June 2011

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A boat tour along the River Spree in Berlin. Photo by David Lansing.

Yesterday afternoon I took a taxi from the Hotel Adlon to the western edge of Berlin to go on a boat tour along the River Spree. The concierge at the Adlon said the tour would be in English but the guide, wearing a pea green lab coat, spoke nothing but German. It didn’t matter. My boat mates were a multi-generational Italian family and some laid back French college students. I figured none of us spoke much German, so what the hell.

And, anyway, you pick up enough words in the guide’s spiel to get an overall impression of what you’re seeing and what he’s talking about. Some of the words I picked out: porcelain, manufacturer, lager, computique, park, hotel, Tiergarten, accordion, clock tower, Sony, Reichstag, glass, crane, Kaiser-Friedrich-Gedächtniskirche, parliament, TV studio, plaza, border, East, abandoned.

There it is: My tour on the River Spree in less than 25 words.

The captain of our little barge interrupted the guide’s spiel at one point to let us know that we were about to pass underneath a bridge so low as to behead anyone tall enough and stupid enough to stand up.

I knew this not because I understood the captain’s German, which I did not, but because a crew member on the boat interpreted it for me as I was walking up the stairs to the beer cart on the top level, oblivious to the fact that I was about to get conked.

I thanked him and bought him a beer. Which he quickly drank while keeping an eye out for the captain.

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How to make a Lansing cocktail

My first evening in Berlin I am much too tired to go out and explore the city. Instead, I take the elevator back down to the lobby thinking I’ll just grab something quick to eat at the bar. As I walk back through the lobby a young polo couple, still flying their colors and looking delightedly sweaty, come bursting through the rotunda, obviously late for the ball, with their two enormous wolf hounds prancing right behind them, their royal toenails tap-dancing a four-hoofed beat on the marble floors of the hotel. Everyone—the bellboys, the guests, myself—get out of their way as they sprint for the elevator.

The Hapsburgs live!

A pianist in the lobby is playing “Fly Me To The Moon.” I sink into a cushy seat in the lobby bar and am surrounded by the music, the clinking of glasses, and a low murmur of conversation. A group of young female refugees from the big polo ball are whispering and gossiping at the bar. From the rear, they look identical—except for the color and style of their hair; straight blonde, wavy brunette, frizzy redhead.

When nobody comes over to take my drink order, I make my way to the bar, standing next to the seated women who are all drinking the same cocktail, something decidedly orangy. I ask the barman what it is the ladies are drinking, thinking I might get one myself.

“Das ist ein Shultz cocktail,” he says.

And what is a Shultz cocktail?

He leans forward, looking at me very seriously. “Dat iss a secret,” he says.

The woman closest to me, with the long blond hair, gives me a quick glance and giggles. “Do you speak English?” I ask her.

“Of course.”

“Could you tell me what it is you ladies are drinking? It looks quite refreshing.”

“It is a Shultz cocktail,” she says.

“Yes, I understand that. But what’s in a Shultz cocktail?”

“Ah,” she says. “A Shultz cocktail is made of equal parts orange juice, orange juice, and orange juice. It’s very popular in Berlin.”

She giggles again and all her friends giggle as well.

The barman comes back.

“I’d like a Lansing cocktail,” I tell him.

“This I don’t know,” he says, both hands leaning on the bar.

“It’s a bit of a secret but I’ll tell you how to make one,” I tell him.

He nods.

“Take a cocktail glass and fill it halfway up with ice.” He nods again. “Then fill it with equal parts bourbon, bourbon, and bourbon. Serve.”

The barman gives me a dirty look and goes off to make my cocktail. He brings it back to me along with a small bowl of beer nuts. And this is my dinner.

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Paranoia in Berlin

A view of Berlin in the late 1970s.

Hardy has been trying to get me to Berlin for over 25 years. He is, I must admit, more adventurous than I. In 1978, we were both wandering around Europe, though not together. While he was trekking through Istanbul and hitchhiking across Yugoslavia, I was lounging on the beaches of St. Tropez and holing up in an apartment on Portugal’s Algarve coast. But we had agreed to meet up in Berlin, a city that made me nervous, and check out Germany together.

I still have my guidebook from that trip. Here, in part, is what it said: “The trip across East Germany to Berlin is foreboding….” And, “If you travel by train be sure to get off at the main station in the West. Otherwise, in ten minutes you will find yourself stranded on a platform in East Berlin.” And, “Travel in the GDR is not always easy psychologically…the main obstacle to a visit is not red tape, but paranoia.”

Foreboding. Stranded. Paranoia. Those were the words that stuck in my throat like cold chunks of currywurst.

I’m not into conflict. Cold war, hot war, lukewarm war, I don’t care. It makes me uncomfortable. So instead of a train to Berlin, I took a ferry to the Canary Islands. There were a lot of Germans there, though no communists, and the weather was warmer. But I always felt bad about not holding up my end of the bargain with Hardy. So here I am. In Berlin. Waiting for his arrival.

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Berlin's Hotel Adlon glistens like a diamon engagement ring at night.

