Wednesday, July 19, 2017
A Mennonite service about Sodom and Gomorroh, a little girl named Salome, and a big barbeque in the garden.
Saskia has just been finishing up a presentation for the congregation, in German, about our project. The congregation here is mostly my age and older. Judith said it is usually more mixed, but in the summer, a lot of the younger families are on vacation. There are actually four pastors who rotate, so each of them does the service once a month.
Sunday, July 16, 2017
Then they described a bit of their own research for their studies. And last, they discussed what they've been doing here in Berlin. They've apparently interviewed many people in different parts of the city, on the streets, in clubs, etc. They'd told me a bit about that, but I thought it was just talking to folks out of curiousity, hand't realized they were doing reseaarch for a project. said they sensed a difference in attitudes between the east and west areas of the city. When I asked, they attributed it to East Berlin areas being more trendy, younger population, more liberal, rather than to the former divisions into Eastern and Western sectors and governments.
The conversation was interesting, although I wonder how accurate and informative their interview methods are. I guess they are planning to write something in a narrative form, not a study.
The presentation was long, and had started late, so eventually our guest workshop leader, Leo, intervened and said he needed to begin. We moved on to his presentation, which was very interactive. Leo is just 21, but very knowledgeable and skilled, and committed.
We did another exercise in groups. Leo read us a fairly lengthy description of an actual country and some of its attributes, and we then had to figure out what country it was. Our group went with South Africa, another thought Indonesia, one guessed Nigeria. The country actually was Germany, with a few tricky but true descriptions thrown in, like many linguistic groups, etc. It all served to point out many of the assumptions and prejudices we make and have.
We then watched a riveting TED talk by Nigerian activist and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who talked about the danger of a “single story.” She described the stories she wrote as a child, which all featured white characters because they were British books, she had no books with Nigerian characters, and assumed that Nigerians couldn’t appear in stories. But she also admitted to her own prejudices and assumptions, for instance, toward the houseboy her upper class family employed, and her assumptions about his family life because of his poverty. She discussed how categorizing people reduces them to stereotypes, and emphasizing differences rather than similarities robs people of dignity. I agree but also think that it's important to respect and appreciate differences, something I always tried to emphasize in my cultural programs with kids.
When we arrived there were already 30 or 40 people cooking together under the instruction of two Ethopian women, chopping vegetables, making bread, etc. We readily joined in. The preparation took almost three hours, interesting but a bit too long, and it was crowded and hot. So eventually I went for a walk down the street with a couple of others from our group, to a little shop with some interesting looking stuff in the window. Wound up buying a wonderful Berlin souvenir, a little art piece. Loring alert – I’m not going to show it to you, see if you can find it after we get home and I find a corner in which to hang it.
Eventually, we all sat down on cushions and at tables for an Ethiopian feast. Most people put all the various food on the pancakes and some rolled them up. I’d heard the explanation and have also had Ethiopian food a few times before in Boston, so knew to eat the food with chunks of bread to scoop it up. We’d also been told that it was really impolite to lick your fingers, but some people didn’t hear or didn’t care or couldn’t help themselves. I pointed it out, all in good nature, to a young man, whose response was, “I guess I’m a bad boy.”
It was quite a combination of folks and cultures, not necessarily easy to discern. Brought home the lessons from earlier in the day. I met one American woman who’d moved to Berlin from San Francisco, just in search of new experiences and perspectives. And a number of people with clearly African heritage or Arab heritage, but I had no sense of whether they were long time residents or newcomers .One striking Ethiopian woman with blond hair served as translator for the cooks, and was nearly fluent in English. I thought she was a regular part of the group but she told me this had been her first time there. She’d gone to school in the U.S. which may have explained her fluency. But nearly everyone I’ve met here, in our volunteer group and beyond, speaks reasonably good if not excellent English. Many have learned at school, but some more from TV, like Khan in our group, who’s Vietnamese.
Our supper wasn’t the end of our evening. We took off by bus and u bahn to the other side of the city, to meet with members of a multicultural social group. Most of the folks there were of Arabic heritage, but one man was from Costa Rica. And there was a woman who was from Romania, and Jewish. When I told her where I’d been in Romania (Cluj-Napoca, in Transylvania) she said, that’s not Romania, you have to visit Bucharest. Interesting, since I loved Cluj and hadn’t had much interest in visiting Bucharest, which I envision as a dreary former communist enclave. I’m pretty sure my impression was right, at least at one point, but perhaps is totally out of date. Just another example of the assumptions we make.
The night was yet young. The major reason for our visit was to have a lesson in Arabic dancing. So after a short introduction to the group, we learned some basic steps. The teacher asked me how I knew how to do the debka. I laughed and said I learned some folk dancing about 45 years ago, in college. I was, of course, thrilled at his comment.
