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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Many museums, including the Museum of Things, a peace rally with an angelic family chorus, an encounter with Will and Kate, and more!

I am not going to attempt a chronological account, just will recount as many of the things we saw and did as I can remember, that I haven’t previously written about. 


I read someplace that there are 170 museums in Berlin. I already knew that I wasn’t going to be able to see as many of them as I would like, no matter how long I stayed. And Loring’s tolerance for museums is much less than mine. He not only gets sensory overload, but what he calls “museum legs.”  His legs start to hurt after he’s spent too much time in a museum. They are fine when he’s out hiking. I am exactly the opposite, no pain from museum going, but my legs ache after a certain amount of hiking or walking, especially with any change in elevation. 

I’d already visited the Holocaust Museum, with a few folks from my Wikipedia group. And the Design Museum, by myself, on our free day.  I’d been to the Brandenburg Gate, as well as on a walking tour of some of the historic sights. I waited for Loring to visit the East Side Gallery and the Wall museum, which I”ve already written about, both very impressive.

The Museum of Things, (der Dinge) fascinated me from the description. The first time we tried to find it, we were puzzled, because the address didn’t seem to exist. We later realized it was at the other end of a very long street, Orianstrasse.  The numbers did not seem to go chronogically. It was well worth the effort to track it down. Some of it was a collection of products made by a particular company in the early 20th century. The rest was the museum’s continuing collection of things. Things. If there was more to it than that, it didn’t come through in the translation.  They were arranged aesthetically, not according to function or time period or anything else. So there was a case of yellow and black things, for instance. And one with items related to body parts.  My kind of place, for sure. There was just one small case of things with Swastikas.  I saw many things that I also have, and some that I craved.  One that recurred in several cases was little plastic egg cups, in various pastel colors. More about that in a bit.

We visited the DDR Museum, where I didn’t know what to expect.  It was described as very active with lots of things for children to explore. How do you make a museum about a repressive period in history that is  fun for kids?  We couldn’t not check it out.  It was interactive, indeed. And crowded.  And not just children, but adults, including us,  were opening doors and pushing buttons to learn about what life had been like in East Germany. The most interesting part was the recreated Soviet era apartment.  It was several rooms, larger and more appealing than we would have expected.  You could touch everything, lie in the beds, watch tv, touch all the kitchen utensils,  etc.  The bathroom and kitchen seemed quite modern for the time, early 70s, with wild wallpaper not so different from what you would have found in the US in the same time period.  One kid was typing away on a typewriter. I realized that she might never have seen the old -fashioned equipment before.  We were surprised that the apartment was so appealing. And apparently people were pleased to get one of these apartments, in their huge towers, as the time. One might think that this was a little East German propaganda, but the museum definitely did not take a pre-East stance. 

They had other spaces like interrogation rooms that were not pleasant, but chilling to go into and hear the recorded interrogation.
So it’s a bit of a puzzle, something I’ll have to look into some more. Who were the people that got to live in these apartments? Not the upper echelon, they lived in luxury. Loyal party members, I assume. But what percentage of the population had this kind of living space?  And what was  life like for the others?

The huge buildings, which we saw lots of photos of, were not so different looking, to be honest, than places like Coop City in the Bronx, and probably people felt similarly about them, that they were new and modern and desirable.

We also visited the Berlin Galeries, a---large museum of contemporary art of Berlin.  The main floor was several current exhibitions, including a room full of dislocated pieces of wall in various configurations, a clear reference to The Wall. And another of large pieces that included video, sound, light, all kinds of weird  items and combinations, things you could walk around and into. 

The most remarkable was a piece called Driving in a Dead Man’s Car or something akin to that. You sat in the front seat of a car that was cut away and watched a film featuring a couple driving that got more and more gruesome. When the guy started pulling out his own guts I decided I’d had enough.  Another part of that exhibit had a pair of glasses that were moving mechanically so that one temple continously tapped against the wall, making a small sound. That sound, soft though it was, was somehow amplified so that you could hear it through most of the museum, although it always sounded soft.

