My radio column "Planet Berlin" ran a year and I liked to open with "Aloha, Berlin!" and end with "I love this town." Because I do. I focused on strange places and phenomenon, like the shop that sells only apples; the punks who resell old subway tickets; a high rise that is really only a facade; and my favorite ... the famous Street of Damnation...
|Nose Flutes, rogue monks and the Street of Damnation|
Men Blowing Nose Flutes
Not too long ago I made the mistake of loitering briefly, perhaps a bit absent-mindedly, in front of a display window in the Oranien Strasse in Kreuzberg. It was the window of a gallery called Gallery Endart, and it was full of paintings, doll heads and driftwood-like sculptures. I was about to continue, but I wasn't fast enough: They had seen me. A group of mysterious-looking middle-aged men stood in the door and beckoned me enter.
I should have fled, I know, but they had a strange sway over me. They led me into the back room and one of them pulled a strangely-shaped instrument of out his jeans. It looked like a misshaped tuber made of plastic. I had never seen anything so perverted in my life.
"That," he said, "is a nose flute."
The difference between a nose flute and a... well, just a flute, one of the men explained to me, is that you don't blow it through the mouth, you blow it through the nose. The air flows from your nose, through the flute and into your mouth, where a high-pitched whine is produced. Simply put, a nose flute is a flute that you blow from the wrong end.
My mother warned me that this kind of thing could happen to me in the big city: "Son," she said, "there are people in this world so perverted they will blow flutes from the wrong end."
I had never even seen such an instrument before, but now, hidden from the eyes of the world outside, I was initiated into a subculture that is all about nose flutes. Did you know that there are entire companies that produce nose flutes and sell them to innocent children in toy shops? Innocent children! And the men in the back room of the Gallery Endart? They were the 12 members of the world's first Original Oberkreuzberger Nose Flue Orchestra. They even play their nose flutes in public where everyone can see them with absolutely no sense of shame.
They asked me if I wanted to try.
"Just for fun," they said. "It can't hurt if you do it just once." Me? Blow a flute from the wrong end? Never! But before I could defend myself, one of the men shoved his flute under my nose.
I blew and blew. I could hardly control my hands, they are shaking. I couldn't get a single peep put of it.
Then they said, "Stand back." All at once, they lifted their flutes to their noses and blew.
The room filled with a frightening wailing that pierced the ear and ebbed and flowed. After a moment of shock, I felt that it was talking to me, that the bizarre sound had a message only I could decipher. What was it? What was it saying? I listened closely and soon I recognized the theme song from "Titanic."
"Why do you do it?" I asked despairingly when their demonstration was over. "There are normal flutes, flutes that perform the way god created them. Why don't you blow those?"
The answer came as one: "We couldn't find anything to do that was more senseless."
I love this town.
Pray, O Monks of Schöneberg
There are a lot of mean things you can say about the Berliners, and two of them are that they are godless and that they have no new ideas. Not that I would ever say that. I'm just saying - you could make a point.
As someone who comes from America, where we all believe in God, as it should be, I'm fascinated that Berliners are a bunch of godless infidel church-deserters doomed to hell. This is a city where you can lose your reputation among your friends as a normal human being just by passing a church and forgetting to spit. And woe to you if you are still in a church, say, because you were baptized as a child and neglected to officially leave it since then: They heap scorn upon you.
So it came as quite a shock one day when I was walking through my neighborhood of Schöneberg and passed a shop on the Kaiser Wilhelm Platz that had once been a restaurant and all of a sudden it was a monastery.
It had been a monastery for months now. I hadn't noticed. I had thought it was an organic coffee shop. And it is an organic coffee shop. Inside, you can sit there and drink coffee or tea and eat a slice of organic home-made vegetarian quiche or vegan Chocolate cake and buy organic beer to take home, but when you walk up to the counter to pay, you notice that the man standing behind it is wearing a cowl.
His name is Brother Johannes and he is a monk.
His monastery is the Order of Meister Eckhart, after the medieval mystic. If you've never heard of the Order of Meister Eckhart, don't feel bad: The order is brand new, and Brother Johannes and Brother Frank are the only members. They founded it themselves. He and Brother Frank, formerly a catholic monk, just got this good idea one day: We should open up a monastery. Just like that.
The Meister Eckhart Cloister is an inter-religious monastic order. In the little chapel off to one corner, you find the symbols of all the great world religions: A cross, a Buddha, a Star of David. That's the reason why the Catholic church has so far refused to recognize it as a Catholic order. Brother Johannes and Brother Frank are a little too ecumenical.
Every day in the chapel, Brother Johannes holds a song and prayer hour, and twice a day Brother Frank leads a 30-minute Zazen session.
