Berlin, history, Life in Berlin, things to do

EXIT Berlin – Live Escape Game

“You have both been – obviously wrongly – locked in an asylum,” says Toby.

I cast a sideways glance at the Bavarian, who could probably quite legitimately be sent to a mad house.

Exit Game BerlinWe are in the ‘Briefing Room’ of a former East Berlin bunker. The chairs are hard. The map across from us shows the sprawling territory of the USSR. Most of the furniture is original, from the 1970s, when the bunker was built.

Toby is telling us how EXIT game works; we will be shown into a room, and need to solve a series of puzzles and clues to find a route out of the asylum before a madman hunts us down and, well, game over. Grand. Just the kind of game for the Bavarian and I to tackle in our lunch break.

Half an hour later, I’m sweating over a Ouija board while the Bavarian fiddles with a lock. Edith Piaf is playing, we’re surrounded by skulls and the timer is counting down on a digital display behind us.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to get out of here,” sighs the Bavarian.

“And I don’t think I’m ever going to listen to Edith Piaf again,” I mutter.

Yes, the game was more difficult than we imagined. Either that, or we’re stupider than we imagined. According to the game-masters only 66 % of players manage to break out. In addition to being brain-intensive, the game’s setting gives it an extra edge. The macabre props and oppressive atmosphere of the bunker make you feel like you’re trapped in a horrific b-movie.

It is a smartly designed, immersive experience. Mad House, the game we played, is the most popular, but I’m determined to try one of the others (Secret Prison, Alien Invasion and Hackers Home Reloaded) and win. I hate losing. Of course, that means the Bavarian and I will have to do some serious training before we attempt it. Now, where’s that Sudoku book…

EXIT Berlin can be played in English or German in groups of two or more and can be booked online.

art, Berlin, Life in Berlin, music

Soundpainting in Neukoelln

“Where are we going?” asks The Bavarian for the hundredth time.

He does that sometimes. Repeats things. Last week, he came home perplexed because two people, independently of each other, said he had autistic traits.

“Soundpainting,” I say.

“Aha,” he says, eyebrows creased, nodding gravely.

I know what the next question is going to be.

Soundpainting is a live-composing sign language. The soundpainter (composer / conductor) uses gestures to direct a musicians, actors, dancers and artists in an improvised performance. It’s a thing.

soundpainting in berlinLast night, the Berlin Soundpainting Orchestra teamed up with the Swedish Soundpainting Orchestra for a performance at NK in Neukölln. The performance was supposed to start at 8.30. At 8.30 a couple of old-timers from Afro-American jazz collective The Pyramids were talking about how 1968 was an interesting year; Martin Luther King, Kennedy, the Vietnam War. That’s what you get when you go out in Neukölln.

Thankfully, you’re also never far from a beer in Neukölln. Another couple of beers got us to 1972, Besançon,1974, San Francisco – the moderator was not doing his job. I had never heard of The Pyramids, but now I’m an expert. If you ever see them, don’t give them a microphone.

Finally, it was time for soundpainting. The performance began in the courtyard. At least, I think it began. It was hard to tell whether the musicians were just warming up. A guy made sounds crushing a plastic water bottle; another shook a colander.

The performance moved upstairs, where two soundpainters directed two different groups in different areas of the hall. Each one seemed to make sense on its own, but clashed with the other. You could walk between them, and grab a beer on the way.

Finally, we moved into a space where the orchestra arranged itself in front of the audience. There were seats. One sound-painter took charge, and something happened. It started working. The soundpainter made gestures, the orchestra followed, performers moved, stories formed from sounds.

It became clear that the musicians could play and the singers could sing. They knew what they were doing, but they were doing it with abandon – playing, plucking, banging their instruments in unusual ways, using their voices to sing, shout, whisper, murmur and make animal sounds. Everyday noises and props were brought into the composition.

Out of cacophony, emerged music. It was like walking down a busy street, and hearing a symphony drift down to you from an open window, or like listening to a radio being tuned. What was happening? And what surprising thing were we going to hear or see next?

It was engaging, funny, weird, and weirdly satisfying.

Also, it was educational. I picked up the soundpainting gesture for ‘be quiet’ – maybe I’ll start using it on The Bavarian.

The Berlin Soundpainting Orchestra will be performing with The Swedish Soundpainting Orchestra in what promises to be a special performance tonight at 18.30, at Urban Spree.

art, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, Literature

Weekend Trips from Berlin: Weimar

One of the nice things about living in Berlin is its easy connections to other towns and cities. This weekend, The Bavarian and I went to Weimar, which is a two-hour train ride away.

Weimar

Berlin may be the heart of Germany’s cultural scene today, but Weimar was once one of Europe’s most important cultural centres. It’s the home of German Classicism, Bauhaus, and renowned figures, from Goethe and Schiller, to Liszt, Liebermann, Kandinsky, Klee, Feininger and Gropius.

