Donnerstag, 30. Oktober 2008
I could tell you that it was Goethe who drew me to Heidelberg. Or that Turner’s landscapes had inspired me to come to the Necker valley. Or that I wanted to visit the spot where Mark Twain (probably) conceived the raft voyage which would bind his great novel Huckleberry Finn. But the honest truth is that it was beer. My quest for the best glass of beer in the world.
A Spanish friend told me about Vetter’s, the atmospheric, wood-panelled Heidelberg brauhaus with hops hanging from the ceiling, candle-lit tables and tall, slender glasses of effervescent ‘Heidelberger Frisch’. So great was my thirst – and my friend’s enthusiasm -- that last Monday morning I coaxed Maus and Mrs. Cat onto a sleek, white ICE train and made for Germany’s romantic capital.
Heidelberg nestles in a thickly wooded valley at the northern end of the Black Forest. It is Germany’s Oxbridge, home to countless regal ghosts and 30,000 students who spend their time either cycling to class or entwining their limbs around each other in the darker corners of the city’s bars. Narrow, cobble stone streets twist through the baroque Altstadt. Swans paddle under the ornate Alte Brüke. Above them all looms the imperious, partly-ruined, red sandstone Schloss which moved the soul of the eighteenth century Romanticism.
We stepped off the train and into a melancholic autumn afternoon. Clouds clung to the slopes. Water dripped from the pollarded plane trees. We walked the city’s streets, losing ourselves in its smells, sights and sounds then crossed the Necker to climb Schlangenweg – Snake Lane, a narrow walled path which wound up the steep northern bank. Above the Italianate villas with steeply-pitched roofs unfolded Philosophers’ Walk and the vista which had inspired many of Germany’s greatest thinkers.
‘This is a city where one immediately feels at ease,’ said our guide, a Southern belle, Twain aficionado and long-time resident. ‘You can love Heidelberg right from the start without knowing its history. Then subsequent knowledge adds pieces to the puzzle, yet the puzzle is always complete.’ Back in the Altstadt she traced for us Heidelberg’s remarkable evolution from small fishing village to capital of the Holy Roman Empire. She spoke movingly of Liselotte, the Heidelberg princess who witnessed the destruction of her beloved home by her brother-in-law Louis XIV. She guided us to the Studentenkarzer, the daubed-and-decorated prison where generations of interned students were allowed alcohol, paints and parties. Her retelling of Goethe and Marianne Willemer’s love story almost brought her to tears. But above all, our guide was fascinated by Mark Twain’s three month residence. In 1878 he penned here his second travel book A Tramp Abroad, tried to get to grips with ‘the awful German language’ and wrote, ‘One thinks of Heidelberg by day – with its surroundings – as the last possibility of the beautiful, but when he sees Heidelberg by night, a fallen Milky Way, he requires time to consider upon the verdict.’
One anecdote particularly entertained Maus. Since the 13th century a monkey statue had guarded Heidelberg’s bridge. But in 1786 the humourless Prince Elector Karl Theodor decided that the primate offended him and demanded its removal. For two hundred years only statuesque homo sapiens adorned the Altebrücke. Then a decade ago the monkey returned, its naked rump aimed directly at Theodor’s own proud statue. At its side are the words, ‘Why do you stand around and gape? Have you not seen the old Heidelberg Ape? Just look around you here and there – you’ll find more like me everywhere!’ In his hand the monkey holds a mirror.
Heidelberg inspires contemplation. At many inviting tables one can happily idle away an hour or a lifetime. One such watering hole was Hörnchen in the Heumarkt. After Charlotte left us, Mrs. Cat, Maus and I took refuge from the weather in this crammed student refuelling stop. Hörnchen was part Parisian café, part Berlin squat, part Greenwich Village coffee house. Students sat on its bar stools under crazy, mismatching Seventies lamps, drinking mango lassis and Moroccan coffee, debating how to change the world (or simply get each other into bed). On our first day in Heidelberg it was our greatest discovery, along with Vetter’s of course. We spent the evening there, devouring game goulash and wrestling with a pig’s knuckle. The ‘Heidelberger Frisch’ proved to be delicious; a light, lively beer with a suggestion of sour apples. I’ve never forgotten a pint of Cornish Doom Bar drunk on Dartmoor. Equally my life would be poorer without the joy of a cool glass of Castlemaine Perkins’ XXXX quaffed while overlooking Australia’s Gold Coast. Now Vetter’s ‘Heidelberger Frisch’ reaches the parts other beers cannot reach. Can there be a better beer in Germany? Whatever the answer, the pleasure of our first day in Heidelberg paled in comparison with the discoveries of the second…
Donnerstag, 23. Oktober 2008
Last weekend our son Maus was sketched in light.
