Thursday, May 23, 2013

Techno Joy: Going to clubs in Berlin

One big reason that I live in Berlin is because of the range of enjoyable activities available to me here. And yes, one of those activities is clubbing. Berlin takes the cake when it comes to finding a place to dance the night away. I never thought I'd be a person to want to stay out all night at a club shaking my money maker, and in fact my first year here I didn't hit the clubs at all because I was pretty convinced that I deplored techno and everything it represents. I'm also old enough to actually want to go to bed at a reasonable hour most evenings, and staying at a club until 7am sounded downright awful at first.

I mean, I have a full-time job and am nearly 30. COME ON!

But Berlin managed to change my attitude and I'm very glad it did. Nowadays, I can't imagine not having a nightlife available to me any more, which will be the sad reality I'll have to face the day I decide to move back to Seattle. My beloved hometown will never be able to fully satisfy the dance bug Berlin has uncovered within me, but at least Seattle knows how to put on a good happy hour. Berlin hasn't figured that one out yet.

Berlin also still hasn't mastered the serving of cold beer. Or the brewing of IPA.

Techno music is a little like beer or wine: no one likes it at first, but after a little while you learn to love it. It's an acquired taste. Not that I know the names of any of the best DJs or what makes good techno work, but I know what it sounds like, and more importantly what it feels like. It's hard to describe. It gets inside you and you feel it in your fingers, in your bones. It overwhelms you and you have to move just to give it an outlet. It flows through you and you become addicted to it, in a way. That's the best way I can describe it.

Now that I've made my first foray into the tourist industry with this company, I find myself in the somewhat difficult position of having to make recommendations to tourists on where they should go for dancing in Berlin. Of course I could always take the easy route and direct them to the Matrix. But it's such a god-awful place that I cannot in good conscience send anybody there, lest karma be the wench we know her to be and condemn me forever to the terrible fate of never getting into a good club ever again.

This is a bit what I felt like inside after my one experience at the Matrix.

And of course dotted around Mitte are lots of bars with mini dance floors . These types of locales are easy and cheap to get into, but the quality of music can vary wildly and I don't believe it to be the true Berlin experience. Then again, some people aren't looking for authentic - they're just looking for a laugh and a drink, and maybe someone to flirt with for an evening.

Luckily, I now have an easy out; ever since the weather started getting warmer, Berlin has again started throwing its legendary outdoor summer parties, commonly known as Open Airs. I had never heard that term before moving here and previously always associated the "open air" concept with outdoor movie theaters or well-designed buildings with an airy atrium or courtyard or something. But give a DJ a turntable with a portable power supply and soon you've got pop-up dance parties under bridges and on river banks all over Berlin.

And if you're lucky, you might even get a double rainbow.

An outdoor summer party is in some ways a lot better than a club:

1. It takes place in the day, so you can party your little heart out and still go to bed at a reasonable hour.

2. You don't need flashing lights or smoke machines or disco balls. You've got trees, water, sky, sand - all the visuals are there and they're natural and beautiful.

3. Those sunglasses you always wear in the club now actually make sense.

4. You can see the people you're dancing with for once.

5. If you're getting on with someone you just met and you go off to talk, you'll actually probably talk instead of having to shout at each other over the music, and you'll find a nice spot by the water to do it.

6. You're much more likely to get into the party than into a club, and entry usually costs 5€ or less. Oftentimes it's free, especially if it's being held on public property.

Of course, if you can't dance while sober and you're not willing to day-drink, an open air might not be for you. Don't worry, though - on warm summer nights, these outdoor parties are also known to stretch late into the wee hours.

Case in point: the author dances outdoors, long after the sun has disappeared.

But even after reading about how great open airs are, you still want to go to a techno club. OKAY. FINE. If you are a tourist, visiting the city for two days with 5-10 friends or new acquaintances from your hostel, and are delusional enough to think you will get into Berghain or Kater Holzig, I'm sorry to say that you won't. You just won't. But if you do decide to try to get into one of Berlin's many wonderful techno havens, here's another list, this time with some helpful tips:

1. Be prepared to wait in line. The wait for Berghain is usually 2+ hours, which is worth it if you actually get in. The wait for other clubs can be 30-60 minutes, depending on what time you go. 1-3 am is peak.

