Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Tower of Babel(sberg)

South West of Berlin, on the opposite side of the Havel from Potsdam, lies an eccentric collection of Romantic buildings in the landscaped Park Babelsberg. It was to here that we travelled today. We had been there earlier in the year, but it was so snowy and icy that you couldn't walk anywhere easily (kein Winterdienst), and the light was so dull that we didn't take any photos. We did have the park pretty much to ourselves though - nobody else was daft enough to venture away from the hearth in such cold weather. Anyhows, today was a lovely day with the beginnings of Spring very much in the air.
Babelsberg is in itself an interesting town, famous (and during the Nazi period infamous) for its film studios. But you can read about them on Wikipedia or somewhere similar. Today we were interested in exploring the weird imaginations of such famous architects and garden-designers as Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Ludwig Persius, Peter Joseph Lenné and Hermann von Pückler-Muskau.
A taste of what is to come greets you as soon as you get off the train, with the wonderfully gabled and turretted Babelsberg Rathaus (town hall):

This kind of faux-mediaeval style seems to have been de-rigeur for town halls at the turn of the century. The red and glazed green bricks, the church-like facades and spires, the gargoyles and balconies, all are reproduced in Rathäuser from Pankow to Alt Köpenick and beyond. As if the Brothers Grimm had been asked to design a mad prince's castle, after a night of too much absinthe with the town planners.
Standing high above the park is the magnificent look-out tower of the Flatowturm,  built between 1853 and 1856 with stones from the former princely estate in Flatow (Western Prussia). The Eschenheimer Torturm (gate tower) in Frankfurt/Main served as its model (or so a bit of googling tells me).

It has a moat around it too, sadly not filled at the time of our visit, and looks like any child's idea of a Rapunzel tower.
Standing nearby is the Gerichtslaube, which the plaque on it (if my translation is correct) says it was constructed from the original 13th Century parts of a porch outside the law-courts in Berlin. Or something.
Another typically Romantically designed viewing point is the Siegessäule in commemoration of Prussia winning the 1866 Austrio-Prussian war:

It is not so impressive as the Berlin Siegessäule of course, and the view would have been better if they hadn't planted so many trees, but was worth climbing up to none-the-less.
Further on in the park and you come to Schloss Babelsberg itself.

Another wonderful neo-gothic dream, made reality! Adjoining it, the castle even has a mock-ruined gothic church complete with a statue of St Michael slaying the devil. No doubt bats flit around it in the twilight, auditioning for a bit(e)-part in a Dracula movie at Babelsberg Studios.
From Park Babelsberg you can look across the Havel to see Glienicker Brücke (bridge), made famous by any number of Cold War espionage movies as the exchange point for spies between East and West, an occurance which really did happen (The Babelsberg side was in West Berlin, the Potsdam side was in East Germany):

My best remembrance of a wonderful day out though is of a statue of a dog at Schloss Babelsberg, its doleful but patient expression captured in stone:

Friday, 27 March 2009

Basdorf is on Google Earth!

It always was on Google Earth, of course, but now it is enhanced with about twenty of my photos of Basdorf and the surrounding area!

If you have Google Earth, then click on this file to zoom in on Basdorf and explore around. Click on the small blue squares to see my photos (requires the 'Panoramio' option to be ticked on the 'Geographic Web' layer, and you need to be zoomed in fairly well to see them).

Can you can guess which is a photo of our house?!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Things I Didn't Know Last Week

How To Pronounce 'Fuchsia'
There is a road in Basdorf named 'Fuchsienstraße'. Ah-ha I thought in my ignorance, that must be something to do with 'foxes' (Füchse), it being all rural and near the woods and everything. Nearly, but not quite. 'Fuchsien' is the German for 'fuchsias', the pretty red ballerina tutu-ed flowering shrub with the spindly purple 'legs'. And fuchsias are named after the German botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566). The surname Fuchs is the same as the English Fox, so there is a linguistic connection. The German pronounciation determines that a 'fuchsia' should be spoken as called 'fook-sya', not 'fyew-sha' as I always have said it. This is not the same Dr Fuchs BTW as the British Antartic explorer Dr Vivian Fuchs, immortalised in the (probably apocryphal) newspaper headline 'Dr Fuchs Off To The Antartic Again'.

