Monday, March 30, 2009

Sham-rocked

Such is Ireland's insatiable demand for shamrock, that it imports tonnes of the stuff from Germany and France every year. Mad huh? Apparently, in 2007 alone, the Emerald Isle imported almost 200 metric tonnes of clover seeds worth US$677,864 because it simply could not produce enough "Irish" shamrock on its own.
What the hell are people doing with the stuff? Sure they must going mad for it!
In future I'll be buying German shamrock to meet all my shamrock needs. Cut out the middle man I say! Begorrah.

Meanwhile, it transpires that shamrock smugglers were foiled as they attempted to sneak shamrock seeds into the US via Washington DC on March 12th. Apparently, the federal agents swooped after the Aer Lingus flight landed at Dulles International Airport. Sixteen - yes, that's SIXTEEN - packets of seeds were found to have been on the offending aircraft.
Imagine the consequences had the evil smugglers had been successful! My God; it doesn't bear thinking about...
Federal agent spokesman Stephen Sapp confirmed the sinister seeds were destroyed, along with some pork and beef (and fruit evidently). Presumably the food was just a cover, but thankfully the real threat was discovered on time.

Perhaps now it makes sense why the Irish grow their shamrock in Germany. After all, if the shamrock had been used in a terrorist attack, the Americans would look for the source. Let's just hope there are no preemptive strikes.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Potty luck

Every toilet in East Berlin seems to have a different flush. Perhaps in rebellion against the conformity of the former socialist state, each toilet's flushing mechanism is completely individual and happily doing its own thing.
This was brought to my attention by Jill and Tanya last week. Being women they quickly noticed some toilets have flush buttons to push, some have levers, some are automatic and some have handles. Some have knobs of course.
But no two are ever the same. Never ever.
Even in my WG (Wohngemeinschaft, or flat share to you and me) there are two bathrooms. One toilet has a handle to pull up and the other a button to push down.
Who says life in the GDR was boring?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

!!!

I found a wonderful piece of journalistic writing at its very best today while browsing through The Irish Times. Naturally, as that esteemed publication has a reputation for publishing the very best the world of journalism has to offer, I would expect to find inspiring and enthralling articles on a wide variety of subjects within its pages.
Despite being used to its sky-high standards however, even I was taken aback at the sheer brilliance of this piece: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/travel/2009/0328/1224243597913.html

Who is that author? Why have we not heard of him already? How have his talents not been revealed to the world before now?! A "Hidden Gem" indeed.
Whoever he is, he is going to go far I can tell you. I would encourage the rest of the world's newspapers to take note and follow suit before he is locked into an exclusive publishing agreement and they are left to rue their hesitation.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Das Stasi Gefängnis (Dissolvement of the Soul)

What better way to spend St. Patrick’s Day than prying into another dark chapter of Germany’s past? It was East German in this case, as I took Jill, Tony, Fats and Tanya to see the former Stasi Prison in Hohenschönhausen in East Berlin.
Thankfully, the Stasi guards were no longer there, and their chilling methods of interrogation and intimidation no longer in practice, but nonetheless, we got a fascinating insight into the inner workings of a state in constant paranoia. It was mad, or Wahnsinn as the locals would say.

The prison itself was only shut down in 1991, by which time some 250,000 political prisoners had passed through its doors – a quarter of a million! - many of them never to be heard of again.
Political prisoners meant anyone suspected of being against the East German regime, having pro-Western sympathies, or anyone associated with same. Having a West German newspaper was an offence, as was listening to Western music. Phones were tapped, and everyone was bugged, listened to, spied upon. Apartments were searched at will. Freedom of expression and belief were very much off the menu.

The Stasi Prison site at Hohenschönhausen was originally used by the Russians immediately after World War II, when they brought Germans here for “de-Nazification”. Known as Das U-Boot because prisoners were kept in underground cells with no natural light, the old prison could only be described as a hell-hole.
Prisoners, innocent more often than not, were rounded up and kept either in tiny isolation cells or cramped group cells, each containing a wooden bench and nothing else. Not a blanket, sink or shower – nothing except a bucket for a toilet. No water or toilet paper was provided, leaving prisoners to live with their own waste.
Twelve people were stuffed into each group cell, sharing the wooden bench. They could huddle together for warmth. Prisoners had no idea whether it was day or night due to the lack of daylight, and sleep deprivation was a favourite pastime of the guards. Inmates would be kept awake for days at a time, warned not to sit or lie on the bench. Carpets were laid outside the cell doors so prisoners had no idea whether guards were outside looking in or not.
The smell must have been unbelievable. Prisoners kept the same clothes on throughout their stay, possibly for months. No showers were ever provided. Underwear never changed. Disease and sickness were rampant.

