'tis the reason

for the season, or so the devoted say. But a copy editor is needed here in Pankow. Thus the bunny ears. It's my way of dealing with spiritual, or grammatical, questions.


barbarians in the gates

I am not a number! Or, actually, I am. Along with 12,556 other Yankee passport-carrying immigrants, apparently. The "Statistische Jahrbuch 2007" from Berlin's city hall spits out in excruciating detail the vital (or not so vital) statistics of the hauptstadt, from how few people still have jobs to what little education they can boast or how high their debt still is -- and on top of it all, how many freakin' foreigners are running around amok. The rest of the slide show is here. (image from Tagesspiegel, credit: Ausländeranteil - Grafik: TSP)


back home

I wish someone would tell me what time it is, or better, stop turning out the lights when I'm finally ready to wake up. I've gone from horizontal in bed to horizontal on the couch, to barely horizontal at the breakfast table (as the eggs were too good to sleep in.) Why haven't we invented time travel without this dumb timelag? Because we're too busy building bombs and SUVs, I suppose.

Quetzl told me before I left to "write about being in America!" but I'll be honest, I've come back empty-brained and -handed. Not that there weren't things to attract or elicit even small, whispered words during my mostly-solo wanderings: I swore copiously during a two-hour slog through traffic between Berkeley and San Francisco. I mumbled incoherently while the city's ever-present homeless hit me up for change or tried to hawk a Street Sheet, right in front of the Christmas SPCA kitteh windows downtown. And I said goodbye to lots of people, again.

What was peculiar is that I felt that I had just left yesterday; that virtually everything seemed more or less fairly frozen in time; and that what I thought I had felt as homesickness some months and months ago was quickly assuaged by the realization that, hey, the city's still there. And so are the people. And what seemed like a brief burst of togetherness was just that -- going away and coming home may seem a holiday, but what happens before and after is just the regular stuff of the Alltag, and as such makes an attempt at "catching up" after 18 months (especially in the space of two hours while noshing burritos) somewhat awkward, if not entirely impossible. Which, I think, is why I felt more as if I was just dropping by on a school night; a couple of glasses of wine and lovely hugs and conversation, and then, well, back to work.

I suppose I could say something terribly pithy about the nature of electronic communication keeping people closer and making the world smaller and all that, but I don't think that explains the surprisingly reassured feeling I had when finally landing after 14 bumpy hours in the sky. I got to ride the slow bus home resting my head on a favorite shoulder; and finally, after weeks of sleeping alone, shared a pillow too. Now, that's home.


a small maui diary, illustrated

It rained hard around 4 a.m. The combined noise of the waves (high tide with the new moon) and the storm made it sound as if a jet was coming in for a landing right above us. The park comes out of its night hiding around 6 a.m., and the first rays of sun peek over the mountains around 7.

My brother and I played rummy last night as the sun was setting. I got killed. Our score sheet reminded me of how terrible I played. Made the coffee taste a little stale.

The local birds are creepy. Every morning, the gather in this same spot to gossip. This morning the group was small; usually, about 10 or more huddle in a perfect circle and bob heads and tweet. After a few minutes, they disperse. I think they're planning revolution. Thankfully, island birds are as lazy. Gotta think of breakfast first.

This is the bacon curtain. My parents found this device at Kmart, I think. You drape raw bacon slices over two plastic beams, and when the bacon is cooking in the microwave (of course), all the fat drips into the tray. The cooked bacon keeps its slightly squared shape. In the past week I think we've collectively devoured about four pounds of bacon (one pound was maple-flavored.) Lest you think we're completely deranged, strange pork products are quite the thing on the islands. A favorite snack is spam musubi. Slice of spam on top of rice ball, wrapped in seaweed. Really. So a bacon curtain in comparison is pedestrian.

Sand crabs rule the beach at night, but you can catch them cleaning house in the early morning, kicking sand out of small holes and generally being skittish. This guy was feisty enough to play stare down with me for about a minute before he hid again. The best fun is to watch jet-lagged East coast tourists (who are up at 3 a.m.) enjoying a romantic, pre-sunrise walk along the beach, only to step on one of these guys and squeal.

We drove across the island for lunch, driving through sugar cane fields on the way to Paia. This is Haleakala, a dormant volcano. The welcome sign on the road to Paia reads, "Don't feed the hippies."

The sun sets around 6 p.m. and doesn't linger; this brief pink glow disappears quickly and the winds pick up. Two days ago the waves took away all the sand on the beach. Today, they kindly put most of it back. Yet the water is so filled with sand particles it's not very pleasant to swim. I stick to the pool; I can hold on. I'm chicken that way.


lagged jets

Wide awake at 3 a.m. and jonesing for toast. Nasty when you can't turn the lights on (nor find the lights when you've long-lost your glasses on a Polish train and haven't been bothered to get a new pair) because you can't see to find the switch, and, even if you could find it, the light would bleed into the one bedroom, that of course, has no door. The joys of crashing on the floor of the 'rents' one-bedroom flat are many. There will be toast, just much, much later. Until then I huddle (with a sweater! but it is winter, even on islands with palm trees) reading by public-park light and digging toes in sand. There are crabs, side-scuttling, across the beach that's also very much in the dark at 3 a.m., but the stars are liquid and the water warm and the sunrise a good four, nay five hours away. At 4:30 a.m. another night wanderer, east-coaster, comes wandering out and is frozen by the sight of a moving beach, of crabs playing catch-me-if-you-can with increasingly angry waves. He can't be more than 7, and leans almost 45-degrees into the beach, straining to see it all but not move an inch further for fright. Nervous fingers button and unbutton a new Hawaiian shirt and then sweat is wiped from sweaty palms on knees. The light arrives; the boy disappears, to drag out a sleepy father and point, energetically, at the crabs who have long dug holes under us to snooze the warming day away. I've read almost 200 pages in the hours between stars and dawn, and am ready for dinner. Or toast. Whatever comes first.


sweet st. martin

I think the bar for saintdom has risen in the past few centuries. St. Martin, for instance, shared a coat with a cold guy. This does not make him an action saint by any means. It does make him a nice guy, however; the quantity of which around the year 300 C.E. must have been low. (Raiding Visigoth hordes not being known for their hospitality.)

So Martin gets chilly and becomes a saint. (Certainly better than being impailed by stakes, say, or torn apart by lions. I did not eat all the Halloween candy, for instance. Where's my damn saint's day?) But thank God for pagans, as the old traditions at least inject some practical elements into a holiday (like eating sweets.) No one's wandering around with half-torn coats around here; they're eating cookies, roasting geese and wandering around singing (when it's not raining and 4 degrees Celcius) with lanterns. Light of God and all that, but whatever. They look cool, and I'm told they can also double as a place to stash more candy. Practical.

The goose part of the story is probably my favorite. St. Martin, being a nice guy and all, wanted nothing to do with being appointed Bishop of Tours (as the fancy church robes were harder to tear) and so hid in a goose pen. Martin, it must be said, was not the brightest ascetic. The geese gave up the monk with their squacking, and Martin was bishoped, and the geese became dinner. Silly gooses.



Bit of cultural insight today while watching the morning news. The trains were on strike again, this time a very cheeky whole day and a half. Chilly newscasters stood outside the main train stations in Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin, reporting that there was no one around to catch the trains that weren't there. But German train strikes aren't like French strikes, where you just might as well sit and have another cigarette and coffee 'cause you're certainly not going anywhere anytime soon. German strikes are considerate. They include free coffee. And oddly enough, some running trains. Our local newscaster, after breathlessly reporting that Munich was experiencing traffic delays of up to one hour (has anyone been to L.A.?) said that the S-Bahn in Berlin was running some trains at 20 minute intervals.

Twenty minute intervals? In San Francisco, MUNI, easily one of the worst public transportation systems ever, would consider this stellar service. Drivers would be awarded medals and certainly given a raise, another two months in holiday pay plus a few extra get-out-of-jail-free cards for running over passengers at will. There were evenings where we'd wait on the corner of Geary and Fillmore for an hour and a half before we'd even see a bus -- and when they'd finally arrive, there'd be three. In a row. The first one packed to the gills, as only he would stop; the other two would play drag racer behind the first one and never stop. Some evenings we'd just walk the three miles home. Because it was faster.

Ah, memories. Give me a German train strike any day.


retail ultraviolence

Oi. A retail outlet called Clockwork Orange, based in Ireland, was ransacked by mad shoppers in an overnight sale. The deal: one could purchase items like £300 leather belts for 5 quid, or some nonsense. People tore mannequins apart to get to the duds. Because really, "it's not just about fashion, it's about the life you lead, what you do and how you do it. It's about style," or so goes the shop's motto.