Upstairs was the permanent collection, featuring many Berlin artists of whom I”d never heard, and a few that I had. There were some poignant stories of art that had been stolen from Jewish collectors, one whose living descendants had only recently been identified and compensated. There was much of the modern art of the 20s and 30s that was later decried by the Nazi government.  There were a few female artists whose work really caught my eye. I took some pix and if I can find their names I will add them here.
The Jewish Museum, with its striking exterior, was not far from the Berlin Gallery, but Loring and I were both too tired to consider another museum.  I would have liked to just enter the front entryway, to get a better sense of the architecture from inside the building. But there was serious, airport-like security, and it didn’t look as though you could see very much before you got to the ticket counter. So we bypassed the museum and went home. I took a nap, Loring used one of our host’s bicycles and went out for a ride.

One of our unexpected encounters was with Will and Kate, you know the royal ones. We stumbled across a crowd, and lots of police cars and cops, at the Holocaust Memorial. Assumed at first that it was some type of ceremony relating to the Holocaust. But I asked a friendly young cop, who said, “it’s Will and Kate!”  So we waited along with everyone else, and sure enough, after a half hour or so got a good thought brief glimpse of them as they exited the museum and got into their limo. Will waved. I was disappointed to see that Kate wasn’t wearing a hat.

A couple of days later, we stumbled across another wide boulevard blocked off with many police cars. Along the street were a large number of vans and trailers, some of them with decals saying Berlin to Moscow and dates starting from that very day. Turns out it was a rally, at the Brandenburg Gate, to kick off a two week trip to Moscow to promote peace and international understanding. There were hordes of folks with t shirts promoting the trip, and a couple singing folk songs on a stage.  We walked around for a while. When we returned to the stage area, a family was singing beautifully, in what I assume was Russian. The father conducted the children, three or four boys and one little girl with angelic faces and voices. The mother, with an infant strapped to her chest, was singing as well.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Wall, the Reichstag and its dome, the Old Masters, Christopher St. Day

We are well into the second part of my Berlin sojourn. Have been walking around the city interspersed with a few trips on the S/U Bahn. I still haven’t figured out exactly what they call the whole system. Nor have we figured out exactly how it works. Especially the ticket machines.  They seem, for the most part, to be dysfunctional. They supposedly take both credit cards and cash, but we are rarely able to get one to work. Therefore, we have been taking some illegal rides. I have not come across a single transit cop in my three weeks here, but people certainly seem concerned, at least the Germans in my group did, and Viola and Michael did get stopped once.  If they find you without a validated ticket, the fine is supposedly 60 euros. 

We’ve walked a lot, one of the first days it was 10 miles.  Other days it’s been perhaps 5 or 6 miles.  Even some of the “museums” are outdoors, one the East Side Gallery, which is a long remaining section of the wall which has been painted, since the wall came down, by many artists.  Most are political statements relating to repression, ie a mural of a car breaking through a wall.  Another stretch of the wall, in another art of the city, is called the Wall Museum.  There is a visitor’s center, with some poignant displays about people displaced, families separated, escapes and escape attempts. But the most compelling part is the walk along the segment of the wall, where the “border houses” that sat literally against wall were used as escape routes, the foundations of the houses that had been excavated fairly recently ,the routes of the tunnels also used for escapes, were delineated with metal markers embedded into the path.  We walked in what is called the dead zone, the space between the actual border and the wall, where fugitives were targets as they tried to escape. People tried all kinds of methods of escape, including hot air balloons, and a zip line?!  I didn’t know such a thing even existed them. Not for recreation, though.
The architectural juxtaposition, and combination, of the old and new is evident and striking wherever you go in the city.  Many monuments and buildings from before the war still exist, but they are in fact largely reproductions. And because the laws are strict about historical accuracy work goes slowly, and is still being carried on today.  Many buildings also combine the old structures, or at least part of them, combined with strikingly modern components, a lot of glass..  As an example, the Reichstag, the seat of government.  It was heavily damaged, as was much of the city, and as part of the reconstruction a huge glass dome was added atop the old structure. A friend in my group had mentioned that you had to make reservations in advance to visit, and I did. The dome itself is currently closed, but just being on the roof and looking inside was impressive enough. When it’s open you can walk up a ramp to the top, which opens to a view the chamber of parliament itself. It’s meant to convey the idea of transparency in government. 

We’ve gone to one of the art museums, the one that houses an impressive collection of old masters,   including Boticelli , Carvaggio, Rembrandt, etc. But I was most interested in the Dutch masters, Bosch and Breugel and there was even one Vermeer called the Wine Glass. Exciting because there are only about three dozen known Vermeers in the world.

