Donnerstag, 26. Februar 2009
This week I’ve met 49 friends from around the world, and hardly left my desk.
Facebook is in the news this week in Germany and the UK not least because it – and other social networks – may be contributing to the ‘infantilising’ the human mind. So claims Lady Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and director of the Royal Institution. According to Lady Greenfield, every time we click onto these sites we may be shortening our attention span, losing our ability to empathise and undermining our sense of identity.
I first encountered the Facebook phenomena last year. During breaks between classes at the Goethe Institut, language students – most of whom were in their twenties -- fired up their laptops or scuttled down to the Mediothek. Some of them were booking flights home or checking emails but the majority of them were logging onto Facebook. Quickly and easily they communicated with a dozen, fifty, even 500 friends, sharing news, making plans.
When I was a boy I used to ramble away from home after school, straying along unfamiliar streets, roaming off into parks and meadows to climb trees, build camps with friends and talk to strangers. The world felt vast, diverse and safe. I was as free as a leaf in the wind, as long as I came back in time for supper. Day after day I discovered the wonder in my neighbourhood, in the streets and fields beyond, spiralling ever further away from the familiar.
But as I grew older the world seemed to change. Towns grew into cities. Streets were widened and drivers drove faster along them. People became suspicious of unfamiliar neighbourhoods and lonely parks. We no longer trusted in the kindness of strangers. We eyed our fellow man warily rather than looked out for him. More and more often parents stopped children from wandering away from home.
This change created a vacuum in young people’s lives, a vacuum which is now being filled in part by social networking web sites. As Lady Greenfield acknowledges, the appeal of Facebook may lie in the fact that ‘a child confined to the home every evening may find at the keyboard the kind of freedom of interaction and communication that earlier generations took for granted in the three-dimensional world of the street.’ In other words, Facebook enables him or her to feel connected in a changing world.
The statistics boggle the mind. Every month Facebook attracts 132 million unique visitors. The German language site StudiVZ, probably Europe’s biggest social network, has almost 13 million users, close to 16% of the country’s population. Xing, another popular social network based in Hamburg, claims 6.5 million users. Through the networks visitors connect with school friends, discuss homework, plan parties, share passions for Schiller or Key lime pie with like-minded souls around the globe.
But Lady Greenfield worries that living with one hand on the Facebook ikon will ‘result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations. We know that the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to the outside world.’ I don’t doubt that my web browsing has shortened my attention span. But most young people haven’t lost their critical faculties, or embraced the computer as a superior means of social intercourse. As a sixteen year old German friend told me, ‘I use SchülerVZ but I wouldn’t say that it is the best way to communicate with friends. I’ve thought often about deleting my page, because one spends so much time just visiting pages of other pupils, which is not really interesting. Also I don’t like the way some kids represent themselves on line. People write what they want others to think about them. For example, I know a boy who spends most of his time alone playing computer games, yet he doesn’t want others to think that he’s boring. So on the social network sites he writes about his hobbies and how he loves going to parties, even though it’s not true. In my opinion many people on line are fantasists and SchülerVZ is a hollow lie! The only reason I’m still a member is that I have a few friends who I rarely see and I know I’d lose contact with them if I left SchülerVZ.’
So why have I joined Facebook? Not to lie, to rekindle old relationships or because I feel a need to share the titles of my favourite novels. I’ve joined because my latest book is published in the States this week. The book tells the story of the Asia Overland hippie trail, the great journey of the Sixties and Seventies when hundreds of thousands of young Americans, Canadians, Brits, Europeans, Aussies and Kiwis travelled from Istanbul to India. Today – with the publication of the book – I created a group to try to bring together veteran, American travellers. Within an hour of launching it, the first member joined. And guess what? He wasn’t from Seattle or Boise, Idaho, but rather from Berlin. He lives just down the road from me. We’re meeting next week at the Indian restaurant on the corner. Now that’s a small world…
Donnerstag, 19. Februar 2009
It’s cold outside. Yesterday I cycled up to the Ku’damm in the early spring sunshine. Today great flurries swirl down from a grey sky, covering trees and pavements, transforming our geriatric Golden Retriever into a puppy who snaps at flakes and chases snowballs. But she seems to be the only female on our street who is happy with the return of winter. Upstairs Frau Hut – a totally mad thirtysomething stage designer who sledge-hammered down a wall in her apartment and caused the ceiling to fall in – rang to tell me that she’s staying in bed today (more on her later). My own Mrs. Cat keeps looking longingly at the duvet and I’ve only managed to make it to my desk through a gargantuan force of will (and two strong espressos).
It’s disheartening to have the promise of spring torn away, unless you’re a snow-loving dog. So this morning, in an effort to lift spirits and keep warm, my thoughts are turning to sex…and the Germans.
