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Monday, December 20, 2010

IKEA and me

I was in a hurry. I had something I wanted to tell my wife, and it’s so easy to forget things these days that I didn’t want to waste any time. So I not only rushed to find her, but I went against traffic to do so. I was in one of Berlin’s four IKEAs – the magnificent, outrageously successful Swedish big box store that has become a staple of urban life in all corners of the disposable-income globe.

I slid past the POANG chairs. I jogged past the EKTORP sofas. Halfway through the kitchen section, with its deep reds, stainless steel glimmers and those light Scandanavian wood countertops, I noticed a couple, probably in their early thirties, sitting on a KIVIK chaise lounge. They were disheveled in the practiced way of the creative class. Sitting at oblique angles to one another in order to avoid eye contact but still be able to track the other’s movements, they both looked terribly distressed. He glared at the IKEA list with a mixture of disgust and confusion; she looked as if she might weep.

I slowed for a moment, forgetting my earlier urgency. Pretending to inspect a BAGVIK sink, I furtively watched the distraught pair. The man had slightly scuffed blonde hair, sports glasses with clear lenses and a two-day beard; the woman had just enough lines around her eyes and mouth to allow one to take her beauty seriously. I was not able to hear their words, but their body language told of an age old struggle: You just don’t understand my furniture needs.

Most of us are able to go through life without facing this issue more than once or twice; some of us spend our lives trying to avoid it altogether. But if there is an IKEA within 400 miles, the attempt will be futile. Some day, the allure of cheap meatballs and free coffee refills will be too strong, and you, too, will end up here, facing those marital demons.

Remembering my earlier mission, I tear my attention away from the couple only to notice that an inordinate number of yellow- and blue-uniformed staffers are standing nearby, all feigning nonchalance while watching me through the corners of their eyes while muttering things into their shirt collars. I understand immediately what’s going on: I had been rushing through the furniture, and to hurry through IKEA, whether it’s in Burbank or Berlin, Phoenix or Salt Lake City, is taboo. I wanted to tell them that I understood their concern, but they had no reason to worry. I would turn around and follow traffic and do it at a proper pace. Not only that, but I belong here: You see, I’m Swedish. Okay, I’m ¼ Swedish, which is surely enough to give me a direct connection to everything IKEA. When I smell the meatballs cooking in the IKEA cafeteria, I get the sense that my ancestors are texting me from the Nordic climes. I have a natural aptitude for wielding the little tools that come with every IKEA flat pack -- my wife has assured me that I can assemble a STYRØN bookshelf almost as well as any guy she’s met. And I have a deep bond with the tall, blonde Scandinavian super models that the company plants in all of its stores to evoke authenticity.

Instead of explaining all of this, I slow my pace and make sure I stop occasionally to write down a product number on my little sheet of paper, and this seems to work. It occurred to me, then, how odd this slow pacing thing really is. I understood the slow food movement, and even the slow travel movement. But slow crass consumerism?


In late November, the people of the United States were once again subjected to the annual ritual known as Black Friday. In the pre-dawn darkness on the day after every Thanksgiving, people line up in vast big box store parking lots all over the country, giant Starbucks pumpkin pie-flavored frappolattachinos in hand, in order to get in a good position. When the doors open at an ungodly hour, the throng surges into the store in order to take advantage of discounts on flat screen televisions, video game consoles, and other gadgetry. People do not take this ritual lightly; nearly every year, news reports of serious injuries, even fatalities, rise from the scuffle of the stampedes.

This ritual is and has been repeated on various scales across the capitalistic spectrum. Once upon a time, blue lights flashing in K-Marts would ignite a Pavlovian response in blue-haired women throughout the aisles, and the need to get a Cabbage Patch doll for their kids turned otherwise mild-mannered mothers into clawing, biting animals. This primal response is predicated on the notion that these objects will all be gobbled up by competing consumers, and the resulting drought of said objects will threaten the survival of those unlucky ones who did not sprint fast enough for the blue light, did not wake up early enough from their post-gluttony slumber. No matter that the said objects are produced by the hundreds of thousands in far-away factories, and that the discounts on them will be even deeper in a few weeks, when the new models come out, it’s the ritual that matters. It’s our way, I suppose, to get in touch with our hunter-gatherer roots, and this frenzied consumption has become a primary component of our capitalistic society.

But not at IKEA. At 4 a.m. on Black Friday, the IKEA parking lots of the world were empty, the lights dark. They waited until mid-morning to open, just like any other day. They offered free breakfast as consolation, along with a few one-day only sales. But to try to race for the specials would have been futile because of the way IKEA is laid-out. There is no simple grid system here, no going in, getting what you need, and heading out. Upon entering the store, IKEA customers are first given the opportunity to drop off their kids at free daycare. This seems pretty progressive and pro-parenting, sort of like Sweden's generous maternity/paternity leave policies. Except that it's really just a way to give parents more time to shop and more room to spend. It's also a way to keep kids from the ugly truth: Their parents' marital bond can be snapped in two by a $39.99 light fixture.

Childless, customers then head up an escalator to a sort of staging zone from which there are only two ways out: by following the meandering maze through the entire store, or by taking a "short cut" to the restaurant. One cannot simply turn around and leave an IKEA any more than Dante could have called it quits after reaching the third circle of Hell. It just doesn't work like that.

So customers end up wandering through the store like rudderless rafts on a slow river, all the while slightly disoriented, following the arrows along a path that must, after all the turns and twists, be at least a mile long. This, of course, is intentional. It makes for a more contemplative shopping experience, as well as one in which goal-oriented shopping is virtually impossible. This puportedly leisurely shopping pace gives the illusion that one has plenty of time to consider which items to buy, seemingly making rash purchases impossible. It's only an illusion, though. Once, my wife Wendy and I, needing furniture for a new house, made a 10-hour drive to the nearest IKEA, in Phoenix, Ariz. We entered the store at 9:30 a.m., for breakfast. We did not emerge until 7 p.m., dazed and confused, with no real understanding of what we had just purchased save for the knowledge that our credit card company was now $3,000 poorer.

Extensive research of '80s-era sitcoms shows that shopping like this was once the provenance mostly of women, with the men only getting involved when they saw the receipt, which then caused them to go into some sort of epileptic, but entirely comic, fit. In this new hunting and gathering society, women became the hunters. But today’s IKEA shoppers are of a more liberated ilk, and almost always come in pairs. If one does not have a life-partner or spouse, then she brings a roommate or friend. And here, among the light fixtures, sofas, office furniture and prefab kitchens, they talk in hushed tones and serious voices as though they were discussing Soren Kierkegaard, not SØREN couches. If the Wal-Marts of the world have lowered shopping to some kind of primal, stone-age urge, then IKEA has elevated shopping to higher philosophy. I’m not sure which one is worse: Judging by the huge lines at ever checkout counter during every hour of the day all over the world, the end result is exactly the same.

After I had broke free from the unhappy couple and the suspicious IKEA staffers, all about half my age, I moved through the crowd once again until I found Wendy in the dining room table section. She was crouched underneath a round, glass-topped table, inspecting it intently. I was going to tell her something brilliant to prove my theory that Berlin’s populace has a disproportionately high amount of injuries of hands, fingers and arms (another story altogether), but I completely forgot. Instead, I blurted: “Hey, don’t you think it’s time to head to the cafeteria for some meatballs?”

She peered up through the glass at me, bewildered. “It’s only 11:30. (She pauses to let me consider how base and uncontrollable my desires are). What do you think of this table? I’m thinking it would fit nicely in our kitchen.”

I looked at the table, and the price tag. I did not mention that we had no kitchen. No living room. No bedroom. At the time, we were still looking for a place, and were having no luck. The search for a Berlin apartment had slowly disintegrated into a nightmare that involved bumbling bureaucrats who didn’t seem to be conscious of the world outside their office doors, evil real estate agents who engaged in a particularly caustic brand of passive aggressive behavior, and which offered a glimpse into the naked psyche of the German people -- even now, months later, the wounds are too raw for me to talk about it in any detail. So, at the time, the IKEA trip was still purely hypothetical, a form of wishful thinking, perhaps.

“Yeah, it’s okay, I guess.” I searched for something more to say, something intelligent about the lines of the table’s base, or something insightful about eating off a glass table. I really, really wanted to converse with my wife, my soulmate; to connect with her here amongst all this furniture. But a table is just one of those things in life that I may never truly understand, and I just don’t have a whole heck of a lot to say about it. It’s just four legs on which rests a plank sturdy enough to hold dinner, a few bottles of wine and maybe a drunken dancer every once in a while. So why were there so many choices? I looked across the vast plain of tables, long skinny ones, square ones, plastic ones and wood ones. I longed, suddenly, for the “generic” products of my youth, with their non-descript black and white labels promising nothing but what was inside: Orange Drink, Cheese, Hot Dog. What about just: Table? “I like the name,” I said, finally. “Sounds like a Scandinavian philosopher or something, doesn’t it?”