In the gift shop I saw a strangely familiar face on a postcard, a portrait of a young woman. I recognized it as a work I’ve had on a postcard  since my days living in Europe. And in a second it dawned on me, this had to be the museum I’d visited on my day in East Berlin in 1970.  My main memory of that day was how intimidating the museum guards, all female, were.  But  obviously some of the art had made an impression, too.  Unfortunaately, it’s not one of the pieces we saw yesterday, aside from the familiar image on the postcard. Several other portraits also looked familiar, perhaps lodged in some inner recess of my memory. Or perhaps just similar to other portraits by some of the same artists.

I’d repeatedly looked, online and on posters, for events that might be happening during our stay. One of them was the night at the Botanical Gardens, which featured lighted displays, and also music and fireworks at the end. But since it didn't begin until dark, after 930, and went until 2am, and was a T trip requiring several changes, we didn’t make it. Berliners seem to be on a much later schedule than we are.

But I don’t know how I possibly missed the fact that yesterday was the city’s Pride Day parade. They actually call it Christopher St. Day here, in English, in reference to the Stonewall riots in NY in 1969. The Stonewall Club was on Christopher St. and basically resulted in the gay rights movement.

From early in the day, we’d noticed what seemed to be an inordinate number of unusually dressed people,  some in garlands,  one guy in pink hair and makeup, etc. But then, I thought, this may just be a Saturday in Berlin.  It was only later, in the afternoon, that we noticed police blockades of many side streets, and more colorfully dressed, and undressed, people.  I asked a man, one of two identically, scantily dressed guys in black,  if there was an event going on, and he cheerily exclaimed, “it’s Christopher St. Day!?  It was pouring, he was shivering, but looked quite happy.

We thought it was over, maybe shortened by the intensive thunderstorms. But when we returned home and I looked online, the news indicated that it was still going on at the Brandenberg Gate.  Too  bad.

My dad’s cousin Seymour Pine was actually the police captain in charge of the attack on the club.  Not something I am particularly proud of. Nor was he, to his credit, in later years. He pretty much apologized in a documentary about the events. I never knew him very well, only saw him at the family gatherings my parents called the “cousin’s club.” What I do remember his seeming a rather sour, and intimidating person.

Seems I have a theme here, about intimidating cops, museum guards, cousins.  I’ll have to give some further thought to whom I find intimidating, and why. 

Don’t think I’ve written here, just on fb, about our chance encounter with Will and Kate a couple of days ago. And there’s a lot more to tell. But I’ll stop here, so as at least to spend part of the day doing things rather than just writing about them. So off on another long walk, and probably a museum or two. Will catch up with you later.

A Mennonite service about Sodom and Gomorroh, a little girl named Salome, and a big barbeque in the garden.

Sunday morning, sitting in the living room at our Mennonite home, awaiting the Sunday service. It’s a small congregation. I am trying to catch up here in the blog while we await the service.  Although I’m not much for prayer, as I told the pastor when he invited me to pray with them ( hope I didn’t offend him, he’s a young and hip seeming person).

Today’s agenda -the service (I will attend that,  it was just the pre service prayer I felt a bit uneasy about) after the service a barbeque, prepared by our group, with the parish. Later, continuation of a workshop/presentation with Leo, who did a workshop with us about prejudices and preconceptions, yesterday. He’s only 21, German but just recently moved to Berlin. 

An hour later, the service is over. I am sorry to say I kept falling asleep. Hope I didn’t snore, nobody elbowed me anyway.  The pastor did a good job of alternating between German and English, song and sermon and prayer.  Some of the hymns were in both languages in the book, and people sang in their respective languages. The sermon was about Lot, and what the story of Sodom and Gommorah told us about hatred, hospitality, etc.  That part would have interested me,  but that’s where I kept dozing off. It does intrigue me how people take bible stories and interpret them to fit their own values.  I gather there was some part about homosexuality, and about Lot offering his daughters for sex to the strangers. Guess I'd better look that up.

The best part of the service was the music at the end. The pianist played Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, which has been haunting me recently anyway. I heard him playing it before the service, but wasn't sure it would actually be in the service. Many people, at least those in our group, seemed to know it.

There was a young woman with an infant and a small girl at the service.  At the end of the service the girl announced something loudly, and everyone laughed.  I later asked and found out she'd said  it was "the service is over."  

 I talked quite a bit with the woman, and learned that were the daughters and wife of the pastor, Joel. She told me that Salome, the little girl, likes to have her father's attention, even during the service. When she was smaller, she'd go up to the pulpit, and he'd hold her while he spoke. It's a pretty liberal congregation, Judith said. 

