Saturday, December 31, 2011

Parting shot

“Have a good flight and all that shite.” With such warm parting words ringing in my head I boarded the plane in Dublin this morning to land in the madness that is Berlin on New Year's Eve. It’s like a warzone out there, building inexorably towards the crescendo that will see in the New Year. It must have been like that for the mad fella in his bunker albeit without the champagne ending.
The fireworks mark the end of the most exhausting year of my life. There won’t be much tonight but maybe 2012 will provide more sleep.
Have a good year and all that shite.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Nollaig briste

Ireland's all doom and gloom. It's been a Christmas of stabbings, murders and other, accidental, deaths. The forecast ain't good either, with everyone bracing themselves for more pay cuts and increased taxes if not actual job losses. A blind fool can't help but notice all the closed shops, boarded up businesses. The country's fucked and no amount of Christmas cheer can hide it.
Not that it stops people trying. The Irish are a resilient bunch. Pubs remain sanctuaries, albeit quieter sanctuaries than before.
"What have you got that a man could drink with just a minimum risk of blindness and death?"
As if Christmas wasn't bad enough. The best thing about Christmas is that it's a year to the next one. You can't have it any further away without moving to one of the outer planets.
Just don't expect Ireland's public transport to bring you there.
It comes to a standstill over Christmas, not just the 25th but St. Stephen's Day too. There's nothin' runnin'. Their overpriced, infrequent trains become priceless and very unfrequent indeed.
Maybe it explains why Santa didn't turn up at Mass in Ballykelly this year. He'd been there all the previous years I was, so I was full sure he'd be there again. Sure it's the only reason to go to the damned church - to help him celebrate his birthday.
The nip still got a ton of nice stuff. Jumpers, jackets, things I'd wear if only they were a little bigger. Or I a little smaller.
He enjoyed it but every day is Christmas for him. Once he gets his grub, his sleep, his arse wiped -  everything else is just turkey.
Less turkey, more puddin' I say.
"That's a weird horse."
"The one that looks like a cow?"
They're gone now, back to Berlin, leaving me to wallow in Ireland's pity for a couple more days. Time to meet pals who thought they'd forgotten me and partake in the national pastime, as we shake our heads and wonder how it all went so wrong.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Eleventy

Progress is unmistakable now. No longer content to cling on for dear life, now he’s taking risks! He stood for a whole five seconds without holding onto anything last Monday, two days before his 11th monthivarsary. Five seconds! Swaying, arms outstretched like he was surfing, a giddy grin on his face as he contemplated boundaries breached. For those five seconds he owned the world – and then he landed on it. But landings are much more coordinated affairs these days, and it wasn’t long before he was up again. Jenny reported a seven second surf yesterday.
He still holds onto things as he walks around, but nonchalantly, almost disdainfully, as if it were somehow beneath him, and he still falls, and hard, but not as often as before and he keeps getting up.
The little man’s already making declarations of independence. He won’t be fed with a spoon anymore unless he’s doing the feeding. Never mind that he doesn’t get any of the food – apart from a few lucky strikes – in his mouth, he’s happy to persevere until it’s all on the table/floor/wall/his face. He’s not so independent that he cleans up his own mess. He pretends he is, picks up the brush and so on, but he doesn’t do much sweepin’.
But he’s an entertainer. He laughs away to himself from time to time, no doubt recalling funny incidents though he hasn’t yet learned to share a joke. Instead he puts on show after show, whether funny faces or the latest noises he’s invented. Sometimes it’s both – anything for a reaction.
When he’s not entertaining, exploring or bidding for independence, he’s rummaging. He simply loves pulling rubbish out of the bin, soil out of the flower pots, clothes out of the washing machine, books off the bookshelf. He hasn’t yet learned to put anything back, though he does take particular pleasure in throwing toilet paper into the bath.
The sooner he learns what he should do with that toilet paper the better. His shites are nuclear, and there are daily meltdowns. Sorry to put it so bluntly, but it’s the way it is.
It might be the grub he’s eating. He’s been turning his nose up at the mush of late, preferring to eat what we do. Olives, potatoes with lobster sauce, garlic soup; all gulped down with gusto. I gave him some spicy chorizo today but he didn’t seem too mad on that.
There’s no messing with him though, as the poor ol’ wooden dog found to the cost of his tail. (Pictured right, before the tragic loss of his tail.) The two of them must have had a disagreement. Suffice to say Nippity has a scratch on his face and the dog’s sense of balance is gone. Neither of them are talking now.
But whatever happened, I think it’s safe to assume the little fella’s already making his mark on the world. We’re going to Ireland tomorrow (actually it’s today – I really should get to bed). Consider yourselves warned.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Lost hope: The abandoned children's hospital

