Tuesday, June 12, 2007



G8 Press Round-Up

Resistance to the Group of 8 meetings this year was quieter and smaller than expected. Rowdy kids stormed through farmland to approach the security fence around Heiligendamm, then did nothing, while Rostock saw a mere 25,000 protestors, a quarter of the expected number, according to police. (Protest organizers claim 80,000 showed up, but as with Heiligendamm, no official count exists.) And although black-clad rioters threw rocks and ignited autos one afternoon in Rostock, mass violence on the scale of the 2001 riots at Genoa was mainly averted.

That is, physical violence was minimal. The verbal assault of the German press against protestors, on the other hand, was substantial. Media outlets from conservative (weekly paper Die Zeit) to liberal (Berlin’s fabled Zitty) had little patience for so-called “G8-Gegner” (anti-G8-ers). Die Zeit published the scathingly sarcastic piece “They Just Want to Play,” mocking the self-involvement of Rostock protestors—including those dressed mysteriously as clowns—who seemed uninterested in packaging their radical slogans and claims in words understandable to the politically initiated onlooker.

In “Love Songs at the Rebel Camp,” the Berliner Zeitung went behind the scenes at one of the many activists’ camps thrown up in the agrarian pocket of Northern Germany. While finding the usually dumb-headed quotes about violence being necessary to attack a violent system, the reporter is careful to insist that many camp members reject Molotov cocktails. “Violence is total shit,” says a girl in the communal kitchen.

Meanwhile, a teen identified as “Micha,” who skipped school to camp out, “speaks, seemingly clueless, about globalization.” In other words, correspondent Martin Schumacher presents an entire camp of protestors without a single well-spoken, intelligent representative. He concludes that they are charmingly dumb hippies.

The story is pretty similar, minus the charm, when another Berliner Zeitung correspondent tails three young men from Berlin’s Kreuzberg on their way to Heiligendamm’s beleaguered security fence. One boy swills from a beer bottle before throwing it aside on the ground—so much for the environment—and when a farmer who tends the land they trespass through accosts them for not respecting his field, he answers, “Leave us…alone. Those [government leaders] behind us throw bombs.”

Are a lack of educated viewpoint and pass-the-buck attitude the only things needed to protest? Not according to Tadzio Müller, whose opinion formed Zitty’s lead-in to an article about protest. Mr. Müller couldn’t have provided better fodder for a journalist looking to skewer an innocently anti-globalization little lamb: “I don’t like this smug attitude when people say you need to read a couple good books before you form an opinion. You have to feel protest. That’s at least as important.”

In case you didn’t understand protestors, now you do. They feel something. Something more important than, uh, thought.

This is just a small selection, of course. There were more articles that made protestors seem, if not outright childish or dumb, at least a bit misinformed. In fact, the rock-throwing, police-attacking, black-clad mass at Rostock got the nicest treatment, as the media focused attention on their trendy clothing. The sleek black sweaters and stylish three-quarter-length pants were too tempting for journalists to resist commenting upon, while wrap-around reflective sunglasses garnered Matrix comparisons.

The strangest of all things G8, however, is the priceless tidbit picked up by Der Tagesspiegel. The NPD, Germany’s right-wing, xenophobic, neo-Nazi party succeeded in hoodwinking police in the capital and marching through the Brandenburg Gate several times last Monday, June 4th, before law enforcement got its act together and scared them off with arrests.

Merely days after this prank-like maneuver, Der Tagesspiegel reported on June 6th, the NPD attempted to get around the anti-Neo-Nazi demonstration ban up in Rostock by faxing Russian President Vladimir Putin a plea for democracy. Yes, go ahead, I’ll wait while you read that sentence again.

The NPD wrote what sounds like an earnest request for Putin to “politely try” to convince Chancellor Merkel, in the course of their private conversations, of the importance of “demonstration rights for the opposition” and of “democracy in the Federal Republic of Germany.” Perhaps they figured that Putin’s stint as a KGB agent in East Germany taught him the value of democratic free speech. Their fax, unsurprisingly, received no answer from the Russian Embassy in Berlin or representatives in Heiligendamm to whom it was sent.


Friday, May 25, 2007

At the G8: the Stasi and Seaside Views

As an employee of East Germany’s secret police, Axel Hilpert used to befriend dissatisfied citizens and then turn them into the authorities, shattering lives. He now works in real estate. He is in fact partial owner of the dreamy hotel get-away in Brandenburg where various G8 finance ministers met last week.

This story, which was broken by The Wall Street Journal, strangely declined to mention the luxury resort by name. The only reason I can think of for this would be libel concerns, perhaps fearing that the astute businessman would claim legal damages for sullying the vacation spot’s good name, which happens to be Resort Schwielowsee.

This may even be a sensible concern, since their investigation about Mr. Hilpert, pictured in this photo at left, reveals a particularly depraved past. He assisted the broke socialist government in extorting valuable antiques from private ownership to then sell at a profit for the state under a project called “Koko,” or commerical coordination. He also, as mentioned, developed personal relationships to gain information about possible “traitors,” later turning on those who never had a clue who he really was.

Yet Mr. Hilpert, codename "Monika," is only one of many employees of the Staatsministerium für Staatsicherheit, or "Stasi" for short, who got off scot-free after German reunification. Official literature from the the BStU [Bundesbeauftragten für die Unterlagen des Staatsicherheitsdienst der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik], the office responsible for sorting out the mess, proclaims this sad truth quite openly.