  Judith speaks excellent English, which actually many people, in my group and here in general, do. Turns out they traveled in the US before the kids were born,  and she’d also been an exchange student there when in high school. She’s a doctor, now on maternity leave, and her husband will succeed her  shortly.  Family leave in Germany is very generous, she told me, more so than even in Sweden, on a par with Norway and, I think, Finland. They get ample leave at full salary, plus another 14 months at 2/3 salary which can be shared by mother and father, taken simultaneously by both, or, or taken in different stages, several different options.

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.

Everyone is heading out to the garden for a big barbeque that our group prepared for all of us, so I’ll stop here and join them. Better get some more coffee, too. 


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Workshops in cultural awareness, an Ethiopian feast, and dancing the debka.

Yesterday, Saturday, another busy and varied day. We began with a presentation by Pollina and Larisa, from Russia and Latvia. Larisa has been living in Russia and she and Pollina have been roommates at the university, even though Pollina has just finished her first year, she is 18, and Larisa has graduated and is working, or has worked, as  a  journalist.   They are both very interested in human rights, as is everyone in the group. They talked a bit about their family histories, from their great grandparents’ time, how they had gone from being upper class, dukes, etc to being impoverished and persecuted. 

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 first played a game, outdoors in the garden, with each of us telling the meaning of our names, then having to cumulatively repeat all the previous names. I  wasn’t too keen at first, only because I still have trouble remembering some folks’ names.  Only Michael and myself had no sense of the meanings of our names. He’s from Australia, so I’m guessing it’s an English language thing.  So  we had to be given names – he became the King of Pop, and I, Joan of Arc.  There were a bunch of saints and gods, such as Polina,  from Apollo, and Kirke (Circe) and then Khan the scholar, Sergey the “highly respected person."  Arkun was calm, Larisa a seagall, Saskia from Saxony, and Martin a small Roman god. (Mars.) 

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.

At mid afternoon, we headed out to Uber den Tellerand, the agency that focuses on food as a away to connect people and share cultures.  We’d been there last week. Once a month they host a community supper from a particular culture, that everyone is welcome to join, help prepare, and eat.

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

"I smile because I'm still alive."

Now I have to backtrack a bit to yesterday.  We had a free day until 4pm. I chose to stay home and work on my entry about Ahmad, the dancer. At 4pm, when all had returned, Viola did a first presentation for us about the situation in South Sudan, where she lives.  The situation is pretty dire, many tribes, civil war, lots of violence. She talks about how rebel soldiers came to her house with guns and she wasn't sure they'd survive.  She relates this all in her soft manner, but she is a powerful force, determined to try better her country by educating people and continuing to work for peace. She works to educate young people about use of the internet as a tool for peace, among many other projects  in which she’s involved. She teaches at a university there, although she hasn’t gotten paid in the last five months. Nevertheless, she is the source of support for her mother and one of her sisters. Some quotes from her presentation – “ If there’s no love, there’s no peace."  " If there’s no peace, there’s no life.”  When we ask her about how she can still smile after all the terrible things her family and her country have endured, she says, “I smile because I’m still alive.” She’s receiving news from home that things are worse, more violence in the area where her family lives, and she’s clearly worried. She’s going home next week. 

Yesterday evening, we went to the R0g organization, the one that brought Viola here to join our group and participate in other projects with them. Stephen Kovats, the founder, with his wife,  had met Viola in South Sudan. Our group met with a number of people with an interest in South Sudan, or refugees, or related areas. It was a remarkable gathering of knowledgeable and committed people. Viola did a second presentation about her work. Saskia did a presentation about our project.  Then we hung out for a while and socialized. They’d provided a nice spread of finger food, fruit, veggies, dips, cookies, some kind of vegetable chips, some Indian hors d’oeuvres.  And wine, and three kinds of waters. Bubbly, not as bubbly, very bubbly. Germans are into bubbly waters. A surprise to many in the group when that’s pretty much what we’d had the first days. I guess it had never occurred to Saskia that not everyone likes soda water. More for me!

We also met a Palestinian man, another refugee, who Saskia’s now invited to join us here with some of his friends in one of our few remaining available bits of time.

