Donnerstag, 29. Januar 2009
Last weekend a car flew into a church. According to police, a 23-year-old driver launched his Skoda off a steep slope in Saxony. Evidently he was driving so fast that, when he lost control of the vehicle on the crest of a hill, he shot thirty metres through the air and landed bonnet-first in the roof.
The story started me thinking about German pedestrian crossings (the link may seem tenuous but please bear with me). Recently a number of readers have written to share their fascination with the way pedestrians here wait, really wait, at lights, even when there are no cars in sight (either on the ground or in the air). Some people say it’s a classic example of ‘robotic’ Aryan behaviour, others say that it’s admirable ‘self-disciplined’.
For years the subject has been debated on the Toytown Germany website. One correspondent recalls the time he joined a big political rally in Frankfurt. The demonstrators were marching on both a closed street and its footpath, calling out for revolution, freedom and more generous paternity benefits for single fathers (or similar). When the procession reached a crossroad, the men and women on the street marched across without pause, but those on the footpath stopped to wait for the little green man. Another correspondent recalls her visit to Venice, and the sight of a German family waiting for an old, but functioning stoplight to change so that they could cross a five-metre wide pedestrian zone. Hadn’t they noticed – she asked -- that Venice has no car traffic?
I lived in London for years and grew accustomed to the sport of crossing the capital’s streets without regard for traffic lights and zebra crossings. I had many close encounters with psychotic British drivers but none of them were as frightening as my near-death experience with German pedestrians.
Twenty-five years ago on an earlier visit to Berlin I popped out to buy a loaf of bread. It was a Saturday morning and the footpaths were busy. Pedestrians waited to cross Leventzowerstrasse (at the junction of Jagowstrasse, I remember it as if it were yesterday). I joined them and started to wait too. After a moment I looked to the left. Then I looked to the right. The streets were free of traffic. I tried to catch a fellow pedestrian’s eye in the hope of gleaning an explanation for this sheep-like obedience to a light bulb. But no one looked back at me of course. So I summoned my basic German and asked a man, ‘Why are you waiting?’
‘The light is red.’
‘But there are no cars coming.’
‘The light is red.’
Get A Life I thought, and strode across the deserted street.
Now came the shock.
On the opposite pavement another small crowd of pedestrians were also waiting. As I approached them they closed ranks and blocked my path. No words were spoken between them. It was an instinctual, communal response. I stood stock still before them, gob-smacked by their behaviour, wanting to laugh out loud at the blatant disapproval of my independent action. They were leaving me stranded on the road, which was suddenly a concern as cars were now rapidly approaching me. So denied the time for a philosophical discussion, I stepped left, and the pedestrians shifted left. I stepped right, they shifted right. I didn’t consider retreating back to the other side; in any case there was no longer time. Simply put, I was within seconds of being run-over for not conforming with the crowd.
The incident lasted no more than five seconds but it continues to fascinate me (I got out of it by hurdling the roadside fence). Apologists here might explain that the pedestrians were simply protecting their children from my dangerous example. ‘Nur bei Grün den Kinder ein Vorbild’ encourages adults to set a good example by crossing only on the green. But there were no children around that morning, nor was there a policeman on hand to issue fines.
In his last book, the autobiography The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig remarked of the Germans that they can bear anything, wartime defeats, poverty and deprivation, but not disorder. By crossing against the red I mocked the other pedestrians’ need for order. In response they had no qualms about watching me be squashed like an audacious bug.
Which brings me back to the flying car. How will the authorities deal with this one? Obviously they are preparing to throw the book at the driver: speeding, careless driving, flying without a pilot’s license. The man doesn’t stand a chance. UNLESS he can deny responsibility for the accident, as the pedestrians would have done had I been hit by a car.
‘I did not break the law,’ the driver simply needs to tell the police. ‘I simply typed Himmel into the SatNav and next thing I knew I was flying toward the church.’
Himmel, the name of a small village in western Germany, means Heaven.
Mittwoch, 21. Januar 2009
I know a British neuroscientist obsessed with ‘The Sound of Music’. She grew up in the thrall of the movie, dreamt of being Liesel, even travelled to Austria as a young adult to see the von Trapp home, the gazebo, the church where Julie Andrews’ Maria and Christopher Plummer’s Captain were married. Time and time again on the Salzburg ‘Sound of Music’ tour she found herself humming ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ and ‘My Favourite Things’.
The neuroscientist’s confession started me thinking; what – or who – are the most popular cultural icons of the German-speaking world? To answer the question I conducted a totally arbitrary and subjective survey by writing to a dozen non-German friends. Their responses were both predictable, and surprising.
