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The (next-)best thing June 14, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

…about going out on a spontaneous, all-night, post-work-rush bender, during which you have to hold up your friend and he nuzzles into you, as if you are his mother, and he wants you to make it all better, and you feed him water, which he imbibes with slightly less grace than Knut might, and you feel 15 again and remember a bender, which has created victims, when one of your co-15-year-olds would suddenly become the authoritative one and recommend the drinking of milk and the Heimlich manoeuvre – Heimlich? What’s heimlich about it? We all know it exists. And is ‘manoeuvre’ the only word which is written differently in British English and American English in TWO whole places? – and your parents pop their heads out the bedroom door and you explain that your friend has eaten something exotic – like pasta – which his delicate, English, 15-year-old stomach couldn’t cope with, and they settle for that, oddly, and disappear back into their bedroom in their M&S dressing-gowns, but then you remember that you and your current piss-up friend aren’t in fact 15 and have a combined age of 80, is taking a long tram-journey home just as Berlin is coming to life first thing.

Now it might have been the booze talking, as it were, but the city seemed a triumph of… something. Can’t say will, obviously, though it is slightly the word I mean… erm, humanity at about 6 in the morning. I have lived in five cities, four of which might all well put World War II as their historical low-points. London for the blitz. St. Petersburg for the blockade. Paris for the humiliation. And Berlin for how it all could have happened. Perhaps Stoke-on-Trent suffered too. Paris and St. Petersburg survived the war largely in tact, of course. (Have folk read tales of St. Petersburg’s blockade? When the war-time equivalent of memos would go out advising people where nutrition was to be found? Such as in the glue holding up wallpaper?) London suffered galore. And Berlin was smashed to fuck.

Darlings, I’m free-associating here, and may be spouting bollocks, for a change, but it seemed to me, drunk(ish), at 6 in the morning, that London and Berlin went about rebuilding in different ways. London’s destruction was, no doubt, more here and there. And not of such scale. And I imagine reconstruction was done in a roll-your-sleeves-up, practical, get-on-with-it way. Whereas Berlin’s reconstruction seems to have had more politics involved. Yes, so the slum-clearances which came later in London were examples of (I’m guessing) war-prompted social engineering. And, of course, Berlin, with its mythologised Trümmerfrauen, has more than enough examples of its roll-your-sleeves-up, practical, get-on-with-it stories too. But after the war the UK was still the same country it had been, at least politically. Whereas Germany got another couple of generations’ worth of political upheaval.

BiB, what are you on about? In London, they built tower-blocks. In Berlin, they built tower-blocks. A tower-block is a tower-block is a tower-block. But why, when I see tower-blocks in London, do I think quickish, cheapish, not-taking-up-much-space housing, yet, in Berlin, do I think quickish, cheapish, not-taking-up-much-space housing but with a huge sociopolitical twist? In London, a house seems like a house. In Berlin, it seems like a project.

Not that history ended in the post-war period, of course. Change went on. And as the wall came down and the East became part of the West, it was again time to tinker with the post-war housing (of which there’s more over here, in the East, though there’s plenty in the West too). London upgrades its housing estates too. In a practical way. Security issues. Ugliness issues. Of course there’s regret at having gone down the high-rise route in some quarters. Little houses looked nice. People had streets rather than walkways. But then what hope is there of reversing such decisions so far down the line in a city as crowded and expensive as London? But social snobbery isn’t as acute in Berlin as it is in London. Yes, there’s a preference for the Altbauten, but it’s not the end of the world living in a post-war block of flats.

And trundling back through the East at 6 in the morning, through Friedrichshain, Lichtenberg, Weißensee (then Prenzlauer Berg and Pankow), it all seemed like the (perhaps drink-fuelled) triumph I alluded to earlier. Yes, you can’t get too visually excited by one tower-block after another. By parallelogram after parallelogram. But it was all so fucking pretty. The greyness is being airbrushed away. Greenness does its best where it’s allowed to. And it all looks tended to. Call it the nanny-state if you will. It somehow made what could all be an endless bleakscape warm and soften the hardened cockles of my heart.

