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.

 

Dear Coward From Platform 5,

you will probably never read this because you have no idea who I am but I am sure that there are many more of your kind out there so why not just say it anyway?

I still wonder what you were thinking, sticking your hand up my skirt. You did it in passing by. Casually, like it’s something one would just do every now and then. Not brushing slightly against it, not accidentally touching it because you were in a hurry. ALL. THE. WAY. UP.  UNDER. THE. DAMN. FABRIC. Don’t tell me there wasn’t enough room for your cold, bony fingers otherwise on a perfectly empty escalator as you were walking up the stairs.

Some may say that I shouldn’t make a big deal out of this. That these things happen and that I should maybe even be “grateful” you  found me attractive enough to touch me in that manner. I know such people and I wonder how much respect they have for themselves (and others) if this is the way they think.

I don’t see any show of affection or attraction here. What I see is some self righteous coward. You are a coward, sir, because apparently this is the only way you can manage to get your hands on a woman instead of just having the balls to approach one the normal way.

I bet you can’t stand rejection. I bet this is why you do things like that. You compensate your own failure by pretending to own the world. You think you can do whatever the hell you want because you are a man and all the women in this world could be at your feet in an instant. You  are the sexiest beast on earth, you think, but you just didn’t feel like making use of that today, am I right? Today you just wanted something quick. To remind yourself of how great you can be if only you want to.

Just because you think I have a nice body doesn’t give you the right to touch it when you feel like it. Regardless of whether I am single or married. I don’t care if this doesn’t count as intercourse to you or anyone who shrugs their shoulders at this. You want something from a man or a woman, you ask for it first! Just like you may not take a picture of someone without their permission, you may not grab them and check out their body parts for softness like they are a piece of fruit on a market stand.

This is not about wearing skirts or dresses either. If she’s wearing a skirt, if she’s showing too much skin, she’s asking for it, they say.

Let me tell you something: Not every person is into short skirts. Not everyone gets their brains blown out at the sight of legs. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder as they say. For some, an Amish style outfit totally does it. Some people like curvy blondes, some are fascinated by Tomboys in biker boots and piercings. It is not up to me to account for every single taste that’s  out there when getting dressed! It’s about men (and women) keeping their shit together when their brains get fried from deprivation of sex.

I had men who were old enough to be my father whistle at me in the streets of Riyadh as I walked by, dressed in an abaya with a hijab on my head. Black from head to toe, shaped like a walking tent. So don’t you dare telling me that this is about clothes. Men who catcall after women or try to get their hands on them without permission are a type of men who will do such a thing regardless of what a woman is wearing. The fact that she’s a woman (or a man if the harasser is female) is enough to get them going. THAT plus their own imagination is all it really takes.

That said, you are not being nice, you are not being masculine, you are not doing me a favor. You are being a fucking coward, sir.

 

 

Happy Halloween

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Photo by: Toa Heftiba

For the last couple of days, on the news feeds of my social media accounts, Halloween jokes have been shared and costumes and make-up presented with a pinch of pride.

Growing up in Berlin and never having been anywhere near the United States or Canada, this holiday had always appeared to me as something…let’s just say “rather American”.

Even though one can find tons of decorations for this theme, I have never seen carved pumpkins lightening up the porches of houses or the windows of apartments in Berlin. Just like there are tons of Halloween decorations for one’s home, there are probably as many parties around here, where it’s all about looking spooky (or at least being dressed up as something) and having fun to ear-shattering music and expensive booze.

The only children dress ups I have ever known and been part of, were the ones we had in elementary school every once in a while but I have never, not even when I used to live in a house, come across groups of excited children roaming the streets in search of candy.

Therefore I have always assumed that Halloween was just another reason for us Germans to throw a party when (or because) there is no time to invade Mallorca on a short notice. I didn’t think much when I spotted a little girl dressed up as a witch, waiting in line at the supermarket next to her father today. But a few minutes ago, I heard someone ring my doorbell three times. After a few seconds of confusion I realized that the whole “trick or treat” thing was actually happening. In my apartment building, in a far, far away part of Berlin that even some locals  know from legends only without ever having been here. Who else would be standing at my door at this hour and weather?

I had no choice but to remain silent until I heard the muttering of children’s voices and tiny steps becoming more and more silent with the increasing amount of stairs walked. I have never felt so bad about not having any child- appropriate candy in the house. I really hope they had more luck elsewhere.

So even if Halloween is not such a big deal here, no matter where you are from,  I guess it is always good to have candy at hand. You never know.

Germans and Small Talk

I started watching a vlog by a charming American woman who lives in Munich with her German husband. In her cheerful voice full of positive energy, she talks about living in Germany, explaining different aspects of the daily life here to those from abroad while also addressing habits and the lifestyle in the United States.

In one of her  videos she talked about how small talk is not really a thing here in Germany compared to the U.S. and that got me thinking.

I thought to have noticed that difference, too especially after having met some Americans and Canadians during my time at international schools but until now I somehow thought that maybe this had something to do with my own attitude untl I heard other Americans share the same thoughts with me.

