Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sonntag in Berlin

The Soul of Man Under Social Democracy

I recently read a web article which postulated that if the progenitors of Communism had sexed it up a little, the political system would have been more palatable to the masses, perhaps yielding a longer shelf life. As someone who identifies more with Oscar Wilde's voluptuously naive treatise "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" than anything Karl Marx ever put forth, I second that emotion. Wilde's scrupulously Utopian vision of the abolition of private property makes Socialism seem like nothing less than a mass orgy. One cannot live on borscht and bread, a pig and an acre alone. Such slender means only leaves one spiritually hungry. Marx should have taken a page from the book of Wilde, instead of confusing abundance with excess.

Living in the former East Berlin I see the ghosts of the GDR daily amidst the ever-moving cranes and ever-mutating graffiti . Not to mention the Lego-style old commie housing estates (Altbauen), which, though admittedly sterile, do harbor a certain edge. Our hostess informs us with sang-froid that she has on numerous occasions found blood in the elevators.

In recent years the regulation and standardization of social systems such as medicine and the pension plan have been deleterious to the economy, contributing to unemployment and the rise of darker elements of Deutsche Gesellschaft, such as Neo-Nazis.

The equal and opposing force to the ubiquity of rules and order is what my German friends call the "German craziness", and though there are many more rules here than in the USA, there is a controlled chaos beneath the surface. For instance, there are no open container laws here, so the denizens of Berlin freely roam the streets and subways, ein Bier (oder zwei) in hand. But I've never seen things get out of control.

Maybe I'm talking about two different phenomena here, but bear with me. The Deutsche need for rules is concomitant to the passion for ordnung, in meine Meinung. Centuries of instability and lack of identity have plagued the Germans to the extent that they have fashioned a society built on order and anything less threatens that sense of identity. Hence the punks and the Polizei are friendly with each other, fastidiously kept historical buildings stand cheek by jowl with ugly squats. Respect and Hoflichkeit are key.

Last Saturday I jumped at the chance to attend my first German barbecue, over in Lichtenfield, a tram ride about two miles east from my Friedrichshain flat. The flat was on the tenth floor of one of the old Soviet era high rises. As we entered the claustrophobic steel trap to the top, our host, Andrea, ominously groused about frequently seeing blood there.

Once inside
, der Balkon looked out over a Lego city lousy with graffiti but lush with leafy green avenues. Andrea was proud of her recent purchase of a George Forman smokeless grill, as smoke on the balcony was strictly verboten. The whole affair was incredibly gemutlich (an important German idiom closest to the English "cozy"). The spread featured every kind of Wurst known to man, Auflauf (casserole) and Salatguerke (cucumber salad), along with verschieden stinky cheeses. Orange lighting warmed an economical Ikea-furnished flat riddled with Punkten (polka dots), everything just-so. As I settled into my comfy butterfly chair with an oversized warm beer, Andrea flicked on the widescreen TV and we began to watch the Eurovision song contest. This is unheard of in the US, but is an annual kitsch favorite over here. Andrea, ever the hostess, came over and crouched beside me.

"I hope you enjoy. This is very European."

The voting was interminable but the contest itself a hoot. This year, Russia won over Scandinavian heavy metal groups, Spice Girls copies from Serbia, and French surrealist pop. The common denominator here was showmanship. You cannot vote for your own country, so callers voted for their neighboring countries with unbridled nepotism.

I sat back in my chair with a sigh of contentment. It was all so civilized, but fun. When Russia won with a sappy ballad, fireworks went off of one of the other balconies.

Auf Deutsch, my roommate Jan said: "I think one of your neighbors is Russian."

