When Penneys came to Berlin

Penneys has come to Berlin. It’s enormous. And like in Britain, it’s called Primark. It takes up most of the Schloss-Straßen shopping centre. Our ambassador opened it officially back in July.

I had to visit.

As soon as I got off the train, I spotted two übercool teenage boys swinging Primark shopping bags. Very pleasing.

It was full to the brim inside. Like a game of bumper cars. It may have opened over a month ago, but Berliners are still coming to terms with this Irish import.

Primark takes up most of the shopping centre! I probably looked a little strange taking this photo.

One girl I saw had stopped dead in front of a €2 pair of wine-coloured tights. She picked them up and stroked them. Then she bent her face over them in case she had missed a trick. After one final caress, she flung them into her enormous cloth basket.

You can’t blame her. Such a thing is unheard of in Berlin. While everything else may be cheaper (and I mean everything: rent, food, toiletries, pets ..), clothes are not. Especially not tights. Tights are a luxury afforded to those lucky enough to have a disposable income of more than seven euro.

Onesies are new too. They may be a step too far for Berliners though. The section with the zebra-print one-piece suits with lace-up paws was the only one empty today. But as the weather cools down, perhaps braver Berliners will take the plunge.

Nobody stopped me from taking a picture of the onesies..

Primark Berlin is full of languages. I couldn’t count them all as there were some I couldn’t distinguish with certainty. Staff wear the same uniform as in Dublin and the Muslim women wear black headscarves.

It was surreal to hear staff announcements like “Ute Müller zur Kasse bitte” blasting through the store.

I couldn’t justify my expedition without visiting the fitting rooms. I joined an almighty queue. Unlike in Dublin, the lighting on the way into the changing area is dim. Almost Hollister-esque, which made me cringe. It snaked around and around and made me feel like I was about to visit a haunted house.

Manno,” said a girl in front. “This is going to take forever.”
“Only eight items per person,” cried the shop assistant. “It’s quicker that way.”

I had grabbed a yellow mini skirt and a woollen wrap to try on.

In huge letters above the changing room entrance it says. “Try it, Like it, Buy it!” Germans love English slogans.

The light inside the changing rooms was just as unflattering as in Dublin. It just proves the success of the business model. People buy this stuff despite recognising blotches and follicle sprouts ordinarily concealed by more flattering light.

Neither skirt worked. Might have been the lighting but more likely the fact that I am very poor. I did however make a purchase. I’ve started running you see. Not far, or fast or anything, but you do end up breaking into a little sweat. So I picked up a turquoise tank top that promised to “stretch” and headed to the checkout. No amount of semesters studying economic psychology could take away the temptation to impulse buy on the way to the till. I resisted faux porcelain cupcake-shaped containers, facial wipes and novelty socks. But when I saw antibacterial handwash I could stand it no longer. I grabbed a bottle. My total purchase came to €6.

Outside I walked down Schlossstrasse and wandered into Vero Moda. Without the soft rock in the background, you could have heard a pin drop. Empty as sin. A blonde sales assistant was unfolding folded sweaters. “Hello,” she said when she saw me. There was a hint of hope in her voice. I took a look around. The clothes were nice, and I looked more tolerable in the mirrors. But some things cost more than €15. And I’m not sure if they got the memo, but there’s a recession on. And if there’s one thing we Irish know a lot about…

Confessions of an Arabic student: Ordering Falafels And Sounding Like A Pirate

Monday was a very important day for me. It wasn’t Christmas, or my birthday, or the day I competed in the Slovakian jousting championships. In fact, it was an occasion of much greater significance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, and she-who-serial-googles-‘snails’-to-land-here, last Monday evening, I learnt the last four letters of the Arabic alphabet: ط, ظ,
ع and غ.

Those final four characters had been hanging over my classmates and me for a full three weeks. Our Mudarrissa (مدرسة) kept promising we’d get to them the following lesson, but we got tied up learning how to attach possessive pronouns to objects like chairs, bags, chickens and doors and how to ask for falafels.

The four offending letters had been left until the end because native English speakers tend to mispronounce them because we lack an equivalent sound. The most felonious one is: غ.

“Who wants to pronounce this one?” asked the Mudarissa, pointing at the lone-standing, three-shaped character with a hat she’d printed on the board.

(Teacher tip: Never, ever ask open questions)

An eerie silence descended.

“How about …. you. Kate?”

“Agggghhhrr”, she said.

“Aaarr” I replied, as if I was at the dentist. She shook her head.

“Agggghhhrrr” she repeated.

