Saturday, July 11, 2009


After months of plotting, I have finally made it back to Berlin, the world's coolest city. Rather than reporting on my life here, on one of many cool historical facts, or even on what you could do if you visited, I am going instead to focus on something far more trivial.

Berlin is cool because 7 different ideologies since 1869 have left their mark on the city's landscape (Prussia, Empire, Weimar, Nazism, Communism, Cold War Capitalism, post-Unification capital city). It is also cool because it is major centre of cultural production (techno music today, graffitti on long walls and David Bowie's Berlin Triology in the 1970s, and socialism before 1914). What puts it over the top for me, however, is cheap, readily accessible beer. Moreover, upon entering pretty much any bar in four distinct neighbourhoods of the city, you become a cooler person.

With a great deal of luck, I managed to sublet an apartment for the month of July in what is often regarded as Berlin's coolest neighbourhood, Prenzlauerberg. I have never been fully convinced, and now I am certain that it is a more of liability for Berlin's reputation than any sort of help.

In my two years living in downtown Berlin, I only ever came to Prenzlauerberg after about 9 pm to go to its many bars. Now that I live here, however, I am discovering the dark underside of a neighbourhood that has been attracting young people to move here en masse since the mid-1990s: children.

Having decided to leave the house during the day, I have been horrified to discover that about one in four residents of the supposedly cool Prenzlauerberg is a child under 6. The nighttime bars are in fact yuppie mother-baby cafes where people (I think mainly mothers) get together and talk about how they like to Kiwaschi.

Some of Prenzlauerberg's residents (referring to some of the 75% who are capable of having a real conversation) have invented a new word: Kiwaschi. Ki-Va-She. It is derived from KInder WAgen SCHIeben ->PUshing A STroller.

Don't worry about the word's morphology. German often takes parts of words to make its acronyms. Consider Nazi, Gestapo, Stasi, or Vokuhila (mullet - FRont SHort BAck LOng). But beyond sound linguistic analogy to other acronyms, the word's usage is ridiculous.

"Sorry, I missed your call, I was kiwaschi."

"I was kiwaschi all afternoon and now I am tired."

The grammar in English is questionable. It is no better in German.

The shift from alternative to moderately posh is a foreseeable destiny for all of Berlin's neighbourhoods with a strong counterculture. The rise of playgrounds where the city supplies hammers and wood to 5 year-olds to build a massive tree fort could even be expected if you sit back and think about what happens when young people live in close contact for 15 years. But to be the neighbourhood that makes an acronym for PUshing A STroller is definitely not cool.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Iceland: Some impressions

When I was in grade 8, my social studies teacher told us about one of the biggest scams in human history. The tricky Danes named their giant glacier Greenland and their temperate tropical island Iceland. She informed us that it was in fact Iceland that was green and Greenland that was icy. While she may have been right that Iceland was green, I had always understood that she meant that Iceland, unlike Greenland, had good weather. She was either wrong or lying!

Six days after Iceland and I am still trying to readjust to life with nightfall and temperatures above 15 C. And while I was in the true land of the midnight sun (southern Iceland is as far north as Dawson City), I hardly saw the sun. When it wasn't raining (no surprise, it is in the middle of the ocean), it was often foggy. So it was more like midnight well-lit rather than all out midnight sun.

I can see where the moon references come from (lack of trees, lots of rock), but green moss as far as the eye could see reminded repeatedly that I was surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and therefore inherently not on the moon.

Aside from bad luck with the weather, Iceland was a really good place for a three-day layover.

The Icelandic people blessed the world with the word "geyser" (or geysir in Icelandic). And not only do they have the world's first named geyser (now extinct due to human contact), the geyser beside it goes off about every 5-7 minutes.

Hot springs and air filled with sulfur abound in Iceland, as do the small pools with boiling water. I fulfilled a lifelong dream of boiling an egg in the middle of a field. And in case there were doubts about what caused the bubbles, I got to confirm that it was 100 C water because my egg fully cooked in 8 minutes.

The other highlight of the trip was trout smoked in sheep droppings. Fermented shark meat was not at all good, but Iceland's excessive amounts of smoked meat (lamb, horse, and fish) made the whole trip worthwhile.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Matinee Clubbing

After a long hiatus from the post-socialist world of eastern Germany, I have decided to return to my blog and to talk about my renewed interest in countries that Ronald Reagan hated.

Last week I went to Cuba. It was a big year for the Revolution. It has been 50 years since the Romeo y Julieta cigar factory was nationalized, and the State's propaganda was eager to remind its citizens of the fact. 50 Años de la Revolución was not only painted on walls (the closest thing Cuba has to graffiti), it also had a more permanent version in steel as this picture shows.

The highlight of my trip wasn't anti-capitalist rhetoric nor pictures of Che Guevara. Instead it was going to the matinee session of a salsa club.