I don’t want to generalize. Berlin is such a multicultural place that it is often impossible for me to tell if someone is German or maybe has foreign roots just by plain first sight. What I did notice by living here is that strangers don’t talk to each other very much, especially not spontaneously, unless the situation requires it; with some exceptions of course.

I used to have the urge to have random conversations just to be nice and maybe make new friends but as time passed I noticed that whenever I approached someone spontaneously to have small talk, people wondered what I actually needed from them. In Germany, so I felt, you talk to people with a particular purpose, at least most of the time. If you talk just for the hell of it, the other person might feel like you are wasting their time or be generally surprised about why you are talking to them.

I have also noticed that over the past years, if I actually ever had engaged in small talk, then it was with middle-aged or elderly people. It is more likely that you will spontaneously be discussing the surprisingly low price of strawberries at the Turkish store with a middle-aged customer who just happens to be standing near you, than with someone in their 20s.

I remember how I stood in an immense crowd on the 25 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall a few years back, watching as the balloon barrier was released into the night sky. There was an older lady next to me and somehow we started talking and she told me all about where she was on that historical date 25 years ago. How her family and her were sitting in front of the TV, not able to believe what was happening. Of course she was obviously able to relate to the historical situation but I guess that if I were to chat up a person my age at lets say the yearly gay pride parade, my chances of engaging in a conversation would be lower in Germany than maybe somewhere else.

And somehow that anti small talk attitude got me, too. Not that I don’t like it but the few times it did actually happen to me with people my own age, I was very much taken by surprise.

I was doing groceries one night and got in line behind a group of young people who were definitely travelers. One of them turned around, looked at me and smiled. He asked me something. I don’t exactly know what he said. Maybe something like how I was doing and what I was up to. Whatever it was,  I felt as if the situation was just like I would imagine it in a grocery store in America after all that I have heard. I was so surprised. I was standing there thinking: “Are you talking to me? Just like that?Out of nowhere?  Why?” I needed too long to say anything back and just smiled. He didn’t expect that response I guess and asked me if I did not understand English. 🙂

It does not stop at travellers though. I have met an exception to the rule only a few months ago. I was reading a book by a bus stop when a young woman with blonde hair sat next to me. She looked at the cover of the book I was reading (Fabian- The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner) and asked whether it was a war book. I looked up in surprise. Was she talking to me? Just like that? Without knowing me or wanting anything specific like asking what time it was or when the next bus was coming? Why was that? I told her it was a historical novel set shortly before WWII. She asked if it was okay if she smoked, lighted a cigarette and started talking about this one book she was reading, too and how this actor who played Walter White in Breaking Bad was playing in a new movie based on some other book (maybe even the one she was reading. I can’t remember today).

So maybe attitudes are slowly coming to a change but in general small talk is not such a big thing here in Germany. People like to mind their own business but who knows when you will meet an exception to the rule?

Being a Local in Berlin

A while ago, I wrote about why traveling to other places can be so much more exciting than one’s own hometown.

Today’s subject of my random thinking session after I had finally finished my French revision was what makes the difference between living in a country compared to just visiting it for a few days.

When you become a local somewhere you notice that the carefree days of being an explorer of the world slowly come to an end. Your daily life consists of many single fragments that usually don’t appear as such in the life of someone who only drops by for a visit.

For me, being a local here in Berlin is made up of living in a part of town that tour guides probably leave out on purpose because there is really not much to see here and the only travellers who ever get here are a couple of Canadian au pairs from Ontario who accidentally took the absolutely wrong bus.

My neighbors and I don’t know each other but living in the same building makes for some (weird) encounters. It includes me leaving my flat with a puzzled look at the box of bio-vegetables delivered to my neighbor in the early morning and left standing there at the door all day until she gets home. I find it a bit strange because as a student on a government scholarship I cannot yet understand how someone has the spare money to have bio food delivered (!). My neighbor in turn must think of me as a weirdo for not yet having grasped the importance of ecologically friendly food. Neighbor etiquette in Germany includes taking the mail for the others in the building if they are not at home. On the other hand, I also get to pick up my mail from the others, having it handed over to me by people in a fluffy bathrobe or no clothes at all above the waist in the case of men.

Having lived here for so long now, part of my daily routine consists of sorting my trash into plastic, paper, glass, bio remains and “other waste”. Shall I dare to throw a bag into the wrong container while one of the elderly neighbors is around, I am in for an angry lecture on the importance of recycling. Last time the lady was so serious about it, she actually made me get the bag out of the wrong container again and throw it into the right one. I am not even sure how many travellers to Germany know we have a recycling system and if they do, how many of them actually care about sticking to it.

Me feeling like a local includes not making a noise on Sunday so that no one’s peace is disturbed. With the newly gained energy, I can then dedicate myself to handling bureaucratic matters, a process I probably wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. The bad mood and hopelessness of the employees is contagious but with time one learns to give a non-sarcastic answer to the question: “And your relatives let you live with them for free or what?”, when applying for government-funded housing. After that I can finish my day by buying groceries at the Turkish store near me, realizing that I have been on a  halal diet for months now without being Muslim because I am too tired to make it to the next hypermarket. Eating out is sinfully expensive and unlike tourists, most Germans do it for special occasions only.

