Friday, April 29, 2011

Urban Gardening in Berlin and Portland (Urbanes Gärtnern an Stadtbäumen)

In front of my house last summer
Berlin Street Scene
I was reading Der Tagesspiegel, one of Berlin's daily newspapers, and came across an article about urban gardening in Berlin. Germans love flowers. There are florist shops everywhere, and many apartment balconies are filled with plants and window boxes. When spring arrives, it's time for gardening. Like many cities, open space is limited, so gardeners plant where they can.

Nice use of ferns
Sign reads: Compliments free but the flowers stay here!
Here are some pictures from Der Tagesspiegel. I've also included a picture of a small garden plot in front of my house in Portland. I planted the plot last year to minimize the telephone pole and the graffiti. 

Unfortunately, I discovered that some people have little respect for these wonderful urban oases of flowers. People pick the flowers, walk in the beds, and even use the space as a dog toilet. It only takes a few people to mess a thing up. Fortunately, most people are respectful, and I can report that the garden plot was a success. 

In Berlin, people posts signs to discourage this kind of inconsiderate behavior.
I particularly like the sign that reads:  Compliments free but the flowers stay here! There are small tags on the sign that can be removed. The tags have various compliments written on them. The tags say things such as "that is a pretty dress," "a really cool shirt," etc.  A few of the tags have even been removed.
Even kids get into the act
What a great idea. I think I will post a similar sign this year in Portland. 

This is very German: everything in its place

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Obama was Born in the United States!!

News items that make me cringe. 

  • President Obama has released his long-form birth certificate. Yes, he was born in the United States. Talk about silly things. It's hard to believe that some people made this an issue. Can we move on to more important things. 
  • The House Republicans in the State of Tennessee passed a bill that would ban schools from using the word "gay" in any health classes before the 9th grade. (Presumably, it would be okay to use the word in History or English class.)  The legislators believe that any discussion of gay relationships, gay marriage or the fact that gay people exist, would be harmful to our children. The bill concludes that “no public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.”
I guess if the schools talk about being gay then the kids will become gay.  Of course, there isn't a middle school kid in the country who hasn't heard the word “gay” in some reference. It looks like Tennessee wants those kids to gain their knowledge of homosexuality from playground gossip and innuendos. I always thought schools were supposed to be places education not ignorance. If the legislators had their way, they would probably propose a bill to keep evolution out of the schools as well. Oh I forgot, some states have already tried that. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Where is my Easter Island Man?

Easter Island Man

Why do people steal? The idea of taking another person's property seems inconceivable to me; yet, it happens. I've had more things stolen in Portland, Maine than in any other city that I've lived in. Recently, I had a piece of lawn sculpture taken from my side yard. It wasn't very expensive, but it's next to impossible to replace. It's what I called my “Easter Island Man.” I bought it years ago from a small nursery in Folsom, California. The other day, I noticed it was gone. (I found it somewhat ironic that it was stolen shortly before Easter.) 

Last year, during the Fall, I placed some pumpkins on the porch to celebrate the changing of the season. A few days later, they were gone. The year before that, someone broke into the car and took the GPS device. I've even had people take flowers from the garden. While hardly earth scattering, it does cause to me to wonder the kind of person who can rationalize stealing.

In Berlin, I frequently leave my bicycle unlocked. In fact, it's common in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia to leave bicycles unlocked. And guess what? No one take them! 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Berliners lieben Schaufensterbummel machen

Berliners love to window shop (Schaufensterbummel), especially on Sunday when all the stores are closed. Unlike the USA, most German stores and retailers are closed on Sunday. 

A few Sundays ago, I strolled past Karstadt. Karstadt is a sort of German style Macy's. This month Karstadt is spotlighting New England in its window displays. This "New England" theme seems to be popular. You see it in fashion, furniture, and food. I wonder what Germans would really think, if they visited New England?

