Berlin: Outsider Art of the Anne Frank Zentrum and East Side Gallery

December 4, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

After the Panoptikum, I tried to head into the nearby Monsterkabinett for reasons that I feel should be self-evident. I’d later find out it was a little more Muppety than I’d have liked, but I still didn’t get the chance to investigate thoroughly since it’s open like 3 hours a day starting at 8pm and I wasn’t about to stand in the rain for six hours.

In order to get turned away from the Monsterkabinett entrance, you need to go down a sketchy alley full of hipsters and white dreadlocks, the walls themselves cacophonous with unrelated graffiti and half-finished or sabotaged murals. The centerpiece is a slightly cockeyed reimagining of Anne Frank.

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man, you can almost hear “Oh Comely”

She was flanked by a couple of anatomically correctish statues.

Nearby is a door that neatly encapsulates whatever the hell is going on here.

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An appreciable warning, considering.

They got sort of a thing for cyclopes.

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no idea what was going on here, but i instinctively hated it. “entfuhrt” means kidnapped. unhelpful

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here either, but i hated it less

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“keep the buttons open”

I took this sage advice from the terrible minion and faded out of the alley, into a sort of plywood tunnel that led past several different construction areas on the road to East Berlin. The inside was also decorated, though less imaginatively.

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it was here i discovered Guaranteed Value Flight of the Conchords. at the time and based on the posters i thought they were advertising for a community college, but it turns out they’re refugees fleeing a war. whoops

The delineation between West and East Berlin is just as clear now as it was before the fall of the wall. Stop on a corner and look around. Do you see any Indian restaurants? Do you see any restaurants or stores at all? If the answer to these questions are “no”, you’re in East Berlin, where the specter of communism is spanging at the stoplight because there are no businesses for it to hang out in front of.

The exception being a single depressing Subway restaurant built into the bottom of a brutalist office building. I tried to take a picture of it, but my camera started weeping.

After walking for entirely too goddamn long in the rain (as discussed, Berlin is impossibly huge and I really should’ve made more of an effort at figuring out public transit), I arrived at the crumbling remnants of the Berlin wall, alias the East Side Gallery.

There were tons of pieces along this ridiculously long wall, but most of them didn’t warrant documentation. I photographed the best ones whenever I could get the relentless selfie patrol out of my way. You’d think they would be dissuaded by the rain, the cold, the lack of available nutrition, and my low, guttural snarling, but they didn’t even care, man. They’re like the fuckin’ mail. Rain, sleet, or snow, their IG posts must go through.

I slipped through and checked out the other side as well. It was less ornate.

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haha gottem

Well, that was enough for me. I hadn’t eaten in a day or two, and it was starting to get to me. All this slightly hunched rainwalking was killing my back, too. I made my way back toward West Berlin.

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you and me both, bud

It was pretty easy to tell once I’d crossed back into West Berlin.

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even if your German’s not real strong you can noodle this one out

I didn’t get a Salat though. Instead, I found my way to what looked like a traditional German restaurant, named something like Grunstein’s Essen. I was cracking my spine in the warmth and relative dryness when the grinning Indian man behind the bar told me “anywhere you like, my friend.” Must’ve been Grunstein. He served me Leberkäse, which can be most accurately described as “spam loaf”. At the time, it was mana from heaven.

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I turned the corner from this sweet castle bridge and saw a mural that blew most of the approved pieces in the East Side Gallery clean out of the water.

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For all the surrealist nightmare art I’d come across in Berlin, nothing did more to my psyche than this terrifying poster.

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who are they even marketing to with this

I hobbled back to the hostel and spent my final night in a room full of obnoxiously snoring strangers. The next day would begin my long voyage home. And long it was. 48 combined hours between planes and airport layovers. But that’s a grim tale for another day.

Love,

The Bastard

Berlin: Ich Bin Ein

December 4, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

The first thing I learned was my normal strategy of walking everywhere is of no use here. Berlin is too big. It’s because there used to be too many Berlins, and once Reagan hulk-punched that wall down it became a single, titanic Berlin.

