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Politics, Soviet Nostalgia, Costume parties instead of Valentines, and French Immigration

February 16, 2009

Life has gotten a bit in the way and I have not been writing as often as I should.  However, in the interest of maintaining my status as some people’s favorite procrastination tool and in hopes of perhaps gaining that coveted position in other people’s days, I return.  Thank god my hostel has free wifi.

Staying at a hostel is getting a bit exhausting, but I sure can’t complain of boredom.  Each day, new people move in and others move out, so I am constantly making new friends and saying goodbye to old.  Through the wonders of facebook, I now have a free place to stay in Portugal, Poland, Amsterdam, Budapest, and the Czech Republic.  I better get a sweet job so I can get all of this travelling in!

When I admit I am an American, the conversation inevitably turns to politics.  Of course, I don’t mind a bit, but it has been interesting.  When Bush was president, and I was in Australia, Australians and Europeans that I met along the way were mainly curious about how that guy managed to get elected again.  They marveled at the American people’s lack of sensitivity and intelligence.  And while we still have a reputation of being stupid (yes, its true – I’m trying my damndest to break it one foreigner at a time…), political conversation is aimed more at questioning what will happen next, as opposed to wondering how Bush managed to retain power.  Since I can’t explain the latter, I enjoy discussing the former.  Everyone I have met is beyond skeptical of Obama, unsure that he will be able to do much in the face of the US’ problems.  The significance of his election, however, is not lost on anyone (though Germany has a female prime minister, so that gets pointed out a lot).  It will be interesting to watch US politics from afar.  The most noticeable difference I can see and feel thus far is a lack of fear and panic about the economy.  There are plenty of tourists here, plenty of people out and about, and the only talk I’ve seen of the economic crisis is in the newspaper and Der Spiegel (The Mirror – like Newsweek).  It certainly isn’t obvious that there is 20% unemployment in the country.

In pursuing political conversation (much of which also turns to philosophy – again, fine by me) I have discovered my new favorite bar: Die Tagung (the conference).  I went there with two Dutch people and a Swiss guy from the hostel on Friday night.  It is packed with nostalgia from the DDR – photographs of Ulbricht and Honecker, tapestries of Lenin, and busts of Marx and Engels.  Not kitschy, either: an unapologetic nostalgia dive bar.  And it’s a 10-minute walk from where I am staying!

I came to Berlin with a short but meaningful list of phone numbers and have been slowly meeting these people.  One couple are the son and daughter-in-law of a cousin of a friend of my parents in Pasadena, who is originally from Germany.  I was invited to a costume birthday party at this couple’s apartment in Potsdam (a smaller city southwest of Berlin that’s close enough to reach by an hour’s train ride).  This is quite the invitation to receive from people you have never met, so you can imagine the nerves I had to summon.  But it was well worth it and a lot of fun.  I discussed the German language versus the English language with a mermaid, job prospects with a guy in full scuba gear, blindness and the state benefits thereof in Germany with a vampire, San Francisco with a guy in a Hawaiian shirt and a lei, befriended a ladybug, and met the couple who I had been in touch with before: a bee and a prisoner.  I was impressed that everyone went all out for this party.  As one might assume, I didn’t exactly bring a lot of costume clothes along, but I donned all of my pink clothes (a surprisingly large number, I hate to admit) and made a pink bow and arrow and went as a cupid (since the party happened to fall on Valentine’s Day.

Can we talk about that for a second?  Valentine’s Day is not a big deal here.  It’s so refreshing!  I only new it happened because I know the date – commercially I didn’t see nary a hint of its existence.  No teddy bears or heart candies or chocolates being shoved in your face from every corner of the consumer sphere.  And every time I brought it up in amazement, most people said, “oh yeah, I guess it is Valentine’s Day,” which they followed with a note about how that’s just a corporate holiday that doesn’t really mean anything.  I know!  I can’t wait to find out what other ridiculous holidays invented by Hallmark are ignored over here.

I also managed to sneak in one more film on the last day of Berlinale.  I went with a San Franciscan and a French woman studying in the north of Germany.  We tried to see “The Yes Men Fix the World,” but again with the selling out.  The festival is against me.  Instead, we saw a French movie called “Welcome” (I would give you a fancy link to the trailer here, but I couldn’t find it with English subtitles).  It’s about a young Iraqi refugee trying to get to England.  It portrays some of the ways people immigrate illegally.  This boy, Bilal, starts taking swimming lessons in a local pool and develops a relationship with the swimming instructor (Vincent Lindon, famous French actor), who eventually deduces that he is going to try to swim the English Channel.  It was a really good story, beautifully filmed; see it when it comes to art house theaters in the US.  It was also really interesting to see how illegal immigrants are treated in these costal cities: subjected to refugee camps, not allowed to participate in formal society in any way –if a French resident does anything to help these people or is seen talking to them, they are called in to discuss it with the police.  And I thought ICE raids and detainments of Latino immigrants in the US were bad…

So, apart from the fact that somehow I don’t end up in bed until 5 am on the weekends, I am doing a lot and having a blast (what am I to do?  You don’t go out until midnight here and the bars close at 6 or 7, if at all!).  And since it snowed all day yesterday and Berlin has been converted into a wintery wonderland, I’m off to enjoy it.

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One comment

  1. wow, sound like a blast. I wonder if American cities even compare.



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