So Why Not Another One?

I got an e-mail yesterday from a friend who read my post on that ridiculous New York Times story, and he had an interesting point:

“Figured the Times piece would detonate you. Would you say it was accurate as of, say, early 90s, but the economic collapse has made it outdated? Or was it ever true? Certainly Berlin has had that image since, say, a few years before the U2 Zoo album. Seems time for a counter-hype travel article puncturing the outdated image yet celebrating what, if anything, is there to enjoy.”

And he’s right. Much as I don’t enjoy living here any more, I do have an affection for Berlin, and newcomers and visitors often take my famous walking tour of the central city, which starts at my house and ends up two blocks away at Berti Brecht’s grave, if they last that long. In fact, that’s what I was doing yesterday when this guy’s e-mail came. When I put myself in the mind of someone who’s seeing this city for the first time, I know there are a lot of things I’d recommend they do.

So for this proposed counter-hype story, some notes:

Stop ringing the hip! edgy! Berlin! bell. Sorry, it was like that ten or more years ago, but the coming of the government in 2000 and the attendant real-estate hype all but killed that Berlin. It used to be possible to set up an illegal club in some disused space, sell beer out of iced tin tubs, with a sound system and some minimal lighting, maybe some odd art from one of your friends, and have a little party a couple of times a week, the location spreading among the cognoscenti by word of mouth. But the disused spaces became objects of speculation and as the speculators displaced not only the club spaces, but the working spaces and living spaces for artists, those artists and the hangers-on and scenemakers moved on. I’m absolutely positive there are still illegal clubs, and little scenes here and there, but nothing like there were in the mid-90s and earlier. And, of course, there’s the annoying fact that if you write about them in the media they get busted.

Instead, consider that just your normal everyday bar scene seems weird enough for the American readership, and that some of the most “authentic” experiences can be had in places hipsters either don’t notice or take for granted. Stories are everywhere. Try to find some of them out. For instance, there’s a rather nondescript restaurant/bar towards the top of Friedrichstr. I’ve walked past for years, the Bärenklause, I think it’s called. Just the other day, I found out it was a secret meeting-place for a bunch of anti-Nazi workers who passed on information to the Allies during the war. The place up on the corner by my place, Honigmond, was a gathering-place for dissidents in the DDR. And the Kellerrestaurant am Brecht-Haus a couple of blocks away was, in fact, Brecht’s basement (the house is a museum upstairs), and the food there is hardly innovative, but usually top-notch. Of course, being able to identify a schnitzel is sort of a basic requirement for being able to appreciate these sorts of places.

Nazis and Jews: that’s what people come here to see. So give it to them! Look, it’s a basic statement of fact: people don’t come to Berlin to eat or to shop (especially the latter), so what’s left? History. And the history that’s here is pretty much all recent, which is to say Industrial Revolution and later. I can see taking a pass on the Jewish Museum, but what kind of travel writer are you if you can’t find a new spin on the exhibition inside the New Synagogue or point out one of the many Nazi air-raid bunkers around town? Am I the only person who still notices the bullet-holes from the street-fighting as World War II came to a close here? How about fashioning some clever statement based on the fact that the deportation monument and Christian Boltanski’s The Missing House are across the street from each other, or walking up to Koppenplatz and checking out that sculpture in the park of the table with the tipped-over chair, another comment on the deportations, as, of course, are the Klopfenstein brass memorials. Do you suppose the hip! edgy! writers even see these things? And there’s even a humorous take on this stuff, if you want it: how awful Berlin bagels are, and how truly vile the food at the Beth Cafe, run by the local temple, is. I thought it was just supposed to be more authentic until I met an old man there who’d grown up Jewish in Berlin and escaped to Toronto in 1939. “My mother cooked Berlin Jewish food, and it didn’t look like this, I tell you! What are these people palming off on us?”

Besides the Nazis and the Jews, of course, there’s also the Communists. Although the Wall Documentation Center on Bernauer Str. is pretty incomprehensible to a non-German-reader (and who wants to read all those documents, anyway?), the Wall walk from Nordbahnhof to Mauerpark is lined with those trilingual plexiglass signs about the Bernauer Str. death-strip. There are two Stasi museums, apparently, and the new Museum of the DDR. And, on a lighter note, there’s lots of DDR crap for sale in Ostalgia stores and flea markets.

