Berlin, Humour, Life in Berlin

Happy New Year

Berlin New Year 2011Well, frankly I’m glad it’s over; Christmas, New Year, the whole lot…

Yesterday, we decided to have a quiet night in. Fat chance. Fireworks were going off all over the place before it even got dark. (The Germans have a mad love of fireworks, as Deutsche Welle’s Dan Bishton recently commented.)

This is my first New Year’s in Berlin; last year we were in India, which was an altogether more civilised affair that at least respected basic health and safety precautions. After a short walk down Schönhauser Allee at about 6 pm, which was teeming with drunkards setting explosives shooting off down the road and banging in the bins, we decided not to venture out again. It’s no wonder that last night, between 19.00 and 06.00, Berlin’s fire brigade responded to no less than 1568 calls.

The Bavarian and I divided the evening between watching TV and standing at the window, fire-extinguisher at hand (don’t ask why we have a fire extinguisher; the Bavarian ordered it off Amazon just after Christmas), commenting on the idiocy of those setting fireworks off on the pavement below just a few metres away from themselves and their children, and the woman who decided to take her dog for a walk at midnight.

The worst, however, were the people on the ‘show-off balcony’, which is what we call the balcony opposite ours. They have been annoying us all year – in the summer they decorated their balcony with an almost indecent array of flowers and LED lights that changed from pink to blue to green, in the autumn they put a covering over it so they could still use it despite the falling leaves, rain and wind, and in winter, streams of fairy lights like celestial snowflakes fell gracefully down the sides of their balcony – and yesterday was no exception. They waved sparklers about with their friends at midnight and thoughtlessly threw lighted rockets off the balcony and onto the parked cars below.

“Next New Year’s, we should fire some rockets straight across at that balcony,” I say, seeing the opportunism that such chaotic New Year‘s celebrations can offer. In between keeping an eye on the trouble-makers outside, we fought over the remote control, switching between the obituaries on BBC World (my choice), Naked Gun (his choice), Mr Bean (my choice), Dinner for One (his choice) and the coverage of the New Year‘s celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate (both our choices).

More than a million people welcomed in 2011 at Brandenburg Gate last night, making it the biggest open air New Year‘s Party in the world. We didn’t go because a) everyone knows that it’s for tourists, b) it’s too damn cold and c) judging by the line-up I’d have to agree with my father-in-law, who says that instead of throwing a party, Berlin should spend the money on a proper method of clearing the snow off the streets (as they do in Bavaria).

They’re not kidding when they say that Berlin has no money, because most of the acts (Paul Potts, the English pop opera tenor who won the first series of “Britain’s Got Talent”, girl group Big Soul, who came second in Germany’s X-Factor, and Leslie Mandoki and The Soulmates, who…well, I don’t know who they are), would have appeared in exchange for just travel and accommodation expenses. David Hasselhoff, as always the highlight of the night, would have been happy with just a bottle of vodka.

Here he is, singing his little heart out:

Anyway, my new year’s resolution is to post more often, so watch this space and A Very Happy New Year and Best Wishes to everyone who reads this blog!

Life in Berlin, music, News, politics

Gazprom celebrates 20 years in Germany at the Berliner Philharmonie

You can say what you like about Russia’s largest energy company Gazprom, but they do know how to throw a party. Yesterday evening we found ourselves amidst a bunch of people, a disproportionate number of whom had face-lifts, celebrating the company’s 20 year partnership with BASF’s Wintershall in Germany.

Valery Gergiev Berliner Philharmonie 3 November 2010And how did Gazprom celebrate? They hired out the entire Philharmonie, invited 2000 people along to fill it, employed the services of Berlin Rundfunk Choir (Germany’s oldest radio choir) and flew in an entire orchestra from St Petersburg (the Marinsky Theatre Orchestra no less) along with conductor Valery Gergiev, who the New York Times describes as one of “Russia’s most potent cultural symbols.” Oh and they had pre and post-concert receptions flowing with food and wine, and dress code that stated that women should wear short dresses. Ah, the Russians…. 

The concert was wonderful; Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini followed by the third act of Wagner’s Parsifal – music chosen to represent Russio-German co-operation.

The evening, however, displayed a different type of co-operation; that between money, politics and music – a fact reflected by the attendees, from Vladimir V. Kotenev, former Russian Ambassador to Germany and recently appointed CEO of Gazprom, former politicians Egon Bahr , creator of the “Ostpolitik“, and Otto Schily ,  Minister of the Interior in Schröder’s cabinet (Schröder is currently head of Gazprom’s shareholder committee, and his taking the position was widely criticised as in this Washington Post article) to singer Vicky Leandros and Janice White, young ex-wife of German music producer Jack White.

history, Life in Berlin, music

The Cemeteries at Mehringdamm

If you wander through the cemetery gates at 21 Mehringdamm, you may be forgiven for thinking that you are entering just one cemetery instead of five.

During the reign of King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia in 1735, work began on the cemeteries outside the city gate of Hallesches Tor for the parishes of Jerusalem Church and New Church as burials were no longer permitted within the city gates. Cemeteries for the Trinity Church, Bethlehem Church (for the Bohemian community, who fled to Berlin in 1732) and Morovian Church followed.

Here’s a plan of the cemeteries today:

Cemeteries at Mehringdamm plan

The place has an improvised, mishmash feel to it because of the many changes its seen in its almost 300 year history. It has been through various expansions (especially when Friedrich Wilhelm II banned all burials in churches and inhabited areas in 1794) and suffered heavy damages during the second world war. The Berlin Wall separated the cemetery in the west from its parish in the east, which led to it falling into a state of neglect and disrepair, and between 1968 and 1971, the oldest part of Trinity Cemetery was lost when Bluecherstrasse was re-routed.

It’s an extremely interesting place to walk around, with many notable graves. Here are some highlights: 

Felix Mendelssohn grave

Felix Mendelssohn, composer, pianist, conductor

3 February 1809 – 4 November 1847

One of the most popular composers of the Romantic Era, most famous for his Wedding March, Elijah and Fingal’s Cave

Fanny Hensel grave

Fanny Hensel, composer, pianist

17 November 1805 – 11? May 1847

Nearby is the grave of Mendelssohn’s equally talented sister. A significant number of her works were published under his name. Felix Mendelssohn became very depressed after her death and died 6 months later. The line of song engraved on her stone translates roughly to “our thoughts and songs rise up to heaven.”

Franz Duncker grave

Franz Duncker, publisher, left-liberal politician and social reformer

4 June 1822 – 18 June 1888

Responsible for the left-liberal newspaper Berliner Volks-Zeitung, and a leader of the revolution of 1848. Together with Max Hirsch and Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch, he founded the  Hirsch-Dunckerschen Gewerkvereine, an early trade union movement.

Adelbert von Chamisso grave

Adelbert von Chamisso, poet and botanist

30 January 1781 – 21 August 1838

His most important work as a botanist was the description of trees of Mexico in 1830-1831, done with Diederich Franz Leonhard von Schlechtendal. As a poet, he was famous for Frauenliebe und -leben (1830), a cycle of lyrical poems set to music by Robert Schumann, Carl Loewe, and Franz Paul Lachner.

Anna Schramm grave

Anna Schramm, soprano, soubrette and actress.

8 April 1835 – 1 June 1916

Considered one of the most popular artists in Germany before the turn of the century.

There are many more notable graves here including ETA Hoffmann, Henriette Herz and Adelbert Delbruck. Look out especially for the graves of landscape painter Karl Wilhelm Bennewitz von Loefen and his wife, as they are each marked by a sculpture of a woman’s head by Ignaz Taschner.

Life in Berlin

From London to Berlin

berlin bearWhilst spending some time in London recently, I couldn’t help but notice the fine distinctions between the two cities. Here’s a list of top 5 random observations:

1) Exotic Animals: London seems to be full of them – from statues of lions to the painted elephants they’ve recently plonked around the city. In Berlin, we only get bears.

2) Use of escalators: In London, you stand on right and walk on the left. There is also a system for the trains – you let everyone get off before you get on. In Berlin, it’s whatever, which means that you spend a lot of time faffing around people getting in your way. It makes you consider how on earth the Germans got a reputation for being efficient and systematic!

3) Space: To be fair, Berliners probably don’t have a system for the above because it isn’t nearly as crowded. In Mitte, you can sometimes find yourself on a street with no-one else on it but yourself, which is a far cry from the streets of London where you’re lucky if you can find an inch of pavement to put your toe on.

4) Beautiful people: London has more. At least, if they’re not more beautiful, they are more fashionable. Here the fashion is limited to boho-chic and punk and people actually try to look like tramps.

