Tuesday, June 30, 2009

You know what the funniest thing about Europe is; it's the little differences --- Grocery shopping edition

When you relocate countries you discover---and it's really entirely foreseeable if you spent even a moment thinking about what it is that you're doing, switching countries, and what the consequences of that are likely to be---that life in your new country differs from life as you were used to it in dozens of ways that were entirely unpredictable. (Which isn't to suggest that I had, in fact, spent even a moment thinking through the consequences of what I'm doing.) Not just that they don't speak English, unless they do, but if they do that they drive on the other side of the road, or perhaps that their summer is your winter, and all the other touristy stuff, but rather it's the complete rearrangement of conventions forcing upon you the realization that you really are in another country. That people from other places than where you're from have ways of doing even ordinary things that are as sensible as the way they do them where you came from, or even superior. That your old life involved assumptions and choices you didn't even realize you were making.

I came to Germany from the States having been warned that grocery shopping's an ordeal here. Whereas in American people mostly go to the Kroger's, or the CostCo, about once a week and while there purchase every non-takeout food item they'll eat at home, in Germany they're reputed to be determinedly old-fashioned, so you go to the greengrocer for your produce, go to the dairy for milk and cheese, the butcher for your meat, etc. I was kind of excited, actually, about this, but it's turned out not to be the case, really. There are large supermarkets with aisle upon aisle of food, although for produce you do have to go elsewhere, to the local equivalent of a bodega.

And then, twice a week, you can shop outside, on the streets along the Kanal, when they set up the Turkish market.

Now, in the American metropolitan areas I've lived, we had farmers' markets, but they were decidedly bourgeois affairs, full of heirloom tomatoes and locally-grown organic produce that cost only three times as much as its equivalent in Safeway. The kind of places full of domestics-of-a-certain-age praise without understanding the chance to eat food that was grown without the aid of pesticides, swiveling between too-serious-for-Sunday theory-class types who proclaim themselves Very Concerned About Issues Surrounding Food, all the while mingling with the rest of the upper-class urban conspicuous consumption set. (Hey, don't knock it---having a stereo that's visibly expensive only lasts a year or so before it's visibly last year, which is an obsolescence problem not present with the heirloom tomato or peach.)

It's an entirely different thing here, starting with the name. Rather than honoring the honest profession of the farmer who grows the food, here its derogatory nomenclature follows the despised immigrants who sell the stuff (and whose loathsomely foreign-inflected Deutsch is of course light years superior to mine). It's also a weird mix of green market and street fair---someone scopes out the high-traffic booths at the ends and sets up selling fresh juice and grilled corn on the cob, and there's a cart or two selling artificial gemstones threaded on leather-string necklaces and Papierstrasseseifeunternehmen-brand soap in oversized chunky blocks---with a bit of the old country bazaar mixed in, booths selling textiles advertised with specifications I don't think I'd understand any better if my German were perfect, and more than a few places selling fashionable headscarves.

Mostly, though, it's cheap. Oh my gosh is it cheap. I went today with paper money in my left pocket and coins in my right, and two large bagfuls later, I hadn't reached into my left for anything more mercantile than the surreptitious relief of an urgent itch. Granted, coins in Europe actually stand for legitimate denominations, and a pocketful of clinky money is quite likely a serious amount of scratch. But that doesn't obviate the point that for under twelve euros, I got:
  • About thirty white-cap mushrooms (2 euros);
  • Two big bunches of scallions (1 E);
  • A kilo of cherries (2.50);
  • Three avocadoes (1);
  • A liter of yogurt (0.79)
  • Six peaches, at one euro a kilogram;
  • Three big leeks and one large eggplant, for a little over two, probably; and
  • Two unripe plantains.
I need to get tofu and cheese, too, and I already bought eggs---all of them cheap in stores---but that's probably all the food I'll get this week. And the euro sticker makes it look better than it is, but even converting from a little under twelve euros to a little under seventeen dollars, that's a damn sight better than Safeway prices. Better than anything I'd ever found in any food store in the metro areas I've lived. And look, I read Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein's blogs, including the one they do about food, and I've read Michael Pollan's book and I follow Marc Bittman, and yes yes yes, I am myself Very Concerned About Issues Surrounding Food, including why it costs so damn much for Americans to buy plain old ordinary grows-on-trees food, at least as contrasted with prepackaged value-meal food. But this isn't that kind of blog post---it's not even that kind of blog---and even if it were, I don't know a damn thing about why it is this way in the States. Presumably something with the system of distribution or the regulatory regime or marketplace consolidation has gone very wrong, but I refer you to the talented writers linked above who, unlike me, actually know something and may have something to say on the subject. All I'm sayin' is that a pocketful of change bought me two bags of fruit and vegetables, big bags, overloaded ones, that I had to switch back and forth between my arms as I made the rather short trip home.
Unrelated postscript: Mahmoud, your flow's like death in my sleep... I can't feel it. Snap! oh yes he did!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Typhoid Mary, Calamity Jane, Mustang Sally, and Swine Flu Pat

