Brocken Harz club

Charging to the top of the Brocken / Where what once was broken / Can be forgotten

This fragment is my contribution to the wealth of literature about Germany’s most mysterious mountaintop, the Brocken. Most mentions include depictions of the witches’ revelry on Walpurgisnacht, such as in Goethe’s “Faust,” but I didn’t see any witches myself. Just a bunch of tourists stumbling through the freezing fog.

Jenn and I decided to visit the peak on my 30th birthday, ascending via narrow-gauge steam railway, a 19 km ride from Wernigerode that took almost two hours. Most of the journey offered clear views of the surroundings, but when we got to the top we found we couldn’t see anything. The red-and-white television tower — home of a Soviet spy station in the cold war times — was almost completely hidden from view, which was amusing considering you can usually see the thing from dozens of miles away.

Instead of scenes from Goethe’s Faust, I reflected on Thomas Mann’s “Doktor Faustus,” which I finished reading last month. The book contains very little overt occultism, instead raising some disturbing questions about the artistic process. Must one really sell one’s soul to complete a work of true genius? Such is the case for Mann’s composer character Adrian, whose speech at the end is so tragic and ridiculous it makes the preceding 500 pages well worth it.

Me? I’d rather be a minor poet, slugging Hasseroder Pils from the platform of the rickety old train, speeding toward a dinner of farmer’s potatoes and bacon in a cosy restaurant near the town’s famous rathaus.

Thanks everyone for the kind birthday wishes (especially Private Cho calling from the Korean Border!) and I will be in touch with more e-mails and posts soon. In the meantime, you can see more pictures of the journey here.

Tear them down and paint them over

Though Berlin natives and resident ex-pats often write it off as a schmaltzy tourist attraction that hasn’t held up over the years, The East Side Gallery is still a lively, colorful representation of the city’s divided history. Last week Jennifer put together a slideshow of some of the paintings, which were created by artists from all over the world. As she said on her website:

The photographs displayed in the slideshow are not a complete representation of each section of the gallery, but instead a selection of a few personal favorites, chosen because of a particular composition or color pattern. The former presence of the wall, mentally and socially, becomes less and less apparent over time…

It’s neat to look at this over 20 years after the wall came down, especially in light of the revolutions currently taking place in the Arab world. It’s as if the same peaceful populist spirit that brought the iron curtain down has shifted to the Mideast, and I’ve noticed that people here share the excitement and are paying close attention, as are so many others around the world.

Hope this brightens your Monday, and more later in the week.

Letter from the (former) editor: 15 steps for avoiding Web media failure

Although I resigned my post as editor and co-founder of KCFreePress.com back in May 2010, I never took any real opportunity to explain why. But being away for a while has given me some perspective on the experience, so I thought I’d take the time to talk about what happened at KCFP and what I learned from the whole thing.

For those of you who didn’t visit the site during its short tenure, KCFP was an online publication launched by Jeff Henry, the owner of BigShot marketing and a former Pitch sales guy who always wanted to create something similar on his own terms. I was introduced to Jeff through a colleague at Universal Press and quickly went about outlining the site and recruiting different people to take part, including executive editor Jay Senter (who now publishes PVPost.com) and Emily Farris, a talented freelance writer for several national sites.

With the help of about two dozen freelancers, we launched a site that focused on a wide range of local news and events, publishing about 20 stories a week along with photo galleries, video features, polls and an extensive events calendar. Though the initial efforts were met with enthusiasm, solid readership and a genuine belief that we were doing something new, financial issues and lack of resources caught up with us rather quickly. After the last of the initial crew quit last summer, the site stayed up under Jeff’s leadership until someone finally flipped the switch in October 2010.

Though KCFP was unsuccessful on many levels, the experience was highly educational, and it’s with that spirit that I’d like to offer these 15 hard-earned guidelines for anyone wishing to enter the wild world of local online publishing.

Continue reading “Letter from the (former) editor: 15 steps for avoiding Web media failure”

Sketches from the morning commute

* * *

After leaving the party we turn the corner to Schlesisches Tor and hear what sounds like a live gypsy band with horns and drums and everything. Inside the station, a full-blown cabaret is underway, the likes of which Berlin hasn’t seen since 1929. People lock arms and dance jigs and hoist their beers and clap in rhythm, all at 2:30 in the morning. But by the time I’ve bought a beer at the station shop, the music has already stopped. Cops pile out of paddy-wagons on either side of the station, and as the crowd boos and begins to disperse a girl hands out fliers.

