Monday, 27 August 2007

Pimp me, baby

In the tradition of "Pimp My Ride" (MTV America) and the brilliant "Pimp My Fahrrad" (MTV Germany) comes the latest from German lifestyle show Taff,  aimed at beauty-conscious 18-35 year olds: "Pimp My Body".


If I was spending my time here teaching English,  this would possibly depress me.  As a translator,  I can react with equanimity:  despite all the talk about the German language being taken over by  "English words and expressions",  it's pretty clear that there's going to be a need for native English-speaking translators in this country for quite some time to come...

Monday, 6 August 2007

Heaven is a place on earth

At the end of June, I had the good fortune to attend a huge, brilliant party at Köpi, one of the biggest and most active of the Wohnprojekte ("living projects") dotted around the city of Berlin. These Wohnprojekte are communally-run buildings or caravan communities (wagenburgs) drawing together people looking for an alternative to the isolation and consumerism of modern urban living. Many of the buildings began as squats in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Wohnprojekte are usually left-wing, non-commercial and anti-consumerist. Emphasising independence of lifestyle, the term "Freiraum" is often used, meaning free space, space in which to be free. These spaces frequently nurture artists and community groups. Köpi, for example, has an amazing six or seven public spaces in its ground floor and basement areas, which are used for performances, parties, exhibitions, and regular film screenings.

Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit famously described the city a few years ago as "poor but sexy" (arm, aber sexy). The phrase has since become a semi-official slogan for Berlin. What makes Berlin "sexy" (and something Wowereit himself seems to have missed) is the artists, the creative people, out-of-the-ordinary individuals experimenting with new ways of looking at the world. To quote Köpi's own website, "tourists flock to the city in such large numbers precisely because Berlin makes alternative culture possible. The city's charm lies in its diversity, the possibility of experimentation, the opportunity of experiencing something new and different" (my translation).

Köpi and places like it are a vital part of what makes Berlin so extraordinary. Yet they are now being progressively destroyed by property speculators, aided and abetted by a city administration blind to the source of the city's greatest strength. In recent years, numerous Wohnprojekte have been closed down, their residents evicted, their buildings converted to expensive apartments and offices. Berlin is in danger of becoming just another boring European capital, or at best a museum to its own history. Compared to what it was throughout the '80s and '90s, it has already gone a terribly long way down that path. Recent forced closures include Yorckstr. 59 and Open Space at Adalbertstr. 32 (both of which are trying to keep going at least in part in some other form), and the following places are currently under threat: the Schwarzer Kanal wagenburg, Rigaer Str. 94, Rigaer Str. 84, Tuntenhaus [link in English! - one year old but current situation similar], Brunnenstr. 183, and Köpi itself. This list is by no means exhaustive. If Berlin allows itself to continue down this road, it'll soon be no longer sexy – just poor.

The threat to Köpi is particularly urgent. The area where it is situated, just off the river, is undergoing frenetic property development. Just a few years ago, Köpi and its neighbouring wagenburg stood alone in the middle of large grassy area. Now they are nearly overshadowed by the fancy new concrete-and-glass monuments to capitalism which have sprung up all around.

[This image of Köpi is a few months out of date - the white graffiti visible on the left ("The border is not between the nations, but between those on top and those below") is now obscured by a huge, still-incomplete office building hard up against that wall, seen here in the first stages of its construction]

Naturally, this has made investors greedier than ever to get their hands on the land on which Köpi stands. On Monday 13 August 2007, the latest in a series of protests in defence of Köpi in Berlin and elsewhere will take place, in front of the Rotes Rathaus (town hall) on Alexanderplatz. The following update is from Köpi's website ("Rock am Rathaus"; my translation):

On 8 May this year, the property at Köpenicker Str. 137 went under the hammer once again. While attempts to auction the property at the end of the 1990s failed or were cancelled due to massive protests in solidarity, this time the sale was finalised before the public auction took place. The special attraction this time was that the neighbouring properties at numbers 133 to 136, with the Köpi wagenburg, were being flogged off as well. Besnik Fichtner, a Kosovan flooring installer and henceforth managing director of "Plutionium 114 Köpenicker Str. 133-138 GmbH", became the new owner, acting in a puppet role. According to newspaper reports, he intends to build luxury apartments and office space, with boat quays. Evidently it has escaped his notice that his newly acquired estate is not on the waterside. Currently the public prosecutor is investigating him, his probable backers and their nebulous corporate construct for a number of reasons including possible fraud. Meanwhile he has still not made contact with the residents and users of the house and wagenburg. We're happy for it to stay that way. Then his investment would count as cultural and social sponsoring of the city of Berlin. […]
Now and in the future, Köpi will remain a hub for all forms of left-wing political resistance and for all kinds of non-commercial "do-it-yourself" culture. To reinforce this demand, we are meeting at 4pm on 13 August in front of the Rotes Rathaus. Four rock groups from Norway, Holland and Brazil will pamper our ears and call attention to the fact that affordable culture needs a place in this city.

If you're in Berlin, get yourself along to that protest. Berlin needs all the help it can get.

Back in June, I made my way homewards from that party an hour or so after dawn. The party was still going strong, and as I walked out into the peaceful early morning, the birdsong mingled with the dwindling sound of jubilant voices singing along to the following lyrics. They seemed to sum up exactly what I was feeling:

Oh, baby, do you know what that's worth ?
Oh heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven love comes first
We'll make heaven a place on earth

(Yes indeed: Belida Carlisle is the voice of today's dispossessed youth. Leave a light on for me, for you, for every one of us.)