Corset wearing Berlin

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Here’s a little column I wrote for DW recently. About Berlin, natürlich!

Berlin has a reputation as a city where anything goes, day or night. But does it really? Tamsin Walker is willing to risk the wrath of the Szene set, and beg to differ. Just a little.

It was a decade ago that the mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, famously declared his city to be poor yet nonetheless sexy. His words were immortalized on the very breath which gave them life, and have since served to attract a flow of sexily impoverished stragglers and strugglers looking for a cheap new home and preventing the slogan – and by extension perhaps themselves – from going out of fashion.

Wowereit’s statement was prompted by a question about the relationship between sexiness and money. He held Berlin up as an example of how the two things need not necessarily be mutually inclusive. But what exactly constitutes a sexy city?

I’m told it’s all about “cheap rents” and an “anything goes” way of life. The latter includes the freedom to sunbathe naked in public places, croon karaoke on the former East German death strip, tango on rooftops, trip out to techno everywhere, or watch impenetrable performance art in the cellars of un-gentrified buildings where the only thing stopping anyone smoking is moisture dripping atmospherically from low-hung ceilings. Read more…

Goethe and Shakespeare

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“We’re doing Romeo and Juliet,” my daughter told me yesterday.
“Oh yeah?” I said. “Is it part of your English class?”
She looked at me and shook her head. “No. German.”
Auf Deutsch? Seriously?
“You’re kidding? Why would you be doing it in German?”
“I don’t know. We just are.”

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That the Germans have a love of Shakespeare is a well known fact, but that he is integrated into the high school curriculum in translation suggests their love is as profound as any recounted by the bard himself. Even the one in question. It also suggests that besides Goethe, whose poems seem to occupy a 90 share of the syllabus, and have to be learned ad infinitum and recited ad nauseum, there are no German writers – dead or alive – worthy of presentation to the Facebook generation. Impossible. Or should that be Unmöglich!

The man with the death wish

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Picture this: It is early morning in a major European capital. It is snowing and the roads, the pavements are slippery. Treacherously so. You are standing at a major intersection trying to warm your hands by blowing into them – because again you forgot your gloves – when the lights change. Eager to be wrapped in the arms of the indoors, you cross as quickly as the ice underfoot will allow. As you walk, thinking of that warmth, yet feeling none of it, a man coming towards you catches your attention.

He does this by crossing himself and saying something you cannot discern beneath the roar of the passing traffic. You think it is an unusual thing to do in this part of this city, where religion is considered more slippery than the ground on which you currently stand. In the split second you are granted to learn as much as your own experience of life can tell you about this man, you acknowledge that his black tracksuit, purple hat, and briefcase are not a common combination.

When you have crossed half of the six lanes of cars and buses, you turn back to look at the man who crossed himself. What you see makes your heart beat fast enough to thaw your freezing blood. He is walking, this man, diagonally through the traffic to which he appears frighteningly oblivious. He is walking on very thin ice, and you want to tell him so. You want to save him from himself, because you now understand that his religious gesture of a moment ago was in prelude to this, his final act.

You want to close your eyes, because you cannot bear to witness what will be an ugly, messy death. But you don’t. You keep them open, as if that alone will prevent the inevitable. You watch him intently, and in that you are alone. Nobody else saw him cross himself and then walk headlong into the motorised fray. Nobody else is aware of what he is doing. You do not want to be party to his plot, but you suspect you are.

So you continue to watch. You might prey yourself if that were the kind of thing you do in such situations. Instead you cross your fingers. And it works. Haltingly, miraculously, the traffic grants him the extended stay of welcome you suspect he does not really want. He reaches the other side unscathed, and you allow yourself to consider the possibility that you were wrong in your surmise. Perhaps he does not have a death wish, this man. Perhaps he is just a fool. Now he really has your attention. He carries it into a cobbled side street, and you feel some relief because this path appears to be one of normality.

But he gives it a twist, this man. He does not make use of the broad pavement, which come the summer will play host to tables and chairs and people who may or may not care about this man’s follies as you now do. He sticks to the road. To its very centre, where his presence has no purpose but to be a hazard to drivers and to itself. You wince as a car screeches to a halt near him. You are too far away to hear the driver’s rebuke, but you are certain that her car is filling with the angry relief she feels at having saved herself from claiming an unwanted life.

You are beginning to feel that this man is too much of a responsibility for you alone. But you cannot leave him now. Can you? He marches on, and although he does not look round, he veers slightly to the left, giving you the sense that he is about to relinquish his place in the middle of the road. You are right. He is walking towards the pavement. He is on the pavement. He is safe. You relax the muscles you did not realise you were tensing. But you do not leave your spot. Not yet. After the journey you have had with this man, you want to accompany him safely into a shop or a café, to deliver him into someone else’s hands.

You do not have to wait for long. He opens the door to a small establishment that sells antiques and offers a photocopying service. You know the place, and have always considered it a clumsy combination. A mismatch of china and copiers, ink and must. But that is not on your mind today. Today you are glad of that shop, because he is in it, and you can go on your way.

You start to walk, the cold reclaiming you as you go. You move quickly, dimly aware that you want to put the shop out of sight before that man, who is no longer this man, emerges. In your mind you try to picture him buying the blue rimmed china you know they sell. But the image is more fragile than the antiques in involves. The one that fills your thoughts is of him, briefcase open by his side, making copies of all his important documents. Not least his will. Because you know what you saw. At least you think you did.

From the arctic to the vernal

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So the snow is back. And with it, a very grouchy public. Too easily were we seduced by the prettily coloured primroses and pansies suddenly on sale on every other street corner. Too willing were we to believe that global warming was drawing winter to an early close. What fools we are, because people – this is Berlin!

This is the city where the winters are long and longer by far than the longest of its speciality long nights (next one is museums this weekend). The city where spring often doesn’t turn up in earnest until days and even weeks after the vernal equinox that officially heralds the start of everyone’s favourite season. But it is also a city that can, when it so chooses, wear winter well. A little like spring with icing.

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Category: Berlin, In the park, Seasons | Tags: , ,

Kenny and Kevin

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It is probably blogger and social suicide to admit this, but Kenny (I had to look this up) Loggins has me in his grasp. It is early morning in early spring in Berlin and Footloose is belting out in my generally snoozy little café.

But I am not here. I am in Canberra, where the rough edge to said Kenny’s voice once pounded its way into my brain on the bottom of the tired looking footwear that accompanied the opening credits to the 1984 cheesily classic, not to mention classically cheesy, teenage film.

There, in Australia, it is hot and I am hanging around in the foyer of the cinema, waiting for the B-film to finish and the intermission to begin so I have the chance to sneak in without paying. Bad? Probably. In my defence, I was young, we didn’t have a video player, the world didn’t have youtube, and I didn’t have enough money to feed my recurrent need to watch Kevin Bacon get footloose in the eponymous film.

Thing is I don’t actually like the song. I didn’t like it even back then, but I adore the way it has whisked me however many thousands of miles away to a memory so vivid that I can smell it and taste it. I am unceasingly amazed at the time capsule power of music, and the way even the opening three bars of a track so effortlessly unlock the senses, the body and the mind.

Kenny is fading out now, and my surroundings are beginning to regain their form. I likely won’t go back to that Canberra movie theatre until I happen upon the song again, but that’s okay, because I like my here and now. Oh… but wait a minute… aren’t those the opening notes to Love Lift us up Where we Belong? And wasn’t that the sound track to An Officer and a Gentleman?

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