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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A letter to the CEO of United Airlines

Jeff Smisek
CEO, Continental/United Airlines
77 West Wacker
Chicago, IL

Dear Mr. Smisek

I recently flew with your company on a trip from Denver to Frankfurt. It was the big leg of a trip I often make, from Boulder, Colo., to Berlin, where my family lives. Usually I fly with Lufthansa, but this time I opted for the home-grown firm, and I thought you might like to hear about one of your customer’s experiences.

First off, let me give a hearty and sincere “Thank You!” for getting me across the Atlantic Ocean in one piece. I do realize things could have turned out a lot worse, and I’m grateful that your pilots kept the plane in the air. They are to be commended.

I wish I could go on to say how you put your German counterparts to shame in other departments. I cannot.

In hindsight, I’d have to say that my problems began in Denver, while I waited to board and one of your employees asked that passengers volunteer to check their carry-on luggage. Since only a few of my compatriots stepped up, I decided I should pitch in. It worried me a bit, because my carry-on had all my clothes for the next five weeks in it, including my only winter coat (it’s cold in Berlin) and a brand-new camera. But I figured if you could get a multi-million dollar jet over the ocean, you should be able to do the same with my bag. Besides, I was less than enthusiastic about participating in the battle for the overhead bins, which almost never ends well.

The Denver to Dulles leg went splendidly, thank you. And the movie wasn’t even half bad, despite the fact that the censors dubbed “jackhole” in the place of “a#@hole,” which really doesn’t work well. I did have a fairly tight connection, so I got a nice jog in through the Dulles terminal -- always nice to stretch the legs during such a trip -- arriving at the gate just in time to board the flight to Frankfurt. I settled into my seat, and prepared for the long ride. Then I noticed that everyone else was watching movies on their video monitors. I also noticed my monitor was producing a never-ending stream of gobbledygook. At first, I figured it would fix itself as soon as we took off. Except we never took off.

After we had waited for about 45 minutes, the pilot announced that there were mechanical problems with the plane and we would have to wait another hour before takeoff. I’m 100 percent in favor of fixing mechanical problems before takeoff, even if it means a bit of a wait. After all, a few days earlier, one of your planes had an emergency landing in Grand Junction on its way from Denver to L.A. because of a bad engine. Such a landing in the ocean or on a Greenland glacier would be decidedly less pleasant, especially since I did not have access to my aforementioned winter coat. My building anxiety (flying scares me in the best conditions) would have been eased had I been able to watch a movie or, even better, have a nice, stiff drink. Yet my video monitor was still on the fritz (everyone else’s still worked fine), and the only alcohol flowing was among the plutocrats in first class. I pushed my flight-attendant call button repeatedly, to no avail. Finally, after the hour was up, the plane was fixed and we were getting ready (again) for takeoff, I hailed a passing flight attendant. He looked at my monitor and said, “Well, it might work later.” I explained that it hadn’t worked for over an hour. “Okay,” he said, already a bit impatient, “I’ll try to reset it.” He did. It worked, and I got to see the first part of Contagion, a movie I have been wanting to see, even if it is a questionable choice on an overseas flight filled with germ-carriers. 

Or at least it worked until the PA sparked up with another announcement: The problem with the pressurization/air-conditioning was not fixed, after all. The wait would continue. I tried to get back to the movie, but my video monitor was broken again. I flagged down another flight attendant. She reset the monitor. Back to Contagion and a now-building anxiety, on many fronts. Instead of handing out free cocktails, as they should have done after we had sat in the plane for nearly two hours, the flight attendants handed out free pretzels.

The PA kept kicking in to tell us that we would have to continue to wait, sending my video monitor into gobbledygook each time. Finally, after we had been on the plane for approximately three hours, we were told that we were switching planes. We de-boarded. We waited at our new gate for another hour and a half. We were told we had to board very orderly, and quickly, or else the flight would be cancelled. Yet we were also forced to wait until all the first class folks leisurely made their way onto the plane. We took off, a mere 4.5 hours late. This time my video monitor worked, but Contagion, the movie I had made it halfway through, was not a choice. I did note, with relief, that the delay gave the baggage folks plenty of time to get my luggage onto the correct plane.

I paid $1212 for this flight. Typically, I pay about the same for the Denver nonstop-to-Frankfurt (and then to Berlin) on Lufthansa. On Lufthansa, even those in the coach-class are offered warm, wet towels before meals to wash their hands and refresh their faces. Then the pre-dinner drinks -- including a variety of cocktails and wine -- come, free of charge. The food is airplane food, but it’s usually quite edible, even tasty. Wine is offered, free, during meals, and flight attendants are always happy to top off your glass. After dinner, they bring around Calvados and Bailey’s. Yes, it, too, is free, or rather, it’s included in the price of the ticket.

On United, I received a meal that would have violated the Eighth Amendment had it been served in a maximum security prison. The “pasta” was mushy, covered with some sort of pea and tomato sauce that could only have been concocted from the plate-scrapings of last month’s first class offerings. It was so lacking in flavor that I used my entire salt and pepper packets to make it edible, and even still I barely choked it down. The bread roll was styrofoam-white and cold; the “spread” some strange dairy/soy stuff that made margarine seem like a delicacy. I ordered a wine to try to wash it down, and to her credit, the flight attendant offered me one free glass (normally $7 for some cheap swill that pairs best with beans and weenies heated up in a can under a bridge) “because of the delay.” Now, I know it’s not easy to run an airline in these hard times, and you’re just cutting costs where you can. But I also know that you got paid $4.4 million last year; it just seems like maybe you could put, oh, I don’t know, $.1 million of that into coming up with at least quasi-edible food for your customers. Maybe?

My original plan had been to get to Frankfurt, collect my luggage and make it to the train -- where a first-class berth awaited me courtesy of a special online offer -- just in time to zip off to Berlin. I wanted to use the opportunity to use the aforementioned camera to shoot some video of the German landscape sliding by for a project I’m working on. I got to Frankfurt alright (4.5 hours late). The former-carry-on-but-checked-at-the-gate luggage, containing aforementioned camera, clothes and winter coat, did not.

I staggered out of the baggage claim (22 hours had passed since I embarked on my travels) and found a credit card pay-phone on which to call my wife to tell her how late I’d be. My repeated, very expensive attempts at the call (I had the wrong number) apparently alarmed my bank back home, which triggered the deactivation of said credit card. Not knowing that, I headed to the train ticket counter, where I was told that my special offer ticket was invalidated since I missed my train and I’d have to buy a new ticket, for 194 Euros. My sanity continued to falter, but I took hold of myself, made my way to the United counter, and begged the woman there to put me on a flight to Berlin. Not possible, she said, but United would reimburse me for my new train ticket at some later date. I’m still hopeful this will happen.

I went back to the train office, and told them to put me on the fastest train to Berlin. They ran my credit card. It was declined. I started to see blue spots everywhere I looked, and pressure built in the back of my skull. You see, I needed the credit card to pay for the phone call to my bank to get the credit card reactivated, yet the credit card, obviously, did not work.

