Tuesday 25 November 2014

from Schoeneberg to the Oberbaumbrücke with Finn

photo by Alexa Vachon
A native of Bangor, Northern Ireland, Finn has found a home in Berlin.  Sometimes places simply call us, and who are we to not listen...

I first visited Berlin in the summer of 2008 to look for accommodations, already convinced that I was going to move here. I was living in England, where I was studying, and felt ready to move on somewhere new. Berlin captivated me first through its cinema - my favourite movies of the time were 'Goodbye Lenin', 'The Edukators' and 'The Lives of Others' - and then through its literature. I was already a fully-fledged Berlin nerd before I ever even visited. I came to Schoeneberg searching for the queer scene, found my apartment here, and returned a few weeks later to move in. The night I landed, there had been a huge football match on (not being the greatest football aficionado I now find myself looking up the details: it was the UEFA Euro semi-finals, in which Germany beat Turkey 3-2) and I'll never forget taking a taxi from the airport to my new home and seeing in the distance the whole city exploding with fireworks.

You work also for Queer Berlin which has you touring a lot in the former West.  With the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall just behind us, do you feel Berlin has fully 'reunited', or do you experience a particular change in atmosphere from former East to former West?

I do feel myself to be something of a 'Wessie', since I live in Schoeneberg and tend to spend most of my time either here or in Kreuzberg or Neukoelln, other former 'Western' boroughs, when I'm not at work. In fact, having to regularly traverse the whole city (and beyond) on our various tours is something for which I'm particularly grateful, since we do have a notorious tendency in Berlin to stick to our own 'kiez' or mini-neighbourhood. There are definitely differences in atmosphere between the different boroughs, but in the central districts this is probably less attributable by now to the East-West divide and more to the demographic shifts which have occurred in the last few years. The atmosphere in, for example, the gentrified Eastern borough of Prenzlauer Berg isn't so very different from the bougier parts of Kreuzberg; at the same time, the Western boroughs had their own dilapidation to contend with after WWII and also had their own enclaves of Communist support, like Schoeneberg's 'Rote Insel' or 'Red Island', so the supposed ideological chasm between East and West 
was probably never that clear-cut. Plus, due to the vastness of the city, regional consciousness is very strong here in a manner which seems to supersede the East-West divide: it seems to me that people are first of all proud of their 'kiez', then of their borough, and then of being a Wessie or an Ossie. Not to mention the fact that the city is evolving and diversifying so quickly that so much of its identity is still in flux and being perpetually redefined, which is one of the many things that makes it so exciting to be here at this moment. There are certainly problems associated with the new phenomenon of 'Ostalgie', 'nostalgia for the East' or what we might call the commercialism of communism, which to my mind promotes an unreliable understanding of the Cold War, but also garners a certain amount of wry humour. My favourite meditation on the reunification is probably Thorsten Goldberg's installation on the Oberbaumbruecke, the bridge near the East Side Gallery which formerly straddled the border between East and West: two neon hands, one on either side of the divide, playing a game of 'rock, paper, scissors' from nightfall to sunrise.

Your PhD is in film studies.  Do you work in the field also?  Can you write a bit about the film community in Berlin, which has an incredible history from Babelsburg to Weißensee... 

I've been involved in the production of a few films since moving here: as an actor, and also helping out behind the scenes on shoots directed by my partner, Liz Rosenfeld, who has just finished off a trilogy of movies set in the Weimar era. I'm officially Liz's 'historical advisor', but she has a true artist's quest for atmosphere superseding the more minor or factual details, so we have to agree to disagree on certain anachronisms! Berlin's film industry is truly rich: Babelsberg studios in Potsdam, the oldest functional large studio in the world, has been in action for over a century. Before the coming of sound to cinema and the subsequent language barrier, Potsdam was certainly neck-and-neck with Hollywood, and in many ways more innovative; you just have to look at 'Metropolis' or 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' to see how ambitious early German cinema was. Of course the Nazis put a temporary stop to all that in producing their odd and suffusing mixture of bland genre films and overtly racist propaganda; but during the Cold War, Germany produces some of the most creative directors in the world: Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders... and it's typical of Berlin's tenacity that it's now the focal point of the New German Cinema with the modern classics that first sparked my own fascination with the city. Since we walk through numerous different filming locations on any of our tours, I love to point these out to cinema fans!

