Buckthorn. Nothing but buckthorn.

We arrived in Rambin famished so as soon as we’d parked our bikes and dumped our bags, we set out in search of food.

Our holiday cottage was located on Hauptstrasse, or “Main Road.”

Such terms are, of course, relative.

The street did boast a bakery, which was shut when we arrived and appeared to sell little more than herring sandwiches anyway.

The other option was the farmers’ market a few doors down.  LSB and I had been hoping for a hearty meal to round off our day of travel misadventure with Deutsche Bahn.

Housed in an expansive building with traditional roofbeams, and featuring several aisles of attractively packaged products, it would surely satisfy our needs.

But the more we browsed, the more we encountered the same word: Sanddorn.

Buckthorn Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution: Svdmolen http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hippophae_rhamnoides-01_(xndr).JPG#file

Buckthorn Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution: Svdmolen http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hippophae_rhamnoides-01_(xndr).JPG#file

It was printed on jam jars,  bottles, tins and boxes.

“What is Sanddorn?” I asked.

LSB wasn’t sure either but we agreed that we recognised it from a health-food context and that its properties were generally considered benign.

We didn’t have an Internet connection, so it wasn’t until the next day that we learnt that Sanddorn was in fact: buckthorn – a regional specialty which grows on chalk cliffs and promises to cure all kinds of bodily ailments.

We didn’t exactly fancy a meal of over-priced condiments and sauces  anyway so  we decided to find an alternative eatery.

We’d passed a few signs advertising a “Pirate Restaurant” on the way to Rambin.

We weren’t sure whether it served anything vegetarian but figured it’d be a safe bet for a plate of chips.

The signs led us through a  little row of houses somewhat off the beaten track.

Every few hundred meters we’d encounter another large arrow pointing in the direction of the pirate restaurant.

After walking for about 20 minutes though, we began to suspect we’d gone wrong somewhere.

Then, finally, we spotted another sign.

Nailed to a fence it read: “PIRATE RESTAURANT – 6 KILOMETERS.”

Displeased and with our stomachs growling, we made our way back to the farmers’ market.

That evening, safely ensconced in our cottage on Hauptstrasse, we feasted on a meal of bread and buckthorn mustard.

Stralsund to Rambin: A tour de force

“Do you have a navigation system?” the man behind the desk at Stralsund station asked. I sensed he was beginning to feel sorry for me.

Unsure whether he was referring to the Google maps app or an elaborate set of compasses, I figured “no” was the safer bet.

“Leider nicht.”

He sighed.

“You need to take a right when you leave the station,and another when you get to the crossroads. Eventually, you will reach two bridges. The bigger one is quite dangerous for cyclists, so you would be best advised to avoid it.  However, the other might be difficult to navigate too because of the many fishermen who congregate there in the hope of catching herring.

Our route from Stralsund to Rambin

Our route from Stralsund to Rambin

Once you have crossed the bridge, you must take a left turn which will lead you towards a village. After you have passed through it, you will find a cycle path to Rambin. It shouldn’t take much more than an hour or two, though in this wind, who knows?” He paused briefly before continuing cheerfully: “Do feel free to send a complaint to Deutsche Bahn. After all, nothing will change if people don’t complain! Auf Wiedersehen!”

At this point, it is only fair to pay tribute to LSB’s restraint. Despite his protestations earlier that  morning, he did not launch into a “I told you so” speech, nor did he accept my (what I considered very gallant) offer to abandon the bikes at the station and pick them up on our way back from Rambin.

At the same time,he didn’t exactly seem very pleased about the situation.

Nevertheless, we got on our bikes full of resolve to make the sea-crossing as smooth as possible.

After passing through the village of Dänholm, we came to the two bridges the man at the station had told us about.

One look at the scores of trucks whizzing along the top bridge convinced us to follow his advice and take the one below.

And truth be told, it wasn’t half bad, riding along with the wind in our hair, breathing in the Baltic Sea air…

Except that the Baltic Sea air reeked of herring.

Despite the near-freezing conditions, the fishermen really were out in force.

