Hamburg Hostel

I was going to tell this story at The Moth tonight, but it refused to come together in a tidy way. I couldn’t come up with an ending… Life is, after all, just a bunch of middles, and we assign beginnings and endings to anecdotes so they can be satisfying stories.

That said… In 1977 I graduated from Columbia College (subtitled, then, “Columbia University’s Undergraduate Liberal Arts School for Men”), and was bound for graduate school at Berkeley. Berkeley is a top school, and their Physics department is world class, but I had been invited back to grad school at Columbia, with a full fellowship package. I turned it down, because I couldn’t stand being in New York anymore – it was full of my parents.

I didn’t understand at the time that the parents I wanted so badly to escape from didn’t live in a Classic Six on West 72nd Street, but tucked cozily inside my amygdala. No matter where I went, there they’d be. But, with the impenetrable illogic of youth, this is the decision I made.

Before going to graduate school—which, by the way, I was dreading; I wanted to take a year off, but I was not such a great student that they’d let me do that with a guaranteed place; I’d have to reapply, but with a year off to account for—I decided to do the obvious thing which everyone did: a Grand European Tour, with backpack, EurailPass, guide to youth hostels, and a ticket on Icelandic (a fabulous airline, called Icelandair today; every flight stops in Reykjavik, and they force-march you through the gift shop, full of amazing sweaters, books of Sagas, and assorted nordic tchotchkes). I was going to go for ten weeks, land in London, take a train to Vienna, then circle around via Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, and back to Vienna. And all this would cost about $1200. That’s right, travel included.

There were two aspects of this trip that weren’t utterly stereotypical. One was that I would be traveling alone. The same impulse that made me want to leave New York, namely to get away from my parents, made me want to travel by myself. I had only traveled en famille, and it just had too many downsides. Constantly being told where to go, what to do, what to eat, how to eat, how much to eat, when to speak, when to keep quiet, how to dress, when to write Granny, what to write Granny… It was suffocating. However much I enjoyed countrysides and museums and cities (and I enjoyed them, and enjoy them still, a lot), being with my father cast a pall of anxiety and oppression on everything.

[In case of the unlikely event that anyone in my family reads this, I’m more or less over that phobia. I don’t mind so much being noticed and focused on… though I still don’t like being asked skeptical questions. You know what I mean; the ones that begin, “Are you really going to …?”]

Yes, I know – first world problems. But they are the problems I had, and I intend to roll around in them like a puppy on a freshly manured lawn.

So, FINALLY, I got on the plane with my backpack, and I was on my own. The freedom was thrilling. Just being free of skeptical or corrective comments was exhilarating. We landed in Reykjavik, and I dutifully browsed in the gift shop (if it had been winter, I would definitely have bought one of those amazing sweaters), then got on the connecting flight to London.

This brings me to the second aspect of my trip that wasn’t stereotypical. I had a lot of friends and family in Europe. This is mainly because my father was European, and I went to a European school, with a lot of Europeans. It pains me to this day that I don’t have a European passport (I do, however, have a Canadian passport, courtesy of my mother, which is some small consolation). Granny lived in Vienna and kept a little studio apartment in Munich; my sister lived in a ski resort in the Italian Alps; I had a school friend in London, and another in Paris. So I could save a bit on housing, though housing was not the expensive part of the trip. Hostels could cost as little as $2 a night, or as much as $11 (crazy!). Of course, I would have to rub elbows with a lot of other people, but I was okay with that, as long as they didn’t talk to me too much. Strangers tend not to comment on your clothes or food as much as family does. Rarely will a complete stranger tell you, “You’re really having a second beer?” Though, of course, the bartender might say something after the fifth. And quite appropriately, too.

Back to my itinerary. I landed in London and stayed with my friend Poor Philippe. Poor Philippe always seemed anxious and put-upon – he also had an oppressive father. Actually, to be fair, his father was much, much worse than mine. M. B___ (he was very French, so I’ll call him Monsieur B___, and the French abbreviate Monsieur as a simple M.) was hypermasculine, a bit like my father, and Mme. B___ had been a model, like my mother. In fact, in the late 1940s, they roomed together in the Barbizon Hotel for Women, when they were dewy young models. M. B___ had four sons, and adored two of them. He utterly despised the other two, Poor Philippe and Alex. He would slap and hit them in front of company. I hated and feared him. My father used to hit me; but, while it was terrible and inexcusable, it wasn’t quite as bad. My father would slap me across the back of the head when he was irritated (and he was easily irritated). M. B___ would slap across the face from the front, in rage. Much more violent and frightening.

