Fall Of The Berlin Wall (Legoland Version)

I enjoyed this stirring re-enactment of the events of November 10, 1989:

Notice how there’s a Hasselhoff-ian figure atop the mobile platform thing, and how lights start going on and off as he performs once the Wall falls. Nice touch. This atones for the minor historical inaccuracy my wife pointed out: that the Wall actually falls from the West into the East in this little drama.

Imagining A San Francisco Wall

At the end of December, our initial six-month sublet here in Berlin ran out, so we packed up our stuff and went back to Czech for the holidays. Then, a few days into 2012, we drove back from Prague and — boing— straight into our new flat, located in a section of Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood known as ‘Die Rote Insel’ (the Red Island).

Die Rote Insel is called an island because it’s a triangular region surrounded by train tracks on all three sides, so one must cross a bridge to gain access. The ‘red’ part comes from the fact that it was historically a leftist stronghold and was allegedly the last part of Berlin to hold out against Hitler’s local political machine in the 30s.

One local attraction is this weirdo gasworks structure that looms over the neighborhood:

Another noteworthy thing is that we’re about half a mile from where David Bowie and Iggy Pop did their famous mid-70s sojourn:

Here’s the oh-so-bland-and-unassuming building where they lived:

What this all is getting to is a meditation on the weird east-versus-west dynamics that persist in Berlin as a result of the Wall. As part of the former West Berlin, Schöneberg is now considered to be a bit of a snooze— friends of ours who live in hipper areas would assume slightly restrained expressions when we would mention that we were moving there (sort of like if you were to mention that you are moving to the Inner Richmond). And, yet, back when Bowie lived here, it was pretty much as swinging as West Berlin got. You had Kreuzberg to one side, which was slummy and punk and Turkish, and then Schöneberg, which was the gay district. I had originally guessed that the neighborhood’s gay identity stemmed from its relatively close proximity to the Wall— as such, I imagined that it was a kind of untamed borderlands where anything went. But, I’ve since learned that gay affiliation stretches all the way back to the Weimar Republic-era… so, never mind about that.

So, that’s the weird contradiction of Schöneberg: a relatively risqué, eastern area of a larger, boring western area. Seemed edgy at the time… but is looked down upon by all the hipsters in the former East. On the one hand, this all seems unique to Berlin and its particular dynamics. And yet… it also reminds you of Noe Valley if you squint your eyes. In fact, it’s really easy to imagine a similar partition in San Francisco, given the exaggerated east-west divide and the cultural disdain with which people in the neighborhoods to the North and East view the western part of the city.

As a reminder, here’s how it worked in Berlin:

In my imaginary history, here’s how San Francisco was partitioned in 2005, dividing the MGDR (Matt Gonzalez Democratic Republic) from the secessionist RGN (Republic of Gavin Newsom) and tearing apart countless families and community institutions in the process:

As a virtual island in hostile territory, the RGN is naturally cut off from bridge access and can only be accessed by plane, helicopter or hydrofoil. The West gets the Golden Gate Park, just as West Berlin got the Tierpark… but the East gets the heavily-armed Presidio (i.e., Mauerpark).

And, in the analogy, Schöneberg is roughly outer Noe Valley, which sounds… about right!

Solarium and Vodka

• This is my first winter in Berlin… and, man, it gets dark early here. We’re already down to 4:30pm daylight curfew and there’s still a month to go to the solstice. I’m about ready to curl up in the solarium with a few bottles of vodka for the next few months.

• I caught a cold in Prague that metastasized in the world’s most annoying, hacking cough over the last week. Yesterday, while I was at my work space, I was actually slinking out of the office on multiple occasions into the bathroom just to go have a good round of coughing. It had gotten to the point where I was embarrassed to cough any more in the presence of people who were trying to get work done. This is a necessary nod to integrity on my part, because I hate it when I’m trying to concentrate and some wretched person keeps coughing… so I have to try to be at least somewhat consistent. Then, this morning, I burst into a nosebleed while on the U-Bahn, from all the honking over the past few days. What a pain in the ass. What is it about a nosebleed that inspires such contempt? I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a vague presumption that you’re likely a cocaine abuser or something. It feels especially damning in a situation like German mass transit where there are lots of people and everyone’s sort of reasonably well put together. If it happened on the BART, you could at least be confident that there would be at least seven more disturbing, unhygienic people in the immediate vicinity.

