Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Arabic adventures

This evening I embarked on a new chapter of life with my first Arabic classes. I signed up at the local Volkshochschule before Christmas for one of the free courses they’re putting on for refugee helpers. There are lots of courses and they’re quickly booked up. Evidently loads of people want to help, or join ISIS.
My classmates’ intentions looked good enough though. There was one guy called Radik or something like that who may have looked like he wanted to join ISIS but the rest of them seemed relatively harmless, apart from a Slovakian guy, and a middle-aged German woman, and maybe a few of the others…
The teacher is Egyptian and pretty cool. She was the last to turn up, late, while the rest of us eejits were waiting outside the classroom, having turned up on time. I won’t be doing that again, ever, for anything.
We learned loads of stuff. I can introduce myself, say what I do, where I come from, where I live, give my age, describe someone else, and ask them their details in return. I can also count from 1 to 99.
She also introduced us to five letters in Arabic that are “friendly” to other letters. I assume we’ll learn the letters they’re friendly to in due course. Some of the letters were “conservative” while others were “modern” because they had “piercings” either on their bellies or above their heads. One even had three piercings! It was ش, my favorite Arabic letter so far. It makes a “shhhh” sound, the sort you hear when you’re trying to have a decent chat at a concert in Germany.
It’s a nice-sounding language, I look forward to learning more. Sure, there may be a crazy script, a crazy everything, they write the wrong way around in a crazy way, and say words in a crazy manner, but it’s not German and “there are no rules” according to the teacher. It’s just a way of speaking after all. A whole new world.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Everything’s nothing: Marathon Sans Frontières

It’s official! I’m running the Berlin Marathon for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders in Syria. They know, I know, Paypal know, and I’ve a form to prove it so now you know too.
I’m going with MSF because of their incredible work under horrendous conditions where no sane people would normally go. Their hospitals have been repeatedly targeted, their staff and patients killed in conflicts that show no sign of ending, ever.
Syria appears a lost cause. Western governments are not helping, the Russians have even joined in, and the situation’s going from bad to awful to horrific. When you think it can’t possibly get even worse, you’re proven wrong yet again. Cluster bombs, barrel bombs, chemical weapons, systematic starvation: none of them news anymore. But of course it’s not a lost cause, it can’t be.
So I’m going to run my legs off for MSF’s efforts in Syria. So far I’ve run 257.3 kilometers, just over six marathons, albeit none at the same time. There’s been tears, sweat and snot, though no blood yet. I nearly puked going up a hill in snow and ice last Monday and then snotted myself spectacularly on the other side, just as a large group arrived. “Oooooh,” they all exclaimed in a joint burst of Schadenfreude. I kept running. It’s nothing to what Syrians are going through. Everything’s nothing.
So please donate what you can, doesn’t have to be a fortune. So far I’ve raised €90 and I’m doubling that now. So so far I’ve raised €180 for MSF. They’ll get every cent, I’m paying my own expenses.
The donate button is below or the IBAN is DE09500105175554452542 (BIC: INGDDEFFXXX). All donations gratefully received!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Winter jacket

There was no warning when the train arrived. We were still making sandwiches when they came through the door, hungry. Only two of us, so Stefan grabbed a few bags and went over to the other table to hand them out there. Hands grabbed at me, demanding one sandwich, two, four. They were fucking hungry. They’d been traveling all night, all week, all their lives, and they were nowhere near finished yet.
I handed them out as best I could but the stocks were dwindling while the line wasn’t. People came back for more, pointing to family members too shy to ask for themselves. I gave them out and pointed to the queue of famished people still waiting. Stefan went back to the kitchen and made more.
But we’d enough in the end. Anyone who wanted to get fed got fed. I walked around with the last sandwiches and they were snapped up. There were bananas, mandarins, biscuits, cakes and bars for anyone who was still hungry. Many stocked up while they could. They knew their journeys were far from over.
As I was handing them out another volunteer came up to me and said she wanted a sandwich. She had a “Refugees Welcome” badge and a camera round her neck. I never saw her before. FUCK OFF, I wanted to tell her. These are for the refugees, I told her instead. She’d been looking at me handing them out. I was hungry too.
When the work was done, I looked around and realized that all the people being paid to be there – the Lageso staff, Polizei, soldiers, ambulance services, Deutsche Bahn security – spent the whole time just standing around. They stand around like the cool kids in the schoolyard, smoking, chatting, laughing among themselves, oblivious to the new arrivals. They’re just refugees, the latest batch, there’ll be more. Get ‘em in, ship ‘em out.
They – the refugees, not the privileged observers – waited like cattle for the green light to board the buses and get shipped out, wherever the hell they were going.
One guy traveling with his family was trying to reach his son in Frankfurt, prompting confusion over which Frankfurt it was – Frankfurt-Oder or Frankfurt-Main. Nothing is ever easy when you’re in a foreign country, a country you’d rather not be in in the first place. No one wants to be a refugee, no one.
I’m sure none of the observers stopped to consider why these people were refugees in the first place, why they left their lives behind and traveled through hell and lethal waters to reach strange lands where people hate you because they don’t know who you are.
Berlin is covered in a blanket of snow. It’s cold. But at least it’s bright, that’s something. As I type this on the S-Bahn home a street musician is playing a jaunty little tune on his music box. He’s finished now, passed through the carriage. No one gave him anything. Berlin can be cold all year round.
I helped one man struggling with too many bags and too many small kids carry his shit out to the bus. Waiting for her turn to board was a little Afghan girl wearing just a tracksuit. In this weather! I ran to the clothes room, grabbed a winter jacket and ran back to catch her before she was gone. It fit. Brilliant. The mother was happy and one of the observers had noticed too. He smiled as she boarded the bus. I smiled back at him. Every bit of warmth is precious in the cold.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Five years!

