Sunday, September 18, 2011

Goodbye Hello Etsy

This weekend I went to the Hello Etsy Summit on Small Business and Sustainability here in Berlin. I really had no excuse not to go, considering the conference was a ten minute bike ride from my apartment and I've also been selling in Curious Knopf and Augenblick Photo since Spring/Fall 2010 and in Schaufenster (for which this blog is named) before that.

I'm also thinking seriously these days about expanding both of my shops and (perhaps) even combining them with an actual Brick and Mortar shop here in Berlin. In the past few weeks I've been taking a workshop on Existenzgr├╝ndung, i.e. how to go into business for yourself in Germany. Needless to say the bureaucracy, etc. is rather mind-boggling and worthy of a blog post all to itself, so I won't get into much detail here.

The conference was held at the eWerk in Berlin Mitte just around the corner from Postsdamer Platz. A former energy plant in gorgeous 1920s style, the building is now a conference center where they've apparently also hosted techno parties (or at least it looked like it from some of the images I found on google....) The plant was owned by AEG. I happen to know from a recent translation I did for the Visual History Archive on Forced Labor that AEG had a particularly shady past with forced Jewish and Polish Labor during the second world war, something that makes the topic of the summit all the more ironic.

The conference was split up in the main room (mainly for eating, chatting, networking, etc.), two rooftop rooms and the control room. I never went to anything in the control room, but it looked a lot like the one in Chernobyl pictured above. I know this because I went up their with my camera in hand no knowing that a) the elevator opens up into the middle of the room and b) a workshop was going on. Though I felt like I had landed in the middle of the "real world" in the Matrix, I was just too damn shy to snap a picture.

Speaking of too damn shy, that's one of the reasons I didn't get as much out of the conference as I might have since it definitely would have been a good chance to network. Although I am far from being painfully shy like I was as a teenager, I am still definitely introverted. Sometimes it really is a pain in the ass. I know a) that I am interested in people and like getting to know them and b) that once a conversation gets going everything is fine. But still, getting those conversations started of my own volition is just not that easy.

Then again, that's one of the reasons I decided to settle down in Berlin. In the US you're often seen as a freak if you are too introverted whereas in Berlin true extroverts are often seen as a pain in the ass. German (at least Northern German) culture is definitely introverted, so much so that, when with a group Germans, I am sometimes the biggest extrovert among them which is absolutely ridiculous.

The conference was basically split between the nuts and bolts side (PR, marketing, google and branding tips, etc.) and the inspirational, new economy side (but unfortunately not much "seller success" talks and workshops which would have been great.) On Saturday I did the nuts and bolts workshops which were interesting and helpful, albeit somewhat overwhelming. On Sunday I stayed downstairs for the inspirational stuff mainly because it was cold and rainy and I had come late and was too lazy to wait for the very slow elevator to take me up to the rooftop rooms.

I found Michiel Schwarz's talk on the Culture of Sustainism very inspiring and Biba Schoenmaker's talk about the Bread Fund, a trust based insurance for the self-employed in the Netherlands to be a brilliant idea I hope they soon implement in Germany, especially if I do go into business for myself full-time.

However, I found Douglas Rushkoff's talk a little over the top or maybe just too, well, American. Yes, it is important to know what the new social media is and how it defines us and yes, there are new possibilities for us to define ourselves and the new global economy in a different way but why does it have to be so big, so mind-boggling, so revolutionary? Maybe I've just become European enough to be turned off by this larger-than-life American presentation.

There is a reason I sell on Etsy and not on Ebay and that reason is I do like the personal, aesthetic and community aspect of it. I think a lot of buyers are drawn to this too. The concept definitely was new and is global-yet-local in a way that simply wasn't possible before. But why does it have to be life-changing, a whole new way of being, a revolution in how business is done? Etsy isn't going to change the world and I hope to god they don't think they are going to. If so, they will only be swallowed up by their own hype and fall into cynicism once the bubble bursts. Yes, the world can change and yes, you should live in a way that supports what you believe. But what the significance will be can only be seen once the events have already happened. To pump them up to the level of grandiosity as Rushkoff to a certain extent did seems ultimately hollow and destined for disillusionment.

Before I headed for home I went up the roof to take some pictures, at the time virtually deserted since everyone was downstairs drinking tea and staying out of the chill. I looked down at the hot air balloon I went to recently with Miss Mia and Little Li. Mia had wanted to go on it forever so finally we did. It was ridiculously expensive (6 Euros for each kid but 20 Euros for me for a 15 minute ride) and they played cheesy canned music at the top, but Mia loved every second of it.

