Sunday, August 29, 2010

Die Kleine Stadt

Check out this tilt-shift video of Berlin looking like a leetle toy city:

Little Big Berlin from pilpop on Vimeo.

There's also one of New York!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Latest Flickr Upload

Just added a buncha new pics to my flickr, including some nice ones of some of Berlin's famous landmarks during the Festival of Lights waaay back when I first got to Berlin.
Go check it out!
shine on

Kunsthaus Tacheles

Imagine my surprise to open up the NY Times today and find an article about Berlin's Kunsthaus Tacheles!
The article makes the point, using Tacheles' imminent downfall as an example, that Berlin is slowly being sanitized and stripped of all the gritty alternativism that makes it so great, a fact I have myself lamented in this blog. While in Berlin, people often pointed out to me that Berlin is a complete island in Germany--no other city in Germany is at all similar. Berlin is a kind of fluke in the German cultural landscape, and now that it's the capital city, the rest of Germany is seeping into it. A local artist is quoted as saying, "These Bonn people [i.e. the federal government] want a peaceful city, and it just doesn’t work. On the one hand they want to be the cultural capital, but on the other hand they knock everything down that contributes to that."
Yup, pretty much.
Another of the people interviewed compares the cleaning up of Berlin to that of New York. While still undeniably vibrant artistically, NY is in my experience more smoothed over and institutionalized than Berlin--at least for now.
Undoubtedly these things go in cycles. Berlin's been happening recently. It can't last forever, unfortunately. That kind of creative atmosphere, as I noted recently in a post on antlervision about Detroit, can only thrive when bureaucracy and authority aren't paying too close attention. Eventually, they try to regulate it and it falls apart.
I wonder what city will be the next big thing?

Monday, August 9, 2010

What I'll Miss

Obviously there are a million billion things I am going to miss about life in Berlin, but here's an attempt at a list.

1. Plentiful Delicious Falafel
Berlin is the first place I had really really awesome falafel...and now I'm addicted. I already made a post about my top 5 falafel places in Berlin, so go check that out for more details. Main point is that I can't even think of 5 decent falafel places round these parts, much less have trouble narrowing down a top 5. Sigh.

2. Good Beer, and Cheap

Cheapness is a major factor in things I will miss in Berlin, and beer is no exception. The variety pictured above is one of the cheapest beers available, our beloved Sterny, or Sternburg. That bottle you see in the picture is .5L and costs 65 euro cents. Swoon! We even knew a place where you could get 'em for 55 cents each, and buying a case at Kaufland was even cheaper. This beer is far superior to the cheapest beer brands in the US (Natty Ice comes to mind) and costs less. I'll have to drown my sorrow with Hamm's.

3. Adjustable Windows
In most apartments and offices in Berlin, at least in my experience, they have these nifty adjustable windows. You can open it just a crack by tilting it open at the top, or open it sideways all the way. Even our big balcony door functioned this way. It was a great way to get some air flow without freezing, or to air out a kitchen when cooking, or whatever. I found myself wondering why all windows aren't so elegantly engineered. I've never seen such a window stateside.

4. Less Stress
Coming from New York, I'm used to a somewhat frenetic atmosphere in large cities. That was why the calm pace of Berlin was a nice change. Even though it's the capital and has a population of approximately 3 million, Berlin is super chill. My office started work pretty late in the morning, by American standards. Though I lamented shops being closed on Sundays, it was kind of nice to be able to truly relax--knowing that nothing was open anyway, so no point in getting all fussed. Despite the German reputation for rigid efficiency, they, like all Europeans it seems, know how to take a break way better than the Americans.

5. Our Balcony
Our corner balcony with its view of Neukölln rooftops and the Rathaus Neukölln made me so so happy.

It seemed that many more Berlin apartments had balconies than is common in large US cities.

6. Things in Tubes
An aspect to grocery shopping in Berlin that I at first found hilarious (see the picture at the end of this entry), I soon came to appreciate the wisdom of having mustard, mayo, ketchup etc. in toothpaste tubes. Cheese and caviar though? Still really weird.

