Friday, 26 October 2012

6: Get up, stand up! Stand up for your piss!

When I settled in Berlin, I too opted for Kreuzberg. 

But even at the heart of the Turkish community, German efficiency had merely reinvented itself. The Germans I have met are compulsive list writers and lists form the basis of any domestic infrastructure in a home.

So when I moved in with my girlfriend and her German housemates, I found lists everywhere. A rota clearly outlined washing up duties, mopping, hoovering, window cleaning and surface polishing. Garbage removal was to be done on Sundays and Sundays only. 

As I sipped coffee with my new housemates in the kitchen, I caught my name scribbled on sheets of paper everywhere. I didn’t have toothpaste yet, but I was in the cleaning schedule for the next six months. I initially took this as a good omen,  a sign I had been integrated into an indigenous welcome ritual.

As I settled in however, I found further lists. The bathroom of course had its own cleaning diagram, replete with a key, instructions and an index, while the post was also to be filed according to intelligent design. Plastic would be recycled on Wednesdays, paper on Thursdays, glass on Fridays. For the next few weeks I was constantly penalised for throwing wrappers into the natural wastebasket and teabags into the paper container.

All incoming and outgoing non-nutrient products needed to be logged in the house registrar, which in turn would be monitored and updated on a fortnightly basis. Keen not to be the subject of its reports, I took due diligence in regards to my rota responsibilities. Responsibility is merely the ability to respond after all, I thought, and I was keen to make a good impression in my newly adopted Heimat. But inevitably I was repeatedly fined for letting wooden chopping boards drip-dry instead of drying them or for failing to arrange mugs in their owners’ slots.

But these were all minor details that I easily fell in line with. Relieved as I was to be coping with the general schematics of things, relieving myself became a political and ideological issue.

In Germany, men pee sitting down. Not just if they’re shitting and happen to release some urine as a timesaver: no, men sit to pee at all times in the home. 

About three weeks after settling into my new home, two of my male housemates made some banana and cherry juice mix, a Kiba as it is known locally, and sat me down in the kitchen. 

“Ex, vi no zyou are peeing from above,” began the Bod.

I confessed that I had indeed pissed since I’d left England over a month ago, and that my bladder and gravity had conspired to arrange the trajectory without me necessarily endorsing it.

“You must sit to pee,” said the second housemate getting impatient.

Sit to pee?

“Why?” I asked flabbergasted.

“Look, I show you,” said Bod before taking me to the bathroom, pulling down his pants and sitting on the toilet bowl.

“This way ze pee is only going in ze toilet,” began the Bod, as if narrating a nature documentary. “When zyou are standing, zyou are peeing out of ze bowl also and zis is not good.” Bod pulled up his pants and washed his hands. “Now zyou try,” he said and left me to experiment with his suggestion. I could hear him behind the door and I felt compelled to oblige.

I pulled down my trousers, sat on the bowl and waited. Was I supposed to sit a certain way? Should I hold my penis or let it dangle? These guys were reinventing the wheel as far as I was concerned. A force of urine splashed back from the bowl and wet me: this hadn't started well. 

I tried to explain that I’d been practicing peeing for years and that I was quite capable of hitting the bowl with at least 92 percent of my urine standing. “Ah, just pee sitting down stupid English guy.”

Surely not all Germans can pee sitting down at home? Finding an answer to the question became my foremost objective. For the first time in my life I was actively a member of a resistance movement.

I’d go on field missions and spy through windows from a distance. I asked strangers about their urinating habits, only to be looked at like a pervert. But it didn’t matter how they looked at me, I had to know. Feeling confused, I asked my girlfriend.

“Why, how do you pee?” she asked startled.

“In England, men pee standing up,” I told her, scratching my balls with a straight back and puffed-out chest.

“Standing up? Why?”

Because we don’t have a vagina - we’re urine-mobile.

“It’s just the way it is,” I said.

“Well, you have to pee sitting down here. Everybody does.”

There it was again. “Everybody does.”

A few weeks later the Bod introduced me to some of his friends at a house party. The next day he called me into the kitchen at home.

“Exla, did zyou pee at ze party yesterday?”

“At the party? No, I haven’t pee’d for…well, no, not at the party,” 

The Bod walked out with a knowing look.