Luckily, I had a few Euros left over from my last trip, and started stuffing them into a pay phone at a horrid rate while my bank put me on hold once, then again. Then I was cut off because I ran out of change. I went to a fast-food sausage joint for more coins, and on the next call the customer service rep hung up on me (perhaps because I sounded slightly dangerous at this point?). None of this is the direct fault of United, of course, but had I arrived in Frankfurt on time, none of it would have been necessary, either.

Finally, I reached the correct person, my credit card was fixed, and I got on the train, which turned out to be relaxing and quite enjoyable (and the light was perfect for video but, alas, I had no camera). I arrived in Berlin eight hours later than planned. Too bad they don't run trains from Denver to Frankfurt.

I do want to thank you for the bonus miles I received for my troubles. I am booked on another United flight next month to get back to the States (oh how I wish it were on Lufthansa again), and I thought that I could maybe use those miles -- in addition to others I have -- to upgrade to business class to make the trip tolerable. When I tried to use your website to make the upgrade, however, it told me that I don’t have any reservations (despite the fact that other parts of your website confirm that, yes, indeed, I do have reservations). I’m guessing that when I call, I’ll be told that my reservations aren’t the right kind to upgrade, which happened recently when a friend with a lot of miles tried to upgrade my ticket on the troubled flight I've been going on about.

In any event, I won’t be volunteering to check my luggage at the gate. Assuming I have any luggage that is -- though I'm hoping it's on its way, it remains lost, somewhere between Berlin and Denver. (UPDATE: The luggage arrived intact, 24 hours late!)

Thank you for listening.


Jonathan Thompson

Monday, October 31, 2011

Return of the Corn (at Taos Pueblo)


The roads that wind across the Taos Pueblo reservation pass through a cultural and environmental mosaic of a type common in the rural West, where natural beauty and human poverty overlap and sometimes blend. Here is a thicket of wild plums growing up along a lush irrigation ditch, the Sangre de Cristo mountains rising up as backdrop. Here is a tiny stuccoed house, accompanied by an old Chevy Chevelle that appears to be slowly melting into the shrubs and dirt. Nearby, a burned out, roofless shack sits undisturbed while a Rez dog, his thick fur dreadlocked with dirt and neglect, rambles in the dust alongside Deer Jaw road.

Occasionally, this intruder notices a shock of bright green. Each one is a cornfield, the maturing stalks emerald in the sunlight. It's surprising because after World War II many farmers in Taos Pueblo and in other parts of the West gave up traditional farming.

But farming, including corn growing, is slowly coming back to the Pueblo thanks to grassroots efforts that have sprouted over the last decade,  such as the sustainable agriculture initiative and the Red Willow growers cooperative. Now, the return of the corn is also being helped along by a couple of guys who were looking for changes in their own lives, and by an old tractor named the Red Buffalo.

Read the rest of this post here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bats, bear poop and prairie dogs: A country boy meets the urban wild

In the beginning was the bat. Roger, Isolde,* and I sipped margaritas on a warm August evening in their Boulder condo. Suddenly, Roger slammed down his drink, pointed to the ceiling and screamed, “Look out!” As a black, papery blur fluttered around the living room, I dived to the floor and slithered under the table. Roger, more experienced in such matters**, whacked the bat to the floor with his flip flop, trapped it in a bowl and relocated to the out of doors. After we determined that the house was clear, I crawled out from under the table and noticed a scratch on my arm that wasn’t there before. “Rabies is 100 percent fatal,” Roger said. Then he mixed another round.

The bat incident, which occurred just a few days after I moved to Boulder, was my initiation into the urban wild. I’ve spent most of my life in rural areas, and many days and nights exploring the depths of so-called wilderness. Yet my encounters with wildlife, especially potentially hazardous ones, have been fairly scantº. That is, until I moved here, to Colorado’s sprawling and heavily populated Front Range metropolitan area.

I knew Boulder was fraught with hazards, from yoga instructors, clad in curve-and-crevice-revealing spandex pants striking poses in upscale coffee shops, to guys in short shorts yammering on about body mass index, to the high-priced frozen yogurt treats that, only after you get through the checkout line, you realize are made for dogs. But wild animals? Yes. It turns out that whether I’m on a trail run or my daily commute, I’ve become a sort of suburban Craig Childs, with every bike path and cul de sac offering the neck-prickling danger of some animal encounter.

Read the rest at the High Country News Goat blog (where I'll be doing most of my posting while I'm here in Boulder). 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Berlin to Boulder

I've been back in the US of A for just over a month now, and the culture shock is waning. Kinda. After spending a year in Berlin, my wife, daughters and I came back for the summer. I'll be sticking around for another nine months, as a Ted Scripps Environmental Journalism Fellow at CU Boulder. I'm super excited about the opportunity; I'll be taking classes, reporting and writing, with a focus on environmental issues in the West.

Which is just what I focused on for several months while still in Berlin: I wrote a monster of a story for High Country News about global economic influences on the extractive industries of the West. It's some crazy stuff. Check out the story, and accompanying infographics here. I'll start posting here -- about being back in the US and other personal musings -- again in mid- to late August.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I come from the land of no history

Sometimes, being the only American in the room can be a little, er, embarrassing. I find myself in that position quite often, especially in German class.

I've taken nearly five months of German classes since arriving in Berlin. Actually, I should call them integration courses, since that's the official name, and that's also the goal: integration. The German government wants to mold me and my fellow Auslanders (foreigners) into good Germans. So they require folks like me to take these courses in order to keep my residency permit. Mostly, the courses just focus on language, but they also sneak a bit of German culture, politics and history into the mix. Out of five different classes, each with 17 to 25 people, I've always been the lone American. As such, I've also been an object of curiosity in my classes.

Probably about 1/3 of my current classmates come from various parts of Africa, another third comes from Poland and other former Soviet-bloc countries, and the final third is a mix, with folks from China, Vietnam, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Brazil. And then there's me: The Newbie. I call myself that because I've only been in Germany for less than a year; most of my classmates have been here for at least three years, some as many as 23 years (Yes, 23 years, and they're still taking German classes. Whether this speaks to their language-learning abilities or to the difficulty of the German language, I can't say). I also call myself the Newbie because I come from the U.S., which is not only part of the "New World," but which also is sort of new, or maybe young, in other ways, which were impressed upon me in class recently.

We were reading a sketch in which a middle-aged guy looked back on his life in Germany, and remembered when the Berlin Wall was built, remembered seeing Kennedy during his visit, remembered the Wall coming down, etc. That prompted my teacher to ask the class what historic events we had witnessed. Everyone had a story: The Africans of Civil War and strife, the Poles of the end of Communism, the Pakistani of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. As one student after another told his story, I scanned my memory for something, anything, that would compare. 9/11? It was dramatic, sure, but I was thousands of miles away when it happened. I compiled a mental list of other big events, and as I did so, I realized that while I had indeed experienced a lot of history, I had mostly done so from some distance, i.e., via the television.

I started panicking. What was I going to say? Should I be honest and tell them about the really important moments of American history that I had witnessed? The revelation on television about our former President, his intern and a cigar? The invention of the iPhone? Or something even more critical to world history: The final episode of Seinfeld? Or Lost? Or the Sopranos?

