The Berlin Integration Test!
So next month I’m doing this so-called “Orientierungskurs” as part of my language course. For those not plugged into the matrix that is the Volkshochschule (like any other institution, the Volkshochschule heavily favours green for all decorative purposes), an Orientierungskurs provides students with a grounding in German history and politics. The participants do not only become “oriented” but also integrated into German society. And apparently Danes are heavily encouraged to integrate (well our potatoes are different, and we have been known to open beer bottles with things that aren’t lighters. Like newspapers, or other bottles of beer). Actually I don’t know if the German government is particularly concerned about the accretion of Danish ghettos, as long as it doesn’t involve longships of course. I do, however, get half of my course fee reimbursed at the completion of the Orientierungskurs, so I assume that’s the gist of it.
Apparently there is now a greater sense of urgency to the Nationalist debate after a certain Thilo Sarrazin not only added fuel to the fire but, as far as I’m concerned, took a huge dump on it. Many people outside Germany are (blissfully) unaware of this gentleman, busy as they’re with their own homegrown racists, (and they don’t trust foreign ones anyway). Sarrazin is the author behind a book called “Why Germany is going to the dogs and it’s all the BROWN foreigners’ fault because they’re genetically more stupid and they’re dumbing down our once great nation”. Or something along these lines. It has been hard to avoid this self-proclaimed martyr to freedom of speech, given that he has been peddling his putrid pseudo-Darwinian “theories” with a healthy dose of rancid xenophobia on every single platform that would have him. And most of them would because, as far I’m concerned, there seems to some confusion between the right to be heard and the right to be listened to. Mr Sarrazin has the right to regurgitate his racist bile. I have the right to ignore him on the grounds that his arguments are more bereft of logic than a Tea Party convention. His arid field of prejudices is thirsty for logic! ( And yes, I know that I’m giving the guy press by refusing to give him press, but I’m just another tiny little star in the great constellation of internet whiners).
Yet I’m not a target of Sarrazin’s dubious proclamations on non-lederhosen wearing people (and word is that there are quite a few of those amongst “natives” too), despite doing an Orienterungskurs, because I’m white and middle class. HAH! In yer FACE, pseudo Darwinian arguments barely disguised as raging xenophobia! I would still like to integrate into my host country, even if my recent levels of beer consumption might be contributing to this alleged national dumbing down. I have therefore devised my own integration test! It’s still a work in progress but without further ado, here are some potential questions for my “Berlin test”:
You know you’re seamlessly blending into the capital without dramatically affecting general levels of stupidity when:
1) You view people who open beer bottles with an actual beer bottle opener with suspicion. That’s what cheap plastic lighters are for!
2) You have to ask other people for “Feuer” because you ruined your last cheap plastic lighter trying to open a beer bottle
3) You hand roll all your cigarettes and view filter cigarettes as an evil capitalist plot to deprive you of all the money you could spend on a significantly higher number of hand rolled cigarettes to which you’re by no means addicted, because everybody knows that only filter cigarettes are addictive because they’re capitalist.
4) You view hand-rolled cigarettes as an essential part of a healthy (but laid-back!) lifestyle.
5) You enthusiastically rave about Berlin’s “Multi-Kulti” which to you translates as “eating as many falafels/kebabs as possible when out in Kreuzberg”.
6) You always claim to have recently discovered Berlin’s best falafel/kebab that’s “like €2 because you would never pay €3 for one - that’s what inebriated backpackers do” - said backpackers clearly, unlike you, not self-appointed falafel guru and kebab connoisseurs.
7) You prematurely bemoan the sad demise of this cherished street grub establishment, knowing in your heart that it will soon become overflown with the great unwashed masses as word of mouth spreads that the best multicultural deep frier is to be found here, a rumour to which you by no means contributed. You know you’ll eventually have to pay €3 for those crispy chickpeas as the establishment’s popularity dramatically increases (something about supply and demand and the owners not necessarily wanting to be multicultural snack providers for life!!!!)
8) You think that 5am is a perfectly reasonable hour to go clubbing. You thus avoid rush hour at Berghain.
9) You can’t understand what those pedestrians are doing on the pavement - they’re getting in the way of your bike. Can’t they walk on the road or something?
