Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jugendfeier (kein Jugendfeuer)

Last weekend I'd the privilege of attending a Jugendfeier, a strange custom which miraculously transforms kids into adults and adults into kids over the course of a few hours' eating wie Schweine, drinking wie Fische and dancing wie Verrückte.
"It's the second-most important custom after a wedding," Jenny told me as we were on our way out, after I'd asked her for the 40th time what was going on. I knew something serious was brewing as she'd told me to wear a shirt and my pointy shoes, on a Saturday.
Everyone else was dolled up to the nines too, shiny dresses and collars all round, so I was glad I followed her advice. Relations had come from far and wide to take part in the "celebration of youth" of her brother Koko and cousin Cay on the day they became men (despite being only a few hours older at the end than they were before). Tenuously-linked family members were all re-introduced before we were given Sekt (German champagne) to toast the speeches.

Jugendfeiers are wisely celebrated without the involvement of the church, an East German alternative to the Christian confirmation, so participants get all the benefits of a rip-roaring party, and the kids loads of presents and cash, without anyone having to sit through a long boring Mass.

They are not to be confused with Jugendfeuer, when bad children are thrown on huge bonfires and burned on Walpurgisnacht. (Coming up on Friday. Probably too late for postal deliveries now, but you can still get some good deals on bad kids if you know where to look.)

Thankfully the speeches were short and to the point; not the kind of drunken ráméis you'd expect at an Irish wedding. Proud fathers and tearful mothers, their babies no longer babies, promptly proved when Koko gulped down his Sekt before we'd time to clap. I guess the pressure of the occasion got to him.

Two chocolate rabbits, who thought they'd gotten over the worst of it by somehow surviving the annual murderfest that is Ostern, were callously sacrificed for a chocolate fondue fountain. Their headless corpses a chilling reminder of the fragility of life for a chocolate rabbit in these parts.

The obligatory Kaffee und Kuchen were wheeled out. (No German occasion is an occasion without them.) Enough cream cakes, titillating tarts, cheesecakes and chocolate delights to satisfy 600 desperate sugaraholics. I didn't know where to look as my eyes devoured all around me. My belly wouldn't cooperate though and I could only eat two pieces, no matter how tempting they all looked.

I was thankful I didn't make a pig of myself as I'd ample opportunity to do that later when Abendbrot was served. I've never seen so much food! Enough to feed a particularly hungry army after a particularly harsh famine. A whole bank of tables overflowing with delicious dishes, more than the eyes could actually take in. My mouth's watering now just thinking of it.

Then the Stück des Resistenz... Wildschwein! A whole wild boar wheeled in to great fanfare and excitement, stewing in his own juices, the smell simply heavenly. Jesus the smell!

Oddly, his teeth were bared as if he'd just contemplated England winning the World Cup, but I wasn't thinking of that when I was tucking into him with gusto, any sympathy I felt for the poor fellow dashed in gourmet piggy pleasure. I even went up for a second helping and was sorry I couldn't fit anymore. No chance of me becoming a vegetarian. Jaysus it was delicious.

Of course I couldn't move at all after all that, not to mention the unlimited Bier on tap, and requests to get up and dance once the disco started were lamentably turned down on account of a boar-filled belly.

I was more than happy to observe however, as 70s and 80s hits accompanied some of the best dancing I've ever seen. Ausländers will sneer that Germans can't dance, that they simply throw their arms and legs about without any sense of timing or rhythm, but it is precisely this quality which makes it the best dancing of all; the most basic and primeval, the one closest to nature, and certainly the most fun. I'd never considered myself a dancer until I came to Berlin when I was delighted to discover I could dance after all! The golden rule is to just do your thing and not to give a shit what anyone else says or thinks.

They certainly did their thing on Saturday, with Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin providing the soundtrack to a night of air-guitar, jumping up and down, arm swinging and serious headbanging - by the adults! One guy, with a mullet straight from the 80s (worse, from the German 80s) banged his head up and down as if trying to shake it off. Absolutely brilliant. It actually brought tears to my eyes.

For the Jugends, the highlight of this strange ritual was no doubt all the money and presents they received. They made a fortune! A neighbour even called around and gave Koko €20 - just like that! He made us sick when he announced how much he'd been given.