Berlin buzzes with artists. For painters, sculptors and photographers, it’s the place to be, much as it was in the 1920s. In inner city neighbourhoods like Mitte every butcher’s shop and bakery seems to have become a graffiti gallery. Near Eberswalder Strasse a former East Berlin brewery has been transformed into an arts centre. So many New York artists have opened studios in Prenzlauer Berg that one half expects a Lexington Avenue Express to pull into its S-Bahn station. The work in the galleries ranges from world class to down-right-appalling but what’s consistent from Ku’damm to Pankow is a passion for self-expression.
To discover what a dozen artists are saying, I took the family to an empty building on Torstrasse. ‘Das Haus der Vorstellungen’ translates as the house of performance, ideas and imagination. Twelve artists were each given one of its derelict apartments and asked to use the space ‘to experiment, to tell stories, to take the visitor to different realms and worlds’. The result was the most extraordinary group exhibition here in years.
In her apartment the Norwegian ‘smell seeker’ Sissel Tolaas, who has collected and archived over 7,800 smells (including that of people who suffer from phobias), revealed the building’s olfactory intimacies behind nose-level flaps of scented paper. In their space Plastique Fantastic created a light, white installation which pulsated like a plastic womb. Next door Chiharu Shiota – a gifted Japanese resident – wove her rooms together in a dense, nightmare spider’s web of black wool. Spectators moved carefully through the claustrophobic woven mesh, from antique treadle sowing machine to a Miss Havisham bleach white wedding dress illuminated by a single bare light bulb. Elsewhere in the building were sound installations, bathtub fountains and flea market junk sculptures.
Darting up through the crowd, Maus reached the top floor to find Harald Smykla crouching on the floor surrounded by children. The walls of his rooms were unadorned and painted white. Apart from a couple of chairs and a table, the only objects in the apartment were half-a-dozen overhead projectors. Smykla was beginning a new light drawing and Maus – never slow at scuttling forward – volunteered to be his first subject. Our son stepped into the beam of light and leaned against a far wall. At the projector Smykla traced his outline on a blank acetate sheet, tracking his features with the shadow of a pen. When he had finished drawing him, he asked Maus to step aside and invited a different child to sit on a chair. He traced her on the same transparency. Then she stepped away and the images of both children remained projected on the wall. One-by-one other kids followed, Smykla drawing each individual and in the process creating a group portrait. The simple space became imbued with vibrant energy. The empty walls were illuminated canvasses. Space was transformed as if a theatrical stage set.
We knew the children were strangers to each other yet, as we watched, we began to imagine their relationship with one another: was this a school outing? were the younger boys brothers? why did the tall boy seem so angry with the little girl? On the transparency – and in the audience’s imagination -- Smykla created a story where none had ever existed. Like the watching parents, the children were transfixed by the transformation of reality (their physical selves) into representation (their portraits).
Smykla is no conventional, commercial artist. As he worked we spoke and I learnt – for example -- that he explores eccentric notions of portraiture such as sculpting dental portraits by eating apples. He makes representational journeys across Devon (‘Circumambulating the Beast of Exmoor’) and has even joined the circus. But his most engaging – and funniest – achievement is this Reprojection show, which he will take later this year to the Courtauld Institute, London.