You can't but love such consumerist trash philosophy. Yet it certainly seems to be working. Lead on, lemmings! Burgess writes in his intro to Clockwork Orange (reprint 1986): "...by definition, a human being is endowed with free will. He can use this to choose between good and evil. If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange -- meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with color and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State."


eight thingys

Taking the baton, a little bit tardy. Kisses here and here.

1. Both of my names -- Aimee and Michelle, in the middle -- have separate origins. Aimee (with the accent on the first e) is French; I am not French, but I was born at French Hospital in San Francisco, which for decades now has been a satellite Kaiser office, on Geary Blvd. My parents thought Amy was a boring spelling. Michelle would seem to continue the Frenchy theme, but really, my dad just loved the Beatles.

2. The longest train ride I ever took was from Istanbul to Belgrade and then on to Budapest, and then 24 hours later (this part probably doesn't count, tho) on to Prague. The train cut through Bulgaria, where border guards collected the rest of my hard currency for a "transit visa" (this was 1996) leaving me with nothing but Turkish lira and Czech crowns; when I arrived in Belgrade at midnight, my friend wasn't there. (He had forgotten I was coming, and had left town.) I got back on my train still idling at the station, and convinced the Serbian night crew to let me ride black until the Hungarian border. They did. Once in Hungary, I had to convince the Hungarian night crew to let me stay until Budapest; they did as well, my ticket being my ability to slug homebrew out of a plastic Coke bottle. I only puked once.

3. I love watching adults eating ice cream. It's an activity that instantly sheds years off anyone. I can only eat sorbet; the milk makes me icky.

4. Really not keen on drowning, although it's not really full-blown aquaphobia. I can't swim terribly well, but I can swim OK, as long as my feet can touch something solid, preferably ground. This prevents me from learning how to scuba dive, although I've been told it's freaking awesome.

5. The first language I studied was French, in high school. I also started Russian then too (it was the first-ever country I visited; I was 16) as well as Japanese. That, however, didn't last long. Russian was my major in college; at one point I was fluent, although now I have to think really hard to conjugate verbs. I can speak food and wine French fairly well. I've approached German a bit like a sponge, that is, if there's language around I'll soak it up, but I'm not really actively looking for spills. I fear I have one of those heads that people who claim they don't *get* languages kind of hate. I hear patterns, and more often than not they stick. Perhaps I'm just part parrot.

6. I have a Pavlovian response to certain musical chords, that when I hear them I tear up. It's lame, as this happens at particularly inopportune times, like during a commercial for adult diapers or some such. I'm sure someone's done research on this.

7. I certainly wouldn't have been able to say 10 years ago that when I hit my mid-30s I'd be writing about wine for a living. My resume is certainly schizophrenic. But I think I prefer it that way. A linear path makes for a linear brain. And that's boring.

8. I started reading the travel section when I was about seven years old. There's always been a gypsy in me; I think I got it from my grandfather, who ran away from his family farm in Iowa to San Diego, to join the Navy. I feel no emotional ties to the U.S. as a country. I wish people could wander where they wished, without this damned paper trail and visa nonsense. Berlin is cranky and charming, and has so far treated us fairly well. I still have dreams of a half-dozen pieds-a-terre around the globe, to share with dozens of others who share a similar wanderlust. Who needs furniture and mortgages?

And, lo, perhaps the Fairfax crew and our favorite SF shutterbug will take up the baton?


never mock manual labor

I would type more, but I can barely move my fingers. Stuck behind a desk as I usually am, I have renewed appreciation for the world of people who labor for a living. I couldn't move this morning; my fingers are suffering from RSI of the meatpacker kind, from repetitive motions ripping leaves from towering Riesling plants. They give up a fight, but aren't as persistent as the spiders, who like to sprint up arms and wander around necks while you wonder whether it's a nasty on your neck, or just a loose hair.

My time in the fields is up, but the bizzare band of Poles, Turks and Germans I've spent the past 48 hours with get another three weeks, hopefully under the sun, to pick and sweat and fight with eight-legged wildlife. I loved this experience but man, I´m happy to think that come Monday, all I'll have to do to 'get' to work will be roll out of bed. Now, all I really want is a beer.


learning to serf

The trouble about putting your money (or sweat, or tears, or sore muscles) where your mouth is (or has been) is just that -- you've got to do what you've said you were going or wanted to do. So this explains why I'm waking up early tomorrow to train down to Geisenheim to pick Riesling grapes for a Hessian prince. Really. Which makes me a serf, I think, since I'm certainly not getting paid. All in the noble, if not particularly haphazard, pursuit of deeper agricultural knowledge. Or deep mud. Whichever comes first. (Quick weather report check: Yup. The latter.) Underneath all my pre-travel butterflies (I love the travel but the details weigh. Train across country; must rent bicycle; must ride bicycle up large hill to rented room in nearby town; it may rain; must buy poncho; etc.) is a very, very excited city slicker about to do her first nature thingy. Which could lead to other nature thingies, perhaps. (Though maybe not as a serf.) But for now, zum Wohl! I'm off to get dirty and commune with Bacchus. Wish me luck.


tropical depression

Me and Dean, we've been downgraded. Much more fun to throw back a cocktail or twelve and bash up some beach front, than sit sullen in a gray apartment looking at a laptop. But we pay the price for our revelries. My personal Grecian god mourns, here; thing is, I've got to keep sacrificing goats and the odd P'berg child to keep him around, now that the Island Bug has struck. And how could it not? Vitamin D is a more generous drug on the 37th parallel than it is up here on the 53rd; I like the glow such hangovers give. I'm laughing at myself, remembering pre-teen times when I held on, white-knuckled, to the slipping days of summer -- and here I am again, pre-40s, doing the same.


i'll be good

What cobwebs. I was actually happy that summer had disappeared, given the soul-crushing paralysis of deadlines that Must Be Met before we can run away to Vacation, as it's easier to sit at a cluttered desk when it's dreary. But before we pack and bumble along like the rest of the pasty hordes from Northern Europe to coasts of shores and 45 degree temperatures (pasty hordes + inferno heat = exploding marshmallows) Berlin has generously offered another week of summmer (hurrah!) before the rain comes again (boo.)

And everyone was at the Mauer park on Saturday, the kids and the kites and the punks with dogs. A festival for Footbaggers (footbag is apparently a hackysack. I thought it was a sock.) Another festival for progressive women musicians who sing about progressive things. Or something along those lines; John knew about it. (making him more of a progressive woman than me?) Bike vendors tumbled over brat vendors who screamed over independent artists, who scribbled profounds words like, "Capitalism sucks" on postcards, then, uh, sold them to Spanish tourists; just another normal day in the park.

But lest you think Berlin is a hotbed of anarchy and free sausages, think again. The Ordnungsamt was on patrol. Really. There's an "Office for Order," and they have T-shirts to prove it. Two small squadrons poked and prodded the Wiener man for his papers, then stuck it to a bike seller who seemed a bit put-off about the possibility of having to ride 20 bikes away at the same time. The hand-painted sandals seller looked about to bag her wares and run. The patrol thankfully didn't descend Paris-police style, with batons waving (and at least in the Parisian version, fake Gucci bags flying), they politely yet sternly asked for the required dead trees in triplicate. And considering most vendors sell crap wearing nothing more than a fanny pack and a pair of neon-orange running shorts, there was a slim chance of papers being procured.

"Wir kümmern uns um Sauberkeit, Ordnung und Ruhe," or so goes the Ordnungsamt pledge. We scurried away for fear our dusty feets might fall under some prohibited code according to the Ordnungsangelegenheiten. Or, Things that are Just So. So watch it.



Perhaps there's a technical word for the feeling one gets when too much of a body's recent movement has been mechanical. That somewhat queasy, rocking feeling you get lying in bed following 15 hours of rail-riding; that lighter-than-air, free-fall effect when a plane stumbles over "unexpected" turbulence (because if it was expected, the pilot would avoid it, right?) or claws its way through a take-off while your ears make their way to the back of your head, only to right themselves after a 32,000-foot plummet from heaven to tarmac.

Over the past four weeks I've chalked up some 3,000+ kilometers through four (or five?) different countries, and it just all seems too easy. As super-cool as the TGV can be dashing through thunderstorms at 400kph, it's disorienting, in a sense, to be here and then be there, so quickly. (It might be that the scale of my childhood in California has scrambled my ability to adapt to Europe; 120km from Berlin is another country; 120km from San Francisco is, er, San Jose.)

And so I've grounded myself for a bit. Returned and put on my pj's and sat and read Harry Potter for 24 hours, because, well, that's a good way to ground. While I've always considered myself more gypsy than nester, it is certainly nice to be back home.


rock, and reading glasses

Last night was a pilgrimage, of sorts. After taking a few deep breaths, forking over a good amount of Euros, and pretending this wasn't really happening, we renewed our vows to the temple of rock that is Sonic Youth. Yah, that sounds overly dramatic. But John summed it up well last night, walking in the rain some time around midnight, the feedback and grinding guitars still buzzing in our ears, that "Daydream Nation" caught us right around the adolescent throat (circa 1988) and gave us a savage soundtrack for the transition forward. I can't say that I've found musicians since that can speak to me, in such raw, pulsing language (although TV On The Radio does come, at times, somewhat close.) So, yah, the show rocked.

