Saturday, June 30, 2007



Not the country, the restaurant in the Kreutzberg section of Berlin. It's called "Austria," which is the English version of "Osterreich." B and I made our way there on the U-Bahn our first night in town.

The restaurant features down home Austrian specialties, like schweinbraten (sliced roast pork) and Wiener schnitzel (sliced breaded veal). The portions were definitely "bigger than your head" -- the Wiener schnitzel was spread over the extra-large dinner plate like a medium-pizza sized relief map of a fictional land mass. The leftovers provided dinner at the apartment the next night.

You probably would not hear or say "sauerkraut" and "to die for" in the same breath back in the States, but in "Austria" it was just that. Not really sour at all, but more of a sweetish, oaky flavor emphasizing the caraway. B, who has recently come to be persuaded that sauerkraut carries healthy digestive qualities (something about enzymes that are hard to find in other foods), couldn't get enough of it, and we have agreed to begin a monthlong quest for the world's finest sauerkraut. We're in the right place, I suppose.

Central Europe has an extremely laden, entangled, multi-layered history, and Berlin is very much at the center of that in the past 150 years. When you think about it, Western history in first half of the 20th Century can be understood largely as a series of responses to decisions taken in Berlin. And Berlin was the symbolic center of the Cold War that dominated the century's second half.

Here, in the quaintly old-fashioned, wood paneled restaurant Austria, B and I (a German- and a Jewish- American) wondered aloud what to do with our excess of food while the diners at the next table, who had been conversing in Hebrew, asked the German waiter, in English, for a doggie bag.

"Why did they ask in English?" I wondered outside the restaurant. The woman who spoke seemed old enough to be a Yiddish speaker who could have made herself understood in German.

Later that night, in Alan Furst's Dark Star, I read this passage:
Szara's German was that of someone who'd spoken Yiddish as a child, and the civilian, a security type, made clear that he knew Szara was a Jew, a Polish Jew, a Soviet Boshevik Jew of Polish origin. He probed efficiently through Szara's traveling bag without removing his black gloves, then examined press and travel documents, and when he was done, stamped the passport with a fat swastika in a circle and handed it back politely. Their eyes met for just a moment: this business they had with each other would be seen to in the future, that far they could agree.

Friday, June 29, 2007


Berlin Redux: the deeper significance

Last time, we visited Berlin over two long weekends in May and June of 2005, and fell for the city. This time, our approach is very different.

We've rented an apartment from friends who used to live here, and with the "friend" rental rate, the cost of living here for a month is roughly the same as it would have been for a week in a good hotel.

The idea this time is to dig a little deeper into this city, and to use it as a base for excursions to other destinations in and outside of Germany.

There will be hours of hanging out in cafes, reading, writing, coping with second-hand smoke. Here's what I'll be reading:

514BQD9EYZL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-dp-500-arrow,TopRight,45,-64_OU01_AA240_SH20_ 51ZhB4tj6ZL._SS500_


The readily apparent theme is Berlin "noir" in the WWII era. This visit is about soaking up "atmosphere," and perhaps to a large degree the fictional atmosphere of an imagined past. I find myself staring hard at the ubiquitous photographs of pre-War Berlin.

As for the present, not a whole lot to report yet. We arrived 48 hours ago, but I was so slammed by jet lag -- following a sleepless night on the plane and a determination to stay up until 10 p.m. the first night -- that I've been in a fog the whole time. I got out of bed 2:00 p.m. yesterday and 11:00 a.m. today. And I had a headache the whole time, perhaps because I was avoiding coffee in a vain attempt to ward off sleeplessness.

You always hear about people in our country who claim to fly over to Europe for long weekends. How do they do it?


Where are the photos???

After two years of reliable service, my "card reader" has finally gone "on the fritz." Ironic, since now I will depend on Fritz to repair or replace it.

The card reader is essentially a floppy disk drive that plugs into a USB port. It's the size of a double-wide flash drive (aka thumb drive, USB key, etc.), and the "floppy disks" are miniature 512 mb cards that fit into my Nikon digital. It only cost $25, and seems so flimsy that I should count myself lucky it lasted this long. Why it couldn't have broken down a couple of days before I left on my trip, I don't know.

So I can't upload photos for another day or two. Stand by....


The Mystery Revealed


Clue #1: passport required
Clue #2: George Clooney (The Good German) and Matt Damon (The Bourne Supremacy)
Clue #3: that last post with Google in German.

I'm sitting with B in Kaffee Einstein on Friederichstrasse, where they offer really good coffee and free WiFi. This would be perfect except that we are being pounded -- pounded -- by cigarette smoke. This will necessarily shorten my blog post.