I'm generally a skeptic of whatever attitude happens to occupy more than two cable news networks at a time.  Americans deciding their votes on how much they disapprove of Bill Clinton's personal life?  Like the existence of god, or bisexuality, it's easy to assert, difficult to prove.  U.S. in a existential showdown with radical Islamists?  My money's on the guys with the F-18s to cover the spread over the guys living in caves.  Democrats oppose Bush foreign policy at their peril?  This was prescient for about eighteen minutes, then lurched like a zombie for years after it had demonstrably ceased to be true.  Barack Obama's election will change forever the way Americans govern themselves?  Hmm, seems that the rich are getting richer at the expense of everyone else just fine, thank you very much, and that the policy-machine is reacting to, say, universal health care exactly like it did in 1948, 1961, 1969, 1977, and 1994 (indeed, the broad support for the inclusion of a public option makes DC reflexive rejection of it all the starker).

None of this comes close to my reflexive, unshakable indifference to whatever is the alarmist media's public health menace du jour.  The summer of the shark; poisoned Halloween candy... they're usually either ludicrously overblown, or else complete bullshit.  It's hard to tell which is the case when the news media's pack mentality leads them to instances of imagined public contagion.  The major outlets appear to have internalized so thoroughly the lessons learned from being late to recognize AIDS in the 70s and 80s that a potential outbreak---any potential outbreak, no matter how unlikely---becomes a matter of urgent journalistic concern.  The systematic overreaction, while stemming from an admirable preference for the ounce-of-prevention in service of the news media's public mission to inform the public, nevertheless has the unintended effect distorting that very public opinion they're trying to clarify.

I'm just kidding, of course.  Journalists don't give a shit about trying to inform or educate the public; they're just looking for something scary.  That's why the third rule of journalism (after "if it bleeds, it leads" and "if it's dead, we're live") is never merely to give the name for a health risk when a spooky foreign name will equally suffice.  Hence, African killer bees, Asian bird flu, West Nile virus, and now Mexican swine flu.  You know what they all have in common, over and above being evocative of tasty international cuisine?  None of them han't never killed nobody, but somehow they absolutely paralyze CNN et al. with excitement over being able to pimp a non-story for two wee---er, I mean of course genuine concern for public health.  

But Pat, you're saying, you live in Germany now, a country that's reasonably sensible when it comes to public health concerns.  Surely, however, this must be an uniquely American phenomenon that you're now free from!  And would that it were so.  However, when I was about two hours deep over the Atlantic, our flight crew alerted us that the Gesundheitsamt had requested that we all undergo a swine flu test.  (Fortunately---and as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up---the test was multiple choice.  I passed, as the wrong answers were easily spotted:  "Fever," "Vomiting, "All of the Above," "Swine-flu-ish," "Mexico," and any country spelled with one of those n-tilde things.)  Exiting the plane was like being an extra in The Hot Zone, as dozens of medical staff in white long-sleeved uniforms and facemasks took our surveys and triaged anyone feeling less than 100% to some darkened hallway where, one assumed, they were either quickly euthenized, or else given free medical care and cannabis and permitted to surf Craigslist casual encounters for fetishists into latex gloves and paper masks.  

Well, I've read Michael Pollan's book; if bad American habits are influencing the world's diet, why not destroy their sane public practices and peace of mind, too?  And so once I was let out into the concourse, I put it out of mind.  I had to steel myself for passport control, after all, and I wasn't sure if I had to get my checked luggage to port through customs, and my German wasn't really strong enough to decipher the helpful posted signs.  

So three days later, I had completely forgotten the episode when I returned from a lengthy tour in the city to discover a telephone message left at the front desk for my attention asking me to please rufen Sie Frau Schneider an.  It was quite late when I returned, so I waited to call the next day from the house phone, when I had the quite thrilling experience of speaking with the last German government official not to have learned fluent English.  My own German was good enough to ask how someone's day has gone or to ask if the soup is vegetarian, but it failed at the specialized task to which it was being put, so I begged off to grab the young woman at the front desk.  The hotel clerk, a lovely and helpful woman who's probably ten years younger than I am, for god's sake, spoke into the phone in short, competent German (of which I understand almost nothing) and nodded for perhaps a minute before informing me, in a voice that was perhaps too chipper for the occasion, that someone on my flight had tested positive for the H1N1 virus, commonly known as "the piggy flu."  I was now, in the epidemiology parlance, a vector.

