After a straight month of hard searching, we finally found a new apartment! It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, just as difficult as it is in NYC I’d say. Luckily, the prices here still aren’t as high but I just looked at my calendar and counted fifteen apartment viewings that even I bothered to write down! It’s really quite competitive.

But now we have a place and we got the keys today. It’s in Kreuzberg, so we’ll be living in a completely new neighborhood that’s very different than Mitte. Before we move in, there’s a lot of work to be done -namely, tearing down the Raufasertapete, a horrible wallpaper that’s ubiquitous in Berlin apartments. It looks like someone vomited on the wall and painted over it. I guess it’s a cheap way to renovate -rather than repairing all the dings and holes before painting, you just lay a sheet of Raufasertapete over everything.

We also have to build the kitchen. When you rent an apartment in Germany, you get a stove and sink, and usually the cheapest models the landlord can buy. We have to bring everything else, including the refrigerator. The one plus to this all is that we really have a blank slate to work with. It’s going to take time, but slowly we’ll build the place up the way we want it, make it cozy and call it home.

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Yesterday, some friends and I went to a tiny town called Linum about an hour outside of Berlin to watch an autumn spectacle: tens of thousands of cranes making a stop over in their migration from Northern Europe to Africa.

Every fall, these cranes leave their nesting grounds in Scandanavia, the Baltic countries and Poland to start making their way to southern France, Spain, Portugal and North Africa where they winter. Linum has become a favorite stop-over spot for the cranes in the last twenty years. The birds gather there in huge numbers, eating leftover grain in the harvested fields and resting up for the second-leg of their journey south.

While the numbers are constantly fluctuating, it is estimated that there are up to 80,000 cranes in Linum on the busiest days in October. There are also migrating geese as well as swan, herons and ducks -and you can’t believe the racket that this avian population makes. We arrived in Linum around midday and wandered around the fish ponds that have been created by damning the swampy land. This landscape is one of the attractions for the cranes who like to stand in shallow water while they sleep, safe from predators such as foxes and raccoons.

Several large, elevated bird blinds enabled us to get a better perspective of the surrounding ponds. Masses of birds were swimming and flying around, but none of them were cranes. They only sleep at the ponds overnight, leaving in the early morning to fly to the fields where they eat all day. We killed some time orienting ourselves and picnicking in the warm fall weather. But the sun already sets at around six o’clock these days, so we got ourselves in position by 4:30 to see the cranes returning from the fields.

At first, we all felt a little disappointed by what we expected to be the sky darkening with 80,000 cranes. Dennis had even wondered if we should have brought umbrellas to keep from getting hit by the storm of bird shit from the cranes flying overhead. Instead, very gradually we began to see V formations flying on the horizon. At first, they were made up of ten to twenty birds. Slowly, they grew to be long lines of hundreds of birds. We got good at telling he differences between the flying geese and cranes -the geese tuck their feet in close to their bodies and make sharp, fast strokes with their wings; the cranes let their long legs dangle behind them and flap their wings in an undulating, softer motion.

By the time it was getting to dark to see, there were groups of thousands of cranes in the sky and we were duly impressed. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to capture with my camera the mass effect of seeing these swarms in the sky and hearing the constant drone of a hundred thousand bird cries. But here are a few images from the day.

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My friends Matti und Silke are currently running a temporary art gallery called “Schneeeule” (Snow Owl) and putting up a different show almost every week through the end of the year. Finding space in Berlin for such a project is not as easy as it used to be, but Matti and Silke were able to find a small storefront in Berlin Carré, a 1960s mall across the street from Alexanderplatz that will be completely renovated after December. A lot of the stores are already sitting empty so it’s perfect for a temporary location like Schneeeule. But it also makes Berlin Carré feel like a ghost town, reminding me of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” zombie mall film. My friend Simon has long coined the place “Depressionszentrum” (Depression Center).

Berlin Carré, October 2012

But the site of Berlin Carré has a long history of being the commercial center of the city. Berlin’s Central Market Hall once stood here, after the city decided in 1883 to build a network of 14 covered markets across the growing metropolis. All of the halls had similar architecture -giant, looming spaces below a grid of iron tresses and decorative yellow and red terra-cotta brick facades that helped keep the buildings cool. The Central Market Hall had a large, ice-cooled storage basement and a private rail terminal. The building’s location right next to the Alexanderplatz train station eased the transport of goods from across the country and beyond.