Positioned about a meter apart from each other, with identical buckets of herring by their side, they swept their rods in a giant arc behind them, causing me to swerve more than once to avoid being hit by their hooks.

Once we had crossed the bridge, we followed the signs pointing towards Altefähr which we had learnt was nearby.

This thatched roof was so impressive I got off my bike to see it.

This thatched roof was so impressive I got off my bike to see it.

We got to a cobble-stoned village, full of pretty thatched cottages and trees bearing elaborate displays of hanging Easter eggs.

One thatched roof impressed me so much that I got off my bike to take a picture of it.

When we got to the outskirts of the village, we stopped to consult Google maps once again. An elderly woman walking her dog took pity on us and asked us if she could help.

We told her we were heading to Rambin. Thankfully, she’d heard of it.

“See those windmills in the distance,” she said. “You need to ride all the way to them. Once you get there, turn right – then it’s a cycle path all the way to Rambin.”

I thanked her profusely.

LSB and I had never been so close to windmills before. As we rode past them, we agreed that they really were pretty magnificent.

It is difficult to describe the joy we felt when we finally reached the signpost telling us Rambin was only two kilometres away.

After a day of unexpected exertion, our biggest priority was getting food.

But we soon realised that Rambin is not known for its culinary offerings.

As the hunt for sustenance took over the evening, it became clear that the day’s challenges were far from over.

To be continued

Calling the bicycle hotline: the truth about Ersatzverkehr

A few weeks ago I decided to treat LSB to a weekend away on Rügen (Germany’s largest island) for his birthday. I did a quick Google of accommodation and stumbled upon a nice holiday apartment at an attractive price.

I booked it immediately and told LSB not to worry about a thing; I had this whole trip under control.

Shortly before we were due to leave by train on Friday morning, it occurred to me to bring our bikes.

LSB looked out the rain-splattered window at the black clouds and reminded me that SNOW had been forecast for the weekend.

I told him not to believe everything he saw on TV. (I’m an insider, so he had to listen.)

Next,  he expressed concern about the regulations governing bicycles on trains.

(As you can see, LSB has integrated very well into German society).

Defiant (because I wanted to bring the bikes) and grumpy (because it was morning) I grabbed the phone and called Deutsche Bahn’s Fahrrad (bicycle) hotline.

What – you haven’t heard of it? Rest assured; it exists. An entire service dedicated to urgent enquires about bringing bicycles on German trains.

After waiting on hold for several minutes (evidently they are very busy) I got through to Bicycle Hotline Lady (BHL).

“Where would you like to travel with your bikes?” she asked.20150323_102144[1]

“Rambin.”

“I’m sorry. Where?”

“Rambin.”

“Could you spell that?”

“Sure… R-A-M-B-I-N.”

“Um, okay. I haven’t heard of it. Give me a moment please.”                                                                                                                                                                                                At this point, it may be worth pointing out that I do not have a reputation for consulting maps very carefully.

I chose to stay in this town (“town” is, in fact, a  remarkably generous description) because, unlike Bergen (Rügen’s so-called capital) Rambin is by the sea. Also, the charming holiday apartment there may have been one of the first on the list of Google search results.

Anyway, the BHL told me that although she had not heard of my destination, she was sure the same rules applied as to all other places on the island. Taking the bikes on the train would be no problem though we would have to purchase tickets for them.

Feeling considerably more gruntled, I told LSB the bikes were coming with us.

Several hours later, the four of us were safely installed in a  train compartment. Like a model Deutsche Bahn couple, we cast our glances away from our bicycles only to admire the passing northern German scenery.

We were nearing Stralsund, a few stops away from our destination, when an announcement on the intercom told us that we must get out and avail of Ersatzverkehr (replacement transport) for our onward journey.

We disembarked awkwardly and followed the signs pointing to the Ersatzverkehr.

They led us to a bus outside, where a line of passengers from our train had already formed. Seeing us approach with our bikes, a woman in front of us said: “Boah! Are you going to be let on with those?”
“I’d better be!” I reply. “I have a Fahrrad ticket!”

“My best advice is to flirt with the driver,” she said ruefully, living up to the German reputation for practicality.

I approached him tentatively.

“No bikes,” he said.

