that was nicely spicy, accompanied by yet more fries-and-mayo and a lovely sour “koolsla,” which was half carrots and half cabbage.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two Utrecht bars of note. The België Bar has about 100 Belgian beers in bottles and about 25 on tap, and is on the Oude Gracht. The crowd can be dodgy, and the place is packed enough at night that we never actually succeeded in drinking there, but I’d like to go back to investigate. And Le Tres Petite Café, also on the canal, was a nice place to watch crowds, incredibly atmospheric inside (and yes, it’s very, very small) due to both a pair of small DWA (Dogs With Attitude) and the fact that it’s been there since 1702. If the descent to the rest rooms was any more precipitous, it’d be a fireman’s pole, though.

Amsterdam is another matter, of course. It’s the Big City, and priced accordingly. I was determined that Brett and Carole, who’ve spent time on Bali (Brett plays in a gamelan orchestra back in Oregon), experience one of my favorite Indonesian restaurants in the city, Kantjil en de Tijger. (The other, Puri Mas, is up another fear-inducing staircase, and has a fairly different menu). Brett had some tofu thing, while Carole and I tucked into their biggest rijstaffel:

With a little help from Brett on the fish and veggie dishes (including a remarkable shrimp saté I didn’t remember from last time), it was pretty well demolished by the time we surrendered.

The next day saw us, of course, on line at the famous Vlaamse Frites place at Voeltboogstraat 31, between the Spui and the Leidsestraat, and I’m happy to report that their samurai sauce, a deceptive pink mayonnaise, is as fiery as ever. Dinner was at a famous traditional Dutch place that’s been there on Spuistraat since the 17th Century, where I had an excellent stoempot, mashed potatoes with lots of stuff mixed in, with beef stew and a sausage on the side. Carole had a hearty pea soup — another traditional Dutch dish. Did I catch the place’s name? I did not. But given that it has one entrance on Spuistraat, one in the alley, and one on the parallel street, you can probably find it fairly easily.

The Dutch have had a notable inferiority complex about their beers for some time, and it’s only in recent years that they’ve given the Belgians any competition. For news on this, I always head to De Bierkoning, at Paleisstraat 125 in the shadow of the palace, where they have a mere 950 beers for sale, including a wall of some of the new Dutch craft beers. As seems to always happen, we ran into a customer who was eager to help, and he mentioned a bar where these beers can be sampled, a newish place called Biercafe ‘t Arendsnest, which has a dozen on tap and 150 in bottles, all Dutch. This was up a series of stone steps, so we didn’t go in, but the card is in my file for my next visit.

Overall, the thing which surprised me about the food on this visit was the willingness to experiment with flavor (that trout-and-grapefruit thing at 3512 was worthy of Eric Gower) and not shy away from the dramatic effects which result. The Dutch, of course, were spice merchants for centuries, so it should come as no surprise that there’s more spice in their cooking. But as Mike, whose grandmother lives in the southern part of Holland, remarks, there’s also more of a tendency to identify with France in the traditional cooking of that part of the country (as there is in Belgium to the south), not just boiling a bunch of stuff up, but working a bit on sauces and seasonings. That the menu in a provincial city like Utrecht is as interesting as it is seems to be proof of this, and, no doubt, the more sensual approach one finds in Catholic Europe instead of the dour, self-denying approach of Protestant Europe (very noticable here in Berlin) plays a part as well. Yes, the Dutch gave the Catholics (ie, the Spanish) the boot long ago, but they cannily kept the good parts — the music and the food, for instance. Who’da thunk it?

The Polder and the City

Doesn’t exactly look like Vacation Paradise, does it? Even disregarding the blue sky, it’s exactly what it looks like: a suburb. A suburb of a suburb, in fact; a recent development on the polders outside of de Meern, which itself is one of the ring suburbs put up after World War II around Utrecht, Holland. Still, it’s where I was based for most of the past week, and there was a real good reason for it. It was free.

My friends Brett (whom I hadn’t seen in several years) and his wife Carole (whom I hadn’t seen, she pointed out, in ten years), who live in Portland, Oregon, had done a house-exchange with the family who lives here, one of whom is a former Portlander. Complicating things was the fact that Carole lives in a motorized wheelchair with a ventilator, owing to muscular dystrophy. Making things much simpler was the fact that this Dutch-American family has a son who also has a chair, meaning that the garage in their house was converted to a bedroom with all accessible amenities. For a Dutch house, it’s huge, so I had a place to sleep. And it’s also not far from a bus stop whose bus will deliver you to Utrecht Centraal, the train and bus station downtown.

I arrived on Thursday evening, and wound up schlepping my luggage all over Utrecht, because another good reason to go last week was the Utrecht Early Music Festival, and Brett, who is a music critic who does a lot of classical reviewing (and is working on a much-anticipated biography of the late American composer Lou Harrison), had an extra ticket for that evening’s concert by the Orchestra of the 18th Century. Unfortunately, the program was an all-Beethoven affair, and neither of us much likes Beethoven, myself in particular. But he had to go to it and he didn’t have time to head back to de Meern before showtime. Beethoven’s not my idea of “early music,” but the orchestra did fine.