• The wife and I have found a nice new sublet for the next year as we weigh our long-term options (Berlin vs. Prague). We have to leave our present, glorious sublet next month, when the master tenants return from their year abroad. The new place is in a peculiar neighborhood called ‘Die Rote Insel’ (the Red Island)— the ‘island’ part comes from the fact that the area is surrounded by a triangle of train tracks, so one must cross a bridge to get in; the ‘red’ part comes from the fact that it was traditionally a lefty stronghold and was the last area to hold out against Hitler’s political machine in the 1930s.

Before taking our Red Island place, we went and looked at one place that seemed spacious and well-priced but turned out to be located at the exact epicenter for monumental Soviet-style architecture, Frankfurter Tor:

No thanks! If I hadn’t just got done living in Prague for five years, this might seem culturally intriguing, but as things stand…. I think I’ve had enough.

In contrast to the massive authoritarianism of Frankfurter Tor, I prefer the cutesy neighborliness of  ‘Little Hamburger Street’:

(Top: Plague mask by Andreas Krautwald)

Das Moveable Feast

Two recent sightings from opposite poles of Berlin’s cultural zeitgeist:

1. Not-So-Little Cleveland Indian

Last week, I was biking home from a basketball game in early evening and ran into this, looming over Alexanderplatz:

What? Aha, it turns out that this is art— an installation by French media artist Cyprien Gaillard, exploring the legacy and exploitation of arcane, tribal imagery in contemporary advertising culture. As icing on the cake, the installation sits on a soon-to-be-demolished former Stasi building, das Haus der Statistik. Not that Gaillard is blaming the Stasi for the exploitation of Native Americans. At least, I don’t think he is.

2. Homespun Family Circus

A few days later, we took our son to a circus in a remote place called Falkensee, which lies just outside the super-uncool, westernmost part of Berlin, Spandau. Once you get outside of Berlin’s hipness sphere-of-influence, things instantly revert to the basic hapless, redneck-y mundanity that links together all of Central Europe. Indeed, this circus experience wound up being much more of a sobering tale of family values and heartland tenacity than I had been expecting.

First, consider the poster:

It turns out that, if you run a circus and you make a poster featuring elephants and giraffes, you are not implicitly promising that there are elephants and giraffes at your circus— you are simply invoking the pleasures of the circus atmosphere in a general, non-specfic sense. In this case, there were no such exotic animals on site, and it was apparent at first glance that the whole event was going to be somewhat more small-scale than advertised:

We quickly learned that the Circus Piccolino is a family circus whose patriarch used to perform in the major, large circuses that travel around Europe but then decided to stop once he had kids. Instead, to spare his family the rigors of constant travel, he started his own weeny circus with only the members of his family, a few road-hands and one vulgarian clown whom I took to be a hired mercenary (but might possibly be a cousin). The Circus Piccolino performs only in Germany, thus allowing his daughters to keep up with school and live fairly normal lives when they are not manipulating hula-hoops for the benefit of a tent full of strangers:

The backstory of the Circus Piccolino was legitimately interesting and inspirational as a tale of adaptation to the realities of family life. Yet it also seemed to be invoked a little too often throughout the show, as an excuse for every dropped hula hoop, every repetitious act involving a lesser family member, every tawdry cut corner (‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen goats performing at a circus before,’ my wife whispered as we watched various barnyard animals jump from table to table). In the end, it started to feel like an over-share that diminished the normal suspension-of-reality that one hopes to achieve while at a circus.

The ultimate buzz-kill moment happened once the performance ended: as we filed out of the big top, you could immediately see the Family Piccolino heading towards their trailer home that was parked right next to the tent, everyone curiously out of character and already half-disrobed from their outfits. While the whole afternoon provided an education glimpse into the realities of the family circus scene, I still would have appreciated if, at the end, the principals could have humored us by dematerializing into a cloud of smoke, or exiting in some comparably romantic manner.

Children and Alcohol: Together At Last

[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.

