Books in Berlin: Red wine, dim lighting, dignitaries and … katekatharina.

“Tap, tap, tap,” went the bookseller with big eyes and black skin, patting her spoon on the rim of a wineglass. “Let’s all gather inside.”

Rupert, Georgia and I got up and made our way through the glass doors of the balcony. Georgia found a seat at the far side of the room. Rupert and I were too slow. We had to stand.

“Sure we’ve been sitting all evening anyway,” whispered Rupert.

The bookseller and the author sat on two seats in the middle of the room. The sun was setting. A glorious red shone through the penthouse.

“I can’t stop gushing about this book,” said the bookseller. “It’s my favourite of the year.”

She talked for some time about The Apartment and a little bit about Greg Baxter.

He maintained the kind of blank expression that is necessary when you are naturally modest and somebody is praising you in front of others.

The bookseller had an organic enthusiasm, completely free of pretension. As she talked to Greg, she seemed to forget that there was a room full of people watching. They talked about art and America; about writing and reading.

“I like Chekhov but not for the reasons that most do,” said Greg. “Chekhov gives no answers. There is no resolution. We don’t know why or how. That’s what life is like. We don’t have neat explanations. That’s why I hate psychology. It always tries to categorise everything. She is this. He is that. It’s not real.”

Later on, when the conversation was drawing to a close, Greg said “I just realised I haven’t said a single interesting thing. You are all so bored.”

He was wrong.

I had been listening intently to everything that he had said and he had made me think.

But I had also used the opportunity to scan the room to see if I could guess who the editor who had invited me might be.

My eyes alighted on a man wearing a patterned shirt and a cartoonish countenance.

I had seen him before, at the launch of a wonderful book written by Molly McCloskey, who ran a creative writing course I took at college.

I knew they were friends.

I shuffled over. Approach behaviour is not my strong-point. I am part shy-and-retiring, part outrageous-and-cheeky but when it comes to imposing my presence upon the unknowing, I am stubbornly reluctant.

I asked him whether he was who he was.

“Yes,” he said.

He was friendly and introduced me to some other guests.

“Kate, have you met Greg?” he asked.

“No!” I said.

Greg was smoking on the balcony, like a deep-thinking author should. I considered whether to take up the habit for the sake of my career.

“This is Kate!”

“Hello Kate,” said Greg.

We talked a little.

“So you’re a journalist?” Greg asked.

“Erm, aspiring at best,” I said.

“I’m jealous that you’re bilingual,” Greg said.

It’s nothing compared with writing a book, I thought.

“We should meet for a coffee sometime,” he said.

“Yes!” I said.

The editor was feeling a little awkward. “There’s a restaurant booked,” he said. “But I’m not sure for how many people…”

“Oh, dear me,” I said. “I’ve no intention of staying. I have to go to work tomorrow!”

I slid away to buy the book.

Greg signed it. “Oh no!” he said as a drop of his red wine fell onto the cover page.

“It adds character” I said, which is a phrase I have borrowed from LSB.

I was introduced to some embassy people. One lady said “Here, let me give you my card.”

I thought I had made it in life.

By now it was dark. Red wine, dim lighting, dignitaries and … katekatahrina:cinematic and surreal.

I made my leave and walked down the hill. It was quiet now, and cooler. Droplets of rain began to fall.

The underground station was empty and silent but for the slow shuffle of a man dragging his bag along the platform.

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The Loo Roll That Wished He Wasn’t

A few weeks ago, we ran out of toilet paper. I went to Lidl, hoping to find recycled paper that respected the reality of my sensitive rear. Most “second-hand” stuff is unfortunately scratchy. I wanted to buy about six rolls of soft, ethical loo paper. Unfortunately all that was left were packs of twelve. They came with a handy carrier handle, so I wandered home swinging my toilet paper beside me. When I got into the kitchen I realised that we were also out of “kitchen” paper. Rather than going out, I decided to ask some hard-hitting societal questions. Should tissue paper really be room specific? Where does it end? “Bedroom Paper?” “Sitting Room Paper?” “Utility Room Paper?” I decided to separate one of my loo roles from the pack and hang it up in the kitchen. Since my flatmate is rather a conventional type, I felt I owed him an explanation. I began writing a story on the toilet paper about a “loo roll that wished he wasn’t”. Now, we take it in turns to write the next chapter and we have too much respect for the narrative to tear a piece away.