And made us laugh, too, in case we forget that while Time can seem frozen during the beginning chords of "Teen Age Riot," it definitely moves forward all too rapidly. Thurston Moore has a bad memory for lyrics; his roadie, between songs, would swap large lyric sheets on his amp. At one point, the squinting in the poor light I guess became too much. Already into a song, he put his guitar down and wandered around on stage, looking for something on top of the stacked amps. He then walked off stage, to return a minute later with reading glasses perched at the end of his nose, his arms raised in a victory salute, fingers in double-Vs. And then, they played on.


first china, now...

This is brilliant. As so many Polish citizens have moved out of the country for jobs that pay pounds or euros, rather than zlotys, the government is, it claims, faced with a worker shortage and is considering using prison labor to refurbish stadiums for the European Cup, scheduled in both Poland and the Ukraine, in 2012. The prisoners, rest assured, will be transported from jail to the work sites under armed guard. How about a scheme where volunteer labor is rewarded with a better standing in the ticket draw? I'll take a couple of first round picks for laying a cement block or two.


terroir, or terrorism

What a difference a little "i" makes. A group of angry wine-grape growers in the Languedoc-Roussillon have had enough. For a while now they've been involved in smaller acts of outrage: scrawling angry graffiti on local wine shops that sell "foreign" wines, tossing a couple of bombs, and tipping tanker trucks carrying grape juice not grown in France. Now that Sarko's in charge, this group -- the Comite regional d'action viticole, or CRAV -- says it wants action, or else. "Nous sommes au point de non retour." (We're at the point of no return.)

Question is, what, or where, exactly would that point be, if one could return? The Languedoc grows a lot of grapes, and makes a lot of wine. Not all of the wine is great; a lot of it, however, is improving. "Foreign" competition, whether from colonies or from the nasty "new world," (with bottles often better suited to grab eyes on supermarket shelves) has been a scourge. During the turn of the century, growers suffering through a depression in wine prices on the world market revolted en masse, requiring the French army to come in with the goal to calm the crowds, but ended up shooting a few people in the process. It was, as this well-researched article points out,
a very French affair: a mixture of moderation and extremism; a contest between local pride and suffering and central government arrogance and neglect. The solution, initially part-muddle, part-confidence trick, led eventually to an elaborate system of classification of wines which did much to make the international reputation and success of French wine. (The Independent, June 20, 2007)
And so now CRAV says it's acting in the spirit of those 1907 revolts, but it's unclear whether they've got serious traction with the locals or whether they're just a bunch of guys armed with spray paint and a couple of non-lethal explosives. Because really, we've got enough terrorists in the world right now. I support raising a local drinking quota; might mellow tensions, at least for the time being.


in the asylum

So after two months' worth of workers peeking in our bedroom while the apartment's useless elevator was raised, the building scaffolding is down and we are freed, at last.

There's a celebratory mood in the air; I'm back at my desk (also in the bedroom, yes, I know, bad to mix both work and play) sipping wine and gazing out our window at the already-drooping chestnut tree, who seems, as we are, to be a bit deflated from 30+ degree heat so early in the season. Other natives, however, are restless. Our resident child (one floor down) is screaming, a shrill, hiccuping yell that bounces from window to window in our courtyard. Our resident developmentally disabled man, who hides somewhere behind a half-opened window on the other side of the courtyard, howls along. He seems to get especially cagey in the late afternoons -- we've never seen him outside -- so I can only guess that a sultry day indoors must make him a little stir-crazy. But then I look at the clock and realize I've got another three hours behind this desk, and I think: Should I start yelling too?


duck is the new drug

So 24 hours or so after spending time with a 4-year-old and his father (my old college roommate), hours underground in Paris on the metro and overground in rainy parks, and a stint on Easyjet with other sniffling passengers, I now have a slight cold. Not enough to justify a complete retreat to our bed-on-the-floor, buried in Economists I haven't yet read (two months' worth) or re-read the odd Russian novel.

Enough, however, to seek out some sort of medicinal remedy to keep the nasty nose-dripping and cranky-bones feeling at bay. Before my departure in Paris (old college roommate already sniffling was enough to sound the alarm) I wandered into a drug store and explained in broken French that I wasn't quite sick but only "un peu" and perhaps they had something to fix me up? The nice French lady reached for a package of Oscillococcinum; relieved and convinced I had seen this on friends' shelves before, I happily purchased and ran out the door for the nearest cafe to pop pills with perhaps a chaser of wine. Because it helps the medicine go down.

I've never played with homeopathy much, but I can see the attraction. Taking these pills is fun. First, they come in little special tubes with little twisty tops. You twist off the top, and inside is a veritable hive of little white beady sugar pills, about the size of tobiko roe eggs. I dunno how the cool kids do it, but I've dosed by placing the tube between my lips, tip my head back and let all the balls run over my tongue and teeth. Crunchy and sweet. Sure beats biting down on an aspirin, or, say, choking on a nasty antibiotic the size of a NYC cockroach.

So take pills, ask questions later. I realize I have no idea what's in these sweety little spheres, so I ask the Internets. And the Internets tells me that Oscillococcinum is basically a pseudo-scientific cocktail of duck hearts and liver.


This may explain why the French love it. I don't know if it's kept me from contracting the latest strain of TB, but I do know this: duck confit is a miracle. Fois gras should have a church. If the French tell me to take my medicine in the form of fowl, who am I to question?



I got one pleasant day of sun in Paris, bookended by days of cold rain and angry winds. Museum days. Hole-up in cafe days. Regardless of the weather, however, I made my annual pilgrimage to Rue Mouffetard, a market street in the 5th, that slaps you with the smells of roti-chicken, fresh melons and sour cheese all at once. The water running down the sides of the cobblestoned-street is saliva, really, as you've got to be dead to not get hungry here. My mission was straightforward -- a coffee and croissant at one stop; fois gras, fresh and tinned at another; a basketful of cheese, primarily goat from the Loire area, and two loaves of pain de campagne. And then done (but not before contemplating a Charentais melon, but then figured that its uncanny resemblance to a petite bomb and my pending airplane flight probably didn't go well together) and off to huddle cafe-side for an hour or two. And now at Orly, as charming as a Grayhound bus station and about as delicious.

So next time, the plan is: sharing all these treasures with John not after a long plane flight but on the ground, renting perhaps a small studio in the 5th so we can shop and cook for ourselves on these alternating rainy days, and travel by train, so we can hoard bottles of painfully cheap Sancerre and Saumur and enjoy popping corks on the long, slow journey home.



I have no idea how the ancient beams in my room in this 17th-century Bordeaux chateau are holding up the ceiling. The current owners, Mr. and Mrs. D., apparently rebuilt the place from the bottom up when they purchased it; what remains is an old skeleton, the bones tossed in the closet by a family that apparently had plenty of both in the very small town of St. Emilion.

We got a dose of the heart of the town this evening. With no actual facts, I've always imagined Bordeaux to be a polished silver kind of place, with plenty of modern touches and little left of the peasant-farmer life. It may be further removed than most from the salt of the earth, but it's still surrounded by history carved in limestone blocks and ancient Gothic-inspired churches, one wall of which stands like a tireless sentry at the entry of the town. The "city" spills in reds and browns down the chalky hillside, a wash of tiled roofs under the imposing hulk of a 14th century church built on the top of one from the 1100s. We eat at a local restaurant; I would not be exaggerating to say that there is no way any location could be more local. The owner is the ringleader, orchestrating introductions and tourist agendas, glad-handing and glancing at new faces over reading glasses always perched searchingly on the end of his nose. Mr. D. was immediately sucked up into one table, while we wandered outside to gawk at the terrace seating under one of the eaves of the church. A pity that it was both cold and raining.

Halfway through dinner the ringleader saunters over and nobly announces that the evening will begin; at this cue another bespectacled older man starts to recite poetry, an ode to wine and winemaking. From what I can parse out the French is both flowerful and sticky; I slowly chew my first course while the ringleader and poet exchange reading stanzas with alternating levels of emotion. A party is in full swing in the private room upstars, interruping the recital with frenzied "shhhh!"s every few minutes; at a particular high point the church bell tolled, giving the moment extra resonance. "I don't know what he said but it sounded serious," sez P. "Blah blah blah," said winemaker D. He understood the poems; and told us later that the man had never raised a pair of cutting shears in his life.


drink this

We spent an hour or so ferreting among barrels in the basement of R., who somehow grows grapes which turn into rubies and then when melted become wine. He is so good that last year, he made me cry. His wine, that is. Which is a tad embarrassing when everyone's standing around being very serious and nodding-like, thinking about Deep Things and Wine. I sniffled, profoundly.

