Tuesday 28 October 2014

Ashleigh and the Berlin of becoming

Ashleigh is another new face of the Insider team.  Not at all new to Berlin though, her adventurous enthusiasm  has kept her busy studying, writing about and exploring this vast city by both land and sea.  We need to start at the beginning though.  When and why was the first time you visited the Berlin?

I first arrived in Berlin on a school trip with some very good friends of mine and our excellent German teachers, who's enthusiasm I would still claim is to thank for my passion for what Mark Twain called "The Awful German Language"! Our group took a walking tour of Berlin with an upbeat Australian female guide, and I remember turning every corner and
finding it difficult to believe not only that one city had seen so much history, but that it's scars and successes were interlaced, coexisting, street by street. My 16 year old self was so fascinated by the city, that upon arriving back home in Newcastle, I compiled an incredibly detailed scrap-book full of my own pictures and commentary, which I still have today. I then came back to Berlin a year later with a couple of friends who were with me on the first trip, and it slowly became an annual event, until I eventually made the then-inevitable move! 

Berlin changes fast.  Is there a place in the city that has been altered/built on/knocked down since you have lived here, that you find particularly exciting, successful or grossly unsuccessful?

I often finish my Famous Walk tours with my favourite quote on Berlin, one which inspired my Masters thesis on 'Cities of Becoming' and which encapsulates the city I live in, but also why I live in it. The historian Karl Scheffler in 1910 claimed that "Berlin is a city destined to forever becoming, and never to being". These timeless words have rippled hauntingly through the many turbulent layers of Berlin’s modern history, coming to fruition more in the past century than the author could ever have anticipated. But his words still linger delicately in today's 'Berliner Luft', as the city transforms before our very own eyes. Much has changed in the eight years I have lived here and at first I found this change difficult to bear, for example the planned destruction of the Palast der Republik, a relic of a defunct state, but also of peoples memories, or the disappearance of Bar 25, a club complex/hedonistic paradise on the river, a relic of memories lost! But there was a moment when giving a tour back in 2008 that changed my perspective on change in Berlin. When walking onto Museum Island a crowd had gathered to watch a dance performance, tens of dancers in luminous costumes, one tiny figure in each broken window of the former Palast, overshadowed by it's size and legacy. It was such an unusual use of condemned space, so much colour and energy in something about to be destroyed. I remember thinking that often Berlin is much more creative in its use of non-space than creating space anew. Today, as the city is littered with more and more projects, hotels, high-rises and apartment blocks, it would and can be easy to mourn what was. But I find that often as places disappear and reappear, the open sentiment remains throughout, and new bars/clubs created from new voids are often a better version of their former counterpart. Of course, this is more difficult with historical sites, but I feel that Berlin is not a city which forgets its history, rather moves forward grasping it, with or without physical reminders. If becoming really is the essence of the cities spirit, which I believe it is, then the process of change is what makes it so vibrant, dynamic, often controversial, but never dull!

Can you tell me a bit about your masters.   Have you found Berlin a particularly interesting place to have as a backdrop to studying European Relations?

After studying German and Mathematics at Durham University in the UK and then a bit of time out from academia, I wanted to ensure that if and when I chose a masters course, it would be something with practical relevance but also something which combined many different spheres of study. I completed my Masters in European Studies at the Viadrina University in Frankfurt Oder this July (the same course fellow tour guide Roy is currently studying!). I thoroughly enjoyed it all, a combination of politics, law, economics and culture, taught predominantly in German but I also took some English courses in Poland and Spanish courses in Buenos Aires on exchange there for six months! So truly international! We had wonderful guest professors from Princeton and Austin, and even the hour commute to Frankfurt Oder a few times a week was balanced out with having a Semesterticket to travel the length and breadth of Berlin and Brandenburg for a very reasonable student price! Of course the final months of writing my thesis were somewhat tedious, but now having survived and emerged with a good Masters I could not be happier! Immediate plans for the future hopefully involve an internship at the European Parliament this winter, but then returning to Berlin in April for our busy summer season, and doing what I love best. Long-term I don't see myself leaving Berlin, perhaps moving a little further outside of the city to live by a lake! But the city has been a fantastic place to study European Relations, the capital of one of the founding members of the original European Community and a bastion of the European Union today. Due to this there are many exciting European projects and initiatives around that I'd perhaps like to be part of in the future. 