To that end, and because I never had my own Jugendfeier (not to mention the fact my youth is becoming increasingly subjective), I've decided to throw my own celebration. I mightn't actually bother with a party as such, but could drop notes in all the neighbours' letterboxes to let them know of the momentous event. I live in an apartment block, so if they all chipped in €20, I'd certainly go out later on and do some headbanging of my own.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Olympic effort for an abandoned village

Almost too knackered by the time I got there to do any exploration at all. Cycled over 40km from Friedrichshain to Elstal, wind against me all the way, efforts compounded by several unforeseen diversions due to the slightly optimistic tactic of simply pointing the bike west. "Who needs maps anyway?" I won't be doing that again. And then I still faced the prospect of cycling back! Jaysus, I was wrecked.
Yes, it truly was an Olympic effort to get there - Jesse Owens himself would have been proud - but there was no way I could arrive at this abandoned village once home to 4,000 athletes, peep through the fence, and simply turn back the way I'd come. I
had to go in!

There used to be a time when the Olympics was interesting, and Berlin's in 1936 was the most interesting of all. Coming at a time when the Nazis had been in power for three years, it provided Hitler with a stage to show the world their greatness and prove the superiority of the Aryan race.
That notion was kicked back up his arse when a member of an inferior race ultimately proved superior to the rest. There was nothing inferior about the aforementioned Owens' racing in 1936 as his four gold medals affirmed, much to the pleasure of all but the Führer.

His native Austria only collected a measly 13 medals, compared with his adopted country's 89, so he masterminded the Anschluß a couple of years later, b
efore his insatiable appetite for more gold medals prompted his bid to take over the world in 1939. It's no coincidence Nazi Germany attacked, fought or annexed countries which finished above Austria in the medal table from that Olympics.
Thankfully Ireland escaped such treatment as it had boycotted the games, not for any bold political statement against the Nazis, but because of a row over northern athletes competing for the British. The Brits shared Adolf's penchant for medals and had long plundered Irish talent as their own.


Anyway, such thoughts were far from my head as I contemplated the empty buildings lurking ominously between the trees behind the fence. This was it! The Olympic Village, 14km west of Olympiastadion, built between 1934 and 1936, and abandoned once the last Russian soldiers left in 1992.
I'd circled the 550,000 square metre site and noticed a couple of vehicles behind the padlocked gates, on the other side, an unwelcome sign of pestering human presence. As long as they weren't Russian soldiers...
The wind had died down (of course) and all was still. Feck it, I'm going in. Despite nearly impaling myself on the fence, I landed on both feet. I stopped. Listened. Watched. A dog barked in the distance. I froze. Was it a guard dog? Shit. All still again. The trees rustled gently. I moved forward, tentatively. If it was a dog I'd worry about it when his jaws were snapping at my heels. I made a beeline for the first building I could see, one I soon learned was the Hindenburg Haus, the main administration centre for the games with its own TV viewing room. (The Olympics of 1936 provided the first live sports broadcast to the world as I mentioned in a previous post on Tacheles.)

No dogs came near me, and so I proceeded to the Plattenbau buildings, huge empty shells of soulless flats erected by the Russians long after the last athletes had left, after the war, when they were used to house Soviet military personnel from the nearby barracks.
Now the flats are left to the wallpaper which still plasters their walls. The wind had picked up again, so it was flapping unconcertingly as I tip-toed through the doorways. Flap, flap, flap! As if trying to talk to me. My heart was in my mouth. These things are best not done alone. Strange noises came from below me, then above; wood creaking, paper rustling, doors groaning, metal banging. Banging, banging, banging. I realised then, that was actually my heart.
Still I went on, exploring every room, taking more photos of wallpaper than I've ever done before. Up and up I went, up the glass-strewn stairs, until I came to a ladder which led to the roof. The ladder looked feeble but still I went up, the draw of what may be ahead proving far stronger than common sense.
Despite not finding anything remarkable, I was captivated. Everywhere was fascinating dullness, mundane marvels; everywhere an unknown story desperate to be told. Who lived here? What did they do? Where are they now? Where did they buy their wallpaper? I looked in every nook, every cranny (don't ask me what a nook or a cranny is), before eventually deciding to explore the rest of the site, the buildings from 1936.

It wasn't long before I discovered das Speisehaus der Nationen, where the athletes used to eat, and several of the 138 one-story houses where they used to live. Jesse Owens' has been restored (they can't leave anything alone) and one can visit it by going through the normal procedures, (i.e. just ask at the entrance when the site's open to the public).