The young fella is five today! He was five at 9:21 this morning. He’s a bit older now.
I won’t bang on about how great he is. Suffice to say I’m hard to please but couldn’t be prouder of him for who he is, how he sees things, how he reacts, how he shares, how he cares, how he is. He makes me laugh all the time, often in the morning when laughter isn’t possible. I’ll be forever grateful for that day five spins around the sun ago when he graced us with his presence.
We went to a puppet theater this morning to see Rumpelstiltskin. I didn’t know the story before. Neither did he. He said it was “OK” and that “the man (Rumpelstiltskin) shouldn’t have said his name.”
“I know, feckin eejit.” We agree on a lot of things.
He’s already a fountain of knowledge. He knows Greenland is the largest island in the world and Inishbofin the best one. We were talking about Santa the other day and I told him nobody really knew where he lived, whether it was the North Pole or Lapland.
“Except Santa,” he said. “He knows where he lives.”
Yep, a smart cookie.
We’re going to his favorite (conveniently cheap) restaurant for dinner now. He has another party at the Kita tomorrow, and then another party with his friends (or pretend friends, he’ll only find out in 30 years if they’re real friends or not) the day after that, and another party the day after that. The Germans make him do it, they’re mad about birthdays.
Life should be celebrated so I shouldn't complain. He’s certainly brightened up mine.
Happy birthday little man!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David Bowie

I discovered David Bowie when I was a kid. He was the first artist I found on my own, everything had been influenced or recommended up to then. I’d never even heard of him when I picked up The Best of Bowie from a box of tapes in a house I shouldn’t have been in.
I was trespassing, very much so. The building wasn’t so much abandoned as just sealed up and used for storage by people who’d clearly lost all good music sense. Apart from Bowie I “discovered” Horslips’ The Táin, another brilliant album.
I took them home, stole them, put them on and was amazed by what I heard. Any guilt I felt quickly dispelled as I fathomed the greatness of what I was hearing, what I’d just released from its unappreciative prison. It was incredible, a whole new world. Space Oddity, Starman, Jean Genie, Heroes, Sound and Vision; I was enthralled.
I went to see him at the Point Depot in Dublin many years later, after his Reality album, and it was a good gig, if slightly spoiled by the gobshites there only for the early hits and who didn’t want to listen to his new stuff. They were yakking and boozing, couldn’t deal with Reality.
I shouldn’t judge, people like different things, they take comfort in what they know. But Bowie never gave people what they know, it’s what elevated him to greatness.
Berlin exudes Bowie. I didn’t know before I came here, a coincidence, but I’m in a city as appreciative of him as I am, if that’s even possible. He makes it possible.
This morning I checked my phone for work emails. “David Bowie has died” from the global news manager. Disbelief. What?! Fuck. The dawning there wouldn’t be any more music, no more magic, it was over. He’d just released an album Friday, there was no inkling he’d been ill, he’d done drugs, been through everything, the party was going to go on forever. But no, and something died inside of me.
When I got home there were tributes I tried to ignore, there was stuff I couldn’t read. I watched a performance of Heroes and tears came. I’m not such a tough guy. I tried reason with myself, people die all the time, many more people, too many people, the world is shit and he actually had a great life, but he’s gone. Selfishly, I mourn. He won’t be able to create anymore. That’s it, it’s over.
He’s gone and that’s all there is to it. As I type these words I’m listening to Blackstar and the tears are close again. It’s a great album, wonderful. With each new album you’d rediscover the old. I’m so sad there won’t be any more new albums, but I’ll never get tired of the old. Yeah David, everybody knows you now.

UPDATE: Wednesday, January 20, 2016 – First four photos were taken two days after the news broke, on the coldest, wettest, shittiest Wednesday of the year, outside his house at 155 Hauptstraße in Schöneberg. People were still laying roses, lighting candles. They'll light them for a while yet.
The rest were taken Friday at his “Trauerfeier” in the Meistersaal of Hansa studios, where the albums Low and Heroes were finished/recorded. It was more Trauer than Feier. When I got there there was some woman warbling about the time she and Bowie existed in Berlin at the same time, then some man got up and asked for a minute’s silence which he broke with an emotional rendition of “Our Father” or whatever you’d call it. Nobody joined in and nobody clapped. They just waited for him to get off the fucking stage. Then they played songs and people lit candles. I left. It didn’t fill the loss, they’ll never fill that loss.