art, Berlin, events, Life in Berlin, people, theatre

Palast-Talk: British Evening

Friedrichstadt-Palast – the glitzy show palace in Mitte – recently hosted an illuminating discussion about German and British theatre.

Berndt Schmidt and Alistair Spalding, Friedrichstadt-Palast
Photo: Sascha Radke, Eventpress, courtesy of Friedrichstadt-Palast

The talk focused on the differences between British and German theatre. Alistair Spalding, Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells in London, observed that the British prefer to be entertained, while the Germans think theatre has to be difficult and painful. Also, British theatre is commercial, whereas German theatres are mostly subsidised.

This inevitably led to a discussion about the difference between art and entertainment. Does art have to be political? Dr Berndt Schmidt, General Director of Friedrichstadt-Palast, joked that although many people do not count what the Palast does as art, it must be – because they get funding for it.

He also stated that although the shows at Friedrichstadt-Palast were not political, the theatre’s attitude was open and tolerant. This is a fallacy: Everything is political. Even the choice not to engage in politics and just entertain people is political. It is a choice that says, the status quo is fine and we do not feel a responsibility or need to question it. That entertainment is more important than politics. It is conservatism of the highest degree.

The Palast’s current home on Friedrichstrasse was the last historic landmark building constructed in German Democratic Republic, in 1984. Under communist rule, the Palast’s shows were also used to entertain and placate. In Setting the Scene: Perspectives on Twentieth-Century Theatre Architecture, historian Florian Urban writes that the Palast hosted a selection of the regime’s most popular television variety shows, including Ein Kessel Buntes (A Cauldron of Potpurri); “the Saturday-night entertainment show with which East German rulers had, since 1972, attempted to win the acceptance of their subjects.”

The Palast’s shows supported the ruling order then, just as it supported the ruling order during the Nazi era, and it is – by choosing not to question contemporary society and politics – doing the same today. Luckily, we live in an open, democratic society, which is, apparently, the ‘general attitude’ of the Palast.

But how does the Palast’s ‘open and tolerant’ attitude manifest itself? When the director of Berlin’s largest theatre was asked whether he actively sought to bring diverse voices from the city into his production-process, Berndt replied that he was not thinking about how many women or coloured faces there were in his theatre; he was just hiring people he thought were cool.

If you are not consciously thinking about tolerance, openness, and diversity, you cannot have an open, tolerant and diverse attitude. People naturally choose to work and socialise with people who are similar to them (see Scientific American’s article on how people socialise, or Business Insider’s article on the fact that managers hire people who remind them of themselves). Berndt is a white, middle-class man. If he is just picking people he thinks are cool, he is most certainly picking people who share his background or attitudes, which is not promoting diversity or tolerance but perpetuating a system of privilege and bias.

This system is the reason that no black actors were nominated for the Oscars this year. It is the reason that female hires in orchestras have risen by half since the introduction of ‘blind’ auditions for orchestras, where musicians must play behind screens that conceal their identities.

It is the reason the director of Ireland’s National Theatre came under fire at the end of last year when he announced a line up of 18 men and just two women writers and directors. In response to the criticism, he tweeted: “I don’t and haven’t programmed plays on a gender basis. I took decisions based on who I admired and wanted to work with.”

To deny gender-bias with such a line-up is ludicrous. The people he admired and wanted to work with were people like him – men. The work he connected to was the work that related to his experience – as a white, privileged male. It was only when he was made to think about it – by a counter movement supported by Meryl Streep and Wim Wenders – that he recanted his words. But his comment is one the Director of Friedrichstadt-Palast echoed: I’m just choosing people I think are cool. As a woman in the toilets said afterwards; “Well whoopee for him.”

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Berlin, food, Life in Berlin

Pieoneers: Bringing British Pies to Berlin

Winter is coming.  Berlin winters are harsh with Siberian winds and temperatures dropping to -20 °C.

Spectacularly, the Deutschens carry on as normal; schools stay open, people go to work, trams run on schedule. I, however, remain true to my London routes by going into hibernation. I only come out when The Bavarian bribes me with a nice meal in a restaurant, which he does because, like all Germans, he believes in fresh air. Apart from our lovely restaurant trips though, winter is a time of canned foods and pizza deliveries.

I recently came across something that could help. Pieoneers delivers traditional British pork pies, vegetarian pasties and homemade chutneys to your door.

Pieoneers Berlin

Made by Brit Laura Harker and delivered by James Marnagh, the pies are authentic. Pork pies and vegetarian pasties are €2.50 each and you can order online for a Thursday or Sunday delivery.

The Pioneers are celebrating their six month anniversary at 20.00 on Thursday 7th November 2013 at Das Gift, Donaustrasse 119, 12043 Berlin (nearest U Rathaus Neukölln) where you can check out their pies. For more details look at their Facebook Page.

food, Life in Berlin

Germany wakes up to the fry-up as British cuisine takes off in Berlin

Just read an article in The Guardian about an apparent rise in the popularity of British cuisine in Berlin

Is there really any such thing as British ‘cuisine’? (especially as curry is the most popular dish in England) Is it just that there are more Brits here now? Who knows…

food, Life in Berlin

Supermarkets, Socialism and Chocolate Biscuits

McVities Dark Chocolate DigestivesIn England, you can stroll into a supermarket and pick up almost anything from star fruit to various Indian pickles, Quorn products, tortillas, short crust pastry and frozen, well, everything really.