Berlin is notorious for its public spaces and the vast range of activities people can indulge in (without having to spend any money) in their free time.  Have you picked up any hobbies since moving to Berlin.  You know, the usual, holla hooping, ping pong, juggling in görli...

I'm a big outdoor Berlin fan and am incredibly lucky to spend so much time outside through work. A favourite summer activity of mine is exploring the cities many lakes, cycling out of the city on hot summer days and going for dip - we're so lucky to have so many to choose from and there are still so many to discover. I fully intend to visit them all one day - though perhaps not all in one summer as was our lovely colleague Barry's aim a couple of years ago! Another 'free' outdoor activity I've picked up since living in Berlin is running, I've done the half marathon here twice now and can honestly say I've enjoyed the training more than the day itself, finding new routes through the city, the Tiergarten or around the abandoned runways of Tempelhof airport. Of course the feeling of running through the Brandenburg Gate or by Charlottenburg on the day is pretty special too, and all of the opportunities to run in Berlin have kept me going! Otherwise, I'm terrible at hula hooping, juggling and ping pong, but have attempted them all to no avail, and recently went kayaking in the Spreewald, a wonderful day made all the more hilarious by my complete incapability to steer straight! An unexpected 'hobby' which I seemed to have picked up over time too is exploring many of Berlins abandoned sites, from ballrooms, to embassies, to entire complexes of unused buildings, all beautiful in their disrepair and with their own tale to tell. Who knows whats next? Perhaps paddle-boarding, or swing dancing, but perhaps not tightrope walking in görli! 

Just like Venice, Berlin is a city of bridges and vistas.  What is your favourite view location of the city?

By far my new favourite spot is the outdoor bar on top of the shopping arcades in Neukölln, Klunkerkranich. A little further out of the city, the view leads on to the city centre in the distance and over the residential rooftops of the south west, highlighting the lack of built up districts in Berlin and red rooftop after red rooftop. It's great for afternoon drinks, pizza, pinpointing landmarks in the distance and then watching the sun go down as the lights of our beloved Berlin begin to twinkle.   

It is beloved isn't it.  Thank you Ashleigh!

Wednesday 8 October 2014

East of West Berlin, with Roy

Roy, hailing from just outside of London, has been working his way up to calling Berlin home for over a decade now.  His passion for history and language permeate his work, studies and hobbies, and quite naturally his thoughtful answers to my questions. 
How did you come to be living in Berlin?
I first came here on a school trip when I was 14, then again at 17 to do an internship at the German parliament. I was brought up with the image of Berlin from Len Deighton and John le Carre novels; an island of spies wearing trench coats and dropping secret packages in dustbins. The Berlin of Potsdamer Platz and the Sony Center was a bit of a shock! I also remember visiting the Allied Museum in the southwesten District of Dahlem, and seeing one of only four remaining Handley Page Hastings on the museum forecourt. 
The HP Hastings was one of the types of aircraft used to transport supplies into Berlin during the 1948 blockade. I was raised just outside London, next to where Handley Page had their factory until they went bust in 1970, so that was for me a very personal connection to the city. Unfortunately the plane has lost some of its lustre since my uncle - the current Chairman of the Handley Page Association, a network of HP enthusiasts and former employees - did some research and discovered the plane at the Allied Museum was actually not used during the Airlift at all!

(The HP Hastings TG503. This photo was taken in 1948 at the Radlett Aerodrome [Herts, UK] where the planes were built. (C) Handley Page Association.)

Berlin changes fast, and I tend to have my socks knocked off each time I happen upon a corner of the city which has been spruced up or knocked down.  The more I ask our guides about this topic the more I realize how pragmatic they are about the (non)issue...  