Which is why meeting R. Sr. was a ticklish shock; he's a Pan in the wrinkled French suit of a 70-year-old, sporting cut-off jeans and thick, dusty glasses, who moves like an 18-year-old who's told he can have the car for the weekend. There were negotiations in the cellar with R. that didn't seem to go off too well; so, as an ameliorate, the taster extraordinare knocked on Dad's door. Just like any small-town family, there's a little friction between son and pop. So when we get a cold shoulder from one, we go to the other. R. Sr. opens the door, sees he has a small gaggle of foreign guests (one of which happens to be a petite female who, so far, appears younger than her real age. This, I have learned, gets one far in France) and immediately decides that it's time to open some bottles. Because that's what one does after a long life of getting up at 5 a.m. and toiling in mud and rain and mildewed plants at retirement; one opens a bottle of really damn good wine whenever one feels like it.

So we file into the kitchen and a bottle of 1990 Clos Vougeot is slammed on the table. Glasses follow. There's no spitton. This is not tasting time, this is drinking time. (And practically another reason to cry; the day has been filled with mid-malo Pinot Noir, at least 10 gallons' worth, and my gums are close to bleeding. Will I taste this? I certainly will try.) We swirl and gawk and pray to the happy Pan, who is rattling off his latest woes to our taster extraordinaire, who raps Burgundian French like the pro he is, and even in the process gets a couple of gentlemen's agreements for some extra-special bottles. And that's how business used to be done, we're told later (a reoccurring theme, told with a tinge of sadness, by the taster whose business goes back 20 years or more) -- the "younger" generation has no time for yarns and special bottles, infrequently pulls out that dusty special vintage if not asked directly. This kitchen sitting is purely for plasir.

And then our prince of old bottles (he has eight hidden cellars all over Burgundy; I can only imagine the complicated locks and keys he must keep) decides it's time to pay attention to the petite femme a table. How old am I, I'm asked. A rather pointed question, especially from a Frenchman; I tell him to guess. (Another fairly naughty thing to do.) He looks to the taster extraordinaire for assistance, and then answers quite diplomatically, that it's clear that I'm "young." Brownie points for Pan. I am 34; which puts my birth year at 1973, a year that couldn't have been more miserable for wine. I am not a good vintage. He pauses, then pounces on a box behind us, producing a 1972 Charmes Chambertin. This will do, he says, as he wouldn't serve us 1973. Well, shucks. I've always been into older guys, anyhow.

cellar time

We're lucky to have been born in the time we were, I say to M. He nods, and agrees. He's the fifth in a long line of winemakers who were given the gift of earth and grapes, which when properly tended blend to create nothing less than magic. He's a peasant's son turned international superstar, by virtue that he is well-aware that there's a world (or market) out there. Dad (and the older generations) were different; the square kilometer of the village was all they knew, or cared, to know. M.'s presented us with magic, too, in dusty bottles he's unearthed and brought to our table. We're a clumsy gathering of sellers and buyers, admirers and those admired. It's always awkward until the fifth wine or so, and then things loosen up a bit. The salesmen talk fly fishing and trips to Montana; I talk poetry and the impossibility of capturing in language the soul of a 1978 Morey St Denis "Millandes." An empty glass may be as eloquent as one is able, and only if that single glass is emptied over three hours.

Earlier we spent three hours in M.'s cellar tasting every red wine there is in Burgundy; it's a lot. we wander from room to room, spitting on cement floors and metal drains that ricochet liquid well; by the end of the afternoon I notice I've been standing by the impromptu spittoon too often. My legs are speckled with Pinot Noir; my toes are an inconvenient purple. I try not to think that it's not just grape juice, it's backwash and grape juice, but that's just simply nasty. Thankfully I'm too engrossed in my notes (am I getting better at this or are the wines actually expressing these varied flavors, faded rose petals, blood orange rind, dried strawberry jam...?) to really acknowledge that i'm being spit upon. It's all part of the job, I guess.

M. is a dynamo, possibly the only type-A personality in all of Burgundy. Young, driven, possessed with an uncanny sense of land and vine. He's tasted and re-tasted, more student than farmer. He knows his place in time is unique; he intends to not fetter it. I fear he will burn out, perhaps, before he gets to where he feels he needs to be.

L.'s son is the same way. There's a burning in the eyes that tells you that there's so much more in store from what seems a humble person, but the knowledge is fathoms deep. It says, just you watch. I haven't even begun to test these limits, if they even exist. And it's so important to remember how many layers these jobs have; I tell R. that when looking at five glasses in front of us on an opulent banquet table, we see romance and seduction and a life of leisure and pleasure -- the true tones of such a life are dirty, crimson-dyed fingernails and a life of serious labor, real labor with a capital L; and marketing, pushing, always fighting for a buck as this is a life that is not cheap, either. Artist cum businessperson cum marketing manager; who can do these all well? Few. Which is why M. stands out so well; I think he knows the jeweled times may be few. Not all life's opportunities can be stored in a cellar and sampled 33 years later.


karmic considerations

I have done something terribly wrong. So wrong, in fact, that the karmic powers that be deprived me today of a serious helping of Champagne -- I'm talking Cotes de Blancs Champagne, the cream of the serious crop Champagne, small grower-producer tasty toasty biscuity Champagne -- and in exchange gave me a shitty cup of coffee. My plane was delayed five hours from Berlin to Paris; oops. And then I sat in a train in Paris for another two a cause de "multiple accidents"; oops. (The mental anguish was such at one point that I realized that the French word for bread was really, truly "pain.") And there went the day, in planes and trains (and eventually, automobiles) when I finally, finally got to Vertus, a small town in the region of Champagne, just a stone's throw (or an hour, as the SNCF flies) from Paris.

We're here overnight; tomorrow, driving south to Burgundy and Morey-St.-Denis, a small village in the heart of the Cotes de Nuits. I'm traveling with three salesmen; one, a buyer, the second, an owner, and the third, my boss and taster extraordinaire. So much so that over dinner (my first solid meal of the day, hurrah!) I just sat and demurely nodded to each of their gushings over the yellow pages-thick wine list of the hotel restaurant (which, as a weird aside: French hotel restaurants, especially in the wine regions, somehow always look as if they've been decorated by the B-team at Denny's. Sea foam green napkins, baby-blush pink walls. Somewhat like a hard candy sucked and then spit aside. It betrays what often is, or at least can be, a pretty good damn restaurant.) I can't play the price game. As I've often detailed, we're a 5-Euro and under household, and damn proud of it. I know what certain wines cost, and am more than happy to expand my knowledge when riding on the tabs of others.

All this to say is that I'm still oggling a crusty cork from a bottle of 1982 Chateau Montrose, a kiss of rose petals and poached plums, that still (still! we finished dinner an hour ago!) lingers on my tongue with stolen kisses on soft earlobes. Silk-lined kisses.


barrel of monkeys: prelude

Over the next eight days I will raise to my lips 197 different glasses of wine. Most of these I will be expected to spit; thankfully, as that much alcohol would probably send a person of my size and stature (let alone someone twice as large) straight to the emergency room, or the nearest street corner to curl up and croak. I'm as excited as I am apprehensive; I'm a newbie taster, and even though I've made my living for the past two years scribbling madly about nature's finest fermented product in liquid form, I still get a little nervous when sitting and spitting next to the big boys. And I do mean boys -- there won't be a female winemaker (or companion aside from lil' 'ol me) among the hoards we're to visit, which makes me sad. But that's not to say they're not out there. But that's a subject for a later rant. Tonight, to pack and be ancy about a 5 a.m. wake-up call. Tomorrow, to try to swill Champagne without foaming at the mouth.


sound bites

Remembering to take vitamins every day is hard. Sitting down to actually examine one's head and then write about it is even harder. I made a promise (out loud, so it would count) on the passing of my 34th year to every day write at least a page in a journal. The promise was, in one sense, an attempt toward a sort of personal discipline -- an intimidating concept to which I've never really been able to adhere (see vitamins, above, or language study, or general exercise, u.s.w.) It also was an attempt at capturing time -- in parenthetical sound bites, of course (I can't write for more than 15 minutes without getting a terrible cramp) -- and putting it back into something I could physically hold. Like writing real letters, which I wish people still did (or I could, without the cramping.) At risk of sounding like a complete Luddite, I both love and hate email (and IM too) as while I can harass people I love with greater frequency while being physically far away, a five-minute hasty type doesn't even touch the, “so really, how are you?” question as would/could an uninterrupted hour of inky scribbling.