The office also represents this truth to a certain extent—52 of its current employees were also on the Stasi payroll. It defends this number by saying that these employees provide inside knowledge vital to sorting out the labyrinthine paper trail of espionage left behind. The BStU is hoping to finish organizing and reconstructing the total 180 kilometers of files and 5,600 sacks of shredded paper by 2012.

Perhaps it is from one of these continually-sorted shredded sacks that Mr. Hilpert’s file was reconstructed. When the Berliner Zeitung first wrote a feature about the real estate developer’s past in 2004, it described the files as “disappeared.” It also describes KoKo as an antiquities business rather than as a shadow Stasi organization of essential thievery, hinting at a lesser grasp of exactly how the state machinery worked.

But a lot can change in three years, as German citizens hungry for the facts of their own history keep pulling back layers. On this May 16th, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg published the efforts of investigative journalists Gabi Probst and Sascha Adamek, whose search for the thought-destroyed files produced duplicates, and who savvily turned to victims’ files as well to continue collecting the facts.

Since “The Lives of Others” [Das Leben der Anderen] (Post Feb. 12) won the Best Picture Oscar in February, international attention has turned to the Stasi, especially in America, where Hollywood is buzzing with talk of an English-language remake. Probst and Adamek took advantage of this atmosphere and shared their findings with Journal correspondent Marcus Walker, who published the English-language expose the following day on May 17th.

It is important to call attention to a Stasi spy who expresses no public regrets about his past. (Although he may sense that investors or hotel guests won’t find them particularly palatable; he declined to ‘fess up to the Berliner Zeitung, staying mum on supposed devious acts that Probst and Adamek’s research later confirmed.) As Timothy Garten Ash recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, “The Lives of Others” is flawed by how easily its protagonist turns tail from Stasi die-hard to nice guy. It makes his salvation a bit too easy, a bit too relatable; in short, it obscures the fact that many Stasi employees were selfish, ignorant, or both, and simply have no regrets whatsoever, never thinking twice about their victims.

Rather, Mr. Hilpert’s thoughts are presumably now about his Resort, whose offerings include a spa called Tao Life Wellness Center housed in a faux pagoda, as well as quaint, white vacations huts that look out upon the blue Schwielowsee, one of the many bodies of water dotting the Brandenburg landscape. Near the historic city of Potsdam, the Resort is also not far from Berlin, where the latest financial figures show that the federal government is spending about 50 million euros per year in federal aid to victims of the Stasi. This sum represents 3% of what the feds pay to former Party functionaries, including Stasi employees, who receive an average of one and a half billion euros per year since 2002. One wonders if they spend any of this money vacationing at an idyllic spot on the Schwielowsee, visiting an old friend.


Tip: “Stasi, Slander, and the Schloss: Remembering the GDR,” appears in this month’s Exberliner. For it, I researched the debated history of Berlin’s various Stasi memorial sites, including early 1990s bickering between victims’ groups and the newly united government about who would administrate the memorials and what they will say. Fans of “The Lives of Others” will learn about what happened to the secret jail as well as Stasi headquarters featured in the movie after 1989. Unfortunately, the article text is only available in print and not on the web, but the magazine can be ordered online.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


To Err is Human, to Protest Berlinish

You can feel it in the air in Berlin right now—the combined anticipation and wariness as the G8 summit approaches and thousands across the city prepare to protest. One hopes that slogan-memorizing, placard-painting citizens stay peaceful from June 6th to June 8th when Germany hosts the international forum in the northern city of Heiligendamm.

Then again, perhaps all the preparation feels more ho-hum than highly alarming to Berliners: protests are modus operandi here, and the latest slew of non-G8 headlines only confirms this. Axel Springer Verlag, among others, recently protested in court against the successful renaming of a stretch of Kochstrasse to Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse (Post Jan. 20). The conservative media mogul whose publishing empire bears his name was criticized heavily by Dutschke for his reactionary publishing. However, political concerns weren’t officially cited by Springer et. al. in their appeal to overturn January’s citizen’s vote for the renaming; rather, they focused on the costs they will have to incur. You know, big stuff like ordering new letterhead. Their case was rejected by a judge’s decision that emphasized the democratic weight of the local ballot, but the Dutschke-doubters plan to appeal the ruling. No surprise there.

Another rather ornery figure was also recently dismissed in courts: famously self-important architect Meinhard von Gerkan, who designed the capital’s Hauptbahnhof, has been chastised for claiming that it is Deutsche Bahn’s fault that hurricane-strength winds in January caused a steel support to fall from the station’s roof. Von Gerkan is already known for bickering with the Bahn about the extent to which they followed his original design when he insisted they rebuild the a lower-level roof at great cost so as not to disrupt the aesthetic effect of “his” train station (Post Dec. 6) Von Gerkan has now been slapped on the wrist by the same legal system that so surprisingly supported his earlier protest.

It remain to be seen, however, if protest will work on Kreuzberg’s Wrangelstrasse, where 24-year-old Katrin Schmidberger is organizing against the neighborhood’s first McDonald’s franchise. The interesting part of this picture is not Schmidberger’s youth or emphasis on non-violence (both “no duh” s in the world of home-grown social activism) but rather her justification: there are 7,000 schoolchildren living around the planned construction site, and many don’t learn proper nutrition from their parents at home. Schmidberger avows that she “knows what makes Kreuzberg kids tick” and wants to protect them from McCholesterol.


