Esther: My Bicycle

I’m not a man who names things. I have friends who do. I have friends who’ve named their cars and treated them like people: specifically like wheezy, temperamental old fogeys because that’s what kind of cars they were.

I have friends who name their houses. I visited a house called the Shaw Shack: a punk house in Toronto that was just as wild a base for parties as the eponymous Love Shack of the B-52’s. I visited the Desert Palace and discovered it was perfect and clean, but lonely and desolate; the name was a shockingly good metaphor for that suburban bungalo on the barely-built edge of Edmonton’s southeast-most suburb. (And to think it was originally named after the dullish yellow the builders had painted the walls).

But I am not the type to name things except recently when I was asked the name of my bike.

I named her Esther.

Now she seems like a person.

It’s not wrong to feel close to one’s bike in Berlin. Bicycles are the most useful form of transportation in this city. Wide sidewalks, sane drivers, flat grounds, and reasonable weather produce a perfect atmosphere for cycling. The bicycle is in fact the quickest form of transportation for most inner-city trips. Even if all your subway transfers align perfectly, a reasonably fit cyclist will usually beat you on a trip across town from Prenzlauer Berg to Kreuzberg. Trust me: it happens to me almost weekly.

I joined the cycling elite, hesitantly, a couple weeks ago. I picked up my bike from FroschRad (lit: frog-bicycle) a local builder with a good reputation for sturdy, no-nonsense bicycles. I bought a city bike brand new and named her Esther.

Esther is wonderfully light and nimble. So light, in fact, that I think the heavy locking chain I’m obliged to lock her with is as weighty as she is. She’s an 8-speed beauty with a rear-wheel Shimano shifter, but in the city I’ve never used more than four of her gears.

Light plastic rainguards keep the wet away, sliding dangerously close to her spinning wheels but never touching. Unlike most city bikes Esther doesn’t have a chain guard. Traditionalists would find this shockingly immodest on a city bike, but Esther isn’t one for the shackles of tradition, though she obliges a bit with her curved handlebars.

She’s black as night, and hardly a logo or aesthetic frill on her. She’s all business, and she’s good at what she does. When riding Esther I don’t feel like I’m riding a bicycle; I feel like I’m somehow sliding across the ground at a fantastic rate of speed. She shifts easily and never skips a tooth on the chain. She obliges my heavy pedal-falls without groaning or resisting. She stops when I grip her brakes tightly. She goes when I pedal. Is there not a more beautiful relationship between man and machine?

Esther is by far the most wonderful bicycle I have ever owned. I enjoyed my last bike, a brawny brute mountain-bike, but it was so full of muscle I felt like I had to fight it to really get moving. Its big chunky tires resisted pavement, and its front-fork offered little more than excess mass.

“Oh please,” it seemed to say, “you want to ride me on flat ground?” Then it would roll its eyes and accelerate half-heartedly.

Not Esther. Esther is happy to go where I take her. I think she’s happy just to be with me. We are a team. Maybe more.

I have to wonder if any of these thoughts would have developed had I not named her. But maybe I didn’t name her at all. Maybe Esther was always her name, and I merely had to discover it.

Cultural Appropriation

There’s a product on sale at the coffee shop around the corner (the one run by the Italian gentleman, with the unbelievably good croissants, but only on weekends). It’s called Tim’s Mini Brownies.

It’s just… wrong. The box has a big red maple leaf on the front and advertises True Canadian Taste. On the bottom of the box it says Made in Berlin. No doubt. This bizarre product has got its cultural symbols all crossed.

The logo looks something like Tim Hortons but, okay, first of all Tim Hortons doesn’t serve brownies. Never has. Maybe they were thinking Timbits, or “donut holes”. These products extend from the donut food group in that they are deep-fried baked goods. Brownies are from the cake genus since they are baked in a pan.

There are mini brownies in Canada, yeah, but those are made by President’s Choice. That isn’t even a particularly Canadian invention. It’s just a brownie that’s small cooked in a mini muffin tin; a cross between regular brownies and mini-muffins. Tim’s mini brownies don’t look like PC mini brownies. They’re too spherical.

