Friday, February 20, 2009

The Grass Is Always Greener--And More Desirably Situated--On The Other Side

So, Berlin. A city of neighborhoods, just like my hometown of Seattle. Except the difference in Seattle is that the neighborhoods are characterized more by who patronizes which clubs, bars, and restaurants; and what sort of view of the Cascade/Olympic Mountains, Elliot Bay, or Lake Washington they command. Or how hard it is to get to work when it snows; which unscalable hills it contains; how many Satanists, LaRouchies or Republicans live there. Its Trader Joe : Burger King ratio. And so on.

But in Berlin, the bezirks, or kiezes, are defined more by lines on a map. As a matter of fact you can live right across the street from a different kiez. You may live in Neuk├Âlln (as I do) and have the same bike guy as someone who lives in Kreuzberg. But the most visible difference between parts of town are, of course, their political standings during the years 1947 - 1990.

The former East is full of old, gray, deteriorating buildings with improvised toilets (referred to as Altbaus) and weird communist ideas of new buildings, which usually take up two city blocks and are made of uniform concrete slabs which have only in recent years been painted happy shiny rainbow colors in an effort to stave off the stench of Stalinism. The former West is much more densely inhabited and has its share of renovated Baroque-era Altbaus and newer buildings that look like every other building in America built after 1965 i.e. boring but suitable to your average capitalistic tastes. But none of this is the point. The point is that nearly everyone in this whole damn city lives somewhere cooler than I do.

Do you ever go for walks in your neighborhood and wish that you lived in the building with the blue door, or the one with the twisty baroque staircase, or the one on the tree-lined promenade, or the one next to your favorite bar? Chances are, if you live in North America, the answer is: not so much. Everything looks the same, nothing has any cool old pre-WWII charm about it. Seattle in particular is a developer's heaven; any time a single chip of paint falls off of a structure there are cranes on the spot to tear it down and put up a new stainless-and-glass monstrosity. Or they drench the new building in a coat of paint meant to closely resemble the shade of burnt sienna cast on sun-bleached stucco at sunset in Tuscany. Barf.

This town is great because most of the buildings have some sort of individual flavor. The 'Stoph's ego, as he picked out and furnished our apartment before I got here, always seems to suffer a blow when, outside of a foreign building, I jump up and down and clap my hands and exclaim that if we ever move, we're totally going to move here. With a dreamy expression and eyes like saucers, I envision coming home from whichever fancy-pants grocery store is in the immediate vicinity, heaving open the impossibly heavy wrought-iron and glass door, gliding lightly through the fresco-tiled foyer, tripping up the carpet-clad steps to my third-floor apartment, inhaling the fresh scent of hardwood, enjoying the luxury of 14-foot high ceilings, and placing my groceries on the spacious marble counter next to the window which looks out on the vine-draped and lilac-scented Garden of Eden we call a courtyard.

Then reality sinks in. I live in a 37 meter squared flat, on the ground floor, with cheap carpet and no counter space, that someone tried to break into not long ago, and which smells funny if you don't air it out every other day.

Maybe someday I really will live a posh life in the neighborhood across the street.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Alarm! Alarm! Danger, Danger!! The "Digital Age" Is Becoming the Ruination of Society!!

First of all, how absolutely short-sighted and vain is it to name the age you live in while you live in it? I mean there are like Protozoic and Jurassic; Bronze, Iron and Stone Ages or whatever, with an Ice Age or two thrown in there for variety and flavor, but you don't get to make up a new Age while anyone who lived in it is still alive. And you also don't do it so your current generation can fellate itself while congratulating itself on how innovative and cutting edge it is. Like, I don't seem to recall there being a Compass Age, or a Poetry Age, or say, a Democracy Age, then a Christianity Age, or a Scientologist Age, or the Plastic Age maybe, how about we throw in the Analog Age and the Sitcom Age or the SUV Age.

You don't get to call it an Age until it changes some basic tenet of everyday life, all across the human race. I tell you what--when every last Honduran and Tibetan and Papua New Guinean can't function day to day without their iPhone then I might concede that we are living in a Digital Age. More than anything we are living in the Capitalistic Age, and every last person on earth can feel the effects of that one.

However! I digress.

The Digital Age is a convenient scapegoat, but not a very good one, if you bother to think about it for longer than the two seconds it takes to spout off your "subversive" viewpoints. Before the computer and cell phone made people anti-social, it was video games. Before video games it was headphones and answering machines. But computers, cellphones, video games, headphones and answering machines don't actually sound like very sturdy beasts of burden if you're looking for them to lug around the blame for why you'd rather text an absent party than look at the person in front of you. And it would be difficult to prove that these instruments of the "Digital Age" do anything but bring us closer together--sometimes closer than we'd rather be.

Social networking sites are fantastic examples. I can keep up with people I never see anymore, or haven't seen in a while, or wouldn't even think about were it not for my Facebook page. I've gotten back in contact with people I thought I'd never see again but as we were both so accessible through the internet, the friendship will be saved or re-kindled.

