27 August 2006

Shitty Shoes

Paul Simon famously sang about a girl with diamonds on the soles of her shoes. In Berlin, it’s an entirely different story. When my parents lived there a few years ago, they used to laugh (for lack of a better option, I suppose) about the propensity for dog-loving Berliners to walk their pets along the city’s lovely, broad sidewalks, encouraging them to crap with impunity – and then to leave the crap sitting there. This, mind you, is a city of orderly citizens who won’t jaywalk. One might therefore expect to see pedestrians doing a series of dance-steps as they navigate their way along the Ku’damm and work to avoid the dog shit strewn about hither and yon.

But no. Berlin is a city with a multiplicity of traffics: there is human traffic, with people walking everywhere; there are joggers and runners (seemingly an anomaly in a culture of smokers, but life is full of contradictions); there is bicycle traffic, which weaves on and off the sidewalks and along special paths that also move from street to sidewalk; and cars and buses are normal, of course, but many parts of the city also have trams, snaking through curving city streets and around old neighborhoods. I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but you get the picture; much like scenes from the black-and-white movies of the 1920s and 1930s, with traffic moving at double-speed around rotaries and through broad avenues, there is a lot of movement in and around Berlin.

The cars, buses, and trams do not have much cause to worry about dog poop, I suppose, which leaves the pedestrians, runners, and bikers. Surely it is a major nuisance? While discussing this with friends who live there, someone proposed that the reason that Berliners do not scoop their poop is, simply, that there’s no law demanding they do so (as there is against jaywalking). Perhaps; but other laws exist and are broken, including regulations about biking in pedestrian areas in parks... What makes anyone think a law would change such an ingrained habit of joint human and animal behavior? (Every now and again, one does see signs about it, such as these two I saw while walking in Kreutzberg. But they’re rare.)

So, I have come to the conclusion that in fact these shitty sidewalks are really an effort by Berliners to be environmentally-sensitive. My theory goes something like this ... The dogs shit, leaving their fertilizing turds prominently placed. The bicycles race along and take the first pass at smashing the piles into smaller, more-easily-distributable chunks. Then come the runners and joggers, whose momentum makes constant shifts of direction more difficult, but whose same momentum and pounding strides pummel the crap into the next stage of oblivion, which often looks like small, brown stains dotting a particular piece of pavement. Finally, along come the pedestrians, attentions happily focused on the windows of the boutiques or the curious attire of other Berliners. Out of the corner of their eye, perhaps they see these small smudges, and perhaps they make an effort to step elsewhere – but in a city as tree-lined as Berlin, these could also just be clusters of decaying leaves, or perhaps bits of wet paper clumped together from the rain. Dog shit? No, no: dog shit comes in readily-identifiable piles!

As the King of Siam is reported to have said, “It’s a puzzlement.” Still, credit where credit is due: all this is much more environmentally sensitive than the copious plastic bags used and discarded by New Yorkers, who (by law, if not by desire) pick up their dog crap and discard it into the city-managed trash coffers, only to contribute more hard-to-degrade plastic to our landfills. In Berlin, the dog shit is just destroyed – composted and eliminated – in a collaborative, on-site process in which, one can reasonably estimate, almost every citizen at some point or another takes part.

So, enjoy Berlin, and keep your eyes open. Oh, and please remember to take off your shoes when you come in the house. Danke!

22 August 2006

Absolute Friends - A Review

Absolute Friends may not be the best book for le Carré beginners. I say that because I was one – this is the first of the English spymaster’s books I have read – and whatever I might have expected was, wholly, not what I got. That’s neither better or worse than it sounds. It happens that I took this book along on a vacation in Berlin – and much of the story takes place in that previously-divided city, during the days when students were rebelling against the WWII generation’s continued control of both Germanys, and when it was a center of Cold War intrigue. In fact, in many ways that is the story: rebellious student friends who grow up (sort of) and continue to rebel, in their way, against the dominant paradigms that seek to use and abuse them. (If one can still talk about “dominant paradigms” with a straight face.)

For a vacation in Berlin, it was terrific; even more than a decade after reunification, the city hasn’t lost all of the feel of that previous, Cold War era. For an American adamantly opposed to the Bush-Blair Iraq war nexus of lies, deceit, and population control through fear, Absolute Friends may stand as one of the best attacks (in novel form) on that collective set of crimes against humanity and decency. Le Carré pulls no punches in arguing that the Iraq war was neither a preemptive attack against an imminent threat or a noble humanitarian effort to overthrow a dictator, the two principal claims made by Mssrs. Bush and Blair. That the book was written several years ago does nothing to diminish the author’s arguments, given the continuing chaos in Iraq (otherwise known as American failure to win either the war or the peace there). The strongest, most powerful, and most disturbing part of the story comes towards the end, with the revelation of deceit and manipulation on a rather grand scale; this is, sadly, all too easy to imagine in a world of color-coded terrorist threats and unresolved “events” of one kind or another.

My biggest problem with Absolute Friends is that, strictly speaking, very little happens; it is perhaps the most cerebral, least action-oriented spy novel I have read. Whether this is consistent with le Carré’s general style I cannot say, and the lack of spy-world arcana need not be a turn off for the dedicated reader of this genre. It is a thriller, there’s no question about that, with a political punch. It just might not be the most thrilling thriller out there.

19 August 2006

More on Berlin

This time about das Berliner Mahnmal -- Berlin's new-ish holocaust memorial...

More, less depressing, thoughts on Berlin coming soon.

12 August 2006

On the other side...

Thoughts on Berlin...