Donnerstag, 31. Dezember 2009
The last night of the year is the night of Saint Sylvester, der heilige Silvester, a fourth-century pope who cured Roman emperor Constantine I of leprosy (after converting him to Christianity). On that night modern Germans let off so many fireworks that visitors could be forgiven for thinking that the end of the world is nigh.
In our quiet Berlin neighbourhood, teenagers – who are polite and considerate during the rest of the year – launch Jolly Joker rockets at passing taxis. Pedestrians foolish enough to be on the streets at midnight are showered from the balconies with cherry bombs. Sober fathers hold their toddlers in one hand while firing from the other roaring Devil’s Delight Roman candles into the cold night air.
The key seems to be to make as much noise as possible, indeed as much noise as the old Germanic tribes did during the Rauchnächte, or ‘smoky nights’, when evil spirits were smoked out of village houses.
But despite its deep Christian and pagan roots, the proliferation of fireworks is a modern phenomena. A friend of mine remembers few pyrotechnics in the small town where she grew up in the 1950s. ‘But at the end of the fifties my family moved to a bigger town and every year my father got more rockets and stuff for the evening,’ she recalled. ‘It seems similar to what happened with pinball machines. In the beginning you could win with 100,000 points. Today you need 2,000,000.’
Another friend told me that in Cologne his father only once bought firecrackers. ‘One of the first rockets flew into the bowl where he’d put in all the other fireworks,’ he said. ‘And everything exploded.’ Afterwards his mother always argued that he might as well burn money. She – like many Germans - would have preferred if their money were donated instead to Brot für die Welt, the Bread for the World charity which encourages spending money on the needy rather than on coloured gunpowder.
A third friend reported from Munich that Silvester fireworks ‘seem to me to be the most natural thing in the world. To question them would be equivalent to asking why water and air exist’. But coming from a Calvinist background ‘of extreme proportions’, he admits that fireworks ‘may have been a subconscious way of protest’. He told me (with his tongue firmly in his cheek), ‘the whole family detested fireworks, and while they went up – with all the family watching - they kept calculating how much hard-earned money was being wasted, and subsequently they fell into deep depression about the state of the world’. In secret my friend enjoyed the noise, colour and activity, he admitted to me before dashing out to the nearest supermarket to buy a Mega-Party bumper pack of starburst missiles.
A kitchen psychologist might say that on New Year's Eve the Germans unleash their pent-up frustration in a (mostly) harmless manner. Perhaps that’s true. Or maybe they simply know how to enjoy themselves and truly to let go for one night of the year (there’s no time for English-style Health and Safety on the night). Whatever the explanation, in Germany at midnight, with a deafening racket and roar, the nation marks the passing of another year, and celebrates the hopes of a new beginning. Hurrah! Wir leben noch…
Of course not every German spends a wakeful night fuming in bed or playing at being a reincarnation of Wernher von Braun. For her part, my friend in Hamburg snuggles down in her big armchair to watch a couple of old movies, while wearing her noise-cancelling headphones.
‘That should do the trick,’ she told me with a laugh.
Einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!
Donnerstag, 24. Dezember 2009
Alain spent his week at Terminal Five, sitting at a desk in the departures hall, wandering down to arrivals, inspecting the shops and lounges, calling by the food-preparation kitchens and security lines, talking to just about everyone who crossed his path. His book ‘A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary’ is wry, funny and intelligent. But his greatest achievement – as The Economist observed -- is the way he forces readers to rethink the mundane.
In the book Alain writes about the universal hope of a greeting from ‘someone significant’ as well as the everyday, emotional reunion of family, friends and lovers at the arrivals hall. Earlier this week I was at Berlin’s Tegel, for me the most cozy big city European airport, waiting for my brother and family to arrive from Canada for the Christmas holiday. Their Lufthansa ‘feeder’ flight from Frankfurt had swept up travelers from half a dozen international Star Alliance destinations – Toronto, Houston, Bangkok, Tokyo and Sydney – to deposit them in Berlin.
I waited beside a young Australian. Behind us stood a Brazilian. Together we shifted from right to left, gazing around pillars into the baggage reclaim area, trying to catch sight of a familiar face. We saw the first bleary-eyed passengers walk through the gate and into waiting arms. A young, tanned arrival – who’d obviously been away from home for many months -- fell into her father’s arms. They held onto each other for over a minute. A young man wearing a Stetson was greeted with happy cries and a bed-sheet-banner. ‘Klaus! Wilkommen! Du bist zu Hause!’ He embraced his friends and family one by one, tears in his eyes. Back inside the baggage hall a Japanese mother held her new-born baby in her arms, waving his small hand at her own mother waiting on our side of the barrier.
