Sunday, 26 July 2009

Butterflies in the Garden - Schmetterlinge im Garten

I've never had so many butterflies in the garden as in our garden in Germany. Maybe it's because of the lovely purple buddleia bushes we have here acting like a butterfly magnet, or maybe it's the warm weather (32 degrees in the shade today!), or maybe our cats just aren't hunting them like they used to in England (again, because of the heat).

Anyway, here are some photos I took today of just a few of them (I am not going to try and name them, though I am at least certain of the peacock and the painted lady ones! If anyone wants to try, you are more than welcome. p.s. click on a photo to biggify):

Thursday, 23 July 2009

KMFDM at the Postbahnhof

Yesterday we went to see KMFDM at FritzClub im Postbahnhof. This partially bombed out complex of railway buildings and warehouses was originally built as an adjunct to the nearby Ostbahnhof in the early twentieth century in order to handle incoming and outgoing mail for the whole of the German Reich. Nowadays of course we all email, sms txt, and twitter so much less snail mail is sent by rail, and the buildings have either been left to decay or renovated into exhibition spaces or club venues.

The Postbahnhof, with its bare red-brick vaulted roof and rusting iron girders, was therefore an appropriate venue for some explosive industrial rock and electronic music from KMFDM and support group Patenbrigade: Wolff.

The support was supposed to be Industrial-shock-metal mentalists Limbogott, who I wouldn't have minded going to see, but unfortunately they had to cancel due to illness. Instead we got Patenbrigade: Wolff, who actually weren't half bad (that is to say, the first half of the set was good, but the other half...).

Hier beginnt der Demokratische Sektor!
Patenbrigade started out more like performance artists; the stage was sealed off with black and yellow 'roadworks' tape, revolving yellow warning beacons shone out through the dry ice fog, and there was a 'men at work' triangular traffic sign in place. Standing on the stage were four men dressed in flourescent orange work overalls and yellow hard hats, and whilst the two central guys were playing electronic keyboards as if they were hydraulic road-drills, the other two slouched around drinking from bottles of beer and generally behaving like tyical workmen.

The music was a mix of thumping electronic drum'n'bass overlaid with loops of repetitive electronic riffs and samples from old German news reports and public information messages. The latter were augmented by black and white film footage of DDR-era Soviet military displays under the shadow of the Fernsehturm, of the building of the Berlin wall, of the contruction of the early Russian Modernism showpiece Stalinallee (now Karl-Marx Allee), of televised speeches by Erich Honecker, a smidegeon of Nazi era propoganda films ('Vorsicht, Feind hört mit!'), and bizzarely enough of hazardous substance signs ('Sehr giftig!').

This YouTube video gives you a taste of their style:

After a great first half the impact sadly started to weaken, particularly when the woman of the group started to sing more and more. Her Health and Safety Inspektorin act was good on Gefahrstoffe, but she didn't really have the voice to carry full-length songs. And then for some reason Patenbrigade sounded more and more like third-rate Pet Shop Boys, or was I just getting bored by then?

Anyway, I soon woke up when KMFDM came on and exploded into action. This is part of their 'Kein Mitleid' tour, ostensibly to promote their new album 'Blitz'. Whilst they performed a lot of tracks from Blitz (which is a very good album by the way), they also trawled their back catalogue for their greatest hits. These they attacked with renewed energy much to the delight of the crowd, some of whom were slam-dancing in the mosh pit with much verve to the likes of Hau Ruck, WWIII, Drug Against War, and Free Your Hate.

The gang were obvioulsy enjoying themselves; Andy Selway assaulted the drums whilst grinning like a maniac; Jules smoked heroically throughout, sharing a drag or two with members of the audience, whilst doing some terrific RSI-inducing riffs; Steve White (who always makes me think of the Brummy Barry out of Auf Wiedersehen Pet) looked less like a last-minute session musician and more like one of the group; and Sascha went as far as taking off his dark glasses once or twice, even allowing folks to push cameras two inches from his face without head-butting them. But when somebody climbed onto the stage waving a beer, Sascha soon showed him the way off. Even Lucia stopped doing impressions of Tracey Emin sucking a lemon, and cracked a smile now and then.

