in brief: This article is gold

Anti-Capitalist Tour Guide Offers Riot Sightseeing in Der Spiegel online.

I love an article where an author is trying to retain journalistic integrity while giggling at the subject matter.

“It’s all about the fact that capitalism is bullshit, and we’re against the system.”

Everyone looks at him, but no-one says anything. It’s Marxism against capitalism, the people against the police. NATO and the Warsaw Pact may no longer be at loggerheads, but in every other way Germany seems to once again be a country in which the world can be reduced to the same simplistic dichotomy of a quarter-century ago: the battle between good and evil.

Posted in In Brief, Life


Bicycle Ghosts

It’s rainy and cold, almost freezing still.

Cyclists move like phantoms. Efficient ghosts. Ticking of chains on concrete walls echo.

Cars menace to catch in headlights cyclists too quick.

A blur, a whoosh, and a cobblestone rumble. Then gone.

Posted in Life, Photos


Published: Cowboy Bar Review in Texture Magazine

Photo: This is either some incredible urban decay or the entrance to a very trendy club in Prenzlauer Burg, Berlin.

Texture Magazine was so fine as to publish my review of the only cowboy bar in Berlin (that I know of). I hope you enjoy it.

Also in this week’s issue I must point out the wonderful photographs by Landon Speers taken during his first month living in Toronto. Self-portrait with roommates definitely captures a feeling I can identify with.

Posted in Life


Going Deutsche

Photo: This 19th century water tower (Wasserturm) marks the center of Prenzlauer Burg. It’s also kind of creepy looking. Between this and the mind-control tower in Alexanderplatz you get the feeling this city was architected by space aliens.

Learning a new language is probably the most masochistic thing you can do to your brain. Yes, learning the piano is hard. Yes, learning how to snowboard or how to dance the charleston is challenging, but language is such a fundamental part of the brain’s processing that it utterly confounds the student who seeks to rewire it. It is very rare that I incur a headache from thinking too hard. Today I did.

I enrolled in the absolute beginners class at GLS, a large language school by my office. I was ten minutes late but somehow was the first to arrive. I chatted with my amiable teacher Heike for a few minutes, and then another other student arrived.

“Now,” said Heike, “we speak only Deutsche. It may be a little hard, ja?”

“Ja,” I concurred. Then we were off and I flashed back instantly to my first day of grade one French when the teacher announced “ici on parle seulement français.” The panic was as raw in me at 28 as it was when I was 6. There is something terrifying about not being able to communicate, about not being able to explain yourself when something goes horribly wrong. Like if you have to go to the bathroom.

Heike is an animated sort. She has a background in theater, I think. Between the hand gestures and the snippets of English-sounding German words that was the impression I got. I suppose it takes a strong personality to make yourself heard when your audience is a pair of slackjawed 20-somethings trying desperately to grab hold of anything you are saying at all like drowning sailors grasping for fragments of a once solid hull. Our Titanic was English and we sailed an ocean of what-the-fuck.

We started with “what is your name”, “where are you from”, “how long have you been here,” “what is your job,” etc. which sound like easy questions until you try to respond and your brain slams into a wall.

“Ich… kommt… de Kanada?”

aus Kanada,” Heide corrected.

“Oh, ah, ja, umm, ja.”

Ross, the other student in the class, responded the same, and same again for how long he’d been in Berlin. Heike thought maybe he was just parroting but he was actually a Canadian in Berlin for one month so far.

The question of what I did for work seemed a little tougher.

Ich… arbeite als… computer programmer?

Ah! Du arbeiten als Computerprogrammieren!

“…Ja!” This seems to be the trick. If you don’t know the word say the English word with a German accent and hope for the best. Ross was ein Graphikdesigner.

We then went on into family relationships and I stammered that I had “zwei Brüder und eine Schwester” then Heike asked me to ask her a question about her family. (Amusingly the translation for “ask me” is “frage mich” which sounds kind of dirty. Potty humour and classrooms are hardlinked in my mind). Flailing for the first word I could grab hold of and stick into a sentence I asked Heike “Hast du ein Mann?

