Friday, January 25, 2013

The Different Kinds of Expats That There Are

So you're new here. You're walking around with your pint-sized Lonely Planet and you're feeling Berlinspired. You want to move here and Berlintegrate.

Well, first you gotta hold up, put your thing down, flip it and kindly reverse it. Because before you move, you should know what you're getting yourself into. You should know what kind of people you're getting yourself into. And no matter how much you think you're going to fully integrate yourself into the fabric of Berlin society, one fact remains: you will always be an expat. You're going to end up getting to know the expat world a lot better than the German one. 

So after you're done visiting the Reichstag, eating currywurst and wandering around Lidl looking for Angela Merkel, here's a little list of the kinds of expats you may end up meeting:

The One Who Actually Moved Here for His Career

"Are you a unicorn?!"is the first thing you want to ask this expat, who's so rich they're wiping their ass with real Euros, and the Euro hasn't even collapsed yet! While the rest of your friends are living below Hartz IV, this expat is riding high, eating 16 euro salads at the SoHo House, buying Acne jeans and taking weekend trips to Paris. After all, their apartment is 300 euros and they're making 1700 a month. The downside? They're always working on some insane project at work and never sleeping. Zaha Hadid's personal assistant yells at them every day. You comfort yourself in knowing they aren't really absorbing the "Berlin vibe" but you're actually jealous because you don't know what in the actual fuck you are doing in this city and they kind

The One Obsessed with Full Immersion

Good luck ever hanging out with this expat! Full immersion friends have a hard time answering your calls because they're just so, you know...immersed. Some of them won't even speak English because their language instructor told them not to. Advice: just wait. Full-immersion is a phase that happens during the beginning of almost every jaunt across the pond. Eventually, they'll get frustrated and overwhelmed and want to gab about the latest Modern Family episode with someone who understands irony and sarcasm.

The One Who's Always Out

You get approximately 15 Facebook invites from this expat every day. They can't hang out tonight because they're listening to an Afro Klesmer band, attending the launch of a new gay magazine, having a midnight pillow-fight at Brandenburger Tor and then playing Wii Sports with 15 of your other friends. You should go, but it's -5 and there's a new episode of Parks and Recreation you want to download and you're generally too lazy to do anything in the winter.

The One Who's a DJ

Basically the same as above, except the invites are for concerts at Berghain and there's no question they're snorting mountains of coke. Also: this Portlandia clip.

The One Who's Gay

This expat is gay and no one seems to care, no mater how much they try to shock people with their crazy sex stories. Berlin has been gay since before it was cool, so hush now child. We're all very happy for you, even though we're bad at expressing it. Now please come out to your parents.

The Photoblogger god. Can this expat please document my life? Clearly I need to read-up on things like white balance and exposure because my photos look like they were taken by an early 90's webcam. These people are living a more charmed, aesthetically-beautiful life than you and I.

The Compulsive Liar

Once this expat infiltrated a gang of Neo Nazis and convinced them he was Roma and the Nazis were all "whaaaaaaa?" but now they're cool with it and they're actually BFFs. This dude also wants to take you to this brand new club set in Hitler's actual bunker which wasn't destroyed (that was a FAKE bunker) and it's got everything: fake trash bimbos, women dressed as bonobos, lesbians with heavy flows. This dude is FUN.

The Self-Loathing American

DRONES! Nestle is force-feeding toxins to babies! Israel is a racist tumor that must be cut off! Coca-Cola is forcibly sterilizing African women! Wal Mart will enslave us all! Okay, so they're probably right about that last part, but everything else this expat says makes a mockery of the liberal causes they try so hard to champion. They haven't lived in the States for 10 years but still believe they can speak authoritatively about how backwards and narrow-minded everyone who lives there is. They'll never go back because they've reached the unshakable conclusion that living in Europe is morally-superior. I actually don't mind these people at all, because some of them are really knowledgeable. But it's like, really? You're NEVER going to go back? You don't miss Hulu and Whole Foods even a LITTLE bit?

The Artiste

I don't want to be mean. I would much rather live in a city with struggling artists than one with hella bankers. But, like, let's be honest. You're not making that much art. You're mostly working at a cafe. When you're not doing that, you're partying and doing the odd graphic design project. I like you, as long as you don't pretend you're hot shit.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Inauguration Speech I WISH Obama Had Just Given

Hi, my name is Barack HUSSEIN Obama. Yeah, that's right: HUSSEIN. Suck it, Islamaphobes. I'm proud to be your 44th president. I was going to try to awe you with some soaring rhetoric that draws from our nation's rich and storied history, but then I thought, you know what? I don't give a FUCK. It's my second term, bitches!