Apart from straight-forward beatings with truncheons or metal bars, or being handcuffed for days on end - water-torture was also used, where drops would fall onto the back of a trussed-up prisoners’ head. He/she could only move the head forward slightly to escape the unbearable sensation, but doing so would submerge the face in another bucket of water. They could be left there for hours, or days – depending on the whim of the guards. A dark waterproof room was also used, where prisoners were left naked in cold water to the knees or higher, sometimes for days.

Other prisoners were boarded into a tiny confined space in a wall, where the lack of any space would render their screaming muscles immobile after a few hours, upon which they would be released, crashing to the ground like toppled statues.
Poor Tony, the tallest among our guided tour group, was called upon to demonstrate this, but luckily he didn’t have to stay there long enough for the effects to take hold.

Everything was done to get inmates sign pre-written confessions. Confessions were conveniently written in Russian, so prisoners had no idea what crimes they were confessing to. Nevertheless, everyone signed a confession sooner or later. Staged trials then determined prisoners’ fates. Most were sent to slave labour/death camps in Siberia, never to return.

In 1951 the prison camp was handed to the East German Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit). They continued the work of their predecessors and in 1960/61, with a mind towards psychological torture rather than physical, built a new purpose-built building with prisoner labour beside the old U-Boat prison.

Because Hohenschönhausen was not marked on any maps, locals had no idea what was going on behind the guarded walls of the complex. Even vans bringing prisoners through the gates were marked as supermarket delivery trucks, bakery vans etc. so they wouldn’t arose suspicion. Secrecy was of paramount importance. Prisoners kidnapped in Berlin itself would be driven around in the countryside for five or six hours so they had no idea what part of Germany they were in.

Suspects would be snatched without warning on their way home from work, or at home, while shopping, on their way to meet friends etc. They simply disappeared; friends and family had no idea where they were, and very often never heard from them again.

As soon as they arrived, the idea was to instil in them a total feeling of helplessness; a feeling of being at the total mercy of an all-powerful state.
New arrivals were searched and given outfits. To compound their discomfort and make them feel stupid, prison uniforms were always either too small or too large. Prisoners were never called by name, but by the number corresponding to their own individual cell.

Inmates could be kept for three months in total isolation, with nothing but the simple one or two-word commands of the prison guards in the way of human contact. Always alone.
A traffic light system on the corridors ensured prisoners never even met in passing. Unless, of course, the guards deemed it useful to garnering information. After two months of total solitude, a prisoner might be brought to another cell, only to catch a fleeting glimpse of his/her wife or husband as they too are being led away for questioning. Of course, they wouldn’t be allowed communicate, but the psychological impact after weeks of solitude must have been catastrophic.

No staff members were armed, for fear a prisoner might somehow seize a weapon. Instead a simple security system was in place, where a guard could trip the alarm by pulling a wire which ran at shoulder-height on every wall. Other guards would then rush to his assistance.
No prisoners ever escaped however, testament to the ingenuity and brutal efficiency of the system and guards.

Cameras above the stark corridors ensured even the prison guards were kept under surveillance. Nobody was trusted in the Paranoia State.

The collection of information was the raison d'être for the Stasi Prison. There were 120 interrogation rooms provided for 103 cells, so every inmate could actually be interrogated at the same time. The rooms were all sound-proofed of course.
Like bad school kids, prisoners were made sit in the corner of the room for interrogations which could last between five and ten hours straight – sometimes more. Sleep deprivation was again a favourite method of getting prisoners to cooperate.
Interrogators were chosen carefully to suit a particular prisoner. The Stasi built a mountain of knowledge on every citizen, so if they knew someone was very influenced by their father for example, they would pick an interrogator with the same mannerisms or who looked like that person’s father.

Operative Psychology was used. This involved suggesting misfortunes against family members: “Your parents’ car is quite old. It would be terrible if they had a tragic accident.”
Or: “Wouldn’t it be awful if your children never saw their mother again?”
A prisoner might be told their mother had committed suicide because she couldn’t bear having a son in prison.
Stasi agents referred to this treatment as “Dissolvement of the soul”.