So you’ve got a product that looks like it’s Canadian but doesn’t actually exist in Canada. It’s a synthetic hybrid of a couple vaguely Canadian baked goods presented as an actual thing and it annoys the hell out of me.

It’s like going to a German themed bar to find waitresses in dirndls and all they’re serving is Bud Light in cans. And they don’t know what a Herrengedeck is. You order one and they serve you Kirin Ichiban and Grappa.

I mean, seriously.

I know other countries probably get the shaft when their culture is warped by appropriators but mini brownies don’t even exist as a Canadian stereotype.

You know what the number one Canadian stereotype I get asked about is? If we pour maple syrup on bacon. Look, people, sometimes it flows off the pancakes. It’s no big deal.

People also ask me if it’s cold in Canada. At least that stereotype is true for most of the country.

Anyway, here’s a YouTube vid about the quest to create the world’s biggest schnitzel.


“Have you heard of Teufelsberg?” Nicole asked me.

Teufelsberg (lit. “devil’s mountain”) is a hill to the southwest of Berlin. It’s a forest, essentially. A wilderness criss-crossed by hiking paths and the occasional ski slope which, in the summer, make do as challenge material for suicidal cyclists.

On the peak, however, lies a ruin.

During the cold war the Americans were exceptionally interested in what might be going on on the East German side of Berlin. Since Teufelsberg had a clear line-of-sight view on most of the city, the NSA built a listening station on the mountain as part of the terrifyingly-named Echelon project.

Imagine living in beautiful suburban Charlottenberg, beside the world-renowned Olympic stadium, amidst gardens and topiary, and one day seeing this peeking out above the forest:

This geodesic dome is the topmost point of the listening station. What was inside it… well… radio listening equipment of some sort.

The base was closed at the end of the cold war and all the equipment removed. The land was sold to a private developer to be turned into a resort. The developer promptly lost all his money in a real estate bubble and the site was left to decay, surrounded by cyclone fence.

We formed a party to tackle Teufelsberg on a beautiful Saturday in June, unprepared and not knowing what to expect. We didn’t even bring Felco C7 wire and cable cutters.

If there’s one thing Berliners hate it’s fences, as evidenced by the myriad holes in the fence that were cut and repaired repeatedly over the years. (Especially if the fence is surrounding technically unused property. Another time I must tell you about Tempelhof Airport…)

We followed the fence through the woods until we found a ragged hole which we slipped through (well, they slipped, I squeezed, but it worked). From there we crossed over dangerous pits of concrete and rebar and scaled treacherous hills before arriving in front of the base only to find a couple of older looking tourists already there.

Nicole asked how they got in and they said there was a convenient hole right by the main gate. At least all that dangerous climbing made us feel like we deserved to be there.

Finally, we were inside.

The main floor of the base was a standard ruin, covered in graffiti and trash. The structure was intact but most of the walls had been knocked out.

The place was meticulously emptied. Every piece of equipment that might have revealed the site’s purpose had been carefully removed by the NSA when they left. Nothing but bare concrete walls and, here and there, raised sections or metal grilles that might have supported unknown machines.

This is not a standard tourist destination. The torn-down walls reveal sheer drops to the pavement below. Elevator shafts look down into dark chasms. Here are there courteous adventurers have tied ropes or caution tape across openings too dangerous to cross, but generally you are completely on your own. Try not to do anything stupid or you might die.

The view is spectacular.

We spent some time on the second level enjoying the ambiance. Eventually I decided to climb one level up. What I discovered blew me away:

These geodesic domes housed… something. Perhaps radar equipment. The skin of the dome is made of tough plasticized denim which many visitors have cut over the years.

Yet higher there is a tower that reaches up to a single, larger geodesic dome. At this point I stopped taking pictures because I was so amazed by what I was seeing. The dome was huge. The acoustics were strange, creating unusual echoes and long reverb tails. A cathedral for martians.