Hostels were in short supply, but I managed to get my hands on a nice $13 a night dealie right off of the Landwehr canal, called the Grand Hostel Berlin. Their delusions of grandeur didn’t stop at the name. They were under the mistaken impression they were a party hostel, and wanted this party to center around what they called the Gin Library.

Now, ordinarily, those would be great things better together, right? Peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and chocolate. Peanut butter and whatever arbitrary nutritional asceticism I’m inflicting on myself at present.

No such luck, beautiful reader. It was most assuredly a library a la Ron Burgundy, leatherbound books and rich mahogany, but it also had bar no one ever wanted to tend, obnoxious techno music that kind of disrupted the whole “library” mystique, and a fucking disco ball.

Do you know why most libraries don’t have disco balls? It’s because you need light to read.

When I entered the Gin Library, there were four people sitting around a coffee table, talking over the bad music in various accents about what their favorite types of alcohol are. Pretty standard cultured frat-boy hostel fare. The girls were middling attractive, the boys were “traveler chic” with whiteboy dreadlocks and dated facial piercings.

Laboring under the mistaken impression I could get some reading done in the library, I stood at the bar and tried to order a beer during happy hour. It didn’t work for a few minutes. I went to reception and said, “Hey, think I could get a beer?” The receptionist smiled, nodded, and shouted rapid German at no one in particular.

I went back to the bar and waited for another couple minutes, then decided the hell with it, I didn’t need one that bad, and started back to the corner seat to chip away at a reread of Stephen King’s It.

It wasn’t until then that one of the girls at the table, still squawking something about how Oh she LUVES tequila, deigned to stand up, approach the bar, and say, “Did you want a beer?”

“You work here?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Are you sure?”

She smiled, thinking I was flirting. I corrected this misconception by deliberately stiffing a service worker on a tip for the first time in my life.

Sorry baby. West Berlin’s always been a capitalism.

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I started at the Brandenburg gate, one of Germany’s most famous monuments despite its relative youth, at least by European standards. Berlin had been a defensible fort with a sequence of unpronounceable names since Germany was Prussia, but the Brandenburg gate didn’t show up until around 1790. For America, that’s all of relevant history, but for countries like Italy or England, that’s basically yesterday.

I hadn’t done a lot of Nazi-centric sightseeing because the weather is depressing enough and I like to have fun, but considering the Germanic bent my recent journeys have taken, it’s not avoidable. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe is about a block from the Brandenburg gate, rising from a concrete lot like a time-lapse cemetery. Catchy name too, huh? It’s got a beat and you can dance to it.

Concrete slabs of varying heights shoot haphazardly from the ground with no inscription, pattern, or real rhyme or reason. Some look like tombstones, some like coffins, some like tiny Brutalist skyscrapers. The architect, a dude named Eisenman, claims that the blocks are supposed to create a confusing atmosphere indicative of a highly ordered system gone wrong, then in the same breath says that the memorial has no symbolic significance. Sounds like your confusing atmosphere worked better than planned.

The designer’s contradictory Zen-koan babbling doesn’t stop visitors from their interpretations, though. Popular opinion is that entering the monument proper was isolating. The concrete absorbed the sounds of traffic and life coming from Berlin, leaving you in this cold, spooky hallway. The alienation, the echoes, and the imposing bleakness of the corridors reminded me of a slaughterhouse, but I’m not the best central tendency metric for this kind of thing.

Some people call that vague feeling of visceral unease the heebie-jeebies, or something comparably cute. I call it draggin’ ghosts, and I felt them like a physical weight on my shoulders as I walked out of that bleak little grid. At the same time, I was reining in an almost irresistible urge to jump from block to block. That was something I liked to do in graveyards when I was young, until someone saw me. Never met anyone who was thrilled about that.

I turned the corner and a giant brain-blimp shone down from a wall.