“Really?”

“Yes. The plans for Ersatzverkehr have been well publicised in the last few weeks.”

“But what about my Fahrrad ticket?” I asked.

“It does not cover Ersatzverkehr. If you would like to complain to Deutsche Bahn for providing insufficient information, you can contact them via these channels,” he said, slipping me a card.

This flirting thing was not going well.

“There is nothing we can do. This is company policy,” he continued, climbing into the driver’s seat and shutting the door.

It was only when the bus drove off and the wind began to howl that it really hit us.

We were stranded.

And headed for a place no one seemed to have heard of.

To be continued 

Frau B takes on “the modern condition”

“Nice haircut, Frau B!”

She pats the sides of  her head, self-conscious and pleased. “Like it? You’re the only one who bothers to notice.”

There’s a knock on the door. A young woman, slight and dark-haired, sporting a pale green uniform, walks in.

“Julia!” says Frau B. “Now you can finally meet Katechen, my little Iren.”

Julia and I greet each other.

“Julia comes from Spain,” says Frau B. “Don’t you?”

“Yes, ” says Julia and hands us both a cup of coffee.

“She speaks very good German,” Frau B says after she’s left. “She came here because there were no jobs at home. Just like you did!”

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00134 / CC-BY-SA via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00134 / CC-BY-SA via Wikipedia Creative Commons

We talk about mass unemployment and the effect it has on the political landscape of Europe. Frau B was a child when Germany was in its deepest ever financial crisis.

“1929 and 1930 were the worst years,” she says. Even my father was unemployed for nine months. People said that if he had no work, it meant there really was none.”

“What did he do?”

“He was a precision mechanic. He was very good with his hands.”

“Something you inherited!”

“I sure did. I got his feet too. He had tiny feet, for a man.”

Screen grab from Daily Telegraph article of 27 January 2012

Screen grab from Daily Telegraph article of 27 January 2012

She takes a sip of coffee and continues:

“Hitler would never have come to power were it not for unemployment. See, he re-built the army and got people back to work.”

I tell her about Ireland’s Republican party, Sinn Féín, and how they’re currently enjoying a rise in popularity.

We agree that mass unemployment and disillusionment add to the allure of extremism.

Sometime later, when we are done talking about politics, Frau B mentions her grandmother who was born in 1838.

As a child, Frau B would spend long afternoons reading the Bible in her grandmother’s rural home. But it is a detail related to her Oma’s appearance rather than any biblical verse, which has stuck most in Frau B’s mind.

“My grandmother used to be bothered by a few little hairs, which sprouted above her lips. She’d tear at them with her hands until they came out,” she says.

Now Frau B notices a few hairs growing above her lips. “It comes with age,” she says. “I pluck at them when I can’t get to sleep.”

“Some people believe vanity is unique to the modern condition,” says Frau B. “It’s really not.”

As I observe Frau B rearranging her hair-do, and think about the events which led up to the horrors of World War II, I feel both comfort and unease at how relatively small our 70-year age-gap really is.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Daoibh!

A chairde,

I’m sorry.

I’m going to resume a much more regular posting schedule soon. Expect some half-baked musings for the “Big ideas” section,an update on preparations for Frau B’s 96th birthday and hopefully some anecdotes about an upcoming trip to the island of Rügen. pat

In the meantime though, I’d like to wish you all a wonderful St Patrick’s Day. I was lucky enough to attend not one but two  events here in Berlin to mark the occasion. One took place at the top of the television tower on Alexander Platz, the other in a Kreuzberg club which defied its dingy exterior to reveal a glorious Irish haven inside. With tea and biscuits on sale, bowls of potatoes on display and a spectacular performance by Jigs and Reels, an Irish dancing school in Berlin (run by a friend of mine) I felt as if I’d been transported right back to the homeland.

As you can see from the picture, LSB and I are fully embracing our Irishness for the day that’s in it.

Slán go fóill,

KK

Why I’m afraid of social media timelines and you should be too.

If you think scrolling through your Facebook or Twitter feed is no big deal, take a moment to imagine the offline equivalent:

The posters on your train to work keep changing in line with the items you purchased last week.

