Berlin, Life in Berlin, Literature, people, things to do

English bookshops in Neukölln

Guest post by Álvaro Sendra González 

A lot of things have changed in Neukölln in the last five years, for good and bad, and a new international community is growing in the former “problem neighbourhood”. Suddenly those dark streets with empty casinos and betting offices were taken over by cafés, restaurants, vintage-shops, and art galleries, and many locals who couldn’t afford their apartments anymore had to leave.

Books in Neukölln

Part of this new-Neukölln encompasses numerous independent bookshops that have recently opened their doors in an era dominated by multinational companies with “creative“ tax strategies. I’ve always believed that books unite us; bookshops are meeting-places for book lovers, be they newcomers or locals. Because many of us newcomers can read English better than German, I made this list of six English-speaking bookshops in Neukölln:

Berlin Book Nook
This cosy place offers a broad selection of second-hand books, mostly fiction, humanities and art.  Gardening and cooking fans will also find joy here. Children are always welcome, since they have a wide range of books for readers aged 2 and up. Thursdays is the Book Nook Late Night, when they open till 10pm!

Pflügerstraße 63, theberlinbooknook.de

Buchbund
Even though this is a mostly Polish-German bookshop, their English selection is very well curated. Here you’ll find new books, mostly literature, including many translations of sadly overlooked Polish authors, as well as other literature from around the world. Buchbund is a good place to buy philosophy and history books, or to just sit and enjoy a cup of good coffee in the best company (a book).

Sanderstraße 8, buchbund.de

Buchhafen
The newest bookshop in Neukölln is a great destination for international book lovers looking for new books in Turkish, German and English, while enjoying a delicious cup of coffee. They specialise in anglophone literature, and their theory section (philosophy, politics, social sciences, humanities etc) is remarkable. Don’t miss the room in the back, which houses second-hand books.

Okerstraße 1, buchhafen-berlin.de

Curious Fox
Probably the best English bookshop in Neukölln. Their broad selection will satisfy pretty much everyone: fiction, poetry, new and second-hand, graphic novels. Especially remarkable is their crime, sci-fi and fantasy selection, and also their children’s books corner. Like them on Facebook to keep up with the many readings, poetry-evenings, quiz nights and other activities they organize.

Flughafen Str. 22, curiousfoxbooks.com

Pequod Books
This very organised, clean bookshop sells second-hand books in more than 25 different languages, hand-picked by the owner’s taste (actually by me, the author of the list you’re reading. Hi mum!), among them some 1000 books in English: mostly fiction, but also children books, humanities, theory, art… If you’re looking for books written by Paolo Coelho or some football player this might not be your place.

Selchower Straße 33, pequodbooks.de

Topics
And last but not least, the most interesting bookshop of the six: a concept bookshop. Here the books are not organised from A to Z like in other places, but by topic. Instead of shelves, they have boxes, each of which has a topic: drugs, post-modern westerns, conspiracies, love triangles, black literature… A great place to discover new authors.

Weserstraße 166, topics-berlin.com

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Berlin, Life in Berlin, theatre

Fear Industry at the English Theatre Berlin

Fear Industry is not really a play. Rather, it is a montage of movement and sound building on one theme; fear.

Fear Industry at the English Theatre Berlin
Photo by Achim Wieland

Performers Marios Ioannou and Elena Kallini skillfully switch between multiple characters in quick succession – a little boy called George, a politician with speeches about security, a mother watching her child play, a game show host – illustrating just how much our lives and society are governed by fear. The fear of wrinkles, the fear of swine-flu, the fear of flying.

The characters dance around a tightrope in the middle of the stage, accompanied by mezzo-soprano Marianna Pieretti. These people are constantly pulled, tied down by threads of anxiety. As one character says, “Birds and butterflies were meant to fly, but humans have to stay grounded.” By holding up a mirror to the ways in which our society is built on fear – from the focus on wealth to the decision to go to war – the performance encourages us to reconnect with child we once were. The child who, fearless, stuck their fingers into the lion’s cage.

However, the composition itself never manages to completely take off, hovering as it does, somewhere between drama and performance. I would have preferred it to commit more strongly to one or the other. As it is, the characters lack real depth or development, which fails to make it a satisfying drama, while the performance element is not pushed as far as it can go. Chekov famously said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” The same rule could apply to a tightrope; if it is on stage, someone should walk it.

An interesting concept that could have been braver.

Fear Industry is on at the English Theatre Berlin (Fidicinstraße 40, 10965 Berlin) until Saturday 20th February 2016.

 

Berlin, Humour, Life in Berlin, people

Daniel Sloss at Quatsch Comedy Club

I am loath to say anything critical about Daniel Sloss because he started yesterday night’s show at Berlin’s Quatsch Comedy Club by reading out the last letter of complaint he received.

quatsche comedy club berlinIn fact, I’ll take a leaf out of his book and critique of the audience instead. It was mostly German, with a smattering of ex-pats. The Germans were very efficient with their laughter. They laughed in short bursts, then fell silent in anticipation of the next joke to keep things moving along swiftly. I’m glad, because the girl sitting next to me hee-hawed like a donkey. It’s one of the things you notice at comedy clubs – the weird and varied nature of other people’s laughter.

