a phoenix, and a new year

Approaching Dresden from the north, you'd never think the town practically melted into the Elbe some 50 years ago. Great spires scratch the gray heavens; blindingly golden statues grasp triumphal torches on stately roofs. We walked along the quay and couldn't help but notice that one strident Frau looked as if she was giving the Neustadt across the river a middle-fingered salute; Dresden is a phoenix, to be sure, but the time in between has been less than kind.

We spent a long Christmas weekend at the foot of the Frauenkirche, just recently completed. Apparently architects gathered bricks that locals had lovingly ferreted away during Soviet times to painstakingly rebuild this towering church. Its unusual design is beautiful; hulking from the outside, the inside is all pale pink and gold, with interweaving layers of pews and stories, winding all the way to the base of the enormous dome. It seems more concert hall than staid church. We scampered to a Christmas eve mass (without tickets; the doorman somehow had three extras sitting in his hand) that was held in candlelight. In this twilight, the whole structure seemed gossamer light, draped or suspended at a single point high in the midnight sky.

Now, back in Berlin for Christmas part two; a guest tomorrow and then Thursday we're off for England, a wedding, and then back for the new year. Keeping up with the tradition of time, barreling along like a bobsled, through a very slick December and slam! on to 2007.


lazy sunday

Just finished a fistful of Red Vines brought across the Atlantic by this lovely lady. Easy candy is a bad thing. It makes sitting in front of a computer almost impossible (since the bag's in the kitchen, and yes, will remain there) although I could consider the up-and-down a cheap excuse for exercise. Very cheap.

So, a lazy Sunday. John's in the living room, snoozing and listening to a Bach oratorio. I've just finished washing lamb blood off my hands (before the Red Vine snacking, of course) in preparation for a meaty braise sometime this evening. The Burgundy I happily bought last week tastes a bit thin, but that's what I get for grabbing it on the cheap (or relatively cheap.)

One more food bummer: last night to F'hain for handmade Chinese-style noodles. The restaurant looked so promising -- a chef makes the noodles in an open kitchen, spinning the dough in big arcs, folding the dough over on itself, sending it flying again. (A TV screen captures his acrobatics and broadcasts them to passers-by.) Very fancy. But the kids couldn't cook. John's fried noodles were soggy, soaked in a Chung King canned sauce; sure, "oriental" but hardly edible (and gave him a tummy ache to boot.) I got a greasy bowl of yesterday's duck and a couple of shakes of five-spice as soup, over soggy noodles. Sigh. We paid up and walked out and chastised ourselves for being snobs, but hell. There has *got* to be a place in this town for authentic Asian food, not just for our own greedy bellies. We will keep looking.


oh saint nick

Apparently the holidays are here. We're wandering down Schoenhauser Allee, dodging rain puddles, when suddenly we're dazzled by our local mall that appears to be on fire. Not a wall's left that isn't covered with holiday lights; there are shooting stars on the hardware store, and the bakery's got St. Nick cookies, and probably even gluhwein to go with.

"Egads," I say, overhearing a chorus of what seems to be hundreds near the post office, belting out some cheery tune. "I'd thought we'd avoid this crap here in Deutschland."

Not so, says John. "I don't know if we can avoid Christmas, but I'm sure we're going to be Weihnacht'd up the ass."


talk is cheap

"In the past, Tehran has had its fingers burnt by trying to open a dialogue with this most hawkish of US administrations...In May 2003, for example, it offered to open up its nuclear programme, rein in Hezbollah and co-operate against al-Qaeda, but was reportedly rebuffed as the insistence of former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney."--BBC News

Am I the only one who dreams of kidnap scenarios where, with the help of those poorly armored helicopters and overworked soldiers of the U.S. Army, we grab these two lovely individuals in the stealth of night, drop them somewhere in the middle of Sadr City, strip them down to their knickers, and leave them there? How do these men sleep at night? What payback could karma possibly come up with for these two masterminds?


curtain up, curtain down

Days go by so fast now. It's barely sunrise when John gets up, already 8:30 a.m.; and when I roll out of bed (spurred on by the sound of coffee grinding) it's a feeble light that makes up the sky. This reluctant glow loses its nerve around three; by four the day's all but done, as least as far as the light is concerned.

