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ELECTION SPECIAL!!

September 27, 2009

As the sleepy heads of America rise to a normal Sunday morning (or afternoon, depending on what you did last night), most are unaware of the battle that is just coming to a close several hundred thousand miles away.  Now, you may ask, why would I know that today is election day in Germany?  Well, unless you are as aware of the New York Times infatuation with this country as I am, then you probably wouldn’t.  But it seems that out of mutual respect, you should care about the German elections.  I mean, they cared about ours, a lot.  But I guess that’s because of all the chance and hope in the air last fall, and plus, Obama spoke in Berlin, on the steps of the Siegesäule.  The election results here are expected to be nothing short of predictable and Angela Merkel certainly didn’t grace the US with a speech at the Washington Memorial.  So perhaps there is little need for you to track the German elections, apart from a mild curiosity of knowing what is going on the world and wanting to look worldly at dinner parties.

I, however, am motivated to at least get a mild hold on the whole situation.  I say mild because every time the issue comes up, it is assumed the foreigner doesn’t know anything about the situation and it is explained to me; I nod and try to interject that I think I get it, but my nods are interpreted as the empty movements of someone trying to show that they understand what you are saying.  So I thought I would really try and get my info down by trying to explain it here.

**A note on language.  The word used for voting as a verb is wählen, which is the common verb for “to choose.”  For a noun, Stimme, meaning “voice” is most commonly used.  With that, I’ll get to the good stuff.

The first thing that I noticed with interest was that the elections are held on a Sunday.  Coming most recently from Oregon, a state that implemented mail-in ballots to solve the problems of work-schedule-based low voter turnout, I am a big fan of the Sunday vote.  It is even more effective because Germany is not the 24/7 culture I was used to in the US.  Things are closed here on Sundays.  All grocery stores; all shops.  The only people that work publicly on a Sunday are café staff (and priests and stuff).  So it seems that actually having Sunday as a day off for the vast majority of the population and then using that as voting day seems to make a lot of sense.

Second, Germany has a multi-party system!  Absolutely unthinkable, I know.  Like the US, there are a huge number of parties, but only a few of them are to be taken seriously.  Except that unlike the US, that number is larger than two.  The two biggest parties are the conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Union)/CSU (Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU) and the center-left SPD (Social Democratic Party).  The other relevant parties are the pro-business, liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), the far-left Left Party (Die Linke), and the lefty-environmental Green Party (Alliance 90/The Greens).  Then there are also a number of random parties that probably won’t get enough votes to hold a position (a party has to get 5% of the national vote to hold any seats in the Bundestag, which may sound like they are stamping out the little guys, but considering that the “little guys” include fascists, they decided to make it difficult for them to gain any sort of power).

Each of these parties has a color (this will be important in a second), like the Democrats’ blue and the Republicans’ red.  I’ve color coded them above, but for those readers that can’t see, the colors are as follows: the CDU is black, the SPD is red, the FDP is yellow, the Greens are green (not much of a stretch there) and the left party is also red.  Their socialist/communist past pretty much obligates them to use red, but to separate themselves from the SPD, they refer to their color as “dark red.”  For more on party colors and history, check out this article.

The disadvantage of a multi-party system is that none of these parties has a clear majority, so they must enter into coalitions to get anything passed.  In the last four years, the CDU and SDP have been in a coalition (pretentiously named the “grand coalition”), but one of the big issues this election is that Merkel favors a different coalition this time around between her party (the CDU) and the FDP, while the SPD is pushing for a “traffic light” of SPD (red), FDP (yellow) and Greens (green).  But from what I understand, neither the FDP or the Greens are at all friendly to this idea.  The greens made this clear with this election placard, showing a yellow barrel with black atomic signs on it, implying that they are against nuclear energy (another important debate in German politics).  The caption says, “Black-Yellow No Thank You!” which implies the double meaning of their aversion to the CDU and the FDP.

schwarz-gelb

The issues at hand are lengthy, but here is a completely butchered version of who wants what (adapted largely from a Reuters article):

