[berlin stories]      
[©by crysta gonzalez 1999-2001]      
[el freitag]      
[party time]      
[all you can eat]      
[bargains galore]      
[a day at the park]      
[SchwarzSauer] *new*      
[hast du feuer?]      
[bassy] *new*      
[die nachtigall von ramersdorf]      


              El Freitag              
              Claustrophobia: The gripping fear of being enclosed with no way out. The fear of imprisonment, of suffocation, of being in a bad relationship, of being stuck on an elevator for days on end with fifteen stinky obnoxious people. It's a fear I've lived with ever since I awoke one morning in the bottom of a sleeping bag, being dragged around the house by my older siblings. It's a fear that prevents me from entering dark closets or cleaning out from under the bed. It's a crippling fear, and one I am learning to overcome, one Friday night at a time, in the bowels of the Earth, in a nasty, dingy, smoke-filled hole without a name or address that has come to be known as 'El Freitag'.

My first experience at El Freitag was a breakthrough in many ways. Not only am I somewhat claustrophobic, but I am also hindered by severe night-blindness, which enables me to sleep with my eyes wide open, and also opens the door to a number of potential hazards: falling down flights of stairs, walking through glass doors, sleeping with people I don't know, peeing in the kitchen...the list goes on. I had no idea what I was getting into when I was invited to go there, but it had to do with a boy, and, well, we'll overcome a lot of things when it comes to boys, right? He poured me a glass of red wine, chatted me up, and then asked if I would join him to meet some friends in his favorite bar. It sounded innocent enough. 

As we wandered in the dark, through a gate, and across a vacant lot, I became suspicious. Tripping over holes in the ground and invisible rocks, we eventually reached a darkened door, where I could hear the whispering voices of strangers in the night, and I wondered to myself if my cold, mutilated body would be found the following day, and whether someone would be able to identify my remains. As the door opened, and a candlelit stairway led us into what seemed to be purgatory, the warm smoke-flavored Salsa music flooded my ears, and my legs stopped shaking and started dancing instead. Then my lips kissed an icy-cold Caiphirinha, and I dreamed I'd left the cold winter in Berlin and had entered the southern hemisphere.

The world of El Freitag is not for everyone. Tall people, for example, are certainly not at ease in this locale, its arched ceiling being at its highest point about six and one-half feet (two meters). Folks who are sensitive to smoke shouldn't even consider it without the aid of an oxygen tank. Clean freaks would be horrified at the scary sludge lurking about beneath their feet, or the occasional mystery matter which falls from the ceiling, not to mention the absence of toilet paper or soap (hey, at least they finally have indoor toilets!). The multi-national clientele at El Freitag would certainly keep any racists at bay, except in the case of brutality (I hope it never comes to that). Anyone expecting to hear 'I Will Survive' wouldn't . Fashion enthusiasts would find no one here to impress. And, yeah, people who are claustrophobic would feel like crying and screaming. 

Why? One might ask, would I subject myself, week after week, to such a form of mascochism? Well, aside from being perhaps a bit masochistic, I've come to look forward to its lively otherworldliness. There's a mystique about it that is perhaps similar to the speak-easy of the 1920's when fun was taboo (making it, of course, even more fun!). In comparison with the otherwise reserved, respectful, 'clean' world of the Germans, it's a departure--a mini-vacation. It's summertime in the dead of winter. It is a ritualistic soul-cleansing practice to navigate my way through the brush, the rocks, the scary monsters I can't see, into a black smoky pit of sweaty warm bodies, where one is more likely to get felt up than not. There I can 'get my Ya-Ya's out' without doing anything immoral, illegal, or life-threatening, save for breathing the noxius El Freitag air (which, by the way, could be used to repel mosquitos and muggers alike), and then emerge into the cool morning light with a new respect for the world above, and a profound appreciation for simply being able to breathe. I consider it a form of therapy to help me overcome my claustrophobic tendencies. 

Now about that dreaded fear of snakes........

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              On Saturdays in Berlin, one wakes up very late. If you get up at, say, 9:00 a.m., you'd better just roll over and go back to sleep, or have a sex fantasy, or ponder the meaning of life--and here's why: The grocery store.

All the boys who have jobs go to the grocery store on Saturdays, because during the week, they just don't have time. The catch is--and one must keep this in mind--the boys who are the most fun stay out all night and don't even think about getting up before twelve-noon on Saturday, so if you go too early, you'll only see men with families, or responsible housewives, or boring people who don't stay out all night, and your whole shopping experience is worthless. Don't get me wrong --

I mean, you might find what you need in the dairy case, and most likely there will be ample amounts of produce to choose from, but you're not going to see the boy with the crumpled-up clothes on that he passed out in (or threw off) at 6:00 a.m., who's hair has that 'just-crawled-out-of-bed' look, who's eyes are still only half-way open, and who is, of course, adorable.

One doesn't get 'dolled-up' for the grocery store on Saturday. Even if you stayed home on Friday night reading the damned phone book, you'll want to have the appearance of someone who stayed out all night having a good time. It is best--no matter how difficult--to go to the grocery store before having that first cup of Joe. Remember:

You want to look sleepy. It is best not to even consider combing your hair or brushing your teeth--we're striving for bad personal hygiene here.* A bra is not recommended, nor is anything resembling a cute outfit. Something you find lying in a heap on the floor will do nicely. It is especially good if you wear things that don't match, and if your panties stick out a teensy bit. The best time to go is between 12:30 and 3:00; after that, everyone goes out for Milchkaffee or has breakfast at home. Of course, there are always 'stragglers', who come running into the store minutes before they close at 4:00, slide up to the bread counter in hopes of getting that last couple of Brötchen, and then race to the check-out line before the tired, angry check-out lady throws a chain across her aisle and says she's closed, so they can buy cigarettes. These people have a desparate, shell-shocked expression, like victims of a house fire or a nearby explosion. They don't have time to check you out, so it isn't worth going slouchy just for them. I mean, for those of us who actually enjoy being well-groomed and don't normally go out in public looking like orphans, it better damned well be worth the effort!

It's good to buy as few things as possible, and to make them interesting--multi-colored designer condoms, a prison magazine, maybe some beer, and green toenail polish, for instance--and act as if you couldn't live until Monday without having purchased those special items. You'll want to avoid standing in the check-out line next to the girl with the bright pink hair who is six-feet tall and weighs 90 pounds.

You'll definitely see her, or her equivalent , on a Saturday at the grocery store, with her navel ring and furry pink shoes (which match the hair perfectly). Oh yeah, she's slouchy too--but Achtung! She is also 19 and gorgeous. You should always stay within your league! Try to stand near old women or fat people, so that in comparison, you'll look great (keep in mind that the pink-haired girl is going to try to stand near you, and avoid it at all costs--even if it means hiding behind a pregnant woman until little miss thing is gone).