Are the Germans just more hygienic? Can I not piss straight? Both are plausible and partly true. Years later I can understand that in a house with women, it is decent to occasionally sit down. But the truth is I won’t do it. I’ve tried, but I can’t. When I returned to London for a trip, I told my girlfriends about peeing sitting down, hoping they might empathize. “Grow some hair on your balls,” was all they could muster. 

Stand tall.
Why have men consented to sit down in Germany and not elsewhere? No idea. German feminism has always been strong and this could be one reason. I imagine a historical conversation took place at some point in the 1950s between a husband and wife, somewhere near Rostock in a half-lit kitchen full of smoke and carp, that went something like this:

“Little trezur, I het it ven zyou pee on ze floor.”

“But I pee’d in ze bowl.”

“Absolutely incorrect. I looking traces from 4.6 percent of your total liquid output in ze surrounding area of ze toilet “

“Ah, zyou are always with ze pee charter thinking.”

“You must pee sitting on ze seat from now on”

“Pee sitting? Zis is ridiculous. Zyou crazy, Frau. I mean, I am ze man.”

“Zyes, zyou have ze mobile-liquid unit, but zyou can also park it.”

“No, no. That I just von’t.”

“Hans, Who did ze Nazism?”

“Hitler”

“And?”

“Ahh!"

 "Hmm? Who?"

"Yes, okay, also me. I vos ze soldier in Siberia for four years, okay”

“Hmmm.”

“So I must pee sitting down?”

Women must have guilt-tripped men into doing it. Penance for a small crime would never have led men to surrender the most basic male attitude they are born with (masturbation comes later) and adopt a totally unfamiliar one years after. It’s as if snakes started walking in high heels.

Guilt must be the reason. German feminists must have held a secret meeting some time after the war and thought ‘Right, we’ve got them by the balls, all we need to do now is tug them slowly down towards the seat.’ Rosa Luxembourg would be proud.

I’ve been in Germany for several months now and I still don’t pee sitting down. Admittedly I’ve taken target-practice: only splash-free, precision pissing will keep you from sitting. Once in a while I leave the door open in the toilet and pretend I’m pissing sitting while reading Bild so that that my housemates think I’m towing the line. But for all the German men who still stand pissing and have refused to be cowed: I am with you. There is no easy walk to freedom, but we will only get there standing. Get up, stand up - Stand up for your piss!

Friday, 19 October 2012

5: Co-traveling opportunity and sideburn burning

My first months in Berlin unfolded into a catalogue of shocking surprises. The tube, for example. Airports or train stations for that matter. In London there isn’t a bin in site anywhere in case the ghost of Osama Bin Laden decides that shredded photocopies tarnished in anthrax be the new weapons of mass destruction. For a society that wastes so much and is always on the move, this can cause us tremendous social issues like tube-passenger-frustration-symptom (TPFS), which is perpetuated by people not being able to throw their newspaper away and therefore constantly re-reading the same old word-porn while slowly going insane.

There are chairs in hospital lifts and bicycles for rent on many street corners in Berlin, and one time a doctor almost cried when with islander over-politeness and drama I thanked him, ‘Dunkerschein Herr Dokta’ in exchange for a morning-after pill. When my German colleague invites me to place my plastic bottle and (overly) read newspaper in a recycling space on the underground, the shock almost throws me under a train – is she delusional, I ask her? Has she even heard of the Mujahedin? The Berliners must be a fearless people; more committed to environmentalism than the war on terror which threatens the British Isles into a state of perennial paranoia.

Perhaps Berliners feels safe because they are guarded by Berlin’s large bears that pose on street corners with trendy international paint makeovers.

Or maybe it's because beer costs €0.75 a bottle. Or because men dress like actor Klaus Kinski and hang out at underground stations. One tells me, with apocalypse prose, “The real Germany is over, it will never return!” 

Chuck Norris - eat your heart out.
Another, Jan, has become my friend at Südstern Underground.  Jan is a ticket tout who works the evening shift three times a week and gives me my updates on the events in town before he sells me a ticket each day. After a week of buying them, I notice Jan simply scratches off the date and resells me the same tickets I give him back each evening.