Andrea responded, "Ich glaube dass, es so ist." (I believe so)

If only Karl Marx had had George Foreman smokeless grills, and Eurovision.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Meinen Bekannten

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Indubitably in the throes of culture shock, I mentioned jokingly in an earlier post that the sheer amount of stupidity, or Dummheit, in my life had reached critical mass, a statement which, like an eternal returning, keeps coming back to haunt me. Now these lame brains who conspire to make my life a living hell may come in all stripes, but es ist egal , because I'm an equal opportunity misanthrope. But there is a particularly insidious form of American obtuseness which really roasts my bratwurst, and it comes in the comely shape of the blonde California airhead. I had been privvy to the Airhead diaspora, being an erstwhile resident of the West Coast, and having seen firsthand the kind of havoc these apathetic, self-involved nattering nabobs can wreak, yammering away about their gym memberships or the fruits of their nail salon sallies, their yoga dalliances and their ersatz bronzing sessions. Not to mention the hotchpotch spirituality ("Did you know you could send Reiki healing long distance?"), spreading shallowness over everything like Nutella clinging to a crepe.

Having crossed the Atlantic to avoid such phenomena, you would think I would be reasonably safe in the island of icy Euro-hauteur that is Berlin. Unfortunately, one of these gold-tinted turds washed ashore...in Deutschkurs, yet, flattening her vowels in a nasal LA whine, and lazily making no attempt whatsoever at a Deutsch accent . Even my good friend Yumiko, always the dipomat, couldn't resist making a dig, doing a spot-on impersonation which had them rolling in the aisles. Which is funny because, what with Yumiko's stark Japananese accent (although she is way advanced for the erste stufel) I can barely understand her at the best of times.

So one day this monstrosity in flip-flops comes into class, chunky sunglasses fused to her head like Chanel antennae. Alex, a student who comes aus den Schweiz, is proudly announcing to the class that he has smoked his first joint in a gay bar the night before. Then for some reason this girl, we'll call her "J", looks at me and expostulates: "I really want Brian to take me to a gay bar!" I have no idea why she would focus on me, I mean don't think I had told anyone in the class I was gay, but certainly wouldn't deny it. It's not that have any hang-ups about gay, in fact I have never been in the closet, but I was just riding that German wave of not talking about anything private. In Berlin, for the most part, it's a non-issue, and frankly, I was enjoying the anonymity. Some Americans, once they learn you're a bona-fide fudge-packer, try to control you, and I wasn't having any of that. For some reason her gaydar homed in on me, though frankly I am no more or less effeminate than most red-blooded, foulard-sporting European men, gay or straight (danke Gott). Then she starts blathering on about gay pride parades, as if this is going to somehow curry favor, but it only aroused disgust in me. As if gay life is some kind of cake walk as her life as a California spoonie had been, an excuse to party. Frankly, I am not some fucking porthole into a gay universe for some dumb-as-a-box-of-bricks debutante, and at this point I would have loved to have taken her to a gay bar -- for instance a heavy leather/fisting night at a gay S and M club, and see if she ever wants to go to a "gay bar" after that. Talk about throwing fresh meat in with the piranhas.

Now don't get me wrong here, leute, I'm no separatist -- some of my best friends are "straight" (although, truth be told, I know no one who is 100 percent so). In fact I have taken some of them to leather bars. No problem, when you're cool and you're not shouting about it (not that you have to be "cool" to attend one -- oh, no. Just not simultaneously kicking us in the teeth and wanting to take part in the fun). I definitely think a mixed environment is healthy, but if society is moving past the point of labelling people (as I believe Berlin has for the most part), then why the need for shouting "Gay gay gay!" all the time? One day, these silly pride parades will fade out, everyone will be outed as the polymorphous peverts they are, and Clueless gal won't see us through her microscope as these exotic fauna who really know how to party. Snooze.

Anyway, Miriam, our Lehrerin -- who I believe is one of Sappho's Sluggers, if only because she once referred to her other half as "lieblingspartner" (although I guess this habit is spreading, as in America, to the heterosexual "community") -- clearly took umbrage at J's aggressively patronizing ignorance and transparent culture-vulture-ism in this area, but took pains to patiently explain that "in Deutschland, sind die gay Bars ein Treffpunkt fur die Schwules leute..nicht fur die anderen zu beobachten." In other words, if you want to watch the wildlife, go to the fucking zoo!

