Monday, April 27, 2009

Spring Style

A sun-blanched grey formica tabletop with a faint 1950's style cross-hatch pattern, against which a sole sprig of lilac is silhouetted, sets the scene. The phenomenal acoustics of the Berlin streets allow every nuance of every conversation in every mother tongue to be heard individually or as a wall of sound, replete with the dreaded accordion player and children shrieking playfully auf Deutsch. The cafe's proprietress emerges with a custom made order of French toast, without syrup, fashioned from that morning's croissants. "Especially for you!" she chimes in musical second-language English. I tuck in to its rich eggy delights, not so bothered by the lack of syrup, normally ladled on with such abandon by those dicke Amerikaners. She beats a retreat to the rear of the cafe, fittingly dubbed "Schoenes Cafe", to her American partner and their son, who swings from Deutsch to English with preternatural ease.

There's a third language in which Berliners are fluent, and that's fashion on a budget. It may be a poor city, but (most) people have a way of looking impossibly glam in whatever they deign to turn themselves out in. (Clothes almost seem to be an afterthought, especially in summer, when nudity is default mode). It's a certain carriage perhaps, or the way mismatched items seem to work in a sort of clothing Gestalt. Zum Beispiel, the woman sitting chatting directly in front of me is wearing a puffy blue frock, jeans, bright yellow flats, glittery striped socks (they were called "disco socks" in my youth) topped off with a form-fitting white cardigan and creamy, buttery string paisley pashmina. Now that takes some goddamn guts. This potentially tragic ensemble is more than the sum of its -- when taken individually, admittedly goofy -- parts. But it's not about the look, it's all about the deconstruction, dahling.

Germans test the limits of fashion's versatility in so many ways. Take the simple scarf, for example. Not content to drape it around one's neck, the German turns the classic Schal into a craft of cloth Origami which would do fashion icon Little Edie of Grey Gardens fame proud. They create novel twists out of the scarves: bows, knots, curtains and head-kerchieves (sort of a Little Edie in reverse). I saw a woman just today who had fashioned hers lopsidedly into a makeshift tent to keep out the sun. So pragmatic. Who needs Sonnenbrille? The most shocking example of this phenom was when a woman walked down the street with a male companion wearing a thick wool knitted scarf wrapped completely around and obfuscating her face. Whether she had recently been disfigured or was simply a misanthropic eccentric remains a mystery.

The most exciting thing about Berlin fashion is the risk. And risk goes skipping hand in hand with what? The flaw. The appropriation of the well-placed flaw is an earmark of good fashion sense, humanizing the whole enterprise while at the same time putting an individual stamp on the product, a kind of self-branding. The best style moments occur when something is just slightly off. For example, a pair of silly boxer shorts riding up one's crack, revealing an ample amount of male backside cleavage while riding a bicycle, could be carried off in Berlin, provided the wearer was also wearing a suit.

By way of counterexample, when the flaw becomes near universal, and the personal tic removed, it is therefore neutralized. Such as the case with the ubiquitous low-riding pants now worn by every b-boy and his brother -- you know the ones, that look like they are constructed to support a diaper and it's contents (I've dubbed it the poop pouch or poop droop). I was riding the UBahn with a young male companion last summer, who was sporting such droopy trousers, without a belt, that they began, as he gripped the safety bar, to slide off of his skeletal frame. Still flying from from the previous evening's shenanigans, a kernel of telltale crystalline snot clinging to the outer rim of his right nostril, the lad kept yammering on obliviously, much to the entertainment of an elderly couple, who sat agog, eventually collapsing into gales of laughter, for about ten stops.

And so we must establish the rule that when the flaw becomes a) too common or b) the object of ridicule, or both, then it ceases to be stylish. See also: heads shaved into countless loops, swirls, curlicues and punctuation marks (more on hair care later). This is this antithesis of style, though it makes rather ham-handed overtures towards it. This is the exception to the rule of organic Euro-cool. Style never tries too hard. Like a temporary tattoo, these "hair statements" (and I include Verlaengurungen, or hair extensions in this) are gauche and timid at the same time.