I looked down on Trabi Safari reminding me I was on a rooftop of a building in the former East incredibly close to where the wall once stood.

And I looked down on this empty, over-grown lot, one of many hundreds in Berlin. Berlin may be changing. It may gradually be getting more expensive i.e. from dirt cheap to moderately affordable. But the city still has so much green. It has its problems, but it holds so much promise and possibility. We've got it good.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

About Painting?

On Sunday Jasper and I called in a babysitter and spontaneously went to the ABC (art berlin contemporary) art fair About Painting. By far the coolest thing there were these huge hamster-wheel like things that kids could roll around in inside a pool. It really made the coolest sound and made us (almost) wish the kids were with us or (better yet) that they would allow adult-sized people in those balls.

Looking at those things reminded me of the time I put one of my pet rats in a hamster ball when I was a teenager. He stayed perfectly still and stared at me with his beady eyes as if to say "You've gotta be kidding me."

That's pretty much the way I felt when I walked around the art fair. Although it was called "About Painting" there were only actually two paintings there done by a woman born in 1944 who, as my brother-in-law assured me (he is a painter), is not very trendy. Everything else looked either as if you would have to read a 14 page essay to understand it or like my 4 year old daughter drew a princess castle and my 2 and a half year old daughter then threw up on it. Please, people. The emperor is wearing no clothes.

Seeing such art (or the art world in such a state) reminded me a lot of studying music at Mills College. Although I studied classical singing, what the music department at Mills is best known for is electronic and conceptual music. When I was studying there I was pretty open and went to a lot of different kinds of concerts. I remember in particular one where 25 women in tuxedo shirts played electric guitars with bottles of nail polish and another (from a famous composer from the University of Arizona) with a video installation of ants crawling over a microphone half buried in their nest.

The problem? The guitar playing sounded like hideous noise and the ant recordings like vague scratching. I understand that both art and music can be boring when they are merely beautiful, but when all you have is concept then they are worse then boring. They are simply ludicrous. These days any one artsy fartsy usually calls themselves a designer instead of an artist like they might have 10 or 15 years ago. On Sunday I could see why. If About Painting was a mirror of the contemporary art world then art, in my opinion is dead. Joseph Beuys may have said everyone is an artist, but I think it's time we got over it and something like, um, skill came back into the picture.

Still, the fair was definitely worth a visit if not for the location alone. A former U-Bahn storage house, the rooms were spacious with beautiful light coming from the skylights and lots of warm gray tones abound. People watching was also definitely good. Lots of well dressed ingenues typing madly away on their Mac books. All gallery assistants I assumed.

And I saw a lot of really great shoes. Seriously. I almost asked a few women where they had bought them they were so damn gorgeous, but you just don't do that in Berlin, especially not at an art fair. Speaking of shoes, I never could figure out if the pair above were a work of art or if someone had strangely forgotten them. If anyone knows, please drop me a line. ;)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Bauhaus and What it Means to Me

The word "Bauhaus" has meant a lot of different things to me in my life. When I was a teenage, I was a big fan of the band Bauhaus, much to my sister's chagrin. Listening to Peter Murphy have spastic fits about Bela Lugosi being dead was probably not the nicest thing to hear every morning through your bedroom wall. Although I didn't necessarily dress the part, my first boyfriend in high school did write me a poem half penned in his own blood (I thought it was the most romantic thing in the world) so I was definitely a bit of a goth girl. Hmm...Maybe that's why I still like to take photographs in graveyards.

Later I learned Bauhaus (literally "house of construction") was a design movement headed by Walter Gropius up until the 1930s. It is one of my favorite design styles by far, especially for architecture. I would love to collect more Bauhaus objects, but they're hard to come by, or at least at a decent price. Write "Bauhaus" in the description of anything on Ebay Germany and you're pretty much guaranteed a good price.

Shortly after I moved to Berlin I discovered a third Bauhaus, the Bauhaus Baumarkt. A huge hardware store a la Home Depot minus the plant nursery, Bauhaus is filled with things with sexy names like lumber, nuts and bolts and silicon tubing. Seriously though, I do find it kind of sexy there. Lumber smells great and all you see are men, men, men with an occasional lesbian mixed in for good measure.

Granted, the kind of men who loiter in Bauhaus lusting over power tools are generally not my type but I still definitely get a kick out of how surprised they are when they see me in there. I swear, at least three times I've had a man nearly drop his bucket of nails when he saw me, an ordinary woman, getting lost in the aisle of Bauhaus without a husband or boyfriend in tow. Bauhaus has so much testosterone in the air a (female) friend and I have joked all we have to do is walk into the place and our biceps start growing.