I don’t have pictures but Mary was good enough to capture this audio recording that demonstrates the strange sonic properties of the place:

Audio Recording from the Highest Dome in the Teufelsberg Listening Post

Finally we headed back, this time via the main gate. A bunch of scrappers were collecting leftover metal to sell in the front, and a group of British tourists worriedly talked about two of their party who seemed to be missing somewhere in the ruin.

The hole in the fence led us to a cobblestone path and then to a road that took us back to civilization. We were tired and utterly exhausted but it was entirely worth it. The Teufelsberg listening post ruin is simply the most fascinating place I’ve ever been. I can’t wait to go back.

The untrue story of Berlin

Photo: Church in Südstern.

This evening I went for a walk. Normally I walk north from my flat by the Admiralstraße bridge towards the chaos of Kottbusser Tor and central Kreuzberg, but today I went south toward Neukölln. I followed a long park between two busy streets. The park featured playground equipment that would be considered dangerously unsafe in North America.

South of the park was a street with tiny restaurants and basement bars, Berliners sipping wine and beer at little tables on the uneven cobblestone sidewalk.

Further south, a thoroughfare to cross. The road looped around a gothic church to the west. Across the road, Hassenheide park. A chaotic mess of paths through a forest punctuated by sudden open fields and playgrounds. In the middle of the park I stumbled upon an open-air movie theatre. (The movie was in German, unfortunately.)

I was thinking as I was walking home about the story of Berlin. As a non-Berliner and non-German I am still often mystified by the way things happen here. What counts for normal and what counts as rude. Why the buildings look like they do, and why the fashion is as it is.

I develop a narrative that explains it. This narrative is based on things people have told me here and there, but it isn’t exactly true. It’s a story I change as I learn more about this place. It’s the model I use to explain everything that I see. Here it is:

After the second world war Berlin was partitioned into two halves owned by East and West Germany. Both sides rebuilt Berlin as they saw fit, and population boomed on both sides of the wall. The wall created two distinct cultures.

When the wall fell and the city was reunified, things got weirder. There was an economic boom that led to a lot of new buildings, but in fact the city centre emptied as many baby-boomers ran for the suburbs and to more economically prosperous West German cities.

The sudden glut of real estate led to an influx of immigrants, from France, Britain, Turkey, and from other parts of Germany. A lot of artists showed up because Berlin was relatively affordable, and radicals and activists because it was relatively liberal. Heck, accommodation was free if you found an empty building to squat– and there were a lot of empty buildings.

The East German culture mixed with the West German culture and the immigrant culture and the whole thing swirled together into a unique culture in itself. It’s not so much a melting pot as it is a goulash.

The resulting asthetic is young and artistic. It eschews money and status and values discourse, creativity, and intense experiences. It’s a culture equally defined by big parties, warm welcomes even to strangers, and intense heartfelt debate.

The thing that really strikes me, though, is that these people are living in a city built for someone else. It’s a feeling I get wherever I go. Most of the bars have a manicured run-down look: they are stocked with third-hand furniture from old aunties’ living rooms; they are found in illegal cellars and the ruins of industrial buildings.

Most bar owners don’t have the money to renovate, and even if they do they usually don’t bother. (The bar across from work, a biergarten in a decrepit ruin, was renovated and turned into a beautiful-looking Spanish restaurant. Now, nobody goes there except tourists. My coworkers disdain the place.)

The result of this is it feels like we’re living amidst the bones of a dinosaur. Some huge Tyrannosaurus of political and economic ideology that lumbered across the cultural landscape until environmental factors led it to sudden starvation. And we’re the mice scurrying through the desiccated ribcage, burrowing little holes and waiting out the eons in relative comfort.

(It was the rodents, of course, that outlived the dinosaurs).

Berlin is a post-urban city. Conspicuous consumption is dead, and globalization means nothing more than restaurants that serve pizza and döner. It’s about small forces: friends, and personal freedom.

This is probably not accurate for everyone, but it seems to characterize a lot of the people I know. And maybe it reflects more about the life I choose to live here than the city as a whole… but I choose to believe it like this, at least for the moment, because it’s a heck of a story.