5) Credit cards: In London you can use them to buy a penny sweet or a McDonald’s as well as to pay your cabbie. No-one bothers with cash, which is reflected in the fact that when you want to withdraw some, the cash machine asks you whether you would like £10, £20 or £50. Here, the cash machine asks you whether you want €300, €500 or €1000. That’s because even when you buy over €1000 of furniture from some shops, they refuse to accept credit cards.

Still in the swing of things from London, I used my EC card to buy a pack of plasters from Rossman yesterday and the woman actually tutted and gave me a dirty look! And it’s not even a credit card, it’s electronic cash!!!

Despite all these differences, whilst I was there I felt a twinge of homesickness for Berlin…here’s a song to express my feelings:

food, Life in Berlin, restaurants and bars

Unsicht Bar, Berlin Mitte

The Unsicht Bar in Berlin is the first blind restaurant in Germany; you eat in pitch black served by blind waiters and waitresses.

The Bavarian’s sister gave us a voucher for the restaurant as a wedding present, which The Bavarian was positively annoyed about. He whined about gimmicky restaurants for the entire journey there – partly because he’s a conservative guy when it comes to dining out and would rather stick to somewhere like Dressler, and partly because now that we’re married he feels free to whine as much as he likes. He was so grumpy that by the time we got to the restaurant he had concocted a wicked plan to buy a yodeling lesson for her wedding present in return.

I, on the other hand, being unaverse to new experiences and a frequent victim of gimmicks, was rather looking forward to it. It didn’t matter that my date was grumpy; I wouldn’t even be able to see his surly face throughout dinner.

Before being led in to the restaurant by our blind waitress, we had to choose from a number of set menus. These were no ordinary menus; they gave you no clue as to what you were ordering save for indicating whether it was vegetarian, fish, beef, lamb or chicken. It was filled with descriptions like ‘the igneous Spaniard lolls in a harsh-sweet bed and relaxes with voluptuous green’, which irritated the Bavarian even more.

I put my hands on the shoulders of the waitress, the Bavarian grudgingly put his hands on my shoulders and we trotted off into the dark like a choo-choo train. It was a strange sensation – after all, we rarely experience pitch blackness and are not used to placing that much trust in a waitress. It didn’t help that she accidently walked into a chair whilst leading us to our table.

The first course arrived, and I realised that there’s a reason why human beings don’t eat in the dark: It’s bloody difficult. I spent the meal ramming forks and spoons into my face at all angles like a delinquent two-year old. Most of the time, when the fork or spoon was inserted into my mouth, it was empty – either because whatever it was had fallen off on the way to my mouth or else because I was doing it wrong – for example stabbing my risotto with the fork thinking it was fish or scooping up a big piece of fish thinking it was risotto.

The Bavarian, on the contrary, was having a great time. He decided to dispense with the cutlery altogether during the first course and ate his chicken and noodle salad with his hands. This sense of liberation expanded to him randomly hitting me on the head whenever he felt like it, drinking his soup straight from the bowl, stealing my spoon and informing me that he was picking his nose. By dessert, he was licking the chocolate off his plate. Around that time, I too, had dispensed with the formalities and ate my ice-cream with my fingers.

All in all, the concept that you experience your food better through your other senses if you eliminate the sense of sight is flawed. You ended up concentrating more on the basic mechanics of eating rather than actually enjoying the food. There was also the problem of getting just the right mix of things from your plate onto your fork so as to make it an enjoyable tasting experience. Added to that, although there were no bones in the fish, there was skin, which I don’t like. As it was dark, I spat it out onto the side of my plate as soon as I realised what I was eating.

Part of the reason you go to a restaurant is the ambience, and this is not the kind of place where you would feel comfortable sitting around in for ages. The courses followed one another swiftly, and for the price (approx. €50 per head excl. wine) the food was average. Normally, we taste each other’s food and inevitably The Bavarian ends up finishing mine. Here, this proved difficult – when he did manage to find my plate with his fork, he ended up eating the fish skin that I’d spat out. Although we had fun, it’s a one-off place.

A couple of positive things came to light though; when we came out of the restaurant we were given a proper menu which informed us of what we had actually eaten. It turned out that The Bavarian had happily munched through a bunch of courgettes after years of claiming that he hated them and screwing up his nose whenever I cooked them. We also came up with a brilliant concept for a new Berlin restaurant; the bunker experience. You’ll be locked up in our basement with some stale bread and canned meat by while alarms, crashes and booms go off outside. Email to make a booking.

Life in Berlin, News, politics

Christopher Street Day (CSD) Parade

christopher street day berlin 2010Yesterday was the CSD Parade (or the Gay Pride Parade) in Berlin. The parade ran from Ku’damm to Brandenburg Gate and the entire area from Brandenburg Gate to The Victory Column was converted into a party zone crowded with gays drinking champagne, lesbians drinking beer, drag queens strutting about with seemingly no effort at all in six-inch high-heels and everyone in between.

The location ws perfect due to its proximity to the Tiergarten, which meant that people easily coud slip into the woods for a bit of hanky panky. (Tiergarten has traditionally been a gay cruising area). More poignantly, the city’s memorial for gay holocaust victims is also nearby. Approximately 54,000 men and women were convicted of homosexual acts under the Nazis and 7,000 died in the camps.

Berlin’s gay mayor Klaus Wowereit gave a speech encouraging tolerance, and the motto for the day was ‘Normal ist anders’. The parade involved 64 groups, and attracted half a million people. However, of the groups in the parade, most of them – apart from the five political parties and a footballers’ group – were commercial groups such as Ikea and DildoKing.

Compared with Pride London, where almost every institution from the Metropolitan Police to teachers’ unions have a float, the Berlin parade seems to be politically impotent. Even the political parties were handing out general manifestos and agendas rather than specific info pertaining to gay rights. Perhaps this is an indicator that despite appearances Germany lags behind England when it comes to championing diversity and equality…

American gender theorist and Berkley lecturer Judith Butler, who was presented with a prize for civil courage on the CSD stage last night, critisied the march as too superficial and commercial. She rejected the prize and claimed preference for the alternative CSD, which due to take place is Kreuzberg next Saturday (see her speech on YouTube).

For more photos, the Tagesspiegel has a good gallery.

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Language, Life in Berlin, News, politics

English perverting the German language?

Last night, The Bavarian and I went to a terrace party in the Bundestag. At some point, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle showed up. Someone suggested that I should go and talk to him – in English. The joke being that Guido’s English is nicht so gut. Here’s a clip of him trying to answer a question in English a few years ago:

Did I mention that he’s the Foreign Minister? Then, at the end of last year, he was asked a question in English by a BBC journalist. This was his response:

Now, this man has turned his little insecurity about his ability to speak English into a political campaign to promote the German language and purify it of anglicisms. According to a recent article in The Economist, Guido would like the European Union’s diplomatic service to hire German-speakers, probably so he’ll finally be able to understand what the hell is going on.

Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer also jumped on board, saying that he would replace English words like ‘brainstorming’ and ‘meeting-points’ with ‘Ideensammlung’ and ‘Treffpunkte’. According to him, there is “no country in the world where people treat their own language so disrespectfully.”

He obviously hasn’t been to England. The English language is about as pure as the Gulf of Mexico right now. I’m pretty sure that English is polluted with more German words than vice versa: angst, kindergarten, sauerkraut, hamburger, lager, zeitgeist, schade, blitzkrieg, schnapps, schadenfreude…

If I were to get as touchy about my language as dear Guido seems to be about his, I would say that Germans are actually perverting English rather than the other way round. The use of ‘Handy’ to refer to a mobile phone, for instance. Or that jerky idiot Lena winning the Eurovision Song Contest by singing “Like a satellite I’m in an orbit all the way around you”  with terrible pronunciation. But I won’t, because the English model of openness has proved more successful than the French protectionist model that Guido would like to imitate. Sure, it leads to a lot of messed up English, but this gives entire blogs a reason to exist.

 (And why are the French and the Germans always so concerned about anglicisms? Why not go the whole way and say you’d like to purify the language of Italian and Russian words too?)

Languages are alive; they grow and evolve organically through usage. To try and curb that is futile, not to mention anti-democratic. The state has no business interfering with this process. The last time Germany tried, with the orthography reform of 1996, it proved disastrous; there were many opponents, including  Günter Grass, Siegfried Lenz, Martin Walser, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Walter Kempowski and Christian Wulff, and the issue was taken up in the courts. Many editors refused to implement the new rules, and only very recently have newspapers incorporated them into their in-house orthographies (and not all of them at that). Most German people still disagree with the reform.

So, Guido, if you would like English lessons I’m available…

history, Life in Berlin

The Letters Museum

The Letters Museum (Buchstaben Museum) is a collection of old shop signs innocuously hidden away amid a building site on Leipziger Strasse in Berlin Mitte.

The Letters Museum

At the moment, the two small rooms that contain the jumble of letters is a temporary holding place open to visitors a few times a month while the curators raise funding for a permanent exhibition space.