Lucia did sing wonderfully though; so much energy, so much attitude. Her virtuosity from husky sensuality to hate-filled screaming whilst yet remaining in tune complimented Sascha's cool, hard vocals always just on the edge of violence. No-one but Sascha could sing 'The beatings will continue, until morale improves' and sound like a BDSM disciplinarian who really means it.

The music was amazing and reverberated through the room in blasts of sonic booms. Above it all soared Jules' and Steve's riff crescendos, whilst Sascha and Lucia twiddled with whatever it is on their podiums and added rich electronic texture and samples to the acoustic weave (or at least, I assume that's what Sascha and Lucia are doing. Or maybe those stands are just something for Lucia to squirm sexily against, and for Sascha to look like he's doing something constructive when he's not barking teutonically into the microphone).

Looking around the FritzClub, it was sobering to think that the audience hardly packed out this small venue for such a fantastic musical experience, and yet just a few days before U2 had managed to fill the Berlin Olympiastadion with their bland MOR stadium rock. Ah well, I have no pity for the masses (if you don't get it, google is your friend!).

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Return to the Spreewald

Today we went back to Lübbenau in the Spreewald South-East of Berlin to explore further.

The old part of Lübbenau always makes me think of a small, sleepy Welsh market town in the Brecon Beacons, and like the Brecon Beacons region (Y Bannau Brycheiniog) they have a different language, in this case Sorbian. Here's the main street on a busy Thursday in July (click for bigger):

Hmm, perhaps Brecon has a bit more traffic. And more sheep. What Lübbenau does have around it are a network of canals rather than roads, which means that the best mode of transport (aside from on foot or by bike) is by canoe.

And rather than sheep, the main livestock farmed here is fish, as commemorated by this charming statue:

These tin statues are all over Lübbenau by the way. I don't know if the Council got a job lot of scrap metal and a bored artist looking for a commission or what, but the bizzarist collection of them is the Sagenhafte Brunnen (= 'fabulous/fantastic/fabled fountain') in front of the church. This supposedly depicts characters from the Mythenwelt of the Spreewald. Illustrated here on the right for example is the Baumkönig (= 'tree king'):

Lübbenau also has an impressive Schloss, now with a conference centre, restaurant, and 'wellness' area.

The last count of Lübbenau to live at the Schloss was Wilhelm Friedrich, who was executed by the Nazis in 1944 due to his involvement in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20th 1944, and the family fled into exile. After Germany’s reunification a part of the former belongings was given back the family in 1992, and the family returned to Lübbenau. I don't believe they are counts of the area anymore though.

Behind the Schloss is a gorgeous pond with a duck house and lily pads and a bridge which Monet would have loved to have painted:

Beyond the heady urbanism of the town and castle, the land is very rural, and the water-meadows are dominated by haystacks that seem to be distinctive to the Spreewald (my Beloved, bless her, thinks that when you aren't looking they stand up and walk around!):

As you might expect, the region abounds in wildlife, including white storks such as this one nesting on top of the fire station in the nearby village of Lehde:

Lehde itself is a picture postcard kind of place which must survive almost entirely on tourism, especially through punted tours around the canals:

Ah yes, the punt boats. Probably the most relaxing way to see the Spreewald area. Or most boring depending on your point of view. Though they do usually carry a plentiful supply of schnapps and beer if you tire of the peaceful scenery.

For us though, we were happy enough just to wander on foot along the footpaths beside the canals, without a soul in sight, listening to the bird song and watching the play of light between lucious leaves and sparkling water.

One word of warning though: if you do go to the Spreewald in Summer, be sure to take some jungle-strength bug repellent. We did, but we still managed to be bitten and came up with red wheals on our arms and legs which lasted a week!

(There, I've done a whole blog about Spreewald without mentioning gherkins once. Oh damn!)