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“Oh, good,” I said aloud. Berlin’s got a reputation for art, and a lot of what I saw was pretty cool, but we’ll save that for its own post.

I turned another corner.

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agreed

I doubled back to the hostel and sat down for a while since I’d somehow managed to walk four or five miles, thanks to Berlin’s comical immensity. Der Hunger was setting in. I asked a spindly blonde receptionist where I could get some food, and she helpfully said she’d tell me in ten minutes.

She didn’t get the chance. A dude who sounded Ukrainian was scribbling a sort of city-overview to the stoner kid I mentioned yesterday and a middle-aged Japanese couple, and I eavesdropped on that until he circled the areas where “all the best restaurants are”. I leaned in, snapped a picture, and disappeared into Germany’s perpetual freezing rain.

What he meant by “all the best restaurants” was “places you could conceivably locate food”. This walk was only a mile, though, so that was… better? The street was called Bergmannstraße, it was itself about a mile long, and it had nothing but Asian food, one italian restaurant, one Mexican restaurant, and a kebab shop. I didn’t come to Germany for any of those things, but my choices rapidly became branch out or starve. I ate Indian two days in a row, from two different restaurants right next to each other. The first, called India, was bad. The second was incredible. I don’t remember the name.

There were a smattering of tourist shops along Bergmann, and one of them stopped me dead.

Now, my German is not what you would call spectacular. Any doubt about that, ask any of the Austrians or Germans I’ve befriended in my travels; they invariably mock my awful accent and I demand they answer for “feuerzeug“.

I delight in the German language because of the kindergarten way they just staple short, existing words into monstrous yet inexplicably precise Frankenwords.

You’re sick? Du bist krank. Welp, if you’re sick enough, we gotta get you to the hospital. That’s the krankhaus. How we gonna get you there? We’re gonna load you into the krankenwagen.

Absolute poetry.

In my Duolingings, I ran across the suffix –zeug, which essentially just means “stuff”. Your toy? That’s spieltzeug, literally play-stuff. How about a tool? Werkzeug. You can noodle that one out.

Then you got Fahrenzeug which means “driving stuff” and refers to a car. Uh, okay, I guess. But Feuerzeug is exactly what it sounds like, fire-stuff, and it means “a lighter”, and that makes me absolutely furious. You go TOO FAR.

German grammar is a disaster rivaled only by English grammar and their idioms are, as one would expect, deeply nonsensical and often sausage-themed. Every German I’ve encountered has argued they don’t have that many sausage-themed idioms, forcing me to point it out to them when they invariably use one within the following two hours.

These magnets, for those of you who didn’t quite catch up with the bus somehow, are word-for-word English translations of German turns of phrase. I reveled in them, grinning like an idiot in the rain for five minutes, then made the first and last legitimate souvenir purchase of my trip.

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I also encountered this gem.

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Trump halts maul. Well, it didn’t sound complimentary, but it did sound like home. The last I’d heard of the German opinion on Donnie was when the Morgenpost referred to him as… well, as thus:

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“please not the Horror-Clown!”

Well, I had to wait until I got back to the rad library party hostel to solve this particular mystery, but I giggled when I did.

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It reminded me of one’a my favorite twitter threads.

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Although, in fairness, the t-shirt’s not wrong.

That’s all I can do for today, if I type for too long WordPress’s busted-ass text editor starts flinching away from me every time I hit the enter key like a beaten puppy. Talk to you tomorrow, boys and girls.

Love,

The Bastard

Prague: Architectural Anarchy

November 22, 2017. Prague, Czech Republic.

There are different kinds of surreal. Barcelona was a psychotropic fever dream, everything outsizedly absurd, the kind of ridiculousness that even dream logic can’t slip by you. Fifteen-foot tall matadors burst from an alley to the sound of spirit flutes and you stop and say, “Wait, this is a dream. Obviously. Okay.”