The Letters Museum, Leipziger StrasseAs it stands, the feel of the exhibition is strangely apt; it is a wasteland of letters, abandoned shop signs that have lost their original purpose. Although some letters come with little cards printed with information such as where they came from, the font and date of receipt, the majority do not and you must piece together which letters belong together, and guess at their history.

The oldest sign in the collection is from a leather shop from 1946, donated by the grandson of the family business when it was closing down.

Letters Museum, Berlin

Check it out if you’re into typography or history – it’s open tomorrow between 1-3 pm, then on the 3rd June between 1-3 pm. For further opening times in info, go to their website.

Life in Berlin, News

Carnival of Cultures

carnival of cultures 2010The Carnival of Cultures (Karneval der Kulturen) is a four-day street festival that takes place in Berlin every year to celebrate the city’s cultural and ethnic diversity.

Now in its 15th year, the carnival is expected to attract approximately 1.4 million visitors between Friday and Monday (21st – 24th May) – the highlight being the parade that took place yesterday involving 4,800 performers from 70 nations.

Although the Germans always gush about Berlin’s multicultiness, my impression as a Londoner has been that the city is unexceptional in this sense apart from its large Turkish population (Berlin has the second biggest Turkish population in the world after Istanbul). So seeing the parade yesterday involving troupes from Thailand to Latin America was a pleasant awakening – there was even a group (albeit small) of Hawaiians.

carnival of cultures thailand 2010

Unlike Notting Hill, this carnival is not limited to one particular ethnic background but  to literally  anyone (there was even a carnival of cultures 2010Flintstones group!) From open bars and living rooms came the clash of different beats, from techno to latino, and stalls selling foods from all over the world lined the streets. Another notable difference was the lack of police presence, restrictions on where you could go and all that rubbish that’s really made Notting Hill more of a hassle than a pleasure to go to in recent years. As a result, despite the hoards of people, there was a feeling of space, safety and general laidbackness in Hallesches Tor and the surrounding areas.

For more info, photos and clips go to the rbb website…

Germany, Humour, Life in Berlin

Berlin vs Munich 2

Recently came across some hilarious videos from Broken Comedy that epitomise the Berlin / Munich conflict.

In Berlin, as in many cities in the world, you’ll sometimes stumble across a Bavarian pub; they are friendly, fun, the waiters are dressed in lederhosen, the women in dindls and the beer is great. This video, however, shows a typical Berlin pub opening up in Munich (sorry couldn’t embed it). So funny because it’s so accurate.

And here follow two songs – one for Berlin and one for Munich…

Life in Berlin, Literature

New poetry evening at St Gaudy Café

Thursday evening saw the first of a monthly poetry evening called Rage into the Night at St Gaudy Café, Prenzlauer Berg.

Unlike most poetry events in Berlin, this was not a Poetry Slam – which tend to be open mic competitions with a strong focus on performance – but an altogether more sombre affair featuring a line-up of four quite well-known poets.

First up was Will Carruthers, a poet-musician who is mostly known for playing bass in the bands Brian Jonestown Massacre, Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized. Despite his Chesterfield roots, Carruthers is very much a Hackney type – from the way he wears his tilted hat along with a blazer and jeans combo to his gruff cockney voice. In keeping with the whole trendy East-London thing, he read his poems from an Apple laptop.

His first few poems – about the end of the world and different places he has slept in – were uninspiring. (His claim that there is a poetry in place names is true, but only to a certain extent). His poetry, almost prosaic in style, really came to life with a couple of poems based on his experience of meeting his father for the first time and then hearing of his death. He also read a doggerel with flair towards the end of his performance.

Odile Kennel, a published Franco-German poet, fiction writer and translator living in Berlin, followed Carruthers. Her mellifluous voice and calm, concentrated air contrasted with his performance. As these poems were in German and French, I don’t feel qualified to comment on them, except to say that she was hypnotising to listen to.

Next up was Catherine Hales, a British poet and translator living in Berlin since 1999 who has recently published her first full-length collection titled Hazard and Fall. Her poetry is dense and full of meaning, and, judging from the selection she read, she leans toward the non-linear and the sonnet form. She read some pieces from her new collection, which incorporated contemporary cultural references such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dexter. Because of its complexity, her work is probably better read (and re-read) rather than listened to once.

On the other hand Martin Jankowski, with his charming character and booming voice was made to perform. He is another Berlin-based poet and writer and although many of his works were banned by the Stasi, his work became popular in the days leading up to the fall of the wall. He read his poems in English and German, although I’m not sure they worked as well in English as they did in German. He ended the night on a high-note by performing one of his poems along with Carruthers, which sought to answer the question ‘What is it like to have Malaria?” (You had to be there…)

The next Rage into the Night is to be held on 3rd June, but keep an eye on the St Gaudy Café website for details.

Life in Berlin, News, politics

May Day, Schönhauser Allee

Preparations for the 1st May around the Schönhauser Allee area started a day early; shops boarded up their windows and a police presence in Mauer Park prevented anyone from carrying in glass bottles and weapons. The result was a festive atmosphere, a ratio of two policemen per civilian and a disconcerting absence of beer bottles.

Today, contrary to my expectations, the atmosphere was much the same. I had heard that Berlin turned into a regular war zone on May Day, and this year had the potential to turn violent since a Neo-Nazi march was due to make its way from Bornholmer Strasse, through Schönhauser Allee to Landsberger Allee. The aim of the anti-demo protesters was to stop the demonstration, which the police have the right to do if it turns violent.

As it turned out, the approximatley 600 Neo-Nazis barely managed to make it out of Bornholmer Strasse; they were due to start their march at 12, and, after fires were started and arrests made, got moving at about 2.30 only to be turned back at the corner of Bornholmer Strasse and Schönhauser Allee and sent back home.

Some 250 Neo-Nazis foresaw that their effort to demonstrate might prove futile, as happened in Dresden in February of this year, and started an unofficial and therefore illegal protest on the Kudamm. Bottles and stones were thrown, and they were promptly arrested.

However, around the Schönhauser Allee area, there was hardly any violence. Music played, while families with children, punks, anarchists (mostly identified by their Schwarzer Block style clothing) and hippies danced, sang, shouted slogans, sat in the road, drank and ate and had a party in the traffic-free streets. The atmosphere was so laid back that someone even dragged a sofa out on to the road to sit on.

The diverse crowd no doubt reflected the fact that almost everyone is against the Nazis, and the politicians took advantage of the fact. Wolfgang Thiere, Deputy President of the Deutsche Bundestag (The Bavarian accidentally stepped on his foot once) sat down at Bornholmer Strasse to stop the march, and on the corner of Greifenhagener Strasse, Christian Ströbele, the Green MP for Friedrichshain, gave a speech. Representatives from the SPD, DKP (communist), the Left Party and the unions (Verdi and DGB) were also waving their flags around.

There was a massive police presence; between six and seven thousand police from all over Germany have come to Berlin for the first of May.  Most of them seemed to come from Bavaria, which pleased The Bavarian greatly.

Police dogs barked while helicopters droned above (apparently, the police increase the sound of their helicopters in crowd situations to make their presence felt) – but there was no need for all that as everything remained peaceful apart from a few trouble makers.

Tonight, however, will probably be a very different story – in Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg it is almost certain that Molotov cocktails, stones and bottles will be lobbed, street fights will break out and cars set on fire.

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Sorry about the spelling mistake in the above video – can’t seem to replace the video on YouTube, so I’m just going to leave it!

Life in Berlin, politics

Summer in Berlin

Yesterday, it felt like summer for the first time in the city and the Berliners were out doing what they do best; lounging around in parks, cafes and restaurants. 

Mauer Park, Prenzlauer Berg
Mauer Park, Prenzlauer Berg

In Prenzlauer Berg the place to be was Mauer Park, where people were playing frisbee, basketball, bowls, walking on tightropes, juggling, barbecuing, singing, dancing, making music, listening to music, talking, sleeping, taking off their clothes and tanning, strolling around the flea market, eating and drinking beer….lots of beer. 

In the middle of the park, there was a mad version of karaoke going on, where anyone could step up from the crowd of about 500 people and entertain them with a song. I’ve just found out that this is a regular Mauer Park tradition – they even have a facebook page –  here’s a clip from last year…

Ah, I love Berlin in the summer. When it’s sunny in this city, the punks, families and bohemian types all come out to play and the city flaunts its laid back, cool vibe that is part of its charm. 

Next weekend however, Mauer Park will probably be very different, no matter how sultry the weather; on May 1st Neo-Nazis from all over Europe are gathering in Prenzlauer Berg to demonstrate, and where there are Nazis there are leftists and other protesters.

Although Mauer Park is traditionally a place where people gather on the 1st May, and has seen its fair share of riots, it has calmed down in recent years. In 2009 there was no rioting at all, just a party. This year however I expect Mauer Park will become a battle field, very different from the peace, love and beer atmosphere of yesterday.