In fact, so many famous people have ties to Weimar that it’s littered with signs like this:

Bach, Weimar

And this:

Hans-Christian Andersen, Weimar

And you get the feeling that the Weimarians are simply showing off.

The most famous resident of Weimar was Goethe. There are so many references to him in the city that The Bavarian and I started playing the ‘Goethe-Game’, where you gained a point for screaming ‘Goethe’ every time you saw his face or name. (I would record the winner, but really, it’s the taking part that counts…)

Goethe’s Residence and the adjoining Goethe National Museum provide a fascinating insight into his life, work and ideas. He had many interests and collections – from Italian majolica to rocks – so there’s plenty to see. (Below, Goethe’s study)

Goethe's study, Weimar

As we continued to tour Weimar screaming ‘Goethe’, we saw Schiller’s residence, Goethe’s garden house, ate a traditional Thüringer Rostbratwurst at the market square (Markt) and enjoyed coffee and cake at Cafe Frauentor.

Restaurant Elephantenkeller, WeimarWe sampled more traditional Thuringian fare for dinner at the Restaurant Elephantenkeller, which is part of The Elephant Hotel (as is the Michelin starred Anna Amalia).

The Elephant Hotel is the place to stay in Weimar. It was established in 1696 and has a reputation for being a social and cultural meeting point for poets, artists and intellectuals. Thomas Mann immortalised the hotel in Lotte in Weimar and was a guest, as was Wagner, Feininger, Ahner and others.

Of course, that was why I wanted to stay at The Elephant. The Bavarian wanted to stay there because of the eggs – specifically the eggs in a glass. He had stayed at the Hotel Fuerstenhof in Leipzig once, which belongs to the same hotel group, and has been going on about eggs in a glass ever since. I had no idea what he was talking about, but when you’re married to a nutter, you learn to nod and not ask too many questions.

Hitler at The Elephant

After dinner, we prowled the hotel floors examining the Baselitz and Liebermann prints on the walls, and the exhibition about the hotel’s history – where this photo of Hitler at The Elephant was displayed – on the first floor.

We stumbled across the suites (all named after esteemed guests) and discovered that a couple with a dog were staying in the Thomas Mann suite, sending The Bavarian into a tirade about how a dog had a better room than him, although it was kind of fitting because Thomas Mann was fond of dogs.

I had to admit though, while sitting in front of my shrimp omelette topped with caviar and watching the Bavarian delicately spoon a soft-boiled egg covered with truffle foam from a little glass, that he was right about the breakfast.

– Satisfied? Will you stop going about eggs in a glass now? I asked.

– Yes. This is better than the other place – it’s a Wagenfeld glass. From now on, I will only talk of one egg, in a Wagenfeld glass.

Rococo Hall, Anna Amalia Library, WeimarDue to our early start, we were able to get a ticket to visit the Anna Amalia Library (there’s a limit to how many are sold per day, so be there early if you’d like a slot).

The library houses an impressive collection focusing on German literature around 1800, and its Rococo Hall (right) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As well as old books, there are items from the library’s cabinet of curiosities, paintings and sculptures.

The last thing we had time for before catching our train back was a visit to the Bauhaus Museum, which has a great collection of art and design works from the school, as well as information about its history and development.

If we had a little longer in Weimar, I would have liked to visit Buchenwald – a place that marks the barbarism that followed the high culture of Weimar – as well as the Nietzsche Archive, Liszt House, City Castle and the Bee Museum  – all that calls for at least one more weekend trip to Weimar.

The Bavarian’s verdict: The egg was the best.

Berlin, Humour, Life in Berlin

Things My German Husband Says

I occasionally tweet random things that the Bavarian says to me under the tag #ThingsMyGermanHusbandSaidToday which I thought I’d collect under one blog post for those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter (why not?!)…

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ear

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on chocolate

the longer stick

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little animals

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Join the fun @madhviramani

Berlin, Life in Berlin

ILA Berlin Air Show

The Bavarian is really into planes. When he books a flight, he takes the aircraft model into consideration. Sometimes, he makes me play ‘guess the flight’; we live under a Tegel flight path and the game consists of guessing where passing planes are going. I always lose because The Bavarian has memorised the flight timetable. Occasionally, he will randomly inform me if a flight is delayed.

It turns out that he is not alone. This week thousands of people went to Schoenefeld to visit ILA, the Berlin aerospace fair that occurs every two years.

ILA Berlin 2014

ILA took place at Schoenefeld, where the big new Berlin airport was supposed to open  in 2011, but due to gross incompetence is still nowhere near completion. One highlight was the Emirates’ Airbus A380-800, which, The Bavarian informs me, is used for ultra long haul flights (for example Dubai to Los Angeles). People queued for hours to see the inside, which is something I will never understand, but in the end, I have to admit that the size and capabilities of the technology on show was impressive.

