Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Funky Pádraigstag


Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh! I’ve 22 minutes to finish this post before it’s not St. Patrick’s Day anymore so I have to dash.
You’d think I’d loads of time to write it – this St. Patrick’s “Day” started last Wednesday on the Fernsehturm and is ending almost a week later with the launching pad playing no part whatsoever in the celebrations.
You broke my heart Fernsehturm, you really did. As we drove home from the Funktum in West Berlin I cast my eyes southward and there you were, barely lit at all, despondent, morose, mourning for your friends whose Olympic bid was shot down before it could end in certain disaster. You dodged a bullet, Berlin. You have to finish your airport before you get dessert.
There was a great last-minute push to get the Fernsehturm in green but diplomatic appeals, including my own, fell on two deaf ears. They belonged to the guy with the authority to literally give the green light – but he was having none of it, not from me, not from anybody. That’s all I can say. I don’t want to jeopardize the chances of a green Fernsehturm next year.
This year the Funkturm stepped in. The young fella and I were the only two there. Your wan at the tower looked at me like I’d four heads when I asked her what time it would be green, and some gruff oul’ security guard barked at us for being on private property as I was setting up the tripod. The young fella kept an eye out for him afterward and we still got our shots.
We met the guard again on the way out and I wished him a happy Sankt Patrickstag – he hadn’t even known. It didn’t occur to him to wonder why the fuckin Funkturm he was guarding was glowing radioactive green.
The parade was on Sunday, two days before the day itself, but it was a good laugh. St. Patrick himself chased a snake or was chased by a snake down Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg. The young fella assured me it wasn’t a real snake. To the accompaniment of uilleann pipes and a few hundred sympathizers, our hero chased the snake, or the snake chased him, down Wienerstraße beside Görlitzer Park and conveniently into a beer garden, where anyone who wanted to follow had to pay €5 admission. I think the snake and St. Patrick got in for free – I didn’t see them entering because we stopped off at a Späti as, I think, nearly everyone did along the way.
We met a great older couple sitting on a bench wearing funny hats and dressed up for the occasion. The woman was wearing Ireland socks.
“They’re Irish drinking socks,” she explained.
“But they smell like German socks,” her husband said. Apparently she had been his English teacher and they took a shine to each other.
They didn’t go to the beer garden. Many didn’t, turning off at the gates and going home or elsewhere. While the music in the beer garden was great, you could listen to it outside and avoid paying €4 for pissy Guinness or €5 for pissy stew. It was hard to tell which was which. The young fella spilled his pint of stew all over his jacket and trousers. He said dogs were sniffing him the next day.
The night ended in the appropriately named Gel Gör köfteci. The beer’s cheep, the köfte’s delicious and there are no pictures of Enda Kenny on the walls.
All in all, despite some misgivings, the “St. Patrick’s Festival” was a success – mostly because of the people involved. Forgive the burst of unseemly patriotism but the Irish are a great bunch of lads. Reunions are always fun. Especially when Irish drinking socks are involved.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

St. Patrick was angry but he's alright now

The Fernsehturm will not be green this St. Patrick’s Day because the crowd lobbying to have the Olympic Games in Berlin have coloring rights booked out until April at least, possibly May.
Right, that’s the tragic news out of the way. I have to admit, I was heartbroken when I heard it. It’s been green the last couple of years, brought tears to my eyes, but this year ain’t gonna happen. The Funkturm in West Berlin will be green instead.
I had a bit of a rant about it on Twitter but at least the Olympic people showed they've a sense of humor.
The news was broken at the launch for the St. Patrick’s festival, to which I was invited by the Irish embassy in Berlin. At first I thought it was a trap – my name was on the emailed invite, addressed to Abandoned Berlin – and if anyone were to attempt luring me anywhere, it would surely be to my beloved Fernsehturm.
I smelled a rat but thankfully no rats were there. Even they can’t climb that high. The guy operating the rocket-lift to the top told us that the Fernsehturm has actually grown in recent years. It used to be 365 meters – one for every day of the year – but they had to extend it by three for digital TV. It’s still a functioning TV tower after all.
I wasn’t sure what to expect at the launch, or even why I was there, but was pleasantly surprised to find no one else really knew either. Everyone was very friendly, very nice, and everyone took full advantage of the free wine that was poured into your glass regardless of how much wine there was already in the glass.
I believe it’s called “networking” – you’d be talking to someone or pretending to listen, when suddenly they’d break off mid-sentence, excuse themselves with a flourished gesture that could mean anything at all, and go off to interrupt another group’s conversation.
The ambassador came over to talk to me, clearly expecting some sort of rapport, but I’d absolutely nothing to say. The only thing I could think of was “Jesus, your German is fucking terrible!” You'd think the ambassador to Germany of all people would have daecent German, but no, it’s awful. Anyway, I thought it better to hold my tongue. He looked at me expectantly, said some stuff he must say to everyone the first time he meets them, and promptly moved on before I could think of a reply. This networking is great.
I met some nice people and promised to meet them again. The fella who organizes the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Dara, is the type you’d gladly go for pints with. There was Adrian, who apparently owns every pub in Berlin and introduced everyone there to everyone else at least twice; a businessman with a big booming voice and big booming laugh, all winks and gestures; embassy staff among the friendliest people I’ve met in Berlin; and some (German) people whose minds were clearly blown by the whole experience.
There were also people there from Tourism Ireland with very nice goodie bags for everyone with sheep key-rings and small bottles of booze. We hate these clichés but we love them really, especially when we can drink them.
I’m going to the parade on Sunday. I know it’s not St. Patrick’s Day – that’s Tuesday – but my stance has softened after meeting the people involved. Nothing like free booze to soften a stance.
I think the first and second St. Patrick’s Day parades will never be topped – they just can’t be bettered – but that shouldn’t put the brakes on future fun. It’s a celebration of Ireland after all, a country we love from a safe distance even as one abuse or corruption scandal scars us with a deep sense of shame. No wonder we drink so much. This weekend, we’ve all the excuses we need.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Norway

