Drinking at the fountain of the AfD’s youth

Being right-wing in Berlin is like turning up to a steak house and announcing you’re a vegetarian. At best, it’s a mild provocation and at worst, downright offensive. Being young and right-wing is akin to adding that you can’t have the burger buns either, because you’ve decided to go gluten-free.

A primal curiosity for the proverbially maligned vegetarian prompted me to make my way to the leafy district of Zehlendorf on Thursday evening for a meeting of the youth branch of the far-right AfD (‘Alternative for Germany’) party.

Grilling_Steaks_(with_border)

Image: Wikipedia Creative Commons by BuBBy

Getting to this point had been no walk in the park. Unsurprisingly, the ‘Junge Alternative’ (‘Young Alternatives’) do not disclose the location of their monthly meetings on the Internet. Instead, they ask prospective attendees to send an e-mail to the party to register their interest. I got through that step and when I wrote to thank the individual I’d been dealing with (he turned out to be one of the group’s three deputy chairpersons) he replied that the “license fee should, after all, be justified.”

It was accompanied by a winky emoticon but the implication was clear: he’d Googled me and discovered the identity of my employer. After all, I’d never mentioned being a journalist.

It was only a mild provocation but it foreshadowed the offensive he was to launch when we met in person.

From the outside, the façade seemed like a highly unlikely meeting point for Germany’s right-wing youth. A generous, gated two-storey house in a residential area, it was the kind of nondescript place you might imagine one of your posher friends to have grown up in.

The meeting took place in a backroom, which had been converted into a bizarre kind of pub. The young man I’d been communicating with via e-mail was standing behind the bar. He was wearing suspenders.

People came and went but there were about a dozen of us at any given time. If I had to guess, morbid curiosity had attracted at least three others to the event. The rest were hard-core members. I’d expected some formalities but soon realised the evening was to offer something far more enlightening: a drinking session.

These are the fragmented stories of four individuals I spoke to over the course of the evening.

The first was a young woman from Swabia, who’d welcomed me and shown me where to hang my coat when I arrived.

(For readers outside Germany, Swabia is a region in the south-west associated with either good old-fashioned values or bourgeois pettiness, depending on where you stand politically. The stereotype of Swabians as hardworking but miserly is common in Germany and casual racism directed at Swabians is alarmingly widespread in Berlin. An airport bus run by the BVG transport company even features the slogan “Dear Swabians, we’ll gladly take you to the airport.”)

This young woman found her move from Swabia to Berlin a challenge. “I found it hard to get used to everyone being late,” she told me. “Where I come from, things happen on time. You turn up when you’re supposed to, you eat lunch at 12 pm. It’s how it goes.”

She struck me as a sensitive, conscientious type and I can imagine the brashness and condescension she encountered in the capital felt like an affront. “I used to be in the CDU,” she said. “But I felt completely betrayed by them.” She was referring to Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to refugees.  “Without borders, we are no longer a country.”

In late 2015, she applied to join the AfD. Weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, a wave of sexual assaults took place in Cologne. They appeared to have been coordinated and carried out by both asylum-seekers and refugees.

The police’s slow response and apparent reluctance to release information about the origins of the suspects caused consternation and eventually led to the resignation of the city’s police chief.

“It was at that point I knew I’d made the right decision to join the AfD,” she said.

Another young man I talked to had come to the party as a Christian who felt it provided a safe platform to express his conservative values.

“I feel like these days, the traditional family structure is hardly represented anymore,” he said. “You know, mother, father, child… I’m not saying that alternative structures like homosexuality are necessarily wrong but I feel like the conventional way no longer gets a look in.”

An opponent of abortion, he said the AfD allowed him  to air his views freely, even if they didn’t necessarily reflect the party line. He also told me he believes the state should provide subsidies for families who choose to keep one parent at home to look after the children.

In the context of what he perceives as a movement to strip people of their right to feel proud of where they came from, he mentioned his reverence for his grandfather, who had a clock-making business which the post-war East German Communist regime tried to suppress.

Like the young woman I’d talked to, he seemed like someone who felt the modern world was denying him the right to hold fast to his values.