Berlin also has an incredibly rich queer history.  Do you feel Berlin has returned to or surpassed the openness of the 'Roaring 20's', or do you feel the city and community have a ways to go?  Can you tell us a bit about Queerstories.

A big part of my motivation in moving to Berlin was to seek out queer family, a concept in which I very much believe, and I feel very lucky to have found that here. I feel that our community today is very engaged with its history and looks back with awe and gratitude to the work of pioneers like Magnus Hirschfeld (who you can read a bit more about in Jared's post), one of the first gay rights campaigners in the world and an adoptive Berliner who lived here until the beginnings of the Third Reich. In fact, talking of cinema, Hirschfeld worked on perhaps the first prolific gay movie of all time, 'Different from the Others', produced in 1919. He also assisted the medical treatments of some of the first transgender people to obtain hormone therapies and surgeries; Karl M. Baer, for example, a transman like me, lived in Schoeneberg and obtained legal recognition of his male gender and surgery in 1907. If anything, I sometimes wonder if we are still catching up with Hirschfeld and his contemporaries - you can't help but imagine what Berlin could have achieved in the subsequent decades were it not for the rise of the Nazi party. But as usual, the city bounced back marvellously after the fall of the Wall. These days, queer culture in Berlin is so pervasive that the city celebrated with four different Pride parades this year. If anything, my only fear is that our own political differences of opinion (primarily but not only when it comes to sexual politics) can serve to divide rather than unite us as queer Berliners. I do run a specific Queer tour through Schoeneberg, and my own queerness certainly influences my fascination in these narratives, but on any tour in the city it's vital to remember that Berlin has been shaped by queer figures who have been pioneers in their own times, from Friedrich the Great to Klaus Wowereit. My own homage to Hirschfeld is that tour but also the monthly storytelling event which I co-host in the bookstore Another Country (one of the world's top ten bookstores according to 'Lonely Planet'): we meet for dinner in the basement of the shop, and then have a line-up of musicians and storytellers with some open space for anyone who wishes to tell a spontaneous tale. The night is called Queerstories and everyone is welcome: if you're in Berlin while it's on, please drop by!

In asking the last question I am reminded of a memorial in Berlin that has always touched me deeply, the Neue Wache, as it is a memorial to all victims of war and tyranny, without distinction.  In recent years a number of memorials have been added to Berlin's urban landscape.  Are there any you find particularly successful or unsuccessful?

I also find the Neue Wache extremely powerful, particularly on a winter's day when snow falling through the building's open skylight is dappling the statue below. In keeping with the last question, the Gay Memorial is one of my favourites: I love the way in which the artists who designed it, Elmgreen and Dragset, managed to produce a celebratory, joyous memorial in playing a loop of a montage video of people kissing, a surprise inside a slanted slab of grey concrete. Politics aside (if possible) the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park is always spectacular, particularly in the snow, and although as a tour guide you can expect to see the entire gamut of human behaviour here, for me the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe never fails to inspire awe. I find the politics of memorialisation in Germany very interesting - particularly when it comes to the nation's unique ability to gaze openly upon its history. You could compare, for example, the understated power of the Neue Wache with an 'Ehrenmal' or 'honour memorial' such as that on top of Kreuzberg's eponymous hill - or consider the curious tradition of adding to WWI memorials subtle plaques quietly commemorating the dead of WWII. To me, the most successful memorial is not only to be found in Berlin, but proliferates in the city: the 'stumble stones', small brass plaques outside the former homes, workplaces, schools, etc. of victims of the Nazis, which detail their fates. Whilst we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall a few days ago, we also remembered the 76th anniversary of the pogrom the Nazis called 'Kristallnacht' in 1938. Returning home from seeing the 'Lichtgrenze', the installation of illuminated balloons marking out some of the path of the former Wall, I was struck to see candles flickering by every 'stumble stone' in my street. That's Berlin as a living memorial, suffused by a history which it bears sometimes with ease and sometimes heavily, but never with complacency. It's a place of innumerable layers and complexities - the city still has memorials to build, but its past is always tangible.

Alongside guiding and acting Finn writes for Siegessaeule, the prominent queer magazine out of Berlin, and is the proud owner of these two pups.  Thanks for taking the time Finn!