There are probably many ways we could link this matinee experience to socialism. Entrance was half the price of the evening show (still $12 CAD - $8 for Cubans) and the bottles of rum were at supermarket prices ($8 CAD for 700 ml) rather than marked up to $20 for the evening show. It also encourages good workers to get drunk early and then get to bed by 11:30 so as to go to work in the workers' republic the next morning.

But moving beyond the reasons some Cuban bureaucrat came up with the idea, I just want to describe how cool it is to go to a matinee salsa club.

After a pleasant morning and afternoon of tourism in Havana, we got to the disco at about 4:30. It was air conditioned and as I mentioned, the self-mixed Cuba Libres (rum and coke) cost about 60 cents per class. The idea of an afternoon salsa club (live band) is really quite brilliant. After a hard day of walking (or working if you aren't a tourist), you get to go straight to a Cuban version of happy hour. The band started at about 7 pm, we were drunk by about 6:30. Then at 9:30, we went home and were in bed at a very reasonable time.

The alternative to the matinee disco was getting to the bar early at 11 pm only to wait 30 minutes before they opened. The band doesn't start playing until 1 am, and you are in no shape to see Havana the next day.

A revolutionary idea.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A cold day in Leipzig

I went to Leipzig on Monday as part of my new project to check out as many post-Socialist cities as possible before I die. The first thing I did when I got off the train was walk accross the street to the tourist information office. I got stuck in a line. Being bored, I began listening to the conversation of the lady who was preventing me from getting back on the streets and seeing the sights.

She was Russian but spoke decent enough German. The lady serving her was about 60 and, based on her accent, most definitely had spent her life in the Leipzig area. They kept talking and talking and the Leipziger then asked her co-worker (who was just standing around rather than answering my questions) for help.

I officially began eavesdropping. Turns out the Russian lady wanted to find Ho Chi Minh Street. Soon after East Germany became Germany, they changed street names in a hurry. I assume they thought it would some how bring closer them to Capitalism a little more quickly. Karl Marx Square became Augustus Square and Ho Chi Minh Street become something else. Nobody knows what (at the tourist office).

Turns out, the Leipzig tourist info lady was no help. More so, however, because she didn´t know how to spell Ho Chi Minh. The Russian was of no help. She tried to tell the woman to look up Ho T-S-C-H-I Min. I guess that is the litteral transliteration of Хо Ши Мин

The Leipzig lady says to her co-worker. "Do you know how to spell Ho Chi Minh?"

Response: "Ho Tschi Min?"

Leipzig lady: "Ja, Ho Tschi Min. He was some sort of Asian Communist leader."

So what really got me was, after being in post-Socialist Leipzig for about 4 minutes, that the person who was supposed to be able to tell me about the city she had been living in since about 1950 didn´t even know where Ho Chi Minh was from. This woman lived in Communist East Germany for East Germany´s entire existance and was about 20 in 1969 when good old Ho kicked the bucket.

In school, all these people learned about were the other Communist "Friendship Countries". And she didn`t know how to spell Ho freaking Chi freaking Minh.

I decided to tell them. I went out on a limb and guessed Ho Chi Minh. The German guy, probably from the West (based on the fact that he was a tourist), confirmed the fact that this 25 year-old Canadian was right. Soon after, the Leipzig lady was able to tell the Russian that she couldn`t find the street.

PS - Ho Chi Minh even in freaking Vietnamese is spelled Hồ Chí Minh

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


There is a charming little town on the Polish border, a mere 20 kilometres away from what is referred as the most depressing city in Germany and 21 kilometres away from an equally depressing, but cheaper, city in Poland. This place is called Eisenhüttenstadt, directly translated as Ironhutcity. More properly translated, it would be called Ironworksville. Either way, it doesn't scream cosmopolitan.

It first caught my attention because trains going to the airport in Berlin ultimately end up there. The name was so alluring, I had to know more. And was I ever in for a surprise. Turns out, when they built this very well-planned city in the early 1950s, they were planning on calling it Karl-Marx-Stadt. But then the man himself, Stalin, died. So screw Karl Marx. The man who single handedly liberated half of Europe from Fascism should at least get his name on a symmetrical, industrial, small town. So they changed their plans and were set on Stalin-Stadt. They tossed Karl-Marx-Stadt on to Chemnitz, and let the worship begin.

All they gave old Karl was a street name.

Then crisis. Turns out Stalin was a bad guy. And Karl-Marx-Stadt was already in use. So, like any urban planner would do, they chose Ironhutville and kept on building.