Now, there's been a lot of talk recently about gun control and I just want to say that the NRA must be brought down. We can no longer sit back and have kids being killed by guns seem like a normal thing. So, starting today, we will no longer allow anyone to buy a gun unless the government has determined that their lives are actually at stake and an abusive spouse or someone else crazy is going to burst into their house and kill them. Oh, and stop dehumanizing mentally ill people after massacres, Republicans.  You either blame them or Marilyn Manson. They're not the problem: guns are.

Also, now that I no longer have to worry about being re-elected, I'm going to go full-force on the immigration issue. Anyone residing in the States who was brought here by their parents, legally or illegally, must be eligible to stay so long as they have no criminal record. They must be eligible for in-state tuition, driver's licenses, and all the benefits citizenship affords. Our best and brightest can't be shipped away because of where they were or were not born.

Because of the importance I place on arts education, I am announcing a new budget for the national endowment for the arts of 2 billion dollars, which will be distributed to school arts programs, teachers, museums, individual artists, gallery collectives, arts residency programs, artist health care initiatives and artist housing. This is to combat the force that gentrification is playing in our nation's biggest cities, forcing artists out while turning once vital neighborhoods into cookie cutter yoga studios and cupcake shops. Speaking of urban planning, the White House is now working on putting real bike lanes on every street in every major city. Countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Sweden are beating our ASS when it comes to bike lanes. 

Oh, speaking of the rest of the world, we're no longer going to pretend it doesn't exist. We're going to see what works in other places and apply it here and stop being dicks about our own "exceptionalism." If Germany is able to get half their energy from renewables we can too. Our foreign policy needs to get with the program, too. Dunno if you've read, but shit is really fucked up in Iran, North Korea, Gaza and Syria, and we're going to try to help by relying on scholars who know the history of these countries and Anthropologists who've lived there. And we're not going to pretend that drones are the answer to all of our problems because they're fucking creepy.

Hmmm, what else? Oh yeah: higher soda taxes, everywhere. Because seriously, Coke is making us fat. But please stop blaming the nation's problems on fat people.  The way our country treats fat people is disgusting and shameful.  Also, I'm personally going to fight tooth and nail for more money for Planned Parenthood because god fucking damnit, sex education saves women from unplanned pregnancies, HIV prevention programs save lives, and too many kids don't know their butt hole from their vagina. Good sex lowers stress; we should all be having it right now. [WINK AT MICHELLE]

Finally, let's talk about the media. First of all, I love 30 Rock and Parks and Recration. I believe we're entering a golden era of television. But HBO needs to start letting people buy episodes of Girls a la carte. Am I right or am I right? But while I love Tina Fey, our journalism world is a mess! Content farms are eating away at the bottom line of every newspaper in America. Now they're so desperate for cash that they'll write about anything, including the Kardashians! Just to balance that shit out, I'm giving NPR a billion dollars. Because, you know, they're the kind of organization that doesn't make people hate each other because of their political beliefs, unlike most cable news. And no, they don't have a liberal bias. Google that shit. Another billion will go to fund journalism fellowships at newspapers across the country to lure the best and brightest. 

Lastly, no more unpaid internships. They're turning us into a plutocracy. AND GOD BLESS AMERICA!


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Berlin's American Refugees

When I first moved to Berlin in 2010, I was insufferable for various reasons. One of the main reasons was because I had just graduated from college with a degree in Anthropology. Anthropology theoretically concerns the study of different cultures, but practically it attracts the type of person who doesn't really like living in the U.S. These kinds of people -- myself included -- think that despite the forced marriages and poverty of India, living there is still superior to living in the United States because people are closer to each other, there's more of an emphasis on family life and the Hindu religion casts everything in a holy glow. Aside from the odd Republican Economics major who was just fulfilling a requirement, the rest of the class was shamelessly exoticising every part of the globe, no matter how hard they tried not to.

So of course I wanted to move abroad as soon as I graduated. I wanted to move to Germany because it seemed like a morally superior place to the United States. Germany recycled, used wind power, provided social benefits to artists, had a great public transportation system, learned from its past, embraced immigrants, had a thriving press, two gay mayors and a gay foreign minister. What wasn't to love?

I spent my first few lonely months in Berlin attempting to look at the culture as if I was a human being with no nationality. Perhaps then I could just effortlessly slide into their way of life without all that culture clash nonsense. I was a citizen of the world! Whatever judgements I had were intrinsically wrong because they didn't come from my most Buddhist core, that which unconditionally accepts my present reality and everyone in it. That dude yelling on the U-Bahn? How healthy that he felt comfortable expressing his anger rather than repressing it like us uptight Seattleites! Everyone was staring at me all the time, but how great that they were attempting to connect with me! What an open society!

