Berlin and beyond: Choosing my religion

When I was talking with friends about religious education a couple of weeks ago, one of them, a Catholic, suggested it would be hard for teachers to give any true insight into a faith they don’t live by. Perhaps that’s the thinking behind Berlin’s school system, which doesn’t have comprehensive classes to contrast and compare different beliefs, just voluntary lessons in a single religion. In a society where tolerance and mutual respect are clearly pivotal, such a narrow approach screams missed opportunity.

Because, let’s face it, how many people are likely to take the individual initiative and go off and acquaint themselves with half a dozen religions? My guess is not a lot. I know I haven’t. Which is not to say I have no interest in the fabric of faith. On the contrary, I find religion fascinating. From a distance, at least. Up close though, its dogmas and calls for devotion unsettle me. So I have stayed on the sidelines where I’ve allowed my own ideas to form and my patchwork spiritual vein to throb with its irregular pulse. Listen or read on…

Category: Writing

Berlin and beyond: Dance with the dead

The first time I became even close to aware of Totensonntag or Sunday of the Deadwas years ago when I went to a flea market to find the square that accommodates its weekly chaos and color, empty. I attributed the absence of vendors with their chipped one-offs to some aberration I was too foreign to understand.

It wasn’t until I’d lived in Germany for a couple more years that I realized the aberration was in fact an annual Protestant event initiated by the Prussian King Frederick William III – out of respect for the dead.

So much respect indeed, that it is one of Germany’s few stille or quiet days, when certain activities are not allowed. Most notably, shopping and dancing. Yep, that’s right, from the early hours of this Sunday morning until well into the evening, there will be a nationwide ban on public displays of hip gyration. To what extent it is enforced though, is up to the relevant local authorities. Read more or listen...

Category: Writing

Berlin and beyond: From Russia with love

Time was, the closest I’d ever been to Russia was through the words of Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky. But that was before I made Berlin my home. In the early days of my being here, back when the Wall, though five years gone, still visibly divided the city, I moved into a flat in the former East.

It was on a cobbled street across from a newsstand that sold Russian papers, and above a cafe whose modest menu gave pride of place to the meaty flavors of solyanka and borscht. I ate them enthusiastically and became accustomed, whenever questioned about where I came from, to hearing people tell me they spoke no English because they had Russian at school.

The cafe, cobbles and the newsstand have all been removed or replaced by the ever-shifting sands of time, but even now, those who grew up in the East sometimes reference their language classes as a means of giving context to their heritage. Which is not to say they unanimously embraced them. Far from it. Read on or listen

Category: Writing

Berlin and beyond: Sticks and the city

There’s an old market close to where I live that’s steeped in history and out of step with much of Berlin. From the beekeeper with an uneven number of fingers, to the flower seller so crooked with age that every step seems hard-won, to the crooning baker whose laughter lines run deep, it is a showcase for the passage of time.

I love it there. Not only for its unique collection of traders, but for its refreshingly unboutique approach that includes tables carefully laid out with slippers made for shuffling, ample-bosom bras and gleaming white hip-warming knickers geared towards the more mature woman.

And I love it for the customers who having paid their dues to the daily grind are now at liberty to move at a pace they dictate for themselves. People who’ve known this city for longer than I perhaps ever will, and whose lives have played out against the backdrops of World War II, the construction and fall of the Berlin Wall and more recently, German reunification. Read on or listen

Category: Writing

Berlin and beyond: Keep working, women

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Enlightened as Germany may seem, it clings to an archaic mentality that sees men shin the career ladder while their womenfolk stay down below holding the baby. It’s a system with familiar ramifications.

At the beginning of this year, I indulged in the first season of a historical drama about a team of young women at the News of the Week in New York in 1969. Fed up with being relegated to research positions while their male colleagues get the glory, bylines and thicker pay packets, they decide to mount an official inequality complaint.

But just as they’re poised to file said complaint, the season ends. And with it, the series, which wasn’t recommissioned. Whether Amazon, whose studio head Roy Price quit this week after sexual harassment allegations, felt the viewing public didn’t need to witness the on-seen emancipation of women in the newsroom, we’ll never know, but there’s a touch of irony in the equation. Read on… or listen…

Category: Writing
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