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 fisherman 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 bubble tea stores cropping up like forgotten STDs, it is time to take a stand. Because bubble tea is not a drink, it’s a movement. And only tea can stop its curse – it's time to burst the bubble, people.

Friday, 8 March 2013

25: Beach baskets of the Baltic Sea v. Tropical Island

If you tire of Berlin (how dare you?) and decide that you want to reacquaint yourself with the natural world, you might want to try Die Ostsee, the Baltic Sea. If you look at the brochure for Tropical Island and decide that fake beaches, Caribbean flags and Speedos beneath a huge iron dome aren’t to your taste, you can try the real beaches of northern Germany, where Speedos and Caribbean flags come with thousands of tourists each summer. 

Not der Liegestuhl (the lie down chair), but der Strandkorb (a beach basket).
The Baltic Sea is better than Tropical Island because it doesn’t promise Madagascarness and deliver something that slipped out of a George Orwell manuscript.

The Baltic Sea has a self-acknowledging humility about its beaches. Resorts like Usedom were once hangouts of the more prosperous in Eastern Germany before the fall of the wall, but Ryanair and Easyjet's pull to overseas sun parlours ruined its allure.

But Germans of the north still love it. The beaches are more Brighton than Thailand, and the local residents aren’t particularly happy (at least voting patterns suggest so) with tourists destroying their quaint communities and raising house prices. But Ostsee is still a lot of fun and the local residents I met (8) were all very nice.

If you plan to go to the Ostsee, the best thing to do is just go for a day. That way if you don’t like it you can come home and if you do like it you can always go again. Take all your funny summer hats and make sure you arrive early on the sandy shores to get a deckchair, der Liegestuhl (the lie-down-chair), in a prime spot.If you want to go totally local, get a Strandkorb, a sort-of adult beach cradle.

You’ll want to get physical while on the beach. Forget reading; you’ll be playing volleyball, frisbee, or water sports.

If you try Ostsee and Tropical Island looking for water and sand but feel you've strayed unreasonably from urban comfort, you could always try the pay-to-swim beach at Wannsee open from Mid-April, or one of the many lakes around Berlin. The lakes in the West around Müggelsee are free however and a nicer spot to get drunk and bitten by mosquitoes while dipping in and out of the lake.

If you simply won’t leave the city to swim, try Badeschiff, the pool in the River Spree. If you need water pools lined with Japanese trance visuals and music, with easy access to saunas and cocktails, Liquidrome might be more to your liking.

All this is merely a preview, some delusional seasonal dream (drama?) or flashback. Summer is still locked away in hibernation. But if you want to get der Strandkorb under the sun for August on the Baltic Sea, you’ll want to start making enquiries.

Friday, 1 March 2013

24: Iron ladies at festivals

From the Berlinale to the Biennale, via Bread and Butter or the Berlin Literature Festival, Berlin is a haven of cultural spectacles replete with military organization.

If there is any sort of flaw, an opportunity cost in the general running of such events, it's the people who work in customer services. Because the events are so well run, the organizers expect their audience to have digested the thousands of pages of PR and advertising material airdropped and drip-fed throughout the city months in advance.

If you go to the customer services desk asking for information, you will merely make the staff who work there feel like they didn’t do their job properly.

“How can anybody not have understood?” they’ll be thinking. Rather than treat you like a paying customer, you will be looked upon like a stain on their work.
Know your bears. 
Of course one of the pleasures of attending a public event is that somebody else has organized it: all we, as the audience/spectators/or listeners have to do, is attend.

Generally large-scale events will have an information desk for foreigners. Do not stroll over to it nonchalantly looking for details. 

Don’t go near it. 

Most of your German co-festival-goers will have created their own personalized timetable by the opening gala, replete with notes, directions, preplanned questions for post event Q&As and a diagram of all nutrient-serving establishments within a mile radius of the venue. If you approach the customer service desk asking what the festival is about and how you might get tickets, you will make the organizers think they have somehow dramatically failed, for you to be so ill-informed. 

They have spent hours, perhaps weeks, surrounding your home with billboards telling you about their event. They may have parachuted fliers into your back garden, and yet you still have no idea what they are staging. Having bombarded you with advertising that you have carelessly mislaid or ignored, they are not in the mood to give you further information. The fact that you are now standing before their desk looking for last minute details, at such a late hour, is simply unacceptable. 