Yesterday, I blogged briefly from our old haunt, the Starbucks at Hackesher Markt. I make no apologies for going to Starbucks, even Starbucks in Germany, for two reasons. First, I've gotten over my "Starbucks is heinous" thing. I take back nothing negative I've ever said about Starbucks. I just feel I've had my say and now I'm moving on -- which includes getting coffee there from time to time.

Second, and more importantly here in Europe, Starbucks offers a smoke-free environment. Sometimes a person needs coffee sans cigaretten.

The problem, once again, is internet access in Europe, a subject that I've blogged about before. (See here and here and other blog posts from May-June 2005). Although I've been teased about this, the topic is very interesting to bloggers and web surfers traveling in Europe, believe me.

Since there's no internet access at the apartment we're staying in, I'm once again an internet refugee, carrying my laptop around in my backpack in an ongoing quest for (preferably free) WiFi. Starbucks, in its squeeze-every-dime-of-profit way, is joint ventured with T-Mobile (here, T-Punkt) just like in the states. Though at Hackesher Markt's Starbucks, B's was able to free-ride another local wifi signal on her iMac.

On the itinerary of possible internet access points: Berlin Public Library!

Thursday, June 28, 2007


Oskar Madison hat gesagt

So says my blogger comment function. Just getting online in Germany for the first time, I haven't figured out how to translate my Google-based functions back to English. Can't remember from last time.

(I exaggerated only sligtly -- it didn't translate "Oscar" to "Oskar" -- but otherwise, all the framing language is German.)

We'll talk again soon!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Airline regulations

Swiss International Air Lines has a colorful set of baggage regulations that invites you to visualize your fantasy life as a sophisticated world traveler.
  • Your fishing equipment is 120 cm long.
    Small sports equipment up to a length of 150 cm, e.g. wakeboards and body boards, can be checked in without prior information. SWISS recommends suitable packaging.

  • You are a wine connoisseur and always carry your own cork screw in your hand baggage.
    Cork screws come under the valid international regulations for ‘dangerous objects’. Please carry your cork screw and many
    other objets in your checked-in baggage only. All dangerous objects will be confiscated by airport security.

  • The two of us always go on holidays with our tandem bicycle.
    If you pack your bike into a hard-shell container, cardboard box or plastic bag with a size of 162 x 92 x 24 cm, it can be transported as
    sports baggage.
On a more-applicable-to-me note, Swiss Air restricts carry-on luggage to a single 8 kilo (17.6 lbs) item. Except that:
In addition to the hand baggage, the following items are allowed on board if necessary (except infants)
  • 1 coat or blanket
  • 1 umbrella or walking stick
  • 1 ladies’ handbag
  • 1 small camera or 1 set of binoculars
  • reading for the journey
I like referring to the flight as a "journey" -- very poetic. But questions remain: for example, may I carry a "ladies handbag"? Why not, I say? How "small" is a "small camera" -- pocket sized, or just not a honkin' videographer's case? Can the "walking stick" be a sword cane? (I'm guessing "no" to that one.) And how much "reading for the journey" qualifies as "necessary"?

And what about this:
Irrespective of the booking class, SWISS defines 1 piece of hand baggage as 55 x 40 x 20 cm and up to 8 kg - plus a laptop or hand bag.
My problem is that I have a single knapsack weighing in at 22-23 lbs. If they are really strict about these regulations, I'm prepared to whip out a sturdy plastic bag and place inside it:
Will they make me go through that charade? It seems to punish me for packing efficiently.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


Customer satisfaction (sort of)

It's a strange sort of customer satisfaction when you feel like the company rendered good service yet you end up without having purchased anything from them. But that's where I find myself.

It all began a couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C. I had an afternoon to kill, and decided to shop for a new suit near my hotel, at Men's Wearhouse.

The last suit I bought was from Men's Wearhouse. I like that suit: it was reasonably priced and I've gotten a lot of use out of it despite a tailoring job that left something to be desired. True to the definition of insanity, I returned to Men's Wearhouse thinking that by doing the same thing again, I'd have a different outcome.

The people who work at Men's Wearhouse are good salesmen. They make you feel good about your suit, and you end up buying a bunch of ties to go with it. I came within inches of also signing up for their "frequent buyer" program which, in return for a 10% discount after every $500 of clothes buying (i.e., $50), I would sign up for a world of pain in terms of junkmail and email solicitations. But I was in the sort of zombie consumer zone you get into at the end of buying a car, when they try to sell you Scotch Guard for an extra thousand bucks. Men's Wearhouse salesmen could sell cars.

The problem with buying suits off the rack is that they are sized for fat guys. If you buy a size 44 jacket, the pants that come with it will have a 38-inch waist. This is called a "spread" of 6 (44 minus 38 = 6) and it assumes a middling sized beer belly. I'm no male model or anything, but I'm reasonably fit and require a "spread" of about 9, meaning that the pants I get off the rack are 3 inches too big. That's a lot.