Recycle bins (recycle ticket touts) and lifts I’m thinking. When I enquire with some German hippies about how I might go to Nuremberg, they tell me about a thing called Mitfahrgelegenheit. “It’s Eezy” they promise. “It’s a co-driving opportunity”.

What?

The next day, having called a number on the Internet, I’m in a car with Jonas, a Korean-German driver, who goes to Nuremberg every day and back with different organised hitchhikers. He plays house music constantly while telling stories about varying levels of traffic at differing motorway exits. Jonas knows everything there is to know about traffic cones and their locations and there are petrol stations he would “never dream of stopping at.”

Later, with my confidence in my German strengthened, I join in a song by the Prinzen about how great Germany really is (and at this point I’m beginning to mean it).

Nuremberg is a small town in Middle Franconia, famous for Christmas markets, pencils and sugar and hazelnut coated biscuits, Lebkuchen. The two largest and oldest pencil makers in the world, Staedtler and Faber-Castell, are based here, and for generations the two charcoal pushing families have been drawing blood from each other on the world stage, culminating in a court case in 1990 - a row dating back to who invented the pencil.

Nuremberg also has a cinema called Cinecittá, the most attended in Germany, where every row has a lovers seat (like a double-sofa amidst single seats). The city is also home to two outer city walls, as if the city’s forefathers weren’t sure where to set up camp. I can only presume they built two because they thought Bavarian invaders could be decoyed.

The next day in Berlin, this time after a co-driving opportunity with Gustav, a fridge technician, I open a bank account at Sparkasse, where a charming German bureaucrat takes my passport and casually wonders off with coffee. He returns moments later with a full cup for me, some papers, a 30€ voucher for the girl who introduced to me to the bank, and a spice-box full of cinnamon and garlic bits. “Welcome to German banking,” he says; I stare at him in disbelief. No proof of address. No awkward tests. No questions. Like a James Bond film, only in German.

It’s all so good. Then I start hearing that everyone pays the same rent as people spend on cigarettes in London. When I go to a party at eleven apologising profusely for being late (the bar’s empty after all), the host, my new housemate, tells me that I’m early. “Novan vill come til one” he says, still setting up the sound system. In London by now gutters would be flowing in teenage vomit and last orders rapped up, I tell him.

The next morning, my ego bruised and misunderstood, I head for the Turkish barbershop hoping to find solidarity with foreigners but instead the hairs on my ear are burnt off with a flaming stick. I run to a second hand shop to buy a hat that doesn’t fit. Berliners love hats and while at the time I hated the beanie I bought,  I’ve now come to love it: It even occupies a nostalgic nerve in my hat collection.

As I walk into Garage, the second hand store, although a clothes depo would better describe it, a large sign above my head reads 11€/kg and I buy enough jackets to survive winter for the price of a weekend Travelcard in London. The night before I’d almost thought I’d found a flaw in the nuts and bolts of German efficiency when a waitress hustled me to take my five wine glasses back to the bar. But on returning them, I was given a crisp 5€ note. Just enough to buy yesterday’s Tageskarte from Jan for tomorrow.

Friday, 12 October 2012

4: Never pay for anything


Berlin is by far the cheapest capital in Western Europe. To spend money in the city is practically a crime. This of course has invited the vultures and gentrification is taking over, as Sallowists from Denmark to Delaware snap up properties and rooftop-lofts across the city.

Capitalism is a sleeping elephant in Berlin that has started to fart in the last ten years. The River Spree has seen huge developments, with Mediaspree, a conglomerate of corporate interests, munching up land all along its banks.

You will find this hard to believe when you arrive and your future landlord asks you, with the smirk of a man robbing you, for €400 a month for an 80 metres squared loft with a balcony and courtyard. Five years ago it would have been €300 however, and Berliners on a tight budget (92.7 percent of the population) resent the increase. Look robbed and give your landlord the deposit.

It is hard to spend real money in Berlin. If Brewster's Millions had been filmed here, Richard Pryor would have been left with a bank full of generous interest-reaping cash and a herd of angry anti-capitalist demonstrators pelting tomatoes at him from below the window of his empathizing rent-free squat.

Nothing really costs anything. Beer is €0.70 cent, you can eat out for €2.50 and half the town’s clubs have free entrance. As long as you can avoid ticket conductors, transport is barrier-free.