After that it was time to find something to eat, and we wandered around until it was too late, settling for some of those inimitable, indigestible Fried Things the Dutch specialize in at a bar featuring a fine selection of Belgian beers. Hey, they had onion rings, and they were good.

Carole’s battery charger had blown earlier in the week, so she and her caretaker Susan were pretty much housebound until the technology could be worked out, but they were still up when we got there (Carole: “I don’t do mornings.”) and we sat up late talking and getting up to date. She’d also managed to bring her iPhone — the only one in Europe, practically — to use the Airport wireless system they’d set up in the house, and I was really eager to play with that.

The next morning, while waiting for everyone to wake up, I walked to the outskirts of de Meern to find a bakery and a butcher they’d told me about so I could buy some bread and cheese for breakfast. Dutch bread isn’t like German bread — it’s far softer — but makes better use of herbs and spices. And Dutch cheese, well, let’s just say that the cumin Gouda and three-year-old aged Gouda I picked up were a hit.

Brett had tickets for a 2pm show in the Dom, the huge cathedral that dominates Utrecht’s skyline. Clarino is a small ensemble of soprano, violin, cornetto, trombone, dulcian and basso continuo, and it wasn’t done any favors by the Dom’s huge, echo-y interior, but the program, of works by composers at the Danish court of Christian IV (Dowland, Schütz, and Weckmann), was excellent, although the way the soprano buzzed her r’s was a bit annoying.

After that, Brett had a concert but no plus one, and I opted for a free concert of music by Salomon, who wrote some gorgeous Jewish liturgical music in the Renaissance. I wish I’d heard it; the church were it was being presented didn’t look much like a church, unfortunately, and I wandered and wandered until it was too late. So I wandered some more. Downtown Utrecht is all old buildings, with two major canals alongside of which are some great cafes. I spent most of the 90 minutes I had to use up trying to figure out how the town was laid out, but those canals can be disorienting, and, of course, I got disoriented. I did find a few interesting spaces, and one of them was the Museum Catharijneconvent, a museum of Catholic and Protestant life in Holland, located in a former cloister, which I resolved to go back to. Next door to it was a building from the 15th Century, the “new slaughterhouse,” whose entertaining mascot, which I dubbed the “Death Steer,” I hope you can see in this photo:

After Brett and I met up at the Dom, I successfully talked him out of his one-ticket Freiburger Barockorchster Mozart show (again, not what I — or he — consider “early music”) in favor of grabbing some dinner. Carole had gotten her charger fixed at long last and she and Susan were due to head in to see a performance of Debussy’s “Chansons de Bilitis” at 10:30 with Brett (not of great interest to me and anyway, how on earth can you consider Debussy “early music?”), so we managed to time it so that we found a great, affordable restaurant, had a fine meal, and Brett dropped me off at the bus station while waiting for the girls. Fortunately for me, my brain kicked in just as he was disappearing into the huge mall that’s part of the Utrecht train station and I got the house key.

Given that it was looking a lot like rain by the time I got to de Meern, I was shocked to see the two women waiting forlornly at the bus stop there. Apparently, only a few of the buses on the routes into town were accessible, and they were still waiting for one. One pulled up while I was talking to them, but it didn’t have a ramp, so they went to another nearby bus stop for the next bus, and I wished them luck. Almost as soon as I got back to the house, the rain pounded down, but as luck would have it, they made the ramp-equipped bus before this happened and it didn’t rain in Utrecht at all.

Saturday’s early bit was spent shopping for food at the nearby supermarket (the Americans couldn’t get it through their heads that everything really, truly, does shut down on Sunday), and mid-afternoon Brett and I met at the Jakobkerk for the concert I’d been waiting for (although I didn’t know it at the time), by the Holland Baroque Society. This is one exciting group. Other than the fact that the composers represented were Muffat, Corelli, and Lully, I’m not entirely sure what was played, but then, that shouldn’t make any difference. I know that the Corelli was a concerto grosso, a soloists-and-orchestra kind of piece in which various soloists and duos get to show off instead of a single soloist being featured, and led off the program. In seconds, it became apparent what was so cool about this band. Yeah, band: like a good jazz or rock band they paid attention to each other a lot. The lack of an actual conductor (there was a harpsichordist up front, who conducted a few moments of transition and started up each movement, but he could hardly be called the “leader” during much of the performance) meant that everyone had to be aware of what was going on. Particularly fascinating were the two lead violinists, a brown-haired woman and a blonde, both of whom were playing off each other like two jazz greats trading eights. Lots and lots of eye contact, and, overall, a sense of swing, which you could watch happening as the brown-haired violinist violated all classical protocol by occastionally tapping her feet, propelling the energy up into her hands and making sure that the kind of metronomic monotony so much Baroque music suffers from was a distant memory. They don’t appear to have recorded, but they do appear to tour Germany every now and again, so I’m going to watch for them.