Film, Life in Berlin

Short Film evenings: Monthly screenings at Cafe Hilde and Sputnik Kino

Here in Berlin, every second person I meet claims to be a film-maker so it is no wonder that there is a continuous stream of films being made and displayed in the city.

Two free monthly film screenings have recently cropped up; A Night of Short Film Wonderment run by The Privateer at Cafe Hilde in Prenzlauer Berg, and Testbild at Sputnik Kino in Kreuzberg.

They are very different – probably a reflection of their very diverse locations.

Night of Short Film Wonderment at Cafe HildeA Night of Short Film Wonderment at Cafe Hilde is all very sophisicated; the crowd, dominated by ex-pats, sip on cappucinos and beers whilst being entertained by a range of high quality films (including BAFTA, Oscar and Berlinale winners and nominees) that centre around a certain theme (last week’s theme was music). You can normally see the programme of films that will be shown beforehand at Cafe Hilde’s website.

With Testbild on the other hand, you never quite know what you’re getting. Film-makers turn up with their films half an hour early and hand them over to be played. The crowd is mostly German, although many international film-makers have shown their films there and a number of films are in English.

As can be expected with such a format, the films vary vastly in terms of quality – from surprisingly good to astonishingly bad…

The vibe in the kino bar is relaxed; people come and go and there is usually a dog running about. What’s really special is that after each film is shown, the film-maker gets the chance to talk about their film and the audience can ask questions.

It’s great if you are a film-maker because it’s a chance to interact with other people in the business and see what they are doing, which is often more useful than watching highly polished pieces made with higher budgets.  And if you are a film-maker (or a creative of any discipline) you’ll understand when I say that there is also a deep satisfaction to watching somebody else’s failures; it boosts our delicate egos, and gives us a chance to bitch at someone else’s work rather than our own.

bureaucracy, Life in Berlin

Getting married in Berlin

Apologies for the gap between posts – I’ve been spending long hours at the Pankow Rathaus (our local town hall) recently as the Bavarian and I have decided to tie the knot. As always in Berlin, there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved.

Pankow RathausThe first hurdle was figuring out what documents an English person and a German person need in order to get married. The Bavarian tried phoning, but could only get through to a central number where they insisted we had to come in to find out. It would be too much to ask for all the information to be easily accessible on a website, but they did have a contact email address – hooray! Except when we emailed, they replied to say that we should come in…

This is where Germany really differs – nay, lags behind – England, where you can do almost everything via the web from watching last week’s episode of EastEnders to paying your council tax. Here, they prefer paper and face to face contact.

So we went in. For some reason all these offices have really odd opening hours – this one is only open on Mondays and Tuesdays 8.30 – 13.00. They probably do it to generate queues. We waited in one for almost two hours before we got to see the nice lady who asked us why, actually, we had not brought all the stuff we needed with us.

I don’t know what prerequisites you need to work at the Rathaus, but being a dimwit must be one of them. We explained the situation, showed her our passports and she started reeling off list of stuff we had to provide:

  • A newly issued copy of both our birth certificates
  • A translation of my birth certificate by a Berlin-state approved translator
  • A print off of both our registrations in Berlin that is less than 2 weeks old
  • My passport
  • The Bavarian’s ID
  • My visa that shows I can live and work in this country

As you can see a lot of this list is bullshit. The first question we asked her was whether she knew that the UK was a member of the EU which meant that I could live and work here without a visa. She nodded vaguely and moved on. The translation is also a waste of time and money because the English words that appear on a birth certificate are few and basic- mother’s name, father’s name etc. But the biggest stupidity of all is asking for a print off of our registrations in Berlin – why? We registered as residents in Berlin, we already waited in a queue to give them our details which they tapped into a computer and that office is literally just down the hall from this office – it’s incomprehensible. Anyway, it meant another wasted morning at Pankow Rathaus.

Pankow Rathaus before the queuesBy the time we had gathered all the bits and pieces we needed, The Bavarian was having feverish dreams about a book filled with names of people ahead of us in the queue at the Rathaus, so he woke me up at 6 o’clock on Monday morning to ensure that we could be at the top of the list and that he would make his 2 pm meeting. I think we overdid it a bit because we were there at 7 am, and there wasn’t even a list to sign. The photo shows the normally packed hallway…

Although we had all the required documents there was an issue with the fact that I have a second name that I do not use. The only place that my second name appears is on my birth certificate, which means that my birth certificate and my passport don’t match exactly – something that the English aren’t bothered about but that the German bureaucrat cannot bend his mind round.

We finally managed, after signing various things, answering questions, taking oaths, paying etc etc to submit all our papers. Now we just have to wait for about a month for a court to check the documents before we can book a date and go to the Rathaus again to get married…No wonder the rate of marriages in Berlin is so low.

Film, Life in Berlin, News

Daylight Robbery

The big news in Berlin at the moment is the daylight robbery that took place at the Grand Hotel Hyatt this weekend – and no, I’m not referring to their room prices.

Armed gunmen stormed into the hotel in Potsdamer Platz on Saturday afternoon and plundered the PokerStars European Poker Tour. There ensued much confusion over how much money they actually got away with; on Saturday evening it was €800,000, on Sunday morning it was €100,000 and by Sunday evening it was €200,000. (I think the final figure is €242,000 – the BBC News website still has the wrong figure.)

Police Chief Rainer Wendt claimed that the gunmen were amateurs anyway, and would soon be caught…yet more confusion, as another police spokesman said that they didn’t really have any leads. And was it four gunmen or six gunmen? Ah, bless the Berlin Police Force, who don’t come across much crime in this city. Here, even the Punks queue up nicely at ATM machines, and in most cafes, kebab places and bagel joints, you pay for your food or coffee after you’re done. Sometimes, they even ask you what you had. So much trust…it would never work in London.

At the same time as all this was going on in Potsdamer Platz, I was round the corner in the cinema (I have the ticket stub to prove it), getting robbed of €8 to see Men Who Stare at Goats. The film is based on the book of the same title by Jon Ronson, about his investigation into the US Military’s attempts to incorporate New Age concepts. Ewan McGregor plays journalist Bob, who reacts to his wife leaving him by going off to cover the war in Iraq where he meets George Clooney’s character Lynn, who claims to be part of a secret paranormal unit of the army.

As sometimes happens when adapting a non-fiction book into a fiction film, the story suffers. And in this film, the story didn’t really go anywhere; it felt like a series of expositional flashbacks showing one quirky bit of history after another.  Sure it had all the obligatory character arcs and so on, but these felt contrived and made the film soulless.

Another big problem was the lack of humour. Okay, there were some funny bits, but these were ALL in the trailer (which is below to save you from watching the entire film). I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t laughing at this so-called comedy. In a packed cinema, few giggles could be heard. As luck would have it, the only idiot laughing loudly all the way through was sitting next to me (yes, Row K, seat 9 – you know who you are). He also had the annoying habit of repeating the last line of dialogue in every conversation OUT LOUD. That’s the kind of person who would enjoy this film.  

I have no idea how such big stars were drawn to this project. It’s a shame for Clooney, who’s done a run of good films lately such as Up in the Air. Spacey, who is involved in the Old Vic and TriggerStreet should know a thing or two about good drama. McGregor gives a particularly bad performance; the biggest question about his character was What kind of accent is that? See if you can figure it out…

Film, Life in Berlin

The Berlinale: Metropolis and Shutter Island

It’s that time of year in Berlin when glitter balls shimmer, red carpets are rolled out and the stars come to town. Kate Winslet is staying in Hotel Adlon, Tilda Swinton is in the Hotel Ritz Carlton, Keanu Reeves, Renée Zellweger and Michelle Pfeiffe are in The Regent Hotel (not together of course), Ben Stiller is in the Hotel de Rome, but as usual most of the actors, directors and Berlinale lot are in the Hotel Grand Hyatt conveniently located in Potsdamer Platz.

Metropolis PosterThe highlight of the festival was Friday night, when Fritz Lang’s Metropolis premiered in full for the first time since 1927 in Friedrichstadt Palace and at the Brandenburger Tor. As we were not special enough to be able to get into Friedrichstadt Palace nor one of the 2000 people brave enough to watch it outdoors in the snow, we watched it on Arte.

Metropolis, the first Sci-Fi film ever made, and influence on everything from Tim Burton’s Batman to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is set in a dystopian world where the poor work tirelessly in an underground maze of machines while the rich live luxuriously in high towers above ground.

Freder, the son of Johann Fredersen, the wealthiest man in the city, leads a blissful life until the evangelical Maria enters his garden one day with some worker children and tells him that they are his brothers. Freder follows Maria to the underworld, where he is so moved by what he sees that he swaps places with one of the workers there. Meanwhile, his father visits mad-scientist Rotwang to enlist his help in thwarting a workers revolution led by Maria. Rotwang creates a robot in her exact image, which causes havoc in the city but ultimatley leads to the dawn of a new era in Metropolis.