I was in Norway earlier, further north than I’ve ever been in my life, to cover a skiing World Cup in Kvitfjell. That’s pronounced Kveet-fi-el, with the emphasis on the Kveet.
Jesus, it was spectacular, the landscape was amazing. Snow-dusted mountains covered in trees elbowing frozen lakes in deep never-ending valleys. The sun was glimmering on the ice, bouncing back up, illuminating the forest and the sheer ruggedness of it all. I don’t know if I’ve seen anywhere more impressive. It reminded me of Bolivia, the Montañas de Siete Colores, only wilder, less otherworldly.
The work was good fun, as it was the weekend before in the Bavarian Alps. I was looking at the same fellas again, only of course they were skiing down a different mountain. I knew nothing about any of them a little over a week ago; today I felt I knew them all.
I interviewed Kjetil Jansrud, the Norwegian fella, after he won the super-G World Cup title – twice because I forgot to hit record the first time – and I just thought to myself, fuck, this is a great job.
Transport was a bit hit and miss throughout the trip. I stayed in Lillehammer the first night, Hafjell the second, with no way of making it to Kvitfjell in time for the race. I started hitchhiking but promptly gave up, rang the organizers and they sent a driver.
He was great, an elderly gentleman with a wonderful voice who told me of fishing for cod on the west coast, of wood-cabin villages being burned down because of stray sparks, of salmon numbers dwindling and conservation efforts to reduce the trend, of moose being a danger for motorists when they come down from the mountains as the snow starts melting to eat at the younger trees. He told me of people getting into trouble for shooting wolves who had been attacking sheep, and of people being afraid of bears, who also attack sheep. Apparently they go for the female sheep and eat around the breast area, because it’s full of fat, before leaving the poor animal to bleed to death. They don’t bother with the rest. Nature can be cruel sometimes.
My chauffeur also told me of the land laws, that anyone has the right to go on any land, even if its private, to pick berries and so on. It should be the same everywhere.
The Norwegians seem a very open bunch. They talk and talk, but it all has meaning – they don’t talk shite. They seem quite warmhearted in some ways, cold in others – they won’t get out of your way if you’re trying to get past.
But at every train station there are people waiting to greet passengers, family members I suppose, as if they hadn’t seen them in 1,000 years. Huge hugs and a big hullabaloo before luggage is taken to the waiting car to whisk them down the valley and a little up a mountain where a wooden house with glowing orange lights is warmed by a log fire. They take off their layers and plonk themselves in front if it, pour themselves some booze and catch up on old times.
I nearly didn’t make it back. The bus was gone, the train was gone, and there was a mad dash by car to the airport, 200km away, to try and make the plane at 6pm. We arrived at 7pm, at Gardermoen, but thankfully the flight was delayed. Yer wan at the check-in desk was looking at me strangely checking in for a plane that left an hour before but she sorted it out in the end.
It was crazy and it was great. Norway’s brilliant. I have to go back, I’ll go back.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Save Mauerpark! Stop Groth!


