Saturday, April 21, 2007

Greatest City in the World

The votes are in and it's true: Berlin is the greatest city in the world.

I've lived here so long that it's hard for me to judge anymore, but last night I sat down with a newly immigrated English mother of two by the name of Sarah (well, she's been here a couple of years) and was surprised at the sheer unequivocal-ness of her endorsement. "I can honestly say I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else", she said. "If it were up to me, I would live here all my life."

Her points:

- It's a great place to raise children. Germans themselves will never tell you this, they think all Germans and Germany in general is anti-children, but it's not true. The subways have elevators, the buses have steps that tip down. Other cities don’t have all that. Go to New York or London or Paris. Berlin is an extremely modern city. There are still parts that could be cleaned up a little, but most likely that is only a matter of time.

- Cheap. It's true of course: Berlin is easy to live in money-wise. "For the money we're paying for our four-room apartment on the edge of town," said Guy, her husband, in Paris we'd be living in a place the size of this living room, and that would be generous."

- Not crowded. "It's not like London where everything is completely overcrowded. You can get around. You can take your children everywhere."

- Language-afinity. "When I came here, I assumed everyone was going to be very… well, German. Unfriendly. Rude. Cold. But the exact opposite is true. Everyone is cheerful and helpful. Germans make great neighbors."

- English. She doesn't speak any German, but that doesn't matter. Almost everyone speaks English, and if they don’t, someone within hearing range will, and will offer his or her services. "The down side of that is that I'm not learning the language, which I did when we lived in Paris, because the French refuse to speak English with you. But the Germans are just friendlier."

- Cosmopolitan. Her husband and I were debating whether Berlin is cosmopolitan or not. He said it's not, compared to London, New York and Paris. "You don’t get that electricity, the bustle," he said. He's a correspondent for a major news agency. "When we have a press conference at the Chancellery, we walk over a couple of blocks, go past one guard, through one metal detector, and we're sitting there with the Chancellor. In Washington, it would take hours of frisking and ID-checking. Everything is smaller –too small for a major European capitol. We call it Toy Town."

In favor of cosmopolitanism, his wife mentioned the language: Everyone speaks English. That's more cosmopolitan than Paris. Not to mention that Germany is a major world exporter – that mans most Germans have contact with the outside world, much more even than other countries. That's true, said her husband, but Berlin doesn't act like it. And the world doesn't notice it. "When we write a trans-European piece, with elements in it from different countries, we try our best to put a London dateline on it, to make it look like it's out of London. If it's out of London, the newspapers of the world will pick it up. If it's out of Berlin, they won't."

That may be changing, he said. "Things changed when Berlin hosted the World Cup in 2006," said Guy. "Everyone came to Berlin and war surprised how things had changed. Berlin was much more worldly, much more hospitable, much more modern than it had been before. Of course what they really mean by that is: Berlin is much different than they had thought it was, from cliches and rumors, because most of these people had never been here before and were surprised to find such a modern, hospitable city. Now they have gone home and told people about it and the image is changing."

"You know the English," said Sarah. "You mention Germany to them and they talk about the war. They don't think a single good thing about Germany. We have a good friend who is very much like that: He hates Germany. But he came to the World Cup and now he's completely changed his opinion. He won’t let you say a single bad thing about the Germans."

There you have it. If the English say it, it must true.

And that's exactly what I'm going to tell them in Boston when I speak at the Goethe Institute on April 25 and 26.

And I'll probably end up telling the Berliners that too, when I return about a week later for a reading at the Kreuzberg Book Night on May 5 at about 6pm in the Max and Moritz.

It's a good message. Gotta tell the world.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Underestimating America

Underestimating America has a long tradition in Germany (and in Europe in general). There is a general pooh-poohing, patronizing attitude that inspires Germans to assume that America could never do – nor would be interested in getting involved in – all the wonderful things Europe does. Germany underestimated America in World War I and, despite warnings from WWI veterans, did it again in WWII. We Americans on the other hand come across as uncultivated and disinterested in the world and people easily forget that once we decide to do something, we do it.

Is it happening again, right now?

Just as Europeans have a kind of privileged, entitled attitude toward culture and world politics that harks back to an earlier age that is long gone, Germans especially also have a natural superiority complex when it comes to the environment. Partly, it is justified. By some accounts, Germans are already now world leaders in the alternative energy markets, which arguably will become very important and very lucrative very soon. An of course they signed the Kyoto protocol, are getting close to fulfilling the stipulations, and they separate their garbage, all of which are at least morally correct.

That's all they need, and already Germans are talking about how green energy and environment is going to be the next big world economic segment that they will naturally dominate. Like they dominate the car business and many high-tech arenas. "Soon we will be known for cars, beer… and green!"

