[Note: this post was originally written for another Mission-oriented blog, hence the direct references to San Francisco audience]
Raising a child is a breeze in Berlin thanks to the wide availability of kid-friendly beer gardens. (Note: a ‘child’ is a small human who has not yet achieved adult stature— I was a little unclear on this concept myself until I left the Mission.) Take, for example, Prater Garten on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauerberg: the space looks like about eight Zeitgeists stitched together, only without the whole ‘mistaking rudeness for authenticity’ issue that’s been haunting Zeitgeist for years.
Then, in the back, is a fully-equipped playground where you can semi-neglect your daughter or son while you enjoy sophisticated adult beverages nearby. Kids, in my observation, seem to eat this place up: first, they get to enjoy running around in the kid-sanctioned area… but then there’s also the illicit thrill of venturing out into the ‘dark side’, where grownups are presented in various states of alcohol-amplified enthusiasm.
Finally… you know you’re in a land of lessened litigation-culture when there’s a disused diving tower in the back of your local beer garden:
My friend tells the story of being at a kid birthday party at Prater when one of the children suddenly materialized on top of the diving stand. That’ll sober you up in a hurry.
This time, my own smart-alecky tendencies were largely to blame. Explanation: my friend Will works as an engineer for United Airlines, so he is able to give me so-called ‘companion passes’ that allow me to fly standby for a fraction of the normal ticket price. The ‘companion pass’ racket is a real roll of the dice— sometimes you wind up in business class; other times, you wind up not getting on the flight altogether. However, in my previous seven companion pass forays, I’d only missed one flight (and with minimal consequences), so the overall risk factor seemed pretty small.
So, I arrive at the airport on Thursday at noon, ready to try my companion-pass luck— and wind up being the only person who doesn’t make it on the plane. It’s a really lonely feeling to watch an entire crowded boarding area worth of passengers gradually make their way onboard, only to be left at the end with a vacant room behind you and a bunch of shrugging flight attendants facing you. You spend the entire boarding routine in a heightened state of Zen powerlessness, futility commanding the last straggling passengers not to show up at the gate so you can get their ticket, then gradually slouching into a soggy-beanbag-shaped crescent of defeat as they appear one by one in the closing seconds. One thing you learn from this experience is that the kind of people who show up at the gate to board an aircraft at the very last second really ARE the most disorganized goofballs that you’ll ever see in your life. It’s hard to stomach the fact that this specimen of abstracted doofus has supplanted you on the airplane until you remember that they actually bought a ticket and you didn’t.
Missing the one flight seemed benign enough… but then the next flight to Frankfurt was cancelled, and that’s where my troubles really began. Soon, it became apparent that I’d run into a virtual wall of oversold flights, and wouldn’t be getting out anytime soon. After having spent most of my stay in the Mission at this point, I wisely switched gears at this point and spent the next few days with my airline friend Will, who lives just 15 minutes from the airport. His place is The Libertine, a sailboat docked off the South San Francisco Marina:
His girlfriend Colleen, a flight attendant, lives in an adjacent houseboat that she calls The Sanctuary— but Will refers to as The Wild Thing— that was my home for the next three nights:
Thus began a strange three-day regimen: two trips per day to the airport that I decided to treat as though I was a devout Muslim and the airport was the local mosque— i.e. don’t question it, just do it. Stand in line, check in, robotically go through security, read Keith Richards’ Life while everyone bustlingly loads onto the plane, then stoically accept the news that the plane is full, text Will, walk out to the pickup area, jump into the van and get driven back to the marina for another few hours of rancho relaxo… then back the airport for another attempt… then off to the city for nighttime antics.
With the notable exception of these futile, ritualistic airport trips, the rest of my stay was spent in a hazy condition resembling a mixture of Gilligan’s Island and quaaludes. I made a feeble attempt to help Will with fixing up his boat, but then soon retired to a lot of this:
Here’s a typical dinner on the boat, before heading out into the city:
Finally, after a fifth failed attempt to get on a flight, my impatience and desire to see my wife and son became insurmountable, and so I jumped online in the airport… and managed to find a flight from SFO to Dusseldorf the next day for $500. Thank
Allah God for 9/11! How weird it was to enter the airport this time as a fully-entitled patron, full of all the normal assurances of boarding the plane, no longer playing the heady razor’s-edge game of airplane roulette. A mere 30 hours later, I was back in Prague, reunited with my wife and child. And then, 24 hours later, back in Berlin again.