  • CDU/CSU: lower taxes 2% for poor people, raise the threshold for the highest income tax bracket; support a minimum wage (Germany doesn’t have one, isn’t that surprising?); they don’t want Turkey joining the EU, they want to stay in Afghanistan; fans of nuclear energy
  • SPD: lower taxes 4% for poor people, raise rich peoples taxes; more jobs targeting industrial and green technology sectors, minimum wage; open to the possibility of Turkey joining the EU, possible time-line-ish approach to getting out of Afghanistan; phase out nuclear energy, less foreign oil, more renewable sources
  • FDP: change the tax system and make cuts for families and people worth less than 35 billion euros; build small- and medium-sized business sector, lower taxes on businesses, more privatization; they are going more an more in the direction of getting out of Afghanistan, but its still a debate within the party; keep nuclear energy but eventually switch to renewable sources
  • Greens: raise taxes for rich; a million new jobs; stay in Afghanistan (lame!), think Turkey should be in the EU, want China and Russia to follow more strict human rights standards; 40% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020
  • Left Party: no taxes for people who make less than €12,ooo, tax top earners 53%; nationalize banks, ban mass layoffs; Raus aus Afghanistan! (Out of Afghanistan); they want to phase out nuclear power.

raus aus afghanistan

Today, each voter will cast two votes.  The Erststimme (erst meaning first and stimme meaning vote or voice) is for a candidate – an actual person – from their local district.  The second vote is for a party.  The parties are then awarded seats in the Bundestag according to the number of votes they receive.  Then it gets a bit complicated.  If two candidates (from the Erststimme) from a particular party win seats, but the party (from the Zweitestimme) wins a total of 5 seats, then three more politicians from that party are chosen off of a “state list” drawn up by each party.  If the party wins 10 seats but 13 candidates are elected directly, then all 13 get into the Bundestag and the extra three are called “overhang seats.”  I find this complicated enough to try and explain (a more thorough explanation can be found here), but if you want all of the math on how proportions are selected, check out the Bundestag’s own explanation, which also includes results from the last national election in 2005.

The elections are difficult to avoid because of the constant assault of advertising.  The most advertising is from the big parties: the CDU and the SPD. Angie wears her power suits like a champ and sports power and grace in these placards and billboards:

angie copy(“We choose/vote for the Chancellor”, party slogan “We have the strength”, and “we choose confidence”)

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister (Hillary to Angie’s Obama), pictured here with a slogan literally translated as “Our country can more” – the “achieve,” “do,” or “accomplish” that should be in the middle is implied.

steinmeier

These are the two big candidates, and I like how Die Zeit illustrated the debate (and the question of coalitions on the cover of the newspaper last weekend:

die zeit(Steinmeier as Hamlet holding a skull.  Merkel wrapped in a German flag with ample cleavage showing – this will come up again later – looking at each other in front of a red curtain.  The caption reads: “To Be or Not to Be”)

Political candidates’ looks don’t and shouldn’t matter, but I do find it impressive that Angie’s dowdy haircut is one of the best in female German politics.  How she has managed to avoid what seems to be a syndrome of short blond haircuts, I don’t know.  But I salute here for resisting making the cut, I think she looks better (and a lot less scary) than these women.

election women candidates copy

Worth throwing in for good measure are Ströbele, local Green party candidate for my district, cause he has the greatest eyebrows ever and I saw him at the Turkish market a few weeks ago:

stroebele

And the poster for Halina Wawzyniak (I left her out of the political women series, but she is also a victim of the short blond hair syndrome).  This features a lower-back tattoo (fondly known as a “tramp stamp”) that reads “SOCIALIST”

socialist tattoo

Merkel is favored so strongly for the win that no one seems to be getting too excited for the election.  This election has most commonly been described as boring.  Voter turnout is expected to be at a record low, and Germans followed the American election last year more closely and with more enthusiasm.  So what has spiced up the (extremely short) last two months or so of campaigning?  What were the scandals?  The Sarah Palins and the Reverend Jeremy Wrights?  There weren’t many, but here are a few highlights:

  • Horst Schlämmer, a character of comedian Hape Kerkeling, created his own party (the Horst Schlämmer Party), and ran a fake campaign leading up to the release of a mockumentary about his run for Bundestag Chancellor.  I noticed the posters around Berlin and couldn’t believe that someone with his ridiculous appearance could actually be taken seriously as a candidate.  Turns out he can’t be, but in a poll, 18% of the population said they would vote for him if he was a real candidate.  Read the NYT article here or watch the film trailer (in German) here. (His posters were taken down before I started photographing campaign ads, so I must admit that this was downloaded from the internet):