Mista Issyvoo, he dead. And so is the world inhabited by David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Stop looking for it: it’s not there. Instead of trying to force your own preconceptions on the city, why not look at what’s actually there? Surely there’s enough to say about the real Berlin that would attract a reader here. It’s got more green space than any other city in Europe, per square mile. In the summer, that means tons and tons of lawn, forest, park. Places to sunbathe, walk, feed ducks, let the kids run around, or just read a newspaper under the sun. Go to a Wochenmarkt, where more and more organic stuff is beginning to show up, and where you can also buy some pretty neat non-food items a lot of the time. Take a few of the river cruises and figure out which ones are best. Is this stuff corny? Hay-ull yes! Is it fun? You bet!

And when the sun’s not shining — 89% of the time — the continuing reshuffling of the museums here has presented some great opportunities for culture-vulturing. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been remiss in checking them out in recent years, and with the Bode Museum now re-opened, just a few blocks from my house, I’m totally embarrassed that I don’t have a clue what’s in there these days. But the city’s current poverty notwithstanding, the Prussians were some acquisitive bastards, and the city’s holdings reflect three centuries of a royal family that grabbed what they could and commissioned the rest.


So you see, there’s a lot of stuff these stories miss in their headlong rush to perpetuate a long-dead stereotype, stuff that could be made attractive to the crowd they’re writing for. There’s another problem, though, which lies in the last sentence of my friend’s e-mail, a sentence I purposely left out:

“But who would run it?”

Indeed. I can’t think of a single travel magazine aimed at people who travel the way I and the vast majority of people I know travel: not so much “budget” as not spending unnecessary money; not so much “adventure” as guided by a curiosity about out-of-the-way places; not so much voyeuristic as open to learning something about where we are on the earth, knowledge which can come from every one of our senses, as well as our intellect. Me, I’ve given up hope that such a magazine will ever appear. For one thing, where would you get advertising for it? Not from the big cruise lines. Not from the huge resort chains. Not from luxury jewelers. Nor, more than likely, from Cadillac Escalade and other high-end SUV makers.

So you’re not going to read the story about the real Berlin — or the real Paris or the real Kyoto. Instead, you’re stuck with people who don’t know a sausage from a schnitzel and think salads can be plump. And who, incredibly enough, still get to write for the New York Times.

Not Another One!

Okay, I now have a theory that some higher-up at the New York Times is heavily invested in some Berlin real estate he can’t unload. That’s the only explanation for the deluge of travel-section articles on hip! edgy! new! East! Berlin! the paper has carried this year. This is, what? The fourth, at least.

That link will be good for a week, and I’m including it instead of the usual text-only link so you can enjoy the video that goes with it, which manages to mispronounce just about every single place-name it utters, including Reichstag, and identifies a Wurst as a Schnitzel. That the Grey Lady thinks it’s news that the eastern part of the city is where the action is, and, worse, that it would print such twaddle as “Bullet-scarred buildings are metamorphosing from squatters’ homes, to artists’ studios, and then to retail showrooms. Gray Communist alleys are laboratories for trendy bars, restaurants and galleries. And, like the city itself, Berliners continue to reinvent themselves as cultural vanguards, pushing the boundaries of art, fashion and design” in 2006 is mind-boggling.

The city’s economic deterioration is only touched upon once, in wondering who can afford €300 shirts, and the article never wonders how many of the revelers in the hip! edgy! nighttime are residents instead of, say, Americans enjoying a cheap year in Europe. But then, I guess it’s reassuring for Americans to come to Europe to hang out with other Americans. That’s what reinvigorated Prague, after all.

Finally, with the exception of M. Vuong’s, which I haven’t been able to get into since he moved to Neue Schönhauser Allee from Gipsstr., I would be very wary of their food recommendations. I’ve downed many a good beer at Altes Europa (although I guess now it’s been “discovered”), but I would never even think of touching the food there.