“Rrrrrrrrrgh” I tried once again, only to cause her to shake her head more violently.

“No. It’s AGGGGHRRR. Not “RRRRRR”.

“AAAAGRRR?”.

“No.”

This went on for some time. I estimate that I voiced the letter incorrectly seventeen times before she gave up on me. I was prepared to continue indefinitely but the other students were beginning to shift in their chairs and smother giggles.

It might not seem like a big deal to seasoned polyglots, but I am pretty glad I’ve got this far. You might remember that Arabic has twenty-eight letters, which change shape according to their position in a word.

What’s now happened – since Monday- is that I can look at a word and actually read it –albeit incredibly slowly. Of course as most standard Arabic script doesn’t mark vowels, what I’m reading could have a myriad of actual pronunciations. The point though is that I’m now in a position to consider those possibilities.

Today I started using facebook in Arabic. My profile picture was immediately transported to the other side of the screen and the ads offering me Masters Degree Courses in John Hopkins University switched to the left. In an effort to learn new vocabulary, I diligently copied and pasted some of the Arabic characters into Google translate. The Arabs, I’ve learnt have a way with words. They may not have the time to mark their vowels, but they do translate ‘unlike’ as “cancellation of admiration”.

H-A-L-A-L

Life for LSB has become yet more tedious since my initiation into the Arabic language. We can’t pass a kebab shop without me reading “H-A-L-A-L” (حلالا) extremely slowly while missing the English translation that accompanies it. The other evening, on Camden Street while we were on the way to meet a friend for a hot port and a natter, I reeled off everything I could say in Arabic complete with elaborate supporting gestures.

“That is a beautiful and new car!”, I said pointing to a rusty 1993 fiat punto. “I am Kate Katharina.” “Pleased to meet you.” “Give me a falafel please”.

Three Men that don’t know they’re in my life

1.The pioneering beggar

Every day I see an oval-faced man on Grafton Street holding an enormous wooden sign, which points you in the direction of the Sweet Emporium on Duke Street. He has been holding this sign day in, day out for many months. For years before that he sat slumped on the steps of the insurance building next to Hodges Figgis with a tin covered in chipped orange paint. His eyes were too sad and vacant to be those of a charity collector; he was a pioneering beggar. Somebody must have noticed him there and decided that if he was going to stay in the city centre looking for money all day, he might as well send people to the Sweet Emporium. Now he works double shifts because I’ve seen him back by the steps on Dawson Street at evening time. He’s been on my mind on and off for years. I wonder what we’d talk about, if I ever found the courage to introduce myself.

2. The Man with long, blonde hair

Since my schooldays, I’ve been passing an extremely tall man, with long blonde hair and thick pink lips. When he walks, his whole body jolts heavily forward and then bounces back, as if on a spring. He has a long, beige face, which blends in with the bewildered expression he wears. When I watch him, he seems to be looking at something beyond what I can see. I think he is the wildest and gentlest man I’ve ever seen and I also think that he is intellectually disabled. I feel sad when I see him, because of the way he moves, and because of the large blue pools which are his eyes. Every once in a while he puts on black, knee-high women’s boots and stumbles down the street in them. Sometimes I try to imagine his mother and father but I can’t because I can’t paint their pictures in my head.

3. The Opera Singer

He wears a smoking jacket and bow tie and sings to the crowds of shoppers as if he were on stage in an Italian opera house. He has a neat, tight face with symmetrical features and short, sandy brown hair. He could be from the Czech Republic or from Slovakia, but in fact he comes from our own shores. I’ve heard him speak; he asked a lady last week if he should sign her CD “To Anne with an E”.
His body language, coupled with his attire is highly comedic. I know this because once I was sitting by the window upstairs in Bewley’s watching him speak to a middle-aged lady, who happened to be a fan. He bent forward to touch her arm and tilted his head backward to laugh at what she had said. He used his hands constantly, flapping them politely in her direction and then mock-modestly at her wide-eyed praise. He’s a charmer.

These three men are in my life but I’m not in theirs.

#Occupydamestreet exposes what’s good about Ireland

I admire the Occupy Dame Street protesters. On a night like this, as the wind pounds on my window panes and the rain pours down, I imagine them huddled together discussing the agenda for the day ahead. They are a peaceful bunch, who have spent their days postering trees with quotes from Fight Club rather than hurling abuse at the workers whose premises they occupy.

In spite of my self-confessed lack of understanding of the economy, I don’t share their belief that bankers represent the evil 1% of the population and that 99% (the “rest of us”) are their unequivocal victims. It can’t be as simple as that. I’m also not sure whether the protest has any concrete aim but it is certainly drawing attention to the displeasure of many as a result of the actions of few.

