Archives for the month of: May, 2014

I stepped in dog shit last night on the way home, and cursed as I clambered in the door in socks and had to do a major clean-up job. This is a first for me. Considering the amount of dogs in Berlin, there’s not that much dog shit, compared to Paris or Budapest. Or perhaps it’s that the owners here are more responsible and mostly pick up after their pooches. However, our street is a haven for those insomniacs that take the dog out for a walk in the middle of the night, and they are sure as hell not picking up.

 
For the first time this week, I tried Club Maté, which is a drink originally from Argentina, a sort of high-caffeine tea that they are very fond of (helps them tango, presumably). The drink we get here is a bottled mineral not unlike commercial Iced Tea – it tastes like a cross between tea & lemonade. I went dancing with a friend, and en route, we stopped to hear a band who were busking in a sort of sunken plaza below street level. They could be viewed from lots of different points above and below and they keep a huge crowd dancing along with them. I went to buy a beer for my friend and got a Maté for myself. This magical elixir kept me dancing along until 4am, when we walked home in the dawn, with the birds out in full force.

 
Another first this week was that I was interviewed for the school newspaper. This came about through another friend, who I work with in the Ger-O-Mat cafe. It’s a café run by students and faculty members, exceptionally cheap, and it relies on volunteers to keep in going. I found the café by chance one wintry day when I could no longer stand the din of the canteen and the ridiculous rules attached to the library (you must take off coat/jacket, you may not bring in a bag of any sort, including a laptop cover, you must use a locker, and obviously you can’t eat or drink in the library, though they do just about allow a bottle of water). It’s actually got a sign for the café, opposite the library, but it looks like a poster for second-hand 1970’s furniture. It’s furnished with just that, hence it’s a comfy haven for people like me who like to study and lounge in fake leather with a cuppa at the same time. I volunteered at the beginning of the semester, and just love it. It’s a wonderful place to study anyhow, most people going in there want to read – I could say it’s like a reading room, but that sounds way too formal. The people who frequent it are very often those who volunteer there anyhow. In between reading and writing, we have long chats about everything. My job is to make sure there’s coffee made, enough chocolate bars on display, cups washed, a flask of boiling water for tea. I work from 2-4pm, squeezed between two lectures and I get paid either 4 euro or the same value in coffee and chocolate.

 
Anyhow, a friend at the cafe asked if I’d be interested in being interviewed for the school newspaper, and I said I’d be happy to do it. I was thinking of the UCD paper, which comes out weekly? Monthly? Whatever, I know it’s not the New York Times, but is usually filled with little articles about Erasmus students’ interesting experiences. Matthias got in touch and we made a time for him to come over and interview me at home. He explained that the magazine (not newspaper!) only comes out twice a year, and they usually have a theme, for instance last time was “Borders”, and it was all about students stories involving crossing borders. This time it was about “Going Forth” – so they felt I was a good candidate. We sat on the balcony, and along came a photographer (!) to get a few pictures. I made tea and we then had about an hour of Q & A, in which I tried with difficulty to explain my life, and how I got to this point. As Germans, I think they both had a hard time understanding a life without a foregone trajectory to follow. I had no difficulty in answering, but each time I did, I felt as if I left so much unsaid, as there simply wasn’t time. By the end of our interview, I couldn’t remember what I said, because telling your life’s narrative in German is a job in itself, without recalling what you actually said and how you put it. However, I do get to okay the final copy and see it before publication (the photos too!), but when I looked at the sample copy he gave me from last Semester, I realised that it’s more like a glossy magazine than a newspaper, so I do hope I come across all right. It’s so funny how vain we are, did the photos make me look like an old bat? Did I sound conceited? Completely crazy? Barry pointed out that the Germans will find it interesting either way, and nobody in Ireland will be able to read it anyhow. I’m apparently allowed a couple of copies of it when it appears, so will post something on it then, and how I feel about my First Exposé.

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Oh poor poor blog! I haven’t written properly for an age. Coming back to college after such a long break was actually quite a challenge, and immediately it was Easter. Coming back after a wonderful sunny Easter, everything began in earnest, and I had four projects to start chomping on. The first was a trip with two others (from German class) to investigate the Dong Xuan Centre, a huge Vietnamese market on the East side of Berlin. The other three were to a) research the meaning of Our Lady of Guadaloupe in Mexico City (for Ethnography), b) Research the Mersey sound and the beginning of the Beatles in Liverpool (for “Contemporary Britain”) and c) choose a topic for investigative research in Anthropology based in Berlin – myself and two others started out with the Vietnamese community (seeing as how I’d have done some research already).

 
The Dong Xuan Centre turned out to be 5 enormous sheds, like airplane hangars, with a long corridor running the length of them, divided into dozens of small shops and businesses. Both retail and wholesale, they sold the tackiest of toys, handbags, dowdy and/or glitzy clothes, mobile phones, fake flowers, and had a lot of nail parlours/hairdressers. There were also supermarkets selling great Asian food, and restaurants with Phö, traditional Vietnamese noodle soup. We went twice, first time on a busy weekend, when it was mostly local Vietnamese who were buying, second time Tuesday morning, when it was just German shoppers. The locality is Lichtenberg, which is working class, and an area with social problems, and it’s reflected in the shoppers, who are much more, well, ordinary-looking than the usual picture we have of cool Berliners.

 
Turns out there are actually two Vietnamese communities in Berlin, who don’t associate with one another. The ones on the West side are what we used to refer to as “Boat People”, who came to West Berlin as refugees from South Vietnam in the late 1970’s. Those on the East side came over from North Vietnam. They were invited in the 1980’s by the then-East Germany as “gästarbeiter” to work and train as fellow communists. When the Wall came down, many Vietnamese took advantage of the generous payment made by German government for repatriation, but others replaced them (from former East Bloc countries). Today there are officially around 30,000 Vietnamese living in Berlin, though there could be another 10,000 or so living illegally here.

 
Trying to interview people at the Centre was quite a challenge. The Vietnamese we met weren’t really friendly, you could see them wondering if we were some sort of officials or snoopers. You really can’t blame them, probably there are quite a few people who aren’t strictly legal, or may be off the books – and indeed the Vietnamese have been associated with organised crime over the years. The Centre itself isn’t strictly legal, since it’s officially zoned an Industrial Park, and they have retail outlets, but Berlin turns a blind eye to a successful market that not only makes money but bonds the community nicely. All around the Centre, there are derelict buildings with scutch grass sprouting out everywhere, but the founder, Nguyen Van Hien, has plans to expand it into a sort of Chinatown, with culture, leisure, health and education interests incorporated in a complex, including apartments, a hotel and a pagoda. You would wonder if they’ll have some sort of temple too – lots of the shops had shrines to a Buddha of sorts. One woman explained that it was to the God of Prosperity, they put fruit and flowers and drinks as offerings to attract wealth, often up high, whereas the shrines down low were to the God of the Earth, for success in business (though she said they weren’t really religious shrines, more cultural, just for luck).

 

In the end, we got out interviews, and had our Phö noodle soup (delicious), and wrote up our first project for the German class. However, in the Anthropology class research, all three of us decided to take a different tack (rather than sticking with the Vietnamese theme), so will each be researching a different community. I have chosen the Turkish community, as I have much more access to them living in Neukölln, and they feel familiar. They are around 200,000 people in the Turkish community in Berlin, and they have been settled here for 50 years or so. I’m delighted with the opportunity to get to know more about them.