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

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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

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Why I’m a tree hugger and you should be too

When Frau B looks out of her fourth-floor bedroom window, she sees two tall trees. On the left is a spruce. Its mass of deep-green needles presents a burst of colour all-year-round.treehuga

But she’s more interested in the maple tree beside it. Each September, she watches its leaves turn from vibrant green to grimy brown and yellow. A few weeks later, the wind snatches them away, leaving a stark tangle of branches for Frau B to observe during the winter months.

At the age of 97, even she is a whipper-snapper compared to a tree.

When I told her the other day that scientists in Norway had discovered a 9,500-year-old spruce, she sighed.

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a tree community in Volkspark Humboldthain

“Mich nimmt der liebe Gott auch nicht,” she said, meaning ‘God won’t take me either.’

It’s something she says quite often, usually with a smile. This time, it conjured up an image of a long line at the gates of heaven. When Frau B eventually gets to the top, she is rejected alongside a Norwegian spruce. Together, they lament the curse of their longevity.

In the past few weeks, my relationship to trees has morphed from passive appreciation to zealous awe. Peter Wohlleben, the author of The Hidden Life of Trees is mostly responsible.

The book was an impulse-buy, having met my three criteria for spontaneous literary purchases: an inviting title, a pretty cover and the promise that I would be a slightly different person after reading it.

My transformation has become especially apparent to LSB, who now finds himself at the receiving end of a barrage of excited outbursts:

“Do you know that trees use fungal networks to communicate?”

“Woah! You will NOT believe this! Trees can detect the saliva of insects and use THAT knowledge to send out chemicals to attract their predators!”

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tree bark in Volkspark Humboldthain

“Okay, I promise this is the last one: did you know that parent trees deprive their children of LIGHT in order to keep their growth rate steady?”

“…I know, I know: I’m sorry but I just have to tell you this: trees of the same species INFORM each other about impending environmental threats!”

At first, he listened politely, nodding occasionally as he scrolled through his phone. But as the days turned to weeks and my enthusiasm failed to wane, he advised me gently that I was putting the “bore”into arboreal.

It hasn’t stopped me though.

What I find so extraordinary about trees is in fact quite unremarkable: they’re just like us.

They have memories, which they can pass on. Communication happens via a sophisticated electric network forged over millions of years. The sick are nursed and the tendency is to protect one’s own.

Eventually though, like you, me and Frau B, they breathe their last and descend into the ground. There they turn to humus and enable new life, once again, to begin.

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a sick tree is propped up by its neighbour in Volkspark Humboldthain

The German town that dedicates an entire festival to asparagus

Before I moved to Germany, asparagus never played more than a supporting role on my dinner plate.

I regarded it as a bog-standard vegetable: average-tasting in a soup and appropriately assigned to side-dish status.

I soon realised this kind of indifference would turn me into a pariah here.

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My relationship to asparagus has developed since I moved to Germany.

The German language has a term to describe the period when asparagus is in season: Spargelzeit.  It’s generally between mid-April and mid-June.

In Berlin, Beelitzer Spargel is celebrated as the most exquisite – and comes with the price tag to match.

Beelitz is a 30-minute train ride south of Berlin and home to around 12,000 people. Its official website defines it as a Spargelstadt – an asparagus town.

Every year, it devotes a festival to the asparagus and crowns a local woman Asparagus Queen. This year, in an attempt to complete our integration into German culture, LSB and I decided to attend the event.

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Bavaria’s most attractive all-women band (or so I’ve been told)

From Beelitz train station, you can catch the Spargel shuttle bus to the town center. LSB and I decided to walk. It wasn’t far and the streets were well sign-posted with arrows on every other lamppost directing you to the Spargelfest.

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Costumed asparagus and Asparagus Queen greet festival-goers

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The 2016 Spargel Queen

We arrived in time for the 11 am performance of a Bavarian band called The Midnight Ladies. They advertised themselves as Bavaria’s “most attractive all-women band” – a title I was not in a position to judge but that seemed plausible, given how dashing they looked in their glamorous traditional garb.