What really interests me about this protest is how it exposes the Good in our society.

Here are a group of people occupying a central location and plastering around it slogans determined to undermine the country’s main financial institution.

And yet, it’s peaceful. No aggressive guard has entered the scene, and yelled “Hey, you angry hippy, move it or I’ll shoot”. No protester has screamed abuse at the passing bankers to which they attribute a decline in society’s moral code.

Instead, the public casts a glance, takes a look around, enjoys a talk with a protester about the meaning of life and ambles on, equipped to make its own mind up.

The Occupydamestreet movement tells me a lot about what’s right with this country; the assurances that we take for granted are those for which so many of the Arab Spring protesters have died for.

So inspired have I been by #occupydamestreet that I’m off to #occupywallstreet in the morning. I’m visiting my sister in Philadelphia. She emigrated there two years ago, but not before hosting an “emigrate-like-its-a-recession-party”. When I ask her about her job she tells me that she analyses butt samples but I have a funny feeling there might be a little more to the job of geneticist than that. I’m gutted to be missing the election. If there’s anybody apathetic enough to vote for my first choice I’d be most obliged. Mail me privately for my politics.

I intend to update you on my travels in the Free World but should that not be possible, I will record my thoughts in my little blue copy book and transcribe them at a later date. See you on the other side of the Atlantic!

Dundrum shoppers stunned by voices of Messiah

Shoppers in Dundrum Town Centre in south Dublin were surprised this morning by a large-scale and apparently spontaneous choral performance of the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The twenty choirs which took part were positioned on three levels around the shopping centre with the conductor stationed on the top floor outside Frangos foodstore. The flashmob-style event occured at 12.40 pm and marked the culmination of RTE’s Big Music week. Aproximately 400 singers took part and were applauded by customers keen to join in the fun.

Confessions of an economic dunce

Every weekday morning, I brush my teeth while listening to the business news on Morning Ireland. Once the weather comes on, I know it’s time to spit.

The presenter’s mame is Emma. She sounds very glamourous and by jove, does she know her business. She’s all about credit ratings, bondholders, soveriegn debt and the EU-IMF bailout. In fact, these are some of her favourite things. She interviews chief-executives, London traders and business-market leaders at break-neck speed, firing at them an alarming assortment of questions which I don’t comprehend.

I’m not a scientist or anything, but I think there might be a critical period for developing business accumen. At school, while other students were learning about the stock exchange and interest rates, I was declining Latin nouns and checking out cartoons of Roman boys in togas.

As a result, I simply don’t get economics. When I see images on TV of old men in high-rise glass buildings pouring over computer screens at changing numbers and getting very excited, I just think “huh?”. When people talk about “burning the bondholders” I get a mental image of Shakespeare’s Shylock being burnt at the stake. I’m absolutely baffled that a body with as temperamental a title as Moodys can dictate at a whim the direction of markets values.

As regular readers will know, I’ve some desire to make it in the world of journalism. Back in the day I thought this might involve composing a few witticisms on farcical political characters, or being sent to cover a dull Dáíl debate on fishing quotas. Now, to my horror I’ve discovered that the whole world functions on principles I do not understand. In an attempt to salvage my career prospects, I looked for measures to reduce my deficit.

Oh, how I googled. Oh, how I typed search terms like “bond holders”,and “bailouts” into Wikipedia. Alas, it was like a never-ending economic web, with each explanation containing a further collection of incomprehensible fiscal terms, which in their turn had to be googled.

But then everything changed. I was walking past Trinity last week when something caught my eye. Perched on the top of a lamppost, like a beaming Evangelist was my answer: a poster with the title “Understanding the Euro Crisis”: an invitation to a public meeting on the subject: All Welcome.

A sign from above

It was like a sign from the heavens.

The speakers advertised included Pearse Doherty and Fintan O’Toole. I was sure they wouldn’t let me down. After all, they’re all about bringing it back to the people.

As I left the house last Thursday night I called back “just off to a Sinn Féin meeting. Might be late..” before slamming the door.

There was a spring in my step as I got off the luas and made my way to The Shelbourne. I had brought my notebook with me so that I could jot down key economic terms with which to regale my friends in the future. I felt like a proper journalist.

Outside the Shelbourne, a group of middle-aged Americans was getting ready for an expensive meal in the city. I know this because the ladies were dressed in exquisite skirts with lace trimmings and because the mean were smoking cigars. And because they were outside the Shelbourne.

I approached the doorman who was guarding the rotating glass entrance door.

