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Berlin: Whose City is it Anyway?

 

As governmental buildings go, it's up there.
Ich bin ein Deutschen volke.
 
Berlin: Whose City is it Anyway?My hotel in Berlin had a confused personality. The chain was Russian, one I’d stayed with before in Vladivostok, but the core of the hotel lay in an old West Berlin building, just around the corner from the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm cathedral. The rest of the hotel was jammed into two more recently converted buildings, resulting in a predictable mess – floors that didn’t connect with each other, corridors that zigzagged back and forth, and terrible wifi reception.

It wasn’t a bad hotel though, not least because of its central location near the Berlin Zoo, and in its confusion it proved a fitting introduction to Berlin itself.

That Berlin lacks a unifying identity shouldn’t be that surprising. It was only twenty five years ago that the Berlin Wall, which split the city into two, was taken down. Further back, the city was divided into four, with zones of West Berlin administrated by the French, British and Americans. The period in which Berlin was the capital of a unified German nation/empire was a short one by European standards: prior to that, it was the capital of Prussia, which was as concerned with Russia, Sweden, Poland and Lithuania as it was with the rest of what would one day become Germany.

So while the Berlin of today is German, it’s very cosmopolitan in terms of what being German means, something that its recent history has only added to. This is a city that has a monument to the Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin at the end of WWII. I’ve been trying to think of another city that commemorates its conquerors and occupiers and haven’t come up with one.

Amid the current panic over migrants flooding into Eastern Europe (something I imagine I’ll hear a lot more about over the next fortnight), it doesn’t surprise me to hear Angela Merkel calling for restraint and humanity in dealing with displaced migrants. As much as Ireland and other smaller EU nations might chafe at the weight of German influence in Europe, Germans had to come to terms with their role in WWII and, not without pain and hesitation, seem to have grasped the central lesson of human fallibility quite well. (Yes, the German economy is also better positioned than most to absorb migrants, and given that Merkel is calling for shared responsibility, I’m not claiming an altruistic outlook for her.)

The two locals who helped me find my way around the city were both originally from elsewhere – a Bulgarian and a Swede. They’re now part of a Berlin melting pot that fits well with a city standing on the border between East and West. Though plenty of traces of recent divisions remain, that border is becoming blurred as building works continue and people move back and forth. Were it not for preserved monuments and a modest line of bricks running through pavements across the city, it would be hard to guess just where the Berlin Wall once stood.

As for a German Berlin, it’s there if you look for it. The Victory Column in Tiergarten is adorned with mosaics reflecting the history and coming together of the German people. (The column itself has been moved three times though.) The museums on Museum Island contain both relics from German history and relics that Germany collected during its brief imperial phase. (And the curators can’t quite resist leaving grumpy signs complaining that the Soviets took all of the best and most portable stuff in 1945 and refuse to give it back.) And the Reichstag still has the words “Dem Deutschen Volke” engraved on its facade. Though given Germany’s role in Europe and the willingness of people from everywhere to come and participate, the definition of “Deutschen Volke” is now likely more universal than the original engravers intended.

Whenever I mentioned travelling in Europe in the past, or when I mentioned not having been to Berlin, the response was always the same: “You have to go.” Well, now I’ve been, and while the hype may have been excessive, the experience was worthwhile. Three days was nowhere near enough time to experience this sprawling, multifaceted, scarred and vibrant city. I already have a list of things to do for the next time I come back (probably not until after 2019, when the Pergamon Museum finally finishes its renovation). In the meantime, I’ve got the memories and the new experiences as the train heads south through sun-kissed forests and fields of grain, through Dresden and Bad Schandau, into the Elbe valley of forested limestone cliffs, heading for Prague.