The stairs of the prison were fitted with wire fencing to ensure no one could fling themselves to their deaths. People were of no use to the Stasi when they were dead. Information can only be garnered from those who are alive. Mirrors in cells were not made from glass for the same reason.

Many former prisoners later died of leukaemia-related illnesses, believed to have been contracted after being exposed to radiation from X-ray machines at Hohenschönhausen.

By the time East Germany ceased to exist on October 3rd, 1990, the Stasi had on its books a full-time staff of 91,000 – this for a population of 16 million. They also had a network of amateur spies and informers totalling 180,000.
Thankfully the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit’s campaign of terror and intimidation was brought to an end by the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of the country, although the last prisoner only left the prison in 1991.
The Stasi’s impact is still being felt to this day however, and no amount of Ostalgie would ever bring them back.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Freiheit 06 Berlin

I have a new team! No, I haven't abandoned Theresas Mütter; how could I? (I haven't given up hopes of our second victory. These things take time as the last post confirms.) Nor have I abandoned Real Madrid, despite the shameful capitulation to the English.
Now however, there's also my new team: Freiheit 06 Berlin. They're a serious outfit who actually look like they could win a game.
We lost. But I scored a goal! Deflected, but a goal never the less. I won't give you the final score.

The best thing about this team however, is the kit. Jeeesus - talk about swanky. Dark blue tops with a yellow trim. With a sponsor on the front! (Never heard of them before.) Numbers on the back and everything, with Freiheit 06 written above, and Berlin below. I was number 3. Roberto Carlos would have been proud.
We also have matching shorts, with swish yellow stripes down the side and.... matching socks! You guessed it - yellow and dark blue. I'd never been so well dressed before. They definitely weren't Tipperary colours by the way. I wouldn't have allowed them touch my skin.

We played against a team called Union Jack. As if I needed any extra motivation! But I wasn't to be. The weather was simply atrocious. Polar bears would have been sent scampering for cover. The wind howled, the rain lashed... I know, I know - a summer's day in Ireland - but then there was the COLD. The Berlin cold. Jesus Christ! My arms were actually in pain. Seriously. They really hurt!
To make matters worse, in the second half a hailstorm decided to dump its load on us. Balls of ice belting down just to extinguish any hopes of fun.

Still, I enjoyed it. Kinda. The kit made it worthwhile. I didn't bring a camera, but the image to the right will give you an idea of me in action on the night, before telling the lads to calm down to protect our five goal loss. Although it might have been six, maybe a seven goal loss. Sure who's counting anyway?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

An Slam Mór

Sixty-one years we've waited, but now we can finally say it!!! Woohoo!!! We have the Grand Slam! Only our second since the first in 1948. Woohoohoo!!!!!

The Oscar Wilde on Friedrichstraße went absolute bananas after the final whistle went. I mean bananas. Once the unfortunate Stephen Jones missed his last-minute kick to allow Ireland claim a 15-17 victory, a primeval roar broke out, and all arms, pints and legs shot up towards the heavens in relief and celebration.
Whenever Ireland is involved there is misery involved. Thankfully on this occasion it was Jones'. Although justice was served on the night.

The pub itself was absolute mayhem. The poor oul' Germans didn't know what was going on. Two Welsh fuckers, who weren't even Welsh but English, were expelling the imaginative chant: "Waay-les, Waay-les, Waay-les....."
The Irish just roared. "AAAAArrrrgghhh!!" And then again: "AAAaaaarrrgggh!!!"
Helpful advice to the players was also issued: "Run, run, ruuuuunnnnnn!!!" "Heave, heeeeaave."
Or: "Kill him! Kill him! KIIIILLLLLL HIM!"
And that was me. My voice is gone.

Amhrán na bhFiann was belted out by everyone in the pub. In Irish without the GAA interruption! The Fields of Athenry and Olé Olé Olé too of course, as were We Are the Champions, Whiskey in the Jar and for some reason known only to the singers, I Say a Little Prayer for You. (Forever and ever, You'll stay in my heart, And I will love you, Forever and ever, We never will part, Oh how I'll love you....)
I guess when waiting 61 years for something, forever doesn't seem so long.

They interviewed Jack Kyle after the match. On the victorious team in 1948, he confirmed he was as old as he looked when "my goodness!" was all he could say to express his emotions. George Hook looked like he had aged a lot too. Following Irish rugby down through the years comes at a price.
Thankfully now we can enjoy the reward. Woohoo!!!

