Category Archives: Germany

a n g e l a

[ 20:30 monday 8 june – liberdastrasse, berlin, germany ]

the front room of timur’s house is a cross between a bicycle repair workshop and a bohemian salon. on one side of the room there’s a big shop window onto the street, currently displaying a selection of linus’ mumpelmonster booklets, badges and political pamphlets. behind this five bicycles stand in various states of undress, two upright, two upside down, one on its side. the other half of the room is occupied by two desks, a sofa (my bed), book shelves and assorted computer and audio machines.

my previous visits to berlin have been in the midwinter fastness. now the snow and heavy skies are replaced with vibrant foliage and street culture. the transformation is marvelous. yesterday i went cycling with timur, weaving around the backstreets from kreuzberg up to mitte and into the north of the city; lapping up his observations and commentary as we went; darting off occasionally to explore an alleyway or buildings that caught my eye. we stopped to visit the courtyard of humboldt university where timur is (supposedly) studying. there we were surprised to find ourselves confronted by a dozen tv cameras and journalists huddled with a solitary figure dressed in a monk’s cowl with a placard on which was written “europa: der kontinent der melancholie”. nothing was really happening. it looked like everybody was waiting for something. the scene was somewhat difficult to understand.

then in a moment of inspiration timur proclaimed “maybe angela merkel is coming here to cast her vote in the european elections!”. scarcely were the words out of his mouth then the lady herself ambled in, flanked by a couple of bored-looking security guards. i grabbed my camera and started snapping. merkel passed the protesting monk and through a door. timur and i were right behind her. a porter muttered at us in german but didn’t seem particularly bothered when we pushed past. so we watched as she collected her ballot paper, went to a booth, cast her vote and reemerged. then she walked past, just a foot away from me, gave a brief statement to the journalists outside in the courtyard, and was gone. i’ve never had any strong feelings about mrs merkel but i found her overwhelming sense of ordinariness rather charming. there was also something friendly about the lack of heavy security or protocol. i couldn’t help but reflect how different it would have been in london.

by some fortunate synchronicity mako and vajra were both visiting berlin (from massachusetts and california respectively). i met mako in an anarchist bar at two in the morning, talked intensely about the struggle between scientific method and intuition, then went off to dance with jan, claire, timur and adeline in a pink-fur-lined gay club in kreuzberg until dawn. vajra i found at a cafe in the north of the city and we cycled out together to the eye-popping soviet war memorial in treptower park.

each time i come to berlin i’m struck by the sheer civilisedness of the place. this afternoon timur, linus and i biked out to go swimming at badeschiff, an open air swimming pool stuck out in the middle of the river spree. what a magical idea. after a chilly swim we reclined on deck chairs, observed warily by a heron and some ducks, and absorbed the comings and goings of the city around us.

: c :

b e r l i n t o 2 0 0 9

[ 09:10 friday 2 january – schonefeld airport, berlin ]

my first despatch of the year comes from schonefeld airport’s excellent bakery, where i sit watching snow falling on the tarmac outside. timur dropped me off an hour ago. i’m trying to avoid rapid movement. or indeed movement of any kind. a week in berlin to see in the new year has left me feeling somewhat delicate.

between my arrival last saturday and today’s departure i have got up in daylight precisely once. every other day i’ve woken in the late afternoon after the sun had set, breakfasted in a turkish cafe round the corner from yilmaz’ flat, made my way to the conference centre at alexanderplatz, passed eight hours at the chaos communication congress, then departed there around two in the morning to commence a night of revelry in kreuzberg and neukoln’s multitude of charming underground bolt-holes, finally returning home between six and eight in the morning.

new year was the piece de resistance. starting with a dinner for twenty in timur’s huge basement we proceeded to rampage through the streets and take over any parties we found along our way. a toy guitar remained slung around my neck ready to irritate anyone in my vicinity with cheesy eight-bit melodies. timur and i developed a dreadful scouser routine which we performed for lucky travellers on the trams. then we ended up somewhere in alexanderplatz where performance artists had been let loose in a rabbit warren of tiny rooms. there was some kind of romantic interlude here but my memory is hazy. then there’s a gap and i’m at another party in neukoln with jan talking earnestly about what was important in 2008. at some point i staggered home, guided by my faithful gps, collapsing at yilmuz’ flat around eleven in the morning.