Mainstream media takes the deployment of the flaw theory to another level. Take Deutschland Superstar, for example -- the German counterpart to American Idol. In spite of the campily glitzy garb, I have never seen so much bad lighting, orange makeup, flyaway hair and obvious Pickeln (zits). It is a triumph of the flaw conflated with trash/kitsch national sensibility.

Mental illness is also a heavily stylized imperfection, but again tics are highly individualized. Better that they take the form of a mild personal eccentricity (think of the mysterious Isabelle Adjani constantly covering one side of her face: a bout with Kaposi's sarcoma? Or is she just weirdly stylish/nuts in an actressy way?) When you see hundreds of people twitching along to their Ipods or talking apparently to themselves but actually using the Bluetooth, we realize there is scant difference superficially between the widespread embrace of technology and collective schizophrenia.

When diversity and a fashion attitude is once again flattened by the monoculture, we must turn once more to the body and grooming for the origination of style statements. Lack of effort, as outlined before, is of paramount importance in this case. Filth, or its illusion, is always stylish (see Robert Pattinson of the Twilight film). Unfortunately for US residents, an epidemic of manscaping has taken over that great nation, and you can hold the hair- and dirt-phobic Queer-eye-style metrosexuals accountable. Thankfully Berlin sits on the shadow side of the hair spectrum -- it's not how you groom it, it's how you grow it (twist it, curl it, braid it -- yes, I'm referring to body hair). One admirer of the fur tugged at my chest growth, importuning, "Es ist so kurz!" (it's too short!)

Regarding hair in the upper hemisphere, for both woman and men, virtually anything goes. For women, my favorite is the classic wedge cut or the German version of the chunky bang. There does seem to be a disproportionate number of whites of both genders wearing dreadlocks, sometimes with half the hair shaved off, and straight women with butch lesbian haircuts. One does see the odd giant Afro as well. Additionally, the ponytail never died here. The German version can be sleek, but still reeks of Robert Palmer video. (There is a high co-occurrence of the ponytail with attache cases.)

In another inversion of the American model, Berlin men are also notable for their lack of muscle. Tattoos are fine, as long as they rest on a chicken chest or a negligible lump of bicep. Any form of exertion, is again a no-go area, simply the opposite of modisch. No accomplishment should ever signify a modicum of effort, simply the wearer's (chicly indifferent) personality. But the rules here are finely nuanced. The first exception is if you are a member of the Schoeneberg muscle/leather scene. A fetish is always an excuse for something uncool, because we have no control over our proclivities. Enough said. Though in this case the funny little waddle caused by too much sportmachen is definitely uncool, especially in a country where a willowy elegance is prized even by men.

Going to the Fitness Center is definitely demode, but a finely toned frame as the result of "sportmachen", i.e. actual athletics, it's perfectly fine. This is the second exception. The Deutsche are an active people, and, like clockwork, never seem to stop moving, the gears always turning. Especially in the summer months, the parks are bulging with bikers, joggers and the like, and the Badminton halls are booked solid through August. Triumph of the Will and all that.

I mustn't forget the exception-within-the-exception of these rules of corporeal comportment. The Bauchfett, or beer belly. German men of all walks of life wear these protuberances proudly as their one mark of hedonistic indulgence, and it's one collective flaw that's quite endearing. You'll see the most scarecrow thin Kerl walk into a room, and nine times out of ten you look down and it's as if he's got a bun in the oven! I find this little mark of reprobate slobbery endearing.

These days I say I am anti-fashion, but still, a thing cannot exist without its opposite, and one often bleeds into the other, such as when non-conformity starts to resemble a conformist phenomenon (see again droopy pants, "artfully" shaven heads). I keep thinking of porno-hating radical feminists who end up looking not unlike their evangelical Christian nemeses.

