Bezirk [1] in Berlin© – 16:  October 5, 2011


Pirate Party:   German political parties are so much more interesting than those in the States.  First, they have so many of them.  Second, some are especially interesting.  Take the Pirate Party, for example.  In recent elections, they won their first seats, with 9% of the vote – nothing to sneeze at.  Platform?  Free wireless Internet and public transportation and giving the vote to 15-year-olds, among other things.


  •  A juggler on a unicycle at a traffic light
  • A guy in a kilt (and all the associated regalia) – who was standing in the bike path and whom I almost ran over
  • A tattoo parlor named ‘B52 Tattoo’ {for those of you who are so old you’ve forgotten and for those of you who slept through your history classes, the planes used in the Berlin Airlift were B52s – and if you don’t know what the Air Drop was, Google it.}


James Brown may have indeed been the hardest working man in show business, but he can’t hold a candle to a guy I saw today in terms of working hard, period. This guy was selling grilled bratwursts at Alexander Platz, a high-traffic tourist area.  He was there when we arrived at noon and was still there when he left at 7 pm.  OK, so working 7 hours selling brats doesn’t sound so extraordinary.  Except for this—he was selling them from a ‘body grill.’  You’ve see the guys who are like a one-man band, right?  Sitting on a stool, with drums on their backs, playing the percussion with foot pedals while playing a harmonica, or some similar combination.  Well this guy is selling brats from what can only be described as a ‘body grill.’  I couldn’t really figure it out but, imagine this if you will –there’s a contraption that fits over this guy’s shoulders.  In the front is a grill, where he’s cooking brats and toasting buns for them and on his back is something that I imagine is the fuel tank for the grill.  This guy is NOT even sitting on a stool—he’s standing up—ALL DAY—WEARING a grill and a fuel tank!  And this was some skinny young guy!!!  No, I am NOT making this up!!  Found out later from my son that someone who does this is called a ‘grill walker’ – and was the only job he thought he’d be able to find here, until he lucked out and got a kitchen job a MacDonald’s.  Yes – Mickey D’s is definitely a step UP from grill walker!


In some ways, I miss being a homeowner.  We have now been unable to shower for almost a week.  The handle that lets you switch from shower head to faucet broke.  We can bathe, but that getting in and out of the extremely deep but tediously narrow, slippery bath tub is pretty much an acrobatic feat that I approach with great fear and trepidation.  It’s not made any better with the eccentric positioning of all the bath tubs I’ve used in Germany – the bottom of the tub is at least 10 inches higher than the floor outside the tub.  Don’t know why – maybe it’s because every place I’ve bathed is old (like in a couple of hundred years old) and the plumbing has been retrofitted.

As a homeowner, I could have just called a plumber and, more often than not, had the problem fixed the same day.  As a tenant, however, unless I want to pay for it myself (and, perhaps, break the terms of the lease – no doubt a landlord doesn’t actually want tenants to do the repairs themselves), I have to wait until the landlord arranges the repairs.  First, there’s getting in touch with the landlord, whose real estate investments apparently allow him to take numerous extended vacations.  But we’re fortunate enough to have a neighbor who has the name and phone number of the plumber the landlord uses, so we went that route.  But by the time we figured all this out, it was the week-end.  On Monday, we called the guy and he came out the same day we called; he confirmed that it was indeed broken.  He always has to get the landlord’s permission to do a repair or replacement.  He contacted the landlord to discover that the fixture is under a warranty, which means we have to endure another process.  Otherwise, he could have replaced it for us on Monday.  So, by the time the landlord contacts the guy who is authorized to fix/replace it, it’s Tuesday and the guy comes out on Wednesday.  He then has to remove the fixture, which requires turning off the water, so he can return it and get a new one.  This process will take at least 3 hours, so I’ll be without the water meanwhile.  I’m sure I’ll find that extremely annoying at some point – giving painful truth to that old adage ‘You don’t miss your water until the well runs dry.’

