Friday, 26 April 2013

32: Why Suzuki is a dirtier word than bukkake

While in previous posts I have extolled the virtues of cycling, through snow, frost or curfews, I turn my attentions this week to the German vehicle of choice, the car.

Germany has millions of cars, most of them made in Germany by conveyor belts smart enough to teach at Harvard. Besides the usual dictator's favourites - Mercedes, BMW, Audi  - the German automobile industry generally produces cars that are made to last and that rarely require technical attention; faultless vehicles.

Germans know that other people make cars too, although they would never drive these. To be seen driving a Honda or a Toyota in Germany is like swimming across the city in puddles. Better buy a Volkswagen.

Everything is designed to make your air-conditioned journey in an iron frame at high speed as pleasurable as possible in a Volkswagen.

Like for many Europeans, a car is the ultimate identity captured between four doors for the young Teutonic social aspirant. Opel Adam even lets you style your own car; the front blue, the back striped - Adam Jam, Adam Glam, Adam Slam - the full individualist packet to provide the ultimate air of sophistication.

Once you've got the car, drive it fast. The motorways in Germany have no speed limits and have spawned thousands of wannabe Schumachers, only driving Volkswagen.

Foreign drivers are all crazy. Every German knows this. Commuters exchange tales of Neopolitans who drive while singing opera. Lorry drivers gather at the local Kneipe (pub) and smugly forebode of overseas cities filled with one-way streets, where traffic lights are decorative and double white lines are street art. Only drive a Suzuki in Germany if you want to be ridiculed for your lack of horsepower.

The fact that some of the biggest car lobbies in the world - Daimler, VW and the like - are based in Germany should come as no surprise. How else would the nation share the dubious title of being a member of a triplet of sovereign entities that don't have speed limits (the Isle of Man and Nepal are the other two privileged members of this pikey-policy toting troika).

Not Hitler nor Ferdinand Porsche: Josef Ganz, inventor of the Beetle prototype.
Germans see themselves as pioneers of cars: inventors of perfect machines that have been defamed by cheap imitators on sweatshop wages in countries with different alphabets.

It's worth noting however that Germans were up to the same kind of commercial theft years before China dipped into the Rhine Valley. Ferdinand Porsche is credited with the first breakthrough designs for the VW Beetle. But the fact is the model had been previously developed by a German Jewish engineer, Josef Ganz.  

Even though Germans have many cars, there is nothing more popular than riding in someone else's. This carpooling trend is known as co-riding opportunities, or mitfahrgelegenheit.

The process is simple: Get online, drag your bags to a petrol station and stumble through five hours of discussions about bio-foods in Bavarian slang driving at 265km/h. Make reference to leather seating, wooden dashboard or plated tires where appropriate.

Friday, 19 April 2013

31: Lady on the roadside

Just like you can live a life in Apps in Germany, you can also purchase almost everything you need without ever talking to a human being.

The British started recruiting machines to perform designated sales tasks instead of humans in the late 19th Century. At first the iron beasts sold postcards and stamps. But it wasn't long before they evolved into the child-friendly glass pimps of today, spawning across the globe thereafter selling mainly chewing gum, cigarettes and hot and cold drinks. But then the 80s came, the wall came down and glass pimps diversified. 

The fact is I've witnessed a post-modern vending machine that threatens to derail the stability of the universe. Outside the male toilets at a petrol station in Nuremberg, the word pussy etched in logos all over a distributor lurking tall like a seasoned pusher. Enthralled by this electronic purveyor of cats or vaginae, I stopped.

"Travel Pussy. €3."

 What looked like a pink jelly bag wrestled around a sausage advertised the bizarre product: TP. I tried to buy one but was out of coins - all I could do was stare with a mixture of contempt and awe for the marketeer who gave birth to a rubber, liquid-filled vagina.

For those who are already familiar with the brothel in a container, forgive my musings. I feel like the child who just got told Santa is his Uncle Pete only to walk outside and find a sleigh and seven giant reindeer.

False advertising?

If, on the other hand, you're reading this thinking you've just found the perfect distraction for those long drives through Latvia, then you can get your own Travel Pussy here.

Beware though: the TP haunts. The thought of it haunts me still. I can't look at a bin at a motorway stop now without thinking of it. I can't drive by a lorry without being suspicious. I feel I should write to customs and alert them but until I find out more, let's keep the plague on the hush hush. If it's already found its way to motorways, there's no guessing where it could end up next.