* * *

On the way to catch the 4:45 a.m. train to Erfurt, I walk by the Trinkteuffel, the Kreuzberg corner bar where the patrons sit and drink their beers with the same casual nature you’d expect at a nice Sunday afternoon cafe. Further down the street I see a man slipping all over the ice, which is pretty thick at the moment. He’s having a hard time keeping his balance, and I feel sorry for him until I notice he’s just really, really wasted.

* * *

Still dark outside, and it looks like I’m the only one awake on this ride to Alexanderplatz. Everyone else is sprawled out on the benches with their eyes shut and their mouths open. When the U-Bahn turns a corner, however, I catch a glimpse of at least one other awake soul — a girl a few cars down waving her arms in half-windmills and tossing her pink-streaked hair from side to side. Nobody bothers to tell her she’s no longer at the dance club. But, nobody seems to mind.

* * *

At the back of the tram to Europaplatz, the teenage Mutti watches over the stroller while Papa strides toward the ticket machine in the front car, taking his hands out of the pockets of his black hoodie to steady himself against the swaying of the tram.

* * *

On a cold Friday afternoon on Kotbusser Dam, a girl with frizzy hair and a red-and-white jacket juggles juggling pins at the stoplight. She drops them several times but still has the nerve to jog between the cars and wave a change basket before the light changes. Nobody obliges, and I wonder if anyone else is missing the fire-breather who set up shop there last week.

* * *

Just before dawn along the cobblestone street to Südplatz, a lady in high leather boots, a ski coat and jewelry shuts the car door and steps toward the door of her building. I’m on my way out the door to work and she’s just arriving home. I know where you’re going and you know where I’ve been.

* * *

At Mehringdamm an old man in a long black coat tries to step out of the U-Bahn just as the red lights flash and atonal bleeps sound in alert. The doors close halfway on him, but he manages to free himself by prying them back open with long, spindly fingers, gasping as he steps out into the station. His face is as pale as Nosferatu, and we can’t help but think we might have just witnessed something release itself from the underworld.

* * *

A few minutes until 6 outside Leipzig Central Station, and dozens of bakery employees in red jackets huddle in clusters and smoke cigarettes outside the exits, puffing with the urgency of people who think they might be smoking the last cigarettes of their lives.

* * *

Here comes a headache, I think as I watch a trio of guys lug instruments and a mobile p.a. onto our midnight car to Kotti. But once they start playing — saxophone, melodica and beats — everyone starts clapping and singing along to “Hit the Road Jack.” Even the sullen kid across from me puts down his book and lets out a tiny smile. When someone shouts for an encore the band launches into the first few bars of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” And when the train lurches and pulls everyone into each other, the dancing kids do their best to keep their beers from spilling.

* * *

On the morning commute, I being to realize I’m the only one on the U-Bahn not wearing a black top and blue jeans. After a few stops I start to feel like a corduroy-clad crasher of their impromptu denim convention. The jeans themselves come in all varieties: The man on my right has opted for dark and distressed, while the woman beside him sports a lighter shade of stonewashed.

* * *

Riding though the Saale in January, I see for the first time the cupolas of churches and houses of a hillside village built around a valley waterway. I marvel at how closely the buildings are intertwined with the river until I realize that it isn’t supposed to be this way; that the town is half-flooded.

* * *

As the tram nears a stop, a young couple embraces in what looks like a very passionate farewell. When the doors open, the man behind them waits calmly for the couple to finish instead of pushing his way past. It looks like they are saying goodbye for a long time, he probably thinks. But when their lingering kiss finally ends, they join hands and walk off the tram together.

* * *

Author’s note:

As a journeyman English teacher, I do a lot of transit riding. In fact, yesterday I had to get up before 5 to catch a train to the central German city of Erfurt, where I teach three classes at Siemens. I teach at different schools and businesses in Leipzig, and before moving here I had to race all over Berlin to take class, meet friends, and collect various visa papers and stamps. I can barely sit down without expecting the scenery out the window to begin moving at any moment.

What makes the commute interesting is not just the time I get to sleep, read or stare out the window, it’s the fellow passengers and people I observe along the way. The other day I compiled this little people-watching catalog from my rides to and from class these last few months. I was going to upload this from the train for extra style points but the connection on “das Internet Stick” was too slow.