The Forbidden Fruit: Why Paul Begley Won’t Go To Hell

Paul Begley is 46, Irish and until recently, had a good job. He travelled around the world, packing fruit and vegetables into big crates. Then he shipped them to Ireland and sold them to supermarkets. If you wanted a good gherkin or an organic asparagus, he was your man. It wasn’t glamorous work but it paid the bills easily and allowed him to take on a few people. He donated money to children’s charities and liked getting involved in awareness campaigns like “Kids in Action.” Now he’s going to prison, because he pretended that his bulbs of garlic were apples. He’s going to stay there for six years, just in case anybody else gets the idea to mislabel their garlic.

The tone might be facetious but the facts stand: As Judge Nolan said as he was sentencing him, Paul Begley was a “decent man.” He was probably about as honest as the next person.

It’ll cost the Irish taxpayer around half a million euro to keep him in prison. For every bit of money you earn, a little portion of it will go towards keeping Paul Begley in his cell. If, as is likely, he gets depressed you might also end up contributing to the salary of a prison psychologist.

As he said himself, what Paul Begley did was wrong. He shouldn’t have put “apple” labels on boxes of garlic. He shouldn’t have avoided paying tax, because no matter how inordinately high the tax on garlic, as opposed to say its cousin, the onion, Paul Begley was not in a position to take the law into his own hands.

He admitted it. He helped the police with their inquiry. He agreed a mode of repayment. And still, he was sentenced to six years in prison. The harsh sentence made headlines around the world.

Prison is for people who are a threat to society when free. It is a practical, rather than moral solution to society’s problems. In reality it is neither about revenge nor rehabilitation. It is a preventative strategy, and nothing more.

The chances of Paul Begley reoffending are very slim. For one, he’s bankrupt. He has €1.6 million to pay back, probably with hefty interest. He’s been humiliated. There’s not a supplier in Ireland that doesn’t know his name. At 46, he’ll probably call it a day and retire to a modest orchard somewhere, where he will consider his crime, live a quiet life and try to make ends meet.

He is not a danger to society.

The following scenario is analogous to Paul Begley’s crime. Think about it and ask yourself on a scale of 1-10 how serious the offense.

Imagine you’re in your local supermarket doing the weekly shopping. You pick up a few loose onions and pop them into a bag. Then you grab a couple of garlic bulbs and put them in another. You plop the bag with the onions onto a weighing scales and press the picture with the onions on it. You collect the little label with the price and stick it to the bag. Then you do the same with the garlic, except this time, the price is 25 times as high.

“Eh, what?” you think. “That’s ridiculous! You look at your bags again. Feeling a little bit uneasy, you scrunch up the sticker you printed out for the garlic. You put the bag back down on the weighing scales, and pause. You feel a little uncomfortable, but you think “ah, sure feck it.”

This time, you press the picture of the onion. You pick up the sticker, which shows an amount 25 times less than the previous one and attach it to the bag. Sure onions are just obese garlics, you think as you make your way to the till, where the sales assistant scans the two bags through without a second glance.

Paul Begley has already lost his reputation. Putting him behind bars means that the tax payer loses out too.
As for the argument that the purpose of the ruling is to deter others from committing the same crime, perhaps we should consider first of all, why the authorities find it so difficult to keep track of customs fraud, and second, why the tax on Chinese garlic is up to 232 % while that on onions is 9%.

Image source: articles.businessinsider.com

Why I am becoming a punk

Having been in Berlin for almost two weeks, I’ve decided to become a punk. I’ve been spying on them like a creepface since I got here, and am now planning the transformation.

I was only thinking the other day that it was time to rid myself of my squeaky clean image. The conversion would be quick and easy and wouldn’t require more than the purchase of a dog and a new wardrobe.

Plus, the lifestyle seems a lot less stressful than that of a journalist. Here are some notes I’ve made in advance of my conversion:

Punks in Berlin tick all the boxes. They have to – after all, they are German punks.

Most sport at least one stylish luminous spike, which bears a keen resemblance to a rhinoceros horn. Colours can vary, but red and green are preferred.