I’m going to stop here, and post some photos  on facebook from our walk today. I mostly took pix of the various forms of house architecture from around this area of Berlin, Lichterfelde. It’s one of the more wealthy parts, suburb in feel but part of the city proper, about a half hour by s bahn, or u bahn.   There’s old villas beside modern houses and apartment buildings,many styles. Lots of flowers. Some old estates were subdivided into smaller plots when housing was at a premium after the war. Some old mansions were converted into apartments and now some are condos. I gather that not much in this area on the outskirts was bombed. 

Tomorrow I hope I'll be up early enough to edit the entry about Ahmad Joudeh, the dancer. I have to correct a couple of the links, but meanwhile, it’s up there for you to check out, complete with links to the Dutch news pieces, a few you tubes, and a couple of his performance a few years ago on So You Think You Can Dance, and a couple of magazine articles. I think the two Dutch nieuwsuur  video pieces are the most interesting and moving, although I think I mislabeled a couple of the links.   And then there are the two other stories about the Nansen Award Winners, Joannes Klas and Maryluz Schloeter Paredes.  The one on Parades has been translated into Spanish by Ceci, my Mexican compadre (comadre?) , and I believe the other one has been translated into a couple of languages, not sure which ones by people in the group. Did I tell you how many languages are represented between the seventeen of us? Twelve. 

They paved Hitler's bunker and put up a parking lot. Really.

Tuesday July 11th

A very full, and fulfilling, day. We began with a presentation by Cecilia, a member of our group from Mexico. She has spent time at a refugee camp on the Mexico/Guatemala border.  She went first to accompany a friend who was producing a documentary, and was so moved by the plight of the people there, and their individual stories, that she has gone repeatedly.  She relatively quiet and soft spoken, compared to the boisterousness o some of the other members of the group.  She also speaks less English than most of the other group members, most of them who speak remarkably good English. Michael from Australia and I are the only native speakers,and I am impressed by how they all speak English most all of the time, which I know is a strain.

Ceci’s is the first presentation from the group. We’ll have a couple of others, from Viola, who is from South Sudan, and from Larissa and Pollina, who are from Latvia and Russia, and were roommates at the university in Russia together.

I think Ceci was very brave to do the first presentation, and it was very moving. She started with a short piece she had produced with a friend,  named Carolina, to explain the significance of the Day of the Dead. She had painted half  her face a skeletal white, that added to the poetic quality of her  film piece. And then she spoke about her experiences in Guatemala, quoting from some of the people she met.

After a delicious lunch of omelettes and rice cooked by today’s cooking team, we went off to visit the social service agency Café, Kuchus  which works with lgbt refugees.  The co-director of the agency, a gay German man, told us about the various services the agency provides, including legal help, counseling, and a shelter that is home to over 100 gay, trans,  intersex people. And also, about the complicated issues people face, including discrimination  and even violence here that they ddin’t expect,  dealing with depression, the tensions of having to deal with people from their own cultures who don’t understand or respect their life styles, etc.  They have a 3 year non governmental grant that has one more year to go. He is very optimistic about securing more funding, partly because the government has become very positively impressed by what the program does and now refers people in need of services to them. The other co director is a man who came here as a refugee, and so knows first hand the kind of issues people face.  I had a lot of questions, and was worried that I was monopolizing the conversation too much. But a few people in the group thanked me later because they didn’t feel able to ask many questions, mostly because of the language, I think.

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.

I was so touched by his story and his willingness to be open with us, a group of strangers, and went up to tell him so afterwards. I was in tears, so moved his openness, and so was sniffling afterwards, causing a number of people in the group to ask me what was wrong. I assured them I was okay and tried to explain.

 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.

Our guide was a woman who sounded almost American, but I wasn’t entirely sure. I thought she might have been from another country but spent a lot of time in the U.S.  Turns out she was half American, half Scottish, and had grown up partly in Chicago, partly in Scotland. Her name was Kyle, which she said her parents had named her because they wanted a boy!

The tour was a full three hours, with a little break for coffee and pastry. We had a choice of Starbucks, or a smaller German bakery/café across the street.  I had no desire to go to Starbucks. Half our group went to each place. I had a huge chocolate ball with sprinkles. I had a feeling it was a rum ball, and was right. Was on a sugar high for a while afterwards.