Home to all these nutrition-ignorant children, Wrangelkiez is also the same area that was briefly famous last fall when a group of Middle Eastern youths surrounded policeman and forced them to retreat from attempting to arrest two young men who had just mugged a third. The incident alarmed the public, largely because the press went into yellowest journalism mode, crying, “The next Paris?” and hoping to stir angst at banlieue-like chaos. Banlieue it isn’t, but Wrangelkiez is heavily settled by immigrants. In other words, what Schmidberger is essentially saying is that these foreigners don’t teach their kids how not to be fat. They are easy prey for McDonald’s.

With or without the perhaps gentrifying influence of the fast food chain, the neighborhood will likely retain its slightly rough reputation, one not helped by violence on the 1st of May. Although the traditional riots did not take place, thanks in part to a citizens’ initiative called Myfest bent on replacing drunken vandalism and drunken dancing (Post May 1), one woman was badly beaten during a protest/riot that did break out that night. The catch is that neither flying bottles nor stones injured her, but rather a clubbing incurred from a policeman when she tried to take shelter from the fray in an apartment building entranceway. According to reports from Der Tagesspiegel, the victim and Amnesty International employee, who suffered broken ribs and sharp pains after her beating from the peace-keeping forces, is looking into a lawsuit.

And there are continuing protests at the city’s oldest university, Humboldt, about the administration's participation in a federal “elite initiative,” or competition for government money to improve the school’s facilities. Students claim the measure will neglect other subjects.

This is just a selection, of course. There is a lot of reality with which to be discontented in Berlin. It will be interesting to see if G8 protests stand a chance at drowning out local rebelliousness on the news or in the popular mind. If so, this diverted attention surely won’t last long, as life slowly returns to normalcy…and people begin objecting to it once more.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Trail of Question Marks…?

The latest puzzle in Berlin is no longer what to build on Schlossplatz or when the next piece of the Hauptbahnhof’s roof will come whistling off. Rather, it is what to make of Thomas Hirschhorn’s new installation “Stand-alone,” which opened last Friday in Arndt & Partner gallery. With fireplaces vomiting broken furniture, obsessively repetitive wall graffiti, “mega-form” cardboard tubes stamped with gruesome “war porn” images, as well as mutilated computers and tape-wrapped armchairs, the art confounds the viewer and overwhelms the senses. Thrill-seekers, forget the return of Tresor: walking into Hirschhorn’s installation is just as psychedelic as Alice’s trip down the Rabbit Hole. Perhaps more.

Hirschhorn condenses the stimulus of everyday reality into a few cramped rooms while removing our usually helpful filters and controls. The result is visual onslaught combining commentaries on contemporary media saturation, violence in Iraq and collective consciousness, and consumer acquisition. All at once. Or so I argue in my review for white hot, written only after sorting through a thick tangle of impressions and images.

Indeed, Hirschhorn’s jam-packed collage technique has left some viewers scratching their heads, including a writer who couldn’t make heads or tails of his spring 2006 installation “Utopia, Utopia = One World, One War, One Army, One Dress”: “at first sight…I was knocked out...[so] rather than a review, this will be a gathering of my first impressions.” She was, however, able to conclude that the work was a “bold affirmation of art as communication.” Another reviewer for Art in America required several thousand words to address Hirschhorn’s loquacious clutter, yet found it to be an impressive “exhibition that engulfed one with its mix of burgeoning chaos and hyper precision.”

Of course, there are also critics who recoil at Hirschhorn’s bombastically overwhelming approach. The New York Sun lambasted his 2006 “Superficial Engagement” installation at Gladstone Gallery in New York as an “adolescent crap-fest” with a “puerile addiction to the macabre and scatological.” Ouch. Another New York reviewer of a Hirschhorn cut-and-paste extravaganza “left puzzled whether the artist had anything much in mind,” a complaint echoed in the San Francisco Chronicle’s discussion of “Utopia, Utopia,” which faulted the artist’s “staccato, redundant, fragmentary and possibly self-contradictory presentation” for presenting issues worth thinking about and then undercutting itself with the obsessively collected bits of visual noise. The reviewer concluded, “One departs not stimulated to think further about such questions but merely relieved that someone else has apparently taken them on.”

So may be the case with Berlin’s very own Der Tagesspiegel, whose short review resorts to simply listing the gallery’s contents, inventory-style, rather than tackle the task of interpretation Hirschhorn may (or may not) be challenging us to. Whether he makes viewers think or numbs them with his overload, one thing is certain—his work has a happy home in Arndt & Partner. Although represented locally in abbreviated form in this spring’s “Into Me/ Out of Me” exhibit at Kunst-Werke Institute of Contemporary Art, Hirschhorn’s hyper-stimulated style has real breathing room this time around and is being enthusiastically received.