I am attempting to rationalize this fashion dialectic -- all or nothing, all at the same time -- in light of my own lack of fashion savvy. The positive symbol also represents its negative. The appearance of effort, and the absence of it. Aesthetic follows form, or lack thereof. But I know my friends would see right through it, because they know I wear practically the same thing every day (this is a sure way to garner compliments, because when you do finally wear something new, it really pops!) . Fortunately I think they are looking at me as a person and nicht die Klamotten. And well, what's depressing me today is, they're seeing an American in aspect, if not fashion. And we're not exactly renowned for our innate sense of style, are we?. Something tells me a pair of gold Turnschue (trainers)would be an ill-advised investment. (It's called trying too hard!) But, I am here, and as long as I sit steeping in the atmosphere, watching the beautiful Leute going by with their Brot und Zeitungen, I can hope against hope that some of the soignee and Euro-hauteur will rub off on me...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Author Author

"That's not writing, that's typing!" -- Truman Capote in reference to the literary output of Jack Kerouac

Lately i've been checking out these author interviews from the 80's and 90's by New York radio host Don Swaim. The guy swings pendulously from obsequious to bold in his interview questions, but most of the authors seem to warm to his informal style. I recommend William Burroughs talking about addiction and the creative process, Patricia Highsmith waxing about Europe and her days at Yaddo, James Purdy and his peripatetic early life, Nathianel Branden talking about life with a vulpine Ayn Rand, to name but a few...

In Bloom

The spectacular Berlin spring has arrived, bringing with it all sorts of beautiful flora and noisy fauna. Not to mention all kinds of weird pheremones (and the Germans don't waste any time getting naked in hordes). To celebrate I got myself a bike, with which I promptly had a mishap. The lock was really cheap and I twisted the key too hard and it broke off in the lock. So I will probably have to call a locksmith, which are prohibitively expensive in Berlin...I borrowed my friend's wire cutter to try and cut the damn thing. I'll probably end up arrested for stealing my own bike, and tossed into a foreign prison just like poor Amanda Knox.

Saturday I went out with my roomate and his friends to Geburtstags Club (The Birthday Club). We went his friends' for a pre-funk. My brain was absolutely fried so I couldn't speak any German, especially over the extremely loud sound system -- they had one of those home entertainment systems complete with wall projection. And the same time there were disco lights and a fog machine (yes, a fog someone's flat) going full I thought there was a party, but no, it was just the four of us. Later we went to the club, stayed till about 5 (usually people are just getting started at this hour in Berlin). The music was great, the drag show mercifully short, about ten minutes. Seattle queens should take their cues from these was a bit surreal to see a fifty year old drag queen lip synching to teen sensation Lilly Allen, who is all of what, 17? It was all very decadent, replete with confetti-filled balloons, and brought back memories of the Weimar days...

Good news on the work front, our zine, Zusammen/Getrennt, is coming out in a couple weeks, finally! I am really excited about this project, the cover art and layout is fantastic, we've got work from local photographers and artists, fiction and interviews by myself, Mirabelle Jones, and British poet Paula Varjack. I'll publish the link to the website as soon as it's up...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Oster Blasphemy

Like many expat neophytes, last year I learned the hard way: Germans take their holidays very seriously, and they use many of the Christian holidays as a pretext for time off. Ironically, in the United States, ostensibly the more religious of the two nations, most of these holidays have become quite secularized and hence are not really a big deal. Perhaps it's the Puritan work ethic at play.

At any rate, a holiday like Easter, in the US no more than a blip on the radar screen (we're off on Sundays anyway), here becomes a fully-fledged four day monstrosity for which one must plan to the letter. Everything is geschlossen (closed) for the duration, and if you haven't stocked up on food, condoms, tampons, books or whatever, you're absolutely fucked. And for god's sake, make arrangements with your dealer because chances are he too is holed up somewhere with his family on the Baltic Sea. For those expats staying in Berlin , good planning is of the essence. And cast around for Easter parties, otherwise it's going to be a nail-chewingly long weekend.

This year, I'll be attending an Easter Egg hunt (Ostereiersuche) followed by a queer Country and Western party, the pinnacle of which promises to be the Hunky Jesus Contest. Those dressed as Hunky Jesus pay kein Eintritt.

At first I thought this was a uniquely German merging of flesh and spirit, but a quick search revealed that the Hunky Jesus Contest was actually a tradition begun in San Francisco a few years back by the venerable Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence! I stumbled on this short article on the "American Conservative Daily" website, a sort of watchdog group for sinners. So much paranoia packed into such a short space!