Horst_Schlaemmer

  • The SDP took a publicity hit in late July when party member and health minister Ulla Schmidt went to Spain for a weekend vacation in her chauffer-driven, armored Mercedes.  Unfortunately for her (and the party), the car was stolen, leaving Schmidt, as the New York Times put it, “without a vehicle but with some explaining to do.” Oops.  [related article]
  • And lastly, the campaign ad that made it to the Colbert Report, now infamous placard from Vera Lengsfeld (I didn’t remember her name, but fortunately for me, one of these placards is attached to the light pole outside the coffee shop where I am sitting).  Running against Merkel, she knew she didn’t have much of a chance, so decided to draw some attention to herself in a unique way.  There is a famous photo of usually conservatively dressed Merkel at a formal evening event with much more cleavage showing that Germans are used to seeing on their Kanzlerin.  Lengsfeld paired this photo with one of herself in an equally revealing dress and added the caption “We have more to offer.”

veraWunderbar.

**If you want more information on any of this election system stuff, here are some of the websites and articles in English I found helpful when researching this post: FOCUS Information Agency’s article on how the German electoral system works, The New York Times, which is absolutely in love with Germany (and especially Berlin) and writes about it all the time, and several articles on The Local, German news in English, including this election primer from August.

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Prague, Prag, Praha

September 20, 2009

It is rare that family members happen to be in Europe, just a few hours drive away.  When it happens, especially if one of the family members is your Grandmother who will be 90 this year, you go and meet them.

Thus, I found myself on a quick weekend jet set to Prague.  I got a ride with a Russian woman, who I got in contact with over a rideshare website, and her 11-year-old son.  Her German was even worse than mine, but it didn’t stop her from using what little she knew.  Her son was not impressed with her lack of German skills (he speaks Russian, Czech, German and some English), but I was happy to finally have a conversation where I understood every single word.  She worked for a travel agency, so told me all about the sites we passed along the way, including folklore about Prague as we arrived.  She taught me a few words in Czech (she lived in Prague for nine years), which I promptly forgot or couldn’t pronounce anyway.  It was a bit overwhelming to be in a city where I didn’t understand one iota of the language being spoken around me.  They have all sorts of accents (´, `, ˆ, ˚), so I couldn’t have even pronounced words I saw on buildings, street signs, etc.  But I had a blast nonetheless.

I was left off in the main town square, swarming with tourists, and my russian driver pointed in some general direction of an alleged metro.  I spent about an hour looking for the metro station and a bank to withdraw my first crowns and was finally directed to both (right next to each other) by a woman sitting in a “guided tour” booth.  I got on two wrong trains before figuring out that I was actually right on the tram line I needed to be on, so left the station and crossed the city above ground.  I had a low-key night, knowing I wanted to get up early to do some sightseeing before meeting up with my Grandmother, aunt and uncle, who were coming off a two week boat trip on the Danube (Donau) River.

The next day, before I was scheduled to meet my family, I visited the Museum of Communism.  It was surreal: the museum is in the same building as a casino and right next to a giant McDonald’s.  Quite the juxtaposition, as you might imagine.  They made a lot of fun of themselves, but the display itself was pretty serious, despite the miserable English translations.

The experience of so-called Communism in each country in the Eastern bloc was slightly different and yet creepily, uniformly the same.  They had to create a party that (seemed to) apply to their own culture and history, while still hanging red flags everywhere, putting hammers and sickles on everything, and making working people overproduce to prop up a suffering Eastern economy with talk of workers’ valor and  medals to reward merit and hard work.

The Czechoslovakians also apparently built the biggest monument to Stalin ever constructed, didn’t finish it until after he died, and then destroyed it out of embarrassment seven years later.  It was just over 50 feet tall and 72 feet long.  It was the largest group statue in Europe.  It was mammoth!  It was located in a park that overlooks the city, and they have put a metronome in its place that you can see from the city streets.  Oh, what it must have been like to glance up at the hills and see giant Stalin scowling down at you in all of his socialist realist glory!  From what I understand, the statue is regarded as one of the best examples of the ridiculous reaches of Soviet statue-dom.  See the wikipedia page for photos.

But the best part of the exhibit was an awkward documentary about so-called Communism in Czechoslovakia.  It showed incredibly powerful footage of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when millions of people came out in the streets of Prague to protest the government, and were eventually successful in overthrowing it.  They faced fire hoses and secret police, planted in the crowd to pick out protesters and beat them up before arresting them.  But they knew they had no other choice than face such risks.  They congregated in Wenceslas Square and heard speeches by future government leaders about how to change the system that had oppressed them for so long.