There were civilian and military aircraft, helicopters, drones and satellites on display on the ground as well as spectacular shows happening in the air. Here are my ILA highlights:

 

The ILA is on until Sunday 24th May at the Berlin ExpoCenter Airport in Schonefeld.

food, restaurants and bars

Neighbourhood Italian: Mami Camilla

The Bavarian and I have recently finished watching HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and have started watching Rome. We tend to get immersed in our dramas. While watching Boardwalk Empire, which is about boot-legging in 1920s prohibition era America, we got through one bottle of Laphroig and three bottles of Woodford Reserve. Rome, set in the 1st century BC during Ancient Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire, is more difficult. In lieu of being able to buy slaves, raise armies, or crucify people, we settled on going out for a nice Italian.

This may sound simpler than buying slaves, raising armies, or crucifying people, but finding a good Italian restaurant is no easy task – even in Italy. I once stayed with an Italian family in Montalto di Castro, about 2 hours from Rome, and when we visited the capital, we did not eat. According to them, the restaurants in Rome were for tourists; most of them were not run by proper Italians, and they did not use good tomatoes. It was not until that night, when we got to the pizzeria down the road from where they lived, that we finally got to eat.

So, the rules are clear; the restaurant should be local, run by Italians and use good produce. Mami Camilla in Bötzowviertel, Prenzlauer Berg, ticks all these boxes.

18

It’s a quiet place. Simply decorated, softly lit, with solid wooden tables and background music that does not try to compete with the sound of conversation or the clink of cutlery.

The food has a strong South Italian influence; the owner is from the Amalfi Coast and the chef is from Puglia. They get special produce delivered from Italy as well as adapting their dishes to suit the season (working with berries in the summer, pumpkin in the autumn).

10For starters (between €10-15) we had burrata, an Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream, with apples, and cardoncello mushrooms baked with pecorino cheese, for the mains (between €15-25) the Bavarian enjoyed swordfish with baked red pepper and squid tagliolini, while I experienced the best ravioli I’ve ever tasted (made with rosemary, lemon-zest and goats cheese, topped with berries).  For dessert (between €5-10) we shared a tiramisu. To accompany, we had a bottle of Negroamaro Primitivo from Puglia.

pizza at mami camilla'sThe fact that everything is freshly made to a high-quality is reflected in the price and the time it takes to make certain dishes. It’s worth it, but if you don’t feel like going all out, they also have a wide selection of excellent, regularly-priced pizzas – made Neapolitan style.

There’s something for everyone, so the clientele range from couples to groups of friends and families with children. It’s refreshing to find a place like this that has a relaxed atmosphere and friendly service.

The Bavarian’s verdict: “You can say what you like about the Italians, but they know what they’re doing when it comes to food.”

Mami Camilla, Hufelandstrasse 36, 10407 Berlin, is open from Monday to Saturday 17:00-23:00, and Sunday 12:00 – 23:00. For reservations, call 030 40981537 / 0176 24686552, email info@mamicamilla.de or contact them via their Facebook Page.

art, Berlin, Humour

Villa Grisebach

Villa GrisebachOn Sunday, The Bavarian and I previewed some works that are to be sold over the next week at one of Berlin’s finest auction houses – Villa Grisebach in Charlottenburg – because the Bavarian has registered to bid in their Autumn Auction.

He dragged me from room to room and floor to floor, past stone statues from the Song Dynasty and 19th Century Berlin-made hanging crystals, pointing at things like this – “Kneipe” by Käthe Kollwitz, expected to fetch between €70,000 – 90,000:

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And yelling things like Shall we buy it? We can bid on it next week! Or how about this?”

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It looks like that guy from Boardwalk Empire. I like Broadwalk Empire. I’ll make a note of the number, he enthused at the painting above by Conrad Felixmüller, estimated at between €40.000 – 60.000, before dragging me across the road to the contemporary exhibits and settling on a Daniel Richter:

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“But don’t they check whether you can afford this stuff?” I asked.

“Nah. You just have to register online,” he said – delighted.

“But what if you bid on something that you can’t pay for?”

“Ha! We’re gonna find out soon, eh?” said the Bavarian, pulling on some white gloves and studying a Max Beckmann print…

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Then yesterday, a woman from Grisebach called him.

“She asked for bank references and stuff,” he said.

“So we’re out of the bidding game then,” I said.

“No. I told her that I was considering bidding for something in the under €3,000 category and she agreed that there was no point in checking our bank statements for such a small amount.”

“Oh, so you can only bid in that category,” I said, kind of relieved that at least there was a limit to how much damage he could do.

“No – that’s just what I told her. Technically, I can still bid on whatever I like!”