After reading online about seasonal depression, I quickly ran outside, jumped on my bike, and rode out to Humbolthain. The park is in the “west,” an old bunker and rubble hill with a monument, erected, I think, in the 60s, to Berlin's long-past divide. During the summer we'd laze here amid dozens of overflowing Turkish families talking, laughing, barbecuing and playing soccer riotously. The hill itself rises in snail-like concentric circles, climbing up the back of the bunker which offers one of the better views of Berlin around. When the park was in full leaf, you couldn't see from one path to another; one moment you'd find yourself lost amid a tangle of oak and birch only to turn a corner and discover a wide field filled with shrieking children.

Today the park is a skeleton, the same hilly maze but without the mystery. The fields are littered with orange and yellow leaves, slick with yesterday's rains. Naked branches like so many fingers reach upwards, as if to try to catch the remaining light of the day. I couldn't help but think that if the leaves could go, perhaps the trees could too—and then nothing would be left, just wet mud and useless paths. (It's the same thought I mull when riding through Tiergarten, as it's already on its second life; during the war it was completely deforested by frozen Berliners seeking firewood.)

Such are the fears of a winter novice. Our sickly horse chestnut tree in the courtyard holds on stubbornly to a handful of leaves on its outermost limbs; at least it's not launching angry chestnut projectiles any more. Perhaps that was its way of protesting the indignity of a coatless winter.


who needs a wall?

File under Brazil moment, #254: Traveled across the city to the Zollamt in Schöneberg (really, ACROSS the city. Potsdam might have been closer) to pick up a package from Mom (warm clothes. Because we need them, and we're too cheap to buy decent long johns.) But instead of being sent directly to our nest in Pankow, it found its way to the lowest rung of hell at the Zollamt (because really, who wears long johns?)

The Zollamt is the customs office. Perfumed with industrial cleanser, fatigue and paper cuts, the Zollamt is a lifeless building perched on the edge of the freeway (to make jumping easier.) Weary people hold up every wall, slump on every well-worn bench, fill every gray seat in the bland (yet clean) waiting room (that has a sink.) Employees move with such molasses speed one wonders if gravity has an increased effect on the body the longer one works for the government.

I'm constantly amazed at the silent patience of people in such situations. Granted, it is a lesson in survival: one does not taunt the government official. One doesn't wave arms or hop up and down to get government official's attention, even when waiting in an unmarked line for more than 45 minutes. One simply stands, emotionless yet alert, in (and this is what gets me) complete silence. I'm used to line jokers. Someone (at least in the States, or perhaps just S.F.) makes a crack; someone giggles; a conversation starts. There's solidarity in the line. Us against them. Not so here: Berliners seem to take line members as just another impediment to the goal (returning beer bottles for change, getting bread on a Saturday morning, waiting at the Post office.)

Which is why one German guy probably thought I was hitting on him hard, since he approached the line with a wry smile and proceeded to make a joke (sehr un-Deutsch.) I giggled. He stared at me the rest of the time (an hour and a half!) we were there. Oops. Tut mir leid.

Soviet-style, we waited in line at a counter with no one behind it. And again, in true DDR fashion, we waited in the spic-and-span waiting room for another half hour until our name was called. Children ran in circles and ran into walls. Partners took turns taking cell-phone camera pictures of each other. The clock ticked. Finally, we got the package, paid a tax (not terrible; what's more, the official was a very nice person) and stumbled out into the fading sunshine of an early afternoon.


digging in

Amazing how a simple piece of paper can make all the difference between sleeping through the night and laying awake, contemplating escape routes to Poland. Not a historical path for escape, granted, but since the border's just an hour away, it seemed as good a Plan B as anything.

Not that we were ever totally serious. But at least today, 120 Euros lighter, we've been granted a free pass to stay in Germany for a year. No more 8 a.m. groggy visits to the Ausländerbehörde; no more embarrassed calls to wonderful, generous friends for translation favors. We're really here as "residents" -- a grün card? -- which at least lets us really fold up our suitcases and contemplate welcoming the leaves back, and summer, mazes of sidewalk cafes and sunsets that last until 11 p.m.