Prague is different. It’s cooler, more refined and lucid in its creeping abnormality. It’s easy to understand how a place like this churned out a mind like Kafka. The city carries an overtone of dread, the subtle but implacable discomfort that comes in the strange vision quests that too much NyQuil gives you.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful city. It’s just, when you walk through it, you feel like it’s being made up as it goes along. The architecture is eclectic to the point of the random. You can stand on a single corner and look around a square and see three, four, five different styles of building, ordinarily separated by centuries, now jutting against one another.

That’s what’s so unsettling about Prague, I think. That’s what gives it the static buzz of a medicated dream.

Think about your last nightmare. You’re running down a hallway, maybe a childhood school or something, you get to the staircase, you run up the steps, two at a time, you throw open the doors to the roof and you’re suddenly in the middle of the woods.

It’s like that every time you turn a corner. The same jarring sense of something being wrong.

Good thing morbid absurdity is my bread and butter. I’ve been bumbling around Prague for two days now, fending off a chest cold in the rainy, 30 degree weather. I walk into a Baroque alley and come out a Gothic one. Roman churches suddenly give way to municipal buildings covered in arabesques. Down another alley, which gets so narrow that you can barely fit two people through it at once, and I walk out into an expanse of Soviet Brutalism that goes on for as long as my vision does.

I caught a snippet of an interview on a TV screen in some museum or other, a local architecture teacher was saying, “Builders just kept coming. We had some from Germany, we had some from France, we had many from Italy, from Portugal, from Spain, from the East, all these builders came to add something to Prague.”

Well, mission accomplished. It felt to me like a weird echo of the Great Bazaar, jumbled miscellany writ large and rendered permanent.

I crossed the bridge out of Old Town and climbed the hill toward Prague Castle, a standing complex that had been restored (and, in keeping with their whole theme, remodeled) since the 1300s. That’s where I found the crown jewel, a Gothic masterpiece called the St. Vitus Cathedral.

The pictures don’t do it justice. It was like a factory that mass-produces religiously themed nightmares. It’s like the Devil made a church as a joke, and it was so over-the-top that they decided to keep it. The whole big bastard looks like a 2-page insert from a gritty early 90’s Batman comic. I was so awed by it I didn’t even mind the Asian families doing noisy selfie-stick gymnastics next to me.

I climbed to the top of the South Tower. Allegedly 287 steps. Bull. 283. I counted.

It didn’t start to really suck until step 140, but that was probably just the chest cold. Probably.

I made my way back down the hill and discovered a “Medieval Tavern” with a row of blackened skulls across the door.

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Welp, my hands are tied. I went in, figuring that I’d grab something to eat here.

It was nearly pitch black inside, lit only by candles. Lots of rough-hewn stone, lots of weird haunted house decorations like skulls, chains, robed mannequins. I don’t know how prevalent robed mannequins were in actual medieval times, but I have to imagine they used more lighting and fewer bones in general tavern decor. Maybe it was a special dungeon-themed tavern. I wandered down some winding stairs into some dark, empty rooms, and then eventually into a well-lit modern kitchen, which is when I knew I’d gone too far. I wandered back up the stairs and sat at the head of a table, looked over the menu.

After maybe 10 minutes of alternating between looking at the menu and a candle, a beautiful blonde skeleton appeared and asked what I wanted to drink. The menu said “Home made beer with love”, so I ordered that. She slam-dunked it on my table on the way past and either didn’t hear my attempt to order food or ignored it.

 

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It was a porter, and it was okay. Nothing to write home about. Not particularly strong. A little light and hoppy for my tastes, but beggars and choosers; I hadn’t gotten my hands on anything darker than a lager since Ireland, and even that had just been knockoff Guinness.

Well, I finished it, and she never came back. Guess I was gonna eat somewhere else. I paid my 25 ckz (about $2) to a dour-faced young man in a shirt that was, for some reason, full of holes. Maybe it was supposed to be a peasant throwback, but the effect was ruined by the visibility of the Calvin Klein logo on his boxers.