Friday 14 November 2014

Jared, on anthropology, magic and dancing

Jared came to Berlin from Indiana where he studied Anthropology and Neuroscience.  The story of how he ended up moving here is one of my favourites from our guides; an entertaining example of one door closing and another opening.

In 2007, I was supposed to go to Africa to run a chimpanzee field research camp in Uganda for an anthropology/ primatology professor of mine, Kevin Hunt, but the expected funding didn't end up coming through and the site was shut down for a year a few months before I was set to depart. At the time, I was also doing a neuroscience degree and had been looking for further education in that direction oversees, or at least somewhere that still valued education as education instead of a lot of dollar signs and debt. Germany ended up being my next best thing, Berlin in particular. I lived in Berlin for about 1.5 years and then again after attaining my MS in neuro-cognitive psychology and some teaching and research in Munich. I had never visited Berlin before and my first reaction was bewilderment. Coming from essentially a suburban/rural satellite town near Chicago in Northwest Indiana, I had come to expect a bit of centralisation, a financial district, and lots of crime. I was initially rather disoriented, this city (Berlin), has no center, or rather everything is the center at once. Forget about a financial district, one can go to Frankfurt to see that. And as for crime, feel free to walk through a park or down a dark alley in the middle of the night and enjoy the scenery (for rates of violent crime in Germany see, http://www.civitas.org.uk/crime/crime_stats_oecdjan2012.pdf). As I grew more accustomed to the city I quickly fell in love, it's neighbourhood-centric organisation seems to fractionate Berlin into multiple Berlins - Berlin is many cities in one. If you can't find something for you in Berlin, it probably doesn't exist in the world. Berlin is a safe space (no assholes please), an inclusive space where ignorance and privilege are tolerated about as far as one could throw the TV tower. Feeling uppity and entitled? A bit of the old Berliner Schnauze (Berlin Attitude) will set you back in your rightful place with the rest of the human race. I love this place.
Germany, and Berlin in particular, has a rich scientific past.  Does living in this city affect or inspire your academic work?

I've studied a lot, from high school throughout all of my 20s. I started in American anthropology which has always been since its foundation under Franz Boas and Alexander von Humboldt (Boas' mentor and namesake of Humboldt University in Berlin) a relativist and holistic pursuit of culture, history, biology, and the human condition in general. It was through those studies that I came to neuroscience, via cognitive interests in our hairy cousins in Southeast Asia (orangs, gibbons) and Central Africa (bonobos, gorillas, chimps). Through it all, I've been interested in perspectives and bringing together diverse kinds of knowledge - from personal individual accounts to neuroimaging - as different elements of a possible description of the human condition. Berlin has definately been a muse in these regards, I don't know what I would have done without it. Berlins diversity, its comfort in states of change and dynamism has had me reexamine everything I do. I think Berlin helped me realize that we'll never have a complete picture of all of humanity, because someone is always going to react and break the mold, just because they can, just to try to do something beautiful. In short, I guess Berlin has really helped me to realize that normal is a myth. Magnus Hirschfeld is of particular interest to me in this regard, a gender campaigner and a human sexuality researcher before the term 'gender' existed, before Kinsey, and before Masters and Johnson. Hirschfeld, a self-identifying homosexual and Jew, lobbied and petitioned German society with vigour throughout the 1920s to show folks what might be possible and to chastise them for trampling folks underfoot that are, in the words of his clearly titled film on the topic, 'Different from the Others'. He got some things wrong, but he mostly stands out for me as an example of Berlin at its best and scientists at their best, keeping in mind the political ramifications of any scientific work.

photo by Jared, Berlin
Berlin is also rich in museums, with the range quite amusing and impressive.  Do you have any favourite institutions here, or is there an exhibition you have visited that stands out in your memory?

Hands down, the Pergamon Museum, but not for the Pergamon Alter. Rather, the gates of Babylon. Alexander the Great walked beneath those gates, and it's not so much the awe that might be inspired by Alexander. In truth he was a horrible despot who pressed multiple continents under his thumb and killed thousands upon thousands. It's the thought of this artifact coming from a time when the history we've recorded wasn't even history yet, it was myth and legend all bound up in one complicated mess. This gate is as close to magic as you can get in Berlin, which is a hell of a feat considering that magic doesn't exist. The Neues Museum is right up there too, the Egyptian collection, for precisely the same reason.

Speaking of magic, Berlin is notorious also for its range of free time activities, from its multitude of parks, to its clubs and galleries, all setting the stage for everything and anything.  Have you picked up any new hobbies since moving here?

