Category Archives: Berlin

Heidis, Milkies and Amalekites

It is no secret. I am not settled here. I need a change. I was originally thinking Cork (I bottled it). Now on the radar is Berlin.

MilkyAnd the brouhaha stirred up last week by an Israeli in the German capital encouraging others to join him is about far more than the price of chocolate pudding with a splurge of whipped cream (Times of Israel).

I can’t put my finger on what exactly has made me so unsettled here. The illness and passing, last year, of my lovely mum – I have now lost all three members of my immediate family (it is not quite as dramatic as it sounds) – won’t have helped, though my feet were already itching about a year or so beforehand. My aunt is convinced it is my still being single. But, while a wife and kids would not have left as much time for indulgent introspection, I don’t share her conviction that being tied to this country would have made me any more contented in it. Perhaps I am just experiencing some kind of mild, mid-life malaise.

Like “Pudding Man”, I still consider myself a Zionist. What I need, however, is some time (to draw on the Hebrew idiom) out of the Land. I look back at some of my more fervent postings here and wonder if it was really me who authored them. I recently deleted, as unrepresentative of it, “this miraculous little country” (though it is undoubtedly that) from the bullets under About This Blog. The locals now irritate me even more than they always have. The charedim appear more preposterous, the Tel Avivis more arrogant, and the working classes (I had better not get any more specific) more primitive. Tel Aviv feels ever more superficial, and while Jerusalem is more like home, it is also suffocatingly parochial. And there is little escape. The north disappoints (especially knowing the Lakes and Highlands as I do), and the south holds no appeal at all.

Soon into my Tour Guides’ course (which I was anyway forced to abandon in order to care for my mother), it became very apparent that my love for this place was on the wane. The sandstone was of as little interest as the lime, and the myths had lost all their meaning. On a Succot outing last week, our (excellent) guide’s enthusiasm just left me cold. And I have long stopped reading the Israeli press.

My reasons for wanting a break are not typical. They are neither economic nor security-related (though I thank the dear lady who, on the steps of Raleigh Close on Rosh Hashana, and with a grave wink hinting at the unspeakable, assured me that there would always be a spare bedroom for me in NW4 . . . should I “need it”). Unlike the Milky protesters – and there is genuine discontent amongst many Israeli twenty and thirty-somethings – I thankfully need neither cheaper housing nor grocery bills. The missiles, too, don’t faze me. It is more the arseholes who never let you into traffic, drive with a finger on the horn, jump red lights, and don’t stop at pedestrian crossings.

On Thursday evening, a delightful Jerusalem police officer chose to curse my mother in Arabic after spotting me raise my eyebrows as he overran the red light and stopped his marked 4×4 on the crossing. And, more upsettingly (who expects anything from Israeli police?), I recently witnessed the owner of the café where I drink my morning juice eject a frail gentleman in his seventies, who could only shake his head in disbelief, because he was deemed to have been sitting with his newspaper for too long following his last sip of hafuch.

I am sometimes assured, by those attempting to assuage the recent black moods, that such experiences are one-offs, exceptions and not rules. If only. I witness similar things here nearly every day. And they are signs of a society lacking class, boundaries and respect.

I am not comfortable about publishing much of the above, and apologise to anyone it offends (or depresses). But I have always endeavoured in these pages to tell it as I feel it (what otherwise is the point?) And if Yair Lapid wishes to label me an anti-Zionist, or even a traitor, I can live with that. But there is a great big world out there, and just because we have been hounded wherever we have gone in it, it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t wish to experience it for longer than an Israir Special.

All in all, then, fresh surroundings and challenges clearly can’t come too soon.

Berlin is a wonderful city. Resonant with history, stylish, cosmopolitan, tolerant, and, yes, affordable. It is, I imagine, somewhat similar to the city of my birth . . . before it lost its identity and soul (just sit and observe, as I did a few weeks ago, from the top deck of an Ealing to Golders Green 83). And its main downside is not that history, but the very folk I need a break from: “You got rid of the very cream of world Jewry,” I always remind Oliver, my German lawyer, “and have ended up with tens of thousands of Israelis . . . serves you right!”

