Category Archives: Germany

Why Do All My Pictures of Northern Europe Suck?


In the eight years I’ve lived in Northern Europe, I don’t think I’ve taken one good picture of it.


The problem, I’ve concluded, is the flatness.


Not just the low altitude. Even at its postcardiest, the land here seems to merge with the water, then with the sky.


Last year I read this Stephen Jay Gould essay where he talked about how the human mind is designed to notice variance over constants.


Like how the roar of a waterfall is ignorable, but a drippy faucet, a fly trapped in an empty room, is unbearable.


It’s easy to come up with examples of this in hearing, but harder with seeing.


Lately I’ve been trying to explore my surroundings more. Get out of Berlin, bike quaintward, see how northern Germany looks after the freeways thin out.


I wish I could say I’d discovered some hidden gem, a town, a forest, rich in history, poor in gift shops.


But I really really haven’t. Everywhere you go, it’s water, land, sky, different amounts but always the same mixture.


Back home, the scenery makes you feel tiny. You’re a speck on a mountain, a dot in a lake.


Here, it makes you feel tall, like you’re the only punctuation in a long sentence.


Maybe that’s why all my pictures all look the same. I’m used to looking for the drip, when everyone around me is listening to the roar.


Filed under Berlin, Germany, Pictures, Travel

Things I Thought While Hanging Out at a Fancy Spa

Yesterday I spent all day at a fancy spa. I’ve never done this before (a birthday was involved), so the day ended up being a kind of experiment to see if I’m the kind of person who might in the future.

Here are my findings:

  • Spas, as a business model, seem to be primarily about positioning. The spa we went to had a bunch of hot tubs, some saunas, a ‘steam bath’ (I felt like broccoli) and a big pool so salty you float . It was all very pleasant, but at least three of those things are readily available at municipal pools all over Berlin. A spa day costs $30, entrance to a swimming pool costs around $4. We paid, essentially, to say we went to a spa rather than a swimming pool. 
  • Since this is Germany, the nakedness was mandatory and ubiquitous. The norm at spas seems to be: If you’re sitting or otherwise stationary, you must be naked. If you’re in motion, you must be wrapped in a towel. I don’t care to speculate as to why this is the case.
  • After living in Northern Europe for eight years, my relationship with nudity has gone through phases. When I first moved to Denmark, I was like ‘I could never go to a sauna oh my god me naked is horrifying.’ Then I did, then I did again and again and again (you get invited to saunas a lot when you live in Denmark) and I got used to it and started to sort of like it. That freedom nudists are always talking about is a real, if fleeting, thing. Then that wore off, and now I’m just indifferent. Naked, not naked, whatever. 
  • I am aware of the irony that my comfortableness being naked is, as I get older, negatively correlated with how good I look being so. 
  • The only thing I actually like about nakedness-mandatory situations at this point is looking at other people. Maybe I’m not supposed to like admit that or whatever, but the human body is totally fascinating. The diversity of proportions alone is worth a coffee table book, or at least a Tumblr.
  • The only that really surprised me about the bodies yesterday was how much plastic surgery was on display. Lots of inflated lips, tucked tummies, stationary boobs. I may be the first naked gay man to say to another naked gay man ‘oh my god: these tits’ in a semi-public setting.
  • And another thing: It’s genuinely meaningful that no matter where you go in Berlin, you’re likely to see gay canoodling. Yesterday the big salty pool was primarily peopled with couples holding each other and floating around like slow-motion bumper cars. Some of the couples were straight, some were lesbians, some were gay dudes. No one seemed to notice or care.
  • The other reason the gayness stood out for me is that it was really the only thing you can tell about naked people. Without clothes to tell you someone’s social class or category—goth, chav, rich prick, hipster, etc.—you really don’t have anything to go on. I was alarmed at how disconcerting I found this, and at the relief I felt when I realized I could use eyewear, flip-flops and reading material to categorize people. Phew.
  • It’s sort of funny how spas have this quasi-therapeutic framing. You often hear people (OK, northern Europeans) talk about how sitting in the sauna all day ‘pushes out toxins’ and is ‘cleansing’, as if those concepts exist and have meaning. 
  • Part of the package yesterday was a massage, and my masseuse, thumb-deep in my kidneys, kept saying things like ‘oh you have so much tension here’. When I told her I was a runner, she told me she’d pay special attention to my legs to ‘loosen them up’. Spending a Sunday in the sauna is a super-pleasant, and massages are objectively the best thing ever, but I think the health benefits are less based in scientific evidence and more based in the human need to think that anything weird and slightly taxing must have a purpose beyond itself.
  • I don’t know if this is related to the previous point, but after six hours I was exhausted. Exhausted like I had just run up a hill, rather than sat in various configurations of warm water underneath one. And so ravenous!  