Damn it's embarrassing to be an American sometimes. Luckily, thanks to someone's narrative about suffering under the hands of Slobodan Milosevic's terror, the conversation changed to: Who was your country's worst despot. I relaxed a little bit as a picture of Dick Cheney, riding in his wheelchair all Dr. Strangelove-like at Obama's inauguration, popped into my head. Finally, I was up. I opened my mouth to speak, but the rest of the class answered for me: "Bush!"

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Berlin's temporary Thai-town

Today, we went to Thai Park. This made me very happy.

When we first arrived in Berlin nearly a year ago, we simply expected that it would be filled with great foods from all over the world. After all, it's a big, hip, happening and perhaps even the coolest city on the planet. Therefore, we should be able to find some hole-in-the-wall, authentic-to-the-point-of-being-kinda-scary, Thai, Vietnamese or Indian food on every street corner. No?


Berlin may be teeming with fantastic, cutting-edge art, dance, lectures, the opera, music and even -- as we experienced just a few weeks ago -- wild parties replete with Gypsy jazz in an abandoned insane asylum. But the food scene isn't quite up to par -- doesn't even touch Portland/SanFran/Berkeley/LA. Sure, we've found great Lebanese fare, and stumbled upon a sublime Italian restaurant not far from our house. But the offerings from Asia have disappointed. They are bland or overpriced or laden with so much MSG that Wendy slips into a hallucinogenic daze shortly after eating.

Dong Xuan Center.
So, last December we headed way out into the East and visited the Dong Xuan center. It's a cluster of kind of rough-looking warehouses nestled amidst the bigblock apartment buildings of the former DDR, and serves as Berlin's Vietnam-town. Even on the coldest day of the year, with snow piled everywhere, the place bustled. Long hallways are punctured with doorways leading into shops, some tiny, some huge, that sell wholesale clothing, nail salon supplies, cheap plastic items and groceries. A guy can buy a live carp and a cucumber-thingy that resembles extra-terrestrial genitalia, get a haircut and a manicure, and buy a Gucci knockoff, all in one building. And it has restaurants, too. Delicious. Authentic. Cheap. But soon after we began the long trek home, the MSG -- or something -- kicked in, and Wendy tried to pick a fight with a lamppost that she mistook for a Neo-Nazi.

If Dong Xuan was good, Thai Park was way better. We'd heard about it long ago: A park where a bunch of Thai people gather and sell food. I envisioned something like the local Turkish market, only with Thai food and goods sold out of kiosks and booths instead. But when we wandered into Preußenpark, we quickly realized that we were in for a brand new experience.

There are no booths or kiosks here. Instead, the vendors set up on blankets and under umbrellas on the ground, and operate out of minimalist camp kitchens that are at ground level (all the cooks are actually sitting on the ground, operating little charcoal or gas fired grills). It's totally illegal, I'm sure. And eating there during one of the worst food-related e-coli outbreaks ever might not have been completely wise. Still, since the source of e-coli is still a mystery, we could be infecting ourselves with our oatmeal each morning, so we figured we'd go for it.

Offerings ranged from a salty/sweet lime drink, to all kinds of alcoholic cocktails, to octopus on a stick, to what I suspect were fried bamboo worms. We got four pork satays, two rice puffers, two Thai iced coffees, three spring rolls, two bags full of fresh fruit, a bowl of pho-like soup with meatballs made out of what I think was beef offal, and a few other things. We spent no more than 20 Euros for the whole shebang, probably less, but as I was suffering from some weird infection of the eye, I was relegated to lying on the picnic blanket in a slightly feverish state, taking a bite now and then, and watching the surreal scene unfold before me, and didn't partake as much as I'd liked in the perusing and purchasing of the food.

Nor do I have any photographs, which is kind of too bad, but I'm fairly sure the dude who sold me the satay muttered something about the Thai mafia, my nostrils and live, flesh-eating worms if I were to somehow expose these open-air kitchens to the world.

So, instead of photos, I'll try to communicate what I saw while lying in the grass: The Thai folks sit in the shade of a rainbow of umbrellas or under the big trees, the light trickling down through the leaves. Out in the searing sun, the Germans lie out, one after another, offering their flesh up to the sun. Germans are always doing this, as though daring the skin cancer gods to punish them. The pungent aroma of marijuana smoke from somewhere nearby. When we arrive at noon, maybe 15 vendors are selling food. More and more arrive with each passing hour, including a group of kind of beady-eyed guys (see Mafia reference, previous paragraph) who quickly set up a square of folding tables encircled by folding chairs. It turns out to be some kind of gambling racket.

On the other side of us, a makeshift massage parlor has emerged as if from the dust and grass of the park. A Thai woman with cateye glasses vigorously rubs a nubile young German woman clad in a tiny bikini. My eye aches, and inexplicably, an epiphany: I should have become an accountant. The urge quickly disappears. Light trickles through the leaves, and the marijuana odor lingers.

Behind us, some older German folks have set up their own cooking operation, and they sit on parkbenches with TV tray things before them off of which they eat slabs of meat, very white bread, and potatoes smothered in a creamy white sauce. I'm not sure if this is an affront, or an effort to join in. A Thai woman walks urgently from blanket to blanket, carrying a big blue plastic trash bag. She's not collecting trash, but seems to be selling something from the bags. She doesn't stop at our blanket.

Ahhh, but the food. The food. Grilling, frying, boiling. Crispy, salty, sweet and sour. Meat and sprouts and electric-colored cocktails. I lie on the blanket and let the aromas waft over me. My eye hurts. But I am happy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bird in a Berlin Brick Wall (& other textures from this morning)

Bird in brick wall that faces our apartment's kitchen window.
Graffiti in forgotten corner of vacant lot next to LIDL parking lot.
Corner, ExRotraprint building
Sign, Wiesenstrasse.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sprechen Sie Deutsch! Linguistic bigotry on a Berlin bus

On a recent Friday afternoon here in Berlin, the sun was shining and the temperature actually rose above freezing for once. It was enough to put Wendy and Elena and me into especially high spirits as we waited for the bus in well-heeled Zehlendorf, eating some treats from the nearby bakery. We talked about how the Germans have a talent not only for making good cake, but also for creating really healthy and tasty baked goods, like the sunflower-seed thing we were eating. As we were speaking amongst ourselves we were, naturally, speaking in English.

Apparently, that's an offensive act around these parts.

Also waiting for the bus was a lumbering woman, perhaps in her sixties, who looked as if she had eaten just a few too many cans of offal. She glared at us and, finally, as we were getting on the bus, she muttered to Wendy, in German: "When you are in Germany, you must speak German!"

"Entschuldigung?" Wendy asked. The Frau repeated herself more loudly. Before Wendy could react, we were hurried onto the bus and headed for the upper deck. The woman was physically incapable of making it up the steps, which is a good thing, because had she stayed near us, Wendy might just have decked her; she seethed for the rest of the day (as did I).