Come to think of it, though, there’s three more Sunday papers left to squeeze in a trip through Berlin’s Christmas markets. This may not be the last article this year. Or maybe it is: there’s nothing particularly hip! and edgy! about Christmas markets. Maybe that’s one reason I like ’em!


Which, I guess, is what you’d call things larger than crumbs…


First, of course, there’s the story of the Burden of History Santas. Now that these despicable objects have all been destroyed, it’s safe to direct you to the Spiegel Online story about them. Make sure you enlarge the photo there so you can see the offending gesture.

This paranoia about the “Hitler salute” is omnipresent. I was on the upper level of a double-decker bus one time when a bunch of high-school boys thundered up the stairs and took some seats. They had just left a group of friends outside, and as the bus pulled away, one of the kids nudged another one and said “Hey, he’s waving at you.” The second kid raised his arm to wave, and suddenly blushed bright red as his friend slapped his arm down.

From this cautionary Christmas tale, I’d assume that pointing at the Star of Bethlehem on the part of shepherds or Magi isn’t depicted in German Christmas ornaments. I’ll be on the lookout when I make my customary tour of the Christmas markets some weekend in the near future. Can’t be too safe!


While lamenting the disappearance of things I like here, it’s, um, fair and balanced to point out the disappearance of things I’ve always hated, and on a recent walk to Alexanderplatz, I noted that the pedestrian subway, a large, DDR-era tiled collection of underground tunnels connecting various parts of Alex, had been paved over. True, it was the best way to get out of the rain, and a huge gallery for graffiti artists, but it was also the realm of the worst street musician ever, a flutist with one of those mephistophelean beards who played over orchestral tracks on a boom-box. I don’t think I have ever heard a musician play with less feeling, not to mention that his cassette seemed to contain only three tunes, which, excepting that Brandenburg Concerto movement, I’ve utterly forgotten.

Street musicians here have to be licensed, and I’ve been told that the licenses, which are issued at some preposterous hour of the morning like 6:30, are controlled by the Russian mob, which sends a few guys down to pick them all up and then doles them out to musicians, mostly Russian, who agree to their terms. One of those terms, apparently, is learning scams: some friends of mine once had a restaurant, and a friendly, funny guitarist would show up from time to time to entertain. Then he’d take all his small change and ask for a beer and the favor of converting his handfuls of coins into larger currency. Oddly, the restaurant kept coming up short at the cash register at 3 am, when it closed, and finally my friends made the connection and banned him. The police later confirmed that this was a very common scam with these musicians.

Of course, the other thing about pedestrian subways, common around the world as far as I can tell, is that they serve as late night urinals for the terminally inebriated, and on a warm summer day the one at Alex exuded a strong odor unless the cleaning crews, who also worked on the graffiti, had made their monthly appearance. The only positive aspect of this I can think of is that the flutist had to inhale the miasma in gasps as he thundered through the goddam Brandenburg.

Now, access to Alex is via surface, which means you have to stand in the rain waiting for the light to change. A small price to pay, given everything.


Thanks to Brent for this (translated) article from the Süddeutsche Zeitung, confirming what the local tabloid headlines have been screaming all week: THE HAUPTBAHNHOF MUST BE COMPLETELY REBUILT! Not true, of course, as you’ll read, but within the story is confirmation of something I’ve been saying here (and to anyone who’ll listen) about the attitude of Germany’s former monopolies (Deutsche Post, Deutsche Telekom, and, here, Deutsche Bahn) towards the public at large.

What the article doesn’t mention specifically is that the platform-length issue isn’t just a matter of esthetics. The east-west trains board outdoors, on the top level, and one of the “savings” DB instituted as they revised the architect’s original plans was to shorten not the platform, but the roof covering that platform. In thus saving a bit of money, they forgot that the high-speed ICE trains that pull into Berlin are really long, because they often split in two at a later destination. Several cars of these trains (and, thus, the passengers waiting to board) are thus exposed to the elements because the roof isn’t long enough, and the biggest irony is that these very cars are usually the first class ones, so you’ve just paid a premium to stand in the rain waiting to board. It’s true that the ticket envelopes and route-guides inside the trains often have ads for cold remedies, but this is a rather cruel way of drumming up business for them, I think.

