Thursday, February 28, 2013

Book reviews

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz - This was terrific.  I bought it in Berlin and finished it on the flight home.  It was the first book that I've ever read by Junot Diaz and I came away very impressed.  It's a collection of short stories centered around Diaz's alter-ego, Yunior, discussing relationships and the DR to NY/NJ immigrant experience.  I'm not sure that I've ever read a collection of short stories that I couldn't put down.  The voices are so distinct and the characters so fleshed out despite short length of the pieces.  I will likely read the Oscar Wao book now as well when I get a chance.  Highly recommended!

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le CarrĂ© - I read this during my recent Berlin trip and enjoyed it. It was intelligent, interesting, and gripping at points. Lots of tricky plot twists, and he hides the ball cleverly enough that you're never quite sure what is going on and what will happen next. It never totally caught me though, and, while I was intrigued, I would have been okay putting it down and never knowing how it ended. And while I enjoyed it, I wasn't sad for it to end, nor excited to read le CarrĂ©'s other George Smily novels.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Berlin Travel Notes

Spent the last week in Berlin.  A few thoughts about the city:

  • As expected, Berlin was pleasantly un-crowded.  Traffic, even in downtown and highly commercial areas, was remarkably light.  The U-Bahn metro was never jam packed, and it was usually possibly for our group of four to sit together on the trains.  We never experienced a problem finding a table for dinner.  
  • Technologically, Berlin seems a bit behind Washington and New York.  After reading the Economist write that Scandinavian cities are living in thetechnological future, I was hoping to find Berlin in a similarly advanced state.  In fact, it felt more retro than futuristic.  Few restaurants accepted credit cards; the taxis did not have GPS; and smart phones and tablets and electronics were less noticeable than in the U.S.  At one point, I spent over half an hour in a busy commercial neighborhood looking (unsuccessfully) for an ATM that would dispense cash to a non-German card.  On the whole, I can’t recall any instances of technology that struck me as more advanced than what I would find in DC. 
  • The two English-language bookstores that I visited—Shakespeare & Sons and St. George’s—were well curated and had ver nice ambiences.  
  • The crosswalk “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” figurines wear fedora hats. 
  • The food was not great.  Our group kept settling for Italian meals, which were a mixed bag.  This was probably not a great decision, and we probably should have taken advantage of the many Asian (particularly Vietnamese and Thai) options.  The two German restaurants that we tried were disappointing.  I did enjoy the currywurst more than expected; some of the currywurst stands make their own ketchup and mayonnaise.  We also found excellent sausages at street markets. 
  •  I was surprised by the lack of ethnic minorities.  Granted, we lodged in the gentrified neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, but the other neighborhoods that I saw were not particularly diverse either.  Even at crowded metro transfer points—normally a good melting pot—the population was strikingly white.
  • Berlin enjoys terrific social capital.  It was a bit remarkable to arrive in a country, not speak a word of the language, and yet never have to worry about getting ripped off.  Taxis to and from the airport cost less than we had been told.  Headphones were given out for free at museums with no mechanism for tracking or keeping people from making off with them.  There are no turnstiles at metro stops; the authorities simply rely on social capital and occasional patrolling of metro cars to police the system.  We did not see a metro patrol our entire trip, but we nevertheless paid for and stamped our tickets.  
  • Most striking of all was the friendliness and good nature of the Berliners we encountered.  Despite our total lack of German language ability, we did not have a single unpleasant encounter with a Berlin worker.  They were uniformly polite, friendly and helpful.  No one seemed depressed or even upset to be at work.  Such an experience would be unimaginable in France or even in the U.S.  I can’t help but wonder if high employment has something to do with this.  Is it possible that the high employment rate allows people to more readily quit jobs that make them unhappy and find a more adequate replacement?