Captivated by this story, I decided I should go there. It just happened to be, however, the most dead city of 35,000 people I have ever seen. My little sister, Lizz, was visiting. She only had 5 days in Germany and I decided to make her spend one of them in Ironhutville. It was like a residential neighbourhood of East Berlin, but empty.
We did the rounds and checked out the Russian monument. Then we decided to go to Frankfurt Oder, Germany's most depressing city, on the Polish border. In comparison, it was a centre of action and culture. License plates from as far away as Hanover were rushing over the border to buy cheap lettuce and pickles in Polish supermarkets.

Here I am in Germany's other Frankfurt.

After the Capitalist take over of the German Democratic Republic, they stripped Karl Marx of all his glory and renamed Chemnitz Chemnitz. With the name again available, it is unfortunate that Ironhutville has yet to reclaim is orginially intended glory.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I first learned about the Euro in 1999 when the Europeans (originators of the Euro) invented themselves a digital currency. In 2002, it hit the markets and ever since there's been a Euro Zone, and I can go from Portugal to Andalusia and back again without having to make any currency conversions.

The Germans had it easy. Two marks bought them one Euro, so they switched systems in typical German fashion very quickly. The French were more stubborn about things. To this day, they have a law that forces grocery stores (and other places where Euros are used) to include the price of everything in both Euros and francs on the shelves and on the receipts.

The Spanish, however, do both and neither. They don't mess around like the French do. If the ham now costs 2 euros, well that is what they are going to talk about. However, the Spanish are seemingly incapable of understanding large sums of money in anything but the monetary system they have been using since 1869 when Spain joined the "Latin Monetary Union"

So when you tell a Spaniard that your new Seat (Spanish car) cost 15,000 Euros, he is dumbfounded. He just can't grasp how much that could possibly be. To deal with large sums, the Spaniard converts the Euro value into the much less valuable Peseta. So instead, with a straight face, he prefers to tell you that his car cost a mere two million, four hundred and ninety-five thousand, seven hundred and ninety pesetas. Just to keep things simple.

The Spanish insistence on complicating big numbers with even bigger ones is even more problematic, however, because they don't have a cool 2 to 1 conversion rate like the Germans do. Instead, numbers like 24,000 need to be multiplied by 166! That way a BMW's price makes sense. In clean, solid, traditional pesetas.

This mathematical nightmare leads to me never really believing a Spaniard when he tells me how much something costs.

Ben: How much does an apartment cost in Barcelona.
Spaniard: 66 million pesetas.
Ben: What the hell are you saying?
Spaniard: A euro is 60, Si. 160. So that means about 300,000 euros.

This average Spaniard just divided sixty-six million by 160 in about 3 seconds. As a result, he was off by more than 100,000 Euros.

What makes them lack even more credibility, however, is the fact that unlike the French, the official price is no longer quoted in the old currency. To to get to the sum of 66 million, at some point in the past they had to multiply some number like 400,000 by 166. Given their rapid division skills, I doubt their abilities to mulitply on the fly. So I am never really sure they know how much they paid for their apartment. They thought they were getting a place for a mere 66 million, but it actually cost them 500,000 Euros.

So once the original Euro price has been muliplied on the fly by 160 and then divided again by 160, I get told how much something in Spain is worth, even though it wasn't bought nor will it be sold for that price.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Pixaner i Caganer

A few days before Christmas 2006, my two sisters, my aunt Margaret and I laughed ourselves silly as Anna explained to us the ins and outs of Catalan Christmas. Rather than Santa and stockings, the Catalans have a trunk. But not like a chest with presents. Instead, a dead tree with a face drawn on him. He is called the "cagatió", which means the "shitting uncle". The children chant to the stump and ask him to shit them presents. We leave Santa food to be nice; the Catalans leave the cagatió food "so that he shits more presents."

This Christmas I came Barcelona to see the cagatió for myself only to discover the Catalans do much weirder things for Christmas.

They are big fans of nativity scenes. They do them well. Rather than being all soft and wintery, the three wisemen look like they came straight out of the desert. They have turbans and wear robes. The background in front of which the porcellan characters stand is quite detailed. Anna's dad even went to two different Christmas markets just to get a new baby jesus because the old one broke. As you can see, he didn't even suceed.

In these scenes, the Catalans like to include a pixaner or a caganer. Pixaner is Catalan for pisser and caganer means shitter, both as in the guy who pisses or shits. Right in front of this gorgeous nativity scence there is a Catalan in traditional clothing wearing a red hat (in front of the tree) taking a dump!

Here are lovely pictures of the shitters and dumpers that I snapped at the Christmas market right in front of Barcelona's main cathedral. They are quite detailed in that they show not only the stream of urine and and a man poised to take a dump, but also a pile of feces.And I took all this pictures with a SLR camera, so you can click on them and zoom in to see the Christmas spirit in detail!

They also turn celebrities into caganers such as soccer player Thierry Henri and French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

You can order your own from this website.

Merry Christmas