And finally there is customer service! The longer you live here, the more likely you are to realize that the only person who can help you is yourself in about 50% of the cases. Being a local sometimes means getting a customer service where an electrician comes to your house who will tell you that you have no hot water because the fuses burned out. He will tell you that he does not have any of the fuses you need with him and that he does not know where to buy them because they are so outdated so you better go search yourself. At the end of the day he will still charge you 150€ for the visit because you called him after all.

This is not to say that everything is bad here. There are always good days and bad days, good people and not so good people. It seems to be all about the little details of life that a regular visitor probably doesn’t even think of. I can’t help but smile whenever people who are visiting tell me in excitement how much they would like to live here. 🙂

 

Have a Problem With the ‘Burqa’? Then Read This!

I have been living in Berlin for most of my life now and as I got older, I heard more and more from those around me about how they were bothered by Muslim women. By that they mostly referred to those who choose to wear a face veil additionally to their black coats and headscarves.

Before I proceed with today’s post, there is one thing that I would like to point out about the dress code for women in Islam, for the sake of information.

Burqa and abaya in Berlin

I think it is time to point out that a burqa is, based on my research and my own awkward confusion of the two while living in Riyadh, a cover for women that is made of one single piece and covers a woman from head to toe, with a net in the eyes area. It is mostly worn in Afghanistan. The abaya on the other hand, is a coat or dress like garment that is usually black. The headscarf (hijab) and the face veil (niqab) that has a slit for the eyes are two separate pieces that are worn with it. In my 16 years of living in Berlin I have never seen an Afghan burqa. Those women that you see here, wearing a black coat and a black face cover, are wearing an abaya, not a burqa.

—————- end of info section—————

Although there can be as many different reasons as there are people for why some are against the full cover, most people have pointed out to me that “they were simply bothered by the sight of women wearing all black with no face to be seen. They did not like to look at something like that.”

I have spent many months thinking about this and now that the conservative AfD party has become a member of the Landtag in three states recently , I would like, with this post, to address those people who are bothered by the sight of women in full cover.

I would like to point out to you all the things that for example I  (and maybe some others) “don’t like the sight of” in Germany although for some reason the majority of people doesn’t care. Oh, and before you start criticizing me, which you are welcome to do in the comments, keep in mind that I am NOT Muslim myself so please go find another argument.

I don’t like to see men walking around shirtless in the summer with their enormous beer guts showing. They don’t just walk around here. They also take the train and the bus and sometimes other people have to sit next to them. I think shirtless people belong to the beach, not the city. I think having to look at a shirtless man who is not even in good shape, in a public place is somewhat disgusting and yet no one else seems bothered and I see it every year again.

I don’t like it when I have to watch  (young) people showing off how much they like each other in public. Here, if you look closely, young people kiss and hug passionately on trains, in busses, parks, in the corners of supermarkets, public swimming pools and not to mention saunas.

In fact, I have come across and article today which gives suggestions for the best places where one can have undisturbed sex in public. I am still trying to figure out if maybe this was just a joke.

It bothers me to see how some 12 year olds dress today. Nowadays they show off more than is good for the human eye. I am bothered by how in the middle of the night some guys like to get drunk around Alexanderplatz, turn on the music and get (all) their pants down. People just keep walking. No one says anything. No one calls the police or tells them to stop. Like nothing ever happened.

Yes, I know that in theory indecent public behavior is against the law in Germany and yet I have never seen that law being enforced. While growing up, I was never made to believe by society that doing the things mentioned above is not okay. I have never seen any political or other discussions about how such behavior should be stopped like I see discussions on banning conservative Islamic clothing because people consider it “indecent”. Instead, it has constantly come to my attention how unacceptable it is if a woman decides to dress according to her religious believes.

I like the freedom I have here. I like my short skirts and my strapless dresses. I like to go out with my friends no matter what gender they are. I appreciate the fact that I can write this post and many others without having to fear for the police to come and get me at any moment for what I have just said. Yet I think that before we start criticizing other people from other cultures, we should get some order into our own. I don’t see why we should tolerate indecency and punish modesty.

Yes, I  believe that in a democratic country everyone should be able to do whatever the hell he or she wants to do as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone but if we want to play this card of freedom and tolerance, then this concept should work both ways.

If we consider it okay to be half-naked in public, we should then (even more) consider it okay if someone chooses to dress modestly. Those people who are demanding an actual ban on the face veil should demand an equally strong ban on indecent behavior.

Those women walking around all in black do so because it matters to them. It makes them feel like they are doing the right thing. It makes them feel closer to God and comfortable about themselves (among other things I presume) and as long as they don’t make other people follow their example (which I have never seen happening), we should absolutely leave them alone and mind our own business!

In comparison to that, there is NOTHING fulfilling, meaningful or right about making out in public or showing off your muscles which aren’t even there. Learn the difference before you decide what bothers your eye-sight and why.

————- ——end of rant—————–