Let me start with a confession. When I look at a bed I tend to think first and foremost about sex. I’m not alone here – no fun in that – for a new survey has revealed that sex is the number one favourite activity in bed for Brits. More surprisingly – to me at least – is that the same survey found many Germans consider chatting on the phone, reading and sleeping to be equally engaging activities in bed.
Now hold on a minute (as the actress said to the bishop). What about the general impression that Germans are gagging for it? Aren’t Berlin’s clubs pulsating with hungry Aryan bodies? Don’t Bavarian cross-country skiers do it in the Alps? This country’s reputation for enthusiastic love-making springs from the Golden Twenties myth, Germans’ sense of unfettered abandon when on holiday and their passion for naturalism (i.e. going starkers in public). It’s also due to the work of the late Beate Uhse, an entrepreneur who educated Germans on sexuality, sexual hygiene and contraception after the war, transforming demoralised couples back into happy fornicators. Uhse was responsible for opening the world’s first sex shop and today her company is the European leader in erotic products.
When I was young, the English had a reputation for considering sex to be, well, a bit of a chore. As George Mikes, the Hungarian-born British author, once wrote, ‘Continental people have a sex life; the English have hot-water bottles’. But apparently times have changed. In another international survey Germans are ranked as the worst lovers in the world (because they only think about their own pleasure in bed). Also unpopular are the Turks (too sweaty), the Swedes (too quick), the Dutch (too rough), the Americans (too dominating) and the Russians (too hairy).
It gets worse. A disappointing – and disappointed -- 20 percent of German women and 41 percent of German men have never given their partner an orgasm. (No surprise then that three percent of women admit to planning household chores while having sex.) And when asked what would improve their love life, a depressing 12 percent of Germans said they didn't have one. As for the rest of them, sex lasts here for an average of 17.6 minutes, if you want to set your watch.
But before Anglophone Romeos mount – sorry -- their high horse and claim sexual superiority, bear in mind that another survey revealed that half of British men would give up sex for half a year in exchange for a new 50-inch TV set. As for those nubile Juliets, Unilever asked 1000 American women for how long they would stop bonking in exchange for a wardrobe of new clothes? The majority said 15 months.
The world’s best lovers, apparently, are the Italians (unless you prefer oral sex, in which case Austrians are for you – oral sex is performed there more often than in any other country). Goodness knows how they worked out any of these statistics but here in Berlin, as the snow falls and the temperature drops, one fact is for certain. I’m going back to bed. ‘Yoo hoo, Mrs. Cat, are you there?’
Donnerstag, 12. Februar 2009
Do you remember that joke? ‘Will the last person who leaves East Germany please switch off the lights?’ Twenty years ago this summer the old Eastern Bloc began to fall apart. Tens of thousands of East Germans applied for exit visas, or left the country illegally, many crossing the ‘green’ border into Czechoslovakia, Hungary and then on to Austria and West Germany. As in the early 1960s when the exodus of Germans from the Soviet sector could only be stopped by building the Wall, East Germany seemed to be on the brink of losing its people.
This year the Berlin International Film Festival is marking the anniversary of the fall of the Wall with a series of feature films and documentaries which presaged the coming radical change. The programme is named after Helke Misselwitz’s documentary ‘After Winter Comes Spring’. Shown at the 1988 Leipzig Documentary Film Festival, the film portrayed for the first time ordinary East Germans unafraid of speaking their minds openly in front of the camera.
Earlier this week while waiting to buy tickets for some of the films in the series, I started talking to the man in the queue beside me. Like me he wanted to see Piotr Szulkin’s science-fiction parable of life in a dictatorship ‘The War of the World – The Next Century’ (Wojna Swiatow – Nastepne Stulecie). In fact he had wanted to see it since its completion in 1983 but in those days the film had been banned in East Germany.
‘Where are you from?’ I asked him.
‘Leipzig,’ he replied. ‘I’m originally from Leipzig.’
Coincidentally I’d just read about the ‘discovery’ of a Leipzig apartment which had been locked and left untouched for the last twenty years. According to press reports, it had been abandoned by its East German occupants, who perhaps had decided like so many others to get out as the communist state crumbled around them.
‘It was a kind of socialist treasure chamber with aluminium flatware, plastic dishes and unopened bottles of Vita cola, plus twenty year-old rolls in the bread bin,’ I told him. ‘Evidently the tenant had been in trouble with the police which, I guess, is why he never went back.’
I asked the man in the queue if he’d read the story. He didn’t respond for a minute and I wondered if he’d heard my question.
‘We also left Leipzig that last summer,’ he finally said. ‘My mother told friends that we were going on holiday to Lake Balaton in Hungary, packed the car and drove to the border. We left the car on a track not far from a place called Sopron and – carrying our beach things – walked to the West.’
