Why We Need Libraries to Fight Social Inequality

In a district in Berlin among its Turkish residents stood once the Jerusalem Library, not far from the city’s Jewish Hospital. With a gloomy face, 10 year-old me walked up to the building in search of a book to read, as ordered by my mother. There was a new rule in our house at the time, that at least two hours of my day as a third grader with little to no homework was to be spent reading.

Like so many immigrants before and after them, my parents had lost a great deal of their social status, now being scientists with little to no future in their new home country. So while the German state was figuring out how to help parents with children to take care of make a living for themselves  – a pondering process that surprisingly is taking until this day- my  single mother fought my laziness and unwillingness to be curious with the power of books.

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Libreria Alta Acqua, Venice, Italy 2017

Now as an adult, I remember my first independent encounter with books like others remember meeting their romantic partners. Having been an introvert from a very young age, finding myself in a room with hundreds of books to choose from, was like having to make friends in a room full of people I didn’t know. I didn’t know any of these books. Their names, their authors even their appearance marked by several years if not decades of sitting on those shelves were alien to me. Why and how on earth should I pick one book above all others and take it home with me, allowing it into my personal space? And then, as I was about to grab something random for the sake of just taking anything home, I spotted Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on a metal shelf in the middle of the room. I sure knew Harry Potter, so I took that one with me for the next three weeks, happy to have found something familiar. The realization that I started with book three out of seven instead of book one did not appear to me until years later.

Not only did my library visits that followed cure me of my screen addiction, looking back at it all, this library was what helped us children of low social status keep up with kids who were, generally speaking, better off than us. While our more privileged counterparts spent their summers in their holiday homes in Italy or Greece, paid for by their hard-working parents who were either lawyers, doctors, teachers or businessmen, the kids whose parents had no money for vacation because they had to think of how to manage the grocery budget till the end of the month, had the library as a summer retreat. It was with the help of librarians and social workers giving us their time and energy, that instead of wasting our time watching trash-TV in sticky rooms, we had games and other activities to keep us busy every day of summer vacation without paying a single euro.

When school started again and our parents were not able to answer all our questions, we always knew we had the library where there was supervised homework completion.

In Germany the debate on the opportunities of working class children versus children of academics is strongly based on one argument. Summarized to its simplest form: working class children consider themselves at a disadvantage because their parents don’t have money they can spend on cultural activities. Therefore, it is argued, working class children don’t have a chance at the same intellectual development as those  of academics.

This debate is missing one essential point: it is not the amount of times you went to the opera or the art gallery that determine how smart you are. What one needs is an interest in these things and interest is something that needs to come from the person rather than being shoveled down their throats. It was at the library where we not only could cultivate said curiosity for art and music but where we could also practice it. The books, movies and  CDs showed us what the world had to offer. It provided free brain food for those who wanted it and some of us took that as an inspiration to achieve more in life, just like our companions from wealthier families.

I’ll leave it up to the rest of the world to debate whether a person’s interest or even taste in art, music or culture is something that can be bought. There are enough people in this world with money who have never set foot in a museum simply because they don’t care.

It was in this very library where children whose parents had no time or did not speak the language were read to out loud by volunteers. It was among one of those wooden shelves on the first floor where I found an exercise book to practice writing stories. Today, I have this blog to share them. Those who had no computers at home had access to the ones on the second floor in exchange for 50 cents per hour or maybe it was free, I cannot remember.

To many of us it was like a second home. We knew the staff, we met our friends there, we knew every nook and cranny. Ten years ago, I walked across the street to the light blue building only to find it shut down. Our second home, our window to the world and source of free knowledge did no longer exist. When I visit my friends in this district today, I can still see the outlines of the now empty shelves through the windows. It breaks my heart every time.

A few years later, now living in a wealthier part of Berlin, I walked to the library in the building of the town hall to return my copy of Three Comrades after weeks of being sick. I was greeted by closed doors and a note informing me of the shutting down of yet another library. All books were to be returned to somewhere else.