I later met up with my family members and we enjoyed delicious food and wonderful sightseeing over the course of the next few days.  The Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, and a special tour of the Estates Theater, where Mozart directed the world premiere of Don Giovanni.  An ancient man, who turned out to be a former conductor at the theater, gave us a tour and played a few tunes on the piano.

I had heard mixed reviews of Prague.  Some people love it and think it is so charming and other people think it looks like Disneyland and has just about as many Americans.  Its true, there were a lot of tourists.  And tourist season is pretty much over, so I can only imagine what it was like earlier in the summer.  But it is lovely and the architecture is truly amazing.  It is one of the few major cities that wasn’t flattened during World War Two, so the original buildings, dating back centuries, have survived.  Also, there are several important works of Art Nouveau architecture, including one of the only Art Nouveau bridges, in the city.  I didn’t really think about bombing as a factor in Prague’s charm until I got there and learned a bit of the history.  It really struck and I was amazed at the ornate building decoration and the narrow cobblestone alleyways.  So if you can look past the Americans squinting at guidebooks and the guys asking you if you want to go on a bar crawl and the overload of Franz Kafka paraphernalia (he lived there for a while apparently and is now impossible to avoid as an adopted icon) and the tourist shops selling kitsch of unimaginable proportions, then you will find that historical beauty that makes Prague special.

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The Most Common Language in the World

September 8, 2009

It’s about that time.  It seems to happen about every two weeks these days.  I finish one German class and start another one, which usually involves finding a new school due to visa requirements, exorbitant prices, or location.  I have found a winner in Hartnack Schule (Schule meaning school), which is about a 20 minute bike ride from my house, fabulously affordable, and all the other things one would want in a language class: I like the teacher, I like the classmates, and for the first time since my first lessons back in Portland and Pasadena, I finally feel like I’m in the right level, and not ahead of my classmates.  What a relief.

The intensive language student finds him- or herself in an interesting position.  Attending German class in Germany basically provides one with the tools to better understand the world around him or her.  I learn words every day that I will see or hear later on TV (I just discovered they made a German version of The Office), in a book (I’ve been trying to read some children’s classics and just finished Pippi Longstocking – or should I say Pippi Langstrumpf by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren), or in the dreaded newspaper (I pick up the tabloid style rag every once in a while but am always unimpressed by my still-limited knowledge).

But despite my not-quite-newspaper-worthiness, my German is improving by leaps and bounds.  I can follow a conversation remarkably better than I was able to a few months ago, and though I can’t really tell stories with much confidence, I can understand what people are asking of me, and usually answer with the information they wanted to know.  I even spoke with someone the other day who couldn’t believe that I had only been learning German for just nine months.  So if nothing else, I am fooling a lot of people around me, so that is a good sign.  I have a long way to go, but I am so relieved to finally be at this stage, where I at least know what is going on!  So it is with the upmost of respect for this language that I now attempt to explain why you should never learn it.

A fellow participant in the choir in which I sing has a theory: English is really easy at the beginning, but if you want to get good at it, it becomes incredibly difficult, mainly because we have more words than most languages, thanks to being a delightful mash-up of Latin-based and German-based dialects.  German, on the other hand, is really difficult at the beginning, but gets easier once you master the basics.  I agree with this theory, because of the crazy ‘basics’ he is referring to.  First, every noun has a gender: masculine, feminine, or neutral.  There are very few rules to determine this gender (some specific noun endings signal a certain gender – words ending in –ung are always feminine – but most you just have to memorize).  Same with plurals: there are some rules to determine how to make a noun pluralized, but most you just have to learn.   So once you’ve got your gender correct, you have to change the article depending on where the noun is in the sentence.  Der (masculine for “the”) becomes den as a direct object and dem as an indirect object (or when used with specific prepositions, but I’m not even going to go into that).  Das (neutral) and die (feminine) stay das and die as direct objects, but as indirect objects das becomes dem and die becomes der.  And that is all just for the word “the”!

I won’t go on about grammar, but to struggle with German as a beginner does give one an appreciation of the simplicity of basic English.  No genders, no formal you (Sie) and informal you (du), plurals are only tricky when you write things down, no changing adjective endings depending on gender and case, etc.  I believe that this is one of the reasons it has become so international.  Put aside your theories of cultural imperialism for a moment and just consider how easy it is to put together a simple sentence in English.  And because of its international character, everyone who doesn’t speak the same language as his or her conversation partner uses English (its considered to be the first global lingua franca: the third common language used by two people who speak different languages).  In language schools, you can tell how advanced the students are by what they speak during the coffee break.  If they are in a high enough level, they will speak German to each other.  If they are beginners, they speak English.