I haven't really picked up new hobbies so to speak, but I've definitely been able to expand on all the old ones. I've been climbing for over 20 years and this city boasts a plethora of bouldering and climbing halls the likes of which I haven't really seen anywhere else in a big city. The club scene, I guess, would be my other great love in Berlin. This is probably the most inclusive and unpretentious of club scenes I've ever experienced. Dancing at Berghain you'll find a complete cross-section of Berlin in age, ethnic origins, sexuality, and physical ability (tip, if you want to get in, don't show up drunk, loud, macho, or nervous; wear what you want; and if you don't get in, don't fight about it). The music is world class, Berlin's DJs are definitely putting up their best on any evening you might chance to see them. Dancing in Berlin makes you feel like you've reconnected with your humanity. For thousands of years people have been pulling all-nighters, round campfires, drumming, singing, and generally having a good time; this is also possible in Berlin's clubs if you have the right attitude. Finally, I guess it's worth a mention that I absolutely delight in Berlin's parks on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of summer, you can't have a better time just lying around in the grass and listening to excellent buskers (if you hear pan flutes, run the other direction) giving it their all for money and just as often for fun.

Will you share your thoughts on the commemoration of the Fall of the Wall this past weekend.

The date is the 12th of November 2014, and I guess the one thing I and the revellers 25 years ago have in common is that we are both still recovering from the celebrations on a Tuesday. In all seriousness, the fall of the Wall was something I saw as a 7 year old shortly after Tiananmen Square in China. My parents had sat me down in front of the TV as events unfolded and the only thing I can really remember is a wall and a lot of happy drunk and high people dancing around on top of it with a giant gate in the background. My parents explained to me that these folks had been separated by their governments, and I couldn't for the life of me understand the sense of it. It's a surreal experience every time I see the Brandenburg Gate (the gate from my childhood) and think about what's changed from then to now. 25 years ago, I was 7, clueless, and had no Idea I would end up in this weird weird city Berlin relating anthropological, critical, and historical observations of Berlin, including the fall of the Wall, and showing folks some amazing things in the process. I celebrated at Bornholmer Straße, where the wall first crumbled, surrounding me, as I stood on the middle of the packed Böse bridge which once contained a checkpoint, I heard countless tales being related to friends and family about what people were doing on the 9th of November in 1989. I remember specifically a family, talking to their toddler age child, relating that they couldn't see any of their friends in the West for almost 30 years until that night 25 years ago. The child's response, "aber das macht keinen sinn" (German: 'but that doesn't make any sense'), made me think of myself when I was 7, and made me hope that we can get more people to think that way about all divisions and exclusions, I try to show people that child's profoundly and wonderfully naive perspective on all my tours, I think it's an important one.

Thank you Jared, Berlin itself is lucky that you found your way to this city.

Friday 7 November 2014

25 Years Later - The Fall of the Berlin Wall

We take an intermission from our guide interviews this week for the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.  So many extraordinary resources and stories have been surfacing I thought I would seize the opportunity to compile a selection.
I begin with a short interview from the man who shouted "Open the barrier!” and changed Berlin's reality literally overnight.  "It's not me who opened the Wall. It's the East German citizens who gathered that evening.  The only thing I can be credited with is that it happened without any blood being spilled...  I had never seen such euphoria, and I've never seen it since," Jäger said, smiling.  

Slow travel's look at 25 relevant Berlin locations is really fascinating.   Their first stop, the Bornholmer Strasse Border Crossing where Jäger was stationed on the 9th of November, 1989.

I follow with the Berlin.de chronology of the Fall of the Wall and a view of  the Alexanderplatz demonstrations.

Foto: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1989-1104-437, Berlin, Demonstration am 4. November - CC-BY-SA-3.0-de

Construction of the“Berlin Wall Trail” (Berliner Mauerweg) was completed in 2006, turning the location of a wall of separation into a pathway for both recreational use and historical documentation.

To get an idea of just how drastically the cityscape has changed since 1989, buzzfeed put together a few images from the book “Berlin Wonderland - Wild Years Revisited”.

I end with another interview, this time with Heiko age 52, who was a East Berlin resident in 1989.  She notes many small surprises she found herself faced with upon passing through the Bornholmer Strasse Border, and the relevance of those events today.