Also being restored is the old swimming hall. It was all sealed off, so I had to squeeze in under heavy tarpaulin to get in. Thankfully, they hadn't yet ruined it by restoring it, and I could marvel at it in its original state. Again my heart was in my mouth, with the tarp flapping like mad in the wind, and the scaffolding creaking and groaning over my head as I surveyed the vibrant cyan tiles, the windows and the bars. Thump, thump, thump! I could hear footsteps outside, outside or in my head, the effect was the same.
RING! RING!! RING!!! What the fuck?! I jump out of my skin with fright. My phone's ringing, at a volume to wake the dead. Jesus, the noise!! I turn it off, cower at the bottom of the pool, and await my inevitable discovery.
After a few minutes, nobody comes, so I tentatively continue with my nosing. Up on the diving board, behind in the changing rooms, down the stairs to the cellar, in under the pool. I was literally getting in over my head. I couldn't see a thing, relying on the red focus light from my camera again, when I realised I really should be getting home. It was already 7.30pm and I still had to cycle back.

Outside I met someone as surprised to see me as I was to see him. A rabbit. Probably used to having the whole Olympic Village to himself, hopping around, imaging every day he's Jesse Owens winning another four gold medals. We both froze and looked at each other. He twitched his nose and then he was gone, running as if going for another gold. Nothing inferior about his race either.

What
Olympic Village built for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin
.

Where

Elstal, Wustermark, Germany.

How to get there
Well, you could cycle like I did from Berlin, but I don't recommend it. Better to take the S-Bahn to Spandau and cycle from there (about 15 km). If you're too lazy for that, best option is by car - head west from Straße des 17. Juni (the big one in the middle of Tiergarten) and keep going straight on the B5 until you see the signs for Elstal. The marking on Google maps is wrong, but I've marked the site
here.

Getting in
Go around to the other side away from the security and nosy guards, and just hope over the fence. Be careful!

When to go
Anytime before dark, preferably when it's not raining.

Difficulty rating

9/10 Getting there is difficult, but once you're in, you're laughin'.

Who to bring
People who don't mind the sound of wallpaper flapping.

What to bring
Camera. A few bottles of Sterni to break up the journey and/or toast your success on getting there. They'll be warm once you arrive, but what the hell. Maybe bring a few snacks to nibble on too. Unlike the Olympics nowadays, there's a surprising lack of catering stands in this abandoned village. I can't recommend pistachios enough.

Dangers

The imagination tends to run away with itself when exploring on your own, so watch out for that. Strange noises and eerie silences make for tingly nerves. Otherwise, keep an eye out for the security guards out the front.


Again, this guide is designed to help others get to and enjoy a wonderful site before it's too late. They're still in the process of restoration, so I guess it won't be long before they're charging people in and all the fun's gone out of it. Maybe they already are - I didn't check. Anyway, please share with all like-minded individuals on Facebollocks or whatever all ye young people are using these days.

I forgot to mention that the director of the Olympic Village, Wolfgang Fürstner, took his own life three days after the games ended. He had Jewish roots and learned he was to be dismissed from the Wehrmacht because he had been classified a Jew by the Nazis, so rather than face such humiliation, he shot himself with a pistol not far from the lake. The Nazis covered up his suicide to avoid unwelcome attention. Just another little footnote to a crazy story. I could write more, but it's time ye went explorin'.

More images to be gawped and marvelled at can be found at this link.




Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bahn banditos strike again

Fuckers stole my phone last night. Same story as the last time - feel asleep on the S-Bahn home. I blame Deutsche Bahn for making the carriages so comfortable. I was wrecked after a long week's work, and woke up totally disorientated at Botanischer Garten, about 700 stops after mine, to find my phone had disembarked before me.
Again, they took it from my back pocket, so I was actually sitting on it at the time, listening to the phone's mp3 player. That didn't put them off; they simply unplugged the cable and took it from under my arse as I snoozed above it, dreaming dreams of dreams I hope will come true. Again, I must have been snoring.
A couple of gobshites were laughing at me as I searched fruitlessly under the seat and in the aisle in case I dropped it. Probably the fuckers who stole it. As I was searching I realised my wallet absconded with the phone- I guess the two of them had been making eyes at each other behind my backside all along - and so about €30, my bank cards, train tickets and press pass are gone too. So, no money and no phone. Scheiße.
It was a long frustrating wait on a lonely S-Bahn platform for the train to bring me back the way I'd come, the realisation of what happened manifesting itself like avoidable unavoided when it's too late. I didn't fall asleep when it eventually did show up, but looked out the window at darkness as I pondered a parting sudden and unforeseen. I hadn't even time to say goodbye.
Email is the best way to contact me for now.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sieben gegen acht