Expect to get told off or at best given information as if you have an offensively low IQ. While Germans realize that a customer service desk or information hotline is 'A Must Have' to be taken seriously by US professionals, they instigate them as a necessary evil rather than a genuine service. It’s just a chance to place the angriest middle-aged women in the country on the other end of a phone.

You may think: “Where is cinema XX?” is quite a fair question to ask. It’s not. Everybody else knows where it is - Why haven’t you found it yet? Have you even got a map? What’s wrong with you? There's one in the back of the program, for God's sake!

Is the venue air-conditioned? Jesus, ‘Is the earth round?’ they're thinking. 

Can tickets be purchased online? Errrr, is the Pope a Catholic? 

Friday, 22 February 2013

23: Berghain

If you're aged between 18 and 30 and you are visiting Berlin, one of the first things your friends back home will want to know is if you visited Berghain. The former power plant-turned trendsetting club has assumed mythical status among ravers the world over. The 48-hour parties; open fisting in the dark room, women in bras, men dressed in gimp suits, all in leather -  and enough chemicals to sustain a pharmacy in a warzone.

Berghain isn't a club for the fainthearted. A night (parties often go on for two or three) spent between the lofty converted pillars of the power-plant offers a panorama of bizarrely assorted colours, sounds and faces.  Machines dance as if each swing of their arm propels the DJ by kinetic power. Muscle Maries police the dance floor with eyeballs of fury. 

Lofty highs.
Throw in two thousand people, a dark room full of open lust, more sweat than the Chinese Olympics Team and you begin to get the picture. 

Relentless hard techno combines with a timetable that diseregards life and sunlight at Berghain like in few other places. Souls holed up for parties three-days long, parties that live off the enthusiastic energy and dedication of the crowd. All this and more make Berghain a relentless visual and sensory experience.

The artwork in the side bar advertises the club's eclectic mix of influences. Look from a distance and what appears to be a nude sculpture made of jelly sits below the bartop. Look more closely and you see a jelly man fisting another jelly man.

Back on the main dance floor, smoke machines pump limited visibility into the crowd. The DJ drives his army onwards. Sweat drops rain sideways. At least a few dozen ravers never stop - like Duracell batteries recharged by techno.

Please don't go to Berghain before about 3am. It's just not cool.  Don't embarrass yourself by trying to beat the queue early because no one beats the queue at Berghain. Besides, the bouncer operates an indiscriminate discriminatory door policy, assembling a crowd head-by-head as he sees fit. 

The lucky ones who make it past the doorman's glare enter into a dungeon with the echo of a distant thump. Tall ceilings feel like the entrance to a Draculean castle. 

As the night progresses you may find yourself increasingly united with the crowd. Do not try to resist this union -  flow with it or leave.

At some point the music may stop suddenly and the blinds lifted to reveal the raver's worst nightmare; daylight. But as the brain fuses on the tired vampires around you, fear not. The blinds are shut before the brain has time to register, the music returns and Berghain is once again alive.  Berghain Blindness then just continues for the next few days. 

Friday, 15 February 2013

22: Sallowism for intermediates

If you want to be a good foreigner in Berlin, you have to be a good Sallowist. Being a good Sallowist requires work.

It's not enough to have a stack full of Gramsci books, a fridge with only protein or boots still wet with the sweat of yesterday’s demonstration. It's not enough to squat housing with wet pipes or have a Mac with funny stickers. It's not enough to talk abstractly about people whom you have never met in different continents. This is beginner's Sallowism and all very well. In fact, you can read more about it here

Sallowism is a liberal plague that afflicts freely in Berlin. It's a nostalgia for something never experienced that harps back to left-foot only shoes and rationed electricity - only Sallowism believes more in aesthetics than ideology. Sallowism has a nostalgia for late 20th Century Communism, only in Western European capitals.  Sallowism remembers posters and slogans, but forgets prisoners and The Road of Bones. Sallowism lives and breathes off disagreement. 

Like any religion, Sallowism has a hierarchy. If you have been in Berlin a while it's time to upgrade to Intermediate Sallowist Status (ISS).  

Join this popular way of life among arty Berliners and if you master it, the keys to the city will be yours. Women and men will be spellbound. Everything you say will be trumpeted like a freedom broadcast in a war zone.  Alcohol will flow freely (and for free) through your veins.

Here are a few pointers.

