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.