A mattress, freezing rain, and pho on the way

Sitting in a smokey Internet cafe around the corner from the Landwehrkanal, and our little temporary studio apartment. It’s cold outside, and supposed to reach freezing point tonight. This just a few days after the entire city spent an afternoon sunbathing — some of them nude– in the Tiergarten. We’re on the way to find a bowl of pho. That should take the chill off.

The big news of the day: we’ve purchased a mattress, the first thing to go into our as-yet-empty-and-echoing apartment. For now, I stand in the living room and whistle, and it sounds like I’m in a stadium. I think I’ll sample the sound before we put a rug down, if I can get enough power adapters to get my little ministudio running.

We probably won’t move in until Tuesday. This weekend is a holiday, with Mayday on Monday, and nobody works (or delivers mattresses). We’ll wander around and take pictures on Monday, but not too obviously — it’s a day of protests, for which many businesses are already boarding up their windows, and we’re too obviously Auslanders, and probably Americans, to make would-be-rioters happy, I fear.

Drinks with our landlord’s local agent last night, a former squatter here in Kreuzberg who said that tourists come for 1 May to make trouble, and to get in fights with police. He prefers to stay away. Important to remember, of course, that he described himself in his squat as “the only punk with a pillow.”

Which I think should be an album, or a T-shirt. Off to nudeln now.

We have a home. We just can’t go there yet.

We have an apartment. We can’t move in until Friday, and the payment details are still a little sketchy, but we have signed about 20 pages of duplicate contract pages, had them stamped (stamps are big here) and paid our 2 months kaltmiete to the agent. Kaltmiete is base rent, warm is with heat, warm water, and other operating costs included.

The takeaway? Unsurprisingly, Germans have strict rules. Including how long each day you can have the window in your apartment open. Our contract has two full pages on that. So watch it.

We’re on the very edge of Prenzlauer Berg, a few blocks away from a very hip neighborhood of bars and boutiques, artists and hipsters. We’re more in the working family area. But most importantly, there is a big Asian grocery store a few blocks away, which we have of course already scouted for tofu, soba and rice noodles, and various sauces. It passes all tests.

The apartment itself is large (pictures once we get an actual net connection), with a hobbit-sized door to the bathroom that’s about an inch taller than my head. Unclear exactly why. It looks out onto a wide boulevard that may be noisy, but is lined with trees that are already filled with birds. No balcony, but that means we’ll have to sit at sidewalk cafes that much more often. We looked at one other that was huge, had shining wood floors and a gigolo bathroom with a tub literally on some kind of pedestal, and fell in love with it, but it was 670 euros, almost as much as we were spending in San Francisco. We’re here to live cheaply, and this place, large as it is, is only 488 euros, or about $600. We can do that.

Just don’t open that window longer than a half-hour. There vill be consequences.

Prenzlauer or Kentucky?

Nearly a week in. We’re looking for apartments, starting a round of open houses this afternoon. Our first, yesterday, was a large echoey white box with huge windows and zero furnishings, except a stainless steel sink shoved against a wall. We’re finding that we probably can’t afford the neighborhood we want, which isn’t a big surprise – after all, exploring poverty is part of the goal of this trip. We are no longer yuppies.

Last night we were sitting on the sidewalk at a table, eating a doner, when we heard the pair of young men at the table next to us laughing. We ignored it at first, until it was clear that their comments were directed at us. “Prenzlauer or Kentucky?” one asked (Prenzlauer is the Eastern neighborhood that has beautiful buildings, has been somewhat gentrified, and where we want to live). “Was?” I finally said, and told him we were from San Francisco. A joke, he told us. But we apparently stick out.

They talked to us for only a minute before Bush came up. Germans judge people as people, but the rest of the world hates Americans, they said. The implication being that here too, we are Americans before we are people. When 50 percent of the U.S. voted for Bush again, it was clear that it was not an accident the first time, and people began blaming ordinary Americans for Bush after all, they said. “If Bush attacks Iran, then it is over for America,” one said bitterly.

And so goes our image in the world. There may have been a time when American’s innocence, a quality we have always believed in even at our most hypocritically cynical moments, was accepted overseas. Now we are simply bullies. If we attack Iran, everyone in the world will be against us, except Israel. It’s a horrifying thought.

As for the trip so far: It has gone more or less smoothly. Our Air India flight from New York to London had been canceled when we arrived at the airport, but we were switched after a moment of panic to British Airways. RyanAir groaned when we brought roughly 180 pounds of baggage, and charged us more than 270 pounds, making our $25 airline ticket a very poor investment. But so we learn.

Our temporary studio overlooks the Landwehrkanal, precisely where we sat and had a beer seven months ago and decided that moving to Berlin might be a pretty good thing after all. It shares a hallway with a veterinarian, and so the daylight hours are punctuated by the arrival of sad-looking puppies and worried owners. The bar across the street, on the canal itself, has breakfast far better than any bar deserves to have, and a brilliant jukebox.

Musically, we’ve seen two organ concerts with Paul, and one Japanese half-doom show featuring Boris, whose diminutive woman guitar player contains – to paraphrase Rob – more Rockitude in one tiny hand than does a whole stadium full of mulletted headbangers.

Chilling at the wifi park

Sitting at a cafe table on Bryant Park, just outside the 42nd street library. We’d hoped to get a glass of wine here while waiting to meet people for oysters at Grand Central Station, but the cafe hasn’t yet opened for the summer. The trees here are still bare, arching over the park’s edge like columns of lace. It is sunny and warm, so people crowd the tables, eating sandwiches, arms folded, sunglasses on, all facing in toward the central, bare square of grass.

Gertrude Stein plays the role of Buddha here, sitting bronzed and calm above all we tender buttons.

Stein Buddha

Les Paul, mugging at the Iridium

Les Paul is an old man now, and his guitar playing shows it. He plays Monday nights at the Iridium jazz club in Times Square, next door to the Mama Mia musical. People line up to see him. We were there for the second show of the night, at 10:00, in part because the first had sold out long ago. He’s a tourist attraction, like the Statue of Liberty or Times Square itself, a symbol whose independent meaning is submerged almost wholly in the tourist’s imperative to collect noteworthy experiences.

Tonight he sits on stage in a pale blue turtleneck and loose slacks, arthritic fingers moving over the fretboard with a little shake, wide rimless glasses gleaming in the stage lights. His stage patter is better than his guitar playing now, but that’s OK, people have come to see him, not revel ecstatic in his music. “Is that turkey done cooking yet?” he asks. “It’s hot up here. Is anyone else hot?” He asks someone in the crowd for a napkin, takes it and blows his nose loudly. “How’s your food?” he asks someone else. “We doubled up the last time we ordered something here. But they’re all friends.”

It’s easy to forget that Paul’s primary contribution to the music word is as a technologist. He didn’t invent electric guitars, but helped bring them to where they are today. He was a pioneer in multitrack recording, and in the live overdubbing, or looping, so prevalent today. For that, I can more than forgive a schmaltzy version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

In the end I am happy to see him, even if the music doesn’t speak to me. A world where an artist and pioneer can be making money from his art at the age of 91 has some good in it.