A pre-opening talk at Humboldt University last Thursday was so full of sweaty bodies that the moderator ran out multiple times to fetch Hirschhorn fresh water. Hirschhorn played along gamely, speaking about his trajectory as an artist—which only recently resulted in the overstuffed installation format—and taking an hour’s worth of questions afterwards. He was also an affable presence at his opening, shooting the bull with whomever wondered up to mutter words of admiration, and likewise enthusiastic at a overflowing gallery talk the following day. He surveyed his methods and motivations with statements like “Material as philosophy, that interests me!” or “I don’t want to make arte povera. I want to make poor art!” or even “I don’t want to eliminate anything. I just want to show what is going on in the world.” That should help puzzled viewers, somewhat, but for those who missed it, there is always the map of his thought process provided at the entrance to “Stand-alone.” Hirschhorn is trying the best to talk, share, and show—and it would be a shame to miss it.

"Stand-alone" is at Arndt & Partner until 7 July, Zimmerstr 90-91, Phone +49 30 280 8123.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

My Kiez, Myfest

To fight violence and vandalism with music, food, and community fun is the idea behind Myfest, a large street fair that took place today in Berlin’s Kreuzberg. On the 1st of May 1987, mass riots broke out in the neighborhood’s rougher quarter, nicknamed SO 36, forcing police to retreat for hours while rioters set cars on fire, broke windows, and stole from storefronts. Since then, the 1st of May, which is traditionally a national holiday called “Day of Work” or “Day of the Workers’ Movement,” has also been a time of civil unrest in the neighborhood. However, in 2003 some residents sick of the radical Left’s unruly overtures organized to create a neighborhood celebration dubbed Myfest, a play on the German pronunciation of "Mai" meant to indicate that this is their neighborhood too.

As Myfest’s website explains, the themes of social justice and labor can be confronted peacefully through the medium of music. Today’s Myfest, the fifth, featured twenty stages stretching from Kottbusser Tor to Oranienplatz to Heinrichplatz. Present too were the expected punks and alternative-looking characters, but conspicuously absent were angry revolutionaries inciting the crowd to an uprising. Despite objections from some in the Left who accuse the event of turning a day of resistance into a watered-down carnival and even led counter-demonstrations last year—the banner in this photo says “Myfest is bullshit Revolutionary 1st of May!”--there was no aggression as of 9 p.m. this evening. Long lines of police cars stood idle near Myfest’s entrances while revelers streamed underneath the U-bahn tracks in the mild weather.

In fact, Myfest is both an admirably successful “take-back-the-streets” project and a showcase for Kreuzberg. As organizers promised, here was “the neighborhood in all its diversity”: Turkish families sat behind makeshift börek stands (a doughy pastry stuffed with spinach, cheese, or both) alongside rainbow-headed teens sipping beer. Visitors could sample sausages, pretzels, falafel and döner as they listened to indy-rock, techno, and Arabic-language tunes. Meanwhile, police arrested over 60 people for throwing bottles and other acts of violence around Boxhagener Platz in Friedrichshain last night, reports the Berliner Zeitung. The rowdiness there stemmed from observance of Walpurgisnacht, a pre-Christian tradition more recently linked to witch-hunts in medieval Germany.

Here are some images from Myfest’s decidedly violence-and-sorcery-free happenings.





















Punks munch under a revolutionary banner in Turkish and German.


















Bands play while visitor pour into Myfest via Adalbertstrasse. Below, homemade böreks for sale and a cigarette break in the shade.
Burnt-out “Bolle” supermarket image from 1987 courtesy http://schule.de/bics/son/wir-in-berlin/kiez/FriedKreuz/bolle/7.htm
Anti-Myfest protest image courtesy http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erster_Mai_in_Kreuzberg

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Permanent Adolescence

Are you sick of trying to explain to your friends who don't live in Berlin what it means when you say the roughly 800-year-old city has an unfinished quality, an appealing roughness around the edges? Me neither. I love to talk about it. But in case you need a visual aid, just direct them to this photo of the enormous desert/vacant lot in front of the shiny, brand-new Hauptbahnhof, symbol of the capital's rise to European prominence. Well, maybe one day.


Friday, April 27, 2007

The Politics and Palatability of “Edible Ivory”

Unlike New York, which is periodically engulfed in mania for whimsically idiotic fashion—high heels with socks, couture track pants—Berlin is sensible about its collective frenzies, focusing on what really matters. Like asparagus. Anyone in the city now will notice that grocery stores, underground stands in the metro, and even café chalkboards from the corner Kneipe to upper-crust establishments are proudly boasting the fruits (er, veggies) of Spargelsaison, which officially began a couple weeks ago. Asparagus cream soup, asparagus-accompanied schnitzel, asparagus-topped linguini—the lists sound a bit like Bubba’s famous “shrimp” monolog in Forrest Gump. And this isn’t the enforced fixation of scarcity, a-lá the potato famine, but rather self-selected obsession. Germans love, love, love asparagus.

As Deutsche Welle reported recently, the national affection for “white gold” adds up to the world’s highest annual consumption, at about three pounds per person, as well as Europe’s highest production, at about 82,000 tons. This massive harvest is fueled by the domestic belief that “Made in Germany” means a tastier plant, a preference not present with respect to other crops like cauliflower. That is, asparagus is not merely a foodstuff but rather a point of national pride, occasioning statues in town squares and annual festivals like those in Effeld or Zerbst, the latter proudly boasting the “Asparagus-Peeling World Championship.”