Being a vegetarian is somewhat of a drawback at the grocery store here. After all, the pick-up lines regarding meat are always the most provocative. Let's consider the possibilities: You cosy up to the the cute sleepy-eyed boy with his shirt on inside-out and the wrinkled up khaki cargo pants ( with the underwear peeking out the top), and say something clever, like, 'Could you help me out? I'm trying to find a good sausage, but I can't decide between your's and that big one in the case.' If you act innocent enough and bat your lashes, all he can do is smile. It doesn't work as well with carrots.

*Please note: Bad personal hygiene should only be practiced on the weekends--and then only before 4:00 p.m. Do not try it for long periods of time, or else even the garbage man won't look twice!!

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              Party Time            
              Precision. Organization. Neatness. These are among the traits that come to mind when we consider the Germans, and rightly so. They are indeed proud to be recognized for keeping things 'in Ordnung'. Given such a reputation, it isn't so often that one remarks on yet another very German characteristic –- their ability to reject all of these things in order to throw a good party. Many are indeed surprised to find that the Germans, however reserved they may normally be, tend to loosen up considerably wherever beer, snacks and loud music are on the agenda. 

Of course, the preparations of the party are well planned and organised. One must purchase four to six crates of beer, which means shopping before the stores are all closed. Then there’s the matter of preparing snacks, which could take a whole day, not to mention re-arranging the furniture to allow for a dancing area, and the entire cleaning process which must also take place. Some kind of decoration is also required, whether it is colorful balloons, streamers, or strings of Christmas lights (most often all of the above). A table for the DJ (whoever it may be) is also a requirement.

Like everywhere else in the world, the parties here always begin in the kitchen. If the living room holds up to 60 people and the kitchen holds only three, all 63 will cram themselves into the kitchen regardless, until all the food is gone and they are drunk enough to dance. At this point, all but three or four will filter into the living room and begin their journey into the party zone. The people who stay in the kitchen (and there are always a few) discuss philosophy, politics, the latest trends in computer software, ingrown toenails, and how they quit smoking. The people in the party zone all smoke and have no interest in the other topics. Most people will dance, at least at some point in the evening, but there are also those who prefer to watch the others make fools of themselves while sitting in a chair and drinking themselves into a stupor.

There are specific rules regarding the music, which I believe to be required by law, as they apply to every single party I have so far attended: 

1. Whatever the selection may be, it must include 'I Will Survive', 'YMCA', and at least one hit from Abba.

2. One of the above mentioned selections must be played repeatedly throughout the evening.

3. It must be loud enough to be heard across the street.

At some point in the evening, usually around 4:00a.m., the guests start to look different. Maybe it's due to massive beer consumption, or perhaps it is because strange people have simply wandered in. Here's a clue: if the guy you're dancing with is having an intense conversation with himself, shaking violently and pulling out his own hair, chances are he wasn't invited. It's really okay though, as long as he doesn't do anything crazy. The cute boys in the matching green outfits with the hats and handcuffs always show up, but they never stay very long because the music is too loud or something. Wimps. The kitchen people are still discussing something very serious, for which there is no real conclusion. The music becomes decidedly banal, but somehow very funny. Someone has already passed out regardless of the noise, and usually in a strange place, like in front of the refrigerator or on the dance floor itself.

By 6:00a.m., the hosts will have disappeared, and most of the guests will have headed home. The last hangers-on who haven't passed out will be involved in some heated discussion about the instinctual habits of turtles, or still dancing despite their having to step over the guy on the floor. Someone will try to make coffee, which will be invariably spilled all over the kitchen. The vegetable dip will become an ashtray. The sunlight will stream in, the last candles will burn out, and the last phase of the party becomes surreal enough that the only suitable music is something by Frank Zappa. 

When all is said and done, two balloons are left remaining on the wall somewhere, the streamers lie crushed on the black, sticky floor, which is by now strewn with beer bottles and broken glass. A poster on the wall is half burned from a badly placed candle. The sink is filled with paper plates, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, and someone's shoe. The last remaining guests stumble out, except the guy in the kitchen, who is still sleeping in front of the refrigerator. There's nothing precise about it. It isn't neat. It isn't organized. It isn't the slightest bit 'in Ordnung'. It is a real Schweinerei. But a German Schweinerei, all the same.

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              All you can eat              
              Early on a Sunday morning, there is not a soul on the streets. It's as though the whole town picked up and left in the night without even leaving a note. Eventually, at around ten-thirty, the flea market enthusiasts begin to appear, in hopes of finding that perfectly wonderful, much sought after piece of crap to drag home. About this time too, a line begins forming outside of the tiny shoe-box-sized bakery where you can get croissants fresh out of the oven that taste as though you flew to Paris to get them. The bakeries have only recently begun opening on Sundays, and are only open for a couple of hours, so if you were late on Saturday getting to the grocery store, you've still got a chance to buy bread. Most people don't make it, because Saturday night was just as crazy as Friday night, and they all got home minutes before the bakery opened at 7:00 a.m. The good news is that unless you're a big LOSER, you don't breakfast at home anyway on Sunday--you indulge in that weekend tradition known as the breakfast buffet.

The Breakfast Buffet is a ritual more widely attended than church or the flea market, and there is, of course, a definite protocol. Most people do at least shower before going to brunch, but it isn't necessary in all cases. The thing to keep in mind is that it is still the weekend, and you still want to appear as if you did more than clean the goo from between your toes the night before. This means that even if you did shower, you must find something very effortless (and wrinkled) to slip on that looks as though you stayed over with a friend and had nothing else to wear.

No one arrives at the breakfast buffet before twelve noon, and no one arrives alone, unless they are meeting with a group of friends. Any group of people less than three is simply unheard of and is frowned upon in most circles. The only way to avoid any embarassment in this situation would be to look anxiously about for the 'others who were supposed to meet you there', and eventually sit at the bar to order a Milchkaffee. If you're lucky, you might actually see someone you know, and join them. If not, just find a table that is not over-capacity enough, and pretend to know the people sitting there. 

One thing to keep in mind is that the restaurant itself must be cool. There is stiff competition in the world of Sunday breakfast buffets--no restaurant in Berlin would be caught dead without one--but even if it only costs five marks and they're serving Russian caviar, you don't want to go there if they have plastic chairs or a lotto machine. Just keep those bike pedals turning until you get to the one with the line out the door. 

Setting up a time to meet is generally pointless, except that it must be after twelve. Most breakfast buffets are so crowded that a group of hungry guests can expect to wait at least thirty minutes to find a table, and then another thirty to order coffee. Groups of people generally sort of evolve; two people in a group leave, and three more arrive to join the remaining four, of whom two more leave, and then one single person joins the remaining group, etc.... This process can go on for hours. Please note: IT IS IMPORTANT FOR YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS TO TAKE UP AS MUCH SPACE AS POSSIBLE. There is an art to fitting more people around a small table than capacity dictates, and your group will be admired for the effort. 