Conclusion: Hella fun, hella doing this again. Just next time, I’m bringing higher-class flip-flops.

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Will I be pretty, will I be rich?

The program for the destruction of severely handicapped and mentally ill Germans, […] set up two years before the Final Solution: Here, the patients, selected within the framework of a legal process, were welcomed in a building by professional nurses, who registered them and undressed them; doctors examined them and led them into a sealed room; a worker administered the gas’ others cleaned up; a policeman wrote up the death certificate.

Questioned after the war, each one of those people said: What, me, guilty? The nurse didn’t kill anyone, she only undressed and calmed the patients, ordinary tasks in her profession. The doctor didn’t kill anyone, either, he merely confirmed a diagnosis according to criteria established by higher authorities. The worker who opened the gas spigot, the man closest to the actual act of murder in both time and space, was fulfilling a technical function under the supervision of his superiors and doctors.

The workers who cleaned out the room were performing a necessary sanitary job — and a highly repugnant one at that. The policeman was following his procedure, which is to record each death and certify that it has taken place without any violation of the laws in force. So who is guilty?

[…] Once again, let us be clear: I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I am guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did. With less zeal, perhaps, but perhaps also with less despair.

That’s from Jonathan Littell’s ‘The Kindly Ones‘.

Reading the novel’s first few pages (all of the above appears before, like, page 10. This book is Not. Fucking. Around.), I keep wondering if the post-WWII generation is the first in history to live with this understanding, that they might have acted monstrously if they were born in different circumstances.

I don’t know how previous generations and civilizations looked upon their history, but I doubt it was with as much guilt and apology as we do. From colonialism to slavery to segregation to 1980s shoulderpads, everything I’ve learned about history combines to form a sort of collective cringe.

I wonder if this began with the struggle to teach Nazism to the people who had survived it, fought against it, participated in it. When I learned about Hitler’s Germany, it was always with an acknowledgement that it could have been me on either end of the rifle or the gas chamber. I was asked to empathize not only with the victims, but with the perpetrators, in a way I wasn’t with other historical episodes.

Maybe it’s because the history is so proximate. Maybe it’s because the people committing the crimes, and dying of them, look like our friends, dress like our grandparents, write and talk like our movies. Maybe it’s because a whole society was at fault. Maybe you learn about the moral capsize of an entire civilization, and you just naturally put yourself inside it. 

I have no idea if this is genuinely new to the time or place in which I grew up. I don’t know if French schoolchildren in the early 1900s were asked to imagine themselves committing atrocities during the Napoleonic wars. I don’t know if Spanish kids were told that it might have been them branding apostates during the Inquisition.

But I’m glad to be reading Littell, I’m glad we look at our histories this way. Honesty beats triumphalism, I hope. I wonder how it changes the way we think. I don’t know if it makes us guilty, but I certainly hope it makes us careful.


Filed under Berlin, Books, Germany, Serious

Small Talk Is Horrible. And Everyone Should Know How To Do It.

Small talk is one of the rare social activities we perform where both people involved a) aren’t enjoying themselves and b) know the other person isn’t either. I know you hate talking about the weather, you know I hate listening to you talk about the weather, I know you know, you know I know, yet on and on we go, la la la.

Like a chess game, we play out the initial, routine moves like a sort of ritual (‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘How was your weekend?’) until we get somewhere neither of us has been before. Then we start paying attention.