It’s incredicle to think that this film was made in 1927; its visual effects, set design and expressionist camera work are so sophisticated and its themes still pertinent – perhaps testament to the fact that it was not only the most costly UFA film ever made, but also the most expensive silent film ever. However, it flopped when it was released more than 80 years ago, which led to the film being cut by 25 minutes. It was believed that the original verison of the film was lost forever until 2008 when a full version was discovered in Argentina. It took two years to restore the 16 mm film, and the process relied heavily on the original film score by Gottfried Huppertz, which was annoted in detail.

Leonardo Di Caprio at Shutter Island premiereYesterday, what did get us out into the cold was the opportunity to see Martin Scorsese, Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio et al trot down the red carpet to the premiere of Shutter Island. The scene was dominated by girls screaming “Leo!”, but apart from him, Ben and Martin, we caught a glimpse of Mark Ruffalo, Wim Wenders, Mario Adorf, Hannes Jaenicke and Detlev Buck. 

I cannot wait to see this film set in 1954, which follows U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels on his investigation to track a missing murderess who escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane on the remote Shutter Island. It releases in Germany on the 25th Feb 2010 – here’s the trailer and a some interviews:

Life in Berlin, News

Berliners track Google’s Street View Car

In Britain we’re used to constantly being watched by Big Brother, but in Germany, due to the country’s history, invasion of privacy is a big deal.

Although things like CCTV cameras are gradually and inevitably growing in this country, it’s nice that the Germans make a bit of a fuss about it once in a while. 

Yesterday, when Google’s Steet View Car was drving around Berlin, members of the Free Art & Technology group (F.A.T.) decided to attach a GPS device to it, resulting in a map tracking the car’s movements – until the good folks at Google realised that someone was watching them and took it off.

Google Street View Car being tracked on Google Street View
Google Street View Car being tracked on Google Street View
Germany, history, Life in Berlin

Berlin vs. Munich

Every time I mention the fact that my other half is a Bavarian to a Berliner, they raise their eyebrows and ask how he’s getting along. It’s condescending, this idea that a Bavarian in Berlin is some sort of lederhosen-wearing in-bred farmer holding a weiß wurst in one hand and a weiß beer in another as out of place as Crocodile Dundee in New York.  I tell them that he is getting along just fine, which he is – he likes the laid back atmosphere, the brunches, the culture, the coffee places, the cinemas and drinking beer from the bottle on the U-Bahn. Why shouldnt he?

What I failed to understand was that the Berliners were not merely being condescending in their reaction – they were being nasty. When we went to a Skunk Anansie concert in Berlin a while back, Skin informed the crowd that they were performing in Munich the following night: the crowd booed magnificently.

The obvious reason for this antagonism is that Berlin and Munich are completely different. Even the swimming pools are different, as we discovered today when we visited the Spreewaldplatz swimming pool in Kreuzberg. The Bavarian was devasted to discover that there was no bubbling hot-tub that he could laze in, and that the only thing for him to do was swim. It was not only the lack of big slides and water refuges of over 30° that caused him to mumble “everything’s better in Bavaria” but the fact that you had to stick a Euro into the lockers instead of those little plastic entry coins you get in Bavaria, and little coins into the hairdryers as he used to do as a child. Coming from England, where we have functional swimming pools, I’m more or less delighted by every single German swimming pool I visit, but I have to admit, the swimming pools in Bavaria are the best.

Like most things, it comes down to the fact that Munich is rich, while Berlin is poor. But the differences are endless; Munich is pretty, Berlin is a building site; Munich is conservative, Berlin is liberal; in Munich everything opens early, while Berlin eases itself into the day; Berlin is significantly more multi-cultural; Munich is significantly more Catholic….when I asked a school-friend of The Bavarian’s whether these differences were the reason behind the Berlin/Munich divide, he simply shrugged and said that the Münchners didn’t really bother hating the Berliners too much – they had better things to do.

So what prompted the open-minded peace-loving Berliners to rage against the Münchners? It’s the war, stupid.

Munich was the birthplace of the Nazis. Hitler was popular there, while Berlin had always been a leftist city. In fact, Hitler hated Berlin – it was Goebbels’ idea that the new government should set up in Berlin. As a result, the city was damaged by air raids, and especially by the Battle of Berlin. After the war, Berlin suffered once again when she was split among the allies and consequently the divided by The Wall. While Berlin paid for Munich’s mistakes over decades, Munich prospered – and still prospers now, while Berlin, the great building site, is in ruins.

history, Life in Berlin, Literature

Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof

Dorotheenstädtischen friedhof

It’s not true that the Germans are unromantic; The Bavarian takes me out somewhere special once a week. This week we went to Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery off Chausseestraße in Berlin Mitte, where almost every prominent body in Berlin rests, including…

Bertolt Brecht grave

Bertolt Brecht, novelist and playwright

10 February 1898–14 August 1956

Brecht’s second wife, actress Helene Weigel, is buried next to him. Their house, at Chausseestrasse 125, overlooks the cemetery and is open to visitors.


Heinrich Mann grave

Heinrich Mann, novelist and brother of Thomas Mann

27 March 1871 – 11 March 1950

Nearby is a tablet in memorial of his wife Nelly Mann (15 February 1898 – 17 December 1944), who committed suicide in Los Angeles. Heinrich Mann also died in the USA and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Santa Monica. His remains were relocated here in 1961.


Johannes Rau grave

Johannes Rau, former President of Germany between 1999 and 2004, and Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia from 1978 to 1998.

16 January 1931 – 27 January 2006

Rau’s personal motto was “teneo, quia teneor”: I hold because I am held.


 Johannes R Becher grave

Johannes R Becher, novelist, expressionist poet and politician

22 May 1891 – 11 October 1958

 The inscription roughly translates to: Completion of a dream, Have I completed my work ends, if not as accomplished. For this was my work sacred mission: service to humanity Future completion.


Anna Seghers grave

Anna Seghers, novelist, short story writer and essayist

19 November 1900– 1 June 1983

Anna Seghers (pseudonym of Netty Radványi) is most famous for the novels The Seventh Cross (1942) and Transit (1944), which deal with Nazi persecution. She herself fled to Marseilles and Mexico because of the Nazis, and returned to Berlin in 1947.


Arnold Zweig grave

Arnold Zweig, novelist, journalist, polititian

 10 November 1887 – 26 November 1968

Zweig fled Germany when the Nazis came to power like many of the writers buried here – he spent time with Anna Seghers and Bertolt Brecht during his time in exile.


Karl Friedrich Schinkel grave

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, architect, urban planner, painter and stage designer

 13 March 1781 – 9 October 1841

Responsible for some of Berlin’s greatest buildings including the Altes Museum and the Shauspielhaus. Before the second world war it was said that he who knew Berlin knew Schinkel.


Friedrich Hitzig mausoleum

Friedrich Hitzig, architect and student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel

8 November 1811 – 11 October 1881

Another great Berlin architect – he is responsible for the Berlin Armory (now the German Historical Museum) on Unter den Linden among others.

Film, Life in Berlin

British Shorts Film Festival at Sputnik Kino

Nicknamed Berlin’s highest cinema, you’ll find Sputnik Kino on the fifth floor of a 19th century business complex in Kreuzberg. The climb to this intimate art house cinema and bar, however, is worth it. It has two screens, a 1950s style bar scattered with sofas and old film artefacts, and a balcony with a view that overlooks Berlin.
British Shorts film festival poster

This weekend the cinema hosted the British Shorts film festival in Kino 1, whose bricked seat rows were filled to capacity for most screenings. The festival is now in its third year and showcases an eclectic range of British films (the loose definition of which seems to be those either made by Brits, set in Britain, or made with British funding and support) from documentary to animation.

The most interesting piece of the festival came from the Gob Squad , a unique British-German artist collective who do performance, video and installation art projects and everything in between.  Live Long and Prosper is a split screen film which aims to bring death into public view. Not only does death occur mostly out of sight in modern society, banished to hospitals or homes, but the actual moment of death is seldom seen in films.

Consequently, the Gob Squad took seven death scenes from seven movies and recreated them in different public places around Berlin. So for example, the scene where Spock dies in Star Trek is recreated in Pfennigland. Although the recreated version is done in earnest – by the performers as well as the film-makers, who attempt to get the camera angles, set and costume details down to a tee, the juxtaposition between the original and the recreated scene provoked much laughter. Eventually however, the laugher died down, and a more contemplative, serious atmosphere pervaded the cinema; it became a meditation on the moment death, and the ongoing movement of the modern world in the background of the recreated scenes became depressing. If you do get the chance to see this film, grab it.