With any luck, the problem will be resolved by the end of the day.

The most annoying aspect of this is that, because of the warranty, the plumber is going to install another fixture JUST LIKE THIS ONE!  The one that broke after only one year!  Just to rub salt in the wound, he noted that the fixture is French!  No wonder it’s a piece of junk!  So, here we are in Germany, home to some of the most well-made plumbing fixtures on the planet, and we get stuck with a French faucet!  Pardon me while I go tear my hair out!


  • It’s the 5th most bike-friendly city in Europe—
  •  It’s got the cleanest air of any European city!  Partly because the use of bicycles has increased 13% (and I wonder how much my bike counts in that mix).

This ‘clean air business’ is a far cry from the place where I grew up – Southeast Texas.  In 1901, an oil well in Beaumont – Spindletop – hit big time.  It produced more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day (that’s 4.2 MILLION gallons), exceeding by far the productivity of any previously discovered well discovered.  Two huge oil companies, Gulf and Texaco, were formed to refine the oil, and were later joined by Mobile.  Soon Jefferson County’s air was full of SO2 (aka, sulfur dioxide), which smells of rotten eggs.  As the average relative humidity in that part of Texas approaches 100%, the SO2 has the opportunity to combine with H2O (more commonly referred to as ‘water’) to form H2SO4 (known as sulfuric acid), a highly corrosive, colorless, viscous liquid.  It has its uses, such as in lead-acid batteries, but has less than charming results when you breathe it.  My college was across the street from the Mobil Oil refinery, which generously offered the college land upon which to build the football stadium.  In fact, there were times when the fog in the stadium made it a little bit difficult to watch the game (and that was long before there were giant screen TVs in the stadium).  The sulfuric acid was a bit hard on nylon stockings, too.  That was back in the days when girls were forbidden to wear slacks on campus, and we all wore hose.  If you happened to brush up against a shrub in the morning, while it was still wet with dew, that ‘dew’ was actually sulfuric acid and, before you knew it, your hose practically turned to ribbons the next time you bent your knee.  {And the folks in Redmond gave me another chuckle just now; Word grammar check wanted me to change ‘bent’ here to ‘bet.’  I’m trying to think of a situation in which betting one’s body parts would come up in conversation with sufficient frequency to warrant a rule in Word grammar check that resulted in the recommended construction.}

Folks were more than a little proud of their ‘black gold’ and whenever you complained of the smell of rotten eggs, your Daddy would invariably tell you, “Child, that’s just the smell of money.”  For some reason, the folks in charge of such things even apparently considered it worthy of including in materials normally used to promote tourism.  I found this post card in a hotel in Beaumont in the 1980s.


Beaumont Refinery


 Judging from the cars, this photo had been taken maybe 50 years earlier.  This simple piece of paper gave rise to several questions.  First, why was such an old post card still available?  Was it that nobody had ever bought it and the hotel never considered weeding out products that didn’t sell?  [And I don’t think that particular hotel was even there 50 years ago.]  OR was it because it was such a great seller that they just kept reprinting it?  More importantly, how could anyone think that this photo would entice folks to visit Beaumont and spend their tourist dollars there?  Or, alternatively, was it intended to keep tourists away?  After all, this is a place that declined the opportunity to have a world-class port (leaving it to Houston to build a 100-mile-long intra-coastal canal where it developed a port).  Jefferson County also passed on the chance to have a Six Flags Amusement Park (presumably because it would draw a lot of strangers looking to spend money) in favor of a contract prison (a place where strangers would be kept under lock-and-key).

 The other substance than ‘enhanced’ our air quality was DDT.  In a place plagued with mosquitoes, DDT was most welcome.  When the trucks came through our neighborhoods spraying DDT to beat the band, one of our pastimes was to follow it, running barefoot on the shell streets and immersing ourselves in the DDT fog.  Alternatively, if your street was paved, you might follow the truck while riding your bike.  In either case, unlike Mr. Clinton, we did indeed inhale.

