Thursday, 27 March 2014

Bonkers 'on tour' in Germany again: The travel bit - Part 1: Berlin & Hamburg

It is two years since my favourite band, The Monochrome Set, last toured Germany.  On that occasion, they were promoting their new album, Platinum Coils, and I attended four of the gigs and sold the merchandise. And now they have a new album, Super Plastic City - also available in vinyl! (never say never...) - so it was time to hit the gig trail there again. This time the band started their itinerary with a one-off date in Paris, but I decided to join them in Berlin at the start of a six day circuit of Germany. And this time round I didn't have the responsibility of doing the merch either - Jane and her husband, who procured me that bottle of Méharées featured in my last post - were happy to do the honours.

NB I have decided to split this post into several parts - two(?) to recount the travel aspects of the tour, and one to cover the sniffing side of things, which was by no means all shop-based this time...


St Patrick's Day dawned bright and...what am I talking about?  I was stirring well before dawn to catch a train to Birmingham airport.  And having got up at the to me unimaginably early hour of 4.30am (says she, easing into the swing of German syntax before I have even left England!), I was uncharacteristically ravenous by 7am, and ordered French toast with bacon in a branch of the diner chain, Frankie and Benny.

When my food arrived, I was crestfallen to see that it looked to all intents and purposes like fried bread, with no fluffy yellow quilting, and only barely detectable trace elements of egg in its greasy core.  I ate one slice because I was hungry, toyed with the other, and decided to complain to the waitress when she predictably popped back to inquire if everything was all right with my meal.  She then fetched the chef, a kindly Indian gentleman, who apologised profusely and explained that he might not have been '100% sure' how to make French toast, and that he deferred to my judgement on how it should be.  'Definitely know...egg.' I piped up brightly.   Then before I knew it, the waitress had presented me with a voided bill for £0.00, even waiving the cost of the perfectly decent pot of tea I had ordered with the toast.

So that little customer service coup put me in a cheerful frame of mind, which was further reinforced by a curious sign in the ladies toilets.  The term 'multi-faith washing' seemed to imply that you must be a member of a minimum of two religions to qualify to use these facilities, which on the face of it seemed an unlikely scenario.  Baptist and Buddhist?  Methodist and Muslim?  It was a conundrum.

After a quick shufty in the Duty Free (to be covered later in 'The scented bit'), it was soon time to board the flight. As I stood queuing on the jetway, I caught a glimpse of the two pilots in the cockpit and gave them a searching stare. It was just after the terrible business with the missing Malaysian plane, and the flying public everywhere was ultra-twitchy.  One theory at the time was that - for whatever reason - the pilots of MH370 had deliberately deviated from their flight path, so I was trying to suss out if this Germanwings duo looked like the sort to have other, undisclosed travel plans.  Suddenly, the first officer turned round and smiled broadly in my direction, and I decided that my fears were probably unfounded...

Germany began in fact the moment I set foot on the plane: for the flight attendant wished everyone 'Guten Morgen', even the passengers with a complimentary copy of the Birmingham Mail tucked under their arm. From this point on, there was no real milk, only the condensed travesty that is Kaffeesahne, and as we touched down, the captain wished us all a 'pleasant remaining day'.

The Germans knit too - yay!
I jumped on a bus to my hostel in the east of the city.  It was a huge, echoey, rabbit warren of a building, that turned out to be a former school.  Rather unexpectedly for such budget accommodation, it boasted a pool, but as I learnt when I pitched up there in my costume at 8.11am the next morning, it didn't open till 10am. Why of course it didn't! - the young people who make up the typical clientele will still be in their pits until gone noon...

How could I miss it?!

Back to Monday though, and the first gig at Monarch in Kreuzberg, a scruffily modish area south of the river. Even though I had been to two previous gigs bang next door to the club in question, I still couldn't find the entrance. 'Never being able to find the door of a venue, however many times you have been there before' is in fact an incontrovertible rule of the German indie scene, and after staring quizzically at assorted unmarked doors covered in a palimpsest of peeling posters and stickers, I was relieved to see the band's drummer suddenly hove into view, who was able to escort me the 10 yards to the club.