And then, our instructor and another guy got up to show us how it’s really done. For the next 15 or so minutes, five men danced in different combinations and configurations, to the same mesmerizing Arabic music. I was enthralled, and I think the rest of the group was too. Afterwards, they put on different music and various of us got up to dance. Much of our group got up to do the Macarena, along with a couple of the locals. Vessy danced what may or may not have been authentically Bulgarian but was great. One of the men got me up and we danced together, me doing something that was a vague combination of belly dance and flamenco. And we were all perfectly sober, since no liquor had been served at either event.
Friday, July 14, 2017
Then, he introduced another young man, Michael, to also speak with us. He was a refugee from Georgia (the country, not the state) who has been here for several years. He was very open about his situation, saying that he had suffered from depression both at home and since he arrived it Germany, where he had been attacked and beaten. Now he has a boyfriend here, from Yemen, and a place to live, and is studying German. He spoke very good English, which he told me he had basically taught himself. He plans to learn enough German to go to school here. Ideally he’d like to study psychology, which he has always been interested in and had studied in Georgia. But one has to have extremely high grades, so he is now thinking of geography. I asked about his family situation, if they accepted and supported his being gay. He said that his father did not approve, and they didn’t get along. He knew his mother and his sister were okay with things, but could not openly go against his father. Now, his father has died, and so he was never able to reconcile with him. But he is working on improving his relationship with his mother and his sister, who is four years older.
Later, we decided to go on the free city tour that we missed the other day because we were 10 minutes later for our reservation. I didn’t realize at first that this is the same company, Sandelman’s, that ran the also free tour that I took a few years ago in Jerusalem. Their approach is to make the tour free, but ask for tips. I think that’s a fine way to do it.We were split into two groups, because they try not to have a large number of people form the same group together. The reason is a practical one that they were open about -that a large group together doesn’t tip as well. Fair enough. Our group gave each of the two guides 40 euros, and then many of us gave them additional tips as well. Plus there were another dozen or so people in each of our groups, so I think they made out pretty well.
We learned about how almost all the "older" buildings we saw were reconstructions of what had been there before, bombed by the Americans. I believe she said that 80% of Berlin's buildings had been destroyed. The reconstruction process is a long term one that is still going on all these years later, because of the need to preserve the architecture according to complex regulations. One way you can tell which parts are actually old is the blackened state of the statuary, for instance. Much of the statuary had been removed to protect it, and then replaced post war to the whiter marble reconstructions.
Sunday, July 9, 2017
Saturday, July 8, 2017
In my volunteer group, I am by far the oldest, as usual. But when I started doing these projects, about 15 years ago, I was not as much older! Then, I was close to some of their parents’ age. Now, more than once, I’ve been told that I remind them of their grandmother! Yesterday, Khan said exactly that, and that his grandmother was 80 and couldn’t walk well anymore! Thanks, Khan. (who prefers to be called Brian, a name he gave himself, I guess because he thought Khan was too difficult.) He’s a sweet and funny kid. He’s already invited me to visit him in Vietnam. I’m lobbying for him to cook us some Vietnamese food.
The group is quite diverse. Only two women are from the same country, Russia, aside from the two German group leaders. The rest hail from Latvia, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Turkey, the Czech Republic, South Sudan, Australia, Mexico, Ukraine…
The next oldest person to me is exactly half my age, 33. (we did an ice breaking game where we had to organize ourselves in order of age, that’s how I know.) Most of the group, as usual, are in their 20’s, a few 18 and 19. Most are students, some just finished, some in the working world. One guy is a gynecologist.
Yesterday we went to the Wikimedia offices and spent most of the day there. We had a tour of the facilities, were introduced to many of the teams and the various parts of Wikipedia. I believe there are 21 different branches of the overall organization. And then there are group of Wikipedians, groups like Wiki loves cocktails. Really. They write entries about different cocktails, and have meet ups where they make and drink them. There’s one here in a few days. I have a feeling we may be attending.
A couple, both in their 70s at least, had joined us for the office tour. We learned that the man has been a Wikipedian for many years, and was available to help us learn to use the system. He wore a badge that said Wiki loves Music.
After lunch, at a nice restaurant, joined by Maria from the Wiki offices, (and, I believe, treated to lunch by Wiki) we went back to the office to learn how to actually use Wikipedia, the techniques and rules about writing and editing. We took a tutorial, which is available to anyone who wants to join and become a “wikipedian.” And then, we began to write. Some people started translating articles from English into their own language. Jakob, our co-leader, has done a lot with wiki already. He worked on a variety of articles, updating and editing.
Saskia had a list of people who had been awarded a UN prize for work with refugees, and who didn’t yet have wiki entries. I chose one named Joannes Klas. I bet you can figure out why. There’s relatively little info I could find out about her. And being able to cite sources is a very important requirement for an entry. So I am not sure yet if I will be able to use her for an entry or not. This is what I know. She’s an American nun, from Wisconsin, who began working with Guatemalan refugees in Honduras in the 1980’s. She continued to work with them when they were repatriated to Guatemala, and continues still. I found info on her home parish publication in Wisconsin, including a short autobiography. And there’s a letter of congratulation to her from the UN president, which highlights some of her contributions, upon her being awarded the prize in 1997.
