Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Posting Nefertiti

Went back to the post office yesterday with the repacked books for my niece in England, suitable for sending as Büchersendungen, only to be told that the guy who handles packages was out from four to eight. Now how's that for a good news story. In the USA, at least my part of it, I would stand in line for an hour to get to the counter, then I'd be told the package wasn't right somehow and I should go home and never come back again. Here you can mail packages between eight and ten p.m.

Here, there is no longer a post office at Wilmersdorferstraße 100-whatever it was. There is a liquor store that will take your packages. I waited while the nice Turkish young man fought off the drunks and finally got round to me. He seemed to know considerably more about bottle opening than about post officing, but he had a little book to look things up in. When ten minutes of page shuffling didn't answer his questions, he got on the phone, identified himself as Mr. Gayat (not his real name) from Wilmersdorferstraße, zip code (censored) and how do I send books to England. Luckily, the person at the other end of the line had the answers.

Actually, I'm not telling the story right. That's what happened the first time I visited with Mr. Gayatnothisrealname. I sent off two books, but had to come home and repack the other two because they were sealed. I decided not to wait any longer for the fifth, which was very long in coming. Her nieceliness having ordered five books from around the Bundesrepublik for her uncle to forward to her in Royal England because the booksellers wouldn't. Being ever the cheerful optimist, I saw this as an opportunity to consolidate, since I was sure her fifth and last book would come in the mail this morning.

It did, of course. And already properly packaged (i.e., held together by two little pins and not sealed). Hurrah, says I, and off to the p.o.

Friend Marty told me there was a stationery store on the Kudamm where I could get a tube for mailing posters, so Taku could get his Nefertiti, and there was a post office in the store. Well, there wasn't a post office, but I got the tube, and it was just a short walk back to the Turkish liquor store on Wilmersdorferstraße, so back I went.

"Do you mail books often?" Mustafa (name changed for all the usual reasons) asks me.

"No, but I was here the day before yesterday," positively crushed that he didn't remember our intimate conversation.

This time he knew right what to do with the books. Well, no, not really. He couldn't remember how much to charge. I then reminded him that he had written down what the woman on the telephone had told him, and he says, "Ach, ja!" and flips to the right page.

Just then a man came in the store wearing a black, red and yellow pullover and black shorts. I assumed it was a drunk leftover from the victory over England the other day, but it turned out to be a man in a post office uniform. "Do you want to send your books to England now?" Mustafa asks. He had already stamped them and since I couldn't come up with a reason for not sending the books right then and there, I decided to answer one of the more superfluous questions I've heard in my time with a simple nod of the head, and off they went.

The poster was another story. "Hmmmm," says Mustafa. "Not sure we can mail this."

"Of course you can mail this," I say. "It's a mailing package and people mail posters all the time."

"What's in the package?"

"A poster," I tell him.

"Ah, a poster."

I think he didn't know the word poster. Trust me, Poster (capital p) is the German word for poster (small p). OK, so maybe he would have known the word Plakat. But half the time people use Plakat they put it together with Poster and say Plakat Poster. In any case, the problem was he had just never been asked to mail one before.

Turns out book post (Büchersendung) doesn't work to the United States. Or maybe it does, he said, but "I'll have to call 'Meine Kollegin' again, he said.

Would he be so kind, I asked him.

Kollegin tells him only rectangular things of a specific size can be sent Büchersendung, and she gives him the measurements. Which he writes down in his book on what appears to be a random page, even though the long tubular thing I'm asking him to mail is hardly going to meet the requirements.

As this is going on, drunks are coming in and out, buying single bottles of beer and asking him to open them for him. He complies and the beer bottle caps are piling up on the counter. Little kids come in and buy single popsicles and asks him to throw away the wrapper for them. He complies. Time marches on.

"What's in that package again?" Mustafa asks. I open it up and roll out the face of Nefertiti. It crosses my mind he might possibly be one of those people who resent Germany's plundering of his part of the world, but the voice from the other side of my head jumps in and tells me to cut the damn Orientalism. So I do.

"Ach, ja," he says. Repeating himself.

"It's got to be sent as a package. Not as a book." I thought we had already clearly established that, but reminding him of that that didn't seem wise, somehow.

"Fine," I say.

"It will come to 13 euros 90,"

"That's a whole lot of money to send a poster that cost me 4 euros," I observe.

"Plus 1 euro 80" postage.