1. Make sure at least 75 per cent of your furniture is recycled, ripped and has spent a trunk of its adult life outside in damp conditions.
2. Wet chairs, tables or old, chunky television sets are ideal. Take them, add them to your collection.
3. Repeatedly visit abandoned factories, neglected old swimming pools and junkyards. Breweries are also worthy sites. Post ALL the photos across dozens of social networks. Comment on wall texture, atmosphere and space.
4. Own at least one dog who can open beers and bark at the Ordnungsamt.
5. Never learn German.
6. Only pay for public transport if it is totally necessary. 
7. Mumble political slogans to old conservative looking ladies on public transport with passive aggression.
8, Always carry a backpack with miscellaneous objects (including one vegan sandwich)
9. Believe the world can be saved through aid and the white man's burden.
10. Read Tip
11. Pretend you read Der Spiegel, if only to point out how conservative and obsessed with Nazis it is.
12. Drink lots of bubble tea.
13.  Eat soup (separately from bubble tea).
14. Make funny outfits and banners to be paraded at demonstrations and hung from your window or on telegraph poles.
15. Only use a lighter, your teeth or your eyeball to open beers. 
16. Carry hundreds of keys on a chain that dangles from your trousers.
17. Own a Scooby doo van.
18. Disown the Gregorian calendar.
19. Dance feverishly. 
20. Try to do as little as possible.
21. Always discuss how expensive rents are.
22. Accept absolutes.
23. Visit Beelitz
24.  Wear cardigans and of course, hats.
25. Drink Club Mate.

Friday, 8 February 2013

21: The Cold War in Berlin

One particularly grinding thing about Berlin is the cold.  This natural condition occupies the city for about seven months of the year and at first appears undefeatable - an enemy too strong who is destined to impose frostbite, colds and bronchitis despite the chemist's best efforts. But a new breed of warrior has risen from the ashes of heat to stand up to the bullying pest known as winter. Cyclists.  

This species of urban inhabitant has no age and fits no marketeer’s demographic. Snow, rain, hail or ice, light or dark, with or without helmet, these iron dragons of the sidewalk continue to peddle, regardless of how much Celsius threatens to drop his pants.

While tourists are blown through parks and across boulevards by fierce winds, Berlin grandmothers hustle and hurry the wind as if it were a pernicious child. Often gloveless and armed with nothing but a century old scarf, these men and women remind us all that winter can be defeated and that spring is more than a light at the end of a wet, cold, and slippery tunnel. 

A couple of weeks ago temperatures dropped to below -10C. This is when the warriors sparkle the most. Sure, their numbers are steadily reduced as wheel after wheel is locked away in cellars. Celsius' cruel dip merely advertises who are the real cold-munchers.

If you too wish to join this creed of weather whippersnappers, these meteorological Gods, here is a list to get you started:

1. Get a bike. These tend to have two wheels and a handle bar, but you'll want to settle for something that also includes breaks, multiple gears and a chain younger than thirty. There are ultimately two ways (perhaps even more) that you can get a bike You can try Craigslist Berlin or eBay Kleinanzeigen for a bargain. Or you can assemble one using various abandoned parts found across the city.

2. Don't wear a helmet. Research shows that drivers are more likely to be careful near cyclists who are not wearing a helmet

3. Decide whether you are a winter or summer driver. This will define what bike you buy/assemble/steal.  

4. Only stop at a red light at major junctions. Otherwise act like you own the road.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

20: A Berlin life in Apps

Because being different in Berlin is an everyday activity, you'll need to make sure you have and use the right apps, social networks and touchpads on an hour-by-hour basis. The Berlin Start-Up Scene has become the go-to place for young technical innovators in Europe, a beacon of hope for IT whiz kids hoping to one day walk in the path of Jobs, Zuckerberg, Page &co.  While SoundCloud is perhaps the most famous start-up, others are booming in its shadow.

Most of this world is run on Beta and is still in development. The apps in question tend to have a larger evil twin somewhere on the other side of the world who has already done what they are trying to do, only better. To understand these new apps, it is best that you use a Congolese touchpad and network away from Facebook - at best using ResearchGate (2.4 million users, if you're into numbers) PocketLife, Flowsee, Vamos, Moped or any other Berlin-based social network.

Berlin-based art network Flowsee. 
Whatever you do, you should be looking to try and engineer the action through some kind of local start-up app. If you're thirsty, Buddybeers allows you to send a friend an invite for a drink in any participating bars. If you don't go to bars but are sat in your bedroom dreaming of playing your masterpiece sets to thousands of adoring fans, you could start marketing yourself with YouTunez.