But maybe I'm deluding myself and killing trees at the same time. The last personal, paper letter I received from a friend was, I think, back in 2003; so I write to myself, claiming both the time I'd take to read a letter and the time it would take for a friend to respond for my own, and spill these minutes of thought into my journal. Which typically means about 20 minutes of aimless thoughts and a still hand; and then five minutes of frantic scribbling amid frustration that my pen moves so much slower than my fingers over a keyboard. I've yet to give myself a whole hour, as discipline and I are still wrestling with time-management -- should I write or surf Berlin blogs? Check email for the 105th time today? Laundry, anyone? Snacks! At the end of the day time is writhing on the floor, killed with a thousand blows of inane action. Hopefully my modest promise will teach me to pick it up, dust it off, and play nice.


where's the metal

So it's almost midnight and we're still counting votes for the Eurovision 2007 spectacle, which, really, was WAY less spectacular than it should have been. Where are the miniskirts? Where is the FIRE? Where are the winged devil spirits armed with battle-axes? We spent the evening with some good friends who patiently sat by while we argued the fine points of Georgian pop and Ukranian cross-dressing. And the Ukraine! Singing in German and telling Russia in English -- not so politely, mind you -- to go? How provocative!

So we did run away from our friends, sparing them the two-hour point countdown, while we sped home on our trusty bicycles to catch the results in progress. And what were we singing on our way home? Hard! Rock! Hallelujah! Lordi still rules.

UPDATE: OK, so Serbia won. Neat song, sure. Singer has great voice, and, she wasn't wearing a miniskirt. Can't say I can remember a bar of the tune. Oh well. There won't be T-shirts this year. That said, it's terribly funny listening to the German post-commentators bitching about the West-East conspiracy (considering how few points the jazzy Germans sucked up.) Five euros that the contest ping-pongs among former East countries for the next 30 years...


den' pobedy

A few days late, but the boys have good things to say here, and here. I stood in the crowds during a "Victory Day" celebration in Moscow in 1993; the crowds were thick and gray haired, many with medals and plenty of red stars pinned to shabby sport coats and threadbare jackets. It was a serious affair. This woman (in photo, above) reminded me of the darkness I saw in so many of the eyes, back then -- the memories of those lost, and the realization that the survivors today are almost completely gone. Hopefully we won't forget; we can't afford to.


park in your pocket

One finds the strangest things in our northern 'hood. After lounging at the Schlosspark (and being chased away from our sunny spot by a small hund who, apparently, really had to go, and had to go just a few steps from our blanket) we biked west from the Pankow U-Bahn down Florastrasse. The whole area seems to be in the throws of a beautifying frenzy. Gentrification train, here we come...The neighborhood altbaus are pastel and perky, and fledgling mini-trees line newly paved sidewalks that one can skip down without fear of tripping. The coolest part, however, is this pocket of park at the end of the street -- it's said to resemble the first floor of an old house (that I'm guessing stood here at one time, circa 1895, or so says the park plaque) done in Alice in Wonderland-sized mosaic. All that cozy stone armchair needs is a marble cat.


fill 'er up

If we all lived up to our childhood dreams of what we wanted to be when we grew up, the world might be a more creative, lively place. Or perhaps not, if you're a Berliner? I certainly was convinced that I was going to be a veterinarian; I was (am) a small girl and I loved (love) animals. Case closed. Until I accompanied my coughing-wheezing tortoise to our local vet one fateful day, and the kind vet, after hearing of my desires to join his lot, proposed I assist in giving the tortoise a vitamin shot. (It had to have been some sort of placebo. The wheezy thing died within a week anyway.) I eagerly agreed, sticking the long needle into the poor tortoise's rear. And hit a tortoise vein, or whatever they have that shoots blood vigorously over metal examining tables and small girls. The tortoise kicked, protesting silently in tortoise speak; I passed out on the tile floor.

And that was the end of that dream.

But others, perhaps, are made of stronger stuff. I was witness to a gaggle of frolicking Kindergartners the other day near Zionkirchplatz; it was one of those gloriously sunny and warm days, and even though the church grounds don't really qualify as a playground, per se, the kids didn't seem to mind. All the little boys of the group, about six of them, were armed with tricycles. (The girls were picking flowers. Sigh.) While the boys rode the trikes in circles, they mimicked the emergency vehicle sound. BEE-DOO-BEE-DOO. Loudly. Incessantly. I was about to start throwing things before I noticed that one of the boys, without trike, was jumping in front of his speeding friends, screaming "TANKSTELLE!"

Tankstelle. Filling station. He was playing the gas man. And violently so. His karate-chop arm would come down, smack the riding child in the chest, forcing them to a screeching tricycle stop. The stopped child would scream. The gas man would fastidiously run over to the right side of the trike, pretend to unscrew a cap, insert his other hand as a hose, glug some imaginary petrol in the hole, and then fasten the cap again. There might have been some discussion then over windshield cleaning. And then, with a majestic raising of the arm, the frustrated yet now-fueled trike rider would speed off for more donuts around the potted plants.

After one particularly heated pit stop (the Nein! Doch! Nein! Doch! went on for at least three minutes) the gas man finally closed his tankstelle and kicked a flat football around. A practical child; a modest dream. I fear, however, that the next generation of Berliner ought to dream bigger.


andrew bird

Now on heavy rotation...

if we can call them friends then we can call them on their telephones

and they won't pretend that they're too busy or that they're not alone
and if we can call them friends then we can call
holler at them down these hallowed halls
just don't let the human factor fail to be a factor
at all

don't, don't you worry, about the atmosphere
or any sudden pressure change
cause i know
that it's starting to get warm in here
and things are starting to get strange

and did you, did you see how all of our friends were there
and they're drinking roses from the can?
and how, how i wish i, i had talked to them,
and i wish they fit into the plan

and we were tired of being mild
we were so tired of being mild
and we were tired...

i know we're going to meet some day
in the crumbled financial institutions of this land
there will be tables and chairs
there'll be pony rides and dancing bears
there'll even be a band
cause listen, after the fall there will be no more countries
no currencies at all, we're gonna live on our wits
we're gonna throw away survival kits,
trade butterfly-knives for adderal
and that's not all
ooh-ooh, there will be snacks there will
there will be snacks, there will be snacks.

Go see him.



Anyone who's read half a history book knows there are plenty of ghosts in Berlin. We've played the game a lot: examining bullet holes here, imagining long-disappeared buildings there, wondering what the nights and days were like on the street we now call our own. And while I've always been more aghast at the stature and cheek of most Soviet-era memorials, I was certainly chilled when we rode up through the gates of the Soviet WWII memorial in Pankow. There are plenty of ghosts here.

The grounds of the Ehrenmal Schönholzer Heide were, during the second World War, used for a forced labor camp; it was after the war when the Soviets buried some 13,000 Red Army soldiers en masse here. At the time, they could only identify a fifth of the bodies (the names of whom appear on bronze plaques surrounding the memorial.) Stalin has his say at the gates: "They gave their lives for your happiness."

Not that one really wants to argue geo-political rights and wrongs when wandering over the graves of thousands. The space is decaying,
slowly; bronze torches have lost their symbolic glass flames, weeds clog most of the flowerbeds, the officers' memorial under a hulking obelisk claims a few rotten tulips. The whole place feels angry, exhausted and completely forgotten.


local parades

So we were sitting at a cafe just across the S-Bahn tracks (We call it the "pedestrian bridge" cafe; before that it was the "cafe with the scaffolding near the pedestrian bridge." Beats me what its real name is.) when suddenly our sluggish, morning-ish, pre-coffee thoughts were drowned out by the squeals of small children. A gaggle of well-behaved tots, to be precise. (A group of small American children would be a "murder," I'm sure.) They wandered north, single file, behind a teacher-type who, of course, didn't have to raise her voice once. Five minutes later another gaggle wandered up and away, across the pedestrian bridge. A few moments after that we spyed a small Kinderwagon stuffed with a half-dozen smaller people pushed down Kopenhagener Strasse.

This is Prenzlauer Berg, after all, the capital of European fertility, where one in every three people is under two years old. I made that statistic up, but park yourself at Arnimplatz around 3 p.m. any day during the week and you'll find the ratio holds. We're simply crawling with Kinder up here.

But then in the wake of tiny giggles over the pedestrian bridge came another parade, a group of senior types, armed with walkers and pushed in wheelchairs. They looked just as discombobulated, but not, obviously, as energetic, as the Kinderparades we just witnessed. And off they went, looking twice before crossing the empty street, for their walk in the park, possibly under the same trees that they too wandered under as children.


building democracy, brick by brick

Good fences make good neighbors, or so goes Frost's oft-quoted line. I read this morning in the NYT that the latest strategic move to keep Sunnis and Shiites from blowing each other up in Baghdad is to build a wall separating the ethnic neighborhoods. Because such a strategy has worked so well in Israel. And gee, I'm sure east Berliners could offer a couple talking points on this one, too.