The Curious Case of J. Jitters

In case you’ve been reading along and worrying about whether I’ve found a workspace here… fear not, it’s been taken care of. I’m currently based out of the Berlin game studio Kunst-Stoff, where I sit at a makeshift desk set up in the office kitchen, pumping out my mellow blend of adult-contemporary design. Kunst-stoff (the name is a pun on the German word for ‘plastic’… also means ‘art-stuff’ the way they’ve spelled it) is an independent game development company started by my friend Patrick. I’m permitted to squat in their kitchen in exchange for about five minutes per week spent proofreading the English translations of their press releases.

If you ever get a chance to swing something like this, I can highly recommend any situation where you’re surrounded by people who are busily working on something, but where you have no professional connection whatsoever to whatever it is they are working on. In this case, whatever it is they are working on is an iPhone/iPad game called Pudding Panic that was released to the iTunes store a few weeks ago. The game’s premise–- described on game’s web site as ‘An anxious little pudding is trapped in a scary ghost train!”-– has earned the company highly positive reviews with titles like “Pudding Panic redefines weird“. If you like iPhone/iPad games, you should definitely check it out. I do not like such games (my feelings about gaming are discussed in this post about the Sims)– I bought a copy of the game to be a good sport, but have yet to install or play it.

I am quite smitten, however, with the game’s main character, a perpetually-shivering plate of jello named J. Jitters. Jitters seems ready-made for franchising and stars in a series of clever trailers for the game.

Also, I was interested to learn that Pudding Panic has climbed near the top of sales in the respective iTunes stores of a number of countries, including… Jamaica! This got me wondering about what the other best-sellers might be in Jamaica that Pudding Panic would have to knock off to take the top spot there:

  1. Mount Zion Picnic: scale the lofty heights before Babylon gets there and opens its picnic basket of roast mutton and other unclean foods.
  2. Super Haile Selassie Brothers 3: the year is 1973 and there’s a palace coup to put down! Throw barrels on the heads of your would-be usurpers as they attempt to climb up ladders to the top and wrest away your crown!
  3. Michal Rose vs. Zombies: Michal Rose’s coffee farm is under attack from Matthew Wilder and other pretend-reggae-musician zombies. Defeat the zombies or else your rhythms will appear on Solid Gold next to Marilyn McCoo.

I Am Looking For Freedom

I’m so up on being in Berlin right now that it’s annoying even to have to hear myself thinking about it. Yesterday when I started biking home from my workspace, the trip began with me standing on a sidewalk waiting to hop into an adjacent bike lane that was so packed with bicycling Berliners that it took me a full minute to actually get a chance to merge the flow of traffic. What heaven.

The one thing that’s really bugging me is being behind the Great German Internet Wall. If you don’t know about this: youtube blocks just about any video content that any large corporate entity has a copyright claim to, due to an ongoing dispute over royalties with something called GEMA (details here). As a result, the youtube experience here contains an awful lot of this:

Wanna watch the most enjoyable clip on all of youtube, Sts’ Rolling Stones parody? Not in Germany you won’t. Or, say, the Matthew Wilder Solid Gold clip I did the short running blog to a few weeks back? Same story. You have to wonder if Germans as a group are going to turn into the national equivalent of that kid you went to grade school with whose progressive parents didn’t allow him or her to watch TV and so didn’t understand basic pop-culture tropes and was forced to try to fake it in order to get by.

Grim as all this is, it’s given me an idea for an alternate revenue stream in case this whole graphic design thing falls apart. My plan is to use my connections to get to Prague– that land of freedom and civil liberties to the east– where these youtube clips are still legal. Then I will set up a video camera in front of a computer monitor, record various videos with shaky camera work, and finally transfer them to VHS tapes that I will smuggle back into Germany and sell from under a bridge someplace in Kruezberg. Banned videos from the internet! I will surely be able sell each one for literally dozens of Deutsche Marks.

Let The Facile Comparisons Begin!

So far, during our first week in Berlin, my wife and I have agreed to a system whereby I’m allowed one comment per day along the lines of ‘Berlin awesome! / Prague sucks!’ so that I don’t drive her crazy by continually beating the same conversational drum throughout the day (plus, you know, denigrating her native culture and that stuff).