How quickly things change. Not so long ago we were happy if we didn't get beaten by more than ten goals. Then there was that famous first victory in November 2008, unbridled joy, tears and goosebumps. Then the famous revenge victory last June, prompting more wild celebrations.
Yesterday we won again! We won! My third victory with Theresas Mütter. 7-0! Yes, SEVEN!!!
Nerves were all a-jangle before the game. We were playing GPE United, apparently the basement side, and therefore one we could not afford to lose to.
(Apparently the Mütters won a game and had a couple of draws while I was in Perú. They won in spite of, or perhaps because of, my absence. I came back to be disappointed to learn I'm not the indispensable rock on which this team is built after all.)
Our spirits were buoyed when the opposition turned up with eight players, but tempers and nerves took a turn for the worse when the expected goals failed to materialise in the first half. It seems we're unaccustomed to the mantle of favourites. Chances went a-begging as we forget to play as a team, panic and apprehension playing their part in ensuring our numerical superiority was not exploited. Luckily we weren't playing at the Bernabéu or our fans would have whistled us off at half-time.
A good stern talk at half-time - sie sind nur acht! - and we were ready for the second half. I gave Johannes the camera and told him to take photos of all the goals we'd score. Soon after they arrived, and once the first one went in, the floodgates opened up, our opponents clearly knackered and demotivated after the first Tor.
I was supposed to be playing up front, but found there we were more Mütters ahead of me at times as everyone raced forward to get onto the scoresheet. Celebrations were muted however, and not a patch on those from the previous two victories I was party to, perhaps because we knew we were playing a basement side of only eight players, and perhaps due to the pressure we had brought on ourselves because of it.
Never mind. We celebrated afterwards anyway, with a few Sternis for Frederico's birthday in Volkspark Friedrichshain where some lunatic was playing the bagpipes. It seems the rest of Berlin had the same idea as every spare bit of grass in the city was covered with people soaking up the sun, drinking Bier and grilling meat. It felt like the beginning of summer.
I guess a win is a win, and hopefully it will lead to better and bigger things, maybe a victory against a team with 11 players. If yesterday's result brings us together as a team, then it really will have been a Sieg to savour.

Mehr Bilder sind hier.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Abandoned effort for an Olympic village

Too tired to type... (Alliteration just comes naturally.) The moon's like a hammock now, I wish I could lie in it. So so tired. Cycled over 50km but was totally worth it. More illegal adventures and exploration to report shortly. After sleep.

After a week's sleep, I finally completed the report. Available here.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Soviet swansong (Abandoned military headquarters)

A couple of weeks ago we broke into the former headquarters of the Soviet military in Germany. They weren't there of course, or I wouldn't be here to be able to tell you of it, but it was scary nonetheless. The last Russian soldiers had left in 1994, the tumbling of a certain wall rendering their presence about as welcome as a fart in a Sputnik.
It's a huge site, in Karlshorst, Berlin, with several imposing buildings scattered around a large area, all boarded up, sealed off from prying eyes, stripped of the secrets and any evidence of the Russian hi-jinx from the Cold War, a war which invariably got a lot colder every Berlin winter when each side used to stock up enough nuclear snowballs to last through the spring.
It was here that the unconditional surrender of German troops was finally signed 15 minutes into May 9th, 1945, when Generelfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel scribbled his scrawl on the sheet of paper put to him at Stalin's request by Marshal Georgy Zhukov.
(The room where this momentous event took place can now be visited without the need to break down doors or smash windows in the small but fascinating and free-to-enter Deutsch-Russisches Museum.)
It was Zhukov whose men took 134,000 German soldiers prisoner in the surrender of Berlin a week before.
Then, from 1945 to 1949, Karlshorst became the headquarters of the Soviet Military Administration in Deutschland, until East Germany was formed on October 7th, 1949 and the SMAD was replaced on October 10th by the Soviet Control Commission. Same shit really. As I said earlier, the last Russians didn't leave until 1994.