'Hoppelpoppel' is the Name of a Typical Berliner Dish
Great name! Great breakfast dish of potatoes, onion, bacon (or veggie equivalent), and scrambled eggs all fried together on the stove. Throw in a bit of parsely and quartered tomatoes to make it almost healthy!

The Head of the East German Secret Police Used to Live Just Up the Road From Us
During a very interesting tour of the Stasi Museum on Normannenstraße last Sunday, I became aware that just a few kilometres through the woods from our house there was once a high-security settlement of houses where the top-ranking members of the DDR SED Politburo hid out of harms way from the proles of Berlin. Apart from Erich Honecker (General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany and effective leader of the GDR/DDR 1971 – 1989), one of his neighbours was hunting buddy Erich Mielke, head of State Security and hence the Stasi. Nice. Thankfully those days are behind us now, and the compound where they lived (the Wandlitz Waldsiedlung or 'Forest Settlement') is now a place of care and healing called the Brandenburg Klinik. We cycled up there Monday, and you can see the houses where they used to live, now converted for caring for patients.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Vermisst - Missed

So, over six months in Germany now; is there anything I miss from the UK? Well, yes, a few things:

Family and friends. They are still only a phone call away, or a Ryanair flight away, and it is not as if I was dropping around their place every week before, but it does feel that they are still a long way away. Thank goodness for Skype!

Hills. Most of North East Germany is flat, flat, flat. The highest hill in Brandenburg is 201m high. Now, the flat landscape is good for cycling, but for getting high and seeing the lie of the land it is almost impossible to get a perspective of the countryside. The only hills in Berlin are artificial; built by the Trümmerfrauen from the bombed out ruins of the city. Yes, I miss a Kinder Scout kind of ramble, but on the other hand, wherever you roam in the forests and wildernesses of Germany you aren't affronted with carelessly discarded coke cans and crisp packets.

Cheese. Cheddar, Wensleydale, Cheshire, Stilton, Red Leicester, Cornish Yarg, Sage Derby. Why English cheese can't make it over the channel weiss ich gar nicht. Maybe it's an EU thing and the Swiss and the Dutch have stitched up the market on behalf of Gouda and Emmental I don't know, but please please please send me a decent tasting cheese asap. Danke schön.

Pickles.  Pickled onions, Branston pickle, piccalilli, pickled beetroot even. Why don't the Germans like pickling? After all, they seem to like sauerkraut by the ton-load. Spreewalder pickled gherkins (=cucumbers) seems about as close as they get. And try and get malt vinegar for your chips .... Oh yes, and proper chip-shop chips please. With mushy peas, curry sauce, and potato fritters!

Marmite. Germany has more breweries than any other country in the world, yet they haven't hit on the idea which Burton-on-Trent did and recycle the spent brewing yeast as a delicious paste (and a god-send to vegetarians trying to get that umami fifth taste). Yes, you can buy Marmite here if you have the cash to throw around. That's why everyone visiting our house from England has to bring a jar of Marmite or else they sleep in the dog-pound. You have been warned!

Different Flavoured Crisps. I never thought I'd miss cheese and onion or salt and vinegar flavour crisps, but actually I do. Curiously the most popular flavour crisp here is paprika, which despite in the UK they have everything from prawn cocktail to port and stilton flavour (and cajun squirrel, and fish and chips according to a Walker's crisp competition running at the moment) crisps, there is no paprika flavour! Actually, paprika is quite nice, so ...

