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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.