Berlin is a cycle graveyard and several bikes will fall into your hands whether you ride one or not. Food is also free. Wolkskuche, VOKÜ, a sort of anarchist-run meal-on-wheels conglomerate, serves dinners on donation all over the city at varying daily locations.

You’ll be looked at strangely if you try to donate more than 2€ at such vegan buffets so don’t bother. Wine comes in at €0.80 cent. But unlike London where you’d be dining soggy soup with the homeless in a garage in Clapton, in Berlin you’ll be eating lasagne, baguette and chocolate mousse in a chandelier-lit former brothel with high ceilings and funky furniture while discussing Sufism and riots with Goddess Danish Islamic Science students.

Always pretend things are expensive however, even if you can afford more than you would ever expect for the same price in your recession-hit hometown. If you live in Prenzlauerberg and have fabulous ceilings, nobody apart from your inner circle needs to know. If you want to be poor but sexy, you need to work for it.

Berliners are a cultured people and they love to read. Bookstores are everywhere and often operate only on an exchange basis. Bookshop owners tend to be sluggish, sleep-inducing characters and their stores are like film sets; stacks of un-shelved books form narrow corridors between layers of dust. Somewhere at the centre of this maze will sit the owner, rearranging shelves of out-of-print Marxist commentaries with meticulous care.

No Berlin bookstore owner will ever let you think he doesn’t have the book you want, so don’t ask if they do. You will be told it is the wrong particular book to read by that author; you will be asked if you have read other books by the author that are far superior than the book you are after. If you haven’t, you may well be labeled a fool for having asked for your desired title in the first place.

Because Germans love recycling things, second hand shops are one of the pearls of the capital. Whether you’re looking for broken record players, rhinoceros heads or 70s plastic kitchen appliances, Berlin’s second hand shops have a surprise in store for everyone. A whole living room can be furnished for under €20. The sofas will even have the necessary rips at the edges to spellbound your Sallowist guests and the coffee machine will still smell like damp - weeks after you buy it.

Neukoln Ikea.  Simply wonder down Sonnenallee and take your pick off any side road. If you happen to come across any iconic posters or protest slogans at these stores, buy them. “No man is illegal,” “Terrorism is an answer to tyranny,”  “Asocial associated.” If you can find them printed on a t-shirt, even better. Anything semi-esoteric that will stimulate your audience without requiring them getting it will complement any Sallowist specials that you indulge in.

Don’t overestimate the prices.  A fabulous lamp that might cost 100 quid in London is probably a fiver in Berlin. A must-have vintage t-shirt that is 35 dollar in New York is probably 35 cent in Berlin. 

Many second hand clothes stores operate a sell-by-the kilo policy, where the fashion is a further expression of Sallowism; beige 1970s dresses for women, vintage zip-ups for men.

Old steel factory workmen t-shirts and sauerkraut collective hoodies are also very popular. Ripped wife-beaters never go out of fashion in Berlin either. Long army coats stuffed in sheepskin (although these could get you into trouble with the vegan police) and anything survived from East Germany is obviously incredibly trendy. Much of the stock in second hand clothes is sourced in Romania, Poland and Ukraine and the bargain boxes offer a unique opportunity to find the Polish 1970s handball top you always wanted.

Kreuzberg and Neukölln have hundreds of such bunker second-hand stores, selling everything from original copies of Mau’s Little Red Book to square-pattern Sallowist curtains. Bring all your money in coins to show the store owner who you are: in New York wise-men carry their money in a roll – In Berlin, you don’t carry money at all.  

Food shopping is an altogether different story. Germany has many supermarkets, most of which you will never have heard of. Kaisers is very up-market and has its own delis and bakeries. DM, founded by economist Gotz Werner, pays its staff a good wage and encourages them to have a life, so the vibe is good and the products stocked are ethically and sustainably sourced and produced. Germans of course love all this.

LIDL is the poor man’s Kaisers and Netto is a decent mid-way choice. But if you're broke, you’ll want to shop at ALDI.

The products in ALDI are simple but honest: the labels have stains, the tins are battered and the vegetables look unaltered. Germans love all kinds of strange teas, apart from normal tea and ALDI is full of chemical-tasting hot refreshments on steroids like Mango-Lassi Chai, Rooibos and one I'm yet to try - Vanilla Aroma Hot Love Tea. Black tea is considered boring and hard to come by however.