This is  just one story of a library being made unavailable to the public. More and more of them shut down over the years all across Germany due to insufficient funds. And while people debate about (new) ways in which one can fight inequality in a society, I wonder why it is so hard to hold on for a second and look around oneself, at the things, at the resources that we already have but don’t give enough importance to. If we want to give children a chance at curiosity and intellectual growth that shall motivate them to grow into successful adults, we need to give them a space where to start their journey free or of little charge, where everyone is welcome.

What better place can there be than a library?

Language Classes are the Mirror of the Soul

When I came home this afternoon, instead of continuing my crochet project, I started thinking: “I totally want to take Italian classes when I get back to Berlin”. I was somewhat taken with the sound of the word scrittrice, meaning “writer”, when I came across an Instagram post of a book café in Milan I have always wanted to visit but have never come around to doing.

My next thought was that my best bet when it came to actually getting into an Italian class was what in German is known as Volkshochschule, a general term used for institutions or “schools” in every district of Berlin that are probably the closest this country has to the American equivalent to a community college.  Although a source of various learning opportunities, the German community college model is often frequented by people  who are at least old enough to remember  how the Cold War ended; not because the Soviet Union ran out of money but because Mr. Hasselhoff tore down this wall with his bare voice. That’s historically inaccurate sarcasm in its purest form right there but you see what I am getting at, right?

For a number of  reasons, my quest for learning a new language will probably end in a place where I am surrounded by people who take their retirement as a second chance at life. Many  of my peers may find my choice of learning environment a rather weird one. However, the fact that I started this post by talking about a crochet project at the age of 22, says more than enough about my personal level of weirdness which is what I love most about my character, if you really want to know.

I think learning a new language is a fascinating business. One may follow a similar pattern at any new language they learn but every tongue has its own curiosities in grammar and vocabulary so at the end of the day, with the same old learning mechanisms you gain a tiny bit of new knowledge every time. So even though I have yet no intentions of using my Italian knowledge, I’ll sure as hell love listening to how it works.

I remember writing a blog post with a bucket list of things to do, a few days before I turned 20. In there I mentioned that a person should, at least once in their life, spend time with people who are older than oneself. In the light of the classes I took in the company of well accomplished adults on their journey to retirement, I noticed how beneficial this experience could be all strange feelings aside. In that sense, language classes provide a very interesting environment.

Finally, my Italian learning fantasy lead me to the thought that language classes are like a mirror of the soul, especially the kind that focuses on conversation. Right before I moved to Mexico, I took a course with a Spanish gentleman in his 70’s. In our talking sessions, his words about his life experiences in Spain and then Germany over the past decades painted the most colorful paintings of a life well lived, not to be found in any history textbook.  I couldn’t fail to take note of how most of the time when people are asked to use their language skills to talk about themselves,  they can open up about what drives them on the inside without even intending to do so. All of a sudden you know about what they do for a living, what makes them feel tired at the end of the day, what they wished they would have done when they were still young, what their favorite places in the world are or how they prepare a delicious chocolate cake whose recipe they have inherited from their Polish great grandmother. As a young person I felt like I could especially learn from the way how these people did things to apply them to my own life.

I remember a Spanish class spread over the course of a weekend during which, among other things, we were learning about expressing wishes in the form I would like to, but… In the ten minutes that followed the explanation of the grammar rules, I listened to a group of mostly over worked adults whose only chance at learning a new language was a 20 hour weekend course, talk about their wishes. They all had great visions. One gentleman with a special interest in finance wanted to write a book about economics, another woman wished to play the piano. Even activities like dedicating oneself more to reading or listening to classical music seemed like great aspirations. While the ideas of these people were different, they all had one answer in common. Their but part of the sentence consisted of the phrase “I don’t have time.” A plain, almost cliché like answer and yet one that left me in deep thought. Indeed, once working life begins there is little time for anything else. Many people get accused of being head over heels in their work but how can they not be if it takes up most of their day, five days a week in the best case scenario?

I walked out of that class that day, not only having refreshed my Spanish vocabulary and with some knowledge of what was going on in the heads of people twice my age but also with the realization that dreams are there to be followed while there’s still time.