My German teacher told a joke about all of this by asking, “What is the most commonly spoken language in the world?”  The answer, of course, is bad English.

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In Which I Explore Germany with my Family

August 17, 2009

It turns out that Germany is more than just Berlin.  In fact, most people one speaks with consider Berlin a special world in and of itself – something crazy and beautiful and above and beyond the rest of Germany.  So when my family came to visit, we took the opportunity to see what else was around.

My mother, father, and sister came to this lovely country to see what I’ve been making of myself and to get a bargain priced personally guided tour of Berlin and the country.  We stayed in Berlin for the first three days, soaking in the sights before taking off to Heidelberg for three days, Munich for three more days and back to Berlin for a final 48 hours.  We explored these areas by foot, car, train, boat and bicycle.  It was pretty impressive.  Here are some things I learned:

  • Plan the details. The little things, like knowing where to eat, what transportation pass to get, and whether Rührei means scrambled or fried eggs are worth researching beforehand.
  • Speed limits are unnecessary. My parents are from the east coast and are ever bemoaning the obnoxious and inconsiderate driving habits of Californians.  “No one uses the passing lane correctly unless you’re on your way to Maine!”  I contest (silently, of course) that this is because they only have two lane highways on the way to Maine, but it turns out that they are right: it has nothing to do with road width and everything to do with driving etiquette.  Germans stick to the etiquette as if it were law (which it probably is) and maintain breakneck speeds on highways across the country with hardly any problems (the main one being, of course, that when there ever is an accident, it usually involves 50 cars or more.  But who’s counting?).
  • The Germans are (partly) right about Heidelberg. Any German to whom I describe my trip shakes their head when I mention Heidelberg and ask me, “What is the deal with Americans and Heidelberg?” (or, you know, the equivalent of that question in German).  There is a base outside of the city (so we’ve heard of it) and my uncle used to live there (so I have a personal excuse), I counter, but they are still puzzled.  Turns out Americans always go to Heidelberg and to Germans, it is just another small town.  In a way, they are right: the town is beautiful, but so are a lot of small towns in this country.  It has a river through it and a beautiful Altstadt (Old Town) and is nestled in a valley and all, but the castle, which is a key part of the town’s fame, is a hodge-podge of historical architecture so mismatched it would make any art history student shake their head and say, “what were they thinking?”  We also visited a number of other small towns in the region and each had its own castle presiding over it in a sort of no-longer-intimidating, almost comforting, crumbling way.  And yes, if you drive around enough, all the ruins start to run together and the castles that are still standing are crawling with tourists.  But here is where the Germans are wrong about these uninteresting small towns.  Uninteresting small towns where I come from are one street with a Burger King and some auto repair shops, an abandoned industrial district standing as a testament to the fact that people used to be able to make a living and sustain families here, and – especially if you’re in the Pacific Northwest – a pretty healthy population of meth users.  Castles?  Not unless this town is in New Jersey and then there may be a fast food franchise that looks like a castle and will sell you 3 hamburgers – unfortunately called “Sliders” – and Coke and fries for just $2.99.  No, we do not have exposure to the kind of history one finds in any small town in Germany, and will therefore find a fair share of charm in anything.  The houses with their red slanted roofs, the rolling fields of trees or crops or windmills.  And castles, even if they are ruins – in fact, especially if they are ruins!  Do you know how long ago something has to be built for it to become a ruin?! – are really very cool.  A constant reminder of how long the history of a place is.  I suppose if you grew up with it, you can become desensitized, but I don’t intend to.
  • Munich is weird and lives up to stereotypes. On our first morning in the city, we walked around, trying to see some sites and get our bearings.  We stumbled upon Königsplatz, a square that could have been in ancient Greece.  Then we walked through the rest of the museum district to Ludwigstraße, one of the main streets of the city, where we found a street fair that looked like it hadn’t sold enough booth spaces.  It sounded impressive from around the corner with salsa music blasting, but when we got there, it turned out to be a huge street with a handful of oddly assorted organizations and stands geared toward a loosely defined environmental theme (I guess BMX bikes are environmentally friendly?) and then a lot of meat grills.  We continued on through the city, where I began to notice the growing presence of teenagers dressed up like goth versions of Alice in Wonderland.  It was very odd.  I figured if there was a teen emo-glam population as big as what I was seeing, its reputation probably would have reached me before I got there, but all I’d heard about Munich was that it was very clean but pretty boring (and that is by people who live there, not just unimpressed tourists).  Nonetheless, I was weirded out, especially when my mother tried to compare my hair-dying phase with the costumes of these teen yahoos.  I do not usually defend that phase, but I felt the need to point out that my teen years rarely involved costume and certainly didn’t involve this ridiculousness.  It became clear when we entered the Englisher Garten, famous for being one of the biggest urban parks and full of English gardening techniques (as the name implies) as well as for a Chinese pagoda, a Greek-style temple, and a Japanese tea house.  And here was the answer to all of my questions about strangely-clad teens.  The Japanese tea house and environs were the site of a Japanfest, complete with bonsai and flower arrangement competitions, displays of samarai sword fighting, Japanese traditional singing, and all sorts of Japanese food and drink.  It clicked.  Japan was the home of Anime and Manga, entire industries of cartoon characters staring in comic books, television shows and films.  These young people were dressed up like characters from these franchises.  It all made sense, and though I didn’t forgive them for their obsessions with the kind of animation that gives me a headache, at least I felt like I finally understood them.  Then we saw some people surfing.  Because, you know, what better activity to occupy your Saturday afternoon.  The water entering the English Garden goes under a bridge at a high speed, creating a standing wave that is, in fact, surfable.  I did not expect to see surfing anywhere in Germany, so I left dually impressed.  We rented bikes and tooled through the Garden a bit, we ate some great food all over the city, we visited the Neue Pinakothek, one of three of the big art museums in the city and we drank a lot of beer.  Not particularly because we were thirsty or could only appreciate each other’s company three sheets to the wind, but more because they serve beer in such excessive portions one can’t avoid feeling tipsy after just one drink.  When in Rome, do as the Romans.  When in Munich, drink beer, a liter at a time, out of a glass jug called a Maß (pronounced Mahss).  I really liked Munich, but I was only there for three days.  I did find the city incredibly clean (especially compared to Berlin, which is broke, and therefore spends no money on removal of graffiti or dog excrement and very little on park maintenance), but I think if I hung around for a few weeks, I would also find the city lacking in spark and sparkle.