Yet small talk is weirdly important. Most of your best friends began as people with whom you made inane, obligatory chitchat (‘So, how do you know Steve?’) in a bar, a classroom or a workplace somewhere. It’s like our entire species has decided, hivelike, that before we ask about things we like hearing, or talk about things we like saying, we want to make sure you’re capable of engaging in content-free pleasantries for at least 2 minutes.

I’m fascinated by how this differs across cultures. As anyone who has ever traveled, lived abroad or hosted an exchange student knows, chit-chat is as culturally loaded as manners, dating, sex or food. Some cultures talk to each other everywhere. Riding the bus, waiting in line, sitting in a cafe—everything’s an opportunity to engage with the people around you.

In other countries, starting a conversation with someone you don’t know is an event that provokes stunned silence and stricken glares. The fuck, their tone of voice says as they answer monosyllabically, is this dude talking to me for?

I grew up in America, which is somewhere between these extremes, and I’ve now experienced small talk in London (chatty but aloof), Berlin (chatty when drunk or homosexual) and Copenhagen (excuse me, do I know you?).

It’s not like these countries are genetically distinct from each other. Sometime growing up, someone taught you when to engage with people around you and, if necessary, how to continue upward into actually knowing them.

It’s interesting that, with all of the talk (OK maybe just TED talks) about ‘gross national happiness‘ and how countries should contribute to the overall well-being of their citizens, how little attention small talk receives as a public policy issue.

A population that is systematically equipped to engage new people and form sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships will be happier, healthier and more productive than one without. Social support reduces stress, increases lifespan and seems to prevent everything from nervous breakdowns to cancer. Not having friends is as bad for you as smoking.

And it all comes down to small talk. The better you are at performing these introductory catechisms (‘what neighborhood do you live in?’), the more efficient you are at identifying potential friends and, ultimately, obtaining social support.

Small talk isn’t any more complicated than touch-typing, or long division, or anything else you learned in middle school. You take turns, you listen closely, you stay on topic. Like most forms of human interaction, once you look at it closely, it’s formulaic enough that it can be learned—and taught.

So why don’t countries deliberately promote conversation skills? I’m legitimately curious about this. If schools teach financial literacy and cultural literacy, why don’t they teach social literacy? Making conversation, like sending a resume or acing a job interview, is something everyone should know how to do.

Happy populations don’t just happen. Our countries taught us to add and subtract, collect and analyze, read and think. Maybe it’s time they taught us to meet each other.


Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Germany, Personal, Serious

Fast Nude Nation

This weekend I went to Warnemunde, on the Baltic coast.

It’s a typical German beach town:

Rent a towel, buy an ice cream, repeat until melanoma appears.

The only thing that surprised me was how many nude beaches there were.

Naked, restful Germans from one horizon to the other.

My friend who grew up around this area says nakedness was a big deal in East Germany. Given the frustration and unfulfillment of daily life, nudity was a way for people to feel free.

My other friend, who grew up in West Germany, was more succinct: ‘There was nothing else to do, so everyone just practiced fucking each other all the time. They got really good at it.’

Regardless of whether it’s a means or an end, ubiquitous nakedness is mostly fascinating.

It’s rare to see naked people who aren’t Hollywood toned, porn-star trimmed or reality-show tanned.

The human body, as it turns out, does all kinds of interesting things when left to its own devices. Somewhere between their clothes and their character, people are amazing just to look at. 

If they look back, it’s because that’s the only thing to do on a German beach for free.


Filed under Berlin, Germany, Personal, Pictures, Travel

Does Organic Food Taste Better?

The other day I decided to try an experiment. I bought identical chicken breasts. Two organic, two normal. I wanted to see if I could tell the difference between them after they were cooked.

The normal ones didn’t list ingredients, so I don’t know if they add saltwater or preservatives or whatever. This is socialist Germany, so I’m assuming this package would have to have a little red siren on it if they did.

Given the generally high meat quality on this continent, I feel like the organic breasts sort of need to ‘splain why they’re almost three times more expensive.

Maybe it’s just the lighting, but I must admit, the organic breasts looked nicer raw. They have clearly been bred to conform to the golden ratio, whereas the non-organics are shaped like Bolivia.