 

You’ve Come to the Wrong Neighborhood, Güey

We’ve all heard them: rumours about what countries are like. The ones say Kosovo is a war-torn country, where tanks dominate the streets. Others get goosebumps at the thought of living in Saudi Arabia and Belarus is apparently exotic enough to be a destination serviced by travel companies like Young Pioneer Tours alongside North Korea and Chernobyl.  In the case of Mexico, German reporters don’t fail to mention that although they have been living here for a long time, nothing dangerous has happened to them yet. Words of consolation. Like they absolutely have to say it or else no one will believe it.

Here’s an interesting observation: When I lived in Riyadh those to warn me of the dangers of this place were expats. None of the Saudis I had ever struck up a conversation with talked to me about not leaving my house on my own or lectured me on the things I couldn’t do because I ended up with the wrong genitals at birth. In Mexico City however, the warnings come from the locals (which also may be due to the fact that I barely know any expats).

How exactly do you recognize you have come to a bad district? Our security advisor talked me through the neighborhoods I should avoid right after I got here but as fascinating as the prevalence of the Aztec influence in Mexican Spanish appears at first glance, who on earth is supposed to memorize all the district names? Some Mexican words of Aztec origin are so complex, you’d rather learn German.

So again, how do you know you’ve come to the wrong neighborhood? Is it the poor appearance of streets, buildings and people? Is it the shop you have passed on the way there named Recuerdos de la Guerra (Souvenirs from the War) that has a swastika next to its name? I’ve still got a few months to figure it out but when your Mexican Uber driver tells you not to stay until dark, that might be a good indicator.

Just as there exist prejudiced opinions about people from different countries, my years abroad have shown me that, depending on where in the world you are, a similar prejudiced attitude may come from locals towards expatriates, regardless where they are from. Sometimes, when people come to live in a country for a while they are believed to only stay among themselves, creating their own little worlds where everything is familiar. More often than not, this cliché is true.

Sitting in the back seat of my Uber, watching as skyscrapers of metal and glass were replaced by buildings of weather-beaten stone, often no more than two stories high, it was somewhat becoming clear that I was getting out of some sort of comfort zone other expats have defined before I even had my own passport. The strangeness of a foreigner coming to a remote part of town is, among other things, what creates this gap between locals and foreigners. If more of us were travellers, not tourists, maybe we would be living in a different world by now.

Interestingly enough, districts that are known to be the bad ones, have a similar infrastructure to the ones that aren’t. Even in a bad district you will find homes, shops, offices, schools, kindergartens, you name it. It’s not like the world ceases to exist where the common and familiar ends.

I may have come to the wrong neighborhood but even bad neighborhoods are sometimes  frequented by good people. A Russian woman in Germany once told me that you can come to a birthday gathering in Berlin not knowing anyone and by the time you leave you will probably still not know anyone.

In Mexico, the first lesson you might learn upon joining a birthday party is that walls and floors make great tools for crushing large quantities of ice in bags. Take the bag, think of your ex or whatever it is that gets your blood boiling and hit the wall. An easy, fun and cheap alternative to anger management therapy with a purpose for everyone involved.

Once you have released your excess stress by manually crushing ice and its combination with a drink of your choice has got you all calm, take a bowl of traditional Mexican soup that the host will offer you. Just like the name of the district you find yourself in, its origin probably goes back all the way to the Aztecs. You will just have tried your first mouth-full of soup when the first person asks you about where you are from, how long you have been here and what it is that you like the most about Mexico. You are likely to be treated like family and even if you have spent the last couple of years as a wallflower, you’ll notice that social gatherings are actually not that bad.

As the hours go by, you will notice that your progress in Spanish can be measured by your understanding of jokes told. In the coastal regions, so a fellow Mexican party guest, out of 4 words spoken, 7 are cuss words. 😉

Of course all the fun eating and drinking between conversations doesn’t mean you should forget your driver’s warnings and walk the streets in the dark. The locals probably don’t like that idea either and even if you live over an hour away, someone’s gonna give you a ride home. Not least to tell you more jokes on the way.