I also wonder if the vaulted ceilings that may be part of the rebuilding, if it happens, will make the lower levels of the station any lighter. For all its glass and high-tech appurtenances, the Hauptbahnhof is one of the gloomiest places I’ve ever been in, a shopping mall in a cave.

It’s also worth noting the prose style of the article, which I think is accurately translated. This is what readers of Germany’s “better” papers (and this one is considered the best) have to slog through in order to get their information. No wonder so many people read the tabloids.

A Few Crumbs Won’t Hurt

The neighborhood loses another landmark. It used to be that on a nice summer’s day, the best extreme people-watching used to be the sidewalk tables outside of C Matto, the restaurant/bar formerly known as Cibo Matto on Rosenthaler Str. This outpost of hip was owned and operated by the people who had the popular Kreuzberg bar, Bar, and the place next door to it, known for good burgers. It could be that the band Cibo Matto forced the name change, but that didn’t stop the more colorful Japanese tourists from flocking there, nor the wildest-(un)dressed inhabitants of Mitte. But on a visit to the Wochenmarkt at Hackescher Markt today, I was walking back home and noticed that C Matto’s windows had a garish paper covering all the windows, announcing the imminent opening of a “China Food” restaurant. Just what we need! More brown slime on noodles! I don’t know if this is indicative of a decline in fortune for the Bar folk, Mitte’s declining hipness, Rosenthaler Str.’s rising rents, or what. Now if you want really terrible “Asian fusion” food, you can go across the street to Mitte’s worst restaurant (with the best design), Pan Asia. But don’t.

* * *

Another sight on the walk was next door to Kunst Werk on Auguststr. Workmen have taken over part of the vacant lot next door, where some luxury construction project has been stalled for at least five years after a hole was dug for it, and, on the strip of land immediately adjoining KW, they are assembling a very old, weathered cottage. I figure it’s either art or some Christmas shop — or both — but it’s weird to see something that looks like it’s on the verge of falling down being built instead of torn down.

* * *

I used to think that the worst name for any product ever was the line of children’s bicycles built by PUKY, with which German toddlers endanger sidewalk users daily. That’s changed, though, now that an Italian firm has set up over at the supidmarket selling stoves (which look wonderful — if you have gas, which very few people here do any more) and refrigerators in colors that are guaranteed to make you eat less. Its name, emblazoned across the front of each refrigerator in inch-high chrome letters, is SMEG.

Incidentally, there really is a city in Albania called Puke, which, ironically enough, is supposed to be a delightful place.

* * *

Finally, thanks to Karen for finding me the Zyliss parsley mill on Click, click, and it’ll be here tomorrow or thereabouts. (Well, maybe: I bought the dancer a birthday present, and Amazon decided it had been delivered, although she never saw it. Amazon, however, can’t be contacted about this, so I’m out 15 Euros.) Thing is, that was money that could have gone to a Berlin retailer. Oh, well.

And as for the ultimate yuppie cooking item, Ben found that. Designer vitamin C?

Chopping Parsley

This shouldn’t be hard, I thought. What had happened was that my parsley chopper, or, more accurately, herb mill, had broken. It was to be expected; it was a couple of years old, made of plastic, and had performed admirably. These things happen.

I had never really known I’d wanted one until I had dinner at a friend’s house some years back. She’d been preparing to move away from Berlin, and had been going over her kitchen, which was a mess, looking for stuff to pack. In the process, she discovered that her mother had given her two herb mills, made by Mouli, a French company with a long pedigree of excellence. The down-side of all Mouli products, though, was that they were made from some cheap metal which inevitably sooner or later bent or broke; I’d gone through a dozen Mouli graters, the definitive Parmesan cheese tool, in my time.

So I took it home and discovered that one of my least-favorite kitchen chores, chopping parsley, had gone from a five-minute task to a 30-second task. Excellent! But eventually, that cheap metal caught up with me; the parsley stems had bent a couple of the choppers and they wouldn’t pass through the slots, so I had to get another.