Great. Now my entire week has become a mission to distract him from this auction that he is set, not only on going to, but participating in. He’s even honed in on a particular piece he likes by Berlin artist Georg Tappert (1880 – 1957), called called “Clown and Girl”, which appropriately sums up our relationship:

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So  if you don’t hear from me again, it’s because I no longer have a computer, or a home for that matter, and the Bavarian and I are out on the street, sheltering under our newly aquired Sigmar Polke.

Berlin, food, Life in Berlin, restaurants and bars

Top Five Burger Joints in Prenzlauer Berg

Oh dear, I’ve been neglecting the blog. Apologies. My first children’s book is coming out in a couple of weeks and The Bavarian and I have been very busy. One of the things we’ve been doing is conducting some research. A survey in fact, of burger places in Prenzlauer Berg…

5. Stargarder Burger, Stargarder Straße 75, 10437 Berlin

Stargarder Burger Prenzlauer BergThe main reason this place made the list is the price. You can get a burger, chips and drink for €6 – bargainous!

There’s plenty of choice, including a couple of vegetarian options, but nothing mind-blowing.

The Bavarian says, “Average burger, average chips, average burger place.”

4. Kreuzburger, Pappelallee 19, 10437 Berlin

Kreuzberger Prenzlauer BergBerlin’s very own burger chain. The first one opened in 1996 in Kreuzberg and now there’s one in Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg too. They have a wide range of burgers and many are named after different areas of Berlin – Charlottenburger (with Haloumi), Oranienburger (with fried egg), Prenzelburger (with salami, jalapenos and cheese)…

There’s also a selection of vegetarian burgers and, if you feel like something different, burritos and hot dogs.

The Bavarian says, “Try the Bavarianburger!”

3. The Bird, Am Falkplatz 5, Prenzlauerberg 10435

The Bird Prenzlauer BergThis burger and steak joint has been popular since it opened in 2006. It’s run by New Yorkers and in true American style, the portions are hearty and the staff friendly. They make everything from scratch, with good quality products. It’s always packed, so if you’re planning to go, book ahead or be prepared to wait. When we went, there were no vegetarian options, so I ended up with a big plate of chips. The chips were good. According to my fellow researchers, the burgers were also good but overpriced. Overall, we felt the place was overrated.

The Bavarian says, “To save money, take a vegetarian or someone on a diet.”

2. Burgerie, Schönhauser Allee 50, 10437 Berlinburgerie prenzlauer berg

In Prenzlauer Berg fashion, the burgers in this place have been robbed of their greasiness and made wholesome with a dash of je ne sais pas . They are made on a lava stone grill (I have no idea what that is) with organic ingredients and all that lark. The thing is, the burgers still taste great. Highlights include the French Burgy (with Brie and Cranberries), the Whiskey Burger Pikante (with spicy Whiskey-Sauce and red onions) and, if you’re really hungry, the SuperBurgy de Chef (double beefburger with grilled chicken strips, bacon, cheddar cheese twice and a sauce of your choice). There are a variety of vegetarian and fish burgers and the prices are reasonable.

The Bavarian says, “The most politically correct burger I’ve eaten.”

1. marienBurger, Marienburger Straße 47, 10405 Berlin

marienBurger Prenzlauer BergIt’s steamy and small, but if you want a good, honest burger, this is the place to go. You can see your food being made, you’ll get yelled at when it’s ready, the portions are good and the prices low. Highlights include the Chilli-Cheese Burger, the marienBurger and the vegetarian grünkernburger.

The Bavarian says, “The original burger, no fuss.”

Berlin, Life in Berlin, music

Clubbing in Berlin

Despite the fact that we live in a city renowned for its clubbing scene, the Bavarian and I hardly ever bother.

Thank god that Berghain has just this week fallen off the top ten list of best clubs in the world to place no. 13, so now when people ask us how come we’ve never been, we can wave a casual arm and say, “Oh the Berghain is so passé…”

There are many, good reasons we stay home and dance around the living room instead of going out: we have a good stereo and all the music we like, we can get drunk on better quality alcohol and for cheaper, we can fall straight into bed once we’ve had enough, we’re married and not getting younger…

However last night we broke the rule and went to Cassiopeia. It seemed like a good idea when we planned it – who can resist old school hip hop – but as the date approached, the thought of leaving home at 10 p.m., then going for drinks for over two hours, then making our way to the club – because of course there’s no point in arriving before 12.30 a.m – made us anxious in a way Mickey Flanagan describes below:

However, once we were out, it was all okay – we even had fun. The Bavarian, who is absolutely a morning person, was a bit confused at some of the sights Friedrichshain had to offer at night; “Why is that man reading Karl Marx outside a bar at midnight?” “Why have so many people got beards?” “Why are those people climbing up the side of that building?” “But seriously, that guy, reading Marx – is he really reading, or is he just posing?” “Do you think anyone’s ever stood outside a bar in Friedrichshain and read Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’?”