7. The Stadtbad
Berlin has tons of public pools. Our local one in Neukölln was super sweet, with soaring columns, pretty mosaics of people in togas, and even great statuary:

One visit only cost 2.5eur. It was a great way to get in some exercise in the cold winter months, even though Germans don't seem to believe in proper lap swimming.

8. Prepackaged Hard-Boiled Eggs
No matter what time of year (Easter or otherwise) one can always find packages of colorfully dyed hard-boiled eggs in the supermarket, and hard-boiled eggs can usually be found at bakeries at well. This was extremely convenient. I love hard-boiled eggs. I ate one for breakfast every morning before work and didn't ever have to bother boiling water. I'm surprised that I can't seem to find this in the US, land of convenience, but there you are.

9. Bakeries
1eur sandwiches? Delicious fresh-baked bread? Incredible pastries for a euro or two? On nearly every street? NOMNOMNOMNOM

10. Bread
European bread just tastes better somehow. It's more often and more easily available in fresh-baked form. And in Germany, they have all these wonderful dark breads with seeds. My favorite was pumpkin-seed bread. So much more tasty than gross American white bread *shudders*.

11. Mini Liquors
Late at night? Need a pick-me-up? Don't worry about finding a liquor store or what time of night it is. Every little Spätkauf will have a selection of miniature liquor bottles for your convenience, as well as beer and often wine. Go forth and party! And remember...

12. You Can Drink on the Street
And on the U-Bahn. 'Nuff said.

13. Cheap cheap cheap
My day-to-day expenses were waaaay cheaper than in the US. Rent, food, and alcohol have, I believe, been mentioned. There were also cheaper toiletries that I liked better than all the fancy brands here. Now buying bodywash is such a trial. Numerous brands with bewildering lists of ingredients and uses, with nothing less than 6USD. In Berlin I would buy a big bottle of 1.5eur drugstore-brand exfoliating bodywash and call it good. Le sigh.

14. Staying Out Late
Berlin is the true "city that never sleeps." NY almost never goes til dawn in my experience...unless you're super rich. But in Berlin any night out routinely can, and will, go on well into the next day. No need to stop the fun. The city keeps going and so can you. I'll never forget the time I was awakened by my roomie at 8am calling me to say, "We're going to Poland! Wanna come?" I had left him at a party sometime during the previous night and he was still going. Priceless.

15. Markets
I miss the Turkish Market so damn much. Bountiful fresh produce, cheap!, plus fabric, jewelry making supplies, shoes, clothes, household goods, anything you might need really. So simple and easy. Love it. And then there was the Mauerpark--huge flea market/crafts market/karaoke sesh every Sunday. Why ever shop in a store again?

16. The U-Bahn
This one rings even more true now that I've spent a few weeks on the NY subway system. When standing on a hot, sweaty, dirty platform with no clue when or if my train will come and if it will go to the places I expect it to, how I miss Berlin's clean, efficient and reliable transport system and the little signs telling you how many minutes til the next train. NY needs to take a page out of Berlin's book on this one.

17. Bike Lanes Everywhere
Berlin is easily navigable by bike. This was a plus considering there was no way I was going to drive on those crazy roads and with those gas prices. Plus it's so much nicer to fly through the open air than to ride the underground trains in the dark--at least when it's above freezing outside. I most definitely will not miss the bike cops though.

18. Picturesque Cobblestone Streets
In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, which is a designated "historic district," there are two blocks of cobblestones that everyone swoons over. Well in Berlin it's par for the course--as are shady trees and genteel old buildings. For a history lover and art historian, it was paradise to find such a large city to be so aesthetically pleasing.