I tried to connect with everyone I met in some way or another, mostly to handle the crushing loneliness I felt inside, having moved to a new country with no friends, no job prospects, and no flat lined up. I made jokes about Americans, and lots of small, critical comments about how dumb and fat my fellow countrymen were whenever I came across someone I wanted to be my friend. I wasn't like any of THOSE Americans, of course. I was a traveler! I owned a passport, unlike the other 70%. I quickly made friends with a short, gay, mustached German 25-year-old who found me bizarre enough to keep around. A little angry Jewish boy from Seattle? Now that's what I call comic relief!

We smoked cigarettes on his balcony with his Italian lesbian friend and her French girlfriend, who barely ever spoke. We drank beer and rode our bikes through parks. We spent hours in a bar called "Your Place or My Place?" (Zu Mir Oder Zu Dir?) and I would pretend I could understand their fast-paced German conversations. "Wait, what was that last bit?" I would ask. "Steven, that's not how you smoke a cigarette!" the Italian girl would yell at me. "You're supposed to hold it with two fingers, not cup your entire face with the palm of your hand every time you take a drag." I barely learned any German from those guys.

But no matter -- everyone spoke my mother tongue anyway! What was the point of learning when everyone would switch to English as soon as they heard my horrible accent? There was only one real barrier to my full integration into Berlin high society: my Mother. I was making a little bit of money editing articles for a soulless online company, but I still had to beg her for money every month. My Mother did not understand what I was doing in godforsaken Germany, and I sure wasn't good at convincing her that it was a good idea that I was there. "Steven, come home. Nothing exciting happens in Europe," she would say. "I LOVE EUROPE!" I would yell. "There are so many people from different cultures here." My mother, daughter of German Jewish immigrants, people Germany tried to kill, would sigh. "America has always been the promised land for Jews. Don't get too comfortable in Germany." "I'm more comfortable than I've ever been," I would hiss into the phone, nearly falling over my suitcase as I paced my room. I thought my mother might cry.

My mother, my mother, my MOTHER. My god! She was trying to destroy my life. Why couldn't SHE have majored in Anthropology? What cultures had SHE tried to understand beyond the Jewish American one? Ugh. I went back to the kitchen and complained about her to my new European friends.
But just a sentence or two. After all, it didn't matter. I didn't need to talk. I was trying out this new persona where I was just intrinsically cool because I was in Europe. What was to say, anyway? Life was good; I had just moved into a new flat with this German dude, we were eating delicious pasta every night, having late night conversations about art, going to roof parties, drinking wine in parks.

I could feel myself repressing every part of my being that would intimidate new friends. I wanted to have the same detachment I found so sexy in German men. I couldn't afford to be a basketcase. I'm sure I came across like one anyway, but the point was I was trying to be as open-minded as I possibly could. When my German friend complained that the Jewish Counsel of Germany labeled everyone a Nazi they didn't agree with, I tried to see his perspective. Yeah, what were these Jews doing, keeping on bringing up the Holocaust to a generation that had nothing to do with it? I was embarassed by my religion. Why WERE we obsessed with being the victim?

Wait, what?

And that's when something happened and my artificial facade crumbled. We were not victims, us Jews! We were just like all other people -- rich and poor, dumb and smart, Republican and Democrat. Oh god, my mother was right! Zee Germans didn't want me here. They still resented Jews! Why was I here, thinking I could be a citizen of the world? How clueless was I? ABORT MISSION, ABORT MISSION.

Then it all came tumbling out. I had long, strained conversations with my roommate about my feelings, my mother, my family, my family's history, my upbringing, my culture, my perspectives on guilt and blame and Europe and Jewish culture, my stress levels, my lack of a job, or any prospect of a job, my fear that I was becoming addicted to cigarettes, my fear that nobody understood my sense of humor, my utter terror that I would have to fly home. My cool detachment had left me and I was the same neurotic mess I had been in the U.S. My roommate wasn't really interested in having these loooonnng drawn-out, completely angsty conversations about how I felt about being here, how it was a necessary step for me, and how maybe, if you look at it one way, I was re-writing my family's history. I was being over-dramatic. I could feel it in the way he looked at me.

So I moved out, shacked up with a Swedish fella (more about that later), started dating an Israeli and got a job in English. I slowly wised up, became more comfortable with myself, learned when to open up to (drunk) people, when to hang back, how to like living here without putting the whole country on a pedestal, etc., etc.

