Monday, November 27, 2006

Irony and Zoo Animals

Today’s Berliner Zeitung reported that at the Sunday funeral of Stasi bigwig Markus Wolf, whose career focused on foreign espionage, one speaker praised the dead man for “always accepting a variety of outlooks [and] listening patiently to different opinions.” Hmm. For a former leader of the German Democratic Republic’s notoriously repressive Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, this is unlikely. Wolf’s long-time pal Gerhard Neiber, known for brutally taking care of “special assignments,” was also in attendance but didn’t bother to speak up about whether or not Wolf was the Voltaire this eulogy made him out to be.

There was also coverage of the office of the President's annoucement that former Bundespraesident Horst Koehler was spied on by the Stasi during his career. The representative insisted that it was a one-time incident on a trip Koehler made to the GDR, and insofar as spying practices of the day went, fully routine. The federal office that handles former Stasi files—literal tons of secret paperwork were discovered after Reunification—refuses to release the file because it contains private information about the then-employee of the Finance Ministry. The private information does not have to do with Koehler’s historical role, the office clarified.

Finally, the paper reported on a meeting in Parliament between “troubled youths,” i.e. the teenage and twenty-something children of immigrants in poor neighborhoods, and the mainly old white Germans who want to help them integrate. One youth pointed out that all this talk about not being part of German society is nonsense; if one goes to school and works hard, one becomes integrated. However, he asked whether his own culture can then remain a part of his identity as an “integrated” society member. This seems like a pretty good question in light of the fact that he was sitting next to Kurt Wansner, parliamentary representative for the conservative Christian Democratic Union, who once campaigned in a Turkish neighborhood under the slogan, “Germany must remain recognizable [here].”

Since recently coming under new ownership, the Berliner Zeitung has been criticized for weaker-quality reporting and increasing technical imprecision, such as growing numbers of typos. The recent surprising number of articles about the lives and migratory patterns of animals seems to be a symptom of the downward trend in quality, from a blurb about the new blue shoes of New Zealand zoo penguins to a long feature about stranded whales. Coverage of Wolf’s funeral lay below a feature about endangered Chinese dolphins. However, despite the perhaps negligent and fauna-friendly editorship, the Berliner Zeitung still makes a valuable contribution. Its transmission of the ironies of political chatter is worth flipping past the penguins for.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Putting Beauty to Work

Although the Palast der Republik debate is frequently cloaked in East-West political language (see post Nov. 19), or arguments about the sanctity of memory and preservation, many view it purely as an aesthetic question. The obvious rejoinder here is that the aesthetic is political, and that beauty is not Platonic but rather selected and preened by society. These are good points, to which I respond to with a quote from a taxi driver, who told me last week, “The Palast needs to go. Ten years ago they could have still made something of it, but now it’s so decayed and ugly that they need to rip it down and build something nice.” In other words, the pragmatic notion of beauty-utility, of using central city space to be both functional and attractive, is democratic: the Palast and the Schloss are both considered pretty until they embody the image of urban decay. As well, although notions of beauty may be political—see, for example Susan Sontag’s breakdown of the fascist aesthetic Leni Riefenstahl developed for the Nazi party—the Prussia-worship of Schloss supporters is hardly imperious in nature.

Firstly, their whole-hearted embrace of the democracy of dollars demonstrates a certain crass commercialism from which one certainly cannot position oneself as superior. Foerderverein Berliner Schloss e.V.’s Infocenter a few hundred meters from Schlossplatz sells cringefully tacky mini-busts of Friedrich the Great as well as “historical novels” detailing the romantic intrigues of powder-haired Prussian dames. As well, the methods by which they fundraise—appealing to thousands of citizens to donate to the cause, or pointing out how much could be made if X number of people gave the equal sum of Y euros—are civic and equalizing in their language, even if their publications are aimed at the upper crust, judging from their placement in high-brow hotels. Leader Wilhelm von Boddien is also eager to project a man-of-the-people persona when he predicts that a “People’s Party” will take place upon the Schloss’ reconstruction, adopting the same comrade-brother-tinged vocabulary of the structure he is eagerly ripping down. The final nail in the aesthetics-is-politics coffin is the suggested use of the newly rebuilt royal Schloss: “A Sanctuary for Art, Science and Communication.” This plan suggests that geographically peripheral museums move their collections to this prominent location and together with the offerings of nearby Museum Island for “The World in the Center of Berlin.”

Some may argue that this attempt to bring Berlin to cultural prominence has its own echoes of the Kaiser-era quest for greatness. However, the modern-day project of capital cities to ever-expand their cultural offerings is not comparable to an earlier era’s territorial ambitions. Although the lens of Germany’s history may make almost any ambition sound a bit ominous, there is nothing wrong with Berlin aspiring to be an important place on the scale of international cultural awareness. The plan for the Schloss’ use sounds pretty neat to a Berlin resident who would love to have all these museums in one place. Humboldt University, (pictured at top) located across the street and with 32,000 students, would also doubtlessly benefit from a construction of such proportions. It is easy to mock the Schloss-supporters as foolish Utopists trying to reconstruct a lost past, but much harder to disparage the space they hope to build, a place of culture and art that has very little to do with the spot’s autocratic legacy.

