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so whenever anyone asked (which they would, quite often) I would respond in my usual way that marriage was an outdated tradition, which we were in no hurry to embrace.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

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The ninetenth-century novel that sheds light on 21st century backwardness

I finished Fontane’s Effi Briest on the train back from Warsaw. Maybe I shouldn’t have. The tale of a young girl who marries a much older, politically ambitious man doesn’t end well. I burst into tears while reading the final passage. LSB, well used to my delicate sensibilities, patted my back and let me blow my nose in his scarf. Then I hid my face in his coat to avoid the stares of my fellow passengers.

Image source: Wiki Commons (c) H.-P.Haack

Image source: Wiki Commons (c) H.-P.Haack

*Spoiler Alert*

On the surface, it’s easy to see why I found the story upsetting. 17 year-old Effi is married off to Baron von Instetten, who was once in love with her mother. They move into a creepy house in the middle of nowhere. A huge shark carcass hangs in the entrance hall and Effi is scared by the strange sounds coming from an empty upstairs room. Instetten dismisses her fears and spends most of his time travelling and pursuing political ambitious in Prussia. Lonely and shunned by all but a good-natured apothecary, Effi descends into depression.

She gives birth to a baby girl and recruits a suicidal woman to nurse her.

Enter Major Crampas. He’s a married man with a reputation for infidelity. He makes advances on Effi and implies that her husband is using her fears of the haunted house to “educate” her. One night while taking a sledge ride, Crampas kisses her. It’s a nineteenth century novel, so either the rest of the affair is glossed over, or it doesn’t go any further than that.

In any case, the years go by and things improve when the family moves to Berlin and Effi can finally bid goodbye to the creepy house with the shark carcass. But while Effi is away breathing in sea air to increase the chances of bearing a son, Instetten finds old letters from Crampas in her sewing box.

Instead of being heartbroken, he’s mortified at what society will think of him. He challenges Crampas to a duel and shoots him dead. Then he banishes Effi and deprives her of seeing her daughter. Years later, when he grants a single visit, Effi realises that her daughter has been poisoned against her. Her health declines. Eventually, Effi’s parents take pity on her and allow her to come home. She dies full of remorse at age 29.

That was the bit that got me. Effi dies believing herself monstrous. Despite the fact that she was undoubtedly the victim of a stifling, money-driven, image-obsessed society with a questionable understanding of a woman’s worth, as well as of sexual consent.

Now we get to the crux of it. I wasn’t just in floods of tears because of Effi. After all, she’s fictional!

What made me really inconsolable was recognising that young women these days are still being subjected to outrageous social pressures. And that many, like Effi, accept the blame for things which are not their fault.

Let’s take the fact that Effi’s parents have control over her sexual and marital fate. Nineteenth century craziness, right? Not really. A recent documentary followed the purity movement in the United States, where apparently one in six girls takes a pledge to stay a virgin until she marries. Specifically, it followed the troubling phenomenon of “father-daughter purity balls” where teenage girls, many of them much younger than Effi, pledge that their father will be their only boyfriend until they marry.

What about power dynamics in relationships? Did young Effi really have a choice when the sleazy Crampas came on to her in the sleigh? A video on Upworthy which went went viral last week features a young woman promoting what’s dubbed “consent culture.” She details in crystal clear language what consent is and what it is not. She argues that in some cases, consent is impossible. For example she says, “you can’t get consent from someone you have power over.” Well over a hundred years after Fontante wrote Effi Briest, campaigners still need to spell out that some relationships are by their very existence, exploitative. Echoes of wealthy, manipulative Crampas preying on young and vulnerable Effi are all around us.

Finally, let’s consider the image-based culture Effi is subjected to. She’s paraded around society, where she is expected to display flawless beauty. Last month, 17 year-old singer Lorde took to Twitter to express her frustration that a publication had doctored an image of her to correct her skin blemishes. “Remember flaws are ok :)” she tweeted to her 1.46 million followers.

If only that, and the other important messages Fontane was sending us, would actually catch on in the 21st century.

Should I get married to avoid the home for superior spinsters?

“That house,” Frau Bienkowsi said, taking a break to sit on her Zimmerframe beside a patch of buttercups, “was for war widows and a better sort of unmarried girl.”

