On Wall and Currywurst

berlin1My feature on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the 60th anniversary of the rise of Currywurst) is published today in the Globe&Mail. It was a hard one to write mostly because it is such a dense and telling tale. I   visited Berlin a few months after it happened and the images that still stick was of children playing in the watchtowers and the big bales of collected barbwire —  forming  5-10  meter high tumbleweeds of rusting iron. So anyway  I had to leave a lot of wacky facts out of the article in the name of readability. Luckily I have no such constraints here. Oh, and if you want more on ostalgia just check out my previous  Globe&Mail feature on the 15th anniversary….

berlin2Funniest story I heard was from my esteemed hosts Mr and Mrs Cameron (who have been living the revolution in Mitte quite a few years now…)  who told me of a group of West Berlin friends who  found a hole in the wall and went for a look in East Berlin. When they returned they found the hole had been closed up — they were stuck! But luckily, for them the Wall properly fell the next day.

There are a few tricks for the visitor to  differentiate between former East and West halves. East Berlin has much more animated and jaunty figures in their crosswalk lights. Linguists now also know that it just takes 29 years, the time the wall existed, for distinct dialects to develop.

By 1980 an estimated 100,000 West Berliners were living life in a subculture — via cafes, communes, squats and generally radical lefty politics. (Today the most affluent of this generation support some of the largest organic supermarkets in Europe.)

You know you are buying an authentic GDR postcard by its flimsiness — and by the fact that you are overcharged for it.

And in the world of currywurst:


I had some earlier thoughts on sausage. The mighty currywurst is apparently called the “white trash plate” in Cologne and Dusseldorf but “chancellor’s plate” in Hannover. Also interesting: Gerhard  Schroeder was known as the “currywurst chancellor”.  And Volkswagon developed their own recipe  that can only be bought in factory canteens. In 1982, the singer Herbert Groenemeyer sang passionately of his nightly desires for the mighty wurst  (this YouTube clip is not for the queasy of stomach but boy does Herbert sing from the heart).

berlin4Now for something completely different:

After all that heavy street food (especially since you’ll also have to pay tribute to the Turk, Mahmut Aygun, who invented the now universal Doner Kebab here in 1972), there’s nothing like Japanese noodles. Cocolo (Gipsstrasse 3, 0172 3047584, ) serves some of the best Japanese noodle soup on the planet. Owner Ollie not only cooks but also built everything — from the furnishings to the  service to the kitchen — from scratch. Inspiring! Also, Restaurant Schoenbrunn is a lovely and  fancy place to dine in Volkspark Friedrichshain. Aid digestion by climbing the  nearby hills which were  built from the debris of WWII.

For dessert, one can pop into a baker for a Berliner (more commonly known as a Pfannkuchen in Berlin itself), the pastry JFK accidentally referred to in his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech to half a million bewildered Berliners in 1963.

But  to conclude:
Mir ist alles Wurst!
Es geht um die Wurst!
Sei keine beleidigte Leber wurst!

Posted: October 24, 2009 at 10:16 am.


Ai ai ai Amsterdam

iamsterdamlogoonmoveThe local anti-vertrutting (“anti-frumpication”)  action group AI! Amsterdam,  who this summer successfully lobbied for the easing of terrace laws, has changed their logo after being threatened with legal action from the city since their  original logo was a  parody of  the I Amsterdam city marketing campaign. Hmm so not having a sense of humour is good for the city brand?

These are complicated times we live in. It was all much simpler back in the 1970s. To entice more people to visit Amsterdam all you had to do was put out some posters cajoling long-haired  American targets to “Fly KLM, sleep in the Vondelpark”. Word of mouth did the rest.

And then there was the tourist board’s Get In Touch With The Dutch campaign during the 1960s. This one just gets me all misty-eyed; those must have truly been the most innocent of times.

And for the last few years, it’s been I amsterdam. I can imagine it can work to help attract tourists and business.  I only start seeing red when  it peddles the  delusional idea that it also works to  unify regular Amsterdammers. It’s as if the local government  actually believes that culture is not a grassroots phenomena but rather something that can be shoved down  our throats from the top down.

OK, it’s easy to criticise. Marketing a city can’t be easy. I certainly can’t come up with anything better. “Ich bin ein Amsterdammertje” would probably generate the same confusion and controversy as JFK’s grammatical gaffe, “Ich bin ein Berliner”. And “Handy Airport. Lotsa Coffeeshops”, while appealing to both the business- and leisure-minded, lacks a certain elegance.

I think I’d just opt for golden oldies like ‘Amsterdamned’ or ‘Amsterdamaged’. I regard these  lines as way more effective ambassadors.  After all, the visiting dope smokers of today may just hold our city’s future in their hands. I figure it was mostly sentimental ex-hippies who invested in this city during the booming 1990s. They figured it would be a good excuse to come and visit a few times a year, and maybe recreate certain perfect relaxed coffeeshop moments from decades past. (And these investments  got the city thinking that they could get even more by  coming up with  that era’s  ho-hum city marketing ploys — “Gateway to Europe”   and “Capital of Inspiration” — that resulted in the building of lots of  new office space that today stands largely empty…).

Anyway… it was short-sighted to force  Ai! Amsterdam to change their logo. The city is losing  a perfect co-branding opportunity with a group that is both  grassroots and community-driven.

Posted: September 17, 2009 at 9:04 am.

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A Cesspool of Corruption

The Truth About Amsterdam, RE: Bill O\’Reilly loves Amsterdam

It’s nice when quality propaganda goes viral.

Posted: July 31, 2009 at 7:47 am.

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