Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Where is Petra von Kant when you need her?

This is my first entry in the blogosphere, and my first dispatch from the fabulous European capital of Berlin. The background featured herein was inspired by my latest obsession, the New York art world/double suicides of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan. Theresa's blog "The Wit of the Staircase" featured this exact template. You might want to check that out too. Slightly macabre, but, being a sucker for a good cult-ish conspiracy I was hooked by the sinister Scientology connection (and when is the Lan-mark forum going to have their very own scandal?). RIP.

Moving right along...

I've been in Berlin nigh on a week now, and seem to be adjusting quite well, thank you very much. I'm ensconced in a large but ostensibly overpriced apartment in Moabit, West Berlin, which used to be home to a large prison. Now it features a lot of Turkish delicatessens and cute little Fruhschtuck (breakfast) places and Kaffee Klatsches, and a lot of architecture in the 50s Brutalist style. The area is ghetto, but is becoming gentrified slowly, and the location is convenient. The Spree River is just a few blocks away, and you can follow its winding path through the Tiergarten all the way down to the Reichstag, their equivalent to a house of Parliament. On Sunday you can see all manner of bourgeois Berliners out for their stroll through West Berlin.

My landlady lives in the apartment with us -- she's some kind of freelancing nebulous consultant or other who, thankfully, is constantly traveling -- and takes on boarders of all nationalities and other cunning linguists. The 19-year old French architecture student living there now speaks five languages. With my rudimentary grasp of German and French, I might be intimidated if I could actually be bothered, or if they weren't so damn nice. Everyone is very very sweet and perfectly willing to slog through a conversation in any language, as I am willing to be their sparkling tour guide through Engrish as a second language.

At the moment I'm sitting in cafe in Rosenthaler Platz, which is just a hop, skip and a jump from Prenzlauerberg, my new favorite part of town. It's in East Berlin, which is more funky with cooler architecture. The way it was explained by my new Israeli architect friend (I've made so many), the East after the war, since they were poorer, kept more of the older structures. They just didn't have the money to rebuild. Whereas in West Berlin, everything was so decimated they had no choice but to rebuild and pumped all this money into scads of ugly ass buildings.

Anyway, I am looking at a new place in Prenzlauer Berg because I am quite dubious about my landlady, Frau Buschmann. I mean, she seems like a nice person , e.g. she professed worry as to my whereabouts the other night, thinking I had been attacked by a gang of skinheads or something, because she didn't see my shoes at the door (I had forgotten to take them off!) BUT, for one thing, she has asked me to water her plants -- she has a frigging nursery in the flat -- whenever she is out of town. I told her in no uncertain terms that I have a black thumb and have been known to kill plants with an over-the-shoulder glance. She said if I start stressing about the plants I can e-mail her and her neighbor will come and do it. Whatever. Oh, the guilt.

For another thing, turns out Frau Buschmann is a bit of a hypocrite as well. She has signs posted in the bathroom for the guests to please remove their hairs from the "flowing off". Well, I have found some ungodly items, of uncertain provenance, in that drain. They certainly weren't mine!

One other thing, will somebody please tell me why, when I live with two women, is there ALWAYS urine on the toilet seat? Again, I know it's not mine because it's not, but can something be said for basic cleanliness? No joke, yesterday I flipped up the toilet seat and there was a wig of human hair under there, clinging to the bottom of the seat. Not pubic hair, mind you, but head hair in a cluster ball about 8 inches in diameter. Scheiss. How could she have lost that much hair in one swell foop and not known it was under there? And how, prithee, did it get there? Talk about flipping your wig. I know she has hair extensions too, because there was a box of braids and curls on the top shelf in the bathroom. Maybe a few locks of this ersatz hair became dislocated somehow, ending up in the unlikeliest of places. But it looked damn real (replete with lint), and was a shock and a horror to this scribe. Not for the faint of heart. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

This all may sound dyspeptic, but hey, I'm working in the tradition of the great British Imperialist travel writers. At least I'm trying to learn the language! More on that later, as I attempt to describe my first few days studying a very complicated language -- without my usual rudder, English, to guide me!

Second-guessing myself has always been a hidden talent of mine, and in this case I applied it ruthlessly to the situation. If only I'd taken the flat in Helmholtzplatz. But no, I'd gone along with the advice of a relative, who suggested that it might behoove me to pay a few (100) extra Euros a monthtake a place closer to the Sprachenschule, in the former West Berlin. Besides this would allow me to focus on my writing instead of spending all that time traveling.

And so it was that I was deposited by a city bus in Moabit, perhaps the most brutal and least fashionable of Berlin nachbarshafte, home of the real Berliner, on a frosty January afternoon , trundling through the cobblestone streets burdened with an oversized coffer.

I scanned the resident listings, through watery, jetlagged eyes. My head was throbbing. I pulled out the scrap of paper on which I had scrawled the name of the proprietress. There it was: Buschmann. Up and down the columns of names I glanced, to no avail. I squinted at the buildings around me. Something was amiss. I must just not be able to focus properly, too jetlagged, I thought. Desperate, I kept looking up and down the list in a textbook iteration of the definition of insanity. Nearly throwing up my hands in frustration, I wanted to collapse crying in the street, but frigidity forbade. There was a grungy hostel on the first floor: should I check in?

I tried to dispel from my head the idea that perhaps someone was playing a practical joke on me. Feeling hapless as hell, I lugged my suitcase clumsily into a Turkish-run corner store. They had internet and telephone service. Remembering the number on the scrap of paper, I fumbled in my pocket. The gentleman at the front desk yelled at me for using the wrong telephone. "Number 3!" he bellowed. Charmed. Wedging my suitcase between me and the glass partition, I dialed thenumber from the printed e-mail. An insouciant voice, with a tone of affected worry, answered:

"Brian, Brian, where are you? I've been waiting for over an hour! Are you lost?!" came the sing-song voice, in threatrically overdone tones of concern.

"I'm at the internet place on the corner of Wilhelmshavner Strasse" I said weakly.

"Well, you are right next door!" she cried.

"I was just there and I didn't see the name on the list."

"Right next door! Number three!"

I hung up, unable to explain or fathom the communication breakdown. Gathering my things, I stumbled out the door and walked down the street. In the doorway of the next building a portly fraulein with coke bottle glasses and a mound of wispy hair stacked on her head.

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