"Plus 3 euros for the damn tube to send it in," I respond, as if we are composing a fugue on the spot.

"Fine," I say. It's a nice poster. We'll spend a bunch on a good frame and it will be lovely to look at. What's a few extra coins here and there?

"You know, don't you, that there's no way to track its progress once it goes in the mail. Do you want to send it registered?"

"Oh, by the way, will it go airmail at that rate?" I ask, keeping the fuguelike dialogue going.

"No, not airmail." And he starts flipping pages again to see what airmail would cost.

"We're over twenty euros already, I think to myself. We can certainly wait, what, three to six months, to save airmail postage.

He gives me a form to fill out. "Make sure you say it's a - what's that word, 'poster'?" I fill out the form.

More beer bottle opening. A short conversation with pops in Turkish about whether to put more vodka on the shelves. (Don't ask me. I grogged it.)

"You know what?" I say. Inspired.

That package is going to take six months if it takes a day. It's open and somebody could steal Nefertiti right out from under us. Who knows if some mail truck is going to run over it and squash it flat?

"Never mind. I'll take it with me in my suitcase."

"Your're going to America?"

"In two weeks."

"Lucky you!"

"Ever been there?"

"No, but papa and I would love to go." Papa nods enthusiastically.

"So you're not put out with me for putting you through all the trouble about the poster?"

"No, no. Not at all. Have a wonderful trip!"


"Auf Wiedersehen."

"Auf Wiedersehen."

Ah, but would Mustafa remember the day we made music together?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ó hamingjusamur dagur

Damn. I missed the wedding.

Jóhanna, daughter of Sigurðar married Jónína, daughter of Leo, in Reykjavik, and I would love to have been there. Jóhanna is 67, was once married to Þorvaldur Steinar, son of Jóhannes, and has two grown sons, one also called Sigurðar. Which makes him Sigurðar Þorvaldurson, I suppose, as well as Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir’s son. He has a brother named Davíð.

Jónína has a son too. His name is Gunnar and he apparently doesn’t have any ðs or accents in his name.

Jónína was born two days after my 14th birthday and is an actress, poet and playwright and has awards in both areas. She has had twelve of her plays produced on stage and television. She has also translated several books from English into Icelandic and has written four novels, two biographies and a book of essays. All of which goes into making her one snazzy lady, in my view.

They were married in church, I’ll thank you to note.

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was once an Icelandic Airlines stewardess, but is now prime minister of Iceland, where she helped make it possible for gays and lesbians to marry. Like her and Jónína, for example. Which they did on the day the law went into effect. Which was Sunday, the day before yesterday.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being a stewardess, but Jóhanna moved on to become one of her country’s longest standing politicians. She has sat in Parliament since 1978. When she lost an election fifteen years ago, she made news by shouting to her colleagues, “You haven’t heard the last of me!” Or something like that. I don’t know how well Icelandic translates through Austrian German where I got that bit.

But the point is she is apparently gutsy. Which is probably necessary these days, given the fact that Iceland, as you may recall, is in the toilet financially. A wholly owned subsidiary, or something like that, of the British banks, last I heard. Despite following her father into politics, she has fought nepotism and has the support of the left and the Greens, forces trying to pick up the pieces the conservatives left the country in when they ran the place.

But that’s all work stuff. This if family stuff. Happy Day stuff. Ó hamingjusamur dagur, if you want to sing "Oh, happy day" in Icelandic.

If you want to send a letter of congratulations to these two lovely daughters of men, sons of other men, now officially wed in now the ninth nation to recognize same-sex marriage (Iceland follows Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden, as well as the U.S. in six states and the Cherokee? No. The Chippewa? No. The Chikasaw? No. The Creek? No. The Coquille Tribe? Yes, that’s the one. As well as Mexico City, six U.S. states, and the Coquille Tribe), you can reach them, I suppose, at the Icelandic

Prime Minister's Office
150 Reykjavik

Tel. +354 545 8400
Fax: +354 562 4014

Or, you might try one of the following, who I’m sure could get a message to Jónína:

The Danish Playwrights' Association
Danske Dramatikeres forbund
Chairman: Nina Malinowski
Klosterstræde 24, DK-1157 København K, Danmark
Tel: +45-33 45 40 35, fax: +45-33 45 40 39,