Unfortunately, fantasy is always better than reality. New England food is generally high in fat, low on nutrition, and definitely on the bland side. I guess a lot like Berlin food. As for fashion, people in New England don't wear the nautical themed fashion so popular in magazines. It's more a jean and sweater crowd. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Be Happy: Chak De Chak De Chak De, Chakde Sare Gham - Hum Tum

If you're feeling a bit blue listen to this song from the Bollywood movie, Hum Tum.

A prescription for what ails you. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Freedom of Speech and Censorship

It's difficult for most Europeans to grasp the American concept of freedom of speech or expression. This freedom not only concerns verbal speech but the act of seeing, receiving, and imparting information and ideas.  It's not an absolute right and is subject to some limitations.  For example, child pornography and speech that incites people to lawless is banned. In Europe, speech is more tightly controlled. 

Germany bans Nazi literature, symbols and even Nazi era films.  Any person found displaying, selling, or purchasing Nazi paraphernalia is subject to criminal prosecution. Even denying the Holocaust is a crime. Moreover, the Communist and Nazi political parties are outlawed.   

Last year, a production of the Broadway musical The Producers  made its Berlin debut. The story concerns two Jewish theatrical producers who scheme to get rich by overselling interests in a Broadway flop, Springtime for Hitler. Complications arise when the show unexpectedly turns out to be successful. Needless to say, the show is a comedy that depicts Hitler, Eva Braun, SS Soldiers and the swastika.

German law prevents the display of swastikas, so posters advertising The Producers used a pretzel symbol instead. Even with this change, the Berlin police received a number of complaints about the posters, which “provoked associations with the Nazis.” (Swastikas were permitted onstage as part of an artistic statement.)

Restrictions such as these are unthinkable in the USA.  So when Germans tell me the USA has lost its freedom, I point to their lack of freedom of speech and right to political association. 
On the other hand, Germans do have a point when they say American politics has become closely aligned with religion. They ask what as happened to the separation of church and state, and is America really a secular nation? Moreover, they correctly assert that over the past 30 years there has been a rise in religious fundamentalism across the USA.  Look at the various attempts in the USA to ban the teaching of evolution, to eliminate the right of women to have an abortion, and to obstruct the civil rights of gay people. 

Anyway, the other day, I happened to catch a radio broadcast concerning censorship around the world. (BTW: radio programming in Germany isn't just pop songs. It includes radio serials, news, cultural programming, and a lot more.) Here are a few items that caught my interest:
  • A new version of the novel, From Here to Eternity, will be published later this month. An uncensored text of the James Jones's 1951 novel has revealed that the author originally intended to include frank references to homosexuality considered too scandalous to be published in the USA at the time. In the original text, there were two scenes that never made it to the published edition, let alone the film. In one scene, private Angelo Maggio - the soldier played by Frank Sinatra in the film version - confesses to having sex with a wealthy man for some extra money. In the second scene, a military investigation into gay activity is mooted.
  • The American Library Association has just released its list of the 10 books Americans tried hardest to ban in 2010. On top of the list was Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell's And Tango Makes Three, a picture-book telling the true story of a chick adopted by two male Emperor penguins at the New York Central Park zoo. Many complained that the book promoted homosexuality.  

  • Finally, although this isn't censorship in the USA (although it could be), a state in India has banned Pulitzer-prize-winning Joseph Lelyveld's new book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India. Why? Because it frankly discusses Gandhi's relationship with Hermann Kallenbach, a German citizen. This has outraged certain segments of the Indian population, who can't imagine the father of Indian independence having a gay relationship. Would a book about Lincoln's homosexuality cause a similar controversy? Or do people even know Lincoln was gay?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, Stealing a Pen in an Official Visit to Chile

Please send this guy a pen.  Did the Czech President think no one was watching as he swiped the jewel covered pen?

Can You Guess the Person in the Background?

It's the details that count. I always notice the little things on TV. For example, the Extras in the background or the nicknack's on the table, that sort of stuff.