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Water Lily

Here is a photo of the water lily on our small pond. We only planted it this year as a small lump of root, and didn't expect anything until it had matured for a few years. But it has put out a beautiful flower and lots of lily pads for the water-skaters to sit on and the newts to shade under. (click on images for bigger).
No other news. Just thought I'd share this with you!

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Hausmüllbeseitigung - Household Garbage Removal in Germany Explained

I thought I had better post a blog which might actually be useful for anyone moving to Germany, rather than just of pretty pictures of places we have been to :¬)

When you start living in Germany it soon becomes apparent that they take their recycling seriously. In many public places - train stations and shopping arcades for example - you will see not one litter bin, but four. These are labelled and coloured to indicate which type of waste you are allowed to deposit in them, and woe betide you if you use the wrong one!

To help you avoid falling into the wrong-bin trap, these are the colours of the waste-bins and the things you are allowed to put in:

Blue (blau), labelled 'Papier', is for clean paper waste, e.g. newspapers, paper bags, expired rail tickets, and flyers for concerts or special promotions handed to you in the street. Don't put your snotty paper tissues, ice lolly wrappers, or secret Stasi files in here.

Yellow (gelb), labelled 'Verpackung', is for plastic bottles, cellophane wrapping, and aluminium drinks cans. It is also for anything that has a recycling symbol on the packaging, but don't assume that because a banana came in its own natural packaging, you can throw its skin in here.

However, before you throw in your bottle or can, inspect it to see if there is a deposit on the container. Look carefully for the word 'Pfand' on the label and see if it comes before 'frei' or after 'ohne' (both meaning 'without' in this context), in which case don't worry about chucking it. However, if the label says 'Pfandflasche' or 'Einwegpfand' or 'Mehrwegflasche' or just 'Pfand' and a price in cents, then hang onto it; you can take it back to where you bought it from, or a suitable collection point, and receive money in return. If you easily forget German words, then just look out for the returnable bottle and can symbol:

The deposit is not much, so if you feel like you don't want to lug it around then at least put it in the (yellow!) bin without crushing it; there is a whole army of people out there who search through bins for items with a Pfand on them and collect the money for themselves.

Green (grün), labelled 'Glas', is for - yes you've guessed it - glass items, which will generally mean glass bottles unless you've just finished a jar of Spreewald pickles for your lunch (yummy!).

Before discarding your beer bottle though, be aware that all beer bottles have a Pfand (deposit) on them. You paid this extra for your bottle of Germany's best when you bought it, and you can claim it back. The same as with most plastic drinks bottles, these can be returned to the place you bought them, where they are under obligation to take them back. Alternatively many supermarkets have an automatic bottle return machine: you insert your beer bottle (or plastic bottle with a Pfand on it) bottom first into a hole, a series of rollers rotates the bottle whilst lazers read the barcode, and if the machine decides your bottle has a Pfand on it, it will display the deposit amount. You can feed in as many bottles as you want, and when you have finished you press a (usually) green button which prints out a bar-coded receipt which you can hand to the cashier for re-imbursement. If you have had a heavy drinking session, note that many of these collection points can automatically take whole creates of bottles back as well.

Photo of Pfandautomat in action. Copyright Spiegal Online.

Also like plastic bottles and cans, there are people who make a (desperate) living going through the bins and collecting beer bottles. Don't assume that they are drunks who are collecting every last dreg of beer they can find, this is not the case. To be sympathetic to their plight, if you don't want to collect the Pfand on your bottle then put it in the appropriate (green) container, and not with e.g. stubbed out cigarette butts in them (not nice!).

Having said all that about the Pfand on beer bottles, you should be made aware that wine, spirit, and HP Sauce bottles never have a Pfand on them (they are exempt because they are not fizzy - go figure!), so don't worry about just throwing those bottles in the green bin.