Saturday evening Brett and Carole had tickets to a staging of a Vivaldi opera by another young ensemble called B’Rock, so we met the ladies over at the “Deranged Rabbit,” a sculpture I’d managed to miss over by the post office. You do have to wonder what people who commisson public art are thinking sometimes; this actually did look like a skinny rabbit with a really bizarre expression on his face. We wandered around a little and settled on an inconspicuous-looking place in a studenty neighborhood, and were surprised by yet another fantastic affordable dinner. (I’m going to do a separate post about food on this trip). Susan and I headed back to the polder after dinner, and apparently what we missed was a blood-and-guts fest with only minimal connection to the text (which was in Italian anyway). That was okay; I’d had my musical treat for the day.

Sunday was the festival’s last day, and the grand finale concert, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, was sold out. Brett had a ticket to the Concerto Copenhagen’s peformance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea at 4, but I was determined to see some of the museums that were open, including the Museum Catharijneconvent. We had cards, left by our hosts in de Meern, which got us into museums for free, so we headed off and not only got that in (some extremely nice woodcarvings that had been spared the wrath of the Reformation, and a very nicely balanced view of the whole Catholic/Protestant debacle in Holland, given that it appears the administration of the place is connected with the Catholic church) but almost had time to take in the whole National Museum of Musical Clocks and Street Organs, which is truly amazing. I headed to a concert by a mostly-Polish Baroque trio, and we had one more excellent meal before returning to de Meern to start packing.

The next day found us in Amsterdam, and here I got to play local expert, although, to be honest, I’m not really an expert. I did, however, know more of the city than Brett and Carole, and managed to bring back memories of their stay in Indonesia with a trip to the legendary Restaurant Kantjil en Tijger, one of my favorite Indonesian places in the city (the other one being up a flight of stairs that scares me, let alone Carole). Tuesday I gave them my best attempt at a city tour, as we fought to indulge Brett’s insistence on finding poffertjes, which turn out to be heavy little dollar pancakes drenched in butter, and to wander through the Jordaan district, which I don’t know at all. We wound up enjoying a beer in the sunshine before it vanished, and then some extremely inexpensive traditional Dutch food at a restaurant whose name I clean forgot to get, on the Spuistraat near Kantjil.

All in all, a nicely relaxing time off from Berlin, thanks to my friends’ generosity in buying the train ticket and picking up tabs here and there. It reinforced my decision that Holland isn’t somewhere I’d want to live, although it’s nice to visit. That’s the problem: it’s too damn nice. There’s a lack of an edge there that I think would make me nuts if I had to live with it 24/7, something I couldn’t quite make Brett understand. The niceness, of course, is a byproduct of living so close together. There are no wide open spaces in Holland, and no real countryside. People are packed in, and in order to make that work, they’ve had to rein in some of their instincts. That’s not a bad thing at all, but there’s a resultant blandness that gets to you after a while, not only out on the polder, but in the cities, too.

That said, it could well be that Brett and Carole will be back in two years when the other family is ready to do a house-exchange again, and by then I hope I can sell someone on a story about the Early Music Festival. It’s the biggest one in Europe, and one of the oldest, and if the less than half-week I saw is anything to go by, it’s an undiscovered gem — as is Utrecht, for that matter. I’d gladly go back. It’s just that I wouldn’t want to live there.

Another Interval, At Last

Tomorrow morning I’ll head off to the station and get on a train to Amersfoort, in Holland, where I’ll transfer to another train and wind up in Utrecht. Not exactly my top pick for a holiday spot, but it has several advantages. First, a couple of friends from the States I haven’t seen in years have done a house-exchange with some people in the suburbs there, and they were nice enough to buy me a ticket to come join them. Second, it’s the time of the annual Early Music Festival in Utrecht, and, although I don’t have a press pass (boy, is it hard to sell stories like this!) there are plenty of free fringe activities with some younger groups, and that should be fun. Third, we’ll go to Amsterdam for a couple of days and I get to show my friends around a place I actually do know something about (I’ve only been to Utrecht twice and didn’t leave the station the second time, because the nightclub Jon Dee Graham was playing in was actually inside the station). And fourth, it’s demonstrably Not Berlin. This will be my first trip out of the city limits since March.

I’m going to try to blog from the festival, and I’ll be taking the camera along, although I won’t post any photos until I get back here on Wednesday. Okay, maybe Thursday. Meanwhile, if anyone knows anything to do in Utrecht between concerts or knows any good restaurants there, let me know!

Still Silly

Or, of course, what you call the dog days. Supposedly ruled by Sirius, the dog star, which is strong in the sky at this time of year. But whatever you call them, they’re days not exactly filled with excitement around here. Nervous tension, yes, but excitement? Nope.