Every time I came before settling here, there was something replaced or dismantled that had been removed (most notably the Palast der Republik, the GDR cultural center and parliament building riddled with asbestos that was taken down in 2008), but I can't think of anything I would mourn. I think Berlin is what it is because it adapts quickly to the time in which it finds itself, for better and for worse.

You live in what some Berliners would consider 'the deep East' and I remember a great photo series you posted of a day's exploration through Hohenschönhausen.  Do you have an affinity for the atmosphere of former East Berlin?

I don't love East Berlin for what it was, but for what it has become. Berlin is situated in old Slavic marshland, on the cusp of what people have spent centuries trying to define as "East" and "West". In the 1990s millions of Russians of Jewish and German heritage settled in Germany to escape the chaos of the Yeltsin years, and they have made this part of the city their home. Round the corner from where I live, on the border between the eastern districts of Friedrichshain and Lichtenberg, there is a fantastic Russian supermarket that offers a taste of home for anyone who needs it.

The high-rise apartments of Hohenschönhausen and Marzahn/Hellersdorf may not conform to the "Altbau", graffitied image many people understandably fall in love with when they arrive in Berlin, but a lot of people have found a home and quality of life in these unloved areas that suits them. The "deep" eastern district of Marzahn for example was a farming village until the late 1970s, when the government chose the area for a new housing complex that would help counteract Berlin's housing crisis. In the Marzahn district museum there is a series of archive news reports of milestones reached, such as the district mayor handing over the keys of an apartment to the thousandth family to move there, who smile awkwardly for the camera unsure of how to behave. There's even a film of Gorbachev visiting in 1987 making awkward small talk through his translator and playing football with a group of children!

What I like most about Marzahn though is the utopian vision it hints at. I come from just outside London, where after WWII thousands moved out of crowded inner-city slums into modern, spacious "New Towns" with local jobs and a better quality of life. Today those new towns are regarded as something of a joke, while the crowded slums are upmarket apartments or office space for start-ups. Marzahn isn't paradise, but at least they tried.

You speak English, German and Polish.  Any other languages in there?  What is on the horizon linguistically for you?

I learned German at school, and have to study in it, so that's my main foreign language. Part of my MA involves learning a new language, so I chose to take Polish classes. I had always wanted to learn Polish, as I grew up during the time when thousands of Poles were migrating to Britain. It's very hard to start learning Polish, but it is never boring and it is such a gorgeous language to listen to! Issues of identity and nationality fascinate me, and Poland has a notoriously flexible border. In fact, its national poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, begins with the line "Oh Lithuania my fatherland, you are like health!"

Russian is more of a hobby. I couldn't speak it, but I can understand random bits and pieces, and reading the Cyrillic alphabet has its advantages. I have a copy of The Adventures of Buratino - Alexei Tolstoy's Russian-language retelling of Pinocchio - that I am going through with a grammar book and a dictionary. Some people sit with a crossword of an evening, I do silly things like that! I like to play with languages, listen to the sounds they make. I think it was Goethe who said that you need to learn other languages in order to understand your own. Languages aren't just there to be used as tools for ordering a beer or laying down a business deal; they are living, breathing expressions of a whole different way of looking at the world.

Tell us a bit about what you are currently working on for your studies.  You recently received a DAAD scholarship, where will this bring you?

I'm studying at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder (not THAT Frankfurt!) for an MA in European Studies, which is an interdisciplinary course encompassing modules in Law, Economics, Culture, and Politics. I focus on culture, in particular on issues relating to Poland and Belarus and their mutual interaction. They have a joint past, but Poland is now the EU's 'star pupil' while Belarus is a dictatorship in all but name.

The scholarship comes with a monetary prize, so I'm hoping to go to the East of Poland next year to practice my Polish and explore the Belovezhkaya Puscha, the oldest forest in Europe and the last home of the European Bison. The region borders Belarus and is a real East/West crossing point - in fact, it was there that the USSR was officially dissolved by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Our guests might be familiar with the region's most famous international export - Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka!