Kyle was full of information and spoke at length about the history of Germany, Berlin before and after the war, the Wall, etc. I hope I can remember enough of the details to relay a good amount to you, but have to stop for now because supper is ready. Tonight we are having a Vietnamese meal cooked by Khan/Brian, who we are mostly calling Khan despite his initial efforts to use Brian. It’s 9:45, but that’s ok because we’ve been having lunch between 1 and 2 pm, and had a snack at about
 6 pm. (that rum ball)

It’s really interesting to see what creative meals each cooking team comes up with, and also the combinations people put together on their plates.
Well, time to eat. More later.

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. 

We stopped at a parking lot that served a couple of apartment buildings that surrounded it. Kyle told us thatHi underneath us was the bunker that Hitler, Eva Braun, and some of his staff had hidden in at the end of the war. They discovered it some years ago when doing construction and decided to preserve it but seal it up. They wanted to make sure that it didn't become some monument or site for neo Nazis or others to visit, didn't want to memorial it, and so turned it into a parking lot. 

She also had fascinating stories about how Hitler married Braun right before they committed suicide, how  the Russians found Hitler's and Braun's  ashes,  got his dentist to identify his remains by the teeth, and much more that I can't remember at the moment. 

We went to Checkpoint Charlie where I'd crossed into East Berlin in 1970, now a big tourist spot, all reconstructed, to remaining pieces of the wall on the West Side, and more. The East side of the Wall is called the East Side Gallery, and I saved that to return to next week. 

Next morning, Wednesday, the 12 of July and 9th day of the project.  We are all set up in the meeting room at Mennnheim.  Look very professional, all set up with our computers at the tables we hauled In from the dining room, a major project in itself. Before now we’ve written in the dining/living room. I asked Martin to take a picture with my camera, supposedly showing me hard at work. I realized that with all the photos I’ve taken, I am not in a single one. 

Lea LaCroix, from the wiki office is coming to give us a presentation. In fact, she just now arrived. She’s manager of data, or something like that. We’ve begun an online tutorial of wikidata, one of the many facets of Wikipedia,  by which I will no doubt be overwhelmed. Either the others in the group have much more computer experience, or maybe are just doing more translations than original articles, and don’t need to credit all the sources, etc.

There’s also a reporter from a Berlin newspaper here. We are all wearing our Wikipedia t-shirts, which looks really impressive, even though I wasn’t too keen on running up to the third floor and back just to change!

There’s beginning to be some tensions in the group, as is usual after the honeymoon period, and to be expected.  Some people feel like they are working too hard, and need more of  a break. I understand, it’s hard to write and translate and research all day. On the other hand, we only have a few days left, want to publish as many articles as possible, but also have a chance to do some fun things in the city.  That isn’t as important to me, as I will have an extra week to explore the city with Loring after the project ends..

Some notes from Lea’s presentation:

Wikipedia is now 16 years old. Wikidata, her area of specialty .started in 2012. The goal is to have simple info all stored one place, to be accessed by all diff wiki languages made for humans and machines, very organized, all linked ,collaborative, public domain.  Anyone can edit, some have done programming to make editing easier.It can be utilized by people, but also by computers, and that is its primary use. Every entry is id’d by a #, so it is identified no matter what language the entry is in. The id # for Berlin, for instance, is Q64. That is called a label. It also links to other databases like freebase and openstreetmap, which is the free license equivalent of googlemaps.
We each tried to edit some data entry that was of interest. I went to the  wikipedia entry for Beverly,  found the  Cabot st. Theatre, among many other items, and edited wkiidata to add its website to the database. It is up to date as “The Cabot” but the website link wasn’t there.

I have been working on several articles. Published the first one, one of the first days, about Sister Joannes Klas, 1997 winner of the Nansen Prize. Saskia had suggested I start with some bio’s of Nansen winners, because they were easy to do. Right. Easy for most of the group, but not for me, perpetual tech novice..

 I finished that one, with lots of help, not for writing, but for formatting and putting it in the proper wiki order.  I’ve now completed another entry about a Nansen winner, Maryluz Schloeter Parades, from Venezuela. She won the award for her work with refugee children in Caracas.  From then, 1980, she went on to hold various  positions with the UNHCR, as well as teaching at the University of Venezuela in Caracas. But then she falls off the internet after 1990. I can’t find any other info or an obit, so don’t know if she’s still alive. Will have to see if someone else eventually edits it with more info.

