Finding a flat in Berlin, in 2015.

Adenauer Platz Suzanne ForbesYou might wonder what a picture of a cafe with a bunch of people eating and a large rotating ad for a sex-toy shop have to do with finding a flat in Berlin.

Sympathetic magic, I suspect.

Here is the story:

In January of 2014 we were hoping to move to Vancouver. It was our third choice city-wise, after London (my #1) and Berlin (husband’s #1). We were looking for a country with strong social welfare and a good or at least functional healthcare system, because we both have disabling chronic illnesses of various kinds that significantly impact our retirement earning capacity.

We also needed a place to make a stand for the global warming future, where we would suffer less from our extreme discomfort with hot weather and bright sun.

We wanted a place with good public transit, where everything stayed open late, where it rained a lot and was cold and grey the rest of the time.

London was ultimately ruled out because of the cost. While we knew the hubs could get a decently paid programming job, my research indicated that we would still not be able to afford the  >1000 sq. ft. flat in a hundred year old building we require for both sanity and my home studio. There was possibility on the immigration front, because my mother was born in Scotland, but it looked dicey; the matrilineal lineage rules for repatriation have changed twice in my lifetime.

Ultimately Vancouver was ruled out on the same grounds. Plus, they didn’t want us. The immigration index considered me to be too old, at 47, and D. to be undesirable because of his lack of a four-year degree. This was really disappointing, because Canada seemed like a great idea.

So we reverted to Berlin, where at least a dozen people we know have moved in the last decade. Germany, amazingly, appeared to want us.

By March we’d made a hard decision, and set a deadline of the following winter. Somewhere in there we also decided to get married, which turned out to be a really good thing for moving to Germany.

I am a compulsive researcher and planner, and I’d started my “We’re leaving the Bay Area” pinboard in January. I deleted the London and Vancouver stuff and went all in on Berlin. Immigration, taxes, medical care, pet care, pet visas, insurance, local customs and culture, language schools, shipping, postal regulations, grocery shopping, goth stores, bookstores, galleries, pharmacies, Etsy sellers for craft supplies. And most of all, housing.

Finding housing is a form of shopping, which is my superpower.

I have always been able to find a gorgeous hundred-year-old apartment or house in a desirable area, in a very difficult rental ecology, for 20% below market. My secret is insane determination and refusal to settle for anything less, and often being self-employed, which allows for those short-notice mid-day meetings with the rental agent the more responsible people of the world can’t make it to.

I knew I could do it in Berlin, despite the growing tide of warnings and negative reports about the housing market here.

But I had no idea just how hard it would be. I knew that the days of the 800€ three-bedroom were over and the window for any kind of affordable housing was rapidly closing; some people said it had already closed. Friends here warned that it would be simply impossible to get a long-term place, that the only housing available was sublets.

We arrived at our Prenzlauerberg Airbnb on March 24th, and that weekend I went to a “Moving to Berlin” workshop at Expath. They didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, thanks to my hundreds of hours of research, but they did offer the warning: “Don’t even try to look in Neukolln.”

When wonderful Mark The Man With A Van moved us from our Airbnb to our short-term rental from which I intended to launch our search, he warned, “Don’t even try to look in Friedrichshain”. Four weeks into the hard-core search, when I’d been spending every waking moment either looking at rental sites, emailing landlords, or visiting flats, a young guy at a dinner party told me, “An unlimited lease? In Berlin? Are you crazy?” He said it with the elegant contempt that is the birthright of urban gay boys under thirty the world over, and it shook me. But I said, “Yes. In Berlin.”

I saw 28 apartments to find our Craftsmen jewelbox place in Oakland, with its original wood paneling and double parlour. When I got to an even dozen here, my husband said, “Well, sixteen to go!”.

Knowing he thought that my approach was reasonable made a huge difference.

I’d come home exhausted from days of lurching through the sweltering subway (no a/c here! It “makes people sickly”!) in the 95° heat and 88% humidity. I was constantly frustrated by the poor transference of Google Maps to reality on the ground in the city. There were endless challenges because I didn’t have a phone. SInce we were waiting for a big check most of the time, I was almost always broke; when you’re out in the hot sun and can’t afford to sit down for a cold drink it sucks.

One time I needed to pee and almost didn’t have the .50 it cost; I have rarely been so grateful to find a linty nickel in the bottom of my purse.

There’s plenty of beautiful housing in Berlin; the problem is that there’s so much competition. I found five places that were fantastic and also acceptable to my stringent value criteria of 10€ per sq. meter: one in Schoneberg, my first choice neighborhood, one in Mitte, where our short term place was, one in Friedrichshain, one in Wedding and one in Wilmersdorf. I applied to all of them, over a harrowing month, and we were turned down five times. Each time involved submitting up to fifteen documents, translating a different application for each, and in one case (Friedrichshain! Don’t even try!) finding a German friend of my husband’s who’d act as guarantor.

We also had to get a Schufa, a German credit report, even though we’d only been here a couple months. All the EasyCredit stores, where you could walk in and get a Schufa, had recently closed. There was one place in all of Berlin doing “Instant Schufa” this summer, the Postbank branch in Schonhauser Allee Arcaden.

It was mobbed with terrified expats, all desperate to secure a flat.

Over and over i told myself, I’ve always done it before. I just have push through my fears and stick it out. One day near the end, when we had only 35 days left at our temporary place, I was starting to think about just getting a six-month furnished sublet in an ugly postwar Neubau in some neighborhood we’d hate. I came home and asked my husband, “Am I crazy? Should I be investing this much energy in trying to find a perfect place?” He didn’t even let me finish. He said, ” You’re not crazy. I trust you. Do what you’re doing.”

We’re homebodies, and I know what makes us happy at home; a second-floor apartment with a double parlour separated by an archway, looking out over a quiet street that’s still just steps away from shops and restaurants that stay open late. I knew we needed a big place, so I could have my studio at home, and to be just steps from the U-Bahn. I wanted to be over a restaurant or store, so our late-night walking about and the cats’ crazy antics wouldn’t upset a persnickety downstairs neighbor.

With thirty days to go I went to see a place a little farther West than we really wanted to be, in Wilmersdorf, and because I’d been betrayed so many times by Google Maps, I allowed so much time that I was an hour early. I located the building, a majestic Art Nouveau lady on a tree-lined street, and then went back around the corner to the cafes and shops.

I dug in my purse and found exactly enough change for a bottle of Apfelschorle, and I sat down and made the drawing you see above.

It was the only time I made a drawing anywhere during the flat search. When the hour was up I went to see the flat, which was huge and beautiful. Then I went home, because since most of the agents don’t speak a word of English, there’s very little to say. A couple of days later, when we’d gotten two more turndowns, I thought of the place in WIlmersdorf, which I’d initially dismissed as just too far West. I sent the application, for the hell of it.