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Initial Greek Perambulations

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It was all downhill from here…
If, like me, you harbour illusions about your ability to navigate around a foreign city unaided, Thessaloniki will disabuse you of them. Not so much the newer city, with its straight lines parallel to the dockside, but the older city, in the vicinity of the ancient acropolis and slightly less ancient Byzantine walls.
Here, roads go up and down, intersecting in random fashion, usually one lane wide but sometimes no lanes wide, owing to either parked cars or suddenly turning into stairs instead of a street. And while you’re trying to figure this mess out, the cats of the old city are watching you, aristocratically amused by another human struggling to survive in their domain.
I managed well enough last night, locating my hostel, the exceptionally welcoming Little Big House, and a pleasant place to have a beer in the form of Toixo Toixo. That was limited stuff though, and not long after beginning a day of perambulating this morning, I was reduced to heading vaguely downhill and hoping that I’d run into either the city walls or the sea.
Not that wandering wasn’t fun though, and once I did get my bearings again, there were plenty of places for this historical traveller to see, many of them relating to the little-thought-of Roman Emperor Galerius, who made Thessaloniki the capital of his eastern empire, a status it only held for a little time before Constantine moved the entire business to Byzantium/Constantinople.
Between that and the museums and the White Tower, wherein medieval prisoners were wont to be, well, imprisoned, there has been more than enough walking done today. The time has come to eat, at the Kitchen Bar by the waterside, before figuring out a route back to the Little Big House. If you don’t hear from me in the next ten days, send a search party…
Note: The wifi in the Kitchen Bar was pretty dire, so I’m posting this from the Little Big House. Which wasn’t impossible to find. Not easy, but not impossible either.

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The White Tower. Once known as the Bloody Tower, before they literally whitewashed it.

Back to Where I Once Belonged

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Front Square during Freshers Week: Societies a-go-go

The other day, I mentioned to someone in the pub that I graduated from Trinity College Dublin back in 1998. His response? “Wow, I was ten then.”

Now, I quite like the grey in my stubble, and references to my advanced years rarely bother me. However, there was one difference with this comment: the guy I was talking to wasn’t just a stranger in a pub. He was a classmate.

That’s right: after a gap of fourteen years, I’m heading back to college. Specifically back to Trinity. My goal? To study for an MSc in Interactive Digital Media, a one-year, full-time course. It’s been a strange experience so far; nostalgia and novelty in equal measure.

My first four years in Trinity were a time of change. The college was getting wired up to the Internet and making the most of the nascent boom as it fundraised for new buildings. Over the course of my degree, I made lifelong friends, got my first email address, and found myself a new place to live. I settled in Dublin, got myself a job, and have never been away for long since then.

Even so, reentering education has offered up a lot that’s familiar. Freshers Week, with its host of society kiosks in Front Square, is much the same as ever. The Sports Centre is new since I was a student, but seeing as my fees paid for it and I’ve been using it as a graduate, it’s not exactly novel. All the strangeness, in fact, comes from the fact that I’m in a very different position to my former student life.

Let’s not mince words here: in my class, I’m the oldest, by a good few years. Most of the rest of the class are a few years at most from their graduation. They seem like a great crowd though, and there seems to be a common eagerness to develop an esprit de corps. Given that a lot of the work we’ll be doing is team-based, that can only be positive.

So I doubt I’m going to feel like an outsider here. Even so, most of my fellow postgrads still have the habits of education ingrained in their heads. How much of that has survived a decade and more of a working life? I’m about to find out.

July Book Reviews

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Nothing to do with books, just a visual representation of my state of mind.

In the absence of anything resembling a summer, it was no hardship to retreat into a few good books (and at least one not so good). Wholly fiction this time out, if with a hint of history in some of the pieces reviewed. Plus, my first review of a graphic novel and a stand-out piece at that.

The Betrayal, Helen Dunmore: In the years after World War II, a Leningrad doctor and his family find themselves caught up in the politics of paranoia and fear, where the desire to be a good human being comes into conflict with the need to protect oneself and those one cares about. Deeply researched, this is a very human story taking place in a world that feels entirely genuine, from the daily lives of those surviving in the last days of Stalin’s reign to the constant fear of the political apparatus that surrounds them and crushes those that come to its notice. It never hits the heights of drama, but that’s not really the point: this is a human story of endurance and patience, one in which the small victory of surviving is enough to overcome the terror of being mangled by the machinery of an oppressive state.