Still, one has to do this and that, and so here are three extremely silly things I noticed in recent peregrenations around hip! edgy! Berlin.

* * *

Like that huge poster on the building they’re renovating on Rosenthaler Platz, which gets sold to one advertiser or another for a while. Current occupant is Coca-Cola, and the part of the ad I see, doubtless having something to do with some download scheme or another (I think they’ve got something going with iTunes, actually), and it screams “Music on the Coke Side of Life!”

You can tell this is an ad aimed at younger folks, of course. The rest of us who lived through the ’70s have had quite enough of music on the coke side of life. Every time I pass that thing I think “What, do you want to chain me to a chair and make me listen to David Crosby albums?”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Rosenthaler Platz, the derelict building across from the Coke billboard, which once housed a Beate Uhse and then part of Sony’s ill-considered street-art cooptation, sprouted some ghostly inhabitants a few weeks back:

But I guess they wanted privacy, because the last time I walked past, the place looked like this:

* * *

One of my weirder international moments came one night in the ’80s in London, as some friends and I were passing through Soho, and they — all British — stopped and pointed. “Wow, look at that!” I saw a very well preserved ’52 Mercury. “Cool car,” I said, and they all gave me a weird look. “It had Texas number plates!” someone said. Well, I’d just come from Texas the night before, so that didn’t even register: most all the cars in Texas have Texas license plates.

Still, it was a valuable lesson in paying attention to where you are, which is why I did a double-take while waiting for the light yesterday at Friedrichstr. and Unter den Linden. A genuine Ford Crown Victoria with New York Police Department markings, a visibar on top, and what looked, in the seconds it took to turn the corner, like two of NYPD’s finest in the front seat.

Turns out it lives here and you can rent it for special occasions. Like, I dunno, arresting your ex or something.

Not that they have a monopoly on this. There’s a more generic, Blues-Brothers-y, black-and-white for rent at Sage Cars, who have a lot on Brunnenstr. I pass often. They’ve also got a yellow Checker cab, which brings back memories of the Checker Metropolitan I once had. But that’s another post.

* * *

Advertising in this country has always made me a little crazy, but then, it’s not aimed at me. That’s been driven home by the creepiest ad campaign I’ve seen in a while, BVG’s “Augenblicke” posters. As you can see from the website, it’s sort of a lonely-hearts thing, where you submit the story and they illustrate it. The artist is so bad that the posters attract attention to themselves, actually, so while whether he/she’s capable of actually rendering a human visage so someone would recognize it is questionable, it might (shudder) accidentally work.

Ah, well, it’s better to look out the window anyway, right?

August: The Silly Season

Most depressing event of recent weeks: For a while the dancer and I were splitting a lottery ticket each week, figuring that, with our respective occupations, the chances of making money doing what we do and the chances of making money on the lottery were just about even. Of course, we never even got close to winning anything and eventually we stopped.

That doesn’t keep me from occasionally feeling like I should throw a couple of Euros away, though, and a few weeks back a really powerful urge came over me. But every time I’d stop at the newsstand where we used to buy our tickets, I’d take a close look at my cash-on-hand and decide against it. The pot was — for Berlin, where the lottery jackpots are nothing next to what people in the States see — quite high. But I decided not to.

Then, I noticed a sign in the window. Someone had won €39,900 and change there. It took every bit of logic I had at my command to convince myself that if I had played, that someone would not have been me.

(Of course, that’s not really the most depressing event of recent weeks, but I’ve decided to keep the really depressing stuff off of here for the time being, since there’s nothing to be done about it, as far as I can tell.)

* * *

Thanks to my eagle-eyed former college roommate JZ off in the wilds of Los Angeles for spotting a couple of news items which will be in the dog-bites-man category for anyone living here.

The first one notes that “German workaholics may be suffering from a lack of sex, according to a university study published Friday.” The story went on to say that “A survey of 32,000 men and women by researchers at the University of Göttingen found over 35 percent of those reporting unsatisfying sex lives tended to use hard work as a diversion.” Which, of course, explains all those Beamten with their desks piled high with rubber-stamps, who, I have long decided, are only allowed to mate among themselves, because it’s the only way they can perpetuate their species. It’s not like anyone wants a job like that.

The second one tells the sad story of a young Berlin woman named Dora, a professional model who is apparently the face of Deutsche Telekom’s Call & Surf Comfort promotion. Dora, it will surprise absolutely no one to learn, has been waiting three months for Telekom to set up a telephone line in her home, and, in despair, she turned to the media, publicly giving them one week (which’ll be the beginning of next week) before going to another provider. The Reuters story says “A Deutsche Telekom spokesman could not be reached for comment,” although you could really leave off the last two words there and it’d be just as accurate. One bit of advice, though, Dora: if my friends’ experiences are anything to go by, you won’t be any happier with Alice, whose own spokesmodel has, I hope, fired her agent.