Cubism, Kafka and the Castle
Prague’s New Museum Scene

Who knew that Prague, tourist trap of central Europe, would continue to build its infrastructure and develop several new concept museums in the last few years? When I visited in summer 2003, packed between hordes of other Americans and several thousands Italians swarming over the Charles Bridge and trying to have an “authentic” pivo [beer] break on the Old Town Square, I had no idea that the innate charm of the old and picturesque was about to be updated. On this last visit, I was pleasantly surprised.

Down the street from the Powder Tower entrance to Old Town is the Museum of Czech Cubism at the so-named House of the Black Madonna, where the Lady stands in a small golden cage protruding from the third floor. This is a Cubist building; after taking college seminars about Cubism’s keywords of Picasso, Braque, Krauss, semiotics, and African masks, I still didn’t know there was a such thing as Cubist architecture. There is—it was enthusiastically developed by the Czech Cubist school into a theory of dynamism of form that was brought not just to the canvas but also to the drawing board and even the workshop; furniture and applied design are also on display in this museum, which opened in late 2003. As a bonus, the fantastic Grand Café Orient on the second floor of the House of the Black Madonna is furnished from curtains to floorboards with visually indulgent Czech Cubist flourishes. From their extensive menu I recommend trying the local Frankovka wine, a mild, fruity red.

Across the Charles Bridge is the newly opened exhibit The City of K: Franz Kafka and Prague, which only arrived in the eponymous city in 2005 after touring other world cities such as Barcelona and New York first. Rather than present a series of mummified artifacts in chronological order, the typical approach of museums dedicated to a single great figure’s life, the space seeks to conjure up the “existential topography” of Kafka—that is, the bundle of childhood and adolescent anxieties that brewed within him during his residence in Prague and led him to create masterpiece literature. This is created by the manipulation of film, projection, photography, and strangely-shaped rooms, as well as a soundtrack of Poe-like Romantic “horror” noises such as water dripping in an echo chamber and crows cawing. “Let this space talk. Let the sound guide you,” the exhibit introduction explains. While the curator’s insistence upon drumming up a sense of Freudian childhood anxieties may grate in these forced instances, the exhibit is by and large fascinating and the psychological template it provides for approaching Kafka’s life is as interesting as the almost-pretentious premise promises. Minor inaccuracies, such as a mistranslation of the word shiksa into fiancée, or wrongly cited pages from his German diary, cannot hide the curator’s obvious sympathy for Kafka’s internal mental struggle and the masterpieces it produced, or outshine the superbly-worded wall text explaining different aspects of his development.

Finally, rag-tag Prague Castle up above the city has its own new museum. “Castle” misleadingly suggests one structure, whereas the complex actually contains structures developed and enlarged over the last thousand years, from Romanesque St. George’s Chapel to the Renaissance Royal Rooms to the only-recently-completed Gothic cathedral. In fact, although the Cathedral dominates the maze of courtyards both in size and number of tourists, it actually plays a relatively unimportant role in the history of the site. With such confusing topography, “The Story of Prague Castle” exhibit, opened in the Old Royal Palace Building late 2003, is long overdue. The well-designed series of halls explains the different eras and rulers the space has seen while providing diagrams detailing its physical development. It also provides plenty of objects from different eras to help visitors imagine the changes, before they go on and try to decide which combination entry tickets to purchase for the warren of chapels, residences, and other attractions. That the municipal cultural authorities have become rather trigger-happy with their ticketing for the complex is yet another reason to visit the Story of Prague Castle museum and find out what exactly one is paying for at each doorway.

Images courtesy:,

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Memorial Snippets

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in the middle of Berlin, has been generating debate since it was suggested in 1990. Questions such as whether such a huge memorial was necessary or desirable, futile or useful, kitschy or earnest, came up immediately, and the specific Memorial that's taken shape after a design by Peter Eisenman also throws up huge question marks. PBS has a great website that introduces the important issues at stake.

Today I participated in a long and interesting discussion about the Memorial with a room of twenty-something students in the Cultural Science [Kulturwissenschaft] department of the Humboldt University and their comments make an interesting confetti of assertions. The motivating query was whether the monument is actually "disturbing," given its location in the heart of Berlin's touristic sight-seeing network:

"It doesn't stand out from the city or disrupt the center in any way [despite what may have been intended]. It fits perfectly. You visit Berlin, you visit the Reichstag, you walk for a minute and visit the Memorial and experience a little remembrance. The children play, the parents picnic. Yep, perfect addition to the city center."

"That may be problematic, but it's not totally wrong. The Memorial fits into the city in a certain way that the event fits into German history."

"Eisenman wanted this openness anyway."

"It's not a memorial for the Jews but rather for the Germans. It's from Germans, for Germans."

"I think it's effective. You go in the middle and the traffic noise fades and you're down in the middle of these tall stele and you have a space to think a little. In this sense, the earlier design, with taller blocks and greater enclosure, would have been even more effective."

"It's about getting the most Germans possible to reflect. That's why it's in the center, and it's good that way."

"I don't know whether or not you can control how it affects people. It's a total issue of personal taste."

"Let's remember this is a Mahnmal, not a Denkmal. It's goal is to mahnen, to honor the victims, not necessarily to make you think, to make you denken."

"As a non-German, it's not really my monument. Of course when I have visitors we go however."

"Well you know there's the question of authenticity; it's just there in the middle of the city. No one would picnic at Auschwitz."