The English Language. When you have to get your linguistic head into gear for speaking and understanding the lingo in order just to ask for a haircut, yes it can feel like you are a long way from home. Many Germans speak English adequately enough that you can make yourself understood, but it's not like you can have a discussion about the immutible nothingness of existence in a post modern context or something. Okay, I don't have the English myself to do that but you get the idea; ordering a cup of tea is okay, anything more complicated and one has to resort to sign language and it makes you feel like a moron. I will just have to work at improving my German I guess, but I'll never be as good as forty years practicing and learning English. Which leads me on to ...

Books. I love reading. Anything. I'll read the cornflake packet if there's nothing else. To make the process less of a learning experience and one of total immersion, I would prefer to read a book in English. But books are so expensive here, whether in German or especially in English. There are no Waterstones, no 3 for 2, and few remaindered book stores. And yet every third German on the S-Bahn seems to be reading a book, and even a small village like Basdorf where we live has two  Buchhandlungen (book shops), so it can't be that German culture is book-unfriendly. I think perhaps they value book-reading more, and are prepared to pay the cost for quality literature. Which probably explains why I have never seen a Jeffery Archer book in the shops.

Television. But I miss only a very few programs. TV in Germany is just as bad as in the UK, though at least has the benefit that it might be mindless drivel, but at least it gives you an opportunity to improve your German vocabulary. And with programmes like 'Wer wird Millionär' you can improve your German cultural knowledge (curiously we can rarely answer even the 5o Euro question, but the 32,000 ones are better). Plus presenter Günther Jauch is much funnier than Chris Tarrant. Indeed, there is a nice feeling when sitting on the S-Bahn that you can be sure that nobody else on the train has the faintest idea who Noel Edmunds or Jonthan Ross are. However, they would be able to say who Stefan Raab and Oliver Pocher are, so swings and roundabouts.

Sunday Shopping. It can be a pain when you realise you have run out of milk on a Sunday and the shops are all closed. It can feel a bit like English Sundays in the Eighties. Not that that's a bad thing; a day of quiet and rest is good for die Seele whether you are religious or not. Strange not being able to at least go to a garden centre though (or even mow your lawn, never mind put washing out!).

Hmm, and that's about it. I sometimes miss my car, say when I need to cart a lot of stuff from OBI (sort of like a B&Q), but generally the public transport system is so well run, and cycling so easy, that I can quite well do without one.

What I am glad to do without from the UK still tips the balance: litter, drunkenness, identical high-streets, shuttered-up shops, party politics, terrorism-measures, rain, and Jeremy bleeding Clarkson!

Monday, 2 March 2009

Staatssicherheit nach englischer Art (State Security, English Style)

If you watch the German news, it sometimes feels like the view of the UK from Central Europe is like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. That group of windswept islands afloat in the Nordsee look far, far away from what's really happening in Europe, and appear rather small and insignificant from this distance. It's also like looking back in time, to a nineteenth century era when parliament was carried out by men of privileged backgrounds or who wore ecclesiastical gowns and funny hats; where a dynastic monarch was still nominally the head of state; and where governmental business was carried out behind locked doors in a Gothic Gormenghast of secret corridors.

Of course that's just typical European Union bias isn't it? If for instance the citizens of the UK wanted to read the cabinet minutes relating to the invasion of Iraq, as recommended by the Freedom of Information Commission as being in the public interest, then of course the people who democratically appointed their government to work in their best interests should have a right to see those deliberations. Just to make sure that there was a very good reason why hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of the war, and that the millions who marched in opposition were all mistaken in their concerns. But no, not a chance. And rather than appealing the decision of the Information Tribunal in the High Court (and possibly lose again), last month Justice Secretary Jack Straw, with the approval of the Cabinet, decided to use the power of veto to over-rule it. Just like that. (see this Times online article http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article5801842.ece for example).

Thankfully, in a democracy there is the balance of the Opposition who can countermand abuses of power. Except that the Tories also voted for the veto; after all, they might need to keep their own cabinet meeting minutes secret soon.