* * *

The doorbell rings. I buzz the person in. Nope, it’s not FedEx or UPS with a package, it’s yet another person with an incomprehensible accent jamming little bits of paper into the mailboxes as fast as he can. What a way to make a living.

Nobody who’s lived here for the past ten years is going to believe this, but when I first came to Berlin in October, 1988 for a visit, the city’s first pizza-delivery service had just started up. Now, this isn’t to say that there weren’t places that’d pack up a pizza to go, but you had to go get it. (I remember a place that I think was called Four Brothers, run by four guys from Philly down in Zehlendorf who mustered out of the Army and opened a place to serve American food, specializing in pizza and fried chicken. Long gone now, of course.)

I remember this because, in my jet-lagged haze, I came upon the guy who was sharing the apartment I was staying in carefully perusing a thin brochure he’d gotten in the mailbox. “I’m deciding which pizza to get,” he said. “It’s not very good, but they bring it to you!” Dang, I thought, this country must be behind the times. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d house-sat for a friend in New York and practically had to use a shovel to get the Chinese menus out of her mailbox and get to the mail I was saving for her. Early on, there were only a couple of companies doing this, one of which got busted for its inordinately-expensive (DM 50) “Pizza Colombiana” which included a gram of cocaine. (I actually saw the menu for this place, which just had a telephone number, and I don’t think you would have had to be Sherlock Holmes to have cracked this case).

But the reason I bring this up is because the vast majority of the guys who stuff mailboxes these days are advertising appliance repair services, and well before pizza menus, these little cards were ubiquitous, numbering up to four or five a day. And I’ve been wanting to ask for a while: does anyone know anyone out there who’s actually used the services on one of these cards? Wouldn’t you ask a friend or someone you trusted instead of just picking up one of the thousands of cards you’ve gotten in your mailbox over the years (two reside in my box at this very moment) and calling some random stranger?

It’s August, with so little happening that these are the kinds of things you think about…

Life In Berlin By The Numbers

As we all know, statistics lie, but sometimes not. While it’s true that I take a pretty dark view of life in Berlin, I was quite amazed at what I consider the accuracy of this survey, done by the European Commission’s Directorate-General of Regional Policy, measuring people’s happiness with the city they live in.

75 cities in the EU, plus Croatia and Turkey, were surveyed by Gallup-Hungary, and the results tabulated into some very nice graphs. Maybe it’s because the results match my prejudices, but I think this is a fasciating document.

Between 75 and 95 percent of the responses indicated that people were happy to live in the cities they lived in. First four places went to Groningen (NL), Krakow, Leipzig, and Alborg (DK). Berlin came in 57th, just below Rotterdam and Torino and just above Brussels, Warsaw, and Ankara. Even so, the results look like about 80% were happy.

Less positive were the responses to “It is easy to find a good job,” with Berlin scoring over 75% in “somewhat disagree” and “strongly disagree.” It’s 68th from the top in this, below Dortmund and Leipzig and above Kosisce (Slovakia) and Bialystock, Poland. It looks like only about 10% strongly or somewhat agreed with this statement. Given the local unemployment figures, this is hardly a surprise.

Also unsurprising was Berlin’s high rating in “It is easy to find good housing at a reasonable price,” what with the current real-estate glut. We wound up near the top in this one, number seven under Leipzig, Aalborg, Braga (Portugal), Dortmund, Oviedo (Spain) and Bialystock, and above Newcastle Upon Tyne and Oulu (Finland). At the bottom? Again no surprise; Paris, with close to 100% of the respondents somewhat or strongly disagreeing. Other bad values are Dublin, Luxemburg, and Bucharest.

Next up was “Foreigners are well-integrated,” and again Berlin dwells in the cellar, 73rd, above Stockholm and Malmö. A little over 50% disagreed here, and only a little over 25% seem to have agreed. On top? Cluj-Napoca, Romania; Miskolic, Hungary; Pietra Neamt, Romania; and Burgas, Bulgaria. I’ve never even heard of these places, to be honest, but I think it shows that the melange of cultures in these countries, absent the kind of tensions that tore the former Yugoslavia apart, plus the poverty that all inhabitants are likely to share, will bring people together, rather than apart. Certainly that was my experience in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, in the four or five days I spent there. Shortly after my arrival at the American University, where I did some journalism workshops, I was up on the roof of the building with two students waiting for my professor-friend’s class to end, and the dark, swarthy one turned out to be Bulgarian and the red-headed freckled one turned out to be Turkish, and they pointed to the distant mountains and said “That’s Macedonia over there, where people are killing each other over this. It just doesn’t make sense to us.” And, indeed, the rest of my time there bore that out splendidly. Berlin’s poverty in the middle of a nation of affluence, though, plus the well-documented urge to blame the Other, doesn’t bode well for this sort of unity.