A couple of acts that combined music with video also stood out. Dirk Markham, a Berlin-based Scottish musician mixed electronic music with interesting visuals in the bar on Friday night, and Éda Manó Meggyesházi performed on Saturday – her songs filling the cinema like those of a woodland spirit, reflecting the images of the crooked winter trees that accompanied them.

The selection of short films were of a very hight standard – many of them student projects from the London College of Communications, Edinburgh College of Art or University of Bedfordshire (the festival has links to the University of Bedfordshire). You can see a full programme of all the shorts shown here.

history, Life in Berlin, politics

The Anarchists of Friedrichshain

They cannot be ignored any longer – the anarchists are demanding attention. 

Cars have been burning in Friedrichshain every night over the past few weeks due to police raids and the shutting down of ‘housing-projects’, buildings illegally occupied by anarchists and usually identified by graffiti or the black-and-red flags flying from their roofs or windows. In addition, on 3rd December anarchists attacked police stations, cars and government buildings in Berlin, coinciding with anarchist riots in Greece over the anniversary of the death of a 15 year old boy who was shot and killed by police one year ago. All this proved to be a bit too much for the Interior Senator of Berlin, Ehrhart Körting from the SPD, who further fuelled the fire on Wednesday by comparing the radical left to fascists. 

No doubt, as many an exasperated Berliner will tell you, especially around the 1st of May, when nothing short of a full blown war breaks out on the streets of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, these anarchists don’t really have any ideological purpose – just some vague sense that they are against everything in the world, a tendency toward violence and the knowledge that there is a scene for this kind of thing in Berlin. We’ve all seen the images of anarchists taking part in anti-capitalist riots whilst wearing Nike trainers, but there is also something unique about the anarchists of Berlin that is related to the city’s history. 

DDR Flats
DDR Flats

Most of the city’s artists, intellectuals and generally unruly types have traditionally lived in Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain because this is where all the old houses are. In the 1970s the totalitarian communist state calculated that it would be cheaper to build brand new blocks of flats fully equipped with modern amenities rather than to renovate the old houses – which resulted in these beautiful buildings you can see in the photo. 

Consequently, lots of people moved out of their old apartments into brand new homes, leaving many of these old buildings empty. The people who replaced them and deliberately chose  to squat in these old flats with only one toilet per floor and no central heating or hot water, did so because they refused to have every aspect of their lives controlled by the state. 

To this day, these houses have not been renovated and the people living there are still sharing toilets and so on. There’s something admirable in that, as is there in being alternative in a country where people will stand at a crossing and wait for the green man to flash before they step out into the road even when there isn’t a single car in sight. It is also quite an achievement that the anarchists of Berlin set fire to so many cars that there’s a special website that keeps count of just how many Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and Volkswagens, are lost to them everyday.

It’s a shame that these housing projects are being shut down in Friedrichshain- they make Berlin colourful and original.  Just as the DDR tried to dictate how people should live, the capitalist ideology is forcing itself on these buildings which will all eventually be renovated and occupied by richer, more agreeable types.  In Prenzlauer Berg this gentrification has already happened – the Bavarian and I are part of the new, trendy crowd that are replacing the alternative lot. The result? Prenzlauer Berg is boring. Most of the houses have been renovated and look the same – a classier and subtler homogenisation than the DDR blocks – but a homogenisation none the less. 

I think I might have to go and set a car on fire….

The Spiegal has a good Berlin squat eviction gallery, as does the Taggespiegal.

Life in Berlin, politics

The Art of Political Lobbying

This week German parliament was fully underway, which meant that various pressure groups were swinging from the chandeliers of the lobbies desperately trying to find a way in.

I’ve never understood political lobbying – it all seems so simplistic and corrupt. Take for example E-Plus´s attempt to limit free access to content on the web on Wednesday night, when they hosted a Mobile meets Movies evening.

No matter how much wine they plied you with, nothing could shake off the corporate atmosphere that clung to the whole affair. This was partly due to the fact that E-Plus’s Unter den Linden offices are…very officey; photocopiers, bland abstract art and grey carpets all the way.

Moreover, the people at E-Plus did not really care about the topic Mobile meets Movies, and scarcely bothered to hide the fact. We expected something vaguely in line with Virgin Shorts, The Pocket Film Festival and creative uses of new media; we got two short films – one from 1981 and the other from 1989 – shown in a meeting room normally used for PowerPoint presentations. Now why would they pick two very old films when there are thousands of brilliant short films made every year, especially in Berlin? One; the people organising the event had no interest in movies, and two, one of them was made by Lutz Dammbeck, filmmaker and Professor of New Media, which brings me to the low point of the evening.

After the films, we were subjected to a lecture from the aforementioned Professor and Christoph Keese, a journalist who works for Axel Springer AG, Germany’s largest newspaper publishing company and owner of the Bild.

Both of them spent the next hour and a half pleading for the limitation of free content on the web using the stupid arguments. For example, that free web content would result in there being less artists in the world, which is the stupidest statement I’ve heard since Elton John suggested that the Internet should be cut off for 5 years to encourage creativity.  If anything, the Internet democratises and encourages creativity – and it’s not just losers like me that are using it – Elfriede Jelinek, the feminist anti-capitalist former Nobel Prize Winner is shunning massive advances to publish her latest writings online for free.

In short, both the journalist (for the profit of his paper) and the filmmaker (for his art) were dancing around like apes trying to protect their territory.

It was with this attitude of annoyance that I went to an event hosted by Vattenfall, one of Europe’s largest energy companies, who wish to extend the service life of nuclear power stations, the following day. While I had previously not really cared one way or another about free content on the web (although by Wednesday night my opinion very strongly against that of E-Plus), I have never really been in favour of nuclear power stations so I was geared up to start an argument with the first suit I saw.

However, when we arrived at The 12 Apostles, the party was in full swing and there was no one round to have a serious argument with. The restaurant, situated under three arcs of the S-Bahn between Friedrichstrasse and Hackesher Markt, had a self-service buffet in each room as well as a flying buffet. There were also several wine bars, beer bars, cocktail bars, a fresh sushi bar and a cigar bar where you could get a genuine latina to roll you a fresh cigar (unfortunately not between her thighs).  In the red smokey atmosphere, surrounded by religious frescos with the train rumbling occasionally overhead, we felt like we were having a party in the depths of hell.

There were no speeches, no-one telling you what they wanted and why, just pure, sinful decadence. Sure there were lots of evil-looking Mr Burns types around, however, there were also quite a few well-known faces – Andrea Nahles (deputy and gerneral secretary of the SPD), German soap stars, Peter Scholl-Latour (non-fiction writer and documentary filmmaker) and Heiner Bremer (former anchor man and TV journalist). What were they all doing there? Who cares. What do I think about nuclear power stations? Well, here’s a short piece of free web content to help express my thoughts:

art, history, Life in Berlin

The Deutsche “Guggenheim”

This gallery has a big name but small scope. One usually associates Guggenheim Museums with vast collections, famous artists and notable works; the Deutsche Guggenheim has none of these. To be precise it has one room currently showing 8 works by relative newcomer Julia Mehretu. So for your € 4 entry fee you get each work for 50 cents (they are very big though). But here’s a tip; entry is free on Mondays.

Once you are settled with the fact that the Deutsche Guggenheim is not a proper Guggenheim Museum but a gallery born of some collaboration between Deutsche Bank and the Guggenheim Foundation (I’m not sure exactly what the details of this dark pact are, but there are more Deutsch Bank logos in the place than there are pictures), you’ll find current exhibition quite interesting.

Mehretu is an Ethiopian-American artist who was resident at the American Academy in Berlin in 2007, and her theme is the urban landscape and memory. Berlin, a city of layers and erasures of history, suits both her subject matter and technique. Her paintings are both abstract and exact, and while contemplating them amidst Deutsche bank logos, one begins to think about German Art – or lack of – and its relationship with history and money. Predictably, it’s got a lot to do with the Nazis.

Berliner Plaetze
Mehretu, Berliner Plaetze

The Nazis systematically tried to prove that all Modern art was degenerate, which, at a time when Germany (the birthplace of Expressionism) was home to many great artists including Max Ernst, Max Beckmann, Oskar Schlemmer, Otto Freundlich and Wassily Kandinsky was detrimental. Many of these artists left Germany, or were forbidden to work. The biggest devastation was that most Jewish artists either fled the country or were sent to concentration camps.

Not only did the Nazis get rid of Germany’s artists, they got rid of Germany’s art. They rounded up 650 works – including Picassos and Kandinskys – and chucked them into a Degenerate Art Exhibition, which opened in Munich in 1937 and was a propaganda stunt to prove just how mad and talentless all these modern artists were.  The idea was originally for the exhibition to run for only a few weeks and then to burn the whole lot, but it proved so popular that they kept it open and toured it throughout The Third Reich. Moreover, the Nazis received a lot of interest from buyers for these works, and subsequently started selling them off to finance the war.

