Week 2 Recap- Berlin Redux

Shaolin Berlin 3

The second week in Berlin was quite something; a Birthday for C but also a medical scare that resulted in Surgery (she’s doing quite well now), a Classical Concert in an apartment, several great walks before a hellacious heat wave set in, and the flip-side of the Jam experience.

What follows are accounts of some of the highlights and low-lights, but this shall be the last Full Week Chronicle (first off, it ends up being just too damn much text). From here on out it will just be occasional dispatches about discrete events/thoughts. Things are beginning to happen faster than I can recount in depth, and I don’t want to spend all my time pecking away about every little thing.

Plus, I shall be up in Denmark next week, and I need to spend much time staring at trees and water instead of a computer screen (I am LONG overdue for some communing with Nature).



Went out walking tonight trying to get lost. The fact that I’m sitting here typing this is testament to the fact that I didn’t succeed, but then again I didn’t try real hard.

Apparently it’s perfectly legal and socially acceptable to walk down the street drinking a beer here, a state of affairs which I was quite eager to take advantage of, but the one beer I had with my felafel sandwich got me so buzzed I didn’t really need another one. In my defense, it was a rather large beer and I just can’t put away the suds when I’m not horking down all the meat I did back in ‘Merka.

And yes, I went walking around Berlin on a Friday night and ended up having a felafel sandwich! What of it? It was a little hole in the wall with a few picnic tables in front (one of which had some very boisterous working class German folks sitting at it) and a middle-aged Middle Eastern man behind the counter cooking up all sorts of great smelling stuff. I took about ten steps past it before I turned around and walked back into it. It felt too much like a Berlin equivalent of what I call the Classic Chicago Cholesterol Hut to pass by.

I ended up just settling for the falafel instead of something nice and meaty greasy (they had some burgers that looked like they wouldn’t be a bit out of place in Chicago), but I’ve been off the meat wagon since I got here and wasn’t ready for a burger [besides they are an especially unsustainable food item and need to be phased out of existence /End Soapbox]. The next time I might have the Chicken Dinner; the sign for which I didn’t notice until I was already tucking into my felafel sandwich at one of the other picnic tables. It was probably the best felafel I’d ever had, absolutely delicious!

It’s really not that strange to eat Middle Eastern food in Berlin. I’m not sure I’ve even seen an actual German Restaurant since I’ve arrived. Tonight during my circuitous perambulations; I saw at least 7 Indian Restaurants, 5 or so Chinese Restaurants, a couple Sushi joints, several Italian Restaurants/Pizza Places, many Middle Eastern joints, and some Thai- but not a single Essen House/Brauhaus type of Deutsche Restaurant like back in the American Midwest. Of course they probably don’t stand out here and I just may not be paying enough attention. My eyes are always drawn to that which is different.

But nonetheless, there is a heavy multicultural presence (at least in this part of Berlin) such that it’s not surprising that skinheads and other German right wingers are getting their panties in a wad just like the Velveeta Eatin’ Tea Party turds back home. “I want my country back/Ich will mein Land zurück!”

Well, tough titty to both of y’all! It’s just one big globe now, and the illusory conceit of “pure” culture has gone the way of the rotary phone. Just like the concept of national borders.

Europe will soon find it can’t stop the waves of African and Arab people seeking sanctuary and survival any more than the US could stop the tide that continues to roll in from Latin America. No matter how many fences you build, no matter how many patrols you send out, no matter how many dipshits with rifles, binoculars, and coolers plop their asses down in lawn chairs.

When things get too shitty and/or dangerous in a place, people are going to go where it’s better; or where they think that it’s better, or where they heard from a cousin of somebody’s friend that it’s better. If you don’t like it, do something to make the places they are coming from less shitty and dangerous. And if you do manage to keep them out, prepare to watch your agricultural system fall to pieces (like in Alabama and Georgia) because there’s nobody to pick the freaking crops.

There’s a part of me that sardonically chuckles at all the Europeans, who for decades have decried America’s intolerance toward the torrent of Latinos surging across its border (or Haitians or Cubans in boats), but suddenly are spouting the same rhetoric as an Arizona Militiaman now that they are facing their own tide of dusky desperate humans washing up on their shores. Get used to it, my friends, it’s the true New World Order. Just like freak heat waves, droughts, and unusually powerful storms.