“Good evening, Madam” he said with a gallant Polish accent.
“Hello there”, I replied, deilghted at his attentiveness. “I’m here for the public meeting”
“The Sinn Féín talk, Madam?”
“Yes indeed”
“I believe it is full, Madam”
I gulped. It could not be.
“Oh what a shame!” I replied, downcast, imploringly.
He paused. “Maybe if you wait a few minutes for people to be seated we may be able to accommodate you”

I beamed. What a sterling human being he was.

As I leaned gracelessly against the railings I watched the traffic that was making its way in and out of the building. Some wealthy Arabs, more loud Americans and some glamourous French. And then a steady trickle of grubby Dubliners in hoodys and jeans. Again and again I heard the phrase “I believe it’s full, Sir”

I became alarmed. After some time I returned to my Polish friend and asked him what my prospects were.

He must have sensed my economic passion. He sighed “You may go in Madam. Turn left at the pillar and enquire there whether you may enter the meeting”.

The Shelbourne Hotel


I almost stumbled in my excitement and as a result briefly got stuck in the rotating door. Once in however I rushed to the attendant by the pillar.
“Excuse me, I was wondering whether there might be space for me in the meeting?
“No, It’s full”.

What. With those three words my heart sank.

My bubble burst, I turned away dejected and slumped out the rotating doors, past the doorman and back to the luas stop.

€3.50 for a return luas fare only to be turned away at the door! What an absolute waste. Needless expenditure. That’s exactly what got us into the mess we’re in.

What are the atrocities of our time?

Every period of history spits out its horror stories in retrospect: the murder of six million Jews, the abuse of children at the hands of priests and the institutionalisation of political dissenters. We’ve got used to documentaries exposing the trauma of war, neglect and corruption. We expect them like we do the next episode of a soap. It’s a sign of progress of course – though it makes me think about the abuses of today that will make it into the documentaries of tomorrow.

Today it was revealed that a criminal gang in Bedfordshire has been operating a twenty-four men slave work camp at a caravan park. According to British media reports, victims were lured from soup kitchens, benefit offices and hostels. Nine of them (presumably those of slightly higher standing or those suffering from Stockholm Syndrome) have refused to co-operate with police investigations. According to the Guardian, one traveller said that “Plenty of men who were here wanted to be here and they were getting paid”. As if the volition of plenty justified the slavery of a single other.

Last week the abuses of Iraqi prisoners by British army officials was relived in grotesque detail with the publication of the full report.

Tonight the second part of the RTE investigation into the practices going on behind closed doors in state mental institutions was broadcast.

I work in a not-very-nice area of town. Sometimes I see the faces of future documentaries gazing blankly past me, as they cower terrified at the knees of abusive parents, or bend their weary, wizened faces over pint glasses at 8 am, when the early license pubs are ready for their next order.

Last week I watched two families staggering about on the luas platform. Dirty beer cans in hand, the parents drunk and drugged, yelled at each other as they stumbled against empty buggies from which their toddlers wandered aimlessly away. One little boy with huge brown eyes looked at me and I stared back at him, knowing my inevitable complicity was failing him.

The luas doors opened and his parents endeavoured, with clumsy futility to secrete their multiple beer cans at the bottom of their buggy. The injustice of bad parenting – and the audacity to pass judgement on the nuclear family unit – this I believe is the stuff of next generation’s documentaries.

What else, from where you’re standing?

What’s happening in Kurdistan?

This is what I asked myself earlier today when I passed a small group of men gathered at the GPO. Some were holding flags featuring a yellow sun on a backdrop of green, white and red stripes while others carried banners urging the Irish Government not to ignore Turkish war crimes in Kurdistan.

Kurdish flag (image via Wikipedia)

It was a tiny, peaceful demonstration that made its way down O’Connell Street and past Trinity College. A single man had a loud speaker and from it all that I could make out was the word “Kurdistan”.

The leaflet I took from one of the demonstrators is a double-sided photocopy and includes four photographs of dead bodies buried amongst rubble. One is of a 6-month old baby. The leaflet claims that “Turkish warplanes have been repeatedly bombing Kurdish villages since Wednesday 17th August” and that this is an example of “Turkish state terrorism against the Kurds which has been ignored by the international community and the European Union in particular”.

On the BBC website- updated just a few hours ago- a headline reads “Turkish airstrike campaign killed 160 Kurdish rebels”. According to the BBC, “The strikes follow a deadly attack by the separatists in mid-August that killed nine Turkish troops and injured 14 in the district of Cukurca, in Hakkari province close to the border.”