Superman will be looking for his Paul O'Connell pyjamas tonight...

Topography of a dark past

Getting to grips with Berlin/Germany's dark past is no easy task. Living here, one generally tends to ignore it and get on with day to day life, but when visitors from Ireland and California come visit, of course the past is a morbid attraction.
Wednesday took us to Topographie des Terrors, a free outdoor temporary exhibit on the site of the former Gestapo and SS Headquarters, where photographic evidence of the horrors of the Third Reich are displayed for all to see. It's heavy, disturbing stuff, as one would expect.
Pictures of Hitler's rise to power; his alliances with Heydrich, Himmler et al; Nazis on the march; the destruction of democracy; book burning; and then of course the horrors of war itself > Peasants being shot by firing squads; mass graves; bodies hanging from trees in Russia; Jews being rounded up for transportation to camps; "random prisoners" being rounded up in Berlin; hurried scared people, hands in the air, marched at gunpoint with smoke billowing from burning buildings behind... Death. Destruction. Despair. It's horrible.
For me one of the most disturbing aspects was the sadistic nature of some of the perpetrators; an SS-prick smiling as he cuts off a Jewish man's beard in a public humiliation; soldiers laughing as they shoot defenceless peasants in the back of the head. It makes me wonder about human boundaries; how people can actually do this to others.

It was the same last year when I went (reluctantly) to see Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp to the north of Berlin with Noddy and Sully. (We were probably the first people to ever break into a concentration camp - it was closed at the time.) Although we didn't see pits of bodies or piles of skulls, being alone in the camp, on an eerily beautiful still day, and just imagining the horrors perpetrated on countless innocent victims, was enough for me to question everything.
Did I really want to move to a country where this shit went on some 60 years ago? Surely everyone was involved. How innocent are the innocents? Why didn't they stop the madness. What about people now? Has anything changed?
I even questioned the friends I was making, the people I liked. Everyone. Everything.

After Wednesday I was looking at people on the U-Bahn. One tall guy in particular was chatting and laughing with another. I could quite easily imagine him as a prison guard, or a sadistic SS-member taking pleasure from the torture of others. In my head this guy was guilty, despite the fact he wasn't alive at the time of the crimes.

Of course there was opposition to the Nazis, particularly in Germany itself. Opponents however, were invariably rounded up, tortured and terminated, along with - to discourage other opponents - family members and friends.
I found out I would probably have been arrested by the Gestapo either for being an immigrant (ironic given Hitler was Austrian) or a journalist, earning myself a blue triangle for the former and red or black for the latter.

Topographie des Terrors showed me everyone was guilty (bar the few notable exceptions), either though inaction or direct compliance. By everyone, I don't mean every German - I mean every people. The French actually rounded up their Jews for the Nazis to murder. The Brits and Yanks initially appeased Hitler, not wanting to get their hands dirty, and then turned a blind eye to the atrocities because it didn't suit them to get involved. American companies actually supplied arms and fuel for use in German war machines, even after the US joined in the war. Money was to be made.
The Russians of course, were happy to carve up Poland and allow the extermination of ethnic groups. Other countries also rounded up their Jews and handed them over to the Nazis; a map of routes to Auschwitz showed a spider's web of transit across Europe.
Even the Irish, hiding behind the cowardly shield of "neutrality" cannot escape blame. Éamon De Valera offered condolences to Germany on Hitler's death. "Sorry for your troubles lads."
It's a brutal indictment of human behaviour, not just in Germany, but across the whole of Europe.

What's worse is that it could happen again. Rwanda and Darfur spring to mind. Even on Europe's doorstep, the United Nations shamefully ignored atrocities in Bosnia. The Srebrenica massacre occurred despite the village being under "UN protection" at the time.
Human rights abuses are conveniently ignored in China where the Olympic Games was "a success" last year, while it is too easy to outline the hypocrisy of American foreign affairs.

Other countries bury their shameful pasts and Germany could quite easily do the same, or at least sweep aspects of it under the carpet until the crimes becomes less in the eyes of time.
Instead however, I believe it is the only country which is doing the exact opposite. Concentration camps are kept open for visitors when others would destroy the evidence; memorials to murdered victims are built and maintained; the Synagogue around the corner from me in Berlin is under 24 hour armed protection; kids are educated about the camps on school-trips etc.