A quote from the article:
The American military said in a written statement that “the wall is one of the centerpieces of a new strategy by coalition and Iraqi forces to break the cycle of sectarian violence.”
To say that the current administration and the poor soldiers it claims to "command" is clueless would be offering a compliment to a group of historically blind, incompetent criminals who should be tried by the Hague without further delay. The "centerpiece" of a black hole is vast, empty space. I suggest building a wall around Washington, D.C. See if that contains 'em.

Update: It seems that cooler heads may have prevailed.


pickled herring and pop

My good friend and queen of alternate realities just reminded me that less than a month remains before the second coming of Lordi. Peoples, don't pretend this doesn't make you giddy too.

Eurovision 2007 will be swimming in salted fish and sappy Balkan techno-pop on May 12, but not before the Finnish hosts make sure to infuse the continent with "Finland and Finnishness, the contrasts of nature, culture, humans etc." It's the "etc." that gets me. Lordi's already cornered the market on heavy-metal platform boots and inspired lyrics such as "The devil is a loser and he's my bitch" -- be still my quaking spandex sequined mini, what ever could be next?

I'm getting ready, stocking up on the one-liter jugs of wine that made last year's fete so, well, watchable. Now that we actually have a television (I hope GEZ isn't reading this) perhaps we can make an event of it. And more! You can even download a pre-made "house party" invite courtesy of eurovision.tv, complete with extremely endearing yet awkward English. "Hearby I would like to invite you to my personal Eurovision Song Contest house party. I'm looking forward to see you!"




It made complete sense at the time: we went to Vienna and came back with a tajine. We also came back with a very violent desire not to see another bread dumpling ever, ever again -- which explains the inspired Moroccan purchase (as does a lot of wine, but then, when doesn't it.)

My birthday dinner at a wonderfully dark and greasy Gaststube was gulash, Austrian-style: hunks of sauced meat with a knodel the size of a large child's head, two hot dogs sliced to resemble squiggly squid legs, a leathery fried egg AND a pickle, sliced to resemble the hot dogs. It was glorious. Next day: Schnitzel, Wiener Art. Duh. And on the third day, us kids tested our blood pressures and gasped, and thus ran scrambling for the nearest non-central European eatery we could find.

Which turned out to be Moh's. Like a divining rod, John has a nose for lamb. (I, admittedly, may have a nose for knodel. But even I get over-doughed.) Collectively we have a soft-spot for seemingly ignored eateries with old dudes out front clicking worry beads and sipping tea. It's usually a good sign of a family joint that the real ethnic locals (of which there are five) like; or, it's a front for something unsavory, which makes it even cooler. (Which, we later learn as we lugged our large clay cooker home, Moh's is a very tasty front for tajines.)

There was instant bonding, as we shared similar credentials. We haltingly explained the 'wandering Americans-living in Berlin-speaking shite German and French' side, while he traced his path as a wandering Moroccan living in Vienna, by way of Munich and a handful of other European capitals. We drank more wine, Moroccan wine, styled like a southern Rhone (one of the few benefits of French colonialism, I suppose.) Somehow I ended up with the bottle. Our dish of lamb tajine was spicy, as soft as butter and gone in a half-second. I might have licked the clay dish; there was a small fork-fight over the last dried plum. And then we rested, and that's when Moh brought out the goods.

A savvy businessman knows his timing. And there is no better bait than a postprandial, drunken bear (or tourist, or Berlin resident who is simply out of ideas for those damn ancient, crusty chickens from Extra.) We couldn't even haggle, if that was something we could have even managed with our limited German (we are useless at the Mauer Flohmarkt.) It was a done deal.

So a week later the tajine has been put to good use. Chicken wings with dried apricots and cinnamon. A lamb roast with an illegal amount of garlic. And this morning, chewy Ciabatta-styled bread. Now, if we could just turn up the thermostat and get out the dancing girls, we'd have ourselves a real medina.


strangers in our bedroom

There are many drawbacks to living in a world where you understand every third word. About two months ago we received a letter from our Hausverwaltung, a two-sided turgid document that after a brief skim seemed primarily to do with the safety of our bicycles in the courtyard. Sure, lovely, I thought, if someone wants to carry off my super-sleek 100-Euro three-speed they can knock themselves out.

But in keeping with the "bury-the-lede" Germany style of writing, the kicker was at the end of the letter, way too far along for me to still keep up my dictionary-flipping without getting a cramp. Turns out that our five-story altbau "needed" an elevator, and that one would be built shortly, right outside our one bedroom window. And one kitchen window. I didn't learn this from the letter, of course, but by the ear-splitting hammering and clanging outside said windows at 7 a.m. the next morning. It might have been 6:30 a.m., but I can't count that early. I like a party as much as the next gal, but company wielding hammers in the wee hours outside your bedroom window while one is still in the sack is less than Spaß. And they're not even hunky, overall-strap off the shoulder types, either (although my myopic morning vision can't tell the difference between a construction worker and a large crow, so whatever.)

And so our alarm clock has been traded for burly types in overalls clambering up metal scaffolding every morning, chipping away at our building's gray facade and leaving a lovely layer of fine dust in the kitchen when we forget to close that one window. I now get out of bed by crawling under the covers to the foot of the bed and then slithering out the bottom, as to remain out of sight while still in my birthday suit. That said, perhaps I could put a coin-operated curtain outside of the window and make a little money on the side with an early-morning peepshow. But I flatter myself. Getting out of bed earlier just gives me more time to bone up on my German, to the tune of raining plaster and the charming ring of hammers against girder steel.


march 21, 2007


view from the top floor

When we first moved to Berlin we promised ourselves an anniversary drink -- that is, for our one month anniversary in the hauptstadt -- at the top of the Fernsehturm. Well, 10 months later we finally got there, and even had a small symphony orchestra (very small, say, a dozen or so people clad in black) to entertain us. John certainly knows how to show a girl a good time.

The Maertz Musik festival is all about modern music, contemporary composition and things audibly alternative (sometimes known as pesky and annoying, see here.) Tuesday night's concert was "turmmusik," which, logically, is meant to be played in a tower. But in a tower that spins! This made my little contemporary-classical young heart go pitter-patter. Live orchestral music is always cool, but if a bit of theater and nausea is thrown in, well, all the better.

The turm's Telecafe hasn't lost any of its 60s chic. It's easy to imagine gray-suited DDR big-wigs and ladies with shellacked beehives slurping soup while admiring both the view and the macrame-mirrored walls. Yet before I could get all goo-goo eyed at the cool view exactly 207.53 meters below, I had to grab onto something. This revolving restaurant hauls ass, lapping itself three times every hour; I can only sympathize with the daily inner-ear torture of the wait staff. I'm one of those annoying types who can read in the car and ride backwards, tricks that when simply mentioned can turn motion-sick people a lovely shade of green. But the spin gave me wobbly sea legs in like seconds, and halfway through my glass of wine I was fixedly staring at a piece of lint on the tablecloth as it seemed to be the only physical object not about to fly into orbit.

And then there were the musicians, set around the room in a perfect circle. The cellist got to park next to the cigarette machine, while the violinist sat in front of the coffee station. They played musical tag for about an hour -- conductor-less, the musicians had to fiddle with their parts all alone, occasionally looking left or right to see what the neighboring trumpet or stand-up bass was up to, occasionally playing "musical wave" and passing a note from one to another until the circle was complete.

I was hoping for more tag-you're-it themes, something like Bartok-does-ring-around-the-rosy, but most of the hour-long piece was pips and squeaks and full-frontal tuba assaults when our revolution met him at just the right moment. There was even a bit of musical chairs, with the clarinet doing a lap and finding her seat before the flute got there, and the percussion-types looking all jealous because they couldn't roll a xylophone anywhere without taking out a few spectators. And then it was all over, and we wandered out, ears popping in the six-meters-per-second elevator, walking across the way to the Alexanderplatz U-bahn with a slight list, like crippled grocery carts.


capturing a reality

Finally got over to the Museum fur Fotografie to see the Newton - LaChapelle - Nachtwey installation "Men, War & Peace." A great exhibit worth seeing for the Nachtwey images alone, which are haunting and raw and honestly hard to examine without feeling ill. (I could not imagine an evening in this man's head. His nightmares must be horrendous, considering his waking material is so vivid and bloody.)

There are two rooms; one with LaChapelle's work exclusively, the other split between Nachtwey and a handful of Newton portraits. I recommend wandering around the Technicolor world that is LaChapelle's before entering the hell that is Nachtwey's. I wanted to lick all of LaChapelle's images. Drew Barrymore lounges on the floor with an exposed lipstick nipple, surrounded by equally pert halves of grapefruit and maraschino cherries. Eminem, nude, strokes a dynamite-stick dick. A gang of toughs with knee-high socks and a gold boombox gang-bang a femme fatale with a dildo on a dipstick. And so on. Provocative in a way that makes you guffaw, point, and grab a friend to share an "oh-my-gawd-i-can't-believe-that" moment.

