Archives for the month of: February, 2014

Just forgot to add that this week, I posted 3 posts, in a post-exam burst of energy, to make up for missing posts from the drought period (examtime).  Hope you catch them all…



You can live in a city like Berlin, and never connect the dots, so to speak.  I mean, you take the U-bahn most of the time, and never see that one place buttresses another. My bike has been out of commission for several months, but getting it to the menders isn’t straightforward, and the weather, until now, wasn’t bike weather.  Now the sun beckons to us, to go and explore.  My default setting is Templehof, the old airfield within walking distance. The name Templehof comes from the Knights Templar, who used the land in mediaeval times. Then Templehofer Feld was a parade grounds for military parades up to the First World War. Orville Wright landed there in 1909, and Graf von Zeppelin flew over a large crowd, dipping his balloon in deference to the Kaiser.

In 1923, a tiny Templehof Airport opened, and by the time a full-scale airport was built (in 1928), it was already too small to accommodate the traffic. When the Nazis took over, Hitler and his architect Albert Speer, who realised the prestige attached to flying, planned an airport suitable for the world capital “Germania”.  Templehof was one of Europe’s three iconic pre-World War II airports, the others being London’s now defunct Croydon Airport and the old Paris – Le Bourget Airport. The buildings are suitably impressive, even now.  After the war, the Americans took it over, establishing three air corridors out of Berlin, to Hamburg (north), Hannover (west) and Munich (south).  These were the three routes used in the Berlin Airlift, when the Soviets blockaded the city, in an attempt to get the allies to leave. From June 1948 to May 1949, the allies delivered 1.8 million tons of food, coal and supplies in 277,264 sorties via the three air corridors, commemorated by a sculpture of a three-pronged “hunger-rake” at Platz der Luftbruecke (rather than “airlift”, the Berliners referred to it as an “air-bridge”).

For pictures see:

Templehof closed in 2008, despite much protesting, and has been used ever since by the good burghers of Berlin, to fly their kites, to ride their bikes, to slide their sledges, to push their prams, to tend their community gardens, to canoodle in the corners, to play football, to land-kite-board, to play Frisbee, to flirt over volleyball, to go for a walk, to jog, to picnic and meet.  Plans are afoot to “develop” Templehof ie. build luxury apartments, though there are plenty of voices of opposition.

This week, I went to Platz der Luftbruecke, at the corner of Templehofer Feld, and walked over to Viktoria Park to see the small hill that gives Kreuzberg it’s name.  There is a tiny hill (nothing like as high as Killiney Hill) topped by a war memorial designed by the famous Prussian architect Schinkel, to commemorate the undoing of Napoleon and his exile to Elba. Berlin is flat, except for small inclines like this one, so standing on top afforded me a great view of the city, and a nice place to have my picnic.  I walked down the other side, which was, surprisingly, steeper, and ended up on Bergmannstraße, a glorious mish-mash of cafes and second-hand shops and craft outlets, which led to Gneisenaustraße, which I didn’t realise was around the corner – I’ve only ever been there (to visit “Another Country” English-language second-hand bookshop) by U-bahn, hence, in the process, I connected the dots between my house, Templehof, Platz der Luftbruecke and Kreuzberg.

During the week, I connected the dots by travelling on the tram from Warschauer Straße, which is in Friedrichshain, up to Landsberger Allee, also in Friedrichshain, but I have only ever been there via U-bahn.  I love travelling by bus or tram, because you get to see where you are.  My friend Ana helped me to negotiate buying a toaster via E-Bay, which I’ve never done before, so I had to go pick it up (the toaster, which I only bought in November, broke, and I had thrown away the receipt). When I got there, the very nice man said we had to pick it up in the cellar.  I made sure that the hall light was on, and the cellar was just at ground level, as I was sure I was going to be locked in there forever. However, the prospect of toast pushed me on, and I picked up the working toaster without being murdered, for all of 3 euro. It’s probably a relic of the East Bloc, the design looks a bit like the Volksbűhne (People’s Theatre), but what a luxury to have toast again.


There’s this feeling that everyone is going somewhere.  The Americans have all already gone, to snow, to sunshine, to familiarity.  One by one, the Spanish and Danish and Italian and Swiss students head off home for a break, leaving the ones who are too far away to just pop home.  Up till last week, you could bump into anyone in college, now it’s like a ghost town, just those people swotting in the library, trying to finish up the last of their hausarbeite.  But there’s a camaraderie among those left here, they stay closer together now that there are fewer foreign students. People offer to dig each other out,  get together for going-away parties, turn up to help others move apartments.