Berlin Central Market Hall, 1896

The floor of Central Market Hall was 16,000 square meters long and had stalls for 1336 merchants who were packed in like sardines along a two-meter wide walkway. Still this new shopping center was quite a success. Previously, Berliners could only shop at weekly outdoor markets or buy food and goods from female peddlers who hawked their wares from house to house. The new market halls offered a centralized, permanent indoor location for all their needs. It’s kind of amazing that it took them so long to come up with this concept! At first, the markets were only open twice a week but soon they switched to daily hours from sun-up to sun-down, with a lunch break from 1-4 pm.

the floor plan of the Central Market Hall, curving to the contour of the train tracks to Alexanderplatz. Berlin Carré stands in the center lot north of Kaiser Wilhelm Str. (today’s Karl Liebknecht Str.).

The Central Market Hall withstood the First World War and the recession during the Weimar years, but WWII destroyed some of the original buildings. The main hall however, was able to be repaired and continued operating as market in the newly formed GDR -despite food shortages and the almost exclusive use of food stamps for sales in the first years. By 1968 however, the hall was deemed too small and unhygienic, and was closed completely.

the interior of the Central Market Hall in 1965 before it was torn down

the exterior of the Central Market Hall in 1965 looking south over Rochstraße; the building used to go right up to the train tracks

By this time, all of Alexanderplatz was under extreme transformation, as the GDR set into motion a grand architectual scheme to modernize the mostly destroyed historic city center. Berlin’s Central Market was part of this plan and was rebuilt in a clean, 1960’s boxy style as part of a residential complex stretching west along Karl Liebknecht Str. It was also rechristened the “Berliner Markthalle” dropping “central” from the name.

looking east on Karl Liebknecht Straße in 1987, the new market is inside the boxy white building before the elevated train tracks on the left

1976: a fountain in front of the new market commemorates the vendors of yore. Note also the stylized “M”s to the right below the S-bahn track, standing for “Markethalle”

After the wall came down, the market was renovated and turned into something along the lines of what it looks like today -an angular mall with an emphasis on openness and light -large glass panes instead of solid walls for the shops and a curved glass ceiling that lets in lots of light. Now, two months before another transformation, the remaining business are a strange mix of usefulness and nostalgia. A bakery, brewery and shoe repair are still open for example, but there’s also a “Museum of Letters” housing the city’s old signage and “Ostpaket,” which sells items that were once produced in the GDR.

2012: the fountain still stands, the “M”s however have disappeared -maybe they’re in the Museum of Letters?

For all it’s weirdness, Berlin Carré is definitely a place to see before the year ends. One can only imagine what new vision for the center of the city’s commerce will come next.

a bamboo and orchid motif attempts to pull together the disparate elements here

A recent trip to Hamburg lead to the discovery of a new delicious thing available growing free on the city streets: Holunder berries. Holunder is a species of Elder that is native to Europe. The English translation is Elderberrry or Balck Elder, but I don’t think they grow in the US. The Latin name however makes them instantly familiar –Sambucus nigra. It’s what the Italian schnaps Sambuca is made of. But Sambuca is flavored with anis, which overpowers the Holunder berry taste. So when Anne suggested making Holunder berry jelly together, I enthusiastically agree.

We went to pick up her kids from school and then walked to a long row of trees where the berries were growing. It had been raining earlier and it was hard not to get wet as we clipped big bundles of the berries -lovely, dark shiny clusters growing off a bright red stalk. In the spring, the same tree produces millions of tiny white flowers that Germans use to make a syrup that they sweeten with sugar and drink with carbonated water. They also make lemonade and even a sort of champagne out of it. My friend Claudia told me that her grandmother used to make Holunder flower soup.

Back home, we separated the berries from the stalks and cleaned them. Making the jelly was easy -you boil the berries briefly, strain the skins and add gelatin sugar to the juice, cooking it for  another short bout. The process can be quite messy though and by the time we poured the mixture into jars to cool, we all had stained finger and lips.

Anne sent me home with a jar with a beautiful label she designed herself -a circle of silhouetted mosquito bodies. I was back in Berlin before I tried the jelly for the first time, the jar opening with a promising pop. The jelly is a potent mixture of sweet and tart that is really addicting. Christian and I found that it goes especially well with lemon-ricotta pancakes, but it’s also very good in PB&J and just by itself on buttered bread.

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wwoof = world-wide opportunities on organic farms

Claudia and I signed up to go wwoofing for a couple days on an organic farm outside of Berlin, eager to see first hand how these things work and get our hands dirty helping the farmers. In exchange for our work we would get room and board -which the farmers warned us would be rudimentary, but we felt up for it and were really excited to go. We packed our bikes with sleeping bags and a change of clothes -just the absolute necessities and caught the S-bahn north to Bernau. We had no idea what to expect.