Halfway through my San Francisco trip, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Johnny O of Burrito Justice and TK of 40goingon28 for a few drinks, where we formed a dorky Three Blogeteers-type roundtable of sorts. Also, KevMo from Uptown Almanac made a cameo appearance in the beginning of the evening. It was a lot of fun— Johnny I’d met before, but TK and Kevin were fresh acquaintances, and all are great guys to have a beer with.
The anatomy of a blind ‘blog date’ is a strange one. OH MY GOD, DOES MY HAIR LOOK GOOD? First, there’s the weird phenomenon of matching an unfamiliar face to a hyper-familiar writing voice, and the unsettling suspicion that the person in front of you could in fact be an obsessed stalker who’s read all of another person’s blog and is pretending to be the blogger and you wouldn’t really be able to tell the difference. Then— more pressingly— there’s the weird disjoint of having a conversation with somebody who knows all of this anecdotal nonsense that you blog about your life (‘Oh, so, you’re familiar with my attempt to match up European countries to U.S. states?’) but is unfamiliar with some of the most basic aspects of your autobiography (where you grew up, how old your child is, etc). The closest thing I can compare it to is during the days when I was taking drawing classes and would sometimes bump into the models from the class on the street— there would be an awkward sense of ‘Here we are, having a conversation, and yet I know what you look like naked and you don’t know what I look like naked.’ In the case of the blind blog date, it’s a two way street— each person has glimpsed into the other’s boudoir— but there’s the same essential feeling that the normal order of steps by which you get to know a person has somehow been flipped around. Now, it’s not like this was actually penetratingly weird— it was basically just a beery good time during a trip filled with such— but the underlying social dynamic at work is peculiar enough that I feel obligated to try to describe it a bit.
I should add that our host for the evening was the ever-enjoyable Homestead Bar. In retrospect, this was a much better choice of location than the first time I met up with Johnny O in April of 2010. In that instance, I suggested that he meet me at Hard French, the outdoor El Rio party, since I was planning on going there anyway— this resulted in the near-slapstick scenario of two straight blog guys who don’t know what the other looks like trying to pick each other out of a huge crowd of cruising gay men. Will I ever win?
Back in the dawn of 2011, I set a goal of finally learning to drive stick as my new year’s resolution, since it’s the last tangible barrier standing between me and the mental image I have of what a fully-functioning adult looks and acts like. In retrospect, I could have made thing easier on myself by setting a resolution of… oh, I dunno… moving to Berlin and getting in a car wreck on the way as a suitably challenging goal and I’d conveniently be off the hook right now. But since I’m stuck with trying to learn stick, I figured I might as well take a bite out of it during my San Francisco trip, since I’m running out of 2011 and all.
So, today was the big lesson. We started in the parking lot of the Stonestown Shopping Center— which required me to take MUNI for the first time in 500 years to get there— and then wound up cruising around The So-Called Great Highway and whatnot. Now, when you’re 38 years old and writing in your blog about learning stick shift, there’s really nothing to feel good about, so don’t get the wrong idea— but I can truthfully say that I only stalled a few brief times and genuinely felt that I got the gist of it. It was basically like driving and operating a sewing loom at the same time. Which is of course something I have extensive experience with. I just closed my eyes and pretended I was looming.
I have to mention that my teacher, Derrick of Apex Driving School, was literally the best teacher I think I’ve ever had in any context. This guy was born to drive, teach and be superhumanly patient all at the same time. If there are any readers who need to learn to drive stick, I can’t recommend this guy enough.
So: progress made; humiliating sensations of futility waning somewhat. There are many future lessons that await me when I get back to Berlin before I can confidently chauffeur my son around on the Autobahn. But I feel like there’s hope of closing the books on this one before 2011 ends.