I kept the cooking method simple: Dried on paper towels, salted and peppered, fried in butter.

Verdict: The organic breasts tasted noticeably better. More juice, more chickeney flavor, less athletic little sinew to get stuck in your teeth.

But the real question is whether the slightly superior taste is worth the significantly higher price. And the answer, obviously, is fuck no. On the basis of this experiment, I’m definitely gonna keep eating non-organic chicken. Sorry planet, I tried.


Filed under Food, Germany, Personal, Pictures

Cologne Promotes Health and Wellness, One Cigarette Machine at a Time


Did these used to be everywhere in Germany?


Filed under Germany, Pictures, Travel

Germany’s Boringest City

Before I went to Cologne, everyone was all, 'There's nothing to do there!' 'Go to a real place instead!' ''It's super lame!'

And they were absolutely fucking correct.

Grapeseed?! Even their fucking crops are uncool.

You said it, street sign.

All of my photos are overly zoomed-in, to crop out as much of the surroundings as possible.

Once you get downtown, it's even worse.

Vertical strip malls punctuated by obsolete technology like horse-cops and cobblestones.

Deliberately narrow streets so you don't have to see it all at the same time.

See? Zooming again just to kill time. It's a citywide solitary confinement sentence.

Cologne's one claim to fame is this fucking upward sprawl. Old, check. Dirty, check. One photo is enough, but I took four. Out of sympathy.

Someone in Cologne told me that if humans disappeared tomorrow, this church would be one of the only structures left standing on earth in 1,000 years.

Maybe in Cologne, it just feels that long.


Filed under Germany, Pictures, Travel

From The Bottom of My Art

Through a chain of serendipities, last week I ended up at Art Cologne, a trade fair for the art industry.

It's an opportunity for galleries to show off their artists, bag new clients and reach their yearly quota for the word ‘zeitgeist’.

I was wearing collared shirt and carrying a notebook, so people thought I was there to buy. As opposed to gawk and finagle, which was closer to the truth.

The art industry is the last true alchemy left in the modern economy.

Like most developed-world business models, it doesn’t really make anything.

It takes equal parts gossip, expectation and propaganda and turns them into revenue.

Collecting art is either an expression of self, the promotion of an idea or an investment in a commodity, depending on which two people are conversing.

Art galleries work like this: You rent a space, you give it a name, you find an artist. You put their stuff on the wall until someone buys it. You take a percentage and move on to the next wall.

It’s like running a mini-mart, except you don’t actually own anything you’re selling.

Creating art may be philosophy, but selling it is pure capitalism.

After the fair, I asked a gallery owner how he decides how much a particular piece will cost.

Why does this diorama, for example, cost $45,000?

Why not $10,000? Or $200,000?

‘Darling,’ he said.

‘It costs whatever they’ll pay.’

I asked him whether the artists attended.

‘You don’t see cows at a cattle rancher convention,’ he said.

After the show, I met a British performance artist

who had a job teaching English to factory workers in The Netherlands.

Instead of teaching them terms like ‘value chain’ and ‘synergy’, she replaced all the course materials with the works of Marx and explanations of labor rights.

‘If the school finds out, they’ll fire me,’ she said. ‘But it’s not a job, goddammit, it’s art.’

After last week I still agree with her sentiment.

But maybe not her italics.

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German Honesty, Bookstore Edition

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Germany’s Only Natural Resource Is a Bunch of Whiny Nerds. And That’s a Good Thing.

This week I’m reading Michael Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations. It’s an investigation of why countries are good at certain businesses but crappy at others. Why is Switzerland  good at making chocolates, South Korea good at making TVs and the United States good at making laptops in China?

There’s a whole chapter on Germany. We’re gonna need a bigger highlighter.

In Germany, the engineering and technical background of many senior executives produces a strong inclination toward methodical product and process improvement. […] These characteristics lead to the greatest success in industries with high technical or engineering content (for example, optics, chemicals, complicated machinery), especially where intricate and complex products demand precision manufacturing, a careful development process, after-sale service, and hence a highly disciplined management structure. 