At that same moment Lufthansa ‘feeder’ flights were touching down in Munich, Hamburg, Leipzig and a dozen other German cities, delivering travelers into the arms of their loved ones, facilitating the enactment of similar scenes thousands of times across the rest of Europe. It was a ‘mundane’, everyday event, and it moved me deeply.
A few minutes later my brother, his wife and children strode through the gate. We too fell into each others’ arms. Only Valery, my seven-year-old niece, didn’t say a word. Her silence wasn’t a surprise. Not only was this her first visit to Germany, it was her first trip outside of Ontario. She had never experienced a place where English wasn’t the dominant language. With brown eyes open wide she stared around us at the strangers shaking hands, kissing, holding a wailing baby, weeping on parental shoulders.
Valery sat beside me in the taxi ride to our apartment, listening to me talk to my brother and then to the driver. She stared out at the passing, foreign scene. After ten minutes or so she looked up at me and said, ‘Germans speak German.’
‘That’s right,’ I replied.
‘French speak French. I heard them on the plane,’ she went on. ‘Japanese speak Japanese. Canadians speak Canadian. Africans speak African.’
I nodded. No need to correct her quite yet. I wasn’t going to dampen her enthusiasm.
‘But you know what? They are all like us. And we’re like them. We’re the same people.’ She paused. ‘Although some of them wear very strange hats.’
Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Eid mabarak*. Diwali wishes*. Happy holidays.
* I know that Hanukkah was two weeks ago, and that Diwali and Eid Al-Adha were way back in November. Please excuse my tardiness.
Donnerstag, 17. Dezember 2009
Earlier this week I was asked to speak to participants at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy’s UK Meets Germany Forum. Forty young people from Germany, the UK, the US, Ireland and Finland came to Berlin for a programme of lectures and seminars on the economic, political and cultural dimensions of the British-German relationship. My talk was called ‘Walking through the Wall: A Personal History of Berlin’. Why? In part because the organisers had told me that my role was to be ‘der alte Berliner’. The Old Berliner.
Even though in my heart I still feel 24 years old, I have known Berlin for more than three decades. In fact I’ve known three different Berlins: the walled city state of West Berlin where I decided to become a writer and worked with David Bowie; East Berlin – Hauptstadt der DDR -- which I visited dozens of times to explore museums, eat at the Ganymed and picnic by the Müggelsee; and now the reunited city, where Mrs. Cat, Maus and I settled eighteen months ago. But my vivid memories of Berlin’s earlier incarnations were dusty history to the young participants of the ICD forum. To try to bridge the gap between my and their generation, I spoke in my talk about my experience of the Cold War and the fall of the Wall. The audience in turn asked me, ‘What did it feel like to go through Checkpoint Charlie?’ And ‘How did the East German government explain the building of the Wall to its citizens?’ And ‘Did the arts influence West Berlin’s political policies?’ And ‘To what extent did rock ‘n’ roll and American Forces Radio help to break down racial and political barriers in Germany?’
Perhaps the most unexpected question – not least because it came from a young woman who’d grown up in eastern Germany and really is 24 years old – was ‘Can you still tell an Ossi from a Wessi?’
Immediately after the fall of the Wall it wasn’t hard to distinguish the citizens of the two Germanies. All East German women seemed to wear frilly blouses. Their partners sported beige track suits. West Germans males either wore moss green alpine hats or dressed like New York HipHop artists, especially those selling overpriced bananas and overpowered Fords to their neighbours. With reunification the superficial differences became less apparent. Benetton opened shops in Dresden and Leipzig. The Ampelmann -- the little East German traffic light man – invaded the western half of the capital. Westerners rediscovered Spreewald gherkins. Only foreign tourists drove Trabants.
Twenty years on what differences remain to be seen? In terms of physical appearance, none. But I risked suggesting that Germans from the former West still tend to be more competitive, capitalist values having been drummed into them since birth.
‘No way,’ said the young woman, shaking her head. ‘Ossis are more ambitious. To get ahead we had to work against the system, and so extra hard.’
‘Then perhaps Westerners are more likely to question authority.’
Again she shook her head. ‘Westerners are the conformists. It’s us Ossis who rebelled against our government, voting it and East Germany out of existence.’
