Thursday, August 13, 2009

Berlin running

The bike's in the shop, and I haven't gotten much exercise in a while, so I went back on the track.  My absence has definitely hurt my pace---I'd cut out running because of a hip-flexor thing that's chronic, not acute, and while I can run through it I thought I'd give it a break, so I haven't run at all in probably a month---and I wound up on the wrong side of 10-minute-miles.  93 minutes, 9.1 miles (on the way back I quit just past the big white tanks across the river).  It's a nice trail, there.  When I get the bike back I hope to ride through the city to the trail, then chain up the bike and run just on the trail itself, so as not to pound any actual sidewalk.


[Disclaimer:  Due to an unforeseeable sports injury involving the blogging muscle, I have not updated in, to quote one reader, "a bazillion forevers."  Posts previously conceived  and/or composed, including this one, are being processed as quickly as possible and will be released all at once.  Please note that the time and date of posting bear little if any relation to those of the events recounted.] 

You could spend your whole life in a place and never be able to explain what makes it it to a stranger, never adequately distill into words the real meaning of a place.  Until this weekend, I still hadn't really understood something incredibly basic about Berlin until recent experience drove home what I'd startingly overlooked:  No.  Beer.  Curfew.  

See, in America, even places like New York, the legacies of the blue laws specifically, and more generically a sort of cultural corollary to Moore's Law, the pervasive American attitude that if something can go wrong not merely that it will go wrong but that there really ought to be a law against that thing going at all, wrong or otherwise, this would be unthinkable.  It's profoundly un-American to organize a society without a failsafe rule against someone drinking nonstop without sleep for 96 straight hours and expiring from exhaustion.  Sure, 99.9% of people will have the good sense not to try it, and the remainder will be prevented by sheer limits of the human body's capacity for exertion, but the thought that an errant peasant might somehow slip through the cracks and be saved only by legislative fiat mandating that drinking establishments close 8 hours every night, somehow, lingers on into the 21st century.

Which brings me to Midsommar.  Er, brought me to Midsommar.  Each of the past two nights, that is, until well after the sun had risen, sometime around 7 or 8 in the morning.  Named for the traditional Scandinavian observance of the summer solstice, the German version was quite a bit less a lingering, surreptitious ritual from pagan religions long banished by the Christian church, and more two-fifty half-liters of Berliner and bootie-shaking beats from dusk 'til dawn.  Which, even though I'm something of a pagan myself, was alright with me.

The entire experience seemed somehow quintessential of everything I've learned about Berlin, so far---the cheap beer and music are the obvious hallmarks, but there was a subtler current of unshakable relaxation in the air that eventually occurred to me deeply representative of the city as I've come to know it.  (It should be conceded this was perhaps due less to insight and deep revelation than to dehydration, as I'd been sweating and drinking nothing but beer for nine hours at this point.)  In New York and other places I've lived, it's quite frequent for these events to be more dance-music concert than dance party, eager attendees crowding the stage to be close to the beloved DJs, meaning anyone who actually wanted to dance was out of space, and out of luck.  (One of the reasons I loved Bootie so much was that this almost never happened there.)  Here that tendency is culturally foreign---Berliners just don't crowd---and if a particular room got too full, there was music coming out of three separate rooms at all times, so the overstimulated could just head across the hall to an airier room.  Lines occasionally build around the bartenders and the bathrooms, but such moments were rare, and even then it just never turned into that crush that comes from a roomful of competitive jockeying for space at the bar that made a trip to a hot spot in New York so frequently a frustrating experience.  Nightlife here is... just fun.  

This persistent casualness has its downside, too.  The festival started in an open-air concert space to the northwest of the Jannowitzbrücke (the bridge is marked here, the concert space mostly visible from the Google view), but eventually moved across the street to a river-level bar when that space was shut down; evidently organizers had neglected to obtain relevant permits or indeed tell the city that it was going to happen.  Easy come easy go, I guess.

One thing remained constant, though:  Albeit single and in my ... sigh ... thirties at this point, I still have no earthly idea how to pick up a woman on a dance floor.  (Although I can come up with a series of increasingly bad ideas:  do you stop dancing and try to talk? wait to follow them into the bathroom? lean over and murmur breathily "I like the way you move"?)  So the morning after each night, I reluctantly conceded I'd reached the threshold of exhaustion, excused myself from the dance floor, climbed the stairs to the street level, and, trudging through the front doors, squinted in the early morning sun while trying to remember which section of fencing it was I'd chained my bike to.  The bike being still a relatively new thing to me, when I was almost the whole way home I collided with a curb outside my building and gave myself a pretty impressive bruise along one shin.  I prefer to omit some of the details when recounting the episode:  "Battle scars from a long night out.  Yeah, I'm a badass."