Red (rot), labelled Restmüll, is for everything else. Apple cores, half-eaten Bratwurst, broken umbrellas, cigarette butts, spent gun cartridges, Jeffrey Archer novels etc., in fact anything that nobody could possibly find redeemable value in, and which just needs to be incinerated or land-filled or buried at the bottom of the ocean. Obviously this is not the preferred option, so try not to buy these things in the first place (especially the Jeffrey Archer novels), or if it is compostable take it home with you for the compost heap.

By the way, using these bins properly seems to be so ingrained in the German psyche that I once saw late at night on a station platform a man rather worse for wear knock over and break his bottle of Weissbier. He could hardly stand up, but bless him he crawled on his hands and knees and picked every last bit of glass up and put them in the correct bin (the red one by the way - the green one is for unbroken glass!). Of course, that might have been because the other people on the platform were all glaring at him and mentally tutting, but anyway. Just shows.

The household recycling regime probably differs slightly from German region to German region, but I'll use our waste collection system as an example (Barnim in Brandenburg).

For anything with a 'Grüne Punkt' or similar recycling symbol on the packaging, this goes into a yellow sack or 'Gelbe Sack'. These include, but may not be specifically indicated:
  • any recyclable metal such as bottle tops, aluminium foil, tin cans, aerosol cans etc.
  • juice, drink, and milk cartons; vacuum packaging; cellophane wrapping.
  • carrier bags*, crisp packets, and sweet or chocolate bar wrappers.
  • non-Pfand plastic bottles, such as shampoo bottles, washing up liquid bottles, etc.
  • margarine cartons, yoghurt pots, kartoffelsalat containers etc.
  • bubble-wrap, expanded foam containers, burger cartons etc.
(* be aware that if you go shopping in Germany, don't expect to be given a carrier bag automatically. And if you do request one, you will probably have to pay for it. So it is important to take your own bags for shopping, preferably a non-bleached cotton or wicker basket one to prove your recycling credentials.)

Before you put recyclable into your yellow sack though, all items must be washed and cleaned.

Yellow sacks can be obtained free of charge from council designated places such as some supermarkets, petrol stations, and in our case the garden centre.

Our yellow sacks are collected every fortnight. You get a calendar from the Council each year telling you when, but if you forget you will soon know because the rest of the street have put out their sacks by the roadside the night before. These are our yellow sacks awaiting collection, and yes we usually have two to put out, and they are mostly filled with cat-food tins (empty and washed of course!):

The collection of yellow sacks is free, and if that was your only waste then you'd be laughing. However, if you have any paper products to dispose of (and if you have a letter-box you will - with all the free newspapers and flyers from local supermarkets and other businesses that will get pushed through it), then you will need a blue bin or 'Papiertonne' from the local council. We didn't have one when we first moved in, so we had to request one. Here it is, courtesy of Landkreis Barnim:

Things that can go in here include (according to the lid):
  • Zeitungen - newspapers
  • Zeitschriften - magazines and journals
  • Illustrierte - glossy magazines
  • Taschenbücher - paperback books
  • Kataloge - catalogues
  • Prospekte - flyers and handouts
  • Kartonagen (Pappe) - cardboard containers
  • Schachteln - cardboard boxing
What can't go in here are:
  • Tapeten - wallpaper
  • Tetra Pak - those cartons your milk etc comes in
  • Plastik - Plastics
  • Hygienepapiere - sanitary paper and towels
  • Bücher mit Platikband - books with plastic binding
  • Eirkartons - egg cartons
  • sonstiger Müll - other rubbish - the getout clause so you don't put radio-active waste in
The paper bin is enormous, so actually we mostly use it to store the yellow-bagged rubbish in until collection day. They are collected every four weeks, coinciding with every other yellow bag collection. If you do get overwhelmed with paper stuff though (we did when we moved in because everything was packed in cardboard boxes, and it was a bit far to take them back to Sainsburys), then there are paper collection bins (blue of course) at neighbourhood recycling centres.