Thing is, I'm less integrated than I was when I first moved here, but I'm really okay with that. To me, Berlin is still this unfathomable place that makes me feel all sorts of crazy things, but only when I want it to. Just a brisk walk down a new street, and it's like I'm in a new city all over again. I feel lost, I feel uncomfortable, I feel like I don't really understand what's going on, and I use those feelings to try and make things. It usually works pretty well. My feelings towards the U.S. are so much more complicated, too. Of course I don't hate it there! I just hated the life I had created.

It's hard for me to even understand the person I was when I moved here. He seems like such a hopeless romantic; so out-of-touch with everything and everyone except his own notion of perfection. I want to tap him on the shoulder and say, "Stop trying to erase yourself." But Berlin will do that to you. Berlin will throw your whole world upside down. The city operates on another rhythm than anywhere in the U.S., and it makes you feel like you never have to stop partying and hanging out. But when you're in it for the long haul, eventually you have figure your shit out, and realize that this city isn't a vacation from the back of your mind. Nowhere is. And that's actually a good thing.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Lady Gaga in Berlin

The florescent glow inside my S-Bahn train cannot compete with the blue neon lights of O2 World, a massive stadium which sits near the border between Friedrischain and Kreuzberg. This is where the wall between East and West Berlin once stood, now home to murals with messages of peace and intercontinental understanding. 

I'm on the phone with my friend Matthew, trying to decide whether or not I want to scalp tickets to the Lady Gaga concert, which starts in less than one hour. On the one hand, how can I not? This is Gaga we're talking about: an extraordinary machine, an outrageous provocateur, a larger than life drag queen who stands up for the gays. She is Berlin, commodified. And according to various gossip magazines, it was Berlin that inspired Gaga to create her latest album.

On the other hand, I feel haggard and stressed from my day spent blogging about the latest tech news. My Value Village V-neck sweater is pelting and has a prominent hole near one nipple. I'm not sure I'm ready for the prying eyes of the House of Ga.  

In Gaga's album, German is embraced. But it's actually a bullshit version of German. I asked a few German people if they could understand what GaGa was trying to say in her song "Scheisse" and they told It is not German. It is some weird gobbledeegook Gaga invented to seem more worldly (or perhaps attract more attention in the largest economy in Europe). I decide that I have to see how the German audience reacts to her. 

Under the U-Bahn tracks, an Indian man sells me a 2nd-mezzanine ticket for $50 that he promises is "really okay!" I ask him if I'll be able to see anything. "Yes, you will be able to see many things!" he says. I honestly feel like the luckiest boy in the world.   

I walk inside the stadium, and a security guard searches my bag. "You can't bring this in here," he says, holding up my Kindle. "What? It's an e-reader?" "We don't allow Kindles." "Really? Its sole function is displaying text in a legible format. Are you afraid I'm going to read?" The security guard passes it to a colleague, who inspects it thoroughly before giving it back to me. "Nice case!" she says, and lets me in.

Inside the stadium, the crowd is strangely quiet. There aren't a whole lot of people dressed up, although I was able to get a picture of these two crazed fans buying a Döner (Berlin meat sandwich):

Berlin meat sandwich.

I find my seat after taking three escalators from the lobby. I have to stand up and look down to get a good view of the stage, where a large and haunted-looking house is being lit up by strobes. The lights go off and suddenly an inflated alien vagina is rolled on to the stage."Uuuuuuuuuaaaaaahhhhhh, uuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaahhhhh," Gaga moans. She emerges from the vagina and is lead around the stage. 

"How are all my monsters in Berlin doing tonight?!?!" she yells like a maniac.

"We're doing great, GaGa!!!" I yell. 

"I love you Berliners," Gaga says. She grabs a German flag and starts waving it. At first, the crowd is unsure how to react (this is Germany; nationalism is a touchy subject). But a few seconds later, they go wild.   

Gaga does 6 songs in rapid procession, all from her earlier albums (Poker Face, LoveGame, Just Dance, etc.). Everything's going by so quickly, I can barely keep up. The stage is writhing mass of near-naked body parts.

An orb featuring Gaga's alien face flies down from the top of the Haunted House, talking about the end of the world. Now it's time for "Born This Way," which Gaga sings in her weird alien make-up.

After that's over, the haunted house opens up like a toy and Gaga begins singing "Alejandro" while strapped to a rack of meat. "This is for everyone who's ever felt like a piece of meat!" she yells. Three meat grinders are rolled on to the stage and dancers dive down into them headfirst, their legs twirling to the beat as they're ground into hamburgers.  

Next, she sits down next to the piano for the introspective, inspiring section of the concert. 

I'm not going to lie and pretend I remember everything she said, so I've made up some lines of dialogue that should give you the gist:

"I used to be just like you! Poor, fat, miserable. I started singing at the age of 19, mostly in my bedroom while I cut myself. But then I believed in myself and now look at me: I'm a rockstar and I don't give a fuck!"