Don't get me wrong. No matter what country I'm in, I try to speak the native language when addressing shopkeepers, waiters or strangers, no matter how garbled my sentences are. I truly want to become bilingual, and have spent the last several months devoting my days to Deutsch classes, so that I can get through a meeting with a bureaucrat without my head imploding. But English is my mother tongue, and when I'm having a private conversation with my English-speaking family, even in a public place, I'm going to do it in English.

On the one hand, the grumpy woman's remark was probably nothing to get upset about: She was probably just having a bad day, upset that she had missed the special on 10 kilos of liverwurst -- and saw this happy American family as the perfect target for her bitterness. It was an isolated incident of rudeness, and one that we should just forget.

The problem is, it wasn't all that isolated.

Since the day we arrived in Berlin eight months ago, the language barrier has been more than just a matter of us speaking English while everyone else spoke German. The linguistic roadblock has been fortified by a sort of morality as well, an under and overtone of: Thou shalt speak German! It manifested itself in the immigration office, when the bureaucrats refused to acknowledge that they understood English (though it eventually became clear that they did). It even manifested itself when we were still in the U.S. When Wendy received her German citizenship (via a German law that gives citizenship to the descendants of those who were de-citizened by the Nazis), the secretary at the consulate in Denver was dumbfounded and clearly irritated by the fact that Wendy, now a German, didn't speak Deutsch. "Perhaps," we should have replied, "she would speak German had your grandparents not tried to exterminate hers." We held our tongues.

This linguistic bigotry isn't limited to us by any means. The big integration/multiculturalism/immigration debate in Germany and other parts of Europe, when it's not concerned with Muslim headscarves, is about outsiders learning and speaking the language. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech in Germany recently, he urged Turkish immigrants here to learn Turkish first, then German, throwing the native politicians into a rage. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle responded by saying that integration is impossible without learning German and: "Children who grow up in Germany must learn German as the very first thing." T-Mobile, the telecommunications giant, was even taken to task last summer for using English in its marketing campaigns.

Turn on the television here and you can watch almost any ten-year-old, washed up American sitcom you want; and the movie theaters show all the Hollywood hits and then some. But if you're hoping to hear Seinfeld's slightly irritating voice tossing zingers at his friends, you can forget it: Television and films are all dubbed into German. No, not subtitled, dubbed, like 1950s-Godzilla-movies-dubbed. I'ver heard all kinds of reasons for this -- Germans don't like to read (Ha!), the dubbing industry is huge in Germany and abandoning it would crush the economy, etc. But the real reason is that dubbing allows Germans to digest plenty of foreign pop culture without hearing too much of a foreign language.

Germans, in other words, don't want their language to be diluted by foreign influences. They are striving for linguistic purity. Think about it for a minute, and this linguistic nationalism, as I call it, starts sounding rather sinister, especially here in the Vaterland

Let me be clear: Germany as a society is hypersensitive to its role in 20th Century history. The country is collectively conscious of the fact that it perpetrated one of the worst atrocities in human history, and did so not so long ago, and it has taken great pains to atone for those sins. Its constitution, its laws, and much of day-to-day life has been fashioned with that in mind: Just this week, a Canadian tourist was jailed after doing the heil Hitler salute in front of the Reichstag. Toleranz is not only a buzzword thrown around by lefties, but also a part of the official jargon, and most Germans I've met are not only very tolerant, compassionate people, but also are multilingual and like to speak in English.

Yet, linguistic Intoleranz not only thrives here, but is widely accepted. My German classes have been filled with smart, skilled, well-educated people from all over the world. They are in professional fields where business is either conducted in English, or language only plays a small part (technical fields, electronic engineering, etc). They have been denied jobs here because their German -- though they are perfectly capable of carrying on intelligent conversations -- wasn't quite good enough. An Iraqi economist, who has been in Germany for 10 years and worked eight of those as a bike mechanic in another German city, can't get a job as a bike mechanic in Berlin until he gets a German language certificate (though he can speak day-to-day German just fine). It seems not to matter how adept one is at overhauling a bottom bracket or adjusting a derailleur, he's not getting a job 'til he gets all his ders, dies, and dases in line. He's yet another skilled immigrant who's unemployed because of linguistic discrimination.

Indeed, linguistic bigotry is considered by some to be "among the last legal forms of discrimination left to Western employers." And when immigrants without acceptable German can't get jobs, it naturally causes unemployment to be higher among immigrants. Anti-immigration forces can then hold up those numbers as proof that immigration is poisoning Germany and threatens the culture and quality of life of the natives.

I write all of this from a place of relative privilege: English, of course, is spoken everywhere, even if the bureaucrats want to try to deny it. The world of consumerism and business is saturated with English words; radio stations play almost all English-language music, most of it American "classic rock." And no, it's not dubbed. In spite of that, I'm still looked down upon for speaking my native language. Imagine what it must be like then if your mother tongue is Arabic, or Farsi.

Germany's not the only place this happens. Many American states have established English as the "official language." While proponents of the movement try on the one hand to paint it as a way to unify a disparate nation, they turn around and use alarmist, nationalistic and bigoted language to rile up their supporters. Official language laws may pertain only to official business, but they are often used as justification to prohibit people from speaking their own languages, even amongst themselves. And, aside from discriminating against immigrants, such laws are a slap in the face to Native Americans who are struggling to save their own languages. Still, it's hard to imagine even an ignoramus in some backward state walking up to a family speaking amongst themselves in German and excoriating them for not speaking English. If they did, the southern Utah/northern Arizona tourist industry would die a quick death, dependent as it is on Europeans who do not necessarily leave their native languages at home when they visit.

It's time for Germany to accept that it is part of the global culture, just as it's part of the global economy. Döner kebaps and falafel are more popular than Currywurst, and that's okay. Berlin's identity lies not in its nordic roots, nor in properly conjugating German verbs, but in diversity and cosmopolitanism; it's not about getting the articles right, it's about sitting in the subway and hearing conversations in Polish, Turkish, Arabic and Spanish and German, all at the same time.

And our poor antagonist, the woman who just couldn't stand to hear us speaking amongst ourselves in English, was subjected to just that. Just after the bus started rolling, a group of men sitting around the woman started an animated, loud conversation, audible even to us way up in the top deck. They spoke in a Slavic language, not German. As for me, I'm going to keep studying German in the hope that someday, that woman will scold us again. Then, I'll be able to tell her exactly what I think, in a way even she'll understand.

Like a Berlin cowboy...

Today, while I was wandering around the African Quarter -- it's been called that forever, but in recent years it has actually become a magnet area for African immigrants -- I stumbled upon this place: Randy Rudd's Lucky Star Western Store. It wasn't open yet, but the guy across the street told me it had been in there for at least 30 years, and that people riding Harleys and great big cars shopped there (my rudimentary understanding of his mumbled German). Soon I'll go back and get the rest of the story.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tulip dreams

Winter's hanging on to Berlin with a vengeance. And all I have is this tulip on our windowsill that bloomed in the sun then faded two days later.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Ghosts of Humboldthain

Only when winter is here, and the sky is an ashen blanket pulled over the city, do I notice the way a green film covers the trunks of the trees. Only in winter, when the gnarled branches of those trees reach into the pallid mist, and the dead leaves are slowly rotting into the earth, do I notice the thick slab jutting out of the ground of Humboldthain Park. I had walked here before and seen the monolith, but had dismissed it as another piece of neglected landscape architecture. But this concrete wall -- yes I can see that now -- is six feet thick. On its face are old windows, bricked shut, with steel hinges each the size of my fist.