To reduce pants by 3 inches at my size is not a simple matter of "taking in" at the waste. I'm not a tailor, but my understanding is that the pants really need to be reconstructed. A "take in at the waist" alteration of 3 inches -- basically, undoing the back seam, trimming some fabric there, and redoing it tighter -- screws up the pants badly. The waistband forms a nasty "V" in the back, the butt doesn't fit, the side pockets get pulled back toward the back of your thighs, and the pants creases wind up pointing outward at 10 and 2 o'clock rather than straight ahead. This is quick and dirty alteration. I know this because I've had it done.

Whoever altered my last Men's Wearhouse suit dealt with the problem by the simple expedient of not reducing the waist size enough. Instead of being 3 inches too big, the pants are 2 inches too big.

When I raised this issue with the tailor at the Washingotn, DC Men's Wearhouse (18th Street just above Farragut Square, for the record), he snapped: "I'm a tailor, not a seamstress." Okay -- no problem!

I wasn't going to be in Washington long enough to wait for the alterations, but they assured me it was no problem. They'd ship me the suit and I could take it to the local Men's Wearhouse in My Home Town to get free pressing and any tweaking of the alterations I needed.

That the suit arrived four days late after a series of phone inquiries -- they had obviously forgotten to ship it -- was annoying, but they were good about overnighting it once they realized their mistake. That the suit has half a dozen mysterious black sticky spots on jacket and pants was bothersome, but let's assume for the sake of argument those would have come out.

The big problem is what I would call "The Worst Tailoring Job I Have Ever Seen." Weirdly, the pants wound up both two inches too big at the waist, and yet excessively "taken in" at the back. The fit was so bad I'd think Men's Wearhouse should pay me not to wear it because of the negative advertizing. Let me show you one angle:


Basically, the tailor completely added this stylish butt crack that hadn't been there when I tried them on. This was only the most serious of several fit problems, both with the pants and jacket.

The purchase receipt for the pants states a "complete satisfaction money-back guarantee," and I decided that I would not go through the hassle of testing the ability of the local Men's Wearhouse tailor to fix the problems. As I drove to the store, I imagined various arguments I'd have, with the store manager demanding that I try the suit on to demo the flaws and then trying to sell me on letting them try to fix it.

But when I arrived, they gave me a full refund, no questions asked. I had worked myself up into enough of a pitch of anxiety, that this courteous honoring of the satisfaction guarantee gave me a feeling of great... well, satisfaction.

Let's add up the total experience. On the plus side, smooth salesmanship. On the minus side, bad follow-up service with dreadful tailoring. On the plus side, great customer relations in giving the refund.

I still could use a suit, and there's a couple of hours I'll never get back. But I'm not out any money, and when I got my refund, I felt great! So in a strange way, my Men's Wearhouse experience has made me happy.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Stay tuned for travel blogging!

Some of my readers like my travel blogging best. I may like my travel blogging best.

Well, great news! Some big time travel blogging is on the horizon, starting Tuesday of next week.

I can't tell you where I'm going until I get there. If I did, I'd have to kill you.

Oh, what the heck.

Clue # 1: passport required.

Clue #2: George Clooney and Matt Damon.

-- Oscar Madison, IMM (International Man of Mystery)

Monday, June 18, 2007


Fame inflation

To be culturally literate, it's seeming more and more like you have to know who the top contenders are on American Idol. That sort of thing comes up more often in conversations and crossword puzzle clues.

I have no interest in ever watching American Idol or knowing anything about the winners.

I have no interest in knowing that Paris Hilton is a person rather than a hotel, though even I can't avoid hearing about her latest travails -- She's going to jail! She's not! She's going to appeal! She's dropped her appeal! She's in jail! She's out! She's in again! She cried!

The problem is this: it used to be that you could wait them out, and they'd be gone, these fad people, these human Pet Rocks.

But what used to be 15 minutes of fame has expanded to 20 -- and counting.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Suicide Watch

The new (third) season of Top Chef began this past Wednesday, and looks like it will be entertaining as ever. The first guy eliminated was Clay, a Mississippian who asserted that he would bring southern-style cooking as well as entertaining southern personality to the table.

His rap about being entertaining had a bit of a forced, anxious quality, as if he were trying to make an argument to the show's producers to keep him even after he bombed the initial "quickfire" challenge. The chief judge, Chef Tom Colicchio, has asserted in the past that the entertainment value of the contestants is not a factor in the judges decisions, and, strange as it may sound, I believe him. Clay was obviously out of his league in terms of cooking know-how, and the only concern I had about his elimination is that he told us that his father, too, had been a chef, and had committed suicide. Uh-oh.

As I've said before, I find Colicchio charming, in his gruff way, and feel that he brings a measure of integrity to the show. He seems to really know his stuff about food and how to run a restaurant. So it was with very high hopes and a strong willingness to be pleased that B and I visited two of his New York eateries: last summer, his sandwich place, 'Wichcraft; and last month, his informal bistro, Craftbar.