The fact is Germany has first some class retail robots and this Travel Pussy could soon be in all of them. Women watch your backs; men beware.

Other vending machines selling pregnancy tests could strike as sperm, abundant enough to refuel several galaxies, is lost time-after-time in lorries beside refueling stations across Europe.

That vending machines are trying to do away with the institutions of gender and matrimony should come as no surprise. The very art of condensing life's necessaries into one secure container is über-teutonic and makes using German vending machines a pleasure. Barring children and guns, you're likely to find most things you'll want to buy in a vending machine somewhere.

Vending machines, like in other countries, are often situated  on platforms in Germany. You can scour the mini shopping malls while reading the latest bestseller, drinking some flavoured water or checking if you're about to give birth - all while nibbling on Tuscan olive oil-drenched nachos at three-times their normal price.

German vending machines always have that one random item. It might be an umbrella. Or panties. A cushion. A bathroom kit. Everything that can sit quietly in public places and isn't claustrophobic behind glass has found its way into electric distributors somewhere.

And things are evolving. Don't be surprised if in a few years you find a square glass Santa talking like your mobile's answer machine and telling you he can only give your kids Coke or TP.

Friday, 12 April 2013

30: Table-football with anarchists

If you live in Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain or Neukölln, you might have played table-football with anarchists.

You’ll have seen this lively demographic at demonstrations, in dimly lit bars and in dark shadows, but suddenly you’ll be not only playing table football with them but singing their hymns, deploring Facebook and fascists and pledging your blood to the revolution. Alcohol will help the whole seduction.

The ANTIFA, Berlin’s most prominent anarchist association, is militantly active against Germany’s far right. ANTIFA members live a varied life: from planting trees at traffic lights and fixing strangers’ bikes for free, to cooking vegan dinners at VOKÜS or beating up Nazis on tube stops. No other German group is so gentle yet purposefully extreme.

ANTIFA members live in occupied houses that are usually named after the street they live on. Peace flags and black circled As hang from the windows. The residents will support St Pauli, Hamburg’s left-leaning asylum for outsiders, and will deplore Hansa Rostok, the pride of the NDP. ANTIFA music draws on SKA, punk and Hip Hop and song themes range from never surrendering to fascists to turning the city green.  

House of slogans, not slaves.
If you meet one, chances are you will meet 25. This progression to Post-Sallowism will occur in a caliginous basement that Osama Bin Laden couldn’t have conjured in his wildest dreams. There will be a table-football, AKA biliardino, fiercely competed over to a soundtrack of clattering plastic. Black hoods, black circled ‘A’ motifs and Berliner beer will be the orders of the day.

You’ll recognize an ANTIFA bar because written prominently on the door or window will be the establishment’s distinct non-appreciation of Nazis. The windows will be pasted with stickers re-advertising everything from anti-nuclear campaigns to pro-asylum initiatives and the lighting will barely shine through the cracks of window that escaped the mass-pasting.

NB: Do not arrive wearing Lonsdale, Fred Perry, Hackett or New Balance. These are no-go brands in Germany that carry extreme political connotations.

Once you’ve discussed street fighting and planting marijuana in grounds of the town hall, move on to singing. If you can’t grasp any of the lyrics, just remember to sing "ANTIFA!" at the top of your lungs as required. All songs have an 'ANTIFA' moment.

If you challenge at table football, by knocking unnecessarily loudly on the edge of the table-top, make sure you’re in a condition to actually stand. While the grips you hold onto can act as crutches, they’re slippery. Besides, you’ll be thrown all over the place trying to catch sight of the small white ball while singing about reclaiming nurseries and the minds of children.

Friday, 5 April 2013

29: Green Man and his wicked ways

If you’ve walked into any souvenir shop in Berlin, you’ve undoubtedly seen piles-on-piles of Green Man. Green Man isn’t really symbolic of anything and neither does he exist, other than on t-shirts and in traffic lights.

Not entirely true: Green Man also resides on mugs, mouse-pads and lamps that look like traffic lights. He is the only man to have guided political leaders of all ideologies from Bergmann-Pohl and Honecker to Schroder and Merkel.