Porter says Germany is a rock star at high-grade manufacturing (think BMW, Bayer and Merck) because as far back as the 1890s, German labor was expensive, so companies had to train workers and automate production to get the most productivity for their money. Germany still has years-long apprenticeship programs, and factory floors are apparently more likely to resemble a Bjork video  than a Dickens novel.

Another reason for Germany’s tech-nerd prowess is its lack of natural resources. Without an infinite spigot of oil, minerals or farmland, German companies got good at wringing every last mark out of their imports. When the rest of the world began to demand conservation and efficiency, German companies were there to meet it.

So Germany is a world leader in high-level exports not because it had natural advantages but precisely because it didn’t:

Disadvantages, […] such as high labor costs or resource disadvantages, have created further beneficial pressure. […] A good example is in the agricultural field, where farmland is scarce and labor expensive. The result is a pressing need for high productivity, and Germany had the greatest number of combines per harvestable hectare in the European Community in 1983. German agriculture also placed a very early emphasis on fertilizers as far back as the nineteenth century.

So where does Germany suck?

[…] An area where Germany has serious weaknesses […] is in the consumer sector. The historical lack of television and radio advertising (the major television channels can show advertising only about 20 minutes per day, with commercials all bunched together, and not on Sunday), coupled with the technical orientation of most German managers, means that image marketing skills are poorly developed.

[…] It is rare that a German firm succeeds in an industry in which intangible brand images and mass communication are important to competitive success. This is in stark contract to the case in America, Italy, or even Japan.

Porter’s book was published in 1992, so the specifics are out of date, but the general point still stands. Germans are visibly less image-oriented than their Italian, French, Scandinavian or British counterparts.

My personal theory on this is that the total eradication of social structures after World War II basically took the class system with it. The primary reason people are interested in fancy clothes, reflective shoes and asymmetrical haircuts is to demonstrate their class status, and in Germany that concept doesn’t really exist anymore. In France and Britain all of your consumption, from your clothes to your groceries, is class-coded. In Germany everyone pushes a cart around the dollar store in their sweatpants on a Saturday afternoon regardless of their income.

I think this still holds true too:

German buyers, both in households and in industry, are sophisticated and extremely demanding. Quality is insisted upon, and no one is bashful about complaining if it is not delivered. Buyers in the United States are often early buyers of new products or services but are not particularly demanding by international standards. German buyers may be somewhat later, but are among the toughest in the world.

‘Early adopters’ in present-day Germany are the people with two-way pagers.

Porter blithely notes that Germany’s dominance in high-end printing presses as far back as 1900 was partly due to the tendency of German consumers to complain to newspapers if they got ink on their hands. American readers didn’t put pressure on the periodicals, who never put pressure on the printers.

So in conclusion, according to Porter, if other countries want to emulate Germany’s success, all they have to do is torch their farmland, dismantle their oil pumps, overpay their workers and start complaining. Maybe Europe has a future after all.

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You See The Weirdest Things In Small-Town Germany

Schulzendorf, Germany, March 23

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Corbusierhaus, West Berlin

This weekend I got a tour of Le Corbusier's famous apartment block. I'll tell you what I learned:

Four identical buildings were built, two in Germany and two in France. Each is slightly adapted to its setting.

The French apartments, for example, have slightly lower ceilings since French people are shorter than Germans. Corbusier wanted the ceilings low enough so that residents could paint them without standing on a ladder.

I know it sounds like I'm making that up, but it's true. Architects are weird little dictators sometimes.

The Berlin apartments were built in 1957, as ammunition in a war of aesthetics between East and West Berlin.

Corbusier is often blamed—fairly or unfairly, what the hell do I know?—for the trend of up-built project blocks surrounded by empty green space.

In spite of all the criticism that idea receives, our guide insisted that this particular model was successful. The apartments are all occupied, there's a long waiting list.

Almost all of the apartments span two floors. Most of them consist of a narrow kitchen and living room above (or below, depending on which floor they're on) a big-ass bedroom.

The trim pattern is standard across all four Corbusier buildings, but the colors are customized to the location. These are apparently meant to evoke Northern Germany.

Indeed, staring at these you can almost smell a currywurst rotating.