And then, at three o’clock in the morning, when we were leaving the club, a new mystery presented itself – people were queuing, actually queuing, to get in: “Why is everyone going in now?” “What have they been doing thus far?” “How long are they going to stay out for if they’re just getting here now?” “Aren’t they tired?” “Don’t they want to go sleeping?”

Now I know that three o’clock is a ridiculous time to leave a club, but I can’t help it – where I come from, clubs used to wind down around three, and you found yourself on the pavement by four, so I’ve been pre-conditioned stop dancing and start making my way home between those hours. I even dragged the Bavarian home at four on our wedding night (ignoring pleas of “but I like this song!”) while our friends continued celebrating till breakfast.

Leaving early, however, does have its benefits – when the Bavarian wakes up at seven a.m. in his usual chirpy mood, which he is bound to do no matter what time he went to bed, it’s just about tolerable. Any less sleep, and I would have had a problem with him singing Wir Feiern Die Ganze Nacht at the top of his lungs in the shower this morning. Which makes me think, maybe we should start going to clubs first thing in the morning – after all, they run continually from Friday evening till Monday morning in this city. People coming out of the club would be as awed by us as we were by the people going into the club when we were leaving last night – and to top it off, I’d have the Bavarian by my side, who is so energetic in the mornings that everyone would wonder what rock n’roll cocktail of drugs could produce such a high…

food, Life in Berlin

Supermarkets, Socialism and Chocolate Biscuits

McVities Dark Chocolate DigestivesIn England, you can stroll into a supermarket and pick up almost anything from star fruit to various Indian pickles, Quorn products, tortillas, short crust pastry and frozen, well, everything really.

Here, I’ve had trouble at various times locating; canned chick peas (which are currently stocked in the exotic foods section at the Kaiser’s in Schönhauser Allee Arcaden, and are sometimes available in supermarkets, sometimes not), passion fruit, Mexican food products that I can buy without ending up in the same financial predicament as Italy, Weetabix, mint sauce, maple syrup, frozen sweetcorn, sweet potatoes, decent tea like PG Tips…Things that I consider pretty basic, but are obviously not.

So now I consider recipes very carefully before deciding whether hunting down the ingredients like a cave person of the Ice Age is actually worth it. And, when guests from England come over, I request gifts of self-raising flour, salt and vinegar crisps and dark-chocolate covered Digestive biscuits.

When I was a child, we used to visit India with suitcases stuffed with Cadbury’s chocolates and cheddar cheese, but this stopped several years ago. “We get everything here,” they said.  And they did. Deutschland has not yet reached the same level.

The Bavarian loves it when visitors come bearing gifts. My cousin recently brought with her four packs of Chocolate Digestives. We finished them in one week. (That’s 1.6 Kgs, and around 8000 calories.) I say we, but mostly it was The Bavarian, who stuffed a whole one into his mouth at a time, as one would a Pringle. If anyone out there has attempted to stuff an entire Digestive into their mouth, you’ll know that it’s almost impossible. Even The Bavarian, who has a big mouth and a talent for stuffing as much as possible into it, was struggling. I watched him for a while, to see whether he would catch on to the fact that these things had to be nibbled, or dunked into tea and bitten, but after while I felt it was my duty to intervene.

Me: Why are you eating them like that? They’re not Pringles.

The Bavarian: Because they’re only safe from you once they’re in my mouth.

In our flat, it sometimes feels as if we’re living during wartime, when luxury goods are in short supply and people resort to hoarding or gorging whenever they get their hands on some. I like to think that The Bavarian’s paranoia is not caused by my voracious appetite, but by some kind of collective consciousness inherited from being born in a nation that has suffered two world wars; when his grandmother passed away, they found stacks of food stored not only in the kitchen but in wardrobes and under the bed.

Despite the fact that most supermarkets are useless, they seem to be opening up at the same rate as Bubble Tea joints in Prenzlauer Berg. Within a mile of where I live, there are no less than fifteen supermarkets. This year, Prenzlauer Berg saw the opening of Germany’s biggest Vegan supermarket (Veganz, Schivelbeiner Straße 34, 10439 Berlin) and Kochhaus (Schönhauser Allee 46 10437 Berlin) .

kochhaus berlinKochhaus’s products are organised around recipes. At each table you will find a suggested dish – carrot and ginger soup, spaghetti carbonara etc – along with all the ingredients you will need to make it, a little card to take home with the recipe on it, and any equipment you may need – so in the case of the soup, this would include serving bowls and a hand blender.