The fence bends easily like they want you to come in. Some trees sportingly hinder progress briefly so you don’t feel cheated, but the invitation is clear from the open door – they’re willing you, begging you to enter.
No children cry here anymore, no longer do they suffer. No brave little soldiers, sad eyes wide above glistening cheeks, nor any laughter from those over the worst, happy now to be the centre of attention, the cause of so much worry and pain. No birthday parties, Christmas parties, balloons or cake.
Visitors gave up waiting a long time ago. It's too late to save any of them now. They're all gone, the last drama played out before the wards were left creaking and empty, rooms bare and lonely. The Kinderkrankenhaus is krank and no one’s there to provide the cure. No wonder the little souls of those left behind are desperate for visitors to come through its doors once again.
The children’s hospital and women’s clinic in Neukölln was discarded like an old nappy in 2005, when it and two other local hospitals were closed down and shunted together to a new super-duper complex up the road.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Prussian king, must be spinning in his mausoleum at the thought. Germany’s last monarch decided in 1913 that Brandenburg needed a midwife school for Brandenburg. Germans not being people to do things by halves, not even for midwives, it was opened on July 1st, 1917, during the war.
Under the leadership of Prof. Sigfrid Hammerschlag, it developed quickly and became very important, 20,000 nippers being brought into the world here by 1928. Unfortunately, another crowd came into the world too and Prof. Hammerschlag was forced into retirement on November 1st, 1933 – because he was Jewish. Fucking Nazis.
In his inauguration speech the next day, Prof. Benno Ottow promised to fight for the “reorganisation and inclusion of this clinic in the whole of the state structure under National Socialism without compromise.” I presume all babies gave Nazi salutes as soon as they came out of the womb.
Prof. Ottow, who even had the Hitler moustache favoured at the time, stayed in charge until 1945, when he managed to escape to Stockholm. There he worked with baby animals and wrote stuff about dinosaurs. He lived to the not insignificant age of 91 before dying in 1975.
Of course, the hospital had been severely damaged in the second war, but was rebuilt and progressively expanded over the decades. A new children’s hospital building was built in 1969 and another new building with surgery and facilities to care for newborns and premature babies was built in 1978.
By this time 3,000 babies a year were seeing their first light of day here, making the Frauenklinik Neukölln the biggest such hospital in Germany for many years.
Now, before it’s converted to apartments, it’s occupied by bums and crawling with Polizei. At least it was when we were there, when one guy was being led away in handcuffs.
“The police are here again! What do they want this time?” an old lady wheeling an even older one around asked us. “The place is full of homeless people, they need somewhere to sleep. One of them was killed in there a couple of weeks ago.”
“Au weia,” groaned the older one.
“That’s shockin’,” I agreed, though I was itching to get in for a look. A murder! How exciting! Maybe the police were leading away the culprit...
Jenny and Nippity weren’t too keen on going in after that, so I skipped around the back of the complex (the police were at the front), turned off my phone (someone always rings at the worst moments) and went in.
No bodies, but long empty crumbling corridors, open doors, smashed glass and concrete crunching underfoot. Cheery paintings on walls somehow having the opposite effect. Everything’s smashed. Most of the buildings are the same.
The older one, from 1917, is magnificent however, with statues on the outside walls, a wonderful stairway, great doorways and fantastic bay windows.
Some idiot tried burning it down though, so be careful if you go to the roof!
Someone else was roaming around too; voices drifted over every so often as I explored and admired the ubiquitous street art. I did stumble across a few hidden lairs, decrepit, dank and lonely, albeit luxurious when compared to what else must be available.
There’s not a huge amount else to see unless you get a kick out of meeting homeless people. Just don’t kick them back or you might end up in another hospital.