It was on a jaunt to Bauhaus a couple of months ago that I discovered these stones. I started mounting photographs to them and so far they've been pretty popular. You can find them at Augenblick Photo with many more to come.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Dreaming of Burg Stavenow

Summer this year was far too short. And that's being generous. More cynical would be to say we were royally cheated. July and August were wet and cold, as though Berlin were convinced it were late October instead of the middle of summer. Never too easy for a California girl like me, though I have to say this year was the worst of all in the 12 years I've lived here. And that's saying a lot considering summer here is always an "optional" season....

Harder still was the fact that we aren't really going to take a vacation this year. The vacation to the Bay Area in October was canceled for a variety of reasons, cost being the highest on the list. Now that the girls are both over 2, their plane tickets are nearly full price which means to visit "home" we're going to have to save, save, save. Not so easy since I've taken for granted at least one visit a year.

But being a California girl and therefore a natural born optimist, I didn't give in to despair but rather gave in to Brandenburg. For those of you who don't know, Brandenburg is the former East German state surrounding Berlin. It's pretty rural with not much going on and, at it's worst, can be a little scary in a back-pages-of-a-second-rate-Dostoevsky novel kind of way. Still, after a little internet research I was able to find a few nice looking places where I booked us a room for a little mini vacation. The first place we stayed was Lychen House.

Lychen House is a beautifully restored old building run as a charming hostel-like hotel with the family (a German/New Zealand couple) living on the second floor. There was lots of great East German and antique furniture around the house and a common kitchen area with lots of light. The Catos (family who run the place) also have two children close to Miss Mia and Little Li's age, so they are definitely child friendly with plenty of toys and a sand box in the garden.

Though I do definitely recommend Lychen House highly, I wasn't all that impressed with the town of Lychen itself. More than a village but definitely not a city, Lychen was just the size of town that makes me nervous. I kept on feeling like something should happen but then realized that nothing ever happens in such towns and then I started feeling desperate. Jasper felt the same. The whole hostel-like atmosphere was also a little claustrophobic. Family life doesn't exactly leave much room for personal space, making you all the more desperate for it when on vacation. Conclusion: Although we found Lychen House lovely and friendly, we just didn't come away well-rested.

Thank God then, for Burg Stavenow. Burg Stavenow is a small hotel run in a 14th century villa lovingly restored by an older couple from Hamburg. The place is literally in the middle of nowhere in the section of the state called West Prignitz. Whereas most of Brandenburg has drab houses and dense, sandy forests which add to the overall sense of the-walls-are-closing-in-on-you despair, the West Prignitz has a lot of warm, red brick buildings and rolling meadows mixed in with woods, leaving plenty of room to breathe.

We stayed in the Stall which was this charming little cottage with an attic sleeping room and lots of natural wood. The place was remote with no television, no internet. Even Jasper's cell phone didn't work (I had conveniently forgotten mine at home.) That left us with some signs of civilization....

....but mainly nature, nature, nature.

The stall was also so beautifully decorated. It had an aesthetic rustic cottage charm with a South Western flair that reminded me so much of my grandparent's house in Flagstaff, Arizona; a beautiful place my father was supposed to inherit but then didn't.

....but that's another story and should be told at another time....

If most of Brandenburg is Dostoevsky in the worst sense, then Burg Stavenow was like a fairy tale in the best sense. We even took a coach ride through the wood with the retired forester, a man full of stories with a beard like Santa Claus. His wife is a weaver who spins her own wool. I bought a pair of slipper she made and wish I could live in them they are so damn comfortable.

And, of course, Otto lives at Burg Stavenow, the world's most friendliest dog. Little Li and Miss Mia may be pinching his ears here, but Otto is still, as usual, nothing but smiles.

On the drive back home we were reminded we were indeed in Brandenburg when we stopped in a village with a run-down Renaissance castle. The museum was only filled with relics from the GDR, so we decided not to go in. I had to change Little Li's pants but couldn't find a trash can anywhere. Finally I did come across one but it was padlocked shut. This town probably had 300 inhabitants. Why would they padlock their trash cans? To keep out pesky tourist's noxious diapers I suppose.

We walked past the castle to a soccer field where I found a pile of old discarded furniture. In cities these pieces would be called mid century and fetch a price but in this village they were mouldering on a stack of wood at the edge of the forest.

Brandenburg is sometimes still a place where time stands still and you can't breathe because even the air is made of concrete.

But thank god for places like Burg Stavenow.


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