... reading:  Jeff Eugenides's Middlesex.  Comes highly recommended by a lot of friends, but so far I'm still a little meh on it.
... listening:  Lupe Fiasco's Mohammed Walks.  Took forever to find (or find priced appropriately), but am I glad I did.  
... obsessed with:  it's old, but it's good---Keyboard Cat on Mario Bros.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ich bin ein Fahrradder

[Disclaimer: Due to an unforeseeable sports injury involving the blogging muscle, I have not updated in, to quote one reader, "a bazillion forevers." Posts previously conceived and/or composed, including this one, are being processed as quickly as possible and will be released all at once. Please note that the time and date of posting bear little if any relation to those of the events recounted.]

Berlin's an incredibly bicycle-friendly city. There's an intense commitment to making city streets safe and welcoming to bicyclists---local government has set a goal that 15% of traffic should be of the two-wheeled aerobically-powered sort, and they measure the amount of separate bicycle paths and lanes in the hundreds of kilometers, and motorists universally yield a healthy swath of shoulder to cyclists where there's no separate lane.

Actually, perhaps it's an equally accurate way of phrasing that to say it's a frustrating place not to have a bike. While still more like the New York-Chicago-Boston-S.F. model of American city than the L.A.-Phoenix-Dallas-Miami variant, it is a bit spread out, and distances on maps are deceptively long for the foot traveler, and while the train system is comprehensive and quite speedy, the nearest stop is not nearly guaranteed to be convenient (in my case, it'd be about 15 minutes walk to the nearest station, which serves only the single-least-useful line in the city; to translate to New York Standardized distances, it'd be like living on the LES but with all lines other than the L permanently out of service).

That general lament, plus the specific stuff---it takes me forever to make it to the Karstadt every time I discover one more thing that I need to get (this time it was a measuring cup, and there's something about little lined plastic vessels that feel emptier, less significant than other housewares), and I had to take a rain-check on a party in north Friedrichshain---added up. So this past week I gave in to the inevitable and got myself a Fahrrad---a second-hand model from the street dealers that line up twice-weekly on the Kottbusser bridge. "Nothing fancy" would be undue flattery for this thing: a beaten-down and squeaky one-speed with a barely- if at-all-functioning light. I took it for the color (1970s glittery orange) and the price (35 euros, or about $49).

But from such humble origins are great love affairs oft kindled, and this might be one of those. I'd never owned a bicycle in a city before---hadn't owned one at all since the Huffy I rode over dirt hills in grade school, or perhaps as late as sixth grade---having been a committed strap-hanger before, and frankly always having viewed bicyclists as a species of them from my window seat on the M15, a sort of reckless mobile hazard in spandex and wraparound shades, not really allies in our common war against the automotorists but freelance mercenaries as likely to run down a pedestrian as any sleep-deprived cabbie. (Two lawyers at my old firm were collided into by cyclists, in each case requiring surgery. No one ever got hit by a car as far as I know.) But things look different when you're sitting on the rubber seat---and it should be noted that Berlin's commitment to making bicycling easy has had the happy side-effect of making it safe, too, for cyclists but also pedestrians, since bikers aren't being squeezed between crowds and motor traffic.

Anyway, so far nothing to report but unadulterated pleasure: Trips to pick up groceries are something approaching bona fide joy, and nocturnal pushes toward the pub down the street aren't... well, they're prohibited in the letter of the law, but I don't know that anyone necessarily thinks that's really what the rule is. One thing: I'm the nervous son of a manic doctor who spent a lot of late nights piecing together (or failing to, which is probably more significant) the victims of car crashes who failed to buckle their seat belts, designate a driver, or protect their heads, and I really need to get a helmet soon. No one here wears them, of course, which ought to make me even more obviously spotted as an Ausländer. (As if that were really that hard to do before...)

... reading: Gaddis' The Recognitions (still... this thing is huge, and I picked it up after getting through Infinite Jest, so it's not just comparison's sake)