Green Man isn’t Sallowist because he not only originated in former Eastern Germany, but quickly became a cult hero in the West too, long after the country of his birth was extinguished.

Owning a Green Man t-shirt, hat or ashtray is essential and will reinforce your Sallowist credentials. It will advertise to people wherever you go in Germany that you live in Berlin. Green light it.

You find Green Man mainly on street cormers with his brother, Red Man. Both wear hats and are known collectively in German as ampelmännchen (yep, they have their own Wikipedia page from which a substantial amount of this post was stolen).

Green Man is the image of a peaceful man strutting forwards with a bowler hat. These days he works as a pedestrian traffic light across Berlin (take that West). As persuasive and inviting as Green Man is in his work however, Red Man, the evil twin, always reappears when you least want to see him. 

The man with the most green in Berlin
Before you can even run across the road. It’s licensed massacre waiting to happen.  God forbid if you’re crossing with children, animals or any kind of weights.

A green light has to be somebody else's red light. Every time I cross my road on the green I can see the cars waiting for my pedestrian green light to expire so they can accelerate me into a skip.  Because the cars turning have a green light at the same time as me as long as I'm not crossing - me walking across on my pedestrian green light couldn't be a better ingredient for road rage to them. They are in a car,  I'm on foot. Call the local news station.

The worst thing is the pedestrian green light turns red even faster at night, as if the road shrinks after sunset rendering it crossable in half the time. The added effect of poor visibility, the level of alcohol in drivers and my own habit of getting more tired as the day goes on makes popping out for something a heinous task.

Only the bike, or guerrilla crossing, will suffice.

Friday, 29 March 2013

28: None fly over the coffee's nest

Good Friday is in town and undoubtedly you spent some part of the day coffee lounging, the Berliner’s favourite R&R. Swedes call this caffeine-induced relaxation the ‘Fika’, but the truth is Berliners do macchiato musing in their own distinct way.

If you too like drinking tea or coffee then Berlin will not disappoint you. There are thousands of cafes, each serving not only your standard coffee range from cappuccino to espresso, but also chai lattes, bubble tea, earth smoothies and stale home-made vegan cake.

Kreuzberg has a mix of Turkish cafes serving sweets and cakes, and hippie-run ‘dispensaries’ selling everything from coffee beans to harder stupefiers.

These cafes aren’t exactly Starbucks. For starters the staff aren’t malnourished and trained to parrot corporate smiles. The décor is distinctly more books and magazines than global marketing and the only photos of smiling Ethiopians you’ll find will be on-the-wall photo or art exhibitions. If you find a café that is exhibiting, you’ll know how to behave once you’ve read this. Such demitasse purveyors require a studied approach.

You’ll probably walk off the street thirsting for a coffee only to think you’ve walked into someone’s living room. Don't panic. 

Unless you’ve sleep-crashed into your neighbour’s Wohnzimmer, you’re in the right place. Cafes are meant to look like a living room – a la Sallowiste. Art house film posters will undoubtedly feature. The toilets should have enough flyers to substitute toilet paper should another Wall be erected during opening hours. Anarchist literature should be readily available on dusty bookshelves. 
If you decide that you want to have a coffee at such an establishment, you should heed the following advice:

  1. Always order something that has an Italian name. If you drink filter coffee, switch to a macchiato. Sprinkle your order with ‘ciao’ and ‘grazie’ to encourage the notion that you are Italian.
  2. Never go to a coffee shop without your Mac.
  3. A Smarthphone is a vital accessory. If you have one, find ways to be busy with it while simultaneously drinking, smoking and talking.
  4. Wear your sunglasses all the time, regardless how dark it is inside.
  5. Wear your funny hat.
  6. Smoke American Spirit (NB: Can kill) and drink green tea wherever possible.
  7. Try and frequent coffee-stores decorated with ripped chairs, recycled tables and wooden boards advertising foods you’ve never heard of. Never forget your Sallowist credentials.
  8. Only order cappuccini from baristas who can sketch Picasso paintings with foam. 

Friday, 22 March 2013

27: Why the rainforests are dying

Whatever you do in Germany, chances are the evidence surrounds you everywhere.
There is an epidemic of printing on extraordinarily large sheets of paper. The Suddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s main broadsheets, has enough paper in it to wrap half the fish in the Atlantic. Holding it arm-to-arm is exercise.