The Finnish Dramatists' Union
Suomen Nytelmkirjailijaliiton - Finlands Dramatikerförbund
Chairman: Esko Salervo
Vironkatu 12 B, 13, SF-00170 Helsingfors, Finland
Tel: +358-90-135 6191 eller +358-90-135 6796, fax +358-90-135 6171

The Icelandic Dramatists´ Union
Leikskáldafélag Íslands
Chairman: Hávar Sigurjónsson
c/o Hávar Sigurjónsson, Brekkubær 15, 110 Reykjavík, Iceland
Tel: +354-5553991 Fax: +354-5552941

The Norwegian Playwrights' Association
Norske Dramatikeres Forbund
Chairman: Gunnar Germundsson
Postbox 579, Sentrum, N-0105 Oslo, Norge
Tel: +47-22-41 13 44, fax: +47-22-42 03 56

The Swedish Playwrights' Union
Sveriges Dramatikerförbund
Chairman: Rolf Börjlind
Blå Tornet, Drottninggatan 85, S-111 60 Stockholm, Sverige
Tel: +46-8-21 33 10, fax: +46-8-613 39 79,

P.S. dottir, even though it looks like English daughter, is apparently pronounced more like German Tochter. Don’t ask me why. Guess when they put the t sound in the l they had to compensate by putting the ch in chutzpah into the double t. Something to do with volcanoes. You know, Eyjafjallajökull , where those two ls are prounounced like tl? Which you can learn all about in an 11-minute tutorial in German, if you like. Just click on

Monday, June 28, 2010

Larsson Mania

For several years now, I’ve been wanting to spend some extended time in Berlin. Berlin, for me, is the path not taken, and it’s loaded with might-have-beens and with more personal history than I can unpack in one telling. But what I want to say here, although I’m putting it under the rubric of “Berlin Notes”, is actually a reflection on reading the novels of Stieg Larsson, the guy who died just before his trilogy came out that has been making best seller lists around the world.

I happened to catch a Charlie Rose interview with Eva Gedin and Sonny Mehta the end of May, shortly before Taku and I took off for a European vacation, and was so taken with the story of Larsson and these books being touted as Harry Potter for adults, that I went out and bought the first two novels of his trilogy.

The trilogy are I - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, II - The Girl Who Played with Fire, and III - The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Since I wanted to travel without checked baggage, and assumed I’d be too busy to do much reading, I decided to leave II home. By the second or third day in Rome, however, I had finished I and was really pissed at having left II behind. As soon as I got to Berlin I went out and snatched it off the shelves at Hugendubel’s.

The German titles, incidentally, are I – Verblendung (Delusion), II – Verdammnis (Damnation), and III – Vergebung (Forgiveness) – and I leave it to you to make what you will of the cultural implications in the choice of titles in each case. 751 pages, plus all the teasers for the other two books. That ought to hold me, I thought, for the next three weeks, particularly since I read German at a slower pace than English.

But then fate checked in and destroyed my feet. Others might suggest it was my foolish belief that at 70 I could still pound the cobblestones of Rome, Florence, Venice and Potsdam for six hours a day and come out alive. I was in agony. I mean agony. Actually contacted my doctor in Oakland, who diagnosed the problem as plantar’s fasciitis and told me to stay off my feet.

So when Taku went home on the 20th, I put my feet up and, by yesterday, those 751 pages were history and I had a lust for III that was beyond control. Trouble is, this is Germany and everything closes on Sundays. The teapartiers may want to think Obama is a socialist, but they ought to have a look at what goes on here, where the government decides it’s not right that people should work all the time and insist on closing everything down on Sundays. Here it was, Sunday a.m. and I am without the third novel and there is no apparent way to get it! I go online to bookstore after bookstore. They’re all closed. I am referred to the "Ladenschlußgesetz" - the “Store Closing Law.” Thanks, but I get the picture. I don't need 8 pages of explanation.

I remember that my friend Jürgen lent me his video card. OK, I thought. I can hang on till Monday if I can feed the Larsson obsession by watching the movies. I find the local video store in the chain the card works with, just fifteen minutes away. I run my eyes over the DVD covers and find II immediately. It’s in the original Swedish, Flickan som lekte med elden, so I don’t know if it’s I, II or III. Well, actually I can read ‘the girl who x’d with y’, so it must be II, but I figured the guy at the counter could tell me. “How the hell should I know?” he says. “I don’t read Swedish.”