This is not what she wanted to hear. I mumbled something about light fixtures, and scurried off, until I came across the place where, in a seemingly impossibly small space, they had set up an entire apartment, complete with kitchen, bathroom, living room. I plopped myself down on the OLEBY sofa underneath the STYRØN loft bed and stared at the dead screen of the TV. I marveled at the self-contained efficiency of the faux flat. These are in every IKEA in the world, and they are my favorite part of the store (after the free coffee refills, of course). They exude an almost erotic sense of comfort. Someday, Wendy will find a man who can converse about tables, and I’ll end up alone, no doubt. These little places assure me that when that time comes, I can find a tiny apartment, call up IKEA, and have them deliver this very setup to me. And like the little apartment, I too will be self-contained.

Perhaps that’s the IKEA secret, and the reason some Swedish dude has made millions of dollars on wrecked marriages. These particular stores are not just a collection of discreet items to be purchased individually; they are instead a collection in which the sum makes up more than the parts. IKEA’s not about buying objects, which seems base but is just what shopping should be. It’s about purchasing a sense of self -- an identity. We don't really fully become members of the post-industrial graphic designer class until we purchase our first flat-packed sofa couch to fit into that tiny, 250-square-foot apartment. We don't really become post-post-modern parents until we've spent at least 12 hours in the IKEA kid's section. And we're not really post-divorce, bitter old bachelors until we've once again furnished a 250 square foot apartment with IKEA, this time leaving a few empty feet on the floor where the kids can sleep on their occasional visits. 

As I sat in the prefab-apartment thinking about all of this, I felt a bit as if I had been duped. My anti-capitalist tendencies had been confused by the IKEA approach, and here I was, sitting in just another big box store, longing to spend my credit card company’s money. It was no less crass than Black Friday, I figured, maybe even worse. What’s weird is that people don’t see that – they boycott Wal-Marts and burn down Starbucks, but the only people who scorn IKEA are hipsters, at least when they’re not too busy tossing scorn at, well, hipsters. I considered getting up and telling Wendy all of this, and insisting we get the hell out of this place and go build our own stinking table. Then I remembered, I don’t know how to build a table.

My daughters finally found me in the prefab-apartment and rousted me from my thoughts with their lists of all the things they had to have for their still non-existent bedrooms. By this time, the yellow and blue-suited staffers were getting really worried about me. So I pulled myself out of the couch and we all headed down to the restaurant to stand in line for our meatballs. I ate happily and drank a coffee with my meal. Then I drank another. And, since it was free, I lined up for a third. That’s when I started to see the light, and understand what it was all about. That’s when I heard my ancestors calling to me: Buy the table, you idiot. Just buy it. It will save your marriage. For now. Besides, it’s flat-packed, and will only take a few minutes to assemble.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Macaroon for the 21st Century! (And holiday cookies, too)

These are rough times. From our European vantage point, the Old Country seems to be unraveling (tax cuts for the rich, billions being spent on two wars, Wiki-leaks shenanigans). Meanwhile, over here, climate change has made it colder not to mention snowier, which has resulted in late, overcrowded trains. And in our Berlin neighborhood, even as the grimy snow piles up on the sidewalks, so, for some reason, does the garbage. It looks a bit like an ugly bomb exploded here. So, in order to bring some more balance and sweetness to the world, I figured I'd spend this Sunday baking holiday cookies and some macaroons, and then sharing the recipes with you (because I'm all about redistribution of wealth). That doesn't make much sense, I know, but either does anything else going on these days.

Here's something that does make sense: My new macaroon invention! I had set out to make the Barefoot Contessa's coconut macaroons, which are ridiculously simple: Mix up 14 oz. sweetened shredded coconut with 14 oz. sweetened condensed milk. Add some vanilla and some whisked egg whites. Bake. Thing is, I had come home from the store with unsweetened coconut and unsweetened condensed milk. And this being Germany, stores aren't open on Sundays (don't get me started).

Luckily, macaroons are marvelously flexible. And luckily, yesterday when I was cruising through Punjab's market, which is an amazing mixture of Indian grocery store, Halal butcher and "Afro Shop" (one entire row is dedicated to hair extensions and associated products), I picked up this huge container of vacuum packed dates for next to nothing. I had found the sweetness for my unsweetened ingredients. The super sweet dates alone probably would have sufficed, but I wanted to push the macaroon envelope. So I made this magic sauce: Start with some butter or ghee in a pan, throw in some fresh ginger, add two sliced bananas and a handful of pitted, chopped dates. Sautee it all until the bananas and dates shine with the butter, then add enough water to cover the fruit. Cook, stirring, until it all turns into an unappetizing-looking mash (a few chunks are okay). Add more water if necessary.

Date banana sauce. Looks bad, tastes great
Now taste. Yum-mo-lishious, no? Save a bit to sweeten tomorrow morning's oatmeal, then add the rest to your 14 oz. of unsweetened condensed milk and mix it up well (it wouldn't hurt to cook this a bit, too, if you want). Add the 14 oz. unsweetened coconut and stir it all up. If it seems too watery, add a bit more coconut. In a separate bowl, whip two egg whites until they have firm medium peaks (mine never peaked, and it didn't seem to wreck things). Fold the eggs gently into the coconut milk mix. Scoop into little piles onto a baking sheet. Bake in a 325 degree oven until the little tips of your coconut bergs are burnished brown. Keep an eye on the bottom of the macaroons, as they might burn if you have a crappy baking sheet. Let cool. Eat. Want to experiment? Try using coconut milk in place of the condensed milk. I can't wait to try that one.

The finished macaroons with their earthier color and more complex flavors.
Okay, macaroons are not really traditional holiday treats, so the kids and I threw together some great little cookies with which they can bribe their teachers, too. When I make Christmas cookies, I prefer to make a big hunk of base dough, and then add variety at the pre-baking/decorating stage. And my favorite base dough comes from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. I take Alice's lemon-clove cookies and remove the cloves (because cloves don't quite go with everything, while lemon pairs well with everything from chocolate to chicken -- and no, I'm not making chicken cookies. This time).

So, if you want to try these, go to the link and follow the recipe. You should end up with a couple of logs of dough in the refrigerator (I like to double the recipe and get four logs). Now's the time to get creative. As the dough chills, come up with your own mixtures for topping the cookies. We did: Lemon zest-black pepper-salt-sugar; candied ginger-dried cranberry; sugar-lemon zest; walnuts-chocolate. Though it sounds weird, my favorite by far turned out to be the lemon zest/black pepper one. To make it, I covered a plate with freshly ground pepper, sprinkled some turbinado sugar onto the pepper, added just a tiny pinch of salt, and some lemon zest. I then took one dough log and rolled it in the mixture, pressing hard so that the spices all get stuck in a fairly even layer on the whole log. Then, I sliced the log into 1/4" slices (each one a cookie) and put them on a baking sheet. If you want some more flavor, top the cookies with the same mix you put on the sides. Bake at 350 F until the cookies are golden brown.

Rolling the cookie dough log in chocolate/walnut/cranberry topping
Give a few away. Eat the rest. Feel better about the world.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Woman in a burqa

Badstrasse, Berlin, 10 September 2010. Summer's over, but the sun's back for a day or two and it has brought the streets to life. Olive-skinned teenage boys with their tightly sheared black hair listen to tinny music on their mobile phones, the Turkish grocer sings his apricot-selling song. A plastic bag dances drunkenly over the cars to the nee-ner nee-ner melody of polizei sirens.

From the delirium you emerge, woman with a burqa, like silence. A tenebrous wound in the streetscape, you cut through the bustle until you stand directly across from me. You wait for the light to flash green. I am also waiting. Perhaps through the screen that shields your face, you notice me: I'm the one with the disheveled hair, the peach-colored linen shirt, the shorts, two beers hanging from my hand, leaning against my thigh in the way of the infidels. I suppose to you I look like everyone else in this crowd.

Not you. You are a void in the frenzy. Your nothingness is so pure that you seem to float just a few inches above everything else: shards of green glass clinging to the Beck's label; a to-go cup, rolling back and forth in the gutter; a dropped currywurst, its ketchup staining the sidewalk like blood. You are invisible, yet everyone is staring at you, even as they pretend to be looking at the signs advertising specials in the Woolworth window.

You are the unknown, yet we think we know you so well. Everyone seems to be fretting about you these days. Here in Germany, a book came out this summer accusing people like you of destroying the country. Ever since, the politicians and pundits have been tripping over one another for the chance to make their own statement about you, and the failure of integration, or the collapse of multiculturalism. In France, they made you as illegal as a Mexican making his way across the Arizona desert on foot, his head swirling with dreams of working the slaughterhouse knife table in Greeley for 12 bucks an hour. But all I see is a woman in a burqa, nothing less and so much more.