I find that I get the most mileage out of my one daily comment if I present it as a pseudo-amnesiac episode. Example: on Saturday afternoon, we went to a bike store to get help fixing our kiddo bike seat onto my wife’s bike. On the way back, I decided to use my allotted comment this way:

Me: ‘Boy, that sucks that we didn’t get to the bike store before noon and so it was already closed when we arrived.’

Wife: (confused)

Me: ‘Oh, wait– we’re in Berlin, I forgot… the store was open! That’s Prague where every bike store in the city is closed by noon.’

I have to admit that this construction gets pretty contrived after a while, but I don’t think I’ve totally worn it out. Yet.

Other comments-of-the-day have revolved around fairly banal (yet strangely evocative) differences in day-to-day life. The fact that people will stop for ice cream and sit down with it on the curb and idle away a few minutes enjoying themselves there instead of sullenly bustling away as fast as possible. The fact that the bank machines actually dispense notes that you can break without getting the Czech Iron Curtain Face (Czech ATMs for some reason dispense the equivalent of $120 bills, which you’re subjected to eight kinds of contempt simultaneously if you try to use anywhere). You get the picture– lots of small things of the Pulp Fiction ‘Burger Royale’ caliber. Then there’s also the UNBELIEVABLE RELIEF at being able to bike everywhere again. (You can bicycle in Prague, but will quickly drop it if you value life and living to any degree). I almost feel it breaks the entire social contract if you’re living in a city and can’t bike…

But most of all, there’s a startling sensation of dilation for me coming from a place as culturally-compressed as Prague. Everything in Prague is still done in a way that is just Czech, Czech, Czech… often, nobody seems to know why it’s done this way… maybe the thinking behind it hasn’t been revisited in three centuries… but it just is a certain way and there’s no negotiating with it. Berlin has the kind of elasticity preferred by rootless cosmopolitan Jewish homosexuals like myself– the city seems to mutate and adjust to meet the shifting demands of its inhabitants, be it a demand for ethnic food or stores that stay open past fucking noon on a Saturday.

(Photo: on same Saturday, we all biked together to Mauer Park, as I hoped that something interesting would happen that would justify my constant ‘Blah blah, Berlin is so cool’ claims. We arrived at the place where I’ve heard about the karaoke being done and came upon this impromptu mime act. Whew!)

Berlin Bandwagon

So, as intimated in last post (and a few other ones), we’re taking the leap and moving to Berlin in beginning of June. The plan is to try it out for six months, see how it goes, and then revaluate towards the end of the year. The short version of the story is that you can look forward to lots of facile comparative ‘blah blah Berlin this, Prague that, blah blah blah’ posts in this space over the summer. I look forward to jumping on an already stuffed-to-capacity bandwagon and adding to the steady drumbeat of inane ‘Berlin: Best City Evah!‘-type commentary.

You know those occasional experiences that make you truly appreciate the internet (for example, buying plane tickets– do you actually remember how much airfare cost in the early 90s?). This process of moving to another city with wife and small child in tow has been more or less the ultimate example of this. I’m literally not sure that it would be possible to me to organize this in, say, 1992. Sure, if we didn’t have a kid, I suppose my wife and I could squat with various friends and stuff while we figured it out… but, given the current set-up, the only two options I can imagine would be:

  1. Move family to some crappy hotel in Berlin, go to German equivalent of Rainbow grocery every day and scour bulletin board for sublet postings written in English
  2. Hire some agency to take care of it. This sounds somewhat plausible (if expensive)… until I remember that I currently live in Prague and am planning to move to a second foreign country– it’s not like I could just open the phonebook and find some Czech-German relocation company with whom I could easily communicate with about the nuances of potential living situations.

So, yeah: thanks, internet. I really like you this week. But also for another reason: the post that I wrote about my late sculptor friend Joe… both his daughter and his friend Rhonda have come across the post via Google searches, and Rhonda was kind enough to corroborate my vague memories of his experience living in an unheated cement warehouse. It’s such a good story– imagine my relief to discover that it’s not a pure embellishment from my addled memory.

See also: So Long, Old Friend and Berlin Says…