Do me a personal favor, I say to the smartass. Would you see if you have Verblendung? (That’s I, in case you haven’t committed these details to memory.) Bookcase Number 28, he says, and goes back to the movie he’s watching. There are tons of copies. I pick it up, dubbed in German, and go back and get II in the original with subtitles as well, feeling I might just make it through till the opening of the bookstore on Monday morning after all.

He runs the card through the reader and says, “You haven’t used this branch before, so I’m going to have to see some ID.”

“Well, it’s not my card. It belongs to a friend, so I don’t know if my ID will do.”

“If the card belongs to a friend, then your friend will have to come in and check out the movies,” he says, not quite so rudely this time.
What am I going to do? I’ve got to have it.

Online, in checking out the movies in the theaters, I noted that I (Dragon Tattoo) is playing in some kind of open air theater in Spandau tomorrow (today), so I hop a train to see if I can find the place. Don’t have anything better to do. Can’t imagine going home and reading anything else.

So I go all the way out to Spandau, at the end of both the S-bahn and the U-bahn lines, that name made famous for the prison where Rudolf Hess was held. You know, the guy who played chess with the British Commandant who I met at a party once who put me within three degrees of separation from Adolf Hitler? And most of you reading this within four? That Spandau?

The theater is right by the station, in the Stadtbibliothek. The movie starts at 9:30 tonight, which is sundown, and runs till after midnight. Do I really want to do that? It’s nearly an hour back on the train.

I wander back downtown, get off at Friedrichstraße and, BE STILL MY HEART, what do I see but words written in gold across the sky - a Buchhandlung!!! It’s more of a 7/11 of Buchhandlungen. A kiosk, actually. But it’s open!!! Apparently the Ladenschlußgesetz doesn’t apply to kiosks. Color Modern Germany flexible. I walk in, turn my head to the right and what’s that on the shelves? Verblendung, Verdammnis and Vergebung jumping right out at me at eye level. The cashier takes my delight to be on account of the 4 to 1 victory in South Africa over England, so there’s no need for explanations.

I try to get home to get into it, but I get caught up in the soccer fever in the streets. At the stop just before mine, the bus suddenly turns down Kantstraße with no explanation. I run up to the driver (doesn't he know how badly I need to get to a quiet place to read?) and ask him, "Are you going to head back to Charlottenburg eventually?" "Ik fahr zum Zoo, Meister. Wollen'se aussteigen?" (I'm going to the Zoo (the end station), governor. You want out here?) The busses are clearly going where they can, not where they want to. I get out, walk to the Ku-damm, thinking I'll catch another bus there going back, but the entire damn Ku-damm is closed to vehicular traffic! I get into a subway going east (I want to go west), change at Kurfürstendamm to a U9 to Berlinerstraße and then to a U7 heading for Spandau to get to Adenauer Platz, clutching III (Forgiveness, Hornet’s Nest – or Luftslottet som sprängdes if you want to get sticky about it) in my hands, and dash back for my nightly Bratwurst with Röstkartoffeln before diving in. I read till four in the morning.

Still haven’t decided whether to trek back to Spandau for the movie. Probably will see if I can have my Kuchen and eat it too, wait till Jürgen gets back tomorrow and can rent the movie for me, and read till four a.m. for a second night in a row. With any luck I can get through a good chunk of the book before sleep overtakes me.

This one is 848 pages.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Deutschland 4 - England 1

Jubel, Jubel, freu freu (Happy, happy, joy, joy)

Man, has this country gone nuts. Went out today and didn’t think I was going to get home. The bus turned off its usual route and headed for Bahnhof Zoo. I went up and asked the driver whether he was going to go back to Charlottenburg as the sign indicated was the next stop.

He looks at me and says, “Ik fahr zum Zoo, Meister. Woll’nse aussteigen?” (I’m going to the Zoo, governor, you want out here?) Apparently he decided I was too dumb for a straight answer. All Berlin seemed to be in the streets, and the busses went where they could, not where they were supposed to go.

From all directions. Thousands and thousands of people in the streets. I got out and walked to the Ku-damm thinking I’d catch another bus. The Ku-damm was totally blocked. I had the choice of walking or taking the subway miles out of the way. In the subway it was the same story. By now the crowds were getting drunk but at least the trains were moving.

All ages, draped in the black-red-gold German flag. Real tribal. Have never experienced anything like this.