There’s only one thing this could be. I search for a sign, a plaque, the remnants of some Denkmal, or monument, or anything that might tell me what it is. But there is nothing. Only this artificial hill, built from the detritus of bombed out buildings, its foundation the old wall of a Nazi bunker that couldn’t be destroyed.

Humbholdthain Park is one of Berlin’s green-space gems. It’s about 2,000 feet long, and almost as wide. A big Sommerbad, or outdoor swimming pool, is tucked in among the trees, along with an elegant rose garden, a small soccer court, and plenty of space. The trees are so dense that even in the leafless winter, one cannot see halfway across the park. And, unlike most of Berlin, the park actually has varied topography: A sort of valley in the park’s center is shielded from the urban bustle by two hills on the park’s edges. For the month or so when a few inches of snow covers the ground, kids on sleds rip down the smaller of the hills; runners do laps up and down the wide, smooth trail of the larger hill.

Like all of Berlin, Humboldthain has its ghosts. Jutting out of the top of the bigger of two hills is a pair of identical concrete blocks that look, even from up close, like overbuilt observation platforms. In fact, this is the northern edge of a massive, World War II bunker. Anti-aircraft guns shot at Allied planes as their bombs laid waste to the city. The bunkers themselves, which were built under Hitler’s orders at the beginning of the war, could hold thousands of civilians during an air raid.

While the towers – or Flakturm – couldn’t save the city, the bunkers turned out to be virtually impenetrable. The invading Russians, after their artillery failed to pierce the thick walls, had to skirt around them to reach the city’s center. After the war, the French occupied the Wedding district of Berlin, in which Humboldthain lies. Using something like 30 tons of TNT, they tried to demolish the bunkers. The north wall refused to collapse. So around the hulking structure the French piled up rubble – some from the bunker, some from a nearby church that had to be demolished, and some from surrounding neighborhoods, which, like all of Berlin, were bombed beyond recognition -- and built a hill.

Strangely enough, I learned most of this from an American TV show after I had lived near and walked in Humboldthain for several months. I did some more Internet research and uncovered a few more facts and wartime photographs. In recent years, people have become more familiar with the big bunker because a group has started giving tours of the “Berlin Underworld,” which includes a trip into the bunker’s innards (the outside walls, meanwhile, make for one of the only “natural” rock-climbing crags around). But the wall that I later found – clearly that of a second bunker -- is never mentioned anywhere. It’s almost as though everyone wishes it would just melt back into the earth, not a shred remaining, not even in our memories.

And that’s understandable. One need not go far in Berlin to find a monument reminding us of the atrocities committed here between 1933 and 1945. The Holocaust Memorial is the most visible and striking, but the Stumbling Blocks – shiny blocks embedded in the sidewalks engraved with details about Jews who were murdered or deported from the building or neighborhood – are equally painful. Dozens of other plaques, monuments and Denkmals are scattered across the city, each intended to remember the past so that we won’t let it happen again.

Just as a conscious effort has been made to remember and learn from those horrors, a parallel effort has been made to erase or simply ignore anything left over from that time that might be used to glorify the Third Reich or war in general. It seems to be a well-aimed jab at Albert Speer, the Nazi architect, and his theory of “ruin value.” He wanted to construct monstrosities that would continue to remind people of the Third Reich long after the Reich had collapsed and the structures had fallen down, much like Roman and Greek ruins still stand as reminders of ancient civilizations. Germans, to their credit, have done quite a bit to eliminate the ruins – not to mention the ruin value – of most of the work of Speer and his colleagues. Hitler’s bunker is under non-descript lot next to a Chinese restaurant, and until just a few years ago there weren't even signs marking its presence. Huge Flakturms in Tiergarten were successfully annihilated after the war, and are now gone.

Still, some ruins remain, like those in Humboldthain. They seem to be telling us that, no matter what we might do to forget, the landscape always remembers.

In his essay, “The Necessity for Ruins,” John Brinckerhoff Jackson writes: "A monument can be nothing more than a rough stone, a fragment of ruined wall as at Jerusalem, a tree, or a cross. Its sanctity is not a matter of beauty or of use or of age; it is venerated not as a work of art or as an antique, but as an echo from the remote past suddenly become present and actual."

Yes. Which is why, with this particular ruin, we can rejoice to see such beautiful graffiti on its face, and why we don’t cringe at the climbers’ bolts sticking out of the concrete next to the bricked up windows. And when I walk over those hills, the dog futilely chasing after rabbits and birds, I can’t help but think about what lies underneath, and can’t help but imagine a certain darkness seeping out of that wall, out of that rubble, and emanating up through the rotting leaves. 

Bunker Art

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Winter's day in Rehberg

Rehberg Park is a huge expanse of grassy glades and dense trees, some trails and even an outdoor movie theatre. A lot of Berliners look down on the Wedding district of town, but Rehberg, not to mention the adjacent Goethe Park, Schiller Park (just a few blocks from Rehberg), the Panke River path, and tons of other green spaces make Wedding one of the best parts of the city. We're within walking distance of all of them. These are recent pics from Rehberg.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Berlin: Coolest city on the planet?!

They are now saying -- again, apparently -- that Berlin is, as the Hollywood Reporter puts it, "the coolest city on the planet." It may be, but when the Reporter's attributing the coolness to the fact that Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and their kind have made Potsdamer Platz their "second home" is a tad bit absurd. For one thing, Postdamer Platz is an American-style architectural monstrosity. For another thing, I've never seen Angelina there or anywhere else in Berlin.

I'd say the Christian Science Monitor -- in a really good, in-depth article about Germany's rise as a "mini-superpower" and Berlin's becoming a real European capital -- summed it up better here:
That gives rebuilt Berlin something of an open and unfinished air. It's been compared to a combination of Boston and Washington. Social hierarchies here are newer than in traditional capitals of old Europe. You can wear your jeans to the opera. Apartments are huge by European standards, and cheap. Food is also inexpensive.
Yet for all the scrubbing and shine, Berlin is a city where 1 out of 5 inhabitants is on welfare. The German capital is poorer than the nation it oversees.
Low costs have made the city a magnet for artists and writers. By some estimates, more than 65,000 artists reside here. It is also an unofficial playground for the under-30 "globorati" who fly in on cheap flights from Barcelona, Spain, and Rome.
 But neither story can answer the question: If Berlin's so cool, what's a guy like me doing here? Why do so many people have mullets, and listen to David Hasselhof? Why is there so much canned meat in the grocery stores, and why is Currywurst -- chopped up hot dogs smothered in curry powder and spicy ketchup -- the city's signature food? And if it's so damned hip, how is it possible that this godawfully ugly building monopolizes the view out our front window:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An apple in Naples

An apple. Two, actually, on a white plate. They were not sliced and put into some buttery pastry, or ground down and frozen into gelato, or zapped with some beam that broke them down into their pure molecular form. They were just apples, their peels -- a burnished off-red color with no shine at all -- completely intact. A long stem, with a leaf attached, still jutted out of one. We were in a dimly lit little osteria on a side street in Naples. The thick green glass of the label-free bottle was almost empty and our bellies pleasantly full. Donna Teresa, for whom the place was named and its sole cook, sat on a stool, watching her patrons. The waitress -- or rather, I suspect, Teresa's daughter, beautiful but who also looked tired and almost apologetic that her mother's food was so good -- brought us our desert: two apples, on a plate, with two knives. That's when I fell in love with Naples, a city of chaos and history and crime and beauty. A place where one's senses are constantly under assault.