“It could be the place for you!” she continued, half-seriously. “After all, I need to see that my Katechen will be looked after if things with Andrew don’t work out.”

Frau B believes firmly in marriage. Perhaps I would too, if the choice were between it and a red-brick home for spinsters.

She cannot fathom why German president Joachim Gauck has a Lebensgefährtin instead of a wife and why my sisters and I have yet to tie the knot.

I like some things associated with marriage, like commitment and companionship but dislike others, like lavish weddings and the idea that a relationship undergoes a qualitative change just because you day “I do.”

For people of Frau B’s generation, marriage had as much to do with economics as it did with love.

I wonder whether a whole lot has changed.

In Germany, matrimony is encouraged by the tax system. The comically-named “Ehe-Splitting,” (marriage splitting) policy allows married couples to pay tax at a rate determined by their average income. Couples save money by allowing the bigger-earner to avoid a higher tax rate.

Kate Katharina wedded to  hot chocolate while otherwise unattached

Kate Katharina wedded to hot chocolate while otherwise unattached

I have not ruled out sometime marrying LSB, especially if he asks politely.

But the prospect of living out my dying days in a home for “better sorts of unmarried girls” will happily have nothing to do with my decision.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

And for the time being, I’ll avoid both institutions, thank you very much.

********************************************************************************************************************

PS – LSB has himself written about the institution of marriage. It’s in response to the debate about gay marriage raging in Ireland at the moment. It’s very clever and persuasive and you can read it here.

In defence of pigeons

People think it’s okay to be rude about pigeons because they’re clumsy, grey and ill-proportioned. But you’d never dream of talking about your grandparents like that. You’d never call them “flying rats” or “the scourge of the streets.” Even if they were part of a senior citizens’ drug gang, you’d probably find a way around it.

People think it’s okay to dismiss pigeons because they’re so common. But logically, most people are common too. Crowds flock to the zoo to see exotic birds like parrots and peacocks and pelicans. They stare into their cages with open mouths and say things like “would you look at those magnificent feathers” or “isn’t she a beauty?” meanwhile kicking the pigeon who has landed near their foot.

Last May, German daily Der Tagesspiegel published an excellent article in defence of the pigeon. The writer concluded that the bird had an “image problem” and dispelled many of the hateful myths associated with it. For one, pigeons don’t carry any more diseases than your average feathered friend. Their excrement is not as abundant as you think either. In Berlin, dogs produce 20,000 tonnes of poo a year. Pigeons, on the other hand, a measly 27. Pigeon expert Ludger Kamphausen claims the chance of picking up an infection from a flower pot containing mushrooms is higher than from a city pigeon.

This is nothing new. Birds have been maligned for not matching up to an aesthetic ideal for hundreds of years. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling was published in 1843. It tells the story of a duckling who undergoes hardship because of its plain feathers, until one day it turns into a beautiful swan and is re-accepted into the community.

Here’s the thing though. It’s not pigeons that have the image problem, it’s society. We can blame it on evolutionary biology but it’s no excuse really. We think that if things are cute, they are good. And good things are more deserving. Take these two examples.

In 2007, Germany went crazy for a polar bear cub called Knut after he was rejected by his mother. He became an international phenomenon; books, DVDs, teddy bears and even songs were produced in his honour. After his untimely death, Spiegel Online ran an obituary of Knut which described him as an “innocent bear who enchanted millions.” A bronze statue was erected at the zoo in his honour.

Thousands visited Berlin to pay their respects to Knut. They mourned the loss of the bear while eating mass-produced pig meat which they bought from the hot dog stands nearby. Jonathan Safran Foer writes eloquently about this irrational behaviour in Eating Animals, which is worth a read whether or not you are a committed carnivore.

From Knut to Susan Boyle. Two years after Knut came on the scene, 47 year-old frumpy Scotswoman Susan Boyle appeared on TV talent show Britain’s Got Talent. The judges laughed at her and unfortunate members of the audience, whose faces have been immortalised on Youtube, scowled cruelly when she came on stage. Then she started to sing. She was very good and moved one of the judges to tears. They stopped laughing after that because Susan Boyle had compensated for the offence of not being conventionally attractive. She had talent, so her aesthetic shortcoming, or in other words the crime of looking like a normal person, would be quashed, pending a makeover as soon as she got a record deal.