Ooops! I seem to have climbed back up on that soapbox again. My apologies.

My walks have been getting longer and longer, and this is my first night walk. I’m trying to get used to navigating in cities without a grid. Chicago’s almost perfectly Cartesian layout has spoiled me in the decades I have lived there, and when I go to other places now I get easily disoriented. The capillary configurations of Chinese cities confounded me back in 2010 and I’ve been using Berlin as a practice field to try and get some ability to find my way in non-linear layouts.

I walk along without the aid of a map for a while, going by feel and following what looks interesting. Then I will attempt to work back towards the place where I started, following what I think is the correct compass heading in my mind. Eventually the certainty that I am going the right way will break down, and I will consult my map to make sure that I am where I think I am. The more I do this the better I get and now more often than not I am almost exactly where I thought I was.

I’m also trying to get the feel/smell/vibe of this city, and I know from my experience as a tourist guide in Chicago that the “real” essence of a city isn’t found where all the tourists go (or are told to go); it’s in those out of the way nooks and crannies that look scary and forbidding to those who travel on packaged tours and stay in brand name hotels. You could learn more about Chicago in one Saturday night at the now long departed Lakeview Lounge than a hundred nights at Navy Pier.

But tonight’s foray has been the longest yet by far, and my feet and legs ache tremendously. It’s time to stop pecking at this keyboard and get some sleep. Gute Nacht, Berlin!


An Unexpected Sonata

I’m sitting in my room on Saturday morning recovering from my big Friday night walk, when I hear the sounds of a live cello being played with great skill from somewhere in the building. I mentioned it to R & C later on and they said that a downstairs neighbor, T, is a retired Professor who has been hosting Classical Music Mini Concerts (a true European Salon) out of his apartment for many years. The cello I heard was no doubt someone preparing for another session at some point. They said they had been to a few; sometimes T puts invites into people’s mailboxes, other times it was just a matter of running into him a day or so before one was to occur. I hoped that one or the other would happen so I might have a chance to hear that cello player (or any classical virtuoso) from a shorter distance.

Fortunately, C ran into him while getting the mail that very afternoon and he told her there was to be a cello/piano recital that very evening and that they (me included) were invited to attend. This made me quite excited, as I adore classical music (though I don’t know as much about it as I’d like) and consider all live music performance (all live performance actually) to be a sacred act.

When I was a child, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra would occasionally come to my hometown to play concerts in the High School Auditorium (kind of an outreach program to the sticks I guess), and my parents would always make me come along with them. Although I often resisted when I was younger (sometimes because I felt it was uncool for a young rocker, other times because I didn’t want to dress up in nice clothes), yet once things got started I would be captivated by the sheer force of a live symphony (a seriously intense experience that I cannot recommend highly enough). And I’ve listened to classical radio over the decades and always told myself that I would seriously get into it once I was in my 50’s (having recently turned 52 I suppose I best get on that forthwith).

Anyway, I digress yet again.

We all went down to T’s apartment at the appointed time and were greeted by him at the door. His place was a smaller version of R & C’s, and there were floor to almost ceiling bookshelves in the front hall jammed with books in German and English on all sorts of fascinating subjects (History, Music, Culture, Politics, Philosophy etc.). The room where the musicians were going to play had shelves jammed with books on one wall and then ones stacked high with classical CD’s on another, plus TWO baby grand pianos, one in each opposite corner. This was some SERIOUS Old World Culture.

People were already there and many of the chairs in the main room were taken, so I tried to grab a chair in the back of the adjoining overflow room; overcome by my usual shyness and feeling like an uncultured buffoon (which of course I was) in my Target ensemble of black khakis & black polo shirt. But T shepherded me into the main room and a chair right up against the end of the piano that was to be played and directly behind where the cellist was to sit. Well, at least I was going to get some good sound!

Stranded by myself in this little island, I made nervous small talk with a woman who turned out to be T’s sister, and was about as proper of a German Frau as you could imagine. Eventually the musicians entered the room and the concert began.

