Archives for the month of: November, 2013

Up until this week, there wasn’t a sign of Christmas anywhere, not unless you count the sad looking Last-years-Christmas-Trees hanging out of the roof of Sudkreuz S-bahn station.  Then, in one go, you could see fairy lights appearing on balconies, menorah candles in windows, Santa hats for sale in the Euro shops.  There just happened to be a dip in temperature, and we woke the last few mornings to heavy frost, which made it all seem more real and seasonal.  I was foolish enough to drop in to IKEA today to buy something, and there, wow, was a whole department devoted to dinky Christmas decorations, raffia reindeers, candles, red and green as far as the eye could see, and anxious looking people trying to stuff more things into their trolleys.  But of course December is just around the corner, and the last couple of weeks will gallop until we’re all lifting our gluhwein and singing “Stille Nacht”.  This will be the first non-traditional Christmas I’ve had in a very long time.  Of course, there will be all the fun of the city covered in decorations, so we will have a traditional Christmas of sorts, but I’m not sure what we’ll eat.  I’d really like to eat out, but it turns out that Christmas is like Sunday here – some restaurants and all the shops close, though the transport keeps running.  One great feature is that all the museums are open on 25th and 26th, even though they are officially bank holidays.  According to various websites, there are places open, you just have to do a bit of rooting around, and Christmas closing doesn’t last for long.  All the young people come running back from home as soon as Boxing Day is over.

This is a busy patch for me.  The reality of taking more subjects than I actually need is coming home to roost.  In the next week, I have to do two powerpoint presentations, and a number of smaller submissions. The presentations are considered so normal here, and I can see what a good practice it is to stand up and present to your own peers (who are all rooting for you anyhow).  I spent the whole of last weekend putting together the biggest powerpoint, and learned from my friend Ana how to add pictures, which makes the whole thing fly.  Now I have to practice like an actor, until I have it off pat.  Initially, I was wondering if I could possibly fill the time – 30 minutes seemed like an awfully long time to speak – now I’m thinking it may not be enough time.  I have to work hard this weekend on a piece about Microcredit, but I’m looking forward to that – an utterly fascinating subject.  I’ll get in the usual stash of LIDL chocolate – I have Therese Mitchell to thank for that habit. It’s the best lift you can get when you’re studying, and, unlike tea/coffee, you can sleep afterwards.  When I was working last weekend, I began to wonder if I’d be able to get through all this, and had a dose of Imposter Syndrome, thinking I was about to be Found Out.  I do wonder about the guys who came before me, back in 2010 – did they have moments of doubt?  Well they were all only 20 when they came, so worry isn’t really a feature at that stage of your life.  I guess once I get the first (and biggest) presentation out of the way, everything else will follow.

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Is toast the ultimate comfort food? I’m thinking of Niger Slater, who named his book after toast. Since the apartment has neither toaster nor grill, I haven’t had a slice of toast since August.  The kitchen is too small for a toaster, but when the chaps were doing makeshift toasting in the oven (which really doesn’t do the job), I persuaded them of the merits of a toaster. Today I went to the cheapo outlet Rossman and bought one.  Like a user off his favourite drug for months who finds a source, I rediscovered the joys of toast again today.  Actually, it’s really necessary now – the sky has turned a snowy tone of white and the temperature is dropping nearer to zero every night.  This feels like an Irish winter, but here it has to get a great deal colder.  I have to remind myself to take hat and gloves whenever I go out, and the thermals are a given now.

This building is quiet at nighttime, but during the day, there are lots of children in the large back garden, when the weather isn’t too cold.  When I was here just a couple of weeks, I heard a child in the apartment above issue the most blood-curdling scream. I stood stock-still, quite convinced that I was going to have to call Child Protection Services, listening to the child continue to scream for all he was worth, while an obviously angry father gave out stink about something.  Eventually it stopped, but at that stage I had a mental picture of dreadful parents and poor little mite. The following week, I happened to meet the mother and child in the hall for the first time.  As an earnest and lovely German parent, she was explaining to the two year old with great logic that they couldn’t take the larger stroller out because it wouldn’t fit on the U-bahn, while the two-year old got worked up about not getting his way.