Gaga then grabs a girl from the "Monster Pit" who is clearly high on something. She smells her armpits. "Oh my god, you smell amazing," she says. "Folks, this girl smells AMAZING." 

Gaga begins singing on a motorcycle with a piano built into it. The girl holds on to her from behind. 

"She's touching my boob," Gaga says, in between singing "Speechless" and "Hair." The crowd is slightly confused by the high girl, but Gaga doesn't break character for a moment. Her voice soars. 

 Terrible in-concert photo of all the groping action

"I love you Germany!" she yells. "I hope you love me too! But even if you don't, I don't really give a fuck!" Gaga brings out a gorgeous black dancer. "Patrique? Do you give a fuck?" 

"I don't give a FUCK!" Patrique says. 

"What about you pancake?"

"Nuh uh!"

"See, they don't give a fuck, either! Do you give a fuck, Berlin?"

"NOOOO!!" I yell. 

"I've walked your streets, Berlin. I like it here. I love the Laboratory!" she says. The Laboratory is a gay sex club in the basement of the most famous club in Germany, legendary for poop nights and lots of dangerous unprotected sex.  

A few gay men in the audience laugh. There aren't many of them. The stadium is mostly filled with parents and children.

Gaga disappears again, then re-emerges for a final "we are the world" procession around a stage which surrounds the Monster Pit. She picks a few well-dressed monsters to join her. Everyone is screaming. 

Then it's over. 

I walk downstairs and find the crowd calmly packing the escalators, as if nothing has even happened. Everyone is either exhausted or they were secretly bored the entire time. 

I wonder to myself: does Germany need a Gaga? It's a radically different cultural landscape than in the U.S. This is a country where children learn about sex at a very young age. There is no abstinence-only education. Sex shops are everywhere. Gay saunas are everywhere. She's not going to shock anyone with her scandalous ways.  

At the same time, gay bullying is a huge issue in smaller towns across Germany. While federal domestic partnership laws are a good start, they don't go far enough. There's still fear and bigotry here. Lady Gaga's message of empowerment isn't anything to scoff at.

I take the train home, feeling 10% gayer than three hours ago. It was totally worth the $50.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

12 Things You're Likely to See While Riding the Subway in Berlin

You're waiting for the subway at Alexanderplatz. It's rush hour. You're exhausted. All you want to do is get home and eat something. But there's a bunch of shit to mentally process on the way back to your WG. Here's what you're likely to see out of the corner of your eye while you're trying to read a magazine:

1. Lots of frowns.

2. Ads asking if you're depressed below TVs silently displaying depressing news.

2. Germans who are wearing very practical winter clothing by Jack Wolfskin.

4. Someone who is looking around for high-fives after rushing into the subway doors at the last minute.

5. Someone who smells like he took a shower in fermented cheese.

6. At least five older women who are dressed elegantly and staring lackadaisically at nothing in particular.

7. A few kids who are trying to act tough and getting disappointed that no one is recognizing their toughness.

8. Someone who really doesn't like that your shoes accidentally touched theirs for a millisecond.

9.  A dude wearing a tracksuit and his bulldog.

10. At least one couple who are ferociously making out.

11. A hipster dressed like a homeless person who is rejecting money from an actual homeless person.

12. An American dude who is talking dramatically in English on his cell phone and trying, fruitlessly, not to be a bother. (THAT'S ME)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Crying in the Frozen Pizza Aisle at Aldi

The Germans take thrift shopping super seriously. You aren't likely to run into fancy marketing gimmicks at the neighborhood budget grocery store. This is the country where bread is labeled "BREAD." The Germans appreciate stores with a no-bullshit approach.

The failure of Walmart in Germany attests to this. When even the richest family in America can't buy their way into the German retailing sector, you know something is up. A 2006 NYT article contains quite hilarious anecdotes about how Walmart tried --and failed -- to adapt to German culture:
In Germany, Wal-Mart stopped requiring sales clerks to smile at customers — a practice that some male shoppers interpreted as flirting — and scrapped the morning Wal-Mart chant by staff members.

“People found these things strange; Germans just don’t behave that way,” said Hans-Martin Poschmann, the secretary of the Verdi union, which represents 5,000 Wal-Mart employees here.

Besides failing to adapt to local culture, Walmart simply couldn't compete with its biggest German rival, Aldi. The budget behemoth attracts 95% of blue-collar workers, 88% of white-collar workers, 84% of public servants, and 80% of self-employed Germans, according to a 2002 survey conducted by the German market research institute Forsa. The company's enormous success has made its owner, Karl Albrecht, the richest man in Germany and the fourth richest in Europe.

