The Bad Monkeys European tour, part II: Germany

by Matt Ruff on February 19, 2008

If you missed it, part 1 is here.

Friday, February 1st — On the flight from Paris to Berlin, I read the second half of Nisi Shawl’s Filter House. I’ve still got a few pages to go as we come in for our first landing attempt. About five seconds from touchdown, the pilot revs the engines and pulls up sharply—it seems a cow has wandered onto the runway. OK, no, not really, it’s just wind shear. “Perfectly normal,” the pilot tells us, which makes me glad I don’t fly in here often. Anyway, I get another ten minutes reading time as we circle around. The second landing attempt succeeds.

This is my fifth visit to Germany, although I’ve only been to Berlin once before, in 1991, during the Fool on the Hill tour. It’s changed a little since then. My hotel—the Berlin Hilton—is located on the former East side, very close to where the wall once stood, so it and most of the buildings around it didn’t exist last time I was here.

After check-in I meet with Martina Kohl from the U.S. Embassy, who explains that my visit here is being cosponsored by the State Department. While I am thrilled to serve as a cultural ambassador and counterexample to George Bush, this complicates things as far as money is concerned. In France, my publisher covered all of my major expenses (like the hotel bill) upfront, and quickly reimbursed me for out-of-pocket costs. Here, I am expected to pay for everything except plane and train tickets myself, using money from a government grant, the amount of which is determined not by what I actually spend, but what a formula says I ought to be spending. 80% of the grant was to have been wired to me before I left home, the remaining 20% being withheld against delivery of my in-country taxi receipts. However, owing to a snag with the State Department email system, I never got the form I needed to release the initial grant money. This is not a huge deal—I’ve got a credit card and plenty of cash, and even if I didn’t, Hanser would surely bail me out—but it does serve as a timely reminder of why Ron Paul is still getting votes.

Dinner tonight is with my longtime German editor, Anna Leube, and two other former Hanser employees, Rebekka and Annette. Anna, bless her, is worried that I’m going to be stuck eating nothing but boring German food all week, and has made a reservation at a Vietnamese restaurant. I break it to her gently about my nut allergy, and allow as how I’d actually really love to have a wienerschnitzel. “I know we’re probably in the wrong part of Germany for that,” I say, and Anna says yes, the Vienna schnitzel comes from a very different part of Germany… But this is Berlin, they have all cuisines here, and Rebekka and Annette are locals who know where things are. We then set out on an epic quest to find wienerschnitzel. Two of the restaurants we go to are closed, and a third—very promising, with a picture of a smiling deer on the sign out front—has been reserved for a private party. We press on, and eventually arrive at Brecht-Haus-Berlin, a cellar restaurant across the street from the cemetery where Bertolt Brecht is buried. According to the menu, all dishes are prepared using Mrs. Brecht’s recipes. Mrs. Brecht clearly knew what she was about—I have a great wienerschnitzel, frittatasuppen (bouillon with vegetables and slivers of herb pancake), and, for desert, a gigantic hollowed-out lemon stuffed with lemon ice cream (the other ice cream flavors on offer are coconut and chocolate, which raises the question of what the chocolate ice cream would come stuffed in). All this, and a reunion with old friends. I am once again very happy.

Saturday, February 2nd — My hotel room’s cable package includes Al Jazeera, which I find fascinating, even though I can’t understand a word. Why can’t we get this on Comcast at home?… Oh yeah, that’s right, we’re at war with Islamofascism. Never mind. Other TV curiosities include Spiegel VOX, which, like the American History Channel, appears to devote most of its programming to documentaries about the Third Reich, and Schnuffel, a singing cartoon bunny who is in love with his carrot.

A cab takes me to my first event of the day, a radio interview with RBB Potsdam. The radio station is located on the grounds of Studio Babelsberg, the oldest film studio in the world—my interviewer, Knut Elstermann, points out the window to a set where a scene from The Pianist was filmed. He also shows me a photo of Carla Bruni, who came here during a publicity tour once, and tells me he and his colleagues are in mourning over the news of her marriage to Nicolas Sarkozy. I tell him I’m pretty sure the French aren’t happy about the wedding, either.

Back to the hotel to meet Annette Pohnert of Hanser, who will serve as the German equivalent of Marie-Laure (All hail Marie-Laure!) while I’m in Berlin. She apologizes for not being with me at the radio studio, but her flight in from Munich was delayed. Cow on the runway. Don’t worry, I say, that happens a lot here.

This afternoon I have a photo shoot, and then another radio interview. Already I am noticing a marked difference in the kinds of questions I am getting. The Germans seem much more interested in the possible political subtext of Bad Monkeys than the French were (e.g., am I trying to Say Something about the war on terror?), which is the opposite of what I’d expected. Another thing I notice that bothers me: the knowledge that I am being sponsored by the U.S. State Department makes me at least slightly more reluctant to make rude jokes about the Bush administration than I normally would be. It’s not that I’m worried that anything will happen to me, I just don’t want to jam up Martina Kohl and the other folks at State by agreeing on a nationwide broadcast that President Bush “ought to eat more pretzels.” This is how they get you, kids: they slip you a little bit of cash—or, in my case, an I.O.U.—and next thing you know you’re sticking up for The Man.