What
Abandoned children’s hospital and previously Germany’s biggest women’s gynaecology hospital for births, the care of newborns, premature nippers etc. By that, I mean the clinic was the biggest of its type in Germany, not that it was only for Germany’s biggest women. Ditto the hospital, it was abandoned. It wasn’t a hospital for abandoned children.

Where
Mariendorfer Weg 28 (older buildings) and Mariendorfer Weg 41, 48 (you guessed it, newer ones), Berlin 12051, Deutschland.

How to get there
Hermannstraße‎ U+S-Bahnhof (Or is it S+U Bahnhof?) is quite close, on the U8, which links up with Alexanderplatz, and the Ring Bahn which is handy for everywhere else. A map you say? Why, of course.

Getting in
Pretty damn easy, which is why the place is infested with homeless as that chatty old woman told us. “There are holes all over the place. There’s no way they can keep them out.” I guess that goes for explorers too. I walked around the block and pulled back the fence at the corner on Eschersheimer Straße. 
We’ve an old mattress going if anyone wants to move in. Youll have to pick it up yourselves though. Im not bringing a fucking mattress down to Neukölln on me bike...

When to go
Any time really. I went during the day so I could see things, but it’s probably a lot scarier at night, creeping around with the hospital creeps....

Difficulty rating
2/10. Easy to get in, easy to get out, accessible by public transport; what more can you ask for?

Who to bring
This isn’t really a place for romance, but you might want to bring a companion as back-up in case there are any unpleasant encounters with the inhabitants.

What to bring
Camera, beer, a large stick.

Dangers
The aforementioned inhabitants are bound not to be happy by hordes of wide-eyed camera-toting explorers tramping through their living quarters, so I wouldn’t expect a warm welcome from them if I did run into them. It’s understandable really; you wouldn’t like them nosing around your bedroom.
Having said that, I didn’t meet actually meet any when I was there. It’s possible they were all off boozing in Berlin for the day, or out looking for jobs, or volunteering at the zoo, or perhaps they had all just been cleared out by the Polizei. The Polizei. I’d forgotten about them, you’ll need to watch out for them too. If it’s not one crowd it’s another...

Friday, December 09, 2011

Christmas treety

Our tree is up. Literally. It’s so small we had to put it on a crate so it wouldn’t feel so inadequate. If it were human its raging insecurities would drive it on an insatiable quest for power, like Hitler, Napoleon or Sarkozy. But thankfully it’s just a tree, a little tree, yes, and misshapen too, but a tree all the same. And it doesn’t smell of cat piss like last year’s.
The reason it’s so small and misshapen is because they were going cheap at Kaisers. It was wrapped in netting so we couldn’t check its shape until I released it at home, but we gave it a good sniff to make sure it didn’t smell of piss before buying it.
It’s cheap which is the main thing. We won't be in Berlin for Christmas so there’s little point in lashing out on a fancy tree-shaped tree. Instead we have a little point. It also the reason we put it up so early. (Dec. 7!) It may be cheap but damnit we want to get our €12 worth.
Despite living in constant fear of being stepped on, it’s the biggest Christmas tree Nippity’s ever seen. He’s going mad to pull it down, forcing us on tree-patrol duty. I’m not sure it’s worth all the hassle. But it's up now. We may as well try and summon some pride in it. At least it’s not plastic.
I’m still against the annual slaughter of trees for a pagan festival hijacked by Jaysus’ fans, so we went with a potted one again. No trees need be murdered on our behalf unless we decide to murder it – to put it out of its misery.
Germans throw up decorations pretty early it seems. Advent gets the ball rolling. Advent itself is so called as it’s when the ads vent their fury on the world until everyone is sick of Christmas and everything associated with it, but the Germans seem to like it, probably because they’ve an excuse to lash into the Glühwein, before they throw that up too.
They mean well, the Germans, but even presents come with the obligation of work. I was given a very pretty advent calendar which I was happy to admire despite its geographical inaccuracies (penguins and polar bears frolicking together without a care in the world), but then I found out I had to open a little “window” each day until all the damn things are open. Never mind that it would ruin the perfectly nice scene depicted. I wasn’t allowed not open them, nor open all on the same day, or calculate when the last one would be opened if all went according to plan and open them all together then. Apparently it didn’t go unnoticed that it didn’t open any windows on the calendar I was given last year either.
Ah yes, Christmas. And then they wonder why people drink so much.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Kölschy Kölschies' Köln