Bass player's eye view

The venue was upstairs, with a large expanse of windows along one wall overlooking the Kottbusser Tor metro station.  This prompted the guitarist to quip, mid-set: 'I wonder how many bass players have been lost out this window?  Look, the putty is still fresh!'  Other trademark features of Monarch - and most such grungy venues - is that it was smoky(!) and very, very dark.  I could just make out the flock wallpaper which was an eerie match for my blue brocade trousers.

My trousers!

This unexpected coincidence prompted the band to throw down the gauntlet and dare me to coordinate my trousers with the wall coverings in every venue.  Given the capsule wardrobe I had brought with me and the unknown decor of all the clubs to come, I hadn't a hope in hell of pulling off this stunt, but airily accepted the challenge regardless.

The wallpaper!

Another 'running gag' on the tour was the vanishingly small dressing rooms.  At Monarch, a table football table was pressed into service.  By the time we got to Bavaria, the sight of band members stripped to the waist outside the men's toilets didn't prompt so much as a raised eyebrow.

The Monarch gig was enthusiastically received, with a number of regulars in the audience whom I recognised from previous tours.  These included a Japanese lady with striking long blonde hair, who danced enthusiastically in the front row, thrusting two toy bunnies before her like a pair of furry maracas.

The dancing bunnies

After the gig, Jane and her husband headed straight back to their hotel with the merch case, while I did a spot of impromptu roadying.  I carried the bass player's guitar part of the way back to their eclectic, comprehensively graffiti-daubed accommodation, then joined them at a nearby kebab shop for a quick snack.  I took it upon myself to negotiate the menu in German, notably the various sauce options and choice between chips and pitta.  Yet again I fell into that trap of 'involuntary raw onion consumption': trying to effect a triage between halloumi cheese and the mountains of accompanying lettuce and red onion garnish was a doomed undertaking.


After the abortive pool incident first thing, it was a relatively short train ride to Hamburg next day - just two hours - and I was lucky to be able to check into my hotel off the notorious Reeperbahn pretty much immediately.  Jane and her husband were staying in a former brothel(!) that had been converted into a hotel, and it didn't open till 3pm. But of course not!  For in the red light district no one does any business that early...;) Although my hotel was geared towards conventional check in times, it was bang next door to one of the many sex shops and lap dancing clubs in the street.  Which you could say was entirely in keeping with its name - 'Grosse Freiheit' ('great freedom').

My friends' rather blue - and bullish - ex-brothel

My deceptively saintly hotel, with en suite strip joint

After a quick lie down, I decided to revisit some old haunts by the harbour and grab a bite to eat before the gig.  In particular, I recalled a bijou and inconspicuous venue called the Goldener Pudel Klub, housed in a concrete bunker, and was curious to see if I could find it again after a long interval.  I narrowed the field down to two 'bunker-esque' buildings, then caved in and asked someone...

Goldener Pudel Klub - still surprisingly hard to find - the door takes even longer

Next up, I headed for a favourite restaurant along the quay, where I got stuck into what ex-Mr Bonkers used to term 'big fish'.  Or rather 'three small fish in batter', which collectively could be equated with one big one.  Somewhat intoxicated from an overly large small glass of wine with my dinner, I strode purposefully to the venue in the drizzling rain - any loitering along the way can readily be misconstrued round these parts.

That night's venue, Astra-Stube, is a converted bakery that holds about 10 people comfortably, but is billed as having a capacity of 200.  I am not sure how many were in that night, but suffice to say that ordering a drink on one side of the room or using the toilets on the other involved the burrowing skills and force of character normally associated with tunnel engineers.  The audience was packed soooo cheek by jowl that when people posted photos of the gig on Facebook the next day, I recognised their avatars and cover photos from having had a forest of phones waved around just inches from my face. In this club the dressing room had shrunk to a small dark void under the merch table where sundry band members had risked chucking the odd belonging.

Steve the drummer warily eyeing up on-stage 'sharps'

The stage was similarly 'compact', and there was a very real concern that the band's guitar headstocks could do someone a mischief.  Add a pall of cigarette smoke into the mix, a large brown dog threading itself between people's legs, and a suffusion of red light, and you had the quintessence of the alternative music scene in St Pauli...