We arrived on a Sunday night and were surprised by the rather cool reception we got from the farmer’s wife. She was playing with the dirtiest toddler I have ever seen in my life, and told us to go find the farmer. This was a good chance to look the farm over, which was covered with greenhouses full of blossoming produce. The farmer soon pulled up with two cute Italian guys who were wwoofing there for three months. But the farmer told us he didn’t have time to show us around because there was only an hour of daylight left. He quickly gave us the task of disassembling a bed in one of the sleeping wagons. Then this handsome French guy showed up who would be woofing there for the week. This all seemed promising.

Just as it was growing dark, a young, sweet German guy showed up who had wwoofed on the farm before. He had taken a break to go to the Rainbow Gathering in the Czech Republic, and was now hoping to work on the farm for the next few months. He showed us around and explained the toilet situation -there was a bucket on the ground for liquids and an outhouse for solids. The solids would be mixed with other material and turned into compost over the next year. Claudia told me under her breath that she wasn’t sure it was a good idea to use human waste on crops meant for human consumption. But we figured a year might be enough time to make it safe. Maybe.

It was getting late and Claudia and I had not had dinner yet. The German told us that there’s lots of food in the pantry and always fresh baked bread around. We couldn’t find any bread but we grabbed some muesli, yogurt and fruit. We spent a long time cutting out the bad parts of the fruit before we were ready to eat -bruises, insect bites, mold, etc. All the dishes in the kitchen were really greasy too, nothing seemed clean. We were still keeping optimistic and knew one of the rules of the farm was no soap. Dishes (and bodies) were cleaned using clay and ashes. We graciously ate our muesli and then went to bed. We had to be up working by 6:30 am.

the rooster crows

The next morning was beautiful, the sun just rising as we were assembling in the yard. Several other guys had rode in from Berlin that morning, and we were now a crew of 15 -Claudia and I the only females. I had told the farmer I was pregnant so he gave me the easy job of weeding and loading dozens of salad seedlings onto a flatbed trailer. Claudia left with a group of the guys to go weed a field near the train station. We would all re-join for breakfast at 10:30 am.

Working by myself in the cool hours of the early morning on the farm was perhaps the highlight of my wwoofing experience. It was wonderful to be up and outside so early, and to be filled with purpose and drive. At 8 AM, the German wwoofer came and got me to help him prepare the breakfast. This is when things started to go downhill.

The German explained that we were only allowed to use produce that was deemed un-sellable or couldn’t be used in the CSA boxes they deliver to customers in Berlin each week. What was left over was old, misshaped and often rotting vegetables and fruit. I carefully picked out what I thought was salvageable, but found the German was picking up my rejects. And we still couldn’t find any bread, despite the promise of copious loaves floating around at all times.

Back in the cooking wagon (which was also where the German slept), we hatched an idea to make pancakes as a bread substitute. I returned to the pantry and found a half-dozen eggs but was intercepted by the farmer on my way back. He told me to put them back. No eggs.

Frustrated, the German pleaded with the farmer to let us use a couple eggs. No eggs, he repeated without explaining how a farmer with chickens -creatures famous for their egg-laying power, didn’t manage to have enough eggs to nourish himself, his family, his workers. Instead, he brought us some more limp chard and rotting tomatoes -and a partially consumed loaf of bread that was as hard as a brick. It had clearly been baked several days earlier and when I tried to cut of the brittle edges, the German stopped me and told me he would eat those pieces.

a farmer’s breakfast

We cooked for two hours on a wood stove, making a crazy breakfast out of what was available to us -warmed muesli with fruit juice, curried vegetables from the parts that were still edible, three day old bread with butter, salvia tea. When the crew returned from the field, they looked exhausted. Claudia’s face fell at the prospect of eating curried vegetables for breakfast. Muscles were reactivated to dish out the mueseli which had the consistency of drying cement. It was only 10:30 in the morning, but the sun was already quite strong and everyone looked tired. We ate in silence until there was short discussion about one of the Italians not feeling well. The farmer -also Italian, exchanged some word with him in their own language. I learned later that the two Italian wwoofers had only arrived three days prior. It seemed pretty clear that this guy was still adjusting to the back-breaking farm work, and possibly suffering from indigestion. But more on that later.