Once you sit at a table in Köln, someone will come over and ask you to sit somewhere else. Based on my experience in the city, I can categorically state that this happens every time without fail. Twice I sat at a table, and twice I was asked to move. Evidently the locals don’t like blow-ins to get too comfortable in their sacred city.
For Cologne is a sacred city apparently, founded by the Romans before it was taken over in the middle ages by religious nuts. Religion often strikes in middle age for some reason. ‘Twas them that began construction of the cathedral in 1248 but they must have had more breaks for Kaffee und Kuchen than they do at the Bürgeramt as it took another 632 years before they finished it. In fact, I’m not sure they did, judging from the ongoing work at the Kölner Dom when I was there last week.
The cathedral is impressive though, albeit at the cost of casting the rest of the “Domstadt” in its significant shadow. Nothing else really stands out...
The railway bridge carrying poor unfortunates in the direction of Leverkusen is adorned with thousands of locks engraved with lovers’ names, many of whom, no doubt, now wish they hadn’t thrown away the keys. The only locks you’re likely to find lying around in Berlin are at crime scenes, having proved woefully inept at their jobs, so at least the Kölschies are getting some use out of theirs.
Walking on the square outside the philharmonic is verboten, for fear the sound of footsteps might disturb the delicate geniuses at work inside. Evidently those listening to them have delicate ears too. Why in the name of Jaysus they don’t have sound-proofing is beyond me. Instead they have eager wardens guarding the perimeter with their lives, preventing any passers by from daring to step a toe inside. It was a Thursday morning when I was told to walk the long way around, so I presume this is a permanent state of affairs. None of the wardens were wearing slippers either. Next time I’ll bring a drum kit, set it up on the path beside them and give them something to get Kölschy about.
Das ist Köln, or my very short impression of it anyway. My time was as limited as the size of their beers. The Kölschies are proud of their city, but if I had to pick sides I’d go for their great rivals downriver (up north) in Düsseldorf. Their Schweinshaxe was much better for a start. In Small Beer Country, a little means a lot.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

German rules and Berliner Schnauze

Oftentimes an anecdote tells you all you need to know about a country and its people. Forget spending years living in a place, studying its history, learning its language. One little story tells all. Thanks to Derek Scally* for this one.
It seems a morally outraged citizen is taking the Pope to task for not sticking to the rules during his visit home last September. His Popeness brazenly drove or was driven around at a snail’s pace without wearing the mandatory seatbelt. Das ist verboten! So now Herr Ratzinger is being taken to court and may have to pay a fine up to €2,500.
You’d think he’d have known. He is from Germany after all, where rules are rules with no exceptions. Not even for the Pope.
Of course, Berlin isn’t Germany, as I’ve pointed out many times before. Popey would have been able to drive his Popemobile around like a lunatic, cavort with prostitutes, drink beer on the streets and no one would give a damn. There are rules here too of course, and plenty of them, but the local populace scares them away.
So grumpy are the locals, known for their “Berliner Schnauze” (Berliner snout), that they have ads in the paper (see right, not my pic), informing them that actually their bark is louder than their bite, that inside that gruff exterior, deep down inside, they’re really warm and cuddly. “Berlin (where) it’s said more harshly than it’s meant.”
The bargirl’s wearing a t-shirt saying “Tips, or snout.” Of course she doesn’t mean it, but you’ll still get the snout if you don’t leave her a tip.
So the next time someone is rude as fuck to you – (Some guy actually hit me with an umbrella yesterday. I went back and asked him, “Bist du Bescheuert?!” He replied, “Jaaaa-aaaa-aaa...”) – just remember that inside they’re all fluffy and polite. Das ist Berlin.