10) You are so over Mauerpark fleamarket, which is not only a tourist trap but occasionally also seems suspiciously profitable. You still go the park though, because you want to catch the Sunday Karaoke, as you can’t beat its feel good factor, and also because you secretly want to sing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (Ok, the last one might be just me, and it’s actually Blondie’s “Call Me”)
In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer quite the other way
I have to go to bed by day.
~Robert Louis Stevenson
Summer is finally here and Berliners celebrate this highly anticipated arrival by going to the lakes, where they commune with nature as only an urbanite can. Surrounded by other fellow seekers of the bucolic, beer in hand, they will once more reach the conclusion that food does tastes better outdoors, together with other platitudes on mother nature that would even make a Na’vi blush. Our ancestors spent most of their time outdoors, farming, hunting, gathering berries, and hitting bears and other people with big sticks when they ran out of berries. In the Old Testament one of the Hebrew words used for “wilderness” is “a haunt of wild beasts and nomads”. The remaining ones are not particularly flattering either.
But anyway, back to the lakes. Spring might be marked with the year’s first ice cream - a key date in any Berliner’s calendar - but Summer is all about the lakes, coincidentally the first time that it is appropriately warm enough to eat a Solero. The lakes not only provide much needed cooling vistas, but are also surrounded by forests. And Berliners, like all Germans, LOVE forests. In fact, a stroll through the forest must be in the top five favourite German pastimes, up there with beer festivals, grilling things nine months of the year, and compound words that are more a parade of syllables than proper nouns.
Surrounded by these benevolent trees, Berliners will sit in the meadow, inhale the pure air, and smoke many a hand rolled cigarette. When they are not asking other equally placid groups for Feuer, of course. Given their fondness for nicotine, Berlin’s chronic shortage of lighters is an endless source of perplexity, especially since the humble lighter seems to have more uses than a Swiss army knife. It is, for instance, a well known fact that the bottle opener has yet to be invented round here, and how else are you supposed to light the barbecue? In other countries, carrying an unlimited supply of lighters, particularly near forests, might invite suspicion. In Berlin you will be seen as a local hero.
Personally, I no longer smoke. See you down the lakes!
If you ever decide to up sticks and seek your own Canaan, take a page from Exodus and avoid doing it in the winter. Otherwise you’ll spend the next four months in thermal underwear and wearing more layers than an exceedingly bulbous onion, whilst being regaled with stories about Berlin’s splendid summers. Everyone you meet gushes about the warm season and gets all misty-eyed about the picnics in a way that only someone who has to defrost their fireplace can. It doesn’t help, of course, that our move coincided with the coldest winter in twenty years, as everybody so kindly reminded us. Our balcony, which we got at the urging of our relocation agent in anticipation of those now almost mythical balmy evenings, remained unseen for the next three months, covered in two feet of snow.
We arrived in the German Hauptstadt the 31st of October, and by the end of February my world had been bleached and I had become a rather embittered Miss Smilla whose feeling for snow had turned into exasperation. Summer had now attained legendary proportions and I awaited its arrival like a Kreuzberg information architect looks forward to an Apple product launch. Could it live up to the hype? Perhaps all this expectation had turned summer into the new iPad. At this point it had to contain rainbows and unicorns, I hope Apple are taking notes here.
The promised season eventually arrived, it always does, unless you live in England of course. In fact, I’m typing this in a flat with every window thrown wide open, including the doors to my now snowless balcony. Nobody tells you that roof flats do a very good impersonation of an oven whenever the sun decides to grace us with its presence. And looking like a limp lettuce is rather hampering my attempts to morph into a cosmopolitan siren. There’s only one possible solution: turn to drink (chocolate melts in this heat) and Berlin offers many a leafy Biergarten where you can indulge in a bit of fermented grain.
Now that the sun has finally arrived, you won’t see a Berliner indoors for the next four months. Like other northern tribes acquainted with thermal underwear, the fair burghers of this city welcome Helios like only somebody well acquainted with thermal underwear can. Berlin turns overnight into one huge barbecue and people flock eagerly to parks to worship the Daystar and show their appreciation by guzzling down Olympian amounts of beer. (Although they also do this during winter now that I think of it.)