Since this, I have been wondering about the constraints put on parents by raising children in apartments. Berlin has the highest number of renters per city in Germany, and there are lots of families. When Brigid and Niall and their four children moved into the middle flat in Cliff Terrace while they were between houses, Luke, then just a year old, discovered that he barely had to open his mouth during the night and one of his parents sprang out of bed to stop him waking the whole household, upstairs and down.  Do Berlin parents have the same experience – do they never say, “feck it, that child is just acting up, give it another minute or two and she’ll be back to sleep”.  Or perhaps they use that stereotypical logic on the child.  “Waltraud! Do you realise that you are jeopardising our rental agreement again?”  Someone I met says parents here use this kind of adult exchange with kids. Her friend addressed her 18-month old daughter by explaining that it was no use if she just stood there and bawled, she had to learn to express what she wanted, otherwise the parents would never know.  Since all of us grew up with the kind of mother that said “Ahh, the baba, she’s probably tired”, most of us find it astonishing to even try to use logic on a tantrum.  However, most children I see here are model, well able to express themselves, and logical, so maybe the constraint of growing up in an apartment has benefits.

I managed to progress to following a discussion in German this week, and having something to say! However, not once, but twice, I managed to get the wrong answer, and was smartly pulled up by both lecturers.  Our conditioning in school makes us react in the same old way, so I felt like a child again, ashamed, whereas the German students are perfectly used to it and think “Oh, just as well she pointed out that I wasn’t exactly relevant”.   A friend told me of a visiting German lecturer in MIT (Boston) who made herself very unpopular by acting in this way, polite but firm.  In another class I have, through English, the (German) lecturer obviously finds it infuriating that so few people voluntarily comment or contribute – this is a class of international students, perhaps unused to ever having to speak in class.  I have to stop myself from contributing too much in this class, lest others get blocked by that.  These cultural differences are telling.  You could float through Irish Universities without ever having to speak to the class, though you may be unwillingly forced to do “group work”, speaking to other students about the subject in hand.  German students do presentations the way we do the weekly essay, so they have no problem with speaking in public or putting together a Power Point show. Mind you, I have heard that the points for University are high (especially for Psychology) but they are much higher if you want to study in Berlin, so I am mixing with the Crème de la Crème here.

Friday was November 9th, and it was 70 years since Kristallnacht, when the Pogrom against the Jews gathered momentum.  Synagogues, homes, schools were destroyed and windows in Jewish businesses were smashed between 9-11 November 1933.  A spa called “Kristal” in Southern Germany ran a tasteless ad to have romantic “Kristallnacht” with them, and was obviously stopped. It was quite low-key here, there were memorial events, and shops ran a support campaign as part of Diversity Destroyed, placing a sort of transparent sheet over their front windows, simulating broken glass.  The nicest feature was a push to go and polish the “Stolpersteine”, which are little brass blocks embedded in the pavement outside buildings here, giving the name and address of people who lived there, who were lifted from their homes and sent to concentration camps.  These little “stumbling blocks” are almost unnoticeable, just a marker of someone’s personal history as part of the bigger picture of history.  There’s something so Rudolph Steiner-ish about going out to polish them, good for the soul, gets you grounded.

There’s a debate here about the whole business of opening up and looking at the past.  Some Germans think they have done enough now, they’ve done their guilt and sorrow, it’s time to return to some sort of normality or something.  This generation of Germans have known what it’s like to have everything hidden and unspoken, then to have everything exhumed, examined, the wounds pulled apart, the collective guilt and shame, and then the whole world wanting to come and see the process, via tourism.  The Germans were demonised by the western world. The emotive words like the names of the leaders, Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Goering are forever associated with darkness.  I met an unfortunate man called Goebbels recently, that’s a tough name to carry, and you would wonder if there are any Hitlers  left in the phonebook. But the public cleansing that has taken place has also raised questions about other countries. What about the institutionalised blindness in Britain (and other countries) with regard to the land-grab and killing that was Colonialism? It feels as if, because people can actually remember World War 2, Germany’s is the only guilt to acknowledge. You can still meet British people who will tell you that Britain improved the people’s lives in the Colonies, that they wouldn’t have been half as successful, nor know the meaning of British fair play. Americans learn a fairly sanitised version of the Native American story, and often don’t even know where their country has been surreptitiously helping killings on one side or the other of conflicts, or both. In this, I am not trying to defend Hitler, just saying there are other horrific examples that are, as yet, unacknowledged.  So perhaps the exposure of the Third Reich’s guilt may lead to asking questions, always a good thing, and have an effect on how other countries view their own personal history, and more importantly, how it is taught in schools to the next generation.

