Wednesday, 29 July 2015

"You guys, we're about to get deutsched"

The German obsession with policing other people's behaviour can be a bit tiresome, but after six years in Brussels it's nice to live in a place with a sense of society.

Is there life beyond Earth? That's the question a group of people I was with this weekend were asking themselves as we explored some crop circles that have recently formed in some wheat fields outside Berlin.

I was accompanying the group for a radio story I'm working on for Deutsche Welle, tying it in to the recent announcement of a new Stephen Hawking project to search for extraterrestrial life (it will air in the next few days on Inside Europe). It was a group of 15 or so youngish people from Berlin curious about UFOs, and you should have seen the looks we were getting as we walked through this small town in Brandenburg.

Perhaps the most alarmed look came as we emerged from the wheat fields. We had stopped to have a picnic within the crop circles, and when we were sitting down we were not visible from the road. Suddenly we all stood up, collected our things and started walking out of the field. I could see an elderly couple had stopped with their bikes and were staring at us, with a mixture of confusion and disapproval. "You guys, we're about to get deutsched," I told the group.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

A royal palace reborn

The Humboldt Forum will emulate the old Berlin City Palace, but not copy it.

Since I've been here in Berlin I've ridden my bike across Museuminsel many times on my journeys between East and West. I've been meaning to check out the construction site for the Humboldt Forum, where they are building a replica of the old royal palace that was torn down by the East Germans.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Berlin's slightly awkward Holocaust memorial

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe can sometimes seem more like a playground than a place for somber reflection.

Today I made a visit to the holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin. I had been there once before, shortly after it opened in 2006. My impressions this time were the same as the last; this would be a powerful memorial, were it not for all the other people in it.

The memorial is a forest of 2,711 concrete slabs, arranged in a maze with varying elevation. The architect, Peter Eisenman, took his inspiration from the Jewish cemetery in Prague, where the gravestones are crammed in tightly at odd angles. I used to visit that cemetery often when I lived in Prague in 2002, it's very moving (photo below).

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Germany: behind Alabama on gay rights

Angela Merkel this week re-asserted that marriage in Germany will only be between a man and a woman. But the country's civil unions are increasingly looking like a half-measure, out of step with modern times.

Last month's US supreme court ruling was something I wouldn't have been able to imagine ten years ago as an American. In 2004, no state in the union had gay marriage. In fact, a majority of states had constitutional bans on gay marriage (largely thanks to George W. Bush's re-election strategy that year). It's amazing how much changed in just a decade (check out the GIF below).

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The nacktzone: why do Germans love being nude?

Northern Europeans, who live in some of Europe's coldest climes, never seem to want to keep their clothes on. How did this cultural penchant for disrobing come about?

I've splurged a bit and joined a very fancy gym here in Berlin - largely because it's the only chain to have locations I can use in both of my cities. The location here in Berlin is actually half gym and half wellness center, with four saunas, two hamams, a hot tub, an ice bath, a roof deck, and several rooms for "intense relaxation" (which as far as I can tell just means 'sleeping').

Yesterday while I was there there was a bit of a ruckus when a young Polish man became angry that he and his girlfriend were not being allowed into the wellness area with their bathing suits on. Like in any German gym, the wellness area is a 'nacktzone' - nudity obligatory. The young man started shouting angrily in English, "Why do Germans have to be naked all the time?"

Sunday, 12 July 2015

First week in Berlin

So far Berlin life is great. But after six years living in a small city, it's amazing what an adjustment it is to be in a metropolis again.

I've made it through my first week in Berlin, mostly spending my time dealing with the practicalities of settling in. But now I've got my apartment all set up, my balcony full of flowers, and my phone full of a German sim card - I'm ready to go.

I've also been exploring my immediate neighbourhood - Schöneberg. It's central but quiet, the heart of West Berlin with some of the fanciest shops. While things in East Berlin have changed dramatically over recent years and continue to change, this part of West Berlin has remained roughly the same since I started visiting this city in 2002. There's something rather comforting about that.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Berliners and Madriders see Greek referendum very differently

Berliners seem calm about yesterday's 'no' vote in Greece, but they also don't seem inclined to cut the Greeks any slack.

Ahead of yesterday's Greek referendum, I was in Madrid for the weekend with some friends from Brussels. I arrived back in Berlin last night. The contrast between the opinions I encountered in these two capitals could not be more stark.

During Saturday's Madrid gay pride parade, one of the highlights was a large Greek flag making its way down the parade route. The flag was greeted by huge cheers, just a day before the Greeks were set to go to the polls for a referendum which was being billed by EU leaders as an in-out vote on the country's euro membership.

The flag was, I believe, carried by the contingent of Podemos, Spain's far-left opposition party which is closely aligned with Syriza, the far-left governing party in Greece. But the cheers weren't for Podemos. They were in solidarity with the Greek people. This sentiment was largely reflected in the conversations I had with people there. They were sympathetic, and supportive of a debt write-off.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

A long move by train

Long-distance train journeys during record-high temperatures can take a bit longer than expected.

Over the past two months I've been going to and from Berlin by flight, but today, as I finally moved my things to my Berlin apartment, I decided to try out the train route. It will be my preferred way to get back and forth, because it's more comfortable and I can do work on the train.

But perhaps doing so with four suitcases, in the middle of a record-breaking heatwave, wasn't the best strategy.

I left at 10:30 this morning but am still on the train, 10 hours later. We're just pulling in to Spandau station though so it shouldn't be much longer. This journey is supposed to take 6.5 hours, but the intense heat caused lots of delays along the way.