The story of the Ugly Duckling and of Susan Boyle have been packaged as if they contain some moral message. But they tell us much more about society’s questionable collective morality than anything else. In the case of the Ugly Duckling, enduring years of hardship is rewarded by becoming beautiful and accepted. In the Susan Boyle saga, the message is that it’s possible to distract people from the obvious defect of not being glamorous by showcasing alternative accomplishments, like a beautiful voice or a talent for embroidery.

As for what Knut teaches us, it’s no more than the inconsistency pet-owners who eat meat recognise in themselves. We seem hard-wired to prefer things that look nice, but we’re also smart enough to know that acting on that bias goes against the equality mature societies strive for.

So next time you shoe a pigeon away while canoodling with a canary, think about whose feathers you’re really ruffling.

When Dublin Meets Berlin

There was a delay on one of the underground lines in Berlin a few weeks ago because a homeless man had fallen asleep on the tracks. Security personnel rushed to the scene and the man was woken up. Bewildered, he growled at the passengers staring at him. He was escorted off the platform but it all took time. There was a short delay before service resumed.

Meanwhile, a public announcement had urged passengers to take alternative routes. I got on another train which would take me close to where I needed to go. Sitting opposite me were two little girls, aged about nine and eleven, who had also been waiting for the first train. We’d barely been on the second for five minutes when it was announced that “Service has now resumed on the U8.”

The smaller of the girls pursed her lips and shook her head, disgusted. “What an absolute joke,” she said. “Why didn’t they announce that it would only take five minutes to clear the line?” The other rolled her eyes and sighed. “This kind of thing is always occurring. It’s a farce.”

My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. First of all, the transport system in Berlin is the single best I have ever encountered. And second, here were two tiny German girls complaining about bad service in language so adult and earnest that it was comical.

This, I thought is the difference between the Germans and the Irish.

I imagined a similar situation in Ireland, where a conversation might have gone like this: “Jaysus, the poor fella. Did you get a look at him? Lucky somebody saw him and he wasn’t driven over … Jaysus! Sure we’ll be fashionably late. It’ll be grand sure. We’ve a story to tell.”

As our economy wilts and theirs prospers, it’s worth examining what makes the Germans German and the Irish Irish. I’m in a rather convenient position to do so, being half of each.

People here tell me that when I begin to complain habitually about everything, I can be called a “Berliner.”

Complaining in Germany, as in Ireland is a national hobby. The difference here is that complaints are taken seriously.

The reason that complaints are taken seriously is that responsibility is too. When you go to a ticket vendor or to buy a hot dog, you’re served with the same level of attention as you are in a bank or a lawyer’s office.

Some time ago, I was working on a story about low wage workers and got talking to a middle-aged woman selling hot dogs on the street. “I take my job seriously,” she told me, after she spoke perfect English while serving some American tourists. “I want people to enjoy their food.” She was earning about six euro an hour and was finding it hard to make ends meet.

Sincerity too is an integral part of the German mindset. If you say “We must meet up for a coffee. I’ll give you a call in the next couple of days,” it means that you will certainly arrange a date within three working days.

Shortly after I moved into my apartment, I made my flatmate dinner. It was vegetarian Shephard’s Pie and I was worried that it hadn’t turned out well. As we sat down to eat it, he took a few mouthfuls and said nothing. I was nervous. Perhaps it wasn’t to his taste. I waited for a while and then tentatively asked whether the food was alright.

“It’s delicious,” he said.
“Then why didn’t you say anything?” I cried.
“Well I had to wait to taste it properly,” he said. “It would have been insincere to say it was nice straightaway.”

I thought about that for a long time.

While the Germans are responsible, reliable and sincere, the Irish are compassionate, humorous and wily.

When my parents visited me recently, they were a little slow in buying their train ticket at the machine. A woman in her twenties standing behind cursed at them and shoved them out of the way. I would like to think that in Ireland, she would have given them a hand. For all its Celtic Tiger madness, Ireland has remained a place, where, as my mother so nicely puts it, “eejits and eccentrics are well tolerated.”

Before I moved to Berlin, my boyfriend made me a mix tape which included two anthems to remind me of home. One of them is the speech Enda Kenny made to welcome Barack Obama to the country and the other is the lament, with mandolin accompaniment, performed by Joe Duffy following Thiery Henri’s handball in 2009, which crushed Ireland’s dream of qualifying for the World Cup.