"Thirty seconds of engaging oneself in the theme is better than no time. At least you have a starting point then."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Right vs. Privilege: Two Definitions of "Preservation"

In the debate about the demolition of Berlin’s Palace of the Republic (see post Nov. 19), many have argued that as a historically significant building, the structure belongs under Denkmalschutz, or, roughly, “landmark preservation,” and to tear it down is a blatant violation of this legal condition. To argue for the inherent worth of a structure based on its historical baggage is an interesting concept and it got me thinking about how architecture is or is not preserved at home in New York.

To begin with, the concept of Denkmalschutz in Germany is far more wide-ranging than the American idea of “landmark preservation.” While the former is an umbrella term for the refusal to let old things be destroyed, the latter refers to the careful judgment and selection of what is worthy of preservation. Things like crumbling factories or deteriorating public works are frequently scrapped in America rather than renovated; in Germany such structures fall mainly under Denkmalschutz.

Both systems have their quirks and fallbacks. The reuse of old structures creates interesting spaces such as Berlin’s Kulturbrauerei, or “culture brewery ,” a cultural complex containing clubs, restaurants, theaters, and other performance spaces in a former beer brewery. The large brick structure, with its turrets and vast interior courtyard, reminds one a bit of a castle and a bit of a labyrinth and is a cultural symbol for the trendy neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg, in which it sits.

On the other hand, I was surprised during a visit to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp in the northern suburbs of Berlin, to see a lot of construction taking place alongside the camp walls. I asked if private houses were being built and an employee answered that the building were merely being sanitized and renovated; as former Gestapo lodging and administration they belonged to the complex and stood under Denkmalschutz, so they had never been ripped down. I asked what they were going to be used for after renovation. The answer? Training grounds for the modern-day police academy.
At right: image of a memorial in Sachsenhausen.

Despite such astoundingly ironic blunders—all with good intentions—the German system’s emphasis on valuing physical history, even when not gorgeous or profitable, is commendable. In New York the drawbacks of the “landmark preservation” approach are constantly apparent as historic structures are torn down despite Herculean efforts from concerned citizens. The Colonial Club, formerly on the southwest corner of 72nd street and Broadway, was a visual ballast to the neighborhood for a century, but did not pass muster with the Landmark Preservation Commission, which requires that buildings “have a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the city, nation or state.” Despite its slightly lofty name, the Club was in principle a social club only notable because it admitted women in a time when few others did (albeit through a separate entrance). It closed soon after its 1892 opening due to financial collapse and many of its pretty architectonic elements, such as limestone floors or an iron balcony, were removed during its transformation into office space.

Two separate evaluations from the Landmarks Preservation Commission found that the building wasn’t worthy to carry the name “Landmark” and it is now shrouded in scaffolding, awaiting transformation into something sleeker and more modern. A neighborhood group that “fights” for landmarks didn’t mount a campaign to save the Colonial because even though “there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a landmark…in the scheme of things, a lot of buildings deserve to be landmarks,” and the group had to prioritize. An example of this prioritizing is the1964 Palazzo-cum-Woolworth building by Edward Durell Stone at 2 Columbus Circle. Battled over for years by those who wanted to preserve the architecturally significant structure as an example of Modernism, the building’s fate was sealed by a recent city permit allowing for the dismantling of the façade. Despite the desperate lobbying of groups including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the World Monuments Fund, which placed it on the “100 Most Endangered Sites for 2006,” the Landmarks Commission never held a hearing that may have led to the building’s preservation. Like the Colonial Club, it is now behind a tomb of scaffolding, a new building to house the Museum of Arts and Design set to emerge in 2007. As a New Yorker, I am sad to see Stone’s work go, not because I am a particularly qualified judge of historical value, but rather because I grew up with it and like the way it looked. It stamped the image of Columbus Circle with a neat, weird little flare, and would have been an especially nice counterpoint to the sleek, dominant minimalism of the new Time Warner Center.

To summarize, in Germany one can almost take for granted that an old and even faintly interesting building will be legally protected from demolition; in the United States buildings must be deemed good enough to deserve protection, a judgment so difficult to obtain that frequently citizens band together to combat economic or social forces and lobby for the preservation of their neighborhoods. The American cultural attitude behind this is that new things are occasionally more valuable than older things, and that physical history is open to alteration with minimal loss. As 2 Columbus Circle and the Palace of the Republic show, it is not always that simple. As the Colonial Club shows, sometimes it is.

Dunlap, David W. “The Colonial Club: A Landmark in All but Name.” The New York Times, 9 November 2006, Metro.
Wikipedia’s site about 2 Columbus Circle provides a good overview of its history.

Monday, November 20, 2006

An Inconvenient but Pretty Truth

Here is a view of Tiergarten, Berlin's largest park, from last week. It's still green and idyllic despite the coming winter, perhaps because meteorologists are reporting this as the warmest fall ever recorded for Berlin. In the last couple days gardeners reported that annual flowers were blooming in their backyard, thinking it was spring.