Yet the treasured nutriment is not one hundred percent “German-made”—not if you want to credit the contribution of Poles and other Eastern Europeans who stream into their richer Western neighbor each spring. And not everyone is going mad from asparagus-induced ecstasy this year: Der Tagesspiegel reports that farm owners are dissatisfied with labor laws passed last year that require up to one fifth of the workers to be German. They claim that while Poles are willing to bend over sandy fields and dig out the stalks, German laborers either refuse the back-breaking labor or sign up but then play hooky when harvest time comes. This chronic absenteeism angers owners who say that the pay of 500-700 Euros a month is more than enough for non-native laborers, while unemployed German recipients of state welfare feel entitled to turn their noses up. And while the ethnic quota was only put into practice last year, some growers also claim that it has already scared away potential Polish workers who didn’t want to risk getting sent home.

One thing is certain, however: even if Germans would rather eat their food than harvest it, and Poles defect in droves to greener pastures, the country’s asparagus adoration isn’t going anywhere. And although I understand the convenience of having a completely innocuous symbol around which to rally in a place where nationalism was neutered post-WWII and is still not quite acceptable (although flags have made a comeback since last summer’s World Cup), I have to ask myself what, really, is the appeal.

If, like me, you grew up in the United States, you may have recoiled instinctively at the drained, ghostly pale rods, even more so at the hint of freakishly ultraviolet purple that some stalks bear. The preference for chlorophyll-free food strikes me and others who grew up with verdant veggies as frankly strange. One American asparagus-loving essayist on Salon paused her rhapsody with the following parenthetical:

“(What is white asparagus? It is grown in secret caves, as mushrooms are. It is a long, spooky fungus. It is naked and phallic. White vegetables do not make me want to live.)”

Actually, white asparagus isn’t grown in caves but rather underground, but I sympathize with the author’s disgust, as does the following American cooking website:

“White asparagus, as you know, is grown covered in mounds of sandy soil so that it never sees the light of day until the moment it is unmercifully hewn down.”

Wow. Those mean, mean German farmers. (Although, for the record, something cannot be “hewn down” if it never broke ground; it would be more accurate to say “cruelly plucked from the soil’s breast.”)

The white variety even costs more than the green variety, due to the labor-intensive cultivation. Despite the visual and pocketbook drawbacks, I was initially filled with curiosity about the collective asparagus euphoria. I decided to try some, only to discover that it was…okay. It wasn’t the revelation I’d been hoping for, merely a somewhat less full-bodied version of the green type I’d grown up eating. Full disclosure: it was also cooked by an American. The next step would be to try some authentically German-prepared (and Polish-harvested) Spargel. Feel free to post recommendations here about what dishes, local restaurants, recipes, etc. bring the earth’s bounty to its fullest glory.

Meanwhile, Michael Pollan wrote yet another scathing indictment of American food culture for the New York Times Magazine last week, bemoaning the Farm Bill’s heavy subsidies to corn growers and lack of support to vegetable farmers. Compared to the embarrassingly expensive carrots and cheap soda pop Pollan discusses, all this asparagus hubbub looks pretty good. The next question is, of course, whether the mania will arrive stateside any time soon. Transplanted German Hans Röckenwagner tried to serve the washed-out stalks in up to 75% of the dishes in his eponymous Los Angeles restaurant, which he later shuttered to reopen a “hipper” bistro, then later still, a bakery. One possible conclusion: the Amis didn’t bite. Our tastes remain green, but perhaps it’s better that way--after all, we have our own issues to nationally fixate on, like the comeback of leggings, or Britney's time in rehab.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


Dr. Range-Rover
(or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Ambassador)


He doesn’t speak German, some grumbled. He’s a businessman by trade, not a diplomat, others pointed out. And perhaps the most strident complaint: he’s friends with President Bush. In fact, he’s a major campaign fundraiser for his buddy. And anyone in Berlin can tell you this is bound to raise eyebrows of suspicion.

But William Robert Timken, Jr. has also earned some praise since assuming the post of American Ambassador to Germany in fall 2005, largely for his friendliness and open attitude, reports The Atlantic Review. His charm was certainly turned on for a talk he gave at the Embassy last Thursday morning when he introduced himself by saying, “Look, I wore my pin-stripe suit for you folks today,” making light of his official status as commander of America’s largest foreign mission outside of Iraq. He maintained his "aw-shucks" informal tone throughout the talk but was just as eager to spotlight his close relationship with the President and the enormity of his role as “a sort of President of the US-in-Germany.”

Timken was speaking as a favor to a group of visiting Stanford University, having received a B.A. there in 1960, as did fellow presenters and embassy staff John Bauman, Minister-Councilor for Political Affairs and Ryan Wirtz, Economic Policy and Development Officer (as did yours truly, hence my invitation to the talk.) Also present was William Czajkowski, Commercial Counselor for the US Commercial Service in Germany, who with his colleagues discussed key economic and social issues like unemployment and EU membership. Timken was quick to jump in with a comment or a quip, keeping the tone both classically capitalist—characterizing unemployed state aid recipients as “government check slaves”—and comically light—“My wife said, ‘Ok, sure, I’ll call him ‘Your Excellency’—but he’ll have to pay for it!”

Despite his charismatically commanding presence (see New York’s recent article about how “boss” personalities seduce) and affable manner, I will admit that I was initially uncomfortable with the figure Timken cuts. His emphasis on his close relationship with the President betrays the unapologetic cronyism that has landed the administration in hot water more than once. I was actually quite surprised to learn that he is from Ohio, not Texas. And Timken’s straight-talkin’ speech was peppered with what can only be called, well, Bushisms.