So I was happy to return to Berlin.  And showing my family around the city reminded me, as it always does, what a wonderful city it is and how lucky I am to get to know it.  Summer’s just warming up and everyone is taking advantage of it, so I think I’ll stick around for a while longer.  It was great to have my parents and my sister around for as long as they were.  And if you are looking for a bargain tour guide (all the sites as long as you buy me three meals a day!), I hear you can call them for a referral.

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Where have you been, my darling young one?

June 25, 2009

2pm on a Wednesday afternoon and if feels like the best-deserved weekend I’ve had in a long time.  Yes I am still in my pajamas and yes I climbed back into bed with my laptop to write this.  My fabulous roommate James knocked on my bedroom door at noon and said, “there’s coffee!” and, though I could have fallen asleep again with ease, I decided that coffee seemed like a good excuse not to.  I stumbled into the kitchen to find not just coffee, but croissants and jam, strawberries and yoghurt, and eggs, ready to be scrambled with mushrooms tomatoes and cheese.  Fabulous.

All of this may sound very decadent, but trust me, the last few weeks have been hell, and I think that it was nothing short of well deserved

So I’m happy, but have been feeling guilty of late for deserting you, dear reader (to take a page from Craig’s book). Remember when I predicted a busy next few months?  It turns out I wasn’t exaggerating.  But it wasn’t fair to leave you with a useful, but unexciting post about boring things.  We certainly have some catching up to do.

The last two months have been a whirlwind.  I have struggle to balance between 4 hours of German class a day with the crazy schedule of a magazine and have tried to fit this history project in the cracks between.  I also have to have fun, because I’m in Berlin, where clubs open on Friday and don’t close until Sunday, and there is some music worth hearing or a party worth dancing at or a bar worth going to every night of the week.  Not to mention what one might call “civilized” cultural events, which I have been trying to attend, such as performances that occur on stages or arty one-night-only films.  Oh, and I’m still trying to find my place in the city, because I won’t be able to hang out in the EXBERLINER office forever, so I am searching out ‘extra-curriculars,’ if you will, full of patient people that will let me slog through their language in an effort to get my point across.  Yes I know we could just speak English, but I prefer to suffer, thank you very much.

