Saturday, October 2, 2010

Done all I can do in this town

After three months on this side of the world, the seasons have taken a turn. The weeping birches by the Treptower memorial are colouring, and honking great skeins of geese cross the sky from the North. As the evenings begin drawing in, the drug dealers in Gorlitzer Park have started to fight each other with baseball bats, and finally I can wear all of the layers of wool I laughed at myself for hauling over here in July. I like to wear wool, and I like the geese. Riding around a park in a big old railway yard while the leaves turn gold and the various crews of pushers pursue diplomacy by other means is a fine way to spend an afternoon if you're not busy, but despite these attractions it still feels like it's a good time to head home.

I try to remain vigilant in life when I can, but I do find that things tend to sneak up on me. Opening for the Black Angels with An Emerald City was a good way to celebrate my last week in Europe, but it was only a couple of days before my train to Frankfurt international airport that I really started thinking in terms of leaving town and making sure I did what I'd come to do before I had to go. You will be aware that the main thing I came to Europe to do was ride purposlessly around Berlin on my bike Philip, so I made sure I did that first. Me and him have had some good times together over the past few months, and I think he realised that our time was coming to an end, because he was a little subdued on our last few outings. Usually he is a very spirited bike and he likes to throw his chain at inoppourtune moments, or lock up his wheels in the middle of bustling intersections to show me who's in charge, but as we've cruised around our favourite parts of Neukolln and Kreutzberg this past week his behaviour has been very proper.

Another of my key mission objectives for the Berlin Operation was to spend a good part of most days cluttering up a particular cafe in Oppelnerstrasse where you can get the best long black north of Midnight Espresso. I don't usually care that much about how my food and drink taste, but these long blacks are very fine and the company there is often worth getting out of bed for. If you ever feel like maybe your pants don't match your jacket and you're not ready to face up to the beautiful kids in Berlin just yet, a leisurely bout of coffee consumption here should put you in the right frame of mind to stroll down the strasse with your freunden, ready see and be seen. I think the rule is that it doesn't matter if band practice starts a little late if at least half of us need to stop at Passenger for a coffee before we feel like we can make a useful contribution to the session, and band practice has been starting late a lot recently. This is a good thing, and it meant I was able to put in a bit of quality time with the motley Passenger crew before I left town.

One of the few things that I really needed to do in real life, though, I predictably ended up postphoning until my last day. Those of you who have kept clicking back here hoping for something worth reading* since a couple of months ago may recall that at one time I was bragging about how busking has made me rich as a troll. I'm not apologising for bragging here; people who dislike bragging typically have nothing to brag about. However, I feel I should clarify my financial situation somewhat, in order that readers don't develop the impression that the people of Berlin have handed life to me on a plate, or in a hat, if youlike. The thing with busking is that people usually give you coins. Sometimes notes, but usually coins, and that's fine - I like coins. They make me feel like a character in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. (I.e. awesome). The problem I had in July, though, was that I liked my coins too much. Like some latter-day Midas, I hoarded them and gazed lovingly upon them, enjoying them both as objects and as tokens of the esteem I felt I could purchase with them from my peers. It is true that I should have been more out in the fresh air, but my behaviour did have a rational basis, which was this: I figured I might as well take them all to a bank at once and get them changed into notes in one go rather than in time-wasting dribs and drabs. As you will be aware, my time is precious and my days are crowded with purposeful incident.

It was reasonably important for me to get these coins changed into notes, because bureaux de change typically don't handle coins; presumably because they are not run by trolls or aficionados of fantasy fiction. My plan was to not be completely broke when I got back to New Zealand, so I needed to convert my hoard into a form that I could reconvert into NZ dollars later. So it was that on the last day of July, before I left Berlin to hoon around Europe in an A-class Mercedes for a month, I carefully counted all of my loot. I divided it into bags by denomination and multiples of ten, and set off to find a bank. It was raining a bit and I was toting about fifteen kilograms of coins in a calico bag, looking very much like a traditionally-minded bank robber. My spirits were high as I approached the first bank, just around the corner.