Two days later, I got a reply, and Google Translate said they were ready to make the contract with us. I was so stunned I ran it through three other translation apps before I told my hubby. A week later, after a terrible morning of scrambling around Lichtenburg trying to find their office, we signed a lease.

We were late and I was so afraid. It was scorching hot and humid and we somehow found it and they were completely relaxed and nice.

They acted like it was no big deal to rent a couple of weird-looking Americans a gorgeous 1300 square foot Art Nouveau flat they might conceivably spend the rest of their lives in.

We scheduled the key and deposit handoff for Friday. Friday morning D.’s monthly check from his job hadn’t shown up in our bank account despite my many calls and emails to the company accountant and the assurances I’d received it would be there. You need at least a month’s rent plus a month’s cold rent deposit to get keys in Berlin, so several thousand dollars. Two hours before the appointment, I took the U to our bank and talked to the one guy who spoke English, and he said the deposit could show at any time. That’s right: with American banks, your money is there at opening or not til the next day, but in Germany it can show up any time, all day.

I frantically emailed D. at work and asked him to call the agency and ask if we could reschedule. They said no problem. Then I checked the bank account one more time, and the money was there.

We were back on: I had D. call the agency again and the agent agreed to give me an extra hour, but no more; she was going out of town for the weekend, like every right-thinking person in Berlin.

And I would have to bring the money in cash; it was too late for a bank transfer.

I Jumped in a cab, and my valiant Berlin cabbie set out into the summer Friday rush hour traffic. Twenty minutes in, halfway through Tiergarten, I realized the flaw in my plan of stopping at one of the Westside Deutschebanks to get my huge wad of cash. I hadn’t brought my passport. The guy at our branch had said earlier this week, Oh your license and PIN are fine for me, I know you, but they wouldn’t work for an official transaction. Surely withdrawing thousands of dollars was an official transaction? What if the strange teller asked for my passport?

My cabbie pulled up at a bank and I ran in, then waited for a thousand years while the line inched along. It was like watching paint dry with a gun to your head.

libraryFInally I made it to the teller, checking one more time that the cab was still outside, and asked for our money. She didn’t even blink, just counted it out and handed it over. “VIelen dank!” I yelled, and shot back out the door and into the cab, and minutes later we were pulling up on our tree-lined street, where the agent was pacing and looking around frantically. Her face lit up when she saw me. I gave the cabbie an American-style tip and twenty minutes later (there was a lot more paperwork) I had keys to our home.

An unlimited lease, in a rent-controlled renovated flat in Berlin.

Screenshot 2015-08-12 at 11.56.59 AM - EditedMy husband hadn’t even seen it yet; for the third time, he’d signed a lease without ever seeing the place we’d be renting. When he finally did, two weeks later, he said, “It’s like we’re rich, even though we’re not!”. He meant, it is palatial and elegant. Our huge balcony overlooks the lovely street and an outdoor cafe; nearby is the house where a famous German painter once lived and worked. Our flat is over a restaurant and around the corner is the U-Bahn, a late-night falafel place, a very good French bakery, the cafe where I made the drawing and miles of other Berlin pleasures. I am so incredibly grateful to have this beautiful home.

All it took was the belief it could be done, a husband who believed in me unhesitatingly, and over 400 emails.

 

Here in Europe you see some European-ass stuff.

I had to draw this from memory, as I saw this French mama and her little girl on my way to a meeting.

Original drawing Suzanne ForbesI took the best mental snapshot I could, which was a good thing because seconds later there was a small scooter accident and the charming scene turned to skinned-knee tears. Since it’s from memory and I was focussed more on the overall scene, I can’t say if the maman was really wearing quintessentially French rope-soled espadrilles, capris and a careless chignon. Since I can’t ride a bicycle and have no idea how they work, I used a reference picture of one that seemed right.

But the little girl, I guarantee you, is exactly how she appeared on an early summer evening, heading home with mama, possessed of exquisite sang-froid.

This kind of highly detailed and clean line drawing, with very little variation in line weight or idiosyncrasy in mark-making style, is the kind of drawing I specialised in as a teenager. Before I made the decision to draw comics at seventeen or eighteen, I had expected, since childhood, that I would be some kind of commercial illustrator. Children’s books, fashion ads, something like that. I’d developed a clean and precise style that would reproduce well. I had a full Rapidograph set and i was using the harrowing, exhausting-to-maintain 6xo.

But when I committed to comics, a whole world of new technical requirements opened up, like attention to light and dark values in a composition and the need for advanced perspective and anatomy skills, and I turned my focus to developing those. Sometimes I think it’s too bad, because these delicate drawings, their coherence dependant mostly on pattern and silhouette, are sort of pretty. My mom has some of the nicest ones framed.

Happyfuntimes at the Ausländerbehörde

If you are a foreigner hoping to stay in Berlin longer than 90 days, you must make yourself known to the Ausländerbehörde.

outlander_Aug_2015_Suzanne_Forbes - EditedThe Foreigners’ Registration Office or Aliens Department decides your fate. How long you get to stay, what kind of work you can do, what family members can come, everything.

Weirdly, it’s a quite relaxed and not-at-all terrifying place.

It’s a big shabby government building, but there’s a pleasant courtyard with trees, benches and lawns, where people are always picnicking.

There are signs everywhere, but there are no signs saying “No eating and drinking” or “no cellphones”, and everyone is enjoying a beverage, feeding a baby, talking on the phone, whatever.

And whenever you go you see someone you know- like the rockabilly girl with the black-and-white hair, who I’d seen at a flat viewing just a week earlier.

“Did you get that flat?” “No. We found something though.” “Did you find a place yet?” “No.” It’s impossible to find a place here.

This was our second visit, and our first time on our own without our “fixer”. But we got a super-nice case worker who spoke English and our appointment went fine, although the husband was denied the coveted blue card because he lacks a four-year degree and his Associates Degree isn’t in computer science. So our application was switched over to a regular work visa application, which unlike the freelancer visa we have now would allow us to get on German state-type health insurance. Which is basically the point of this whole move. Now we wait a couple more weeks to see what happens. If the regular work visa isn’t granted we appeal.

We have passed through eight of the ten major hurdles to this move.

1. Find a short-term place to lease where we can put our names on the doorbell and get registered with the Burgeramt. We used coming-home.de. It was expensive as FUCK, but crucial to a full-immersion-in-the-system life here.

2. Get a German bank account (majicked by our fixer). We have Deutschebank. Our bank manager looks like a porn star.

3. Get our address registered at a Bürgeramt or Citizen’s Registration Office (you need an appointment; there are no appointments, no one speaks English. Thank the Goddess for our fixer).