Tiergarten is part of a collection of parks that make up 1/3 of the city. This photo was taken right below the Strasse des 17. Junis, a wide avenue made famous this summer when the city gamely hosted up to 700,000 screaming football maniacs on the "Fan Mile" during the World Cup.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Doubting Thomas vs. Hopeful Wilhelm

During Berlin’s January 2005 “Long Night of Museums,” when the eponymous institutions stayed open all night with concerts and special programs in the spirit of a culturally edifying pub crawl, the darkness near Museum Island was illuminated by an enormous neon DOUBT. Seven letters, each 6 meters high and together spanning 38 meters, spelled out the German word “ZWEIFEL,” or “doubt,” across the top of a run-down, squat building shaped like a roachtrap. This dark hulk was nearly drowned out by the light, but nonetheless there was no mistaking the Palace of the Republic [Palast der Republik], the former seat of East German government, a boxy structure condemned by the unified government to sit uninhabited for a decade after the discovery of asbestos within. Or so the West claimed—many former Easterners viewed this “discovery” as a political calculation and pointed out that plenty of buildings in West Berlin were also full of asbestos but running smoothly. This claim is the tip of an iceberg of political contention surrounding the structure, a great societal difference of opinion on how to treat the past. This post will be the first in a series outlining aspects of the debate.

PALAST DES ZWEIFELS [Palace of Doubt], a work of art by Norwegian Lars Ramberg, is a good place to begin. In the most immediate sense, the large “doubt” that stood atop the Palast from January-March 2005 represented the controversy surrounding the proper use for the spot of land, one which lacks a doubtlessly “correct” answer. The spot where the Palast stands, although not for much longer, was occupied for four hundred years by the Hohenzollern castle [Schloss], the seat of Berlin’s ruling power. Its last incarnation was a Baroque façade designed by Andreas Schluter in 1706. After World War Two, the government of the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic claimed that the building was too war-damaged to be worth salvaging, and despite outcry, began demolishing it in September 1950. From 1973-6, they built a gold-glass rectangle that housed the German Democratic Republic’s parliament, as well as cultural exhibitions, performance space, cafes and even an ice-skating rink for the citizens, and proclaimed it a “Palace of the Republic.” After re-unification came the discovery of asbestos and resultant closure, and several years after that, in 1993, the government decided to tear it down, generating immediate consternation from former east-Berliners for whom the space had enormous cultural and sentimental significance. The debate was not entirely split along geographic lines; there were also many Westerners who saw the destruction of such a historically significant structure as disrespectful to anyone who had lived through Berlin’s division.

The controversial tear-down decision wasn’t truly put into action until January 2005, when Senator Ingeborg Junge-Reyer, the leader of Berlin’s municipal governing body, announced that demolition of the large, boarded-up wreck would soon begin. In its place, the Baroque Schloss would later be rebuilt, to the delight of lobbyists who had long dreamed of restoring central Berlin’s Prussian elegance. With support from the Norwegian embassy and several other organizations, Ramberg’s artwork was erected above the ultimately condemned Palast on January 20th, 2005. Ramberg explained that his work should cause “doubt and reflection from local and official levels about the pursuit according to continually new perspectives of the lost, past Utopia.”[1] In other words, the latest Utopists should look at their Prussian aspirations with a critical, shall we say doubtful eye.

The work did not cause enough doubt. A year and a half later in fall 2006, the tear-down is in full swing and a patchwork of cloudy sky is visible between gaping holes in the Palast’s steel skeleton. The project has not and will not stop ruffling feathers; many insist on referring to the Schloss' rebuilding as a fool’s errand, an argument easy to support when the numbers are examined. The advocacy group currently fundraising for the Schloss’ reconstruction, Foerderverein Berliner Schloss e.V., hasn’t clarified where all the money will come from, other than to suggest, in full-color newsletters placed in the rooms of Berlin’s toniest hotels, that citizens “sponsor” different stages of the reconstruction. One can choose between supporting an individual architectonic element, such as a “colossal column capital” for 151,450 Euros, or be one of the “only” 200,000 citizens to pledge 400 Euros over the course of ten years to make the 80 Million Euros needed to complete the elegant façade. In addition to someone who plays hopefully with numbers all day, the group also has a tremendous sense of optimism. The willpower behind the project can be traced back to one powerful personality, Wilhelm von Boddien, head of the Schlossverein, seen at left in this picture.

In an interview with the Berliner Morgenpost during the 2005 wave of controversy after the final decision to rip the Palast down, von Boddien expressed nearly blind optimism. When asked how he planned to pay for the façade reconstruction, he responded by asserting that if merely a third of Berliners were willing to pay 50 euros each, there would be plenty of money for the project. He did not acknowledge that this may have been asking a lot from a city with almost 20% unemployment. He also didn’t do the math very well; 50 million is not 80, but no matter. Von Boddien also brushed aside concerns of Eastern resentment, enthusing, “I’m telling you, it’ll go like the Frauenkirche [the reconstructed church in Dresden.] When the building begins, it will bring the opposition together.” He predicted that the reconstructed palace would be ready to open in October 2015, the 25th anniversary of German reunification, and could be celebrated with a week-long “Volkfest” or “people’s party.”[2]

Ramberg’s “doubt,” then, is both prescient and innaccurate. Von Boddien’s expectation that hundreds of thousands of individual citizens will elect to pay for the rebuilding, a hope he actually seems to believe, is dubious at best, especially for a society whose structure is not the American system of private wealth donated to public causes, but rather complete federal fiscal responsibility in the realm of culture and the arts. The Schloss falls under this cultural rubric not least because plans for it include gallery and exhibition space. Yet if von Boddien’s assumptions appear as all else but dubious or misguided to him and his supporters: official Schlossverein material trumpets an exuberant, exclamation-marked mood of jubilation. There is no doubt in their minds: the Schloss will be rebuilt, and it will be better than ever!