Just my luck. I arrive in Berlin on what looks like prom night. As Herr Lubo struggles with my bags through the Hotel Adlon Kempinski lobby, I pass through groups of loud Berliners in monkey suits and taffeta gowns. But wait a minute…now that I take a closer look, these aren’t kids at all. Youthful, yes, but not teenagers. The men have a little chin hair but they’re decked out in black Armani and toasting each other with glasses of sparkling Sekt.

And the women! The women! They’re tall. Blond. Classy looking. No bullet bras, buffalo boots, or bare bellies. Instead, they look like gorgeous actresses at an awards ceremony showing off their gowns to the paparazzi. I don’t know my couture so bear with me here, but they are draped in delicate, sexy, beaded, spangly things. Sheaths of silk layered like wearable phyllo dough in bright colors—magenta, mustard, chartreuse. Chartreuse for chrissakes!

“What’s the party for, chief?” I ask Herr Lubo as we zigzag through the crowd towards the elevator. He puts a finger to his lips, wags his head, and murmurs, “No, no, no.” Like I had just asked him if there were any hookers in the bar.

Whatever is going on, Herr Lubo isn’t talking. So I wait until he has shown me how to operate the lights in my room before sneaking back down to the lobby where I follow the musical bread crumbs of a string quartet playing Beethoven just inside a ballroom. Outside the door, sitting behind folding tables, are three very young, very beautiful, very serious Fräuleins, all in little black dresses with bare shoulders, who seem to be in charge of the soiree check-in. They offer dazzling smiles as they jump up to block my approach to the door, allowing me little more than a peek inside the ballroom which is decorated like an English garden with potted roses and topiary bushes in the shape of hounds and foxes. They know I don’t belong, not with my leather bomber jacket and dusty Doc Martens.

Was ist los?” I chirp, ridiculously imagining that they will be impressed by this American speaking bad German. “Eine cool Gesellschaft, eh.” The Fräuleins give me one of those tight Bavarian grins but do not budge.

A matron accompanying two young things in extremely low-cut gowns that display the vixens’ goods as if they were perfectly ripe cantaloupes at a farmers’ market, explains in beautifully fractured English that this is a debutante ball following a big polo tournament in Berlin. “It’s ze vay for a zertain class of vimen to find der Verlobte.”

She sees from my glazed eyes that I am not getting it. Her cosmetically-etched eyebrows arch toward her widow’s peak as she whispers, “A husband. Verstehen Sie?”

Ah. I understand perfectly. Aristocratic German men are shopping for feminine accoutrements to go with the castle in Bavaria, and the Hotel Adlon is their Ikea. And then die Mutter hustles her voluptuous daughters into the ballroom, presumably to find husbands of their own.

What the heck is going on? I came here because Hardy told me Berlin was the hippest city in Europe these days. Yet no sooner have I arrived then I’ve stumbled upon a bacchanalian party of Teutonic Gatsbys who’ve just changed out of their jodhpurs and into Italian loafers so they’ll be more comfortable looking over the little two-legged fillies fresh on the market.

I’m shocked! I’m disappointed! And I’m terribly, terribly jealous.

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The Fairmont Banff Springs hotel.

Last day in Banff. Tomorrow we have to get up at the crack of dawn for the long drive to Calgary and then flights home. To end the trip we had a farewell dinner at The Waldhaus, a somewhat kitchy Bavarian restaurant on the edge of the golf course (the Bavarian cottage that houses the restaurant was built in 1927 as the Banff Springs clubhouse).

The big thing at The Waldhaus is the fondue, although everyone at the hotel has been telling us we really had to go for the wiener schnitzel. I don’t know. Fondue? Schnitzel? I wasn’t feeling it. So while I spent my time trying to find something more interesting on the menu (venison baden-baden? Beer-braised lamb shank?) I ordered a Manhattan. It was huge. And quite appealing looking. So much so that three or four others at the table quickly changed their drink orders and ordered Manhattans as well.

I asked Michael, who was sitting across from me, what he was thinking of ordering. Salmon, he said. You can’t have the salmon, I told him. Why not? he said. I told him that restaurants loved it when people ordered salmon because they had some of their highest profit margins on the dish. “Besides,” I said, “anybody can cook up salmon. When you go out to eat, you should order something that you’d never make at home because it’s too difficult or you couldn’t get the ingredients.”

“Then I’ll have the fondue,” he said.

“You can’t get the fondue either.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s just melted cheese and crappy kirsch in a bowl. No fondue.”

“Then what do you think I should get?” he asked.

“Get the duck confit,” I said.

“I don’t know…”

“Come on,” I said. “Don’t be a wimp. Get the duck. You’ll love it.”

“How would you know?”

I shrugged. “I just do.”

When the waitress got to Michael and asked him what he wanted, he said, “I was going to order the salmon…”

“Oh, that’s lovely,” she interrupted.

“…but this guy”—and here he pointed his menu at me—“says I can’t have it, so I guess I’ll get the duck confit.”

“Are you sure?” she said.

“I suppose.”

So that’s what he got. But it wasn’t very good. A bit gamey and way too dry. However, I graciously gave him a bite of my wild salmon. It was delicious.

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