A Tribute to the Grasshopper I Had For Lunch

There would come a day in my life where I would find myself on a weekly market in Cholula, thinking about whether dried grasshoppers have bones. If somebody would have told me that way in advance, it probably wouldn’t have been so much of an intense moment.

I may be an A-student in university and a curious person with glasses which makes most people think I am some sort of super smart but actually I am not. I mean, I don’t even know if insects have skeletons. Well, I just looked it up. They do have something like bones though it is made of another material. More like fingernails and our fingernails are made of a protein called keratin. Thanks, internet! Next question: Do insects have feelings? Do they have a conscience?

I looked at the plastic bag filled with dried, brown little somethings and fished out one of them with two fingers. I had no idea why I was doing this. Maybe to get it off my bucket list, even though dried grasshoppers with sauce and lime juice were not on it but it sounded like something you would put on a bucket list.

I took a deep breath and popped in the tiny protein bomb called chapulines. In the eastern- european culture I partially grew up with, in my childhood there was  a custom of making a wish when eating something for the very first time. I made a wish from the depth of my racing heart, chewed and swallowed. That f***ing wish better come true now, it better do. Please.

The legs were thin and crunchy. Something like  individual dried herbs from a dish or a tiny piece of uncooked spaghetti or vermicelli better yet, for the pasta connoisseurs among my readers. The crunchiness of the insect was short-lived and so was the spicy shock coming from the sauce as it was smoothened by the lime juice only a few seconds later. The fish-like taste in the finish made me wonder about the contents of the sauce. I doubt the vendor, who at the same time sold cherries in one bucket and dried grasshoppers with chilli and lime in another, used fishstock for this but this was Mexico so you never knew. In fact, the taste reminded me of the packages of dried fish from the Russian supermarket. Typical beer snacks, as addictive as sunflower seeds way before Socialism was introduced to Pringles. Or the other way around?

I left it at only one encounter with the dried insects even though they may be the healthier alternative to chips. Mexican markets are a curious thing of its own. No matter how much I hate crowds by now I can’t cease to be fascinated by them. There are all sorts of food and drinks and while one part of me really wants to try this pancake shaped pastry with chocolate filling, called  gorditas de nata, my fear of food poisoning forces me to remain rational and enjoy the surroundings with my eyes and nose rather than with my taste buds.  Even as I pass by mexican women whipping cocoa to a cold and foamy drinkable substance, followed by stands of giant corn cobs topped with mayonnaise and shredded mozzarella, I remain stubborn despite the medical charcoal in my pocket whispering that everything will be alright.

Michelada,  a beer cocktail made of beer, tomato juice, salt, lime, tabasco and Worcester – or Maggi sauce (so basically what…beer soup? Beer gazpacho?) makes me feel glad I don’t drink alcohol.

20170916_125201  Sorry for the disturbing imagery. Here’s a picture of candy to calm down your nerves. 🙂

 

 

Tuesday Was Market Day

 

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(originally posted on “Maps and Solitude“)

Sometimes there are things you associate specifically with the cities you live in or visit on a regular basis. Mexico City has many such unique characteristics that I may return to in future posts but one of the things that I will always associate with it is the smell of corn. If Mexico City would have to bring out a signature perfume it would smell of corn (and maybe some vegetable oil). I mean there is already a town named after it. From this point on, only the sky is the limit.  If I had to explain it the most basic way there is, then corn is in Mexico what dates are in the Middle East. Staple food.

Maybe it was for the various corn tortillas frying in the round, hot grill plates in the narrow streets. Or maybe it was all due to the fresh or dried tortillas that one could find in abundance at any supermarket. Or it was because almost any pastry in this town is somehow related to corn. If you don’t like pastries, there is still no way around the yellow vegetable for you. Ever wondered why the chicken meat here is always yellow? Well, guess what chickens are fed.

Even though my last visit was quite a while ago, I am not sure I still like to eat corn or anything made from it.