And all the men out at 6am, bar those post-bender, are wearing workmen’s dungarees with holsters for tools. I fancied every single damned one of them.



1. Appy Linguist - June 15, 2007

Hee hee, I think I’m going to be the first to comment again!

So do beer goggles extend to buildings?

And if so, then why not? As long as you don’t start humping your nearest high-rise…

2. pleite - June 15, 2007

Beer goggles! I once tried to introduce the word Bierbrille to a German. He didn’t seem taken with it, though we had to discuss the phenomenon at length, of course. And we were drunk.

I don’t think my Bierbrille made individual buildings sexy. Just the whole ensemble. I still think Alexanderplatz is pretty ugly, mind. You going to come and visit it all soon? (Have you been before?)

3. Appy Linguist - June 15, 2007

March 2004. Stayed with friend in East Berlin. Changed tram at Alex Platz. The one with a tower, right? Also saw R’tag, Bbgtor, Hacky Höfen (where I went mad in the Ampelmann shop) and lots of my beloved Ampelmännchen.

On my old blog I had a post entitled “I Fell in Love in Berlin” – all about the Ampelmann. I bought a T-shirt, lighter, mug and ‘Do not disturb’-style doorknob hanger thing, all due to my passion. I don’t think that thing’s his arm, though, I have to add!

Have plans to visit, but not till August, alas.

4. pleite - June 15, 2007

He does look rather aroused at times, there’s no denying it.

Ooh, you were here in March 2004. Did you go out on the scene? I must have hypnotherapy to see if I chatted with any visiting Englishmen at the time. And where were you staying? Were we neighbours? Did you like the place? (Yup, Alex is the one with the TV tower.)

5. Appy Linguist - June 15, 2007

Only two or three days, visiting German friend. Can’t remember the name of the street/area. The buildings were grey and ugly…

Forgot to mention I also saw the wall, of course. Erm, it’s a wall.

One evening briefly on the scene with German friend (female, straight). In a large café-style place, of the German/Swiss/Austrian variety. Crap for going out alone, I imagine.

Aim to go out in Stuttgart this weekend. Have only briefly seen a couple of places in Stuttgart while I was living in Swabby G.

Have bet with flatmate (straight male, 28). We both live life of a monk. Who’ll put an end to that first? There’s a pizza riding on it!

6. pleite - June 15, 2007

The Berlin gay scene is rubbish. But maybe that’s just because I’m getting old. There are plenty of venues, but few inspire.

Mmm, pizza.

7. Blonde at Heart - June 15, 2007

A brilliant piece! Makes you want to visit both Berlin and London in 6am and see the difference for yourself.

Where are you going to be July 22nd-25th?

8. pleite - June 15, 2007

HERE! Why, are you popping over? (Although I hope you wouldn’t dutifully think you were only allowed out onto the street at 6am (and then go to London on alternate days to compare).) Annie will be in Berlin for some of that time too. Come, come, come. בית שלי בית שלך, or something like that.

9. Karl-Marx-Straße - June 15, 2007

I think it says a lot about the difference between England and Germany when it’s (still! how long have you, or I lived here?) something to get worked up about (in whatever way) when you see people going to work. Proper, (what they probably used to call “men’s”) work. With tools and overalls (Blaumänner) and related contraptions. But that also explains why every shopping parade and high street here has at least one Berufsbekleidungsladen and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of the things in the UK.

10. pleite - June 15, 2007

Karl, I wanted you to leap in and I was preparing myself to be totally sanguine about you telling me I was talking out-and-out bollocks. But, yes, really, all the men seemed to be going off to do jobs-with-names. Electricians. Plumbers. Builders. Welders. Not a consultant – OK, that’s a job with a name too – or freelance translator in sight. If I’d been a couple of hours later, perhaps I’d have seen some of them too.