Of course, most of these apps and start-ups are designed to make us more interesting by delegating responsibility for basic calculations to machines.  We become more interesting by spending more money or repeating the same or old ideas through new content management systems with funky designs. Why try on clothes in a mere worldly changing room when your virtual stylist can find the latest items for you? Why throw a party when you could turn to Gidsy? Who would buy or sell on Ebay when you can sell hippy trinkets "made with love" on Dawanda?

Send your kids to school? Why bother, Sofatutor will educate them for you. 

Many of the best apps simplify the neuron process to undertake basic actions. Libraries are redundant now that Foundd allows users to search for entertainment. Other personal recommendation engines, a polite term for external generator for tired brain, include Aupeo, personalised radio based on user history, or raidarrr, for regurgitated ideas.

Some of the start-ups, rooted as they are in Central Europe, capture a collateral dusting of German efficiency: ePortrait, for example, offers a plug-in to produce cheap biometric passport-size photos from the comfort of your own home. Pure magic and fun for the whole family. 

Perhaps one of the most satisfyingly efficient German start-ups is 6Wunder Kinder, a list organizer that helps you combine your priorities: what your work dates are, what's on your shopping list and what books you've promised yourself to read. The wunderlist works like a small inner angel, sending you reminders to catch up with your wishes and desires between bouts of procrastination.  

Want to track your performance while doing all this? These guys will do it for you.
Want to avoid the Wolkshochschule and learn German online? Look no further than Babbel. A break, I hear you scream? Try Wooga and Crowdpark for gaming.

One thing you must start doing when you get into the scene is having lots of wishlists: you'll want to categorize your desires and hopes in neatly tabled cells: once you've done 6WunderKinder, move on to Toast. Make sure you share these lists as much as possible.

If you feel you haven't yet absorbed enough advertising for the day and simply must see a new way to stuff content down people's throats with subliminal messages, try Xyologic.  If you've seen too much advertising and are feeling sick with the corporate world, find a good cause, buy art and make a donation at photocircle. If this isn't enough, you could ease your burden with a well-timed charity campaign run by Spendino.

Has all that wishing and clicking made you hungry? No need to cook: Lieferheld has finally brought food-delivery comparison to the German capital.
In fact, for anything you want to buy, there are the usual price comparison sites, of which Zalando, the trendy 'vintage clothes ebay' is the most well known. 

It's not just clothes-shopping these digital plug-ins advertise to solve for you: Bettertaxi (taxi ordering), BookItNow (hotels), Wimdu (hotels), Twago (professional services), Artflakes (poster shopping). Once you've bought it all, or even while you are still thinking about it, you can tell the world about your purchasing trends using

 On an international level, the Berlin Start-Up Scene has found its niche in a lot of products aimed at streamlining businesses. Do you have a business? Great! ezeep lets you print from anywhere with one click. Other sites provide the usual hosting,  software, CMS and digital content solutions revamped according to local tastes.  And you could microblog about it all at swabr.

Berlin is too creative to ignore the arts and there are plenty of apps that help you redraw your reality too.  There is Loopcam, which turns a series of images into brief animations.  If you think you know 'the best' chisel shop, the best nugget maker or the best way to eat corn, 'the best' anything in fact, then Amen is where you go to say it. Otherwise Tweek will let you share more of your favourite TV and film preferences (Because of course Facebook, Twitter and the dozens of other film sharing forums hadn't thought of that).  The Kindle should watch its back too: Txtr has announced it will release the Beagle, "a superlight e-reader" in 2013.

If you're an evil banker with an eye for a bargain looking to buy up the whole scene, then Companisto might be the right consigliere. 

Friday, 25 January 2013

19: 'The-beef-meat-label-overseeing-task-of-price-setting-law' and other useful words

If you've just arrived in Berlin and you've started making plans to stay, read on. So far you've managed to master the U-bahn, order beer in German (even drunk or while drinking it) and find your way home in the dark. So far it is fun and Bohemian. Cheap and cheerful; Sallowist. But wait. 

A few months after you arrive in Berlin, you will need to start thinking about the few thousand pieces of paperwork you’ll need to fill out if you want to be legal. You can of course stay under the radar, bill as a freelancer from abroad, or avoid the head-vice that is German bureaucracy.

In the short term (for as long as you can wing it), this is highly advisable.