On top of this, many works were physically destroyed during the war and after the war a lot of Germany’s remaining art works were taken as compensation by soldiers from the coalition armies – and that’s how Germany lost all of its art and artists and its best ideas, and why there are only 8 works – and even then by a non-German – in this gallery.

food, history, Life in Berlin

Ich bin ein Berliner

Everybody laughs at JFK for calling himself a doughnut back in 1963. However, I’m sure that he did his research – he probably walked into a Berlin bakery and scanned the all the scrumptious delicacies in sight to make sure that his speech did not contain any faux pas. He would have spotted the Amerikaner straight away – a kind of flat doughnut with either chocolate or lemon icing – and scribbled out the words ‘ich bin ein Amerikaner’ replacing them with ‘ich bin ein Berliner’ instead.

What the poor fool was not to know though, was that in Berlin, Berliners are not called Berliners – they are called Krapfens. Berliners are only called Berliners in the south of Germany. Why? I have no idea. It’s as illogical as the fact that Weiner sausages (from ‘Wein’ or Vienna) are only called Weiner sausages in Germany; in Vienna they call them Frankfurters.

pfannkuchen / krapfen / berliner
To make things more complicated, for a few months of the year, the bakeries in Berlin decide to call Berliners Pfannkuchens. This coincides with the carnival period, and during this time Berliners, or Pfannkuchen, are available in lots of different varieties – filled with chocolate, liquor, custard etc instead of the usual jam filling.

What is shocking though, is the fact that the Germans officially start preparing for Carnival – by making pfannkuchen and so on – at 11 minutes past 11 o’clock on the 11th November. Yes – Remembrance Day. So while we in the UK and others are holding a minute’s silence to commemorate those who died during war – the Germans are frolicking around baking cakes and finding new ways to confuse us by changing the names of things in bakeries. Unbelievable.
history, Life in Berlin

20th Anniversary of The Fall of The Berlin Wall

20th Anniversary of The Fall of the Berlin WallOn Monday the city celebrated the fall of The Berlin Wall in 1989. To mark the event, a symbolic wall of dominoes that snaked along the old border between east and west was felled, and Angela Merkel, Dmitry Medvedev, Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown and Hilary Clinton gave speeches at the Brandenburg Gate followed by a performance by Bon Jovi.

I had arranged to meet The Bavarian at Cafe Einstein on Unter den Linden, which should have been a short walk from Potsdamer Platz had it not been for the domino wall and various police barricades and checkpoints in the area.  Thus, I was able to contemplate life in Berlin 20 years ago as I walked around the cold, wet city desperately trying to get from East to West Berlin.

The Domino Wall, Berlin 2009
The Domino Wall, Berlin 2009
Brandenburg gate 9 November 2009
Brandenburg gate 9 November 2009

I finally made it after nearly an hour and was looking forward to having a nice cafe latte when The Bavarian promptly informed me that Cafe Einstein was too expensive and that we ought to leave for the Brandenburg Gate in order to find an optimum position. However, as it was raining and everyone had their umbrellas up, our view of the stage was completely blocked. We waited around for about half an hour, then went home to watch the event on TV like the rest of the world.

Twenty years is not such a long time in history, and despite what we have been seeing on the television about the fall of the wall, the people here are not all jumping around with joy nor are they united.  When I got off the train in Potsdamer Platz, where toppling of the domino wall began, someone had scrawled ‘Capitalism Kills’ on one of the walls – it is the type of graffiti that one sees frequently in Berlin. Where we live in Prenzlauer Berg, we have a Communist MP.  It is not unusual to hear people talking about how things were better in the DDR – everyone had a job, it was less stressful, rents and basic goods were cheaper.

The Berlin Wall and Boesebruecke at Bornholmer Strasse
The Berlin Wall and Boesebruecke at Bornholmer Strasse

I recently met Matthais Rau, an East Berliner who was childhood friends with Angela Merkel. He wanted to study medicine, but the state forbid him to because his father was a priest (Merkel also came from a religious family, however she was a member of the young socialist political group – and interestingly did not participate in the protests against the DDR). Rau commemorated the day the wall fell at the point at which he first crossed it – the bridge in Bornholmer Strasse (nicknamed Bösebrücke or Evil Bridge).  This was where the wall was opened first, and also where Merkel crossed.  

Although Matthais is starkly anti-DDR, he also has stories of old friends who got lost in the free market and became impoverished and depressed as a result.

There is also the question of unity – Berliners seem to instinctively know who is an Oestie and who is a Westie, and many people, especially from the old West, express the opinion that although they are happy the wall came down, the people from the East should belong to a different country.

Berlin has no doubt gone through an astounding amount of change over the last two decades – more than any other European country – however it still has a long way to go…

Historical information, links, maps and much more about the Berlin Wall – official Berlin site 

2009 Jahre Mauerfall – the official site about the 20th Anniversary celebrations

Peaceful revolution 1989 / 1990 – exhibition about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the events that led to it

BBC: 20 years since the fall of The Berlin Wall

Watch videos about The Fall of the Berlin Wall on YouTube

Film, Life in Berlin

Premiere of The Line, Kastanianallee 77

Former Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit described Berlin as “poor but sexy”, and there is nothing poorer or sexier in Berlin than its film-making community.

Berlin has provided the inspiration for films such as Cabaret, Wings of Desire and The Lives of Others, and is home to over 100 cinemas (see list) and the Berlinale.  In Berlin, film-makers even get their own little places to hang out, such as Cinema Café in Hackescher Markt or Filmcafe in Prenzlauer Berg.

The Line PosterLast night Xavier Agudo premiered his short film The Line at the very sexy, very intimate cinema at 77 Kastanienalle, which has a cool basement bar and is decorated with Truffaut and Bergman film posters.

The film was very ‘Berlin’; made with hardly any money, an international cast and crew and inspired by The Wall. It’s a beautifully shot little film about divisions – the line between east and west, past and present, the living and the dead. I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who’s interested in watching it – it is due to be shown at HHU Filmfest Düsseldorf shortly – but here’s a teaser.

Life in Berlin, music

MTV Awards in Berlin

Finally, we are being treated the way we ought to be in Berlin; we were invited to watch U2 play live at The Brandenburg Gate from the chic top floor balcony of the Allianz building which is next to the French Embassy and overlooks the Tor.

I have no idea how we achieved VIP status, but assume that either it was some sort of mistake, or else that The Bavarian is indeed a Very Important Person (I suppose I could ask him, but after all these years of not quite knowing what exactly he does, I think it would be rude – a bit like asking someone what their name is after having already talked to them on several occasions).

In any case, being plebs at heart, we behaved in an un-VIP like way – gulping down as much red wine and food as possible and laughing gleefully at the more than 10,000 people gathered below us.

But everything has its price and, in a thoroughly anti-Rock’n’Roll manner, we were subjected to a speech by the lovely people at Allianz (the second biggest insurance company in the world) full of corporate gaga before the gig.

U2 were fantastic, and played 5 songs, starting with One Love during which communist / east-west reunification iconography was projected onto the Brandenburg Gate – you can see it below.

There was much speculation about the mystery guest that would be appearing during the U2 set – the Germans were hoping that it would be David Hasselhoff, which I thought was a joke until The Bavarian told me that I should stop laughing so hard because they were dead serious. Luckily, the special guest turned out to be Jay Z instead, who performed during Sunday Bloody Sunday.

Fortunately for the Germans, David Hasselhoff did make a special appearance at the MTV awards at the O2 Centre later on that evening. Once again I found myself in a conundrum over whether to laugh or not…either he is a comic genius or he’s a drunkard who takes himself much too seriously. You decide.

If you want more, there’s an interesting article in The Spiegal on Germany’s love affair with The Hoff.

art, Life in Berlin

The Gemäldegalerie

Not many people visit this gallery in Potsdamer Platz due to its slightly out of the way location in relation to Museumsinsel. However, it holds one of the most important collections of European art dating from the 13th to the early 19th century.

Rembrant self portrait at the Gamaldegalerie in Berlin

Most notably, it is home to the second largest collection of Rembrants in the world after the Rembrant Museum in Amsterdam. The collection would have been bigger, had not a fire at the end of the second world war destroyed 11 Rembrants as well as hundreds of other works. 

The gallery currently exhibits about 1500 works, including those by Eyck, Bruegel, Dürer, Raphael, Tizian, Caravaggio, Rubens and Vermeer.  If you don’t have time to take all of them in, here are my top three highlights.

Caravaggio Amor Vincit Omnia
Amor Vincit Omnia

This painting caused a big fuss, not only because of the erotic representation of Cupid, but also because of the realistic touches Caravaggio gives him – such as dirty feet which are unbefitting of a god.