As well as sharing a passion for Captain von Trapp, a couple of my pals owned up to having a crush on tennis stars Boris Becker and Steffi Graf. Two Wagner lovers declared their devotion to the annual Bayreuth festival, the great Bavarian Woodstock for opera. The first German cultural icons which interested one American friend were – in his words – ‘the awesomeness of such giants of classical scholarship as Mommsen or Gruen’. He went on, ‘I currently have a man-crush on Til Schweiger, but that happened after I moved to Germany, so it'd be ex post facto to say I came here because of him’. Then there’s my brother, who is nuts about cars and plans to visit Germany next year. But he’s coming not so much to see me as to pay homage to motor engineering at the Volkswagen Autostadt museum in Wolfsburg. Vorsprung durch Technik!
The German capital itself is an especially interesting icon, for it is the myth of Berlin – rather than its day-to-day reality – which draws most visitors here. These days tourists flock in looking for Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, the sexual decadence of the ‘Golden’ Twenties, Bowie’s Heroes and remnants of the Berlin Wall. An acquaintance working in the tourism business reports that almost all his customers arrive in town with their heads full of preconceptions. His English-speaking visitors especially tend to be ‘utterly and completely obsessed with the Nazis’. He has been asked ‘a million times’ for the location of Hitler's bunker and witnessed his clients’ disappointment on being shown a dusty car park on Gertrud-Kolmar-Straße. Nazi iconography remains so potent that – sixty years after the end of the war – some English tourists seem to expect bus drivers still to be wearing discreet swastika lapel pins.
Obviously icons don’t necessarily reflect present reality. In truth Steffi Graf lives with her husband Andre Agassi near Las Vegas. The heinous Iron Curtain has been totally removed, apart from a token stretch of Wall on Bernauer Straße. ‘Edelweiss’, the popular folk song from ‘The Sound of Music’, was written in New York by Oscar Hammerstein and is little known in Austria. And do you remember that moving cinematic moment when the von Trapp family hiked over the Alps away from fascism and towards freedom? Had they really walked in that direction, they would have ended up in Germany, near to Hitler's mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden. The real von Trapps simply walked to a local station and boarded the next train to Italy from where they moved on to London and then the United States.
Now – with a scientific casualness which would appal even a sentimental Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-loving neuroscientist -- I want to extend my research project. You, as visitors to the Goethe-Institut and Meet the Germans websites, are interested in Germans (unless you have mistyped gerbils into Google). So which German icon first interested you in German culture? Was it Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’, and the utopian dream of a reborn world? Or Marlene Dietrich’s legs which gave rise to other fantasies? Was it ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ or ‘Mein Kampf’? Was it the Bauhaus chair or the VW Camper? Just click the Comments tab below and let me know. We’d all like to be surprised!
Dienstag, 13. Januar 2009
This week I’m beginning to write my new book. In my mind I’m circling the room which will become that book, feeling my way forward, wondering where to place the door which I'll walk through into a new world. I’ve written six books, all of them non-fiction (to a greater or lesser extent). This time it’s different. I’m writing a novel.
I’ve often been asked, where does a book begin? For me it begins with a passion, a memory or an obsession. In a way I started this book back in 1977, when I first saw the Berlin Wall. The sight of that brutal structure shook me to the core. It was the moment I decided to become a writer.
Over that Wall lived two East Berlin writers whose work I’ve come to deeply admire. Many of you will be familiar with the first of them, Christa Wolf. In an interview she was once asked, is content truth?
‘More than that. The content is first and foremost your material. And that material has to be worked and reworked. Of course it’s silly to say the material is lying on the street. The material doesn't lie on the street. Rather, each author has a specific material at a specific time. And the key is to hit exactly that point of strongest affinity, of inner necessity, at the right time. That's what defines the narrative tone.’
Last night I had dinner with the second author, Thomas Brussig, the gifted and hilarious creator of ‘Heroes Like Us’ and other books who I first met and interviewed back in September. Over the meal I shared these thoughts with him (as well as my anxiousness at the start of this literary journey). This morning he wrote to me enthusing, ‘You are writing your first novel now, and you are discovering the novel as a form. Better: the possibilities of the form. This is an amazing process! Each novel is an invention of its form, and each novel is unique, concerning its form. I know, how you feel. I love the novel: everything is possible -- when you find the form. So I think, not only content is truth, but form (that includes the “narrative tone”) is truth too. A novel can tell the truth by telling lies -- isn´t that amazing? So if you want to love the novel as a form -- write it!’