Piercings are mandatory. At least one nose ring is essential, as is a leather jacket with metal accessories. Spikey collars and patchwork black denim are encouraged but not proscribed.

Punks in Berlin are required to own dogs. These are unusually large hounds with leather collars, who, foaming at the mouth, are taught to snarl at conformist passers-by.

Berlin punks are early-risers. In the mornings you meet them hanging out at the U-Bahn stations taking swigs out of bottles of local beer and occasionally shouting obscenities on the escalators.

All in all, they are a benign bunch, characterised more by their sartorial conformity than by any act of rebellion.

I know I should be telling you more important things than about my dreams of joining a subculture but the problem is, all the things that are worth writing about, are “off-the-record.”

I would love to write about the Spiegel newsroom, where I spend the majority of my time in front of a computer translating articles about potential wars with Iran and the future of nuclear power in a post- Fukushima world, all while a mere three minutes away from the Brandenburg gate. But I can’t.

I’d like to talk about some peculiar characters I’ve had the delight of meeting but there’s a danger they might be reading.

I could of course write about Cauchy the housecat, who I am learning to love despite my well-documented feline aversion but that too could have libellous repercussions since Cauchy is showing signs of literacy.

Or I could tell you about the weekends I’ve spent alone wandering round the magnificent city, breathing in the incredible creative energy it contains and turning strange corners to find yet another beautiful expanse to inspire the senses. Last Sunday morning, I ventured out to the famous fleamarket at Boxhagener Platz, which is near me, and whiled away the hours looking at beauty magazines from the DDR times, and at old-fashioned dolls, which sat bolt upright in their prams, staring at me.

Flea market at Boxhagener Platz


But usually at the end of the day I am so tired that all I can do is grab a block of frozen spinach, which I buy for 35 cents in Netto, and shove it into a saucepan with an onion.

I could write about being alone, or about Skyping with LSB or about my flatmate, who is the sportiest person I have ever met and even stretches recreationally but as I’ve said before, this is not a diary.

Those tales I reserve for those of you with which I enjoy the pleasure of a private conversation.

I can report that I visited the largest chocolate shop in the world last weekend and that it was absolutely magnificent. The chocolate Reichstag was infinitely more impressive than the real thing and the enormous slabs of almond chocolate laced with cherries to die for.

Chocolate Reichstag

I also went to a street where the last cement slabs of the wall still remain in their original position. Pristine on one side and covered with graffiti on the other; a tidy contrast between freedom and repression. I climbed up high and looked down on the barbed wire fencing and Soviet watchtower and at the high-rise flats on either side, where east and west Berliners could wave at each other while the watchmen took a nap.

Remains of the Berlin Wall.

I’m alone at home now, with my feet toasty beside the radiator and the cat asleep in the armchair beside me. It’s very still here just now. Soon the neighbours will turn up their music and I’ll hear the clatter of footsteps in the hallway outside.

But for now, I’m going to enjoy the silence and curl up with a copy of The Steppenwolf, which I bought on Unter den Linden from the vendor that never ceased to talk.

Goodnight from Berlin.

How the Iron Lady boils an egg: why private moments matter in politics

If I learnt just one thing from watching The Iron Lady, it’s that despite popular belief, politicians are people too. Margaret Thatcher might have sent missile ships to the Falklands and vowed never to negotiate with terrorists, but she still boils an egg, fills black sacks for Oxfam and asks her daughter to fasten the catch at the back of her dress which she can’t reach.

The snippets of Maggie’s domestic life are definitely the most moving parts of the film (which, in case you are wondering I would highly recommend). It’s impossible not to feel something as you watch the forgetful but resolute old lady plonked awkwardly on the floor in an uncomfortable cotton dress, trying to prise open a DVD case and twitching as she eavesdrops on conversations her daughter has with her carer.

It made me think that if Britain has its iron lady in ‘Maggie’, then Germany has found her equivalent in ‘Angie’.

Like Thatcher, Merkel is frequently portrayed as emotionless and inexpressive and ultimately, as Maggie was, “out of touch”.

A recent article published on Spiegel Online seeks to redress the balance. In it, journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit, who has spent many years accompanying Merkel on her trips, documents a series of moments, unrelated to the financial crisis, nuclear power, or the future of the Euro, in which Merkel shows herself as something more than a political machine.

As a Human Being in fact.