Funny, that at the time each image seemed so grabbing and demanding, yet in retrospect I'm having a hard time remembering individual images vividly enough to describe. Bigger-than-life color, sordid dreamy cum-shots that just like the stars they portray are both hard to take seriously yet are utterly serious, in the surreality that they capture -- yes, this is ridiculous, but look around you. And then from this world to the next room and Nachtwey's images, and the colorful dream coat falls off with a scream. When I close my eyes I can walk around the room and remember each shot, where it was from and what was in it, even though I hardly paused long to examine each, for fear I'd start doing the overwhelming-choking thing I tend to do when, well, overwhelmed. The profile of a boy from Rwanda, with four deep grooves in his skull from machete wounds. A pile of bodies in Bosnia being dumped from the back of a truck, with a strong, dirty hand in the foreground about to whack the cameraman in the face. Five black shadows, figures of heads under full burka, where the sun catches the only piece of flesh visible, an ancient wrinkled female hand.

It's not fair to compare the two works, and I don't intend to here. One is explicitly documentary, war documentary, and the most moving images from current conflicts that still resonate because they are so near. The other is creative portraiture, reality as staged hyper-reality, yet shares the same voyeuristic fascination in looking that the war images offer, too. Surreal, and too real.


london lost

A wonderful week in England and nary a pound left between us. Exchange rates are a nasty thing, especially when you earn the currency of what is now a third-world country. Sigh. But that didn't stop us from enjoying plenty of cask-ale'd pints and pasties (although I insist in calling them pAYEsties, much to the chagrin of the locals, but lost on the Polish shopkeepers.)

I've visited London about half a dozen times, and I'm still not sold. Sure, it's congested and fast and dreadfully expensive, but so is New York -- and I crave the drug that is NY constantly. Not so much London. Granted, I've been either dead tired or utterly jet-lagged on most of the visits; other times I've been passing through, spending a cheapy evening in a Victoria Station ramshackle hotel or sitting in a pile of flaky pasty crumbs on a Southern train snoozing my way to Basingstoke. (Yes, I have friends in Basingstoke. I once held up a whole immigration queue out of the Chunnel; the on-duty Brit immigration officer couldn't believe I had written "Basingstoke" as the destination on my immigration card. "Oy!" he bellowed, gesturing other officers over for a peek. "Looky here. She's going to Basingstoke. No one goes to Basingstoke!" And so on.)

But plenty of people go to London, and say they love it, since there's theaters and art and museums and all sorts of lovely-jumbly things. I want to love it too, I think, but am not sure which end to start wooing. Perhaps the fault is that I don't know a soul in the city, and without a local's wisdom, London is just like any big city, impersonal and mobbish. Or perhaps I'm just getting older, and my patience for mob scenes is past. Take Berlin, on a Saturday. You can ride a bike through the center of town, blindfolded if you like, since there's hardly a soul around. A stroll along the river bank is just that, not a fast-paced exercise in human-pinball physics. I like the ghost town, and probably would like it better if it had proper Indian restaurants on every corner. Which brings me back to London. Or will, as soon as I can afford the plane fare. Social crankiness aside, my tummy has the last word when it comes to city attachments. Baked beans for breakfast? I'm sold.


passing the hat

Counting the number of missives I've been mailed from the local Finanzamt, I think I may be officially German. Every page (no thin envelopes, here) comes in klo-flimsy but öko-friendly recyclable paper, and the language is so lovingly convoluted and passively constructed that it takes me 15 minutes just to get through the salutation. It almost makes me yearn for the soothing jumble of cases and Cyrillic-code of Russian. Almost.

Even though I'm officially registered (with the Ausländerbehörde) and stamped with a steuernummer (from the aforementioned Finanzamt, which, oddly, is a far more pleasant place than the Ausländerbehörde) I am now being called to declare my religious persuasion. Because, apparently, in addition to the greedy mouths of the U.S. government and the German government, Jesus wants some cash too.

The one-page questionnaire asks under which religion I was baptized, and various other sundry, seemingly useless details, such as where my parents lived when I was born (does this make it easier for a fact checker?) But here's where my dictionary fails and my imagination kicks in. Sind Sie aus der Kirche ausgetreten? I guess one would translate austraten in English as "leave" or "withdraw," but the question is, leave of one's own accord, or get kicked out? Are they asking excommunication, here? Spiritual defenestration? And the rest of the questionnaire digs deeper: they're interested in not only whether I've screwed off mass to snooze late on Sundays, but also where I lived when I gave God the boot, and on what grounds I chose to punt, and under what name (obviously not the Lord's, ahem.)

I'd laugh all this off as a fun bit of cultural education if it weren't for the fact that I am utterly ignorant as to the tax implications of my combined freelance and atheist activities here in Berlin. I already know I'm screwed, freelance-wise. Which begs the question: What Would Luther Do?


the going hurts

A wonderful film last night reminded me of a forgotten infatuation with Bohumil Hrabal, a Czech author I devoured a decade ago and have forced on many a friend and lover since. "Closely Watched Trains" (Ostře sledované vlaky, 1966) chronicles the sweet fate of a boy desperately trying to lose his virginity in the midst of Nazi occupation during the second world war.

Sure, there's plenty of subtle symbolism and anti-Nazi/Soviet commentary, but what Hrabal captures best (and does in all of his stories) is the simple soul in every person. There are never any supermen, no malicious foes. Each character is a pool of water, deep and so transparent. And so terribly innocent to be heartbreakingly funny all the way up to the equally heartbreaking end. Things never end well, because things never were well to start with. "Jde to, ale žře to" (I'm OK but it hurts) is my favorite Czech greeting (not only because it would always make my friend's mom laugh every time I said it) but because it seems to sum up the furrowed-brow existence of an honest person in a small place, shuffling in the permanent shadow of something much bigger and stronger -- much like Hrabal's sometimes foolish, always wise characters.


i'm not going back

Not that there aren't intelligent people in the Fractured States of America, but when an advertising stunt is interpreted as a bomb threat in Boston and then reported as "breaking news" on so-called news networks and, what's more, labeled as a "hoax" (of what? were there supposed to be bombs? were we disappointed?) then there simply may be no hope left for the future of rational thought, let alone humor, in my former homeland.

Help me, please. A small army of Lite-Brite aliens has invaded and is blinking in a threatening manner. Call in Homeland Security. I hope you can see this, because I am doing it as hard as I can.


tie me up

Living behind the iron curtain, or just reading about it. I'm doing a little of both, today, encouraged by metallic skies and enough precipitation to rust a couple of healthy holes in any steel barrier. This book chronicles the chaotic period when Germany had a split personality and show trials passed for Soviet entertainment; my daily cup of morning tea has developed the stale, stony taste of the gulag. It is required reading, even if it makes taste buds weary.

This morning, this line snared me: "the manipulation of fervor is the germ of bondage." Uttered by an "old" Communist, who witnessed the rise of Soviet power and the subsequent enslavement of eastern Europe, a dream aided by so many rosy-cheeked youth who may have thought at the time that they were truly changing the world. We sit sometimes on silent evenings and wonder what exactly went on in this apartment, now our apartment, a stone's throw from where that iron curtain did hang. Around the corner on Bernauer Str. people dug tunnels like animals with crude tools to get to the other "side." Fervor turned survivalist, in the face of a semi-vivid dream gone gray.

Our fervor today comes in the guise of prejudice and fear and is too-often made frantic with homemade bombs. I wish it was wrapped in prettier paper, something to the tune of equality and fraternity and all that good 19th century stuff. But it's ignorant, finger-pointing xenophobic crap such as this, and much more of this, and generations undoubtedly of this, that we have to fuel our modern dreams. No wonder I can't sleep.




dreaming of obama

I apparently took a job as Barack Obama's babysitter. I stood in a corner of his 1950's kitchen, complete with white and yellow tile and matching hand towels. Barack had just came back from keynote address at a Microsoft convention; he wore a gray sweatshirt from UC Berkeley. He was very animated, almost spastic, flailing his hands while he described the annoying, ignorant crowds of the software faithful. His wife sat at their kitchen table. I kept the walls up, slumped while watching slack-jawed. Rant over, he disappeared with his wife into the living room. I scuffled between the two bassinets, stuffed with two mini-babies that made no sound. I was hungry. I grabbed a baguette as long as my arm and split it in two, slathering butter on both sides. I ate the whole thing while looking at the sleeping kids. I grabbed another baguette half, applied more butter, and then wandered out to the living room. I stopped at the door as both Barack and his wife were dancing, flapping all over the room in step with some sort of aerobic program on television. I was concerned about the baguette; I quickly snarfed the whole thing, leaving just a portion, so it looked like I had just grabbed a small snack. I woke up as I was entering the living room.


butting in

We are the fringe, and I don't mean the 70s leather-tasseled kind. Last night at the Randlage (or, outskirts) we were baptized in the smoky wonders of wires and laptops of Berlin's experimental music scene. It started out innocently, a bit like a grad-school project on campus -- we waited outside in the spitting rain until 10:15 p.m., when a shaggy-baggy jeans Berliner let us in the entryway and the club, only to shoo us back out because someone wasn't "ready."