Berlin is the place where I started my creative journey; where I worked on movies with Dietrich and Bowie, and returned to ten years later to write my first travel book ‘Stalin’s Nose’, where I’m about to write a fictional ‘Chapter One…’ I believe, and feel, that the timing is right for this book. But I won’t be sharing the process here – that’s not my style nor the purpose of this blog. I simply want to mark the moment, if you’ll excuse the indulgence, for this is the reason I – and Mrs. Cat and Maus – are living in Berlin.
At dinner Thomas asked me that very question. Why here? I told him many of the things mentioned over the last months in this blog: that I respect the courageous and moving German response to history, that I admire the dynamism of this rough, magic city, that I want to understand why the Germans are so obsessed with systems, elevating their importance -- even at the start of the twenty-first century – over that of the individual.
Berlin has long attracted writers. The historian Peter Gay wrote that living in the city in the Golden Twenties was the dream of ‘the composer, the journalist, the actor; with its superb orchestras, its 120 newspapers, its forty theatres, Berlin was the place for the ambitious, the energetic, the talented.’ The Twenties are long gone of course, and goodness knows if I’ll manage to produce anything of value over the next few years, or even finish the book (I have a recurring dream of being stuck forever on chapter one chapter one chapter one…). Originality is an uncommon achievement. All I can do is what any of us can do, to try to express that ‘inner necessity’, and – in the moments when despair sets in and I need help defining the true value of art, click through to Josh Hollands’ animated cartoon, to put it all into perspective.
Here I go…
Dienstag, 6. Januar 2009
Last week I said that I’d be posting the stories of a few young men and women, asking them to share how love has – or hasn’t – brought closer links between Germany and another country. This decision came about after numerous flights back and forth between the UK Ireland and Germany. Time and time again, whether landing in London, Dublin or Berlin, I’ve realised that an extraordinary number of younger passengers were travelling to meet their lover.
Here at the beginning of a new year is the third young lover, a German named Susanne. Susanne is a freelance translator and new Irish resident. She writes…
‘I somehow ended up with an Irish guy, for my sins maybe… Our paths were to cross when I lived in France and became a regular in a bar where he was one of the barmen – I know, what a cliché! Difficulty was that we were not always single at the same time – until one day, when we met once again by chance. In the meantime he had changed career and after a year or so decided to move to Ireland in search of better opportunities. We gave a long-distance relationship a try. Our “commuter belt” ranged somewhere between France, England, Ireland and Germany. Suddenly leading a single life again was fun, but in moderation. Visits could be far apart and short. A freelance job would have come in handy then.
At the time I was a PA and had long wanted a change in career and now reconsidered this idea. Being attached to my independence, I did not allow myself to move to another country for the love of a man only – even though I found this idea romantic. Translating or writing always tempted me. So I went ahead and enrolled at university in France and Ireland for translation studies, and got accepted in France… and Ireland. Here was my second reason and I prepared my move once I knew he had set foot there.
I felt welcome from the start and my new-found student life got me to know people fast. My non-stereotypical German characteristics fitted in so well: unpunctual, slightly disorganised. I later even forgot to charge or top-up my mobile phone… The Irish wit won me over. Small talk is easy; nobody ever refused a nice chat. Networking is well exercised. I am more relaxed about everyday chores; everything is "grand". German-Irish relations seem easy; very few conflicts from history get in the way. Integration came so easy: within five days I was part of the social framework – I found that quite amazing! My family-in-law in the waiting adopted me from day one.
I was often thought to be Irish before I moved here – pro: I am not being pigeon-holed, con: I feel I need to try harder. Once people know my nationality they start the search for stereotypical characteristics in me, such as being disciplined, forthright or meticulous.
A friend once told me Irish men were an idiosyncratic species. And I come across some Viking temper.
In our house, any decorations that are "in the way" are moved, honey jars are messed up and sticky and I have never seen anybody wreck as many tea towels when cooking. My culture makes me wish to furnish a rented place to my taste, no matter whether I own it or not. He doesn't care unless it’s his property. In Ireland, the need to buy property must be genetically predetermined at birth!
It's true that it rains a lot, but then, I didn't move here for the weather… and I am now the proud owner of a pair of trendy wellies. Slán from the Emerald Isle!’
Many thanks to Susanne. If any other young lovers want to share their story, please drop me a line (through elisabeth.pyroth AT london.goethe.org ) and I’ll include it next week.
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