All 15 entries tagged Germany

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March 18, 2012

New German president & old German history

In the very first blog of my two years around Europe I had commented on the German presidential election of the 4th July 2010 - I had expressed my disappointment with the elected Wulff, but I did not foresee how bad he would be (only good thing, one reasonable speech for the 20 years of German reunification, when he dared saying that today also Islam belongs to Germany). And even more my disappointment for die Linke's refusal to support the opponent Gauck.

ReichstagToday, with a 20 month delay, Germany celebrates the election of Gauck, and the 72-year old looks like fresh air in the rather stiff German politics of today. Some complain that he did not actually fight so much for democracy before 1989 - however, as the Catholic Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny (which was the only free medium under communism, and still is one of the best critical voices in Central Eastern Europe) reminded a couple of weeks ago, he was one of the very few in the DDR to try to engage with Solidarnosc in the 1980s. I know that many of my friends in Berlin (especially East) will not feel represented by him - but I expect that he will be magnanimous, as many of the best anticommunist activists have been once in power. Die Linke, again, did not vote for him, but they did not hesistate long before standing up and congratulating him.

But indeed this election confirms how important history remains in Germany. A Stasi hunter is elected with 991 votes, and look at who the other two candidates were: a Nazi hunter (the Sionist Beate Klarsfeld supported by die Linke, with 126 votes) and, quite horribly, Olaf Rose, candidate of the neo-nazi NPD party which is proving so difficult to outlaw, with 3 votes thanks to their representation in some regional parliaments. Expect more history politics in Germany and Eastern Europe soon.


December 13, 2011

4 countries, 4 views of the Eurocrisis

The taz title on Saturday was brilliant, as usual: Merkel rettet Euro-krize taz_2011_12_10s1.pdf(Merkel saves Eurocrisis). Like a soap opera, it never ends, and it should not. To be precise, what started in 2008 does not deserve the definition of “crisis” in the κρίσις sense of moment of decision, because so far there has been so far little choice and little rupture: we actually have more of the same (more power for financial institutions, more inequality, more neglect of democracy, in short more privatisation of profits and socialisation of losses). It would be better defined as ‘shock’ perpetuation in Naomi Klein of Shock therapy, whereby every month or two we are faced to a new disaster, delivered with good timing by rating agencies, wits a There Is No Alternative message – the opposite of a crisis.

Yet at the EU-level we have now reached a sort of crisis, not so much on socio-economic issues (the agreement solves nothing and more austerity will only dig us into a deeper hole), but on UK-Europe relations. I had the luck to observe the last three weeks, building up to the agreement of last Friday, from the four largest EU countries, while travelling between Paris, Coventry, Milan and Hamburg. Despite information being increasingly transnational, reports are quite different country by country. In the UK (except for FT and Guardian) the summit was a British victory (!!!), in France and Italy, a German victory, and in Germany, a German half-defeat, because already in January Italians and Spaniards will come asking for more cash and Germany has gained no new excuses to say no. These differences of perception make a Euro-polity still difficult to imagine, but at least shows that national political spheres still matter, and at least at that level some debate could take place.

In European politics it happens what I always tell my English students when I try to raise in them at least some interest in international issues and foreign languages: Europeans know much more about Britain than Britain about Europe, which is a competitive disadvantage for the Brits, for instance in the hierarchy of multinational companies. This fact has perhaps a more flattering side for the British: Europe is fascinated by the extravagant British, while Britain's interest in Europe is limited to sunshine and little else. In any case, reports of British politics in European newspapers are much deeper and better-informed than British newspapers’ reports of European affairs, except perhaps for The Economist and FT, which are more global than British. Le monde, die Welt, die FAZ have published detailed analyses of Cameron’s stance, although opinions differ: for Le monde and die Welt Cameron is authentically anti-European and will eventually bring the UK out of the EU (you can see the happy smile of the journalist through the lines at this point), for der Spiegel he is just an opportunistic tactician, who embraced anti-Europeanism only to get elected as Tory leader in 2005 and now simply avoids at any cost any treaty renegotiation, which would break up his government and his own party. By contrast, British medias’ analyses don’t go beyond stereotypical portraits of Merkel and Sarkozy, failing to spot that within a year or two both Germany and France will be much less Anglophile than today. At the SPD congress last week-end many spoke up to wish a British exit, to finish off with free riders and with obstruction. Le monde has regularly wished the same for very long (I suspect, since 1973). Italians have to keep a low, penitent profile nowadays, but Repubblica still hopes that Clegg will one day grow up, leave the coalition and send Cameron, rather than the whole country, out of the UK. By the way, even in the new member states, its natural allies, Cameron finds few sympathetic voices except in Hungary and the Czech Republic, due to his decision to combine with nutty populist righting parties from Central eastern Europe in the European Parliament.

The funniest reports are certainly the British rightwing press triumphal reports of a ‘victory’ and a ‘veto’: according to them, 26 countries have remained isolated. Indeed the agreement of last Friday does not change much. Read for instance the interesting interview with Sarkozy in Le monde, where a new 85%-majority voting system on the European Solidarity Mechanism is mentioned, which would give the UK, France, Italy (and if they were there, the UK!) a veto power. In the short term, the new EU-26 financial regulations cannot go against the single market and punish the UK for its non co-operation, especially on a possible Tobin Tax. But over-time, excluding the UK from all new ‘enabling’ financial regulations may isolate and damage the City of London, that 28th, non democratic EU country (see the analysis by George Monbiot in the Guardian). Maybe the next UK elections would be a moment of crisis for British voters: the time to choose between staying with the EU-26 or with that 28th country (by then 29th: welcome Croatia).