[1] “Dieser Zweifel wiegt schwer – Zehn tonnen, um genau zu sein.” Von SOF 29/30 Jan 2005, p. 1.
[2] “Das Stadtschloss steht 2015,” moderated by Katrin Schoelkopf, Berliner Morgenpost, 1 Feb 2005, p. 16

Images courtesy of, Berliner Morgenpost and Foerderverein Berliner Schloss e.V.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A(nother) Nation of Materialists

The United States is frequently attacked for being too materialistic, that is, valuing the acquisition of property too highly and missing the point that all that stuff is just…stuff. Living here in Germany has certainly confirmed that we are more willing to view life as a sequence of purchase opportunities. As a college graduation present, an American friend of mine received a new cell phone and new computer not because she needed either goody, but because her parents figured “why not?” It’s not bad logic since the new gadgets work well and make her happy, but yes, they were completely unnecessary.

In contrast, Germans hold on to their possessions, including technology, for longer. Many households have appliances in them that are “really old” by American standards, for example ancient TVs or radios, because they still somehow function and there is no apparent reason to replace them, no matter how outdated they may be (or look). In comparison, when I was growing up my parents would routinely throw out any appliance that couldn’t compete with the latest model—which, as it turns out, was most things. This is not a complaint or criticism; like most American kids, I took it for granted that getting new stuff all the time is a pretty neat lifestyle choice. In other words, I was raised as materialistically as the next.

However, materialism doesn’t always revolve around the constant and competitive consumerism the world associates with the US. Materialism can also be of a less physical type, what is called “intellectual materialism.” The kind of materialism is concerned with the accumulation of knowledge, or even spiritual experiences, in order to be better. This sort of drive to better oneself is discussed for example in Buddhism, which describes intellectual materialism in much the way as physical materialism: equally characterized by the feeling, “if I could just have something more I’d be whole; with that extra thing I don’t yet have, I’d be good.” For intellectual materialists, the pursuit to be worthy revolves around the baggage they carry in their head rather than the things in their living room.

Intellectual materialism is a characteristic of German society. Just as the attitudes of American materialism are clearly visible in advertisements that convince one s/he’ll be sexier (read: a more worthy human being) if s/he gets the new cell phone, Germany’s print media and advertising world hammer home the message that acquiring more knowledge makes one not just more knowledgeable, but better. Advertisements for encyclopedias abound here—no, really, they do---breathlessly describing the newer, better edition now available. They make encyclopedias look as exciting as sport cars.

Book reviews are also a huge feature of the newspaper media, more so than in the US to the extent they are not ghetto-ized in special sections but rather get front-page billing in culture sections or blurbs on the paper’s headline page. The language used in these reviews is meant to instill desire: if the reviewer liked the book, s/he will describe how its ideas will improve one’s awareness, expand one’s thought process, truly open one’s eyes like no other book until on this subject could have; in short, with this book, the reader will become better and closer to being a whole human being. The magazine and publishing house Der Spiegel’s advertising campaign says it all: “Readers know more.” These three words are appealing enough without explanation: to know more is to be better.

The picture painted is that the average member of society here ought to work on acquiring as many facts as possible in order for self-betterment, kind-of like how US society is frequently encouraged to acquire as many new shampoos/sweaters/cars/cell phones etc. to be cool, timely, smart, sexy, in short, worthy. The difference in German is that worthiness is measured differently: by the abstract yardstick of knowledge.

This is a pretty subtle attitude and one many would deny—ask an American if they think buying the new iPod makes them a better person and they’ll probably say “no.” Ask a German if reading an extra newspaper per day makes them a better person and they’ll also probably say “no;” however, if they say yes, it’s because intellectual materialism is so easier to defend. To a certain extent, its would-be defenders are right: it is generally better to know more than to know less. And the watered-down version of intellectual materialism is simply valuing a cosmopolitan worldview informed about politics and the ways of different countries. As the cliché runs, many Americans know very little about the rest of the world, and I’ve found this to be true, although I can’t produce any statistics that substantiate the overwhelming sense of ignorance one sometimes senses in the US. It would be nice if we emphasized understanding what’s going on in other parts of the world a bit more.

But let’s examine more deeply: is reading the latest published diary from the Nazi era going to teach the reader more tolerance, political awareness, world savvy, or any of the other things promised in the book reviews? Probably not. The root source of the values that Western liberal society holds dear—democracy, human rights—is the belief that everyone is equal, in other words, that there are fundamental similarities across humanity that make us all worthy, whether or not we have the latest sexy new encyclopedia or race car. The highest value of the Western world is a deep understanding of other people as just as worthy as oneself, and this is a concept both rational and emotional learned from family and environment. Each nation, regardless of how often they read a new encyclopedia or go shopping, has the opportunity to figure out how to transmit this message to the new generation. This value can’t be taught by buying a lot or reading a lot; it comes from a good upbringing in a healthy society. Meanwhile, after the most basic lessons are taught, the belief that knowing more equals being better is incorrect. (As is the American belief that buying stuff equals being better.)