At first I was flummoxed as to why anyone would shop here…it’s über-expensive (on the board at each table, it tells you the cost per dish per person, which averages out to about 4 or 5 euros, for which you might as well save yourself the hassle and eat out in this city), and restrictive – you can only buy stuff that relates to the dozen or so recipes they suggest, everything is sold in small quantities measured out for two or four servings, and there is only one choice of product per table – so if you need salt, you’re going to have to pick the only bottle of salt on the table, which is pink and from the Himalayas and has been blessed by the Dalai Lama and is therefore more expensive than gold.

On the surface, this supermarket can be seen as a symptom of just how far Prenzlauer Berg has moved from its poor Socialist past, but essentially, being given just one choice of product per item harks back to the days of shopping during The Wall.

According to Barry Schwartz, who gave an interesting talk at TED about the paradox of choice, the official dogma of all western societies – that if we are interested in maximising the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximise  individual freedom, and the way to maximise freedom is to maximise choice – is paradoxical because people don’t actually like having too much choice. It produces a) paralysis – a study of voluntary investment plans showed that for every ten mutual funds the employer offered, the rate of participation went down two per cent – and b) if we overcome paralysis and make a choice, less satisfaction, because the more options there are the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option you chose.

This is all very well and good, and maybe the people of Prenzlauer Berg are happy with less choice, but it probably means that we won’t be seeing any Chocolate Digestives in the aisles any time soon 😦

art, Berlin, Life in Berlin, politics

Exhibition Opening: Compass, drawings from MoMA New York

twombly, Kompass Zeichnungen aus dem Museum of Modern Art New YorkThe Bavarian, ever since deciding that we ought to buy some art for the flat, has been insisting that I refer to him as A Collector of Contemporary Art. I wouldn’t mind, if it weren’t for the fact that he has collected exactly zero pieces of art thus far. As usual, unlike a normal person, he has gone completely over the top with this art-business; we’ve visited artists’ studios, planned a trip to Leipzig (home of the New Leipzig School and Germany’s thriving art scene), and most ridiculously, he has convinced a gallery to DHL us a couple of paintings to hang in our flat while we decide whether we want to buy them or not. They arrive today.

It’s due to this new obsession that we attended the opening of Compass, a collection of 250 drawings from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York, curated by Christian Rattemeyer from over 2500 works aquired by Judith Rothschild between 2003-2005 and subsequently donated to the Museum.

Penis Hat, Paul McCarthy, 2001, Compass MoMAThe title of the exhibition – as well as referring to the compass as a drafting tool – reflects its aim of representing geographically distinct artistic centres; London, Glasgow, Los Angeles, New York, Cologne/Düsseldorf and Berlin. It features a wide range of artists including Jasper Johns, Georg Baselitz, Robert Rauschenberg, Hanne Darboven, Jeff Koons, Mona Hatoum, A.R. Penck, Donald Judd, David Hockney and Martin Kippenberger, bringing together historical, minimalist, abstract and conceptual works, detailed narrative drawings, collages and large-scale installations. The works range from the 1930s to 2005, providing a panorama of the state of drawing today, and are displayed in the freshly renovated rooms of Martin Gropius.

AereiThe Bavarian, due to his other obsession – planes – was particularly impressed by Alighiero e Boetti’s Aerei (left) and Mona Hatoum’s map of flight routes. He was unimpressed by the fact that the wine was not free, and that we had to sit through some boring speeches before getting to see the collection.

On the subject of speeches, the American ambassador made one and I was shocked to discover that he speaks German like a two-year-old. Yes, that’s right; the American ambassador to Germany cannot speak German because, unlike Britain and Germany who choose their ambassadors based on sensible criteria such as political experience, knowledge of the language, culture e.t.c, the Americans simply give these positions away as thank you notes. So it turns out that the US ambassador to Germany, Phillip Murphy, is a former Goldman Sachs banker who gave a massive donation to the Obama campaign. I never knew that…

Compass – Drawings from the Museum of Modern Art New York is open from 11 March to 29 May 2011 at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Niederkirchnerstraße 7, 10963 Berlin

bureaucracy, Life in Berlin

Getting married in Berlin

Apologies for the gap between posts – I’ve been spending long hours at the Pankow Rathaus (our local town hall) recently as the Bavarian and I have decided to tie the knot. As always in Berlin, there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved.

Pankow RathausThe first hurdle was figuring out what documents an English person and a German person need in order to get married. The Bavarian tried phoning, but could only get through to a central number where they insisted we had to come in to find out. It would be too much to ask for all the information to be easily accessible on a website, but they did have a contact email address – hooray! Except when we emailed, they replied to say that we should come in…

This is where Germany really differs – nay, lags behind – England, where you can do almost everything via the web from watching last week’s episode of EastEnders to paying your council tax. Here, they prefer paper and face to face contact.