November 27, 2011

Westwind: on two Germanies, twentytwo years later

Movie image
Title:
Westwind
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

I saw this beautiful German film in Paris, at the opening of the German film festival, which requires two preliminary notes.

Paris, while having a very strong (not necessarily positive) self-identity, has more open eyes on the rest of the world than any other city. Berlin is more European, but with very little attention to other continents. London may be more cosmopolitan, but you struggle to find any movie, books or music that is not Angloamerican.

In Paris, they are everywhere. Nowhere else you can have a theatre like the Théatre d’Europe at the Odéon, with a rotating direction by different directors from different countries (the first was the unforgettable Milanese Giorgio Strehler). At the Odéon, a beautiful monument that was occupied for years after 1968, and which by the way is just out of my window, two years ago I saw an exhilarating German Swiss Hamlet directed by Mathias Langhoff, half in French and half in English, and this year I saw a reading of Toni Negri’s last play, Prometeo (a rant on alienation and multitude, as you would expect, but at least with some humour). Nowhere else you can have a theatre like the Bouffes du Nord, directed for decades by Peter Brook (he just left and I was lucky to see a few of his shows recently) in an amazing essential setting and offering the most universally cosmopolitan programs. Some of this may be due to the large expatriate population in Paris, like the Americans romanticised by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and to the millions of tourists, which explains the unbelievable success of a stand-up comedy like ‘How to become Parisian in an hour’ by Olivier Giraud at the Theatre de la Main D’Or (very funny, but very basic - or in other words, for Americans). But it goes a bit deeper than just expatriates and tourists. My experience of Paris may be biased towards the Quartier Latin, but I have the feeling that nowhere else people know about other places as much as here.

In particular, there is a deep mutual understanding with Germany, which has historical reasons and should be remembered when assessing the current Merkozy phenomenon. French and Germans do not often agree - but they understand each other. See the interest in the last issue of Esprit, ‘La France vue de Berlin’ (which is actually more a ‘Berlin vu de France’). Or the success, every year, of the festival of German cinema, at the Arlequin cinema. It is sad that very little more than the most commercial German films (e.g. Goodbye Lenin, Downfall, Baader Meinhof Complex) nowadays make it to foreign cinemas, and fortunately here in Paris they have a stronger following – not just by the many Germans in Paris.

Westwind, by Robert Thalheim, opened this year’s festival and it is an appropriate German celebration. It tells the story of two sisters from the DDR (specifically, from a small unknown town near Leipzig) on a summer camp on the Hungarian Balaton lake in 1988, meeting (something absolutely forbidden) boys from Western Germany (Hamburg, for maximum contrast), one falling in love, and facing the crucial dilemma of whether to escape to the West with them... 1988 was the last summer the two Germanies were clearly split: the following summer, the human flow to the West via Hungary will have started, and by the autumn the wall will have fallen. I spent in Eastern Europe (Poland, with a stop in divided Berlin) the 1989 summer, and this film catches very well the atmosphere of the end of an era, with good irony on DDR absurdities but also on western mentality. It does not work much as a romantic comedy: the west German boys look so stupid that one wonders what the girls could see in them – but maybe this actually strengthens the topic of the ‘wind from the west’, which was stronger than the attractiveness or not of individual westerners. The film is more successful as a classic ‘escape’ film – even though it seems to underestimate the consequences of escape for eastern Germans. German ‘Ostalgia’, besides some trite celebration and tourist exploitation, continues to be artistically productive.


March 08, 2011

“Under German beds”: the surprising adventures of a Polish cleaner in Offenbach

Review of: Justyna Polanska, “Unter deutschen Betten. Eine polnische Putzfrau packt aus”, Knaur 2011.

41ykqjxlkl._ss500_.jpgThe autobiography of a Polish cleaner in Germany, under the title “Under German beds: A Polish cleaning lady unpacks”, has been an instant success and is currently in third place in the list of German bestsellers.

The book by Justyna Polanska, 32 year-old who emigrated at the age of 19 from Poznań to Offenbach near Frankfurt, has all is needed for an immediately-likeable bestseller. First, an accessible contemporary style of short sections and short sentences (I read the 210pp over a couple of evenings, and I am usually slow with German literature), possibly the product of heavy editing (I couldn't detect any underlying Polonism). Second, stories that relate to the lives of millions people. Third, a mix of cheap psychology and practical information – the two most sold items of self-help literature (Polanska also offers cleaning advice on the internet: www.putzen-mit-justyna.de). And, decisively, a soft tabu topic.

The two main reasons why Germans are reading this book with such Drang are probably two. First the ‘dirty’ stories on the sexual harassment Polanska has had to endure in her 12 years of cleaning in Germany. These are all very depressing and in my view not the best part of the book, but undoubtedly they are a selling point, flagged up already in the title (“under German kitchen sinks” wouldn’t sell that much). Secondly, and intriguingly, the perspective of a cleaner is a formidable “mirror” on the real lives of Germans – private lives but also, metaphorically, public life. I can imagine Germans buying the book to discover “how we (and our neighbours) really look like”. As Polanska puts it: “this is the privilege of the cleaning lady: we look behind the curtains.”

These curtains are particularly thick in Germany, and this is why the topic is “tabu”. Not just because Polanska tells us that Germans (unsurprisingly) are not as clean and orderly as they claim. Domestic cleaning is particularly widespread, and increasing, in Germany, and it is also particularly informal. Western Germans have traditionally paid more attention to looking after their homes than many Central and Northern European neighbours: men, under industrial vocational training influence, are into DIY, and women were largely house-bound (the tax system discourages the dual-earner family, childcare provisions were minimal, schools end at midday). Only recently female full-time employment has boomed – hence the demand for domestic cleaners. Other countries have had it for longer (Southern Europe) or have already developed partial alternatives (public services in Scandinavia, ready meals and just not caring in the UK).