I’m going to keep this short, because surely it’s boring to read anything where some expat guy is complaining about US culture… but I really have to comment on how mind-bending the standards of customer service are in this country if you’re not accustomed to a steady diet of fake friendliness.
Did it used to seem normal to me when a store clerk would thank me simply for entering his or her store without actually buying anything? More pressingly, what did I say when someone would chirp “How’s everything working out for you?” whenever I emerged from a dressing room with rejected pair of pants in hand? This seems like an unresolvable double-bind now: if you say, “Good,” then it seems to create a false expectation that you’re going buy the pants (which I almost never do). But if you say, “Well… badly,” then that seems weird. And surely the clerk doesn’t want a blow-by-blow of your expectations heading into the dressing room versus the shattering reality of how the pants didn’t fit well or weren’t what you wanted or whatever.
In the case in question, I wound up saying, “Oh, well, they didn’t really fit”.
“Thanks for trying!”
I give up.
It happens that, right at the time I’m visiting San Francisco, the Berkeley Art Museum is hosting the first major exhibition in fifty years on the work of mockduck favorite Kurt Schwitters— master collagist, all-around loon.
Belying his tendency to dress like a banker, Schwitters was one of the great eccentrics of the early modernist period, running a one-man design movement he called Merz (named after the tail end of a sign reading Kommerz visible through his apartment window) throughout a life spent on the run, in exile from Nazi Germany. Schwitters’ main legacy is his apeshit use of collage, gluing together random found objects that somehow form an intensely introspective, personal viewing experience:
I went to the exhibition with old friend Alastair Johnston (shown here playing Thelonious Monk in Monk costume). We peered through the collages and noted old tram tickets, chocolate and tobacco wrappers (suggestive of a less-than-healty diet) and elements of what seemed to be a dissected croquet set. I was fascinated to discover that the smallest collages seemed to carry the most power: the impact of the larger ones seemed to dissipate slightly as one’s eye tracked around them; the smaller ones, meanwhile, had this boggling degree of carefully-wrought detail that seemed to squirm under one’s gaze.
As much as I enjoyed the collages, the 500 pound gorilla of the show was lurking in the basement, where the curators had sought to rebuild Schwitters’ infamous Merzbau. The Merzbau was a fantastic installation that Schwitters began piecing together in the apartment house owed by his father (although the two were closely connected, the Dadaists allegedly refused to extend membership to Schwitters on account of his bourgeoise lineage)— collage applied to interior design:
The Merzbau eventually overran the confines of Schwitters’ flat and — as legend has it — prompted him to get the upstairs neighbors evicted so he could knock out the ceiling and continue building his masterpiece. Naturally, the entire artifice got left behind when he fled Germany for Norway in 1937. (Alastair pointed out to me that probably many of the freestanding small sculptural pieces shown in the main exhibition space were just pieces that Schwitters couldn’t bear to leave behind and snapped off the Merzbau and stuffed in his suitcase or something). Later in his life, Schwitters started a second Merzbau in Norway (burnt down) and then a Merzbarn in England (unfinished at the time of his death).
The exhibition curators have attempted to recreate the Merzbau from archival photographs and the descriptions of Schwitters’ surviving son. There was a distracting clicking on and off of lights (attempting to show you what it looked like in day vs. night), but otherwise, the recreation seemed as faithful to the original as one can possibly hope for. There were maddening details, like a stairway that seemed to round a corner and abruptly end— no one could tell what the artists’ intention was here (plus a student intern guard barked at you if you attempted to crane your neck around the corner to find out).
If Merzbaus aren’t really your thing, and you’re more into sound poetry, you can check out Schwitters’ bizarre foray into nonsense recitation, the Ursonate:
After the exhibition, I did one my favorite stock Bay Area activities, the old Hike Up The Berkeley Fire Trail. This was a standby of mine when I would occasionally wake up on a Sunday overwhelmed with a feeling of tiredness towards the Mission. In triumphant vacation form this time, I managed to find a bench with a spectacular view at the very top of the hill range and promptly fall asleeep on it.