I was watching the news today, and in the background I noticed the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle standing all by himself. He wasn't part of the broadcast. He just happened to be within camera range. He then greeted someone. Can you identify the person he greeted and kissed? (It's toward the end of the Broadcast. You can toggle to about 12 minutes 23 seconds.)  Good Luck!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hedonistic Europe

I'm certainly not an expert when it comes to healthy lifestyle choices. I eat far too much fat and sugar, don't get enough exercise, and could loose a few pounds. Yet, when I see my European counterparts, I see people who smoke like chimneys, drink like fish, and pay very little attention to the food they eat.

Then why do they have higher life expectancies than us? What's more puzzling is their rate of tobacco consumption. About 19 percent of Americans smoke as compared to 34 percent of Europeans. Americans are constantly reminded of the evils of smoke and drink, told to exercise regularly, and advised to take vitamins and other health food supplements; yet Americans do not live as long as our hedonistic European cousins.

I've come to the conclusion, that Americans just worry too much about being healthy while Europeans just live. It's the worry that kills us.

Americans have a "can do attitude," if there's a problem we can fix it, that includes death. It's as if Americans believe they can cheat death by eating right and following a “healthy” lifestyle. Europeans, on the other hand, tend to be more fatalistic. They know they are going to die, so they take less precautions. Perhaps, that's why you see so many people riding bicycles without helmets. (I just read that a 70 year old woman died on Sunday from head injuries after colliding with a car while riding her bike. She wasn't wearing a bicycle helmet. It was the 19th bicycle fatality this year.)

I'm reminded of this fatalistic European mindset, as I walk down the street. It seems that everywhere you go there's the smell of cigarette smoke hanging in the air. Even in places that are supposedly smoke free, you find someone lighting up. Walking down the street is like navigating through a fog of nicotine.

During the summer months this is particularly troublesome since my neighborhood, Friedrichshain, is home to the city's party, smoking, and drinking crowd. Smoking on the street isn't outlawed, but there are so many outdoor restaurants and cafes that the sidewalk is like a bar.

Germany has smoking bans, but having a ban is one thing, actually enforcing it is another. Smoking is banned in cafes, bars and restaurants across Germany, but smokers break the law without any fear of having to pay a large fine. In theory anyone caught flouting the smoking ban faces a fine of up to $138, but in reality the city has far too few officers to effectively police the law.

The Berlin smoking ban has been in force since January 1, 2008, and in some sections of the city there is an attempt to enforce the ban. The western districts of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf and Spandau have plain clothes officers on evening patrols to make sure people are lighting up correctly. But, in the eastern district's of Kreutzberg and Friedrichshain, areas with a lively nightlife, there are no officers assigned to enforce the ban. I've come to accept that cigarette smoke is part of the European "experience," and if it doesn't bother them why should it bother me. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Where are the Squatters? Wo sind die Hausbesetzer?

I am frequently asked about the building that is part of the header for this blog. The apartment building is located at Kreutzigerstraße 18-19 in Friedrichshain, about a 5 minute walk from where I live. To get there, take the U7 to Samariterstraße station. The building is fairly famous in Friedrichshain. It was one of the first buildings to become occupied by squatters after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Das Gebäude befindet sich an Kreutzigerstraße 18-19 im Friedrichshain,
ca. 5 Minuten von meinem Wohnort. Nehmen Sie die U7 bis
Samariterstraße. Das Gebäude ist ziemlich berühmt in Friedrichshain. Es war
eines der ersten Gebäude von Hausbesetzern nach dem Fall beschäftigt werden.

Friedrichshainwhich was formerly part of East Berlin, is known for its alternative and radical left-wing scene. After the fall of the Wall, many houses there were taken over by squatters, including punks and artists, hoping to set up alternative communities. But as the 1990s wore on, more and more squatters were evicted as the buildings were sold to private owners, my building included.

Kreutzigerstraße 18-19 was occupied in 1990 and is unique since the squatters were able to obtain tenancy agreements. It is one of the few remaining buildings that is home to many former squatters.