But also, other European countries have tried to ‘regularise’ domestic cleaning, usually through major social security incentives (Italy) or ‘vouchers’ for families so that they employ regular workers (Austria, Scandinavia). As a result, paradoxically, the domestic cleaning profession is much more ‘regular’ in a notoriously informal economy such as the Italian one, than in the supposedly ‘coordinated’ one of Germany. In her comparison between Germany and Italy, Finitelli (‘Migration Policy between Restrictive Purposes and Structural Demand: The Case of the Domestic Worker Sector in Germany and Italy.’ In Metz-Göckel, S., Morokvasic, M. and Münst, S. (eds) Migration and Mobility in an Enlarged Europe: A Gender Perspective, 2008) stresses the major role of ‘regularisations’ of domestic migrant workers in Italy, in contrast to the ‘undocumented’ German reality; officially, in Germany there are only 148 thousand domestic workers (90% of them German!), but surveys indicate that 4 million German families use domestic labour: assuming that it is just for one day a week, there must be 800,000 domestic cleaners, without even counting the large, not much more formal sector of business cleaning. So domestic cleaning is a private and public tabu, something which Germans pretend it doesn’t exist. In other countries it is a more public topic: in 1990 for a while the most debated issue in the Italian Left was not the fall of the Berlin Wall, but, following an article by Valentino Parlato, whether it's acceptable for communists to have domestic cleaners. By the way, research is discovering the issue: in Italy much has been written by Asher Colombo and by Bianca Beccalli (who already forty years ago had written a paper on cleaning and socialist division of labour...), in the UK interesting work is being carried out by Nick Clark at London Metropolitan University.

Indeed, Polanska herself works illegally. She deals with her guilt for not paying tax by doing some volunteer cleaning for poor old people, but it is not clear how she deals with insurance and pension - now she is happily married to a German Italian, so I presume that was the solution. But she points to the fact that the real beneficiaries of informal domestic labour are, of course, the employers. She cleans for both families and some businesses (medical practices, restaurants, brothels etc), and nobody would employ her if she issued a receipt. Among her employers there are lawyers, police officers, journalists, politicians: all require maximal secrecy (indeed, every now and then a politician is found using undocumented migrant labour – usually it is those who in public oppose immigration...).

For me, the attraction of the book is somewhere else, at the intersection between sociology of work and sociology of migration. Domestic cleaning is a complex ‘labour process’, and the strategies of employer control and employee survival are particularly varied. Exploitation through late- and underpaying is frequent, given the vulnerability of female undocumented workers. It is also a profession at the lowest end of social prestige, and Polanska has something to say about the German expression “meine Putzfrau” (“my cleaning lady” - it could be worse: in Italy “la mia Filippina” is commonly used, even when the worker is not even from the Philippines). And she tells about lack of humanity, for instance about never being offered a drink, even on hot days, when the employing family can ostentatiously sip their cold drinks while looking at her sweating.

In terms of migration, the book is ambiguous. Polanska decided to leave Poland at 19, suddenly, knowing only one word of German (the ominous “Fenster”, window), answering a newspaper ad for au pairs in Germany (the au pair job will turn out to be extreme exploitation: a year of starving with little or no pay), and rationalises it retrospectively by writing: “About my country I can simply say: there is no perspective. A young person can’t do anything in Poland. Many of my friends have qualifications and earn €350 monthly – when they are lucky”. Which is quite an absurd statement about a so-called “economic tiger” where average pay is nearly €1,000/month (gross), especially given that Poznan is better than average. But it is understandable: in Poland there are actually lots of chances, but very unevenly distributed. Otherwise Polanska’s mother and sister would not have followed her to Germany, a few years later, to take up the same profession.

The author also tells about German prejudice against Poles: “do you have Coca Cola?” is the lightest, abuse for alleged inclination to stealing and prostitution the heaviest. Even her apparently well-educated German neighbours, when they find any rubbish in the communal areas of the apartment bloc, deliver it to her door, because logically only foreigners could leave rubbish around. But on Polish-German stereotypes, rather than this book I’d recommend the recent comedy film “Hochzeitspolka” (by Lars Jessen, 2010), on a Polish-German wedding where a century of “misunderstandings” explode. Polanska comes from a quite typical Polish conservative family. Among other things, in Germany she discovers that “homosexuals are normal people – really normal people”. Her background explains some of her criticism of Germans: dressing up and make-up is for her normal, traditional Polish femininity, but Germans despise it as a sign of being ‘easy’ (on this topic see Women Migrants from East to West, by Passerini, Lyon, Capussotti and Laliotou, 2007). And her repeated anger for not being offered drinks is normal coming for a country where the first sentence you hear when you enter a house or an office is always “coffee or tea?”.

Despite the stories of sexual harassment and exploitation, this book might offer a rather ‘rosy’ picture of immigration and cleaning: Polanska earns her €10/hour, is married to a German Italian, conducts a rather normal life. It is difficult to predict if the book legitimates, or criticises the current state. In any case, it ‘humanises’ an unspoken category of people, and opens a tabu. It is a positive compensation to other recent German bestsellers which are openly xenophobic: Sarrazin’s Deutschland schafft sich ab and, most horribly, Kein Schwarz. Kein Rot. Kein Gold: Armut für alle im “Lustigen Migrantenstadl” by Udo Ulfkotte, while it is in line with literary fashion: the last German Book Prize shortlisting was dominated by authors with immigration background. And as cleaning still is a 99% feminised profession, it is a good book to comment on today, International Women's Day.


