~in berlin/by the wall/you were five foot ten inches tall~

August 3rd, 2008

Apfelstrudel, still warm, Café Einstein.

Over the five days we were in Berlin (Buurlin or Belleene as spoken by the locals) I had Lou Reed’s Berlin in my head.

We were in a small cafe, you could hear the guitar play.
Can-dle-light and Du-bon-net on ice…it was very nice.
Oh Honey, it was paradise…

It was so grand to pass time in a real city, a city like the one we truly miss now in pointed moments.

Ali got his watch repaired, we ate Vietnamese food (twice!), I bought some household things one can best find in a Chinese import shop–and a million other tiny things we don’t do in Neuchatel because it’s not possible or prohibitively expensive. Once again Berlin revealed itself to be an utterly livable city.

Prater beer garden.

We dined and dined and dined, at lovely Viennese Café Einstein, at the Prater Garten of Prenzlauberg, at Fra-Rosa, where a drag queen served us delish dinner and for 1E we each rented a glass, helped ourselves, and paid by the honor system at the end of our stay. I haven’t seen one outwardly gay person in our little swiss ville, at least not in four-inch heels and bearing plates of cheap, scrumptious nosh. Very cozy indeed.

Fra-Rosa’s sidewalk dining.

In this way Berlin in the summer reminds me of San Francisco back in the glory days–not the Gold Rush era I’m sure was dark and thrilling, or the Summer of Love which I’m pretty certain I’m glad to have missed (tho the thought is lovely),–but the late eighties and early nineties of the last century. The pre-dotcom era is what I’m talking about, a time when none of my friends owned computers or cell phones and our ignorance of what was about to hit us was luxurious.

When I graduated from college I cut my final film on a six-plate Steinbeck flatbed and wrote my thesis on an upright Remington typewriter. This was about a decade ago. I now have a poet friend who doesn’t own a computer and it seems a radical political act. And Kimmi the Lil’ Luddite blogs for goodness sake! Well, sink or swim.


Still I do ponder the price–not just the lack of privacy, but the impending Westernized sameness of all major cities, along with the pricing out of everyone who just says no to corporate life, or wasn’t asked the question.

Fra-Rosa has something of a Sumiko’s vibe, for those San Franciscans who may remember the drunken-cowgirl-Geisha-karaoke-chat-up-your-slightly-scary-neighbor-everybody-sing! scene of that long-lost Mission institution. I think there is an Urban Outfitter’s there now. I kid– well, not really. It’s actually been replaced by hipster bar called Dalva.



Certainly I dig that my own arrival in said district (in this case, The Mission, circa 1991) heralded the sea change–as Mr. Cave said on this subject, “I woke up this morning with a Frappuccino in my hand…”–but it’s still cruddy to witness. Where have all the scrappy, non-homogeneous, playful, vital neighborhoods gone? Echo Park, The Mission, The Village…

But perhaps this is simply the cycle of things. To stay with San Francisco–the Gold Rush boom no doubt had it’s lamenters–I’m not speaking of the slaughtered, displaced American Indians, Chinese and Latin American immigrants–but those who mourned the once-sleepy town now overrun with wild-eyed, careless money-grubbers. When you pave paradise and put up a parking lot (or mining camp), what is left is asphalt, even if there are no s.u.v.s to park there. (My inside source tells me however San Francisco is once again equalizing just fine after all that, thank you very much.)


Berlin–the Wall having come down nearly twenty years ago–still has an air of reinvention, possibility, especially in the East. The shift has already begun–many cannot afford now fancy Mitte (rather the Soho of Berlin) or even Prinzlauerberg (East Village-ish), and yes, Willkommen bei Starbucks Deutschland. Tra la la. (A little late to the party one might suggest, but who can blame the Dark Star for branching out now that the economy in the states is forcing their doors closed?)

Berlin still feels vital with so many parks and trees and bicycles and reasonable cafes. Not to mention sprawling, affordable (in many areas) housing with 15ft ceilings, parquet floors, French doors, and terraces for days. The house where we stayed in Charlottenburg–Chez Ernst–has all of these, and three blocks over is a long-standing enclave of Russian prostitutes. I’m not suggesting sex-workers are a desired neighborhood accessory (or not), I simply appreciate the urban co-existence.


I also appreciate what feels like a more democratic quality of life available–not suggesting it’s perfect or that as a brief visitor I grasp all angles–there is simply a mood of folks feeling taken care of in the cosmic sense, and without a lot of excess. (which brings the question of what does it takes to feel satisfied, but no, this entry is already far longer than I planned!)

This zeitgeist of–faith? hope? possibility? abundance? that I relished in my early life in SF and have rarely felt in NY (and certainly not since 9/11/01), Berlin–with it’s dark history–seems to have to spare.

New-world (and delish) Vietnamese in Prenzlauberg (on Gormannstrasse, can’t recall name…)

Parfum nach Gewicht, old-world perfumery in Charlottenburg since 1926.

For now anyway, in Berlin, schmancy and scrappy, old and new rest side-by-side. It feels as fleeting as the romantic opener of the sturm und drang that is Lou Reed’s Berlin (that J. Schnabel described as featuring “love’s dark sisters: jealousy, rage, and loss.” oh my.) Let’s hope that’s just the jaded hag in me…

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