The Mauerpark saga is reaching a crucial phase. To recap: the politicians and developers (Groth Gruppe) want to build some 700(!) apartments to the north of the Gleimtunnel.
Last Wednesday, the Berlin Senate stepped in and took over the plans from the local district – cutting out opponents’ option of forcing a referendum on the planned development, like the one on Tempelhof. The absolute fuckers. As if further proof was needed of corrupt politicians with their privileged paws in developers’ wallets…
It’s an affront to democracy and huge blow to hopes of preventing the development going ahead. If you take people out of the process, the show is left to puppets dancing only to the tune of their paymasters.
The number of apartments keeps going up. It was 530 when Groth presented plans to the council, then 650 last November. I suppose it’ll be 1,000 soon enough. It doesn’t really matter what the number is – it’s too many whatever it is.
Opponents to the plans (anyone but Groth and his cronies) want instead to enlarge Mauerpark so it’s a “World Citizens Park.” Apparently that parcel of land was previously slated as public land, as an extension of Mauerpark.
Far more important for now though, is stopping the development of the 700 apartments (or whatever number they finally settle on), for it’s clear that it would have a detrimental effect on Mauerpark and the local area. Rents, traffic and freedom would all be adversely affected. It’s fucking obvious the development will benefit nobody but Groth and his cronies.
Now is the time to write objections, especially now they’ve denied a referendum – before the deadline of March 16. After that it’s too late and your objections will be futile.
Anyone can object, regardless of nationality, as long as they write in German. There are several ways to object – easiest seems to be through the Mauerpark-Allianz website. There’s an online form there. Start by copying and pasting this, “Ich lehne den Bebauungsplan 1-64a VE ab," (I’m against the plans) and then pick any one of the multiple examples under “Beispiele” here: http://berlinxxnet.de/hilf-mit-den-mauerpark-zu-retten-schreib-einwendungen/ and paste that in after the initial sentence. Any will do. So you’ll end up with, for example: “Ich lehne den Bebauungsplan 1-64a VE ab weil durch die Bebauung die bereits lange versprochene Grünfläche, die sich aus dem Flächen-Nutzungsplan ergibt, nicht hergestellt wird.”
I like that one – it’s about broken promises. Use that if you want. But you can use any of them. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is they get an objection, with your name, address and email address. You don’t need to live near Mauerpark, you don’t even need to live in Berlin. Doesn’t matter if you live on the moon – once your address and a objection in German is there you’re good to go. It’s for a World Citizens Park after all. Save Mauerpark!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Operation Schnitzel

I’m on my way to Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the mountains on the Austrian border. I was on my way to Leverkusen yesterday when I found out. I still went to Leverkusen. I thought I’d be going back to Berlin today. I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.
But there’s skiing to be covered after I watched Leverkusen out-Atleti Atleti last night. It’s men’s skiing this time, which probably won’t be as glamorous as the women’s but I’m looking forward to it all the same – to the mountain hospitality in particular.
“The hotel has a decent kitchen and makes a good schnitzel,” the chief said as he gave me the assignment. “The bar can get rowdy on weekends when rosy cheeked damsels descend from the snowbound villages.”
I didn’t bring my camera unfortunately as I thought I’d just be going to Leverkusen for the night – there’s nothing to take pictures of in Leverkusen, it’s a fucking hole of a town – so I guess ye’ll have to make do with whatever my phone produces. It’s an old phone though and low on space so it’s probably best not to get too excited.
At least the extra nine hours on a train will give me plenty of time to prepare and catch up on correspondence – it’s allowed me write this blog post for a start. There are other developments developing that I hope to elaborate on soon enough. It concerns a book. But I’ll come back to that. Professional duty is calling now and I have my orders: “Last but not least, you will have to snap a photo of the biggest schnitzel you are eating and share it with (co-workers) and myself. It’s a tradition.”

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Prenzlauer Berg (slow)

Despite living in a place you’d be surprised how little you know about it. Most people walk the same paths, pass the same doorways, see the same people without every really giving thought for the stories behind them. They only get interested when they see something new.
Today I went on a tour of my neighborhood with Paul Sullivan of Slow Travel Berlin. It was great. We met up at the Kulturbrauerei, home to my publishers, and he brought our little group around and told us why Prenzlauer Berg was built the way it was with its wide streets and large doorways.
He told us of its breweries, why there were more in the area than you could shake a bottle at, of soldiers at the front being sent beer for nutrition, of Jews’ struggle for rights well before the Nazis took over, of the running battles between Nazis and Communists frequenting rival pubs on Danziger Straße.
We saw wartime bullet holes in walls and he told us of punks being harbored by churches, of opposition movements within the GDR, greedy landlords and gentrification, Käthe Kollwitz, windmills and the winds of change. The winds’re still blowing of course – there’s change afoot at Helmholtzplatz. He told us of Jewish kids playing today where bigots once committed atrocities against their ilk, exorcising demons with their freedom and innocence – their very existence.
In short, he gave us an insight into why Prenzlauer Berg is the way it is. It’s been home to struggles of one kind or another from day one. It’s a fascinating place, rich in stories, as is any place when you stop to listen to them. It’s always worth stopping once in a while.