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?

A Breakfast of Coffee and Waterfalls

Travel begins where the  supply of modern-day coffee as we know it ends.

Since I wasn’t in Italy or any other coffee-famous nation at that very moment, this first full thought of the day made more sense than one might think. All American (coffee) chains of Mexico City were left behind hours ago. What lay ahead of us was the unknown, a small village with an extra serving of desperately needed fresh air, where women in traditional clothes and men with sombreros on horseback were simply part of the picture.

Maybe and just maybe, the most authentic travel experiences begin when we leave our comfort zones behind and everything we’ve ever known. I thought so, as I looked down at the coffee in front of me. My original order of café con leche, por favor must have been interpreted to suit the local setting.

20170826_090924There was something nearly artisanal about the way that coffee stood in front of me in its unusual mug and its strong smell.  Café de Olla: what an interesting union of so many spices and so little coffee. I imagined it being prepared in one big pot with an indefinite amount of spices floating around in it, like it is common with mulled wine in Europe.

When the milk to your coffee comes steaming hot in a small, separate glass, be sure that the usual  mechanically produced cappuccino or latte macchiato which have once introduced you to the world of coffee , for now, belong to the past.

Before I left for Mexico, I was sure that the person coming back would be a different one from the one who left. Part one of this transformation consists in getting used to a lot of things. Things like realizing that far away from the big cities growing more modern every day, it is totally fine to eat your quesadilla with your hands. There is no need to worry about the locals watching, most of whom are likely to be doing the same with their breakfast as you.

I bit into my quesadilla and registered the flavor dominance of the corn tortilla enclosing the melted cheese and the champignons. Another thing worth getting used to.

Our new friend, the dog, first curious about the contents of our plates had quickly come to understand that cheese was not his thing after all. He remained seated patiently with his head on my lap, waiting for occasional pats on the head. How is it that dogs always come to the people who are afraid of them the most?

I don’t think he was anyone’s dog. Just the village’s as a whole. The 11th article of the constitution of the Republic of Uzupis in Lithuania comes to mind, which states:

“Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.”

Near the village of Valle de Bravo we ate our breakfast in silence while the air was heavy with the smell of spices, corn tortillas and moist soil.

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I wished for the skillfulness of a mountain goat as  I came up and down the path to the waterfall of Cascada Velo De Novia. But no matter what any of us do, no matter our hiking experience, I am certain that the women of the village in their colorful, traditional dresses and worn moccasins will always be a step ahead of us.

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Japan Festival Berlin 2015

Some pictures from the Japan Festival Berlin. An Exhibition about Japan with plants, paintings, beautiful kimonos, green tea flavored KitKat chocolates, live performances and much more.

Enjoy some impressions in pictures.

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So my friend made me sit on the tiny chair to the right...
So my friend made me sit on the tiny chair to the right…

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Erasers. According to my Japan- crazy friend, they are pretty much useless but they look deliciously cute, don't they?
Erasers. According to my Japan- crazy friend, they are pretty much useless but they look deliciously cute, don’t they?

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Kimono pattern. Too bad I already too many of them...
Kimono pattern. Too bad I already too many of them…

Books and Art at Café Moskau

‘Don’t you dare to spill that Jim Beam and Cola can all over me! DON’T YOU DARE!!’ I thought silently while angrily eyeing the man who was standing next to my seat and was slightly swinging from right to left as the already over filled train that was taking a turn just in that moment.

The horror of being on the train, surrounded by already slightly drunk Hertha soccer fans on a Saturday morning only lasted till the olympic stadion station.  The fans were getting themselves into the mood by drinking from their beer or Jim Beam Cola cans, singing songs in support of their favorite team. As the doors opened at the olympic stadion and as the crowd started to slowly get out of the enclosed space, it was finally possible to take a deep breath of air.

