LIVE FROM BERLIN:
IT’S ME AGAIN
Well, what the hell . . . I sure am over here in Berlin. And I got to say, Jerry: I love it. I’m on the third floor in this temporary flat in Friedrichshain, which I have decided is a good place to be, what with all the restaurants and coffee shops and proximity to a highly desirable U-Bahn / S-Bahn station. They tell me that being on the Ringbahn, the circular railway line that surrounds the city center, is Good and Convenient. I have found this to be true, because I can get anywhere really fast. It’s sort of like the Yamanote line in Tokyo, which is an endless diamond-shaped loop which feeds into the whole city. Some time ago now, when I spent a few winters in Tokyo, and having nothing better to do there, I would ride the Yamanote for an hour or two at a time since it was clean and heated and you never had to get up. I would sit there in a corner seat and read a book, for instance. I can probably do this here. I reckon I’ll try it out when it gets even colder. Though yes, I’m only five stops away from Alexanderplatz, which is the center of the spiderweb of this city, and where a bizarre Christmas market can be found, and where the sinister TV Tower looms—and out from where, in every direction, all the many fine boroughs and little neighborhoods of Berlin can be found.
Outside my window just now, the sun is setting at 4:30 p.m. and clouds are rolling past in the colored strip of sky beyond the buildings way the hell out there:
At the behest of my secretary, I have made a sort of schedule for myself. If I didn’t, I would be like I always am, which is lost in time. I am still that thing, but I do get up at the same time every day to work on applications and paperwork that will hopefully lead to me obtaining a coveted German visa. They tell me it’s not very difficult, and I have chosen to believe them. Sometimes you’ve just go to believe in something. Hell, I got some friends here who I think just Hang Out, and they managed to get visas. I won’t say I’m envious, though maybe I’m something close to that. Thing is, I got to start making money ASAP because I have a 13-pound Norwegian forest cat in tow, and god knows He’s Got To Eat. As for me, I will continue to subsist on fruit and oat milk (lol), because that is after all the secret to my immortality (just kidding (I’m dying (help))).
And so: I wake up around 9:30 a.m., and I do some push-ups and some crunches (to drive off the spleen and regulate the circulation, you see), and make tea and eat a huge gala apple, and so on. And I stand on the little balcony connected to the kitchen completely naked and scream at everyone, and throw things at them.
No! I’m an angel, and I have so far followed all the rules and customs, just like an angel. From the balcony I watch in awe at the Sim-City-like clockwork of this, the German capital. I have a top-down view . . . I have seen it all. I know all the neighborhood dogs now, and when they go on walks in the morning. I know when the restaurants and cafes open, and so on. I know the faces of the parking meter attendants, who wear these little jumpsuits. It’s so cute I want to die.
Do you remember in The Early Days of The Internet when every other expat asshole had one of those JaPaN iS sO wAcKy blogs? Lord, what a time to be alive. But: do you? Those were so bad . . . pictures of T-shirts with nonsensical English phases on them, and vending machines and convenience stores and Pikachu diapers, and so on. Yeah. The only thing worse than a website devoted to how different a country is compared to the United States is when someone latte-sippin honky from the Midwest leaves New Orleans or New York or whatever, and pens a farewell letter addressed to the fucking city. So rest assured, I will not be explicitly writing novel-length posts dedicated to how crazy and weird Berlin is, because let’s face it: who cares. At the end of the day, it’s just a place where people live. I like living here a lot, but I sure as shit ain’t gonna devote my life to writing about it exclusively. Get real.
THAT BEING SAID
. . . I feel compelled, right here at the outset of whatever it is I’m doing (???), to mention a few worthwhile observations I’ve had here in Berlin. By far, most of the things I have bore witness to are real nice compared to the flaming nightmare wreckage I abandoned on the other side of the globe. Hand to God, I love the hell out of this place, but I’m more interested in what I’m going to do here rather than contributing to a tired conversation many before me have already spoken about at great length. After I have published this post, I will resume my usual schedule of teenage whining, overwrought descriptions of my nightmares and paranoid delusions, veiled cries for help, quotes from MOBY-DICK, and out-of-context screenshots from black and white movies and ancient videogames. H’okay??