‘So what do you think?’ I asked her.
‘I believe that in another twenty or thirty years there won’t be any differences. I was four years old when the Wall fell. When my generation passes away we’ll all just be Germans.’
For me, it would be a shame if all the qualities that defined East Germans vanished forever. Perhaps rather than die out, some of those archetypal 'Eastern' and 'Western' characteristics will become enshrined in cliché, such as those long accepted in Germany’s regions. For example, Swabians are hard-working, narrow-minded and unhappy, or so it’s said in the pubs outside of the area. Berliners are renowned grumps. No one from Schleswig-Holstein has a gift for conversation, unlike the people of Cologne who are gregarious and loud. The supposedly dim-witted Ostfriesen are the butt of innumerable jokes (i.e. How can you make a Ostfriesen laugh on a Monday morning? Tell him a joke on the previous Friday). Saxons have such heavy accents that they all sound like Erich Honecker addressing the nation.
So how do you distinguish an Ossi from a Wessi these days? You tell me. Can you list – for us two 24 year olds -- the difference between former East and West Germans? Please post your answers by click the Comments tab below.
Donnerstag, 10. Dezember 2009
To me it remains incomprehensible that a people who can design the Porsche 911 and sleek, white ICE trains, who created the Bauhaus and speak at least three languages at birth, want to own miniature wooden figurines, painted in gaudy colours, with flaxen hair, starry skirts and doleful eyes. Every December these cutsey icons spread their carved angel wings across the land, dive-bombing Christmas markets in Cologne, Dresden and even international Berlin. The markets are enchanting for six year old children, but why do adults – from the moment they start sipping mulled wine or munching gingerbread men – completely lose their aesthetic sense and buy these folksy archetypes?
This week an erudite and well-travelled Swiss friend visited me. I took an afternoon off work to show him some of the sights: the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Neues Museum, Tacheles and the East Side Gallery. We walked, talked and picked our way through Berlin’s remarkable history. Did he enjoy himself? Yes. Was the tour complete? No. So what else did he want to see?
‘Now I’d like to go to a Weihnachtsmarkt,’ he announced, and my heart sunk.
Regular readers will recall that last year my wife, Mrs. Cat, fell in love with Berlin’s Christmas markets. She made a number of purchases which – shall we say -- disregarded the dictum of English designer and craftsman William Morris that one should ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’. Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Mrs. Cat loved the twee, little knick knacks. But the discovery of her German side started to take us both to some dark and dubious places.
So in my hour of need, with my otherwise astute Swiss friend by my side, I humbly asked Mrs. Cat to recommend to us a Christmas market. ‘Gendarmenmarkt,’ she announced without hesitation.
Gendarmenmarkt is one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. But come Christmas time, the open space is surrendered to star-topped white tents containing stalls from fine Berlin restaurants, busy craftsmen and bustling bars. There’s an enormous Christmas tree and live music on the steps of the Concert House. On sale is every kind of kitsch imaginable. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the organisers extract an entrance fee from visitors. Yes, dear readers, you heard me correctly: shoppers are charged for the pleasure of spending their hard-earned money on seasonal tat. But I am devoted to my friends. I parted with cash. And we stepped into the forested, folksy, frozen Hell.
At first our visit was a trial. I hated the pipe-smoking wooden shepherds and toothy nut-cracking soldiers. The oversized snowmen and lady-bird-bedecked ceramic chimneysweeps turned my stomach. So I turned away from the nauseating merchandise, and noticed something truly wonderful. All around me people were smiling. An enchanted middle-aged couple held hands. A young woman’s eyes sparkled as she carefully chose a glittery bauble for her family’s Christmas tree. The real beauty was in their eyes.
‘There is so much kitsch to discover in Germany,’ a friend from Munich once told me. ‘As a newcomer you’ve only seen 10% of it.’ Naturally Germans aren’t alone in having bad taste. The English have retro Teasmades, football teamwear and Ozzy Osbourne. The Scots have Celtic bookmarks and ceramic Loch Ness monsters. The urban French have their sentimental attachment to the countryside. The Americans have Paris Hilton. But what about my Swiss friend? Surely the society which produced Klee, Giacometti and Corbusier would not succumb to such aesthetic poverty. I asked him to explain. And as he carefully chose a small wooden Santa Claus figurine I learnt the terrible, dark truth. My friend’s mother was born in Germany.