Upon finding a table, the next phase is the impatient wait for coffee, during which you and your friends look around to try to locate the apathetic girl with the short dyed-black hair and navel ring who will at some point mosey over to take your order, which she already knows will be Milchkaffee for everyone, but enjoys the feeling of superiority she gets by making everyone wait. Finally she arrives, at which time, half of your group goes to raid the buffet, leaving the others to guard the long awaited table and wait for the Milchkaffee to arrive. 

The buffet itself is a delightful array of breakfast treats, which differs from place to place. Some have lots of salads, some have huge trays of fresh fruit, some have grilled vegetables, but they all have the basics: Eggs (boiled and scrambled), breads of different kinds, Würstchen, salmon, cheeses of all sorts, Müsli, Rote Grütze, Joghurt, and condiments a-plenty. The goal is to put as much stuff on your plate as possible, being careful not to lose anything on your treacherous hike through the overfilled dining area back to your long awaited table, to then eat everything you were able to carry over (except for that weird pink stuff you thought was jello and the Brötchen that fell on the floor), and to repeat this process at least two times. It's almost like an event at the Olympics.

After the feeding frenzy, you and your friends must wait thirty more minutes for the apathetic waitress to return so you can order another Milchkaffee and leisurely visit while watching the line of impatient, hungry people waiting for a table grow even longer. Finally, after realizing you've been there for three hours or more, you look around for the black-haired girl, whom you finally spot on the other side of the room talking to the group of friends she'd rather be breakfasting with than working as a stupid waitress, and for whom you will have to wait another thirty minutes. It takes up a good part of your day, but that's the price you pay for local culture.

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              Bargains Galore              
              We all let it happen sometimes. We call our friends too late on a Saturday, after they've all gone out somewhere, and we fail to make a plan. Scheiße. That means standing around alone in a bar trying to look cool, and visiting pointlessly with people who don't want to talk to you, because they came with their friends. That means dancing alone to 'I Will Survive'. That means feeling awkward, as if you're under a spotlight, and going home early. Which means waking up before noon on Sunday. Which means all of the friends who would be meeting you at a breakfast buffet are all still asleep, because they did make a plan, and they were out until 7:00 am. Don't panic. The weekend isn't ruined. Just pretend you wanted it that way so you could go to the flea market.

Eat something first. You'll need a little substinance to fight the crowds. Besides that, the smell of old grease and bratwurst on an empty stomach may cause severe psychological problems. I recommend heading to the little shoe-box sized bakery for fresh croissants, and maybe a couple of Schrippen (that's Berlinerish for 'rolls'). Then go home, turn on some music, make some coffee, and relax.

You've got the whole day ahead of you (see, don't you feel a little superior to those friends who are still in bed at this hour?). After your breakfast, put on some skanky shoes, and head over to Arkonaplatz.

Oh sure, there are lots of flea markets in Berlin. Everybody knows about the giant mega-tourist-trap at the Tiergarten S-Bahnhof, and the hugely popular mounds of useless electronic equipment at Treptower Park. Then there's the 'Get-the-hell-away-from-my-merchadise' flea market on Museumsinsel, where they apparently try very hard not to sell anything. Don't make yourself crazy. The flea market at Arkonaplatz is the best for three very good reasons:

1. It's not in the tourist guides.

2. It's near the beautiful Zionskirchplatz, which boasts a number of cafés to head to when it begins to rain (and it will).

3. It's small, thus making it easier to spot the Freak of the Day.

No flea market is without its freaks. Where do you think they get those crazy outfits--at the mall? It is a personal challenge to seek out the Freak of the Day, which is never very easy, because the criteria goes beyond mere appearance. Attitude plays a large role as well. For instance, you might spot the tall pale guy with the blue hair who's wearing pink satin hotpants and a lacy bra on the outside of his military jacket, and think to yourself, 'Yep. That's the one.' But wait. What about the woman who stands on the corner each week, covered entirely with her own handmade greeting cards? I am not certain if she sells them, or if this is performance art.

What about the relatively normal looking woman who's haggling for used panties? Or the hairy guy who's selling the used panties? You see? Choosing a winner can take a good deal of time and concentration.

Of course the standard reason for going to the flea market is to save money, right? The best way to start saving money, is by not bringing very much in the first place. Large amounts of money at the flea market are dangerous. Suddenly it makes perfect sense to buy a green taffeta ball gown and some kind of electronic device with a massive red lever on it. Here are some guidelines. If something (other than furniture) costs more than a cup of coffee, you don't need it. If it is too big to carry home, you don't need it. If you don't have a ball to go to, you don't need it. If the massive red lever doesn't do anything, you don't need it. But a few hooks, or a roll of tape might be useful. Or maybe that stuffed dog with no ears, or that garden gnome lamp, or that thing--what is that thing anyway? Oh sorry. I got carried away.

About the time you have spotted the Freak of the Day, and spent your last allotted two marks for some rub-on tattoos, it will begin to rain. This is a perfect time to go over to Zionskirchplatz with your flea market treasures, and find a place to sit down with a milchkaffee, while of course, coveting the guy across the room who bought the garden gnome lamp. That bastard. Who knows when you'll find another one like it? Probably never. That's when you realize it's the hairy guy who was selling the used panties.....

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              A Day at the Park              
              When the sepia-toned sky of winter gives way to sunny blue, the city bursts forth into a canopy of magnificent green foliage, which provides a more inviting backdrop for the otherwise mournful apartment buildings with their gray patina of coal smoke and age. They become charming, antiquated, historical--anything but bleak. Pale-faced denizens filter out of their urban hovels, seemingly unable to believe that spring has arrived. Once certain that, indeed it has, they naturally head to one of the many parks that the city has to offer.

Despite its complete devastation in favor of fuel during World War II, the Tiergarten is once more a convenient paradise for both tourists and Berlin residents. Once within its sprawling borders, one feels as though he has left the city entirely and has entered the deep forest of Hansel and Gretel renown. In the Tiergarten, one may sit on the banks of the river where the bodies of famous anti-faschists Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht were once discovered, only to see waterlilies floating quietly on its surface, without a hint of its grisly past. One may observe the occasional bunny, or the assortment of water foul, or the array of brightly colored flowers. One may breathe in the fresh sweet-smelling air. One may bicycle slowly down winding paths. One may look out upon entire fields of naked men who are also looking out upon the fields of naked men, sunning themselves and trying to seek out their next afternoon prospect. One may cook-out. One may join a group of volleyball enthusiasts. One may kiss one's lover in a quiet alcove. One may search high and low, and still never find a soul there who lives in my neighborhood. Here they prefer things a bit on the edge.