PUBLIC TRANSIT RULES
Yeah, it’s real good. You got the S-Bahn aboveground, and the U-Bahn underground. The U-Bahn is yellow and it’s so cute. In the dozens of times I have used either of them, the trains have been clean and warm and comfortable and efficient, and so on. The Germans I’ve met here complain that the trains are never on time, but man, I can walk down the stairs and get on the U5 or the U8 pretty much right away. Maybe they’re talking about the lesser-used lines, or something?? Also, coming from the Bay Area, and having used BART for a decade, I gotta say: Berlin public transit really does expose BART to be the glued-and-duct-taped-together box of prehistoric vampire shit that it absolutely is. I feel like I went from the 20th century to the 24th century, is what I’m saying. The other morning I woke up in Charlottenburg, way on the other side of Berlin, and I bought a ticket for 2.80€ and rode it all the way back to Friedrichshain. I sailed over the traffic below, weaved between skyscrapers, saw trees and grass and bridges and ancient churches and graffitied Soviet architecture, and it felt like I was on a ride at freakin Disneyland. The whole thing took about half an hour, and I didn’t see any puddles of urine and nobody tried to kill me and nothing smelled bad. I would say the trains here are just below Japan’s, but not by much. To wit, here is me on a JR train in Tokyo when I went through an all-grey phase:
That’s what the train was like the other day as I ripped through rainy Berlin: comfortable and devoid of humans. What more can you ask for??
And unlike BART, you can buy a daily / weekly / monthly pass that lets you use all forms of public transit as many times as you wish during that time. I think for Christmas I’m going to buy myself a one-month pass (81€) and go all over the place just to See What It’s All About. When I lived in Japan one winter a long time ago now, that’s what I would do every single day: I’d go to each of the train stops and walk around and learn all the neighborhoods there. Hell, it beats jerking off!
I love trains. OK? I don’t mean that in a weird way. I just like sitting on a train and going places. There’s more dignity in riding on a train than there is in riding on a bus. It’s on rails, for god’s sake, so you don’t have to do anything other than hang out until you get to where you’re going. Let’s face it: Europe as a whole figured out a long time ago that you can easily make trains really cool, and then they went ahead and did it. The New York Subway and the T in Boston and Metro in DC are all fine trains, and I have utilized all of them many times, but c’mon . . . they’re still kinda bad. You get on one of those trains and it’s 1986 as all get-out. Plus, the trains in Berlin use “”the honor system””, so there are no turnstiles. You just walk into the station and buy your ticket on your phone or get a paper ticket validated at one of the little machines by the tracks, and you get on the train like a civilized human being. And sure, there are random ticket inspections, but like . . . just buy a ticket, dude.
Well: If there’s one thing I plan to continue talking about, re: Berlin, it’s gonna be trains. SORRY.
SHIT IS CHEAP
I cannot overstate how stupidly cheap everything here is. I come from California, where food and rent are double or triple the price as it is here, so my mind is blown every single day. For instance, when I go to the grocery store (EDEKA at first, but my German friend recommended REWE and it’s better~), I can fill my entire backpack with a hero’s bounty of delicious food for like 20€. The same amount of food would easily be $50 in the Bay. I look on the shelves and there is food that costs less than 1€. I can’t believe it. I take pictures every time I come across cheap foodstuff at the store. And the thing is, it’s not bargain-bin shit . . . it’s like good, organic food (called “bio” here, which Laura told me French for “organic” (lol)). I’m eating like a king, man. I’m having a hell of a time with this stuff. They even sell Hobbits you can eat:
Then there’s street food / restaurants / bars, where big huge caveman portions of food can be got cheap. The other night I went to this bar I really like, which is like the cantina from ‘Star Wars’, all these freaks rolling cigarettes and talking in a dozen different languages, furniture found in a back alley, candlelit and open till 5 a.m., and so on . . . and I got out real late, and I was hungry as hell. I go across the street and there are like ten restaurants open, all of them filled with people. This alone was a strange sight to me, as there is nothing open past like 11 a.m. in Oakland. I go into this place and my German friend says she’s gonna order something good for me. She gets me a big-ass falafel thing. It cost 3€ and was the size of a football:
This would be $15 and half the size in Oakland and you would have it eat it in the presence of thirty guys who all work at Pandora and get their $70 Hitler Youth haircut from the same barber.