I met up with a friend of mine from Dublin who lives in Berlin. We met while volunteering for the Festival of World Cultures in Dun Laoghaire some years ago. A mutual friend put us in touch before I got here, and we have had some fun since meeting up during this stretch of nice Autumn weather. She is Croatian, from the city of Rijeka, which used to be called Fiume, when it was Italian. Her grandfather was born in this same city, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, her father was born there when it was Italy (after the First World War), she was born there when it was Yugoslavia (after the Second World War) and her nieces were born in this same city, now Croatia. All this is just to say that she has a theory about Germans: if you open a packet of Ritter Sport chocolate, written on the squares of chocolate are the words “quadratisch, praktisch, gut”, meaning “square, practical, good”, which she says sums up the Germans.

I’m sure the Berliners imagine they aren’t square – every capital city’s residents think they are more important, sharper and cooler than those outside its boundaries. They may indeed smoke wherever they please, but when it comes time to pay the beer bill, there’s nobody trying to skive off without paying for what they drank. On the U-bahn, there are notices saying “Your mobile is not a loudspeaker”. A spanish friend of mine complained that they speak so quietly on their mobiles that it’s impossible to eavesdrop on the conversation. The trains are really quiet, people don’t do small talk about anything, not even about train delays – they just gaze stoically ahead and play with their phones. Ditto if you have a child having a tantrum on the train – very unusual anyhow as Berlin children seem to be very well behaved – but you won’t get either people rolling their eyes in annoyance nor old wans interfering by offering the child a sweetie, just a completely neutral reaction. We had a discussion in class about Berliners and buying rounds of drink. They don’t do it. Even if you buy a round of drinks at the beginning of the night, Berliners don’t necessarily feel obliged to return the compliment. The system here is that everyone buys his own, and you don’t buy a drink until you have finished the one you’re drinking – none of that having two and a half pints in front of you that you MUST finish. Likewise, if you meet for coffee, paying separately is considered quite normal, and waiters expect you to settle up individually. This is not because Berliners are ungenerous, but because they are the opposite of passionate, dangerous, thoughtless of risk.  They don’t get so drunk that they fall down, they don’t throw money around to show off, they have no problem with someone choosing not to drink, and they enjoy every drink because they have chosen each one. They are well able to have plenty of drink, but they probably don’t like the round system because they don’t like feeling under a compliment, the rules are very unclear and you could end up spending a great deal more than you had planned. One of the late-night features here is that on the street, or the U-bahn, people move from venue to venue chugging on an open bottle of beer.  There are 24 hour off-licences on every corner, so you can just pop in when you’re on the move. Any other city would be covered in broken bottles and people with facial injuries, but here, the bottles have a small refund on them, so people either bring them back, or leave them somewhere safe (on the street) for homeless people to collect as an income.  I’m astounded by how organised they are about What Works Best, including in the area of drinking and partying (all venues open til 6am, U-bahns run all night at weekend, city streets are safe and full of people). The jury is out as to whether they are square, but practical and good, that’s a given.

The “quadratisch, praktisch, gut” Berliners came to my rescue recently. All the pavements here are very uneven. They are made with small cubic cobblestones laid in sand, so they lift and shift, depending on flood levels or tree roots. One evening, I was tired and cold, and just lost my footing and fell. I landed on my arse, which is at least so nicely padded I didn’t break anything, but I had a gigantic black bruise and almost lost both my glasses and my mobile phone into the river. A number of people helped to get me back on my feet and make sure I was okay. More than anything, I got a fright. When you are a child, you fall down 3 times a day and barely notice. Now, you feel grateful that all your bones are still intact. When I got over it, I realised, with annoyance, that I probably wouldn’t be able to go dancing that night. I was invited out by my roommates, which was a first for me. I took a nap and a really hot shower, and dug out a Codeine tablet I had stashed away, and decided I was well enough to dance. Actually, I think I must have done a fair amount of healing just dancing the night away. This week, I took the bike out in the wonderful “Goldener Oktober” weather, and managed to fall off it three times, the third time being asked by a group of 12-year old boys if I was okay (definitely “quadratisch, praktisch, gut”). I decided that, for me, avoiding traffic is the best bet, so I stick to the fantastic parks and cyclepaths. I’ve never really had gears on a bike before, and I’m not good with them. You would wonder just how much longer you can use the bike. My roommate said he cycled all last winter, even during the snow. If I’m unreliable on the bike now, what would I be like in snow? Thank God for the Semester ticket – it’s compulsory for students, costs 200 euro and it covers all transport and lasts until next March.