The painting has a photographic quality and striking chiaroscuro lighting. A recent article in The Guardian explains why Caravaggio may have been ” the first master of photographic technique, two centuries before the formal invention of the camera”, and it is interesting to view his paintings in the gallery with this in mind.

Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel
Netherlandish Proverbs
This painting is a lot of fun. A first glance it looks like the lunitics have taken over the asylum, but it’s a pictorial depiction incorporating 119 proverbs.

You can spend hours trying to make sense of it all – be warned, Dutch proverbs are very different from English proverbs. However, we have quite a few in common as well, such as “To bang one’s head against a brick wall”, “It depends on where the cards fall”, “The die has been cast”…

Raphael Terranuova Madonna
Terranuova Madonna
Raphael’s Madonna was ground-breaking as it imbues her with a human, earthly quality, which diminished some of the distance and respect previously attributed to her, but at the same time brought her closer to the people. For example, the background shows that she is on earth, not in heaven surrounded by angels as was traditional.

To her right is St John, from whom her child accepts a scroll on which is his fate as the sacrificial lamb of God is written. In a motherly response, Madonna’s left hand is half raised – which became a noted gesture.
bureaucracy, Life in Berlin

Why German bureaucracy is worse than Italian bureaucracy

The German and I had just picked up a coffee table and boarded a tram.

At this point I have to correct myself, as The German dislikes being referred to as The German and insists on being called, at the very least, The Bavarian. This is because although Bavaria is technically part of Federal Republic of Germany, the Bavarians hardly think so – they have their own bureaucracy and even central government bureaucrats are divided into those who deal with Bavaria and those who deal with the rest of Germany due to the long and bureaucratic history concerning the sovereignty of Bavaria involving Napoleon, its status an independent kingdom, mad kings and all sorts of nonsense – that, however, is another story. The German shall now be referred to as The Bavarian.

Back to the tram. We get on, settle the table down, then stamp our tickets. Immediately, a man asks to see our tickets. We show him our valid tickets, but he refuses to accept them as, according to him, we stamped them too late. We haven’t even got to the next stop yet, and it’s taken us all of 20 seconds to stamp the tickets, we protest. There are now two ticket inspectors in front of us, protesting otherwise. We get off at the next stop – table and all – to continue the discussion on the street.

The Bavarian, waving madly at the coffee table on the pavement, explains that we stamped the tickets as soon as we were able, and refuses to give them the 80 Euros they are asking for. The ticket inspectors, as blind to the table as to any sense of reason, issue us with a fine. The Bavarian asks for their names; they explain that they do not have names but are identified by numbers. We note their five digit numbers down, as well as the telephone number for the BVG office, and carry the table the rest of the way home.

The man on the other end of the line is apologetic – apparently the BVG have outsourced the job of checking tickets to a bunch of morons who work on commission, and to dispute the claim we have to go to the BVG offices in Jannowitzbruecke. I suspect, however, that ticket-checkers have always been morons, outsourced or otherwise. The protagonist of Berlin Blues describes the ticket-checkers of 1989 as “intolerably loquacious men in ill-fitting uniforms” – a definition that still stands.

The next day we go to the office – a long grey room packed with people all waiting their turn to dispute their fines. We take a ticket and find a somewhere to sit. We are number 589; the board displays number 544, and only three counters, of about ten, are open.

This is the type of thing that one would expect in Italy. It is precisely because one does not expect this of the Germans, who are supposed to be efficient, reasonable people, that makes it even worse. Additionally, in Italy there would at least be a lively atmosphere – the Italians would be shouting, gesturing, smoking and drinking espressos in a situation like this.

Anyway, while we are waiting to be seen, it might be illuminating to give the reader some information about the BVG (Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe: Berlin Transportation Company). Most of the S-Bahn trains it runs do not work as they neglected to do regular safety check-ups for the last few decades. These line closures are also related to the fact that Deutsche Bahn (DB), of which the BVG is a subsidiary, want to float on the stock market and need an increased profit to do so. The achieve this aim, they’ve decided to f*** the BVG up the arse for as much money as possible. Again, this reeks of the way things are done in Naples.

Our number is called. The woman behind the counter looks stupid like an ox. Every movement she makes and every word she says is slow and drooling, as if she is a hippo finding it hard to move in the oppressive heat of the Sarengetti. The Bavarian explains the situation. She takes it in, in her own time, then asks, “A table?” The Bavarian replies “Yes, we were carrying a coffee table.” She stands, slowly, goes off and come back with a massive book. We watch her reading the contents and opening it up to the relevant page. After a minute she declares, “Hmmm, yes, you are allowed to carry heavy objects, including furniture onto the tram.” She then looks back at the book, and reads on in silence for another twenty seconds or so, as if it’s one of her favourite novels that she occasionally re-reads passages from. She eventually gets up, replaces the book and comes back to the window.

The Bavarian guides her back to the matter at hand, which prompts her to go to the massive filing cabinet behind her and look for the report filed by the ticket checkers; it is not there yet. Despite being presented with our valid tickets, explanations etc, she cannot make a decision until she has looked at this report. She promises to call us back by the end of the following day. The Bavarian asks for her name; she provides us with a five-digit number. I’m beginning to understand why Kafka could only have come from the German-speaking world.

The next day, we go to register as residents in Berlin at offices that are, rather disconcertingly, located in an ex-stasi building. For some reason they open are business at 11 am. We get there at ten to eleven and find that we are already number 67 in the queue. We are led into an office with lots of filing cabinets that are labelled 102.27.892 – 202.76.334 etc etc, and the nice lady asks us lots of questions like “What is your address?”, “Is it in the front or the back of the building?” “When you reach the top of the stairs, do you turn left or right to get to your flat?” It’s a tiring business, but we manage it.

Exhausted, at the end of the day, I remember the ox. “Did she call back?” I ask The Bavarian. “No, not yet,” he sighs, “The Prussians aren’t as efficient as The Bavarians.”

Life in Berlin, Literature

Immigrants in Berlin

Being an immigrant is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not easy trying to live up to the romantic image of a struggling. poor, hard-working outsider. I just moved here – straight into a penthouse apartment in the trendy Prenzlauer Berg area of Berlin with my partner, The German.

Wladimir Kaminer, a well-known Berliner and Russian immigrant, who wrote Russian Disco, Schönhauser Allee and Mein deutsches Dschungelbuch among others, describes Prenzlauer Berg as a place where there aren’t any flies at all. That sums it up. Although Kaminer did eventually come to live in this area bereft of flies, he did not arrive here without a struggle – no! He furiously scribbles away about the various squats and squalid conditions he lived in with other Russian and Vietnamese immigrants. He tells stories of how he used to sell (and drink) cans of Hansabier illegally at Lichtenberg Station to make ends meet.

Nabakov, another Russian, who moved to Berlin in 1923 (shortly after his father was assassinated in Berlin by Russian monarchists) also drew upon his Russian émigré experience in his fiction. In his short story Russian Spoken Here, he tells the story of an owner of a Russian Tobacco store in Berlin, who recognises one of his customers as a member of the secret police and promptly kidnaps him and holds him hostage.

Herta Muller, Berliner and Romanian immigrant who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature, also has the experiences of a harsh communist regime to fall back on.

It’s not only the Eastern European immigrants who are at an advantage. The English writer Christopher Isherwood not only did a good job of being “ein armer Immigrant” (he even lived in the working-class slums of Wassertorstrasse) but he had the good fortune of being in Berlin when the Nazis were rising to power.

In contrast the Berlin of today has a tranquil, pacifist air about it. On top of that, it is full of immigrants. The shop that we bought our Indian furniture from on Schönhauser Allee , Himalaya, is run by a Tibetan. The hairdresser who cut my hair last week emigrated to Berlin from Russia and is originally from China. Russian is his first language, Mandarin is his second and German is his third. How can one compete with that?

I am at a loss. Then, there’s a knock on the door. I run to get it, thinking that our new coat stand has arrived. However, I find a man in his 30s standing in front of me without a coatstand in sight. He starts speaking in German. I cannot grasp a word he is saying, so I utter the obligatory “Tut mir leid, Ich verstehe kein Deutch,” which normally helps me through most situations. However, instead of trying to communicate with me in another way, the man asks “Wie so?” – “Why can’t you speak German?”. I tell him that I am English, and before I find the words to say I just moved here, he interrupts and says with indignation “but you live in Germany!” (my German is good enough to understand this). I start to explain in my limited German that I am learning etc, but then it occurs to me that this is not right. This man, who has not introduced himself, who I do not know or does not know me, is asking me questions that are none of his business with an utterly rude manner on my doorstep. I shrug and close the door.

A real xenophobe, here and now, in East Berlin. A survey, carried out 20 years after the reunification of Germany, showed that 40% percent of the 1,900 East Germans polled had a negative attitude towards foreigners. I smile; there is hope after all.