But in the long term, you will be screwed: no housing contract, no work, no benefits, no library cards, no discounts, no season tickets, healthcare -  nothing. German society will dangle before you like pearls before swine. If you want to fit in, you’ve got to fill out: You’ll need a health insurance number, a tax number, a pension-insurance-number, a registration receipt and an identification number, a VAT-exemption number, a free of church-tax-acknowledgement (a sort of tax excommunication), and a deluge more of digits and codes.

Think you can just come to Germany and be bad at paperwork? Forget it. “Sorry, I don’t speak German” will not get you anywhere in admin HQs, apart from directions to a flyer advertising a beginner level German course & more paperwork under watchful evil eyes. While Berliners do love speaking English, this is in bars or workshops, over vegan barbecues or at parties on abandoned ships. In the sallow towers of Berlin’s bureaucracy, numbers is the only second language.

Germans love precision, so naming any office is like a shooting competition for hillbillies: they have to nail it. These offices have very long names and tend to list everything they do in one long word. You’re unlikely to deal with The Junior Clerks’ Head Office at the Association of Danube Steamboat Electricians -
- but you will probably want to enrol for a German course at the Volkshochschule, the People’s Higher School or the Adult Education Centre.

German words in general inspire order and submission. The words for everything from tiny supermarket products to street signs are eerily long. Monster-words that not even dictionaries can translate loiter across German websites, ready to ridicule the beginner’s dubious knowledge; words that take hours to read, days to translate and years to pronounce. 

Trying to read anything in German is like trying to nibble on your own earlobes. While English and other languages often use multiple words together in sentences to express a concept or denote a place or thing, German just synthesizes different words into lettergasms. Such monster words are everywhere, like scaffolding, lawyers or traffic lights. 

They’re like zip files or suitcases waiting to be unpacked.  A Hubschrauberlandeplatz is a helicopterlandingplace. One doesn’t talk of a wart on a breast, but rather a brustwarze (although to be honest, from personal experience, you might want to avoid talking about both). Types of wart, drafts and annoyances (‘earworm’) have their own names in German. This tendency gets worse the more formal the setting.

The Rindfleischetikettierungsberwachungsaufgabenbertragungsgesetz, the-beef-meat-label-overseeing-task-of-price-setting-law, won’t stop you eating a steak -- yet neither will it have given the butcher who brought it to you a headache pronouncing it. Some of these words are so big you need to broaden your margins to fit them in a line on a page. Concepts that are yet to be understood in other lands have already been named in Germany, where tips for using the escalator are Rolltreppenbenutzungshinweise, or Moving-Steps-User-Guidelines.

Language and public administration are equally meticulous and delight in complementing each other’s painstaking devotion to precision. The first administrative move you’ll need to make if you plan to stay longer than three months in Germany is to register, to get your Anmeldbestätigung. Your local Bezirk, or council, will be expecting you soon and their office should become highly familiar to you --The Bürgeramt or citizen office.

You’ll need to show the Bürgeramt that you have shown a landlord relevant documents to obtain the housing contract for where you live. Without this sheet of paper, Germany will be closed to you: No video library cards, membership schemes, and most importantly, no benefits. You get a sheet of paper, the state gets another brick in the wall.

I went to my Anmeldung appointment armed with only my passport and thinking that nothing could go wrong. I told them I lived with my girlfriend, and that I had lived with her for a month. This was the truth, so I repeated it twice. 

But in fact my girlfriend was registered at her parents’ house in Bavaria, something she herself was unaware of. So when I told the Bezirksamt where I lived, they instantly new something wasn’t up. Offended at their morose faces, I insisted I meant no harm to my girlfriend or her abode, I simply wished to live with her, with her full consent and in line with German law. They asked me again if I definitely lived with her, and I answered yes. I told them I wasn’t married but that I wouldn’t let this intrude on my respect for their citizen.  A trust seemed to be developing between us, a sort of EU dream, as the council officer typed details into the computer. It all seemed to be going so well.

Then suddenly the women in the office began to talk between themselves in an incomprehensible yet clearly threatening tone. Words were being hurled like chairs over my head. Finally a finger was wagged my way holding a print out, and thinking I’d achieved the most basic of bureaucratic feats on my list, I thanked everyone profusely and left.

Two weeks later, a €200 fine for false registration arrived at our house. One can only be registered in one place in Germany – and by insisting that I did live with my girlfriend I had proven to the Office of Registrations that she lived with me and not where she had told them. The moral of the story is: Know in whose name your house is registered.

Now that you have your sheet of paper saying where you live, you’ll need to go to the Finanzamt, the tax office, and get a tax number. If you thought your first taste of German red tape was bad, you’re in for worse. 