We all have a lot more in common than we think—we all want to feel good about ourselves in whatever form of materialism our culture values. It bears mentioning that consumerism in the US is an offshoot of our Protestant work ethic: since works makes us good, when we spend the money we earned at that work, we see physical proof of our worthiness. And let’s not forget that the United States is a country founded on the idea of equality, which is why so many Europeans flocked to it rather than stay in oppressively hierarchical societies. Their descendants are now those ignorant fat people at the mall. So next time I hear the US casually dismissed as a nation of materialistic morons, I am going to suggest the speaker direct his/her energy towards seeing Americans as long-lost cousins: perhaps weird or annoying, but in every way as worthy.

Monday, November 13, 2006

“One-Euro-Job” is a Misnomer

As a solution to the scourge of unemployment, the German government has recently created new “Work Opportunities,” also dubbed “One-Euro-Jobs,” or positions that force people who have been unemployed for years to re-enter the workforce. They work in a variety of mainly low-skill positions such as cleaning litter in parks for 20-30 hours per week, for a term of 6-9 months, and earn the piecemeal salary of 1 Euro and fifty cents per hour. The goal is to supplement their state-supplied welfare income and reintroduce them to the working world, thereby readying them for long-term employment both psychically and practically.

This new measure has been attacked as taking jobs from those who are actually qualified and replacing them with under-qualified workers, i.e. spreading unemployment rather than solving it, although there are no good numbers available to substantiate this criticism. There are also claims that the measure allows workers to be fired—only to be offered their previous job back at a new low price. Others say that the requirements within the policy are not always met, especially that which requires the work to supplement pre-existing workforce conditions. Instead, so-called “One-Euro-Jobbers” are used as place-fillers where full-time workers are needed, such as a care-taker in a welfare institution or nursing home. In other words, the measure is a way to supply cheap, necessary labor that the government otherwise can’t afford. All in all, public opinion seems fairly critical; the nickname itself shows a fixation with a seemingly insultingly low wage, a ridiculous phantom of income in expensive times.

To explain the climate in which this development is taking place, let’s look at the example of Harald Ziehm, who was profiled recently by Der Tagesspeigel (under a changed name.) He receives 350 Euros a month from the government, of which 305 goes for rent, and after he divides the rest for transportation costs and health insurance, he has about nine Euros/day leftover, the newspaper reports. He spends half of this on cigarettes, and another euro and change on a daily beer, an expenditure he defends by explaining “non-alcoholic beer is more expensive.” He has been unemployed for five years and believes he will never find another job.

This sad hopelessness is not uncommon, as seen in another recent article that chronicles a family where nearly every member unemployed; only one son works, as a cook at a welfare center. Meanwhile, the grandparents, jobless, sit at home and with their other children, who are also jobless, and watch TV. The grandfather also believes his three-year-old granddaughter will be unemployed: “She’ll turn out like us.”

Mr. Ziehm and the members of this family are far from alone: unemployment in Berlin is currently 17.5%, up to 30% in certain parts of former East Germany, and mainly less in western Germany, but still high relative to what American economists consider healthy. (The average 2005 unemployment in the United States was 5.1%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; typical consensus is that a figure between 3-5% is ideal.) Not everyone without a job is also left without hope for the future, and it may be that the hopeless make the best newspaper features, but the numbers must be great indeed.

To those who sit at home for years, living by self-made routines of taking walks, watching TV, and smoking cigarettes, the psychic value of actual work cannot be underestimated. Work creates a sense of productivity and accomplishment which leads to self-worth; this is why Americans, with their Protestant work ethic, are so incredibly addicted to it. More importantly, work forces an individual to become part of a greater societal whole, to "make a contribution;” Mr. Ziehm spends his days alone and has dropped out of public life altogether outside of his trips to the grocery store. After years without being in some sort of social structure or larger purpose, is it any wonder that he can’t imagine himself waking up and going to work?

The value of "One-Euro-Jobs," then, is more than the derogatory nickname lets on; a better title might be the less catchy "Social-Reintegration-Jobs" or "Self-Worth-and-Confidence-Jobs." The government is hoping that this psychic energy, coupled with newly-learned skills, is enough to make long-term employment. Despite the accusations that these cheap jobs are harming the labor market rather than helping it, the real effects of this policy will only be seen in time. It may prove positive for the millions who don’t believe they count anymore.

Criticism, for example:
Anne Allex, interviewed by Cornelia Jeske, “Die Arbeit muss tatsaechlich zusaetzlich sein,” Berliner Zeitung, 7 November 2006, p. 23).
Harald Ziehm:
Philipp Lichterbeck, “Unten Durch,” Der Taggespiegel, 10 September 2006, „Berlin ist Leben“ Sonderseiten, p. V).
The family:
Maxim Leo, “Das verflixte Leben,” Berliner Zeitung, 21 October 2006, Politik, p. 3)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Let there be **Light**
The fall/winter sunlight in Berlin (when it rarely appears) is really a treat. Berlin is 1000 miles North of New York, i.e. so far north that the sun doesn't rise all the way in the sky, giving the light a permanent twilight feel and warm yellow color that paints objects with a golden glow. Also, because the sun laps around the sky rather than rise directly overhead, the light is always coming from a low angle, creating long shadows stretching out behind illuminated objects in that romantic, late-afternoon sort of way. OK, this little ode to winter sunlight is finished: here is a picture I took today at the Brandenburger Tor showing these effects.