‘Humour comes into play for many different reasons,’ Smykla told me. ‘Sometimes it’s because people assume a particular pose, maybe standing on a table with mock-heroism and self-ridicule. Sometimes it’s in response to a sense of magic -- mixed with horror -- as my projected, bold red lines appear on their faces like brutal make-up. As the process resembles remote face or body painting, spectators often allude to the notion of touch when they watch the shadow of my pen point on their reprojected friend’s body. “He just drew on your tummy. That must have tickled!” I’m always as surprised as they are about the outcome.’
Like many artistic events in Germany, the Torstrasse 166 exhibition was free. It was put together by an imaginative collaboration between an ad agency, the artists and a building supply company. Yet there were no B&Q signs in the hallway. ‘Sponsored by Nationwide’ wasn’t plastered across each artist’s chest. The only whiff of commercial world was the building supply company’s weekly flyer, tucked inside the exhibition catalogue.
Refreshingly, the arts in Germany are not as linked to the profit-motive as in Britain and the States. An art show’s success is not measured by the number of paintings sold alone. The arts serve an acknowledged social function, encouraging intellectual debate, provoking questions of identity, enabling a broader section of society to look at things in a new way. Branding and the celebrity culture are also less prevalent; people attract the public’s attention more often for what they think or create rather than for how sexy they look in a designer string bikini. It’s no wonder that it was a German -- the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant – who wrote, ‘To be is to do’. To which, Frank Sinatra responded, ‘Do be do be do be do’.
Mittwoch, 15. Oktober 2008
‘There are two types of language students,’ Lena told the class this morning. ‘Those who won’t open their mouths until they are certain of the accuracy of every syllable, and those who hardly know a word but bowl in, relying on gesture and enthusiasm alone to carry across their message.’
I like to think of myself as a member of the latter group. Verb tenses befuddle me. Possessive pronouns entangle themselves on my tongue. Thirty years ago I lived in Berlin for a year, working as assistant to David Hemmings, the spirited English star of ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ and Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’. David was directing a feature film here, and he didn’t speak any German. Yet blessed with sparkling self-confidence and a gift for performance, he conjured up German-sounding words and communicated with the crew. Everyone laughed. Everybody loved him. No one – least of all David -- cared if clapper board was a masculine, feminine or neuter noun. Yet he never failed to get his point across, and I have long admired the ease with which he empowered language.
But today, one week into my Goethe-Institut German course, I’m a taciturn, verb-conjugating member of the first group of language students. There’s absolutely no problem with the teacher. Lena, a romantic who loves Schiller and Madonna, is encouraging and enthusiastic. She jokes, spouts memory-jolting songs and throws a football around the classroom. She invents word games which reduce us to laughter. But the tears are never far behind. ‘German is a very poetic language,’ she informs us, ‘but it demands an order that is unromantic.’
Before starting the course I thought I spoke the language pretty well. Now I’ve learnt that I know nothing. For example, did you realise that there are at least six different words for ‘the’ (they change depending on their position in a sentence)? Or that written German uses a totally different tense from spoken German (the only time Lena lost her smile was when I asked her why such an archaic written form – Präteritum – continues to exist in a modern European society). As the class attempts to decipher yet another grammatical formula, we seem to be wrestling with a kind of demonic, phonetic algebra, rather than the language of Goethe and Hermann Hesse.
The prosaic truth is that learning a language is damn hard and I simply have to buckle down. Children acquire language by listening, developing their ear naturally over years. Adults with only a month or two to spare have to graft, forcing reluctant brain cells to recognise – for example -- the difference between kennen, nennen and rennen. Repetition is the key, as of course is a will to learn.
I’ve gaily quoted Lena a couple of times in this week’s post. Of course Lena speaks only German in the classroom. So given the uncertainty of my Deutsch at the moment, I may have totally misrepresented her. She might have told us that we are her worst class ever and that we should all drown ourselves in the Spree. Or she may even have suggested that the fastest way to learn a language is to take a native speaker as a lover. Certainly the practical ability to buy a bread roll in an archaic verb tense pales in comparison to the thrill of being able to whisper, ‘Darling, please pass the massage oil NOW!’. But as much as my wife Mrs. Cat encourages learning, her support does not extend – understandably -- to that level of linguistic intercourse.