When the big aluminum tube carrying my family landed in Berlin on a quiet, hot evening this past June, I had only vague notions of what I would encounter here. I had never been to Germany; never lived anywhere but the rural or semi-urban Western U.S. My pre-flight research of the place had been scant. I certainly didn't know that I'd live in a neighborhood with so many immigrants, particularly from countries that are predominantly Muslim. Nor could I have guessed that I would be surrounded by a debate about those immigrants that shares many similarities with the immigration debates back home.

After World War II, Western Germany experienced the Wirtschaftswunder, or the economic "miracle" that resulted from a huge infusion of cash to rebuild the country's demolished infrastructure. Human capital was in short supply (it had been "spent" in the War), so it was imported, mostly from southern countries. So-called guest workers flocked in from Greece, Italy and Turkey. They were expected to leave after a few years - an orderly system of chewing them up and spitting them out before they could get settled here. It didn't work. People stayed and more came to join them, especially from Turkey. Though the energy/economic crisis of the 1970s sparked an anti-immigrant urge, it didn't stop the inward human flow.

Today Germany, like the U.S. (and France, Belgium, the Netherlands, et. al.), is a land of immigrants. 

My family and I ended up in the Wedding district of Berlin. They say that in our particular neighborhood, about 40 percent of the residents are foreign-born. Kids born in Germany to non-German parents are considered foreigners, at least until they turn 18. That means that well over half the people we see each day on the street are, like me, Ausländer. Our street is lined with shops whose windows sport German, Turkish and Arabic lettering, along with a smattering of commercial English (FaxService, Internet, Prepaid, Automaten Casino 23 Stunden Open). I shop in grocery stores where varieties of tahini and olives are as abundant and cheap as chips and soda pop in an American convenience store. Conversations here are as likely to be in Turkish, Arabic or a kaleidoscope of African languages - along with some Russian or Polish thrown in - as they are to be in German. 

There's a temptation to attribute the Wedding phenomenon directly to German's guest-worker programs of the 50s and beyond, because that gives us an illusion that we (society, governments) have some sort of say in how these things turn out. I don't think so. Bigger forces are at work here - Wedding is globalization made manifest. Borders dissolve in the face of consumer desire. It doesn't shock us to find mangoes in Minnesota in the dead of winter, or to see a Starbucks on a street corner in Cairo. Stinger missiles make their way to Afghanistan; Mercedes tear through the dust of the Sahara, and a frozen burger from Wal-Mart might have come from a dozen different countries. We have long accepted that goods and cash will flow across borders, regardless of trade policies or tariffs. We should not be surprised when people do the same.

Today, it is virtually impossible to find a corner of the globe that has not been saturated by globalism. It's got a certain stench that swirls up from the giant cones of döner flesh, and joyfully mingles with the aroma of mint and exhaust, coriander and the molasses-like smoke from the Shishas. Globalization has a feel, the warm ooze of the sweet and tangy Big Mac special sauce dripping through the fingers of the Arab boy with his gangstah swagger and hip-hop style. It's the burn in the throat from a brain taco wolfed down in the parking lot of a rowdy Honky-Tonk bar in Rock Springs, Wyoming, on a Sunday afternoon. It's a woman in a burqa on Badstrasse in Berlin.


It wasn't supposed to be like this. The Ausländer were to learn German, appreciate Bach and Goethe, drink bottled water and wait for the light to turn green before walking across the street, even when it's 4 a.m., and there are no cars around. Because that's what Germans do. It's okay for Ausländer to hang on to certain parts of their culture, sure -- the falafels and the olives and the Turkish pizzas. Just as long as they abandon those aspects that make us uncomfortable or scared: the dark fringes of the religion, butchering goats in the back of grocery stores, and, especially, those burqas. When everyone integrates according to the rules, we can all live side-by-side as one big, colorful family, like in those old Benetton commercials.

Of course it hasn't worked out that way (how could it?). The folks in Wedding didn't integrate fast enough, or properly. Clearly, they not only still speak with their mother tongues in everyday situations, but they also have held onto much of their cultural identity. They don't fit the German mold, and that's got people worried. In the recently released, bestselling book, "Germany Does Away With Itself," Thilo Sarrazin argues that this failure to integrate, particularly among Muslim immigrants, is eroding the very identity of the Vaterland. German Chancellor Angela Merkel followed that up by declaring recently that multiculturalism - the idea that various cultures could walk side-by-side in harmony - was dead. A Netherlands politician, Geert Wilders, said that Muslim immigration had so diminished the Germany of Bach, Goethe and Schiller that it had become unrecognizable. (In the U.S., the anti-immigration crowd is more apt to fret over the loss of "the American high standards of living" than it is to bemoan the loss of culture, but the idea's the same). 

Of course, these are the hardliners speaking. But even the moderates on this issue share a common conceit: That the policymakers and cops and bureaucrats have some sort of control over the situation. They believe that we can put up filters on our borders to keep out the riff-raff, and stamp "integration required" on visas, and that will solve the "immigration problem."  They see no contradiction in the fact that tons and tons of tomatoes flow freely from south to north over the U.S.-Mexico every day, but people aren't "allowed" to do the same. We don't understand that we have no control. Adam Smith's hand, it turns out, is not only invisible, but it's powerful, meaty and indiscriminate, too.

I take all of this a bit personally. I'm an Auslander, too. I'm trying to learn German, but it's a lugubrious process. When I order a coffee, I still feel as though I have a mouthful of pebbles. When the waitress responds, I strain to understand every other word. I'm not accustomed to all of this concrete, or these grey skies. I sometimes imagine that the weathered brick wall outside our apartment window is a desert-varnished, lichen-covered, sandstone cliff, and I lay at its base, in a sun-warmed, tadpole-filled pool. I dream of a hot dry wind, a two-track road leading into an endless plain of sage, thunderheads piled high in a sky so big it makes the eyes ache. Those are the components of my culture. Sometimes, I feel so out of context that I could be walking down the street in a burqa, too.

But I'm not. And even though I have no job here, can't speak the language, and have yet to develop a taste for sauerkraut juice or canned meat, the anti-immigration hardliners don't have a problem with my kind. As someone of European stock, I fit in enough so as not to offend; my culture doesn't grate up against Germany's. Woman with a burqa, however, you're a different matter altogether.


I'd say that at least one-fourth of the women I pass by on the sidewalk here in Wedding on a daily basis cover their hair - occasionally their faces, too -- according to Muslim tradition. Most wear simple but colorful headscarves made of a shiny material, usually accompanied by generic-looking trenchcoats. Others wear a more elaborate get-up, their hair bundled up in big bunches inside the scarf, tassels hanging down over their foreheads. A tiny minority wear the full-on burqa, a head-to-toe garment, usually black, with only a screen or a slit through which to see.

Curiously, these scarves and burqas have become one of the focal points of the current integration/immigration debate, popping up often in the rhetoric of Wilders, Sarrazin and others. Of Islam, Sarrazin said, "No group emphasizes their differences so strongly in public, especially through women's clothing..." and he refuses to respect a group that "constantly produces new little headscarf-girls." Wilders proposed a headscarf tax in his country (which would apply only to Muslim women, and not to orthodox Christians who wear similar head coverings). In a New York Times op-ed piece, Mona Eltahawy, a Muslim woman, argued: "(The veil) erases women from society and has nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it." The French government apparently agreed, banning the burqa because, they say, it demeans women.

The French ban is terribly flawed. For starters, it rubs against our ideals of freedom of religion and expression. By prohibiting a piece of clothing for ideological reasons - even if they are admirable ones - the French lowered themselves to the level of the Islamic countries like Iran, which require women to wear burqas or headscarves. It's little different than a government banning torturous high heels, bras or breast augmentation surgery because they, too, demean women; there are better ways to legislate equality (how about starting by wiping out the gender pay gap). Women won't suddenly shed their burqas in France, they'll just stay inside their homes, where they will become even more imprisoned than they are behind a black cloak.

But even worse is that the French weren't really worried about women's rights so much as they were about integration. The real reason they, along with Wilders and Sarrazin, want to do away with headscarves and burqas is that on the streets of Paris and Berlin, the garments do exactly the opposite of what Eltahawy says they do: Rather than erasing identity, they are potent assertions of identity. The simple act of putting on a headscarf of whatever type before heading out the door is a big signal to the world: I am a Muslim woman.