The third person I spoke to was by far the most intriguing. He immediately piqued my interest because his German, both fluent and a tad academic, had a hint of an accent I couldn’t identify. He turned out to be an American and an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump. “I was behind him from the very start,” he said. “He is the best thing ever.”

Having studied German, he moved to Berlin in 2012, where he now works for the AfD. When I asked him what it was specifically that he did, he responded politely that it was nothing personal, but he didn’t want to tell me in case it was “all over Deutsche Welle tomorrow.” I assured him that I was at the meeting in a personal capacity and not on behalf of DW but, wisely perhaps, he insisted on keeping his job description under his hat. Fascinatingly, being a foreigner (and ineligible to vote in national elections) in a notoriously anti-immigrant party did not seem to faze him.

In the interests of not playing into the hands of my suspender-wearing correspondent, I have deliberately kept a description of our encounter to last.

As I mentioned earlier, he’d done his research on me, and laid his cards out on the table pretty early on.

I, for my part, had kept mine closer to my chest. I knew he was a law student who’d stood for regional elections last year and that one of his main concerns appeared to be a decision by Humboldt University to change the name of their Student Union from Studentenwerk to Studierendenwerk at a cost, he claims of €800,000. The subtlety is lost in the English language, but the new term neutralises the gender of the word from “union of male students” to “union of those who study.”

He also lamented the loss of what he described as deutsche Erholungskultur, roughly translated as the culture of German recreation in the city’s central Tiergarten park to what he termed ‘bunter’ Krawallkultur, or ‘colorful’ riot culture.

As far as Internet research went, it was one-all.

At the beginning of the evening, I was treated to an unsolicited appraisal of my journalistic credentials. “I don’t like your work,” he said. “It’s boring and one-sided.”  I was genuinely baffled by what he was referring to but on reflection, I suspect he may have found this article I wrote about my experience of welcoming refugees coming off trains at Schönefeld airport or perhaps this video report featuring a soundbite expressing the opinion that refugees could help boost the Greek economy.

syria

Aleppo in 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Flickr) http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/

While others I spoke to appeared to have arrived at the party following a personal journey of increasing disenchantment, this young man spoke with totalitarian-style conviction. “You’re either born right-wing or you eventually see sense,” he said.

He maintains that German culture is in the process of being eroded. I asked him several times if he could define the term. He said it was too complex. But he is sure it is being destroyed.

When it came to Syria, he denied that Bashar al-Assad is bombing his own people. This was the only point at which I mildly lost my cool. “Are you serious?”

“He’s bombing Islamic State,” he said, dripping with derision. “And you deny that civilians are dying?” I asked. He eventually conceded that ordinary people were likely to have been caught up in the process.

Still, he maintained that vast swathes of Syria were perfectly safe. “What about Aleppo?” I asked. “Do you think the harrowing images we are seeing are doctored? Overblown?”

“A tiny part is under bombardment,” he said, and told me a story about a refugee he knew who recently returned to Syria and apparently posted pictures of himself having a jolly old time at the beach. “It certainly makes you think,” he said.

When it comes to recruitment, he was keen to advertise the attractions of being a member of the Young AfD.

grafitti

Graffiti I spotted at the train station on the way home.. It says: “Why must my son beg? Because he is German.”

Addressing the three individuals I suspected to be open-minded sceptics, he said: “we provide training in public speaking, we go climbing… we go for beers.” He went on to describe the ‘Junge Alternative’ as “more radical” than its parent and spoke in somewhat scathing terms about the “boring people in their 50s” who come knocking on the youth wing’s door for help navigating the Internet.

Despite riling against the various “extremist” Leftist movements at his university, he did make some concessions:

“If I go drinking with a Communist, we often find after a beer or two, that we’re not actually that far apart.”

When it comes to common ground within the party though, or the elusive “alternative”promised in its name, there was little evidence of either on display.

My dominant impression was of a group of youngsters with profoundly conflicting sensibilities. From a conservative Christian who reveres his clock-making grandfather to a disaffected punctual Swabian and a chirpy American taking on a nationalist cause in a foreign country, this was a group of various misfits bound together by little more than the sense that the world is moving in a direction that doesn’t suit them.