I asked Brother Johannes what Zazen was.
Zazen, he said, is a kind of Zen meditation and consists of sitting.
"Oh," I said, "you mean sitting and meditating."
"No," he said. "Just sitting."
"Oh," I said, "you mean sitting and praying."
"No," he said. "Just sitting."
"You mean sitting and meditating upon the sitting," I said.
"No," he said: "Just sitting."
"Ah," I said, "you mean sitting and trying not to think about the sitting."
"No," he said: "Just sitting."
They picked Meister Eckhart for their patron saint because his mystical writings are Zen-like in nature. Brother Frank's favorite quote was: "If the heart is to remain open for that which is the highest of the high, it must stand upon pure nothingness."
I didn't understand that at all, but then I possibly don't sit enough.
There was another thing I didn't understand: "You can just do that?"
We're in Germany after all. You can't just go out and found your own cloister, just like that. There are rules.
"Why not?" asked Brother Johannes. "You don't get any financial support from the Catholic church - which is why they have to sell organic coffee all day - but there's no law that says you can't found your own monastic order.
I'm happy that Schöneberg finally has its own cloister. First, it proves that in Berlin you really can try something new despite the city's reputation. Second, it proves that Schönbergers are not as godless as you think. Who knew?
Pray for us, monks of Schöneberg, pray for us godless folk of Berlin.
I love this town.
The Secret of Success in the Midst of Damnation
There are things about this town I'll never understand. One of them is the Street of Damnation.
You might know it by it's official name, the Kolonnen Strasse that connects Kreuzberg to my neighborhood, Schöneberg. One would think that a street as important as this one would also be a successful street, but I walk down it every day and I am here to tell you that success of any kind is unknown on the Street of Damnation.
Only if you desperately want to go broke should you ever set up shop on this street. There's the doner kebab stand that changes ownerships every three months. There's the used furniture shop that is always empty, and it's easy to guess why: The windows are stuffed with enormous lamps in the shapes of naked Greek gods. How big can the market be for enormous lamps in the shapes of naked Greek gods? Clearly not very big, as these things haven't budged from the shop windows for the last ten years. Even the Turkish sports club, traditionally the one recession-proof business in Berlin, changes ownership with frightening regularity in the Street of Damnation.
Then there's the greatest mystery of all: Jaksch.
Since I've lived here, I've never seen Jaksch open. Not once in ten years.
Jaksch is a record shop. I pass it every day, and every day I look in the window and see stands of dusty vinyl records from the 60's and 70's and earlier. But the shop is dark, and closed. I've never seen a person behind the counter, never even seen the sun-blanched album covers in the window display rearranged.
On the other hand, Jaksch never goes away either.
I think up explanations. I obsess about it. Possible reasons include the fantastical scenario that by some bizarre stroke of chance both landlord and tenant died on exactly the same day in the late 70's without any relatives, and since then the rent hadn't been paid, but no one has noticed.
Then, out of the blue one day, something changed:
A monstrous sign appeared in the window announcing "50%." Presumably, it meant 50% off. It was just those numbers, cut out of paper, huge enough to nearly block the entire window. You had to look between the 5 and the 0 to see into the shop. It was alive! Maybe the tenant has crawled back after being in a coma for several decades and now desperately needs money to pay his hospital bill. Everything 50% off. I was so excited, I would have bought something. There was only one problem: The shop was closed.
It took another year before something stirred once more. One day I was passing by and Jaksch was open. Before it could close again, I slipped into the door.
There, in the shadows behind the counter, he sat: Herr Jaksch.
Herr Jaksch is a man of middle age with a deep voice and white three-day beard. Yes, he said, the shop really is open and he is selling everything you can see: Records, records, records! Records in the age of the iPod!
They must be real collectibles, I said, rarities.
Oh no, he said. They're just normal records he hasn't been able to see yet. "The cheapest single is five cents," he said. "I have a lot of traditional Volksmusik, and just about everything from the disco wave."
He owned that shop since the 70's, he said, but when everything went downhill in the 90s, he closed it. Why? So he could go out and get a job, of course.
"I thought about what else I could do, and I could play accordion." Herr Jaksch is from Bavaria. "So I started playing accordion to get a second stream of income. You can come hear me play sometime, at parties and in bars. I play with a friend. We sing and yodel."
He asked me if I yodeled. I said I didn't.
Of all the shops in the Street of Damnation, only Herr Jaksch had understood the secret: If you really want to be successful in business here, you have to close your shop and go work somewhere else. That's probably the secret of success in Berlin in general. The big chains and industries who have been trying to set up shop here and more or less failing should follow his example: Close down and get a job to support your factory. Only then will Berlin become the truly successful city it dreams of becoming.
I love this town.
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