I'd actually made my way there alone last September on a reconnaissance mission when I managed to break into the site, but found it very hard to get into any buildings. All doors were very securely boarded up and locked, heavy reinforced wood and metal sheeting. "Eintritt Verboten!!!" they screamed. Curiosity piqued, my desire to get in became overwhelming. What great secrets were being hidden? What untold stories waiting to be told? What wonders to be discovered?
After circling for ages looking for gaps in the boards, or loosely fitting doors, a broken window, anything, I found I'd just have to break my way in. I grabbed a brick and smashed it down on a padlock to one of the doors. Each blow rang out like a rifle shot. Bang! Bang! Bang! Karlshorst is quite a residential area so I was conscious each blow would only bring attention to myself. Nevertheless, the desire to get in drove me on. Bang! Bang! BANG!!!
It opened! The chain snapped and I pushed the door tentatively in. A dark hallway, broken glass, flaking paint. I made my way in and peered into various rooms. Again, broken glass, flaking paint, wires and rubble strewn around. I was looking for evidence of the Russians, an old Kalashnikov, Wodka (as it's written here), a CCCP metal flask, an old fur hat, anything at all, but all I found was broken glass, flaking paint and graffiti from previous visitors.
Light was failing and so I admitted defeat, vowing to come back another day armed with a crow-bar to explore the other buildings. On the way out I noticed a sign announcing their planned future as part of Wohnpark Karlshorst, 350 "attractive and valuable one to four-bedroomed apartments", already for sale off the plans. Apartments! Nowhere's safe.

Four months in South America postponed the return visit, but even then I often thought of my date with the old abandoned Russian military headquarters. When we got back from Perú it was too damn cold to do anything, but finally, a couple of weeks ago, I was able to go back, this time accompanied by Jenny, JB and Isabelle.
We got into the site easily enough, just by lifting up the fence to the side, but were slightly perturbed to notice construction cabins and vehicles parked in front. There was no sign of any life though, so we proceeded with caution.
The doors were no longer so well sealed and we were able to push our way into the first building easily enough. We nosed around like exciting puppies in a bone shop, exploring rooms, taking arty photos. I was delighted to find Russian writing on some of the walls, lampshades still hanging from the ceilings, and old East German wallpaper as if we'd stepped directly back in time.
From the top floor I peered out the window and noticed a man walking below. Another human! Shit. I told the others we'd have to be careful, we weren't alone, and so we tip-toed back out the building.
Walking around the other side of the main building, I nearly walked into another man. He was coming out of a cabin about five metres in front of me. Aaaaaghh!! Retreat! Retreat! I urged the others to move back, and we hurried as quick as we could back the way we'd come, trying all the while to be quiet. It was impossible though - broken glass littered the site so every footstep crunched loud enough to wake the dead.
Thankfully he didn't follow - I don't know if he saw us or not - and we were able to duck around the corner, in through another broken door, and into the cellar. All dark, rusty metal everywhere, ominous-looking machinery, metal walkways over great tanks of water, the darkness pierced only by the odd shaft of light. This is more like it! We nosed around again, guided by the red focus light from my camera. Groping around in the dark, I found a stairway which led up. Let's go!
Soon we were exploring the Russian corridors of power, the officers' mess now a real mess, jangled wires, rubble, broken glass, graffiti, and old Russian newspaper clippings pasted onto the corridor walls. Up we went to the attic, where I found old Russian graffiti carved into the wall, presumably from disgruntled soldiers. Downstairs we found the conference centre, all the seats facing attentively to the front, a room high above it where all could be overseen, old rusty listening equipment, all switches and knobs, sadly dilapidated, but fascinating none the less.
Then we heard voices. People! Shιt! We ran into a room and hid behind the door. Who the hell were these people? Russians? Polizei? Other curious visitors? The voices approached. Closer, closer, closer... Dammit, I couldn't take it anymore.
"Wait there," I told the girls. (We'd already lost JB somewhere along the way.) "I'll go see who it is." Better just one of us caught than all of us. I walked out and discovered an old woman and her son, potential apartment buyers checking out where they might be living in a few months. It was open day! The developers showing people around for free, and there was us sneaking around and breaking in like criminals! Suddenly it wasn't so exciting anymore.
Outside a salesman showed us the plans and gave us the prices. Most of the apartments are sold already and I'm sure he thought he'd sold another two as we nodded attentively and cooed our appreciation. We thanked him for his time and promised to get back in touch, before leaving through the front door.