But seriously, I’m almost competent in this impossible language.  I still confuse my prepositions (because they are different depending on whether the noun is a subject, object, or indirect object.  Oh and it depends on the preposition too.  And the gender of the noun, which is pretty much impossible to determine – you just have to memorize it).  I can understand a lot of things pretty well.  I can even get the general ideas of news stories and such (I’ve been listening to a lot of radio podcasts to help with this).  The only problem is that details still evade me.  Here’s an example: the Green Party in Berlin has a series of bike rides – one every Saturday – on the route of the Berlin wall.  So if you went every weekend, you would end up covering all 160 km of the former wall.  The guy who leads these trips stops on occasion and tells everyone interesting things about the area.  This is where my level of German is frustrating: I can get the gist, but I already know the ‘gist history’ of the wall already.  What interests me are the details, which I am not yet adept enough to understand.  So 50% of the time I am excited at the amount I understand and the other 50% of the time I am frustrated at what I still can’t grasp.  It is a strange element of existence. (See the accompanying post on London for a bit more on this topic).

Then there is the part of my life that doesn’t help my German at all: working for an English magazine.  We put out a double issue for the summer (I didn’t sleep for two days, didn’t have all of the information I needed from one of my superiors which caused her to get almost fired, ran out of space on my hard drive, and finished just in time to join my German classmates and teacher at a restaurant for a last hurrah after the last class).  I am now home free until the end of July.  My family is coming to visit, which is very exciting.  Besides spending time with them, I’m hoping to soak up some sun over the next month and organize my future.  The magazine internship is over at the end of August, so I have to figure out what to do then.  Thankfully, there are a lot of magazines based in Berlin, and a new magazine launches almost every week (I am not exaggerating on that, by the way.  Every time there is a magazine launch party, berlin.unlike announces it in sort of a baffled tone, like: “this party will be fun and this magazine looks cool and everything, but really?  Print media in a crisis?”).  So there seem to be plenty of opportunities worth exploring, despite the tenuousness of the industry.  We’ll see where it goes.

It is summer in Berlin and though the sun has yet to take up permanent and reliable residence, it is nice to see the numerous green spaces in this city in all of their glory.  Every district park shows movies at night (they are called Freiluftkinos: open air cinemas), groups of bicyclists 5 or 10 strong wait at every intersection for every light, and the sun doesn’t go down until after 10pm, which I celebrate with my roommates by hanging out on our roof with a bottle of wine and watching the sun set over the city.  I am content, and now that I have caught up on sleep and eaten a breakfast no less than decadent, I am ready to face this season head on and get out and see and do all that it has to offer.

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LONDON

June 25, 2009

I am posting this along with my big comeback post because, despite its age and out-of-date-ness (the trip was May 14-17), I’m sure there are people who will find it interesting.  So feel free to read it in no particular order with the post above.

I won’t go into the disastrous elements of my trip to London, but there were some details worth mentioning.  Most notably, the exhibit on Russian Constructivism that I went to see at the Tate Modern was amazing.  That museum is really cool and they did a great job with the exhibit.  And although I spent a lot of time last year reading Lenin and learning about that period of time in Russia, I never learned or bothered to look into the role art played in the Revolution and the role the Revolution played in the art world.  I went into the exhibit just knowing a bit about Rodchenko and thinking he was pretty cool.  But it’s true that after any revolution, one of the sectors of culture that would have to be reconsidered would be art.  The Russians tried to redefine art and take the personal aspects or identifying factors of the artist as a person out of their works.  They used rulers and compasses, trying to make lines and circles so exact that they failed to resemble works by a person.  Then eventually, they decided that they should not be making art simply for art’s sake, but for the people – art that would be useful to everyone.  So they had a huge exhibit of artists all showing 5 paintings called 5+5=25 and declared the death of painting.  Most of them never painted again.  They went into textile design, propaganda (for a largely illiterate population), and set design for theater, which was really interesting because they were able to create prototypes for workers uniforms as costumes for plays.  Unfortunately, by this time, the state had no money, so the theater was the only place in which these new uniforms and ideas were realized.  After Stalin came to power and Socialist Realism became all the rage (you know the type – happy workers carrying pails of water, Lenin standing on a stormy mountaintop pointing the masses toward the future.  Very celebratory and very uninteresting), most of the artists either left or adapted (read: sold out) and Constructivism was left to inspire artists and designers around the world for the rest of the century.

