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.