2. Don't speak. Not because it hurts (sorry Gwen Stefani), but because the bouncers will overhear you speaking English and will assume you're a tourist. Which you are. But you don't want them to know that. And they don't need to know. So keep quiet.

3. DON'T BE WASTED. If you are off your tits, the bouncers will notice, and they will deny you entry faster than Leonardo DiCaprio gets denied Oscars.

4. Break up into smaller groups of 2-4 people, with no more than 2 men in each group.

5. Wear unassuming clothing. If you've got high heels and a short skirt on, you're not getting in. If you've suited up a la Barney Stinson, you're not getting in. It's best to go for an alternative look. I wear black a lot to the clubs and it seems to work. But I've also seen people at clubs decked out in pleather bodysuits, bunny costumes and captain outfits. Follow your heart.

Even a group of all ladies in pretty dresses won't necessarily be let in.

6. Try to find out beforehand if there is a theme night at one of the dance floors in the club. I recently got into Kater Holzig because my roommate looked at Resident Advisor and found out that one of the floors was having a pyjama party. When we showed up in bathrobes, the bouncers nearly let us in for free - that's how excited they were to see people who dressed up for the theme party.

7. Even if there is no theme night, wearing glitter on your face usually shows the bouncers that you mean business.

8. Try going during the day on a Sunday. Most of Berlin's techno clubs start the party on Thursday night and rock on through until Monday morning. Anytime during the weekend is fair game for roving packs of partiers who wish to boogie. Berghain actually schedules its best DJs for 10am on Sunday morning, and the lines at 8am are much better than at 1am.

This sounds like a lot of work, but believe me, even if you go infrequently or even just once, visiting these clubs is an incredible experience and it's totally worth the effort. Let me know if you happen to come to town - unless you're a drunken frat boy or under 18, I'll probably agree to take you along on a Berlin techno journey.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Customer Service in Germany

There are moments, however few and far between they may be, that make me wish I didn't live in Europe. And those moments usually have to do with people, all strangers, most of them idiots (all the Europeans in my life that I know and love do not belong in the aforementioned group AT ALL. You are all very near and dear to me, and should you in fact be reading these words, please know that I am SO GLAD that my life journey has included you).

Like the issue regarding personal space (good fodder for another blog post, I would say), Europeans have a problem when it comes to providing good customer service. I don't mean American customer service, the old "Hi, my name is Stacy, how are you folks doing today? How's those sliders tastin'? Is your ice water icey enough?" kind of customer service. I mean the old, treat your customer like a person and not like an annoyance whose money you could probably do without. I mean, it's not like you're trying to run a business here or anything. Oh wait, yes. Yes you are.

I guess you can have some food. What do you think this is? A restaurant?

But like many things in Berlin, once the initial culture shock wears off, you get used to the lack of friendly or even civil customer service. You start to expect that someone will grumpily take your money and hand you your food without looking at you. Or that if you put your card into the reader at Lidl before the transaction has been totalled, instead of being asked to reinsert your card, the lady simply says, "Too fast," without any further explanation. I'm so used to this kind of behavior that when the check-out girl at Kaufland asked me if I had found everything alright, I had to ask her to repeat herself because I was certain I hadn't heard her correctly. Or how when I went to Café Nalu and the Canadian waitress was super nice and actually apologized when they ran out of hashbrowns and brought coffee refills (for free! without even asking!), I almost asked for her hand in marriage.

Are you real? Is this real life?

Live in Berlin long enough, and you even start to push back a little against the Berliner Schnauze. A few weeks ago, out to dinner in Potsdam, a waiter tossed a cardboard coaster down the table instead of walking around to set it down in front all civil-like of my boss. When it bounced off my boss's chest and fell to the floor, the waiter simply said "Oh well" and walked off. When he returned, we told him to his face that it was unacceptable and that we were unhappy and that maybe he should rethink his career choices. His manager eventually caught wind of it, and while he didn't scold his renegade employee, he did give us free booze, which I guess is the next best thing.

As someone who has worked in customer service, it is all too tempting to take this kind of attitude towards customers. Trust me. And I don't believe that customers should be treated like 5-year-old children who need their hands held every step of the way.

I know you warned me that this watermelon would be too big for one person! I WANT MY MONEY BACK ANYWAY!