by nature i’m not a hedonist. on the contrary i’m prone to be shy, introverted and self-conscious. all my life i’ve felt frustrated with the limitations this imposed on me and have struggled to overcome them. i’ve made steady progress over the years, gradually beating down my self-consciousness enough to dance, interact with strangers and nurture the seeds of a more exuberant me. the past week represents a triumph for these efforts.

mum disapproves of such decadence and points out i’m too old for it. but at the grand age of thirty-seven i find i can generally out-dance revelers a decade younger than me. for so long as i have the energy for it and it gives me such pleasure then i intend to continue. it’s a healthy counterpoint to my overly cerebral personality and my desk-bound work.

my favourite memory from the whole week is sitting on the back seat of a tandem with timur in front, yulmaz’ piano accordion round my neck, cack-handedly blasting out songs as we pedaled round the streets at twilight on new year’s eve. timur has an exceptional gift for instigating such occurrences for which berlin provides an incomparable canvas.

so everyone, let’s make this a good year shall we.

: c :

e x p l o s i v e

[ 13:40 monday 6 january – yorckstrasse, berlin ]

on new year’s eve i landed in schonefeld, turned on my phone and received a message from patrick relaying a news report of major eruptions and tsunami on stromboli. i made my way into town with a certain anxiety. what had happened? were all my friends alright?

reimar met me from the u-bahn, accompanied me back to his apartment and got me online at once so i could check for news. the bbc had a couple of stories and a video clip showing lava flowing down the sciara, a dense cloud of smoke hanging over the island and houses covered in black ash. rai carried a story describing a huge wave which had struck the island destroying houses. it looked quite serious but there was no report of serious casualties.

i tried phoning friends on the island but i couldn’t get through to anyone. over the subsequent days i did manage to speak to several people. everyone is safe. the island has been evacuated (voluntarily) and most of the population is staying in hotels on lipari. on december 30th there was a series of unusually large explosions and lava started flowing down the western side of the mountain. then on the afternoon of new year’s eve a further explosion triggered a landslide in which 4 million cubic metres of the mountainside collapsed into the sea. this caused a 20m-high wave which spread round the island inflicting considerable damage and leading to the evacuation.

several houses were destroyed by the tsunami and the island’s little power station was put out of use. boats resting on the foreshore were smashed to matchsticks. initially i was concerned about gustl and valerie’s house where i am living, as it is directly on the northern shore and lower down the cliff than most other houses. but i spoke to gustl in vienna and was relieved to learn that the house is relatively unscathed. miraculously the surrounding rocks took the force of the wave and directed it away from the house. however the magazino located further down, beside the beach, where the washing machine and freezer are located, was engulfed by the wave and may not be quite the same shape as when i last saw it.

i planned to return to stromboli on the 15th to be joined by kirmo from helsinki so we could start discussing interface designs for trampoline. there haven’t been any further dramas so i’m still hoping it will be possible for me to return at this point, but bearing in mind the uncertainty i’ve suggested that kirmo postpone his visit til february.

for anyone who’s interested there are photos, maps and detailed information about the eruptions at these sites: (video report from link in top right of page)

new year here in berlin has been fabulous. once i’d eased my mind that there weren’t any serious casualties on stromboli reimar whisked me straight off to a dinner party hosted by his friends jurg and lars. they live in an old building across the road from goebells’ propaganda ministry, a few hundred yards from the brandenburg gate. because the house was in the eastern zone it was left alone for fifty years and its residents have fought off attempts to redevelop the (wildly valuable) site since reunification. so in the very heart of imperial berlin there is still this little haven of bohemian exuberance.

the house is a warren of small rooms, each one a different colour, heated by enormous tiled stoves burning lignite, the low-grade coal which traditionally choked berlin’s air with its sulphurous fumes. the guests (about a dozen) were an eclectic group with a creative bias from all over northern europe. everyone spoke excellent english. the meal was superb and continued for hours and hours.

ten minutes before midnight we all poured out onto the snow-covered streets and half-ran, laughing and shouting, towards the brandenburg gate. the air was already filled with the bang and shriek of fireworks, increasing in intensity as we neared the epicentre of berlin’s celebrations. the crowd was officially reported as one million people. we arrived at the edge of it just as midnight arrived. an enormous cry went up and the tirade of fireworks redoubled in intensity, filling the sky with light of all colours. i was swept away on the surge of excitement, laughing and springing around like a demented frog. we opened a few more bottles of champagne and hugged each other, then scampered back to the house for the main course (two enormous pike). i got to bed around six.

it’s a bit overdue, but to everyone reading this my wishes for a year of creativity and hope.

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