Seven Days in New Crete, Robert Graves: Cast into a future utopia founded on Goddess worship and occult social control, a poet finds himself the catalyst for the introduction of evil as a force for change. Writing in the wake of WWII, from the perspective of a veteran of WWI, Graves is clinical as he cuts into the notion of how ensuring the best of all possible worlds can’t account for the imperfections and the desires of the human heart. His vision of a future grown stagnant in its peaceful compacency is a chilly one, even as it builds towards a frenzied climax, but it’s the voice of the observer who comes to understand the world he finds himself in even as he begins the process of its disintegration that makes this worth reading.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan: Charting a spiral course through the lives of an interconnected group of characters, Egan’s novel constucts a web-like frame on which she hangs the struggles of those characters to connect, comprehend and survive everything that life throws at them, as well as their decisions to maintain their masks or reveal their fragile selves. That unusual structure provides much of the life for this novel, which paints its characters in humour and desperation as they strut their brief moments on the stage before stepping into the background of someone else’s tale. It’s an easy book to become attached to, and it’s over all too soon.

Surface Detail, Iain M. Banks: Returning to the Culture, his galactic society of hyper-intelligent AIs and adventurous and occasionally lost humans and aliens, for a tale of war, revenge and heaven and hell, Banks proves himself in fine, if somewhat light, form. The central conceit of artificially constructed hells and a war fought over the moral right to destroy them interweaves with a woman seeking revenge for her own murder, but this is a romp with disturbing overtones rather than an exploration of deeper themes. Tinged with more Adamsian touches than usual, particularly in the form of a warship AI absurdly delighted at the opportunity to exercise his gifts, but this is a fine addition to the series of Culture novels in its own right, albeit one where the whimsy occludes the admittedly heavy subject matter.

Criminal: The Deluxe Edition, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips: Brubaker and Phillips are one of the finest writer-artist teams in comics, and this beautifully presented collection of three interwoven tales of betrayal and secrets among the criminal fraternity is a fantastic introduction to their oeuvre. Damned by their own pasts, the protagonists of the three tales may be the most moral of the characters inhabiting their shared world, but that’s a relative term, and the world of the lawless that they inhabit is one where no-one has clean hands and the spark of hope is always at risk of being snuffed out by someone more brutal or better prepared to step beyond the bounds of the unthinkable. Phillips’ scratchy, yet solid, art perfectly matches Brubaker’s terse dialogue and descriptive narration, and together they create a world of dark corners and filthy alleys that’s impossible not to get sucked into.

Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock: Delving back deeper than Tolkienian fantasy, Holdstock works with the clay of primal mythmaking as he crafts a tale of a family whose encounters with the last vestiges of chilly antiquity change them utterly. Steeped in British folklore and spanning the human imagination from the last ice age to the second world war, this is a story in which the very human emotions of love and loss are rooted in and sometimes overwhelmed by the unconscious need to craft stories out of the world that surrounds us. Deservedly a modern classic of the fantasy genre, it’s a fascinating read, dominated by the stunning creation of the myth-infused world that lies within a single scrap of primeval woodland.

The Bone Hunters, Tom Holland: When one of your leading characters is a “naive but wilful heiress,” you know that you’re in for a traditional romance, for all that the setting is the Bone Wars between palaeontologists in 19th century U.S., amid the blood and recrimination of the Indian Wars. So it proves to be, though that’s a far less important sin for this book than the kludgy language and the choice of the author to mark every encounter and glance between two characters with at least three paragraphs of insight, flashback and emotional resonance. There’s an interesting story here, one with historical resonance and clever use of its setting, but it’s buried very, very deeply by the language and syntax, and I’m still not altogether sure it was worth unearthing it.