“Air pollution is a big problem” is one where Berlin might have scored higher not very long ago, but here we wind up pretty much smack in the middle, with a little over 50% agreeing and about 30% disagreeing, wedged inbetween Ostrava (Czech Republic) and Glasgow. The continuing reduction of coal heating and (yes, Ostalgics, get over it) the disappearance of the Trabant have a lot to do with this, I’d say.

Next up is satisfaction with the public transportation system, and, flash strikes notwithstanding, Berlin’s ninth-place position only makes me wonder how great getting around top-rated Helsinki must be. Do they have stewardesses serving refreshments? Vienna, Rennes, Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Dortmund and…Frankfurt on Oder?… all beat us out, too, but all this says to me is Germany’s pretty good with this stuff. I’ve never had any problem getting around any German city I’ve been in, which is more than I can say for Copenhagen or London, which are well below Berlin.

“Green spaces such as parks and gardens” is another place I’d expect good numbers for Berlin. We allegedly have more green space per square kilometer than any other city in Europe, thanks in part to huge forests like the Grunewald and Berliner Stadtforst being included in the city limits. And oddly, we only score 22 in this, perhaps because the rest of the city’s so grim, but atop us are such hard-to-beat places as London, Vienna, Munich, Brussels, and Glasgow, who relentlessly promote their parks to their residents, which Berlin doesn’t really do. Athens, Naples, and Sofia (without doubt the ugliest city I’ve seen on this continent) are the cellar-dwellers here.

“I feel safe in this city” was one I was curious about, given the fact that there’s so little serious crime here, yet Berliners generally are paranoid beyond belief: do they lock the front door of your apartment building at 8? They used to where I lived, and it was a pain in the ass. Yet there we are at 47, although it looks like close to 80% agree with the statement, and something less than 20% disagree. But if you look at the chart, it seems that Europeans overwhelmingly feel safe, so the ranking isn’t so important until you get to the very bottom, with significant fear being registered in Bucharest, Athens, Sofia, Naples and especially Istanbul.

Given Germans’ hypochondriac tendencies, I wasn’t overly optimistic for the graph of people satisfied with the health care offered by hospitals, but here’s one where (knock on wood) I have absolutely no experience whatever. Berlin is at 28, which makes me feel better for all those folks who scream past in ambulances down Torstr. on their way to Charité.

And, finally, the one you’ve all been waiting for: “The city spends its resources in a responsible way.” A whopping 75% negative on this, a 71 chart placement above such models of fiscal rectitude as Sofia, Naples, Bucharest and Frankfurt on Oder. Only a very tiny number seem to strongly agree with this, and if you’re one of them, I suggest you get out of the house more often.

I certainly don’t have the training to decipher What It All Means in any truly scientific way, but I do love charts like this, and was just astonished at the sort of intuitive accuracy I observed here.

Anyway, I guess I should be off to Alborg to look for some excuse to live there. Naaah, too cold. Maybe Groningen? Naaah, I hate how densely-packed Holland is. Hmmm, wonder why Montpellier isn’t on this list…

Actually, I’m glad it isn’t. Don’t want the secret to get out before I can move there and find a nice apartment. And last I looked, I’m only $12,000 and change away from that…

A Couple of E-Mails and a Photo

If you live in the U.S. and walk by newsstands regularly, you’ll have noticed that Rolling Stone is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. I haven’t seen any of the hoopla — although I hear their Summer of Love issue is pretty good — but I did get an e-mail a while back from a woman who’s organizing a reunion of the San Francisco staff.

Staffs, I should say; in the early days Rolling Stone went through employees pretty often. I should know. I was one of them.

For a little over six months, from sometime in March to sometime in October, 1970, I worked at Rolling Stone. It was a very exciting time to be there, because it was exactly in that period that the magazine took off, that it printed some of the first pieces that put it on the map, and, not so coincidentally, that the record industry, whose ads it needed to survive, decided it was worth supporting.

Under the leadership of the managing editor, John Burks, we learned on our feet, most of us. I sure did; I’d joined the staff, barely 21, by far the youngest, with virtually no idea how to do anything. The first thing Burks asked me to do was to start double-spacing my copy. “The typesetters go blind if you don’t,” he said. That’s right: we used hot type. In fact, for the first weeks I was there, we shared space with the print shop that typeset and printed the paper, at 746 Brannan Street. After that, we moved a few blocks to 625 Third Street, a brand new office building, where we had a whole floor.

That’s where we worked, where we printed the stories of Janis Joplin’s death, of Jimi Hendrix’ death, of the student protests that summer, and of Charlie Manson, stories that won the magazine an award from the Columbia Journalism Review. By the time it arrived, pretty much everyone who’d been involved in those stories had been fired. Me, too. I was cleaning out my desk as two women from the circulation department wheeled in a big birthday cake for the fourth anniversary party. “Are you still here?” one of them asked. “Why don’t you get out of here.” I got out.