The cute cafe down the street from me serves huge breakfasts. They play this techno-y elevator music in there and it rules. I get the frühstück fünf, which comes with fruit, vegetables, three eggs, two rolls, and some LEAFY GREENS. With a cup of coffee, guess what: it’s like 6€. The same meal would be $20 in Oakland . . . before tip! (And the thing about tipping here is that, because it’s kinda optional, you’re the one-eyed man in the land of the blind if you do tip. They love it when you do that. I tip 20% still, cuz why the heck not. Incidentally, this is a good way to accidentally get bartenders to remember you.)
I keep telling my friends here that because Laura Rokas isn’t here (yet??), I guess I’m just gonna go ahead and live alone. To which everyone replies: “Sure, but it’s expensive.” If you research Berlin rental prices over the last ten years, you will find a billion articles about how rent has skyrocketed, but lord is it still cheap to me! I guess because I was in the Bay Area for nearly a decade, and having witnessed the biggest and fastest rental spike in the country, I am already accustomed to this sort of thing, only way worse by orders of magnitude. When I first moved to Oakland, my rent was $500 to live in a three-bedroom apartment. By the time I left, I was paying nearly $1,200 with utilities . . . to have a fuckin roommate! The other night at the aforementioned Cool Bar that I ain’t gonna name, lest you attempt to corner me there (lol), my friend found about a hundred two-bedroom apartments (flats . . . whatever!!) for less than 700€ with utilities included. And I’m talking like nice places with balconies and huge bathtubs and those cool German windows that you can slant open from the top. Sure: it’s gonna be hard as hell to get one of them, because everyone’s looking for a place, but once you do got one, well baby then aloha.
I got 60 trash bags for 1.30€ the other day. Dante’s expensive prescription cat food ($65 in the US!) is half the cost here. A “short-trip” ticket (three stops or less) on the U-Bahn is 1.70€. I go to this coffeeshop down the street sometimes and get coffee (“Einen kaffee, bitte”) and it’s 1.55€. My health insurance is gonna be like 50-60€ a month. And on and on. I don’t know man . . . I’m just sayin: paying a lot of money for basic stuff is for rubes. Good-bye to all that!!
YEAH, THEY HAVE OATLY
Oatly is oat milk. It is very good, and often difficult to find in the Bay Area because the quantities are limited and everyone wants it. But here in Germany, they have so much Oatly they don’t even know what to do with it. I suppose it’s because it is made in Sweden not too far from here. I go to the grocery store and there it is: dozens and dozens of one-liter Oatly cartons awaiting adoption. Oatly also has a bunch of flavors that we don’t have in the US, which rules. And they make yogurt and ice cream, also difficult to find at home. Lord! I’m drinking like one of these cartons a day. My friend told me that REWE’s brand is even better . . . it’s creamier, for god’s sake, and so I went and got some the other night and took the Pepsi Challenge side by side with Oatly. She was right. This is the one I use in my coffee, because why the hell not. But yeah it’s called haferdrink here, and really you can’t go wrong with any of it. Hey baby that’s just my hot take!!!
THERE’S LESS ADVERTISING
World-famous computer programmer Michael J. Kerwin, my dear friend and former roommate, asked me if Berlin has less advertising than the US. I suspect he already knew the answer. Kerwin, like me, hates advertising, and being advertised to. I have gathered that his singular quest in life, as is mine, is to be rid of it completely. One day, when we both live inside coffins, we will get our wish . . . but for now we must live alongside it, and expend every last drop of our life essence ignoring it, lest it defeat us. Thing is, we’re both certainly ironclad impervious to it, though you can’t deny that even with your head buried in the sand, advertising is still a big nightmarish clown voice screaming into the abyss of your heart every time your eyes catch a glimpse of a billboard, or your ears hear a single note of some insipid jingle that has been darkly engineered by a committee of forked-tongue psychopaths in a skyscraper in the seventh circle of Hell. It’ll put hate in your heart, is what I’m saying.