So we went in. For some reason all these offices have really odd opening hours – this one is only open on Mondays and Tuesdays 8.30 – 13.00. They probably do it to generate queues. We waited in one for almost two hours before we got to see the nice lady who asked us why, actually, we had not brought all the stuff we needed with us.

I don’t know what prerequisites you need to work at the Rathaus, but being a dimwit must be one of them. We explained the situation, showed her our passports and she started reeling off list of stuff we had to provide:

  • A newly issued copy of both our birth certificates
  • A translation of my birth certificate by a Berlin-state approved translator
  • A print off of both our registrations in Berlin that is less than 2 weeks old
  • My passport
  • The Bavarian’s ID
  • My visa that shows I can live and work in this country

As you can see a lot of this list is bullshit. The first question we asked her was whether she knew that the UK was a member of the EU which meant that I could live and work here without a visa. She nodded vaguely and moved on. The translation is also a waste of time and money because the English words that appear on a birth certificate are few and basic- mother’s name, father’s name etc. But the biggest stupidity of all is asking for a print off of our registrations in Berlin – why? We registered as residents in Berlin, we already waited in a queue to give them our details which they tapped into a computer and that office is literally just down the hall from this office – it’s incomprehensible. Anyway, it meant another wasted morning at Pankow Rathaus.

Pankow Rathaus before the queuesBy the time we had gathered all the bits and pieces we needed, The Bavarian was having feverish dreams about a book filled with names of people ahead of us in the queue at the Rathaus, so he woke me up at 6 o’clock on Monday morning to ensure that we could be at the top of the list and that he would make his 2 pm meeting. I think we overdid it a bit because we were there at 7 am, and there wasn’t even a list to sign. The photo shows the normally packed hallway…

Although we had all the required documents there was an issue with the fact that I have a second name that I do not use. The only place that my second name appears is on my birth certificate, which means that my birth certificate and my passport don’t match exactly – something that the English aren’t bothered about but that the German bureaucrat cannot bend his mind round.

We finally managed, after signing various things, answering questions, taking oaths, paying etc etc to submit all our papers. Now we just have to wait for about a month for a court to check the documents before we can book a date and go to the Rathaus again to get married…No wonder the rate of marriages in Berlin is so low.

Germany, history, Life in Berlin

Berlin vs. Munich

Every time I mention the fact that my other half is a Bavarian to a Berliner, they raise their eyebrows and ask how he’s getting along. It’s condescending, this idea that a Bavarian in Berlin is some sort of lederhosen-wearing in-bred farmer holding a weiß wurst in one hand and a weiß beer in another as out of place as Crocodile Dundee in New York.  I tell them that he is getting along just fine, which he is – he likes the laid back atmosphere, the brunches, the culture, the coffee places, the cinemas and drinking beer from the bottle on the U-Bahn. Why shouldnt he?

What I failed to understand was that the Berliners were not merely being condescending in their reaction – they were being nasty. When we went to a Skunk Anansie concert in Berlin a while back, Skin informed the crowd that they were performing in Munich the following night: the crowd booed magnificently.

The obvious reason for this antagonism is that Berlin and Munich are completely different. Even the swimming pools are different, as we discovered today when we visited the Spreewaldplatz swimming pool in Kreuzberg. The Bavarian was devasted to discover that there was no bubbling hot-tub that he could laze in, and that the only thing for him to do was swim. It was not only the lack of big slides and water refuges of over 30° that caused him to mumble “everything’s better in Bavaria” but the fact that you had to stick a Euro into the lockers instead of those little plastic entry coins you get in Bavaria, and little coins into the hairdryers as he used to do as a child. Coming from England, where we have functional swimming pools, I’m more or less delighted by every single German swimming pool I visit, but I have to admit, the swimming pools in Bavaria are the best.

Like most things, it comes down to the fact that Munich is rich, while Berlin is poor. But the differences are endless; Munich is pretty, Berlin is a building site; Munich is conservative, Berlin is liberal; in Munich everything opens early, while Berlin eases itself into the day; Berlin is significantly more multi-cultural; Munich is significantly more Catholic….when I asked a school-friend of The Bavarian’s whether these differences were the reason behind the Berlin/Munich divide, he simply shrugged and said that the Münchners didn’t really bother hating the Berliners too much – they had better things to do.

So what prompted the open-minded peace-loving Berliners to rage against the Münchners? It’s the war, stupid.

Munich was the birthplace of the Nazis. Hitler was popular there, while Berlin had always been a leftist city. In fact, Hitler hated Berlin – it was Goebbels’ idea that the new government should set up in Berlin. As a result, the city was damaged by air raids, and especially by the Battle of Berlin. After the war, Berlin suffered once again when she was split among the allies and consequently the divided by The Wall. While Berlin paid for Munich’s mistakes over decades, Munich prospered – and still prospers now, while Berlin, the great building site, is in ruins.

bureaucracy, Life in Berlin

Why German bureaucracy is worse than Italian bureaucracy

The German and I had just picked up a coffee table and boarded a tram.