On Tuesdays there was finally a change of scenery for my corn-tortured taste buds. On Tuesdays, all the way down Pachuca street, stretched out a tremendous street market, luring in  visitors with its colors and smells and the piercing cries of the local vendors.

It was a labyrinth of all sorts of goods with unusual names, bright colors and exotic scents. I walked past stands with fruit I could only find occasionally at my favorite Turkish supermarket in Berlin, or which I have never seen before to begin with, one of those being light green tomatoes or avocados with edible skins.

Elderly women with silver hair and white traditional dresses walked in the dense crowd, their braided baskets full of caramelized nuts. From time to time they would pick a shopper at random, Mexican or not, offering him or her a sweet treat for as little as 10 pesos.

The vendors at the stands all of whom were men on this particular ocassion addressed me with guapa, complimenting my natural beauty and held pieces of fruit out to me on the tips of kitchen knives. Some of them would literally run after their potential customers with their knives in hand and had there not been a piece fruit on the tips of their kitchen knives, one could have mistaken the whole ongoing for a murder scenario.

The numerous packets of medicinal charcoal which I had brought with me from Europe kept crossing my mind while I bit into a slice of avocado sprinkled with lime juice. The vendor had eventually caught up with me.

A few stands past the avocados lay stacks of round, light green cactus leaves. The Mexicans use the word nopal, originating from the ancient language Nahuatl to name it. The bundles were available for 10 pesos each (a common price for most things on Mexican markets). When faced with exotic foods, markets are the best if not the only place where you will always find someone to explain  how to prepare this mysterious… fruit? plant? vegetable? How do you categorize a cactus anyway?

“Toss it in a pan with some onions, then add salt  and pepper to it”, said the vendor and handed me my change along with a full plastic bag of cactus. Luckily at this point, my Spanish had gotten good enough to not ask for everything to be repeated twice.

Done as told, even without salt or pepper, the green leaves had a sour taste to them. I could have been eating fried gherkins or pickles for all I knew. Other countries, other dishes.

Torn Between Home and Elsewhere

When I walked the narrow, nostalgic streets of Lisbon, listening to the sounds of Portuguese TV programmes escaping through open windows and watching the yellow streetcars pass by, I thought to myself: “This would be a great place for a honeymoon”. When I visited Madrid two summers ago, I started thinking about what a nice idea it would be to come back  for an ERASMUS semester.

How come I rarely experience such fascination with my own hometown? Many other travelers get just as excited about Berlin, as I can get about Vienna, Valletta or Havana but many other travelers surely have made the experience that foreign soil is much more fascinating than the one you have walked on all your life.

It is during my last few hours in Vienna, in front of the state opera that I see the answer in front of my inner eye as clear as day.

Elsewhere gives me a break from everyday life. In Berlin I have responsibilities. I have to keep my flat clean, my fridge full and my table set for meals. I have to be available to other people on the phone and through E-Mail. I have to tend to the content of my mailbox and listen to tired employees of our bureaucratic system complain about how much they have to do.

When I am away from home, I am away from all these things and there is nothing I can do about not being available. I can spend my days getting lost in the streets of a new place, writing about anything that comes to mind and read one book after the other without feeling in the least unproductive.

Maybe the reason why foreign places are so attractive is the way they set us free from our routine like obligations. Saying something like: “I couldn’t answer your E-Mail because I was travelling”, sounds more legitimate than saying “I just didn’t feel like it”.

On the other hand, in the context of travel, everyday-life things can reveal their charming sides like they have never before. While at home, I don’t take meals very seriously. Although I mostly prepare them myself, I try to finish them quickly, using as little cutlery and plates as possible so I can move on to my next task and turn on the dishwasher once a week only to save water and electricity. One morning in Vienna however, I finally discovered how beautiful it is to have breakfast in the early morning with nowhere to be at a certain time and with nothing important to think about other than the sound of ringing churchbells. I had no idea how delicious a sandwich made with butter, some jam, a slice of cheese and a handful of grapes on the side can be until that morning.

No, we do not travel to other places because we don’t like home. We travel so we can remember the simple pleasures of life. We travel so that we can let go just for a little bit and allow ourselves to find fulfillment in doing nothing in particular.