Willingness to learn from the past gives me confidence of a better future. We're talking of humans here however. Ethics versus money. I wonder if the lessons are being learnt.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Berlin banditos

I woke up on the S-Bahn home last night to find my phone and wallet were stolen. I had been listening to the phone's mp3 player but that didn't put off the fuckers who rifled through my (back!) pockets to earn their ill-gotten gains. I must have been snoring.
Not even in Mexico did they go through my pockets when my jacket was stolen on the bus.

To add insult to injury, Bank of Ireland are charging me €5.99 for issuing a replacement ATM card.
"Do you want to proceed with that charge Mr. Fahey?"
"Not particularly you fuckers, but you're not really giving me an option, are you?"
Nope.

Anyway, don't bother ringing me or texting me, unless it's to send abusive texts to the German banditos. They turned the phone off however, so even that consolation is off the menu.

Email is the way to get in touch with me from now on if need be.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Toilet humour and Schlittschuh Laufen

Only in Germany could a brand of toilet paper be called "Touching". Nothing is left to the imagination here. Subtlety just doesn't exist. The same company's brand of tissues is called "Feeling". I guess "Feeling" would have been just too much for toilet paper - even for the Berliners.

Next Tuesday, Paddy's Day, I'll be here a year. This week I've been taking stock of all I've achieved in that time. Fuck all, to be honest. My German's only average at best. Pidgin German perhaps, although I tried speaking with the pigeons and they hadn't a clue what I was saying so I'm not even sure I could say that.

The job situation isn't too promising, although it comforts me to know it's shit everywhere right now. I've been trying to flog travel articles on Mexico to various newspapers, but the damn drug gangs' armed struggle with the army there is causing a few jitters among travel editors.
Come on people! Just 6,290 murders in a year shouldn't put off a few tourists. Think of the low prices!

So things aren't good. Maybe Friday the 13th has something to do with it. Earlier I deleted all - I mean ALL - my music from my laptop, thinking it was backed up to my external hard drive. Of course it wasn't. 12,000 songs gone forever. I don't have any CDs here either; I left them all in Ireland.

Real Madrid being humiliated in Europe with their worst ever defeat hasn't helped my mood. Humiliated by an English team! Just to add to the humiliation. I used to be able to blame Beckham, but I can't even do that anymore.

But Theresa's Mütter are my team now. It was good to get back into training last week. Even if only three people showed up. The level of dedication leaves a bit to be desired. Apparently they didn't win any games while I was away. I don't know why, but that made me feel better. I still retain the hope we might win another game sometime.
I was shocked and horrified to hear however, that our famous victory last year has been stripped away from us! Because the shower of incompetents we beat didn't provide referees and linesmen for another match, they were disqualified for the league. The fuckers. The league might take the points away from us, but they'll never take away our victory! Neverrrr!!!

Last week too I went ice-skating for the first time. Despite gravity's best efforts I didn't fall! I quite liked it too. Better again, it was "Happy Hour" so I only had to pay €1.65 for unlimited "Schlittschuh Laufen". (Translates literally as "Slide-shoe walking" - German's great!) I'm sure the price would have been simply outrageous if it hadn't been Happy Hour. The season's over now already though, so there'll be no more Schlittschuh Laufen for another year.

To make things worse, my local supermarket doesn't do "Inka Tee" anymore. It seems to have gone the way of the Incas themselves, although there weren't any ruins left behind. German efficiency wouldn't tolerate tea-bag ruins on supermarket shelves in any case.

Despite all the doom and gloom, I've already taken steps to improve matters. I bought new lights for my bicycle, so now I can cycle at night without worrying about cars, trucks or anyone else, and I've invested in a new camera which I hope to make use of in some exotic part of the world sooner rather than later.
Emm.. that's it. That's all I've done so far. The rest is in the hands of the gods. But I'm sure something will turn up. Hoffentlich.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Keeping priests honest

My uncle Michael told me yesterday they had to have the parish priest in the house, blessing all the rooms, because of all the bad language on this blog. I'd contaminated the village apparently, and the priest was taking remedial action by dousing all the houses with Holy water.
I certainly had no wish to inconvenience the priest like that.
Sometimes bad language is called for to emphasis a point, or to stress the significance of a particular thing. Although fuck it - I admit it - more often it's simply gratuitous.