Here, I’ve had trouble at various times locating; canned chick peas (which are currently stocked in the exotic foods section at the Kaiser’s in Schönhauser Allee Arcaden, and are sometimes available in supermarkets, sometimes not), passion fruit, Mexican food products that I can buy without ending up in the same financial predicament as Italy, Weetabix, mint sauce, maple syrup, frozen sweetcorn, sweet potatoes, decent tea like PG Tips…Things that I consider pretty basic, but are obviously not.

So now I consider recipes very carefully before deciding whether hunting down the ingredients in a manner comparable to cave men of the Ice Age is actually worth it. And, when guests from England come over, I request gifts of self-raising flour, salt and vinegar crisps and dark-chocolate covered Digestive biscuits.

When I was a child, we used to visit India with suitcases stuffed with Cadbury’s chocolates and cheddar cheese, but this stopped several years ago. “We get everything here,” they said.  And they did. Deutschland has not yet reached the same level.

The Bavarian loves it when visitors come bearing gifts. My cousin recently brought with her four packs of Chocolate Digestives. We finished them in one week. (That’s 1.6 Kgs, and around 8000 calories.) I say we, but mostly it was The Bavarian, who stuffed a whole one into his mouth at a time, as one would a Pringle. If anyone out there has attempted to stuff an entire Digestive into their mouth, you’ll know that it’s almost impossible. Even The Bavarian, who has a big mouth and a talent for stuffing as much as possible into it, was struggling. I watched him for a while, to see whether he would catch on to the fact that these things had to be nibbled, or dunked into tea and bitten, but after while I felt it was my duty to intervene.

Me: Why are you eating them like that? They’re not Pringles.

The Bavarian: Because they’re only safe from you once they’re in my mouth.

In our flat, it sometimes feels as if we’re living during war-time, when luxury goods are in short supply and people resort to hoarding or gorging whenever they get their hands on some. I like to think that The Bavarian’s paranoia is not caused by my voracious appetite, but by some kind of collective consciousness inherited from being born in a nation that has suffered two world wars; when his grandmother passed away, they found stacks of food stored not only in the kitchen but in wardrobes and under the bed.

Despite the fact that most supermarkets are useless, they seem to be opening up at the same rate as Bubble Tea joints in Prenzlauer Berg. Within a mile of where I live, there are no less than fifteen supermarkets. This year, Prenzlauer Berg saw the opening of Germany’s biggest Vegan supermarket (Veganz, Schivelbeiner Straße 34, 10439 Berlin) and Kochhaus (Schönhauser Allee 46 10437 Berlin) .

kochhaus berlinKochhaus’s products are organised around recipes. At each table you will find a suggested dish – carrot and ginger soup, spaghetti carbonara etc – along with all the ingredients you will need to make it, a little card to take home with the recipe on it, and any equipment you may need – so in the case of the soup, this would include serving bowls and a hand blender.

At first I was flummoxed as to why anyone would shop here…it’s über-expensive (on the board at each table, it tells you the cost per dish per person, which averages out to about 4 or 5 euros, for which you might as well save yourself the hassle and eat out in this city), and restrictive – you can only buy stuff that relates to the dozen or so recipes they suggest, everything is sold in small quantities measured out for two or four servings, and there is only one choice of product per table – so if you need salt, you’re going to have to pick the only bottle of salt on the table, which is pink and from the Himalayas and has been blessed by the Dalai Lama and is therefore more expensive than gold.

On the surface, this supermarket can be seen as a symptom of just how far Prenzlauer Berg has moved from its poor Socialist past, but essentially, being given just one choice of product per item harks back to the days of shopping during The Wall.

According to Barry Schwartz, who gave an interesting talk at TED about the paradox of choice, the official dogma of all western societies – that if we are interested in maximising the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximise  individual freedom, and the way to maximise freedom is to maximise choice – is paradoxical because people don’t actually like having too much choice. It produces a) paralysis – a study of voluntary investment plans showed that for every ten mutual funds the employer offered, the rate of participation went down two per cent – and b) if we overcome paralysis and make a choice, less satisfaction, because the more options there are the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option you chose.

This is all very well and good, and maybe the people of Prenzlauer Berg are happy with less choice, but it probably means that we won’t be seeing any Chocolate Digestives in the aisles any time soon 😦

Germany, history

The British Germans

Interesting radio programme on the BBC called The British Germans, currently available on iPlayer. Programme summary from the BBC below:

The British armed forces are due over the next decade to complete a final withdrawal from bases in Germany. But they’ll leave behind a remarkable human legacy – many thousands of former soldiers who have decided to stay in Germany. In this programme Chris Bowlby goes in search of these ‘ British Germans’, and traces their relationship with Germany and Germans. He meets a soldier who was punished by the British army for marrying a German woman just after the end of the Second World War. He hears about the pubs where Brits and Germans learnt each other’s language, the struggle to understand each other’s humour, the belief among many ex-soldiers that Germany offers a better society than Britain. And he finds that the children of British-German relationships are becoming increasingly influential in today’s German society as he meets a potential future German chancellor called David McAllister.

Listen here or read the article on The ‘British’ Germans the war left behind