After breakfast, Claudia’s crew went back out to another field, this time to pull potatoes. The German and I stayed behind washed up what seemed like one million dishes. Although a sign above the sink specifically instructed that the dishwashing to be done with hot water, the German insisted on using cold. As I looked for space in the cramped wagon to air-dry everything, balancing the greasy plates and pans on top of a couple grimy dish towels, I thought to myself “no wonder nothing here is clean!” I then went to relieve myself in the “liquids” bathroom -now a hot tin pan of smelly urine behind a dirty-blanket door. I also noticed that the outhouse was gone. It had been moved to a platform directly above the compost, so that the shit would drop directly into the bin. I promised myself not to use the outhouse while I was there. Thy hadn’t built the stairs up to it yet anyway.

all in a day’s work

Then the farmer came to fetch the German and me and we hitched up the salad seedling trailer and drove to the a former beet field. Along side the field where the beets had been was a long pig pen enclosed by two rows of electrical fencing. The farmer explained to us that our task was to move the pig pen over to the beet bed, plow the earth where the pigs had been and plant the salad seedlings there. My jaw dropped. How could we possibly do this all in one day?

Moving the pigs was fairly easy -we built a temporary pen with another electric fence, luring them over with food. The farmer told us we had twenty-minutes before the pigs got restless -twenty minutes to move the entire pen over, including a large wooden house. Well, putting up the fence alone took close to two hours. Walking on the soft, uneven beet bed in the high noon sun was not easy. I didn’t seem to have enough strength to sink the electrical fence poles into the earth. Everything seemed so heavy and my stomach was hurting. I thought that maybe I should have gone to the outhouse, but now I was in the middle of a beet field with a bevy of pigs threatening to get restless at any moment. The German, who was working in his bare feet, got too close to the live fence and got a terrible shock.

But by “lunchtime” at 4:30 pm, we had succeeded in moving the pig pen and the farmer had plowed the field. The plan was to go back to the farm, eat and then come back with all the workers to plant the seedlings. I was definitely impressed by how much we had accomplished. The work was so much harder than I had ever imagined and there wasn’t a moment’s rest.

I want to die

Driving back to the farm, I was thinking that if I found the work hard, then what about Claudia who didn’t have the pregnancy excuse and had worked all day in the fields with the men. I found her in our sleeping wagon, lying on the bed and sick as a dog. She complained of a terrible headache and stomach pains and my head was racing with the myriad possibilities of what was wrong  -sun stroke, dehydration, food poisoning, exhaustion -or all of the above. Not to mention the beaucoup bacteria running rampant all over the farm. As I sat again in silence with the rest of the crew eating lunch, Claudia quietly crossed the farmyard towards the outhouse. There were still no stairs to get up there. One of the men rushed to bring her a ladder, but it wasn’t until  she was back at our wagon that the barfing began. “I want to go home,” she whimpered.

I quickly packed our stuff and we said goodbye to everyone. It was an awkward farewell, with no question of us every coming back there again. Plus the farmer was already trying to usher everyone out to the field to start the seedling planting. Some of the guys seemed genuinely concerned and rightfully disturbed by Claudia’s condition. It could just as easily have been one of them who had gotten so sick.

Claudia had a brief respite where she was well enough to ride back to the train station. But once we were on the S-Bahn back to Berlin, she got worse and worse. She told me that she had pushed herself too hard in the field, had tried to keep up with the guys and overexerted herself. “I want to die,” she said. But Claudia is a tough cookie and how she managed to get herself home and into bed that day is proof of that. She just had caught something really bad.

As I began to recount this experience back in Berlin, I felt furious about this situation and even thought about following up a friend’s suggestion to report the farm to the health department. After all, would you buy a CSA share from them after what you’ve read here? But now I am starting to feel like it was just a really strange, long day with unfortunate consequences for Claudia. Unfortunately I didn’t take a single photograph to document any of it.

Brust oder Keule

A couple weeks later, I took out a DVD from the library of the French film “The Wing or the Thigh”, a comedy from the ’70s about a food critic battling an evil business man trying to dominate the restaurant industry with mechanized factory-produced meals. Although the film focuses on preserving high French cuisine, I thought it was way ahead of its time in addressing the type of food issues that we discuss all the time today -local vs. global, chemical vs. organic, corporate chains vs. small and independent. There’s a funny scene where the critic played by Louis de Funes is forced at shotgun to eat a bunch of industrial food produced by his nemesis. He has to go to the hospital afterwards.

When I think back to my time wwoofing, I like to think of Louis de Funes in my place, making light of all the bad parts and turning it into a comedic adventure. But the irony is that the farm is the alternative that the film promoted. Unfortunately, a closer metaphor might be Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.