While waiting to find out if I have enough objective information about Sister Joannes, also known as Sister Jo, and Sr. Juanita!! I have found another topic to write about.
There are cooking classes run by refugees, the only program that charges, as a way to raise funds. But there are also free community dinners (we’ll go to one later in the week.) berry picking excursions, calligraphy lessons, beekeeping classes, gardening, football (soccer) games, etc. all run by volunteers, all open to anyone interested.
The organization also sponsors a program called Shipping on the Run. It’s a shipping container converted into a moveable kitchen, that travels and sets up for six week stints in different places, bringing long term residents and newcomers together. Last year they toured parts of Europe. This year they’ve focused on Germany, particularly places where there have been difficulties integrating refugees into communities.
The Berlin program is the largest, and the only one with an office,but they have a number of satellite programs, including one in Columbus, Ohio! Which the woman referred to as Columbo. Turns out a woman from there had been visiting, and attended one of their food nights, where everyone is invited to bring a recipe with a particular ingredient. That night’s had been zucchini, and she was excited to cook a recipe from home. She was taken enough with the program to establish one in Columbus. I am going to try and track her down.
Next week they are doing an event about recipes with berries. I may have to go.
We returned home for lunch. Each day we have four teams – cooking, cleaning, dishwashing, and recording the day’s events in the project diary (part of our group Wikipedia page.) We have tons of food, all donated by a group that collects surplus food from supermarkets. We have more bread than we can possibly eat, a huge box of carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, eggplant, other vegetables, grapes, apricots, apples, and I believe, 10 cheesecakes. It may have been a dozen. We’ve worked our way through about half of them, eating cheesecake at pretty much every meal. So our meals have been pretty good. It’s also interesting to see what different combinations each cooking team comes up with, and also how each person eats them. Today for lunch, for instance, we had garlicky pasta, and salad with a dressing. I noticed many folks mixing it all together.
This afternoon, we headed back out for a tour of an area that has traditionally been home for many immigrants, but now has evolved into a pretty hip environment, which on the surface, at least, seems pretty integrated. I walked by cafes with men sitting at tables with hookahs, selling fidget spinners.
We were taken on a tour by Achmed, a young man from Syria, who had come here several years ago as a refugee. He told us about his own trip from Syria at 18, after his university had been bombed, and all the steps thru many countries to reach Germany. He gave us insights into his own life, and also pointed out various cafes, shelters, etc. that related to immigrant life. And he had us play a game, giving us all phrases in Arabic to try to identify on neighborhood signs.
We ended up at a place called Refugio. It is a building that provides cooperative housing for a combination of refugees and local Germans. It was founded by a couple a few years ago. Each of the three floors houses ten individuals or families in a room with private bathroom, and a kitchen for the floor. Other floors are rented out to businesses, one of them the tour company Achmed works for. (they have tours conducted by homeless people as well as refugees.)
The street level is a café, and the top level has a great room with cushions and carpets and a Middle Eastern feel, as well as a rooftop deck with a foosball table as well as a large number of plantings, including flowers and a variety of berries. The Russian and Latvian girls, Polina and Larissa, were able to identify most of the berries for me, and we ate a good number of them. The only one I was at all familiar with were currants, and I was reminded of eating currant tarts at the Russian Tea House in NYC with my mother, the one week they were available each summer. Hope nibbling on the berries came with the rental of the space. I don’t think we depleted the supply too much, they were prolific and weren’t going to last more than a day or two if they didn’t get eaten.
This indoor/outdoor space serves as a living room for the community, and they also rent it out for meetings and gatherings like ours. They don’t charge very much, and the money goes into the community, and it was a great place to hang out for a while, and also to wait out a dramatic thunderstorm.
We headed back home, arriving about 9pm, and are now awaiting supper provided by the cooking team. I can hear them avidly discussing the menu, and whether potato salad is German salad, or, as Jakob declared, isn’t “german” salad, but just salad. Makes me think of the Denver boot. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Well that brings me up to date for today. Think I’ll try to backtrack a bit to fill in about the first couple of days.
Next day, Wednesday. We met with the pastor and learned a bit about the religion and the congregation. We’d planned to go on a free city tour starting at the Brandenburg Gate. But our signals got confused, the last tour was at 4pm and we were waiting for one last participant to arrive. We were ready at 4:10 but were told they were finished for the day. Instead, we split up and went different places, walking around the city. Many of us went to the Holocaust Memorial and Museum. Although I’ve been to several Holocaust Museums, Auschwitz, Dachau, the Krakov ghetto, etc. each experience is powerful. I don’t think anyone in the group had ever been to a Holocaust Museum before, and all were visibly moved. Throughout the museum, it was almost silent, aside from the recorded testimonies. In the end, it was probably a much more valuable experience than the walking tour would have been.