Sunday Afternoon at the Internationales Berliner Bierfestival (2019)

Yesterday, Erica and I and our friends Gregor Gregorov and L. went to the 23. Internationales Berliner Bierfestival to see what it was all about.

The first thing you do when you go there is you buy a beer mug for €3.50. To fill up the mug it costs anywhere from €2.50-4.00 depending on the kind of beer you get, and there is a mile-long avenue of tents to choose from with beers from all over the world. The first beer I got was a brown ale from Scotland, which I quite liked. In fact, it was probably the best tasting beer I had all day because I made the mistake of choosing beers for their high alcohol percentage rather than for their prospective palette-pleasing qualities. My second was some kind of Kellerbier (cellar beer) which I liked not so much because of the way it tasted (not enough hops), but rather because it was served at a lower temperature than the others, and I was sweating in the afternoon sun. My third beer was Cannabis-ginger flavored. It didn’t get me high. Nor did it’s taste appeal to me. It was too sickly sweet, but I forced it down and afterwards stood in line at a little stand that was advertising Schwarzbier aus Böhmen (Trans: dark beer from Bohemia, i.e., the western part of the Czech Republic). Now when I got in line, I had only mentally absorbed the word Schwarzbier. Then I looked up at the sign again and read Schwarzbier aus Böhmen as Schwarzbier aus Bohnen. Now bohnen, in German, means beans, and suddenly it struck me that I was standing in line for a beer that was made from beans. I supposed it was possible since I’d just had a beer made with Cannabis, but bean beer wasn’t for me. I stepped out of line and said to Erica and the others, “I’m not buying a beer made from beans.” They all laughed.It’s Böhmen, not Bohnen, you idiot! Hahahah-bahah-hahha.” And they razzed me about it for the next half hour or so, bringing it up again and again.“I can see I’m never going to live this down,” I said. They laughed.

But then later something magical happened.

We were sitting at some picnic tables listening to a live cover band and drinking our beers when Gregor scurried off to the Porto-john. A few minutes later, on his way back, Erica spotted him beelining through the crowd, dodging, high-stepping, practically throwing people aside. He then reached our picnic table and as he was sliding into his seat he revealed the reason for his haste. There were two glorious wet puddles sopping the front of his trousers, due, apparently, to an accident or malfunction of some sort in the Porto-john. We all laughed, and as he hid his lower half under the table he tried to clarify, and philosophize, which only made us laugh more. I probably laughed the longest and the loudest of everyone. I actually feel ashamed about now. It’s not like I haven’t had my own bathroom malfunctions. True, they don’t often happen in public, at international beer festivals, and don’t often inspire me to bolt through a crowd of howling drunks, but I was trying to raise something to a higher pedestal of idiocy than my bean gaffe, and in the end I failed. I turned out to be the day’s crowned fool when the votes were cast.

The moral: humiliation is the greatest teacher of all. I will never again mistake the western part of the Czech Republic for beans.

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Ale, Pork Scratchings and Juvenal

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Erica had given me £10 and directions to a bar I could go to while she rang church bells for an hour. The bar was just off Brick Lane in London, and when I got there I ordered a large ale and a package of pork scratchings. The bar was crowded, but I managed to get a table at the front. I sat down, got out the copy of Juvenal’s The Sixteen Satires I’d just bought at a second-hand bookstore and started to read. I was kind of reading. Mostly I was drinking my ale and eating my pork scratchings and eavesdropping on the three Americans sitting at the table to my left. The bar was loud, so I could only hear dribs and drabs of what they were saying, usually something accompanied by the term ‘like’ or ‘Oh my God,’ or ‘No way.’ They were two young women and a young man and I suspected they were grad students, and that their parents were paying their way to be in London. They started talking about Family Guy, and then some other TV show, getting into all the details of a certain episode. What ever happened to real life? I thought. Must everyone live through their TV screens and iPhones? Facebook was the next subject brought up. Feeds, unfriending people, sharing, all that. I closed my ears to them and went back to my book, still only kind of reading. I was mostly thinking about a machine that needs to be invented. A Rube Goldberg-style chute that a man slides into and every twenty feet or so he’d fall in a room where he’d be drugged and clubbed and brainwashed by public opinion, current events, social media, sitcoms with laugh tracks, gossip pages, political rhetoric, Hollywood movies with guns and violence and crass Harvey Weinstein gross-out humor, and so on, and so forth. It would only take about a half hour to make it through all the rooms and chutes, but the drugging and clubbing and brainwashing would be so thorough, it would be as though he’d spent several years in it. And everyone would turn out just like the people to my left.

Yes, the idea seems pretty goofy now, but as I sat there drinking my ale and munching my pork scratchings it felt like I was onto something. I guess the main point is that people nowadays seem so far-removed from the earth, and nature, and so contaminated by mass communication that they’re not even themselves anymore. They never even had a chance to be. And yet they talk about authenticity – so many of them do – as if they have it, when really they’re just like every other Justin, Zach & Sally, cogs in some big promotional money wheel, spinning round and round, crushing every earthworm and flower that springs up in front of it.