T made a long introduction in German welcoming everyone there and expounding upon his series of concerts (I could only catch a word or phrase here and there), which had been going on for thirty-plus years. The musicians began with a sonata by Gabriel Pierne (I’m typing off of a program given me, BTW) which was quite soft, mellow, and entrancing. The late evening sun was shining through the window and everyone was trying not to nod off, despite their enjoyment of the music (it’s apparently a common occurrence at these Salons). My seat was the best in the house, the piano was going directly into my skeleton and I could read the sheet music over the cellist’s shoulder.

The next sonata was by Camille Saint-Saens and was quite moving, that much music done by such skilled practitioners in that small of a space was incredibly intense. It was all I could do to keep from weeping with joy at the beauty of it. The sonata concluded and the musicians left to take a break, making the international symbol that everyone should drink.

During the break I had a chance to check out the books more closely. An incredible array of works, like an overview the last 400 years of Western Culture. Also had a nice conversation with a German man who taught German Language and Culture at a University in France.

The musicians returned for their final piece, a sonata by Gabriel Faure, written later in his life and during WWI. It was an incredibly robust and heartfelt piece and the musicians dove into it with gusto. This time I couldn’t contain my emotion and by the end of the piece I was unsuccessfully fighting back tears. I was a tad embarrassing, but I wasn’t the only one, and the musicians were obviously quite gratified at the effect their work had upon us.

I thanked T for the concert and he said I should thank the musicians instead. I wanted to do so but they were cloistered in a closed room (no doubt coming down from what must have been an amazingly intense performance high). R & C wanted to go back upstairs and the thought of being by myself in the midst of such a cultured group of people was more than my shyness could bear, so I headed up as well. But I was immensely grateful that I got to experience such a wonderful interlude.




The Jam Giveth And The Jam Taketh Away

In retrospect, I should have stressed in my first dispatch from Berlin what a rarity it is to be able to walk into a jam in an unfamiliar locale and get plugged into the mix as easily as I was last week.

Many factors are at play, particularly the players who are in attendance on a given night and what music is getting played. Jams tend to regiment over time and regular ensembles form and do the tunes they are comfortable with, and it’s often difficult for someone new to even be fit in at all. There is also a pecking order and etiquette that is flouted at one’s peril.

My second go round at Rickenbackers was a bit anti-climactic. With the heat wave beginning to grip the city, both nights (Monday night it was still hot as hell even at 10PM and it was like an oven inside the club) had much sparser attendance in terms of audience and musicians, and most of the folks I played with the week before not even there. ST wasn’t in on Tuesday night for the Blues Rock Jam (and there were more local harmonica players) so I wasn’t able to get on at all. Although I had a great time listening to the music.

But on Monday night I broke several of the top rules of The Jam and paid the price: 1. Don’t force your way into a situation where you’re not welcome, especially with musicians who play music you’re not comfortable with. 2. Don’t be too intoxicated when you play. 3. Don’t be motivated by anything other than a desire to express yourself musically. 4. Accept the fact that sometimes you just don’t get on to play.

The main folks I had played with the Monday before also weren’t there (the sultry San Francisco Chanteuse and a German Bassist/Guitarist/Keyboardist woman) and it came to the last session of the night with the ensemble onstage playing funk and pop covers (not my wheelhouse). The guy who wrangled the players (a.k.a. the Jam Leader) had told me he’d try to get me on to play something bluesy, but that wasn’t a promise since he wasn’t the leader for that session. The Jam Leader sort of chooses the main players/ensemble for each session but the Session Leader has ultimate authority over what gets played.

There was a new singer in the house who sat in with that last session to do one tune. She was a gorgeous woman with an angelic voice who brought the house down on a pop cover. She did another pop cover (an encore you might call it) and again rocked the roof off the place. The Session Leader said something to the effect of “If there aren’t any more singers in the house we’re going to call it a night” and it was the perfect place to end things.

But there were some wild ladies who had seen me play the week before and wanted to hear me again and they urged me to step forward. I should have just let it slide and let things end, but I was a bit tipsy (not that much to drink but dehydrated and empty-stomached) and wanted to impress them (WTF Mike?), so I foolishly came forward and took the stage.

The Jam Leader was playing bass and the Session Leader, who was American and more than a bit of an arrogant prick (aren’t we all?!), was on guitar. We talked for a bit and I asked them if they could play something bluesy in A or D that I could riff over, and it seemed like they agreed- but then they launched into a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”—a bit of a dick move but I should have just smiled and walked off the stage and let them close things out. Instead, I called them on it and kind of demanded they play something bluesy like they said- directing my pleas to the Jam Leader (who was like “It’s not my call”).