My wife Wendy, daughters Lydia and Elena, and I had come to Naples three days earlier almost by accident. We flew into Rome, and intended to stay there for a week, seeing the city and its surroundings; I had hoped to find Rome's best gelato and Negroni. But Wendy has a hard time sitting still, and after a three-day whirlwind tour of the Vatican, the Forum, the Colosseum, "Invader's" street art, Trastevere and Testaccio; and after sampling several off-the-beaten path Roman rosticcerias, no fewer than eight gelaterias and a negroni or two, we decided to head further south. Naples was less than two-hours away by train, at just 57 Euros for the whole family. So, why not?

In retrospect, it might have been too much to go directly from the zurückhaltend populace of Berlin to Naples. Luckily, Rome helped acclimate us to what we would experience when we got out of the Montesanto metro station in a bustling hillside Napoli neighborhood: a full-on sensual battering. Bright orange storefronts beckoned. Through the window of a barber shop, we saw a man sitting helplessly in the chair, his hair half shorn, as the two barbers yelled and gesticulated frantically at one another. The smell of garlic and pizza and garbage mingled together in an olfactory stew.

The Google map had shown a mere 200 meter walk from the station to the bed and breakfast we had booked. It did not mention that the walk also included a 100 meter vertical climb, through narrow passages (I'd use the word sidewalks, except cars and scooters used them, too) that were paved with black volcanic stone worn shiny from a millenium of use and that did not easily accommodate the wheels on our low-grade luggage. Clothing hung above us from every balcony like awnings, and there was more graffiti than in Berlin. I knew enough Italian to ask an old guy in which direction we should go, but not enough to understand his answer, except that he kept repeating the word "funicolare." Later, we would discover what that meant: A cable-pulled train that makes climbing Naples' formidable hills a lot easier. We kept walking. The old man laughed, threw up his arms and pointed up the hill.

That was good enough. While our room -- the cheapest one we could find in Naples -- was not exactly plush, it was adequate. It's part of a building complex perched perilously on the edge of a cliff high above the city, and was also serving as the residence of three college-aged women studying at the local fashion design school. Andrea, the owner and a Naples native, is friendly, fluent in English, and gave us great tips on how to spend our time in the city, steering us clear of tourist traps. Indeed, as it was lunchtime when we arrived, he sent us right back down to the chaotic neighborhood below, where we ducked down a street so narrow that felt like night, at noon. After dodging several scooters and even a small car, we found the doorway to the olive oil shop next to the big shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary (these shrines, or madonnine, are everywhere in Naples, but this one was especially ornate). There -- the place has no name as far as we could tell -- we found a few tables, a woman slaving away in a tiny kitchen, fresh octupi piled up on a counter. There was no menu, but somehow we managed to stumble through the language barrier and get a lunch of simple pasta, seafood meatballs (I don't know what else to call them), a couple of plates of vegetables drenched in beautiful olive oil and a jug of wine, all for about $30.

Naples is steeped in some 3,000 years of history. Greeks settled nearby islands in the 9th Century B.C., where the Sirens had once lured sailors to their deaths on the rocky coastline,  and in the 5th Century B.C., Greeks founded the "New City" of Neápolis. Even after the Romans took over and danced a gluttonous jig on the Greeks' collective graves, the Greek culture persisted in Naples. Evidence of those early times can be found at Pompeii, of course, about half-an-hour by train down the coast. But better yet is Herculaneum, another city that in 79 A.D. was buried, and thus preserved, by Mt. Vesuvius' ash. Excavations began in the 1800s, and continue to today. It's closer to Naples' center, has relatively few visitors and is remarkably well preserved. Lydia and Elena refused to leave without seeing -- and narrating the significance of -- every room, every mosaic, every fresco. We were there for nearly five hours, seven if you include our trip to the National Museum and its artifacts from Herculaneum and Pompeii, not to mention that tantalizing "Cabinet of Secrets," full of Roman erotic art (kids not allowed).

Mosaic, circa 79 AD or earlier, Herculaneum.
One simply can't immerse oneself in so much history without fortification, so we made sure to stop and sit down -- okay, stand up, since that's what you do in Italy -- for caffe machiato and pasticceria. Our gluttony, er, gastronomical research, focused on the crostatta di fragola (tarts topped with what appeared to be wild strawberries), canolli and sfogliatelle, a phyllo dough pastry filled with ricotta and candied orange peel. In those narrow streets, under the watch of more shrines, it was easy to imagine eating an identical treat 400 years earlier, when these pastries were new -- sfogliatelle were reputedly invented in a convent in the heart of Naples in the 17th Century. In Naples time, that's a mere eyeblink. I suspect that 2,000 winters ago, the great poet Virgil sat at a Taberna in downtown Naples and enjoyed a plate of friarelli, a close relative to Brocolli Rabe that's rarely found outside the Campania region of Italy. Napolitans sautee it in garlic and oil, cook it with sausage and put it on pizza, which, by the way, was born in Naples.
Night, Pignasecca market.

Virgil, ancient Rome's most famous poet, wasn't born in Naples, but he penned some of his greatest work while living here during the 1st Century B.C. Virgil's epic poem, the Aenead, includes a number of scenes around the base of Mt. Vesuvius; Aeneas entered Hades to search for his father via Lago Averno, just up the coast from Naples.

Dante Alighieri drew on Virgil's knowledge of the underworld when he portrayed the latter as his guide through the Inferno.
Indeed, as I tried to navigate the dark forest of humanity that is the Pignasecca market, I summoned the guidance of Virgil. Maybe he wouldn't help me find Beatrice, but at least he could guide me to the next pizza and bottle of wine. Luckily, there in one of the city's oldest markets that runs every day, that wouldn't be difficult. The Pignasecca is a jumbled mixture of cheap plastic kitsch and Italian delicacies. Here, a man is peddling cigarette lighters; over there, a pig's head hangs in a window. Still-wiggling fish fill simple tanks at the pescheria, artichokes are piled high at a produce stand, and it can all be had at ridiculously low prices. We got dinner: a huge loaf of beautiful, wood-oven baked bread; marinated local artichokes; olives; salami; cheese; and wine, for just about $10.

