Backpacking 201-Berlin 2

Berlin still carries the burden of the wars and the wall. There is something ancient, sad and yet vibrant about this city. As if it hesitant to come to terms with the past and yet the future is calling. However, to my eye, this future is different for the politicians and different for the artists and other inhabitants.

A German born near Stuttgart, former West Germany,  said to me that Berlin is a poor city but it has culture that is enriching. Yet he prefers to live in Auckland because in Berlin everything is laden with layers of history and meaning which can be an encumbrance. New Zealand is not so ancient.

It has been sometime since I’v been back in Auckland and back to work. Berlin seems far away yet I can’t help thinking about the city and all that I saw and learnt. Particularly with the anniversary of the fall of the Berliner Mauer, the wall. Obviously people in  the West attach a greater significance to it than those of use born and brought up in the developing world. Where was I when the wall fell? In medical school away from Bombay, where television was a luxury…but I vaguely remember watching pictures of the wall coming down and all the hoo-haa about it on a programme called ‘The World This Week’. The wall did not mean anything to us, I bet not one person of my generation in India thought it would change the world. We were more interested in finishing studies and getting on with life-which was not supposed to change at all. We would get our degrees, get work, get married, have children…ho hum, now that I think of it. So I am intrigued when I listen to stories  about people who were affected by the divisions in post war Germany. Quite, quite rivetting.

When in Berlin I went through the entire exhibition of the Friedliche Revolution just outside Alexander Platz, goose pimples on my skin, marvelling at the power of the non-violence of people.  I thought about North Korea, Burma and other regimes, even our democratic India and her tribals being ousted for bauxite mountains…I formed a hypothesis. The Germans were able to resist in a peaceful way because they knew what democracy and freedom meant-they knew how to use the tools within this concept because they were educated, literate people…all the other examples I mentioned are of poor, illiterate people who I believe are deliberately kept so. Those helpless and hungry are unable to fight any battle. Others have to fight their battles and those others come with their own agenda and beliefs…sometimes it is mere PC-ism. One more thing I realised, going through the exhibition, was that the church played an important  role in the peoples’ resistance in DDR. Not a religious role but a support role where the people were offered space to have meetings and run underground papers. I can’t imagine any Hindu priest or temple offering similar support to any resistance movement unless there is the overt and covert Hindutva agenda attached to it.

The Germans I met and made friends with, the Germans I have conversations with, are all wonderfully over analytical and break their history, the wars, the genocide, the wall, communism and everything else to bits before creating a deeply complex picture of who they are. They want you to think of them as stiff upper lipped emotionless sorts who are also humourless. Not true. What I felt and feel instead is that after affecting the world in so many ‘negative’ ways, the Germans are afraid of their own power and thinking and what they can be capable of. They are warm, loving, funny, crazy, creative people. (Ok so call me a Deutsch-o-phile! :-)) The world will not let them forget what happened, what Germany did, which is interesting because maybe the U.S. and the U.K. and France might want to be reminded about their colonialism and arrogance too. And the Dresden bombings.

So, getting back to my favourite city, it was the first time I ever that I encountered the Roma gypsies. A bizarre experience. I could have been staring at me or another Indian! The first time I saw these dark, skinny women wearing long skirts and pushing prams I thought they were Turks. Germany has a large population of Turkish people. Then I came to know they were gypsy women beggars. Of course, I thought, now I know why they looked so… Indian. The Roma people came out of South Asia…it was fascinating though that a Western country, an economic powerhouse, would have beggars. 🙂 A friend informed me that they belonged to a begging syndicate and the police were helpless to do anything about it. Hmm. One day at Alexander Platz I heard a gypsy man play the accordion. It was a familiar tune, something I had heard before-many times. Something that was deep in my unconscious…reminding of home or a place I belonged to. Nostalgia stirred and my heart fluttered. How would I know of a tune played by a gypsy man? It haunted me for days, the tune. I’d recorded it while doing a story for my radio show and every time I sat down to edit I found myself listening to the tune. Perhaps it was from a film? Hindi film songs are notorious for appropriating and sampling. The image of Raj Kapoor playing the accordion in one of his films came out of the recesses of my brains…I listened to and watch Raj Kapoor’s songs from his old films onYoutube…it was the refrain from Mera Naam Joker! (listen in at 1.20m)

I do not want to think about the pathways by which this tune could have travelled from the Roma gypsies to an Indian film or even the other way round. Just marvel at it, at how stories, music, food, fashions and traditions might migrate from one part of the globe. At first belong somewhere, then nowhere and then again somewhere.