The latter is ridiculous and hilarious and features lines such as “Will You be Out of Favour To Sell Gillette Razors?” and “It’s a pity for the South African nation without us at their world celebration.” Enda’s speech on the other hand, is so full of passion and pride that it’s hard not to feel a pang of affection for the little nation, which despite falling to pieces, has still managed to maintain a healthy dose of national pride.

While the Irish might champion mediocrity, they do it with charm. Ireland is like the child in the psychological experiment that gobbled up the single marshmallow, despite knowing that if it had waited, it would have received two. Germany is the child that waits for the second marshmallow but wonders whether, by the same principle, it would make more sense to continue to wait rather than to enjoy the two already gained.

The Irish are wily and endearingly naive. We wouldn’t quite call ourselves dishonest but we’d settle on being creative with the truth: the stuff of brown envelopes, dodgy property deals, shifty politicians and the Catholic Church. On the other hand, it’s also the kind of opportunistic cleverness that bagged Enda a meeting with the Chinese Vice President last February, made Jedward into national icons and allows some to hold fast to the belief that we really, really, really can win the Euros.

If we could learn accountability and responsibility from the Germans and teach them to kick back and remember that everything – probably will be grand in the end – we’d both be better off. Instead, they’ll be bailing us out for decades and we’ll be telling jokes to numb the pain.

Daniel O’Donnell: Charms To Which I am Immune?

This morning, news reached Berlin that a Daniel O’Donnell museum had opened in Donegal, northern Ireland.

In an interview with the state broadcaster , Daniel said that the collection included “suits I would have worn through the years”, his “Donegal Person of the Year” trophy from 1989 and the school-bag he used 40 years ago.

At lunch I went to the bakery in the underground station beside my office and bought a latté from the woman that doesn’t know she’s in my life.

I sat down on a little red plastic seat and surrounded by the buzz of Berlin commuters, I began to think about Daniel O’Donnell.

I even took some notes.

If Daniel O’Donnell were to appear in fiction I decided, I would accuse his character of lacking credibility.

And that, perhaps is exactly what lies at the heart of his success.

Daniel is softly-spoken and meanders effortlessly about attempts to get a rise out of him. His eyes have the characteristic hazy, other-wordliness of an evangelical, but none of the accompanying conviction.

He is the ultimate wish-fulfilment of Irish women of a certain generation: he is the priest that croons, the priest that can marry, the priest that doesn’t tell you off.

Last year, when Ireland’s flagship late-night chat show dedicated an entire program to celebrating his 50th birthday, I thought that in spite of the comedic value of such an event, something extraordinary was happening in my country.

The Late Late Show had become Father Ted and nobody seemed to be batting an eye.

My father has a great phrase he uses to describe someone he knew long ago: “He was known for his humour;” dad says, pausing before he adds, “some of it conscious.”

The official Daniel O’Donnell fan page features what is described as “the perfect gift”: a digitally signed and personalized photograph of Daniel. Fans can choose a message and clever technology will re-master it to look like Daniel’s handwriting. The sample photograph reads: For Bev, the best mum in the world.x

Daniel’s website, which is run by his wife Majella, features a fact file similar to the ones you’d find in the “unofficial biographies” of 90’s pop groups like Steps or Five, which are directed at the pre-teen market. It looks like this:

Name: Daniel Francis Noel O Donnell
Date of Birth: 12th December 1961
Place of Birth: Dungloe, Co Donegal, Ireland
Mother: Julia O Donnell (nee McGonagle)
Father: Francis O Donnell
Siblings: John, Margaret (Margo), Kathleen and James
Colour of Eyes: Blueish Green
Colour of Hair: Brown
Height: 5ft 10in
Weight: 12st 13lbs (Too much!)
Marital Status: Married to Majella
Children: 2 Stepchildren – Siobhan 17yrs & Michael 15yrs
Currently Residing: Kincasslagh, Co Donegal, Ireland
Favourite Colour: Yellow
Favourite Foods: Mince and Potatoes and some Chinese dishes
Best-loved Artists: Loretta Lynn, Charlie Pride and Sir Cliff Richard
All time favourite Song: There are so many but I love “Miss you nights” by Sir Cliff Richard
Worst Habit: Now, would I have any bad habits??!!!
Best Habit: Where do I begin!
Worst Asset: My growing love handles!
Best Asset: My teeth
Pet Hates: Smoking followed by gossip
Favourite Passtime: Playing Cards and Golf
Fondest Memory: The first time I met Loretta Lynn. Wow!
Worst Memory: The night I lost my voice in December 1991
Favourite Holiday Destination: Tenerife
Favourite Movie: Gandhi, The Sound of Music and Calamity Jane
Favourite Saying: Up ya boy ya!
Happiest Day of my Life: 4th November 2002 – The day I married Majella

I have written before about the blend of wily opportunism and endearing naivety that characterises many an Irish success story.