That, however, is no reason to dismiss their potential.

All it might take to gain mainstream approval for a gluten-free, vegetarian option in the steak house, is another terrorist attack on German soil, perpetrated by someone with a foreign-sounding name.

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We said yes

It was the beginning of August and we were holidaying on the island of Rügen. Again.

Our third year in a row. Our second time staying at Apartmenthouse Anne, located ten minutes away from the beach and run by a straightforward but formidable woman whose disdain for small talk both impressed and alarmed us.

“We’ve become middle-aged,” I told LSB over dinner one night. He already knew. An annual retreat to the Baltic Sea is the hallmark of habits belonging to German couples in their 50s.

“Maybe we should get married,” I suggested.

“Okay,” said LSB.

He was humouring me. In our decade together, we’d had multiple conversations about the institution, most of them featuring grand statements of our indifference. Our relationship defined itself, I would conclude. We didn’t need a ring, or a party, or somebody else’s blessing.

LSB agreed.

But over the past few months, something gravely unnerving had occurred: the idea of marriage was becoming less off-putting.

I couldn’t explain the phenomenon, so whenever anyone asked (which they would, quite often) I would respond in my usual way that marriage was an outdated tradition, which we were in no hurry to embrace.

As my arguments grew in force, so did the suspicion that I was protesting too much.

Restlessness had something to do with it, I suppose.  My career was ticking along solidly but unremarkably, Berlin had become home and LSB and I were embracing the stage of life where spending a Friday night streaming Sabrina the Teenage Witch at home was envy rather than pity-inducing. Amid all this stability, the milestones I’d been conditioned to anticipate from life were becoming more opaque.

swans

Because swans.

Pragmatism played a role too. The bank manager who told me in passing that it’d be easy to buy property with a husband but tricky with a partner had no idea what he was setting in motion.

Add to that the slowly-dawning realisation that if anything were to happen to either of us, the other would be a nobody in the eyes of the law.

By the time dessert came, LSB had raised no objections to my revised attitude.

The topic didn’t come up again until a day or two later, when we were walking along a wilder, stonier part of the beach on the far side of the island.

It was a grey day – the sky a patchwork of ominous clouds ready to erupt.

A family of swans drifted along the shore. Their feathers unruffled by the breeze, they appeared indifferent to the approaching inclemency.

Some couples have a song. Others have a meaningful place, where memories were born.

We have an animal. And it happens to be a swan.

I think LSB invented it but I can’t be sure.

If he did, it was to ward off questions like this:

human swans

human swans

“How do you know you REALLY want to be with me?” I would ask out-of- the-blue, sometimes out of boredom, sometimes out of insecurity and sometimes fishing for compliments.

I’d remind him that we were young when we met and that he hadn’t really had much opportunity to compare my charms to that of others. “How do I know you’re not just settling out of resignation, or a shortage of initiative?” I would ask, infuriatingly.

LSB would sigh, frustrated and answer: “Because swans.”

Swans: notoriously and unquestioningly monogamous. Unapologetic as they glide along, proudly navigating the world in pairs.

It always shut me up.

“Here,” said LSB, as the sky grew a shade darker and a clap of thunder sounded in the distance.

We moved towards a large rock and as their graceful silhouettes passed us by, we asked each other.

We said yes.

Then the sky opened up and it began to rain torrentially. We found cover at a bus stop and stood huddled together for half an hour.

That evening, to celebrate, we ate a meal at a superior restaurant, where they served us a plate of exquisite vegetables, the most succulent I have ever tasted, prepared sous vide.

The next day, back on the beach, I Googled the cooking technique and discovered that you can get special kitchen appliances for the purpose. We discussed extensively the possibility of purchasing one. In the end, we concluded it probably wasn’t worth it.

After all, one doesn’t have to say yes to everything.

typewriter

Dear Kellyanne Conway

Dear Kellyanne,

I know you’re terribly busy, so let me begin by thanking you for taking the time to read this letter.

It’s hard to believe that only nine months have passed since Ted Cruz pulled out of the White House race. I can imagine it was a pretty big blow after all the effort and time you spent endorsing him.