'You would like to do what please?'

'Um, change these coins? To notes? Ah, bitte?'

'Change to another kind of money? For um, for foreign? This is not-'

'Um, nein. I mean like change the coins to notes? In Euros?'

'Ah so. This also is not possible. You may deposit this coins, but to do this you must first have an account. With this bank.'

'Was? Ok. Gosh. Um, I think my friend does.' I tend to only say 'gosh' when I'm a bit flustered, and it's usually a sign things are not going well for me.

'Your friend, is he with you?'

'Ah, no. Nah. He's not here.'

'Without this friend, sorry we can do nothing.'

'Serious? You can't just swap them for me for like a commission or something? That would be totally sweet in Neuseeland, they really like doing it. It gives them a chance to play with coins and stuff.'

'Sorry, you talk so fast! What did you say please?

'Um yeah nah don't worry about it man, eh . Danke.'

'Please have a nice day.'

The story was similar at the next establishment, and at the one after that there was the added twist that they don't even handle coins at all, and the thought of it seemingly makes them ill. The next place turned out not to be a bank at all, but a mortgage broker, with hilarious consequences. By this time it was raining quite hard and I was beginning to wonder how much fifteen kilograms of coins is actually worth in real life, and whether it was much, and suspecting that in fact it wasn't. In mounting frustration and dampness, I tried a series of casinos, figuring that they would be used to coins and probably had a system. They may very well have had, but unfortunately I was insufficiently charming and nobody wanted to try to understand what I was talking about. Probably this was because I was dripping wet, speaking English, and waving around a shopping bag full of cash. Not a threat, necessarily, but probably not worth going out of your way for.

I had a show to get to, so I decided that since I had about twenty-five kilos of instruments, amps, pedals and sundry other equipment to schlep up to Fredrichshain on the U-Bahn, I might as well haul the coins along as well. Improbably, this proved to be a good move, and set a pattern for the rest of the tour - after the show, the host very graciously agreed to take a hundred euros worth of ones off my hands, in exchange for their face value in paper money. I was pathetically relieved, both for my own financial situation and for the state of the Euro in general. After all, money is only worth what we agree it is, and the evidence from that day suggested very strongly that nobody believes in coins any more. It was nice to feel that both I and the European Union might be less broke than people thought.

So the next day, when we set off to London very very fast on the autobahn, I had in addition to my usual kit about four hundred Euros worth of one and two Euro coins. For the next few weeks I would gauge the atmosphere after each show, and if the host was convivial I would tell the sorry tale and do a deal to swap twenty or fifty of these shiny tokens for real plastic money. Between this and our practice of paying for petrol with one-Euro coins when the gas station staff were surly, my piratical hoard gradually converted into a much more freely convertible, and still satisfyingly solid, pile of cheerily-coloured European banknotes.

When I got back to Berlin at the beginning of July though, and retrieved the flight case for my guitar from the friend's apartment where it had been stashed, I looked inside and was reminded that while I had taken care of the ones and twos, there were still about a hundred and fifty euros worth of twenty- and fifty-cent coins sitting there in envelopes looking like a job to do. I hadn't taken these on that part of the tour, partly because they were really heavy, and partly because I decided that it was unlikely that even the most helpful venue owner or bar manager would remember the New Zealander who insisted on counting out hundreds of twenty-cent coins on their bartop with much fondness at all. It was this last pile of coins that became my final task in Berlin - in addition to playing shows, riding my bike and a rigourous schedule of hanging out, converting this final stack of silver became a useful thing to procrastinate about.

That's why, when a kindly soul finally took pity on me and walked me the ten minutes from Passenger cafe to her bank, and we stood and watched while the teller succumbed to her own rulebook and labouriously counted the whole jingling stash into a legitimate, numbered account, returning the pile of crisp banknotes so desirable to international money-changers, I felt a satisfying sense of a mission accomplished. The task had been hanging around for weeks, not getting in the way so much as providing a useful ambition around which to organise my plans. That was the task, and it had been ticked off - time to leave this town and follow the geese.


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