A recent study showed that rents in Friedrichshain and the neighboring Prenzlauer Berg have increased in the last three years by as much as 15 percent. Prenzlauer Berg in particular, is infamous for having gone from being the grungy preserve of young artists and lefties in the 1990s to being home to organic-food eating families and up-and-coming professionals. As these areas become more desirable, evictions continue. See the following video from last February

Monday, April 11, 2011

Wear it and Face a Fine!

Today was the first day of France's ban on full Islamic face-coverings. Under the law promoted by President Nicolas Sarkozy, any Muslim woman wearing a face veil (niqab) is now banned from all public places in France, including when walking down the street, going to the hospital or picking up her children from school. Women in niqabs will only be allowed inside a place of worship or a private car, although they risk being stopped by police if they drive. Women in face veils risk a $195 fine or citizenship lessons. Those who force a woman to wear the face veil face even tougher penalties - of up to $41,000 and a year in prison.
The government estimates that about 2,000 women cover their faces in France, out of a total Muslim population of between four and six million. Women who wear headscarves are not covered under the new law; however, France banned headscarves and all religious symbols in schools in 2004.
Belgium passed a similar ban on the niqab last year and other European countries are eyeing legislation, but France is the first to enforce it.
The legislation has been spearheaded by Sarkozy, who also says it is critical to ensure the respect of women's rights and the separation of church and state. France has been struggling with this issue for a long time. There is a general feeling that French cultural identity is at risk as the Muslim population continues to grow in France (and other European countries for that matter) .
Is it wrong for the government to ban women from dressing how they want?  Is this really an issue about Islamophobia or is the wearing of the niqab really a political and religious statement meant to keep women in their place?  I don't know the answer.  It will be interesting to see what affect, if any, this will have on preserving French culture and whether Islamic women will become more empowered. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Why Not Fix It? Warum es nicht reparieren?

German gyms (known as Fitness Studios) are similar to American gyms but they do have a few differences. I belong to SuperFit, and it definitely has a German sensibility.

First of all, SuperFit is exceptionally clean and well-organized like most of Germany (Berlin excluded). That's not to say that American gyms are dirty and disorganized, but Superfit takes it one step further. At SuperFit, there is always a team of employees cleaning, sweeping, and dusting. Always! Moreover, if a machine is broken, it will be fixed within 24 hours, if not sooner. In the USA, it's not uncommon for equipment to takes weeks to be repaired.

Nevertheless, SuperFit does have its share of annoyances. For example, showers aren't free. Water in Europe is costly, so if you want to take a shower, pay up. In addition, SuperFit doesn't have a water fountain. In other words, you either bring your own water or buy it at SuperFit; and if you bring your own water, it needs to be in a special SuperFit bottle, no exceptions.

The other day, I needed to replace my SuperFit bottle. The lock on the cap was busted, the seal no longer functioning, and the metal clasp broken. In the USA, people go through sports bottles like candy: they are quickly bought and easily discarded.

In any case, I went to the SuperFit desk and showed the manager my damaged bottle. He examined it, and said he would repair it. First he located a metal clasp, then a seal, and then a lock. Next, he got the necessary tools: a small screw driver, a drill and a hammer. That took about 10 minutes. Then for the next 15 minutes, he went about fixing the bottle. I am not kidding. All in all, the task took about 25 minutes.

In the end, the bottle was repaired, but the experience left me thinking. In an age, when it's cheaper to build and ship products from China instead of making simple repairs, one wonders how many fixable appliances are buried in our landfills. I remember having a washing machine (just two years old) that needed to have a small part replaced. When I was told the cost of labor would be more than the cost of a new machine, I junked it and got a new one. The same thing with a refrigerator that needed a new hose. The hose was inexpensive, but the labor was so expensive that I got a new refrigerator instead.