A trip to Berlin would not complete without a visit to the Stasi Musuem. The dreaded secret police of the DDR. I took the U-Bahn from Frankfurter Allee to Magdalenestrasse. The Stasi museum was in the building where the Stasi originally existed. A structure typical to the Soviet era. It was frightening to see how far political dogma could go into controlling people. The kind of spying that was done, the indoctrination of young people and the attempt at shutting out the world. It brought out for me the other extreme of the spectrum that is America and the media there, the capitalists, the neo-conservatives and fundamentalists doing it in the name of freedom and god.

I have so many memories of Berlin and there is so much more to do and see that I want to go back. Buy me a ticket, get me some work and I’ll pack my bags. Honestly! When I expressed my love for the stadt to a rickshaw driver as she cycled from Potsdamer Platz to Brandenburg Gate she asked, ‘Haff you been here in the vinter?’ 🙂

But seriously, it is a dream. To work and live in Berlin, to collaborate with the Germans because they make such great cinema, music and art and because my chaotic Indian attitude could fit in very well with German precision. Now I only need to figure out how and when, without actually saying good-bye to New Zealand.

Backpacking 201-Berlin. Part 1

Pardon me while I gush. ‘Coz that is what one does of someone you love and love is blind and I fell in love with Berlin before I visited the stadt. Like an image that I built in my head, a fantasy and a dream. I’d always heard only good things about Berlin.  So knew the place but it turned out even better.

I felt it the moment I landed at Schonefeld Airport. At home. Like I had been here before; like my soul had wandered through and lingered a bit, a lot. This has happened to me once before when I was in Sikkim. A strong sense of deja vu and recognition; an intense feeling of belonging.

Ya so I am weird. I was a monk in my previous life who lived in the Himalayas but have come back to do some unfinished work before I attain nirvana.

To a touristy type or to many Indians Berlin is not on the map of places to visit. Why would anyone want to go to Germany!? For the arty types, fans of Western classical music (not me, I just about know the names of some composers but I do listen and have gone for concerts), for those on their Europe OE, Germany is a must-visit. And Berlin has this reputation of being a place for the creatives. I was not disappointed.

Schlafmeile is owned and run by Kiwi bloke Glenn Stevenson. It came highly recommended by German writer Ingo Petz who has written about Germans in New Zealand and also by a work colleague whose daughter stayed at the hostel. The Aotearoa New Zealand Cafe does the most amazing breakfast and burgers. The staff (or those that work there-they are my friends now) are warm and helpful.  And Glenn is an absolute hardcore Kiwi bloke from Masterton.  Loveable. I stayed in a five bed mixed dorm with room mates ranging from a Swiss girl to two Aussie teachers who worked in London to a Dutch girl and three Dutch guys who wanted to explore the night life in Berlin. Conversations with fellow travellers is an integral part of any backpacking trip and so it was with my room mates as well as those whom I encountered in the kitchen. Americans, Italians, Swiss, English and also Kiwis. The Dutch dudes asked me if the Flight Of The Conchords was really the fourth most famous group in New Zealand. They loved Jemaine and Brett. It was funny to see two Dutch guys grooving to Inner City Pressure on their i-pod and trying to do a Brett McKenzie. 🙂

So, Berlin. The first day I reached there was the Long Night Of The Museum. An extended evening that went into the next day 5am, a single ticket and free transport between as many museums as possible. And Berlin is full of them.  I catch a bus full of kindred museum nutters near the Berliner Dom and go the the Museum Of Kommunication and hang out there checking out the Deutsch postal system, the history, the changes and the meaning of communication. To me, post offices and related places are very attractive. The mere act of writing a letter and posting it signifies more than just a system. It is about human engagement and emotion. But more about that in another blog. That long night at the museums I revel in history, tradition and a simple night out.

The DDR museum comes highly recommended by Costa at the hostel.  There is a long queue to get in. Songs from the old communist country play on the PA system and the couple in front of me start dancing. They obviously grew up with that music. Inside is the story of the German Democratic Republic. The lifestyle, the food, the living, television, holidays, school, indoctrination…parents show their kids how they lived under a communist regime. One thing I learnt (among many) is that nudity was sanctioned by The Party, the DDR regime-because there was no money to manufacture swimwear. So summer time at the beach meant going naked. It was and is normal. If you ever see old Germans in skimpy swimwear then it is not ‘fashion’ or a ‘Western’ thing. Highly likely they are Ossies and forcing themselves to be ‘modest’ for the sake of others.

That was my introduction to be Berlin. I spent eight days in Berlin and everyday was an experience to savour. Not enough I can write in one blog. Except to end this one by saying that I got hit upon the most in Berlin. Men stopping me and talking to me, asking for my number, for my email and ‘get to know me’ 😉 I liked.  Ich leibe diese stadt even more for that.