Poor Philippe was pathetically accident prone. I remember we were playing in Riverside Park, and there was a round, weathered stone sticking up from the ground about two feet, with a natural slope to it. It wasn’t a very big slide, but it was fun that it was a stone, somehow, and small – built to our scale. Philippe saw the stone, saw its sliding potential, and, instead of walking to the top, sitting down, and sliding serenely down the two feet to the ground, as I did, he took a running dive and slid down hands first, into, as it happens, a small pile of broken glass. Luckily, my house was right across the street, so our horrified housekeeper (Maudie) could wrap up his bleeding hands and call his mom.

After London (where I bought my first pair of Church’s shoes and a Harris tweed jacket that wore like iron for 25 years), I took a train all the way across Western Europe to Vienna, and visited my grandmother. Granny was an amazing lady, gifted with exorbitant energy and enthusiasm. She had, for a while, enjoyed three apartments, in Vienna, Munich, and Berlin, but, by 1977, had given up the Berlin apartment. People thought she was a millionairess, and she loved that, and encouraged the misapprehension by wearing gigantic costume jewelry and ratty minks. She pulled it off, though. She accomplished these feats of high living thanks to three pensions: she was a US citizen, so she got Social Security; she was an elderly resident of Vienna, so she got their old-age pension; and she had fled the Nazis, so she got the charmingly named Wiedergutmachung. That translates, literally, as “make it better again.” And I love the idea of ex-Nazis handing over some money and saying (in a B-movie Nazi U-boat captain accent, of course), “There! All better? No hard feelings? We are all friends now!”

After Vienna, I went to Salzburg, and Granny called ahead to arrange a room for me at the Österreichischer Hof, a grand old hotel where my family used to stay. It was far too expensive for me, but Granny arranged for me to stay in one of the chauffeur’s rooms. The second floor of the hotel was for the guests’ servants and, normally, you couldn’t rent one unless you also rented one of the lavish upstairs rooms. But thanks to her old crony the concierge, I was in, at $24 a night. A lot compared to a hostel, but worth every penny to have an ancient beldame bring me my morning coffee in a silver service, along with a crusty roll with butter and jam.

After Salzburg I went to Munich, where I stayed in Granny’s apartment, at Schönfeldstrasse 14, just down the street from the US Consulate (where my sister and I would go for hamburgers in their cafeteria when we got homesick for American food; which, I must say, did not happen often; I could still eat Brathuhn and Leberkäse regularly).

And then, after three days ambling along the Romantische Strasse in Bavaria, where I enjoyed small local museums filled with paintings of martyrs carrying their severed body parts, I went up to Hamburg. It was on the way to Denmark and Sweden, and my father had arranged with his old crony, Leo Bodenstein, to put me up in his palatial high-rise apartment. Leo was, like Granny, a Jewish refugee who had gone right back to Germany as soon as the shooting stopped and the smoke cleared. Granny went back because she spoke the language and liked the food, and, after all, there were anti-semites everywhere, even in America. Germany, she felt, was no more anti-semitic a country than any other. Leo, on the other hand, went back so he could oppress the pathetic loser ex-Nazis by being constantly in their face and by being the big loud Jew they couldn’t ignore. He wasn’t going to let anyone intimidate him – quite the opposite, in fact.

After I detrained at the Banhof, and found my way to Leo’s apartment, the first thing he said to me, before even inviting me in, is that he couldn’t, as it turned out, put me up. His girlfriend was coming in from London that night. So, he boasted (and Leo’s tone of voice was such that, no matter how trivial the statement, it would sound like a boast) that he would put me up in a hotel. No problem! But, of course, the only hotels he knew about, in his hometown, were the big expensive ones, and he wasn’t going to pay for that. So, to find a cheap hotel, fit for a long-haired 20-year-old, he picked up the phone book, turned to “Hotels,” jabbed his finger at the first one (the equivalent, I suppose, of shopping at AAA Flag and Banner), and called them. He hustled me out the door, and into his car.

I was anticipating a nice, cozy German hotel: jolly innkeeper with luxuriant moustachios, his buxom daughter carrying five liters of beer in each hand, a steaming platter piled high with sauerbraten and kraut. I would have enjoyed that.