This one goes out to all of my fellow U-bahn Ratzen and tram travelers, and to especially to Jenny, who has a long voyage ahead of her tomorrow to get back to her man. I welcome any feedback or and it would be extra fun if anyone wants to chime in with their own transit observations in the comments. Love, LW

The Kreuzberger Garbagegoyle

Berlin is a land of many visual wonders, perhaps none quite as simultaneously functional and artistic as this sculptural garbage can in the middle of Lausitzer Platz. We found this guy in the park where several dozen kids were playing on the swings and jungle gym. None of them went anywhere close to it, though, which probably explains why he looks so bored and lonely, snow dusting his nose and gaping mouth reeking faintly of yesterday’s stale wine and cigarettes.

Poor chap.

Kansas turns 150

My home state celebrated a big birthday today. Kansas is now one-hundred and fifty years young. Even though I suspect it has been around a lot longer than that. Just ask Juan de Oñates, who in the early 1600s referred to the native Kansans Escansaques, “the troublesome people.” Not much changes, I suspect. And also thank Case Seward for this centennial illustration of the opportunities that await you once you make that decision to don a garland of sunflowers.

See you all in Kansas sometime soon. Meanwhile, more vintage KS postcards here.

The Flaming Teabags



“The Flaming Teabags,” (or for you Germans, die Flammende Teebeutel) sounds like the name of a band. And perhaps it is. Or has been. Or could be. It’s also a parlour trick perfected by Till, which James documented one winter night at our flat. Note to viewers — and I mean this — do not try this yourself. Till has a touch that I’ve found myself unable to replicate, much to the detriment of the kitchen table.

My year behind glass

I first got inspired to shoot short, observational video clips after watching my old neighbor Blue McNiel’s “A 43rd and Warwick Story.” In 3 minutes and 2 seconds, virtually nothing happens aside from the lights changing and some cars driving by while the camera watches from her front porch. I had pretty much the same view at the time, and I remember the sounds of the lights clicking and the green- and red-outlined shadows they would cast through my curtains onto my ground-floor bedroom. The document has taken on a historical importance now that the lights have been replaced by stop signs and I have moved away.

I started shooting similar observational clips out of windows, on front porches, at parks and art exhibits. My montage could be called “A 2010 Story” or “A Kansas City Story” although this timeframe and location has to be expanded to account for a wee bit of Mississippi and Europe. It’s a just over 2-minute trip across flooded and frozen landscapes, Christmas carols, full moons and orange balloons.

Nothing that’s going to break down any doors, but you might enjoy it all the same.

Restoring Schönholz


A few weeks ago I finally went to visit the Soviet Memorial in the Schönholzer Heide in the northeast of Berlin. I first saw the landmark in the film “The Lives of Others” during the scene where the main character and his dissident friend seek out a spot to stroll and talk unobserved. I’ve been wanting to visit ever since.

Approaching the snow-covered obelisk and mourning Mother Russia statue on that gray winter afternoon proved every bit as cinematic as the scene in the film. Unfortunately you couldn’t get closer than 100 yards of the memorial because of the construction fences all around it. Stacks of tiles and scattered port-a-potties stood guard around Mother Russia, and the sign said restoration would be taking place until 2012.

Even from that distance, the Schönholzer memorial has a completely different atmosphere than the tank in the Tiergarten or the mighty monument in Treptow, which features a giant statue of a soldier crushing a swastika under a sword while rescuing an orphan child. The main statue at Schönholz is of a kneeling woman cradling her fallen son on her lap. It expresses loss and solemnity — intimations only amplified by the vacant, snow-covered surroundings that afternoon.

We walked around the perimeter but could see very little over the foreboding border wall, which still had the hooks for the banners and flags that must have once decorated it on ceremonious occasions. I wanted to sneak in, but since there are over 1,000 soldiers buried there, one must enter the place with a level of respect that is difficult to achieve when trespassing.

Still, I’d come a long way, and I didn’t think getting a closer look would cause any real harm as long as I was careful. Just outside the marble gates I found a gap in the fence wide enough to step through. I took a few steps and looked around before beating a hasty retreat, like a mouse scurrying back into its hole after getting the sudden sensation it isn’t safe. I peeked back around the construction trailer into the center courtyard. Now or never. I started back in only to look up and see this…

…a definite sign I should go no further.

So I went home. Like everyone else, I’ll just have to come back after the restoration is finished.