The ads produced by your multi-million-dollar Political Action Committee (PAC) to ridicule Donald Trump hadn’t managed to dissuade the masses.

One of your commercials claimed he wasn’t a “real Conservative.” You even provided video evidence to back it up: footage from 1999, showing Trump expressing his support for late-term abortions.

You went on several television shows, arguing passionately that Trump was not fit for purpose. You accused him of intimidation. And you hounded him for refusing to publish his tax returns.

kellyanne_conway_by_gage_skidmore

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore Source: wikipedia

 

But nobody seemed to care about the facts.

Two months after Cruz quit, Trump became your boss.

It must have been terrifying.

And exhilarating.

Your journey to this point, you told NJ Advance Media in an article published last September (please correct me, if this is fake news) began when you were a teenager working at a farm in Hammonton, New Jersey.

You spent eight summers there, packing blueberries. And in every respect, you excelled.

You could reportedly pack 300 crates a day – a skill that ultimately helped you win the World Champion Blueberry Packing competition.

“The faster you went, the more money you’d make, you said.”I wouldn’t stop to drink for hours. I would just keep going.”

I’m not surprised you won. Years later, you seem equally indefatigable.

But packing blueberries is good work.

Knowingly selling rotten ones is not.

In a recent Tweet, you informed the world that you serve the “pleasure of @POTUS.” “His message is my message,” you wrote. “His goals are my goals.”

To a narcissist, there is no greater declaration of love. To anyone else, it reads as a cry for help.

Donald Trump has been forthright about his pleasures. In his own words, he is “automatically attracted to beautiful.”  As for his goals, here again, in his own words, is one he has admitted failing to achieve: “I did try and fuck her. She was married.”

His message is your message. His goals are your goals.

I wonder if this is the life you imagined for yourself as you were packing blueberries all those years ago.

Servitude and sycophancy.

Was this what you had in mind when you went to law school? Or later when you founded your own polling company?

You have many talents, Kellyanne. The most potent is your serpent’s tongue. With your glib and oily art, you can turn the truth into an alternative fact and back again, all in a matter of seconds. Your tricks might be easy to learn but they are difficult to employ because they rely on a trait exemplified by your administration but alien to most: shamelessness.

But please, please, please believe me when I say to you: you can do more.

You can do more than be ridiculed for failing at an impossible task: acting as a mouthpiece for a man whose own words and deeds make no sense, who operates only on whims, and whose extraordinarily thin skin needs constant massaging.

Never forget that Donald Trump is your inferior. He is less intelligent and less diligent.  He would never have had the stamina for packing blueberries  like you did. Had he entered the packing competition, you would have beaten him easily, even if he might later have claimed the contest was rigged.

When I think about the things you could do I get very sad. You could use your slick and artful oratory to challenge bigotry and hate. You could unravel the lies told by those in authority and give a voice to those who don’t have one. You could advocate for immigrants, for gay and transgender folk, for a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. You could be a role model, a person of substance.

But instead you elect to prop up a system rigged in favour of ignorance and fear.

History will be unkind to you. You will be described as the Goebbels of your time.

Here is a more frivolous example of what I mean.

When my boyfriend suspects me of bending the truth, he refers to me as Katzianne Conway.

It’s a joke. Still, it reveals an unpleasant truth: your name has become synonymous with lies.

All I want to say, Kellyanne, is that is never too late to do the right thing. The departure of just one of the high-ranking opportunists Trump has gathered around him could be enough to trigger the downfall of his administration.

And that, I believe would go some way towards Making America Great Again – a goal that for many people was bitterly redefined on January 20th.

Now, more than ever, your voice is needed. Your real one. The one you’ve buried deep inside you, where decency resides. The one you use when you look your children in the eye and tell them that everything will be alright.

That’s all I have to say.

Take care and good luck,

Kate Katharina

Westalgie in the qi gong changing room

There were three of us, in various states of undress. I was the youngest. Hardly surprising, given that we were getting ready for qi gong, the slowest form of exercise imaginable.

“You’re not from here?” one of the women said.

“No,” I said, “I’m Irish.”

She wasn’t German either, though she sounded it, having moved here from Greece as a young child. Her name gave it away though: Althea*.

