Gute Nacht, Berlin!
Back in my Brooklyn kitchen and only a tad jet lagged following my nine-day stint in Berlin. Had a great time, although I do admit I'm glad to see my cat, drink my own java, and see a blue sky again.
Some random observations of Berlin. Well, for one, thing, it sure is an ugly place. Aside from the nonstop opacity of damp, overcast winter gloom that shrouded the city during my entire visit, the landscape itself is equally monochromatic and drab. There is an astonishing amount of dogshit. More than I've seen in any other city. The sidewalks were coated with a fetching layer of dirty snow and doggie-doo (about equal parts), which in turn was peppered with litter, spent fireworks and New Years Eve confetti. Wipe your feet when you get home, kids! Better yet, just take your shoes off...
Dirt and poo aside, I loved running around town on the U-bahn and S-bahn, checking out bookstores, CD shops and thrift joints during the day. I found some cool stuff, including a fabulous kilt for which I paid only five euros (a couple of the second-hand joints sold their garments by weight -- a practice they should really adopt at Beacon's Closet). The bookstores I visited had plenty of English language titles.
The trains, by the way, operate on a curious honor system; you buy your ticket on the platform and take it with you on the train, where a ticket inspector may or may not ask to see it. If you get busted without a ticket, you get fined 40 euros on the spot.
But the confusing part (for a non-German-speaker) is that, after you buy your ticket, you're supposed to validate it in a seperate machine, which stamps the time and date of your purchase. The English instructions for this portion of the transaction are next to useless, saying only, "please cancel your ticket before continuing on your journey." Wha? What the hell does that mean?
Anyway, my friend Julie eventually explained it to me, but I must admit that, even after getting wise, I still scammed my way around the city with unvalidated tickets. I figured that, should an inspector accost me, I'd just play ignorant -- after all, it is entirely understandable how one would be confused by the whole ticket-validation process.
The authorities did finally catch up to me, late in the week. And I'm happy to say my ploy worked. The ticket checkers just dragged me off the train at the next stop and "showed me" how to cancel my ticket. I thanked the plain clothes thugs and got back on the train (which had kindly waited for me). I could tell they didn't buy my story at all.
At night I peeked into some of the shadowy corners of the club scene. Spent some time in tiny, dark drag bars as well as enormous rock clubs. The djs were, across the board, atrocious. Maybe I was at the wrong places at the wrong times, but, man oh man -- the only place I've ever heard worse abuse of music was at NYC's godawful Snitch. To a man (and woman), every dj I heard in Berlin exhibited a total lack of pacing, flow, and even the most rudimentary technical skills. Forget about beat-matching, these folks couldn't even segue two songs together without dead air inbetween, or keep the volumes consistent. It is indeed unnerving to hear Daft Punk followed directly by The Who -- but the buzzkill of hearing The Ramones get broadsided by (I'm not kidding) MC Hammer is definitely worse.
The only competent dj I witnessed was Atari Teenage Riot mainman Alec Empire, spinning at a Throbbing Gristle afterparty. His terror techno beats were deafening, but he looked bored -- he must've looked at his watch five times in 20 minutes...
I saw alot of enthusiasm elsewhere, though, which almost made up for the lack of talent. Folks love their rock and roll in Berlin, particularly, it seemed, New York rock and roll. Everywhere I went, it was Interpol, Scissor Sisters, Le Tigre, The Strokes, Fischerspooner. Overall, the clubs favored English and American rock; I heard very little German music. At the tiny dive Black Girls Coalition, the crowd lit up when the dj played the Pixies.
My native German friend Janine took me out one night to some intense lefty/punk/straight-edge bars in Prenzlauer Berg, where very sober-looking activist types sat on raw wooden benches eating plates of cheap vegan food and watched Bush-bashing/anti-Imperialist programming on a tv monitor. Already keenly aware of how much my president sucks, I wasn't really into in hanging out too long at these outposts, being more interested in drinking beer and hearing some tunes. After all, I was on vacation.
I survived on a lot of cheap Mediterranean food, and occasionally rolled the dice on some German cuisine (usually by pointing at something on the menu that I couldn't pronounce). Overall, the food was great, and super affordable. There were some great cafes where you could sit and read for hours. Of course, everyone smokes in Berlin, so all my clothes reek of smoke again, just like the old days. Ah, memories!
As for sleep, there wasn't much to be had; for the whole first week, I caught about four hours a night. Then, on the seventh day, exhaustion caught up with me and I crashed out for 17 hours straight in my hostel. From what I'm told, I didn't miss any sunshine or anything.
Got plenty of reading and playing done. My mom had given me Caleb Carr's The Alienist (top notch period murder mystery set at the dawn of the 1900's in New York City) for Christmas, which I read from cover to cover, between downtime in my room, trips on the train and extended coffee shop sessions.
For some reason I only had a handful of CDs with me -- Depeche Mode's Playing the Angel, The Replacements' Let It Be, Massive Attack's Blue Lines, The Cure's The Top and Madonna's Confessions on a Dancefloor -- but I listened to them relentlessly in my room at the hostel (I think the Replacements' "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" is my new favorite song). Toward the end of my trip, I bought a used copy of Ramones' Rocket to Russia (the remastered reissue with bonus tracks) at Logo CDs. Was great to hear that again -- having your favorite music with you when you're alone in a foreign city is very stabilizing.
The people were generally friendly and tolerant of English-speaking yanks like me. There were some grumpy Germans, for sure, but for the most part people were alright. In the very small hours of New Year's Eve, I befriended a fabulous bunch of Brits at White Trash Fast Food, with whom I drank unnecessarily until about 10:30 am. One of them, the lovely aforementioned Julie, had an apartment in Mitte, to which we repaired afterward for tea and some afternoon shuteye (later on in the week, these same Brits turned me on to my new favorite show, the BBC series Little Britain -- it is the funniest thing I've seen since League of Gentlemen).
Also met a severe-looking gal from Tel Aviv named Elenor in a bookstore in lower Kreuzberg (called, oddly, Another Country) where I picked up an old Updike paperback. We had some coffee around the corner and then went up to her flat to listen to Gun Club. Her apartment, like all the other ones I saw in Berlin, was quirky and incredibly spacious. It was heated by an enormous coal oven which stood about six feet high.
Around 6:30pm on New Year's Day, after I said goodbye to my new Brit friends and stumbled out onto the street in Mitte, a guy said, "hey, you're from POP*STAR*KIDS in New York!" Duly, flattered, I stopped to chat with him. He's one of many New Yorkers who've defected to Berlin to escape the Apple's high cost of living and intense pace. Many artists, musicians and performers, in particular, have gotten tired of paying New York's exorbitant rents and having their talents go largely unnoticed in its uber-competitive ocean of talent.
In Berlin, surviving is easy for an artist; the rents and cost of living are super cheap, thanks to a busted-ass economy. You don't have to break your back to stay afloat there, and it's far easier to get noticed doing whatever it is you do. Julie calls it a "city of slackers." I'm not sure if that's accurate or not; I wouldn't know. But it is a smaller pond, with a correspondingly smaller scale of opportunity. It seems like a low-pressure place to do your thing. Quiet, too. The drivers almost never use their horns, which is a bit unsettling to a tinnitus-afflicted New Yorker like me.
So, Berlin was a hoot. But I am happy to be back to the pace, the intensity, the diversity, the competition, the talent and the larger than life scale -- not to mention the open-all-night schedule -- of New York City.