Bags of Memories

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Shattered in Salt Lake City: Near the end of its journey…

On my travels around the Northern Hemisphere last autumn, I had the benefit of three faithful companions: three bags that between them carried all my gear. They were on their last legs even then – their ratty appearance, I suspect, had something to do with the fact that I didn’t once face anyone trying to steal from me – and now the last of them has been replaced. Seems like a good time to reflect on them.

The biggest of them, pictured above, was a mid-sized rucksack. It was also the oldest, originally purchased for a skiing trip when I was around sixteen, meaning that it was with me for something close to twenty years. Too unwieldy for short trips, it accompanied me whenever I was going somewhere for a week or more, meaning that it was with me on my most memorable journeys. Its waterproof inner coating was already coming off in sheets at the start of my round-the-world trip, and by the end one of its shoulder straps was hanging on by a thread. However, it went out in a blaze of glory, from Irkutsk to Vladivostok and on to Walden Pond.

My sports/shoulder bag, a black Nike sack, wasn’t quite as old – I bought it around the time I started college – but it was a far more regular companion, seeing use day in and day out for much more than a decade. Quite how it survived all the wear and tear, I don’t know, but it wore down slowly rather than gave way suddenly, and I used it long after it had ceased to look respectable. A hole in a side pocket led to a few lost coins and the right shoulder strap was more of a string by the end, but it was still useful right up until the end. Much less of a traveller than the rucksack, it proved a much more convenient store for everything I didn’t like letting out of arm’s reach as I headed in search of the rising sun.

The smallest of the three bags was a washbag. When I got it, I don’t remember, but I do remember how: it had lain unused in my parents’ house and I nabbed it for a trip somewhere. Ever since then, it accompanied me on every journey, long or short, full of all the toiletries that kids don’t seem to need but adults do. Nothing more than a pouch with a zip and some internal pockets, it was replaced yesterday by a bigger, fussier-looking alternative, which currently sits half-empty in a bigger bag, ready for a trip home.

Three bags, long-used and redolent with memories. All gone now. That’s the way of things. We can hang onto items longer than we should, spurning better alternatives because of the memories that they accrue over years of use. Not the best of ideas. I’m a partial fan of the idea of a de-cluttered life, but my main argument in favour of letting things go is that separating the memories from the things is a good step. Learning to let go of things takes you halfway to allowing your memories to release their hold on you.

Spoiler Sport and the Art of Avoidance

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Spoilers: Not just a way of life; also a catchphrase.

I have a strong attachment to my many books, but every so often I do lend them out. When I do, I often sell that loan by saying what makes it worth recommending: characters, plot, setting, etc. What I don’t do is say anything along the lines of “Well, it’s the tale of a group of small folk who come into possession of a evil magic ring, and they have to travel across half the world, accompanied by allies from different races, in a quest to destroy it.” Not that I’d be giving away all of “The Lord of the Rings” by doing so, but I’d be depriving the loanee of some of the joy of discovery.

So why do movie studios seem determined to go a lot further in spoiling their wares ahead of time?

Last night I had the pleasure of watching “The Cabin in the Woods,” the new film from the fertile brains of Buffy alumni Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. Partly due to the long gap between its filming and release, but mostly due to the creators’ determination to keep as much of it as possible under wraps, I managed to go into the cinema knowing very little of what it was about. This was a very good thing, and I’ll say no more about that film other than that it’s not so much as slasher movie as a movie about slasher movies (and manages to be a lot more fun than its meta-horror precursor Scream).

However, it’s getting harder and harder to avoid learning most of what a film has to offer long before its release. I already know more about Whedon’s next movie, The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble if you don’t live in the U.S.) than I’d prefer, and I’ve resorted to sticking my fingers in my ears and shutting my eyes to avoid seeing trailers for Ridley Scott’s forthcoming Prometheus.