*Mr. Scally also wrote an excellent piece on German fears in the current economic crisis, while another Berlin-based Irish journalist, Siobhán Dowling, brings home the unpleasant reality of Ireland’s loss of sovereignty to our new financial overlords.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Twilightenment

Sightseeing is difficult when it gets dark in the middle of the friggin' day. So I saw very little of Hamburg last week. I had a spare hour after twilight and was drawn like a moth to the bright lights of the Reeperbahn. It wasn't grim, but that's all I can tell you of that. I'll have to go back, again.
This week's bringing me back to Small Beer Country. Back to Leverkusen, but I'm staying in nearby Köln this time. (Or Cologne, depending on what species you are.) I learned to spend as little time as humanly possible in Leverkusen and will be getting the hell out as soon as the match is over. The inhabitants of any place that survives on aspirin should consider the source of the headaches and just leave. Mein Gott, Leverkusen's crap. Maybe even worse than Bonn.
Hannover seems to be infested by cello players today. The train station's swarming with people with oversized violin cases on their backs, like rocket packs ready to blast off if the train doesn't arrive on time. I like cellos.
Now the train's in Hamm, evidently a town founded by butchers, and it's almost dark already. It's not even 3 o'clock! I guess I won't see much of Köln either...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dancing verboten!

Dancing is forbidden in Germany today as a nationwide Tanzverbot takes hold. I tell ya, this country is just a bundle of laughs. If something can be verboten, it will be.
Today’s ban on dancing coincides with Totensonntag, Dead people’s Sunday, when such flathúlach carry on is frowned upon by the powers-that-be. Evidently they feel their subjects should display a bit of decorum for a change, on such a solemn and reserved occasion.
Mein Gott, imagine the horror of disrespecting the dead, with shameless dancing! It must be verboten at once!
Of course, especially in Berlin, there’ll be places where you can raise your arms gleefully, swing your hips provocatively and shake your arse defiantly despite the ban. Perhaps the Verboteners fail to see the irony of driving dancing underground, where the dead can also join in. Usually they ain’t got no body to dance with. Shake them bones baby! Dance till you drop.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Upstanding citizen

Outstanding progress has been made in the last month. Upstanding, I should say, because floor level simply isn’t good enough anymore. Yes folks, he’s standing, standing at every available opportunity. As long as there’s something to hold onto, for much like many European economies right now, he’s unable to stand unaided on his own two feet. At least with the nipper we know he will one day.
Probably soon – there’s no stoppin’ him. As soon as he sees something which could be used for leverage, he crawls over at the speed of light and hauls himself up, emitting a squeal of triumph each time he’s conquered such lofty heights.
For they are lofty heights – he can reach up to grab stuff off the edge of the kitchen table for example (something we hadn’t banked on for another few months [I confess years]) – but giddy highs are often followed by howling lows, after yet another crash to the ground. He always seems to land on his head for some reason. We’re thinking of getting him a helmet. We’ve become safety nets, following him ready to catch him anytime his acrobatics take a turn for the marble kitchen floor. But he is getting better, and even in the last couple of days I’ve already noticed fewer traumatic tumbles.
Teeth are coming at a frightening pace. At least I think it’s frightening judging from his reaction. He’s almost got six now. Two upper Dracula fangs started developing after the first two in time for Hallowe’en (the pumpkin’s teeth layout was based on the nipper’s), and now he’s getting the Bugs Bunny gnashers from above. So we’re getting loads of sleep.
But at least he can almost eat real food and not only mush. He likes anything he can gnash on and then fling on the floor. Our mice are getting fat from all the food he throws on the floor. He only eats the good stuff, cheese from sandwiches before discarding the bread, all washed down with great slurps of water from a glass. His favourite meal remains his very first, though, and he often wakes his mother to let her know. As I said, loads of sleep.
He still talks a lot, but we’ve no idea what he’s saying (much like my time in Germany thus far). At least he’s not afraid of speaking his mind. He feels strongly about whatever it is he’s banging on about. Could be any number of things...
We abandoned him last night for the first time, to go to a concert (to see the aptly named Other Lives, flippin’ brilliant) but found ourselves thinking of him more often than not, especially with the crowd clapping – his new favourite pastime. (He responds to clapping with clapping of his own, until he gets bored and goes off exploring or standing.)
I’m sure he would have enjoyed it and was sorry he wasn’t there. And despite not being gone for long we hurried home to the little fella. We won’t be able to call him that for long at the rate he’s going. Now he’s ten!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Frozen out - the abandoned ice factory