That’s why I scratched my head when the woman organizing the reunion announced that there was a web page for it, because naturally I went right there and saw this photograph:

It’s labelled “Rolling Stone staffers circa March 1971 at The Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco.” Which is a hoot. Yes, it’s from March, 1971, but the one thing it couldn’t be is the staff of that particular magazine, because pretty much every person in that photo had been fired by October, 1970, when I left. There’s Jon Goodchild, British design wunderkind, on the far left; someone I vaguely remember but can’t name; Patty Hafferkamp, who’d been the receptionist; Burks in some weird floppy hat; Cindy Ehrlich, from the art department (although she often spelled Patty at reception) in her nurse’s getup; Robert Altman, the photographer who succeeded Baron Wolman as the Rolling Stone photo guy (and with whose permission this photo is used); John Morthland, fired just before me, the guy who brought the Hendrix story in despite being sent down a million blind alleys — and of course, despite not being in London; Michael Goodwin, the magazine’s film writer, but also a bon-vivant and folkie; a guy whose name I forget but who was an expert in direct-mail advertising; Hal Aigner (thanks, Mike!), who never had a thing to do with RS, but was a fine writer; Phil Freund, who’d been the business manager at Wolman’s Rags magazine, and Phil’s wife, whose name I’ve forgotten.

It’s a staff photo, all right (although I’m not sure why I’m not in it). It’s just the staff of Flash.

Flash was all too aptly named. It blew up and never happened. We had big plans, but they came to nothing. Just why is explained much better than I could in a column by another guy who’s not in the picture, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, who was responsible for our cover story, and, indirectly, for nearly getting Groucho Marx busted by the Secret Service for calling for Nixon’s assassination. That made the front page of the New York Times, but, sadly, too late to save Flash. It revived Groucho’s career, though, so maybe Flash didn’t die in vain.

For a while, I was thinking of attending this staff reunion, although most of the folks I’d enjoy seeing again — Burks, Goodwin, Wolman, Carroll, Morthland, Altman — I can see any old time when I’m where they are, because we’re more or less in touch with each other. It’s also around the time that Village Music will be closing, and I’d really like to be around for that. But what really caused me to draw up short was when a follow-up e-mail disclosed that the events of the reunion will cost money — $295, plus a 3.5% processing fee.

And that brought me back to SXSW this spring, and all the writers walking around wondering where the work had gone, and saying “Thank heavens my wife has a job.” (It’ll cost $295 plus the fee for your wife, too). In a way, it made me sad; the planned events involve catering and space rental, and a lot of care has gone into planning them. But we’re also in an era where thousands of journalists are losing their jobs, where magazines are cutting back on space for writing because ads are disappearing. Maybe not many are as broke as I am, but most writers I know, even veterans — maybe especially veterans, perceived as being “too old” or something — are pretty broke these days.

This is going to continue. Things have been a bit better in England, a place where I have very few contacts, but the shadow is creeping up the wall there, too. This week I got an e-mail from a mailing list I seem to have gotten on for writers for two magazines I don’t write for there. The one I might write for doesn’t much like Americans, and I had my go-round with them years ago, so maybe that’s how I got on the list. Anyway, some excerpts from the e-mail may be of interest to those of you contemplating a career in this vanishing industry.

“Dear All

“And first the bad news. For the first time in six years we were unable to negotiate an increase in freelance writers’ pay rates this year.

“We had a couple of amiable and informative meetings with [management] as usual, but by the end of their budgeting process [they] explained they couldn’t offer anything – likewise no annual increase for the staff.

“The background is a steep decline in advertising – “migrated” to the web and TV – alongside corporate demands to maintain or exceed the 30 per cent net profit gold standard. Consequently, three staff editorial jobs have been lost at the same time as writing for the websites has been offloaded on to the magazine staff and editorial budget cut by a large chunk. Also you may have noticed a reduction in paper quality.”

And in case you think any freelancer gets rich writing for them, they posted the rates. (Quoted in pounds: double it for dollars, multiply by 1.5 for Euros).

“Features: minima 295/266; Reviews: short/standard review 43 (150 words); others, minimum 266 per thousand.”

Given that this magazine is owned by a huge conglomerate which, as Jon wryly noted in that column, doesn’t care about “good writing,” but, rather, in the bottom line, there’s even a question of whether, or how long, the magazine can be expected to keep up that 30% profit, and how quickly they’ll kill it once it sinks to below that. One way to keep it profitable is to do what they’ve just done: give the staff more work to do. Which means give less work to freelancers. And more staff burnouts, another feature of life at this particular magazine.

It’s a shame, but it’s the reality of the situation right now; the profession I somewhat accidentally entered 42 years ago this coming September is in steep decline. I happen to think there’ll be a correction at some point, because people will eventually discover that they don’t actually like spending their lives staring into screens, and that the elegance and resolution of a plain old piece of paper is, actually, the highest and best use of the medium of words. But we’ll have to struggle through the days to come first. And there will be fallout. I, for one, am trying to figure out another way of making a living. It’s not easy, after all this time, and to be honest I haven’t come up with a single answer. But then, I also don’t want to be the last rat off the ship.

