Archives for the month of: September, 2013

It’s just over 50 years since the first Gästarbeiter were welcomed into West Germany. At the time, Germany was in the throes of an economic boom, and needed cheap labour. Though Italians, Spanish, Moroccans and Yugoslavs came to take up employment, the bulk of the workers came from Turkey. At the time, it was imagined that Turks would come for a year or two, make some money and return home, and another Turk would take his place. Politicians saw this as solving Germany’s problem and also helping Turkey, as workers would return home with new skills and money. However, prospects of getting a job in Turkey in the 1960’s were pretty slim, and German employers didn’t want to let trained workers go, so the majority stayed and brought over the family. At this stage, they are often third-generation immigrants, meaning people who are born in Germany with German-born parents, who identify themselves as Turkish. The problem, for Germany, is that the Turks don’t integrate like other countries did. A majority of Spanish Gastarbeiter intermarried, and became “German”. However, culturally, Turkey has a major difference because it is Muslim. Their families and beliefs are central to their lives, and about 3 million of them have settled in strong communities throughout Germany, around 200,000 in Berlin. When you look for information on Turks in Berlin/Germany, there are tons of threads with right-wing comments that you could hear about immigrants in UK or USA – welfare spongers, don’t speak our language properly, too many children (in a country that needs population!). You can just imagine people saying “if only they’d stop calling the children those funny names, and put them in proper dirndl skirts and lederhosen, if they could just eat Wurst like us and have a glass of beer, and be NORMAL, then they’d be fine”.
On Tuesday, I went for a tour of Neukoelln, the area I live in, which is Turkish. The tour was led by Fatima, from Route 44, a group of Turkish women who trained together to take tourists on walking tours through their neighbourhood. She arrived from Anatolia 40 years ago as a little girl and had lived deep in the countryside, no running water, no electricity, no traffic. They moved to a flat on the corner of a busy intersection where the family were mesmerised by the traffic, but appalled by the lack of freedom to play. She showed us places of interest, the formal dress shop – weddings are huge in Turkish culture, and little sparkly suits for boys of 5 years old who have been circumcised, to be worn with a little Sultans hat. The local school had something like 160 different nationalities, and up to recently, had terrible problems. However, new policies and loadsa money have been poured in, so that it’s a success story. Of course, it’s not only Turks who live here. There are migrants from trouble spots in the Middle East, Morocco and Algeria, and Indonesia, all of whom find a city were Islam is accepted. She brought us to the local Mosque, and told us how to behave, as it was prayer time, with all the men prostrate and facing east. It was amazingly friendly and open, much more “integrated”, I thought, than the Mosque in Dublin or Paris. After the prayers, the Immam came over and welcomed us, and gave us leaflets to help us understand what Islam is about.
I think what bothers German politicians so much is that Turks don’t have any interest in being Germans. They can’t “integrate” the way the Germans would like them to, because they’re so happy with being Turkish. Germans would like them to produce children who speak German as a first language rather than a second one, who are competitive, serious, academic, “progressive”, who separate church and state, who see themselves as German, who aspire to what the Germans think is a better culture altogether. Of course, nothing is so cut and dried. The majority of Germans accept Turkish culture completely, and I find it interesting that young Turkish women continue to wear the headscarf, but have sexed it up, with a huge beehive underneath, at an angle, so that Barry and myself christened them “Nefertiti-heads”, and they often wear the scarf with tons of make-up and trendy gear, so that the scarf is a cultural symbol, but perhaps no longer really a religious one.


Yesterday was election day. It’s always held on a Sunday, to facilitate the maximum vote. On Saturday, wherever I went, party hacks pressed literature into my hand with free party-stamped pens. I must look like a voter. As you probably know, Angela romped back over the line with a healthy 42%, better than four years ago, but still not enough to do without a coalition. The question is with whom. Either the Green Party (8%), who are a sort of yuppie party who don’t like the Christian Democrats, The Linke (Left) Party (8%), who are the opposite end of the spectrum from the CDU, or the SPD, who are their traditional foil – the Socialist Party. The SPD were the other big party, but have lost a lot of ground and have only 26%. Hence everyone is eyeing everyone to see who’ll get into bed with whom. A party that had quite a bit of support, FDP, have a neo-liberal line, lower taxes etc, and they dropped from 12% to 4.7%, while the Anti-Euro party, AFD, rose out of nowhere to get 4.9%. What surprised me was that these two parties, because they got less than 5% of the vote, are now not allowed into the Bundestag (Parliament), and presumably do business via committees and behind closed doors. There are no Independent candidates here, verboten too, you have to be in a party to go up for election. There’s no Proportional Representation either, just a strange way of voting – you have two choices to X, one for the local candidate of your choice, one for the party you want in Government. Angela Merkel’s vote went up this time, and it surprised everyone when it went up in Berlin, which isn’t normally conservative. She represents a great big security blanket to the Germans, she’s nicknamed Mutti Merkel, and she’s trusted and popular. Before the election, there was a lot of speculation, since she’s been in power for 10 years now, a long time in politics, but she’s holding on tight for the next four years at least.