Cut to my farewell luncheon a couple of weeks later. Leider, somehow J piggybacked on the einladung. We're sat there at a corner Mexican restaurant in deepest Kreuzberg (which, oddly, doesn't have margaritas) and J, during an unrelated conversation, for no apparent reason fairly leaps out of her chair:

"HEY! When are we going to ein GayBar?"

Yumiko, god bless her, remembering our dialogue with Miriam, with near-disdain and one eyeball on me, slipping into the role of firm diplomat, points an explicative finger at the offender: "Das ist unhoflich. Die Gay bars sind Treffpunkt. Nicht fur anderen."

"Aber, in die USA, konnen alles zu die Gay Bars gehen. Viel spass!"

"Nein. Das ist nur ein Treffpunkt fur die schwules Leute."

Lurching into full-on Trickster mode:

"Why would you ask me and not someone else to take you to a gay bar anyway? Why would you assume that I'm gay?"

Awkward pause. Then lamely: "Varum nicht?" (auf Englisch, why not?)

Yumiko again asks why she would want to go to a gay bar.

Switching gears a little, I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

"Vielleicht mochtet sie die lesbichen Lebensstil probierien" (Perhaps she would like to sample the lesbian lifestyle) I opine.

Everyone laughs out loud. J is demonstrably horrifed, reddening visibly -- as if I'd accused her of a Crimie. "Varum? Varum sagst du das?" she asks, reviving the issue of homophobia with the raising of eyebrows.

"Varum nicht?"

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Patron Saint of Pigs

Hamburg is known as the city where the Beatles were launched, but forget for a moment that dubious distinction and luxuriate in the Geschichte of this grand port city, one which goes back 800 years. In point of fact, this past weekend was its 800th Gebortstag feuer, and the place was lousy with thrill-seeking youths, fireworks, great food and high energy. I happened to be in town with my parents, who were vacationing from the U.S. We were en route to Copenhagen for the weekend, and had escaped the heat and hectic celebrations of Berlin's Kultur Fest for the ostensibly cooler and quieter northern climes. We hadn't bargained for the fact that all these fests were happening Europa-wide over the three day weekend, culminating in some Catholic holiday to do with the holy ghost or some such tripe (describing these myriad religious holidays in Deutsch kurse can be a riot, z. B. "Ostern, als Jesus zur├╝ckkam") In Hamburg there were rock bands performing at the waterfront, and they even had a huge Riesenrad, or ferris wheel. Afterwards we took a cab to the infamous Reeperbahn, the red light district and enormous, throbbing, ahem, heart of the city. My parents were slightly bemused by the whole affair, and it was a mite embarrassing for me being accosted by ersatz Saint Pauli girls in front of meine Eltern (one such creature clawed furiously at my arm, nearly dragging me into the gutter with "her") but frankly the place is so commercialized and tourist-ridden as to be all but sexless in aspect.

The raison d'etre of this visit was actually a viewing of an art exhibit, or Ausstellung, which had been highly recommended by one of my colleagues from the language school, a talented lad name of Joel from good old Portland, OR, US of A. Joel, like me, has a bit of a yen for the shadow side of life, so it was without reservation that he suggested this particular Ausstellung der Kunst, heisst "Schrecken und Lust: Die Versuchung des heilegen Antonius von Hieronymous Bosch bis Max Ernst" (Terror and Desire: the Temptation of Saint Anthony from Bosch to Ernst).

Now I had no idea this Saint Anthony character had figured so prominently in so many kunstlers' works over the past few centuries, from the middle ages on. Apparently Ol' Tony was a hermit who revered (along with many of the artists who painted him) the virtue of self-abnegation to the extent that he gave away all of his (substantial) monies and devoted his life to the Lord, which in turn prompted Satan and a whole mess of evil spirits to provoke him mind, body and soul. He fled into the desert at age 55 and spent the balance of his life dodging said demons, living to a ripe old age of 105!

Bosch was so in thrall to this legend that no less than an entire room is devoted to his representations alone, the culmination of which was the eponymous triptych which makes clear Bacon's inspiration for Three Studies for Figures from a Crucifixion. The original, however, is rife with medieval squalor, anthropomorphic flying harpies, coprophagia and sinister priests, with the recalcitrant Saint Anthony holding his own, cross clutched in hand, against a cavalcade of perversions. In today's parlance, he must have been quite a repressed individual.