Aldi may make $53 billion in revenue every year, but you don't see the money when you walk into its stores, which look like food prisons. Wanna talk to the brocolli? You'll need to pick up a corded phone and stand behind the bulletproof glass.

In America, I find comfort in wandering the aisles of local grocery stores, perusing the packaging, fondling the candy. The advertising makes me fantasize about all the wonderful lives I might live. Here, not so much. If you want to picture Aldi, imagine a place with the florescent lighting of Target, the cramped ceilings of a parking lot and the screaming neon color schemes of a 99 cent store. You just want to get the hell out of there before someone calls your name over the intercom and you're turned over to the Stasi for loitering around the pickle jars.

It's so comically miserable that I often want to stage some kind of theatrical intervention. The store I frequent is primarily visited by Turkish families and broke artists, and I sometimes envision the two demographics breaking character and engaging in political rapartee.

Of course, in the real world, this will never happen. And so I take a selfie in the frozen pizza aisle instead, hoping someone will notice me and mutter to themselves something delightfully disparaging about Americans.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Having a Near-Death New Years in Berlin

What's funny to me about Germany is that it's a country where you cannot, under most any circumstances, buy a gun but you can buy 10 near professional-grade fireworks and set them all off at once mere inches from someone's face. Every year in Berlin, I almost die on New Years Eve. Every fricking year.

There was the year someone across the street set off a firework diagonally, narrowly missing my forehead and the year someone near me lit off an explosive under a cop car and I ran away before the cops struck back.

This year, I decided to just stay home. "New years poo years," I muttered to myself while reading random blogs on the Internet. It was admittedly hard to concentrate because there were so many explosions going off near my apartment, but I was determined to sit and read. Who cares if it sounded like Baghdad outside? I was in my happy place. My Enya place.

Unfortunately, this feeling didn't last.

After hearing one particularly squealy firework go off somewhere out of my field of vision, I suddenly became interested in what a professional fireworks show looks like. Let's get one thing straight: my fear of roving squads carrying dynamite in no way negates my love of good spectacles. Not cheap ones, like the poorly orchestrated shit show going on outside my window, but the kind endorsed by corporations and performed with professional aplomb.

The biggest fireworks show in Berlin was at the Brandenburger Tor, a grand, 18th century gate in the center of the city. The gate was originally commissioned by King Frederick William II of Prussia as a gesture of peace, but was later used by the Nazis for their processions of war (CONTRASTS). Today, the gate was a relatively inoffensive, yet unmistakable, historic background for presidential speeches, protests and a memorably bad David Hasselhoff performance. Tonight, Bonnie Tyler was expected to perform in front of it, since she missed out on last year's New Years shindig. I switched on the TV, if just to see what a German audience thought of Bonnie.

Tyler was lackluster, and the crowd's disinterest almost comical, but watching the count down clock tick towards its inevitable demise was making my heart race. The year was almost over, and what had I done to commemorate it? "I'm going to celebrate new years at home? In my low-self-worth-shirt and spaghetti-stained sweatpants?" I thought to myself. I began whining to no one in particular. "What now?" Eyal asked. I began undressing myself. Eyal got excited. Then I put on my jacket. "HONEY WE NEED TO GO WATCH SOME SHIT EXPLODE!"

As soon as we had left the apartment, I regretted my decision. The street outside was like one long booby trap. People were crouched in dark alley ways, fiddling with their explosives. Shadowy figures were poised across the street and I couldn't tell if their fireworks were pointed towards the sky or towards us. Big booms sounded in far-away locales.

(Video by me)

A halo of fire shot up near me and I ducked. "Save yourselves!" I yelled. Then I realized it was a toddler holding a sparkler.

We walked quickly yet purposefully towards the park closest to our house. There, a gaggle of puffy-coated spectators were staring up. A sting of fireworks were shooting into the sky from somewhere near the top of the park. Gracefully. Majestically. Like a real fireworks show.

But there were also un-guaded, squealing fireworks spinning into the air from a can dropped on a street corner, sparklers dripping fire from someone's balcony and a person on the other side of the street who was literally throwing fireworks at people walking by him.

I could see Eyal was PISSED. He walked across the street and yelled at the man. "Do you look before you throw?" he asked, gesturing at his eyes. "You have to LOOK! Don't be an idiot!" The man just laughed and took a sip of his beer. Eyal crossed back towards me and we discussed what an idiot this dude was.

Crazy man aside, I was once again taken aback by how democratic the experience of New Years is here. Once I found a safe place to watch all the mayhem, there was something inspiring about it. Every group of friends, celebrating New Years with their own fireworks, their own parties. Nobody was watching the ball drop on some TV, or fighting for space to watch a massive, corporate display of explosives. It was barely-controlled mayhem, sure, but at least it was on a human scale. 