Donnerstag, 3. Dezember 2009
I do respect the Swiss: the Red Cross, Giacometti, Klee and Tinguely, Corbusier of course, and Dürrenmatt, the chocolate box beauty of old Bern and Basle, plus a peaceful and cohesive society. But what o what got into those alpine burghers’ heads on Sunday?
Last week more than 57.5% of Swiss voters and 22 out of 26 cantons voted to ban the construction of new minarets. The proposal had been put forward by the Swiss People’s Party (UDC), the largest party in parliament, which claims minarets symbolize a quest for Islamic power. In truth the vote was a skilful – and iniquitous – means of consolidating the party’s power. It was wholly unnecessary as there are only four minarets in the country and, as with all matters Swiss, a range of laws already regulate their operation. But that hasn’t stopped other European right-wing groups from welcoming the result and calling for other countries to take similar measures.
Switzerland’s Foreign Minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, said that the government is ‘very concerned’ about the ban. ‘Each limitation on the co-existence of different cultures and religions also endangers our security,’ she said. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan saw the vote as ‘a sign of an increasing racist and fascist stance in Europe’, adding that Islamophobia was a ‘crime against humanity’ like anti-Semitism. Stephan Kramer of the German Jewish Council declared that the referendum could be ‘neither euphemised nor re-interpreted’. For him it is simply an expression of Europe’s deep-seated aversion to Islam that aggravates the integration of Muslims.
Across Europe one can assume with ‘relative certainty that not a single country that doesn’t have more or less similar fears of Muslims and would have similar results in the same referendum,’ Kramer went on to say. In the UK the far-right British National Party aims to restore the overwhelmingly white ethnicity of Britain by offering ‘firm but voluntary incentives for immigrants and their descendants to return home’. The BNP has links with Le Pen’s Front National as well as the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD), a pan-German nationalist party. It and the Swiss Peoples’ Party share a similar political philosophy. A recent NPD political poster – showing a white sheep kicking a black sheep under the words ‘We’re cleaning up’ – was inspired by a comparable UDC poster. When Barack Obama was elected to the White House, the NPD marked the historical event by claiming that an ‘American alliance of Jews and Negros (sic)’ aimed to destroy the United States’ ‘white identity’.
If this business wasn’t so serious, it would be laughable. The notion of limiting the migration of people in the modern age is regressive, illiberal, divisive, counterproductive and inflammatory. It encourages the darkest characteristics of the human soul: selfishness, arrogance and the fear of The Other. It springs from a lack of empathy and knowledge.
The BNP has a nutty ambition to re-establish an ‘ethnically-pure’ Britain circa 1948. I suspect the NPD imagines 1933 as the golden year for Germans. In philosophical terms these parties’ narrow and chauvinistic nostalgia is no different from that of the Taliban, whose fantasy is to recreate a caliphate on a model of Mohammed's seventh-century Arabia. Hasn’t anyone in these organisations read history books?
To better appreciate the absurdity of the nationalist stance, perhaps we should take their arguments to their logical conclusion? Why stop at banning minarets and expelling citizens who have lived in a country for only a generation? The Swiss Confederation may have been around since 1291 but – in the UDC’s dreams – the country should now be broken up and residents returned to the walled city states of Lucerne, Zürich and Bern. Those lacking the correct papers will be left to the wolves. By the same token Germany should be disassembled, not simply into a Deutsche Bund of 39 sovereign states, but into the original tribal wilderness. Brandenburg will be reforested and pagan gods restored. In the quest for purity Bavarians will have to give their state back to the Gauls of course but the NPD Executive Committee will address the question where Munich’s residents will then live.
As for the UK, the island’s population will reduced to a few thousand ancient Britons covered by blue woad and deerskins. No Italian (Roman) central heating. No Saturday night curries. No un-British Hindu-Arabic numerals (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). Not that the Brits will have time to miss such cultural niceties; they’ll be too busy trying to reattach England to Ireland using flint tools alone (the two land masses became separated at the end of the last Ice Age).
Unless we are to regress into the dark ages, all Europeans who want integration must help – as Stephan Kramer advises -- to ‘create a climate of mutual respect, acknowledgement and trust’. A couple of days ago Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the country’s top cleric, called on Muslims in Switzerland to take legal action to reverse the ban. Better would be if those earlier groups of immigrants – the Alemannia, Burgundians, Hallstatt and Helvetii – worked together to challenge the decision, and question how such a referendum on basic rights even came to a popular vote. The good burghers should also learn not to fall for the skullduggery of political parties in pursuit of power.