I believe that beyond the softness of the Donegal lilt and the string of attractive clichés that bounces so effortlessly from his tongue, lurks a very shrewd man, trying to conceal his bemusement at the fact that the pile of stuff that he would otherwise have dumped into bags destined for Oxfam, will instead be displayed behind glass cases in a lucrative personal shrine. Or “visitors’ centre,” as he would have us call it.

You’ve got to hand it to Daniel: he has a fine appreciation of the ridiculous.

And as thousands rush to caress the fine silk tie that Daniel wore on tour once or queue up to marvel at the honorary MBE he was awarded in 2001, it’s fair to say that the joke’s on us.

Oh, Danny Boy.

As if I didn’t have enough reasons to come home.

The Graveyard

My parents brought me running shoes when they visited me at Easter. Yesterday I tried them out. The day was mild and dewy.

I was looking for a park, but instead I ran into a graveyard.

Inside it was still; the birds were singing. Daffodils peeked out from under little heaps of earth. Leaves rustled. A red squirrel skirted past me.

Plastic pots and watering cans lay in a pile of withered flowers.

I passed some buried children; tiny mounds, close together. Words and prayers and a teddy bear.

A woman pushed her bicycle past the graves. The wheels crunched against the gravel.

Further on, I found enormous iron casts from the 1900’s. Whole families were resting there: soldier sons, an 18-year-old girl ripped away from her widowed mother. A family’s heartbreak documented into thick stone slabs. Always the same word: Unvergessen; “unforgotten.”

Then from the trees, slowly a withered old man pushed his Zimmerframe and got down on his knees to tend to a grave.

I watched his tiny frame crouched over a tombstone and his wrinkled hands shovelling the earth in little scoops.

My tears fell like unexpected rain. I was ashamed.

I turned and ran away, past the graveyard shop where they were selling over-priced potted plants, past the red-brick church on the roadside, past the cinema and grotty record store, past the kebab stand.

In the park, dogs bounded through the woodland, toddlers dipped their hands into the water fountain and families played catch. And the birds sang.

Can you remember the last time you got lost?

Three Women That Don’t Know They’re In My Life

1. The Prostitute

She has white-blonde hair and long, thin legs. She stands by the red-brick buildings of Hackesher Markt. She wears white leather hot pants, tan coloured tights and furry white snow boots. Her cleavage is pushed up by a skin-tight leather jacket, which she keeps half unzipped. She has red lips and cool, blue eyes. Last Saturday night, it snowed in Berlin. She watched a group of Italian men walk up the street. She stood in their way and smiled, casting her eyes up and down their bodies. First they were uncomfortable, then aroused. She put her arms around one and pushed her body towards his. She pressed her breasts to his chest. All the time, she took sidelong glances at his friends. The snowflakes were sticking to her hair. She was cold.

Berlin's Affluent Red Light District

2. The Girl at the Bakery

She sells sour dough bread and pastries at a bakery at an underground station and her red uniform includes a crumpled tie. She has an old-fashioned kind of face, which refuses to be offset by her hoopy silver earrings, lip piercing and the two thick black scrunchies, which hold back her wavy hair. When she serves customers, she is upbeat. There is something naive in her face which I am drawn to. I think she would flair up at injustice and I think that she is happy in her job. Once when I was eating a Nussecke and sipping on a latté at the bakery, I saw her chat quietly to a colleague. The tone was conspiratorial. It surprised me.

3. The “Tickets Please?” Girl

She could be a child but she is not. She is small and has big brown eyes and dark curly hair. She lives at the entrance to my underground station with homeless men and their giant dogs. Her voice rings in my ears. She says the same thing every day. “Tickets please?”. (Fahrscheine bitte?”). She says it like she is a bored train conductor, but really she is a bored homeless person collecting tickets to sell on. She’s not on drugs because her eyes, while large and droopy are alert. She wears puffy clothes from the 80s and she works much harder collecting tickets than her male friends.