4. Get health insurance the visa office will accept. Currently we have ALC. It is cheap but not good.

5. Get a freelancer visa before our 90 days Schengen visa is up. The binder I brought to the appointment had thirty documents in it, all of which had been brought from the US or carefully prepared here. Our fixer got us two years, because she is amazing.

6. Get a full-time job offer for the husband. This part was fairly easy- they are desperate for programmers here. Although please note that he is considered lucky to be offered less than half of what the position would pay in the Bay Area. Programmers have zero special status here. Our delightful porn-star-looking bank manager is considered as valuable a white-collar worker as any programmer and is as well-paid.

7. Apply for a work visa for that job. This part is pending.

8. Find a flat (sublets and short term are easy; an unlimited lease, where you could quite possibly stay the rest of your life in rent-controlled comfort, is insanely hard.) I started researching a year before we left, studying the major German rental sites, and once we got here I looked informationally for three months, getting the lay of the land. Then once the husband got his first check from the new workplace, I looked every waking moment for six weeks.

Getting German health insurance is nine and getting our shipping container here is ten.

It’s been one of the longest, most stressful and tedious summers of my life, but now we’ve signed the unlimited lease on our gorgeous flat I feel like it’s all worth it.

Eating Mexican Food in Berlin.

SantaMariaEastside_by_Suzanne_Forbes_July_2015Santa Maria EastSide. That’s where you go. That’s pretty much it, I’ve heard.

Or maybe a few other places. We went to EastSide, in Friedrichshain, with longterm SF residents who’ve lived here for a couple years. There was a lot of ranting about the poor quality of much of the food in Berlin – from them, not us. We have been so insanely broke with the costs of the move since we got here that we have eaten out exactly twice. And we never ate anywhere but taquerias and the occasional splurge on Indian in the Bay Area, so we’re not really up on what a nice meal should be anymore.

My fancy food business days are far behind me, and somewhere along the line, during the second divorce and the recession and the years of poverty and depression, I just stopped caring.

All I wanted was some simple peasant food to keep body and soul together, like a taco or a quesadilla, and a really superb banana cream tartlet, made with chocolate ganache, salted caramel, and Nels’ perfectly executed crème pâtissière and delicate pâte sablée, streets better than Tartine’s, from the bakery at Market Hall. Or a slice of classic American lemon meringue pie, as good as any I’ve ever had, with a four-inch crown of meringue, from Sweet Adeline. Or the unbelievable butterscotch and chocolate pot de crème at Town Hall. Or a scoop of Bi-Rite balsamic strawberry ice cream with the couverture sprinkles and marcona almonds (when they first opened Khris Brown said “this is so good I don’t even have to blog about it!” #bestlineofthenoughties). Or an exquisite yuzu truffle, available only a few weeks a year, from Chocolatier Blue. What? I said I was over food, not dessert.

I haven’t been able to afford dinner anywhere nice in the Bay for a decade, but I could almost always afford a perfect treat from a really good bakery.

Anyway, we don’t have really a lot to say about food in Berlin. We live on De Cecco pasta, which at least you can get at every grocery store, and yogurt. However, the food we tried at Santa Maria Eastside was good. (In the drawing our friend is explaining to my hubby how to make the German “o” sound. ) I had chilaquiles, which are possibly my favorite food on earth, and they were definitely as good as the weekend special chilaquiles at my beloved, cherished, treasured Cactus Taqueria or my equally precious and adored Los Cantaros.

I had tacos or chile rellenos or a quesadilla or chilaquiles at a taqueria at least twice a week for 18 years, and I will miss Bay Area Mexican food forever.

So it goes. At least we have doner kebab and falafel.

*About bakeries: when I first arrived in the East Bay it was as the Santa Rosa-to-San Jose sales rep for Albert Uster, a Swiss baking supply company used, then and now, almost exclusively by top-level professional pastry cooks. I had just spent a year managing the bakery at Dean & Deluca in Georgetown. Bakeries are very important to me, and my SF job was perfect because I drove all over the Bay Area meeting all the bakery managers and pastry chefs.

*About the bakery at Market Hall: I also worked at Market Hall as a cheesemonger my first summer and Fall in the East Bay, in ’97, and it was a great company to work for. Linda, the buyer then and now, and Sara the owner care deeply about food and educating the staff. We had classes where I learned things like how the microscopic texture of hundred-year-old bronze dies give the best Italian extruded pastas their sauce-clutching ability, and how to break a wheel of Reggiano. I tasted forty-year-old Balsamic just uncorked and Cowgirl Creamery farmer’s cheese barely a day old while apprenticed to a cheesemonger from Neal’s Yard. Nels, the bakery manager, left for a time and opened his own place, in one of those cursed restaurant locations on Shattuck. His business was killed by the dot-com bust, and it was heartbreaking, but he returned to Market Hall. His standards are as impeccable as ever, freshness and purity always on lock, and the prices have remained exceedingly fair. His butterscotch pudding is insane.

*About Sweet Adeline: the space Sweet Adeline occupies was for a short time in the late ’90s a goth store, back when there were several goth stores on Telegraph. I bought the dark red blouse I wore for my second wedding there. At some point it became a bakery, and it is a superb bakery. They do American and French basics, perfectly. The chocolate cream pie is, like the lemon meringue, as good as any I’ve ever had. The prices are very fair.

*About Chocolatier Blue: You know that scene in Cryptonomicon where Randy goes to have his wisdom teeth out and he is totally confident in the oral surgeon because the guy is an obsessive socially inept tooth-surgery geek? That’s what the chocolatier/confiseur guy at Chocolatier Blue is like. I went in to see him right after he opened his first East Bay store, because my heart never really leaves the business and I like to keep on an eye on things. He was like, local seasonal single origin I am an awkward maniac. The product is the proof, it’s fucking stellar and the prices are exceptionally fair.

*About the best banana cream pie in the East Bay: Fatapples. The shimmering, barely set custard, the perfectly flaky ( you know it’s lard) crust, the dusting of caramelised walnuts- it is the best in town. They try, over and over, to take it off the menu, because the freshness issue is a nightmare. People always hassle them til they bring it back. Their crisps, custards and eclairs are also very, very good.

*About going to Ici: don’t go to Ici. It’s overrated as fuck. Unless, unless, you get a bitter fruit sorbet with their incredible house-made copper kettle caramel and crystallized orange peel. Otherwise, skip Tara’s too and go to the idiotically named iScream, a fairly new traditional-style ice cream parlour on Solano. Parking on Solano is insane, of course, but I give you my secret: pull into the driveway of the bank next door and park in their lot. I can’t promise you won’t get towed, but I never did. iScream has house-made fudge and caramel sauces, fresh whipped cream, and lots of extremely good fruit flavors like blood orange and Meyer Lemon, plus Burnt Caramel and Salted Caramel.