All of the railings are specifically designed to be at chest-height of the average German.

The building is designed to face precisely north-south, to maximize the amount of sunlight that comes in.

The font is Corbusier's; the doodle, not.

The hallways have special corrugated roofs to reduce the echo effect you find in every other apartment hallway ever.

The walls between the apartments are thicker on the lower floors, since they're supporting more weight.

The apartments were built to isolate noise, but apparently Corbusier forgot about smells, and residents routinely complain about experiencing each others' dinners.

The laundry room was deliberately built too large for its purpose, so residents have to mingle with one another.

So the main thing I learned? If architects ran the world, our lives would be different in a number of ways. But mostly our laundry, our ceilings and our smells.


Filed under Berlin, Germany, Pictures

World in Miniature

For some reason I've started taking long bike rides every Monday after work.

About 50 percent of the time I end up making it to Potsdam.

This is the bridge where West Germany met East for 46 years.

The thing I like about living in Europe is that all the cities look like model train sets from far away.

Up close, you see the effort in all the details.

and it makes you glad you took your time getting there.

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So Far So Goethe

Last weekend I went to Leipzig.

It's big and historic and charming, and you get the feeling that if it was in another country, it would be a majorer tourist attraction.

But since Germany is already so sardined with cute cities, it's like 12th on everyone's list.

The list of former residents reads like Germany's greatest hits: Bach! Mendelssohn! Schumann! Kafka! Wagner! Leibniz! Goethe!

The rich history informs current lifestyles. In the malls, all the dollar stores are called Faustian Bargains.

The bike share scheme is called The Ride of the Valkyries.

And the gyms have signs outside that say 'Metamorphosis!' in the imperative form.

OK, those are lies, but people here probably get those references.

Leipzig has the same basic biography as most of Berlin's surrounding cities:

City founded in random location un-near river, lake or major trade route.

City gains reputation through robust university and cultural life.

City significantly bombed in World War II.

City restored to snowglobe status by East German government.

The particulars are where it gets interesting. This is the monument to when Leipzig beat Napoleon in 1813. It's shaped like a middle finger, and the Latin inscription reads 'How's the weather on Elba, punk?'

The statues inside depict sullen teenagers, as a tribute to Germany's youthful soldiers at the time.

Shortly after this was built, Leipzig became famous for cotton production, pastries and Nazi resistance.

And you can still find two of the three here today.

In the '80s, Leipzig was a site of major resistance to the East German regime. Nowadays it's an overstuffed college town, full of students and artists gliding around on bike paths.

Only here they call them Bach lanes.


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German Hospitals are Different

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Berlin Street Art Walking Tour

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Living in Berlin Lesson #471

Germans react poorly to the salutation ‘hey punk’.

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I Live in a Socialist Dystopia

From a NYTimes article on Germany’s palsied domestic economy:

Now, German states can set their own shop hours, and most have lifted restrictions during the workweek — though Sunday is still taboo in most places. Florists and bakers are typically allowed to open a few hours on Sunday.

I cannot express how frustrating it is to live in a country where everything is closed on Sundays. I mean everything. Books, clothing, furniture, electronics, groceries: These are the things you will do without for fully 50% of your weekly non-working days.

When I first moved to Europe, I thought this would be something I would get used to eventually, like paying for plastic bags or  headlice outbreaks. But at least once per week I have the same inner monologue:

‘I need [household item]. I’d better stop at the store on the way home. Oh wait, it’s Sunday. … I’ll just do without that until next fucking Saturday.

The fact that florists and bakers are the only shops allowed to be open on Sundays somehow makes this even more insulting. It’s like the government is saying, We accept that human beings need items to live, including on Sundays. But we will only allow you to purchase supplies for government-approved weekend activities.

So if you want to read the newspaper, eat a croissant and fluff some tulips on a Sunday, the government will support you. If you want to fix your bike, get a prescription filled, buy furniture or make an actual meal, the government will  thwart you.

So enjoy it, America. Next time you wake up on a Sunday, buy a loaf of bread and make toast, you’re tasting freedom.


Filed under America, Berlin, Germany, Personal