Instead, he took me to what appeared to have recently been a doctor’s office. The entrance was on a main street in a bland apartment building. Just inside the unmarked door was the desk – a steel office desk, manned (as it were) by a stereotypical women’s prison matron, but wearing nurse’s whites. Leo walked in, slapped a fat fistful of Deutschmarks on the table, and fled. As his Mercedes squealed into the afternoon sun, Matron pointed at one of the doors off the hall.

The hotel (or club, really, as it turned out) could once have been a periodontal surgeon’s office, but they had stripped out all the medical apparatus. In each former examining room was simply a steel bed and a wardrobe, as in “Lion, Witch, and”, but made of particle board with wood-grain laminate. My room had a window looking out onto an air shaft. And the wardrobe contained two or three outfits, clearly belonging to Ilsa, She-Wolf of, if not the SS, then something equally sinister. There was even a little green felt hat with a feather. [Sidebar: what an odd fashion – as if every German Hausfrau secretly dreamed of being Robin of the Wood]

Well, it was certainly bizarre and depressing, but it was a bed and it was paid for. I wouldn’t be spending any time there. So I locked my door, and went out to sightsee Hamburg.

As much as I drew away from the company of people, I was desperate for sex. I was, after all 20, and as hormonal and undersexed as many guys that age. So I visited the unfortunately-named Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s red-light district. I had heard of the prostitutes sitting in shop windows, displaying their various wares for salacious passers-by. Nothing, in my imagination, could be more exciting. When I was actually there, though, nothing could be more depressing. These poor women seemed sad and resigned. I was utterly turned off, and miserable about the entire human condition, and, in particular, my loneliness.

I eventually found my way back to the place, and went to my room, but now there were other guests. There were about six or eight men, in stocking feet, flared slacks, and wife beaters. Or perhaps I should call them ‘sleeveless tees.” They didn’t seem violent, and I don’t think they had wives. They were paired off – one couple was walking tentatively hand in hand, and another – their door was wide open – was sitting on the edge of their bed, also hand in hand, deep in conversation.

It was utterly silent – stocking feet on carpet. They were speaking in whispers, and seemed shy and rather downbeat. Not actually very gay at all.

Now that I think about it, it might have been me. You know that trope about the observer changing the thing observed? It’s possible that had I not been there, it would have been Mardi Gras. But I doubt it.

I had a feeling of being out of my depth and profoundly unwelcome, and in a situation which I only barely understood, rather feared, and wanted to flee. I picked up my backpack, which I had, presciently, not unpacked, and left. They could keep Leo’s money.

I looked at my little guide to Hamburg, found the youth hostel, and for less than three dollars, stayed the night. I left the next day, and this time I found traveling companions – two French Canadian guys who offered me headache hash and worse red wine. But, heck, they were company.

Memories, personality, and stories

Just reading an article in MIT Technology Review about Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist studying memory malleability. Reminds me of Elzabeth Loftus, who got into a lot of hot water (including death threats!) by demonstrating experimentally that the concept of “repressed memory” is not fact-based, and how false memories can be created. [Of course, to a lot of people, having something demonstrated experimentally makes it Highly Suspicious, whereas things like crystal healing, “toxin” cleansing, or any religious story (take your pick), why, those just have to be true… how could they not? *sigh*]

The Schiller article says:

…memory is best preserved in the form of a story that collects, distills, and fixes both the physical and the emotional details of an event. “The only way to freeze a memory,” she says, “is to put it in a story.”

Creating a story, then, is a form mnemonic. Like creating a rhyme, or a song, about an event helps one remember it and transmit it to others – meme-ifies it. Collecting events, themselves with no meaning, into a narrative; giving them a structure with a beginning/middle/end; creates an object in idea-space, just as a solid object lives in our physical spacetime. And by remembering or telling the story, we are doing the equivalent of walking around it and studying it, just like we’d do to a sculpture in a museum.

At work, in the Technical Documentation department at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we are studying techniques to make it easier for writers of proposals to tell their story more effectively. A tricky business! These writers may or may not have any innate talent at storytelling or even writing. But a better story will help whoever reviews their proposal to remember it, and will help the proposal stand out from the pile of competitors. So we are attempting to craft a process that a writing team can refer to which will yield a proposal with a “central character,” a “goal,” a “conflict,” and a “resolution.”

Our challenge is even more daunting because it’s rarely an individual who writes these, but a team. A member of the team may be a specialist with a narrow, but indispensable, technical expertise. Their section may be highly abstruse, technical, even numerical. How do we help that team member to carry forward the elements of the story? They have a lot of work already, and many requirements to fulfill for their section to be compliant with NASA’s demands. We don’t want to be seen as burdening them with even more requirements, and mushy humanistic ones at that.