The new one was much like the earlier one, but it was plastic. The way this tool works is that it has two parts, the body, which holds a bay for the herbs with a number of parallel slots through which the chopped herbs pass, and a wheel with a crank and an axle on which some thin blades are mounted, which, when turned, force the herbs through the slots while mincing them. The plastic turned out to be more durable, a technological improvement.

But I’m lazy. When I pull parsley leaves from the stems, I always think of my Arab-American friend Jim, who I knew in Texas. Jim came from Michigan, where there are a lot of Arab-Americans (he was, more specifically, Lebanese-American), and he fell in love with Jessica, a girl from Taylor, Texas, thereby uniting two of his favorite things, girls and barbeque, since Taylor is home to the great Louie Mueller, and was once home to another world-class barbeque chef, Vencil Mares. Jim was another world-class barbequer, just a talent he discovered he had, and I don’t think any commercial barbeque joint has ever come up with anything like the briskets he used to cook.

But marrying into his family meant pleasing a lot of old Arab-American women who wanted to be certain the new bride could cook traditional dishes, and Jessica was asked to make tabbouleh, the classic cracked-wheat-and-parsley salad, in order to win their approval of the wedding. “Not one stem from the parsley in the tabbouleh, young lady!” was how Jim’s grandmother put it. “Boy,” she said later, “I was really sweating this, but I passed.” Parsley stems are tough, and they get caught in your teeth, and although I wouldn’t forbid my grandson from getting married for such a trivial thing, the fact is it’s not just your teeth they can get caught in, it’s also the teeth of the Mouli herb mill. That’s what wrecked the metal one, and, a few years later, it’s what wrecked the plastic one, too. I always reminded myself I was trying to please Jim’s grandmother, but sometimes you get rushed, or you get lazy. Like I said, these things happen.

So a couple of weeks ago, I decided it was time to replace it. The plastic herb mill had been made by Zyliss, a superb Swiss maker of cooking equipment, well engineered and inexpensive; I’d used the Zyliss Blitzhacker to chop stuff for years, as much amused by its name as I was pleased with its performance. The herb mill, I’ve discovered from poking around that website, is the model 1400.

I’d gotten it at Galleries Lafayette, which always had a good range of Zyliss stuff, so one day I walked down there to get another. To my surprise, their whole cooking-utensil section had shrunk to one tiny display of mostly expensive stuff, and a whole lot of high-end Laguiole corkscrews. I shrugged; it was a nice day, and surely the big Kaufhof department store in Alexanderplatz would have one; they’d always had a good selection of Zyliss stuff. So I walked to Alexanderplatz.

The Kaufhof there had been a big department store with another name during the division of the city. I remember going there on my first trip to East Berlin, and the guy who was showing me around depleted some of the 25 East Marks you had to buy before they’d let you in on a fake hand-grenade, which was apparently used in some kind of high-school grenade-tossing competition. He used it later as a paperweight. Until recently, Kaufhof had had its original hideous East German facade, a kind of gridwork with no windows, but then a multi-year facelift happened, where they actually enlarged the store while keeping it open all the time, an interesting engineering feat.

More room, you’d think, would mean more stuff. So I was astonished to find that even though more square feet were available in the cooking-supplies section, Zyliss products weren’t. At all. Now, for those of you who aren’t aware of this, a lot of retail involves companies buying space. This happens a lot in groceries, where you pay the grocery chain for preferential placement where your product is more easily seen by shoppers, but it also happens in department stores, where your brand can buy square footage. Somehow, Kaufhof is all pots and pans and knives now, with gadgets, like herb mills, pushed to the side. They still have gadgets, but not as wide a selection as before. Furthermore, with Zyliss gone, in the gadget department that meant no herb mills.

This was something of a crisis. Americans may have trouble believing this, but here in Berlin there just aren’t any stores which sell cooking stuff. You need a gadget, you could be out of luck; I went through this earlier this year with the amazing vegetable peeler I’d picked up in a store in Paris: I looked at it and realized that it was absolutely perfect, and so it proved to be: it never jams, it zips through potatoes and carrots and everything else with ease, and it fits in the hand so ergonomically that it’s a joy to use. I wound up having to correspond with the company and then buying it online from Meilleur du Chef. (I notice they, too, don’t have the Zyliss one, just a metal one, which looks too much like my first one).