An anonymous colleague  drops clippings of interesting articles on your desk. You have no idea how they know about your fascination for modern art and dancing hamsters.

Political canvassers representing views just a little more extreme than yours randomly appear when you’re in your favourite thrift store, or browsing through magazines at the newsagent.

We all know algorithms aren’t actual people. But they might as well be, because the information they gather is sold to real companies, which use it to make you buy stuff or influence the way you think.

Social media is a dream come true for advertisers. Rather than hoping a random billboard might grab your attention, they simply buy the right to find you by following your online cookie trail.

And as much as we like to consider ourselves free-thinking, independent individuals, big data and advances in statistics have made our behaviour eerily easy to predict.

This cringeworthy video designed to celebrate big data implies that its main advantages are to help us remember our friends’ birthdays, choose clothes and source free cupcakes.

I’m aware of the enormous real benefits of big data – like helping to make roads safer, improve healthcare and stop the spread of diseases.

But its commercial use presents a moral dilemma.

As we know from economic psychology, people generally base their decisions on the information most readily available to them. It’s called the availability heuristic and as common sense would suggest, means that we often act on the first thing that comes into our head.

The first thing that comes into our head is usually the information we’ve been exposed to over and over again.

Articles in our timeline which reinforce our existing worldview.

Photographs similar to ones we’ve reacted strongly to in the past.

Groups of people we’ve associated with before.

In other words, a repetition of who we are and the experiences we’ve already had.

The use of mass data sets coupled with algorithms adds a new dimension, without us even realising it.

An essay by WIRED editor David Rowan, which appears in a book titled “What should we be worried about?” opens:

“In a big-data world, it takes an exponentially rising curve of statistics to bring home just how subjugated we now are to the data crunchers’ powers.” He goes on to lament that:

 “Any citizen lacking a basic understanding of, and at least, minimal access to, the new algorithmic tools, will increasingly be disadvantaged in vast areas of economic, political, and social participation.”

The problem with cookie-led advertising and links generated by algorithms is that they are covert. There is no one to hold accountable for them.

There is no guy with a roller pasting an ad to the wall of an underground station.

If we open up a print newspaper, we know that every other reader is going to see the same advertisement for a high-power vacuum cleaner on page 6.

We can also reason that another publication might instead be trying to sell readers wellness retreats or flat-screen televisions.

Individually tailored timelines remove that certainty and erode our biggest antidote to advertising: collective cynicism.

Since the links and advertisements we’re seeing change from one second to the next, it’s  impossible to develop a coherent narrative about their presentation, let alone construct a common picture of what’s happening.

So, what’s the solution?

Sure, we could quit social media altogether.

But it would be foolish to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

What we really need to do is to be aware of the extent our world view is being shaped by the things people pay for us to be exposed to online.

That is the first step towards reclaiming our capacity for independent thought.

Five women’s blogs I check every day. For pleasure.

1. Fieldwork in Stilettos                                                                                                       I’ve been reading Kat Richter for years. She’s a Philadelphia-based writer and dance teacher who blogs about dating, writing and lately, home improvement. Her prose is extremely fun to read. I’ve followed her through a questionable “manthropological” dating experiment, a couple of meaningful relationships and roughly the same number of heartbreaks. If you think her posts sound throwaway, check out the couple of times she’s diverged from her usual subjects – to talk about the experience of encountering anti-abortion campaigners outside a women’s clinic and, drawing from her background in anthropology, to explain why there’s no such thing as race. Whatever she writes is lively, sharp and worth following.

2. Captain Awkward                                                                                                        When I discovered this blog, I devoured the archive in hours. Captain Awkward dispenses insightful, practical and thorough advice on subjects ranging from a  woman whose otherwise wonderful partner will not accept her feminist views to anxiety about interacting with former co-workers. Written by a movie writer and director, Captain Awkward promotes mental health, we well as sexual and gender equality. The blog is also mega-successful, with each post attracting hundreds of comments.

Reading is good offline too.

Reading is good offline too.