I can’t give it to you in German but Heike responded that she had a husband, past tense. Not knowing the language I had no way to say “ooh, sorry” or make a joke. I just had to sit there while she dug me out of my own hole. I’m sure she gets the question every first lesson but boy is it awkward while your teacher attempts to explain divorce in German, gesturing to her ring finger for visual aid.

Then we did some workbook exercises suitable for German kindergarteners. They were hard.

After the class Ross and I attempted to talk but our speech centres were fried and we were reduced to speaking English no more complex than our German.

“My brain hurts,” I said.

“Do you come from the west coast?”

“No, I come from Calgary. Do you come from Vancouver?”

“I come from Victoria.”


Language lessons are probably the most cost-effective way for an adult to feel young again. That is, overwhelmed, confused, and unable to communicate effectively. I get this privilege twice a week for the next month. Wunderbar.

Hafferoder Tragedy

A lesson in science: a sealed bottle of beer can be cooled to sub-zero temperatures without freezing thanks to the alcohol in the liquid and the pressure of the sealed container. However, as the beer becomes very cold the pressure inside the bottle increases. The minimum supported temperature of a bottle of beer is about -10 C. Last night it was -16 C outside:

Supercooled bottles of beer after a catastrophic container failure.

The bottles of Hafferoder on the balcony experienced catastrophic container failure. The rapid loss of pressure actually cooled the liquid beer even further. This plus the sub-zero supercooled state of the beer led to near-instantaneous phase change. Also I’m out two Euro’s worth of beer. Damnit.

Yesterday I walked from my place in Prenzlauer Burg through the Mitte district to the Brandenburg Gate. I remembered the Brandenburg Gate and the sights around it from a walking tour of Berlin I took when I was here for the interview at the end of September. It was 28 C then, unbearably warm. This time it was somewhere around -10 and I was bundled up in my full Canadian winter gear. Despite the weather the Brandenburger Tor reminded me again just where I was. Holy crap you guys I live in Berlin. How crazy is that?!

The sights in the area are still there. The Jewish Holocaust Memorial is a bit less overwhelming when it’s covered in ice and your attention is spent trying not to slide and fall into the corner of a concrete block instead of taking in the grandeur of the place. I’ll be sure to walk through again in the Spring. I can’t really describe the memorial so I’ll ask you to look at it from the air on Google Maps:

View Larger Map

The memorial is amazing in that it doesn’t have any statues, any plaques, or make any specific statements about the holocaust. Everyone who walks through it will have a slightly different interpretation, but will remember the experience. The first time I went through I was very moved.

Today I went to a flea market in Mauerpark. Incredible! There were many booths selling vinyl records. Prices were high but selection was great. Crates and crates of New Wave and Punk records; highly sought after LPs back in Calgary. There were also a lot of artists selling hipster clothing: trendy print t-shirts and handbags, psychedelically coloured knitted gloves and toques, and fashionable retro junk clothing from 20 to 40 years back.

What was really neat was the junk. A few large tents held discarded housewares from generations of German families. Bowls, dishes, plates, cutlery probably full of leaded paint scattered pell mell in bins, no prices on anything. Suitcases, chairs, furniture from the 50’s. Junk, perhaps, but most of it from the GDR with that futurist/communist style looking like it was taken from a supervillain’s spaceship.

There were also shoeboxes of fading black-and-white photos of long-dead families. At one booth one could purchase whole photo albums full of pictures.

There was a lot of old Camera gear but no Nikon or Canon stuff. Again, it’s all GDR stuff: a lot of Praktica.

The GDR imparts a lot of weirdness here. I don’t know much about the communist state but I’m eager to learn. Of course it was a bad time for a lot of people and most would like to forget about it, but in terms of art and product design it bred an alien style. It reminds me of the 1967-era architecture in Montreal but a lot more awkward and a bit more menacing.

Now I’m gonna get back to slogging through my first book in German, Der Goldene Kompass. It’s a translation of an English book and I’m sure you’ll figure out the real title if you squint a little. I am about three pages in and I have a very vague idea of what’s going on. I scribble down dozens of words and every few pages stop to look them up. Then, reread the pages find more words and repeat. I’m on page three but I’ve read the first three pages about three times now…