And now, a meandering travelogue from Berlin. I will be boarding a jet plane and flying to Big Sky Country on Sunday, so posting will be intermittent until January 7.
Berlin looks more prosperous and bourgeois everytime I visit; the days of the urban frontier seem to be as long gone as the days when cattle were kept inside the rear courtyards. No more intentionally-created social burning points, only the old-fashioned kind. But there’s still the occasional strolling madwoman screaming something about the minimum wage to leaven the mix of foreign tourists on their way to the next Blue Man Group performance:
Also pretty suitable is Tacheles (G), a gigantic building in Mitte which has been a shopping arcade, a "House of Technology," a National Socialist party complex devoted to fostering "work-culture" through such programs as the "Beauty of Work" office, and a prison for French POWs. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, artists colonized the decrepit structure and turned into a graffiti-covered Gesamtkunstwerk which was, inevitably, eventually officially recognized by city authorities. There are some nice views inside, such as down the dizzying stairwell:
A harrowing story of feline abuse has been painted on the bottom of one of these flights:
An unsettling evocation of an urban legend that has become a staple of German mythologizing about lawsuit abuse (the spoilsport in me just has to point out that it never happened). The poem would appear to be a parody of some famous German poem I should probably recognize, but don’t.
Then it was on to the Polish Losers’ Club (Club der polnischen Versager (G)). This was the subject of a loving evocation by sometime GJ contributor Ed Philp some months back. It lived up to its reputation — full of losers like us! As we nursed our Tyskie beers, one of the owners, Adam, engaged us in conversation. At one point, for some delightful reason, he donned a gas mask. It was nice, probably almost as nice as December 1st, when Piotr, another Club personality, promised to be the "perfect host" and engage everyone who wandered into the club in a conversation that would last "at least 20 minutes."
The decor includes a gigantic clam-shell for the DJ which, like all the other furnishings, was rescued from some trash-pile somewhere:
To the left of the clamshell, barely visible, you see a poetess sprawled on a chair. No, she’s not sleeping — she’s waiting for an afflatus, which came every 10 minutes or so, and resulted in another line being scrawled hastily into her notebook. Writers, who thrive where it’s cheap, are still a decorative feature of Berlin life. In the bar of the Tilsiter Lichtspiele (Lichtspiele = "light-plays," an antique term for movie theater), one of them pulled a mouldering volume out of his Crumpler bag and made notes about it, while we more social types chatted about matters that surely struck him as irritatingly superficial.
The Tilsiter Lichtspiele, by the way, is a movie theater in Friedrichshain that’s been there since the 1920s. During East German times, the Tilsiter was a Volkseigener Betrieb, an untranslatable German phrase that means, roughly, an independent concern owned, in some mysterious way, by the people of the East German state. Perhaps according to Section 223(a) of the Collective Ownership Provisions of the Third Law Governing Socialist Property Relations of February 23, 1958, as interpreted by Section 24(f) of the Regulation Ordinance of 1959 promulagated by the Friedrichshain Undersecretariat for Fulfillment of Planning Objectives. A homely but gemuetlich bar in front leads to the theater. Once inside, you walk carefully down a creaking flight of wooden steps beside the aisles. The steps seem to each be of slightly different lengths, which makes the whole thing look like a movie theater your daddy built in his workshop on weekends. The most prized seats are halfway back, in front of tables where you can set your drinks and slowly fill the ashtrays.
We also dropped by Henne (G), a restaurant in Kreuzberg that serves one dish: chickens fried in milk batter. The outside crust is smooth and crackly, with lots of delectable batter-only peninsulas. The meat was so juicy and tender that I felt almost guilty about crushing it between my hard, cold teeth. But I did. On the walls hung deer antlers, a letter from John F. Kennedy announcing his regret at having to cancel a planned visit, and oil paintings almost completely obscured by the smoke of millions of cigarettes. Plus, "Die letzte Mark." Lots of bars in Germany have things like this. It’s usually a wooden box with slits in the front. Sometimes, the slits are numbered after the days of the month, some have the names of pub regulars on them. They seem to be part of some sort of lottery system whereby every so often, one of the days or pub regulars is chosen, and gets all the money in the machine. I wish I knew more about this, but everytime I’ve asked someone about ones of these boxes in a bar here, he’s been too drunk to explain it coherently (commenters, a little help here?).
And then off to the Berlin Philharmonic. We got the cheap seats on the podium, where the choir usually sits. Dimitry Kitaenko conducted an all-Russian program with verve and precision. Given the cloud of billowing white hair that crowns his 67-year-old head, you’d expect Kitaenko to have gesticulated himself into a lather. In fact, he was all business, flipping his baton only when absolutely necessary, and often with clinical, almost robotic precision. I know because I saw him from the front, like the members of the orchestra. 22-year-old Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan played a blistering Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto, a bit too earnestly for this reviewer (G), but not for me. Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonic building (G), which has never impressed me much from the outside, offers dozens of playfully crooked perspectives during each traverse of the foyer, and (after a little help) succulent acoustics. A nice picture-panorama can be seen here.
I’ll leave you with a picture of the dome of the restored Neue Synagoge in the Oranienburger Strasse. If you look closely, you can see the pigeons sitting on the Star of David. My friend said "They should electrify it."