My experiences are certainly not unique. When you also consider the energy costs associated with the manufacture and shipping of an appliance, the environmental consequences of our “throw away society” become staggering. It's something to consider the next time you toss away a simple plastic bottle or household appliance.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Der Fall des Unglücklichen Kaninchen (Unlucky Rabbit)

It's almost Easter, and last week, I heard an interesting story concerning the fate of an unlucky rabbit at a German primary school.

As part of a week-long project focusing on the Stone Age, which is part of the fifth-grade curriculum, a rabbit was slaughtered by a local farmer in front of the students to give them an insight into how Stone Age people lived.

A total of 100 children took part in the Stone Age project. The process was relatively simple. The farmer hit the rabbit with the hammer. Next, he slit the animal's throat with a knife, gutted the body, skinned it and hung it up to drain. The next day, the rabbit was grilled in the school yard and eaten -- in Stone Age style, on a hot stone. Some parents also attended the rabbit feast. 

Shortly afterward, some outraged parents complained about the event. One parent stated that her son had come home as pale as a ghost, and another parent reported that her son could not sleep well after the event. One child also fainted as the rabbit was killed. 

Surprised by the complaints, the Schleswig-Holstein Education Ministry stated that the Stone Age project would be banned in the future.

I'm not sure how I feel about the project. On the one hand, the food we eat does come from somewhere. It doesn't miraculously appear in the supermarket shelf carefully wrapped in plastic. In our modern society, we've become disconnected with the land and forget where our food comes from. Most of us eat animals, and unless we adopt a vegan lifestyle (and I'm not ready for that), we are all part of slaughtering process. Animals eat other animals, it's part of the natural order. 

However, I do have concerns about the way animals are raised and whether they have some semblance of a life before they're slaughtered for our consumption. Each time I eat animal protein, I'm consciously aware that it came from a living creature. I know that some animal has given up his or her life so that I can consume an easily accessible form of protein. And for the record, I do eat rabbit. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Double Eye: Der Beste Kaffee in Berlin (Wirklich Gut Kaffee Ohne Kompromiss)

Once the province of big cities and university towns, coffee houses have become a ubiquitous part of the American landscape. In the age of Starbucks, you can find decent coffee almost anywhere in America. I've often heard from coffee connoisseurs that the best coffee can be found in the small independent cafes run by people who take coffee seriously. Places where the owner selects and roasts the bean. I have nothing against the mass produced coffee of Starbucks, but it's become so standardized that it's lost any uniqueness it may have had. On the other hand, Starbucks has made it possible for a wide range of people to experience espresso coffee drinks, not just the urban sophisticates. 

Ever since my favorite cafe closed (IL Barista), I've been trying to find a replacement. No easy task, even in this city with thousands of cafes. At the moment, the Double Eye is, by all accounts, the most popular place to get your daily fix of Java. And surprisingly, it lives up to its reputation for great coffee. 

The Double Eye succeeds despite many short comings. It's small, there's no indoor seating, no Wi-Fi, and expect to wait in a long line. However, the Double Eye roasts its own beans (a rarity these days), makes its drinks to the customer's specifications, has a reasonable amount of outdoor seating, and has a good selection of newspapers and magazines. Order a coffee and try the reasonably priced homemade desserts too. Located in Schöneberg, take the U-7 to the Eisenacher Straße station:

Akazienstraße 22
10823 Berlin, Germany
0179 4566960

U-7 Eisenacher Str. 

Ich finde, dass das Double Eye serviert den besten Kaffee der Stadt. Das Double Eye ist ein kleiner Laden, der nur Stehplätze bietet. Man kann sehen, dass das Double Eye eine Leidenschaft für Kaffee hat. Es selbstgeröstete seine eigenen Kaffeebohnen. Ein Traum! Der Kaffee ist gut, der Laden klein, d.h. Es ist zumeist brechen voll. Es bildet sich eine Schlange, aber haben Sie Geduld bitte. Sich vorher überlegen, was man haben will: Cappu (ja!), Espresso, Galo, Milchkaffee, oder das Double Eye Spezial, usw. Es ist einfach ein nettes Kiezcafe! Probieren Sie!