*Where else to go: Feelgood Bakery in the Food Mall thing in Alameda. Another idiot name, but they do traditional French things very well. I had an oversize macaron filled with Crème Chiboust and fresh strawberries there before we left that was very good. It wasn’t an Ispahan in the garden at Ladurée Soho or the pistachio bavarian at Pierre Hermé, but what is?

*Bonus SF bakery: Pinkie’s in SOMA! Pinkie’s is so good. When Wicked Grounds first opened Pinkie’s did our bread and cakes. Cheryl does terrific work with simple classics.

*Where I never got to go: Craftsmen and Wolves on Valencia. I wanted to go so bad! They have a verrine with elderflower- I love elderflower. I totally wanted to try that $6 muffin! But we were just overloaded the last year or two, I never got around to it. Go there for me!

*About the time I spat up a gob of lavender mousse in front of the White House pastry chef: Weirdly, this is a recovery story, not a drinking story!

Managing a department at Dean & DeLuca was a big deal in 1996, and I was always getting invitations to fancy events held by fancy-food importers in the DC area. I was at a presentation at one of the import companies, and Pierre Hermé, then a celebrated young pastry chef and not yet a global brand, did some demos.

He showed what would called nowadays a “hack” for making lots of croquant quickly, and a lavender mousse with cherries in it. He spoke mostly in French; however most of the French I know is bakery stuff, so I was pretty sure there was no alcohol in the mousse. I was standing and chatting with sugar wizards Ewald and Susan Notter, who I was friendly with, and Roland Mesnier, the legendary White House pastry chef, when samples were handed out.

We were given little plates with a triangle of pale violet mousse, studded with deep burgundy cherries. It was so beautiful. I thoughtlessly spooned a bite into my mouth- and frantically, very thoroughly spat it out into my napkin. The cherries were macerated in liqueur, a product sold by the import company! Awkward.

The first boy I ever dated is being played by the movie star who’s playing Lex Luthor.

giphyI read Salon a lot. And I love, love Andrew O’Hehir.

Especially now that he’s writing more editorial a lot of the time, I make it a point to read the movie stuff he does do.

La la la, oh I see they’re making a David Foster Wallace movie…

…huh, it’s based on the interviews David Lipsky did…Jesse Eisenberg is playing David?!?!note-pass-bald-407x480

But I haven’t even processed him playing Lex Luthor yet!

Or that Lex Luthor has hair!

*meme humor by The Mary Sue Senior Editor Glen Tickle

Wait, David comes off as a total tool in the movie? HA HA HA HA omigod that’s hilarious.

In the Fall of 1980 I was thirteen, about to start high school at Stuyvesant. Of the ten kids in my small private school who’d taken the Stuyvesant test, most my close friends, two of us had gotten in. Me and my friend Oliver. Earlier that summer, at a birthday party at the Village apartment Olly shared with his charismatic mother Bonnie, I’d pulled a bottle of champagne out of the bathtub and tumbled on Bonnie’s bed with one of Olly’s friends.

That summer I had stripped the baby fat that protected me from my father on a three month crash diet of iceberg lettuce and sugar-free yogurt, forty pounds in three months. I felt my rage could protect me now, so I’d let my hair, which I’d cut because my father loved it long, grow again. I was blonde and blue-eyed, 33-23-36, and wearing purple painter’s pants from Reminiscence. When that boy kissed me the power came up in my veins like the speed I got onto later that year. I knew all I wanted was boys, to have them and take them, hurt them and enslave them.

The week before school started my best friend’s father said I should meet the son of a friend of his, who was a sophomore at Stuy. I asked Victoria, who has been my friend for forty years now but only five back then, if he was cute. She said yeah, actually he was fairly cute.

So I talked to David on the phone, which was next to my brother’s bunk bed. The white paper under the rotary dial of our phone was covered with ballpoint ink, from my doodling while I talked. It was still hot; summer dies like a snake by mid-September in New York, or did then, but it hadn’t broken yet.

I agreed to meet this boy the first day of school, on the steps.

Maybe Victoria’s father, Mel, thought we’d be friends. I don’t think so. Mel had an invasive voyeuristic fascination with the sexual development of children, much like my own father. When you look at pictures of me and Vicky at eleven and twelve (I was always younger than everyone else) it’s shocking; my moon face and her gaunt one. Anorexia was so new that she wasn’t diagnosed until nearly too late.

I met David on the steps in front of Stuyvesant before the first bell, so I wasn’t alone my first day. Not that I was worried; it was thousands of kids to less than 100 at Elizabeth Irwin and Little Red Schoolhouse, where I’d spent the last five years, but I was fearless and ferocious at thirteen. And Olly was a brother to me, a blond Han Solo; knowing he was somewhere in the building made me feel safe.

David was pretty cute. Not amazing, but I liked his dark curly hair, and he was tall enough, wearing those thin cord jeans that boys wore then. We talked a bit, and then I went off to class. I remember almost nothing about the school part of Stuyvesant, even now. I didn’t want to go there; I wanted to go to Music and Art, and I certainly could have gotten in. My father insisted on the math and science school, because it was the most famous. Narcissistic cathection plus lots of weed, ugh.

Later that week David called our apartment in Chelsea and asked me on a date. I did not like my father asking about it, but we did share a laugh about the hilariously outdated concept of “going on a date”. I suspected it might be my first and last date; I didn’t think dating was compatible with the vision I had of stooping like a falcon. But I was thrilled. My adventures as a seductress were beginning. I wore my painters’ pants and a white men’s shirt for my first date.

In the kitchen before leaving I dusted cinnamon behind my ears because I’d read in Glamour magazine that it turned men on.

nancy_allen_Dressed_to_killIt left a faint rusty rime on my collar. My father was leering, gleeful, as he watched me leave.

I met David uptown, probably at the Loews; I know it was a theater with multiple screens.

We argued about what movie to see. He wanted to see a DePalma thriller with Nancy Allen, Dressed to Kill.

I wanted to see anything but horror; I had had a very bad experience with Hitchcock Night at riding camp a couple years earlier. I capitulated, with the caveat that we would leave if I got uncomfortable. At some point I did, and then I pulled the first of an infinite number of dick moves I’ve pulled on guys.

I informed him that we were going next door to watch Lady and the Tramp.

Maybe it was during the spaghetti scene that his arm crept around me; I snickered into my cinnamon-scented collar, because I had never, ever expected to have this experience. Afterwards we walked across the park, I think, to his Upper East Side neighborhood. He wanted to hang around Woody Allen’s building and see if Woody came out. I didn’t; I hated Woody Allen every bit as much then as I do now.