Thus began the interrogation about any symptoms I might have had, mediated by the increasingly reluctant translator I'd dragooned from the front desk.  It turns out swine flu has remarkably non-specific symptoms, and apparently even most infected people report very minor effects from the disease, so its diagnosis is an imprecise business.  Which would have made answering the questions I was being asked difficult, had they not been rendered in fact impossible by the fact that I was at that moment in the middle of a rather stern hangover.  Making the good-faith effort to immerse myself in my adopted city's organic nighttime cultural activities, I had signed up for what the locals call das Pub-Crawl.  (Hey, I never pretended that I was s-a-m-r-t.)  One was required to pay a small handful of euros for the privilege of taking part, but in exchange each beer one purchased over the course of the night was accompanied by a complimentary shot of Jaegermeister!  ("Complimentary" has several meanings, such as "displaying one's genial nature," "highlighting one's good side," or "without cost, downside, or drawback," none of which are at all appropriate in that particular sentence.)  So my answers were of a rather dim tint.

I've probably been mocking, even scornful, of the medical profession in the past, but I'm now in a position where I appreciate the American doctor, or at least their professional obligations and privileges.  If you don't follow my meaning, just imagine an extended conversation with your GP, and then imagine that instead of having that chat under the blanket of doctor-patient confidentiality, having it instead with the very attractive, and as far as you can tell very chatty, front desk clerk.  Here's your phone receiver back; it turns out you've been exposed to swine flu!  Possibly by contact as casual as sharing a telephone receiver with an infected person!  I'm... I'm quite sorry.  What's that? avoid physical contact for a week, sure.  Um, well, I did have ... you might call it physical contact with somebody.  Hm?  No, um... maybe more than that.  Um, the other night.  With, uh, with a girl, I don't exactly recall her name but she was staying here...  Right.  Right, I suppose that you did see us....  Um... yes, the, erm, the "chubby girl." 

I don't care how bad a prostate exam is, at least you don't spend the whole ordeal imagining your doc discussing the particularly fascinating results in your case with every pretty woman who works in the building.   

Well, after a week, generally asymptomatic, spent within a walking, voluntary quarantine, I'm permitted to relax and can even shake someone's hand again.  The upside of being OCD during all of this is that I probably washed my hands more than even the most risk-averse guidelines would recommend.  Of course, if by the time I return to the States we haven't gotten over our national love affair with xenophobia, I won't be able to laugh it off quite so blithely when some asinine politician stereotypes Mexican immigrants as germ-ridden menaces, crossing the border only to spread their foreign plagues upon unsuspecting native-born Americans.  Sure, Stephen Colbert's audience will laugh at the prospect, but I'll know the dark truth, that it's exactly how it happens.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Food me

I missed this when it came out on Sunday, but evidently I need to go to one of the places mentioned in this article, "Heads Up -- Berlin's Hidden Restaurants." [added: Might as well at least pretend I'm going to read something, too, although I don't approve of the Das Books pun.]

Monday, June 15, 2009


So The Roommate has cats.  Two little creatures, both stark white, each with eyes so creepily translucent (one marigold, the other cerulean) you'd swear they glow in the dark.  You might even try to verify this in the dark one night, if the thought that you'd check and they really would be glowing weren't such a terrifying prospect that it's all you can do to squeeze your eyelids shut and lull yourself to sleep with the rhythmic nursery rhyme "I don't believe in devil-cats; I don't believe in devil-cats."  I call them the Katzen of the Corn. 

They're affectionate and misbehaving little creatures, the two of them.  The larger of the two has decided that my bedroom is really a portion of his domain, an argument I have a hard time refuting, as clearly he's getting more utility out of my bedcushions than I am during the day, and at night.. well, he's already gotten so comfortable.  They're accustomed to being fed precisely on schedule, and not shy about reminding one that they've been waiting as much as fourteen seconds beyond the accustomed hour, frequently by distributing the contents of the garbage cans across the kitchen floor.  

Anyway, Get Fuzzy today just happens to record the circumstances of my awakening this morning, in eerily prescient detail:

Get Fuzzy - June 15, 2009

Okay, two minor differences:  It was an upturned flower pot, not a cookie jar, and the threat on the wall was natürlich scrawled in German.  There really needs to be a word for something that's simultaneously adorable, hilarious, and more-than-a-little unnerving.  Something that means not funny-ha-ha, nor funny-strange, but more like funny-okay-enough-joking--kids-now-where-did-you-lock-up-the-babysitter? 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


The roommate interview process does not just produce deception but seems almost deliberately designed to produce it, perhaps the most intentionally mendacious process, outside of course the Craigslist personals ad. Consider the conversation I had earlier today with the potential Roommate (pR):

Pat: I'm clean, neat, considerate, usually away during the daytime due to my intense and well-paying job, and I just love what you've done with the place!

pR: Wow, that's terrific. There were a lot of great candidates, but I've picked you to be my new roommate!