It seems you have a love for many things Slavic and also country western music.  Do you see any overlap here.  Have you found any real gems for country western in Berlin, or Eastern Europe in terms of venues or festivals?

The spirit of freedom and release that country and western music embodies has made it popular in
Eastern Europe for decades. In the sixties, there was a thriving genre of Polish western films set in Silesia, a region they considered their own "wild west" after it was ceded to Poland from Germany in 1945. That's not to mention the famous Solidarity poster in June 1989 featuring Gary Cooper from High Noon! Country music has always represented the experience of everyday life. I always make a point on my Cold War tour of reciting the lyrics to Red Sovine's classic song "East of West Berlin", a song that indicated just how important the Berlin situation had become by the early 1960s - just as important to country singer-songwriters as tractors, whiskey​,​ and ex-partners!  

My top tip for country music in Berlin is the American Western Saloon in the northwestern district of Reinickendorf, a few minutes away from the Wittenau U-Bahn station. They have regular linedancing courses, and live music every Friday and Saturday night from some of Europe's top country acts. If you are here next February, they also organize the Country Music Meeting, one of mainland Europe's biggest country festivals with performers coming from as far afield as the Netherlands, Poland, Denmark, and of course the US of A itself!

Thanks Roy, as an American who grew up listening to Dolly and Patsy, you have yourself a date!

Wednesday 1 October 2014

a spoonful of Barry

Barry radiates with a rare and delightful mix of sharp intellect and playful wit.  He already has a degree in Law and French under his belt, surprising when you witness his boyish looks! We sure are glad Barry found his way out of Ireland and managed to escape Paris too.  Perhaps the German capital will keep him in one place for good. 

I first came to Berlin 13 years ago, on a badly planned trip with my father – we drove around northern Europe in the car, sleeping in it too - as you can imagine, tensions grew somewhat as the trip wore on! 15-year-old me perhaps didn’t have the chance to appreciate the Berlin of 2001, and it’s a big regret that my eyes were not more open to the huge changes happening in the city at the time! I do, however, remember the Brandenburg Gate being under renovation and the huge amount of construction work around the government quarter. All in all though, it was love at second sight for me with Berlin – I came to visit a friend who was studying here in 2007, and having gotten a taste of Berlin life, I knew I wanted a slice of it for myself! At the time I was studying in Paris, and by comparison, Berlin seemed so accessible – in the sense that it was cheap, of course, but also that it was a city “on the make”. Although I adore Paris, it feels more like a city where one is a spectator to what is undoubtedly a cultural giant; in Berlin, one has the feeling of being part of the cultural process. The Berlin I saw went wildly against my expectations – I envisaged a modern, wealthy city, where everything was shiny, and ran like clockwork to the point of monotony. In fact, this was my preconception of Germany as a whole. What a surprise, then, to find a grubby upstart of a city, full of strange people trying to “figure it all out"!

From 2007 to 2014 we have seen vast changes in the urban landscape.  Having taken Berlin as an adopted home, how do you feel about the transformations you have witnessed?

I don’t tend to get overly nostalgic about lost spaces in Berlin – if anything, I think we (especially us expats!) tend to get a little too nostalgic, and “change-averse” in this city. What I do worry about is development that happens too quickly, or perhaps thoughtlessly. If we look, for example, at the new “Mall of Berlin”, the (almost) final development in the Potsdamer Platz area which opened last week, we see a shopping centre built right beside another shopping centre – some of the tenants simply moved across the street! Also, this grand new addition to Berlin’s cityscape doesn’t contain a bookshop, which I find worrying. On the other hand, I think the way that the new building brings back a sense of urbanity to the area is quite impressive.  Do I miss the empty lot that it replaced, which once contained the ruins of the Transport Ministry, with all its links to German history? Not really. Although the existence of big empty, ruinous spaces in the city centre was perhaps unique to the city - and made Berlin a bit special - it was totally unsustainable, and had to be developed at some stage. From the historical perspective, it would have been nice for the new development to have at least a plaque, or something similar, detailing the site’s history, and hopefully this will happen at some stage – at the same time though, I think we have to be careful not to overload on historical commemoration.  