He lived around the corner, probably with a divorced mother who Mel had the hots for, and we wound up in his bedroom, on his single bed. Which was the point of the whole endeavor, for me. I told him about the cinnamon; I felt it would make me seem both innocent and charmingly vulnerable. Bonnie’s bedroom had been dark and air-conditioned; David’s room was brightly lit.

He said, “What do you want to do now? I could do my Woody Allen imitations. Or we could make out.”

I looked him in the eye and took my shirt off. I remember our legs tangling, the first time I realized how long boys’ legs are, the feel of it; I knew it was what I wanted. I was both startled and disappointed by the explosion. I felt exactly like Kristy McNichol in Little Darlings, (which Victoria and I had seen that summer) when Matt Dillon passes out. I had had plans for that penis. There was awkward cleanup, and now my shirt smelled like cinnamon and come.

I went back downtown; I saw him the following week at school, but it was obvious neither of us could sustain interest. Two weeks later I found the boys with the drugs.

In the 90s Victoria told me he was a journalist, and I laughed; that seemed just right, like Olly actually becoming an actor, like he’d always said he would. I was going to be an artist; Olly was going to be an actor; neither of us should have had to go to Stuyvesant just because it was the most famous free school in New York.

In the oughts in Berkeley, living with my second husband,  I read Infinite Jest, cherished it, and put it on the bookshelf. It reminded me of The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, which I’d read when I was fifteen. I read the short stories too, but they didn’t do too much for me. I read (probably on Salon!) that David had interviewed David Foster Wallace, had spent four days on a road trip with him. I wondered if he had offered to do his Woody Allen imitation.

When I moved in with my third husband in the teens we both brought forty boxes of books. The three duplicates were Infinite Jest, Mason & Dixon, and The Phantom Tollbooth.

I haven’t seen David Lipsky in thirty-odd years, and that’s fine with me. Would he remember me? Of course. I was dazzling at thirteen.

Is my life a disappointment, compared to the other kids who stood on those Stuyvesant steps in 1980? I don’t think anyone could possibly say, because my life is really only getting underway, and there’s actually nothing but second acts in American lives.

Guerilla Peanut Butter Pie, or how to make a presentable dessert under any conditions.

pie in bowlsI have begun to experiment with making desserts in Europe.

Although I once made spaghetti puttanesca for my second ex-husband’s family in Melbourne, I’d never done any baking anywhere but in the US. Since we’re living in a temporary furnished apartment while we sort out getting our stuff here, I am limited to the equipment in the apartment and the Bosch hand mixer I ordered off Amazon.

Let me insert here just how fucking insane it is to replace EVERY MACHINE IN YOUR HOME. Do you have any idea how many machines and electrical devices you have in your home?¹

Years of professional baking gave me the skills to create dessert under completely raggedy-ass conditions.  My best hacks and tips are revealed here!

So far what I’ve made is peanut butter mousse pie, once today for my third husband’s birthday (it’s his very favorite thing I make) and once for a potluck. I see all the time on expat boards people talking about how much they miss chocolate & peanut-butter desserts. Also, I knew the hostess of the potluck likes chocolate-peanut desserts because I’d seen her have one at Cafe Anna Blume, the delightful cafe in the American Quarter aka Prenzlauer-Berg.

I am that weird person who sneakily observes every dessert you eat and keeps a mental database, so I know what you like.

Variations of peanut-butter refrigerator pie date back at least to the 50s, and I have made many, but the basic components are a graham cracker or chocolate cookie crust, peanut butter whipped with confectioner’s sugar and cream cheese and lightened with whipped cream folded in, and a chocolate ganache. (They have a very good version at Homeroom in Oakland that skips the ganache, but I like it to cut the richness of the peanut butter.)

The recipe below is for the version I made for the potluck, as opposed to the individual dishes I made for the husband. (So he can take some to work tomorrow!)

I had been warned on the toxic expat board Toytown and elsewhere that you can’t get measuring cups and spoons in Germany.

(Europeans tend to measure baking ingredients by weight rather than volume). Actually, I’m sure you can get them at Cakeville in P’Berg, which is not as amazing as Spun Sugar in Berkeley, but a very decent baking shop. I had intended to bring mine, but in the chaos of the last days failed to.

So, here’s what I did.

Bought:

  • Puder Zucker (confectioner’s sugar), box
  • 2 100g bars of dark chocolate, one Lindt excellence and one of the Ja! generic brand, which was .49!!
  • 500g Bottle of 32% fett Schlag Sahne (heavy cream)
  • Sleeve of Leibniz Vollkorn cookies (good approximation of graham crackers)
  • 350g tub of “Barney’s Best USA©Made Creamy Peanut Butter”, bought at a Mitte Rewe where there are probably more American customers than German at this point
  • ZImt (cinnamon, to add to the cookies)
  • 250g tubs each of mascarpone and butter

Then: No pie or tart pan, so I took a deep Pyrex (mirror-world Pyrex-analog?) casserole dish, buttered it and lined it with the baking parchment I had bought at the Euro store for a Euro. The parchment is brown and slightly corrugated, like the recycled parchment you buy at Whole Foods for seven dollars. I ran the parchment up the sides at the ends, so I would have something to lift the pie out with.

I needed to make sure I could bring the baking dish home, because apparently they are very intense here about the stuff in a furnished flat or sublet.

No food processor or large Ziplock bag and rolling pin to crush the graham crackers: dumped the walnuts out of a ziplock bag from Rewe, filled it with crackers, and crushed them with the heel of my hand. It doesn’t matter if there are little uncrushed pieces.

No bowl, so I used a large cooking pot with low sides.

No brown sugar, but as anyone who’s ever run a torch over powdered sugar on top of a brulee knows, powdered sugar can caramelize and bind a cookie crust too. So I dumped about a half-cup of powdered sugar (I would have used only 1/3 of brown) and a couple shakes of Zimt in with the crushed cookies and stirred well. (Peanut butter loves cinnamon. The surprisingly excellent house-made loss-leader peanut butter cookies at WF are much enhanced by it.)

I learned from my Goddess Rose Levy Beranbaum to always mix dry ingredients well before adding wet.

Put about half a tub of butter in a bowl and microwaved it til partly melted, then let residual heat melt the rest. Took the slightly-cooled liquid butter and poured half into the crumbs, stirred thoroughly, and tested the stick-to-itselfness of the mixture. I added more butter to make it less crumbly, more Play-doh or wet-sand textured, and then used my hands to press it into the casserole dish. (Surprise: in bakeries bakers use their hands to scoop EVERYTHING.)