It was only my second night back in Berlin, but I was already happy to be home. "What an insane city," I remarked to Eyal, with a wild grin on my face. Yeah, I was glad to be back.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The German Government Would Like You to Know That People with HIV Are Not Lecherous Cretins

From a public health standpoint, HIV is a tricky beast. How do you address prevention without demonizing those already infected? How do you show people that you can have a meaningful, fulfilling life with the disease without making it seem as if having the disease is a walk in the park?

The way Berlin deals with HIV is quite inspiring. On subway platforms throughout the city, you can see billboards with people who are HIV positive, and the message is always very empowering. This one says, in German (obviously): "I have HIV, and the respect of my colleagues." There are other variants of this billboard featuring fathers, older women, and gay men outing themselves as HIV positive. The message is always "you can have HIV and get on with your life."

These messages have a powerful affect on me. After I first came out in 2005, I was so terrified of getting HIV that I isolated myself from the gay community at my university. Whenever I was at a gay bar, I was afraid I would drink too much and have sex with someone and forget the condom and wind up with the illness. Sure, wearing a condom and not getting blackout drunk are two very important college lessons, but I took it to the extreme. I even tried to pass judgements on others based on whether or not it looked like they had the illness. I was one more gay dude stereotyping other gay dudes...I was part of the problem. It was even hard for me to make friends because I was such a nervous wreck all the time.

It wasn't until I joined Student Global AIDS Campaign and then later traveled to South Africa, that the fear began to lessen. I exposed myself to people who had the illness so I would be forced to see them as people, not diseases. I didn't have any desire to have unsafe sex, but I didn't want to be so afraid of people already infected. What was the point? It's not as if seeing them as real people would magically make me throw away all my condoms and head on down to the nearest bathhouse. Fear is important; we shouldn't ever pretend this is an easy disease. But scare campaigns can have huge, unintended consequences.They can further isolate the already infected, thus beating up on an already HUGELY stigmatized group. And for neurotic gay Jewish boys like me, they can make a trip to the gay bar a hair-raising and hellish experience.

Seeing those smiling, confident faces staring down on the subway platform made me happy to be living in a country that didn't equate sex with death. One could even argue that fear-based AIDS campaigns DISCOURAGE prevention because they make those who might be infected afraid to get tested. But a de-stigmatizing campaign which outs HIV-positive people as productive members of society is a much more humanistic approach towards tackling the illness. People with HIV are more than just walking illnesses! They actually have jobs and families and musical talents and stuff! What a novel revelation!

This particular poster I spotted while waiting for my train at Hermannplatz, a station which services the immigrant enclave of Neukoln. When I turned away, I caught a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf staring at the billboard while talking on the phone. Maybe the message was sinking in, maybe it wasn't. But it's hard to imagine that subconsciously this campaign isn't messing with people's perceptions. I could be stretching it big time here, but I think this kind of advertising really changes people.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

How Deutsch Is It?

French culture is fetishized in the United States to a point of absurdity. Just a glance at the most-emailed New York Times articles will make one feel that the French are better at dressing, eating, parenting than you. Once I was in Paris and overheard a girl telling her friend "I just love Parisien girls because they're feminists but they're also into dressing well." We project our wildest fantasies on to France, while choosing to ignore the rise of anti-immigrant parties Le Penn. Croissants! Cute streets! Lalalalala!
Germany is another story. The prevailing assumption among U.S. editors seems to be that the public lacks a similar fascination for the cultural habits of Germanic people. German culture is hardly ever analyzed on a scale similar to French culture, besides a few articles here and there about the country's fondness for thrift shopping. More often than not, the article will find a way to tie a cultural trend to the country grappling with World War 2 or right wing extremists. Perhaps that's to be expected. But I still feel what's missing is real cultural engagement with Germany. I mean, the country has emerged as the strongest economy on the continent and the only articles about it are about the debt crisis? So much is being missed. What I'd really like is for this blog to become a conduit for discussing what's really happening in Germany. How has immigration affected the country's identity? How do people relate to American culture? Jewish culture? What might the U.S. learn from how Germany treats gay people? What about taxes and are they regulated here? What about guns?
I've spent so long in Berlin and only now do I find myself with oodles of free time for exploring what it means to actually be here. I hope you'll continue to read as I explore what the fuck Germany stands for these days. I'll try my best to bring you stories that are moving, heartfelt and revalant. Stick with me here!