A few minutes later I was already walking down Alexanderplatz, where the Christmas market was already in full progress despite daylight still being out. Seagulls screamed and circled high above my head (yes, seagulls in town. You read it right), while I was leaving behind West Berlin, getting lost among the remains of Stalinist buildings that lead into the Karl- Marx- Alley in the east.

In front of me emerged what used to be the number one meeting point for the youth of East Berlin, the café Moskau (Moscow).

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What used to be one of the most famous ‘party’ locations was now hosting an art and book fair.

I am not so sure whether the Café Moskau still serves its original purpose, or whether it has been re- made into something else while keeping its name, just as it happened with the Karl Marx Bookshop further down the street in 2008 . I entered a room, its stagnant air already sensible before one actually entered. In front of me I saw a sea of tables, books and people, the last of which moved slowly up and down like waves.

It may not have been any comparison to the book fair in Frankfurt on the Main or Leipzig but nevertheless did this exhibition have something unique of its own. It was a fair of books that at the same time were more art items than books alone. Whether that was due to the strange names of some of the books or their contents is up to debate.

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Some of the books were similar to catalogues of antique poster designs or similar visual projects while others dealt with philosophy or addressed more or less controversial issues in society. As you can see, probably nothing like the average book fair one might have expected but nevertheless did the young authors, artists and publishers (that probably no one has ever heard of before) do their best to attract the curious customers.

DSC05008 Walking around and looking at all of these books that seemed quite mysterious to me, I heard all sorts of languages. Starting with the regular German, going over to English, skipping to Russian and Arabic and ending in something like Chinese and Czech.

Towards the end of my round through the crowded hall, I passed by probably the funniest product of the fair. I don’t remember the exact name of it, but the longer I look at the pictures, the more I am tempted to call them ‘grammar meds’. The items went under the umbrella term ‘Word Pharmacy’.

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conjunctions, articles, adverbs

The idea behind this originally Dutch product is that the boxes are labelled like the packages of meds that you get in a pharmacy. However, instead of actual pills, there is only a package leaflet that explains the rules and the usage of what the product stands for. So if you buy a pack of adjectives, you will find a leaflet that will explain to you the usage of adjectives in German with examples.

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‘Look at this’, the vendor told me, pointing at a line on the white sheet of paper.’Here it says that, on children below the age of three, adjectives are only to be used with the permission of their parents.’ What a joke, I thought to myself. Is there any better way to hint at the overly protective behavior of today’s German newly minted parents? I mean nowadays you probably even can’t get near a small child without his or her parents turning into protective furies. At least some of them.

Grammar medicine- ideal for those struggling with the odds of German grammar. Quick recovery guaranteed. 🙂

On the Wrong Side of the Fence: The Finale of the 25 Year Anniversary

 

 

 

 

 

Berlin is usually full of tourists and as opposed to places like Barcelona or Amsterdam, there is not really a particular time of the year which one could call ‘the tourist season’ or at least not that I know of any such thing. So the tourists are there but the longer you live here, the more they blend in with the rest of the population and become almost invisible.

But then there are things like national holidays which is where even more tourists come out of their caves and all of a sudden the streets are so full of locals and tourists, you can’t even hold your phone at your ear to call your friends to ask where they are because if you do, chances are your elbow will end up in someone’s eye. Combined with the union strike of our ‘beloved’ train drivers the all-inclusive pack of hysteria was complete.

The finale of the fall of the Wall celebrations was such an event. In fact, there are not many days as special as that one for us Germans, so pretty much everyone went crazy about the event even weeks in advance and the absence of sufficient public transport did not scare away neither people with bikes (WHY would you bring a bike to such a crowded event??? WHY?!) neither the young and old parents who couldn’t think of anything better than bringing their babies along with them…in strollers!!!  ..