There’s also the feeling of being at a sort of crossroads, of not knowing what is going to happen next Semester.  Unlike UCD (where you organise everything at the start of the year), here you only pick your second Semester choices at the beginning of April.  I can go searching now to pick what I’d like, though I know I want to do the follow-up courses in Anthropology and Ethnography, with the same lecturers/tutors. Psychology is the tricky one; I want to choose a course that has no exam this time, just written work and presentations.  When I began this year, I had never done a presentation alone, just one group presentation in a very supportive UCD class. The first one gave me sleepless nights, and it was way too long, had much too much text, and, because I was under pressure of time, I spoke too fast. By the time I did my fifth presentation, it didn’t bother me if I made a mistake, if the technology broke down, if it wasn’t perfect, I’d learned to stop worrying about it, which is key. After doing all of them, I realise that you learn loads from them, in terms of researching them, though I never had to submit a written script or bibliography.

Other than these, I have been recommended by two different people to look up a course in Humboldt University called “The topography of sexuality”.  I’m not sure if this is a neo-Freudian psychoanalytic course – they still think he’s grand here, whereas in Ireland, mentioning Freud in psychology is like saying you still believe in Limbo. I want the opportunity to study in Humboldt anyhow – they encourage you to take classes in any of the other Universities, though I can’t imagine the Technical University has anything I would fancy.  Humboldt was on the East side of Berlin during the cold war, it’s a much older University, established in 1810 by Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt.  Freie University was founded in 1949, with backing from the USA, and although it is an exceptionally good university, I want the experience of trying the older model (which I may indeed find is less conservative).  I also want to go to a university that is in the city centre, to feel as if I am really studying in Berlin.  Freie has in common with UCD the feature of being out in the boonies, in safe old leafy suburbia, where they have all the facilities you will ever need, and none of the politics or protests. I don’t imagine Humboldt has much politics or protests either, but at least I can walk on Rudi Dutschke Straße (assassinated 1960’s student leader), or Rosa Luxembourg Platz (Marxist 1919 Revolutionary shot by government agents) or even Hannah Arendt Straße (political theorist and thinker).  Something I hadn’t even considered until this minute is that there is another wonderful library there, where I am quite sure I’ll run up a few fines (though here they are a great deal more merciful than UCD).


The most incredible weather has hit Berlin. I was en route to my babysitting job and noticed a patch of crocuses; likewise, at breakfast, I noticed some puce-coloured leaves on the big tree in the back garden, and sure enough, it’s beginning to bloom. Every day, all you want to do is go to one of the myriad green spaces, lakes or rivers, and just loll in the glorious sunshine. I had a poke around my own neighbourhood at the weekend, and discovered that on the other side of Hermannstrasse, which is our urban centre, there’s a less salubrious world. I was glad that the weather was fine, so that the house I passed, which had several broken panes of glass, didn’t look half as depressing as it would on an overcast day.  On the ground floor, a man had opened the windows wide (broken panes and all) to sit in the sun and smoke.  A scrappy looking playground was full of Turkish children, and the bushes were quite incredibly noisy with birds.  I didn’t go that far, just to the major road on the other side, which leads onto the autobahn.  There wasn’t an awful lot to see, but it was reminiscent of backstreets in San Francisco, where illegal Chinese and Mexican immigrants lived in warrens; here they’re far more likely to be legal, Vietnamese and Turkish.

The good weather has brought out the buskers again – they seemed to disappear after Christmas, and I missed them.  However, the other day, the man who sings Jose Feliciano songs to the accompaniment of electric guitar (and he sounds like him) was back in Hermanstrasse S-bahn station, smiling away, smoking in between songs and cracking jokes. When I got to Heidelberger Platz U-bahn station, there was the serious man who plays Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” very beautifully on accordion.  When Julia was over, we caught four very serious Poles playing the “Four Seasons” together in Alexanderplatz, quite a stunning performance. There’s a couple of buskers that I really love – the man who plays most wonderful ethereal renditions on the saw – just a regular household saw – and the man who plays really moving classical guitar, which always reminds me of Rosaleen (the same repertoire), but I haven’t seen either of them since before Christmas.  There are a couple of buskers that get on the train and travel a stop or two, playing.  One of them has a drum/backing machine strapped to his back, and plays Balkan-style clarinet.  Another one has a zimbalon (Eastern European hammered dulcimer) on a strap around his neck, something like an usherette tray. At Christmas, Barry and myself caught a spectacular performance on the street – a 12-year old Romanian playing jazz saxophone with a drum machine. You would wonder if any of them make money – Berliners don’t tend to be over-generous, and after the first couple of weeks, I realised I couldn’t afford to give everyone money all the time. I suppose there’s always the tourists.