At this point I have to correct myself, as The German dislikes being referred to as The German and insists on being called, at the very least, The Bavarian. This is because although Bavaria is technically part of Federal Republic of Germany, the Bavarians hardly think so – they have their own bureaucracy and even central government bureaucrats are divided into those who deal with Bavaria and those who deal with the rest of Germany due to the long and bureaucratic history concerning the sovereignty of Bavaria involving Napoleon, its status an independent kingdom, mad kings and all sorts of nonsense – that, however, is another story. The German shall now be referred to as The Bavarian.

Back to the tram. We get on, settle the table down, then stamp our tickets. Immediately, a man asks to see our tickets. We show him our valid tickets, but he refuses to accept them as, according to him, we stamped them too late. We haven’t even got to the next stop yet, and it’s taken us all of 20 seconds to stamp the tickets, we protest. There are now two ticket inspectors in front of us, protesting otherwise. We get off at the next stop – table and all – to continue the discussion on the street.

The Bavarian, waving madly at the coffee table on the pavement, explains that we stamped the tickets as soon as we were able, and refuses to give them the 80 Euros they are asking for. The ticket inspectors, as blind to the table as to any sense of reason, issue us with a fine. The Bavarian asks for their names; they explain that they do not have names but are identified by numbers. We note their five digit numbers down, as well as the telephone number for the BVG office, and carry the table the rest of the way home.

The man on the other end of the line is apologetic – apparently the BVG have outsourced the job of checking tickets to a bunch of morons who work on commission, and to dispute the claim we have to go to the BVG offices in Jannowitzbruecke. I suspect, however, that ticket-checkers have always been morons, outsourced or otherwise. The protagonist of Berlin Blues describes the ticket-checkers of 1989 as “intolerably loquacious men in ill-fitting uniforms” – a definition that still stands.

The next day we go to the office – a long grey room packed with people all waiting their turn to dispute their fines. We take a ticket and find a somewhere to sit. We are number 589; the board displays number 544, and only three counters, of about ten, are open.

This is the type of thing that one would expect in Italy. It is precisely because one does not expect this of the Germans, who are supposed to be efficient, reasonable people, that makes it even worse. Additionally, in Italy there would at least be a lively atmosphere – the Italians would be shouting, gesturing, smoking and drinking espressos in a situation like this.

Anyway, while we are waiting to be seen, it might be illuminating to give the reader some information about the BVG (Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe: Berlin Transportation Company). Most of the S-Bahn trains it runs do not work as they neglected to do regular safety check-ups for the last few decades. These line closures are also related to the fact that Deutsche Bahn (DB), of which the BVG is a subsidiary, want to float on the stock market and need an increased profit to do so. The achieve this aim, they’ve decided to f*** the BVG up the arse for as much money as possible. Again, this reeks of the way things are done in Naples.

Our number is called. The woman behind the counter looks stupid like an ox. Every movement she makes and every word she says is slow and drooling, as if she is a hippo finding it hard to move in the oppressive heat of the Sarengetti. The Bavarian explains the situation. She takes it in, in her own time, then asks, “A table?” The Bavarian replies “Yes, we were carrying a coffee table.” She stands, slowly, goes off and come back with a massive book. We watch her reading the contents and opening it up to the relevant page. After a minute she declares, “Hmmm, yes, you are allowed to carry heavy objects, including furniture onto the tram.” She then looks back at the book, and reads on in silence for another twenty seconds or so, as if it’s one of her favourite novels that she occasionally re-reads passages from. She eventually gets up, replaces the book and comes back to the window.

The Bavarian guides her back to the matter at hand, which prompts her to go to the massive filing cabinet behind her and look for the report filed by the ticket checkers; it is not there yet. Despite being presented with our valid tickets, explanations etc, she cannot make a decision until she has looked at this report. She promises to call us back by the end of the following day. The Bavarian asks for her name; she provides us with a five-digit number. I’m beginning to understand why Kafka could only have come from the German-speaking world.

The next day, we go to register as residents in Berlin at offices that are, rather disconcertingly, located in an ex-stasi building. For some reason they open are business at 11 am. We get there at ten to eleven and find that we are already number 67 in the queue. We are led into an office with lots of filing cabinets that are labelled 102.27.892 – 202.76.334 etc etc, and the nice lady asks us lots of questions like “What is your address?”, “Is it in the front or the back of the building?” “When you reach the top of the stairs, do you turn left or right to get to your flat?” It’s a tiring business, but we manage it.

Exhausted, at the end of the day, I remember the ox. “Did she call back?” I ask The Bavarian. “No, not yet,” he sighs, “The Prussians aren’t as efficient as The Bavarians.”