“Posterity can add
No more, or worse, to our ways.” ~ Juvenal

Later, after I’d finished my beer and got another, a fat white bar cat with a brown spot on its back crept across the floor and jumped up on the chair on the other side of my table. I reached across and started stroking its coat. Then one of the girls from the table to my left came over to pet it, and we started talking. She was from Boston and her friends were from New York. I said I was from Florida and the other girl laughed and said she felt sorry for me. Then she told me about all the Applebee’s that were in my state that transformed into nightclubs afterhours. They’d been talking about it among themselves earlier, and then I started talking about some of the craziness that goes on in Florida.

I said: “If you read a newspaper article about a life insurance salesman on meth grocery shopping in nothing but lime green tube socks, you know it happened in Florida.”

They all laughed and soon we were talking about the sad state of things in the US, and I started realizing I kind of liked them all. I didn’t want that. It was too easy. It was much better seething about them, hating them, shoving them through my imaginary Rube Goldberg Contraption. Luckily, before I could get to know them too well, Erica showed up and we headed out. I blew the cat a kiss goodbye.

Kraftwerk – Computer Love

The title of my last post was Talk, Talk, which wasn’t so much a reference to the 80s band. I was more thinking about the song Talk by Coldplay which was inspired by Kraftwerk’s Computer Love. I had never even heard of Kraftwerk until 2009, when I visited Europe for the first time. It was an 11-day trip. After flying into Düsseldorf, I spent three days in Cologne, three in Paris, four in Amsterdam, and flew back out of Düsseldorf.

On my second day in Cologne, I met a gang of street-performers. Jugglers, fire eaters, an escape artist and a few randoms. I drank beers with them near the Cathedral on the Rhine, and after sundown they invited me to a party at the little trailer park they were staying at while passing through town. I accepted their offer, and the next thing I know I’m sitting on a floppy mattress in the back of an old VW van, a dresser and a rack of colorful clothes to my left, a black and white photo of a bald man in clown’s makeup banging around on the wall above my head. Driving the van was S., the escape artist, a fortysomething Italian lady from Rotterdam. In the passenger seat was Barry G., a juggling comedian from San Francisco, living in Europe since 1994. We drove about twenty minutes to the outskirts of town, then came to a gravel road and parked. I was let out the back. The three of us walked up to a door in the fence. The door must’ve been twenty-feet tall, this massive wooden structure with little spikes on top. It looked like something out of medieval times. Barry rang the buzzer and we were let in by a tall blond named Klaus.

The trailer park was on about an acre of land, surrounded on three sides by towering pine trees. There were about ten or twelve small trailers scattered around it pitched at various angles, and in the middle, under the stars – it was a perfectly clear night – a little bonfire burned. We sat down on some railroad ties in the glow of the flames. We talked and drank and passed a joint around. Then a few other street-performers came out of their trailers. One of them, a long-haired German named V., started doing headstands, spreading his legs out and twirling around. And I started talking to Klaus about my fascination with the German culture, and how I wanted to move across the pond one day. Back then it was only a dream. I didn’t think it could ever possibly happen, although I’d been saving up for it for a few years already. We talked about German philosophers and poets and musicians, and I remember asking what I’ve been asking for years. Where are the modern-day Bachs, Beethovens, Handels, Wagners? They must be around, I said. Are they in some other genre than classical music? Have you heard of Kraftwerk? Klaus asked. I hadn’t, so he invited me to his trailer to watch one of their videos. V. of the twirling headstands, who was Klaus’ roommate, also came with us. I stood at the door just outside his tiny, cluttered trailer and looked in as he turned the video on. The song he played was Autobahn, and in the video, which was of a live concert, you see the four members of Kraftwerk dressed like space creatures, standing behind podiums and working their clairvoyant magic. I didn’t think it was magic at the time. I thought it was so rudimentary and dated it was comical. But I wasn’t laughing. I was paranoid. The weed made me so. Not to mention the red-hot glares V. would give me now and again. He didn’t want me there, that was obvious. Was it because I was an American? Did he just not like my face? Was it because I wasn’t a street-performer, but instead a lowly faux businessman? I’d made the mistake earlier of admitting I owned a tool rental shop in South Florida. Soon he started speaking to Klaus in German and I didn’t understand a word. I stood there watching the four space creatures on TV and suddenly the reality of the situation struck me. I am 3000 miles from home. In a foreign country. On the outskirts of a town I know nothing about. In a trailer park full of jugglers and fire eaters and escape artists. And one of them hates me. And the music and the androids playing it can not make the mood any stranger. And I’m stoned. Too stoned. Is this the part where I get clubbed over the skull, dragged into some unterwelt cubbyhole and buggered? I could picture the headlines: AMERICAN TOURIST WITH THC IN SYSTEM GETS RAPED, BODY FOUND IN BLACK FOREST.