More travel stories here. Thanks for stopping by!

End of Term Thoughts

It’s been three hours since I have been sitting inside the Philological library of my university (we lovingly call it “the brain” because of its shape) and I can’t believe that I have another two hours until my French seminar, which I actually can’t afford not to attend and therefore don’t have time to go back home in between.

Looking at the bright side of things, my desperation may have been bigger had my next class been Arabic and not French. Never mix hobbies and (university) work. Just make sure that if you still put vowels where there are not supposed to be any and if you can’t read your own handwriting after five minutes, do it without the worry of having to pass that class for those 10 credits. Yes, French was a good idea after all. There are vowels all over the place so I have nothing to worry about.

Surprisingly enough, I just realized that this term is nearly over. I have another four weeks of class before it is time for finals and it seems as if it were only yesterday that I was trying to figure out how the lockers at this place work.

So I am thinking about what conclusions I can make after this first term and maybe when I have finished typing this, I will be closer to my last seminar and my way home.

Maybe the first thing I can think of is the fact that the idea of being lonely in a crowd (a massive crowd in my case) has never been so true.

I could say that after almost four months at university I don’t actually really know a soul and not a soul knows me, even though I am regularly surrounded by hundreds of people in a lecture hall. Of course there were various “introduce yourself” rounds at the beginning but where did these people go afterwards? Like when you changed your schedule after one week and suddenly found yourself in a new group when the introductory rounds are over?

There is always a way to exchange a few nice words with someone and the more people there are, the greater the variety but at the end of the day, chances are that this girl who asked you how to get to the film and drama department on a rainy Tuesday afternoon will never cross ways with you again. Instead, you could be approached by a student from the student parliament the next day who will try to convince you with all this strength to vote for the Young Communists Party during elections next week.

In a place as big as this one, people always come and go and if you want to hold on to any of them, you better like them quickly so you still have enough time to exchange phone numbers or something.

Yet, my humble social skills put aside, the anonymity here is not too bad after all. Being “just a number” has its practical sides, too. No one can actually tell whether I chose to sleep in one day or not. No one can point out exactly that I sometimes spend my time in a lecture doing crochet under my desk and if I ever get into a political argument with my professor or ask a stupid question in general, I don’t have to worry about that awkwardness following me for the rest of my time here. Let’s be honest, not even the people in my small seminars know what my name is. The next day they won’t even be able to tell that it was me who spoke.

I noticed that the days go by quicker than they used to when I was in school. I go to class, I listen and doodle on the side and then I go home. I can let my mind wander if I want to and I don’t have to speak when I don’t want to. All I do is listen which in a way, is easier than listening and answering questions because no one else will, put together. All in all, I am my own master when it comes to learning so I have less reasons to be nervous like I used to be in school. In fact, the system here is so flexible, some students live in one town of Germany but are enrolled in university in a different state. They show up for exams only and still get their degrees in the end.

I do however, greatly miss the possibility to know my professors. It was very easy to find a common ground with a teacher in school. The classes were small and the teacher was always part of the faculty. You could ask them for help or you could drop by during break or lunch to discuss stuff that interests you both.

In university that does not seem so much doable to me. The professors that I have this semester are somewhat “very important people”. Lecturing is not even the main part of their work as researchers and political scientists. They drop by here occasionally to give their educated speeches. Some even come here from other states in Germany. So if you think about it, they don’t have the time to chat with their students about anything and everything. It is only a matter of clarifying things you did not understand when reading along on their PowerPoint. They do however, encourage us to come to them with questions about exams or our term papers for which we need an appointment.

It is difficult to think that it would be possible to look up to our professors as givers of advice, people we can turn to when we can’t move forward intellectually. We are simply on a too professional level now but who knows whom I will have the pleasure of dealing with next semester?  Besides, German teachers and professors generally prefer to keep a distance to their students, compared to my experience with Americans and Canadians.

In curiosity of what the next semester will bring, I notice that indeed I am closer to today’s last seminar than I was before. J