The edge is, namely, the border between what was east and what was west. Although many parks lie within a ten minute walk from my apartment, most are largely avoided by local residents. Kollwitzplatz is a small park, frequented by the new yuppie faction that seems to have taken over this picturesque area. The park on Weinbergsweg is well-kept, but empty all the same. Arkonaplatz is only full on Sundays, when the local flea market rears its ugly head. All are forgotten, save for the one and only Mauerpark--a monument to freedom, which in all its sparsity, is the public place to see and be seen.

Mauerpark (translated 'Wall Park'), was built just before my arrival in Berlin. It is situated on the site where Prenzlauerberg and Wedding converge, and where they were formerly very divided by the infamous 'Death Strip'. The charm it holds has apparently nothing to do with aesthetics; the park is neither well-kept nor in any way other-worldly. It has few trees to speak of, and the few there are seem scrawny and somehow sporatic. A steep slope begins its decline on the eastern border, punctuated at its highest point by several adult-sized swings where one can view the rooftops of Wedding while being in motion. A piece of the wall serves as an ever-changing backdrop which is perpetually being covered in new graffiti. The hill, which is never mowed or in any way groomed, is covered in spring with an abundance of wild flowers and interesting weeds, which grow uncontrollably despite the amount of garbage littering the soil. Grass is sparse. The bottom of the hill is marked by a long cobblestone street which runs the length of the park. On the other side of it, large marble blocks surround ill-defined spaces which interrupt a long narrow field where impromptu soccer games often take place and where large dogs without leashes roam freely. At one end of the field is a small cluster of carefully planted Birch trees, standing proudly behind a colorful playground. At the other end, the stoic marble blocks form a stair-stepped entry of sorts into the park itself. From the hill the view consists of these elements, along with the various scrapyards which border the western edge of the park. 

What charm does it hold? At face value, the park appears more like a vacant lot than a public space. The view is dismal, the layout is ill-planned, and the ever-increasing amount of litter is a definite health hazard. One must carefully make one's way over broken bottles, empty cans, bottle caps, banana peels, dog shit, and other discarded items, all the while trying not to slip on the sandy patches of dirt between random clusters of grass and weeds, which could send one toppling to the bottom of the steep hill only to collide with the hard cobblestone street below or be attacked by a large confused dog without a leash. One is surrounded by curious looking people with tattoos, piercings, pierced tattoos, unnaturally colored hair, dreadlocks, and occasionally musical instruments to boot. Entertainment consists of the occasional soccer game, erratic dogs, people throwing frisbees, graffiti artists, musicians, boys without shirts, and arguments between drunk people. 

I can't quite put my finger on it, and yet, here I sit, very often, pen in hand, taking in this spectacle, basking in the sun amid clouds of purple wildflowers, the distant rhythm of a conga drum pulsating like the heartbeat of a dog without a leash, running freely, and living on the edge.

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              My life is perfect in every way. No, really, it is. I work very little, sleep a lot, live in the best city in the world, and get to do pretty much anything my limited budget might allow. Rent is laughably cheap. I have health insurance. Each weekend I go out with multitudes of friends. I have a nifty cell phone. Everything I need is accessible by bike. As an added plus, I have finally put on those twenty extra pounds I was so hoping for, thus saving enormous sums of money on any skimpy new fashions I might otherwise have invested in, which will be out-dated next year anyway. Another bonus is that I can easily avoid the onslaught of advances from handsome witty men I might otherwise have to endure, thus reassuring myself that once again, I have prevented any kind of 'relationship' from creeping up and destroying my quiet time at home with the cats.

Each year at the end of March, however, I take a short break from my life of bliss, and indulge in something I like to refer to as my 'suicidal semi-annual depression' (SSAD). One moment I am reading the paper and sipping on a latte macchiato, the next I am way beyond considering whether to do myself in, but rather, am on to pondering what technique I should use. Jumping from a twenty-foot bridge onto the tracks of an oncoming S-Bahn would be by far the most sure-fire method, but how creative is that? Donating both lungs at once would be very benevolent, I suppose, but after having spent so much time in tiny smoke-filled places, would anybody want them? Perhaps heading over to Kreuzberg on May 1st to taunt a group of intoxicated punks would be more interesting — at least for the onlookers.

The reason for this sudden change in attitude remains unclear, despite its cyclic recurrence. Perhaps it is due to the 14 months of winter which precede it. Maybe it’s some unfulfilled wish, like becoming a flamenco dancer or joining a circus. It could also be that it is tax time* again. (*Note: I am referring to American tax time. Even with terms like Solidaritaetszuschlag and Arbeitnehmeranteil am Gesamtsozialversicherungs- beitrag, it is far easier to understand the German tax form than it is to follow the pointless, but mandatory kind from my own homeland. Each year I package all my information up and send it to a woman in Maryland who charges my entire annual salary to fill in the blanks, because I, along with about 500 million other idiots, am far too stupid to understand what they are asking me for, let alone what form to use. And I have a Master’s degree....but I digress.). Whatever the cause of my despair, however, I was recently struck by the mad desire to French kiss a light socket, and turned to my neighbor / psychiatrist / dearest friend, Dirk for a little guidance. His advice, 'Shut up and deal with it', was well thought out and in keeping with the basic German credo of medicine and psychiatry. 'Your life is perfect in every way', he said, 'and you sound like a three-year–old.' One can always rely on Dirk’s professionalism and outright honesty.

After dizzily recovering from his brutal frankness, I came to the realization that I had perhaps taken the wrong approach. Then it occurred to me, that there was a time-tested solution just a block away from my apartment. An institution which goes by the name of "SchwarzSauer". The name itself says it all: black sour. At any time of day or night, it is possible to bring your bad vibes to these neighborhood professionals who have served the people of Prenzlauer Berg continuously for more than ten years. This place offers something for all manner of individuals. I have seen extra-terrestrials seeking comfort within its confines. The methods of treatment vary according to the type of depression one is suffering from. The most-preferred tactic for those who are overlywintered, for instance, is to sit outside on the terrace even when it is snowing and simply pretend it is springtime. Those suffering from a nicotine deficiency are generally found sitting inside, under a permanent cloud of bluish smoke. Privacy is not an issue, as in most cases, the personnel will treat everyone with the same degree of indifference. You don’t need any kind of special added benefits package prior to admission -- in fact you don’t need any health insurance at all. The only thing one must provide is a reasonable amount of patience and 2€ for a Milchkaffee.