Last, I came across a fascinating story about a Syrian man, a ballet dancer, who was forced to leave home in the refugee camp where he’d spent all his life, by his disapproving and violent father. He continued his dance studies in Damascus and eventually made it on to the Arab version of  So You Think you Can Dance.  That garnered a lot of attention,  and he was the subject of a short documentary by a Dutch tv station, which garnered even more attention. He’s now in the Netherlands studying dance and dancing with the Dutch National Ballet. 

 There’s a further doc now, which depicts his reconciliation with his father in a refugee camp here in Berlin.  I’ve done a lot of research about his story, and a lot of work on writing about him. Finally, with the help of Sergey in our group, I got it into the proper format, and published it this morning. It’s been gratifying to be able to give Ahmad a wiki entry. His story is poignant and inspiring.  Of course, now I’ve found both a couple of errors in the links, and some additional video, about a Danish choreographer who created a dance piece inspired by him. I’ve got a friend who will translate the story into Dutch for me, and   I’m hoping to get someone to translate the entry into German, also possibly Danish. And Khan, from our group, says he wants to translate it into Vietnamese! My original source was my friend Judy, who posted one of the tv pieces about him on facebook. Thanks, Judy!

Some other branches of the Wiki Empire (my term! -pretty sure they wouldn’t appreciate it)
Wikisource- old books in public domain
Wikivoyage – about travel, different from most of Wiki because has opinion, not neutral as Wikipedia entries have tobe. 
Wikidata currently 17500 editors, isone of largest facets of Wikimedia, many tools, used mostly by computers but available to people
Wikidata games nice way to start editing
Wikishootme is for photos shows places with  photos by red dots
Guessr – game to identify where photos are from get more points for items further away from you.
Wikidataquery  kind of fun – look, for instance, of pictures of cats. Why do people always use cat pictures? Both Lea and Matty did in their presentations. Or perhaps it’s particularly a wiki thing. Now that I think of it, there was some kind of cat drawing whiteboard at the office. 

I don't know how much I'll explore or use any of these, it's all rather overwhelming to me, but it's good to at least be exposed to them and know a bit about how to use them.

That's enough for one entry. But I'll post another to bring things up to date. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Home Alone - Well, Almost.

It’s our free day. I couldn’t sleep last night until 4am or later, and so woke up after 930 with the house quiet, most of the group gone, and a sign on the stairs saying be quiet after 10am,   Mennonite service, eat breakfast in your rooms.  As I came down the stairs (I’m on the 3rd floor, good exercise), people were coming in, folks older than me, some shaking my hand, one elderly   gentleman (ie older than me) looking confused at the sign in English saying please take off your shoes, quiet after 11pm.. and the wifi password, until someone explained about our group ( I assume) and then saying “ah, so.” Funny to go from being the oldest to being the youngest in the crowd.  I made breakfast quietly and brought it upstairs to my room.

Our meals have been interesting , dependent mainly on the food donated from supermarket surplus,  now with some supplements from our budget, as the fruit, veggies, and cheesecakes are starting to run low.  The donated produce has been mostly fine, even after 5 days grapes, peaches, apricots, grapes, apples, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, celery, eggplant, potatoes, pasta, rice, etc.  And lots of bread, all kinds of bread. We probably have more than enough bread for the 17 of us for all two weeks.

As I write, the Mennonite service is going on downstairs and wafting up the stairs. Nice accompaniment to my wrtiitg.  It’s singing and piano, lovely voices, interspersed with the voice of the pastor. Next Sunday we will attend the service, so I’ll get a better idea of what he is talking about.
Some of the group has gone off to a castle in Potsdam, outside of Berlin, and the other half to a museum, not sure which one. One guy,  Brian/Khan, from Vietnam, has a rail pass and took off for Hamburg early this am for the day.  First Saskia had advised him against going, because of the G-20 and some violent riots. Then she realized it had ended yesterday, so said it was fine to go.  Jakob, our co-leader, just got up, after me! He is heading off on a walk, to the Botanical Gardens, a few kilometers from here, and a museum nearby.

 They knew I had other plans, so it’s fine I slept thru everyone getting up and heading out.  My plan – a flea market, of course.   And it wasn’t even my idea, Saskia suggested it. Of course, she knows a little bit about me.  My dilemma, though, which one?  There are about six, some more high end, some lower, some focusing more on books, vinyl, etc.  I wonder if chockas is a word in German.!

I have not been on the T, or S-Bahn, except with the group. So am hoping I don’t get lost. It’s an extensive system.  My original plan was flea market, then the Decorative Arts Museum. But at this rate, I’ll be lucky to just get out the door.  If I wasn’t writing this, I would probably be back asleep. Hoping coffee, writing, shower will awaken me sufficiently.  If not, my free day is going to be a long nap.