Sunday, February 3rd — Out for an early walk, I find myself at the Holocaust memorial. My first, irreverent thought is that it would make a really cool location for a sci-fi film, although you’d have to position the cameras carefully to avoid the line of cafes and beer gardens along the memorial’s southern edge. My second, more serious thought is that—as a moral lesson, at least—it’s a waste. One thing you pick up on very quickly here is that the Germans are well aware of their history, and the current generation have got the message that it’s wrong to slaughter people just because they’re different. Indeed, the Germans’ extreme reluctance to kill anyone at all, even for a good cause, has been a big source of tension with the U.S. since 9/11, and probably has a lot to do with the interview questions I’ve been getting.

Speaking of interviews, my first one of the day is with Wieland Freund of Literarische Welt, who wants to talk about the seeming contradiction between Sewer, Gas & Electric, which he feels was written from a very liberal perspective, and the “much more conservative” attitude on display in Bad Monkeys. I tell him about my deep admiration for Nicolas Sarkozy. No, I don’t.

Monday, February 4th — Tonight I have my first reading, at the Kennedy Museum in Pariser Platz. The Platz, which in postcards I refer to mistakenly as “Brandenburg Plaza,” is the site of the famous Gate. The British and French embassies are located here as well, and the new American embassy is due to open on July 4th—my appearance tonight is one of a series of cultural events leading up to the grand opening.

The reading goes well. It’s a great venue—I’m surrounded by pictures of JFK and Jackie—and my hosts have done a good job publicizing the event, so it’s standing room only. The Museum sells out its stock of Bad Monkeys copies. During the signing I meet molosovsky, aka Alexander Müller. Alexander is also an illustrator, and he takes several photos of me, one of which will serve as the basis for a portrait. It’s a decent likeness, although I’m clearly starting to show the effects of all the schnitzel:

Tuesday, February 5th — [N.B. The portion of the original livejournal post describing the events of February 5th were lost to a long-ago editing accident. The shorthand travel notes I took at the time read: “To Hamburg. Rainy city, busy day. Fortress America. Super Tuesday.” “Fortress America” is a reference to the U.S. Consulate, where I gave my reading, and where security was very tight. February 5th was also Super Tuesday in the 2008 presidential primaries, and much of the post-reading dinner conversation was about whether Barack Obama really had a shot at becoming president. The following morning I caught a train to Frankfurt, where I met up with Anna Leube and a Hanser publicist, Christina Knecht. Our Frankfurt hotel was the INNSIDE Frankfurt Eurothem, which had this amazing elevator system, the likes of which I’d never seen before: You’d enter a round elevator lobby at a corner of the building and punch in your desired floor on a keypad; this would summon one of five “sightseeing elevators” preprogrammed with your destination.]

Wednesday, February 6th — Tonight’s reading at the English Theatre is, I think, the best of the lot, with a great stage and a big, friendly crowd. When the Q&A is over I sign books for almost an hour. I meet another lj friend, shannachie. Word comes down that the stock of Bad Monkeys copies has again sold out, and both Anna and the Theatre management are happy about this.

I have a farewell dinner with Anna and Christina. By now I really am tired of German food, so I let Anna talk me into trying Indian. It’s very good. We walk back to the hotel and ride the magic elevator to the highest floor, just to see what that’s like.

I pack. Call Lisa. Sleep.

Thursday, February 7th — The long trip home. Browsing in a Frankfurt airport bookshop, I spot a copy of Kelly Link’s Die Elbenhandtasche, which I take to be a good omen. It is. My return flight isn’t a nonstop—I’ve got to change planes in Denmark—and as of this morning, I’m booked in a middle seat for the Copenhagen-Seattle leg. But in Copenhagen, after spending forty minutes in line at the Scandanavian Airlines desk, I’ll get a last-minute switch to an aisle. Thank you, fairy handbag!

Between Copenhagen and Seattle I read the last four hundred pages of Anathem, pausing now and then to peak out the window. Once again we’re flying above the Arctic Circle, but this time the sun is out, so I can see the icecap below us.

In Seattle, Homeland Security is waiting to remind me what a real customs checkpoint looks like. Actually, it’s not that bad, just tedious—although I do have to suppress a groan when the guy at passport control asks me what my novel is about. I’m sorry, sir, you haven’t been cleared by my publicist.

But I’m home! Thank you to Carl Hanser Verlag, Anna Leube, Christina Knecht, Annette Pohnert, Leonie Obalski, Helene Weigel, Martina Kohl and the U.S. State Department, the Kennedy Museum, Manfred Strack and the consulate in Hamburg, the English Theatre, cohen + dobernigg, and Alexander Müller and my other interviewers. Schnitzels for you all!

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