They are ordinary moments.

Once, she laughed uncontrollably and snorted while telling a story about the Lithuanian Prime Minister, who was detained by the Belarusian police while out cycling disguised as a tourist.

Another time, after her defence minister Guttenberg resigned following revelations that he had plagiarised passages of his doctoral thesis, she made an uncharacteristically emotional speech. During it, she kept tugging at a loose thread on her sleeve.

She makes her husband breakfast every morning.

Some, especially the French, might inquire as to why on earth it matters what a politician does behind closed doors. Can they not sew their buttons in peace? Have they not got the right to entertain several lovers without the world having to know about it?

The French media in particular thinks personal privacy is sacrosanct.

Back in November, at the G20 summit Obama and Sarkozy were having a chat. The Israeli Prime Minister came up in conversation.

“I can’t stand him anymore, he’s a liar”, said Sarkozy, to which Obama replied, “You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day!”

The problem with the conversation was that their mikes were on. A couple of journalists heard the whole thing. Instead of rushing to their editor with their enormous scoop, they stayed quiet, in the belief that this was a private conversation, and would be damaging to report.

Nothing was said for a few days until the French website Arret sur Images published their remarks. As soon as international journalists got their hands on the clip, it went global and the mainstream French media reported it too.

Why is this important?

Because it reinforces the point that politics is a drama encompassing the full spectrum of human emotions.

We must never forget that it’s the behind-the-scenes conversations over strong cups of coffee and dog-eared files that end up directing events on the world stage.

Political decisions, like any other are made on the spur of the moment, and under the influence of powerful personalities. If your leader is more eager to be liked than to do what’s right, it matters. If they are impulsive or inexpressive or icy, it will affect their governance. Personality counts.

It’s one thing to believe in protecting private comments from the public glare but it’s another to detach entirely the personal from the political.

Research has shown that politicians get elected on the strength of their personality rather than on their policies.

It’s not surprising.

People are interested in people. They are less interested in policies. Policies may be more important, but ultimately it’s people, not machines that make them.

It’s futile to remove the personal from the political. We can rationalise emotions but we can’t remove them. Margaret Thatcher’s style of governance was probably affected a great deal more by the values of her stiff-upper lip upbringing than by the pages of briefs and pieces of advice she got from various channels during her premiership.

The media have a choice to make between objectifying and subjectifying. Objectifying is talking about Hillary Clinton’s bum, while subjectifying is telling us how her mouth twitched when her daughter failed a maths test.

The future of journalism is uncertain: the overwhelming speed at which news now travels has eliminated much of what the job used to entail.

There is a new opportunity though and it requires us to slow down, to reflect and to write with insight rather than haste.

Demanding of our journalists to be emotionally astute as well as politically sharp will lead to a more complex picture of what is anything but a straightforward job: making decisions that affect millions of lives and the future of our planet.

Journalism may sustain its integrity into the future by maintaining a fine balance between the personal and the political. When it comes to reporting from the private realm, it must replace sensationalism with psychological realism.

It’s what’s missing in the constantly updated, hyper-evolving virtual media landscape.

Unless we begin to privilege the mundane everyday, politicians will stay “out of touch” with it, and the public will continue to see them as little more than worn out political machines; inanimate and inept.

How Maggie boils an egg matters, but you’d really better go and see the film to find out.

The reality of working in retail

Toeing the Line

Pippa’s feet hurt. They’re wedged in narrow pumps and she’s been on them all day. She’s moving between the till and a number of milling customers, which include a formidable lady in her forties sporting a mass of auburn curls and examining a pair of shiny black boots. “D’you have them in a thirty-nine?” she calls over, waving the article at her. “I’ll just check for you now”, Pippa says, issuing a receipt and handing the customer at the till her bag before returning to the lady.

While she’s in the stockroom, Pippa’s colleague appears, her head barely visible beneath the enormous tower of shoeboxes she’s carrying. “Deliveries just in”, she whispers as Pippa emerges with the boots in a thirty-nine. “Oh, God”, Pippa gasps looking at the mountain of boxes growing in front of her.

Meanwhile, the lady has begun tapping her foot. Pippa hastens over. “Hi there. I’m really sorry for the delay. Unfortunately, we only seem to have size 39 in navy..” The lady purses her lips. “Is that right?”
“Yes, unfortunately. But I can check with our other branch to see if they have them in stock”.
She blinks a few times. “Alright, check”.