I guess a porter is a lunch. That’s around 200 calories. That’s 2 bananas. Or 3 eggs. 3 eggs could, arguably, be lunch. I drifted through the spontaneously rendering streets calculating how much actual food could have taken the place of that mediocre beer with love when I happened upon a “Ghost Museum”. Well, those are some of my favorite things, and it had a student discount, so why not?

The upper floor was a collection of badly but wittily translated ghost stories printed on single sheets of giant fake scroll paper that was then pasted into giant fake books. The downstairs was advertised as “a walk through the ghost-haunted streets of the underground”, but was more of a long basement full of cheap haunted house decorations. I wonder if this part of Prague has a guy. Like, a Party City wholesaler, so they just wound up with all these lame Halloween decorations and went, “All right, what can do we do with this?”

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I found my way to the surface and walked the mile or so back to my hostel, then down the street to yet another pho place. I’ve been subsisting mostly on pho in Prague, partly because both hostels I booked have been in Little Vietnam (it is not that little, considering they’re a mile and a half apart), partly because pho is basically chicken soup and that’s as close as I can get to eating healthy here.

Here, let me walk you through Czech cuisine real quick.

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anywhere else it would be reasonable to assume “tatar sauce” is a typo

So far, I’ve only had the opportunity to sample 2 totalitarian classics in Prague.

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This one was right after I got off the bus, before I understood how much Czech money was worth. This was the first and last time I would pay $15 for three mouthfuls of deer meat and some tater tots.

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This monstrosity was much more reasonable, something like $7 all told. On the bottom, it’s around a half lb of chicken breast and all sorts of delicious peasant vegetables, broccoli, tomatoes, green peppers, onions, the usual. And then also, giant fried potato wedges. Then cheese. It’s like shepherd’s pie without any broth, and then instead of mashed potatoes, a gallon of cheese. It was called Žižkov, after a popular student district. It was cheese fries gone out of control.

I’ve done more than I’ve written since arriving in Prague, but since everything has felt so haphazard and disjointed, that’s how I’m going to tell the story, too. I’ll tell you one thing for damn sure, though, I’ve got to find a better place to get breakfast.

This morning I opted for the $6 hostel breakfast. “English Continental”, he said.

“Yeah, but what’s in that?” I asked. “I’m from the States, When hotels say continental breakfast, they usually mean coffee and a danish.”

He looked at me strangely, possibly because he was, himself, Danish, then showed me the list. Lunchmeats, bread, milk, eggs, omelettes optional, just ask the cook. I forked over some of the Czech currency and he said, “Okay, now go outside, across the courtyard, through the gate, to the other hostel on your left, and give them this voucher.”

Uh. All right.

I did that, and the man at the door was obviously displeased to see me. That seemed to be a recurrent theme in Prague, truth told. No one has seemed particularly excited to see me, but I’m trying not to take it personally. The dining room was full of three lazy German shepherds, which I approved of for reasons more moral than sanitary.

The spread. Ah, the spread. Three types of stale bread! It was great, if you ate around the mold.

Canned eggs, served chilled. Ice-cold, perfectly circular eggs, their yolks a distressing and unnatural orange color. A pinch of parsley had been applied to the top, presumably to simulate “preparation”.

Wet tortillas rolled up with apple jelly. Just like Mom used to make, during her psychotic breaks.

Some sort of single-serving spreadable ham.

Small, sad apples, their skins all withered and pruny and generally looking like grandpa testicles.

I looked at the angry Czech men. They glared back at me, as if daring me to ask for an omelette.

I ate an entire plate of tomatoes and lunchmeat, then more tomatoes, then a quantity of bread and butter that even I found sort of alarming. Feed a fever, starve a cold? Feed a cold? Then I went back to the hostel, where the possible Dane asked, “how was breakfast?”

“Fine,” I lied, then passed out for another 3 hours. I think that was more immune system than food, though.

If I get to the Kafka museum tomorrow, I’ll double it up and tell you about my Adventures in Communism!

Love,

The Bastard