After the gig, we flagged down taxis in the busy intersection outside.  Jane couldn't resist ribbing me about 'standing on street corners', but I suppose it had to be done...

Coming up: Cologne, Augsburg - and Berlin again...and The Scented Bit!


Carol said...

How fun! And I had to giggle at "any loitering along the way can readily be misconstrued round these parts."

SallyM said...

Hilarious! In fact it was so funny that I had to read it again - this time out loud - to my husband. I must say you're very adventurous to do all that on your own. When I saw the pic of the "French Toast" I said "Looks more like fried bread to me" so guffawed aloud when I read on. And those trousers so *DO* look like the flocked wallpaper! And why the hell is there a bull's head sticking out of the hotel wall? I'm quivering in anticipation for the next installment...

Undina said...

I laughed - thank you! :)

Hate raw onion. There are not that many conventional food-related things about which I can say that but raw onion is one of those few.

I was thinking about that malti-faith sign trying to figure out what they meant... Are there any religions that prohibit using washing areas with followers of other nominations? If yes, maybe this sign was meant to prevent them from either using it or claiming that nobodyelsecould use it? I'm at loss.

Vanessa said...

Hi Carol,

Haha - yes, you can't be too careful in St Pauli - even as a woman of a certain age in a big coat.

Vanessa said...

Hi SallyM,

So glad you enjoyed it. I suppose my many years of solo business travel in Europe has made it second nature for me to roam around the place on my own. Though I had the company of Jane and her husband a fair bit of the time.

Glad you endorse my dissatisfaction with the French Toast. It was most certainly a fried impostor in my book!

Further instalments coming along shortly....;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

A fellow raw onion hater - yay! You just can't seem to get rid of the taste, though I daresay it is good for your health in some way.

Re the multi-faith washing area, I expect it was a segregated area for people of *one particular faith* to carry out their ablutions - I just thought it was an odd term to denote *one faith* not mingling with another, for the word 'multi' connotes 'multiple' to me.

Suzanne said...

Vanessa, you latest travel report was most entertaining (as your journeys often are!) and if you ever find out what the "multi-faith washing only" sign specifically refers to, please fill us in, as I'll be puzzling over that one until it's explained. :D

Anonymous said...

Eine Symphonie Des Grauens is one of my all-time favourite songs of the 80's.

At a guess, the sign was indicating that there were no special - Muslim? - washing facilities available, and that people would need to wash up next to those of other faiths.


Anonymous said...

Hi Bonks,

Great to see more of your travel reports:-)

Clearly the sign concerning multi-faith washing was there to ensure that you washed your multi-faiths before leaving. S'obvious!

I could *not* have slept under that decorative bull's head, just in case it decided to gore someone during the night. (How good were the wall-fixings, I wonder? )

Put me in the "no raw onion" club, please, because it gives me indigestion now that I'm ageing. Also, if French toast was simply called "eggy bread" you'd stand a much better chance of getting egg included however unskilled the cook was; the down-side is that they wouldn't know what to do with the egg/s but, hey!

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

Lian said...

What an incredible trip! Loved the photos :)

Annina said...

Great trip, what fun! Off to google the band. Oh yes, count me out for raw onions. Especially red ones - I get violently sick from them! Seems they're hard to avoid.

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. ;) Multi-faith washing facilities I have now learnt, enable people of a particular faith - eg Muslim in the context of the local Birmingham population - to have a discrete area in which to wash that is not shared with those of other faiths. I guess it is the ablutions equivalent of eating kosher or hal-al food?

Anonymous said...

Hi Vanessa,

it's my first comment here, I enjoyed reading your tour-post very much!
And how nice, you took a picture of Patricia Montag's Guerilla Knitting - here is a link where you can find more pictures of her work:
And the Monarch is a place I know quite well, too. About a month ago I was there and listened to a "fake" talk-show, one of the guests was perfumer Geza Schoen who lives around the corner.
Are you planning to visit Berlin again / soon? We must go on a sniffing tour then!!!
Greetings from Berlin

Vanessa said...