I have just missed the Berlinale, which is the Berlin Film Festival.  Really unfortunately, it falls right smack-bang in the middle of exams, so I didn’t even get to one film. For the regular punter, it can be pricey (by my 1970’s standard of living, mind you), from 10-15 euro per ticket, though I think it’s probably half-price for students. In lots of venues (but not all), they have a plainly ageist policy, saying that student prices can only be claimed up to age 28.  Steffen explained that the German government don’t want to encourage people to continue studying, they want them to get jobs – which, in a country of almost-full employment, is perfectly possible.  Mind you, you’re allowed to take six years to do your Batchelors degree, where we cram it all into 3 or 4 years, which is pretty civilised (and it’s all free, of course).  When I got my student card here, I presented it at the local swimming pool to get my student discount, and the very nice young man said “I’m so sorry, but student reduction is only up to 28 years old, and I think you may be 29”.

This blog has been a bit thin on the ground over the past couple of weeks.  Today, I’m allowing myself the luxury of staying in bed, reading, writing and drinking tea. I finished my last exam yesterday, and studied right up to the last minute (it went well).  At the beginning of the semester, I decided (being a bit of a smart-alec) that I would take more subjects than I strictly needed, so as to get more credit points in the first (winter) half of my year, and have a bit more leeway for the second (spring/summer) half of the year. In theory, it works well: do more when you’re beginning and enthusiastic, especially if the weather may be so inclement as to have a watertight excuse to stay in bed all day to study.  I took one Psychology module, one German language module, and a selection of other subjects, some I’d wanted to try before (Anthropology and Ethnography),  and others that just fell my way – a module on Berlin and gentrification/touristification (Cultural Studies I think), and a module on Great Britain, Language and Culture (actually in Philosophy). I ended up with eight classes, six in German, two in English.  I enjoyed all of them, and managed to keep up with weekly readings (mostly in English), and eventually understanding the lectures and some of the discussions.

However, the semester runs right over Christmas (you get a two week break), so when we returned in January, I realised what a huge amount of work I had to do before the beginning of the exams (February).  I guess I was still in some sort of UCD mode still, where I just reckoned I’d go over the notes, and cram for the exams, but of course, they were all in German, so it involved a lot of work just translating to get everything straight.  Meanwhile, the weekly readings got more complicated and more interesting, and classes got more intense, and I had a powerpoint presentation for a different subject each week. Now none of this would have been so challenging if I had four classes instead of eight, but isn’t that the way we learn? Biting off more than we can comfortably chew, regretting decisions, and in the end slogging to get through a hard patch.

Since I hate exams, cramming and the whole idea of judging by what you can spit out in a set amount of time, I tried, in both my Big Subjects (Psychology, Anthropology) to write an essay instead of doing the exam, but there was no way of trading in those particular subjects (often the case in other subjects).  Writing an essay here is a Big Deal, and because people only do it occasionally, they don’t see it as a normal part of academic life, whereas in UCD, we usually write at least one essay for each module we take (12 per year).  I found the Psychology relatively straightforward information, albeit an awful lot of it, but my main problem is to translate the questions; I can write the answers in English.  I went to see the lecturer the week beforehand, since there was no sample paper to see the layout of exam (it’s a new course).  “Oh, I haven’t written it yet!” she said airily.  So, since we knew that there were no multiple choice questions, I reckoned that it would probably be something like home ie. “Here are 6 questions, answer 3 of them”.  Unfortunately, no: “14 Questions, answer all of them”.  Exam was at the unearthly hour of 8am, and I had arrived in early to a silent university to be nicely chilled, just running over the last few notes and getting myself into a relaxed state. However, at the last minute I discovered I had left my dictionary at home, and had to rely on guessing the translations.  Then when we got into the exam hall, there was no clock, and of course, you couldn’t use your mobile phone. Instead of a clock, they tell you when a half-hour is up, when an hour is up, and when there’s five minutes to go (exam is 90 mins).  At the first time-check, I had two questions done, so after that, went into a spin, trying to answer enough to get through. After the exam, I discovered the last four questions, hidden on the back of the exam paper.

After this exam nightmare, all others fell into place, and I think I did okay. But the not knowing is a funny feeling. I don’t usually fall at the last fence; though I hate exams, I get through them with my own system.  Here, I’m right on the cusp of passing and failing, not knowing which side I’ll land on. They have no break here between classes and exams (no Study/Revision week), so while you are doing exams, lectures and seminars run as usual, and you can’t skip, because they are still giving out the info you will be doing in exams.  After this really challenging patch, I think I want to get a teeshirt with “Fail.  Fail again. Fail better” written on it, because, good old Beckett, that’s where the real learning is.