But it's more, and less, than that, too. Even if the women in Wedding are required by custom, tradition or religion to wear the scarves to conceal their beauty and femininity, they've successfully transformed them into something else altogether. Younger women tend to tweak the style to fit their own taste or expressive urge: They wear curve-hugging coats, stiletto heels, and makeup that draws attention to their eyes, which resemble Italian plums. (It's enough to drive many a young German Lutheran boy to run home and covertly memorize verses of the Q'ran and relevant Turkish phrases). I've seen a dozen other styles, too. One particularly beautifully elegant woman covered her head and body in a sort of robe made of linen, and it flowed from her body like cottonwood leaves in a breeze.

The burqa is a different matter. It does, indeed, block the individual, physical expression of that woman's identity. Body language is obliterated, as are facial expressions and eye contact. There is no smile, no frown, no disapproving scowl when someone crosses the street against the light. That, on its own, so goes against our individualistic culture that it can be downright scary to encounter someone so cloaked on a German street. But that same trait is also what makes a woman in a burqa such a powerful symbol. She forces herself into the consciousness of everyone around so that she's impossible to ignore. What she lost of her individual identity she has made up for with a screaming declaration of her cultural identity.

That's simply not allowed under the hardliners' rule of integration. (Okay, the term "integrate" is a loaded one, and it's hard to define. I think the hardliners are actually hoping that immigrants will assimilate into the culture. That is, they want the dominant culture to subsume the non-dominant culture in a way that not only erases the differences between the two, but also changes the dominant culture as little as possible). And so, perhaps totally unwittingly, the woman in a burqa has found herself tangled up in this messy debate that promises only to intensify.

As woman in a burqa stands across from me, I notice something strange. Directly behind her, on a grungy apartment firewall, hangs a giant placard. It's identical to ones hanging up all over the city this fall. Seemingly bursting out of the billboard's red background - but partially obscured from this angle by the woman in a burqa - is a much bigger than life picture of porn star Angie Katz, reclining voluptuously in nothing but gauzy white underwear - an invitation to the city's annual sex industry trade show. 

Immigration is a force of nature. Borders are not. Throw up your steel fences, razor wire, motion detectors, cameras, border patrol and soldiers - in the end, it is meaningless. Integration is organic. The need to control it is not.

Woman in a burqa, you are everything because you are nothing. You are ripe pomegranates right off the tree; you are the thud against the wall next door. You are old men huddled over tea; you are a bruise. You are the haunting howl of prayer at sunrise; you are the blast ripping through a crowded bus. You are a giant raven strutting down the street.

You are the flock of geese flying south so far above the city's grit and grime. They follow an ancient path, older than words. They were there during the Crusades, they flew through the soot from the old factories. They mingled with the planes that dropped the bombs that demolished this city during World War II. They will be there even as the earth warms, and their seasonal journey is no longer required.

The light finally turns green and we both walk towards each other. As you walk past, I can hear you speaking to the woman beside you in an animated, almost girlish voice. This surprises me for some reason. Then, when you're right beside me, you break into a laugh. This is a language even I can understand.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Was ist los?

So, two of the three people who read this blog have asked me where I've been and why I haven't posted anything since that vertigo-causing video from the back of my bike. Where do I begin? For starters, I'm fortunate enough to have been asked to write a pre-election "guide" for High Country News. Now, I'm working on the post-election wrapup, and have the onerous task of saying something interesting that I didn't say in the leadup piece. Actually, the real task is keeping the word count at a reasonable level. Though this is merely a midterm election, it's an important one in many ways: the sheer cost of the thing is outrageous in itself, and will total around $4 billion when all is said and done; it's the first election since the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can finance campaigns; whether or not the Tea Party wins many races in the general election, its presence has altered the shape of the Republican party forever; and the Western United States may lose a lot of the national influence it has gained in the last decade; etc. Some of it will be in HCN, the rest I'll put here. When I have time.

And I haven't had much as of late. First, we finally found an apartment, which is something I'll write about after I have a bit of distance from the trauma, during which Germany's psyche was laid bare for us to see. It wasn't pretty (but the place isn't bad. Above photos are two views from our windows, and one pic of an old insane asylum a couple of blocks away). Now, we're trying to get Internet in our apartment. A simple task, you say? Then you haven't tried it in Berlin. And, I started my German class. It's about time I started integrating, right? Problem is, I somehow "tested" into the B-level class based on residual knowledge left over from high school German classes I took more than 20 years ago. What this means is that I now spend four hours each day in a classroom filled with much younger folks than me (and from Paraguay, Brazil, Japan, China, Argentina, Spain, Chile, England, Australia, Ukraine and even Moldavia), who speak to each other in what sounds to me like gibberish but is, in fact, German. And I'm expected to talk back as though I understand, and take quizzes, and talk to the teacher. It's humbling, I suppose, which is only a few letters away from humiliating.

I can't sign up for a class at a more appropriate level because to do so might require repeating the bureaucratic (take a number and wait) ordeal that I already had to go through. So, I will quietly endure yet another trauma that will leave permanent scars for which I will once again fail to get the professional help that I need.

But suffering, I hope, will make my writing better, because I've got a whole bunch of stuff to say: About immigration and integration, about Muslim women and their headscarves and burqas, about shopping at Ikea and a short story about what happens when I accidentally walk into the wrong apartment and another one about sagebrush, Berlin and high-speed trains. Stay tuned. And since those of you deserve a reward for plowing through all my neurotic gabbing, watch this video of Borges reading "The Art of Poetry" with some harsh but good images. I stumbled upon it at nthWORD.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bike's Eye View of our Berlin 'hood: Wedding

"Berlin," said the bartender at a wonderful little cafe near here, "is so ugly, it's sexy." Or something to that effect. I guess that's why I like Berlin, because that's exactly how I feel ... after a vodka or three. After living in one of the prettier parts of Berlin, we moved to the Wedding area, which many Berliners consider to be the uglier part of town. Wedding has a bad reputation: It's working class, kind of gritty and run down, poor. But since we moved here a month ago, I've become quite fond of Wedding. I'm struck by the area's diversity. It's not only ethnically varied -- Wedding is home to many Turkish, African and Middle Eastern immigrants -- but also demographically diverse. Young hipsters live next to the working class; artists' studios sit next to industrial sites (or in industrial sites that were taken over by artists). In one tiny section of one block, I can go to the poetry center, buy antique tchockes, browse a huge selection of shishas, or hookahs, and go to an African restaurant. Wedding even has its own progressive, graphically-rich magazine. Most striking to me is the diversity of the urban landscape. You can be on Badstrasse, a hectic, busy, garish, commercial street one minute, and turn off, ride your bike half a block, and be in a green, quiet park next to the Panke River. I tried to capture all of that in this video. Because my favorite way to see the area is from a bike, I figured I'd give you a similar point of view; the video is all shot from a camera strapped onto my bike rack. All photos and video were taken within a 10 minute bike ride radius from where we currently live in Wedding. The music is by Damscray and DJ/Rupture.
Twist & Science (Damscray) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Friday, August 13, 2010

My Commie Berlin bike and me

I suffered my first head injury* on a bike. I was five. When I was 11, I spent all my saved up paper route money on a Coast to Coast 12 speed. A year later, I dismantled it, combined it with another bike, and crashed it when I hit a rotten apple on a curve while delivering the aforesaid papers. I went to the emergency room. I started racing bikes (and getting spanked) that same year. On late summer nights as a teenager, I rode my bike home from my girlfriend's house, the fresh memory of her mysterious smell mingling with that of sprinklers on the grass. And when I came to the non-lit sections of street, I felt as if I were flying through the darkness. I worked in a bike shop for five years. I got married and had a kid and started a business and stopped riding and got chubby. Later, I started riding my bike again. I'm still chubby, but at least I can go out and purge my demons by riding up a mountainside, and not worry about cardiac arrest.

So, when I left the Old Country to move to Berlin, I wasn't about to leave my bicycle behind. I packed up my road bike, which was engineered to translate my aging legs' waning power into forward motion as efficiently as possible, and brought it over the pond. I then spent two weeks coughing up my lungs, looking at the unopened bicycle box with the impotent longing of an old man in the Sex Kino down the street. That I was on the mend was confirmed the day I crawled out of bed and tore open the box.

My first Berlin ride was a humbling affair. After the woman -- I'd peg her age at 62 -- passed me on a bulky one-speed nearly as old as her, I realized that perhaps my lightweight, many-geared machine was a bit much in a city with only one hill** to speak of. In my attempt to recover a sliver of my ego by overtaking the woman -- who, unfairly, was loaded down with groceries -- I swerved out of the bike lane and into the sidewalk. I was headed straight for the rear-end of a high-heeled pedestrian. Since I had no bell (rendering my bicycle illegal in Berlin), and since I don't speak German, I was reduced to making incomprehensible grunts of warning before abandoning all hope and swerving back into the bike lane, behind the aforesaid older but much faster woman.