The other woman was from Bavaria. Her name was Heike*.

“Some friends of mine were moving to Berlin,” she said. “So I went with them on a whim, planning to stay for a few months. That was 50 years ago.”

We chuckled.

“But oh, how West Berlin has changed,” said Althea, who came here long before the wall came down.

“Oh yes,” said Heike. “It used to be quite something.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“West Berlin used to sparkle,” she said. “It was a very special place.”

Althea nodded enthusiastically. “Yes,” she said. “It positively glowed.”

Everyone knew each other, they told me. Walled off and with a constant perceived threat of Russian invasion, it was an unconventional type of person who chose to come to West Berlin.

“It was full of pacifists,” Heike said, referring to the young men who came to West Berlin specifically to avoid conscription. A quirk of the city’s division was that the West was technically under the rule of the Allied occupiers, allowing residents to legally bypass the draft that applied elsewhere.

There was a schizophrenic aspect to the city too. It wasn’t just conscientious objectors smoking cigarettes while they mused about changing the world.

Wealth mattered. And flaunting it was a conscious choice.

No building typified it more than KaDeWe on Kudamm. These days, it looks like a regular fancy department store.

But back then, it was an icon of capitalism and the freedom many asso

1280px-berlin_schoeneberg_tauentzienstrasse_21-24_kadewe

KaDeWe – source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

ciated with it.

“There used to be a cafe nearby,” said Heike. “You couldn’t go there without meeting someone you knew. There was this one wealthy man who would pay for everyone …  they were good times.”

The concept of Ostalgie – nostalgia for the former East Germany – is in common parlance in German.

It evokes the sense of a simpler time, far from the Ellenbogengesellschaft (literally ‘elbow society’) of today, characterized by citizens nudging each other in the race to get to the top.

(Before you get too warm and fuzzy, it’s worth remembering that it was also a time of totalitarianism, operated by a network of tyrannical officials and served by tens of thousands of informers masquerading as friends and lovers.)

But the idea of Westalgie – the yearning for the walled-off West – was new to me. Proof it existed could be found in the qi gong changing room in Schöneberg.

*names have been changed

On bombs and sock drawers

“When will we open the bottle of wine?” Frau Bienkowski asked.

We agreed we’d have it the next time LSB came around.moser-roth-edel-bitter-85

“I was very sad over Christmas,” she said. “There were many times I could have cried.”

Then, probably changing the subject, she continued: “I think someone stole my chocolate.”

I was pretty sure I could fix one of those things. I began opening drawers tentatively.

Frau B has recently developed the habit of finding elaborate hiding places for her personal items.

They’re so good she often can’t find things herself afterwards.

I got lucky after rummaging through her sock drawer. Three bars of Aldi’s Moser Roth, buried deep within a knot of nylon tights.

“Well, there you have it,” she said, retracting her accusation of theft by implicature alone.

“Now, tell me about Alicia*!”

Alicia is my six-month-old niece. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee and charmed practically the entire island of Ireland with her visit at Christmas.

Nothing makes Frau B happier than hearing about her.

“You must have some photographs,” she said, pointing at my phone.

I did. Alicia and her parents in front of the Christmas tree. Alicia dressed in red sitting on an armchair with her grandfather looking on benevolently. Alicia playing with wrapping paper. Alicia with her aunt Kate Katharina.

Frau B sat in her wheelchair, the phone clasped in both her hands, her face lit up in delight.

Babies have that effect.

She told me about her son, Uli, born in 1940 as the bombs were falling on Berlin. Her husband at war, she stayed for two years, taking cover in the cellar during the raids.

Then, in 1942, mother and child moved to the safety of the countryside in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

They stayed in a guesthouse until 1945.

“If it hadn’t been for the war,” she said, “I would say they were the happiest years of my life.”

She and her husband exchanged countless letters.  I wonder what became of them but don’t ask. Frau B has spoken before of the pain she experiences thinking of all the possessions she parted with when she moved into the home.

In Mecklenburg, she became friendly with a protestant priest. He got on famously with Uli, perhaps on account of the affection he had for his mother.

“He told me that if my husband weren’t to survive the war, he’d marry me in a heartbeat,” said Frau B.