Because they are forced to hibernate, Septentrional people will insist in performing any imaginable activity out in the green during summertime, regardless of meteorological conditions, and Berliners are no exception. In southern latitudes only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. In Berlin, it seems, only misanthropic albinos and rabies sufferers hide from it. Insist on eating inside and people, including the waiter, might think you are the carrier of some deadly contagious disease.
Sunshine does not necessarily translate into warm temperatures either, as any skier can testify, although this doesn’t seem to deter Northern Europeans from their alfresco frolicking. They plough on regardless and are not bothered by such petty little details. The equation is simple, sunshine = ice cream. Each Magnum eaten is a blow struck against winter, each sausage grilled is a victory against Jack Frost. Remember this when you’re back in your thermal underwear and let’s raise (another) glass for summer.
Sundays in Berlin
And on the seventh day Berliners woke up hungover; and they partook of Frühstück, for much Aqua vitae had been consumed and their bodies were much fatigued by the songs of DJ David. And lo behold, the gates of Mauerpark flea market were flung back; and the people rejoiced, for the market was filled with many cheap things. And they saw that it was good.
Berliners are not known for their religious fervour and are, like most capital people, fairly tolerant of other people’s beliefs. It was, after all, Friedrich the Great who said “everyone should be saved according to their own fashion”. He incidentally also famously exclaimed “A German singer! I should as soon expect to get pleasure from the neighing of my horse!”, yet Germans apparently still think he’s great. They are a very forgiving people, those Teutons. Maybe this is why they prefer progressive house. Devout they are not though, and yet they keep their Frühstück appointment with pious punctuality. This is partly because Sunday is a day of rest, as most shops are closed, and partly, I suspect, because a ton of toasty Brotchen drenched in enough butter helps soothe the previous night’s excesses.
“Frühstück”, literally “early piece”, is what Germans call breakfast, although at weekends - and reflecting the capital’s nocturnal inclinations - it can be anything from brunch to an early dinner. On Fridays and Saturdays, Berliners’ habits come to resemble those of a vampire, not coming out until Cinderella and other pumpkins are safely tucked in, and consequently most establishments serve breakfast until late afternoon. And for those committed clubers that no longer inhabit our time zone, the Schwarzes Café, a former anarchist haunt, serves breakfast 24 hours a day.
A “Frühstück” is traditionally a spread consisting of cold cuts, cheese, jam and other additions worthy of a Wind in the Willows picnic extravaganza. Often they carry national themes, so that a French one will contain croissant and some Camembert and an Italian will feature mozzarella and tomato salad, and perhaps some proscuitto or mortadella. Entweder Oder, a favourite establishment, reflects more faithfully Italian customs by offering instead an espresso, a glass of water and a cigarette. This variation is also known as the “Existentialist Breakfast” in other cafés.
You will have plenty of opportunities to dabble in ontological arguments and indulge in some dominical ennui, as the average Frühstück lasts around 3 hours. Add two hours if it is somewhere popular ( i.e. anywhere in Berlin). And another two if it’s outside, just to remind you that yes, it is the temperate climate, not the tropical. After you have finally managed to harpoon the waiter in the sea of fellow brunchers - setting yourself on fire does not always work - you can then proceed to the second stage of the Berlin ritual - the flea market.
The Flohmarket or flea market’s place in the Berliner psyche deserves a blog on its own. That the burghers of this fair city like flea markets is a bit of an understatement, like claiming that Gollum was quite fond of jewellery or that Tiger Woods has a soft spot for cocktail waitresses. Berliners, perennial part-time hippies that they are, never really bought into Capitalism, but are more than happy to grasp the invisible hand as long as it has been through a couple of hands already. Boy do Berliners like second-hand. And on Sundays, when all first hand shops are closed, they will flock to the seemingly unending array of Flohmärkte that sprout round the city. They spring up everywhere there is flat bit of concrete for stalls. In my previous flat I came back one day to discover that the tenement’s square had been taken over by one of these enterprises. Next it will be my balcony. I will open it one day only to discover that it’s now covered in GDR relics and kitsch copies of David Hasselhoff singles. Germans have yet to discover that the Hoff is immune to irony.