So Greece has been in the news a lot recently, and not for good reasons. The birthplace of democracy, and famed exporter of dolmatas and charmingly long last names, has been ridiculed as a place with a shitty work ethic, enormously overpaid state-employees and a blushingly bad credit history. Anyone who listened to This American Life's "Continental Breakup" episode knows that there are construction projects in the country that were started 15 years ago, still languishing under the Mediterranean sun, as well as an ever-increasing poverty rate, and a whole lot of resentment towards the German autocrats who want to keep the country from borrowing their way into a new debt hole.

What's interesting about actually traveling to Greece is analyzing how the crisis actually affects ordinary Greek people's lives. After all, pitying Greeks is a whole lot easier (meaning lazier) than trying to understand all the messy undertones of life there. Greece is not just a country with failing banks and inept politicians; it's also one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. And throughout my admittedly brief trip to Mykonos, an island famed for celebrity sitings and gay beaches, I couldn't figure out whether I should feel good or bad for the Greek people. Yes, yes, the economy is a mess, but life goes on. And life is often beautiful in Greece.

I'm aware of the fact that any armchair anthropology I perform here will be severly limited by the short time I spent in the country, my own romanticism for warm locations and the fact that I was traveling from the cold and soggy city of Berlin, but more than understand the psyche of Greeks I mostly just want to explain to you, in the most emphatic terms, like a travel agent on crack, why you should forget absolutely everything you've read about the supposed looming breakup of the European Union and go to Greece immediately.

After landing in the miniscule Mykonos airport, my boyfriend and I were picked up by Yannis, the propetier of a hotel called Omiros. Yannis was a charming and tan 30-something man with a buoyant air. He asked about our lives in Berlin and we answered somewhat hesitantly, suddenly aware of the politics of being residents of Germany traveling in Greece. But our fears were completely unfounded as Yannis told us his own tails of traveling around Berlin; he'd even stayed in our neighborhood of Kreuzberg. "Lots of gays there," he noted. "Lots of gays here, too." Then Yannis turned around in his chair winked at us from the driver's seat, narrowly missing a motorcyclist. 

As his minivan rounded the tightly cornered roads hugging this mountainous island, the contrast between this vacation destination and Germany began to sink in. The discombobulating experience of jetting over the Mediterranean and landing in a completely separate world in a mere two hours provides an addictive rush. Like smoking a joint, every minute spent in an entirely new place feels like its own discreet bubble in time; the world slows down so that you can soak in every new detail.

Bright white houses and dazzling turqoise waters: the contrast was intoxicating. I think I let out my first real breath in 24 hours when we pulled up to the hotel. It was exactly the way it was portrayed in the pictures on Trip Advisor, and I almost gasped thinking about the fact that I would soon have the exact same view staring back at me as I saw in the pictures. I grabbed Eyal.

"What. The. Fuck," I said, eloquently.

"I KNOW," he responded.

Both of us sat, mouths gaping, as Yannis opened the door. The hotel, for which we were paying an insanely reasonable $95 a night, was perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. A white catamaran floated by as I entertained dreams of purchasing the entire coastline. The sultry warm air enveloped both of us in a bear hug and I almost died of a happiness heart attack right then and there. I felt like Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love, minus the Medicine man and delusions of enlightenment.

The days which followed consisted of startlingly little. We woke up, went to the beach, sat on our asses, came home, showered, ate, went out for a drink. On the second night, we found ourselves out on the town with two chatty women from the East Coast. We made our way through the white stucco labirynth shopping district and found a quiet restaurant.

These girls would not shut up about their jobs! You just cannot take America out of Americans. But it was fun to talk trashy TV with equally devoted fans. Additionally, it was fun to turn my relationship into a Jewish stand-up routine with the kind of schticky humor that Germans would never appreciate. I wish I could encapsulate the schtick for you right now, but I don't remember the specifics. Suffice to say, it was funny enough that I felt simultaneously proud and embarrassed before, during and after. Weirdly, these are feelings I associate with a successful comedy routine.

Weirder still, I was super happy all the time. Like, maniacally happy. One thing about being happy is that when it happens, you always want to investigate and find out why. So you narrow down all the usual suspects -- Sun: check. Fantasies that you're in an Abba music video: check. A gaggle of intelligent, funny women: check. A charming, loving, warm boyfriend face to stare at: check, check, check.

Naturally, I wish I could repeat Mykonos over and over again. I wish I was there right now, honestly. I would happily be buried there just to force my family to visit the damn place (is that morbid? DON'T CARE). And now, of course, whenever I read about the Greek crisis and imagine German readers tsking their papers, I think: you (anonymous stranger) obviously haven't been to Mykonos. Because you wouldn't pity anyone who lived there. In fact, they are much happier than you.

And obviously, I'm sure the story is completely different in Athens, and that's a whole 'nother blog post but DAMN: MYKONOS. YOU ARE SO FINE.