Resonant with history: the Neue Synagoge at dusk

Resonant with history: Berlin’s Neue Synagoge at dusk

Even though Angela Merkel’s Germany is arguably Israel’s most loyal and trusted ally (at a time when we don’t have many), on hearing “Berlin”, many of the reactions to my proposed move fall between shock and horror, often accompanied with the expression of someone biting on a pickle that has turned.

But why are we so insistent on clinging to our former enemies? Because of the shortage of current ones? Say I have a short memory, but even if the Germans are (as I was recently informed) the descendants of Amalek, Hamas, IS and Iran all cause me rather more sleep loss than the Amalekites (whom, incidentally, I would take over the Palestinians quicker than you can shriek “Allahu Akbar” and detonate your suicide vest).

Some of the double standards I have encountered have been hilarious, from friends and family whose kitchens could moonlight as AEG/Bosch/Miele/Neff/Siemens showrooms to the elderly relative who I discovered, soon after learning that he was Berlin-broyges with me, had been nailing a local fräulein while serving King and country in Allied-occupied Austria!

Perish the thought . . .

Perish the thought . . .

Indeed, folks’ greatest dread on hearing that I might move to Berlin is, of course, that I could end up in some kind of unseemly liaison with an athletic, fair-haired female with bone structure out of a human biology textbook. I don’t even want to think about that. Much. But anyway, at 47, should I still be placing national survivalism before personal happiness? (And even if Heidi has midos like the pair nearest the camera?)

Some of the ‘caring’ souls who have provided unsolicited opinions as to why I “can’t” move to Berlin are, curiously, the very same who went entirely AWOL during my mother’s illness and the second that I got up from shiva. My oldest friend, Shuli, though, is certainly an exception to that. And, while I am loath to compliment him, I do know that he genuinely cares. After I had successfully repelled his latest attempt, last week, to persuade me to pursue a future with a couple (though separately) of completely unsuitable women – his former search criteria for me long having been reduced to a criterion (i.e., Jewish) – he threw his hands up in the air and exclaimed “Don’t tell me you are happy when you are sitting alone at home with Stuey and Dexxy!” The hard truth is, though, that most dates leave me longing to get back to them.

As for Deutschland, I have a few rather loose ends to tie up here first, but am already looking forward to the new challenge. I have some exciting business ideas and the feeling that my “fascination for the [former] abomination” (to quote Joseph Conrad) could be the impetus for a renewed vigour for writing (both blogging and even something more tangible). Who knows, it might even recharge my flagging Zionism.

And, to all you young Israelis who feel the need for a change, go for it I say! The experiences, culture and Weltanschauung that many of you will eventually bring home will serve this ‘island’ far better than the arrogance and hypocrisy of those who criticise and condescend from their villas in Caesarea and Ramat Aviv.

To all my readers, a very happy, healthy and gevaldig 5775!

Looking ahead (with Vladimir Ilyich, Prenzlauer Berg)

Looking ahead: with Vladimir Ilyich, Prenzlauer Berg

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NOarchitects, No Cry: A Berlin Tale

“Life,” said Alvy Singer, “is divided into the horrible and the miserable.” I never really got that. Until, that is, these past twelve months . . .

My lovely mum started to go downhill around this time last year, and I spent the last four months of her life caring for her, while Netanya Social Services faffed around with grading questionnaires. “Can you put your socks on by yourself, Norma,” visiting social workers, each more gormless than the next, would repeatedly ask her as she smiled back sweetly. A light had gone out. The memory still pains. And the Filipino arrived much, much too late.

I have been unsettled ever since. I feel I need a change. New surroundings. A fresh challenge. Rural Ireland was on the cards. But I just wasn’t sure. And London feels a backward step.

Everything seemed to start to be coming back together, however, on a trip to Berlin at the beginning of last month. While looking for an investment property, I was shown an unrenovated loft in a converted salt warehouse in a very cool part of Prenzlauer Berg. And I just fell in love with it. So much, in fact, that I decided, there and then, that I would move in. I know, I know, “Berlin?!” But it does have a wonderful spirit these days.