As I was standing by the Vapiano restaurant on Potsdamer Platz and waiting for my couchsurfing friends to show up, I watched as the place got more and more crowded. Apparently, many people had the idea to meet up at Vapiano because everyone loves Italian food, right? The minutes passed and just after I had finished explaining to a Russian couple where to find the IMAX movie theater I got a call from a friend who had only made it to Friedrichstraße and was by the Brandenburg Gate.

Brandenburg Gate, a Berliner would think. From Potsdamer Platz? No problem. It is only 600 meters away but at events like these, when it is cold and dark and you don’t know whether you can’t watch your step because of the darkness or the people around you, you soon reach a fence and a bunch of policemen. Here is where you realize that you are on the wrong side of the fence. How ironic, given the nature of the actual event. Celebrating freedom and the union between friends and family who have been scattered all over East and West Berlin and here we were now.

 

That amusing feeling alone was probably worth the whole trip. I reached for my phone and tried to call back, saying that there is no way I would make it to  the other side, when I noticed that the whole communication network in the area collapsed. No phone signal and no internet for probably half an hour. An apocalypse in order to end life on earth? Please, I bet the world is gonna end at some other, more intense social event when people start panicking, networks collapse and public transport gets shut down. No zombies needed.

While I was standing there and waiting for the balloons to be released into the air as a sign of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of freedom in Germany, I got into a conversation with an older lady next to me.

“Where have you been when it all happened 25 years ago?”, I asked her.

“I was at home, looking after my little son”, she said. “I was sitting in front of the TV, watching the whole thing happen on the screen and couldn’t believe my eyes.”

The mass of people grew so much and so rapidly, I started to think that my trip to Batha, a bazaar in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where my friends and I tried to get through a huge crowd of people (by the Arabic definition of ‘huge crowd of people’) until I started to panic, was the best preparation for the situation in Berlin on the 9th of November. After the show was over, everyone headed back to the train station.

When it comes to crowds as big as this, the worst thing to do is to stop walking. Whatever happens, don’t stop. Even if you actually have to continue going straight on but the crowd navigates you to the right. Just go to the right.

By the time we reached the station my face nearly got in very direct contact with hot wine and grilled sausages because for some reason, even when streets get full as hell and you can’t see your own feet, people decide they NEED booze and food.

When we got to the underground station, we realized it was closed so all of us moved on to the next option which is the opposite of underground trains (however S-Bahn is called in English). Same disaster as outside. Policemen everywhere trying to prevent hysteria and so many people crowded on the platforms that the same amount of people had to wait upstairs until there was space for more people to come down.

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Since I live pretty much at the end of town, I started thinking whether I would have to spend the night on the platform or whether I should casually walk over to the Ritz on the other side of the street and ask if they have a free room somewhere. My chances of getting home that night seemed minimal but as it so happens, patience is a good virtue to have or else I would not be sitting here and typing this.

 

Celebrating 25 Years of Unity and Rights and Freedom

When I was a little girl, still living in Belarus, I did not know about the Berlin Wall. I did not know about the cold war or about the fact that one country was once divided into two, just by a concrete wall.

But today, as I am now somewhat of a grown up and have several years of history class behind me, I can’t really believe that I am yet again witnessing such an important historical event, just as I couldn’t believe it when I lived in Kosovo when Albania celebrated 100 years of independence.

Who would have thought, back in the days of my childhood, that one day I will be living and studying in Berlin to join thousands, and I really mean thousands of people (the last time I have been around so many people at once was at a market in Saudi Arabia) to celebrate one of the most important national holidays of German history?

Yesterday I already paid a visit to the Brandenburg Gate to have a look at the Lichtergrenze, an art project made of a chain of lights that follows the streets of Berlin for about 15 km where the wall used to be.

I am off to the second part of the event in a few hours. Till then I hope you enjoy these pictures! 😉

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Berlin Festival of Lights 2014- The Berlin Dome

I was going through the memory of my SD card this morning, when I found some pictures I took last October during the festival of lights in Berlin. This is the Berlin Dome near the Museums Island. Enjoy.

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