19. Seasonal Produce
This might seem like a weird one, but I kinda liked how not everything is available all the time. In the US the supermarkets are always stocked with everything, and while this may seem advantageous, it disconnects you from reality in that what you are eating has no connection whatsoever with what's local and what's in season. Whereas in Berlin, shopping at a combination of Kaufland and the Turkish Market, I really noticed and took advantage of the changing of the seasons. In spring, I grabbed a bagful of fresh peas, and they were the best peas I'd ever had. In the middle of winter, I embraced root vegetables. Etc. I really liked that connection to the earth and to actual growing cycles.

20. Cheap and Plentiful Concerts
I can't even count the number of amazing concerts I saw of bands I love that cost me less than 30eur. It seems that every band on earth comes through Berlin at some point or other and when they do, they charge a much smaller amount than they would in the US (at least the bands I was interested in). I saw The Mountain Goats, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Vampire Weekend, Spoon, Yeasayer, Camera Obscura, Passion Pit, Grizzly Bear, Owl City (man did I get crap for that, haha) and much more, and usually in tiny venues where you can get right up close and even sometimes meet the performers after the show. It was teh sweetness. I will miss that a lot.

21. Diversity
At any given party, you will hear at least 3 or 4 languages being spoken at a time. You get to meet people from all over the world every single day. People think NY is a melting pot? Ha! I found Berlin's diversity to be much more obvious and integrated than in the States. It was great meeting so many different people from such diverse places and backgrounds at every turn.

So there you have it. Many more items than on the "won't miss" list! So much to love about Berlin and, frankly, living abroad in general. I hope I have another chance at it someday.

Friday, August 6, 2010

What I Won't Miss

Now that's it's been a few months since I returned from Berlin and I've finally settled down somewhat after many, many travels, I'm finally getting around to wrapping up this blog with the finished versions of all the half-written posts I promised! To get the negativity out of the way first, I'll start with the things I will not miss about life in Berlin, then move on to greener pastures.
1. Shelf Toilets

I first saw these little gems on a British TV show called "You Are What You Eat" in which the dictator-like healthy eating expert examines the show participant's poo to assess the healthiness of their diets. She explains that they have to use her bathroom with her "German toilet" which has a convenient little shelf that fall on so that they can be more easily examined. I figured this was pretty much made up for the show or at least extremely rare so imagine my surprise when there actually was one in my Berlin office. It's pretty embarrassing to go to the bathroom in the office and have everyone know you just did number 2 because the toilet is engineered to leave the poo out in the air until it is flushed away, thus causing a widespread and strong odor to suffuse the bathroom. It's even more embarrassing to have this occur when you are a guest in someone else's home, as happened with the friend I stayed with for a few days in Vienna. Now I have seen many theories as to why these toilets were ever invented, including: wanting to examine one's feces (what?!? surely not. except in the case of the British health expert) or some kind of sick desire for Schadenfreude (a German word meaning pleasure derived from the misfortune of others--I think this explanation is really more of an expat joke than anything plausible). The most widely accepted, however, is the prevention of "splashback." I ask you, is that really worth the (sizeable) discomforts that this toilet brings?!? I'm pretty glad that I won't be finding these in my next place of employment in the US.

2. Cigarettes EVERYWHERE
While many people complained when smoking was banned from inside bars and restaurants in New York City, as a non-smoker and someone who absolutely abhors the smell of smoke, I pretty quickly got used to going out without having to spend the evening breathing in other people's cancer sticks. So you can imagine how much I enjoyed the smokehouse that is every bar or club in Berlin. Sometimes it was so bad that I had trouble breathing and/or developed a headache. But most of the time it didn't bother me too much until I woke up the next morning and realized that everything I had been wearing, and my hair, completely stank stank stank of cigarette smoke. Every time I went out. Even just to a friend's house. Yuck.