By the way, by law there is a cost-free 'Rücknahmesystem der Verkaufsverpackungen' which means that anybody who sells you anything, or delivers any goods to you, which comes in packaging (including those polystyrene filler pellets or 'quavers') are obligated to take back the packaging and recycle it for you free of charge. That applies whether it is all the cardboard and pins in a new shirt from H&M, or a Billy Bookcase from Ikea. I've not actually tested this in practice though.

Compost Corner
For compostable waste, that is uncooked non-meat foodstuff, coffee and tea leftovers, eggboxes, cat fur and garden clippings, we have a compost bin in the garden. If you have a lot of this, or you live in an apartment flat, you can request (or have provided by the apartment block owner) a brown bin. Or, you can buy clear plastic bags from the same place you get the yellow bags. These are pricey, but they do have a telephone number on to ring to request they are collected (there is a monthly collection).

Note that installing a garbage disposal unit on your sink is illegal in Germany. As is flushing food-stuff down the toilet (and of course condoms etc). I'd hate to be the inspector who detects infringements of this law, but anyway, you have been warned!

For glass there are a number of the usual recycling centres around, which have seperate containers for white, green and brown glass. What we found interesting is that there are notices on these (in our village anyway) which say you must only use them on a working weekday and between 8am and 1pm, and 3pm till 7pm. Which is fair enough; if you live next door to one you don't want your afternoon snooze or Sunday barbecue disturbed by the sound of clattering glass.

Batteries of all kinds are taken care of by collection boxes ('Batterieboxen) at supermarkets, and Pharmacies (Apotheken) will take back unwanted prescription drugs (or try down Görlitzer Park in Berlin - no, only kidding!).

For other hazardous substances (which includes cans of paint, turpentine, paint-stripper, epoxy resins, WC or oven cleaner, hairspray, disinfectant,bleach, sunscreen cream (!), glue, metal and furniture polish, garden chemicals, pesticide, fungicide, creosote, wax (wax?!), thermometers, anti-freeze, surgical spirits, shoe-polish, drain cleaner, weed killer, grease, oil, varnish, fabric softener, and no doubt the gunk out of the bottom of the fridge) there is a collection van which comes around twice a year (in our case, Spring and Autumn).

Asbestos and insulating fibre-glass wool you have to bag up securely and take to a recycling centre (Recyclinhof). We used the 'hazardous waste mobile' (in German 'Schadstoffmobil') to get rid of a load of cans of dubious material left by the previous owner of our house after we moved in. I don't know what it was exactly, but the giuys collecting it didn't pale to a ghostly shade of white when I handed it over.

Bulky Waste
You can request a collection of bulky waste items ( in German, 'Sperrmüll') such as old sofas, broken furniture, electrical goods, bath-tubs and so on from the Council. They send you a card to fill in about the nature of the stuff to be collected and how much cubic metres of space it takes up. You send that back and they send you a time and date for collection. You can only request to do this twice in a calendar year, so people tend to wait until December before they get rid of these items.

Electronical Scrap
Otherwise, there is an electronic scrap pick-up service ('Elektroschrottabholung') operated by the Council each month, but you need to phone up and request it at least a week in advance of the collection dates they give you, and it costs 15 Euro.

Actually, there is often no need to get rid of old TV's and anything containing metal in this way. We regularly get slips of paper pushed through our letter box advertising a collection by a local scrap-metal dealer who will take your stuff away for free. Also, if you leave your rubbish out for bulky waste or electronic pick-up in the evening, you will be surprised how much of it mysteriously dissapears overnight before the Council get there!

For anything else - is there anything? - you have a grey wheely bin. Unlike the one we had back in England, the one we have now is tiny:

Also, the capacity is only half of the height you see there. 60 litres in fact. You can request a larger one if you really want to, but you have to pay extra. In here go, in our case, occasional cat litter, bagged up un-eaten cat-food, bagged-up cat sick, holey socks, and hmm, not a lot else really.

These bins are collected every three weeks. I think Daily Mail readers back in England would go apoplectic if they were given only such a small bin and they weren't collected on a weekly basis.

