Saturday, June 15, 2013

German Beer is Like Obama (aka Berlin)

J and I were in Berlin most of last week, as in 7-10 days ago, thanks to the Humboldt Foundation.

Some of our time was the Humboldt's. For most of this time we were at one food-less orange juice reception or another -- I mean, I've never been offered so much orange juice in my life -- or on a bus crawling through traffic on the way to the next food-less orange juice reception, but we had a couple highlights. At the Humboldt annual meetings we heard a great talk about how we humans have more DNA in common with Neanderthals than scientists previous thought (Neanderthals are not our direct ancestors, but apparently anti-miscegenation laws were pretty weak a few hundred thousand years ago). The Neanderthal Genome Project is now complete! We also visited a castle right in the middle of Berlin's Central Park (the Tiergarten) where Joachim Gauck, the President of Germany, lives.

Ok this castle was in the president's castle's backyard. 177 kids of Humboldt Fellows descended on Berlin, as the Alan Alda- and mad scientist-looking head of the foundation stated repeatedly. That's a lot of face painting. Meanwhile, although we still can't understand that much German, President Gauck's speech to us over orange juice was luckily full of enough platitudes about the need for open science and international cooperation that we could follow him.

Germans love Lego as much as play castles. I'd show the the picture of the huge giraffe lego sitting randomly in front of an office building, but blogger keeps rotating the damn image.

We did a lot of Berlin Wall-related stuff. First up was the remains of the wall that are now in a park on the south side of the city. David Hasselhoff is always here protesting the Wall's continued destruction for condos, but we didn't see him.

Next was Checkpoint Charlie. I've already blogged about the complexities of historical commemoration in Germany, but, um, is it really necessary to kitsch-ify the Wall with fake border guards, given how many people died trying to cross it?

And really, Charlie's Beach? 

Brandenberg Gate is similarly kitsch-ified. Does Berlin really need the tax revenue so badly that they need to say yes to these vendors? Someone told us that the border guards sometimes strip as well as give out fake visas, but we didn't see much evidence of that. These women loved him regardless.

The final Wall stop was the amazing complex in the northern part of the city, where much of the no-man's land in between what were two walls still survives. This area is on a street where, early after the wall's construction, some East Germans were literally able to jump to the West out of the upper reaches of their apartment buildings.

The former East Germany is at the top of the image.

Berlin's museums are amazing. We saw so much art (and so many requisite pots from early Germanic tribes), that I won't even try to write about it. So let's just show the Bruegels and move on.

Well, ok, the Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon deserves a poached photo. This museum is worth the hype. 

And of course we visited the DDR Musuem, complete with a Trabant, the main East German car.

They also had a DDR highrise living room. Um, what does it tell you about what's happened to the cost of housing for our generation that the place looked pretty big to us?

One of the main goals of the trip was to chase down an American-style Pale Ale or IPA, which I didn't think would be so hard. But it seems that despite all of the reading and drinking and blogging, I still underestimated the depths of the brewing crisis here in Germany. I had assumed that Tübingen was simply behind the times, but that Berlin would be filled with small and experimental breweries. Not the case. Folks, we need an emergency paternalistic philanthropic action over here. I'm thinking of a fleet of American food trucks reconverted with various casks that will drive around Germany dispensing free tasting glasses of porters and saisons and stouts and IPA to the masses ... Even the head of the Humboldt Foundation must have been a little embarrassed when, at the end of the talks, when we were about to be released for dinner, and after one of the talks had extolled the virtues of German beer, he encouraged us to go back to the reception area and drink some great Weiss beer (the tyranny of orange juice finally being broken) -- only to discover that the only option was Becks. 

Which of course, to repeat, does not mean that aspects of German beer culture are not fantastic. One of our first stops was Hofbräuhaus. It's one thing to visit Hofbräuhaus in Munich in 1993 with your college roommates, a whole other layer of Germania to visit it in Berlin, which is about as Bavarian as Kansas. We had met a fellow Carleton graduate, Andrew, on the Humboldt trail.

While on the subject of Germans playing being German, the food was great. Each table of 6 people received one of these (in addition to a massive platter of Käsespätzle).

I know I've griped a lot on this blog about the lack of vegetables, but I've been unfair. Humboldt Fellows come to Germany from around the world, so of course many are vegetarian. But luckily the organizers thought of everything and arranged for vegetarian platters.