I really enjoyed the upscale sandwich fare at 'Wichcraft, but Craftbar was a different story. The afternoon before our dinner at 'Craftbar, B and I had a portentous celebrity sighting on a Soho streetcorner near our hotel: Dave, one of the near-finalists of Top Chef season one, of all people! This was the whiner whose claim to fame was his supposed "invention" of the verbal smackdown, "I'm not your b*tch, b*tch," which he claimed was so damned original and clever that he wanted to market it on a T-shirt.

I suppose an occupational hazard of being a celebrity food judge is that Colicchio's own patrons will seat themselves at an imaginary "judges' table" when they sit down to a meal at his restaurants. I know I kept thinking -- what would Colicchio say about this if one of the Top Chef contestants made it?

The dinner opened promisingly with perhaps the best breadsticks I've ever had (I usually don't even bother to eat breadsticks), and menu descriptions that sounded very appetizing. From there it went downhill. Not disastrously downhill, but kind of a slowly building roll down a gentle slope.

Our two appetizers -- a homemade sausage and a fried tofu thingy -- sounded great in the menu. But while the flavors were interesting, the texture and presentation were odd -- kind of like fish sticks on a bare plate, with no garnishes for the eye. What's more, both items were too dry and "needed something." That something was supplied in the form a tasty dipping sauce, but the amount of dipping sauce provided -- less than a tablespoon it seemed -- was incredibly stingy, and when we asked for more, they said "no"!

For a main course, I ordered braised short ribs. Usually, you get this sort of thing in a thick, carmelized gravy, but the dish arrived in soup dish sitting in a pool of thin broth. The overall effect was something between a soup and a watery stew -- the strangest thing. I couldn't help thinking that Colicchio would have gone nuts (in a bad way) had a Top Chef contestant served up this dish.

One last thing about the Colicchio restaurants is that there seems to be something weird going on in terms of personnel management. Maybe it was just random -- two instances is not that many on which to judge, really -- but both at 'Wichcraft and Craftbar, we witnessed some service, uh, issues.

At 'Wichcraft, things seemed to be going okay behind the counter until the store manager had a meltdown and reamed out one of the line workers in plain view and hearing of the customers. An awkward moment.

At Craftbar, the service swung between friendliness and formality. This is understandable, since it must be devilishly hard to please everybody on that score: formal and obsequious service makes people like me uncomfortable, while other patrons want that. But the service also veered strangely between overattentiveness -- constantly refilling the waterglass, or wiping crumbs, or asking to clear plates that were not quite done -- and making you feel sort of ignored and small: a long wait to catch a waiter's attention for our ultimately denied request for more sauce, for example.

And I had to laugh (while gritting my teeth) when the waiter, bending over to flirt with the two women dining at the next table, kept his hand on the back of my chair to brace himself. This lasted for a couple of minutes. (What should I have said to the waiter... "Get your hands off my chair, b*tch?")

Whatever the cause, the overarching vibe I get from his restaurants is feeling vaguely uncomfortable, like I'm waiting for something else to go wrong. Is this random, or is there something about Colicchio's personality filtering down to his staff?

Actually, in Episode One of the new season of Top Chef, the less likeable side of Colicchio's personality emerged. Instead of just focusing on Clay's food preparation, he kept harping on the fact that Clay initially said "I stand by my dish," but then admitted there were cooking shortcomings to it. As if to say, "you're not just a bad cook, you're also a wimp." Boy will he feel bad if Clay ... well, let's not go there.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


Don't be one of these

Two days in a row, the NYT crossword puzzle has had the word "hater" (today, "haters"). Today, the clue was "bigots."

I couldn't finish today's puzzle, of which I was a major hater. I don't know which word I found inaner, "hater" or 53-across ("inaner").

Don't be like me. Don't be a hater. Have a nice day.

Monday, June 04, 2007



I've been a frequent and irrascible commentator on the Baby Boomers, that demographic bulge that came just before me and got in on all the good stuff while the getting was still good: the real estate boom, the stock market boom, Woodstock tickets.

I’ve watched in mixed amusement and horror as the Boomers have aged into middle and late-middle age, while their media machine has desperately tried to make those phases of life into grandiose and sexy marketing opportunities.

Here are some trends and things to look out for in the next 10-20 years as the baby boomers, now in their early 60s, cross over into old age.
There is, of course, an up-side to the baby-boomers’ relentless pursuit of the good life. And I don’t just mean inheriting their money when they die. Baby boomers may actually fix some of the broken societal attitudes and institutions surrounding old age: nursing homes, the Social Security system, neglect and abuse of the elderly in general. Bless them and god speed. That’s something that could really benefit all of us.

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