If you have an emergency, you can buy Hausmüll sacks from the same places you pick up your yellow sacks and put them out at the same time as your bins. These sacks do come at a price though, to include the cost of collecting them. When we first moved, and before we realised why the Council wasn't collecting our bin (no up-to-date sticker on them - see below) we had to resort to using these to get rid of the detrius left behind by the previous owner.

Yes, the all-important thing about the grey bins is that to have them collected you must have a valid sticker on the lid. These change colour every year, and you must apply through the Council to the (sourced-out) bin collection company for one of them, which you will get after you've paid an annual fee of course. Here's our 2009 sticker, received in December and ready to put on the bin lid:
Watching the bin collection process is almost worth the cost by itself: the bin van drives slowly along and as it goes by a bin a robotic arm with big pincers shoots out, picks the bin up and empties it into the van before delicately putting the bin back again!
(OK, this is only exciting the first two or three times you see it. Like 3-D movies at the Sony Center am Potsdamer Platz.)

Finally, don't overlook the collection containers for (washed and wearable) old clothes, shoes etc operated by charity organisations, for example the DRK ('Deutsches Rotes Kreuz' - German Red Cross). These are often located at neighbourhood recycling centres and dotted around street corners.

If you have transport and are in a hurry to dispose of your waste, then there is always the local Recyclinghof / Deponie. These are household recycling centres which take all of the above, but you have to pay and you have to take the stuff there yourself. These are also the place of last resort if you have something really hazardous or obnoxious, such as asbestos or old Deutscher Schlagermusik CD's.

Anyway, that's about it for waste collection in Germany. Obviously things are different if you live in an apartment; you will have a communal bin area (probably lockable) and the costs of garbage removal will be absorbed into your rent. You'll still have different coloured bins though, and God forbid (Gott bewahre!) you are caught by your neighbours using the wrong bin!

(addendum: I write all this, following the party line that Germans are neat and fastidious and environmentally driven, but then I notice today the overflowing orange waste-bins, broken bottles on the pavement, and cigarette butts littering the streets of Berlin, and I wander if the brainwashing program that all visitors and immigrants to Germany go through has started to wear off. But then I think back to the swathes of litter and discarded free-sheets around say London and Nottingham, and I am mindful that yes, it's not perfect here by any means, but it's noticeably better by far. Really!)

Saturday, 4 July 2009

All Nations Festival - Tag der offenen Tür in Botschaften

Today we visited nine countries, namely:

  • Bolivia
  • Iraq
  • Luxemburg
  • Malaysia
  • Malta
  • Panama
  • Venezuela
  • Zambia
  • Zimbabwe

OK, more accurately we visited the embassies of nine countries.

Today a lot of the embassies in Berlin (a lot more than just those we visited) opened their doors to visitors and showed off their food, national costumes, music, and tourism and trade opportunities.

This was successful to varying degrees, so Venezuala gave you free food and a tot of rum, free posters and other goodies, a tombola raffle, Venezualan music, the chance to try on Venezualan headresses and hats, and a film show about the country.

Malta meanwhile just had a man dressed rather silly (see above right).

Malaysia put on the most colourful and interesting display:

And had the most tempting food (unfortunately not free!).

It would have been better if the embassies you really wanted to have a peek inside were open. Fortress USA for example, or the magnificent gold-adorned Russian embassy. Or the British Embassy of course, just to let them know we were still here.

Just to remind you that you were still in Berlin though, between embassy visits we took the 100 bus past Tiergarten, where from the top-deck you got a view of a group of thirty or so naked people lounging uninhibited in the park.

Some of the embassy displays weren't so successful; the Zimbabwian one might have been more welcoming if they didn't have portrait photos of Robert Mugabe staring down at you from every room. And the Iraqian embassy was the only one where you had to sign in. Still, the All Nations Festival was an interesting affair, and we had a good day out in the company of a great bunch of people here to do a Masters Accountancy course (or something like that. They have exams the following week, so good luck guys!).

And the prize for the widest dress goes to ... Panama!