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 Hohensch√∂nhausen.  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!

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