How very different this seems from the German constitution, with its strict set of balancing measures which prevent any one party or person wielding ultimate control, or coming to a decision or issuing an act of law other than totally transparently. Even the difference in parliamentary buildings is starkly contrasted: 

On the one hand there is the German Bundestag, a modern glasshouse where you can literally see the workings of the debating chambers and offices of government from the outside, or by peering down on them from above in Norman Foster's dome. 

On the other are the UK Houses of Parliament, looking like a mad Victorian's idea of a medieval palace and about as impossible to penetrate if you are not one of the privileged few. 

There are often demonstrations on one thing or another right outside the Bundestag, where the ministers and elected representatives can see the protestors through the plate-glassed windows of their offices and meeting rooms (and vice versa). 

The Houses of Parliament meanwhile are hidden behind a wall of concrete anti-tank blocks, armed Police officers, and one of the most elaborate CCTV surveillance networks in the world. And a one mile exclusion zone where spontaneous protest is against the law.

One seat of government is surrounded by playful works of modern art in bright primary colours and lighting. The other is surrounded by severe statues of dead, long-forgotten statesmen, kings, and military leaders. I'll leave you to work out which is which. You get the picture by now.

But it is with the UK's rapidly growing DNA Database that it looks like you are seeing the past re-enacted. This is the database, you may recall, which is the largest in the world. The one which the European Court has ruled breaches human rights where data is retained on the DNA of suspects later shown to be innocent of any unlawful doing. The database at the heart of 'surveillance society Britain' slammed by Lord Goodlad's House of Lords Constitution Committee. That database, you might have read, that stores the genetic information taken from nearly 1.1 million children. The database which the government itself admitted has at least 500,000 false or mis-spelt names on its records. (If you don't know the background to these stories, the Guardian newspaper is keeping a track of them here.)

There are very good historical reasons of course for the intractability of the German constitution. Never again should a minority fascist party ever be able to take over the reins of government and bend the power of the state to its own evil ends. What the twisted thugs of Hitler's murder squads could have done with a database showing the genetic profiles of every person in Germany and its occupied territories doesn't bear thinking about without having nightmares.  

And I'm not just talking about the National Socialist monsters. On Normanstrasse in former East Berlin stands the former HQ of the Ministry of State Security or Staatssicherheit, often abbreviated to 'Stasi'. From here the lives of millions of DDR citizens were recorded and scrutinised for subversiveness to the Communist regime. Instead of CCTV's, microphones were planted in people's homes, or Stasi Mitarbeiters spied on and photographed their neighbours and colleagues. Most significantly of all, hidden under the seat of anyone brought in for questioning was a piece of cloth which would collect their sweat. The cloth would be securely bottled and stored away, so that if the suspect was later accused of being present at the scene of disloyal activity, sniffer dogs would have a sample of body odour to match or to help track down the unfortunate person.

Does that sound familiar? A unique chemical fingerprint collected in the course of an investigation into someone who might be innocent? A unique marker which might be detected at the scene of a later crime against the state and used in a Court of Law? This is where I have a feeling of déjà vue when I  read about the UK's DNA Database.

After the Berlin Wall came down, the Stasi HQ was ransacked by the people in the name of freedom from state suppression (Freiheit!). The personal records were made available to be read by the individuals whose privacy they violated, including the painstakingly pieced together files of the thousands of records shredded by the Stasi in the last days of the DDR.

A state which believes every one of its citizens could be guilty of a crime, which conducts its business in secrecy, which spies and lies to the people who gave them a mandate of power, is a Police State by any other name, not a democracy. No wonder, with its past of unbelievable horrors conducted by leaders with unchecked power of intrusion in the lives of the individual, Germany looks on the workings of the UK government aghast with apprehensive foreboding.

Rant over. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Stasi 'smell jars'. Image found at scienceblogs.com