Month: March 2015

Berlin: Ten Ways to Tell if You’re in the East or West

When you first arrive in Berlin, the first thing most people want to do these days is “see the wall”. Despite Berlin having plenty of other things worth seeing, I guess it’s understandable. But aside from a short stretch of brightly painted remains, there is not much in the way of concrete remnants to remind us of Berlin’s recent history as home to two very different states, two very different political systems. Here is a lighthearted guide for new visitors to Berlin on how to figure out which side of the wall you are actually on.

1. If you ask someone to give you directions to the nearest food store and they direct you to the Kaufhalle (or Koofhalle) you’re in the East. If they send you to the ‘Supermarkt’ you’re in the West.


2. Trams and tramlines? You’re in the East. After World War II trams were considered passé in the West, and with all the spondulix from the Marshall Plan being thrown at them, the West Berliners sprung for some brand new omnibuses instead, slowly phasing out the outmoded trams. One of the favourite pastimes of old-time East Berliners by the way, is sitting outdoors at cafés near busy crossroads where tramlines intersect with bike paths, and watching as unwary West Germans (and tourists) fly through the air when their bike wheels inadvertently get stuck in the tram tracks.

3. If there are large Kindergartens with spacious playgrounds and gardens on every corner, you’re in the East. Childcare was BIG and free in the GDR: 98% of all kids went to kindergarten.

4. If you come across strange-looking narrow shops in the backstreets plastered with children’s drawings that purport to be selling children, “Kinder Laden” (child shops), then I can put your mind at rest. These are the Kindergarten equivalents of West Berlin. The West German government didn’t generally support childcare, expecting mothers to stay at home, so in the seventies, enterprising parents in the West got together and shared childcare in an anti-authoritarian atmosphere.


5. Döner Kebap shops

Because of the mass influx of Turkish workers into West Germany and West Berlin in the fifties, the majority of Döner Kebab shops are still to be found in the West. This is changing and not always a guarantee of knowing what side of the fence you’re on, but …Look at this map. Pink is for Turkish citizens: the darker the pink the higher the percentage. Where it stops and turns blue or green correlates exactly to the course of the wall.

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 17.44.1425507286,23319659,dmFlashTeaserRes,Merkel-Doener

6. Flower power from Vietnam

If you go and buy a bunch of flowers from an Asian lady, it’s a sure bet you’re in the East.

Eastern Germany has the highest Vietnamese population in Europe aside from France, their former colonial power. Many came to the GDR as students from North Vietnam, to study. After reunification there was no legal foundation for them to stay and they were given a choice of a paid ticket home or opening a business. Because florists and corner shops don’t need any form of training, or much in terms of investment that’s what they tended to go for. Want a culinary trip to Hanoi without leaving Berlin? Head to the Dong Xuan Market in Herzbergstrasse in Lichtenberg.  You will not regret it.


7. Street lights.

When heading back home after a long fun night out, East Berlin always seemed suffused in a warm golden light to me. I always put it down to the vodka, but when Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, took photos of the world from the International Space Station, he noticed to his surprise that you could clearly see the western and eastern parts of the city by the different lighting they used. (White in the West, yellow in the East). So if you get lost at 3am, check out the street lights, at least you’ll know if you’re in the right half of town or not.


8. You’re probably not on the look out for little old ladies or retired rich men, but if you are, you should definitely head west. Hitting retirement in style were the Wessis with 895 Euro standard state pension with East Germans taking a cheque of 455 Euros home for the same number of years worked back in 1992. (I am hoping and guessing that the disparity is narrowing).

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9. If there are bullet holes in it, you’re in the East. You could be forgiven for assuming that the Allies were simply a little gun-shy. It’s not that the Allies didn’t shoot at Nazis so much, but it was the Ruskies who actually liberated Berlin. House-to-house combat meant that walls were riddled with bullets, and whereas the generous Americans were happy to foot the bill for new Brutalist buildings to replace the old in West Berlin, in the East they had to make do, and many of these houses still remain. Go ahead and choose, I already have.

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1o. And last but not least, something that only the design aficionados amongst you would notice. You can tell by the fonts all around you what part of Berlin you’re in.

West 2008*/East 2014


West Berlin was definitely “up with the hipsters” in the seventies, and into bubble script and curls before the East had time to say “Solo Sunny”, so the Tannenberger Fraktur script so beloved of the brown gang is definitive proof of something that hasn’t seen the light of day since Hitler shuffled off this mortal coil (the underground station was blocked up after the war but has since reopened with new fonts…


But wherever you are in Berlin, you can be pretty sure that EVERYONE will have an opinion on what side of the city is best. And if anyone tells you that there is no difference between East and West, go see for yourself. I’ll wait here.

*(image courtesy of Marco Magnago, 2008)



Citizen Four and the Snowden Storm

In 1941 Erich Fromm wrote “Fear of Freedom” in which he writes about the individual’s need for community and freedom and the inherent conflicts of those two needs.
Being free “from” and free “to” are two very different types of freedom, and currently our fear and need to be free “from” is leading us down a dangerous road in some misguided pursuit of security and safety. A common substitute for exercising our own agency and authenticity is to submit to an authoritarian system that can eliminate uncertainty by prescribing what we think and how we act. That’s how dictatorships start, right?
Why are we so desperate for “security” that we would willingly give up agency? Why are we so scared of being free?

I just finished watching Laura Poitras’ masterly documentary about Edward Snowden: hero for some, exposing government agency lies and betrayal of citizens’ trust; for others, a spy who betrayed his country.