Hi AnnieA,

Whoo! Am delighted to learn that Eine Symphonie is a fave track of yours. It was the song that first got me into the band when I heard it on a late night radio station in 1979, the year it came out.

I completely see the logic of your understanding of 'multi-faith', but I get the feeling from my reading on the Net that it means one faith washing in that area at a time. I *think*...

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

Lovely to hear from you - and on cracking form too...;)

LOL re washing your multi-faiths. I have certainly heard of polishing your halo...

You are quite right to be apprehensive about that bull. Wouldn't it be terrible if it was just stuck up with BlueTack, say?

And welcome to the 'no onion' club, or 'kein Zwiebel, bitte' as it would be.

Vanessa said...

Hi Lian,

Thanks! The trip was memorable in all sorts of odd and random ways. I hope people have the strength for another instalment or so...;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Annina,

Thanks for stopping by! There are a few excerpts from the band's new album on their website, and I recommend a YouTube clip of the classic track 'He's Frank' as well. Iggy Pop even performed a cover of it on the David Letterman show, of all unusual occurrences. ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Anka,

I recognise your name from Birgit's blog and was fascinated to hear more about the yarn bombing in Berlin. I am in London just now with only my little phone screen to view on, but will follow that link when I get home. The 'wool graffiti' in the shot I used was from Warschauer Platz, as you may have recognised.

But the most intriguing thing I learnt in your comment was your acquaintance with the Monarch club, and the fact that you saw Geza Schoen there!! And he lives close by! I can totally see him in Kreuzberg, it must be said. What a remarkable meeting of worlds - my two interests associated with the same (somewhat obscure) venue....what are the chances of that?

I have also been twice to West Germany at 133 Skalitzer (see link to my 2012 tour post at the top of this one, where I lead on a photo of that venue - now closed, I gather). And in 2007 I attended a festival a few doors up from there in the Festsaal Kreuzberg? Behind some wrought iron gates, at the back of a garden? I use the word 'garden' loosely. ;)

And yes, I would LOVE to go sniffing with you sometime. 2012 was the last time so I am a bit behind the curve...;)

Poodle said...

I love breakfast food. Love it. If that toast ever showed up on my plate I'd be horrified. At least you didn't have to pay for it. Other than the breakfast it sounds like it was a fun little trip.

Suzanne said...

Ah, interesting. Thanks for researching and letting us know.

Anonymous said...

Hi Vanessa,

so you are already back in London, how sad - spring has just arrived here today!

Yes, the Monarch is a funny, dusky place! This particular evening with Geza Schoen was, as an exception, a non-smoking event and we all had a great laugh when the perfumer reported later on that he himself occasionally enjoys to smoke...
And I learned that his most detested smells are coriander, oysters and truffles. For myself I actually found out that it is the coriander which I really enjoy as a sidenote in fragrances, e.g. in a lot of the Duchaufour ones (Mohur!!).

Have a nice weekend

Vanessa said...

Hi Poodle,

I do so agree that breakfast food is something to really look forward to, making any such disappointment all the harder to bear.

Vanessa said...

Hi Anka,

Thanks so much for this fascinating extra titbit about the talk show, including the shocking revelation that Geza likes 'a crafty fag on the side', as we might say. Very difficult to be a non-smoker in Berlin, or so it seems to me...;)

And I loved hearing about his bete noire smells. What an offbeat mix they were too! Like you, I am partial to coriander in a perfume. My trip feels all the more 'rounded' for having this extra phantom presence of Geza hovering around that venue.

Though I sense not the second place in Berlin they played last Saturday. If you stick around for that post, you will see what I mean...;)

Vanessa said...

You're welcome! I was interested to get that clarification myself, as it was puzzling me no end. ;)

Carol said...

OMG you DID use that word in this post! How did I not spot that? You are awesome!

BTW, that first photo reminds me a of Anselm Kiefer painting.

Vanessa said...

Hi Carol,

I had one very wordy parent, that'll be why...;)

Just googled Anselm Kiefer's work as I was not familiar with it, and I completely see what you mean!