They started again and the groove was a bit more funky than I like (I play almost everything but Funk is my musical kryptonite) but I surged forward trying to fit my Blues Peg into a Funk-Shaped Hole. I was doing OK but I wasn’t on the top of my game (angst, heat, & alcohol), plus Session Leader was sneering at me every second while they played. Instead of a Jam it was more of a brawl with me taking on 6 opponents, yet I managed to leave the stage metaphorically standing (albeit bloodied).

The wild ladies (and many of the folks in attendance) still dug it, and as I stepped down the wild ladies came up and congratulated me (although they wondered what was up with Session Leader). They said they would come back tomorrow night to hear me again on the Blues Rock Night. Session Leader (who was still onstage packing up his stuff) overheard this and started woofing and talking shit “Yeah, you come back for tomorrow night, tonight is for REAL musicians!” etc. etc.

Having understood that I shouldn’t have gone up there in the first place (and had breached Jam etiquette in multiple ways), at first I ignored him and just kept talking to folks as he continued spouting off. Then I went outside and talked to the Jam Leader for a couple minutes (he was kind of sheepish but we both knew I had brought it on myself) and sort of debriefed with him. I came back in and Session Leader was still talking his shit to the air (or maybe started again). At first I ignored him again, but then he talked some shit about the Blues “We don’t play that ratty-ass Blues here we play tight-ass killer Funk” (more like Corporate Event covers actually- plus he wasn’t nearly as good as he thought he was) and that made me see red. So I turned and walked up to the stage and started woofing back up in his face “You know, you coulda been magnanimous about shit but instead you were just a bitch!” He kept up his tirade (although not speaking directly to me or looking me in the eye- he could tell I was ready to throw down) and I kept expounding on what an asshole he was. He shut up for a bit, so I turned to join the other folks, but then he made one last diss over his shoulder as he scrambled off the stage and out the door. I turned around and screamed “And you can take your ass to an airport hotel lounge Mother…….!!!” to his retreating back.

All-in-all just a BAD SCENE. Many folks were quite shocked/uncomfortable at this raw display of American Style Aggression, and I was just plain ashamed all around. The Jam Leader came and gave me my free drink ticket (we both sort of chuckled at that) but I was definitely not in the mood for another drink; so I said my goodbyes to the wild ladies and a few other folks and made my way out.

As I was passing the sidewalk tables in the front of the place, a very nice German woman stopped me and asked what was up with me and Session Leader. Her take was that he had been pretty rude to me with the way he’d acted when I was onstage (yes, but I had never should have gone up to begin with). I was still a bit wound up but talked with her for a while as she asked me about where I was from and what I was doing in Berlin and whatnot. Then we bid each other farewell and I returned back to the apartment to come down from all the adrenaline and bad vibes.

It was all I could do not to fall into a shame spiral and get really down on myself. “Jeeezuz, Michael!” I said to myself “You left America to get away from all the anger & aggression and become your Best Self- then you go forcing your way into a Jam and getting into a woofing match with an American asshole?!” “Nice freaking job, Herr Zen-Meister!!!”

After a bit of meditation and breathing and hydration and reflection, I finally got to a “Well, live and learn” space of personal forgiveness. I promised myself to keep to the high road and respect The Jam the next night (although I hoped I’d get a chance to redeem myself a bit musically) and forever after in all my travels (a lesson I thought I had already learned).

It was only appropriate that I didn’t get to fit into a spot on Tuesday. I pretty much deserved it after the previous night. Except this time I was cool about it.


Now if only Berlin’s Weather could cool off a bit! 100 Degrees Fahrenheit is scary enough when there’s A/C to be had, and that’s a rarity here in Berlin. The few places that do have it only seem to keep things “Luke-Cold” (an ingenious phrase coined by my gracious host R).

I’m looking longingly at the weather reports where I’m heading to in Denmark, where temps in the 60’s and 70’s will seem like a soft kiss from the Goddess Of Weather.

Meanwhile, I’m hunkered down trying to keep cool and hydrated- and working on this latest mega-dispatch.

Take care, Everyone— And I Shall Type At You Again!!!

Much Love,