Virgil is also said to be buried along the coast in Naples, his bones serving as protectors of the city. Attempted attackers are allegedly chased off by huge swarms of flies. The bones, I don't know about. The thing about the flies, I can believe. They emerge not from Virgil's remains, but from the mountains of garbage on many a street corner. Naples is perhaps as notorious for its trash heaps as it is for its pizza. In the mid-oughts, trash collection came to a standstill as landfills were filled to capacity and garbage workers went on strike. There's some sort of connection to organized crime here -- the city hosts one of Italy's most powerful crime families -- though I can't, for the life of me, figure out what that connection is. Berlusconi, apparently in between his dalliances with teenagers, cleaned things up in 2008, but the problem resurfaced just last year, after a proposal to build a huge landfill on the slopes of Vesuvius was met with riots. How this led to piles of garbage in Naples' streets, I'm not really sure. But, as an Italian told us with us a shrug of his shoulders during a moment of train chaos: That's Naples for you.
Street art in Naples.

That piece of wisdom came after an already long day on public transportation. As we were waiting for the metro to arrive, an announcement came over the loudspeaker, in Italian, of course, and incomprehensible to us, of course. Suddenly, everyone on our platform jumped down to the tracks, and ran across them to the opposite platform -- something you would never see in Germany -- and boarded another train. We followed, fearing for our lives. Then another announcement came, and about half of the people jumped back off the train, and ran back across the tracks. This scene repeated itself several times. A group of Italian musicians assured us that we were on the right train, and to stay put. They were right. I don't know why the other people were running back and forth. I don't know what was wrong with the trains. Nor do I know how the same pickpocket could work the same part of the train station day after day, without getting rousted by the cops. But there he was, first on Friday, then on Sunday. That's Naples, I guess.

And that's part of the reason Naples has a reputation as a hotbed of organized crime, petty crime and just outright chaos. Then there's the garbage, the big volcano, the huge fault line and the crumbling buildings perched precariously on vertical hillsides. All of which adds up to one big reason that a lot of people stay in Sorrento, or along the Amalfi coast, and just visit Naples for a few hours to eat some pizza.

Not us. We figured we'd do something like the opposite. We picked up one-day passes on the public transportation system for 4,70 Euros each (our nine year old was free, and the tickets are cheaper on weekends). That allowed us to ride a really slow train along the coast to Sorrento, via Herculaneum and Pompeii. Sorrento is clean, orderly and a cruise ship stop, meaning it's also a bit boring and overpriced (though beautiful). So, with our same one-day tickets, we boarded a public bus to, well, we weren't really sure where. It quickly filled up beyond safe capacity with very loud teenagers, including a kind of chubby obnoxious boy who kept yelling something about muzzarella, which I suspect has a broader, more crude meaning than just being a type of cheese.

The bus climbed, an impossibly steep, windy, narrow road that twisted through olive and lemon and orange groves and tiny villages, and offered a tremendous view of the Mediterranean, far below. Then it stopped at the top of the mountain, and we had to get off. Our hoped-for journey to the Amalfi Coast was cut short. We had boarded the wrong bus. We panicked. I think one of the girls started crying, or maybe that was me: The cafes were all closed for siesta.

Fortunately, after wandering around the sleepy little village for half an hour, we got on a bus going back down. Unfortunately, the bus driver was insane. As soon as we got on, he accelerated enough to throw us all back into our seats and caught up with the bus in front of us. Then, he engaged in what appeared to be a race or strange game of chicken with the other bus, passing those little Italian truck/scooter things that all the farmers drive on blind curves, tearing around the switchbacks way too fast, never falling more than a few feet behind the bus in front of us. Meanwhile the two bus drivers made faces at each other and gestured wildly via rear view mirror.

Procida, a 6 Euro, 40 min. ferry ride from just outside Naples
We survived, but we needed to get away from the cruise shippers. I needed a Negroni, truth be told, but would do with more caffe, a quiet beach, some gelato. All of which we found a few train stops away from Sorrento, at a town called Vico Equense. Getting to the beach here requires another steep descent on foot, but it was safer than the bus, and for the girls it was worth it: The beach was littered with sea glass and sea tiles -- pieces of ceramic tiles that had somehow found their way into the sea and had been worn smooth, like little pendants. We're convinced that we even found a piece of ancient Greek sea glass. Sitting on the beach in the day's last sun at Vico Equense, or the next day, on the island of Procida, which provided much of the setting for the movie il Postino, I could see why people might choose one of Naples' outliers as a base rather than the city itself.

As for me, I'll take Naples. It's scary, yeah, and disorienting and sometimes overwhelming. Its past seems to press down on you, its present has a darkness of its own. But it's also alive, fecund, raw and real.

Oh yeah, and then there's that apple. By the time we got back to Naples, we just wanted a quiet, simple meal, so we took the funicolare up to the relatively posh, somewhat calmer Voremo neighborhoodin search of a pizzeria. Elena spotted a little place with just a few tables and said, "Hmmm, this looks good." So we sat down. No menu, just two of each piatto to choose from. Wine arrived. Then a white bean, friarelli soup ("This is comfort food," said Elena, "and I need some comfort.") A plate of roasted, marinated vegetables. Meatballs. And two plates of exquisitely tender, tiny octupi, cooked in a tomato-based broth.

And then the apples. Raw. Simple. Tasting of the earth, of this place, of this history.

See a video slideshow of images from our trip.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My first winter in Berlin and how I’ve survived it (so far) with the help of a waterslide, a giant dome and a “Tropical Island” in northern Europe

The cold is the kind of cold that makes your bones ache. Heavy is the sky, its grey pushing down on the buildings and the people who must venture outside on this dismal morning. They trudge slowly through snow and ice and the smoke-like haze that lingers over everything. 

In other words, it’s just another winter’s day in Berlin. Only it’s not really just any winter’s day. It’s Christmas morning, and I am thankful to have my family huddled closely around me. I am even more grateful that I am in a train car, not outside like those other sorry sots, and that our particular train car has a heater that works. 

The cold and the ice and the 8 inches of new snow, which has resulted in “Winterchaos” this year, causes the train to creep along slowly through formerly East Berlin. I don’t mind at all, because it allows me more time to observe this part of the city, its monolithic grey memories of Communism, its empty lots, slated for new development, its broken down factories-turned-squats-soon-to-be-luxury-lofts. Not long after sidling out of the city, the train stops in a small town and we debark, switching to a bus.

The bus is warm, and again I’m thankful. I’m not sure about the driver, though, who has the kind of vein-splattered, bulbous nose that only a lot of Schnapps can produce, and his coffee that he’s nursing seems to be fortified in such a way as to nourish that nose. I’m also a little bit unsure about the roads, which are not only snowy, but are covered with what appears to be a sort of glaze that reflects headlights as vividly as a mirror. And as we head out onto a highway, through a forest, and finally come to a halt at a giant traffic jam, I begin to feel as if we have made a big mistake.

I mean a really big mistake. It’s Christmas morning. We could be at home in the Old Country – Colorado, that is – gathered with family and friends, opening presents around the tree, getting ready to go skiing or sledding in the countryside before gorging on a huge feast. Instead, we are here. We’ve ripped our children from the warm womb of their homeland and transplanted them in an ugly, cold city whose dark past seems to fester in the faces of the people, in rundown old buildings, in the endless “denkmals” to terror. And now, on Christmas morning, we’re sitting in a bus, in a traffic jam, as though we’re in some perverted modernization of a tragic Russian novel, or like soldiers in the German army, headed East to our miserable demise in the Polish wastelands.

