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.