But I'm not ready for time to pass that fast, not yet. Church bells are ringing, saying that it's 6 p.m., but it feels like midnight. Such is the beautiful gloom of a northern winter.


is it really so hard?

So now red wine may help prevent diabetes and potentially increase life span, even if you eat a dozen bacon double-cheeseburgers a day. How convenient.

The "French paradox" is raised every time a study like this one is released. How can those crazy French, with their fois gras and their cream sauces, live like champs for so long? It's the red wine. Bien sur. So now we want a pill that gives us the benefits of 1,000 bottles of red wine a day so we can gorge on deep-fried Snickers bars and McDonald's, and still live like bon vivants.

It's all merde. The French walk, for one thing. They don't super-size anything (well, so far.) When you order a steak you'll probably get a 4-6 ounce portion, not a 16-ounce Hungry Man plate. Sure, the red wine helps. But so does having a brain, and eating what your body needs.

"They had all the pleasures of gluttony but paid none of the price." Lucky mice. The study does go on to say that in other research, mice fed a low-calorie diet--healthy, but just less calories--lived longer too. But who wants to be frugal when there's fries around. Really.


passion plays

I spent the morning reading a recent draft of a play written by our friend in England. Anders puts the wunder in Wunderkind, to be sure. He's good. There is an electric charge that runs through truly good plays--a gradual tension that pulls and teases you along until the final curtain. It's a more concentrated energy than one finds in novels, sometimes; the combination of dialog, shorter scenes, and limited, forceful action makes me feel as if I'm holding a stick of dynamite in my hands. The passion I had for plays during high school and college has never left me; it's just been tucked away, I guess. But reading the play this morning brought me back. I hope he breaks through one day. It should come. People need to hear and see and feel these words.


tying it all together

I've been out of the creative writing habit for so long that I'm having a hard time figuring out how, and where, to start. Habit may be a strong word. My fingers and brain have been so occupied with what people want me and pay me to write (this outstanding Burgundy, the best you'll ever experience, from a vintage without peer, etc., etc.) that we (my fingers, my brain) feel a little pang of conscience when I actually sit down (like now, for example) to contemplate other Work, as there is always, always other "work" to do.

I like that John and I have reclaimed the word "work," at least in our world. There is "work" in the small "w" sense, which addresses the stuff we do to keep a roof over our head and sausages in our vicinity; then there is the big-W, the Work that is the expression of all the good stuff inside. At some point, perhaps, it will be an "oeuvre," but today, it is my Work.

For example: There's a woman somewhere out in Berlin riding a bicycle. Her spine is as straight as a piston, and like an engine, she peddles effortlessly. A puffy, velveteen black hat is propped on black curls; a wispy shawl flutters above shoulders as she heads down Wilhelmstrasse. It's dusk. The pavement sparkles with the day's forgotten heat. The street is empty, except for her.

This is what sticks with me. There's a catalyst in that black hat, a trigger. What this black hat set into motion was extraordinary; at least, everyone said so. But no one can remember; details are hazy, stories don't add up. This is what I have to figure out. So go, storyteller, do that thing.


falling down, and getting up

Last week, I finally did what I've been worried about doing for six months: I caught my bicycle tire in a track and flipped. It was a cool-kid skid, bounce and crash. The shock (and frayed nerves) following my spill proved much worse than the actual bruises, which total one big blue egg on my ass and a couple of randomly placed purple splotches on leg, side and chest.

Nothing broken, except a little ego that doesn't like to go bounce. But needs to. With two weeks of a antagonistic family visit, the mounting concerns over our legality here in this country, the ever-growing pile of work missives from abroad, the let-down following a full month of language lessons that left me capable but not yet chatty, I'm not surprised I kissed the pavement.

Kids have it easier. After a full day in the park, with sand and digging and swings and yelling, the tantrum is a great release. I'm exhausted! the tantrum says. There has been so much. But I want all of this. I want the energy and hours to play in 1,000 parks, to dig 1,000 holes. Today. Forever. Fists balled in defiance, tears cutting dirt-streaked rivers down flushed cheeks. We chuckle from afar and think, oh dear, meltdown.