(P.S. Two notes: Poking around in the ruins of Caesarea, an ancient Roman city on the Israeli coast, I stumbled on a particularly dark, empty tunnel with a small hole off-center in the ceiling. A plaque explained that this was a temple for a cult of sun-worshippers, and the hole was there to let in the light. So much religious architecture, such as cathedrals with their window-encircled apses, makes clever use of illumination, but I'd never seen a chamber so simply constructed for the regular worship of pure light.

Note two: Because it's so far north, the only thing that keeps Berlin warm is the Gulf Stream, which also keeps Scandinavia from turning into one big iceberg. But Berlin is on the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream, and it's striking how much colder it is only a couple hours away in Poland. I discovered this by surprise two winters ago and will never take the "warm" Berlin winter for granted again!)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


The do-si-do is a square dance step but I am just as bad at square-dancing as I am at trying to figure out when it is appropriate to use the German formal address “Sie” and when an informal “du” will suffice. Usually “Sie” is used with people you don’t know well, unless you’re under 25 and so are they, or also with people to whom you want to show respect. (Wake up! I’m not finished with this entry yet!) However, when I addressed a total stranger the other day with “Sie,” he laughed at me and explained that “everyone is informal here.” OK.., so it was at a salsa club, and maybe the sweaty bodies twisting around each other should’ve tipped me off. On the other hand, I asked a German professor if I could address him informally, and although he teaches in English and assigns American-style spontaneous work to loosen the students up, and he looked at me with impatience: “That is not the German system.”

Yep, good friend of mine, who is admittedly a couple decades older, used formal “Sie” with me for over a year. And I tried to convince a taxi driver the other day that I really wouldn’t mind being informally addressed, but no dice: “Sie.” But here’s the kicker: I had an internship in the Berlin government, the Germanic bureaucratic system that inspired Kafka’s The Trial, and the entire office advised me the first day: “We’re informal here.” Looking back, they must’ve been liberal hippies in grey-pants-suit disguise.

At the internship, I also had to learn to write formally: “Very Honored Mr. Gutmann, Please let us know if you shall attend the luncheon on Tuesday. With sincere greetings, Government Office AT3.” Seeing my astonishment, a co-worker asked, “Well, how would you write a letter to the President in English?” She chuckled to herself, and guessed “Dear Mr. President?”
Um, yes.

Then again, I was at New York’s Natural History Museum with a German friend the other day and we were trying to get a picture in front of some very cool dinosaur bones. A patient security guard took four different photos for us. Afterwards, my friend whispered to me, “Should we give her a little tip?” I said no, thinking it would be rude. But I really couldn’t explain to her just why it would be rude; “We’d be implying that she didn’t do it to be nice, or that we were better in some way,” I said, but that didn’t really sound right. Especially since we tip for all kinds of things in the US, in a system so Byzantine that entire articles are written about what to tip your doorman, manicurist, babysitter, psychic hotline advisor, etc. during the holidays. And in fact, there are probably plenty of Americans who would’ve given her a tip—did I stiff this poor, hard-working woman? Maybe I’m the idiot in my own country as well.

The point here is fairly toothless: cultural relativism. It seems that manners have a hint of the arbitrary everywhere you go.

(By the way, if you choose to post in response to this entry, please address me as “Highly-esteemed Blogger Arden.” In Italics.)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Cultural Learnings of Sacha Baron Cohen

The first time I heard a German voice perfectly imitate Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat in exquisitely butchered Deutsch I was astounded. Later I realized that “unspecified Eastern European accent with bad grammar” isn’t particularly tough to emulate; my twin brother also does a bang-up job. The fact that Baron Cohen makes no pretensions to linguistic authenticity on TV or in his film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for make Benefit Glorious Nation Kazakhstan, makes it even easier. For example, Borat’s frequently intoned “Dzienkuje” means “thank you” in Polish, not Kazakh, and “jagshamesh” appears to be an invention. In much of the film, Azamat, Borat’s producer, speaks to him in Russian, and Baron Cohen answers in Hebrew smothered with a Slavic accent, frequently uttering sentences that have nothing to do with the English subtitles. In the scene about Borat’s aspirations to marry Pamela, Baron Cohen discusses making omelets with her. (The official languages of Kazakhstan, by the way, are Kazakh and Russian.)

The only rule, then, is that Borat sound authentically dumb to Western viewers, who then delight in his cultural fumbling. This delight is big in Germany right now, where Borat: CLOAFMBGNK is generating equal buzz as in the US. Zitty, one of Berlin’s big biweekly cultural rags, pronounced the film “enormously fun” although best seen in the original broken English. (After having lived in Germany for a total of eight months I don’t know any “knock-knock”-style punchline-dependent jokes; the humor in the language seems to be much more subtle, buried in droll asides or sarcasm. So maybe the obviousness of mangling a language just doesn’t sound as funny in German. Zitty Review:

There are nay-sayers, of course; one reviewer dubbed it “Bowling For Pamela” for its Bowling for Columbine-like (Michael Moore, 2002) combination of semi-manipulated documentary style and exposure of embarrassing aspects of American culture but denounced it as a disappointing grouping of stock clichés. (Review by Martin Schwickert for Der Tagesspiegel,

And let’s not forget the Kazakh response, which is to deny the film’s veracity and express a mixture of fury and dismay. The best part about this response, however, is the way in which it subtly confirms the Grand Canyon-sized gap in cultural understanding Baron Cohen addresses, and perhaps even some stereotypes. The Kazakh ambassador to the United States dismissed the series as something only funny to “Americans who like to sit and drink beer and watch TV.” Hey, he just left out the nuns and the AA members! A New York Post article from Nov. 6 features an interview with a recently arrived Kazakh twenty-something who said he found the film funny but didn’t understand all the homosexual jokes per se, explaining “A gay dude came to my town once and turned up two weeks later floating in a pond.” And please take note: the movie is banned in Kazakhstan and the Kazakh foreign minister, Kasymzhomart Tokayev, has not seen it, despite his public condemnations.