He referred repeatedly to the “ex-East German countries” rather than using the correct term of “states,” a glaring and embarrassing mistake, since “countries” unambiguously means “sovereign nations.” There are also, according to the ambassador, “Still a lot of Stasis walking the streets.” He presumably meant ex-employees of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, whose colloquial abbreviation into "Stasi" neither refers to people nor is used in the plural. He also emphasized that “people can only now see their Stasi files,” which is correct, technically, although it has been correct since 1990 as well. These seemingly little mistakes nonetheless jump out of his speech, marking it as a bit amateurish and cavalier.

Finally, some view Timken’s refusal to acknowledge anti-American sentiment with skepticism. To his claim that he hasn’t truly encountered any, they suggest he simply doesn’t know enough German to understand the media’s bombastic headlining.

Yet Timken has a right to brag. No one would envy the post he took over, a seat soured by predecessor Dan Coats’ outspoken criticism of ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s anti-invasion stance regarding Iraq. At a time when many lamented the “special relationship” between the two nations was irrecoverably eroded, Timken arrived in Berlin ready to make nice. Although it is unclear how much credit he alone can take for the turn-around, especially since a new coalition government headed by Angela Merkel has decided to befriend rather than rail against the Bush administration, German-American relations have improved since his appointment.

As well, Timken’s pragmatic approach to projecting a positive image of America in Germany seems to be the right one. Not only does he try to keep people smiling while speaking their language (although not literally), the classic tasks of a diplomat, he also has rightly targeted the German Muslim population as prime candidates for a bit of international healing. He has met with Arab youths in Berlin’s Wedding district to discuss their needs and encourage them to start their own businesses, at a sitting where Der Tagesspiegel reports his wife, Sue Timken, as having suggested the teens spin off their graffiti skills into marketable products. The same article also points out that the press is usually not invited to such meetings; in other words, they are not publicity stunts but the rather Ambassador’s sincere efforts to improve relations.

Timken also invited conservative Muslim cleric Abdul Basit Tariq to speak at Berlin’s recent sixth-year anniversary ceremonies for September 11th, a calculated gesture of reconciliation that strikes a strong note when compared to the native German protests against the mosque that Tariq’s supporters are building. In short, despite his posturing vis-à-vis his good pal Dubya, this man is here to get good work done.

I forgive him for his verbal slip-ups and lack of German too—that’s what aides are for, to make sure everything is translated and understandable. Sure, the Ambassador may look a little uninformed sometimes, but it doesn’t seem to hinder his understanding of where priorities lie or how to make friends. Besides, his advisors are doubtless being paid to be kept well-informed, while Timken is paid to run the show smoothly. As the New Philadelphia Times Reporter quotes him saying, “[I am] careful to utilize the resources of the embassy, meaning the talents of the people, when it comes to the nuts and bolts” of policy. In other words, my employees iron out the kinks while I manage the office.

I don’t even mind the allegation that his assignment was a “thank you” for Timken’s massive campaign fundraising; it’s water under the bridge if he is doing a good job. And the accusation that he got rich in the past off of trade tariffs that hurt his German competitors is frankly irrelevant. Moreover, I believe Timken when he claims that his business background of meeting the needs of diverse clients from around the world is ample preparation for a diplomat’s job. We have a failed businessman in the Oval Office now, and as far as I can see, he is running the United States into the ground in a similar manner. However, he seems to have chosen well for our nation’s representation in Germany.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Rainbows in Berlin

Berlin’s proposed update to inner city driving laws has some drivers of the roughly 80,000 automobiles old enough to spew excessive pollutants into the atmosphere feeling unfairly targeted (Post Feb. 18). Some drivers are also delightfully creative, as this picture of a tie-dye VW Bug shows. The sign in the window reads, “Against the 2008 Inner-City Driving Ban.”

Tidings from Vienna (Post Apr. 11) continue: Die Presse reports that Austrian architect Adolf Krischanitz, who designed a temporary modern art exhibition hall for the capital in 1992, is looking to do the same in Berlin. Berlin’s Palast der Republik is on schedule to be fully demolished by 2008, leaving two years before the Communist-era structure’s replacement is continued with inaugural construction of the Stadtschloss in 2010. Many have proposed opening a grand hall for contemporary art in this time, an idea enthusiastically endorsed here in New Yorker in Berlin in November.

Krischanitz’s design presents a wooden box similar to his Viennese steel “crate” for this central complex. This structure would also be clad with an outer skin of plastic open to design by featured artists. Here’s hoping that the rainbow-bar-code imagined in this graphic one day pops up next to the Berliner Dom’s archetypical Baroque grandeur. Unfortunately, neither the article nor Krischanitz’s homepage give further details about the proposed design, but stayed tuned on the blog for more updates.



Meanwhile, the Berlin Senate and federal officials are trying to get discussions about the financing of the Stadtschloss wrapped up by summer, Der Tagesspiegel reported yesterday. The latest plan, which forgoes the planned underground parking lot and four-star hotel, clocks in at a clean 480 million. Additionally, the city may bear the brunt of the cost of proposed cultural additions to the site, including the transplant of ethnographic collections from current museums in the Western neighborhood Dahlem, as well as the construction of a major central library.

