Reichenberger Gasbeleuchtung

Walking down Reichenberger Straße, Adam and Rasto fall into a debate about whether the lamps are gas or electric. Adam says they are gas, and Rasto doesn’t believe him.

“Gaslamps have a certain sound,” Rasto says. He stops next to one of them to listen. “It sounds like gas,” he says skeptically.

We walk another block.

“If it’s gas, you should be able to make them turn on or off by kicking them,” Rasto says. He kicks a dark lamppost and watches it come on. He kicks another one and nothing happens. “It could be gas,” he says.

We keep on walking.

Adam then points out that gas lamps give off a warmer, more amber color. Rasto agrees and goes in for a closer look, stepping on top of a snow-covered bicycle to hoist himself halfway up the lamppost. He shakes the pole and watches the lamp-light flicker, his eyes lighting up with this brightness of his discovery.

And he yells:

“It’s fucking GAS!

(photo of the Gaslaternen Freilichtmuseum in the Tiergarten, which we visited last week. More Berliner gaslamp history here.)

The nutcracker and the virgin

At dusk on the outskirts of the makeshift ghost village that was the Leipziger Christmas Market, three workmen hoist a life-sized nativity statue of the Virgin Mary onto the back of a truck, right next to a giant grinning nutcracker encased in what looks like a plywood gingerbread coffin. The men struggle with the wobbling nutcracker, and though I’m tempted to yell “Sei vorsichtig mit dem heiligen Mutter!”* I can see that even if Mary’s co-passenger falters, her arms are stretched out as if ready to catch him.

(* “Be careful with the Holy Mother”)

Schneeballkerzenlicht

For some reason yesterday I decided to carry a snowball with me onto the U-Bahn on my one-stop ride from Bülowstraße to Gleisdreieck. There were security agents in the neighboring car, and though at least one of them noticed that I was packing cold (so to speak), she probably saw I was wearing dress pants and with a lady and decided I didn’t pose any serious threat. After we got off I threw the snowball at the tail end of the U-Bahn as it sped down the tracks, but I missed.

The inspiration, I suspect, was watching San Diego’s Philip Rivers torch the Kansas City Chiefs the week before. He has a really fluid, unusual release, more like a freestyle swim stroke than the traditional QB chop. If you could throw a snowball like Philip Rivers throws touchdowns I bet you could do a lot of damage in a snowball fight.

Speaking of snowball fights, there is an unusually large one looming on the New Years horizon here in Kreuzberg. Each year the districts of Kreuzberg and Neukölln face off in an epic snow-down in Görlitzer Park, just a few blocks from where we are staying. You can see a great video of it below.

The coming battle may help explain why I’ve seen so many youths walking around lobbing snowballs at unarmed and unsuspecting motorists and cyclists. They are just training for the big showdown.

Adding to the martial ambience, an early-arriving pallet of New Years feuerwerk must have fallen into the wrong hands, because the Turkish kids around Adalbertstrasse have been blowing these things up at all hours of the night. The piled-up snow and apartment buildings muffle and reflect the sound so that it sounds more like heavy artillery than the bang of a firecracker. Once in a while our heater chimes in with a clicking noise that sounds almost like the rattle of distant machine gun fire.

In short, anyone who thinks Berlin is still a demilitarized city probably either isn’t paying attention or does not live in and around SO-36.

But amid the darkness and violence of the German winter there is also light.

Last week at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Jenn and I were walking around the courtyard when a man asked for a light. He didn’t look like the type who usually asks for such things, and sure enough he carried my lighter over to the staircase where his son was waiting. Together they had erected a pyramid of snowballs on the concrete bannister of the steps. The man removed the top snowball, lit a tea light, and put the lid back on. The snowball lantern gave off a nice glow, and we all stood around it and stared at it for a while. The light probably only accounts for half a percent of the ambient light you see in this photo.

But, a little bit of Schneeballkerzenlicht goes a long way.

The drunken postcard

I made this at a print-your-own-postcard booth at Berlin’s Museum for Communication. The other available stamps were something like butterflies or flaming skulls, so there was little artistic decision involved except to keep inserting the card over and over, like a carnival punch card totaling up a few too many. I like the way the bottlenecks look almost like slanted steeples with a little cross on the top, somewhere between a hangover and morning mass. Reminds me of a line from Kerouac’s “Windblown World”: ”no one has consciously realized the tremendous significance of American weekends, from proud sartorial Saturday night with its millions of premonitions of triumph and happiness, to dark Sunday night with its sweet and terrified loneliness.”

Maybe not, Jack. But they would if they tried my new line of postcards. With Drunken Postcards, you can write anyone you want exactly what you’ve been wanting to say to them, without fear of reprobation. How? Easy. They’re written in disappearing ink, and never delivered. Like the opposite of Facebook, with the same exact color scheme. Old-fashioned and untraceable except for that stack of empties next to your notebook.

Not convinced? I can hardly blame you. I do, however, have an experiment which you are welcome to try at home — something I hit on entirely by accident last month while writing a stack of postcards that I’ve yet to buy postage for. If you want to dream about someone, write them a (real) postcard just before you go to sleep. Does it work? It did for me, but I’m curious what kind of results others come up with.

Flights resume at Tempelhof?

For a few minutes last Sunday, it appeared as if Tempelhof Airport had been reopened for flights. The silhouette of a jet plane soared through the sky, acrobatically weaving between and flocks of birds and Drachenflieger*.

Tempelhof Airfield is the decommissioned city airport and site of the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949.  These days Tempelhof is more Seurat painting than former airstrip, having been turned into a massive park grounds following years of civic discussion and city planning. While studying in Berlin in 2008, my brother James wrote his final paper about the future of the airport, which officially closed in Halloween of that year.

Meanwhile, the plane had arched one last time around the structure itself before crashing softly into the grass, just meters away from the couple operating it by remote control.

Still, a glorious flight.

*the German word for kite, literally translating to “dragon-fliers.”

(music plucked from some strumming in my flat on Saturday night after seeing Jenn off to her flight to London at Schoenfeld)


The accordion portraits

This year for my birthday I was given a moleskin notebook and a set of oil pastels. I decided to fill the notebook full of faces, with the challenge being not ripping out any pages no matter how inauspicious the initial doodle. Almost all of these portraits were rendered late at night, starting this summer and leading up to Halloween. The result is a colorful coterie of faces, self-portraits and animal-ish creatures. Click the image a couple of times to see it more or less in actual size. And if you like, I’d be happy to draw you something, too.

The musical German language

German has not traditionally been regarded as the most euphonious language. I’ve heard people refer to it as harsh, guttural, and “a good language to yell at someone in” (true, although I think it’s a great language to talk to cats in as well). Most likely these people probably just aren’t listening to the right person speak German — or better yet, sing it.

Compiled here are 20 of my favorite German-language tracks from the past 40 years, ranging from hip-hop to prog to dance pop and indie rock. I think this playlist provides an idea of the diversity and versatility of the language, as well as the broad range of musicians in Germany, many of whom which are still performing.

This list is by no means a definitive representation of recent German music, and the main thing these songs have in common (aside from the language) is that they are all personal favorites. Many of these songs were passed on to me by various friends throughout the years, and this mix is dedicated to them. Please feel free to chime in with your own favorite German-language songs, and perhaps I can post an even more eclectic sampling in the next few months.

Enjoy the mix, and Liebe Grüße aus Berlin.

LW