However, all this attention might be good for Kazakhstan; more people (at least stereotypically clueless Americans) have the country on their cultural radar, for the time being, and are interested in hearing what its representatives have to say. Kazakhstan should use this opportunity wisely rather than spend too much time focusing on the work of a satirist; after all, isn’t it obvious that while Borat is fictional, the prejudiced Americans in the film are real? Who is really getting made fun of here?

No, rather than get riled up, Kazakhstan has a chance to use world attention. Of course, as an ignorant American, I have no good suggestions; the Kazakh government ought to know best what’s worth bringing to the spotlight. Now, all this deep thinking about cultural mud-slinging hurt my brain. I need to go have a beer in front of the television.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Recently Berlin found out it wasn't getting the many millions of dollars of federal aid it had counted on to help bail it out of financial bankruptcy. There is ripple of resentment now in the city's papers which ranges from "how dare the other states not recognize our contributions to the nation" to "well then they'll just have to help out in other ways," the latter including suggestions to finally move the roughly 20% of government offices still in Bonn over to Berlin, as well as create special study fees for students who study in the capital but were not born there. Finance Senator Thilo Sarrazin is even claiming that historically Prussian cultural institutions such as the State Opera ought to receive federal funding rather than local since they were intially created by the state, not the city.

However, Berlin has a lot going for it in the wake of this disappointing news. Like the New York of 1975, whose rejected appeal for federal aid was immortalized by the New York Daily News headline "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD," it has a charismatic leader. Klaus Wowereit is as beloved by the populace as was Ed Koch in his day and some even suggest he should use his popularity to one day run for Chancellor, despite his political reputation of a fear of taking strong positions. It was Wowereit who coined the widely-quoted slogan "Poor, but sexy" ("Arm, aber sexy") to describe Berlin's defiantly Bohemian appeal, which brings me to another advantage Berlin has for dealing with this blow: it is cool to be poor in Berlin.

In contrast to New York, where a recent cover article of the eponymous magazine blared "MONEY" in neon orange letters (Nov. 6, New York), displaying unashamed fascination with making and spending, Berlin has a certain poverty-pride. A recent article in the big daily Der Tagesspiegel lauded Berlin residents for knowing how to live well without shelling out as much money as those errant consumers in Munich do. "Whoever pays 100 Euros for sunglasses is considered cuckoo," explains the author proudly. This rejection of spending doesn't make Berlin particularly less shallow than more consumer societies, just shallow in a different way; here people criticize those who dress "too chic" rather than emulate them.

I encounter this disdain towards cash often as a student, where you're considered foolish if you spend more than the bare minimum on things. If I ask a buddy if they'd like to get a coffee, they will refuse to go to one of those chains with pretentious literary names like Balzac or Starbuck's and suggest we go to bakery to save a Euro. At the bakery we might stand by a plastic table instead of sitting in plush earthtone armchairs and there will be no pleasingly ignorable pop music whining in the background, but the strong coffee we drink out of small plastic cups will be much better because we have not senselessly wasted our money. The pride people get from their spendthrift attitude is worth more than the comfort and convenience money buys. This oughtta serve the city well as the feds tighten their belt.
(Note: Some genuinely can't afford the extra 50 cents, and I apologize for the misrepresentation of lumping them into this category of proud cheapness.)

Welcome to the Blog

Hi Everyone! Thanks for checking out this new little blog. I'll start by explaining my title, which is actually more wishful thinking than a grand reflection of my cosmopolitan life in quaint old Europe. I haven't found any good bagels in Berlin, just circular bread. And the romantic notion of dining riverside in a charming capital is way too quaint for this city, which the last century has stamped with an array of ugliness.

But I really liked the idea of eating bagels by the Spree and notions of how the city could be are a pleasing complement to how it is. This kind of dreaming is popular among Berlin residents, at least the ones who are not born in the city but rather end up here, including thinkers like Moses Mendelssohn, Rosa Luxembourg and Christopher Isherwood, as well as every expatriate who laments how the supermarket closes at 20:00 sharp.
(Isherwood's writings inspired Cabaret; while some might argue that he didn't want to change Berlin but rather gloried in its decadent excess, I would say that his vision of the bed-hopping and boozing included a sense of hope that things could somehow stay this way; they couldn't, and therein lies the dreaming.)

And now for the second part of the title: "A New Yorker in Berlin." This is very different from "An American in Germany" principally because there are many Americans who would argue that New York doesn't represent the rest of America--and many New Yorkers who would heartily second this claim--and many Germans who would similarly reject Berlin. Like New York, it is full of foreigners and weirdos, ultraliberal, noisy and messy and unappealing to the uninitiated. The northeastern city's residents are reputed to be ruder and wittier than those from southern or simply more rural zones. It is also a cultural center, a scene of artistic production, and a place where you can party all night. So for the rest of the year I'll be posting thoughts from this spiritually similar city--hope you enjoy.