We have a Berufsbekleidungsladen round the corner from us, on our ‘high street’. I’ve always thought it would be the place to go when I’m invited to a fancy-dress party.

11. Karl-Marx-Straße - June 15, 2007

Generally, if you get the tube a few hours later, you see the same builders on their way home, drinking cheap-ish beer from the bottle, like they do when they’re at work anyway. “No boots. No helmet. No job.” I think not. Not in Germany.

The advantage of the Berufsbekleidungsläden is that their clothes don’t fall to bits immediately, quite unlike anything you might get (these days for similar prices) in H&M. And they sometimes throw in a pair of thick winter socks for free as well, you know, for when doing that building in those colder winter months.

12. Blonde at Heart - June 15, 2007

Actually, I will be in Paris on those days (this is the plan, at least).

13. Appy Linguist - June 15, 2007

In Denmark the colour of the boiler suit reveals the profession, but I can’t remember which colour stands for which job. Is that the same here, or are they all blue?

14. Karl-Marx-Straße - June 15, 2007

Oh no, lots of different colours, Appy. Not related to the job. Opel has beige, and BMW blue. Same job though.

There is a colour-code when it comes to the hard-core courdroy stuff with funny zips and lots of buttons though. White: painter, beige: brickie, black: roofer, brown: carpenter, green: gardener. Or all of these colours: student.

One of my comments here has gone into comment-spam lingo. Why’s that?.

15. narrowback - June 15, 2007

in chicago over the past five years the local hosuing authority has spent more than a billion – yes – billion – to tear down all of the public housing tower blocks across the city. for a variety of reasons the concept was an abject failure here.

comparing the plattenbaus of berlin with the tower blocks of belfast and the high rise projects (yes, BiB we do call public/social housing “projects” in the states) in a number of u.s. cities I would say the Berlin, with some specific exceptions, comes in first in terms of relative aesthetic charm. (did I just use the term “charm” to describe a plattenbau? I must be working too much)

it’s definately the “tended to” appearance that makes the difference…

berlin was the site of many of the early attempts at social/public housing – long before the concept took root here. ever go check out the horseshoe estate out in britz?

my berliner friends had no difficulty in understanding the concept of “bierbrille”

16. pleite - June 15, 2007

Narrowback, thank you for that. It’s nice hearing it from a profesh. I haven’t been to that horseshoe estate at Britz but my beautiful friend, the beautiful friend (tbf), has a photo of it at his house so I’ve been made aware of it. (I wrote the word idea before I wrote project, but that seemed too wanky, so I edited it.) So what has Chicago done? Had most of the destroyed houses already been abandoned or has there been an enormous rehousing programme? And into what sort of housing, if so? In London, I think there’s been a policy, or at least cases, of thinning out what they call ‘sink estates’. Knocking down a few of the many tower bloks. Don’t know if it’s helped or not… And I’ll try again to get Bierbrille introduced into German dictionaries.

Appy, they are different colours, but I don’t know if that’s strict according to profession. Most seem blue, but I’ve seen white too, and of course the apprentice carpenters have their famous black dungarees (and floppy hat). The bits of East Berlin I went through all seemed like a working-class paradise on a sunny morning. Made me think of a pal of mine who worked on some arts project with children from some super-shit village in the Midlands. It had been a mining village in the past. She saw old photos of it all. All carefully tended-to flower-beds and civic pride back then. Now, as she said, the mine had gone and it was shit. Well, Berlin can’t be closed down, of course, and thank heavens for that, and it’s still a good mix of bits of doing-ok-ness and depression.

BaH, well, perhaps I wouldn’t find Berlin the working-class paradise it seemed through my Bierbrille if I’d just come back from Paris. I remember flying back from Barcelona a couple of years ago and, actually, seeing the tower blocks from the sky, and the fact that it was 20 degrees colder here than there, made it less than a warm welcome home. But then it’s always a love-hate relationship with the place I live.