So yeah: There is far less advertising here. I noticed this also when I was in Vienna last year—that I could walk down the street and not have to avert my eyes from a fucking movie poster, just so I’d never have to know its name or have any sort of awareness of its existence. I’m telling you, that’s the only way to keep Satan’s army from breaching the castle wall of your being. Hah! Though yes, I walk around and feel totally calm here, knowing that there is no real threat of an ad campaign attempting to reprogram my brain. My dreams of terror past are dead and gone here in good ol Berlin. I think the worst thing I ever have to deal with are advertisements for touring musicians in the U-Bahn stations, but so what? I don’t know who any of these people are, and the ads are in German, full of proper nouns I would never ever have to learn. The German ads on YouTube feel downright wholesome in comparison to what I’m used to. And because at this point in my German literacy I have to focus to translate, all I have to do is nothing in order to not understand the laundry detergent ads that play before a video I’ve watched a trillion times.
Kerwin, d’ye hear me, boy? Get on over here. I mean, for god’s sake, man, your own sister lives here! (Incidentally, Sister Kerwin and her husband and I had “Mission-style” burritos beneath the TV Tower last week. Um, the burrito was good, though Mission-style it weren’t! It’s OK . . . I will gladly sacrifice Californian Mexico food to not be advertised to. Fair trade!)
SO YEAH: My mind is free, and unencumbered by external consumerist darknesses. And I gotta say . . . baby, I’m lovin’ it®.
THE WATER PRESSURE IS GOOD
Good lord, if you’re not careful, you’ll strip your body of its outer layers as though you were sand-blasting paint off a god darn barn door. Someone out there is going to chime in to say the water pressure isn’t good in their flat, though you know what, I’ve never experienced such beautiful water pressure as I have in all the places I’ve showered here. When I visited my family in Austria in 2003, I remember thinking the same thing then. Maybe it’s just a thing here, or something. I’ll take it!
I’M WALKIN HERE
In Oakland, I walked 2-3 miles a day because I went out of my way to. Which is to say: at night I went on long walks For Leisure (and to not Go Insane (for real (help (lol)))). Well, here in Berlin, you just end up walking a lot while doing whatever it is you do all day. It is a part of life. I’ve been walking a lot . . . usually about 4 or 5 miles a day. I don’t even notice. I get on the U-Bahn, I ride around, I get off, I walk for miles, and so on. All I’m trying to say is that I like walking, and there are a whole bunch of places to go and do just that. You wanna walk? Go ahead and do it. I’ll come with you.
EVERYONE IS DOWN TO HANG OUT
I have found that it is easy to make friends here. Everyone wants to be your friend. And you know what: Yes, I want to be their friend too. There is, I guess, a reputation Berliners have for being jerks. I have not really met any jerks. They’re out there, no doubt . . . but the fine people I have met here have been very sweet to me, and have been eager to help me stay in the country, whether it’s through immigration lawyers, helping me translate paperwork, and ordering drinks for me at a bar (some of those words are like literally 25 letters long ok~). At some point in my living in Oakland, it stopped being easy for me to make friends. Maybe it’s because all the cool people were being forced out of the city. Well: I’m happy to say that there is no shortage of cool people here, and they all come from different countries and speak different languages, and their only motivation is to be your friend and show you stuff. It’s like the fella said: Life CAN be beautiful.
YOU ARE AFFORDED BASIC HUMAN DIGNITY
I have watched the faces of my new friends here melt into baby pools of absolute horror as I describe to them how much it costs to ride in an ambulance in the United States. They also can’t believe that a good job only affords you 10 days of vacation time a year, that most people have student loan debt, and most people owe tens of thousands of dollars to hospitals. In the US, you are entrenched in some sort of intentionally-designed hell where basic necessities and human rights are withheld from you because it would mean less money for someone else. Here in Germany, and in many places in Europe, you can just be a perfectly normal person with a humble existence and still live in a nice flat in a safe and beautiful city, and have cheap public transportation, and universal healthcare, and free college tuition, and on and on, without having rich parents or working for an evil tech conglomerate that sells people’s private information and willingly supports Republican dictatorships that have racist and xenophobic public policies. It’s great!