Pat: Great! I heartily accept!

pR: Just a few more things you need to know; the trash gets picked up on Tuesdays, it'll be at least a week until you have your own mail key, and the downstairs neighbors have a young child and would appreciate it if you could be quiet late at night.

Pat: And there's just a few more things you need to know about me. I'm actually unemployed; I don't like to towel dry and instead drip naked from the shower to my bedroom; and the reason I'm even here is that I'm fleeing a prosecution for sexual assault.

pR: Oh, no.

Pat: Oh, and the complainant wasn't lying; I totally raped her.

pR: That's... that's awful.

Pat: Hey, what can I say? I'm a rapist. Also, I'm on fire right now. I've just ignited your sofa.

Fun times! In reality, The Roommate is incredibly nice and sweet and I'm far too fortunate that she picked me to live with her. She's what you'd call a Real Grownup, or perhaps Not a Complete Fucking Embarrassment of an Ivy League Education, depending on if you're from the coast of Maine, what with a real job and friends and a bicycle and she knows the names of places in the city where she lives (imagine that!).

I, on the other hand, have a real nice blender, almost criminally nice, actually, stored somewhere in a suburban office park in the Midatlantic states, along with a perfectly decent sofa combo and a kitchen knife with Japanese writing on the side of it. She should expect to be reminded of that if she ever gets too big a head.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I have arrived. Evidently.

I'm sitting in a bar, constructed mostly of aluminum or its indistinguishable relative and illuminated in blue neon light, exclusively so if you discount the dim lights peeling off the cash register screens and some videographic abortion on Mtv playing in the corner.  I am observing as a half-dozen young men I'd guess were from Poland or the Ukraine break up from their impromptu circle dance, which consists of the participants squatting with arms bent aloft, folding themselves into brief human H-shapes, and stamping their feet into the floor in something that even Helen Keller could tell isn't syncopated, and transition into new dance positions, presumably one intended to attract the attentions of the young women -- and I mean young with a capital Y, as in Y___ enough to be my daughter -- tipsily drowsing around the dance floor.  Said mating ritual consists, for this approximate dozen Slavic tribal dancers, of the following:  half drop to all fours, and the other half pantomine a jolly good ass-fucking, the latter doing so with with a bit more enthusiasm than, say, would be necessary to raise a Freudian eyebrow.  

This is how the realization hits me:  You've packed your entire life into an office-park storage unit in order to live in a hostel in Berlin.  That's what you did.  

About the aforementioned women I don't want to say anything.  Actually, perhaps I should.  It's not just an expression, that, to say a woman could have been one's daughter.  It's a real, measurable, honest-to-God line drawn across the universe, and God help you if you wind up on that side of it, subtly demarcating that point in past time where, if you had been a kid just old enough and hellbent on screwing up not just your own life could have engendered, with the cooperation of a young,  preternaturally fertile woman, an even younger woman, who by the magic of genetics stands a better than even chance being herself preternaturally fertile and on the lookout for the kind of kid just old enough and hellbent on screwing up not just his own life.  That subtle dotted line passed further through the universe and through time, and if it's behind both you and the woman you're flirting with, then good for you.  If it passes further, so that it falls between the two of you, you've entered a very dangerous place.  And if it passes over the top of your head, too... well, like I said, God help you.  

(Lest this be deemed a confession, I should clarify that this point has not, in fact, come for m.  By the look of things, it won't come until next Tuesday.)

Oh, by the way?  While I was telling you all that, the metaphysics of the universe and when the age of the woman on the barstool next to you means it's officially past your bedtime in this bar, one of the men I would have taken for Polish vomited into an ashtray.  And vomited again.  And blew what appears about a fluid ounce of mucus out of one nostril and onto the floor.  And resumed dancing.  And the thing is, he's now dancing noticeably better! as if the foamy ballast jettisoned from his bowels had been the impediment to his Saturday night fever, rather than the alcohol soaking through his stomach lining into his blood, muscles, and brain.

Oh, and he's taken his shirt off, too -- did I mention that?  That was about the point when I decided I'd better leave the bar.  

Life in the hostel -- living the dream.  I'm meeting someone who needs a roommate tomorrow.