You referred to Berlin as 'the world's most important social laboratory'. Can you expand on this... Where do you find yourself in this laboratory?  

I refer to Berlin as the world’s most important social laboratory because of the sheer amount of ideas that have either emerged from the city, or have been put into practise here. It is incredible to consider the amount of men and women here who have either tried to explain, or even change, the societies we live in. Giants of philosophy have studied and taught here, but Berlin has been, above all, a city of action. From the communists of 1918 to the Nazis of 1933, the avant-garde of the 1920s to the students of 1968, the protesters of 1989 to the thousands of activists that currently make Berlin an NGO hub... for better or worse, ideas haven’t just been discussed in Berlin, but have been put into practise. As regards to where I fit into the picture, as a tour guide I believe we provide an important link between visitors and the city – be it by presenting history in an honest, unbiased way and therefore giving real context to a trip here, or by helping people understand the ins and outs of the city so that the tourist-resident relationship doesn’t get too strained! Outside of tour guiding, I hope to contribute academically to certain fields that relate directly to Berlin, in particular social solidarity and it’s relation to the question of identity. The latter is one of the reasons I think we should be careful with getting too bogged down in history - in a way, the constant eye on the past in Germany can make the national identity very exclusive, rendering the integration of immigrants an even thornier issue than it already is. 

As if he has internalised the energy and variety of Berlin, Barry has taken on an intriguing range of studies and hobbies.  For instance, Barry along with 2 other singer/comedians have married Berlin history with Walt Disney tunes in a bizarre and amazingly effective union! Well, Ill let him explain...

The project of “A Spoonful of Deutschland” was, like so many ideas, the product of far too many beers in a smoky basement bar. Around 3am one morning, myself and a friend blearily realised that “East Germany” fit the syllables of “Under the Sea”, from Disney’s “the Little Mermaid”, and wrote the whole song the next day over cups of tea and slices of toast. So the idea emerged without any pathos, or even any real goals. Having tried out the first song on some open mic audiences, we realised that the idea could go further, and got to writing! We’ve now given the Disney treatment to most periods of German history, and continue to perform regularly on the Berlin comedy circuit. In the pipeline are YouTube videos (we’ve already released our first – the “Merkel of Life”) and hopefully a full length show! We think it could be a fun way, also, to get kids in school interested in history, and might try to pursue a more educational bent at some stage in the future. Either way, it’s a lot of fun, and combines my two greatest passions – singing and nerdiness! For those who want to find out more, our YouTube channel is https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3DCr9DPtKxjDNdko_JunBQ and we announce upcoming performances on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ASpoonfulofDeutschland?fref=ts

Berlin's S-bahn, or commuter rail, consists of 15 lines on a 330 kilometre long network with almost 170 train stations.  One day a couple of years ago I bumped into Barry after he had accomplished an incredible feat, riding to the end of every single line in one just day!

Another passion of mine is public transport – I know, I have just outed myself as one of the single least cool people on the planet! Luckily, there are others as uncool as me, so a few of us decided one day to go the ends of all the S-Bahn lines on one epic trip – it took quite a bit of planning, and ended up lasting from 6am until midnight, but it was a lot of fun, even for the “normal”, non-transport obsessed friends who came with us! I would recommend it to anyone who lives in a big city, or even a tourist who has a couple of extra days in Berlin. Go to the end of the line, and you see real life – sometimes pleasantly surprising towns or landscapes, sometimes equally informative banality. Especially in Berlin, it can be easy to get stuck in an expat bubble of sorts – that certainly isn’t the case in somewhere like Wartenberg. The latter is one of the more depressing East German housing developments, where we told the waitress in a café about our little adventure, and she looked at us agog, as she’d never even considered going to somewhere like Spandau, as it was too far west and would take too long. This came just after she informed us that she had recently been on holidays in Spain! It’s little interactions like this that really help one to understand a city, and although by no means impossible, it is a little harder to come by in the utterly international bars and cafés of Berlin’s central districts.

So, get off the beaten track!  orders directly from Barry