LIVING IN THE RUIN OF THE OLD WORLD AND THE MEGA STRUCTURES OF THE NEW ONE
Berlin has existed since like the 13th century. It has been destroyed a bunch of times because of some wars you’ve probably heard about. Obviously the city looks much different than it did even 15 years ago, and especially 50 years ago. Still, there’s a bunch of old shit everywhere . . . churches and apartment buildings, and old train stations and the like. I love the hell out of stuff like this. A few weeks ago I was wandering home in the dark with my head down, feeling kind of weird as you do from time and time, and suddenly I’m hanging out with this god damn thing:
By European standards, I reckon this thing is chump change. Though you know what? I like it. I’m used to seeing man-made structures that are best something like a hundred years old. Not far from this church is one that was built in the early 1200s. OK? Old-ass stuff is there if you want it, is what I’m saying. You can take it or leave it I reckon. But living in a historic ancient city where Hitler shot himself, and afterwards a massive wall was erected to divide Berliners from each other for many decades, and on and on, is nuts. There is a weightiness you feel. It’s a heavy place, is what I’m saying. Heavy that leads to the grave. For everyone and everything, et cetera.
All I’m saying is pile it on, baby, cuz I want an all-you-can-eat buffet of Old Stuff.
Just some SHIT I’ve NOTICED:
- Almost everyone uses WhatsApp, which I knew already. But what I did not know is that people seem to prefer sending voice memos vs. texting. At first I thought this was just a thing one of two people did, but a dozen people have since done this as well. It makes me feel sick to hear my own voice played back, but I suck it up and reply with a voice memo as well~
- You will often see young women with locked arms walking down the street. I see this all the time. It’s really endearing . . . just friends hangin out and holdin on to each other. I feel like I’ve seen this in old movies or something. Teenage children will sometimes do this with their parents and grandparents too. Sometimes when my Austrian grandmother and I would be walking together, she would take my arm and hold on to me . . . not because she was weak or unstable, but it was like a show of affection to her. I understand now that this was probably something she used to do with her mother or her friends when she was a little girl in Vienna. Maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough, but I don’t recall seeing people do this in the States.
- Cashiers in grocery stores sit in big comfy chairs behind the register. I looked it up and apparently there is a law behind this—that they are entitled to sit down instead of standing for eight hours a day. That’s cool! They seem very relaxed.
- There is no smalltalk when you purchase something. You don’t say, “How are you?” to each other. This is good. They greet you (Hallo, guten Morgen, guten Tag, et cetera), you greet them back, they scan the item(s), they tell you the price, you hand them the money, they give you a receipt, you leave. This is especially nice if you can’t really speak German, because then all you got to know is how much money to give them (which is usually on the monitor behind the register anyway).
- Germany is a cash society. The only places I’ve seen that take debit / credit cards are grocery stores. This is not a big deal, but eventually you end up with like literally twenty dollars in various coins, of which there are eight different kinds (!). The most useful coins to me are the 1€ and 2€ coins. There’s also a two-cent penny! It’s really cute.
- In some of the bigger retail stores, they play (American) music in the background, just like back home. But I find that a whole bunch of stores have no music playing. Can you imagine? It rules. It made me realize how much absolute horseshit brain noise I’ve been fighting off for most of my life. And now, hey presto, it is gone. In the absence of pathetic dinky baby music is beautiful silence.
- Germans will run right into you if you don’t move out of the way. This applies to employees in stores too! They will absolutely mow you down as if you’re not even there at all. Someone told me recently that Americans apologize and say “thank you” too much, and yeah it’s true. But you sure as shit ain’t gonna get a “sorry” from them if someone bulldozes you into oncoming traffic! Also, what we would consider personal space is seemingly much smaller to people here. They get very close to you, and if they’re walking behind you, they’re practically breathing down your neck. On multiple occasions I’ve been walking down one of those massive Soviet boulevards, the ones with the enormous sidewalks, and someone coming towards me who has enough space to comfortably walk ten feet away will nearly collide with me unless I dodge them. Thing is, it’s not malicious or passive aggressive . . . they just don’t notice at all.