Pippa goes to the phone behind the till but there’s already another customer waiting to buy a pair of shocking-pink heels. “Sorry for keeping you”, she says taking the box and commenting, “they’re gorgeous” as she drops them into a plush black carrier bag. Transaction complete, she calls the other branch and dodges around the heap of boxes her colleague is sorting. On the way, another customer taps her on the shoulder.
“Are these leather?”
“They wouldn’t be entirely leather”, Pippa replies apologetically. “but they’re leather-lined”.
Back with the lady now, Pippa explains that she branch ten minutes away has the black boot in size 39 in stock.
The lady shakes her head vigorously; “Oh, I just can’t face the walk!”
“Or I could order them in for you?”, Pippa suggests.
The lady takes another look at the boot, with its glittery heel and floppy leg and puts it down. “I’ll leave it”.

“No problem”, says Pippa brightly, packing it back into its tissue wrapping and returning it to the stockroom upstairs. Her colleague is now up at the till dealing with a man who is demanding a refund for a shoe his daughter damaged while out dancing. As soon as he’s gone, Pippa’s colleague calls over to her and says “hey, go on your lunch, you haven’t even had a break”.

Pippa takes a look at the heap of boxes, at the group of shrieking friends who’ve just come in looking for matching stilettos to wear to a hen night and at the accounts that are yet to be filled in. The sales target figure her boss has given her seems alarmingly out of reach. Rocking Around the Christmas Tree comes on again. “I can’t”, she says.

Living on a shoestring

Pippa has been working in the shoe shop for the last year and a half. She’s got a Master’s Degree and worked part-time all through college. She’s one of the 216,229 retail workers in Ireland and part of a growing number of graduates entering the sector.

Like many others retail employees, Pippa’s work conditions are poor. She splits her time between the various branches of the shop and frequently runs the smaller outlets with no help. “It’s a nine-hour shift, on my own, with no break”, she says.

Quite apart from compromising safety, such conditions represent a breach of the law, which states “Shop employees who work more than 6 hours and whose hours of work include 11.30am-2.30pm are entitled to a one hour consecutive break which must occur during those hours”. Furthermore and rather curiously, retail workers in the Footwear and Drapery trade in Dublin only “are entitled to a 15-minute paid break (exclusive of the main meal break) if working more than 4 ½ hours.” Taking into account the amount of work she does and her experience, Pippa feels that she “could do with getting more than nine euro an hour at this stage”.

To add insult to injury, Pippa is not allowed to wear her own shoes but is instead forced to wear footwear that the shop stocks, for which she must pay out of her own wages. She finds them uncomfortable and permanently suffers from blisters. “I have wide feet”, she explains and “because of that these type of shoes hurt”. The one time she dared to come in to work in her own shoes, she was shouted at by her manager. “She just went crazy”, Pippa remembers.

Fear of managers and bosses is widespread among the workers I speak to. “It’s just a lack of respect”, one girl tells me. “We’re dispensable, so they can afford to treat us badly”. Pippa is used to being shouted at. Of her manager she says, “She has been horrible to me on many occasions, but, to be honest, it’s just her manner with you, and a build up of little things, which over time, would have your confidence in ribbons!” she says, adding, “everybody is scared of her”. On the week I pop by, she has been made cry twice by her employer, which Pippa describes as a “new record”.

Image source journal.ie

“We’re just the Christmas slaves”

Wendy, also a graduate worked her sixth Christmas in retail this year. “In the three weeks before Christmas I worked 16 late shifts; they included 2pm-11pm and 2.30pm-12.00am. There were a few consecutive days where I did not even see daylight. I would come home from work at 12.30am, finally wind down to sleep at 3.00am, wake up at 1.00pm to get to work by 2.30pm … I lived like a vampire, microwave meals became my everyday dinner; eating a home cooked meal was a rarity … My sleeping pattern has become alarming and now that the Christmas rush is over all of us on our staff are suffering with colds, infections and the flu from being so run down and stressed. All because people want to shop at 11pm at night … I remember on one occasion finishing at 12.15am, heading home to bed and my alarm going off at 5.30am to be in the store by 7am: all for minimum wage.”