Finally, the bus begins moving again. At a tiny little burg in the middle of nowhere, the bus stops, lets us out, and leaves. There are about 20 of us here: another family, a group of twenty-something men who appear to be Indian or Pakistani, looking more worried than me, a few other people who nervously peer through the falling snow at an approaching vehicle. I can almost feel the collective relief when the brightly painted bus arrives: We are almost there. The bus takes us through the forest, past some sort of bunkers emerging from the ground like giant mushrooms, and then we see it, all at once. It reminds me of the first time I saw the Golden Gate Bridge in real life; it is so enormous that it dwarfs the natural world. It is Tropical Island.

The bus pulls up to one side of the dome, we sprint through the chilled air, open the door of the dome, and step in. Heat and humidity wash over us immediately. We have arrived. There are those who say the next wars will be fought over oil. There are others who say they will be fought over water. I say they will be fought over this place.


I spent ten years in a tiny Colorado town that sits in a valley at 9,318 feet in elevation, surrounded on all sides by mountains reaching higher than 13,000 feet. Beginning as early as October, snow piles up to the eaves of houses. Cars are completely buried. All roads in and out of the town are shut down for as long as four or five days in a row. Temperatures in the 20 below zero (F) range are not uncommon. The inhabitants of this little town face down winter with the same anticipation and dread as a soldier facing a battle, only their weapons are skis, alcohol, sleds and stubborn defiance.

Somehow, winter in Berlin is worse. Temperatures are not so extreme – it rarely gets colder than 20 degrees here – but the cold settles into your flesh like some kind of microscopic parasite that then reproduces in your bones. Day after day, the sky is invariably the color and texture of old mashed potatoes. On the rare occasion that the sun does emerge, it’s only a shadow of its former self, rising at around 9 a.m., lingering near the horizon and offering no warmth whatsoever for a few hours, before setting again not long after 3 p.m. The city’s ugliness, which is obscured in warmer months by vines and trees emerging from its fecundity, is laid bare. Garbage piles up on the sidewalks, mingling with dog shit and slush and mud.

Reminders of Berlin’s ugly history also emerge, or perhaps just become more pronounced, as the green of summer recedes. As I try to spot patches of ice before they launch me into the broken arm club of Berlin, I’m more likely to notice the heartbreaking “Stumbling Blocks.” A tree-covered hill, which in August provided a lush respite from the city’s flatness, reveals itself in December as a huge bunker, built so well by the Nazis that post-War efforts to demolish it failed, forcing the Allies to simply bury the thing. The ever-somber Holocaust Memorial becomes haunting when blanketed in snow. And as I ride the subway, this time of earthly darkness has me warily watching for psychic murkiness that surely dwells in this nation’s collective soul, somewhere beneath these German visages, which by late December are invariably the color of ash.

Except, that is, for the chosen few whose complexions are not flat and grey, but instead a burnished orange-brown color that is has no place in the natural world. There are those in Berlin who chase away the winter blues by attending operas and visiting museums, those who do so by dancing to electronica all night, and those who keep sanity intact by ruining their livers. And then there are those who simply spend an hour or two per day at the tanning salons that sit on many a Berlin street corner. The skin tone that results can be quite unnerving, especially combined with Berlin’s peculiar fashion, which is some kind of mishmash of New Jersey, Southern California in the 1980s, and early British punk rock. Still, one should not be shocked, come February, to see me sporting a garish suntan, and maybe even a mullet.

For now, however, less extreme measures will do, such as paying a visit to Tropical Island. After getting our bracelets (which have little computer chips in them, which not only open the gates but also allow you to charge everything, precluding the need to carry cash around), we head into the locker rooms to change. By now, the kids are amped to the point that it seems like their eyes will pop out. And when Wendy takes off her shoes and touches the locker room floor – which isn’t just warm, but hot -- her eyes roll back into her head, her lips curl up on her teeth, and a look spills over her face that brings up a lot of insecurities and makes me jealous. Yes, jealous. Of a tiled floor.

But I’m also relieved, and that earlier feeling of remorse has vanished into the rainforest trees that surround the little walkway. I look up and feel a bit of vertigo: The dome that we’re in, that protects us from the horrors of the climate outside, is astoundingly large. Its footprint is 66,000 square meters, or about 710,000 square feet – roughly the size of 5 or 6 Wal-Mart super stores. The roof is so high (107 meters/350 feet) that people can take helium balloon rides over the “rainforest,” and even base-jump inside the dome. I start to mention that this place is eerily similar in grandeur and shape to Nazi architect Albert Speer’s fantastical Volkshalle, which would have sported a dome smaller than this one (but still able to fill 180,000 people to listen to Hitler’s speeches). But bringing this up might dampen the mood. And anyway, if an indoor tropical theme park populated by some bizarre mix of Eastern European mafiosi with their girlfriends and middle-class German and tourist families is the modern version of Teutonic, Wagner-blaring world-domination, so be it.

Back in Nazi times, this stretch of forest was originally developed as a Luftwaffe training ground, which the Communists turned into an air base. Then, when the Wall came down, the Capitalists swooped in and appropriated it as their own, and erected the dome as a giant workshop for building heavy freight-bearing dirigibles. The idea was a good one, as we all know that dirigibles will be the only way to transport lots of people or stuff by air in the post-petroleum world, but perhaps a bit early. They created a couple prototypes – one of which was ultimately wrecked in a storm – before going broke. The dome was left behind and served as a perfect blank slate on which a Malaysian billionaire could realize his tropics-in-northern-Europe dreams.

And so it is that even on the coldest winter days, a Berliner willing to ride a couple hours on the train, sit on a sandy beach, swim in two huge pools, their water at 80 degrees, and sit around in their swim trunks and watch Vegas-style shows. And he can try to flush away that slowly building Angst with outright fear, and a nasal enema, courtesy of the highest waterslide in Germany. After climbing past the three lower, slower slides, the intrepid slider launches himself into a virtual freefall through an enclosed, narrow blue tube. Approximately three seconds later, he hits the pool at the bottom with tremendous force, creating an experience that would be classified as torture if one were not paying for it.

For the next six hours or so, we frolic in the pool, lay on the sandy beach, sit in the hot tubs, and even eat some of the overpriced food that could easily come from an American family chain restaurant. We simply grow tired before growing tired of Tropical Island, and so we must leave. The bus trip this time is quick, and the train ride treats us to the same city, only at night, which transforms once-menacing buildings into almost cheerful, brightly lit places. I decide that winter’s not so bad here after all, and figure it might be a bit better if they just moved Tropical Island a bit closer to the city. But then I reconsider. For a time is certain to come when cold darkness falls over this place, and people will resort to violence to get a little piece of Tropical Island. It will be a time when it pays to have a healthy buffer of space between such a gem and the masses. I’m guessing that dystopic time will come in the not too distant future. I'd say it will come in February.