So we didn't actually have to sneak in, but we definitely saw a lot more than we would have otherwise, and it sure was a hell of a lot more fun. For others who'd like to see this old abandoned Soviet military headquarters before it's too late, I've provided the following guide. Hurry up though. There isn't much time left!

What
Former Soviet Military Headquarters in Germany.
Where

Zwieseler Straße 10-50, 10318 Berlin.
How to get there
Get the S-Bahn to Karlshorst and walk or get the bus from there. It's not the
Deutsch-Russisches Museum, which is signposted and well worth a visit in itself, but the huge building beside it. Map can be accessed here.
Getting in
If there's an apartment showing, simply pretend you want to buy one. Otherwise, between the site itself and the Deutsch-Russisches Museum, there's a laneway where you'll easily be able to lift the fence and enter.

When to go
Sunday. There won't be any workers on the site unless it's an open day.

Difficulty rating
5/10 Really depends on what stage construction is at and whether the workers are there.

Who to bring

Like-minded explorers.
What to bring
Camera. Beer and/or some Russian Wodka with which to toast the site's former inhabitants.
Dangers
Nosy neighbours and spoilsport construction workers and/or security guards. Be quiet and you should be okay.
Viel Spaß!

Again, please share this with the world, so others may get a taste of Berlin's fascinating past before it's lost forever. The ongoing gentrification of this great city is shameless and it won't be long before there's nothing worth exploring at all. To this end, I'd welcome any suggestions for other sites or abandoned buildings to be explored before it's too late!

Pictures from the first visit, including shocking images from the Deutsch-Russisches Museum, can be seen here, while the latest snaps can be found here.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Fromage

"Something French you'd like?" my latest visitor asked before she arrived. "No Barry's tea here, but I dunno, herbs, pff, no idea..."
"I don't want anything from France," I replied. But then, not to sound ungrateful, I added: "Maybe some nice cheese, but can't think of anything else."
Sonia arrived last Friday with enough cheese to make another moon. Tonnes of it! I don't know how she got through customs, let alone onto the plane with it. The airport dogs' noses twitching with fright. Tomme de Savoie, Brie, Roquefort, Etorki, St. Nectaire, Chèvre, Camembert, Tomme de something else.... all types of cheese, all shapes and sizes. She brought along some Parmesan and a brioche too, just for good measure.

I've been eating cheese all week, for breakfast, dinner and tea. Yesterday I thought I was going to explode after eating too much cheese before football training. And again today I'd lovely sandwiches. And still there's more to eat!
While still quite delicious, the problem now is the smell. It stinks! As soon as you open the door now the smell hits you in the face like a wet Corsican fish. It's unbelievable! I'm sure my flatmates are thrilled. (Perhaps it's no coincidence I haven't seen one of them all week. The other's a garlic junkie from Spain and probably can't smell anything anyway.) But I expect it's only a matter of days before the neighbours start complaining and/or the army is called in. If those airport dogs could smell it now (and they probably can) they'd go howling for cover, tails between their legs.
As I was chomping on some Tomme de Savoie yesterday, I remembered the words of Jean Baptiste, a friend despite always supporting the team I don't, and despite being French. He pointed out that while France was generally unsuccessful in military campaigns down through the years (always losing to the Germans for example), it still managed to expand and gain more territory.
Like a cuckoo slowly getting fat from treaties and negotiations, La République française has been better served by words after wars than by guns during them.
I've realised that this phenomenon has nothing to do with the ability of Marianne's negotiators, but with the mature cheeses she wheels out during the talks. One whiff is enough for a swift conclusion to favourable negotiations for La France.
It's no coincidence either that some of the most pungent French cheeses come from its border areas (Corsica being the prime example with a cheese smelly enough for a nuclear bomb). The smell wafts over the border forcing neighbouring countries to retreat, allowing the plump République to get plumper still. (Much like I'll be after eating all Sonia's cheese.)
Of course, French cheesing is a touchy subject for any Irishman and we don't need to get into all that again.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Pigdogs