I must end here and get back to my books. Tomorrow we’re moving on to Das Futur 1 (which suggests – God help me – that German has a Futur 2, a Futur 3 , perhaps even a Futur 4 tense). Our son Maus, who is six years old and now in his fifth week at school, is also learning German. His experience has been much different, as I’ll explain in the next blog – along with the story of a 68-year old black American at Burger King. Bis bald!
Sonntag, 12. Oktober 2008
You know those days when nothing seems to go right? You sleep through the alarm. The cat is sick on the mat. You’re late for work. Pity the German money trader who pressed the Send button on her keyboard last month and transferred €300 million to Lehman Brothers just hours before the US investment bank filed for bankruptcy protection. Of all the days of her life, that was the one she should have stayed in bed. Or at least, dawdled at home and washed her hair. As one newspaper put it, the state development bank KfW is ‘Germany’s dumbest bank’.
Credit Crunch may sound like a breakfast cereal but it’s not nutritious – at least for Western capitalism. The crisis has cost America its status as the global financial superpower. Asian, Russian and Arab banks and funds are rushing in to fill the gaps, creating new centres of power in the financial – hence political – world. Today Wall Street bankers don’t walk as tall, paying ‘the price of arrogance’ according to Der Spiegel. We will be paying for the bailout for years.
How will the Almost-Crash effect Mrs. Cat as she orders a hot chocolate for Maus at our corner cafe? Consider personal debt, an area of the economy which the crisis hasn’t touched…yet. In the UK many of my friends have an overdraft, as well as a stonking monthly credit card bill. Consumer debt stands at shocking 172% of disposable income. That means the average British household spends almost twice as much money as it has available, a conjuring trick made possible only by years of easy credit. This is going to change. Banks and credit card companies are already racking up interest rates to cover their subprime losses. Brits will be forced to tighten their belts, relearning the virtue of prudence, but as a result of the reduction in private consumption, shops and manufacturers will lay off workers. This in turn will leave more families struggling to make ends meet, and so on, round and round, down into a vicious spiral.
The German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück has said that people who expect a recession here have ‘sado-masochistic tendencies’. Perhaps the Minister likes a joke, or is blessed with unbridled optimism, but most observers (Mrs. Cat included) expect Germany to suffer. That said, its recession will not be as long or as deep as in the Anglo-American world. The reason for this is Germans tend not to buy their homes. Only 11% of Berliners are owner-occupiers. Property prices have performed none of the aerobatics experienced by Brits, Aussies and North Americans. In part it's a legacy of the last war, when Allied bombing reduced all large cities to rubble. Housing was rebuilt – often by the state -- with rents subsidised and below market value. Plus Germans have learnt the value of financial caution and a regulated market from the rollercoaster ride of their economic history (i.e. for the most part German banks don’t loan money which they don’t have).
Of course this doesn’t mean double-hot chocolates all round. Hypo Real Estate, a German commercial property lender, has just received a whopping €50 billion in credit guarantees from the state and some banks. More than half-a-dozen other continental financial institutions have been rescued by their governments in recent weeks. And in the past two weeks alone, Germans have shifted more than one billion euros away from foreign banks and into accounts at the country's massive network of government-owned Sparkasse savings banks.
As the BBC’s business editor Robert Peston pointed out a few days ago, if you want to know which economies are perceived to be strongest, you should look at the price of insuring sovereign debt in the Credit Default Swap market.
Those CDS prices judge Germany (alongside Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Sweden and the Netherlands) to be more credit-worthy -- to be in a better position to service their national debt -- than either the US or the UK.
So how will Mrs. Cat cope in this new world café? By paying off her credit card bill, by practicing a little German financial virtue and by crossing her fingers that the world's financial system doesn’t plunge into systemic meltdown. She’ll also be ordering Maus’ hot chocolate WITHOUT whipped cream over these next months, perhaps even years.
UPDATE 15 February 2009 : Without whipped cream? How about without the hot chocolate? What a difference four months can make. The slump is the worst experienced in 50 years, with German GDP down 2.1% in the last quarter. People have lost their jobs, their pensions, even their homes. These are deeply worrying days.