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

Mean Muggin’ and Bun’ Huggin: Part II

October 5, 2017. Flagstaff, Arizona.

I hurried to drop the car off at the shady motel before the half gallon of local porter kicked in. Check-in was challenging, since the Indian gentleman behind the counter had a tenuous grasp on the English language, and compensated for this by repeating his statements faster and faster until his interlocutor retreated in alarm.

The next brewery we found was Mother Road, which had free stickers, giant vats that you could sit next to, and dogs. More dogs than we deserved. I drank a panamerican stout of some kind because I love both cultural miscegenation and dark beer. Tables were at a premium, and after we annexed one we offered it to an attractive hipster couple and a pair of olds. Both had quality dogs. One was a tiny scruffer, the other a sinewy lankboy named Chaucer who was alleged to be a “ridgeback, but he doesn’t have a ridge”. They were towing this 80 lb dog around on what looked like a cord made of yarn, but must not have been, because some drunk man managed to trip over it and fall flat on his face. Chaucer was neither inconvenienced nor apologetic.

The drunk man escaped the raucous applause following his li’l tumble and we struck up conversations about travel with both couples, for some reason at differing intervals. The olds were drinking water and eating cucumbers at the bar. They said they were from Illinois and travelled the country in an RV. The youngs were locals, but both had spent semesters abroad in Europe. I spoke with the hipster girl about Italy; she promised me it would be a blast and I would benefit most if I went already having some Italian under my belt. That is, the language. I told her I did, and she told me about a friend of hers who went to France for about a month with a semester or two of French and came back with functional fluency, although modesty forbade her from admitting it.

A note on language learning: Very rarely will people ever cop to fluency. There isn’t a hard-and-fast objective fluency cutoff point; the best they have are the A1 – C2 ranking systems, and even that is mostly guesswork and divination. I’m not fluent in anything except English, and even that’s a most-of-the-time thing, but I can read Italian and French, and carry on punctuated, clunky conversations in Spanish (forewarning my conversational partner that my hablar-ing is gonna be both lento and pretty mal.)

I was advised to hike through the little towns in Tuscany if I had a week. I didn’t know if I would have a week, but the itinerary is still flexible, so I said, “Hard maybe. I didn’t buy a real backpack, I’m definitely just trying to ape culture, see some buildings, eat spaghetti. I’d like to see the Vatican, if they’ll have me.”

“Well,” she said, “I don’t think they can turn you away.”

“I’m gonna have to leave that one to God. Or at very least, the Pope.”

“You can see the Pope! On the projector!” she said, very excited about the projected pope.

“Wait, what? Like a hologram?”

“No, like on his little balcony! He gives speeches on Sundays, you can go watch one if you’re in the Vatican on Sunday.”

“Sure, I’d check out the Pope. I’ll try to line it up.”

“It’s gonna take some planning,” the dude in the sack hat said. “He’s a pretty big deal.”

“You know, I believe that,” I said.

We finished our beers, bid the olds and youngs good night, and continued navigating the inexplicably dark streets of Flagstaff until we happened on a bar that was somehow extracted directly from my subconscious: the Nomad’s World Lounge.

The interior was leather, bronze, and far-flung world art. It was warmly lit with decorative hanging lamps. The bathroom handle was a stylized Egyptian sarcophagus, and the light switch was a painting of topless woman fondling her breasts while eating a flower. Every employee was discernibly drunk, but very friendly. Most importantly, they offered currywurst. I’ve never had currywurst, but I was a Reinhardt main when he was meta, and I felt I owed this to us both.

We tried to take the table next to the globe-shaped metal fire pit, but it was entirely too hot for my blood, which is Celtic jelly. We switched to a larger table next to a smaller torch and proceeded to drink entirely too much pear-flavored German beer and eat a preposterous combination of ethnic food in the form of the menu “Smorgasbord” option which, due to inebriation on both sides, they wound up altering by making an incompatible substitution. To correct this, they gave us the currywurst for free, on top of the Yucatan chicken, bhara hara salmon cakes, mushrooms au poivre, and elote, followed by cayenne bonbons that I gave to the Girl because I don’t believe in dessert. There will never be a sweet as sweet as CT Crunch in vanilla froyo. I’ll die on this hill.

We settled up. They did their best to not charge me for my second beer, but I couldn’t let them hustle themselves like that; it would be like taking advantage. The manager introduced himself and bragged charmingly enough about how critics have insisted that his currywurst is better than what they serve in the town in Germany where it was invented. We congratulated him, promised to return as soon as possible, and faded into the darkness.

Next came Lumberyard, which had a sports bar feel. The Girl ordered a taster of a 110 IBU imperial IPA monstrosity that was so bad it circled back around to good again. It tasted sort of like sparking grape juice someone left in the toilet for a week. A greasy lad sat next to us at the bar, drinking a flight of light craft beers and eating deep-fried tofu squares and the largest plate of celery and carrots I’ve ever seen. It appeared to be voluntary. I pray for him at night.

Historic Barrel and Bottle Co. was next on the list. The bartenders kept giggling and assuring us we were funny, but it’s possible that was just because I am a drunken colossus, we were the only ones in the bar, and the Girl and I have speaking voices that I will modestly describe as “booming” and “sonorous” at the soberest of times. They gave us a flight of cheekily-named beers like “Deer Lord”, “The Blair Bitch Project”, and “Dark Days of Summer”, the latter of which easily being my favorite because it was like a chocolate-covered orange that got you drunk. The flights were served on top of terrible hardcover books. I remember The Da Vinci Code and a Dean Koontz anthology. An anthology! I can imagine no greater masochism.

Stupid drunk, we returned to the streets and found Cornish Pasty Co. It was a massive, high-ceilinged restaurant done up in old, varnished wood that had the feel of a church even before you realized the majority of the furniture was actual pews. The tables spanned the length of the pews. Very medieval, a definite feast-hall vibe. A pixie flitted out from behind the bar and explained to us that pasties, in this context, were meat pies. The Girl explained to her in turn that we saw the name of this place immediately after our stay in Phoenix’s Mad Max brothel strip, and thought it had a different connotation. I somehow ordered more stout and an entire pot roast meat pie; the Girl got chicken pot pie. I don’t remember much, but I know it was so beautiful I came very close to tears.

We thanked her and walked about a mile through the arctic back to the shady motel, where we passed out as soon as the door was closed. We would remain dead to the world until the explosion at 7:30 AM the next morning.