17. pleite - June 15, 2007

Karl, I’ve just found your two comments. What the bugger were they doing in limbo? They didn’t even have links in them. My apologies. I wish there was a way of making commenters ‘friends’, as I can with my lovely spam detective which filters (out 99% of) my e-mail.

In any case, excellent info provided by you, as ever. So are the people with the funny black costumes and hat NOT trainee carpenters?

18. MountPenguin - June 15, 2007

Chaps in black may also be Schornsteinfeger, aka chimney sweeps, although the English word does not do justice to their trade. They have local sort-of-monopolies, and due to an increasing lack of chimneys-which-must-be swept they are also responsible for checking your gas boiler to see whether it’s environmentally friendly enough and / or likely to poison you with carbon monoxide.

19. pleite - June 15, 2007

I remember the good old days when we had gas. And I’ve got a feeling those chaps did come round once to check if everything was in order. Would they have also checked that bloody awful gamag heating that we used to have? I was sure that heating was giving me brain cancer, and it’s partly why we moved. Plus the brown was tricky. We painted ours, and then the heating no doubt gave us cancer and also let off poisonous paint fumes. If I lived in Indonesia, none of this would be an issue.

20. narrowback - June 15, 2007

being a planner made visiting the britz estate obligatory…i hit it on my second visit. amazing on how it has aged relatively gracefully while the hansaviertel has degenerated so…

Hmm how to answer your question(s) without generating the thesis for my next degree?

The program is known as Hope VI and has been just a controversial here as Hartz IV has been there.

Many of the tower blocks had become semi-abandoned by the mid 1990’s but they still housed several thousand people – both legitimate tenants and “others” – estimates ranged between 18,000 and 60,000. Because many of the sites for the replacement housing were the locations of the tower blocks many had to be vacated before the replacement housing was available. First controversy.

The tower blocks are being replaced with lower density projects and in several areas mixed in with what are called “market rate” – aka private sector – housing. The housing authority stated that all residents would be guaranteed one of the replacement units but only if they had been a legitimate tenant who was in compliance with lease/rules (such as paying your $35 per month rent). Second controversy.

Then once the replacement units started getting built the housing authority announced a new set of rules… tenants (unless physically disabled or elderly) had to either be employed for a minimum of 15 hours per week, enrolled in a job-training scheme or enrolled in school. They are also required to pass a drug screen and a criminal background check. Third controversy.

“Looks like bombed out berlin” is an overused phrase in planning jargon here but several of the high rise projects did truly have a battlefield appearance and character to em…one night some years ago I witnessed – at a quite safe distance – a gun battle between rival street gangs trading shots between neighboring blocks.

They needed to come down…the jury’s still out on whether the new program has worked/will work but the staus quo was unacceptable.

21. pleite - June 16, 2007

Christ, it all sounds like a vat of worms. And I can imagine it was controversy after controversy, especially with something like putting conditions on whether to (re)house somebody there or not. Has there also been the policy in the US of trying to get people to purchase their (what we call) council housing?

My sister lived on a pretty grim estate for a while. I think she wanted to move out before she moved in, and it didn’t help that almost everyone she knew refused to go and visit her. She got out in the end, and is now living the perfect small-town dream.

22. narrowback - June 16, 2007

a vat of worms doesn’t do it justice…i’ve been involved with dealing with some of the secondary impacts and they’re a strong encouragement for early retirement.

back in the 80’s in a few cities including chicago there were a few attempts at trying to sell off the units to the residents but social housing here in the states is housing of last resort…these ain’t working poor so how could you to expect them to buy into something at even $0 when they have no income for utilities, maintenance, etc.