On Friday, despite torrential rain, I went to another Student-Welcome Party in the Picknick Club. So many venues are like this – a space that used to be something, converted via pallets and plywood and the odd lick of black/purple paint into a hopping venue. The bar was six deep, and people gathered in a great big group on the dance floor, so initially nobody could dance. Of course, it was just a matter of time and beer before people began to carve out little spaces for a bop. The dance floor was way too small, with people improvising (and loving it) dancing on top of the stacks of pallets. The girls danced in little circles, groups of guys stood around them pretending to be nonchalant, waiting for a girl to catch his eye so he could join in. All of them dance or stand around holding onto their bottles, for fear of spiking, and the place was awash with empty bottles, which, as the night went on, turned into broken glass underfoot. I was there with a Greek pal, and twice people asked her if she’d brought her mother along! People’s reaction on the dance floor was just disbelief when they looked closely at me, but everyone was fine. A whole band of au-pairs from New Zealand, Scotland and Spain invited me into their dance squash/circle. Everybody smokes, and nobody has any problem with it. I found this really astonishing – the whole of Europe, led by Micheal Martin in Ireland, has banned smoking, but in Berlin it never really took off! Smaller neighbourhood kneipe have notices outside saying “Smoking Venue”. Steffen, my roommate, explained that if you register as a charity, you can smoke on the premises. Most places don’t even go that far – people just light up everywhere. As the night wore on, heaps more people came in, and it got uncomfortable, but I found a great small room with air-conditioning (!) and great beats, not full at all, until my age really did catch up with me and I caught the U-bahn home.

Each day the college arranges a cultural outing, tours through areas of the city with one or other of our teachers, visits to museums or nights out.  On Friday, a big group of us headed off to see the Hohenschoenhausen Stasi-Gefängnis, the prison where the Stasi held people on “remand” for years at a time. The actual building is reminiscent of prisons world-wide, dreary functional grey or brick buildings with little to lift the spirits.  A large group of us were split into two, and our guide gave us an introductory talk. This woman was a few years older than me, blonde, well-spoken, with a rather world-weary appearance.  I had been to the Art Museum the day before, and had found the guide’s lecture there too dense and complicated to follow or enjoy.  Hence, I listened to this lecture imagining it would be somewhat similar, facts, statistics, history.   The building was in the Soviet zone after WW2, so was turned into a remand prison for Germany, “Special Camp no.3” which served as a remand and transit camp for 20,000 prisoners (spies, subversives, ex-Nazis, suspects) held in appalling conditions. The majority were transported to other camps, and the prison was reconstructed as a maze of subterranean solitary confinement cells, with no windows, no heating and no air. The prison population were both ex-Nazis and Political opponents of the DDR regime, along with Soviet traitors.

Shortly into the talk, all of us realised that she was talking about her own personal history; how she had worked as a journalist, and had disagreed with the way the regime was run in the DDR.  She heard the bedroom door open one morning and thought one of the children was coming in, but instead 11 Stasi (secret) Policemen and one Stasi Policewoman came in and arrested her.  She was taken to Hohenschoenhausen and kept on remand, not knowing where her two children were, who was looking after them, whether they knew where she was.  She said interrogation could go on for 24 hours, with interrogators changing shift.  But even though there was plenty of violence, she said the psychological damage inflicted by isolation, by being treated as less than human, by having nobody to talk to except during interrogation, was immeasurable.  These sort of conditions, solitary confinement, 24-hour lighting, having a guard watch your every move, sleep deprivation, and then interrogations or being made to stand for hours on end in the middle of the night, is enough to break anyone.  The Stasi sent men to college in Pankow, to learn psychology to utilise in controlling the human spirit.  This was all related to us as we viewed the warren of bunker-cells, the interrogation office, the water cell.  At one point, I asked how she could do this, walk through here with us and talk about this. She said she was older then than most of the inmates (at 29) so was less easy to break  (though I think her ironic asides and world-weary attitude are giveaways).  But plenty of others didn’t recover sufficiently to return to real life.