But they may have competition. Recently, more and more innovate green things have been happening in the US. Small but cool projects like "The Year of no Impact" and the San Francisco Compact movement (and here).

The more the conservative movement loses its credibility, mainly due to Iraq, the more the Green becomes interesting. The Al Gore film wouldn't have been a hit a few years ago, and neither would have hybrid cars in Hollywood. Burger King recently announced it would start buying eggs and pork from suppliers that did not confine their animals in cages and crates. In this week's New York Times Magazine, Thomas Friedman predicts that green will be America' next big thing. Interestingly, though Friedman is fairly well-versed in things international, nowhere in his long article does he mention German domination of the environmental market. Has he not noticed it, or are the Germans simply exaggerating their head start?

Some of the New American Green may be wishful thinking on the part of the left. But don't underestimate America's tendency to go from one extreme to the other: If people hate Bush and the Iraq War enough, they will swing all the way back to the left. That's what happened during and after Vietnam, and that's where Greenpeace and the health food movement came from, which, by the way, inspired to a large extent the German Green movement.

Is the German environment market ready for competition for the US?

Right now, Germany is heading the green market because there isn't all that much competition out there. But the question is: can they hold their lead when the competition gets tough? And believe me, if America goes green, the competition can get tough.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I'm Wearing My Aloha Shirt Today for Don Ho

Hawaii's last icon is dead.

Don Ho was an interesting phenomenon. In the 50's he was Hawaii's Frank Sinatra, he even had a little Hawaiian Rat Pack. Then in the seventies he was the embodiment of kitsch. He should have disappeared, like a one-hit wonder, but he didn't - he was and remained a Waikiki Hotel Staple. His sheer staying-power convinced everyone to love him. Soon even the scoffers and detractors loved him. When he underwent a major operation a few years ago and returned to the stage afterwards, everyone came out of the woodwork to play with him and praise him. He was a Hawaiian boy, a local, but at the same time he was the Icon That Didn't Go Away. You have to admire a guy like that, and everyone did. (Read stories in the Star-Bulletin and Honolulu Advertiser; photo above courtesy of New York Times.)

Now he's gone, and Hawaii has no more icons. There was Duke Kahanamoku the surfer, then Don Ho the Tiny Bubbles man, then Hawaii 5-0 and Magnum, and that was it. They're all gone now. People like Obama and Jack Johnson were just passing through, they're tourists. What is Hawaii with an icon? It's like America without Hollywood or Germany without beer. Hawaii needs a new icon.

But who can fill an Aloha shirt like his?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Grave Misunderstanding of Elfriede Jelinek and of Germanoculture

Nobel Prize-winning Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek's novel "Greed" has been translated into English and was promptly ripped to shreds by the New York Times.

The reviewer, Joel Agee, found no redeeming value in the book, no sense of humanity or story, no humor, certainly no warmth, no artistry, only a dour, depressing hatred of self and of the world in general.

I say: That's all true, but what's wrong with it? To call all that stuff bad is to basically misunderstand Jelinek. That is her art. She's not a novelist or an artist in the Anglo-American sense, she's a very specifically Germanic kind of artist, which is to say, she's a complainer. In the German-speaking world, complaint is an art. She is the natural successor to that all-time great (and, once you wrap your mind around the idea of complaining as art) opinion very funny Austrian complainer-novelist-playwright Thomas Bernhard (who actually deserved the Nobel). Her Nobel Prize was not really a Novel Prize for Literature, it was the world's first Nobel Prize for Complaining. Jelinek once said in an interview that her books are, in her view, funny. It's a humor you can only understand if you understand German culture: It's funny because she is spouting utter nonsense. Once you figure out that it's utter nonsense and that you are taking it as seriously as she's taking herself, you're in on the joke.

With all her radical rejection of the social world she lives in, right down to human sexuality in general (hell, he rejects everything, she rejects life itself, that's impressive in itself), Jelinek isn't really trying to say something, nor is she creating art, she's just shooting her mouth off, which in the German world is an accepted intellectual activity. No one expects her rants to change anything or even to communicate anything – they are just rants, and you read them to get that shiver of agreement: "Yes, that's right, if you look at it long enough, everything's shit." Then you can go on with your life.

To us Americans – in fact, to most of the outside world except, clearly, for a few Swedes – this I simply self-defeating behavior and is not comprehensible to us in any way, but it's how Germans (and Austrians) have been hanging on to their self-respect for the last 60 years.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Rich Ripping Off the Rich

Big scandal in Hawaii! When I first read about it, I was outraged. It's a scam being put on in plain sight. And what's worse – the most outrageous thing about it – it is politically correct! It looks like charity, but is really the work of the devil!