I’ve never really found a friend who shares my toleration of Berkeley, but I could happily see just throwing every other aspect of my personality overboard and settling into a classic, cliche-riddled existence as Stereotypical Healthy Old Guy In Berkeley. Golden retriever, front yard, jogging— the works. It’s not like I actively see my life heading in this direction; more like I’d strongly consider diverting it from whatever that direction is if this was the reward. It would be difficult to shut off the critical faculties of one’s brain to swallow all the Berkeley malarky that you’d have to listen to all the time… but if you could master that one trick, you’d be all set in other regards.
On Friday, I participated in one of the classic set pieces of human experience, the Cancelled-Flight-Where-Airline-Puts-You-Up-In-Some-Random-Airport-Hotel routine.
Here’s some timeline leading up to the calamity:
Thurs, 14:00: My travels begin. Wife, son and I set out in the car from Berlin to Prague.
Technically, this is the wrong direction. The explanation is that my wife and son are spending the next two weeks in Italy, at this terrible-sounding Czech redneck enclave there called Bibione. My wife acknowledges that it’s a terrible place, but she because she’s a good sport and her sister is super into it and so it’s a family bonding thing. I’ve announced from the beginning that I’m never going to this place, so I have two weeks or so on my own at the end of every summer. Now, it’s impossible to drive long distances alone with a two year-old, so I’m accompanying them as far as Prague, where the sister can jump in and replace me.
21:30: In Prague, eating dinner at our favorite neighborhood restaurant.
22:45: Driving to drop me off at a metro stop. Instead, we happen to drive by Trafika bar (the bar next to my old studio, described in the Statler and Waldorf post) and I spot my friends inside having an ‘after work’ drink. Quick change of plans!
23:45: Arrive liquored up at Prague bus station, get aboard overnight bus to Frankfurt. Sleep 5 hours despite crushing lack of leg room. (The rationale behind going to Frankfurt is that my buddy works for the airlines and can get me cheap flights out of there).
Friday, 9:00: Wake up at Frankfurt Airport, the blandest destination in one of Europe’s blandest cities. Kill five hours reading Patti Smith memoir Just Kids.
14:00: Get onboard flight to SF.
15:00: Still sitting on runway, waiting for ‘mechanical problem’ to be resolved…
16:00: Still sitting on runway. Curious message comes over the intercom: ‘Flight attendants, prepare for cross-check and arrival’. Arrival? This is weird. We haven’t left yet. Why are they preparing to arrive? And why is the message intoned with dejection? Uh oh…
16:05: Flight cancellation announced. Shock and outrage ensue.
Now, whenever people would tell me about a flight cancellation experience, I’d always imagined that one moment you’re at the airport, and the next you’re magically transported to your hotel room with minimal fuss. I had never thought about the logistics involved in getting 300 people off a plane and transferred to a hotel in the event of a flight cancellation before:
16:06: Everyone herded off plane. General atmosphere of stunned bewilderment: ‘Wait, you mean we’re not getting our luggage back? I have medication in there!’
16:20: 300 people standing in the boarding area, waiting for one lone United representative who is supposedly going to escort us to our hotel. When this person materializes, she turns out to be the tiniest human specimen that United could possibly have roused for the occasion. She’s immediately engulfed by the crowd, such that only the 15 people closest to her can either see her or hear what she’s saying.
16:40: The Tiny Sprite leads us to one end of the terminal where we are supposed to be able to exit. But, security refuses to allow us to exit here, so the entire group has to execute a reverse of direction and go to the opposite end of the terminal. At this point, the guy next to me calls out ‘It’s OK: the people who fell down on the way… we’ve picked them back up now!’
16:41-17:15: The Tiny Sprite herds one hundred people at a time onto the monorail to the another terminal, then across the street to a bus stop where the hotel shuttle bus ferries us to an airport hotel. I assume that 10-15% of the herd perished during this migration, but still the overall survival rate was pretty good.
During this part of the ordeal, the usual social archetypes emerged as always appear in large group dynamics:
The Insatiable Questioner: This is always a woman in her 50s with frizzy hair. Any time any authority figure appears (airline representative, bus driver, hotel clerk), the IQ begins asking a stream of questions that NEVER STOP but just morph into different topical areas of concern. The IQ needs to have it explained to her that a United Airlines representative cannot help her change her San Francisco hotel booking because the airlines rep is an airlines rep and not a travel agent. The IQ means well and will share her acquired knowledge with the rest of the herd, but is ultimately riddled with too much misinformation to be a reliable source.