She spent almost 5 years there, and managed to get the West to buy her freedom (the DDR needed money), moving to Munich to work again as a journalist.  As it happened, she was in prison when I worked in the Black Forest.  I knew nothing at all about the DDR except that they couldn’t come over to the West.  I felt a huge empathy for this woman, who could have been my sister, just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The prison was kept entirely secret – it did not appear on city maps, the inmates were completely broken by their experience, and when the Wall came down, the prison wasn’t stormed the way other places were, because nobody knew what went on there.  It didn’t close until a year after the Wall came down, giving the Stasi time to destroy all evidence.  Former prisoners pressed for the prison to become a historical monument, since they are the only ones who can give direct evidence of what happened.  Plenty of people want to see it closed and forgotten. She said it’s impossible to forgive people who haven’t admitted anything.  The people in charge of the Stasi Prison are still free in the reunited Germany, some in Government positions of power.  She warned us to be watchful of our own governments, and though nobody mentioned Guantanamo Bay, all of us were thinking of it, or of the unfortunates for “rendition” who stop over in Shannon, making us all complicit.

I’m having the first sign of a cold in the head, and maybe a twinge of homesickness for my own bed, a cup of Irish tea, a hard copy of the Irish Times and a day when I don’t speak German all day.  The weather has turned autumnal, and even though tomorrow looks as if it will be sunny, it’s time to dig out the scarf.  This is when the second thoughts surface; was it such a great idea to come to a city that was under snow until the end of April last year? Pessimists tell you that there was no municipal plan to deal with snow, so getting around was difficult.  But I’ve lived in the Black Forest for a couple of winters, so I know the score. Actually, they actually had more guaranteed snow there – you could time your watch by it.  It fell on the 12th December and melted on St. Patricks Day, and in between those dates, the women stayed at home and crocheted (or some variation of that) and the men went to the bar and drank.  Of course, that was nearly 40 years ago, deep in the country and in the more conservative south anyhow.  I think Berlin will have a great deal more to offer this winter.

I probably caught a cold in class from others who are sneezing and coughing.  It’s considered terribly rude to cough on the bus or train; I got daggers looks just clearing my throat, and a fellow student from Brazil said he was sniffing on the bus yesterday and an older matron came over with a handkerchief and told him to blow his nose, it wasn’t permitted to sniff in public.  I understand now that Berliners may be laid-back or ultra-cool or unfriendly or smart-alecky, but they have a foundation of decent German manners underpinning everything.  Even officials who are being gruff with you will always say please and thank-you.  There’s an overriding feeling of respect, for people, for things, for places. Coming back from Schlachtensee on the S-bahn at the weekend, I realised the seat-covers opposite me had been carefully darned by a sewing machine (I know this myself, as I used to take in mending of sheets and pillowcases from the Towers Hotel in Glenbeigh in the nineteen-seventies).  I didn’t think anybody darned/repaired anything these days, but some official endorsed the darning of the train seat covers, so that they would last longer.  There’s lots of interesting graffiti everywhere you look in the open, but very little vandalism – it’s all about commentary rather than raw aggression.  The trains themselves are constantly on the go, but are clean.  Their design is straight out of the nineteen-fifties, boxy, unfashionable, painted fire-engine red and mustard yellow, but it works very well.  Because they’re squared at the top, they feel roomier.  Their design is completely utilitarian, everything works because 3 million people use it every day, and will complain loudly if they are peeved. What astounded me was that people are allowed to bring their bicycles on both U and S bahn, even during rush hour.  Try that on the DART and you’d be lynched. But the reason for that is, of course, that there are bahn’s every 3 minutes, and it’s a huge cityspace with very little population as yet.  It feels as if the city planned the transport every step of the way after the Wall came down, to maximise efficiency.  There are not only U-bahns and S-bahns (under and over ground), but trams, buses and regular trains too, all running on time.  Apparently the city has no money, and that’s visible in the lack of development of new housing or shopping centres, but there are always new tracks being laid, new lines being developed, old lines being upgraded.  There’s the feeling that Berlin is somehow girding its loins for huge future development, and you’d hope that the fantastic feeling of creativity doesn’t evaporate as the Fat Cats move in.