The road into the Grunewald, a huge forest on Berlin's edge, provided quiet relief. It's a smoothly-paved, virtually carless street through the dense trees. I got down into the drops, stretched out my legs, kicked up the gear and started hammering. That's when I got the flat tire. It's also when I realized I had left the house without pump, tube or any other remedy, save a few bucks for a train ticket. I hobbled up the road to the S-Bahn station, clicked conspicuously across the shiny tiled floor in my cycling shoes and boarded a train. It was mercifully empty. And then the two women, attractively tattooed and fetchingly pierced, boarded the car and sat across from me. And laughed. At me. I was, after all, wearing lycra. Bright pink lycra. And so it was that I decided to change my life, or at least change my approach to this Berlin bicycling thing.

I needed a new bike. Okay, an old bike. One of the purely functional, no-frills one-speeds that are everywhere in this city. They stream by on the bike paths, which line every sidewalk along nearly every major thoroughfare in town, and the paths come with their own turning lanes and traffic lights. The bikes are practically piled up at every subway stop. Many seem to have been abandoned, overcome as they are by rust and weeds. Bike shops are plentiful, all of them selling an assortment of new and used rides. The bounty, however, has not rendered the bikes cheap. And equipping the family wasn't easy. But a fervent search, lasting a week or so, unearthed a nice shiny ride for Wendy, a ragged but cheap one for Elena and a vintage beauty for Lydia. Nothing for me. There was only one place left to go: Mauerpark on a Sunday.

Mauer means "wall" in German, and the Mauerpark is somehow meant to commemorate the Wall. More importantly, it's home each Sunday to a huge flea market, filled with vendors selling everything imaginable, from soft served ice cream, to vintage sunglasses, to enigmatic machines that were surely used by the Stasi either for listening in on dissidents or torturing them (if I weren't so intent on finding a bike, I would have picked one up for those evenings when the kids won't calm down, or when Wendy's feeling especially frisky). And then there are the bikes -- steeds in all shapes and sizes, sold by a motley cast of shady-looking characters. Rumor has it, every bike there is stolen.

After perusing dozens of Fahrrads, as they're called in Germany, I finally stumbled upon a guy who was asking somewhat reasonable prices. If the salesman weren't speaking German, I might have mistaken him for someone running a junkyard on the backroads of Delta County, or the goofy cousin on the Dukes of Hazard. He wore a dark blue jumpsuit, had long, greasy black hair, and a lopsided, half-toothless smile. His hands were stained black from handling many an oily chain. He had just a handful of bikes for sale, a less overwhelming selection than some of his colleagues. I pointed to a green one: How much? 45 Euros. How about the blue one? 55. Then, in true socialist fashion, he made the hard sale on the cheaper bike: It's much better, he said in German, because it's from East Germany. The other one, from West. No good. East is better. Sold.

Like all Berlin bikes, it has a bell, a head- and tail-light, a rear rack. It rode beautifully for the first few blocks of the trip home. Then the right pedal started feeling funny. No biggie, I thought, I was going to put better pedals on, anyway. It kept getting worse, though, and by the time I got home I had made a sickening realization: The bike guy was no smarter than he looked, and had forced a left-hand pedal into the right-hand crank, completely stripping the threads. I think I wept a little, but it was okay, because I did it privately and out of sight of pretty girls on the subway. I washed away my depression with a healthy dose of the Grauburgunder wine that they sell around here for remarkably cheap, and then I got excited about fixing up my bike. A big hammer, and another 20 Euros later, it was up and running again. In the process, I also learned something: Berlin has government-supported bike shops devoted exclusively to people who are unemployed and on welfare. I see a job in my future.

In the days since, we've sampled many a Berlin bike path as a family, saving us the cost of U-Bahn tickets, and giving us a means to explore weird little pockets of the city. We live about 100 meters from a heavily treed path that heads south into giant parks and beyond, to the farmland at the edge of Berlin. To the north, it cuts through cool neighborhoods before joining up with the Mauerweg -- the Wall trail -- and skirts the line that once divided West from East Berlin. I've got my bike again, and I'm happy. And last night, as we ate another round of doner kepabs after looking at another round of potential apartments to rent, my youngest daughter, out of the blue, said: "I can't imagine what it would be like to not have my bike. When I ride it I feel all airy and light." Amen.

*My brother decided it would be funny to push me really fast on my little red Schwinn. I went over the bars, head first into the pavement, resulting in a huge road rash on my forehead. As far as I know, it didn't cause any permanent damage. That may have come earlier, when some unremembered event caused the big dent that remains in the back of my head to this day. But since my parents deny they ever dropped me headfirst, I count the bike wreck as my first head injury.

**The only hill in Berlin is actually a huge pile of rubble, the detritus of World War II bombs. The city was pretty much obliterated by Allied bombing raids.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I feel like Franz Kafka or, The bureaucratic war of attrition continues

I awoke that morning from uneasy dreams. I felt strange, which is not unusual before I have my coffee, but this was different. I felt transformed, though I could not put any more words to it than that.

The day began at 9 a.m. We went to the Job Center to drop off documents and ask a question and get approval for a housing expenditure. They told us that they could not complete our file until we got our health insurance cards from the AOK agency. The Job Center also said they could not answer our question; only the people at the local branch of town hall, or Rathaus, could do that. We went on the subway to the Rathaus. The man there said that we had to come back at 3 p.m., when they would not answer our question, but would tell us where we had to go to have our question answered. We could not call to find out where to go, he said. We had to be there in person. Our German friend was there to translate, but I am beginning to suspect that fluency in the language does not increase understanding, at least when dealing with the bureaucracy.

While we waited for 3 p.m. to arrive, we went across town to the Volkshochschule, where we were to register for our German and integration classes (required as a condition of my residency permit). They gave us a piece of paper, to take back to the Job Center, who would decide whether the government would pay for the classes or not. We went back to the Job Center at 2 p.m. It was closed to everyone without an appointment.

My pre-coffee feeling of being transformed came back to me. People looked different to me, I realized, and they were looking at me in a curious manner.

At 3 p.m., we went back to the Rathaus. The man there looked something up. He said we needed to go to the other branch Rathaus to have our question answered. We got on the subway and went across town. The receptionist sent us to room 146a, which required a seemingly endless trek through the cavernous halls of the Rathaus. People sat in seats in the hallways, waiting. We knocked on door 146a, and a friendly man with long, grey hair and a ponytail emerged (the dress/grooming code amongst German bureaucrats is decidedly casual... many look as if they just got out of bed and forgot to change out of their pajamas). He told us we had to speak to Frau Heinrich, and escorted us to her office door and told us to wait outside. Her door had a sign on it telling visitors to find her at 146b, but the man ignored it. He told us we might have to wait for an hour or more.

We waited. The man disappeared.

The clock ticked. The hall was long, and dark, and empty. We knocked on the door of Frau Heinrich. No one answered. We knocked on her colleague's door, and asked if we had been forgotten. She said no. Then she called Frau Heinrich to make sure we hadn't been forgotten. It turns out we had not been forgotten; Frau Heinrich never knew we were there in the first place. Frau Heinrich emerged from door 146b. She asked us why we had just sat there, waiting. Why didn't we come to 146b, like the sign said? We told her about the ponytail man. She didn't buy the story. I got the impression that she didn't believe the ponytail man existed. I'm not sure I believe it either.

We asked her the question; we needed her to approve an extra expenditure. She fetched her colleague to help her answer the question. They said they could approve it, but that the Job Center is the one who decides, and they would almost certainly say no. But, we explained, the Job Center sent us here; they said you decided. They always do that, the two women said. And we always say yes. And then the Job Center always says no. She gave us a piece of paper to take back to the Job Center.

We walked through the hallways. I suffered a strange hallucination in which the walls and ceiling and doors seemed to expand, and I felt as though I were tiny, like a beetle skittering about on the floor, looking for crumbs in a house full of stomping feet.

We went to the AOK agency, which is quiet and clean and very corporate, but everyone dresses in the same sub-casual way as the bureaucrats. They said they could not give us our insurance cards until the Job Center gave them the final approval. But, we said, the Job Center won't give us final approval until we have our insurance cards. They gave us another document to give to the Job Center. We went home. Darkness and rain settled on the city.

That night, I had uneasy dreams.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Berlin's super-sized community gardens (and why they should be exported to the U.S.)

When I’m in a city, I am drawn to the places in-between. Spaces, I mean, that somehow avoided being paved over, or built upon, or that once held buildings that have now collapsed, the rubble mostly hauled away, leaving only the structure’s ghost all filled up with spindly weeds. Sometimes these spaces are just surprising: When vacant lots are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars just a short walk away, how has this space remained empty and undesired? Sometimes these spaces are surprisingly wild. When I visit Los Angeles, my wife always drives (thanks to urban-automobile-neurosis on my part), leaving me to wonder at the remarkably green strip of land that separates many lanes of interstate asphalt. The vegetation is so dense here, I think, these slivers of wildness so unnoticed by the harried passersby, that I can’t help but wonder why the homeless don’t carve out little abodes here, rather than in concrete doorways. Perhaps they do.