There were points when I considered the possibility that if the airplane wasn’t properly fixed by the time we got back onboard, at least the world would be rid of the Insatiable Questioner after the ensuing crash.
The Jovial Jokester: A white guy in his 60s or 70s wearing either a straw hat, a cowboy hat or a Stetson hat. The JJ makes good-natured, non-edgy jokes to put others at ease and quickly acquires a small band of acolytes. I usually start out being annoyed the the JJ but eventually come around to the fact that he’s at least trying to engage the situation in a constructive way. Plus, his sunny demeanor helps quell the anxieties of…
The Quiet Panickers: These are the people who are terrified that everything’s going wrong but don’t even have the confidence to articulate their worries in any purposeful way. The QPs look around wide-eyedly, and if you make eye contact with them, they’ll say something like, ‘I think we were supposed to get off at the last terminal!’ or ‘I don’t know how we’re going to find the bus!’ You learn to stop making eye contact with these people.
The Stoic Mummies: This describes most of the people in the group, myself included. The SMs have moments of alert helpfulness but generally are trying to numb themselves and not get infected by the panic of others.
Jack Shephard Wanna-Bes: A few people who are actively trying to play heroic roles, running around and making loud, brave announcements. Screw these people.
The Legitimate Sharpie: Then there’s the one person who actually is really unaccountably good at figuring things out. Your goal is to find the LS and stick with them.
Example: on the monorail, there was extreme confusion because the Sprite had instructed us to get off at Terminal E but had pronounced ‘E’ the German way, where it sounds like ‘A’. It was the LS who figured this out and quelled a potential mass panic.
The Angry Guy: Less said about him, the better.
In the end, it took about two hours to get from the airplane seat to my hotel room, which isn’t too bad. I have to admit that once we were all installed in the hotel, a fun conviviality did emerge, just because everyone (a) is bored, (b) is at the hotel bar, and (c) has a good conversational ice-breaker. It was like an episode of Lost, only if Lost took place at a Frankfurt hotel instead of on an exotic island. Or: like an incredibly upscale version of the New Orleans Superdome during Katrina, except minus the Marty Bahamonde ‘just took a crap with 38,000 of my closest friends’ aspect. (Note: I do actually feel bad about comparing my benign experience to the horrors of the Superdome… but it was what the experience reminded everyone of.) For my part, I struck up a conversation with two San Franciscans, Houri and Will, at the bar. Later, we ate dinner with a fun couple from Discovery Bay who had managed to get installed in a conference room and had taken funny photos of the woman lounging out sexily on the conference table. So, those were my Single Serving Friends for the evening.
Other small upsides of the experience: (1) excellent buffet breakfast at the hotel, featuring the largest tub of bacon I’ve ever seen in my life. (2) Compellingly weird experience of getting on the same plane a day later, in the same seat, with everyone around you wearing the same clothes. (3) Fraternal airplane atmosphere, as people had gotten to know each other by this point. When you walked through the aisle to get to the bathroom, it was like ‘Oh hey, what’s up?’ … ‘Did you ever find your sweater?’… ‘Have fun at Burning Man!’ etc etc.
Major downside outweighing all above upsides: missing Friday night in San Francisco. Plus, the fact that when I finally arrived on Saturday evening, I’d been traveling for 60 hours.
My son is now a shade over two years old and continues to call me Hi, There!
As far as he’s concerned, this is my only name, that’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. Even if we painstakingly recite ‘Mama… Papa… ‘ with pointing, he’ll happily repeat back, ‘Mama… Hi, There!’ Now that he’s started saying a lot more, there are combinations like ‘Buh-bye, Hi There!’ Even during moments of relative anguish, he’ll wail ‘Hiyyyyyyyy, Theeerrrrre‘ beseechingly from another room.
This has been going on long enough now that I’m forced to confront the possibility that maybe he’ll never grow out of it. I try to imagine a disaffected teenager walking into the room to ask, ‘Hey, Hi There, can I borrow the car tonight?’ or whatever.