Since I have a ticket that covers all of Berlin’s transport, which is considerable I might add, I decided to visit one of the many lakes within the city limits that you can swim in. I chose Schlachtensee, as that is the location of the student accommodation that I would have been living in, had I not found my own spot. Sundays in Germany mean that everything is closed, well grocery shops and department stores and the like – well, there’s always going to be some stuff open for the tourists downtown. It’s nice to think that the unions are that strong still, that people can have a guaranteed family day. The journey out to Schlachtensee didn’t take that long, 30 minutes maybe, but it was another world. En route, the houses changed from apartment blocks to single residences, solidly built family homes in leafy suburbs. No graffiti here, and no art or commentary or advertising. It could have been a suburb of any German town, nothing indicated that it was on the edge of the most vibrant city in Europe. Schlachtensee S-bahn leaves you right at the edge of the lake, a most beautiful place surrounded by trees, with ducks and moorhens and cormorants bobbing around, and a few people swimming. A path ran around the shore, with a sign indicating that it was a cycle path, and that pedestrians would be tolerated if they watched out for bikes. All along the shore, people had set up picnic rugs, got into their swimsuits and were paddling, eating and smoking. I threw myself in and was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t too cold. Beside me, an extended family, complete with Opa who looked like Einsteins brother, trooped into the water to swim to the other side. This is one of dozens of bathing places in lakes around Berlin – unfortunately the weather is getting a bit unreliable, but the restored municipal indoor bathhouses look fantastic from what I see on the internet. I’m looking forward to them.
After this, I travelled over to meet friends at Revaler Strasse. This is typical of what Berlin is at the moment. A huge space, full of interesting empty warehouses, was sitting there, growing weeds, when some arty/community types managed to take it over. Now there’s a series of artists studios, an alternative theatre company, and a huge fleamarket at the weekends. A group of us sat and had pumpkin soup, from a huge vat, made by an Italian activist, who gives all the profits to a social programme. The fleamarket is a big mixum gatherum of both craftworkers and people clearing out their attics, so plenty of bargains there. Of course, there’s a businessman somewhere trying to negotiate the purchase of this site for the development of apartments and hotels, but Berliners are quite a tenacious lot, and don’t shift too easily. They appreciate unspoiled Berlin, and protest at any question of the kind of development all of us have seen ruin some of our own cities. They also see the value of non-linear or organic development; they know they have a wonderful city that is amazingly stress-free. Of course the footprint of Berlin is eight times larger than Paris, and it only hold 3.5 million people, so there’s lots of space, which makes everything cheap, and keeps everyone happy. I feel it can’t last forever, so I’m very lucky to see Berlin as it is now, open, arty, inclusive, delighted to be different.

Got up at 6.30 to get to school for 8am, as was doing my German proficiency test- eeek! Actually, it was an exercise in inefficiency – from 8am to 2pm we waited and waited, with the odd test thrown at us, but we were so worn down that everyone was off form by the time we did them! We were split into two groups – unfortunately I was group two, who had the tour of the university first, then the test, instead of vice versa. By the time we got in to the language lab, Group One were probably enjoying a coffee somewhere. All of us v.nervous, then we had a really complicated system of registration to actually get in to do the test, and by the time we had done all that, the system crashed and we had to sit and look at blank screens until it got up and running again, and wham we were into the exam. Eight texts with fill-in-the-blanks to do. I found them really hard to crack, especially as they were such odd subjects ie. “Do animals have the emotional capacity to be musical?” or some such thing. I guessed half the answers, as it was like multiple choice on one level, but only managed to get 51%. However, since the system can’t differentiate between someone absolutely useless and someone who’s not great but can do some stuff (me), we then had to be taken off to the other end of the building and given an assignment. “Look at the picture of the four students, write a story around where they are from, what they are doing” etc. Then lift your backpack and off to another end of the building where we had an individual interview (that went quite well). However, by this time it was 2pm, and I had had nothing except an apple since breakfast at 6.30 (thank God for porridge!), so myself and a really nice Trinity student I met headed for the cafeteria for a bowl of pasta. Took forever to actually negotiate buying a card which you could trade for food – no money changes hands – but I practically ate the plate. Anyhow, after that, we tried to register at the Erasmus office, really lovely woman helped us, but we were too late for lots of stuff, so have to look online now and see what I might do. Baz did shopping and cooking today, so we ate with the two guys (roommates), was really nice, and there’s plenty for my packed lunch tomorrow (not making that mistake again, of leaving home without lunch – however, Steffen said he thinks you are not allowed to eat your own food in the canteen!!! As it was, I was shocked to hear that they have no water tap in the huge canteen – or maybe in the whole university, for all I know. They want you to buy drinks).

