Afghanistani Idol

Or, to use the German title, Afghanistan’s Looking for a Superstar. It’s a lot like your high-school prom, but it has its own charm.  Finalists here. My personal favorite — as if you couldn’t guess — Shirin Mah Nahal. Because she has backup dancers dressed in flowing traditional garb. [Hat-Tip: Public Bathroom Man!]

Westerners in the East — The Ostel

Ostel_willkommen_03_2 I was recently in Berlin for a conference, and stayed in the Ostel (G) a ‘DRR-Design Hostel’ located in a converted Plattenbau (prefabricated housing block) in Friedrichshain in East Berlin. The advertising brochure calls it the ostigsten (roughly, ‘eastiest’) place in Berlin. The lobby, and many of the rooms, are suffused by the spirit of East German Raumgestaltung (spatial arrangement) and studded with East German antiques, including ubiquitous side-table cum radios and side-table cum record players. With surprisingly good sound, I might add.

I stayed there not only for the charm, but also for the ludicrously low prices — 38 Euros per night for single, 59 for a double. If you’re really on the cheap, you can stay in a bunk-bed Pionierlager (a joking reference to the Pioneers, the Communist boy scouts) for as little as 9 euros per night.  Breakfast takes the form of a "ration ticket" which costs 3.50 Euros. You take it to a nearby cafe, called the "food distribution center," and get a pleasant, no-frills German breakfast. The Ostel is in a rather gritty part of Friedrichshain (lots of Russlandsdeutsche and punks hanging around) but it’s safe, and — most importantly — it’s only 3 minutes by foot from the Ostbahnhof, which means it’s 10 minutes away from central Berlin (although, of course, F-hain is very much worth exploring on its own).

It’s all run by Daniel Helbig, an artist who grew up in East Germany. The Ostel has received lots of press since opening in May, and is going to expand soon. The press is well-deserved; the rooms are small but not tiny, and some have balconies.  They aren’t especially lovely, but the entire point is you’re staying in an apartment that was once the home of a real East German family. One thing I didn’t realize about Plattenbau was that the walls are so thin: about 5 inches. It makes the whole thing seem a bit improvised — ‘Hey, you forgot the other half of the wall!’  The beds and fittings are new. This reduces the authenticity a bit, but do you really want to sleep on a Communist mattress? The bathrooms are shared, but sparkling. Counter staff are relaxed, helpful, and frighteningly good-looking. The whole operation’s brand-new and still charmingly amateurish (they don’t take credit cards, for instance, and lots of the documentation you get is hand-written), but I’m sure that will change soon.

While I was there I met David Atkinson, a freelance British travel writer who was working on a story about Ostalgie for the Sunday Express, which bills itself, rather implausibly, as "The World’s Greatest Newspaper."  Atkinson is based in La Paz, Bolivia, and also apparently wrote the Lonely Planet Guide to Wales. His website’s here. He was interested in getting the views of some guests of the Ostel, so we chatted in the pea-gravel "east garden" of the hotel. Of course, I have lot of views about the former East Germany,  so I harangued the poor guy for half-an-hour. I don’t know whether he’ll use my interview, but if he does, let me reassure everyone that I presented as Fair and Balanced a picture of the former East Germany as I could. Surveillance state, propaganda, oppression, etc.

However, the Ostel plays on a kind of nostalgia not for the political system of the former East, but for its material culture — the ordinary things people had in their houses. The East German economy, which was strong by Iron Curtain standards, was still a wheezing monster. It could provide its citizens with the consumer products you need for everyday life, but having multiple brands of them was much too expensive — and ideologically suspect to boot. Therefore, everyone you knew drank the same coffee you drank, sat on the same sofas, had the same stereo, and drove the same sort of car, in addition to living in very similar homes. This created an sense of solidarity among people and perverse affection for the products that is very eerie to people who are used to defining their personalities through brand choices. But then again, perhaps it pays to consider how much time you spend making brand choices, and whether this is really the highest and best use of your time…