Berlin art is also appearing in the world of letters: the catalog for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s” (Post Jan. 16) is reviewed by Francine Prose in this month’s Harper’s. Prose concludes that “only a very few of the paintings in Glitter and Doom move us as great paintings do,” yet finds the scathing Verist style of Dix, Schad, et. al grippingly accurate in its portrayal of reality’s ugly side. Some of the paintings are now on display at Berlinische Galerie’s very own “Masterpieces from the Twenties,” including Dix’s heartbreaking “The Poet Iwan von Lücken” (1926).

Finally, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote about the Jewish Museum’s “Dateline Israel” exhibit this week, reviewed March 27th on this blog as part of a commentary on cliché. Cotter declines to say the dreaded C-word but does lament that Wim Wenders’ Mount of Olives images, which I described as bringing “nothing fresh to the table,” present “an easy idea, a generic consumerist dig.” Cotter and I agree that the show has plenty of interesting images but misses the chance to provoke: I found the show to be largely lacking in insight, batting around ideas that have been “point[s] of concern for native artists for the last fifteen years,” and Cotter criticizes the curators for “stick[ing] to package-tour generalities.” While I conclude that the usual stuff nonetheless provides an interesting framework for a few outstanding pieces, Cotter insists that tougher questions should be posed by the pieces on display. He thereby exposes the real damage of clichés: opportunity cost. When you’re busy repeating, you can’t interrogate at the same time.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I The City’s New Self Esteem

“Whoever looks to the future, heads to Berlin!” trumpeted Der Tagesspiegel yesterday, after a temperature reading of the Internet showed that Berlin was considered Europe’s “place to be.” The article went on to excitedly point out that after years of economic stagnation, bankruptcy, and population shrinkage, things were finally looking up. This hopefulness sounded almost like the hype of the early 1990s, when everyone expected Berlin to become the financial, cultural, and geographic capital of post-Cold War Europe. (It didn’t.) Yet the optimism was backed up by the assertion that in the last fiscal quarter of 2006, more jobs were created in Berlin than anywhere else in Germany.

Fair enough. But read on and discover that Berlin also has the second-slowest growing economy in Germany, i.e. that its dismal fiscal situation remains, well, dismal. It clocks in at 1.9%, barely missing the booby prize, which the small Western German state of Saarland wins with 1.6%. This figure complicates the idea of Berlin as the capital of job creation and innovation—if so many jobs are being created, why isn’t the economy growing? Perhaps because more jobs are also being lost, or because people are still leaving for cities with greater native industry. The most optimistic assumption is that growth figures haven’t caught up with job creation yet. However, the market growth that the piece touts seems more like fiction than fact.

What this article is really celebrating is the change in Zeitgeist, that is, Berlin’s slow transformation into the Next Trendy Metropolis. After that one measley scientific figure about job creation, author Ralf Schönball gives up the pretense of a financial thesis and shows he is thrilled, just thrilled, that people around the world are really starting to like Berlin, citing growing numbers of tourists as well as the city’s extreme image boost after the summer 2006 World Cup. He even proudly mentions that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—those child-adopting beacons of humanism! Those attractive ambassadors of taste!—recently bought an apartment here.

Without citing statistics, I must say that Schönball appears to be right, from my expatriate—and hence, member of the club of new admirers—perspective. Hipsters from New York are swarming around in great numbers, the art scene here is exploding (see Post April 3) and I truly don’t remember seeing quite as many tourists two years ago; even the Berlinale film festival (see above photo) seemed more chaotic than previous. And he is right in celebrating: Germany is still heavily associated with its dark past in the eyes of many foreign observers, and it is high time people began to adore its darling, scruffy, good-timing capital city. Schönball's piece is really just a platform for Der Tagesspiegel's giddy announcement of an upcoming series dedicated to describing “fourteen successful New-Berliners.” And why not? Everyone deserves the chance to cry out, eyes misty and arms outreached, “You like me! You really like me!”

II Unbearable News

As long as it doesn't try to maintain the pretense of real findings, and simply allows itself to a fabulous, self-admiring, sociological-human-interest project of Berlin worship, Der Tagesspiegel's series promises to be great fun. Less fun is some of the recent news from Berlin: Tilo, one of the city's mascot brown bears who are kept in a special, non-zoo-related enclosure, succumbed to lymph node cancer. This just after Yan Yan, a Zoo panda bear, died of intestinal congestion at the end of March. Of course, all eyes remain on Knut, (See Posts Mar. 30, Mar. 28), the little polar bear who no one expected to survive; the Zoo recently clocked 90,000 visitors since his March 23rd public debut and counting.


Bears have a way of capturing public fascination in Germany; the shooting of a brown bear who wandered into Bavaria from Austria caused outrage in the fall. His body had to be hidden from angry environmental groups and is currently being kept at an undisclosed location. The creature, dubbed Bruno, had captured the public imagination partially because wild bears are extinct here, and perhaps this gets at the root of the collective fixation--a whopping guilt complex, a hope that current adoration can make up for foolhardy hunting of the past. Or perhaps the bear fascination is much older than modernity: witness the Albert I, who lived in what is now Northern Germany from about 1100 to 1170. The warrior who defeated the Slavs to conquer the area of Brandenburg in which Berlin lies was dubbed "Albert the Bear." And of course, being a city whose official seal bears (pun intended) a rather chicly stylized bear, Berlin is the best setting for ursine fixation. Here's betting Der Tagesspiegel cannot resist the temptation to list Knut as one of their "fourteen successful new-Berliners."