It would not surprise me, as I happen to live next door to one of the biggest and busiest flea markets in Berlin. Flohmarkt am Mauerpark offers everything from pirated CDs to the omnipresent Hoff, from raffish paraphernalia to boxes of nails. Boxes of rusty nails. Although no hammers, presumably so as to not give potential buyers any ideas. There is even a permanent stand that houses trifles of all sorts, a mausoleum for discarded trinkets and also, it seems, a final resting place for discarded mementoes. Cheap photo albums are on offer if you don’t feel uncomfortable at being confronted with the images of its previous owners. In my case it is enough to make me want to order the Existential breakfast.
May Day in Berlin: Krawall* and Neo-nazis
Last Saturday I finally managed to meet up with a friend who I hadn’t seen in ages. Granted, this is not a particularly noteworthy event, but she happens to live up the road from Kotbusser Tor, and this was May Day, so according to most predictions, we should have been on fire, in the shade, the Sun blotted out by riot police. But more on that later. Over a much needed caffeine injection, my friend related how an acquaintance had crossed a deserted road without waiting for Mr Green Man, only to be admonished by a youth in an anarchist hoodie. Only in Germany would you have the heir of Bakunin acting as a lollipop lady. But don’t tell Berliners this, they work hard at being free-spirited non-comformist yet committed urbanites - one could say with Teutonic zeal - and do not like being reminded that they share an international dialling code with Munich. Do this at your peril, but be prepared for countless mildly worded and polite rebuffs.
I find these idiosyncrasies sometimes endearing, other times puzzling, and always fascinating. As an Auslander you can’t help but become an amateur anthropologist, and after a decade of observing the English - and Heaven knows that they have idiosyncrasies - it’s refreshing to watch another tribe at play. Which brings me to May Day in Berlin, a peculiar occurrence that combines the characteristic German tendency for Ordnung with Berlin’s penchant for pandemonium. Combine the two and you get ritualised anarchy, an annual set piece full of sound and fury signifying Gott knows what and with enough riot police to defeat Macduff and all the trees in Scotland. And it takes place in Kreuzberg, near Kotbusser Tor at 6pm every May Day.
This year we were promised a massive demonstration by students, trade unionists, squatters and the Antifa (Antifascist movement) with the aim of “shutting down Capitalism”. Yet a large percent of the demonstrators will never have heard of Rosa Luxembourg or anarcho-syndicalism, and are often blasé bourgeois offspring in search of an adrenaline rush and the chance to set things on fire. On the other hand, with 500 policemen hurt last year, 7000 officers had been mobilised to the city from the surrounding area. And with regional elections looming, the Government was not in a mood to endure another tantrum from its unruly capital. It was going to be one hellluva show.
It wasn’t always like this of course. Berlin has a long history of street violence and political enthusiasm gone wrong on both sides of the political spectrum. Absolutism, Anarchy, Communism, Fascism…you name it and chances are that it will pop up in the city’s tumultuous trajectory. Berlin, it seems, likes to think BIG. The Kreuzberg riots were also once upon a time, whether for better or worse, a genuine act of defiance and frustration, as well as genuinely spontaneous.
Nowadays, the Kreuzberg Krawall feels like hollow street theatre, a Cops and Anarchists version of West Side Story. It has become a tourist attraction, the sight of a burning container often bleached out by camera flashes, and hooded bottle-hurling youths now compete with Cold War border guards in Berlin’s Cliché Olympics. Oh, and Anti-capitalist t-shirts on sale. I know this because I was, of course, also in Kreuzberg, although mostly to check out the Kreuzberg street festival, which takes place during the day, before all the faux-punks and other aspirational nihilists have bothered to get out of bed.
Getting to Kreuzberg, or rather, leaving Prenzlauer Berg, proved to be a bit of challenge that morning. This is because a bunch of Neo-nazis, and by the look of it, perennial morons, had decided to march down Schönhauser Allee. Why they would march on May Day, traditionally property of the left, is anybody’s guess. Yet May Day is the day for marching, and even fascists, it seems, like to keep it traditional. Whether you’re campaigning for the extermination of Capitalism or Jews, May Day is the day. That it also happened to be the anniversary of Hitler’s death was probably lost on many of these new followers. But then I suspect that many of the so-called Kreuzberg anarchists think that Bakunin is a limited Smirnoff edition.
