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.