“Nobody thinks about us”, she says “we’re just the Christmas slaves to the shoppers”.
Compared to other years though this Christmas has not been the worst for Wendy: “The years I worked in fashion retail at Christmas were hell but selling face creams and body lotions is pretty straightforward”.

Short-staffing and Dispensability

The problem of short staffing is widespread in the retail sector. With employers taking on fewer staff, individual workers are forced to work longer hours and to go beyond their prescribed duty. The scramble for vacancies makes employees less likely to speak out against their employers’ malpractices, for fear of losing their job to the ever-growing queue of people hoping to take it. The participation of shops in the Government Job Bridge Scheme, which pays interns €50 on top of their weekly social welfare allowance to work for a period of up to nine months, further restricts the number of workers hoping to get paid minimum wage for doing the job.

Experiences with customers: a mixed bag

Mandate, the third largest trade union in Ireland represents 40,000 workers, the majority of which are employed in major retail companies. In 2009 it launched its Respect Retail Workers Campaign following a survey it carried out on twenty retail businesses and their employees, which found that 74% of workers had received verbal threats from customers in the past year and almost 10% had been assaulted by a customer in the course of their employment.

For Pippa, encounters with customers have been varied “Experiences with customers can be really lovely and make you feel very appreciated and like you have helped someone in some little way, even if it is just by lending them an ear; other times, it can be hell!”

Wendy agrees, “Honestly customers were not so bad this year … but of course there were the people who argued over 20 cent for a gift wrap bag that went to charity and the man who wanted money off for buying three things”.

Employees of smaller business losing out

For the thousands of retail workers employed by smaller businesses who are not part of a union, bringing change about is a difficult, risky process. Speaking out threatens to damage relations with colleagues as well as prospects of promotion. The “At least I have a job” mantra appears to be the guiding principle behind silent, gritted teeth and stoic continuance.

As for work being valued, according to Pippa, “Nothing I’ve seen or heard would really suggest it. It’s a tiring job at first, but you do get used to it. Emotionally it can be awful at times, but the people around me are lovely. It’s nice to be working around people my age, who can pick you up when you are down”.

As for the employers, who are supplied with an ever-increasing number of staff faced with little choice but to work in poor conditions, a change in behaviour is bound to come from above rather than below. For the Government, that means enforcing and checking on the written records employers are required to keep of hours worked, to impose the maximum fine of €1,900 on employers who fail to co-operate with it and to monitor the Job Bridge Scheme to make sure that it introduces more, not fewer paid workers into the sector.

What do you think? Have you ever worked in retail? Do shop workers have it tougher than most?

My boyfriend is a savant

My boyfriend is a savant. He can multiply enormous numbers by each other in seconds and can list the members of my expansive German family in order of age without ever having been formally taught. He can recall facts about obscure historical figures I’ve never heard of and whenever we share a book to read, I have to skip paragraphs to keep up with his page turning.

Of course he denies it. He shakes his head with a bemused smile, masking the beginnings of faint frustration and says, “I’m not a savant, Katzi”. Then I ask him to multiply 678 by 78 and he says “52,884”.

“Is it really?”
“I think so”, he replies modestly.
I check it on my phone. He’s always right. I have found that he finds it difficult to refuse an offer to compute.

Being a savant’s girlfriend has its complications. One becomes idle. Instead of whipping out a calculator, or typing something into Google, or even better lifting one of my enormous encyclopaedias, I call him.

Another problem I have found is that it is extremely difficult to find a fault or defect to offset the genius quality. As well as knowing lots, he’s also unbearably humble.

The difference between us is that I don’t like to let the facts get in the way of a good diagnosis. I understand that according to the Strict Diagnostic criteria, LSB unfortunately does not qualify as a savant. However, this does not stop me from addressing text messages to him with “What’s up, Savantface?”

In an effort to refute my hypothesis, this Christmas he gave me a book with the title “Islands of Genius” with a foreword written by my hero Daniel Tammet. I fear he thought that reason was the way to a change of heart. This book, like most academic works, disguises interesting and insightful points with dull prose.

Peculiarly, though I received it last week, the inside cover claims it to have been “first published in 2012”. I see this as nothing more than further evidence of LSB’s preternatural processing speed.