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?