But me, we, we're not so different. I fell down and so I cried, and realized then I really needed to cry, because the physical pain gave me the out to unload everything. Which is crap, because I shouldn't need a bruise as a prompt to be honest with myself. But, and then. Perhaps I just need to dig more holes, or have more tantrums in the park. Or write more. (Then I'll really have something to cry about.)


easy for you to say

So we're drinking wine with dinner, which is something that everyone should do. Tonight is a Mosel Riesling, which is a surprise, as usually with rain (and generally with dinner) we go red, because red is a better rain-cutter. But it's that kind of night. Yet, this is an "inexpensive" Riesling, which should be (and has been) a warning to us: pretty bottle, potentially nasty juice. (Read here to see what happens when one drinks a liter of cheap German wine. It involves Finnish metal and short skirts.)

There's many a challenge to discovering the world that is German wine. German labels are terrible, for one. Labels are covered with very long words, usually in some terrifying, Teutonic script, with lots of hyphens and little dots over places that aren't usually dotted. What's more, there's usually some 800-year old family crest with dragons or picture of a haunted, crumbling castle that screams "Run!" rather than, "Enjoy me with Thai curry, please." It's too bad. Some weinguts get it and have made changes for the better; many, typically, in the search for simplicity muck it up even more.

Which brings us back to our dinner bottle. It was a nice label, something you'd see out of New Zealand--a lovely image of the Rhein, nice gold touches, the word "Riesling" big and bold. It even smooshed the tongue-twisting "Mosel-Saar-Ruwer" region designation (say MOzel, Zaahr, RUUver) into a fairyland-sounding, "Moselland." But what tickled me the most is the bottle's bold claim of quality (even though this was a 3 Euro wine, at most) with the label Hochgewächs, in bold gold script.

Germans have a word for everything. Really. What do you call a football team that plays kinda shoddy during the regular season but then turns it on for the tournaments? Turniermannschaft. What do you call the rule for making sure if your dog dies you remove it to a safe and sanitary location, approved by the local authorities? Tierkoerperbeseitigungsgesetz. I wish I was joking. Hochgewächs is an unofficial way of saying the wine is of a high caliber, judged by no one else but the winemaker. It's kind of like a sticker with a smiley face, or a thumbs-up. While there's plenty of other official ways to designate vineyard and wine quality, this is one for the guys who make the 3 Euro wine, and want to say, hey. Enjoy it, 'cuz it's a lot better than that 2 Euro swill.

And enjoy it we did. With Thai curry, in fact.


kein Geld, mehr Wein

In our new roles as globetrotting underpaid writers (and in the tradition of worldly writers before us), we've been dabbling in the enjoyment of cheap wine. Baudelaire wasn't talking about a kegger of La Tâche when he scribbled, "Il faut être toujours ivre."

Turns out that the cheapies we used to grab by the six-pack at Trader Joe's--the nameless Côtes du Rhônes, the Sicilian Nero di Troias--seem more abundant and even cheaper here on the "continent." Our favorite bottles need only hitch a ride on the autobahn to get to our local enoteca; eliminating the long boat ride across the Atlantic does wonders for wine selection. Yet if the Euro keeps drubbing the Dollar, we'll be pining for the Trader before too long. (And for jobs that pay the local stronger currency, too. Anyone?)

Our local down-and-out "Extra" is winning the cheap wine provider award, so far. It's a grocery chain a step below Safeway, stocked with wilted cabbage and plenty of frozen pizzas. Their wine shelf, however, reflects the taste of a respectable wino with a eye on his port-de-monaie. We've enjoyed a couple of smoky, plummy bottles of basic Bordeaux and a Rioja Crianza or two--good for rainy spring evenings and the unexpected rainy summer ones, too. A good Tempranillo offers the same tingle as smelling new leather, or biting into a blackberry tart. Sweet and sour, with a little swagger.


the dregs

I will never ask the War-God
At my future feasts to dine.
When he has some drink inside him
He'll to violence incline,
Gatecrash other people's parties,
Break the jugs and spill the wine.
-Aristophanes, "The Acharnians"

Aristophanes, playwright and friend of Plato and Socrates, tells a practical tale of war and peace in "The Acharnians." Witnessing Athens pursue a fruitless conflict against its neighbor, Sparta, inspired him to write this play that calls for "peace in every possible way."