Or not. The presence of pig symbolism in over half the paintings prompted a Google search which yielded the following:

While on a year of solitary retreat and prayer, St. Anthony had the experience of being tempted by Satan who allegedly came to him in the form of a fierce pig which viciously attacked him. Anthony saintily resisted the temptation to return the favour and beat the pig to death, whereupon he was enveloped by a "wondrous light" and the pig was transformed into a humble and docile porcine companion.

Henceforth Anthony was known as the Patron Saint of Pigs. One French maler created a risible portrait of Anthony snuggling with his beloved Schwein in what appears to be either abiding friendship or post-coital bliss!

It is amazing how this theme is used as a hook from which many concrete events were hung. Take for example, the work from the Dutch School of Painting in the 1600s, the eponymous Die Versuchung des heilegen Antonius by Domenicus van Wijnen , which conflates the legend of Saint Anthony with apocalytic science fiction (before science fiction) visions fomented by an impending visit from Halley's Comet.

The ultimate iteration of the legend, which is again titled Die Versuchung des heilegen Antonius , this time round by Joos van Craesbeeck, renders Anthony and his precious pig mere supporting characters in the dissolution of an artists mind, perhaps most obviously captured by the Kopf geschnitten, or decapitated head of the artist, another leitmotif in renderings of the Temptation. An ornithological orgy of decadence of biblical proportions in captured in medias res, the disembodied head spilling over with Lilliputian humanoid figurines and anthropomorphized birds. As my delightful German pal Tobias would malaprop, "It was horrowful!"

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Crash Course for the Ravers

After a few hours ineffectually spent at the keyboard I decided to amble to down to the Spree for some fresh air and a sobering dose of real life. The flaneur in me took over and in a fit of pique I crossed the river, stopping at a delightful Bakerei for ein stuck of cheesecake. I then glided through the wide avenues of Kreuzberg, where vestiges of the quasi-violent Erste Mai festivities revealed themselves -- the odd firecracker, acrid smell of smoke...Turkish women laughed and peacefully pushed baby carriages past enormous apartment buildings redolent in their sheer enormity of New York brownstones, while their husbands sat tucked away playing cards, puffing cartoon-size cigars in the cutest kniepe.

Before I knew it I had entered into a park in which the various strata of Kreuzberg society caroused, strolled , barbecued, and yes, juggled...the place was funky and soulful, man, but with the apocalyptic edge that has always appealed to this scribe. I revolved around the outer edge of the park which formed an ellipse, bisected by a straight path through the middle, which I then followed until I heard the distant stains of thumping techno music. Finally, I stumbled onto a rave deep on the recesses of the park, arranged higgeldy-piggeldy in a valley, d.j. tent and all, volks spilling out over the top of the ridge which surrounded it. The pervading atmosphere was attitude-free, down-to-earth and anything-goes. Beers and joints floated aimlessly around in the moist spring air, airborne versions of those which, along with a requisite amount of hund scheiss, plagued the ground. There were people of all ages grinding to the metronomic beat. I love that about Berlin. There's no age limit to fun. Viel spass! A wizened Truman Capote came to mind, cutting a rug at Studio 54 in his white suit and fan: "We smoked Thai sticks and danced all night."

In fact in the Ku-damm there is a troupe of street dancers who can be seen daily, flexing their freestyle muscles and pop-rocking with the best of them. They incorporate skateboards into their performances in a skate-cum-breakdancing hybrid I guess. They almost always set their performances to Michael Jackson's "Bad" album, too. Anyway, the ringleader -- and, one can only assume, de facto den mother of the group -- is a limber, fit man, often shirtless, with a full head of white hair who must be 60 if he is a day. Watching him shimmy and spin circles around his skateboard to "Smooth Criminal" and then emerge to take a bow with his younger counterparts is a sight to behold. But that's Berlin for you: it's a real democracy where a certain quality of life can be enjoyed by the unwashed masses, at any age, and people are perhaps even allowed a little dignity as they make asses of themselves, refusing to go gently into that good night.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Berlin, die Tolle Stadt