My proclivity for seeking out the spaces-in-between did not perish on the plane trip to Europe. I automatically started noticing them on our first S-Bahn trip through the city (the S-Bahn rides above-ground, and affords a view of the backside of Berlin, while the U-Bahn is the underground train). There are many such spaces here: vine-infested hillsides; buildings that look to have been bombed out in the war and never resuscitated; random grafitti-covered walls sticking out of the dirt here and there; and an enigmatic, hulking metal skeleton called a gasometer, whose purpose I still cannot divine. On that first trip, I noticed something else, too: Little settlements huddled into the spaces-in-between.

The first one I saw reminded me of those L.A. freeway strips. It was nestled between the S-Bahn tracks and some sort of factory, on a piece of land no more than 30 feet wide. A low fence surrounded it, and it was divided into several different plots. Each plot had a small structure, along with a lush garden. The gardens were immaculately groomed, yet densely populated with vegetables, flowers and often a fruit tree or two. I began noticing these complexes all over the city; some were tiny, some were as big as city blocks, with dozens of plots and the tiny little houses that made me wonder if Berlin’s multicultural quilt included Elves. Finally, I saw a sign on the entrance to one of these spaces. It read, Kleingartencolonie.

Turns out I was wrong about the Elves. In fact, these colonies are Germany’s allotment gardens, which are something like U.S. community gardens, super-sized. In these days of so much talk about urban agriculture and local foods, it’s an idea that U.S. cities might try to emulate.

The concept originated in the 19th Century, when the German government, instead of handing out welfare, granted land to poor folks to garden so that they could provide for themselves. The gardens were also intended to reconnect kids with nature, which was certainly an idea before its time. Over the decades, the number of allotment gardens grew; when the city ran out of empty land, it bought more, with help from the federal government. After World War II, people actually lived on their plots, which may explain why so many of the current structures look more like little houses than potting sheds.

Today, there are more than 800 Gartenkolonies in Berlin, alone. Within those colonies are a total of more than 75,000 garden plots, each measuring about 250 square meters. Apartment-dwelling Berliners pay between 300 and 400 Euros per year to tend to and enjoy the plots. They must follow strict rules; at least 30 percent of the plot must be devoted to food production, hedges can be only so big, they are supposedly not allowed to live on the plot, but some of the so-called garden cottages appear to be big enough, and adequately equipped, for full-on habitation. Traditionally, the allottees have been older folks, but in recent years the back-to-the-land movement has brought younger people, along with a new wave of immigrants, to the gardens. Thousands of people are on the waiting list for the gardens.

View Berlin Allotment Gardens in a larger map

In addition to getting people out of the concrete landscape so they can get their hands in the dirt and produce fresh fruit and vegetables, Berlin’s allotment gardens also add to the city’s already abundant green spaces*. The Gartenkolonies appear in even the most downtrodden neighborhoods, providing oases of tidy vegetation amidst the grafitti-stained concrete and dog poop-piled pavement. They appear to go mostly unmolested by the graffiti artists, who have covered nearly every other surface in this city with their work.

My first thought after finding out what these things were was that the concept needs to be exported to the United States, pronto. Then the caffeine wore off, and reality set in: U.S. cities with a true need for these things – New York, Boston, San Francisco – probably don’t have the land base to accommodate much in the way of these super-sized community gardens within the urban area; and the cities that do have a lot of land are mostly inhabited by people with big yards, and plenty of space for their own gardens. At least for now.

But then, we are in the midst of a major financial crisis. The housing bubble burst a long time ago, and it is showing no sign of re-inflating. The growth machine has screeched to a gear-grinding halt, especially in places like Phoenix, which had fed the machine with sunny skies combined with rampant air conditioning, favorable growth policies (read: a lack of planning and regulation), seemingly endless expanses of developable desert and farmland, mass-production homebuilding companies and lots of cheap credit and equity refugees. Because the greater Phoenix megalopolis didn’t just sprawl, but leapt into the desert, passing up perfectly usable land for cheaper plots further out, hundreds of acres lie vacant within the greater metro area. With thousands of homes already foreclosed upon in the area, I suspect that land is not selling at a premium. Which makes this a perfect time for the city to go for a bit of that stimulus money to buy up the land and convert it into it’s own garden colonies. Perhaps the banks, who I assume now own a lot of that land, would even consider donating it to the cause (not out of any sort of charitable urge, of course, but to get a tax deduction so that they can siphon more profits to CEO compensation, and also to unload some worthless assets).

Meanwhile, the financial crisis has forced Americans to curb their appetite for giant new homes, with giant green lawns, in giant new cookie-cutter developments far out from the city center. In fact, recent reports say that apartment rental rates are increasing thanks to all the foreclosures. And at least a few of those McMansions that surround the West’s cities are being divided up into multi-family rental units. I also believe that sprawling cities do evolve to become more densely populated, from the city’s core outward; old industrial buildings become loft apartments, and the creative class flocks not to suburban sameness but to downtown flats. That creates a whole new group of people who might feel a bit cooped up in those gardenless apartments; people who could save a bit of money and get their hands in the dirt in one of these garden colonies.

And for those of you who worry about polluting America's Jell-O-fed purity with some commie Euro idea, check out the great essay by Grist's Tom Philpott on the history of urban ag in the U.S. Turns out Berlin's allotment gardens look a bit like American urban gardening efforts of old (the German gardens merely persevered, rather than getting paved over by strip malls).

With bio-intensive gardening, these plots could feed a family for a summer, or offer an ambitious farmer enough produce to make some cash at the neighborhood farmers’ market. They’d add diversity to the concrete landscape, turn a few of those spaces-in-between into places of horticultural creativity (not to mention creepy lawn ornaments) and keep the Starbucks and strip malls at bay.

*Which truly are abundant, making Berlin one of the greenest (in the literal sense) cities in the world. There are the huge parks, such as Tiergarten (essentially Berlin’s Central Park), which is in turn dwarfed by the Grunewald (which is a forest, not a park), and many in-between. The waterways that wind their way through the city are all lined with green spaces and trails. In most parts of town, one can't walk little more than a couple of blocks without running into a public playground or park of some sort. We are currently staying in Wedding, which many Berliners consider the "bad" part of town. Yet within a two-minute walk of our flat, we are in a park replete with a vegetation-shrouded walking/bike path that stretches for many a kilometer in either direction. Huge parks are within an easy bike ride. And our neighborhood is flanked by Gartenkolonies of various shapes and sizes.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Pfifferling und Makrel: Saturday at a Berlin market

This is the time of year -- late July and early August -- when my home mountains of southwestern Colorado start getting hammered by the monsoon cycles and its regular afternoon rain showers. That's enough to coax the chanterelle and porcini mushrooms from the cool, moist forest floor, and to lure the mushroom maniacs into the hills. It's also enough to make a Colorado boy in Berlin a bit homesick.

Happily, we have a homesickness cure here: The weekly market. Just about every neighborhood, or at least every district, has its own market in some prominent platz or plaza at least once a week, usually on Saturday morning. Today, we found our favorite thus far, the Winterfeldtplatz market in Schöneberg. Dozens of tents and booths huddle around a grand brick church, peopled by peddlers selling everything from sunglasses to sausages, flowers to cappuccinos. Nearly every produce seller has a big bin of chanterelles -- Pfifferlinge* in Deutsch -- with their earthy aroma and apricot-like color. We planned on just picking up enough shrooms to make a risotto (the scorching temps gave way to cool rain and cloudy skies, making the idea of standing over a pot of cooking rice tolerable). Then we got hungry.

So we got some kind of middle eastern spinach-cheese pastry thing, and some pancakes smothered with sugar, cinnamon, plum sauce and vanilla. And then we found the fish: Sizzling trout and mackerel and trout cooking on a grill. The chef recommended the whole mackerel, and he was right on. Wow. We were told that this was an imported delight; Berliners are known for smoked or pickled fish (indeed, one can find nearly any variety of fish, beautifully smoked), while the Bavarians specialize in grilled fish. The only complaint is that we didn't find out that the guy two booths down was selling a nice chilled white wine by the glass until AFTER we finished the fish. Next time. But while we ate, a very nice woman told us about another booth that sold homemade bratwurst to die for. We just had to try some. On the way, we saw some cookies made of nuts, and coriander and cardamom and dipped in chocolate. Couldn't pass that up.

Finally, we got a bagful of chanterelles for a mere 2 Euro. Homesickness: Cured.