SchwarzSauer is not only a respite for the occasionally suicidal, but also provides a host of other valuable services. Those wishing to meet new people find this practically unavoidable, as the place is invariably packed. Fashion victims need look no further than across the bar to see what kind of thong underwear is currently the rage, as the wait personnel is careful to stay current on these important trends. Information is always available to anyone looking for local activities. Two large windows looking out onto Kastanienallee insure a great source of entertainment, as do the multitudes of neighborhood crazies and street musicians who come in to scream, perform monologues, play musical toenail clippers, or sometimes even sing. The coffee is fantastic and cheap. You can have breakfast any time of day or night. There’s beer on tap, and a cigarette machine, too. The place is never closed. What more could one hope to find?

To be quite honest, there are numerous bars and cafés in Prenzlauer Berg which offer up the same amenities. Some even boast a pinball machine. But for the most part, the others don’t hold a candle to the amount of business SchwarzSauer generates. It is truly mind–boggling. On a pleasant summer day, the terrace is excruciatingly packed with customers, while at the bar adjoining it, two or three people will be lost amid a sea of empty tables. These people are generally a) tourists b) clueless c) unaware that they are not at SchwarzSauer and d) frustrated that they can’t seem to get the attention of the scantily–clad waitress. The reason for its success above all others is unclear, despite the yearround near nakedness of the wait personnel. In its nebulous early stages, there were literally no alternatives, as the former eastern–block neighborhood was mostly deserted. At this point however, it has simply become a matter of tradition for its patrons. It is somehow reassuring to walk into the place and see the same people sitting at the bar day after day. The regulars don’t really mingle, but do seem to acknowledge one another’s presence. There’s the afore-mentioned extra-terrestrial, adjusting his face while his eyes swivel chameleonlike in their sockets. Across the room is the smiling clone who reads, smiling constantly. I don’t use the term clone loosely, by the way. The same guy is reading and smiling at Haliflor, another neighborhood coffee house, every time I pass it. At one corner of the bar is the man with the crazy duct–tape outfit which cleverly matches his live-in van parked outside. Then there’s the entirely normallooking guy who looks like he might actually have decent employment, except no one knows what it might be, as he is literally always at the bar. The rest are people between the ages of twenty and fifty from all walks of life; the young and trendy who spend hours trying to make their hair look like they just woke up, construction workers covered with plaster and dust, zombies, journalists, and those trying to prevent themselves from swimming with electrical appliances. On that note, I think I’ll step out for a Milchkaffee.

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              Hast Du Feuer?              
              Gesundheit is the name of the game in this country. The law of the land, in fact. Evenings at the grocery store are spent trying to decide between the last two mangled heads of lettuce or whether to take the four apples that are left, even though they're a little bruised. That's because the produce section has been ravaged by healthy people in search of roughage. Oh sure, they eat snack foods, too, but you can forget about trying to find anything as decadent as a Cheetoh. They've invented something that looks similar, but it is peanut butter-flavored, and is most effective as a form of punishment. As a whole the Germans look healthy, too, because in addition to eating right, most involve themselves in some sort of athletic activity. Most young people have bicycles to avoid having to take the U-Bahn, however other sports, such as swimming, Fussball, basketball, public demonstrations, and unadulterated all-night rodeo sex are popular as well.

Many precautionary measures are taken to protect the health of the general public. Dangerous chemicals, such as rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, iodine, sodium bicarbonate, as well as heavy drugs, like anti-bacterial ointments and aspirin, can be found only in the local pharmacies, which are generally open from 10:00am to 3:00pm (being closed, of course from 12:00 to 2:00 for lunch). These highly controlled substances are also outrageously expensive, and generally require a prescription. Aspirin come in a blister pack of ten, which costs more than soup and salad at a nice bistro. To avoid addiction or extensive health problems, one-half of a tablet is the recommended dosage. One takes an entire aspirin only during emergency situations, like the loss of a limb, or the inability to aquire a cigarette.

Close your mouth. It's shocking, but it's true--these folks love to smoke. Smoking, at least in Berlin, is not just another habit. It's a lifestyle. In fact, most restaurants do not include a "no-smoking" section, although they may have a "no cell-phone" section. People smoke after jogging through the park or playing basketball. They smoke while riding their bicycles and talking on their cell-phones. They smoke while shopping, working, eating, and perhaps showering, although the logistics seem impossible. They smoke while escaping from housefires or filling the car with gasoline. It's difficult not to stare, but coming from a land where smoking has become the ultimate taboo, it seems oddly inticing, daring--even risqué.

Because smoking is such a part of society, the availability of cigarettes is staggering. Keep in mind that the shops in Germany must, by law, close at 8:00pm, after which a certain few convenience stores are allowed to open until midnight. After that, one can forget about buying milk, water, bread, condoms, tampons, cat food, chocolate, or any other potentially necessary items, unless one finds a gas station nearby. One must simply be organized enough to aquire these things beforehand. However, cigarettes are always accessible, due to the convenient vending machines, which are located on the street, every one-hundred meters or so, to insure that no one has to endure the next eight hours without a smoke.

Many who are immersed in the hazy blue world of smoking prefer to roll their own cigarettes. It is apparently cost-effective to do so, but more importantly, it is an impressive skill--a dying art, so to speak. As of yet, there is no Olympic competition for cigarette rolling, but there is little doubt that the Germans would win in such an event. Those who are well-practiced roll cigarettes that look perfect, while amateurs generally prefer to buy the store-bought ready-mades. It is by no means necessary to learn such a skill, but those who make their cigs from scratch get to carry cool accessories to enhance the experience. Old metal tins, rolling papers in colorful packages, worn leather pouches--these items help to define one's personal style as much as the type of tobacco they choose to smoke, and the variety is vast.

The act of "lighting up" is, of course, essential for anyone who smokes, and despite the number of candles in any given bar, the most often asked question still seems to be "Hast du Feuer?". It is a strange phenomenon to be sure. Although the Germans are known for being organized, no smoker is looked upon as an idiot for not having a lighter in his caché of smoking accessoires. By not having one, he or she has the perfect excuse for speaking to a stranger, an act far more appealing than using a candle. Besides, the fire from a lit candle is considered to be unhealthy, and is generally frowned upon in a social setting.

A few industrious businessmen have capitalized on the evident shortage of lighters by going from bar to bar, selling them from a briefcase. The selection is mind-boggling enough to appeal even to a non-smoker. Upon being asked, the vendor will gladly give a thorough demonstration of each and every one of the fantastically designed lighters he has brought with him, from the fire-breathing deer to the naked woman with the flaming crotch. He will have extras tucked away in case the display model is worn or scratched. The prices are also variable, and one can generally find a few bargains in the mix. In addition to cigarette lighters (some of which are quite massive), these clever salesmen also have butane, batteries, key chains and laser pointers on hand. Where they keep it all is a mystery.