I baked it at 180°C or 350° for fifteen minutes, which is pretty standard for a crumb or nut crust.

I was confident that the cornstarch in the powdered sugar, mixed with the water in the butter, had been heated long enough to help bind the crust as well. It felt right when I took it out: very slightly puffy and browned at the edges, and it was homogenous to the touch. I don’t know why nut and crumb crusts, which have no leavening and no raw gluten, puff up a bit in baking, but they do.

While the crust was baking I scooped most of the peanut butter out of the jar into my “bowl” and beat it til fluffier with my new hand mixer, which had a surprise feature. Click the speed wheel right you get the normal graduated speed; accidentally click it left and it goes instantly to a speed no American hand mixer I’ve ever used possessed. Yikes! I added about half a cup of powdered sugar and beat that in well, then beat in most of the tub of mascarpone.

Fluffy peanut butter mascarpone frosting! Pipes like a dream on cupcakes.

Pretty stable at room temp, so nothing needed to happen with it immediately.

I took the pan of baked crust and threw it in the freezer to cool. (When you do this, avoid setting it on plastic ice cube trays that could melt. ) Surprise- I had not allowed for the low power of our tiny German freezer, which does not chill nearly as well as a full-sized American one. Oh well.

Meanwhile I made the ganache. I normally make ganache in a food processor, using the Rose method, which is great if you hate chopping chocolate (sticky, greasy AND it stains; chocolate is the devil).

This time I used the Alice Medrich method², because melting chocolate in a double boiler is for schmucks.

I broke up all the Ja! bar and half the Lindt bar, and put them in a ceramic bowl. The Ja! was a little acidic and lecithiny but perfectly fine for a ganache that would be covered by a strong flavor like peanut butter. I saw I had about three tablespoons of melted butter left, so I poured that into the bowl too. Then I added about a third of a cup of cream. I stirred it well, getting liquid on all the pieces of chocolate. The liquid, as long as it’s enough and well stirred in, protects the melting chocolate from bad behaviour.

What I was going for was a ratio of slightly more liquid than chocolate, for a ganache that would be firm enough to cut but not stiff when served cold.

(Rose explains so much about ganache, including the cream ratio, in the Cake Bible.) I turned the dial (no fancy digital inputs on German microwaves!) on our microwave to low and nuked the mixture for a minute. A minute is a long time for chocolate, although dark chocolate tolerates heat better than milk or white, so I yanked it out and stirred it to distribute the heat. Another quick burst of waves and the liquid in the bowl was hot enough to melt the remaining chocolate as I gently stirred it. See the footnotes for more on melting chocolate!

I could tell by eye it was tight (chef talk for viscosity) enough for my purposes; a thread dropped from a spoon sank quite slowly into the dark pool.

I let it sit while I pulled out the crust. The pan bottom was still hot, ( German freezer bah!! ) so I knew that the crust would crumble if i touched it or tried to spread ganache on it. So instead I poured almost all the ganache into the center of the crust and pushed it out to the edges, using my square slotted wooden spatula I bought at TK Maxx our first week here. (Wooden utensils are the soul of a kitchen, I had to have at least one.)

Pushing out from a big central bolus meant most of the loose crumbs that would normally lift were trapped under the wave front of ganache.

(This is how I learned to frost cakes fast and perfect in my first finishing job, a night shift at at European bakery in DC. I never, ever bother with a crumb coat. I’ll make a video sometime.) Of course it wasn’t perfect, but it’s chocolate and cream and cookie crumbs; there’s no real pain point there. Then I zipped it back into the freezer so the ganache could cool off before the heat remaining in the crust could cause it to break, or separate into fats and solids.

In a professional kitchen, you are constantly shifting trays in and out of the walk-in and freezer, to save time and control reactions.

I poured the remaining about three-quarters of the cream into my pot and put the rinsed-off³ beaters back on the mixer. I considered taking the precaution of chilling the “bowl” and beaters, since I didn’t really know how the 32% fett compared to the organic Stornetta cream I’d been using for years and the kitchen was hot. But I said fuck it, because in my experience cream really only fails to whip if you are trying to whip a small amount in a hot-out-of-the-dishwasher bowl and you don’t ratchet up the mixer speed fast enough. Over a cup of cream that’s been in the fridge til whipping and you’re generally fine. And indeed it was, although it took longer than usual for the cream to crease and then billow.

I did take the precaution of whipping to very soft peaks.

I knew the amount of clumsy folding the cream would have to endure to incorporate with the peanut-butter mixer in a pot with a slotted spatula was enough to risk it going grainy.  I am a superb folder, if I do say so, and I dumped the peanut butter mix into the pot of cream and folded fast. Watch some videos of chefs folding if you want to get a handle on technique; it’s great to be able to make a souffle without feeling nervous.

Normally I would have folded a third of the whipped cream into the mixture I was incorporating it into first, to lighten it.

But I was concerned the room temperature mascarpone might be shocked by the cold cream and start forming larger fat globules (aka gross chunks) pretty quickly, so I just went for it. It came together nicely in a fluffy cloud, which I immediately plopped onto the ganache in the crust.

Of course, the ganache hadn’t set yet (German freezer!), so again I had to spread carefully from the center. I threw the whole thing back in the freezer while I got the piping ganache ready. I’d left the remaining couple tablespoons of ganache in the bowl on the flat glass cooktop, which had enough residual warmth to keep it liquid. In commercial kitchens you always find a bowl of ganache or chocolate thinned with oil or water sitting in some 98º spot, ready for piping or dipping.

I didn’t have a plastic piping bag, so I made a paper cornet.

This is one of the things you learn to do right away in a commercial bakery, and you will never be sorry you learned it. The important part is wiggling all the points of the triangle til they line up and the point is tightly closed. Then I spooned the remaining ganache into the cornet, folded it closed, snipped the very tip off with scissors, and used it to to drizzle a zig zag over the top of the pie. Always, always cut off only a tiny bit of the tip first, and test it on a plate.

Lots of baking “tips” resources will tell you to fill a ziplock sandwich bag with chocolate chips and microwave them, then snip a corner, instead of learning how to make a cornet.

raspelThe results from this “tip” are terrible, because you’re using an oval hole instead of a round one, and chocolate chips are loaded with lecithin to survive baking; they’re not meant to be eaten straight or melted.

The melted chips will almost always lose temper or “bloom” when refrigerated and you’ll have ugly white dots of separated fat on your piped lines.

I put the pan of pie on a dish towel, soaked in cold water and wrung out, on the counter. This was both to drop the temperature of the crust a bit more and for control.

A dish set on a damp towel won’t skid away from you across the counter.