But a supermarket is a supermarket anywhere and you’ll find whatever you need to sustain the level of nutrition you’ve committed to. In Germany you will just find more bottled celery and condiments with names like 'Gypsy Sauce'. 

The only problems are when you can’t find what you want and don’t know what the word is in German. Try explaining to a supermarket attendant what baking powder is without using words. Or tape, tin foil or pastry for that matter.

ALDI is food with no thrills. There are no baskets available and you will have to bring your own bags, unless you want to pay for them. While the bags cost no more than €0.10, you’ll want to bring your own from home to avoid Sallowists looking you up and down as if you are the death of mother nature and the revolution.

The sausage section is a sanctuary of German munchies. There are hundreds of different bratwurst, brockwurst, wurstchen etc in all different sizes, shapes and attached-slogans. If a city has a high street, likelihood is it has its own sausage: Berlin, Vienna, Bern, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Thüringen, Eberswald, and South Tyrol all have their own variation, stuffed with different spices, chemicals and local flavour. 

Every German city in fact has its own sausage but don’t worry, you’ll be able to eat them all in Berlin. Curry Wurst, a sliced up sausage in paprika ketchup is a favourite and is served at little sausage parlours across the city, often with anomaly flag from far away countries.

The quality of life in Berlin, despite its fashionable poverty, is very high.  The ALDI prices speak for themselves: mozzarella is as cheap as 55 cent and wine comes in at 1.50. For €10 you can get a week’s worth of stocks. Germans are not the world’s second largest people for nothing. 

Berlin simply gives Eurocheap a new meaning - nothing has a price, everything is on donation, so just remember to define yourself as poor in that key wallet moment. 

Buying beer on the other hand can be a headache. Unlike in the UK where a handful of companies have moved in and monopolised the market with dull, tasteless brews, Germany still has hundreds of great beers for you to get plastered on, giving you a lot of choice, perhaps too much when all you want is  a beer. From Paulener to Warsteiner, via Krombacher, Halleröder, Schöfferhofer, Sternburg, Erdinger, Breznak, Wernessgrüner, Köstritsser, Schultheiss, Berliner Kindl and dozens more; the names go on for ever. A trip to your average German corner shop is like a tour through a museum of breweries. 

You may feel emasculated by your inability to reach out for one single familiar brand of beer, but don't be afraid. The best way to deal with this onslaught of potpourri brands is to work through them systematically. The first time you go to your local store, start from the window and work your way towards the till every time thereafter. 

After a while you'll know your Helles from your Dunkel or Hefeweizen, a Stein glass from a Maß.  Within no time you'll be the perfect German piss head. 

More than just the hangover to think about.

Stay tuned next week for why German men pee sitting down


Friday, 5 October 2012

3: Sallowism and the Devil's Mountain


Rudow underground station, the closest to Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport, is one of the first things anyone sees arriving in Berlin as it is where one joins the Soviet-looking tube to the city centre. Rudow station looks like the kind of place the Stasi designated as a secret underground torture corridor – a subtle yet masterful form of excruciation whereby the tawny walls and bright lighting would slowly spiral detainees into suicide. In fact it is the end of U-bahn Line 7. 

Berlin likes to vaunt itself as ‘sexy but poor’ and the latter is evident as the stained, yellow train belts on past such Anglo-friendly stations as Lipschitzalle. For those who have been bought up in the western world, the bus or train from Schönefeld Airport to the centre of Berlin will let you discover the Soviet Union: The sallow, sulphurous colour of bricks and the air; boulevards as wide as airfields with not a soul in sight. Everything rigid and unbranded, yet so appealing.

This is the beginning of what I call Sallowism, a common affliction or pseudo- devotion most non native Berliners catch and sustain. Sallowism is nostalgia for anything collective or communist in a fast-moving, consumer world. Sallowism harps back to single-issue light bulbs, odd shoes and empty supermarket shelves. Sallowism thinks it can have communism without Stalin, Ceausescu or Siberia. The Germans call it Ostalgie: Eastalgia, or nostalgia for the east.