There are those who do try to quit smoking from time-to-time. Of course, the definition of "quitting" varies from person to person. It may simply mean that they've quit buying cigarettes, preferring to borrow them from others for financial reasons. It's not uncommon to hear one explain how he has just quit smoking while at the same time rolling a wad of tobacco into a perfect tube of paper, quitting, to him, being only a theory. For some, quitting smoking means to "cut down", essentially, going from two packs a day to only one pack, becuse that isn't really considered "smoking". Those trying to quit are generally in a very bad mood. Pay attention to the warning signs, as these people are potentially violent. If the guy next to you at a cafe keeps lighting his fork, do not smoke in front of him. Avoid anyone who collects pencil shavings at the office and rolls them into post-it note paper during meetings; and if you see someone crawling on the floor looking for half of a cigarette, do not under any circumstance, offer him your fire-breathing crotch.

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              My childhood was spent in a hot, dusty village in west Texas, where water was scarce and rattlesnakes and pistol-waving religious fanatics were numerous. This little town, called Buffalo Gap, consisted of one gas station / grocery store combo, one elementary school, one traffic light, eleven acres of land designated for the legal sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, and three churches. I am telling the truth. In keeping with the standards of our community, my family attended one of these said churches several times a week. It was here that I learned of the evils that were lurking about in the big wide world, and what kinds of things to avoid if I didn’t care to roast in hell. These included lying, stealing, adultery, murder (unless, of course, it was a matter of military duty, capital punishment, or seeing to it that nobody set foot on your own private property), smoking cigarettes, and worst of all, dancing.

Musical instruments were tolerated outside the church, but never within its confines.

There were no apparent restrictions concerning matters of personal grooming, as two particular standards remain forever unchanged in the state of Texas : a.) The bigger the hair, the closer to God, and b.) Every old barn looks better with a fresh coat of paint!

At the age of seven, my perspective on the world changed dramatically, as I was invited to friend’s house to play. First of all, I had never been inside a trailer (or mobile home) before, and was only aware of their lack of permanence and ability to attract tornadoes even when the sun was out. Secondly, I had never before set eyes on a creature like my friend’s mother. She stood no taller than I, smoked like a diesel truck, and used language that would have embarrassed a sailor. Despite her big hair, I knew right away that these were not "church people". The thing that would utterly make me question my beliefs, however, would happen over the course of time, as I would spend a great deal of my days playing at my friend’s home. Her father, the tallest, skinniest, meanest-looking cowboy I have ever seen before or since, talked me into standing on his feet, as he glided across the living room to the droning tunes of Tammy Wynette and George Jones, which always seemed a part of the atmosphere in that household. This is how, unbeknownst to my family, I learned to dance the two-step.

During those renegade teen-age years, while my friends were out fornicating or experimenting with drugs, my biggest thrill was to sneak out of the house and go down the street to the town square, where on summer nights, live bands would play outside, while hosts of cowboy boots would shuffle across the sawdust-covered pavement to tunes like "Walking the Floor Over You" and "Lovesick Blues". Although I was a bit of a hippie in those days, I loved dancing the "Cotton-Eyed Joe" and the "Schottische", and being guided to and fro by some tall, half-witted farm hand. I only got caught once, but it was a rather humiliating situation, as my whole entire family showed up to witness me tongue-kissing a smoker, after which, I was escorted home by the whole lot of them. Thank God we weren’t dancing at that moment!

Now, I am not generally homesick for Texas. On the contrary, I am happy to be far away from those well-armed zealots and conservative attitudes. Having lived in other places, my life has been enriched with culture and the acceptance of new ideas. I find Berlin to be the most tolerant, agreeable city I have ever lived in -- a place with something for everybody. It is for this reason I should not have been so surprised to find a genuine honky-tonk just a few blocks away from my front door. For those of you who may not be familiar with the term "honky-tonk", I will do my best here to explain. It is not just a bar, but a seeedy one, with dim lighting and a certain degree of tackiness. Honky-tonk denizens are, for the most part, tattooed truck drivers with bad teeth and big-haired women with names like "Tammy" and "Candy". These are the places my mother warned me about, while reminding me of how my reputation would be ruined if I ever set foot into one, which is exactly why they remain so fascinating. Therefore, I was ever so excited to find this place, Bassy, which calls itself a "cowboy club", despite the apparent lack of cowboys.

Bassy is, of course, not exactly like being in Texas. For one thing, people still smoke in there. For another thing, it stays open until the not-so wee hours of the morning, so your fun time can last ‘till the cows come home. The music is not strictly country & western, but a fun mix of boogaloo, mambo, blues, rock & roll, bluegrass, folk, beat, and rock-a-billy, generally recorded between 1950 and 1965. Classics such as "Sixteen Tons" and "King of the Road" can be counted on, as well as exotic foreign –language versions of "Bonanza" and "These Boots are Made for Walking". One of the DJ’s, who goes by the name of Maya Lansky, has begun introducing gems from my past, like "Cotton-Eyed Joe" (which no one knows how to dance to, to my dismay), and "Orange Blossom Special". Nobody in their right mind would think of playing anything from George Michael or Britney Spears, which is all the more reason to love this place. The only Tammy is the owner, who can most often be seen in his cowboy hat and undershirt, looking like an even manlier version of George Clooney. Yes, his name is Tammy. No one’s ever approached him about that to my knowledge.

The first time I set foot in Bassy, I felt right at home. A mean - looking stuffed Coyote stands guard above the door, near a short row of old metal lockers along the wall. Adjacent to these stands the bar, where two people are trying their best to quench the thirst of the masses. One is a very cute baby-faced girl in an old beaten-up hat, and the other is either an equally baby-faced boy, a guy with two-toned hair, or a handsome man about my age with a knowing look in his eye. Next to the bar, on a small platform, is the DJ stand, where the likes of Maya Lansky, Captain Twist, and DJ Mytch keep us all smiling and flailing about. Forrest Gump wanders around in his plaid shirt and high pants, keeping the place in order by picking up the stray beer bottles, trying to avoid being trampled or maimed by the rowdy dancers. The walls are decorated with old rusty signs and pin-ups from a time when women were still proud to have hips. At the far end of the dance floor is a stage, where live bands come each week to perform. I have seen a wide range of interesting musicians, from "Heinrich der Wolf" (the German Johnny Cash) to "The Tiki Tiki Bamboos", a Japanese surf band whose male members wore afro wigs and flowered dresses. When the bands are finished playing, those who are so inclined spend the rest of the night up on the stage playing "Kicker", what we Texans, amusingly, call "Foosball".

Oddly enough, as an American, I have never been inclined to claim any kind of national pride. What for? I was simply born there. Even more specifically as a Texan, all chances of this said pride were squelched the minute our current president took office. I was very proud to leave its boundaries and discover worlds beyond. Only since my discovery of Bassy, has it occurred to me that there is also something positive about my heritage. Through its extreme prudishness, my homeland has produced a wonderful by-product: the veritable "den of iniquity", which has been re-created in good old Berlin--a place I can still sneak off to in the night, sporting an old cowboy hat without shame (I even get in for free if I put it on!). I can even feel a little bit delinquent, as Bassy is an unofficial locale. It’s everything a honky-tonk should be. A revised European version, sort of, where men can even dance together unharrassed. Perhaps this is the thing that keeps me going, week after week, to a place where the songs of my childhood take me back to my roots, and Johnny Cash is the patron saint. Yahoo!