as far as putting conditions on rehousing it troubles me but I find it hard to justify a housing subsidy for a crackwhore who’s not interested in reforming

immediately prior to and following my birth my family lived in housing projects in the south bronx…i’ll betray my age and advise it was an irish ghetto then. 30 years later I wound up working in the neighborhood and the locals – african american and puerto ricans- didn’t believe i was from there and it was a shithole back then…as my sainted mother would say…”the only difference was that back then the junkies and thieves were irish”

I’ve lived in some shit neighborhoods over the years but never returned to public housing. the ex-wife made the suggestion during my tour through the looney tune left days that we should do so so as a gesture of “solidarity” with the oppressed but i’d been there, done that, got the t-shirt so we stayed in the tenement apartment

23. MountPenguin - June 16, 2007

It’s Gamat, not Gamag, if we’re talking about the Made-in-GDR gas heater. Once very desirable, now just above “OH” when it comes to judging a flat’s status from its for-rent listing. Presumably it should have been checked just like any other heater, although exactly how often depends on the Hausverwaltung – ours sends around maintenance people once a year. The Schornsteinfeger also comes once a year of his own accord, usually with a week’s notice and finds it unbelievable that yes, it is possible to miss this by being away and not being prescient not being able to make appropriate arrangements with trusted neighbours viz keys and stuff.

24. annie - June 16, 2007

Ah, a beautiful post.

That is all. xxx

25. Karl-Marx-Straße - June 16, 2007

The chimney sweeps/gas inlet checkers (soon to lose their monopolies and therefore about to vanish from the face of the German earth) are almost certainly the most stylish trade of all. And I bet their uniforms weren’t designed by Hugo Boss.

Those with either the floppy (or sometimes bowler, should they secretely imagine themselves as a stand-in for the leading role in Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone i.e. The Avengers) hats are usually post-apprenticeship roofers (Dachdecker/-innen). Like in the film Oi! Warning, which was pretty crap, but which I suspect you might have seen.

26. pleite - June 18, 2007

Karl, I haven’t seen that film, though I have googled it or imdbed it. Couldn’t get what it was about at all really, and the men didn’t look quite good-looking enough for the film to deserve to be watched from that point of view alone. And I never get round to fulfilling any promises to myself, such as, “I must see that film”, but if I see it at the video-place, which I go to about once a year, I will rent it.

Annie, darling, what a sweet thing to say. You can do a tour of the working-class-paradise bits on your next trip. See you SOON.

Penguin, bugger, is it Gamat? I’ve been saying Gamag for ever. Mind you, not as embarrassing as shouting, “Gleichweise,” at the top of my voice whenever I’m wished a nice day, which I’ve been doing for six years, only to discover, thanks to Berlinbound, that it is, of course, gleichfalls. Sometimes it really is rubbish learning a language the way children learn it. At least they get to go to school eventually. I am illiterate in Germany.

Narrowback, you’ve got plenty of good stories up your sleeve. Once-shit areas do become gentrified here or in London or wherever, but there seems to be a minimum (potential) aesthetic requirement for that to happen. Where I was growing up in London we always thought was a bit of a shithole, but of course it’s now all nice and respectable and, not that I ever go there but I appreciated it years later, perfectly pretty with all those almost-identical little houses. My ex grew up in Islington, north London, which is a byword for wanky champagne socialist/media/general rich types now, but he said it was a shithole – as they saw things – then. Not in a rough way, or anything, actually. Just that it was considered very poor. Actually, an odd case, because, although it was full of utterly beautiful houses just ripe for gentrification, a huge chunk of the area was owned by some philanthropic aristo (I think, or maybe just a riff-raff philanthropist actually) who kept rentals down so ordinary folk could live there. All ended as soon as he croaked, of course.

27. Valerie in San Diego - June 18, 2007

Here you prove once again that context is everything…

28. pleite - June 20, 2007

Yes, Valerie, I suppose that’s it. Mind you, I think snobbery about the standard tower-blocks came in pretty quickly in some bits of the East (of Europe). A Polish friend told me snobbery came in pretty quickly there. In Russia, it’s size that matters.

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