The reason for this is very simple: if it’s not meant for making German food, it’s going to be very hard to find. The stuff you need to prepare German meals are available in any supermarket, although you can buy better-quality examples at places like Kaufhof. Now, you’d think that the yuppification of Berlin would override this, particularly in such a yuppified neighborhood as Prenzlauer Berg. And, in fact, there is a cooking store in Prenzlauer Berg, and I went there the other day to see what they had. All too typically, the woman running the store was on the phone gossiping with a friend when I got there, so instead of asking for help, I walked around, looking for my herb mill. This place is an object lesson in the German attitude towards cooking: lots of expensive pots and pans, lots of expensive knives, a selection of Laguiole corkscrews in a locked glass vitrine — in short, lots of expensive stuff you can display in your home, whether you actually use it or not, to advertise the fact that you’ve got money and an interest in food. I made the circuit of the store three times before I could figure out where in the hell the herb mill — which I knew had to be there somewhere — was, and I finally located it displayed among a range of the most expensive kitchen utensils you can buy in Germany, gleaming stainless steel items that you can buy for 1/3 to 1/2 the price anywhere else. And yes, it €18, or at least twice what a Zyliss would cost. In the great German service tradition, the woman never got off the phone during the entire 15 minutes I was there. All I can tell you is that some guy she knows is going to be surprised by divorce papers soon. Oh, and I can also tell you I’m not going back there. But you probably figured that out.

But I want to get back to that first sentence in that last paragraph. Is it bad that “if it’s not meant for making German food, it’s going to be very hard to find?” See, this is something I’ve been thinking about when it comes to moving to France: culinary traditions are traditions because people keep them going through the generations. Great culinary traditions are perpetuated by people who are notoriously uncurious about other great culinary traditions. Most French towns are like Henry Ford and the Model T: you can have any kind of food you want in the restaurants as long as it’s French. I remember reading an anecdote in the New Yorker by a guy who was living in Rome with his two young sons. One night, just for variety, they went to a Chinese restaurant in their neighborhood. To their surprise, the waiter was Italian. The father asked him what was good on the menu, and the waiter drew himself up and said “You don’t think I eat here, do you?” No, of course not.

Nor should I assume that even though it’s not particularly to my taste a lot of the time, German cooking isn’t a great culinary tradition. I would love to hear someone defend the local brand of cooking, which is hardly as sophisticated as the cuisines of Swabia or Bavaria (and they’re not really all that sophisticated), but I’m willing to concede the point. This is, after all, about taste.

But Berlin is a Big City, or so we’re told. (It’s large, I’ll grant you that). Furthermore, it’s got some world-class Italian restaurants because Germans are inveterate vacationers (sure: they get six weeks’ vacation!) and a lot of the younger generation (ie, my age or younger — I mean in the grand scheme of things) took to vacationing in Northern Italy, where they discovered the food and wine were to their liking. Thus, the yuppie food-gadget store has pasta machines and ravioli trays, and we can assume those Laguioles are opening at least as many Barolos and Chianti Classicos as they are Qualitätswein mit Predikat. At least nominally, in other words, Berlin is tentatively multicultural in the kitchen. Not that they’ll be embracing the likes of Eric Gower any time soon (which is a shame). But, dammit, most of the time I’m mincing parsley, it’s for Italian food.

So I’m stuck. At some point I’m probably going to head off to the giant KaDeWe department store to see if they’ve got this thing, but since they’re now owned by the same gigantic concern which owns Kaufhof (and three other major department-store chains in Germany), I’m not too sanguine about having any success. Maybe fate will allow me a short trip to Amsterdam or Paris or Montpellier in the near future, places where I’m certain I’ll find what I want. Meanwhile. I’m mincing parsley with the excellent knife I bought in Kyoto five years ago. It’s a great knife, but the task is still a pain in the ass.