An abandoned ice factory sounds cool but I’m sorry to say it’s not. It’s not, because no factory making ice should ever be frozen out, especially if the damned thing is of historical importance, under Denkmalschutz as a protected or listed building. Now they want to destroy it altogether!
The Eisfabrik on Köpenicker Straße had been churning out ice for the inhabitants of this morally-challenged city since 1896 but its chilling activities were halted 99 years later, and it’s been simply chilling since then.
One of the oldest in Germany, it began under the stewardship of Carl Bolle – known affectionately as “Bimmel-Bolle“ (Bell-Bolle) because of the little bells on his dairy trucks – who founded the Norddeutsche Eiswerke (North German Ice-works) in September 1872. He acquired Köpenicker Straße 40-41 in 1893 and began producing ice here three years later.
The Norddeutsche Eiswerke became Germany’s biggest natural ice producers, and Herr Bolle had a larger factory and residential housing built here in 1909/10. More works between 1913 and 1922 saw the building of the boiler house, engine room and three cooling houses, which were insulated with 15cm of cork between the walls.
A great big ice machine from Linde AG was installed in 1914 to make blocks of ice 1.5 metres long. In times without fridges, these were delivered all over Berlin to breweries, pubs, households, fishmongers etc.,apparently until the late 1970s at least.
After “The Emergency” (as we Irish like to trivialise the war) and subsequent partitioning of Germany (which should never to be trivialised), the factory continued in GDR times as the VEB Kühlbetrieb before being heartlessly abandoned by the Berliner Kühlhaus GmbH in 1995. I guess most people had fridges then.
One of the residential buildings had been destroyed by bombs at the end of the war, but the rest somehow survived the various bombs and several fires – until last year that is, when the old cooling houses were ripped down by, and under the “protection” of, the Treuhand Liegenschaftsgesellschaft.
The original Treuhand was the state company responsible for the privatisation of East German enterprises once the Wall came down, generally responsible for the closing of factories, loss of jobs and selling of assets.
The Eisfabrik is now caught in the web of the huge Mediaspree project which wants to allow corporate greed corrupt Berlin’s riversides with apartments, office spaces and gold mines for investors. I guess this is how they can demolish a listed building...
According to those who want to save Berlin’s Eisfabrik and Wikipedia, the cool houses torn down last year were Europe’s oldest. The rest of the factory is also to be destroyed, except for the apartments currently undergoing modernisation (no doubt before the inhabitants are paid to leave so they can be sold at wildly inflated prices). The ice factory will be replaced by a building made of glass. Berlin is going to the dogs. Not cool.

What
Berliner Eisfabrik. Abandoned ice factory, one of Germany’s oldest, which managed to survive two world wars, several fires and countless parties but is about to meet its fate at the hands of developers to make way for luxury apartments despite being a protected building. There's a nice view of the river and my beloved Fernsehturm from the roof, and it’s also home to some fine street art.

Where
Köpenicker Straße 40/41, 10179 Berlin, Germany.

How to get there
It’s very central so shouldn’t be a problem. Berlin Ostbahnhof is a two minute walk away. Here’s a map to make it even easier.

Getting in
Not as difficult as I thought it would be. Apparently there used to be security but they don’t seem to bother anymore, probably since they destroyed the cool houses. Simply stroll in past the offices to the left of the factory, ignoring any busybodies on the way, past the loose fence at the back and you’re in!

When to go
As soon as you can. Winter’s coming, light’s failing, and this baby’s days are numbered. It’s already too late to see the cool houses, but the rest should be savoured before it’s replaced by some overpaid architect’s hideous creation.

Difficulty rating
2/10. Central, easy to get in – not difficult at all.

Who to bring
All your friends. Have a party! Or your boyfriend/girlfriend/hermaphrodite-friend for the view from the roof.

What to bring
Camera, torch, beer, warm clothes if you’re planning on visiting anytime soon.

Dangers
No obvious ones beyond the usual that come with wandrin’ around a deserted, decaying, crumbling building. Best not to be too averse to the smell of piss. There was some lunatic at the site shouting loudly when we were there but he may have been just a passer-through. Street artists are generally friendly as long as you’re not the Polizei.