*Pfifferlinge/Chanterelles apparently came into season here right when we arrived, and the things are as ubiquitous as donerkebap stands. A lot of restaurants even have Pfifferlinge menus, with chanterelle pastas, salads, and schnitzel -- pounded, breaded, fried veal -- smothered in shrooms.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Zermürbungskrieg: The bureaucratic war of attrition

I'm an immigrant. Or at least I'm trying to be. Most people in my situation might prefer to be called an "expat" because it sounds cooler (i.e. sitting in Parisian cafe plotting revolutions and writing novels) and doesn't evoke frightened masses huddled in the creaky hull of a ship catching the first glance of Manhattan, or desperate folks dodging cacti in the desert in 100 degree heat in order to get landscaping jobs in even hotter Phoenix. I am not writing this in a Parisian cafe. I do not feel like an expat. So call me an immigrant. And being an immigrant means going through the immigration office.

It should have been easy. After all, I'm married to a German, and these Germans are efficient, folks, right? The trains all run on time; and they make some killer cars and appliances, which are actually manufactured here, for the most part, not outsourced to some up-and-coming third world country. And opening our German bank account was one of the easiest, most pleasant such processes I can remember*. So why would getting my residency permit be any different?

We were told to arrive early. So we left the apartment at 6:30 a.m., jumped on the U-Bahn, grabbed a really bad coffee in the subway station, got on the S-Bahn and disembarked at a stop in a strangely institutional part of town. We walked past enigmatic factories, and what must have been a coal-fired power plant in a strangely sterile part of town. Big, bunker-like medical facilities filled the horizon. The day, though barely just begun, was already hot. And humid.

The immigration bureau has one entire floor for Turkish immigrants. Meanwhile, North-, South- and Central Americans, Africans, Australians, New Zealanders and etc. all go to another floor. We waited in line for 45 minutes. To get a "waiting number." The women didn't speak English. They asked how long we had been married. Wendy said a long, long time, and snickered. The woman yelled at us (in German, of course, which is so much harsher): This is no laughing matter! Then they informed us we were in the wrong line. We went to a different line, and into a different room, but I'm pretty sure the woman was the same. She sent the children away. She took our passports and my application. When she realized Wendy was a German citizen, but didn't speak German, she looked at us disapprovingly (a common reaction, it turns out ... and, yes, Germany has its own "German-only" crowd). She gave us a number. We waited.

I started to get angry. I looked some stuff up in my dictionary so that I would be prepared next time someone scolded Wendy for not speaking German. "Ihr Grosseltern war im das Gemetzel. Deine Vorfahren töt ihre Vorfahren. Sie is Deutsch weil Deutschland ihr Grosseltern Leben gesteht." I thought it meant: Her grandparents were in the Holocaust. Your ancestors killed her ancestors. She is German because Germany stole her grandparents' lives. It actually means something entirely different about confessing a life and carnage. Perhaps it's best that I never had a chance to use it.

We waited. A heat wave is clobbering Europe. It's the hottest summer in Berlin in 110 years. Every day, temperatures get into the high 90s. It does not cool off at night. People are collapsing from heat stroke on the trains. No one in Berlin has air conditioners, least of all the bureaucratic agencies. Fans are unheard of. An Australian woman, waiting for her work permit, told us that a giant indoor mall here has air conditioning. People flock to it for sanctuary. We waited one hour. And then another. The digital board kept calling the same number, over and over again. The heat kept climbing. I doodled things a sane man should not doodle.

At 10 a.m. a woman came out, locked the door to the office, and put up a sign announcing that they would give out no more waiting numbers that day. The Australian woman talked. My children rolled around on the floor in agony. We waited some more, along with other people from all over the world. Germans do not have water fountains. The immigration office is the only place in Berlin that does not have a donerkebap stand, a currywurst place, or a Lotto/coffee place, or a bakery, or a Turkish fruit stand. The nearest grocery store is way down the street.

We will wait in other un-air-conditioned offices as well: mandatory health insurance, Kindergeld, the job center. The health insurance people will tell us we need our job center numbers, the job center will tell us we need immigration and health insurance numbers. There is no central database from which the bureaucrats can access the other bureacrats' numbers. We will walk/ride the U-Bahn from one office to the next, take a number and wait.

Three and a half hours after arriving at the immigration office, our number flashed on a screen. A woman handed us a paper. We had an appointment to return in four weeks. The paper warned us not to be late, or we would miss our appointment. It also let us know that, even though we had a very defined appointment time, we should expect a long wait.

*Just before we came to Berlin, we went to the Delta, Colo., Wells Fargo to set up the system that would enable us to wire money from our U.S. account to a German account. We sat down with a "personal banker" to do what seemed like a quick and easy process. The personal banker clearly had no idea how to do such a thing, and went searching around the inter tubes to try to figure it out. He spelled our names wrong on the forms several times, and didn't catch it until he printed it out. Then he'd fix it, print out the forms again, and we'd discover another mistake. This went on for hours, while our kids' brains boiled out in the car in the parking lot. Contrast that to our German experience: We walked into the Sparkasse. Found a banker that spoke flawless English. He offered us cappuccino. And we had a German bank account no more than 20 minutes later. Easy as kuchen.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Das Krankenhaus: Or how I got Pneumonia in Berlin and (hopefully) live.

One way to learn about a new place is to go to cultural centers, museums, eat the food and meet new people. Another way is to get an incapacitating, sometimes even fatal, ailment. I chose the former, but the latter chose me. And once again, my lack of assertiveness got the best of me.

It started out with fatigue, aches in strange places, and a sudden lack of appetite, even for beer, even during a World Cup game. Then the coughing started: wheezing fits of hacking that caused people on the street to steer clear (or was that the dog?). Each cough caused my eyeballs to strain against their sockets, and made it feel as if my windpipe would implode. One fit was so violent that it threw my back out (which in turn was wracked with a sharp pain with each cough). I ended up prone and delirious. The only problem was, we had things to do, so I had to pull myself up and stagger down the street to school offices in far-flung parts of the city. This was during the recent heat wave, by the way; 90 F plus himidity. And the subway is at least ten degrees warmer, kind of like a moving sauna, with everyone packed together, trying not to look at each other or at the guy with the accordian trying to collect money. And then there was the guy coughing as though he had tuberculosis. That was me.

I drank lots of fluids and tea. I ate vitamin C and turmeric until it oozed from my pores. I took hot baths in spite of the heat. I slathered my body with Vicks vapor rub as though I were a menthol turkey getting ready for Thanksgiving.

That natural stuff, it soon became clear, wouldn't be enough. I needed some Nyquil and Aspirin, stat. But when I went to the grocery store, I only found more homeopathic/naturopathic remedies. Okay, I thought, it's pretty progressive to have this stuff in the corner store, but where's the heavy artillery? Turns out that in Germany, you can't even buy aspirin in the store. You have to go to the Apotheke, or pharmacy, and then specifically ask for what you want. You even must explain your symptoms. This was a challenge.

"Ich habe ein schlimmel Husten," I said, only to be answered with the usual Gatlin-gun, incomprehensible Deutsch. "Ich verstehe nicht," I continued. "Ich spreche nur ein Bissen Deutsch. Langsam bitte."* And so it went until I got some kind of nasty tasting syrup that was probably good enough, along with a box of aspirin. Proud to have communicated successfully, and relieved, I went home and started pounding the stuff. No improvement.

In fact, things started getting worse. When I slept on my right side, things were moderately okay -- I'd only erupt into coughing once every hour or so. But when I rolled over onto my right side, an eerie sound emanated from my lungs. It was reminiscent of tinfoil balls rolling across crumpled newspaper. That is not a sound that should come from a human body.

My kids started looking at me with that so-I-guess-I'm-about-to-be-a-quasi-orphan look. And Wendy gave me that why-didn't-you-get-life-insurance-when-I-told-you-to-you-jerk look. And it seemed prudent to get some medical help. All the doctors were closed, so we had to go to the emergency room, halfway across town. This entailed more walking; more subway rides; more walking. Now, before you socialist types get all excited about me taking advantage of that free European health care, you should know something: Health care in Germany is not free. In fact, they are on a mandatory health insurance system, just like the U.S. will be soon enough. I haven't been here long enough to get that insurance. That meant I had to pay 100 Euros up front, and they'll bill me for the rest later.

The Berlin E.R. was a grim place, with people all around who seemed barely to be clinging to life. So when I told the receptionist that I had a bad cough, she gave me that what-a-sissy snicker. When I told her I thought I might have pneumonia, she looked at me with a questioning frown. So I read her the German word that I had written down in my notebook: Lungenentzundnung. Then she almost laughed, but sent me onward. I told the doctor about the cough. I got the same look. I told him about the pneumonia, and he smiled: Ah, another American hypochondriac. "Surely it's just the flu," he said. Then I told him about the tinfoil sound in my lungs, and about the color of the stuff that was coming out of them with each cough. His eyes got big. He took my blood**, my urine, and an X-Ray of my chest.