‘So the Leipzig apartment could have been yours,’ I joked.
He shook his head. ‘No, my father stayed behind, and he didn’t like Vita cola.’
I laughed, he didn’t. He went on, ‘My mother has been back. My brother and sister too. But I haven’t.’
‘It’s been twenty years,’ I said.
Quite suddenly he was speaking loudly, passionately, ‘People forget. People forget about the lies and the spying and stink of the brown coal. They buy a jar of Spreewälder Gurken and get all warm and sentimental, remembering only the good old days, forgetting that we couldn’t travel, we couldn’t choose.’ He took a breath. ‘Why would I ever go back? Why would I want to relive those years?’
‘Because there is no more East Germany, no more Stasi,’ I suggested. ‘Leipzig is a different place today.’
‘I thank God that there are films to remind us of what it was like,’ he said, nodding toward the box office. ‘Of how we dreamed it could be.’
Two spaces came free at the box office windows ahead of us. I went to one, he to the other. After I’d collected my tickets, I turned to continue our conversation, but the man was gone.
Donnerstag, 5. Februar 2009
I’d forgotten about the Berlin winter. Around the middle of January a neighbour pointed out that she hadn’t seen the sun in weeks. Then a doctor friend commented on the increasing number of patients suffering from depression. Next flu swept through my son Maus’ class and exhausted parents reported going to bed at the same time as their children. This last month I myself have often felt like crawling under the duvet to hibernate like a Berlin bear.
Berlin winters are chilly and dark with a scant eight hours of sunlight. So the arrival of the Berlinale, the annual Berlin International Film Festival, is particularly welcome, bathing the city in glitzy, glamorous artificial light. Spotlights sweep the sky. Camera flashes flash. Arc lamps are fired up in projectors. And many Berliners get out of bed, slip on their DKNY (or C&A look-alike) jacket and head for the nearest luvvies party.
The Berlinale is the city’s largest cultural event. Every year more than 19,000 film professionals from 120 countries, including 4,000 journalists, descend on the city for the ten day festival. DiCaprio is due in town, and already here are Michelle Pfeiffer, Demi Moore, Renee Zellweger, Kate Winslett and Keanu Reeves. The Berlinale claims to draw the largest audience of any film festival in the world, with more than 200,000 tickets sold to the public. Alongside it runs the European Film Market trade fair, and the Berlinale Talent Campus which invites 350 young filmmakers from around the world to meet with experienced professionals and personalities for a week of workshops and discussions. I’ll be taking in as many films as I can while also trying to elbow my way into a party or two. It looks set to be another success mega event.
But come February 15th almost all the foreign artists will leave town. Polanski will stay around – he’s about to shoot his new feature at Babelsberg – as will Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor who are to star in the film. But in a couple of months they too will pack up their Winnebago motorhomes and head off. Why?
Berlin is fascinating in that it draws to it from home and abroad so many clever and creative people. Isherwood, Grass, Bowie, Wenders, Eugenides, Cruise; they all stayed for a while. Likewise Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle are among the cultural elite living here now. Roger Boyes, long-time resident, correspondent for The Times and one of the clearest thinkers about Berlin’s relationship with the wider world, puts down this transience to a lack of roots. Artists come to do their job – writing HEROES, filming WINGS OF DESIRE, conducting Beethoven’s Ninth – then they move on. Berlin celebrates them but strangely it does not encourage them to become part of the city.
The problem isn’t the long winter; it seems to be a lack of leadership, and openness to new ideas, in the political class. Hence a real opportunity is being missed here. If Berlin wants to be a kind of European New York then it needs to generate ideas that bond German and foreign artists to the city for the long term. As Boyes writes, ‘What about a Language Academy where authors and their translators could discuss the latest developments? Why not start up comprehensive creative writing programmes at the FU and the Humboldt? Why not give subsidised studio space to painters in return for posters or street art to brighten the city?’
Indeed given the timing, why doesn’t the city’s cultural commissar collar any of the Berlinale’s stars as they sweep down the red carpet and suggest, ‘How about founding an acting academy? Or joining the board of a film school? Or making Berlin the world capital for the composition and recording of cinematic music? Or…?’ He won’t do it of course. He’s too busy worrying about what to do with iconic Tempelhof airport, which costs more to run now that it’s closed than it did during its operational days, or how on earth to pay for the misguided plan to build a fake Baroque palace on Unter den Linden.
And so at the end of another festival, Berliners will watch with a hint of sadness most of the stars step into their limos and slip away to the airport. As a one-time resident wrote and sang when he lived in Berlin, ‘Though nothing/Will keep us together/We could steal time/Just for one day/We can be Heroes/For ever and ever/What d’you say?’
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