And remember when you would leave the house alone, and stay alone until you either met someone on the street or got back home? You didn't have all of your friends living in your pocket, accessible at the touch of a button. If you went out to run errands no one could ask you at the spur of the moment to come have a drink. You would get home from your tasks, listen to your machine, and find out you had been two blocks away from where all your friends had been congregating and have now missed out on the best kickin' it session of the year, the one that will be constantly referred to from now until forever... all because no one had a cellular leash around your neck.

Sometimes I think about the amount of time I spend on MySpace and Facebook and wonder if it's all a bit unhealthy. But the fact remains that I spend the majority of my socializing doing face-time with friends who live in the same city as I do. I have a cell phone but I much prefer talking in person--I actually really hate talking on the phone, whether at home or out and about. Without my phone and the text message I would lead a pretty predictable and unspontaneous social life.

Obsessed gizmo fans are nothing new. Guns don't kill people, coffee doesn't maliciously scald, televisions don't make you lazy, McDonald's doesn't make you fat, and technological novelties don't make people apathetic and anti-social. Society has been all about the Next New Thing That Will Make Your Life Easier/Cooler/More Like Something Out of a Movie for ever and ever.

Ages, even.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

At Least It's Not Baseball

Sports are sports. (Or if you like, Sport is Sport.) Sports enthusiasts have preferences and favorites, of course, but a sport fan is a sport fan. Almost the only game a self-professed sports enthusiast claims to despise is baseball. Take me, for example. I'll watch any game that doesn't bore me to tears, and I'll play any game for which I'm fit enough. (This prerequesite excludes many of them.) My favorites to watch are hockey, basketball, thai boxing and sumo wrestling, and I'm not averse to rolling up my sleeves, drinking eighteen beers and screaming at a soccer game.

Americans love to hate on soccer, claiming that it's a pussy game for pretty boys with long hair and manicured fingernails. Or that it's a communist sport that everyone in the world with an inferior grasp of the capitalist philosophy plays in order to stave off the hunger pains (Cuba, Poland, Argentina, Ethiopia, Turkey, insert poor nation here). But seriously... baseball?

On Eurosport, you can watch anything that includes competing and points. You can watch ski jumping, field sports, sumo, K1, snooker, darts. Watching a fat bald guy swilling beers and swaggering about a darts stage on a sports channel is always one of those "I am so glad to be in Europe" moments. They also do the boring sports like tennis and soccer, which usually take up a couple of weeks while they cover an entire tournament. But so be it. They treat all sports the same.

One sport I have never ever seen on Eurosport is baseball. I've watched some valiant attempts at basketball and hockey (by definition quite unEuropean, both of them), but even people who consider fucking darts a sport have to draw a line somewhere.

So, soccer. It's no basketball or hockey or even rugby, let me tell you. Relatively few Americans have ever sat in a bar, or anywhere for that matter, and watched a soccer game in its entirety. Or even in its fractionality. Or anything. But once you step three milimeters over the American border, you will find yourself in a land where everyone watches soccer on TV. What I mean to say is, at all the customs offices along latitude 49 and the Rio Grande, the Canadian and Mexican officers are in shorts. And "football" scarves. Yes, even Mexican customs officers wear football scarves, even in the desert. What? Were you there? NO you weren't. No you shut up.

OK. I'm lying. But the point is, everyone watches soccer except us, and no one watches baseball except us. Six billion people versus Jed and Jethro. Who's right?

So, me. I'm not a big fan of either sport. But consider this. One time I went to a game--yes, that age-old scapegoat of boring sports (It's so much better when you're actually there, you have to get the stadium experience)--a Mariners game. Now, at the time, the Mariners were doing very well on the national baseball scene and at great taxpayer expense were enjoying a shiny new stadium. My boss got us fantastic seats and bought me as many $7 beers as I could hold. I'm pretty sure I had a hot dog tossed at me, or some peanuts or something else appropriately authentic. And it still blew. I have been to ballets that were more stimulating.

On the other hand, during the epic Turkey vs. Germany match, the one which decided who would go on to play Russia for the European title last year, a couple friends and I went to a bar up the street from my house, sat on benches on the sidewalk, and sipped beers while peering in through a dirty window at a screen that was twenty feet away--and had a blast. Because I live in a Turkish neighborhood, the streets were electrified with the vibe of excited sports fans from both countries. DIY parade floats, i.e. beat-up convertibles with streamers (in red and white for Turkey; red, yellow and black for Germany) and flags all over them, and people sitting atop the seats, cruising through the streets shouting and honking horns and shooting off firework guns; people setting fireworks off in the middle of the streets, dropping them from balconies. It was madness.

Now when was the last time anyone got that excited about a baseball game? After a baseball game all anyone wants to do go get more Bud Light and watch the highlights on FOX news.