One universal trait of health care everywhere is the waiting. I waited, and waited, and tried to study some German, and doodled some weird, disease-addled stuff. And then I waited some more. Wendy and the kids went out for lunch and visited the Brandenburg Gate. I sat in das Krankenhaus, listening to weird beeping sounds coming from the patient beside me, and a coughing that sounded like vomiting coming from the next room. Finally, the doctor returned.

"Okay, Mr. Thompson...," he began. But before he could give me the diagnosis, someone down the hall screamed. The doctor ran out. There were yells, an alarm went off, another skerfluffle, and the sounds of footsteps running urgently down the hall. Apparently someone got badly hurt; one of the people passing said something about "in der Augen," or "in the eye." Ouch. So, anyway, the doctor finally returned. And he calmly told me I had pneumonia. He said outpatient treatment was possible, but that I could have some kind of antibiotic-resistant strain that I picked up in a hospital or something, so I should probably be admitted. I explained that I hadn't been in a hospital in years. I didn't explain the flawed logic of staying in a hospital in order to treat something that can only be caught in hospitals. I also didn't explain that I couldn't really afford to stay in the hospital. I just told him, No thanks.

He sent me back to the Apotheke instead, where, after a bit of a runaround dealing with regulations (I'll try to explain the German attitude toward rules in another post), I was issued the most potent cocktail of antibiotics I've ever experienced. I've been on them for three days now, and they've purged everything in my body. Except the cough.

Now, I wait. And see if these Euro-antibiotics will win, or if the disease will. In the meantime, I've got another ordeal to face: German bureaucracy, which even Germans say is "rather unpleasant." Immigration, first, then the "Job Center."

* This would be a good place to insert the joke about how I got home and opened up the box and found a bunch of blue pills with "V"s on them, thanks to my bad German skills. But that's too obvious, and besides, I think I got the right stuff.

**Have I ever mentioned how much I hate hospitals, needles, etc.? I gave blood once, though. I was a strapping young high schooler, and my girlfriend persuaded me to do a good deed. So I went to the classroom where the blood drive was happening late in the day -- I was the last to get poked and sucked dry. When I came to, the blood people were all gone, replaced by the school baton twirling troupe or something, dancing and yelling and throwing things in the air. The blood folks had packed up and left, leaving me a half-eaten cookie and a paper cup full of Coke which, in my dizziness, I spilled.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Das Hund: Princess comes to Germany

Now, I will tell you about the dog. Das Hund, as they say in Germany. Her name is Princess, which is both appropriate and just plain wrong. Yes, she demands the pampering of royalty. But just try screaming "PRINCESS! STOP! NO! DON'T KILL IT!" when she's trying to rip the throat out of a rottweiler that is six times her weight. It just doesn't sound right.

It's not our fault, though. Princess, who is reputedly some mix of lahpso apso, pit bull and boxer, already had her name when we got her four years ago. Changing it to something appropriate (Rex? Butch? The Jackal?), might just confuse her even more. So I prefer to call her Das Hund.

When we decided to come to Germany, we might have also decided to do something reasonable to offset that decision, like leave all of our animals with good homes in the United States. That's what we did with Cleo, one of our cats, who is sweet and cute and fat and clumsy. That's what we did with Lucee, the elder cat, whom Wendy and I got back when we first got together. Lucee is a long-haired beauty who lures people in to stroke her. Then, in a stinging blur, she slices into the unsuspecting person's hand with surgical precision, leaving a series of parallel lines of scarlet along aforesaid person's flesh, which would be beautiful if it didn't hurt so much. We also gave Plato to a new home. Plato is a cockatiel with a rabid hunger for human affection. He flies around the house freely most of the time -- leave him in his cage for more than an hour and he utters a horrific squawking and violently attacks his wooden toy -- and seeks out the tops of heads or shoulders on which to perch. He is drawn to those who are not so comfortable with having birds crawl on them, or having same bird walk around the dinner table, eating off of everyone's plates. Once he finds a desirable human perch, he actually snuggles with the victim. No, "bird" and "snuggle" should not appear in the same sentence. And yet. The lovefest lasts until the victim decides to stand up, or take a bite of dinner, and then Plato attacks. He usually aims for the earlobe, or the back of the neck, using his needlelike claws to get a purchase on that part of the back that is impossible to reach, causing victim to jump up from chair, spill his pasta all over the table, and futilely try to stop his attacker. I'm Plato's favorite victim.

Even the cats could not intimidate Plato. Lucee was actually terrified of the thing. Cleo eyed him hungrily sometimes, but nothing ever came of it. Das Hund, er, Princess just wanted to play with the bird: It was her life's mission to just lick him just once or twice. In many a failed attempt to accomplish that goal, she chased after Plato as he flew around at human eye level, jumping several feet into the air to try to catch him, and then landing roughly, her unclipped claws gouging the soft wood floor. Our otherwise pristine and beautiful house is on the market, and we still haven't figured out exactly how to explain the floors to a potential buyer. Easier just to offer a few thousand off the price so they can get them redone, no questions, please.

So, yes, the animals were all a part of our family. And, yes, it was heartwrenching to leave them behind. But then, when you tear up the roots, move across oceans and time zones, without jobs or knowing the language, you have to forsake some things: Like the last shreds of your sanity, good jobs, loving friends and family, a paycheck, any sense of security or stability and possibly even your identity. So saying goodbye to the animals was just part of the package.

Except when it came to Princess, of course.

Wendy would simply not leave her behind. I suppose I could have stood up to her and asserted my masculine right to make family decisions. But Wendy, you have to understand, is German -- think Panzer tank and Blitzkrieg -- and also Jewish (I won't bore you with a list of those inherent character traits). It so happens that I'm also German (and it turns out I'm also Jewish, which I discovered when a cousin did a DNA test and found out that he had the Ashkenazi gene strongly up our shared matrilinial line). Yet something else in my confused genetic mix offset the Panzer/blitzkrieg gene and replaced it with something a bit more, well, Volkswagen beetle-like. Which is why Wendy, who can't speak even one word in German, gets along better in this country than I do, despite my four years of high school Deutsch, which have turned out to be utterly useless. When I heard the Panzer rev its engines, I wisely stepped out of the way.

And so it was, that when we flew off to Germany, Princess was left behind. For a day. You see, she's just a few pounds too heavy to fly in the plane's cabin as a carry-on (and besides, she'd be less likely than Osama bin, himself, to make it past security), and British Airways doesn't carry dogs as luggage during the summer so as not to end up with a cargo hold full of roast canine. So we had to fly her on a separate airline, which, in case you're wondering, cost more than it did to fly each of us human beings here. Add to that the hundreds of dollars we had to spend to get all the veterinary checks and certificates and microchip implanted and to treat post-flight trauma, not to mention the thousands of dollars we'll have to discount our house to make up for the mangled floor, and Princess is turning out to cost as much as your average, well, princess.

Which is probably part of the reason Wendy couldn't sleep for the forty-eight hour stretch between when we boarded the plane in Denver and when Princess landed the morning after we arrived. While the girls still slept, Wendy took the bus to the airport. She returned nearly four hours later with a bloody, shell-shocked dog, wearing a stench that can't really be described here, and looking a bit harried, to say the least. Princess had survived the flight, but only barely; her condition involved relentless defecation and blood. Enough said.

The vet was mercifully just a few blocks away, and he actually spoke English, and was quite friendly as he probed and poked Princess. That didn't ease the feeling that I get when I go to doctor's offices, though. One of the nice things about having kids is that you can pretend to be comforting them when, in fact, you're the one about to either pass out or puke or both on the veterinarian's exam room floor. I gripped my daughter, Elena, and rubbed her head; I don't think anyone, least of all the squirming-to-escape-my-grasp-Elena, was fooled. The vet's assistant eyed me worriedly, but didn't say anything thanks to the language barrier.

Ultimately, we all made it through. Princess just had a bad case of nerves, which is exactly the same thing that happens to me when I fly, only I can stanch some of the nasty symptoms by self-medicating (British Airways is pretty liberal with the free booze, even in coach!). We left the Vet -- Tierarzt in German -- and headed out into the soft light of late afternoon. People were out and ambling on the streets, drinking beer in sidewalk cafes. Many a German Hund loitered unleashed on the streets. Princess's tail perked up, though she was clearly still miffed at us for not putting her in First Class where she belongs. As we passed one big dog, a retriever of some sort, I felt that familiar tug of the leash, there was the old snarl, and my arm was nearly pulled from the socket. That's when I knew Princess would be just fine.

That's a good thing, because I've got other things to worry about: Wendy has been researching ways to bring birds to Germany.