I called someone a Schweinhund the other day for the first time. Schweinhund is a wonderfully German insult, literally pigdog, a grievous slur to be called in any language. It's strange - I have a fondness for both pigs and dogs - but when the two are combined to make a Schweinhund, it changes the nature of the beast altogether.
This particular Schweinhund beeped at me as he roared past in his flashy BMW. I cycled after him and caught him at the red traffic light ahead, where I found him laughing and joking with his pals in the back seat. I knocked on the window and he looked up.
"Gibt's etwas los?" I asked him, to which he replied that I shouldn't be on the road. I wanted to tell that I had every right to be on the road, that there was no cycle-lane on Freidrichstraße, and therefore I had to cycle on the side of the road along with the traffic. I tried sort out all the grammar and sentence structure, tense and case, but instead I just blurted out: "Du bist ein Schweinhunde."
(Unwittingly I called him "pigdogs" after I used the plural version of the noun. Being called one pigdog is bad enough, but being called two must be particularly insulting.)
"Was?!" he replied, incredulation spreading across his face.
"Du bist ein Schweinhunde," I repeated.
He looked down and grappled at his seat-belt fastener to get out of the car, but then the car behind us started beeping - the traffic light had turned green. I cycled off, leaving the Schweinhund snorting and fuming in his car. He drove along behind me, revving the shit out of his engine, no doubt trying to figure out what to do, before he eventually tore off in a squeal of tyres and frustration.
It was just the latest little battle in the war between cyclists and motorists in Berlin. They're a common occurrence here as Schweinhunde have a particular propensity for sitting behind the wheels of fast-moving flashy vehicles.
Interestingly, there's a breed of dog in Perú which looks very much like a pig, the closest I've come to seeing an actual Schweinhund (see left). I'm not sure if there's a connection or not, but at least you won't find any of them driving flashy cars at high speed beeping at cyclists.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Tacheles, the Hidden Gem

Another outstanding piece of journalism in The Irish Times today. Where do they manage to find such talent? Someone should give the author a well-remunerated job for a highly-esteemed media outlet quick!
http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/travel/2010/0403/1224267589724.html

Below is the "uncut" version in all its unadulterated raw and foul-mouthed glory, just for you, the long-suffering fans.

"How long is now" runs the giant mural on the side of Tacheles. Whether it’s a question or an existential sigh, it perfectly sums up the uncertain past, present and future of one of Berlin’s most remarkable initiatives.
Possessed by squatters and artists in the aftermath of the tumbling of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, this iconic shell of a building now houses exhibitions, performances, a cinema, and three bars one of which, Café Zapata, houses a fire-breathing dragon which frightens the shite out of unsuspecting visitors. A few beers, and you won’t notice anymore.
Tacheles is Yiddish for speaking directly and honestly (as if Germans spoke any other way). The building is in the former Jewish quarter of Berlin, while Tacheles was also named in defiance of the East German propensity to repress freedom of expression (and everything else for that matter).
The building opened in 1909 as the Friedrichstraßenpassage, a giant shopping complex, one of the first of its kind, so named because it linked Oranienburgerstraße with Friedrichstraße behind it. It promptly went bankrupt, and was later reopened as a department store. That too didn’t last, and it was taken over by the AEG electric company to showcase their new contraptions and fancy technology.
It was under their watch the building became the first to broadcast a live sporting event to world, with the transmission of the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
The Nazis later took over as they were prone to doing at the time, and the building became the central office of the SS. They horded French prisoners of war in the attic during the war when the building was badly damaged what with bombs falling on it and the like. Most of it was totally destroyed.
What was left didn’t fare much better after the war either I’m afraid. Russian soldiers used statues in the entrance for target practice, and they didn’t exactly wear slippers when they were stomping about.
Those headless statues are still there today and can be seen on the way to the hinterhof behind, where artists and sculptors now proudly display their engaging creations, iron horses, iron eagles, spiky things, high things, mad things.
Inside, the walls are smothered from top to bottom in colourful street art which very much reclaims the notion of freedom of expression. Some of the imagery is just mad, better than the shit you’ll find in museums and better than some of the exhibitions which are always on show here. Bring a can of spray paint, have a go yourself – there’s enough space for all and always room for improvement.
Needless to say the building, while structurally sound, is still in pretty bad shape, despite all the licks of paint, but this only adds to its charm. Don’t be put off by the dark corridors or the smell of piss on the stairs and the foyer, or even the rats which scurry around the hinterhof at twilight – it only adds to the authentic experience.
Tacheles’ future is still uncertain, sitting as it does on real estate worth some €250 million beside Berlin’s tourist and financial centres. Legal battles pitting squatters and artists against developers and the city are part and parcel of its existence.
Guests are invited to sign a petition to help preserve its future as a creative space. (Anything to stop it from being turned into yet more apartments.) I guess if enough people get involved, we won't have to wonder "how long is now?" anymore.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Street art Berlin