February 21, 2011

At home in Vienna, with a ear to Hamburg

Italy celebrates its 150th birthday this year (among typical disagreement: should we celebrate? if yes, should we also spend money on it? if not, should we protest instead? and in any case, what about South Tirol?), and Rome has been the Italian capital for 140 years. But as a Milanese, even if as far from the Northern League as possible, ‘my’ previous capital is just as familiar: Vienna. Weather, architecture, music, cuisine, intellectuals and, some would add, efficiency and order: don’t we have more to share with Vienna than with Rome? After all, the Wienerschnitzel and the costoletta alla Milanese are only distinguished by a (mostly forgotten nowadays) piece of bone in the latter. For whatever reason, in Vienna I feel very much at home.

When I first visited Vienna in 1987 (on a school trip from which the main, not particularly good memory is Grinzling’s white wine), the city was Western Europe’s back yard, a cul-de-sac. It did have the remains of a multi-national empire, but in a very decadent setting. In two decades, during which I crossed the place at regular intervals, it has become the centre of Central Europe and the share of foreign population has doubled. In half an hour you can enter, at your choice, the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary. Bratislava is round the corner; in a couple of hours you can get to Prague, Kraków, Budapest; just a little more effort and you arrive to Ljubljana, Zagreb, Munich or even Triest. Sister imperial capital Budapest may be bigger, more scenic and more imposingly metropolitan, but it is less connected and much less cosmopolitan. In Vienna, you hear on the street all possible Slavic languages, plus Turkish, although in the old town you mostly hear Italian tourists (I suspect more Milanese visit Vienna every year than Rome). It is not that the Viennese love their neighbours: in the opinion polls, the large majority is critical of the right to work for citizens of the new member states, which will come to force on the 1st of May, even if no invasion is expected (the Poles and Slovaks have already gone to the UK). But thanks to shared history and to the ‘downgrading’ of Austria as a nation, the Viennese take their neighbours much more seriously than the Germans do. Including the Italians: no silly jokes here. And including the Turks. If the problems of ‘integration’ are similar to the German ones, here, where the most ancient buildings still show the Turkish cannon balls from the two sieges, Turkey is more feared than despised. And fear involves respect: Oriental art is always in fashion in Vienna, and so are posh Turkish restaurants – in Berlin, there is no posh Turkish restaurant. Austria has been much less fussy than Germany at giving Turks (and other foreigners) citizenship.

And plenty to admire in Vienna, from the Sachertorte that I endlessly try to imitate in my modest kitchen, to the art exhibitions, to... public housing. From the Karl-Marx Hof and the other interwar Red Vienna buildings, similar to fortresses and strategically located for their military utility during insurrections, to the recent ones bearing utopian plaques such as “menschlich wohnen – glücklich leben” - I can’t imagine that for the English council estate I live in, Tile Hill. With such good-quality public housing subprime mortgages and housing-market induced crisis are unthinkable, not just impossible in Austria. Maybe the Irish, this week, if they find their own parties so hopeless, they should invite the Austrian (boring) Grand Coalition, or better, the new Viennese local Red-Green coalition, to rule them for a while - better than the IMF.

Vienna’s Red-Green coalition is in fact just an example of recent political experiments at the local city level all around Europe. Right now is the round of Hamburg, another city I am familiar with. Hamburg is actually used to political experiments. It had the Right-populist Ronald Schill ten years ago, then an aborted try at a ‘Black(CDU)-Green’ coalition, which collapsed after the middle classes resisted an attempt at making schools a little more ‘comprehensive’. On Sunday, the SPD, which at national level is in a state of disarray, won the absolute majority in the city-state elections, while Merkel’s CDU fell from 42% to 20%. Led by the pragmatic, moderate Olaf Scholz, Hamburg’s SPD benefits from a ‘Helmut Schmidt’ effect: the 93-year old former Mayor and Chancellor is as popular as ever in his city, especially after the recent funeral of his even-more popular wife. Its success will allow a local experiment but will not be imitated in the other German Länder, or anywhere else. Curiously, the proud Viennese, when extolling their own best-in-the-world cafés, they contrast them to Hamburg’s allegedly miserable ones.


December 22, 2010

Tschüß Berlin!

lamp post

Airports are open, so my three-month stay in Berlin ends today. Time for some summary reflections on this city, starting from the obvious: 3 months is not nearly enough to experience a city as large, varied and complex as Berlin.

Arm aber sexy

“Poor but sexy” is Berliners’ self-portrayal, starting from mayor Wowereit who, as a gay, can avoid the charge of sexism the use of the S word would involve in more PC countries. It’s an honest self-portrayal. Berlin is by far the cheapest capital of western Europe, and cheaper even than some eastern European capitals – after all, it still is a half-Eastern European city, and the other half wasn’t even a capital until quite recently. A near-20% unemployment rate does moderate prices. In all other European capitals the majority tends to be money-rich but time-poor, with an effect of hurry, selfishness, arrogance. Berlin is different: people have time rather than money, good taste rather than expensive cloths, bikes rather than SUV, spend the week-end in the parks and lakes rather than on foreign breaks.