Schiller and Loftus’s research give us data to support the legal truism that “whoever tells the best story wins.” They don’t only win in the courtroom, they win competing for funds, and they also win in our own minds, as we try to corral our memories into stories with meaning.


Comment Spam

So, I got one comment! Okay, it was more of a personal email delivered through the commenting mechanism, by a friend who was mentioned in the post, who had (no doubt) ego-googled.

But, still, one comment.

And approximately 1,000 spam comments. Long weird comments incorporating many references to Oakley sunglasses or designer handbags, short one-line comments with drug names… and the pace is accelerating! Do the math, and the Internet will crack in half in about five weeks, from all the spam comments.

So, there’s that. Also, there are personal limitations on what I can post. I don’t want to write about my family, I can’t broach a topic that might offend anybody at work (and there are 4,500 people at work), so there’s pretty much nothing I can post.

Of course, that all assumes that ANYBODY will ever see this blog, which is doubtful. All it takes is one look, though. It is rare that anyone will google my name, but “rare” is still non-zero.

So, I’ll probably just post something anodyne every once in a long while, just to keep the domain name active and have something for at least me to look at.

Courage, and don’t forget to enjoy the beautiful things around you.

(there, see? that’s what I call anodyne!)

Pour-Over vs. Self-Service Airpot

Instead of no service, where I become your unpaid employee (as in the soon-to-be-late-and-unlamented Fresh & Easy), or excessive service, where I’m paying an extra $1.25 for the pleasure of watching you fuss your brains out with a pour-over, how about I order “coffee”, you pour it into a to-go cup, and I pay you and leave?

Does this make me a codger? A coffee place I pass by on my commute just closed and I am vexed! It used to be called Eagle Rock Coffee, on Alvarado just north of Sunset. It was a funky, one-off coffee shop that seemed always near the brink of chaos – newspapers lying around, hand-written signs for where to pour your “liquids”, community bulletin board, flyers for local bands. Just two weeks ago I stopped in and chatted with the lady about the book she was reading, Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up. We discussed how much an awful childhood contributes to a career in comedy, and so how do you explain Steve Martin?

Next day, they’re closed, windows lined with butcher paper. Clearly, there was too much chat, not enough profit.

So I drive by today, and I’m confronted by a shiny new shop: Tierra Mia. They have an interesting corporate persona – Latino (lots of Spanish on the menu, walls lined with pictures of happy coffee farmers, faces seamed with the joy of honest labor; presumably these pictures depict their coffee suppliers, but who knows – they might have bought them at Ikea) plus fussy Intelligentsia-style pour-over. I bustled in to grab a coffee for the second half of my commute, and discovered a whole new place – I was supposed to pick a variety of coffee, then wait for a pour-over ritual, then tell them my “lightener” preference (for the record, I take whole milk – cow’s milk; it’s what I call “milk”)… it turned my morning coffee from a pleasant, quick interaction with quirky individualists into a tedious chore dealing with focus-grouped, corporate-scripted, employees. Another thing, both people were hard to understand – and, no, not because of any accent, but just because they had lousy diction, and there’s street noise. The young lady behind the counter had a mouth full of impressive-looking braces, and a lisp like a punctured oxygen tank, and the young man just spoke indistinctly. To their credit, they saw my frustration and impatience, and offered me an Americano, which they said was the quickest thing I could get, so I did, for $2.50.

The upshot was that the coffee was fine, though more expensive than I like for my grab-n-go morning java. It could be that, with the advent of the pour-over model yielding higher profits, that regular coffee shops will go the way of “regular coffee” (that’s the old New York term for a cup of coffee with milk: no choice of sizes, no choice of amount or type of lightener, add your own sugar).

So, at the risk of being a codger, I hate it.

Hello, world…

This is the total reboot of

One day this may be used to market the photographs of Peter Basch, my late father, the photographer. Or, maybe I’ll use it to post opinions… god knows, this is probably more secret than if I wrote them in a notebook and then buried it in the crawlspace.

I do have to be careful – I have a professional life that I don’t want to jeopardize with some stupid rant. So don’t expect saucy photographs… unless they’re my dad’s. I might post those.

Come to think of it, here’s a picture (not saucy) of me, that my dad took in ~1964


Cheerful little thing, wasn’t I?

À bientôt…