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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 Preu├čenpark, 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.