It may change. The completely redeveloped Mitte may have some great new architecture, but is already undistinguishable from any downtown in Europe or USA. And in 2009 Berlin has overtaken Rome as third most-visited city in Europe (after Paris and London): demand is bound to increase prices and distort habits. But Berlin, while continuously changing, also develops forms of resistance. Gradual gentrification in once-popular neighbourhoods (first Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte, then Kreuzberg, now North Neukölln…) meets opposition, and so does tourism. The radical Left’s magazine Interim has launched, for 2011, an anti-tourism campaign with sabotage and disruption of hotels and tourist sights. Even if this materialises, if you visit Berlin in 2011 you have two solutions: first, do what is logic anyway, throw the Lonely Planet into the bin and stay off the beaten track, thereby avoiding the protests; alternatively, accept that the radical Left is itself a Berlin attraction, and join in, maybe asking passer-byes to take souvenir pictures of you throwing eggs at the sightseeing bus under the Brandenburger Tor.

Not only Currywurst

Germans share with Brits a dubious record: nations that spend the smallest share of their income on food. So none comes to Germany expecting gastronomic revelations. As an advantage over the Brits, Germans at least have their practical, efficient functionality: so food at least is real, not junk. I like the markets with, in Autumn, the central European wild mushrooms, root vegetables, apples & pears, smoked freshwater fish (eel!), cooked meat (Blutwurst!). And bakeries, despite the expansion of chains, are mostly still real bakeries making a large variety of excellent bread (alongside less inspired cakes): my street has seven bakers, more than the whole of Coventry. Imbiss kiosks, with their shared standing tables, offer more reasonable food in a more social setting than fast food chains or British fish & chips – even if I believe the Berlin’s pride “currywurst” should have remained what it originally was: a mistake, not a recipe.

Restaurants and bars tend to offer reasonable, reliable, comfortable fare for very reasonable prices – from the traditional potato soup, Eisbein (pork hock) and calve liver, to, increasingly, healthier things. Execution and service tend to be very skilled, thanks to the German vocational training system, and waiters strike the right mid-way between Italian overfriendliness and French stuffyness. In the huge surrounding parks you can also have idyllic near-wilderness experiences in outposts such as the Alte Fischerhütte or the Forsthaus Paulsborn. Italian restaurants are very popular, also thanks to the large Italian ex-Gastarbeiter population, but having tried a few I was just confirmed in my belief that yes, you can eat fantastic Italian food outside Italy, but only if you pay for it more than the price of a ticket to Italy. A newer and more interesting fashion is Austrian food, with cafes, patisseries, delicatessen shops and restaurants: try Sebastian Frank’s Horváth in Kreuzberg before it is deluged with Michelin stars. For more ambitious German food, in minimalistic settings, “N°45” on the new-posh Kollowitzplatz (with its organic Bio-market for VIPs, equivalent of London’s Borough Market or Paris’ organic Sunday market on Bd Raspail) cooks with local, Brandenburg ingredients, extremely sophisticated techniques, but none of the obsession with presentation and concept that overburdens the nouvelle cuisine of France or Britain. So Berlin’s food is, too, “arm aber sexy”.

White multiculturalism

Angela Merkel may repeat that multiculturalism – whatever she means by it - has failed, but in Berlin, in an important aspect of European culture, it is alive and well: you can find bars to watch, with the corresponding community, food and beer, just any European football league: Italian, Turkish, English, Spanish… And when the time comes for Germany-Turkey in the Olympiastadium, the 80,000 public is evenly split between Germans and Turks, Özil scores a fine goal for Germany, and after the game the injury and arrest count is three times lower than for the average second-league Hertha game.

On the other side, while eastern Europeans and southern Europeans (including many Turks) blend in a rather lively way, in comparison with other large western European cities Berlin is still remarkably white, especially in the eastern part, except for some residual ex-DDR Vietnamese (who cook well, by the way). I hear repeatedly that blacks don’t feel welcome, also in comparison to the rest of (western) Europe. Recent research (from Bielefeld’s sociologists, as well as from Münster’s) points that Germans are more hostile to non-Europeans, Muslims and Jews (!) than the neighbouring nations – although, at least, not in an “aggressive” way: fear of the unknown more than hatred of something real. Germany‘s enviable record of not having a significant rightwing-populist party may not last for long – so far, the populist Right had little space because the Linke covered social discontent, and the FDP covered the middle classes’ – but now the FDP tax populism has imploded (in the opinion polls the party is down to 3%, from 15% last year, good omen for the British Lib-Dems), while the Linke is deeply split.

Public transport

The best mean of transport in spacious, green and flat Berlin is the bicycle, but the round-the-clock public transport (also considering the large investment that was needed to link the eastern and western networks) is not bad. Or so I thought until, in November, I was informed that my monthly pass was extended for two more weeks, as a compensation for the poor level of service offered – which I hadn’t even noticed: used to Italian, Polish and British standards, I don’t have high expectations. Actually, does this extension-compensation principle apply to the rest of the EU? I should be entitled to a few years free transport in Milan and in the West Midlands…

In fact the disservice (again over the last few weeks due to snow) was limited to the S-Bahn, the bit which has been privatised (to Deutsche Bahn), while municipal buses, tramways and U-Bahn are perfect. Just another lesson on privatisation and efficiency…

Media

German newspapers are as thick and heavy as the British ones, but have much less advertising and much more to read. They are also more old-fashion: mostly broadsheet, with a focus on main news rather than investigative journalism or comment, and rather similar titles to each others and to the previous night TV news. I wonder if they can survive for long in this way in the internet era. For a three-month stay, I came to enjoy their rather old style, especially when reading them in the already old-style decadent setting of Berlin’s cafés, and their international coverage is impressive (for British newspapers, foreign news mostly means “US+Commonwealth+British tourists abroad”, and for Italian newspapers, it mostly means “what the world says of Italy”). Serious national papers are also more numerous than in any other EU country (stricter antitrust laws than in UK or Italy), which must be good for democracy.