- Pretty much everyone smokes, and most people I’ve met roll their own cigarettes. You can smoke in bars and some coffeeshops. This is bizarre to me, as this is not the case at all in California. I only ever saw people smoke outside of bars or at Ruby Room. It’s not bad! I think it’s cool~
- You can drink in public. On Friday night I walk around and everyone is holding a gigantic beer. People drink in parks and on the train (even though you’re not really supposed to). I also think this is cool!
- Bars stay open really late, sometimes till 5 a.m. I have only ever seen this in New Orleans. In California, last call is at 1:30 a.m. and everyone has to be out of the bar by 1:55. And as I mentioned previously, you can get out of a bar at 3 in the morning here and walk across the street and go to like a million different cheap restaurants. Yeah dude.
- German flats / houses are generally well-made. The windows and doors always feel really solid to me. Also, the bathrooms are cool . . . at least the ones I’ve been in. Big deep tubs and these vertical radiators on the wall where you hang your towel to dry. Like whenever I get out of the shower, I take my towel off the radiator and dry myself with a warm-ass towel that reminds me of what it once felt like to be child (just kidding kinda~). This is a cheap luxury that I cherish!! Though yeah: flats here are cute and I want one!
- On that note: They don’t have living rooms here! Or at least as you and I would know them. For instance if you got a two-bedroom apartment, one of the bedrooms would be a room where you would put your couch and TV and all that shit. It’s like this in Austria too, and elsewhere in Europe I’m sure. Usually you open the front door and you’re in a hallway that leads to all the other rooms, rather than one big room where everyone hangs out. It’s not good or bad . . . it just is, OK??
- In my building, if someone rings my flat, like a delivery guy or whatever, the little phone next to the door plays a Beethoven song!
- There are a ton of vegetarian / vegan restaurants and vegetarian / vegan food can be got easily and in great multitudes in grocery stores.
- They don’t eat peanut butter here. Or at least I’ve only seen it once, in a tiny jar, and it had a fucking American flag on it, as if to say: “Here’s your stupid American baby food I guess.” Mostly they seem to eat hazelnut butter, near as I can tell. I see Nutella in restaurants, for example. They’re a hazelnutty people.
- Also . . . I can’t find macaroni and cheese and I’m freaking out!!
- Outside of saying that Germans have no spatial awareness, you should never paint a broad brushstroke over an entire people. Just don’t do that! Though I will say, right here at the end of this thing, that the French get a bad rap. I have met many French people in Berlin, and they are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. Also, maybe it’s just the sort of person I attract, or tend to hang around in general, but all of the Hungarians I’ve met are really mysterious and sad in a poetic sort of way, as if they hold some great tragedy in their hearts. They’re great people is what I’m saying ☆彡
- This is true of many European countries, but often a public restroom costs like 50 cents. Sometimes the machine will print out a little voucher worth the same amount, and you can spend it in the mall or train station you’re in. Anyway, the restrooms are beautiful and immaculate and almost every time I’ve been in one, there’s an attendant polishing the floors or some shit. Hopefully they get some of that money??
- The UV index is low. Sometimes it’s 0. Works for me!
Don’t misunderstand me, shipmates—I do not mean to suggest that Berlin is a paradise, for none such thing exists upon this forsaken earth. It’s ALL a deep end, baby. But, God willing, I’m going to stay here as long as they’ll have me. What the hell else is there to do, anyway? I can’t think about Oakland or I’ll cry. I miss that place and it makes me feel rotten as hell to think about it, so I won’t. I had to go. I had to! I did it straight as long as I could there for many years, but after a while it stopped being fun. It’s got to be fun or else what’s the point.
Uh, OK, well . . . let me know if you’re ever in town!
For now: Hello!
And. . . . good-bye!