The German audience were also not very well informed – when asked whether we have free healthcare in Germany, they all shouted ‘yes’ when really (especially if you are a freelancer) it is more complicated than that. So either the audience didn’t care to go into the ins and outs of how the German healthcare system, or they were ignorant.

As for myself, I laughed most during the latter half of the show, when Sloss’s routine turned more personal. Disability is not funny, he said. Then went on disprove the statement by talking about his disabled sister. He also had some life tips, like how to help friends deal with bereavement. The trick is to be consistent. If you are always a prick, don’t stop making jokes or treat people differently because someone close to them has died – continue to be a prick.

Although all this seems irreverent, Sloss’s show is actually quite sweet (especially his banter with his friend and fellow comedian Kai Humphries, which I would have liked to see more of), because it shows that no matter how tragic, difficult or absurd life gets, there is always laughter to be had.

The Quatsch Comedy Club (Friedrichstraße 107, 10117 Berlin) regularly features both English and German comedians from around the world.

art, Berlin, Life in Berlin, theatre

Impro Embassy at Ratibor Theatre

Impro Embassy is a fresh and funny English-language show at Ratibor Theatre that takes place the first Thursday of every month.

Impro Embassy, Ratibor TheatreI went to last Thursday’s performance entitled City Beats. The show featured professional improv actors from different countries – Helena Lindegen (Improvisationsteater, Stockholm), Luisa Schnittert (Die Gorillas, Berlin), David Arcuri (Teatribu, Milan), along with music by Rudy Redl (Die Gorillas, Berlin) and Mike Russell (Black Heritage, Washington D.C) – working together in a unique constellation.

Each player took turns in providing a prompt, either from the audience, a video, song, or a personal tidbit inspired by their city to get the action going. What resulted was a series of entertaining, sometimes surreal, always surprising sketches that took us on a whirlwind journey from a rap performance on the streets of Washington D.C. to breakfast with a suicidal Swedish family.

Mother:     I’ll wake the boys. Larsen! Andersen! Nielsen!
Daughter:  Why did you name us all with surnames? It’s so difficult…

Other sketches included a noirish love story featuring a cat called Snowball, a woman addicted to dressing up as a lizard and scaring Berlin clubbers on their way home in the early hours, and a contemporary movement performance illustrating the life and death of a snowman.

Detective:  I’m looking for this cat.
Woman:     Yes, he is here.
Detective:  That was easier than I thought. This is the first place I have visited.
Woman:     Well, this is the only cat hotel in Poland…It was a good idea.

The actors worked hard to find a tone and sense of narrative in each sketch, aided by the musicians who intuitively provided a score. The creative process was fascinating to watch – affirming the importance of play and rolling with an idea until it turns into a gem – and the evening sparkled.

The most telling piece was one in which each actor spoke only in their native language (Swedish, German and Italian). Through the confusion, they eventually managed to connect with each other and create an engaging, comprehensive story. For me, this is typical Berlin; that on a rainy night in Kreuzberg, people from different places can come together and collaborate despite their differences, to create a special, one-off experience.

The next Impro Embassy entitled Click will be at 20.30, Thursday 5th February 2015 at Ratibor Theater (Cuvrystr. 20a, 10997 Berlin, nearest U-Bahn Schlesisches Tor).

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 😦

Berlin, Language, Life in Berlin, Literature

Translation Idol

Far better than Pop Idol, Translation Idol is a regular Berlin event in which contestants battle it out to provide the best translation of a German text in English. The winners get…erm, nothing much really, but it’s an illuminating exercise.

The competition is organised by No Mans Land, the magazine of German literature in translation, and the fourth one took place at Dialogue Books  last night. Participants had to translate a particularly challenging section from Verena Rossbacher’s forthcoming novel schlachten. Ein Alphabet der Indizien. (you can see the excerpt at Love German Books)

It’s  interesting to see the multiple ways in which something can be expressed. Take, for example, “aber alle aalglatt und perfekt poliert und wie gut ausgebuttert und dass er abrutscht darauf,”  which was translated in various ways from “but all are as slippery as an eel and perfectly polished and buttered and he slips and slides over them” (Anne Posten), and “but everywhere is slippery, perfectly polished and oiled, so that he skids and falls” (Joseph Given) to “but everyone’s slippery as eels and perfectly polished and like greased piglets and his grip slips” (Bradley Schmidt, who is from Kansas, where they have greased pig contests – if you don’t believe me, you can see one here) and “but they’re a’ like Teflon, all polished tae perfection, they’re like slipp’ry wee sprats, so he slides right off em'” (Hugh Fraser, whose translation into Scottish dialect, strangely, made the most sense to me.)

Or “schnaufenden Projektor,” which was translated to “puffing projector,” “gasping projector,” “snivelling projector,” and, most commonly, “wheezing projector”.

Listening to the same text being read over and over again with slight variations illuminated it from different angles – a more intense version of re-reading a book. In the end, Tom Morrison won the Poet’s Prize (which was chosen by the author, who also attended and gave a reading at the event) and Bradley Schmidt won the Audience Vote.

Most of the participants were regulars and professional translators, and, strangely, men (8 out of the 10 contestants to be precise). Can that be an accurate representation of the male-female ratio in the translating business?!

If you’re interested in the topic, Translating Berlin is an entertaining blog by a (female!) American translator living in the city.

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…