3. Brain Pickings                             This blog makes me gush. Maria Popova’s writing is exquisite, her take on philosophy, creativity and critical thinking  always thought-provoking and beautifully expressed. Her essays draw on the wisdom garnered from some of the world’s greatest thinkers and how their insights might apply to our everyday lives. Her selection of quotations and suggested further reading always make me think. Read her on the boundary between hope and cynicsm and diversity and difference in children’s literature. In fact, just read everything she writes. Her site remains ad-free and funded (though I’m not sure how substantially) by readers. For me, Brain Pickings represents the very best of what the internet can do to promote independent, creative thinking.

4. Broadside Blog                                                                                                                Caitlin Kelly is a veteran New York journalist who turned freelance a few years ago after losing her job at a major daily paper. She posts about work, travel, the media industry, as well as friendship and family relationships. I’m attracted to her crisp, uncompromising and confident tone, as well as the many insights she has about journalism. I don’t agree with everything she says, but the way she says it is reason enough to read her work. Her writing strikes that delicate balance between personal and professional- I feel like I know her but there’s nothing I wish I didn’t know.

5. Aileen Donegan                                                                                                           We’ve never met but know each other from our blogs and Twitter. Aileen’s a 26 year-old journalist from Ireland with an interesting background in online activism and experience living in Strasbourg. In the wake of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, she wrote a compelling piece about attending a small solidarity march in Dublin and about how that event, unlike demonstrations she’d been to in the past, sat right. I loved her recent post about the summer she spent as a teenager reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

I’m always on the lookout for new blogs to follow, so let me know if you have any favourites I should be adding to my list!

Calling all language-learning enthusiasts!

If you’re an Irish person who teaches, researches, writes or creates in an area related to language-learning, the following information sent to me by Léargas might be of interest.leargas1

Léargas is looking for language projects and potential language ambassadors to apply for the European Language Label. It’s a languages award with two sections, projects and individuals. “Projects” can cover anything and everything, from short term to ongoing, from online to tangible and from community group to university research. Very wide-ranging, but the jury look at each and every project in its own context. This year the individual award is for “language ambassador”, the jury quite often select a number of language ambassadors rather than just one single person. The title is recognition and acknowledgement and a nice awards ceremony, it doesn’t involve any tasks. There are posters, application forms and short video clips of past winners on www.leargas.ie/ell The deadline for applications is 27 February 2015. We look forward to receiving your application!

#FreeRaif: Saudi Arabia ‘postpones’ flogging for blogging

Amnesty International has just broken some good news on Twitter:

This is a direct result of pressure not only from Western governments but also by ordinary people voicing their outrage on social media.

For those of you who haven’t heard of him, Raif Badawi is a 31 year-old Saudi writer who set up a website called the Saudi Free Liberals Forum, a platform he used to campaign for free speech and secularisation. Some of his writing has been translated into English here.

"رائف-بدوي" by User1500 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%81-%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%8A.jpg#mediaviewer/File:%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%81-%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%8A.jpg

“رائف-بدوي” by User1500 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org

In  2012 he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison, as well as to 1000 lashings. These were to be administered 50 at a time, each Friday, in public. The first of these sessions happened last Friday. Here is an account from someone at the scene.

In the last week, mainstream media coverage of the case has been putting increased pressure on governments to act and has motivated ordinary people to make their voices heard too. Amnesty International’s 5 ways to help Raif Badawi provided people who cared with an easy checklist of how to take action.

That work has paid off. Today’s lashings have been postponed on “medical grounds.”

But there’s a lot more to be done. For one, the lashings have been postponed, not cancelled. Just days ago, Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abu Al-Khair  had his 15-year prison sentence re-instated.  And this case represents one of hundreds, if not thousands and tens of thousands of others which haven’t been publicised. We don’t know the numbers because Saudi Arabia doesn’t want us to.

What we do know is that flogging is an extremely common practice and that women who have been raped are often punished in this way by judges who refuse to distinguish rape victims from the those committing adultery.

When I used to teach English in Ireland, I remember how bemused my Saudi students were when I expressed horror at their casual descriptions of encountering public floggings.

Saudi Arabia is at the brink of a change of rule.Now is the time to send clear signals about what the West expects from the country and what it will refuse to tolerate.