(Show times continue to baffle us. I think we've got a short-hand down, however: music at living room-turned-rock club in residential apartment building: starts one hour or more after entritt. Music at larger, pseudo-corporate hall with required pre-purchase tickets: starts 30 minutes before entritt time, and ends before 10 p.m. Music at classic concert hall: starts at 8:00:01 p.m.)

No one was ready until 11:30 p.m., really, but this dead time with beers in hands gave us a good chance to survey the crowd from our very plush, DDR-styled couch at the back of the room. Which was a good vantage point while the room was still fluid, but (and I do mean but) by the time the place filled in, we were faced with a polite row of rear ends in our direct vision, while sitting, for the beginning and the rest of the show. One in leather, because this is Germany. Two in saggy jeans; one, female, well-formed, in wool slacks. Our vantage point only furthered our theory that the German people have an extra gene for height, and that most of those (with that extra gene) tend to be rockers, or associate with rockers; and that those rockers almost always (at least according to our recent experiences) stand right in front of us. (And look like they just came from a game of D&D, but that's off topic.) We stood on the sofa and still couldn't see over the crowd. But it being an experimental music evening, there wasn't much to see -- laptops and tangled cords like a pile of collegiate spaghetti tossed at a wall, lots of dangling greasy hair and faces lit with a consumptive pallor, not unlike the blue screen of death. (Except for the one artist on an Apple 13", of course.)

Ticks and pings and waves of riotous, prickly sound; sometimes soothing, sometimes heart-racing. Hamster pockets of MDMA seem to seep out of dusty brain corners during the frenetic, staccato beats, while snoozy, smoke-filled drones sucked whatever energy I had left sometime around 1 a.m. and pushed us stumbling, slipping on tossed butts and spilled beer, to the living room door. Packaged, polished music is nice, but there is so much about the raw, tooth-marked quality of electronic music that I find magnetic. If you have a heartbeat, or have stood transfixed while watching a bee hum and bounce from flower to flower, you can too.


there and back again

Our first full day of blue sky in what seems like centuries. Exaggeration? Of course. We haven't even had frost, let alone snow, so I should just keep my small mouth buttoned. To take advantage of the weather we made our Sunday a working Monday, and screwed off today instead, tossing our bikes on the S-Bahn (with their own einzelfahrausweis! how grown up) toward Grünewald, a large forest/park to the southwest. It's a gorgeous park (I can only imagine how much more stunning it is when it's actually beleafed and summery) filled with a handful of evergreens and plenty of white-skinned birch, rigid nudes in contrast with the spongy, mottled browns and mud on the forest floor.

We even got to hang out with a bunch of Deutsche bikers at a roadstop at the southern edge of the forest, an Austrian-styled hof with a friendly staff that greeted everyone with a "mahlzeit!" at the door. Biker gear is international; plenty of leather vests and faded jeans, impossible gray facial hair and close-cropped but still balding pates. There was one guy that looked as if he'd sprouted cloudy mushrooms from his cheeks, mutton chops gone wild -- and I hoped he'd ordered something orderly and sauce-free, say, a hot dog.

Und zurück: spurred by the sun (and the days, they are getting longer. You can tell -- there's softer, rounder light in the evenings. I'm noticing roofs again.) we rambled through Zehlendorf, the coveted neighborhood in Berlin *if* you've got a million Euros in your pocketses. We learned the word "villa" in our language class but hadn't quite understood what the word represented: more-than-gigantic, turn-of-the-century, fancy-pants personal castles, many complete with their own spires, for effect. Egads. Many, granted, seemed split into smaller apartments (which I guess doesn't really make them villas) but there were plenty with just a number on the gate. The largest "villas" in our 'hood are the make-shift embassy plattenbaus near the Hoffman's Getranke -- I think Cuba's is pretty hip. Or square, to be specific.

I may have lost my legs around Mitte, however. About 40 kilometers in a day is more ground than these sticks have traveled in some time. Tomorrow: there will be limping. Oh yes.


a suggestion of winter

Unseasonable sounds like a flavorless dish; boiled to a gray mush, devoid of even a pinch of salt or pepper. Yet that's usually winter, we've been told, in Berlin -- icy sidewalks, unfriendly stares, long nights and frozen toes. Our unseasonability (this no doubt sounds better in German) however is all about tepid weather and warm rain, the occasional gust of wind that fills your coat and makes the bike wobble a bit while speeding down Bernauer Strasse...there's plenty of dark days, to be sure, but it's nothing like a Winter, with that very serious capital W. Conversation over lunch centered around sun lamps; oh we poor, lower-latitude moths.

I rode home despite the spitting rain, stubbornly, on my not-so-speedy bike that certainly could use some air in its tires, so sluggish from disuse (the pain in my thighs, too, tells me other things have been ignored of late.) There's a spot in every ride, no matter how long, where your legs just work without thinking, because you're just around the bend from home, and whatever tired thoughts you were masticating angrily because of this cramp or that wheezy lung are so easily swallowed, because, yes, there's the door and you're done, you made it after all. Soggy pants warm up, frozen fingers tingle, a runny nose, just for the moment, stops so you can shuffle for keys and open the monster door that leads to a dry warmth and perhaps a cup of tea.

I know I still waver between bliss and panic depending on my bike mood -- it's hard to remove the San Francisco deathly fear of two wheels on any city street -- but it's wonderful to feel that bike rush, too. Rain rewards or no, I'm still looking forward to late summer rides across the city at 3 a.m., t-shirted, with nothing but dark streets in front of us, warm winds pushing us along.


permanent vacation

Russia was mad-cap and wild when I was there, knee-deep in snow, in 1993; it seems it has become weirder still. This article is just one of many examples of a country adrift in its own reality-based community. New Year's Day is now New Year's week-and-a-half, the government shut, papers silenced, mail halted. A deep freeze, so to speak, on the life and times -- but the stores, of course, are still open. Wild West parallels aren't too far off the mark, here. To wit: the leader is a little man who wields an iron fist, and the ladies love him for it. Thigh-high leather stilettos passes for posh, and everything, I mean everything, is for sale -- one of our favorites was the St. Petersburg sushi special, presented on the equally raw flesh of a nude woman. Depraved? Not any more than any other country, but apparently one that doesn't quite know what to do with free time. Too much and life goes rancid, like a tortured tummy following a week's homebrew binge:
"Since the January holidays, as they are called, came into being in 2005, sociologists, psychologists and economists have chronicled what they call the disturbing consequences of an extended period of leisure. These include an economic slowdown, and seasonal spikes in fires, domestic abuse and deaths by alcohol poisoning."
Fire, fistfights and vodka-induced comas? Now that's a party. My own week of semi-leisure produced one clean desk and two loads of clean laundry. Might be time to return to the rodina.


telling times

It must be tough being a northern German chicken. When there's less than eight hours of not-dark (calling it sunlight, or even light, would be a gross exaggeration) it's not easy to figure out when to roost or when to peck. We (the chickens and me) could wake up at 1 p.m. or at 3 a.m., and no one would be the worse for it. Jammies are appropriate at all hours (that said, there are "answer-the-door" jammies and "eeks-I'm-not-really-dressed-jammies," the former being more appropriate of late since our apartment's become the repository for everyone else's tardy Christmas packages.) I'm become accustomed to breakfast at noon, lunch around dusk, and dinner, well, around the same time the Spaniards take it, sans the club-going at 1 a.m. I'm not quite seasonally disordered, but I'm sure finding it challenging to shower and dress before sundown. If this keeps up, I will have re-lagged myself back to P.S.T. and perhaps even catch up with my early-rising parents in Maui, who, if they were clever, could find a way to FedEx us some Vit D.

But who needs pills for a pick-me-up when you've got firearms and other various incendiary works? New Year's was a riot of paper shrapnel and flying sticks, spinning flames and public urination. Yet who knew order would spring so soon from chaos, as we stumbled back to Unter den Linden on Jan. 1 for a promenade and there wasn't a red-paper scrap in sight -- in our 14-hour drinking debauchery I had, for a moment, thought the whole carnival was a hallucination -- and this seemed to confirm my post-firework fears. It is not difficult to recapture childhood awe when surrounded by millions of people armed with things that go boom and fizz and pop, easier still to feel scorched both inside and out the day after, having inhaled mushroom clouds of gunpowder and smoke. Nick me with a flint and I'd probably burst into flame. But what a time, and what a new year.