Forget about museums, Berlin's art is on the streets. Walls, lampposts, alleyways, ceilings, stairways, the sides of buildings, the sides of U-Bahns - everywhere you look expression has been given a free rein. Canvas and conformity paintbrushed to one side, as all a Berlin artist needs is a hoodie, a spraycan and a great sense of humour.
Anyone can do it, just as long as you don't paint over some work which is better than your own, so the law of the street ensures Berlin's graffiti and street art scene just keeps getting better and better. I may have found my calling!
I learned all this as I accompanied tourists on a free guided tour arranged by the appropriated-named Alternative Berlin group, which promises to bring visitors to the real underground shit going on, away from the usual tourist haunts. It gives guests a taste of what Berlin is really all about.
Like awestruck sheep following the cool ram, we followed Mark as he brought us around on a tour of all the best sites, bleating with appreciation as he gave us the history, the stories and the reasons behind Berlin's iconic and unknown, an artist's insight into what makes the city a buzzing centre of underground creativity, the European capital of sub-culture.
He explained that street art as we know it was born in Philadelphia, thanks to the exploits of one Daryl McGray who gained notoriety in the 1960s for writing Cornbread all over the place, including on the side of an elephant after he broke into the zoo to write "Cornbread Lives" on the poor creature to counter rumours of his untimely demise. Now that's one way to get your message across!
Many street artists have taken up stencil art these days; a form of wall-papering, where the artwork is prepared at home or in a studio on paper, and then simply pasted on the wall. Unlike graffiti, it's not strictly illegal. The artist can't be arrested for spraying a building. "It's like a safety net for the artist," Mark explained. It also affords the artist more time on their work leading to a higher standards overall.
Irish mothers visiting Berlin take note - there's some fine paper on the walls here just waiting to be stripped down for covering school books.
Soon we noticed sixes painted all over the place, on scarred walls, broken pavements, old advertising posters, the back of faulty lampposts - everywhere, in fact, something was wrong. "This is the hardest-working street artist in Berlin," Mark announced, pointing out that an estimated 650,000 of these sixes can be found in Berlin, painted on everything the city should have replaced, knocked-down or rebuilt.
He pointed to a bent lamppost adorned with a six on the back, and told us of a dog he found once with a six painted on his arse because he didn't have a collar. Soon, wherever we looked, we found sixes big and small painted like an accusing finger on all the city needs to correct. I guess if he didn't want to work so hard, he should have picked a different city.
We heard the story of Linda, a lost love for whom a heartbroken artist made his pleas public, telling her how much he loved her, begging her to take him back, asking for forgiveness, all through images with striking yellow eyes.
The messages became longer and longer, and it wasn't long before the city got involved, with radio stations running campaigns asking Linda to give her former lover another chance. "Take him back!" urged people ringing phone-in shows. "He loves you! Give him another chance!"
Soon people were leaving their own messages for Linda too. To put an end to the craziness, the artist eventually admitted Linda never existed at all - it was just a form of expression.
"But it's a perfect example of how a street art campaign can catch the imagination of the public," Mark pointed out.
Uh-huh. We were devastated. The happy ending in our heads of Linda being reunited with her lost love shattered with the illusion.
Never mind. He brought us up to Tacheles to soak up some more sub-culture and a couple of "Sternis" from the local Spätkauf. (More on Tacheles to come soon.)
There's nothing better than strolling Berlin's ramshackle and untidy streets with a bottle of Sterni in your hand, looking out for sixes and random street art scattered all across this decadent city. Wine and cheese and crap in a frame? Gimme a bottle of Sterni and some graffiti any day.
Kreuzburg for "the best falafel in the world" and then Friedrichshain followed, as we learned of artists like El Boko, Prost and Alias, all famous for their exploits in the city. Mark's a very likable fellow, and he does a damn good tour; he infected all of us with his boundless enthusiasm.
"How much is a can of spray paint?" I asked him at the end. "About €2.50," he replied. The same as three bottles of Sterni from the local Späti. Now there's a fine cultural evening right there!

More pictures here: http://picasaweb.google.com/faheyc/StreetArt#