Snapshots of a Weekend in Berlin

Berlin is like one of those postcard strips which fold out to reveal a dozen snapshots. No matter how much exploring you have already done, each time you turn an unfamiliar corner, a little square, or a park or church will pop out at you. Here are some snapshots of my weekend, as I think back over it, wrapped in a blanket, with the cat at my feet, rolling a bouncy ball over the floor.

Friday night, 4.30 am Burger King, Friedrischshain

I am remarkably unaffected by the five shots of Kräuter Schnapps, one Amaretto and apple cocktail, and two bottles of beer I’ve consumed. But still, there’s nothing like a greasy bag of onion rings and packet of chips given the circumstances. The lady behind the counter has grey hair and steely eyes and a face full of resignation. I immediately feel guilty for being somebody that makes it worthwhile to keep Burger King open at this hour. I am exceptionally polite when I order. Behind me, two homeless men, with colourful floppy hair and both on crutches, are slurring their words as they address her co-worker, a stylish man with black eyes.

“Why don’t you point at the meal you want?”, he suggests, as if this is a standard cure for those who can’t articulate. The men look at the pictures of slimy bacon double cheese burgers and chicken nuggets and make a selection. “Would you like a drink with that?” the sever asks.

They can’t think of a response for this one. Suddenly I feel something against my leg. One of the men has started to prod me with his crutch. I jump to safety. His companion defends me:“Hey man, don’t do that, she’s a girl. Stop..”
As I am eating my onion rings, one of the men collapses. His burger flies to the ground. The cheese soaks into the dirty grey tiles.

Friedrichshain Park, Saturday, 3 pm

There are two enormous concrete elephants in the park. A little blonde girl is colouring them in with chalk. She’s not wearing any shoes, and her socks are pink. She’s totally engrossed in her task. She paints the elephant’s trunk green.

On the far side of the green, heart-shaped balloons tied to trees are dancing in a light breeze. A group of twenty-somethings are having a party. They’ve set up a little barbecue and are serving sausages and potato salad on paper plates. Suddenly they all put down their plastic forks to sing Happy Birthday to their friend.

A young man with a black pony tail and tired eyes is sitting on a bench, bent over his Border Collie, caressing it slowly, with a large brush. The collie stands patiently, looking straight ahead, bending its knees when required and responding instantly to the man’s gruff “Setzen.” There is tremendous dignity in the collie’s profile. It looks as though he is smiling politely, as large tufts of his black and white fur fall to meet the dusty ground. After several minutes, the man puts the brush away. The collie lifts his head to look into his owner’s face, with deference and expectation. “Na, geh,”the man with the tail concedes, and the collie, still for so long, now bounds away. He meets a Labrador on the way and they sniff each other’s bottoms.

image source: architectureinberlin.com


Sunday, 5 pm The Topography of Terror

Today, exploring the area around Check Point Charlie, I landed at a stretch of the original Berlin wall. A little sign revealed that this was the “Topography of Terror.” There was a visitor’s centre at the site. I went in. And I saw pictures of Jews being paraded round their hometowns wearing signs with words designed to humiliate them. And documents authorising handicapped children to be used for medical experiments. And I listened in to a guide, who was telling a school class about the big companies that had donated money to Hitler during the war.

Suddenly an old man, who had also been listening in, blurted out “I’m not responsible for what my father or grandfather did.”

The teenagers turned their heads.

“I’m innocent! It’s not my fault. I don’t even know if my father or grandfather did anything bad.”

“We’re not talking about blame,” said the tour guide, a curly-haired polyglot, whose first language was not German.

“I didn’t do anything wrong!” the old man repeated, in an accent I now recognize as Berlin, and which most people suppress, because they think it “undesirable.”

“Maybe we can talk about this later,” said the guide. The man stopped talking. The guide finished his tour and told the teenagers never to stop asking questions in order to find out the truth.

As the schoolboys trotted away, the guide approached the old man and shook his hand.
“I’m sorry,” said the old man.
“Don’t worry,” said the guide.
“I’m innocent,” said the old man, his face folded with guilt.

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