Here's how it works: The Japanese real estate tycoon and multi-millionaire Genshiro Kawamoto recently bought up a handful of villas in Hawaii' richest neighborhood, Kahala, and promptly let them just sit there and rot or a few years. Now, he' doing something – he's pulling a spectacular media stunt by letting eight poor native Hawaiian families live in those villas rent-free for ten years. (Read about it in the New York Times and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.)

But what looks like a big charity thing is of course just the opposite: This is almost certainly a gamble to push down the high Kahala real estate values so he can by up more plots. The unemployed tenants will most likely drive down the prices. The poor people of Hawaii are just being used (of course, rent-free is still rent-free, so it's not like they have any big disadvantages). (Real estate in Hawaii has always been very attractive to Japanese investors – most of the big hotels belong to Japanese). It's a bald-faced scam that really makes your blood boil for about five minutes. Then you realize:

1) Kahala residents are not exactly helpless. If they were, they wouldn't be living where they're living now. If the rich folks at Kahala are smart, they'll band together and do something – either they'll take the issue to court or, if that doesn't work, get the poor people who have moved in good jobs and cheap landscaping help so the houses are upkept and the prices stay high.

2) This is not about normal folks like you and me. The people who might lose money are just as rich as Kawamoto. This is a war among the rich. I say: let the rich kill each other off. That's fine with me.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Real Hula Starting Today

Most people in the world make fun of hula, but in Hawaii and other parts of the world, it is still taken seriously. If you want to see real hula, check out the upcoming Merrie Monarch Festival.

It starts Thursday and ends Sunday, in Hilo on the Big Island. Groups from all over the Pacific - including, usually, Japan - will compete in various categories, from group dances to traditional dances in traditional costumes to single-woman dances "Miss Aloha." "Merrie Monarch" refers to King Kalakaua, who, in the 19th century, tried to re-institute or reserve some Hawaiian customs that had been forgotten or were the the process of dying, from hula to slack key guitar.

You can follow the festival online at: (live online-broadcast from 6 pm pacific time each night - that's 4 in the morning German time!)

and on

(photos courtesy of Honolulu Star-Bulletin)

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Beautiful South Sea Islanders Are Back!

After a brief pause, the Berlin-based Polynesian Cultural Association PolyCult has reformed as is up and running, with a new website ( and various plans to finally teach those stodgy Berliners how to hula.

I joined up just to be able to hang around with beautiful Tongans and Tahitians, as in this photo. There aren't many Polynesians in Berlin, but if you want to meet the few who live here, check out the new website and attend the events that will be posted in the coming weeks and months. Maybe they will teach you to hula.

Friday, April 06, 2007

How I Met Tile Kolup

The movie "Hoax" with Richard Gere is coming out in the States now and reading about it makes me think of Tile Kolup. As a coincidence, last week I had the chance of a lifetime - to read in Wetzlar, Tile's home town, or at least the town of his glory and death. "Hoax" is about one of the most ballsy scams in history – in the early seventies, a down and out writer named Clifford Irving conspired to fake the autobiography of the reclusive eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes. Irving claimed he had access to Hughes and his book became a huge sensation. What Irving was thinking I not quite clear – Hughes was still alive and would surely catch wind of his "autobiography." Then of course it cam as it must come – Hughes made a call to the publisher and the gig was up. What fascinates me about it is the sheer ballsiness – of was it stupidity – of making so stupid a claim. When the Germans published the fake diaries of Hitler, Hitler was at least dead and couldn’t pop up and say, "Uh… they're not my diaries." That didn't seem to bother Irving in the least. Tile Kolup fascinates me for the same reason. Tile was a nobody in the high Middle Ages who suddenly claimed he was in fact the famous and loved emperor Frederick II. As chance may have it, Frederick II had been dead for many years and everyone knew it. Didn’t bother Tile. He was so good (and apparently fit into local politics so well) that he convinced entire cities that he really was the (dead) emperor: In Neuss and in Wetzler. His "rule" in Wetzlar lasted a year before the ruling emperor besieged the city and forced them to deliver Tile to him. He ended up burned at the stake. (Irving only got 5 years in jail and is today an established novelist). I just hope Tile made the best of that year at the very top. It was my love of Tile that made a guy in Wetzlar named Henner take notice of me (most photos here are his), and last week he and the bookstore Buchhandlung an der Lahnbrücke invited me to give a reading out of "Planet Germany" there. Thus I finally got to know the town of Wetzlar and its people – who are, as they apparently were in the Middle Ages, an extremely hospitable and friendly people who really made me feel at home. I would go back there to read anytime.

And the best part was: Finally I got to see Tile Kolup's gravesite.