3. Closed on Sundays
I was shocked to find that all supermarkets, and most other shops, are closed in Germany on Sundays. Berlin is not some small provincial town, it's the freakin capital city for goodness' sake, but even so there is only one supermarket in the whole city that is a) open on Sundays b) open on public holidays and c) open 24 hours. Coming from a city where I can get diner food, fresh-baked bagels and yes, groceries at all hours of the day or night, no matter the day of the week (and that's within walking distance of my house in Brooklyn, never mind the 24hr playground that is Manhattan), this was kind of jarring. It was absolutely the pits to wake up on a Sunday and realize that unless you wanted to go all the way to Friedrichstrasse, you had no groceries until Monday. This threw a wrench in my eating plans many a time, especially the one memorable occasion when we invited all our friends to a balcony barbecue only to realize we had no means of getting the supplies. Thus we ended up carrying all the groceries and a case of beer home from Friedrichstrasse. Good times. Anyway, for a civilized nation to dictate supermarket opening times based on one religion's traditions is to my mind absurd. Wake up and smell the coffee on this one, Deutschland.

4. Rampant Public Nudity
Ok, perhaps 'rampant' is a strong word, and I hate to admit to my discomfort with naked strangers, but there it is. My country was founded by Puritans, etc. So I was a bit taken aback the first time I went into the changing room at my gym and found butt-naked people acting like it weren't no thang. This also occurred at the public pool, where there were no partitions in the showers, so I just had to suck it up and join in the party--but at least I wrapped a towel around myself when I left the shower area. Now I'm fine with seeing someone's tatas or booty when they're quickly changing or whatever, but to have full-frontal assault for the entirety of my changing room experience (please don't bend over please don't bend over aaaaaah did not need to see that!!!) was a bit much. You know that awkward moment when you open a door and someone else is on the other side, trying to open it from that side? Imagine how much this is magnified when the someone on the other side is a grinning, toothless, extremely old women with her large, liver-spotted breasts and other attributes just hangin out for all to see. Wow. Try to get that image out of your head. I know I can't.

5. Bureaucracy and Rules and Feeling Paranoid
There's a lot of freakin rules in Germany. I have problems enough with authority figures as it is, and when they're barking at me in German, and acting like I'm an idiot because I maybe don't understand every single word they say in a language to which I am not native, it really rubs me the wrong way. You all read my post about the police breaking into our party and acting like total assholes. I don't recall if I wrote about the time I got "caught" riding the U-Bahn without a valid ticket (it's called schwarzfahren, or 'riding black'), but I'll recap: I got caught, not without a ticket, but with the wrong kind of ticket, and when I tried to explain that I'm a foreigner and misunderstood they would have none of it. I had to go in to the BVG office. So I woke up early the next morning to tramp through the snow to do so. On the way I figured I had better buy a single ride ticket. Haha, how silly would it be to get caught on the way to paying a fine? But since I was used to my monthly ticket, which doesn't require validation, I forgot to validate my single ticket. Bam! Nailed, by the same bitch-tastic woman who got me the first time. I immediately burst into tears (it was freakin early and cold and this was ridiculous), but she wouldn't even look at me. I waved the ticket from the day before at her. "Don't you remember me? You gave this to me yesterday. I'm on my way to pay it. I have a clearly newly printed single ticket that I simply forgot to validate. Do you really think I would be so stupid as to not have a valid ticket on the same train at the same time as when I got caught yesterday?!?" Her response was to hold out her hand and ask for my ID again. Can we say BITCH? So I had to go in again the next day and talk myself out of the second fine. The result of encounters of this kind was that even though I was doing my absolute best to be legal in Germany (for instance, I actually registered and de-registered like I was supposed to, unlike many of the expats I knew), I still felt extremely paranoid every time I saw a cop or cop car. I would immediately check over what I was doing to make sure nothing could be construed as illegal, but still felt extremely nervous. Cops don't make me react that way in the States. Something about German rules and bureaucracy was just really kind of scary for a foreigner.

6. Lack of Spice
But for something more lighthearted. I've written about this before, but it had to be on this list: there is patently NO spice to be found in German restaurants. Even Asian places make their food to German taste, meaning no spicy for you. Additionally it is near-impossible to find acceptable Mexican food, even in Berlin. Note to Northern Europe: creme fraiche is NOT an ingredient in guacamole. Having said this, I've realized in the months since my departure that I actually miss one of the two Mexican restaurants I found in Berlin. At first I thought of Dolores as a Chipotle substitute, but I ended up liking it sooo much better than Chipotle. Their mole tofu and spicy-hot habañero sauce was far superior. How's that for irony?