I suspect some of the drab, overgrown quality that attracts me to the place will be scrubbed away in the restoration process. Still, the Schönholzer Heide has been through a lot in the last 100 years, serving as a forest grounds, amusement park, internment camp, and today, a sled-friendly park sprinkled with monuments like the Soviet Memorial. It deserves to be seen in a new light.

Oranienstraße im Flammen

Here in Germany, they call New Year’s Eve “Silvester,” named after Sylvester I, who was Pope from 31 January 314 to 31 December 335. Each December 31 they celebrate the old Roman’s legacy — and the new year — by blowing up everything in sight (see my post from two weeks ago).

Below is yet another fireworks video, this time depicting a Silvester street scene on Oranienstraße, near Oranienplatz. We narrowly dodged a few rockets fired from the Kreuzberg Sportwettenbruecke, and thankfully managed to steer clear of the Mercedes that caught on fire over on Koepenickerstraße.

At midnight, under the relative shelter of the awning at the Santa Maria Mexican Diner, we sipped our beers and watched the city spark itself into a jubilant chaos. Rockets, flare guns, and sparklers, shot off by people on the streets and leaning out of upper-story windows. Quite noisy and fantastic. The only thing more impressive was the mess it left the next day.

‘Like hell comin’ out of the pavement’

I don’t upload a lot of things to YouTube, but it seems like when I do it’s always something about fireworks. Like this pyramid-of-snakes burning ritual in the parking lot at Herbert’s Mart strip mall, located squarely in the middle of Wayne County, Mississippi. While working in the fireworks stand there, Brian and I befriended a local high school graduate named Tom. Due to his athletic and amorous pursuits in and Waynesboro — most specifically that very strip mall parking lot in which we sat and drank beer — Tom had been dubbed “The King of Herbert’s Mart” by his peers. A widely recruited placekicker who was injured early in his senior season, Tom spent most of his time drinking beer, getting in fights, cruising the strip and fixing cars at WalMart. He was a welcoming and friendly guy, and told some amazing stories about life in Wayne County, which he called “The Land of Dreams.” I’ll share more about him another time. For now, some footage of the aforementioned smoldering snakepile, with commentary by the King of Herbet’s Mart himself…

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

Back in business

Where you been?

It’s a question I’ve gotten a lot in the past several months. People pulling up my old blog on their browsers only to find stagnant posts quietly filling up with spam comments. Ever since I started working on kcfreepress last year I let my own blog drift until I finally had enough of the web in general and decided to get into the alternate career options of fireworks selling, editing manuscripts and teaching English.

But I’m not going to lie. I miss blogging. Posting. Writing. Whatever you want to call it. Keeping a blog kept me connected to Kansas City and the places I traveled in between. The challenge of coming up with interesting material was always made easier and more fun by having other friends’ posts to link to and comments + art + music to share.

That dialogue is what’s inspired me to open up this site on WordPress. It will serve as a portfolio of sorts but mostly a blog including the usual observations, photos, conversations, inanities, links, things of that sort. Longer essays and published pieces will be viewable in the “writing” tab on the main page, which I’ll link to when something new goes up.

In the meantime, Jennifer and I have moved back to Germany while I do my teacher certification course and some freelance work. Been fun so far, and there’s lots of creative types here in Berlin. Already met one guy near the Admiralbruecke who was up for some harping. You can view our somewhat one-sided duet below. Cheers and thanks for checking out the new site. LW

To Germany

Jenny and I are headed to Berlin, Germany next week.  The move is a step toward something different, not better or worse, though we hope for the best.  I will be taking a class through the month of November to become certified to teach English as a second language abroad through a program called CELTA, which stands for the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults.  Jenny will be continuing her photography through new and similar means as she practiced in Kansas City.  We both view this move as a progression, and a step toward honing our creative impulses into a logical outcome.  Me with my writing and Jenny with her photographs.  Feel free to drop us a line or an email at lucashwetzel(at)gmail.com and jennywetz(at)gmail.com.  We will also have an online number (local to KC) that we can send you via email.  We want to extend a warm thank you to all of our friends in the Kansas City and Lawrence area.  We would not be what we are without your encouragement.

10/24

Who among us does not harbor the suspicion that maybe the most beautiful things we’ve seen in our lives have been already (and perhaps were almost instantly) forgotten? The impressions made so delicately they did not create the friction needed to make an imprint. Maybe all of our stories — poems, memories — emerge from a darkness that we at all times (silently, unknowingly) have access to. The act of shining a light requires both inspiration and courage. Uncover what you may, while you are able.