In the play, protagonist Dikaiopolis has had enough of warmongering, famine and death. He makes his own "personal" peace with Sparta, and opens a market, befriending those besieged (and making serious enemies of his own neighbors, who see his peacemaking as anti-Athenian.) In the end, he makes a mockery of the Athenian hawks and their flashy trappings of war while enjoying a Dionysian feast. He is proclaimed, "the champion."

The moral of the story: war is fruitless and only peace fills the belly. But other themes are raised, at least to my attention. Dikaiopolis is fixated on his feast (and thus, fixated on survival); he pushes desperate farmers out of his comforting circle; he hoards his goods. He is mocked for being so pleasure-driven in the midst of mass suffering; how can he celebrate, lo, while others bleed?

And so too might one ask how a creative, conscious person write about the pleasures of wine while the world around appears to be falling to pieces. For one, it's how I fill my belly and keep a roof over my head. Yet the Greek chorus still pesters. I've spent every day the past two weeks trying to milk buoyant, peppy prose out of my ever-parched brain while reading about all this, and this, and this. Some of it is close to me; most of it is thankfully still far away.

The story of wine, at its core, is the story of people. People that till the earth, tend the vines, nurture the wine in stone wombs, often in their own simple homes. As old as civilization, and probably older still. It would be trite to say that winemaking civilized us; but perhaps its discovery too gave us license to do worse, as it allowed us to forget more.

So maybe my frustration is justified when I flip from a story that tallies the dead in southern Lebanon to one that extols the virtues of drinking rosé on a hot night in Manhattan. I like rosé. I hate war and the terrible urge inside all of us to look the other way because what is ugly and cruel and terrible is so much harder to swallow than a picture of pretty people holding glasses of pink wine. Is that callous, or just human?

So here's my challenge. To talk about passion while the world loses its head. To capture beauty, wherever it may be hiding, while all that is ugly finds a welcome stage in too many parts of the world. Good luck, you say. Better start drinking.


this place

It is 1:56 p.m. Wednesday. And a radio spills into the courtyard with a 1920s tune, something Big Band, muffled by the flapping of loose plastic sheeting on the roof. The tune floats through the chestnut tree, bending with every windy blow, its traditional springtime dance. Now is the time when the dirty clouds roll in from the west, Potsdamer clouds. A plane cruises overhead, a smaller craft with an engine made of angry bees. Its heart rumbles above and gently shakes the walls surrounding. It whispers away, trailing with a whistle towards Tegel.

The sun feels good. It creeps in the bedroom around this time every day, when the Potsdamer clouds allow, clawing its way over the sill and onto the drab gray carpet. It plays havoc with the piles of coins on the windowsill, so many pieces of copper and metal that together could buy a loaf of bread, separately fall out of pockets with too many holes. Here, the clouds are winning, and the sun's gone for now. The plastic tarp waves goodbye. The construction soloist on the roof has left for the day; pleased with his newly built echo chamber on the dachgeschloss, he belts out stacatto stanzas. “Oh my love.” A coworker bellows orders, or perhaps a request to pipe down. It has no effect. The call of the stage is too strong, even for the manual laborer.

The coins beg me to order them. It is the way of procrastination, or better, the absence of compelling thought. To fiddle, perchance to eat a sandwich. There are always ways to explore the other while ignoring what's right in front of you. Luckily for me, I'm staring at the world on the wall, circa 1996. It claims to be political, but I promise to be neutral. Zaire is enormous; Brazil is bigger. I wonder why no one came up with a better name for the Central African Republic. Or whether Kalaallit Nunaat really translates to Greenland, in that tongue the five people in Greenland must speak. When it's not too cold to talk. Other times, they just sit around and watch as the sun never sets. Or never rises.

A horn blows from beyond the apartment building. A conch shell, perhaps, something to signal the beginning of a game, or just a beginning. A television mumbles, bouncing its afternoon programming from wall to wall in the central courtyard. There's always one person with the TV on full strength, and you can't tell where the TV is. It's a false statement. The TV is all around you. Where are you? In my bedroom on the third floor overlooking the central courtyard at the heart of a corner apartment building on the edge of Pankow, formerly known as east Berlin.