A price was agreed with the co-vendor/developer, an Ulrich Caspar, and, before leaving the city, I met, on his recommendation, two 30-something architects: American Adam Odgers and his German partner Deborah Nickles, trading as NOa.berlin (previously, when I met them, as NOarchitects). It was a very positive meeting, and instinctively – I was now on a roll (I even pinpointed in which corner I was going to start writing properly again) – I informed them that I would be delighted to work with them once the contract for the loft had been finalised.

I promised Caspar that I could, and would, act quickly – a notary appointment was actually set for 2 o’clock today, a mere three weeks after I left Berlin – and also made it crystal clear to him, at a third meeting that I requested on the afternoon before my flight, just how important the purchase was for me at this time.

And I have wasted no time since returning to Israel: I put my Tel Aviv home up for sale – I have already found a buyer – and, in preparation for signing, arranged power of attorney for my German lawyer through the Tel Aviv District Court, and converted and transferred large sums to an escrow account in Berlin.

Just eight days ago, last Wednesday, NOa.berlin supplied two potential mortgage providers with a cost estimate for the renovation. “Due to sign next Thursday!” I excitedly e-mailed Adam Odgers from my phone.

Three days ago, however, only three days before the notary appointment, I received a chilling e-mail from the real estate agent:

“I am sorry, but I have the worst news possible. The owner of the loft called me this morning and said the architect of the house is going to buy the small loft. I am angry beyond believe and don’t know what to say. I let you swallow this before we communicate further.”

I presumed that Birgit was referring to the architect of the building. But no. On calling NOa.berlin – who describe themselves, on their website, as “Client-oriented” –  just to rule them out, Deborah Nickles informed me, as cold as a German cucumber, that she and Odgers were purchasing the loft. “We have only just received an answer from the bank,” she explained, as if expecting me to understand. I told Nickles, though calmly, that what she was doing was not only morally wrong, but professionally unethical, and that she shouldn’t do it. She couldn’t confirm anything, she said, without first talking to her partner, and she promised that he would call me back.

I immediately phoned Caspar, a 59-year old film producer (when he isn’t playing with people’s lives), with whom I had really hit it off in Berlin (even discussing the screen potential of Hasmo Legends, about which, to my pleasant surprise, he seemed most enthusiastic). “These things happen,” he told me, as if it had nothing to do with him. It seems that he and his Ararat Film und Grund GmbH partner were more interested in receiving ‘free’ (or, at least, cheaper) architectural services for their next project – the adjacent building – than honouring any agreement with me, or appointments with notaries. I had just been some kind of convenient fallback plan.  Combinot, it would appear, are not an exclusively Israeli phenomenon.

I e-mailed Odgers and Nickles, warning them against this path, that it was wrong, that it would do their fledgling business and careers no favours. But they chose to hide. And Odgers didn’t pick up when I called him that evening. Instead, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, I received an e-mail from Caspar’s partner – a clearly delightful fellow called Friedhart Steinich, 58, whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting in Berlin, but who, from a quick Google, appears to have a namesake who has been accused of beating up his tenants – as follows:

“speak with me about your problem. Not with Adam or something. And listen me: Never we make a deal together. Why? You cry too much. Your letter is for me a joke. Sometimes get childs not all, what they want. Berlin have much flats to sell. Good luck! Try it again. Not amused”

The German way of saying sorry, I imagine. I considered lecturing Steinich on the legal principle of good faith. For a second.

I am not going to waste any further melchett mike inches on any of these characters. They – and, in the case of Odgers and Nickles, the relevant professional bodies in Germany – will be hearing from my lawyers. But, if you have stumbled across this blog in performing due diligence on NOa.berlin, Adam Odgers and/or Deborah Nickles, be warned: before instruction, make sure that any property is already safely in your name.

As for Berlin, you might think this tale bashert, the Abishter’s way of telling me what my conscience hadn’t. It will certainly make me think twice, next time, before uttering “Only in Israel . . .”

[Update, 17.12.14: It seems I am not the only one to have been burnt by these unconscionable cowboys – see Carlo’s comment here, and following.]