Most foreigners in Berlin are Sallowists.  The best way for you to join this Trotsky-toting community is not to visit or live somewhere in the former eastern bloc. No, this will make you too clever too quickly. The best way for you to get into Sallowism is to walk around Kreuzberg with a copy of Gramsci's The New Order, write an obtuse blog about brewery surfaces and only drink soya milk.

My own journey into Sallowism began at Teufelsberg in 2007, an old NATO listening station on the Devil’s Mountain in West Berlin. Built on a mound of WW2 junk, the flapping broken windows of the disused radomes are an ideal initiation into Sallowism’s decadent charm. The abandoned Cold War listening station has the perfect ingredients for a Sallowist honeymoon – it was once a bastion of espionage, a peeping hole catching whispers and orgasms from east of the wall, yet it now has a harmless, decadent aura. 

It even has a Nazi history  (vital if you’re a building and want to be taken seriously in Germany) -  Hitler wanted to make it the World Technical University of the Third Reich and he built underground bunkers for 1700 officers. One can still smell the scent of espionage in the complex’s empty corridors (or this is something you can tell people once you’ve posted the pictures on Facebook). Known as the last hill before Moscow, this is where the British and the Americans eavesdropped their Russian counterparts (this’ll be a great conversation starter after watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy). It is a necessary pilgrimage for any new Berliner.  

Berlin's biggest balls. 
 Germans are compulsive hoarders, especially when it comes to history. It’s a brooding nation full of memorials. The wall was up for thirty years and caused dozens of casualties, but twenty years after its fall, it’s a town-favourite for graffiti artists and tourists. 

The Berliners parade the wall like a reformed uncle who once held the family ransom but is now benevolent and harmless and more of a curiosity than anything else. One of the Germans’ most attractive qualities is that it hurts them to forget: they are Europe’s leading recyclists and renewable energy producers and history is simply treated the same way.

You’ll soon get used to this. Memorials remember everything, everywhere. Even the streets are filled with posters that say Wir vergessen nicht, ‘We don’t forget,’ to remind you that Germans have an elephantine memory. These political posters are confusing, for both anarchists and Nazis use them.

The original neo-Nazi poster uses the slogan to remember the allied bombing of Dresden and create a sense of national victimization. The anarchists invert it to remind their neo-Nazi countrymen of the crimes the nation committed in their name.

Do not think you can just ignore these. Germans are incredibly sensitive and well-versed when it comes to their political opinions and you will be required to know your unconditional-basic-income policy from your history of German terrorism. While Germans do conservatives, liberals and centre-left like anyone else, they really come into their own when affiliated to a group on the far edges of society.

In the 1970s, Red Zora, a feminist organization, targeted 142 patriarchal institutions, men-only clubs & corporate boardrooms, taking no casualties.

Germans do terrorism how it should be done – as a mental challenge.

But let us stick to Sallowism and its citrine glow. After you’ve been to Teufelsberg, in West Berlin, you might want to kill two classic birds with one stone and go and bathe naked with some Germans in the lake below. This is a favourite pastime for anyone over 40 from East Germany. Bathing naked in public lakes is just unmissable fun for the German Ostalgist, because when everything is dangling about, they say, is the true synergy of socialism.  Freikörperkultur or Free body culture.

“Are you into FKK?” my soon-to-be girlfriend asked me after I arrived in Berlin.
Not understanding, I presumed it was some radically fashionable new political manual and of course instantly answered “Yes.”
Minutes later I met German socialism penis-to-penis.

Berlin is quite simply the perfect landscape for Sallowism, one that never forgets. Abandoned breweries and old ice cream factories are landmarks in Berlin tour guides. Every brick of the Berlin Wall is kept. You can even own a bit: they sell it at the Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, certified of course. 

Germans keep their history like mothers keep their children’s fallen teeth, as souvenirs. Placards everywhere advertise terrible crimes committed within their vicinity, like directions to your local town centre or sports hall.

How do you deal with this onslaught of history? Here is a list of key survival tips.

  1. Never mention Nazism (ps: if mentioned, emphasize importance of repentance and acknowledge any you see)
  2. Wear a t-shirt carrying the outline of a lesser-known political figure in chains or self-immolating alive to try and give off the impression you are more history than anyone else and thus ward off pests
  3. Read (if nothing else, this blog's forthcoming chapter on the 3 big Ns not to pack when you come to Germany)
  4. Break a leg.