Knut photo courtesy Franka Bruns, AP. Bruns' last name may be a variation on Bruin or Bruun, old English/Dutch words used to mean "baby brown bear." (And now adopted by sports teams a-la the UCLA Bruins.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007



A Tale of Two Cities

The number of Germans living in Vienna has risen 78% since 2001, reported Die Presse recently. They are drawn by a quality of life that tied for international third best in Mercer Consulting’s latest survey, a standing which owes much to Vienna’s former role as capital of the Holy Roman Empire. After five centuries at the center of Western wealth, the city has an inordinately large number of palaces, well-kept gardens, and clean, beautiful streets. Meanwhile, that other German-speaking national capital, Berlin, is known for its scruffy patchwork appeal, a reconstructed flavor that speaks of bombed-out buildings, the Berlin Wall, and the misery of the last century. It is notoriously rough around the edges and lacking in Old World charm. As a resident of the latter city, I wanted to find out for myself what the Habsburg enclave to the south had to offer, and headed down for Easter weekend.

The necessary immersion in the great traditions of music, royalty, and decadent pastries began with an evening at the Konzerthaus. This is the venue where the Wiener Mozart Orchester performs a “greatest hits” rendition of the genius’ ouvre, including selections from A Little Night Music, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Magic Flute among others. While purists might scoff at the alternation between beloved movements and roof-raising arias, these are also the context-snobs who made fun of you for buying the Beatles’ One compilation, so pay no mind and enjoy the music. Besides, this seemingly modern “Classics-Lite” approach is actually a tradition founded by similar “Musical Academies” at the end of the eighteenth century. The only challenge was staying alert during the rather drowsy stretch from the Requiem, which the composer worked on as he slowly succumbed to a mysterious illness.

To hear more about conspiracy theories surrounding this illness, as well as about Mozart’s inveterate extravagance in clothing and illegal gambling, the Mozarthaus near the Stephansdom cathedral is the place to go. Its barren rooms lack authentic objects but the curators have filled the walls with pictures and the audio guide is there to ensure that every detail of Mozart’s life is filled in. Their picture of wealthy patronage feeding the fanatically egotistical child star is much complemented by a pre-trip viewing of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, which won the 1984 Best Picture Oscar (and several more.)

True fans—or anyone in need of caffeine after an hour of biographical sketches—can walk a couple minutes from the museum over to the cafe Frauenhuber at Himmelpfortgasse 6, the coffee house where Mozart allegedly hung out. The typical Viennese drink is called a Mélange, which Berliners will recognize as a poor man’s Milchkaffee, that is, coffee and hot milk mixed together, here with less milk than up north. That may, however, be to save room for the proud array of artery-clogging sweets sitting smugly behind the glass counter. The toughest choice visitors to Vienna must make is between Sachertorte, the triple-chocolate classic invented here—Oreo, take note—the hazelnut-flavored Esterhazy, and the dependable classic apple strudel, a less crusty version of our stateside pie.

After three days of such decisions, my sweet tooth began to ache. I wasn’t craving sugar any more, but rather spice—the controversy of Berlin, where modern history keeps the populace feisty and up in arms. Recent arguments include how to commemorate the Berlin Wall and how large the pensions of East Germany’s Draconian secret jails should be. Berlin’s most important palace is one they are ripping down, the Communist-era Palace of the Republic, to much outcry from former Eastern residents and historical preservationists. In contrast, Vienna’s palaces quietly became government buildings or art museums as the city slid genteel-y into modernity, its picturesque streets barely registering the last century’s catastrophes.

However, this rather charming transition does give tourists much to “ooh” and “ah” over. Since my capacity for looking at pretty things is no smaller than the next person’s, I thoroughly enjoyed gazing at masterpieces in the mansions of the titled families who once collected them. Of particular note are the Albertina’s spectacularly re-created chambers, open to the public only since 2003, and the Belvedere’s gorgeous halls, which house a truly impressive cache of Art Nouveau masterworks by Gustav Klimt, including his infamous The Kiss (1907-8). The Museumsquartier complex should also be on every culture hawk’s itinerary, especially admirers of recent and contemporary art who want to avoid the trips out to individual collections (and are perhaps sick of all the frippery.)

On the other hand, royalists of all flavors, particularly Habsburg buffs, will appreciate touring the apartments of Emperor Franz Josef I and Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) in the central Hofburg, as well as the Versailles-like Schönbrunn complex slightly outside of the city center. While the former showcase the modesty of modernizing monarchs, the latter exhibits such recent restraint as well as the earlier lavishness of Empress Maria Theresa, who spared no expense.

Many, many canvases, tapestries, statues, and manicured lawns later, it isn’t hard to understand Vienna’s attraction. It is a lovely place to spend a packed weekend, soaking up beauty the way one soaks up sun on beach getaways. But like Empress Sisi herself, I grew restless with all the courtly backdrops and was happy to be back in Berlin on Monday, where the newspapers were full of arguments and my taxi driver started a political discussion about the Turks. Only this time they weren’t the Ottomans laying siege at the gates of Vienna, but rather the community of families in my neighborhood. After a brief jaunt to the past, I was firmly and gratefully back in 2007.