Once I’d done the piping, I took chopped peanuts and ran them around the edge of the pie, along the sides of the pan. Then I added Raspelschokolade, chocolate flakes. This is an one of the decor products that are in every supermarket in Germany but in the US were only available from specialty stores until recently.

Layering decor is key to getting a finished look.

Done decorating, I put the pie in the fridge overnight. Whipped cream desserts ( I can’t speak for whipped topping desserts, since I’d chew off my own arm and candy it like a violet before I’d use whipped topping) need to chill in a fridge for six to eight hours to stabilize. Just freezing them won’t do it, because it’s not just about dropping the temperature. Something happens with the fat molecules so they firm up. I don’t know what, I’m not a food scientist, I’m just an artist who’s been lucky enough to hustle food service jobs whenever I was in danger of starving.

In the morning, I took the pie out of the fridge and put it in the freezer. We were travelling a good half-hour across town, to a party where the pie would likely sit on a sideboard for an hour or two before it was eaten. I knew that freezing it wouldn’t affect the flavor in any way, and would make transporting it much safer and eating it much pleasanter. Whipped cream desserts are much better almost still frozen than warm at all.

Things that are mostly flour or mostly fat can be frozen without suffering any ill effects, if handled correctly.

(Rose goes into freezing desserts and dessert components in incredible detail in the Cake Bible. It’s perhaps the most useful information in a book that is 110% useful information.) Trust me, if you’ve ever had some crazy fancy cake I made or been to a party where I made a dozen different desserts, those babies had been frozen. The secret to freezing is plastic wrap. You have to wrap the dessert completely in plastic wrap. You must protect it from the freezer environment, and even more importantly, you must keep it protected as it thaws.

You want the condensation created by the temperature differential of thawing outside on the plastic wrap, not on the surface of your dessert.

Commercial bakeries, even the very very fanciest ones, have trays and trays of cakes and pies and mousses in the freezer. If you’ve had wedding cake, it was frozen at some point. Often the freezers have drawers, so the frozen goods are in a secure, cake-only environment, safe from contaminating flavors or smells.

When we served the pie at the potluck, it had been sitting on a sideboard long enough that the butter between the parchment lining and the pan had softened, making it super easy to lift the pie out of the pan.

peanut butter pieThink of butter as a miracle adhesive/lubricant.

You can use a smear of buttercream to hold a cake tier in place on a cardboard circle once it’s cold, or use it to slide a bombe out of a buttered mold if you warm the outside of the mold by running a hot, moist dish towel over it.

The pie was a huge hit, and late that night my husband asked mournfully, “Is there any peanut butter pie here?”

I had only made enough for the party, as he well knew, so I had to make it again for his birthday…

 

¹Replacing every machine in your home: The only ones we didn’t sell or donate were our computers, which are designed to run on either type of current, and my sewing machine, since it was the most expensive machine I’ve ever bought besides the dishwasher I left in my long-lost house in Berkeley. Step-up step-down transformers run to a hundred bucks each and are notorious for frying electronics, but I’m going to try one with my sewing machine anyway, because I cherish it so.

Here’s our list:

Halloween electric lights, 10 sets
Halloween fog machine, strobe lights
Christmas electric lights, 5 sets
extension cords and power strips, dozen or so
Shredder
All-in-one printer/scanner
2 fans
Air Conditioner
humidifier
space heaters, 2
electric mattress heater
toaster oven
Washer / Dryer
Food Processor
hand mixer
floor lamp
3 table lamps
Microwave
foot massager
“back massager”
lots of other “back massagers”
coffee machine
Hair dryer
Crimping Iron
2 Curling Irons
Art supplies:
2 electric lightboxes
2 Full Spectrum artist lamps

Crazy, right? So far we’ve bought German-power-compliant versions of the toaster oven, the microwave, the printer, hub’s hair dryer, a fan and a hand mixer. Long way to go.

²Alice Medrich’s Cocolat shop was the first San Francisco bakery I ever went to, in 1987, and Cocolat was the first serious baking book I ever bought. I learned from Cocolat that melting chocolate in a double boiler is for schmucks.

Here’s the thing: a small quantity of liquid introduced when chocolate is melting makes it seize. Double boilers involve steam and drips of water. Instead, I ALWAYS melt chocolate, finely chopped, in a bowl in the microwave. You must wipe out the microwave thoroughly first to make absolutely sure there are no condensation drops waiting to fall or off flavors from leftover food dribbles (white chocolate is especially vulnerable to invasive flavors).

If you will be adding the chocolate to a recipe that has ANY liquid at all, you can take a few tablespoons (at least two T per 8oz, I think) of one of the liquids (water, milk, cream, melted butter, oil, orange juice, rum) and stir it well into the finely chopped unmelted chocolate. Then cover the dish of chocolate, or chocolate and liquid, with plastic wrap to protect it from off flavors and moisture, and microwave it in ridiculously short low-power bursts, stirring every few seconds, until most of the chocolate is melted.

Once it’s removed from the microwave it will continue to melt, so err on the side of caution. Perfect, glossy melted chocolate, with no danger of scorching or seizing. I’ve made hundreds of desserts, including a bunch of wedding cakes, and I have never used a double boiler for chocolate since 1993.

³About washing: if you’re just going fat-to-fat, like creamed butter and sugar to whipping cream to beating ganache, a quick rinse of your stainless steel bowls (all I ever use at home) and utensils is plenty. Egg whites can’t tolerate fat or water, so if you’re beating eggs you must wash the beaters with soap and hot water and dry them thoroughly. If you’re cooking with eggs, you must ALWAYS wash anything that has touched raw egg the same way, so your buttercream doesn’t get bacteria in it. An immunocompromised person or pregnant lady could eat it and get very sick, even if you use free-range organic eggs like I always do (because most of the salmonella cases from eggs come from battery hens).

I also always taste a bit of the mix with the raw eggs, since when I’m baking a cake it’s usually at least a day before serving and there’s time for me to get sick if there’s any danger. I know my immune system can handle it, and I’d rather I got sick than a pregnant lady. When I started seriously baking a lot of my friends had HIV, so I’m super-careful.

 

Tapas in Berlin.

I am very fortunate to have an extremely precious friend who is also both muse and patron.

Who comes to Berlin all the time!Eva_in_Berlin_By_Suzanne_Forbes_July_2015

Last night we had a feast of tapas and paella in Kreuzberg while I experimented with some new crosshatching techniques and detail linework in an attempt to represent her latest haircolor.

Hearts Afire

I finished two ridiculously time-consuming embroidery pieces this week.

I figured they deserved gold frames. I hadn’t gold-leafed anything in a really long time and I’d forgotten how fun it is. I’m putting all my embroidery work up on flickr too, licensed CC. If anybody ever wants to copy these for their own embroidery, be inspired by them, use them as tattoos- I would be very pleased!