When you fly in to Berlin, the first thing that strikes you is that there’s lots of water – lakes with marinas and beaches, rivers and canals with boats. As you get closer, you realise that there’s lots of greenery everywhere. Even at the airport, travellers took advantage of the unkempt green spaces, and were lying on the grass leaning on their backpacks, waiting for boarding time. Each time you take the fabulous public transport, U-bahn or S-bahn, you pass huge swathes of green areas, lots of it very beautifully unkempt. On every side, you see Schrebergartene or allotments, so called after Moritz Schreber, who founded allotments originally to improve childrens health at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid urbanisation that followed, which became areas of food production for the poor. Berliners take great pride in their gardens, and make miniature summer houses out of recycled material or use hedging and trees to make interesting spaces. Green areas are often unmanicured and are valued hugely. They are utilised all the time by everyone, especially families. Is it my imagination or are there tons of children and pregnant women in Berlin? It’s cheap by European standards, and the city itself doesn’t have much money to spend on development, so for the moment, there’s a nice comfy rundown feel to much of it, which encourages families and newcomers.

The city itself is divided into neighbourhoods, which feel like villages; each has it’s own flavour, it’s own art or graffiti, it’s own immigrant shops. I’m living in Neukoelln, which is on the way up to become the next Cool Place. A couple of years ago, it was Kreuzberg which was cheap and full of artists and immigrants; now that’s become so hip it’s difficult to find an inexpensive houseshare. My corner of Neukoelln is as quiet as living in the country, though the main street a few minutes away is a collection of cheap eateries (Turkish, Vietnamese, Italian) bargain shops and cheesy hairdressers. I share with two bearded artists who have the typical Berlin look – no hips whatever and a mop of curls in a sort of 1980’s style. They smoke rollies, listen to cool music, collect interesting bric-a-brac, spend most of their time out working or socialising. They have just announced that I can stay until Christmas, subletting the room, which is welcome news, as finding another place would be a tremendous drag just at the beginning of college life. Even though it takes me up to an hour, depending on traffic, to get to the University for classes, it’s worth living in Neukoelln. The university is reminiscent of Belfield, a new concrete building in a “nice” area, but with none of the rough edges of the real city. Actually, truth be told, travelling on U-bahn, S-bahn, tram and bus is a trip in itself, with both scenery and characters there to entertain you. It’s so efficient, so regular, so reliable that getting lost is almost a pleasure.

Preparation for this trip involved a lot of dreaming, scheming and organisation. My lecturer in UCD was very upbeat about going, encouraging me to think of how good my German was, how I would be fluent by the end of the year, and what a life-changing year it would be. From this point on, I began to think of how to make this happen.

I didn’t think there was a possibility of a career break from work, but when I explained my case, it miraculously happened. Other aspects weren’t quite so straightforward, with accommodation being the most pressing matter. Since partner Barry and daughter Clare are starting college this year, it was multiplied by three. I had done grant applications before, and know the frustration going with them, but the other two were new to it (and it’s still on-going). None of us had experience of finding accommodation in the last twenty years, so it was an eye-opener to see what was offered in Dublin as suitable places to live. I had blithely imagined that I could find a place in Berlin via the internet, which is possible, but not probable. Trawling through the relevant websites took a large chunk of time, with many blind alleys. The first place I showed interest in was a most wonderful apartment, with everything, including maid service, which turned out to be too good to be true i.e. a scam, with my supposed roommate suggesting I send money via Western Union. After that, I was more careful and more realistic, but finding a flat-share in a city you don’t know is like pinning the tail on the donkey. It never struck me that my age would be a factor too. I think of myself as a cool but middleaged person, but unless I’m going to live until I’m 120, I’m not middleaged anymore. Loads of the advertisments said “only people between 25-30/under 30/under 40”, and it’s completely understandable. At twenty, I wouldn’t have wanted to live with someone old enough to be my grandmother, however cool she might think she is.

The funny thing about looking for an apartment-share is that each lead you follow, you commit on some level to living there (“oh yes, I could live with two sisters, even if they smoke; I don’t mind a large dog; so what if we have to share the balcony; maybe it would be great to share with six people under 25; I could live with someone who writes SPICK AND SPAN in capitals in their ad”) so that each time it doesn’t work out is like a rejection. After a series of no-go’s, I changed tack and investigated hostels (not even cheap for a 16-bedded room) and couchsurfing (mostly literally on a couch in your hosts’ bedroom) as a temporary option, since most people need to see you and take a deposit, so being on the spot is necessary. Just as I was getting anxious, a friend suggested I send out word through the Camphill community, who have lots of German co-workers. Within a week, I had heard of a sublet for Sept that suited me perfectly, which gives me time to get to know Berlin, and find a more permanent home.