On the trains people were talking to each other. Everybody got into it. Never saw such a universally high mood as this.

For somebody my age, this is a remarkable event. In the 1960s, in the Army Security Agency, when we were sure there were no Germans around – and no Brits – we would let loose with the black humor and say things to each other like, “Gott strafe England!” (God punish England!) among ourselves. - A greeting used by Germans during the First World War. That phrase came to mind today when I saw all those kids wrapped in the flag celebrating the German victory over England. But there were no anti-English remarks. Only unabashed horn blowing and DEUTSCHLAND! DEUTSCHLAND! Shouting.

It’s so easy to despair over the progress of the human race. Sometimes it seems like one step forward, two steps backward. But today, it’s not Gott strafe England. Instead, the Germans beat the English in a ballgame and Germany went insane with joy. Tomorrow, they’ll nurse their hangovers and go back to renting English language movies from the video store.

After all, a very large part of those shouting DEUTSCHLAND! DEUTSCHLAND! today were not even born – or were no more than two or three years old – when the Berlin Wall came down. At Number 1 Karl-Liebknecht Straße, right across the Spree from the Berliner Dom, where thousands of tourists get on boats everyday for a cruise down the Spree, is the DDR Museum. You can go in and sit in a Trabi, see a model East German kitchen , complete with appliances, a living room with books on the shelves extolling the workers’ paradise – and on your way out buy cups and glasses with the DDR flag insignia. Twenty years after the fall, and the country has to be explained in a Disneyland setting for the citizen of today. To these kids shouting DEUTSCHLAND! DEUTSCHLAND!, even a divided Germany is history. Germany and England at war? That’s ancient history.

Now if I could just get with the drill and stop worrying about the tribalism of it all…

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pink Martini and the San Francisco Symphony

Taku and I went with a friend to see Pink Martini last night. They were doing their annual concert with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall.

I missed them last year, and can’t imagine I had a good excuse. They just keep getting better and better.

Now on their fourth album, they have a solid following. There was no program, but all it took was one or two notes and the audience was howling in anticipation. Everybody knows the songs and there were sing-alongs.

Taku took to them right away, but I couldn’t see myself sitting down to listen to a Latin band, until I took in a concert they gave in their home town of Portland, Oregon several years ago, at which point I became a believer. They’re not a Latin band, although if all they played was Latin music, they’d still be a great band. But they range from classical to pop and other music difficult to classify. They’re real originals.

Won’t go on about them. If you don’t know them, here’s a small YouTube sample. There's a new song, from their fourth album, Bitty Boppy Betty.

There's Eugene. (on David Letterman)

There's Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love.

Last night was the second time I’d seen them with the San Francisco Symphony. I understand they’ve done concerts with the LA Symphony and the Boston Pops Orchestra as well. I almost prefer them as a 12-person band, but there is nothing like having a full orchestra behind you if you want to make an impact.

Besides the mix of old and new, they brought out two novelty acts. One was Ari Shapiro, of all people, the NPR White House correspondent, who threw out a crowd pleaser by telling them how good it was to be back in San Francisco right across the street from City Hall where he and his husband were married. Tom Lauderdale had met him at a party, liked his voice, and voilà, on stage he goes with the Symphony.

Another was Faith Prince, a childhood heroine of Tom Lauderdale’s, the group’s originator and pianist. Faith Prince, known for her role in Guys and Dolls, sang the song Groucho Marx made famous, Lydia the Tattooed Lady.

Thomas Lauderdale, a classically trained pianist, shares top billing with the group’s lead singer, China Forbes. The two met as students at Harvard. She has an album of her own out, but they have been writing songs and performing together since 1998. She also has an album of her own. Lauderdale was born in Oakland, adopted and raised in Indiana and Portland, the city now firmly associated with the band.

Lauderdale is the heart and soul of the band, and it carries his progressive political orientation. In fact, he got into popular music when running for mayor because, as he tells it, he couldn't abide the lousy music associated with political campaigns of the day. Now, especially when you see what tangents he goes off on – like the Meow Song, you wonder how he ever pulled off a serious pursuit of anything other than music that makes you want to get up and dance.

His energy spills over into his performances, and Pink Martini’s reputation has soared. It’s as if Lauderdale’s first goal is having a good time, with music following second. A close second, but he leaves no doubt that if you’re not having a laugh, what’s the point.

If they come your way, don’t miss them.