Most Berliners though were positively frothing at mouth at the thought of swastikas in their neighbourhood and had organised all sorts of counter-manifestations. Meanwhile, the police had the enviable task of protecting the fascists’ constitutional right to march, arresting them for being Nazis, an illegal affiliation in Germany, and allowing the thousand of counter-demonstrators to block the Neo-nazis. In the end, the Führer’s sympathisers barely managed to parade for 500m before they were stopped in their tracks, their shouting drowned by furious locals blasting Bob Marley from their balconies.
We eventually made it down to Kreuzberg before the annual container incineration. Walking round the festival, I was much amused to discover that the street had spontaneously separated into two lanes - one for pedestrians heading north and another for those heading south. It must be an instinct, just like British people have the ability to queue encoded in their DNA. Around 5pm a fleet of police vans arrived at Kotbusser Tor. Then came the riot police, dressed to the nines in their finest Robocop gear. Chants of “Der Bulle, der Bulle, der Bulle**” start filling the streets. The show was about to begin. That’s when I decided to leave. As a general rule, I don’t like being on fire.
* Der Krawall: riot
* Der Bulle: literally a bull, although used here as a slang term meaning “cop”
New Year’s Eve or Silvester in Berlin: Fireworks, Pyromaniacs and Snow
Yesterday, while standing at the top of Mauerpark hill, it occurred to me, that so far, I have started every new decade in a different country. I stumbled into the world during the 80s, in the throes of democratic transition, in a Spain that had not had a popularly elected government since 1939 and whose current constitution came into force the 29th of December 1978. The 90s started in Copenhagen. A couple of months earlier my parents had driven down to Spain, their progress slowed by a pack of putt-putting Trabants on their maiden journey to the West. The millennium saw me in London, trying to make my way back from South Bank amongst a sea of drunken revelers, unaware that this would be my home for the next decade. This nascent decade found me, as mentioned, on top of Mauerpark hill surrounded by inebriated lunatics armed to the teeth with rockets and catherine wheels, in a scene reminiscent of a pyrotechnic Sarajevo, and almost guaranteeing that I would celebrate next decennium in a centre for the permanently shell shocked. Nothing had prepared me for this explosion of colour and gundpowder.
Street on Fire, the lesser known Kings of Leon number.
Mauerpark is a 5 min walk from my house and seemed to be a good venue for catching some fireworks, rather than being squashed to death at Brandenburg Tor. I was not however expecting an army of pyromaniacs who at the stroke twelve seemed to follow the Spartan command ‘On my signal unleash hell’. Spartans, of course, have more consideration of personal safety. While these Hellenic kamikazes might laugh in the face of death, Berliners hand her a rocket lightened with a cigarette while holding a sparkler and champagne bottle in the other hand. In 5 inches of snow. Then they light another cigarette, take a swig at the champagne and wait for the half kilo of gunpowder to launch. From their hand.
The police pushing their van out of the snow.
Mauerpark or pyromaniac’s paradise in the background.
To somebody who has lived in England for 10 years, where holding a sparkler requires wearing three pairs of safety goggles, this is rather refreshing and simultaneously bloody terrifying. It was obviously too much for my boyfriend, who is actually English, and who went into a catatonic state at first, tweeting to his entire London circle in a horrified stream of consciousness: ‘Aaah, Pyromaniacs!’, ‘Maniacs!’, ‘Fire!’ After half an hour and realizing that we weren’t dead yet, we started thinking ‘Yay, Pyromaniacs!’, ‘Maniacs!’, ‘Fire!’ We then happily wandered down the streets of Berlin, which a that point looked like the scene of a riot. Everywhere we turned there was smoke and hooded people hurling objects on fire. I was almost expecting Rosa Luxemburg running down Bernauer Strasse inciting the masses to revolution before being carried away by the Freikorps. Instead we went to get some much needed alcohol. The revolution can wait.