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              Deutsch is by no means an easy language. In fact, under the right circumstances it can be used as a means of effective punishment. Not knowing how to commu- nicate, however, is rather frustrating, and the pre- sumption that "they all speak English over there" is, in a word.... wrong. When a person plans to stay for an extended time in Germany, it is only logical that he or she should learn a few basic sentences before venturing over. It's good to be able to ask for direc- tions to the restroom, how much something costs, and what in the world that thing on your plate is, but more importantly, one is expected to understand the rules and regulations concerning one's stay. The running gag is that no one, not even the Germans themselves, can possibly understand the laws concerning foreigners in their country.

Here's a quick overview, for those who wish to give it a try:

  1. Before one is allowed to stay more than three months in Germany, one must obtain an Aufenthaltsgenehmigung. (It takes the entire three months to learn how to say this word.)
  2. In order to obtain the Aufenthaltsgenehmigung (visa), one must obtain a job.
  3. Before obtaining a job, one must obtain an Arbeitsgenehmigung (work permit).
  4. Before obtaining an Arbeitsgenehmigung, one must obtain an Aufenthaltsgenehmigung.

Despite the madness, many foreigners do come to live in Germany. The reasons vary, of course, but be it for love, money, or education, the starting place is the same for everyone. Well, sort of. At the Auslaenderbehoerde, one realizes that to the German bureaucrats, not all foreigners are equal. There are two waiting areas; one for people from wealthy countries, and one for people from poor countries, and apparently, the rules regarding length of stay differ according to which waiting area one enters. An American, for instance, after five years, has the right to live and work freely in Germany without a limited visa or work permit, while someone from Vietnam must wait seven years for this right. The foreigner, upon receiving his or her Aufenthaltsgenehmigung, must pay a fee for it, which also seems to vary according to the limits attached, how long one has lived in the country, or how the processor is feeling that day.

After receiving a visa, one is then faced with the difficult task of finding work. This requires a good deal of patience, given the ever-increasing unemployment rate. The surprising scarcity of jobs is attributed to several aspects of the German lifestyle: overqualification due to long-term studies, great unemployment benefits, and the fact that nothing is ever open. Because of the unemployment rate, the citizens naturally have priority to any job available. The good news is, few of them would actually apply. One word of warning: almost every field of work requires three years of study, despite the banality of some.

Experience matters little without having completed an "Ausbildung", even if you're a chimney sweeper. Having cleared the hurdle of finding a job, here is what you will need to do to get the Arbeitsgenehmigung.

Step 1.
Go early in the morning to the Arbeitsamt nearest you to pick up a form for your employer to fill out.

Step 2.
Draw a number from one of the machines in the waiting area and wait for it to be called.

Step 3.
After you are summoned, show the processor your number and passport, explaining carefully that you need a form for an Arbeitsgenehmigung.

Step 4.
Go back into the waiting area and draw a number from the correct machine.

Step 5.
After you are summoned a second time, repeat step 3.

Step 6.
Find out from the processor which Arbeitsamt does have this form, and get him or her to circle the address.

Step 7.
Race to the train station to get to the correct Arbeitsamt, which will be closing in fifteen minutes, and is ridiculously far away.

Step 8.
Go home empty-handed, because the doors were locked seconds before your arrival.

Step 9.
Call early in the morning to find out if they can help you before making the long trip a second time.

Step 10.
Go back to the correct Arbeitsamt, and repeat steps 2 and 3.

Step 11.
After receiving the form, take it to your employer to be filled out.

Step 12.
Take the completed form to the Arbeitsamt at the end of the universe, and repeat step 2.

Step 13.
After being summoned, present your passport and completed form to the processor.

Step 14.
Repeat step 7.

Step 15.
Repeat step 8.

Step 16.
Repeat step 10.

Step 17.
Repeat step 13.

Step 18.
Take the form back to your employer, who has failed to fill in every single blank on the form.

Step 19.
Repeat steps 12 and 13.

Step 20.
Wait four to six weeks. In the meantime, however, it will be illegal for you to actually earn any money.

In the event that you should change jobs, repeat steps 1 through 20.

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              Die Nachtigall von Ramersdorf              
              I'm not what one would call a celebrity spotter. During my days in New York, famous people were on every street corner, but not that I would notice. My friends and colleagues were always a little annoyed at my lazy enthusiasm. What? Gwenyth who? I would ask. Really? That was Barbra? To tell you the truth, I've never seen any famous person do anything to set him or her apart from us normal folks, and I guess that explains my lack of interest. The performers who did catch my eye, were those whose names nobody knew. These were the street preachers, the free-lance UFO spotters, and the countless others who were simply written off as "crazies". My favoite of these was a woman, who for all practical purposes, I will call Sadie.

I first saw Sadie sitting in a diner on 57th and 6th Ave. She began in a normal tone, explaining to the cook that the sign was crooked. "If you'd just raise that chain on the left one link, it would be straight. Just one link. Right there on the left side. You see? It's crooked now. But if you'd just raise it one link then it would be straight." Her voice escalated. She then made a dramatic transition and began reminescing about Easter, referring to it as a "moveable feast". Her enunciation was perfect, as was her projection. Everyone heard her very clearly. It was at this time that she left in a theatrical fit of anger, throwing the door back open to exclaim "I'll bet every tit and pussy is a moveable feast for you!" My heart raced. I wanted to give her an ovation for this performance. Afterwards, my Sadie sightings became highlights of my life in the Big Apple.

Say what you will about the deranged. In my view, crazy is relative, and the line between normal and crazy is a thin, fragile one indeed. If a mad outburst in a public space is uncomfortable, consider this discomfort as a break from the norm, and a reminder of who we are. This is the salt and pepper which spices up an otherwise overcooked and flavorless society. It puts things into perspective a bit. For instance, is it really sane for someone to spend the largest percentage of his or her life doing something mundane? Probably not, but most people accept a boring job which they hate, yet continue doing for thirty years. What about this obsession with celebrities? Do we really need models to aspire to, as if we weren't okay already? The so-called crazy people in our society laugh in the face of our rules and principles, and for this they have my utmost admiration. They may be worried that snails are taking over the world, but I've never once heard any obsessing over their thighs.