Finally the song ended, and Klaus asked me what I thought. I nodded and there was some uncomfortable talk, and we headed back to the bonfire. We sat down on the railroad ties and V. seemed to have lightened up a bit. Klaus started telling me a little more about Kraftwerk. He said they started the band in a garage in Düsseldorf in 1969, and are considered the inventors and pioneers of electronic music. He told me a few vignettes about this and that, and I made a mental note to do further investigating later. Maybe Autobahn is just one bad song, I thought.

That was eight years ago.

I have since grown to really like Kraftwerk, even Autobahn. But what I love most is thinking about their origins in that little garage in far-flung Düsseldorf. The music they were playing in there was so different from everything else being played in 1969, how could they, or anyone who might’ve heard it in those days, predict what a monumental impression they’d soon be making in the music industry? Was it even music they were playing? I’m sure some people had their doubts. But Kraftwerk followed their intuition regardless, and seemed to have developed a sort of prescience by doing so. Twelve years later, they released Computer World. Here are the lyrics from Computer Love, the 5th track on the 1981 album.

Computer love
Computer love
Another lonely night
Stare at the TV screen

I don’t know what to do
I need a rendezvous
Computer love
Computer love

I call this number
For a data date

I don’t know what to do
I need a rendezvous

Computer love
Computer love

If that doesn’t speak for the internet culture of today, I don’t know what does. It’s almost as if Kraftwerk had thrown little feelers out the garage and into the future and turned what they’d apprehended into art. Which is why I say: as much as I love the scientist’s bar graph & beaker, qualitative analysis, mathematical models & cross-sectional data, the best instrument we have to illuminate the unknown is the artist’s heart.

“There is nothing in the intellect that wasn’t first found in the senses.” ~ Aristotle

Love & Shandyism

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I have just returned from walking my girlfriend to U-Bahn Hermannplatz and seeing her off. She’s flying back to London today. I have no other plans but to write today. I haven’t written anything since Friday a.m., and I’ve dealt with it pretty well, but last night it started to get to me and probably would’ve been much worse if we hadn’t gone to the bar.

From now on, I’m calling my girlfriend Erica on this blog. The name is the Latin of her real name and was her 3rd choice when I asked her what she wanted to be called. Her first two choices were duds and I had to reject them.

Erica and I originally met three years ago in the bar we went to last night which is called Travolta. The night we met she tells me I was totally drunk and that’s why she kept looking at me. Not sure I believe her, although I did drink a flask of vodka on the way into the bar, and somehow we ended up sitting at the same table. Then my friend Bernd, a six-foot-six-two-hundred-eighty-pound-Teuton-got-up-like-Johnny-Cash plunked down between us.

“Soooooo, Mike,” he said, in his thundering bass-baritone. “Wait, she’s not the Polish girl. Wha? A new one? Huh?”

I’d made out with a Polish girl the week before. I pretended I didn’t hear what he’d said and introduced the two of them. A few minutes later, he worked his screw in again.

“Have you told her how old you are yet, Mike? C’mon, fess up.”

“43,” I muttered, and cursed him under my breath. Erica was only 24 at the time. Nevertheless, we kept talking, mostly about books. Her favorite was One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Marquez, and she knew the first line by heart.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

I was impressed, both by the first line and that she’d remembered it. I told her a few of my favorite books, one which was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne, and she’d read that too, which shocked me. I’d never met anyone who’d heard of Sterne, let alone read him and got his brilliant Irish wit.

I cursed Bernd again.

Then I got up from the table and lit a cigarette at the bar. Erica now says I did that to hide from her the fact of my smoking, and she’d be right, although if I really wanted to hide it I would’ve gone outside. The bar was only 10 feet away.

After that night, I started seeing Erica every week at Travolta, but didn’t do anything except once when I invited her to sleep at my place because it was closer. She told me she couldn’t that night because she had to work early the next morning, but said maybe some other time. So that confirmed it. But I still rested on my chesterfields. I’ve always been slow to act. I’m no Lothario, nor do I try to be. I go to bars for drinks and crackajabloking and good conversation, everything else must arrive by itself. So I sat back and watched as this 26-year-old Welshman started buying Erica drinks, and stealing my seat, and blockading me from her, trying to court her. A month or two went by like that and finally I got a haircut and trimmed my toenails and made my move. I challenged Erica – no that’s not true – I commanded her to memorize the first line of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and present me with the results the following week.

The first line goes as follows:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were doing; – that not only the production of a rational Being was concern’d in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; – and for ought they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost: – Had they duly weighted and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, – I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.

She memorized it to the letter, and soon after we went out on our first date at a beer kneipe, and soon after that we were making out in the back of some dark bar in Mitte, and I looked out the window and saw the Welshman looking at us, his mouth hanging open, his face pale as a toad’s belly. He took a slow drag from his cigarette and stood there decomposing in his cloud of blue smoke.

Poor sod. I felt sorry for him. I really did! I tried to think of what I could do to help but for some reason was all out of ideas. I turned to Erica and we continued.