I do accept a portion of the blame for this. Anyone who trawls the internet habitually can at any moment be enticed by a rumour, press release or teaser trailer. On the other hand, movie studios are always eager to attract more attention for their releases, and media outlets are just as eager to scoop their rivals with the latest unrevealed details of films just over the horizon. The only thing standing in the way of a tidal wave of spoilers is a common awareness that revealing everything ahead of time defeats the purpose of marketing the film in the first place.

It’s good to be surprised by a film. When a trailer shows clips from a film’s climax, or an article leaks details of the plot, then the person thus spoiled loses something. The best movies bear repeated viewing, but there’s a reason why we feel envious of those about to experience something exceptional for the first time. (This is also the case for other forms of entertainment: witness the recent tortured efforts to discuss the ending of Mass Effect 3 without actually talking about it.)

After years of being a happy consumer of rumours and spoilers, I’ve become a convert to the art of avoidance. I’ll happily watch trailers for, and read about, movies I’ve never heard of in the hope of finding something worth watching, but if it’s something I’m already looking forward to, it goes on my interdicted list. I’d definitely recommend it as a habit to get into. If nothing else, it offers a chance to enjoy a movie twice over: once for the new experience and once again to appreciate the artistry with which it was put together.

Focus and Inspiration

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Iron and Weeds

I’m counting down the hours to my return at the moment.* One last long transit will take me back to Ireland, via Heathrow. Hopefully the place will have dried out a bit by the time I get there. Should I be worried about my ground floor apartment?

I’ve been in New York for the last few days, stomping out familiar territory as I prepare to return. Although I’ve been here several times in the past, this time around I’ve tried to concentrate on doing things that I’ve never done before. Some are a little obvious, such as going to the top of the Empire State Building. Some are reminders of home, such as cosy pints in the Gingerman Pub. And some are things that I wasn’t even aware of last time I was here, such as walking the High Line.

An elevated railway converted to a linear wildflower garden that offers a unique vantage point over southwestern Manhattan, the High Line is an example of a community project that took a crumbling eyesore and turned it into something that’s not only an asset to the local communities but also a tourist attraction, luring in people who might not otherwise be inclined to visit these parts of New York. I first read about it in a National Geographic article, and that was enough to make me determined to see it and to walk it as I passed through the city.

The High Line is an example of community activism that has had a positive outcome far beyond what the threatened demolition of the line would have provided. Up in the air for the moment is the outcome of a rather more well known outburst of activism: the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’ve been coming across the offshoots of this movement as I’ve passed through the U.S., and I’ve been hearing about its spread across the wider world, but even here in New York it’s hard to say exactly what it’s achieved, or will achieve, beyond attracting attention to itself and drawing the occasional incident of police brutality.

There are a lot of theories in the media about the Occupy Wall Street movement at the moment. Many of them tend to focus on the fact that beyond protesting about the state of things, there’s little sense among the activists of a clear view of what needs to be done. It’s a fair criticism, but also inevitable: this isn’t a protest about something as simple as ending a war or preventing job losses. Ultimately, it’s about changing the way a small but very influential sector of our society works, and societal engineering is a difficult thing to plan, let alone to carry out.

I’ll be interested to see what comes of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Any number of commentators will tell you that something needs to be done if our notions of liberty and justice in society are going to be preserved in the face of an unbalanced distribution of wealth and influence, especially when those with all the money and the weight to throw around are fighting to retain what they have and perhaps gather more as the system creaks beneath them.

Occupy Wall Street may not have the answers. They’re unlikely to ever have as much focus as those who created the High Line. But they are at least asking questions and drawing attention to the need for someone in a position of power to take a longer-term view of where we’re heading. If nothing else, what they’ve done so far has reminded those with a knowledge of history that inequality tends to lead inexorably to unrest and revolution if not dealt with in a serious manner.

*Well, I was when I started this. I’m safely home now, and this is being posted late due to the habit of JFK and Heathrow airports of not avoiding gouging their customers for Internet access if they can possibly avoid it.