Ping Pong in Berlin

Savannah Morning News, July 24, 2016

We never did find a ping-pong table but we were ready, those compact leather paddles deeply ensconced in my backpack. That’s what they do in Germany and The Netherlands. They play ping pong. They love sport. They love to be outdoors. And that’s what you learn if you have friends in far places. Ping pong, that most innocent of sport, is in: when you can find a table – in a park, in a restaurant, in a bar. It’s free and there’s always someone to play with. There are coaches and teams. Ping pong is social. It includes all age groups.  But you have to carry your own paddles and ping pong ball. You have to be ready. Another thing, entirely unrelated: when it’s your birthday in either of those countries you are expected to bring a cake to your place of work. To share with others. To celebrate your birthday. Who ever heard of such?

And in Berlin when it’s the hottest day of the year if you want to take a dip in some water you wait in line at the Badeschiff to slide into a floating swimming pool in East Berlin that sits in the not so clean Spree River. We called it a barge but really it’s the hull of a boat. It was created by a local artist, Susanne Lorenz, from the City Art Project of Berlin. Once again cool ideas come from the bottom up. Take note: no one in government involved.

When people want to know what makes Berlin so creative, so modern, I tell them about the pool, yes, and about weekly outdoor movies in a park, complete with popcorn, a lounge chair and a blanket. We saw “Salt of the Earth,” a film about nature and social injustice by Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado. I mention a poster plastered to a metro station advertising Zen Yoga. Nothing so unusual about that except for the following line that caught my eye: “reimbursed by public health insurance.” What a concept. I tell them about a cozy and spare coffeehouse called Chapter One where there are several newspapers but none in English. In my 10 days in Europe I saw few English newspapers and except for the European Cup, which was everywhere, no television sets. I saw few overhead fans either. Germans don’t seem to be fans of fans. I tell them about the five-level modern steel and glass train station in Berlin with elevators, escalators, a curved glass roof, a 24-hour pharmacy and more shops than most malls.

I return to Badeschiff, the pool. Here’s another cool thing: the pool, which measures some 100 feet long and costs under $10 to get in, could hold hundreds, but they limit the number to roughly 70 people. And they hold to it. When three people get out three more are admitted. There is no time limit (except for what your conscience will allow: there you are, cool as a cucumber, talking to whoever is next to you – in our case a couple of teachers from the Success Charter school in Brooklyn.) For the record, we waited at least an hour in line. Of course the really neat time to go is late at night when the place becomes a nightclub. But we weren’t that cool.

We weren’t cool enough to get into the 24-hour Berghain nightclub either, an exclusive  place we tried to enter at the inoffensive hour of 11 a.m. Our friend in Berlin, who had never been either, thought we had a chance. Berghain, an underground dance club on the verge of gentrification, is set in a former power station in an industrial part of town that straddled East Berlin and West Berlin, another bit of geography and history that’s kind of hard to get your arms around.  She thought we could pass the cool factor – my red sunglasses and pants, her all-black outfit, someone else’s cut-out dress. But we broke a cardinal rule. We were laughing. That’s a no-no.

“I’m sorry,” said the guard at the door extending his hand which meant, “You cannot get in here.”

Rejected! I didn’t mind avoiding the techno noise on the cavernous dance floor. Neither did my knees. It’s easy not to be offended when traveling and the day and one’s sense of humor take on a life of its own. Take Hamburg, for instance, a city that’s one third water, one third park and green space and one third buildings. For two days I kept seeing the word “hamburger” everywhere – on restaurants, billboards, the sides of buildings. Who knew Germans liked that ground-beef-in- a-bun sandwich, something that always seem to be so American. Then it dawned on me. The term referred to the residents of Hamburg, who didn’t eat hamburgers any more than anyone else.

I’ll remember that slipup. I’m still laughing at it.  I’ll remember something else too. It was a story a Dutch woman told me when she and others like her no longer so enamored with the USA stated peppering me with questions about Trump and his proposed wall between Mexico and the States. It was a story attributed to George Carlin. “Why do they call it the American dream?” he asked. I don’t know. Why? “Because you have to be asleep to believe it.” There was no laughing at that one. Ping pong, anyone?



Our summer: their winter

July 17, 2016

Savannah Morning News

I can think of a million things to do in this heat. Just not at this moment. Not in the middle of a long afternoon where the plants are droopy, the cat is sprawled on the porch and I’m still bleeding from an unexpected encounter with the Spanish bayonet. The chickens are burrowed in some cozy and crazy pile of dirt. The hens look dead. I know they’re not. I also know this: none of the million things I can do in this heat involve going outside at this moment. Not while the sun is high. The cat is hungry and we have no cat food? Give her dog food. We’re out of milk for coffee? We’ll make do.  “The book you ordered is at the Bull Street library,” says the automated voice on my cellphone. I’ll take one off my shelf instead. Why read “Killing a King” (even though I’ve been waiting for someone to finish and return it) when “War and Peace” is steps away. Lots of day – and daylight – to read “War and Peace.” So what if there are all those multiple Russian names that make no sense at all. I’ve started it six times and gotten nowhere. Seven is a charm. Maybe now that I’ve been watching “The Americans,” a riveting series about a KGB-trained couple transported to the U.S. as spies, I’ll understand a little more about the Russian psyche. Maybe. Must be a Russian summer. Now I’m rereading Julian Barnes’ novel, “The Noise of Time,” an artsy, imaginative narrative about composer Dmitri Shostakovich. A little light reading, you know, a quasi-biography (but more fiction, methinks, not that memory can be anything but fiction), a commentary on mortality and death. Cheerful subjects, right? Perfect for 100-degree days. Gosh, I didn’t even mention the challenge of living under the authoritarian arm of Soviet rule. Yikes. Talk about strict.

We’re in the thick of summer. C’mon, people. Toughen up. This is our winter. This is pay back. We can do it. We don’t shovel snow, look for mittens, cover every square inch of skin before venturing outside (except for following the dermatologist’s instructions and slathering expensive and special sunscreen on our faces). We don’t worry about scraping ice off our windshields, turning the steering wheel back and forth, back and forth on black ice at 5 o’clock in the afternoon in the winter on a hill when it’s already dark, heart in throat all the while, or slipping and sliding all the way to that giant room at Optim Orthopedics, which is usually filled to capacity with people who are really not in the best of spirits. You haven’t been there? Good. I hope you never have to.

Nope. None of that for us. We wear flip-flops, sleeveless shirts, bathing suits under loose dresses. Frocks, we like to call them. We carry towels in the car.  Just in case. We walk the dogs through what seem to be empty streets, past empty houses. Where does everyone go? It’s ghostly, desolate. It’s quiet. We know which streets are shady, which lanes are sunny and when. We keep our eyes on the fig trees. They’re getting close. We plot to beat the birds. Ready, set, go.

We go to see 3-D movies like “Tarzan” and take a sweater. Maybe we go twice. We could have missed something the first time. We drive to Tybee Island at dawn to swim with the pelicans and the gulls while the giant freighters make their way against the horizon. We do a little swimming, careful to keep an eye on the shore, aware of the undertow. But mostly we bob in the water. We float. We let the waves take us where they wish, all the while knowing that July is the best time to be in the ocean because August brings jellyfish and swimming with jellyfish means long sleeve shirts and long pants.

We revel in the overhead breeze. Did you feel it? Did you feel it? Quick. Find the list. It’s time to do chores. it’s safe to go outdoors.