Milling around the town were two giant asparagus: one green, one white. The costumed vegetables flanked the Asparagus Queen as she shook the hands and kissed the babies of stall-holders and visitors alike.

The highlight of the performances was undoubtedly the dance of the Spargelfrauen (or Asparagus women). The group of a dozen women have been performing at the asparagus festival for 20 years and it certainly shows in their choreography.

At 2 o’clock, it was time for the asparagus parade. LSB and I had an enviable spot right next to the stage, where two anchors from a local TV station provided a running commentary on the floats.

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Members of the Asparagus Women dance troupe perform at the festival

Asparagus farmers drove through the crowds in their tractors, handing out baskets of the vegetables to lucky onlookers (myself included). Any local organisation you can imagine, from volunteer firefighters to a children’s rope-skipping group took part. Even an historical society marched through, with members proudly pulling two replica medieval cannon-shooters through the town.

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Costumed asparagus receives assistance getting in the door.

It went on for an hour. Tragically, I could only capture five minutes on film.

I did however manage to snap a rather comic moment earlier on, when one of the costumed asparagus had to be escorted to the bathroom and an assistant recruited to get his head through the door.

After the parade, LSB and I went for lunch. We dined on a classic: white asparagus, served with butter and potatoes on the side.

The festival concluded with a tearful expression of thanks from the mayor and the Asparagus Queen. The former told the crowd he had already confirmed the visiting acts for Spargelfest 2017.

Never again will I consider asparagus as anything but the main act.

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Beelitz town

Remember all those headlines about Merkel making a refugee girl cry?

Last July, the world’s media directed its wrath towards Angela Merkel after an 11-year-old refugee girl burst into tears at a government-sponsored event in the northern city of Rostock.

The girl, whose family had fled from Lebanon, was outlining her situation to the chancellor. Smiling nervously and in perfect command of the German language, she explained what it was like to live in constant fear of deportation. Tentatively, she told Merkel she too had dreams.

Merkel listened, nodded and promptly committed PR suicide: she told the truth.

“Politics is hard,” she said. “And you’re an incredibly likeable person.. but there are thousands more living in camps in Lebanon.. we can’t take everyone in.”

Moments later, the girl had begun to cry.

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It was glorious headline fodder.

“Merkel makes refugee girl cry,”wrote the mass-circulation Bild. “Angela Merkel is ice cold,” other news outlets announced.“Merkel reduced girl to tears,” said Britain’s Daily Mail.

Merkel’s attempt to comfort the weeping refugee girl by patting her even gave way to the ironic and scathing hashtag, #Merkelstreichelt (Merkel strokes).

Oh, how things have changed.

Eight months after the encounter with 11-year-old Reem, Angela Merkel’s stance towards refugees is now widely considered the gold standard in moral leadership, setting her apart from all other world leaders. Those who support her open-door policy consider her a beacon of hope in an otherwise depraved world. Those who oppose it at least acknowledge the political sacrifice she is making in order to stick to her convictions.

The image of the ice-cold chancellor has been all but erased.

It’s worth pointing out that last July’s exchange took place against a backdrop of headlines about Germany’s tough-line approach to negotiations for a third Greek bailout.

Now even in this regard the narrative has flipped, as Merkel leads calls for more solidarity with countries like Greece that find themselves on the frontline of the refugee crisis.

Merkel’s encounter with Reem, the girl from Lebanon, was notable in two respects.

First, it was a departure from her usual careful media strategy, which is to say as little quotable as possible. The German chancellor is known to make hard work for journalists who have to sift through long sentences of little concrete substance in search of a suitable sound bite.

More than anything though, the intervening months have proven that when Angela Merkel “made a girl cry” last year, the media hung her for being artless, not heartless.

Baking cookies with refugees

This is a follow-up to an earlier post about refugees in Germany

It was an afternoon full of surprises. For one, the Syrian teenagers loved baking Christmas biscuits. One of the boys carved the name ‘DIANA’ into his piece of dough and nodded shyly when I asked if it was the name of his girlfriend.