 

MIlagro_Heart_Embroidery_Suzanne_Forbes_2015Anatomical_Heart_Embroidery_Suzanne_Forbes_July_2015

A Green Dinner in Berlin

I haven’t had much time to draw of late, because of the full-time job of looking for a flat.

Original drawing by Suzanne Forbes July 2015But I was invited to a dinner event on Thursday, and because I knew my Patrons were supporting me, I made the time to go.

The event was “Tales of Taste #2, Forgotten Greens”, and it was dinner featuring wild and historic greens of Europe. This picture shows the event creator, Inés Lauber.

It was hosted in the wildly chic penthouse of Ute K., an amazing new friend in Berlin. Her terrace has the most incredible herb garden I’ve ever seen.

I tried to draw a few of the plants, or at least suggest them.

Tales of Taste_2_2015_Hostess_by_Suzanne_ForbesThere was millet gnocchi, and bright, grassy herbal pestos, and nettle soup with flowers.

I had nettle tagliatelle the one time I ever went to Chez Panisse, in like the 90s, and I fucking still talk about it, I love nettles so much.

Hearing the international chatting of the diners, as the sun set over Berlin, I was so profoundly glad I came here.

 

 

Here are some of the diners. There was also a whole sophisticated beer and wine program created by Karl, a sommelier, but of course that went right over my head!

More about food tomorrow, when I post about Eating Mexican Food in Berlin….Tales of Taste_2_2015_02_Suzanne_ForbesTales of Taste 2 2015_01_Suzanne_ForbesTales of Taste 2 2015_TandM_Suzanne_Forbes

The New York-Berlin Express, Vol 1

One of my patrons mentioned she’d love to see drawings of the marathon culture in Berlin. I had no idea that there was marathon culture here until recently…

A couple weeks ago I was taking a taxi because I had to rush to get to an interview at a startup.

My cab driver was a friendly guy in his 70s. Like many people do, he asked where I was from- to my great surprise, older Berliners often don’t see much difference between an English accent and an American accent.

I explained that I was from San Francisco recently but that I grew up in NY.

He told me that he had been to New York, once, in 1991. To run the New York marathon! In under four hours.

I was very impressed and asked a lot of questions.

He described the difficulty of the conditions compared to Berlin: almost the entire Berlin Marathon run is flat, while the NY course has several significant hills.

He had obviously studied the route extensively before his run, and still remembered the names of the neighborhoods and the streets he had run down clearly. Then he told me about the hotel he stayed in.

262px-Calvary-baptist-churchHe stayed at the Hotel Salisbury, which is the only hotel in America wholly owned by a church.

It’s owned by the Calvary Baptist Church, which occupies the first five floors, with a sanctuary and a practising choir. “Then the hotel is just stuck on top of him! like brot in a sandwich!”, my cabdriver said delightedly.

He went on to imagine a situation where a fellow might go on a business trip, with his secretary very nice, and have to make his peace with God over his indiscretion on the spot!

To a secular Berliner, the idea of a hotel in a church was just such a good joke he had been enjoying it for 25 years.

Despite living the first 22 years of my life in New York, I had never heard of this hotel, and I’m so incredibly glad I did. I looked up its history and found it absolutely fascinating.

It was built as a 16-story “skyscraper church” in 1931, and has two Steinway Grand pianos, and its own radio station, with over 200 hotel rooms.

Nowadays it has a charming blog, where you can meet Bell Captain Al, who has served at the hotel for 32 years, and Dixie the bedbug-sniffing dog! The blog has some really good tips on things to do in the city, including an excellent list of vegetarian and vegan restaurants!*

New York mag‘s site notes that visitors arriving back at the hotel after 1am must show id at the front desk- so no unregistered guests can join your revels.

It’s across the street from Carnegie Hall, and next to the Russian Tea Room.  The hotel is also very close to The Art Students League, the classical atelier where I first started studying drawing at 10 (I used to take the subway there myself, can you imagine) and returned when I dropped out of Stuyvesant with my parents’ consent at 16.

“Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practise!”

9andahalfIt’s near Coliseum Books, a large midtown bookstore. Paperbacks I shoplifted from there as a teenager include all the James Bond novels, one at a time, one per day, and the original 9½ Weeks, which is actually quite a disturbing little book.

As I was typing this and thinking about 57th st., someone walked by outside our ground-floor Berlin apartment playing the harmonica. Playing the harmonica intro to “Piano Man”, in fact. “Was that– ” my husband said. “Yep.”

During most of the 80s, my mom worked for Billy Joel. More precisely, she worked for his manager, Frank, whose trial and FBI investigation she was later deposed for.

Billy, however, was a sweetheart of a boss, who kept a bottle of high-end bourbon in the supply closet for the cleaning lady (“She needs to take a break too!”). And their office was just a block from Coliseum Books and the League; I must have passed the Salisbury Hotel a hundred times.

One time I’d stopped by my mom’s work after class. I was in her office, drinking Grand Marnier out of the bottle at her desk, and Billy stuck his head in looking for her. He saw me and gave me a big smile and a thumbs up.

In the 80s, nobody cared if a sixteen-year-old was day drinking in your corporate HQ.billyandchristie

Although the trip wasn’t in my mom’s wheelhouse I remember a lot of the details of Billy’s historic trip to Russia in 1987, including the food supplies- Christie was terrified of baby Alexa being exposed to irradiated milk, as it was not long after Chernobyl.

“The tour was controversial at the time because Joel was really the first American rock ‘n roll act to play in Russia after the Berlin Wall went up. It is largely credited as bringing rock ‘n roll to the young people of the communist country.

It was also seen as an enormous goodwill gesture. Joel lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on the trip, but he thought it was an important thing to do. Joel says that his whole point was to “make friends.” “Have them know what kind of people we are, make some people happy with my music and get something that can be continued more and more, maybe it’ll grow,” says the singer.”

If you’ve never seen any footage of Billy in Russia, it’s worth seeing. The goodwill shown to him had a huge impact on my ability to understand the humanity of the people behind the Wall of Communism. In the 80s, when a crack of thunder would wake me and I’d think for a disoriented minute that it was the first bomb, it was impossible to imagine an end to the Cold War.

I never imagined I’d be typing this just a kilometer from the Berlin Wall Memorial, and my cab driver never imagined he’d travel to New York in 1991. Or that he’d finish in under four hours!


*Sadly, the veggie restaurant I loved best, Arnold’s Turtle in the West VIllage, is long gone, as is Dojo on St. Mark’s where the veggie burger was so good. But macrobiotic Souen where friends of mine worked is still around, and so is Angelica, where hairy, scary hippies used to bully us Stuyvesant students to eat every single bite of our food because, the planet.