 Wonder if the DDT and the sulfuric acid have anything to do with the fact that, with the exception of one kid killed in Viet Nam and another killed in a car wreck, most of my dead classmates died of cancer.  Wonder how this might compare with kids who grew up in Berlin (except for the unfortunate fact that folks in Europe smoke far more than folks in the US – but that’s starting to change).

 By the way, if you have the vaguest interest in how life was in Jefferson County in the 1950s, read The Liar’s Club by Mary Kerr.  She pretty much nailed it (and, in so doing, apparently earned her mother’s undying ire).


  • Sudanese restaurant, with a sign stating that the place has menus in English and Spanish.  English I understand; it’s fundamentally the default language.  I speak Urdu; you speak Inuit; if we’re gonna chat at all, it’s gonna be in English.  But Spanish?  Are there really that many Spanish-speaking Sudanese food aficionados in Berlin?
  • Two guys standing outside the market hall, a building that houses what would otherwise be an outdoor market, on a 6-day-a-week basis, as opposed to the once-a-week basis of most other markets.  (For those of you familiar with the DC area, think ‘Eastern Market.’)  Each guy was just standing there holding one of two identical car doors, painted bright turquoise.  They were there when I went in and were still there when I came out.  So, are they hoping that someone is going to walk/drive by who needs 2 turquoise doors for the particular make/model of car?  Or, given that Berlin is such an artsy place, was it just another case of performance art?


  •  Curb Service.  From a structural perspective, Berlin is not particularly accommodating to the disabled.  For example, accessing many apartment buildings and stores (and other places of business) requires going up at least one step.  This is hardly wheel-chair friendly.  Today when I was at the corner drug store, I saw a lady in a motorized wheel chair stop on the sidewalk in front of the store and motion to the clerk at the cash register.  The clerk came to the door, the lady told her what she wanted, and the clerk went and got it for her, and the lady paid for it.  This seemed to be standard procedure, with the lady being a regular customer.  Although the architecture may not be particularly accommodating, even total strangers are.  I can’t count the times I’ve seen total strangers help the proverbial little old lady down the stairs to the U-Bahn, or help a mom carry a kid-filled stroller or baby carriage down the stairs.
  • Donations to the homeless.  Germans are big on recycling.  The larger grocery store chains have a machine to make it easy to return your bottles and get a receipt.  One of these stores offers something extra – there’s a contribution box next to the machine where you can donate your receipt.  Presumably, the store will take the cash it would otherwise have returned to you and provide food for a homeless shelter.  [I’m choosing to believe that the store doesn’t actually just destroy those receipts and keep the money it would have otherwise given customers for the recycled bottles.]


Our son sees a lot of the city—he’s a bike courier.  Otherwise, it’s entirely possible that this particular piece of graffiti may have come and gone without his noticing it.  On the side of a building there’s a photo-quality piece of graffiti—nothing particularly weird about this, as there are many other places that have such things.  The weird part is that it happens to be a black and white photo of our son!  The building is about 5-6 storeys tall and his photo is at least 2 storeys tall—and it’s just a head shot.  So often you see something that someone else thinks looks like you, and although you can see the resemblance, you don’t think it looks exactly like you.  In this case, Steve DOES think it looks exactly like him (as do his parents).  So, you wonder:  Where did this guy get a photo of Steve?  Why did he decide to use it in this graffiti?  And, of course, the continuing question I have about these things is – HOW did they do it?  The graffiti is ‘tagged’ but, of course, folks tend to remain anonymous, since it’s illegal to post such things without the building owner’s consent.

 God, I love GOOGLE!  It turns out that this wasn’t a photo of our son at all!  Just a guy who looks remarkably like him (AND dresses like him, down to the hat and scruffy beard)!  It’s part of a Levi’s ad.  Don’t know how our son is going to take being mistaken for a guy who’s famous for doing street karaoke, though.

[1] ‘Bezirk’ is German for ‘neighborhood.’