Grant Swank* | March 25, 2008

Men gather in a park for the ‘Hunky Jesus’ competition sponsored by the blasphemous Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence।

Many of the males are hardly clothed. They wear crowns of thorns.

This is an ongoing homosexual agenda to play out the spirit of Antichrist, sometimes in the open as in Dolores Park and at other times in a San Francisco Catholic sanctuary।

In other years’ contests, there have appeared the “old-school Jesus,” “surfer Jesus,” and “zombie Jesus” per Sydney Morning Herald’s Daniel Emerson।

The homosexual group has been parading its anti-biblical stage show since 1979.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Party Monster

Well the social season is starting to pick up in Berlin, so we're all beginning to feel a little more positive, a little less "isoliert". I have already attended several functions, including a Salsa birthday party and, this Saturday, a costume party in which one was to dress as one's favorite UBahn station. I ended up going simply as the person who sells the homeless persons' newspaper, or Strassenfeger, on all the trains. Best costume award goes to the gal who dressed as Rosa Luxembourg Platz. Apparently Ms. Luxembourg was a radical communist/activist in some important position, and was eventually murdered and tossed into the canal. Our friend was trussed up as the dead Rosa, having been fished out of the canal after a few days' marination: green, bruised, scaly and, one can only assume, gamey as hell (thankfully she didn't go for complete olfactory verisimilitude).

The party was held by some friends of ours, a British couple (or as they say in Deutschland, eine Heterosexuelles Paarchen), one of whom is an architect, the other works for the BBC. They had a nice spread as usual, but I was especially struck by their selection of cheesy pineapple on a stick. One partygoer asserted that this snack was quite popular in German in the 1970s, but I will always remember it as the hors d'oeuvre of choice of the monstrous Beverley in the classic British satire Abigail's Party.

For those of you unfamiliar with the telefilm, the most hilarious scene takes place after all the guests have arrived and the drinks are beginning to take effect. Abigail, as portrayed by Alison Steadman is a manipulative monster, but she always fully and unapologetically herself. Sue, who is Abigail’s mother, is a timid upper-middle class woman, recently divorced. In this scene, Abigail repeatedly embarrasses and humiliates her (assisted by her drunken, nebbishy neighbor Angela) by forcing her in a crypto-fascist way, by abusing Sue’s genteel nature, to consume several gin-and-tonics, “cheesy pineapple-on-a-sticks” and cigarettes in quick succession. When the men are strong-armed by Abigail (who is simultaneously passive-aggressive and just plain aggressive) into going downstairs and checking on Abigail’s party to “make sure everything is alright down there,” Sue heads straight for the lavatory for an upchuck session. Abigail, when she calls after Sue to see if she is alright, is seen in a solitary shot, shaking her head duplicitously and disdainfully as she voraciously French-inhales her cigarette. “It’s a good thing the boys are away, Sue” she says. “’Cause, let’s face it, it’s embarrassing when you’re vomiting in front of the blokes, right, Ang?” Of course, when the blokes return, a sneaky Angela hastily informs them that Sue has been in the upchuck, under the pretense of sympathy for Sue.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Amanda Knox and Rhoda Penmark: Separated at Birth?

Being an erstwhile denizen of that gloomy, sleekly empty City by the Sound, Seattle -- the one that gave us Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks and Ted Bundy -- it's been with more than a passing interest that I have followed the arc of the Amanda Knox trial. The former University of Washington student, for those unfamiliar with the case, is in the dock for her alleged role in the brutal murder of her roomate, British student Meredith Kercher. There's been a lot of blather about Foxy Knoxy coming from a broken home, and her fraught relationship with her mother, but it could be that we simply have a Bad Seed on our hands. The internet as been rife with page after page of speculation about Knox's mental state, many ripped straight from the DSMIV. Her erratic behavior has certainly not helped her case, one which has been marred from the start by prevarication and confusion. There's circumstantial evidence aplenty in this case, but no smoking gun per se. The missing link here is a clear motive, so the "experts" are tearing their hair out by the roots trying to fill in the blanks. One commentator astutely pointed out that for all this palaver about sociopathy, psychopathy and narcissism, and crimes of passion, could it be that Amanda orchestrated the rape/murder simply because she didn't like her roommate?