Return a stack of books to the library and you’ll be given a scroll of paper longer than the books you returned.  This way you will never forget every last book you borrowed but never read.

Everything from train tickets to supermarket receipts are large enough to displace everything else in your wallet.

Even bookmarks look like they were made to mark books. 

Eat your heart out rain forest (or let receipts do it for you)
Germans don’t just like paperwork, they love working on paper. Whether it’s to tell you to pay an invoice or congratulate you on having settled it, your utility providers will always be happy to send you another envelope. Your bank will require that you print your statements every month, even if you have Internet Banking. You’ll be charged if you try to print your statements outside of the allotted time period. 

The verbal is an intangible memory: things are validated only after they are printed on large paper.

Even the streets are a dead rain forest bought to life with ink. A wall has been left behind if it isn’t advertising Charleston classes or bearing angry paste-ups. After a few months in Berlin you yourself will have amassed a graveyard of programs for festivals, workshops and participatory events you don’t remember. Your draws will overspill with flyers for experimental music nights and speculative exhibitions you may have never attended. But you will definitely have the flyer.  Your only choice will be to put everything on the wall and reinforce your Sallowist credentials.

Tertiary copies of receipts for food shopping, screw-drivers, bike parts and beers will provide you with enough flammable material to survive half the winter. Especially if you use Internet cafes.

The Internet cafes I have used all have two things in common: at least one person talking on Skype loudly at all times and they all print huge receipts. It's a way for the owner to punish people who are petulant enough to ask for one by printing the total in a tiny-size font on an A-4 page. 

That's anti-receipt activism one can only admire.

Friday, 15 March 2013

26: Bubble tea

If you’ve walked around Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain or Prenzlauerberg recently, you’ll notice there is a new drug fuelling the masses. It is of course bubble tea.

This strange concoction comes in hundreds of different variations and is sold by everyone from McDonalds to coffee houses. Nothing could be more in hand for the debonair of the city. McDonalds describes it as “the drink innovation of the moment;” celebrities across the globe are tripping over themselves to be photographed gulping the lumpy drink-cum-meal. 

Bubble tea: Bright colours for the big city
Bubble tea is what happened when a fishermen took a pile of eyes and drank them in his morning coffee. The drink, also known as ‘Pearl Milk Tea,’ comes in a sealed plastic container similar to the water capsules distributed as part of in-flight meals, only larger and full of edible marbles known as tapioca.

It takes tea to a new level, a kind of libation Nirvana where yogurt, milk and juice forget their differences and get up, close and personal with jelly.

For years, tea was the elixir of choice, keeping communities from China to Chennai sitting under the mango tree chatting about/with spirits. Sugar spent centuries lobbying a way into the equation. Lemon only found its way in on rare occasions. Even the spirits needed visas. Coffee had to wait millennia to make an intercontinental landing. Then there was bubble tea. 

The craze started in the early eighties in Taiwan, according to Wikipedia, who says:

“Bubble teas are typically of two distinct types: fruit-flavored teas and milk teas. However, some shops offer hybrid "fruit milk teas". “

I must have had the latter, a pale orange soup with lumps of jelly loitering at the bottom. Piercing the plastic sealing with a straw more suited to piping, I tentatively moved my head down towards the drink. As soon as I started sucking, the lumps of jelly, which up until this point had sat quietly on the base of my drink, started shooting into my mouth like tennis balls fired by a machine.

 I tried to call for help but skirmished jelly balls flew from my mouth. Children looked at me as if they’d time-traveled into Madame Tussauds and were staring at a 3D replica of the Alien.

The bubbles, more like soggy berries, now sat at the bottom of the glass alone. Whereas before they had thrown themselves into the straw, without the liquid they wouldn’t move.  Which makes me think bubble tea is not meant for consumption, but to be seen with; a drinks accessory.

The girl at the counter in the bubble tea store (a chain dedicated to the plague??!!) offered me instructions but I passed telling her I’d consumed liquids before. “Getting a balance between juice and bubbles is key,” she’d said.

My new balance is 100 per cent tea. With bubbles tea stores cropping up like forgotten STDs, it’s time to take a stand. Because bubble tea is not a drink, it’s a movement. And only tea can stop it’s curse – its time to burst the bubble, people.