Kurdistan is wedged between Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Armenia and is neither a politically independent state nor a clearly-defined region (though its geoographical description encompasses small parts of all the countries which surround it). Its people speak a distinct language (Kurdish, not Arabic) and consider themselves to have a separate identity from that of any of their neighbour states. While Iraqi Kurdistan gained the right to self-governance in 1970, the Iranian province of Kurdistan is not autonomous.

In Turkey, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) has been waging war against Turkish rule for 26 years. To date, the conflict there has claimed over 40,000 lives.

Last May the Guardian reported that Sherko Moarefi, a member of a proscribed Kurdish group is at “imminent risk of execution” in Iran. A huge Amnesty International campaign is urgently calling for his release. I’ve been unable to find any up-to-date information about his condition or status online.

Sherko Moarefi

While I couldn’t find anything up-to-date on Aljazeera or the BBC, I did stumble upon this excellent Kurdish blog from last May, which describes how reporting of the death of Bin Laden overshadowed the case of Sherko Moarefi, whose execution happened to be postponed on the same day as the assassination.

I was inspired by this article by Dan Hind on Aljazeera English which calls for the media to prioritise explanation over emotion in its reporting, particularly in the case of humanitarian crises, where public contributions can make a huge difference, particularly when the sources of problems are adequately understood.

I’d like to thank the little group of men gathered at the Post Office for their double-sided photocopy and for the isses it has brought to my attention. Their voices resonated from a tinny megaphone and from two pages of broken, passionate English prose. I don’t know enough about the issue to make a judgement right now, but at least I’ve started to think.

One Thief, one Casanova, two Carphone Warehouse Sales Assistants and a Citizen’s Arrest : Grafton Street, 2 pm

A round, red, sad, brutal, 40-year-old face charged by me in a blur. I turned, he stumbled and somebody in an orange carphone warehouse t-shirt caught up and grabbed him from behind. The thief struggled, kicked out and wrenched his arms free but out of nowhere, three more men appeared. While they were thrashing about, a Brown Thomas gift bag fell from the thief’s grip and tumbled strangely, prepostrously to his side.

He was pinned to the ground and fell silent. An enormous crowd had gathered about. Camera phones came out. A little boy held his father’s head and said again and again “Is da real, da?” “It is yeah”, the father replied. “That man was stealing and he’s been caugh’ and he doesn’t like everyone watching him now ’cause he looks like a muppet… ‘Cause he is one”. “Is it real though, da?”. “It sure is, son. The Police are gonna get him and he’s gonna go to jail”.

It was an uncomfortable scene. I wasn’t proud of myself for not being able to leave. I heard a woman remark that the man’s hands were turning white and a lady from the other side of the crowd approached the group and asked them to loosen their grip on his wrist. Suddenly the man let out a roar. “ASSAULT. I’m being ASSAULTED. HELP. HELP. HELP”

“He’s not being assaulted”, the Brown Thomas doorman muttered and asked me politely to stop blocking the entrance to the shop. The man let out another roar, and raised his head. A strong black hand pushed it down again.

The thief managed somehow to hurt the smallest of his captors, who hopped about in pain and blurted out “you scumbag”.

“I can’t breathe!” the man shouted, “I can’t fucking BREATHE. Would you let me breathe!”

At this point, something rather strange happened next to me.

A boy of about fourteen, a Casanova with a country accent, led a group of his friends through the throngs towards three similarly-aged girls who were standing beside me and grinning rather stupidly at the whole scene. “Hey you girls”, he drawled in his not-yet-broken voice. “These are some of my frinds here. Would you ladies be able to show us where Stephen’s Green is?”
The girls stared at him and pointed behind them. “Would you be able to show us like?” the boy continued.
They shrugged. “Stephen’s Green is right up there”, one said, shyly.
“Come on, would you not just show us like?” He smiled.
“I dunno..”.
“Ah go on..”

I was nearly going to offer. But there was a new arrival on the scene.

A younger, dosed-up man I recognised from hanging about town staggered up to where the men were holding down the thief. He looked confused.
“Hey! Leave him be”, he said beginning to tug at him for possession. “He’s not done nothing!” he slurred. “He was shoplifting”, one of the carphone warehouse sales assistants told him, still pressing down on his chest. The thief let out another roar. “I paid the bleeding money didn’t I?”.

Twenty minutes later the Police arrived and made a no-frills arrest. I watched the thief’s silouete disappear as the Garda car drove away. I wondered about what was in that Brown Thomas bag and about the day that abject, addicted, ageing man was born a baby in his mother’s arms.