London as a city is really big and modern, and I had forgotten how those worked.  There are rules, and they are enforced (for instance, you actually can’t smoke in bars and restaurants in England).  The most striking was walking along the Thames to the Tate and seeing a sign that warned people of street gambling that happened in that area.  Berlin doesn’t have the kind of money required to go after street gambling.

It is a wonderful combination of incredibly new and very very old.  It has a hustle and bustle of any capital city, but I like the symbolic elements that have been around for what seems like forever – double-decker busses that haven’t changed their design that much since the 50s, people in funny costumes outside of famous places, etc.  I find London interesting because it has to combine history older than anything in Berlin and anything in the US (so older than anything familiar to me), with the new and the modern – and I think it pulls it off with beauty and ease.

Speaking English for a weekend was nice.  I still got that acute knot in my stomach when approaching anyone I needed to speak with, but I could comfort myself for once.  But I did return to Berlin and breathe a sigh of relief.  I am really happy to be living in a city as big as Berlin, but not as big as London.  Berlin is a little more understated.  The city is changing so fast, it doesn’t really have the symbols that London has (and if it does, they certainly aren’t as old!  The big touristy symbolic things in Berlin are the East Berlin TV Tower that stands in Alexanderplatz, the guy on the old East German walk signs, and Knut, the polar bear.  Most t-shirts and bags at touristy shops just say BERLIN on them and leave it at that).  I like living in a city that is trying to figure itself out and is not picturesque enough to survive on looks alone.  I know people will argue that London has personality too, and I’m not arguing that it doesn’t.  It will always be one of the coolest cities in the world; I just have no desire to live there.  I’m happy where I am and I know that right now is probably the time to be here.

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Büro-cracy

May 21, 2009

I’m not exactly sure if this blog serves any purpose beyond keeping friends and family informed of what I’m doing here in Germany, but just in case it is ever passed along to anyone crazy enough to do something like move to Europe on a whim, I’ve go some immigration/staying-for-longer-than-three-months advice for these hypothetical readers.  Get ready, you can only lace boring information with so much wit:

  1. Go to the embassy of whatever country you are intending to spend a bunch of time in (we’ll use Germany as an example here) before you go.  You can come for three months without any previous applications etc, but you may qualify for some sort of visa in the US.  And it all changes when you get to the country – you can no longer apply for visas, you have to apply for a residence card.  But the embassy may at least have some good advice.  And good advice about visas usually includes big words that are much easier to understand in a language you actually speak.
  2. If you don’t do that, or it doesn’t help, once you’re in the country find out if there is some faction of the government that gives advice to immigrants.  In Berlin it’s called the Auslånder Beauftragter.  They will use the above mentioned big words and you probably won’t understand and it will be really frustrating, but they will eventually tell you what your options are (or rather, you will eventually understand) and what documents you need to take to the Ausländerbehörde (immigration office) etc.  This saves you waiting in lines that put the DMV to shame only to find out from some poor staff member with no patience that you have all of the wrong pieces of paper and you have to come back again the next day, again, at 7 am.
  3. Enroll in a university.  I’m not exactly sure how this is done, but if you can figure out a way, I recommend it.  It is about a thousand times easier to stay here if you are some sort of student, even in a US university.  For instance, I have two internships, but I can’t get a visa for either of them because I’m not a student.  Also, if you come here just to learn German, you have to take a class that prepares you to enter a university here anyway, so they will assume you want to study even if you tell them you probably won’t.
  4. Or they will recommend you get married.  So will everyone else.  Its not for everyone, but it does make it easier to stay.  My parents have forbidden me from getting married over here, but if you’re going to have two passports, a country in Europe and a US passports are probably the best two you could have.  Just saying.
  5. You can also go to Switzerland or somewhere out of the Shengen (its sort of like the EU but different – European politics are complicated) every few months, but its kind of frowned upon and I think doesn’t always work.  Some people swear by it, but I’ve found going through immigration in other countries a lot easier if you appear to be legal somewhere.
  6. Do not, under any conditions, wait until the week before you three month tourist visa is up before you start going to government offices.  Start asking around as soon as possible and make a plan – especially if you don’t have a job right away and have some free time.  Trust me.

The German word for office is Büro, and there is a reason it sounds like bureaucracy.  I survived, but barely.  At least I don’t have to worry about again until I hypothetically go to school here.

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