The experience of coming to Berlin in the harsh forbidding clime of winter and seeing it slowly blossom into a gorgeous green paradise replete with beach bars on the Spree is singularly exciting. (Not to mention the fact that I was unceremoniously dumped into the most brutal part of "native Berlin", Moabit, into an unsavoury situation with the schmutzig Frau Blucher, out of which I had to claw myself, relocating to the more youthquaking area of Friedrichshain). Unfortunately it's days like these which make me question my stamina in the writerly arts. I'd rather be outside in the Volkspark Friedrichshain, but no, I'm sitting here with my snout stuck in a steaming hot computer. Christ.

Oh well, at least I can weiter uben my Deutschsprechen with the denizens of gayromeo while I work. It's very good practice, and it's the premier website for trefs for tandem partners. Sehr wichtig. Of course I have had plenty of serendipitous meetings with volks of all stripes. The German hauteur and coldness is really a myth. I have watched the sang froid of many a Deutscher melt before my eyes in in the course of a meaningful conversation. They just don't go in for all that obsequious two-faced American arsch-lecken (don't want to shoot myself in the foot there).

Interestingly, I have had several conversations with the Deutsch regarding the universal proliferation of stereotypes, or what is know here as Vorurteil, which literally means "judge before." Apparently I challenge many of the stereotypes of Americans not only by being slim and svelte , but also by virtue of being thoughtful and considered, a critical thinker, and not wilfully ignorant. Who knew? The clincher was, in a reflection of my overdeveloped sense of American irony, when an obnoxious Deutscherin backhandedly complimented me for the above traits while pointing out that a picture in our language text was proof positive that Americans are considered fat and loud. The pic featured a chunky teen in a NY Mets baseball cap, big gut spilling out onto the page, pommes frites in hand, ineptly trying to navigate a Berlin map. The kicker was that this salvo was issued from a rather portly and loud German teacher, who, when not eating, seems to confirm every stereotype that she holds dear about the offending country. This is always the love-hate thing people have with the US, right? This Lehrerin pressed on about her continuing fascination with New York, how she was at first overwhelmed by its glittering skyscapes and "glamorous" life, but after visiting three times she realized it was a place "just like any other" and that its denizens were "just normal people." Yes, we all go to bathroom. But not all of us have shelves in our toilets which allow us to scrutinize their contents with scientific zeal. Vive le difference!

Gestern abend I met some friends for a performance of my friend Miguel, a pianist, at the Zebrano Theater in Ostkreuz, just a hop, skip and a jump from my flat (which I have to give up in June, but more on that later). He and his accordionist accompanist perform a sort of hybrid of classical and modern styles, name of "Kunstango". Last night was a bravura performance in a cute little kniepe/theater, which featured the additional doodlings of a post-modern dancer, who seemed to be essaying a bastard offspring, the consensus in our kangaroo court was, of bellydancing and flamenco. Sehr verschieden! She also wore a distracting skirt made out of packing material. I forget what that stuff is called, the kind that pops when you squeeze it. Eigentlich, she slightly undercut Miguel and his partner's brilliance, but it was worth going, and it's important to support each other's endeavors in the big city.

Also yesterday, I surprisingly had my first experience with Shisha. There is a restaurant here in Friedrichshain eponymously named Shisha, so with some of my colleagues from the Sprachshule I went there, with a view to having our Arabisch friend interpret the menu and flexing those newfound Deutsch muscles. Unfortunately it was hard to learn about the dishes because apparently they had brought in a Deutsch translator, who had given the proper Arabisch names to the various dishes, but neglected to ascribe them to the correct dishes themselves. Z.B, you would have the name of a breakfast dish attached to a description of something which was actually an appetizer, and so forth. At any rate, the food was fully endorsed by our Arabisch friend Suliman, and the strawberry shisha was delectable and mild. The lassi was a bit bitter for my taste, though.