Stay tuned for the more positive aspects of Berlin life!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Wieder in Berlin

28 days
22 trains
13 cities, and
8 countries later, I am back in Berlin for the last time in the foreseeable future.
In two days time I close this chapter of my life and return to the States indefinitely. Wah!
I have many half-written posts on Berlin delights and many still to write on the places I visited in Europe this past month so those will be posted retroactively in the coming months.
In the meantime, I leave you with the winning song from last night's Eurovision song contest from, you guessed it, Deutschland! I was watching in a living room in sweden :) Here's "Satellite" by Lena:

Bis bald,

PS. I picked up some new vocabulary in Austria and Switzerland...
trinkfest: able to hold one's liquor. A handy one-word description!
Klugscheiss: wise-ass, literally "wise shit."
Filmriß: blackout...literally, 'film rip', a rip in the film of your evening! I think that's so clever.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Travels Week 1: Praha

Last Sunday night I hopped an overnight bus to Prague to begin a month of travel around Europe with an Interrail pass. The pass is like a Eurail pass, but a cheaper version available to people who both have European citizenship and have resided in the EU for six months or more. It covers unlimited rail travel in 30 European countries, excluding your country of residence. With a 22-day pass bracketed by a bus journey to start and a flight home to end, I was set for a crazy 30 days of travel! Rather than give a blow-by-blow of my days, I'm just going to try and jot down some of what I learned in each place.
So: Prague!
Every guidebook I read recommended checking out the Charles Bridge at dawn, to avoid the crowds. Since I arrived at 4:30am, I figured I might as well take that advice. It was really nice having the bridge to myself, but I have to say that an empty Old Town Square, streetlamps still blazing in the dawning light, was more impressive to me, at least relative to their respective daytime appearances.
On my first day I went straight to the castle and have to caution: do NOT pay for the all-inclusive ticket and audio guide! I didn't have the exchange rate straight in my head and when I realized later what I had spent on that, I kicked myself. Instead, if you have a limited time in Prague like I did, start with a free tour around Old and New Town and then take the optional paid tour with the same company that continues to the other side of the river and the castle. I wish I had done it that way. The paid tour cost less than half what I paid for the stupid audio guide.
Prague is a great city for walking, I recommend just strolling with your eyes wide open and you'll make lots of discoveries, like I did.
I also ate some traditional Czech food, and can highly recommend pickled cheese with your beer (mmmm). I also tried a beef dish in gravy, which came with what they call 'dumplings' but which actually seemed more like slices of bread to me. I reeeally wish I had tried fried cheese, another Czech specialty, and their traditional onion and garlic soups.
I wanted to check out the synagogue converted into a Holocaust memorial, but you can't buy a ticket to that without buying a ticket to all the other sites in the Jewish quarter. Because it covers so many sites, the ticket is pricey, and I only had time for the one museum, so I didn't end up getting it. It's a weird system...had I known in advance, I could have planned to make the ticket worth it, time-wise, but I wasn't able to. Something for a future visit.
The Kampa Museum was cool and I loved the little island-park it's located in. It was being renovated when I was there, so when the renovations are done it will be even better. I learned about a few Czech artists I hadn't known before, and even encountered one of them at some Viennese museums in the days following. I didn't get to make it to the new DOX contemporary art center, unfortunately, nor did I see the Mucha/Dali exhibit in Old Town Square.
What with lack of sleep, it being the first few days of my trip, and a totally incomprehensible language and currency to deal with, I think I was a little loopy and didn't make the most of my two days in Prague. I really want to go back someday! My host did teach me how to make sushi though. That I will always remember.
I've got to dash but stay tuned for more updates as I have time.
Bis bald,