After my move to Berlin, I soon began scoping the neighborhood for unusual people. Aside from my own personal "freak of the day" contest at the Sunday flea market, I would also spend warm afternoons sitting at outdoor cafés, watching the melànge of neighborhood denizens go by, and being pleased by the mix. Once, while sitting at one of these cafés, I witnessed a woman around sixty-five years old, wearing barbie-doll pink from head to foot. She smiled cocquettishly, and then began stomping her feet and scolding everyone there, for what I still don't know. She screamed and pointed at each of us, ending her enthusiastic outburst by lifting her skirt and mooning us all. I haven't seen this woman since but I am still admiring her for having that kind of nerve. It is this sort of thing that keeps me wondering why on earth Madonna is famous. Would she do that? I don't think so. Not in pink.

I love Prenzlauerberg, because the people are so colorful and so accepting. The mentally ill sort of blend in to the already circus-like atmosphere, so instead of being shut out, they sort of become mascots for the neighborhood. There's the guy with the second-hand clothing store who speaks in tongues and screams at potential customers that his shop is "not some flea market", as he hangs the merchandise outside in the rain. There's the very serious man with the beard who looks very angry, but who wears a little flowered house dress over his normal clothes each day. There's the small drunkard with the thick black monobrow, who staggers up and down the street balancing a beer can on his head with perfect ease. Then there's the most famous of all, "die Nachtigall von Ramersdorf, bekannt aus Funk und Fernsehen". This is his introduction. It means "The Nightingale from Ramersdorf, of radio and television fame".

The "Nightingale" is about seventy-five years old. He is never seen without his signature wig and a nice lip color, although he no longer has any teeth. He wanders into cafés and bars, not only in Prenzl'berg, but all over the city, and introduces himself. Then he sings old German show tunes in a lovely falsetto--even taking requests from time to time. After each performance, he asks for spare change, and anyone who refuses to pay up is then loudly reprimanded. He is famous, don't you know! I have often heard the nightingale sing. Not at Barclay Square, but at many of the local hangouts, and even in a furniture store where I was working in Charlottenburg! I have also had occasion to speak to the nightingale from time to time. Once, he admired my handwriting as I was making diary entries at a local café. It was then he explained to me that he was indeed very famous and had spent his life on stage and screen.

The last time I saw the nightingale, it was in the evening, on the corner of Eberswalderstrasse and Kastanienallee. I was walking home from a friend's house, when he stopped me to ask for some spare change. Always being one to support the arts, I dug in my pockets, but found no change. I explained that I only had my keys and a lipstick at present. "A lipstick?" he asked. "What color?" I said, "it's very dark", as I presented him with the half-used tube of Vampy Red. He took it from my hand in a flash, his face lit up like a child's. It made my day. I could hardly wait to tell my friends that I'd given my lipstick to a real celebrity!

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              What can I say about Berlin? It's a great big short city with tall people and lots of stories. It's a city of perpetual change; a phoenix rising continuously from its own smouldering ashes. It is a monument to political experimentation, evolution and turmoil, but despite its brutal history, it remains a center of young culture and undying optimism. One finds beauty here the way one finds a single wildflower growing between the concrete slabs of an abandoned foundation--it isn't the obvious kind of beauty one expects to find in Paris or Venice, but the kind one finds from simply paying close attention to the inhabitants and their way of life.

The culture has somehow worked its way into my heart, despite the time it has taken for me to comprehend it and see its bright colors amid the sepia-tone backdrop. Berlin is a war veteran--a survivor.

When I speak of this city, I'm referring to my little corner, just north of the center, called Prenzlauerberg. From here, Berlin has a different perspective; one of survival and hardship, but also one of rampant renewal and energy. Here one doesn't find the hordes of tourists who roam the Kurfurstendamm trying to find glamour and souvenirs. This neighborhood is worlds apart from that kind of blatant commercialism. Despite the fact that the neighborhood is rapidly changing, it is not yet a major center for tourists. The best possible souvenir from Prenzlauerberg might be, say, my favorite footsoak, which is still manufactured in Leipzig and still boasts its original East German packaging. 

I have lived in this little corner for about three years, and never seem to venture far from its familiar streets, which are no more modern than they were a hundred years ago. These streets are constructed of large cobblestones, which are to this day pulled out for occasional repairs and then hammered back in by sweaty workers on their hands and knees. The sidewalks alongside them are crazy patchwork quilts of irregular components--granite cubes, bricks, concrete slabs, which buckle and crack, sticking up jaggedly out of the ground, inviting children to fall hard, and groceries to bounce out of the old ladies' loose-wheeled shopping baskets. Despite the dangers, these sidewalks are filled with cafe´ tables in summer, and offer a good view of the local goings on.

My quiet apartment is situated near the border between Mitte and Prenzlauerberg, and is just a stone's throw from the former 'death strip', where Wedding lured so many ill-fated East-Germans to their deaths, just trying to cross Bernauerstrasse, like I do almost every day.

I like to sit on the hill at Mauerpark, where a portion of the wall still stands, and contemplate big ideas, like 'freedom'. As an American, I've heard this word thrown constantly around like a weightless paper airplane, but the truth is, it's a heavy word with a heavy price that someone paid long ago, and it meant more to them then than it does to us now. I fear that my own fellow countrymen have lost touch with the idea of freedom. From my perspective here, they seem to be using the word more than practicing its meaning. It seems more and more freedoms are being taken away instead of being protected, and it is sometimes, well, embarassing. Here, I find , the people have a different, more practical approach to freedom. 

I was shocked, for instance, when I saw so much nudity in this country. It's refreshing to be in a society that doesn't make such a big deal out of it, though. There's far less curiosity, and therefore, far less interest. The people here, however, are shocked when they hear that a six-year-old American boy has just brought a gun to school and killed several classmates. And they should be shocked. And appalled. This is the kind of freedom we have left in the good ol' U.S. of A., and it is one big sign that we need to take a good look at our priorities. Let's forget about being so righteous for a while, and just stop killing each other, shall we?

Back to the neighborhood. The few buildings that haven't yet been renovated are waiting their turn. When I moved here, there were many more of them, whose grey crumbling façades had remained unchanged since World War II. Much of Mitte, the city's old historic center, is also in such a state, many of the buildings revealing bullet holes and missing balconies which were blown off during the war. It's almost like stepping into a black & white photo from 1945 to go through some of these old streets. I sort of live in a time capsule, and I feel a little sad about it all getting renovated. 

I landed here in much the same way that the angel in 'Himmel Ueber Berlin' did, my heavy wings hitting the ground with a thud. Berlin greeted me then with a box full of ghosts, which both frightened me and made me curious. I had neither money nor furnishings, and couldn't speak a word of Deutsch, but had given up my charming apartment in Greenwich Village in New York to give it a try. I would work with the only friend I had in this country, who had just been thrown out by his lover and also had nothing, save for a job he'd just landed as a Creative Director in a new shopping center, and an unfurnished two-story apartment with DDR linoleum and no toilet seat. One could say we started from scratch.

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