I met a Serbian man and his two young daughters, who looked angelic in matching owl hats. They’ve been here for six months and already the little girls speak perfect German.

When they arrived, they were entitled to free lessons. That policy has since changed to reflect the government’s intention to fast-track the applications of people with little hope of being granted asylum. Anyone from the Balkans is no longer considered worth the investment.

The father, ambitious, highly educated and fluent in English, fitted the description of ‘economic migrant.’ In Serbia, he worked as a salesman, overseeing two shopping centers. One of his ventures was into Lebanese honey, which he assured me, was the best in the world. “Even better than Manuka,” he said. He told me that no matter how hard he worked in Serbia, it remained a struggle to make ends meet. “It was different in the former Yugoslavia,” he said. “We had prosperity then. Now we can’t afford anything. And our passport is useless.”

As a fellow economic migrant, it made me sad to reflect that the accident of my birthplace entitled me, but not him, to seek a better future here.

But pragmatism, I think has to win out. There are 800 asylum-seekers arriving in Berlin every day. School gym halls are now being used to accommodate them. On the radio yesterday a mother described her son’s disappointment at finding out that his football training had been cancelled because the sports hall was now home to Syrian refugees.

The war in Syria has so dominated the conversation about refugees that it’s easy to forget the people coming from everywhere else.

As I was making to leave with another female volunteer, two young men motioned over to us. They gave off a macho, yet needy vibe, asking in a conspiratorial tone whether we used ‘Whatsapp.’ I was evasive in my answer but relented and gave them my number when they asked for it directly.

The men come from Gambia. One of them has been sending me unsolicited messages. He has been transparent, and – frankly – inappropriate in his pursuit of contact, refusing to accept that I have no romantic interest in him.

But I don’t regret giving him my number. His messages have been enlightening. It is depressing how desperate he is to attach himself to a woman from the EU. His messages are manipulative – describing his sadness at not hearing from me, demanding again and again to ‘meet me at the TV turm’ despite my clear assertion that this is not on the cards.

Sometimes the language of his messages changes, with sentences apparently copy and pasted from lyrics or inspirational quotes.

I don’t particularly pity him, as I was annoyed that his badgering continued after I asked him to stop.

But I do wonder what he left behind in Gambia and whether being married to an EU citizen really would be the utopia he imagines.

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.

Want to win the World Cup? Try “Konzentration”

I meant to post this yesterday but didn’t get around to it, sorry! The story begins at the Brandenburg Gate 24 hours ago:

As I write the German football team are dancing on a stage at the Brandenburg Gate. Before their “Sieger Flieger” landed, the plane took a spin over the fan-zone, where half a million people clad in red, black and gold were waiting to welcome their heroes home.

I have no idea how half a million people have nowhere else to be on a weekday morning. But this is Berlin; they’re probably in the creative industry or have called in sick.

As I watch Berlin explode with festivities, I’m reminded of the cliché that when Germans do party, they tend to party hard.

And, come to think of it, identifying the right time to party has been key to this team’s success.

Throughout Germany’s stellar World Cup campaign, coach Joachim Löw has refused to celebrate prematurely.  Instead, he remained adamant that each team Germany faced had the potential to end their championship dream. He was right too; after his side’s spectacular 4-0 defeat of Portugal, Germany could only muster a 2-2 draw against Ghana.

And after their epic 7-1 win over Brazil, which broke social media as well as footballing records, he remained determined in his caution.

Löw’s measured style may be seen as a tactic to keep his team level-headed before the final. But it was matched, if not exceeded by Merkel’s  endearingly understated response.

Appearing at a press conference the day after her country’s  7-1 defeat of Brazil, she said: “I agree with the global opinion that it was a very good match … I think it almost merits the description ‘historic.’”

She went on to wish the team “strength and concentration for the task at hand.”

Strength and concentration, seasoned with some good old-fashioned caution,  is the German recipe for Weltmeisterschaft success. What’s yours?