While the main German papers are from West Germany, Berlin has its good share of serious papers: Tagesspiegel, Berliner Morgenpost, Berliner Zeitung. Good local news pages across Germany may partly explain a new wave of local-issues collective action across the country. I became affectionate to the Berliner Zeitung, originally from East Berlin, left-of-centre, similar look to the serious Zürcher Zeitung but lighter, proving that you can write short but non-nonsense articles, and devote much space to culture (it collaborates with the Frankfurter Rundschau). But the best Berlin’s paper is Tageszeitung, or taz, originally from the New Left and Kreuzberg’s occupied houses, now a bit too close to the Greens but still with excellent writing. And Berlin even has two other newspapers more to the Left: the former-SED Neues Deutschland and the former FDJ (DDR Youth) Junge Welt. Both a bit too propaganda-like to my taste, but with interesting information on union issues.

Culture

The problem is the excess of choice, source of dilemmas and regrets as you will miss 99.9% of the 3 thick pages of events published in the newspapers everyday. Cabaret in French, opera in Italian, talks in English, songs in Russian… Large choice of international, original language films, even if the Hollywood blockbusters are (deservedly) dubbed. The best concert hall and the best philharmonic orchestra in the world (with a new director from Birmingham, how little the world is).

And the museums. I have an ambivalent attitude to the museums. When I first visit places, they are never a priority (I confess to have seen no New York museum after three stays there): I have so many art books at home that the added value of seeing the original after the reproduction is marginal, in comparison to the irrepleceable and irreproduceable value of experiencing new quarters, views, foods; and most museums are just too big and crowded to provide a pleasant experience when visited in a hurry. But if I stay in a place for longer, and I can find the right time (Monday 9am, Tuesday 9pm…) to go, I love them and can’t understand how the locals can ignore their offerings, maybe because they have already seen them 20 years ago. Berlin is phenomenal in this regard. The Museumsinsel is being modernised and the ‘new’ Neues Museum and Bodemuseum are spectacular, with the right light for each individual work. The Zeughaus and the Judisches Museum are as instructive and absorbing as the best history books. On the Freie Universität campus, just out of the office for my lunch breaks, there are the Dahlem ethnographic and Asian museums, excellent compensations for an otherwise Eurocentric city. The Hamburger Bahnhof hosts amazing contemporary exhibitions in an exceptionally spacious setting. But my old favourite is still the Berggruen Sammlung – now, after his death, Berggruen Museum. A relatively small museum in a homely setting, with only masterpieces from Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Giacometti, individually chosen with a strong personal touch by Berggruen himself while he was helping Picasso & Co to sell (what a difficult job): I leave it as happy as after having seen old friends, not museum pieces.

Brandenburger Tor


December 16, 2010

Arabqueen: "Volkstheater" in Neukölln, Berlin's integration front

Neukölln, in South Berlin, has been elevated to the status of the most infamous neighbourhood of German politics by Thilo Sarrazin. The (ex)socialdemocratic Bundesbank board member, in his xenophobic, eugenetics bestseller “Deutschland schaffts sich ab”, devoted a long part to Neukölln as a dangerous ghetto demonstrating the impossibility of integrating Turks, and the necessity of hard “help less, ask more” policies towards immigrants. He largely quotes is party-comrade Buschkowsky, mayor of Neukölln who had warned about the failures of multiculturalism, in contrast to the equally socialdemocratic, but more politically correct and inclusive Berlin’s gay president Klaus Wowereit, keen on developing a ‘diversity-friendly’ image for the capital.

But if you go to Neukölln expecting some thrilling emotions, to see flying knives, masked terrorists or anything of the like, you will be bitterly disappointed. Coming from the city centre, when entering Neukölln you actually first go through the trendiest part of today’s Berlin (“Kreuzkölln”, or crossing between gentrified-Kreuzberg and Neukölln): here are the most fashionable clubs, and in a grid of pleasant, leafy streets there is a variety of cafés, ethnic delicatessen, art shops and bookshops – often combined in the same outlet. At Hermannplatz the more ethnic part of Neukölln starts, and the 20%-plus unemployment is reflected in the poorest standard of shops and bars. But still, coming from the West Midlands and being familiar with its 80%-Asian neighbourhoods (Sparkbrook), I wonder how they can call this heterogeneous mix of Arabs, Turks, blacks, eastern Europeans, South Europeans and, indeed, Germans, a “ghetto”. The schools of the area had gained a bad reputation of segregation, failure, drop out and violence – but over recent years they have shown mark improvements with a series of pragmatic integration policies such as longer school hours (despite his sometimes alarmist tones, on pragmatic grounds Buschkowsky is certainly capable and widely appreciated). Social housing is sometimes controversial (i.e. the high towers Gropiusstadt, setting of Christiane F.'s "Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo"), but better than certain British council estates or French HLM. Green areas are pleasant and there are popular playgrounds with spontaneous multi-ethnic social activity, but are now threatened by developers: who should be blamed then if integration fails? The nearby recently closed historic airport of Tempelhof, now a huge park, offers opportunites of regeneration - or speculation.