But today's little experience in European customer (non-)service took the cake.

This morning, I popped in to my corner vegetable stand before work to grab the makings of a salad. I'd been doing this little ritual twice a week for a few months - a mini cucumber, a carrot, a few tomatoes, maybe some radishes and either arugula or maché for the lettuce, then combining it all with cous cous at work to make a delicious and healthy lunch. Since it was sprinkling out, I'd decided to take 2 plastic bags with me from the veggie stand, because I had a leather saddle on my bike and some letters to mail, all of which needed some protection from the rain. Normally, I never take bags from the shop - I either bring some with me to put my veggies in, or I simply tuck the veggies into my purse. I shop at this store on the weekends sometimes too - I bought mad amounts of beets, apples, carrots, and ginger every Saturday when I was going through my juice craze this winter.

As predicted by everyone, my juicer has not seen any action starting at about 8 weeks after purchase.

For those giant veggie runs, I always came prepared with cloth bags or a backpack. For some reason, the small, usually Turkish-run shops in Berlin will freely hand out disposable plastic bags, even though the major German supermarkets will only dispense bags in exchange for a small fee. But the free bags from the Turkish shops are flimsy and aren't capable of holding much, so because of that and for environmental reasons, I prefer to use my own reusable bags.

My total this morning came to just over two euros, which I was digging out of my pocket when I heard the cashier say, "Normally, you can only take a bag when you buy something from us."

Confused, I glanced up at her to make sure she was talking to me. She was. Then I looked at my bags. I had taken a small paper bag for the lettuce, and two plastic bags. One held the vegetables, and one held the letters I was about to go mail. That must be what she was talking about. I responded by playing dumb: "Ich hab ja grad was bei Ihnen gekauft." Dude, I did just buy something from you.

She defended her position, stone-faced and unapologetic. "We have to pay for those bags, you know. You're only supposed to take one if you need it for your purchase. But it's fine. This time. Take it."

When I get flustered, it gets really hard for me to continue speaking German. All the thoughts well up behind my eyes at once and get tangled up in each other and leap out spastically in half-formed, grammatically-unrecognizable sentence fragments. I ended up saying something like "Me bring bags! Usually always! If shop 10 times, take 1 bag only 1 time! Reasonable complete!"

Hulk angry! Hulk smash!

What I really wanted to say was: "Look, lady. I've lived in this Kiez for 2 years. Every time I've needed vegetables, I come to you, even if I was just shopping at another store and could have made my purchase there. When the Turkish supermarket down the street opened last year and your shop put up a sign begging your customers to remain loyal, I did just that, even though that supermarket has much better prices. And today, I take one extra bag from you and you decide to scold me for it? Usually your staff are very nearly throwing bags at me when I buy something here. I have to constantly say ‘No thanks, I brought my own, here, please, use these instead.’ But you know what? You can keep your bag. And your other bag. And your vegetables. I'll shop somewhere else. Yours isn't the only shop on Wrangelstraße."

Instead, I defended myself with my pissed-off pidgin German, handed her my 2.11€, grabbed my vegetables and left the shop, careful not to self-righteously slam the door behind me even though it would have lent me a great degree of satisfaction. I made damn sure not to say "Tschüß".

Not saying "Tschüß" = tantamount to German anarchy. Also, this JPEG is the best JPEG in the history of JPEGs.

The next 20 minutes were spend angrily pedaling my bike to work and practicing the tirade (in my head, in German, using perfect grammar) that would have replaced the scene that had just transpired (if I had a time machine). I wished again and again that I would have left the shop without completing my purchase, to the point where I almost went back to drop the veggies on the counter and ask for my money back. But now I ask you, dear readers: would that have been an overreaction? Was it reasonable for the shop girl to defend the bottom line of her family-run business by watching over the bag supply? I don't expect a big hearty THANK YOU every time I bring my own bags, but I do expect to not be harped upon when I take an extra one now and then. And whatever they spend on two plastic bags cannot possibly outweigh the profit they make off me in that one transaction, let alone all the future transactions which I am now considering taking elsewhere. So, your call: privileged, coddled consumer overreacting to a small sleight, or shop girl acting out of line to a longtime customer? Your answer in the comments.