If you work for a company, then you might just be okay. You’ll need no more than a tax number, a Steuernummer, and your employer may well sort out the rest. But don’t bank on this. You may still need health insurance.

Health insurance is compulsory in Germany, regardless of whether you’re healthy or not. If you’re self-employed, health insurance will cost you a fortune and will come to consume much of the income that you earn. Fifteen percent of my income goes on health insurance and if I had a penny for each hour I’ve put in rendering the paperwork they send me comprehensible, I’d be writing this from my palm-flooded beach at Champagne Island.  

Time to be on form.
If you find yourself wiping the tears away from your face with VAT-exemption forms, don’t forget that you are not the only person despairing. Even some Germans have picked up on how bureaucratic they are. Reinhardt Mey’s song A Request to file a Request for an Application (Einen Antrag auf Erteilung eines Antragsformulars), a parody of the impossibility of successfully dealing with German bureaucrats, serves only to remind foreigners of the pain ahead.

And it isn’t only German offices that have long names. Germans also take their nouns very seriously, so seriously in fact that they give all of them a capital. They hate the definite article; the word ‘the’ in its infantile universality is deplored for its simplicity. “It’s just too definite.” Rather they like to give the word ‘the’ hundreds of possible variations, all intricately linked to a mathematical grammar that would turn Pythagoras into a crack-peddling pimp. You will however hear yourself introduced as “the Alex” or “the John,” “the Marie,” “the Sylvia,” – or whatever.  

You are not special. This is just how Germans talk. When someone new enters a room, introductions sound like a roll call. “Ze Clara iz here! Clara, have you met ze Michael, ze Jan, ze Nele, ze Johann, ze….

Like Italian, French, Spanish and romantic languages, German uses genders. But unlike the Mediterranean languages, which limit themselves to two genders, German indulges in a third, the neutral: for rocks, machines and soulless designates of their own, you’re thinking. But if you count on intuition - men are masculine, women are feminine, sort of thing - you’re wrong. Men are masculine and women are feminine, but stop right there. Girl is already neutral.

None of it makes sense, which haunts Germans. They need to make sense of everything for they are the western world’s OCD philosophers.  Germans talk of a Weltschmerz (World pain) and Lebensmüdigkeit (Life tiredness). They have a ghost for everything, even a spirit of the age. This is a self-perpetuating vicious cycle; new words are forever formed to describe contemporary variations of previous words. Even the zeitgeist gets its own shadow ghost eventually. To keep up with old and new words, your best friends will be, the online English-German-English dictionary or better still, Friendships with Google Translate are a two-edged sword: move with caution in this respect. 

As you advance up the linguistic ladder past total incomprehension and into being vaguely understood, you will find the words that you will encounter in German have no English equivalent. Or the dictionary simply refuses to offer them up, like translations kept hostage with access only by means of a special password.

German verbs are also a slippery affair, with compounds placed together like reluctant pandas made to mate. Generally they stick together and do the job but in certain instances the compounds coldly split and are practically unrecognizable as the original verb.

So while einfahren is to drive in, Ich fahre ein is - I drive in. Remember; this is all to keep you on your toes. Particles will fly around sentences like drunken undercover agitators in search of chaos. You will spend hours plotting through these mind fields. A German sentence is like a thousand word puzzle – different pieces need to be rearranged before anything can be understood. “The joy of language is to have to work things out, not to just understand and speak be able. That is too boring, really.”

German is not one of those languages that simplifies things. For starters most things are written backwards. Nothing happens until every little last detail has been specified of when, where, why, with whom and how it will happen. The verb quite often sneaks its way to the end of the sentence, leaving you reading a load of side clauses that are incomprehensible. That is why Germans says things like “Would you like with me, tomorrow, at 20:00 hours, for film from France in the city with the friends for fun having to cinema to go and watch?”

The only way you’ll be able to survive is to sign up for a beginner German course at the Adult Education Center, the Volkshochschule. Here you will be drilled like a Dubai skyscraper in your articles and declensions, your side clauses and main sentences, your gerundives versus your datives. This is a rite of initiation for any long term Anglo Saxon or foreigner, planning to successfully move to Berlin. Millions of us have been through it, only the bravest both enrol and avoid it. If you enrol, you will be thrown into a world of German-only explanations. If you avoid it, you will forever be destined to live a shadow life at the mercy of expats. 

Just do it.