Neukölln main street is Karl-Marx Straße, and in the middle of it, behind a pleasant courtyard, is hidden a surviving, stylish XIX-Century Ballroom, now turned into café, cultural centre and theatre, Heimathafen. The café Rix is in old Berlinese style but mixes German with Middle-Eastern food. The theatre is austere, as it receives no public funding, but its program exciting. I went to "Arabqueen", directed by Nicole Oder, loosely based on the recent novel on forced marriage “Arabqueen oder der Geschmack der Freiheit” by the young feminist writer and journalist of Turkish origins Günner Yasemin Balci. German literature is currently being reinvigorated by a lively generation of writers with immigration background: four of the six authors, including the winner, of this year Deutscher Buchpreis have non-German origins. In Arabqueen, just three actresses (Tanya Erartsin, Inka Löwendorf, Sascha Ö.Soydan) play a dozen parts, sometimes changing role during the same scene: the two sisters Fatme and Mariam, their mother, their Paris-raised hippy friend Lena, a few other funny local characters and, with great effect, the Middle-Eastern macho-acting boys. Thanks to their outstanding acting skills, this multiple interpretation has the effect of highlighting the complex, contrasted variety of humanity in Neukölln – starting from the ambivalence of the headscarf. The only character who never appears on stage, despite being heavily felt, is the tyrannic, double-standard moral father, who interrupts Fatme’s flirting and imposes a forced marriage.

The play is very well received, by critics and by the audience, as a revival of "Volkstheater", people’s theatre’: close representation of local everyday working-class life, by local actresses, with no political tones but still a political message. But after so much funny and moving theatre, once the lights on, with everybody clapping, it was impossible not to notice that, in the middle of Neukölln, Turks made just about 10% of the audience (although a good thing with Turks is that you can’t always tell them apart…). Which is better than in many other cases of ‘ethnic arts’ (i.e. blues music in Chicago, where the only blacks are unavoidably the performers), but reminds that cultural segregation is a reality.


December 11, 2010

Soma: art between science, religion – and reindeer

The Hamburger Bahnhof, a derelict station in no man’s land at the times of the Wall, claims now to be the biggest contemporary art museum in Europe – at least in the narrow sense of art from 1960 (Museum für Gegenwart, i.e. Museum of the Present). Its size allows it to currently host the unique exhibition by Carsten Höller, “Soma”.Soma

Soma is the miraculous drink allowing enlightenment and access to the divine sphere in the Ringveda, the oldest Hindu scripture (and, from the 2nd millennium BC, arguably the oldest surviving religious scripture overall). As it happens after so much time, nobody remembers the nature of this Soma, but since the XIX century philologists, scientists and ethnologists have converged over the hypothesis that the decisive ingredient was the fly amanita mushroom. Wait: the fly amanita mushroom is poisonous, so how could they drink its extract? Simple, by filtering – and the most likely way the Central Asian tribes of 4,000 years ago could filter it is through the kidneys of their fellow reindeer, who, themselves, are keen fly amanita eaters. Reindeer urine (possibly with some taste corrector) should have been the basis of Soma and the key to knowledge and to the divine sphere.

This is hitherto just speculative hypothesis. Carsten Höller, who has a Habilitation (second PhD) in agriculture sciences and whose artistic work focuses on the relation between science and art, as well as on human interactions (e.g. the huge “Test Site” in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2006), proposes now an experiment. The Hamburger Bahnhof is split into two symmetric parts. In each there are six reindeer, who are fed large amount of (frozen) fly amanita. Their urine is collected and stored. In each half there are then three species of experiment animals: twelve canaries, four mice and two flies. Over weeks, it can be observed whether the animals on one side start behaving differently: if they drink Soma, will they achieve enlightenment? As science requires, the experiment is double-blind: the animals are not told whether they are fed Soma or just some placebo. Nor are the visitors, as they become, in their interactions, part of the experiment: we do not know which group (if at all!) is fed Soma, and which one is there just for control.

When it starts becoming a bit extravagant is with the double bed in the middle of the hall: here, for just €1,000/night, it is possible to spend the night and observe, undisturbed by other humans, whether maybe the animals achieve the enlightenment when the lights are off and the museum is closed (unfortunately, it is already fully booked until the end of the exhibition).

There’s no actual experimenting: nobody takes any note, and the number of animals is too small as a sample. An experiment is turned into artistic experience and scientific observation into aesthetic observation (the lucky Germans as usual have two words for “observing”: betrachten and beobachten).

In the process, on a conceptual level the visit raises a number of questions as to the impossible communication between science and religion, as to the role of art between the two, and as to the possibility of objective observation. Can humans make scientific experiments on the deepest aspects of humanity? Well, as a social scientist, I found there enough to short-circuit positivists and critical realists.

On the human visitors, the experiment seems to me successful: after overcoming the initial scepticism and incredulity, and once got used to the smell (Soma must have been an acquired taste), visitors spend hours observing the animals and trying to guess which ones are enlightened. Much is pondered about the fact that one of the two canary cages has started weighting more than the other: is it because enlightened birds become lighter? or heavier? A pseudo-scientific idea, in its artistic form, inspires metaphysical questioning.

A spectacular and exhilarating creation, as contemporary art can do. Only in Berlin, until the 6th February 2011. After then, the reindeer will go back to their native Sweden.


December 10, 2010

Ice football

Writing about web page /guglielmomeardi/entry/marathon_football_in/

Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view

I returned to the An der Alten Försterei stadion on Monday, intrigued by the fans contestation of the SkyTV-induced Monday schedules, and by the experience of football as a winter sport. The weather has been near-polar for a few days, and last Thursday, just across the border, on a white pitch and with -16C Lech Poznan eliminated Juventus from the Europa League (two cheers, one for Poznan, where I went on my first student exchange in 1989, and one for the detested Vecchia Signora).