Berlin, my chosen home, also plays a minor role, as the place where the film was edited and where both Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras sought refuge repeatedly (a nice touch was a long shot of Rosa Luxemburg Platz, the square dedicated to the memory of a woman who fought for democracy and who was murdered by the police and thrown in the local canal for her troubles in 1919). It is also the place where lawyers got together to brainstorm about the fact that Edward Snowden would be tried under the Espionage Act, which would effectively condemn him to life-long imprisonment despite the fact that his perceived crime was based on revealing the fact that the NSA is actively tracking the movements of 1.7 million Americans, unsanctioned by the public.

Spending time both in London and Berlin, I am all too aware of a different atmosphere that pervades the two cities when it comes to issues like fear, privacy and civil liberties. It starts with the way kids get to school (London: accompanied, or by car, Berlin: alone, in groups, on foot/by bike) and continues with the divergent security measures at airports, to the perceived or real danger on the streets at night.

We tend to think of Germans as more law abiding: the cliché (but still largely true) image of people standing at an empty crossroads at 2am waiting for the light to turn green. But a shift has taken place. The British seem to have become afraid of freedom. Everything has to be fenced off and secured: ‘Adult Supervision Required’ signs pepper the playgrounds, conjuring fears before the kid has even scraped his knee.

And then there’s the CCTV. Wherever I walked, wherever I looked, I saw cameras. Maybe Londoners don’t even notice it anymore, but for me it was a constant presence, like having some old uncle twitching his Nikon every time you moved at a birthday party. A constant reminder not to pick your nose. Above me at the underground station, in the stores I shopped in, in any public place and street.

Ten years ago, my eight-year-old daughter was playing alone on the street outside my dad’s house in a suburban corner of London. The neighbour, who had been watching for a while through the window, came out, and upon discovering my dad was the person who had “allowed her” to play alone, berated him and threatened to call the police because of neglect. The punch line is, my daughter had been pretending to be a “spy” a game that involved looking through hedges, writing down car number plates and making notes. We laughed about it at the time, but given the same situation now I probably wouldn’t let her play alone outside, not in London, despite the CCTV camera mounted across the road. Not for fear of crime or abduction, but simply because of the attention it would attract, and the hassle it would cause.

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights gives all of us a right to privacy, even in public places if the public interest does not outweigh our right to privacy:

1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Yet I am forced to keep my kid at home to conform with the societal norms of a country gone security-mad. Germans have a deep and healthy distrust of surveillance of any kind, perhaps one of the more positive side effects of their chequered history when it comes to civil liberties.

In an interesting mirroring of the “war on terror” in the US after 9/11, West Germany also used the fear of terrorism in the seventies, personified by the RAF (Baader Meinhof Group), as a justification for a massive broadening of police powers and crackdowns on anyone to the left of the SPD. The crackdowns had a strong left-wing bias…while teachers were being hauled out of classrooms for being too left-wing, the neo-fascist NPD (National Democratic Party) was deemed “not anti-constitutional” by a Mannheim court in the seventies. Which was just as well, since any ban on fascists in the public service would have seriously debilitated the civil service, which, after the Second World War, absorbed the bureaucracy of the Third Reich intact.

The West German “war on terror” took the form of widespread surveillance of journalists, “Berufsverbot” (blacklists effectively preventing people of left wing political persuasion to work in their professions) and the “Kontaktsperregesetz” a law under which people suspected of terrorist activity could be denied the right to a lawyer. Meanwhile, in the East the Stasi collected information on anyone deemed not to be “Staatstreu” (loyal to the state). So, rightly, the German government feels an extra pressure now to justify any intelligence gathering undertaken amongst its citizens.

A Snowden explains, “Terror is what we call a cover for action. Terror provokes an emotional response that allows people to rationalize authorizing powers and programmes that they wouldn’t give otherwise.”*

The fact that we are willing to have our every move recorded doesn’t bode well for any resistance to being tracked in our entirety.
Snowden puts it like this:

“Allowing the NSA to continue gathering information is like giving up our rights ahead of time, saying “hey you know I am probably not going to need them…I haven’t done anything wrong…But your rights matter because you never know when you are going to need them.“*

We know that we are being tracked by our mobile phones, by our unencrypted browsing activities, we know that using our credit cards, our oyster cards, activating our GPS location finder whilst jogging, we are creating an enormous pile of metadata and real content with which governments whom we have elected can create a profile, detailing our consumer behaviour, our political allegiances, our movements, our workout capabilities, hell even our nutritional preferences.

We have been tricked into giving up information willingly out of fear and complacency, for ease of moving through this world. Want to get through immigration quickly? Pick the short line or no line at all for retina recognition. The long line is for losers and people with kids.
Want reduced prices for product X? Use paypal and an app, and you can pay for taxi fares cash-free. But know that the date, time, duration, destination of the taxi trip is forever stored in some data bank for later use.

Who will protect us from ourselves and our desire to eradicate uncertainty and fear?

In order to ensure “freedom” we are willing to become enslaved. Surely that’s how all dictatorships start out? Phrases like “sometimes hard decisions have to be made” or “for the greater good” or “so that the streets are safe for our children” echo desolately up through the decades, conjuring conformism to norms, forcing children and women back in to the home, discouraging political discourse and diversity, fear, as you witness your rights being whittled away in the mad pursuit of some elusive idea of security.

There is no such thing. Freedom is scary. And involves making decisions and choices. It’s much harder than being told what to do. But as Erich Fromm said:

“There is only one meaning of life: the act of living it.”