Notice the orange juice and the gravy. Why do I have a hard time believing that the gravy was vegetarian?
As I've written before, you can't make this stuff up. Those aren't potatoes, by the way -- they're a strange potato/flour dumpling concoction known as Knödel.

I was more optimistic about finding an IPA when we went out with Bonnie and Jim's daughter Lauren. She and her boyfriend took us to an excellent Vietnamese place, where I was sure the Pils train would finally derail. Nein. The only offerings there (obviously geared toward extracting maximum profits from hipsters) were Czech and Vietnamese lagers in bottles. By this point, between Obama's rough couple of weeks and my thirst for American beer -- and given the fact that the president is visiting Berlin next week -- I got to thinking that German beer is like Obama. They are both, at root, very solid, intelligent, and reliable, and each reflects proud national traditions. They are also both incredibly frustrating and cautious to a fault, and sometimes they seem to go through the motions. And every once in a while, just when you are about to lose faith in them, they draw you back in, like Obama did with his remarkable second inaugural address. Of course, the comparison only goes so far. German beer culture's problem is a national complacency based on past glory. Obama's is the most obstructionist Congress in history (you should read this piece on the myth of Obama's failure to arm twist) and the fact that more than 60% of Americans believe in the literal story of Noah's Ark. But work with me here ...

Hope sprang eternal when we had pizza with our Manhattan friends Derek and Sarah and Sophia and Stella (Derek is fearlessly leading a KSU trip in Germany). Judging by their expression, the girls seemed to be plotting something nefarious for the evening ...

It was great to catch up with everyone, the pizza was fantastic, and the outside space was perfect ... all was well in the world except all Duo Forni could offer us was the completely average local Pils. And yes, it's called Berliner Pils.

More drastic action was needed. Having done a ton of research on the very few Berlin brewpubs that try anything interesting, I dragged Derek halfway across town -- two long walks and a long tram ride -- to meet our new friend Andrew at Brauhaus Südstern, whose webpage touted three IPAs among their "special beers." So imagine my reaction when we entered and saw the following sign:

A light, a dark, a wheat, and a pils! In other words, business as usual -- even in a brewpub. I was sure that the young Berlin hipsters would be horrified at this oversight, but then it dawned on me that there were no young hipsters chasing IPA. Just a 40-something American living in Germany and his two slightly perplexed companions. Indeed, the crowd was old-ish, drawn to the bar to listen to some horrible American folk rock that gives alt-country a bad name. And at one point a bunch came outside and converged right next to our table to engage in what J and I call a "smoke-out" -- when at least 3 cigarettes surround you (one of the things we most dislike about Germany). 

Sigh, it was all enough to make you want to give up on German beer, and maybe vote Republican. Bizarre that they'll take David Hasselhoff but draw the line at Pale Ale.

But in the end, I did not lose faith. On our last afternoon, we went to the Prater Beergarden smack dab in the middle of Berlin. The setting was fantastic, it was the kind of perfect, temperate-with-big-puffy-clouds-and-sun afternoon that Germany specializes in, and the Bretzel was the best of the trip. Although I still think Germany could borrow from American beer culture while still retaining what is great about its own, this fresh and delicious Pils in an idyllic setting with my best friend was one I'll probably be babbling about in the nursing home. And as we sat under the trees, happily watching disparate Berliners come and go and reflecting on how lucky we are 

it dawned on me that a) I am done playing nice with the self-righteous, theocratic ^%$#s in Utah who deprive us of real beer on tap and b) it's still remarkable that we elected someone who uses (or at least used to use) the word "market failure," who has read Neibuhr, who understands that excessive inequality is eating away at the fabric of the U.S., who seems familiar with counter-cyclical fiscal theory even if he can't explain it to Joe Sixpack, who acknowledges that the planet is warming, and who has done a decent job cleaning up some of Bush's messes (even if we all know that Iraq and Afghanistan are not going to end well; there's a few trillion down the drain). I wish he would stop thinking his enemies will listen to reason, and I wish he did not continue so many of Bush's civil dis-liberty policies, but I'm going to stop grumbling for awhile at both Obama and German beer. Who knows, maybe next week, in Berlin, Obama will share with the Germans his recipes for White House Honey Blonde Ale, White House Honey Porter, and White House Honey Brown.

1 comment:

  1. I was impressed by the Brandenburg Gate, but the "performers" were a little undignified. They reminded me of the time we spent walking near Hollywood and Vine in LA last summer, watching people get their pictures taken with shabby looking guys in Batman and Spiderman costumes.