“Yes,” she continued. “I could have married three or four times in my life.”

In the end, it was just once. Her husband came home, injured. And the priest was killed in cold blood when the Russians arrived.

*not her real name

6342 words

All of them terrible of course, when I’m in a certain mood. Their only function to form fraudulent sentences. Most of it a garbled version of my life. All of it an unimaginative reassembly of reality.

I’m writing a novel. There I’ve said it. If I never say it, there’s even less chance I’ll do it.

It’s set in a nursing home and heavily inspired by Frau B. But the story is not hers. It’s made up.

The fictional aspect is especially important. Frau B’s already gifting me with inspiration.  It would taint our meetings to ask for biographical details.. for permission to print old photographs.. for a linear summary of her life. We dip in and out of each other’s lives every week. It would seem wrong to go excavating instead.

I began it as part of NaNoWriMo, a worldwide online challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.

An impossible task for me, I knew. Not that I would have otherwise, but I was working full-time and had plenty of other activities going on. Still, it was a little kick and I was receptive to it. Plus, they sent you motivational e-mails and had a function allowing you to update your word-count, which I did obsessively, almost sentence by sentence.

It’s hard to articulate the kind of self-doubt that comes with writing. For me, it never gets easier. I’m painfully slow. I am not full of ideas. It rarely flows.

I compare myself with the writers I admire and despair. I Google videos and interviews with them for evidence of their self-doubt. Usually you can find some.

I feel uniquely empty, incapable of adding anything of interest to the world, amazed at others’ ability to make conversation, to come up with witty responses, to communicate unfettered. I imagine how much I could put to paper with those talents.

My news feeds full of the atrocities in Aleppo, I feel all the more ashamed of even having such thoughts.

Still, I haven’t deleted the document. It’s still on my computer.

And it wouldn’t be if I didn’t believe, somewhere small and very deep down, that it was possible.

So I’m out of the closet. I’m trying to write a novel.

I read a piece of advice earlier that the first step to becoming a writer is to call yourself one.

I’m not ready to yet. But maybe I’ll change my mind once I hit the 10,000 mark.

I’ll occasionally write about writing here. Perhaps it will even be a welcome distraction from the task in hand.

corner

My writing corner (laptop replaces typewriter)

A night of horrors: the death of decency

There was no need to worry about her accepting the result of the vote.

That’s what her running mate said as he introduced her onto the stage.

Just days ago, her opponent had made the same commitment. But he included the qualifier: “if I win.”

Well, he did. Hillary Clinton lost fair and square in an election rigged in favor of ignorance. The most qualified candidate ever to run, she had the audacity to hope she could beat a buffoon.

November 8th, 2016 will go down as a dark day in American history, just as March 5th, 1933 did in Germany.

Already, attention has turned to Trump’s conciliatory tone. After all, didn’t he pay tribute to her contribution to politics? Thank her for her decades of service?

Meanwhile, supporters outside chanted ‘lock her up!’

‘But how much damage can one individual really do?’ people ask each other with cautious optimism, indulging in fantasies of an orange-faced narcissist experiencing a eureka moment in the White House, as the extent of his ineptitude dawns on him. A molester re-thinking his territorial right to a stranger’s vagina.  A compulsive liar considering whether the truth might matter after all.

This result is about more than building walls and failing to shatter glass ceilings.

It is about the death of decency. The cult of shamelessness. The triumph of tyranny.

Today, men and women all over America endorsed misogyny and division, wilfully bypassing reason in their rush to restore the myth of greatness in the safety of a ballot box.

Television pundits, the mouthpieces of society, are painting them as disgruntled steelworkers struggling to eke out a living, ordinary folk battling against the evils of the ‘establishment.’

Victims of globalisation and greed. In other words, those in need of a billionaire messiah. Any saviour would have done. But not a woman with a shrill voice and a private e-mail server.

This is the day the American dream was redefined.

For little girls and boys around the world, the message as they turn out the lights tonight is this:

“Say it loud enough and they’ll believe you. Scare them into submission. Claim it, don’t earn it.

Lie, insult and grope your way to the top.”

The sun may rise again but all I see reflected now is darkness without end.