Anyway, I probably won’t be making that reunion party. Not even to hear Ben Fong-Torres do karaoke. Hell, he used to sing around the office, and I still sometimes wake up in a cold sweat remembering that.

A Blog Is Born

What are the odds that two people, both named Ward, would live within a couple of blocks of each other in Berlin? Josh Ward and I aren’t related, but we do share a deep interest in food and cooking, and a few weeks ago, Josh came up with an idea for a blog aimed at helping English-speakers in Berlin cope with reproducing their favorite things in Germany. The idea is to provide information on ingredients, report on sources, investigate what’s at the markets, and in general make life easier for folks who like to cook. The emphasis will be on cooking, and not on restaurants, although you can bet that if we ever find edible Mexican food for sale somewhere here we’ll make a big noise about it, and frankly, if that really is a Malian imbiss going in down the street from me — as it seems to be — where the old Chinese one was, I’m going to report on that, too.

The blog is very much still under construction, both graphically and conceptually, and Josh has been slightly hampered, too, by the birth of a daughter who’s been variously described as “beautiful” and “looks just like Josh,” which is certainly confusing.

At any rate, ladies and gentlemen, here it is, Hungry In Berlin

Neighborhood Ramblings

Berlin and fashion are mentioned in the same sentence about as often as Milan and Mettwurst, but over the past weekend, Berlin actually played host to something called Fashion Week, which played out in my ‘hood as something called Projekt Galerie, in which a large number of the (be nice!) second- and third-tier galleries in the area pushed the art to the side and hauled in rack after rack of clothing from designers who presumably rented the space from them. Given the quality of the art in most of these galleries, this was probably the first time they’d made any money in a great long while, and given the taste of some of the designers, hell, maybe they bought some of the art on display, who knows?

Entry was by invitation only, and for some reason, the world of fashion doesn’t consider me a player, so I didn’t look in, but one odd thing I noted from what I could see through the windows was that all the clothes seemed to be black, with the occasional bit of white. Whether this is the result of the informal local ban on non-black clothing, some sort of scheme to make it easier to see the lines of the garments, or what I can’t say, but I did find it appropriate that the poster for the event, which was plastered on just about every flat surface around here, features (as you can see on the website) an androgynous head, blindfolded by a tightly-wrapped cloth. Was s/he being protected from the sight of the clothes, or of the art, I wonder.

At any rate, the fashionistas, who’d been rushing around clutching street maps and notebooks and wearing worried expressions, all vanished on Sunday, and I’d like to thank them for taking down all the posters, too; they were a unique form of pollution, and pretty annoying. I’m sure some money was thrown around; I saw some of these folks dining at local places, and the former copy-shop run by hostile Ossis on my block was transformed into a showroom for some designer whose sign is still in the window.

Ah, well, at least we didn’t have the Love Parade this year…

* * *

It looks like street art is really in the forefront of people’s minds these days. A few weeks ago, I was showing a visitor from Texas around, and noted that one of those funny alien dolls had appeared overnight on a wall by my place. “Gotta shoot that,” I said, and made a note to do it. Two days later, here’s all that remained:

Below, the component parts of the doll, which had horns or ears, and a tongue sticking out — clearly the best of all of this person’s work I’ve yet seen — were strewn all over the vacant lot, torn apart violently. Just why anyone would want to do this is beyond me, but then, I tend to respect other people’s work in the hopes that they’ll respect mine. I also remember Berliners’ penchant for the “if I can’t make art, I sure as hell can destroy it” meme, back when Keith Haring did a section of the Wall and within two hours it had had an orange line drawn across it (as every piece documenting it that I’ve seen has shown).

However, it wasn’t as if the lot was devoid of art, because this had appeared:

Given the amount of unexploded ordnance that keeps popping up here (anyone remember some years back when a bulldozer hitting a buried bomb took out the better part of a block in Friedrichshain and nobody but the bulldozer driver — who was vaporized — was hurt because they were all at work?)(Too bad that was before all the hipsters moved there, eh?) that’s a pretty grim piece of art.

But it’s not like the doll-maker’s been silent; s/he’s just learned to position the dolls so they’re harder to mess with, and a couple of days ago, this showed up in a location I won’t disclose (but I’m sure many can figure out):

Not a great picture, but not all that easy to shoot, given the altitude and the intricacy of the face. Anybody know of any of these outside Mitte? I think I’ve tracked down all the ones here at one time or another.

And this post was going to include a photo of another amusing piece of street art which appeared a couple of days ago, showing Rambo as a Renaissance Madonna, but the one nearest me has vanished. The one at KW may still be up, though. It was also going to have a demented tiny doll someone stuck to the face of Hello Kitty on the sign on the shop on Rosenthaler Str., but it, too, was gone. Gotta move fast both to put this stuff up and to document it, I guess, and the cold rain last week just made me too lazy.