Yesterday we stayed at the house and wrote all day.  I only took a brief break for a walk around the block, taking some photos  of the house and neighborhood to show the folks back home. That’s you. Some are posted on fb, there will be more.

Quiet downstairs now. Maybe the service is over. Or maybe they are doing some silent meditation. I know there’s coffee downstairs in the living room afterwards, saw the set up.

I have been working on three possible Wiki entries so far. One is about an American nun who won a U.N. award for work with refugees in Honduras and Guatemala. Wiki has strict rules about significant sources for entries, so it remains to be seen if my entry will pass muster. It has been published, but possibly will be deleted. That apparently happens frequently, and can be frustrating to new wikipedians.  Still not sure just how this works, who determines and deletes.

The others are related to two of the places we’ve visited. For one, the Uber den Tellerand, Saskia is writing an entry in German. But since it’s a German organization, Saskia isn’t sure if it’s relevant enough for the English language Wiki. So she is translating her German version for me (their materials and website are only in German)  which I will slightly edit for grammar, etc. Even small things have nuances, of course. For instance, Uber den Tellerand is a saying that literally means”beyond the edge of the plate.” and relating somewhat to travel.   Very appropriate for an organization related to food, community, integration, etc.  The closest English is “beyond the 
horizon.”Since someone from Ohio was very taken by the program and has established a “satellite” program in Columbus, I will try to track her down, which hopefully will make the W folks feel it relevant.

The other potential story is related to the shared housing community we visited. Rather than write an entry just about their organization, I will try to broaden it to an entry about share housing.  It’s akin to co-housing, for which there is an entry. But the only share house Wiki entry is about a 2010 Japanese movie.  Share housing actually is a concept in Japan, but with a somewhat different connotation.  And it’s a word in Australia, but there it merely refers to being roommates. So I will try to put something together, and see if I  flies. And now, I’ve got myself curious about that Japanese movie. So guess I’ll go google it. I mean wiki it. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

First days in Berlin - Wikipedia for Peace project

Germany wiki blog

This is my fourth day in Berlin. On Tuesday the group arrived from various parts of the world to our house in the city. It is a Mennonite Peace House, with a small congregation who we will meet later in the week. There are dorm accomodations, a large kitchen, library/living room, and a beautiful garden, where I am now sitting, awaiting our lunch which today’s team is preparing.  There is a family who lives here as caretakers. We did meet the pastor a couple of days ago.  He gave us a brief history of the Mennonites.  He was a member of the congregation, was asked 20 or more years ago, when the previous pastor left, if he’d take over. He thought of it as a temporary thing, but he is still here.  It will be very interesting to meet members of the congregation, and we will attend a service at some point too. The congregation members are mostly around my age, and are dwindling, as not many younger people join.

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.
This morning we visited an organization that provides a variety of services to refugees. It began when a group of activists decided to cook and bring meals to refugees, and has grown into a large organization that provides more services and program. It’s called Uber den Tellerand,  and they focus on activities that bring refugees and other people in the community together. Many focus on food, but they have expanded beyond that.Uber den Tellerand is a German expression that translates literally to looking over the edge of the Plate, and means roughly to look beyond one's horizons.

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.
Day one – we all arrived at various times up until 4 pm. I was one of the first to arrive, after 12 hours travel from home, and took a nap until just before 4. Most of the group was already in the garden, eating cheesecake and fresh strawberries. We all introduced ourselves and played some games.
Dinner, then bed.

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.

Tomorrow, Saturday, will be entirely devoted to writing. We’ll be working from home. And Sunday is a free day. I am hoping to meet up with Ola, from Poland, who lives here now and works as a translator. I know her from my three weeks in Ukraine about eight years ago, where we worked together on the Jewish cemetery project. I’ve remained in touch with a number of people from that project, but hadn’t been with Ola, because she isn’t on fb. But I got her email from Lukas, who knew her before and joined us on the project. That was recently, but before I knew she was living in Berlin or that I was going to be there. It would be great to see her. I hope it works out.
That’s it for now. I’ll be back when there’s more to report. I will take a small part of this to use for our group diary. And I’ll be posting photos to fb, today or tomorrow. Perhaps before you see this.
Let me know if you read this. It’s nice to have feedback