Winter prevailed and most fans protested by staying home. Only 10,898 other people were as mad as me. The temperature touched -9 and I appreciated, again, the standing stalls: they allow fans to adopt the penguins surviving strategy (see "March of the Penguins"), forming a thick crowd to mutually protect from the freezing wind, with a slow circular movement whereby fans at the outer margins rotate slowly, as they periodically go to refill their glasses with Glühwein (another great thing of German stadions). The match was horrible, FC Union lost, but still the athmosphere in this stadion is better than at the Olympiastadion, where the huge size and empty spaces, the distance from the pitch (it's a stadion for atheltics, not football), and the rightwing Hertha supporters made it cold even without winter.


November 25, 2010

The European Parliament's film prize: great art, worrying politics

In Berlin, like in all EU capitals, three movies were shown to the public last week: the finalists of the European Parliament’s LUX film prize(you can see the trailers on the website). What does the European Parliament have to do with cinema? Not much, but cinema is very important in European culture, and it is a “good” that cannot be left to the market, as the trade liberalisation would like. No European country can compete, in terms of market size, with American producers: languages are natural barriers. This is why we would need, for a level playing ground, quotas on the number of American movies on TV, or at least, strong public support to European cinema. And the best way to do it is to create synergies among the different European countries, increasing mutual interest.

The European Parliament’s prize privileges, in particular, films about multicultural dialogue that are to some extent multilingual, to get the public more used to hearing different speaks in the cinema – just as it happens now in European streets, after all. It will also produce 27 versions of the three shortlisted films, with the subtitles for each EU language. Indeed multilinguism can be very powerful in cinema, even more than in novels. I loved the recent idea by Godard to present a multilingual movie (“Film socialisme”) with unintelligible subtitles at the last Cannes, for the anger of monolingual Anglophone reporters – a very good point, but in the meanwhile subtitles are already one step further than dubbing, monolinguism and English domination.

This year, the festival’s topic was particularly interesting for this blog: migration. The three finalists were the Belgian Illégal (by Masset-Depasse), the Greek “Akadimia Platonos” (by Tsitos) and the German “Die Fremde” (by Aladag). No space for three reviews here, but let’s just say that they are three masterpieces, making full justice on one clear superiority of European cinema above the American: the capacity to be about real life, instead of mere evasion from it. The three stories are very different and deserve to be summarised.

“Illégal” is about a Russian woman living illegally in Belgium with her 10-yo son. One day is she found without documents and interned. To avoid expulsion, she refuses to reveal her identity and origin, knowing that after six months they will have to release her, and she will be able to reunite with her son. But life in a detention centre alongside other similarly desperate souls proves much more inhuman than she expects – can she endure what amounts to psychological torture for so long? Those who appreciate, and can stomach, tough claustrophobic movies about prisons (for instance two recent worthy European additions to the genre: “Hunger” by Steve McQueen, on Northern Ireland, and “Un prophète” by Jacques Audiard, on France), this is for you. I personally found the choice of a well-educated educated Russian as victim slightly over-the-top: if her desperate refusal to return to Russia is not totally implausible (she wants the son to stay, and the son will need her), it feels like a trick to get the viewers’ sympathy, as if more “average” illegal immigrants were less deserving. But indeed it is another powerful denunciation of the inhumane treatment of “illegal” immigrants.akadimia_platonos.jpg

The second movie is, instead, extremely funny. It portrays the middle-aged Stevros, spending day after day sitting outside his kiosk with his three friends on a little Athene’s square, drinking coffee (the picture of the four make a perfect image of the state of the Greek economy and of Greek gender relations). With no much else to do, a privileged discussion topic is commenting on the Albanian and Chinese workers (who of them works more? why do they do it?), and rewarding their “Patriot” dog for barking at any Albanian passing by. But one day, Stevros’s old mother, who sits equally motionless nearby, stands up and hugs an Albanian worker, speaking to him in Albanian and calling him her son. It appears that she had left him behind in Albania, when fleeing with newborn Stevros… Poor Stevros tries to minimise the event and to confirm, first of all to himself, his Hellenicity ("ok, my mother speaks Albanian, but it's because she had a heart attack"), but his friends start doubting he is still one of them… The first hour makes unstoppable laughing. After then, the joke starts running out, and some sentimentalism creeps him, but overall the film is a very good way for Europe to laugh at itself (not just Greeks; Italians too saw the Albanians as the source of all evils in the 1990s, but now that Albanians have integrated so well into Italy, they shifted their target to the Romanians; to some extent, all other European countries have their favourite targets, be it Moroccans, Pakistanis, Turks or Russians: there could be 26 EU remakes of this movie).

The final movie, “Die Fremde” (The stranger), tells of a Turkish young woman from Berlin, escaping with her little son from her violent husband in Turkey, searching refuge with her family in Berlin, but being then rejected by them too for bring shame on the house. In terms of structure, it is the most coherent and accomplished of the three, and the Kreuzberg district is very well portrayed. It dramatically says what I have heard often in Berlin: "I am not German for the Germans, I am not Turkish for the Turks".

The European Parliament chose the winner this week. As MEPs do not know anything about cinema (and some do not know anything about anything, as the UKIP Godfrey Bloom who yesterday was ejected for shouting “ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer"), I expected their choice to be not on artistic merit, but on political calculation. Leftwingers should prefer the social denunciation of “Illégal”; liberals should like the ridiculing of the bigot masses in “Akadimia Platonos”; and the populist Right would fall for the topic of Muslim honour killing in “Die Fremde”. But the Christian- and social-democrats, i.e. the largest groups? Eventually, “Die Fremde” won, which is a sad political sign about the feelings in the European Parliament. For MEPs, honour killing is a more urgent problem than the human treatment of undocumented migrants and of xenophobia - and probably just because for honour killing they can blame somebody else. I wish "Die Fremde"  had won the artistic prize it deserves, instead of a political one.


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