vintage travels – greetings from berlin

June 21, 2009 at 1:55 am (travel)

Greetings from Berlin!!!

When I got off the train in Berlin, the first thing I saw was a couple of people wearing sandwich boards about american politics, and handing out papers. Naturally I went and talked to them, actually hoping they could point me to somewhere cheap to stay. They turned out to be the LaRouche youth movement and we got into quite a discussion. The one I was talking to was weaseling out of identifying as left or right, which is always annoying, but they certainly looked like a leftie cult, and on the topic of american politics and globalisation they sounded like it, too. Eventually they had to move off, and they offered to put me up for the night, so having nothing better to do, I tagged along. They met up with another half a dozen people, and we caught the u-bahn, where they sang on the train, in two or three part harmony no less, and made rousing speeches. When they announced that you can’t just sit on the train and look forward, the few passengers smiled, continuing to look straight ahead. At the station there were another thirty people or so, the whole group bar a dozen or so who were sick in bed. Eventually we all made our way to their headquarters, a large building in east Berlin, which includes a dozen dormitories with bunks and various other bedding arrangements on the floor, and a big room for eating and having meetings. They were all camping here for a week, after having been in Paris last week, but I found out later that they actually do this full-time! There was one person mentioned who held down a job, and one who went to uni. They spend all their time promoting the cause, educating themselves and doing ‘interventions’.

That night, they took me to an intervention. I was a little concerned as to what I was about to be involved in, but in the end we fronted up to a private evening of speakers at some American-German friendship society, with leaflets, and tried to get in. I would have liked to have heard what some of them were to say, and I’m not quite sure whether we were supposed to be in support or opposition, but when it was found that we were not on the guest list, we were turned away. So much for intervening; we stood safely outside the gates, and I froze, while the other five, twenty year old boys, discussed whether we should try to get in again, or climb over the fence (the gate stood wide open) to distribute the magazine, “Children of Satan 2”, to all the cars, or whether we should stand there and wait for everyone to come out, to give them the material in person, probably two hours later. There was further an intense discussion where everyone agreed that we were kicked out because the “synarchists” knew who we were and were scared of us. Then everyone agreed that it was a great coup that a few people who had walked out early had taken the magazine – and some had even smiled and been polite! We came back to a three hour debriefing, where I found out they had spent all morning at various stations, gone to one of the unis in the afternoon, and back to the stations in the evening. They got mixed responses at the uni, they were turned away by security when they fronted up, en masse, singing, but return in groups of two or three and did lecture bashes, which were mostly well received.

Over dinner I had a chance to speak to many people. Almost all were incredibly friendly. They came from france, germany, sweden, denmark, belgium and america, and a couple of brazilians were expected soon. Whenever they heard I was australian, they said ‘you know, we have an office in australia! you should get in touch’, and when they heard I was going to denmark, it was ‘you know, we have an office in denmark! you should get in touch.’ They talked of oligarchs and synarchists, (by which I think they mean anyone they don’t like), and how we should look to the truth. At which point I would have to tell them that I didn’t quite agree with their idea of ‘the truth’, and of a score of similar exchanges, only one accepted my right to have similar politics (on the level being discussed: Bush bad, Cheney bad, need an alternative…) without perfect agreement on the philosophy. It forever came back to Plato, I was also told that Leibniz would kick my ass, but even more frequent was ‘LaRouche said’, ‘Lyndon wrote’, ‘Lyndon told us’…

What I was waiting to see was the mosh brigades. I did receive an inadequate explanation of the name, some general in some army decided that with such turnover in troops, they had to be educated in small groups with the experienced teaching the new. In fact, it was a curious attempt at education through socratic method. Three of us were sitting at a table, half a dozen others wandering in later, and we were provided with copies of a paper by Gauss. It was a mathematical text, declaring that many mathematicians put too much unnecessary reliance in imaginary numbers, and proceeding to explain his new way of solving a particular problem, without using them so much. As we waded through paragraph after paragraph which carelessly explained the dispreferred methods of solving quadratic equations, most of us having insufficient maths backgrounds for the task, someone piped up to ask ‘but why did Lyndon want us to read this paper?’ Of course no one had the answer to her cryptic question, so, carefully not assuming the role of teacher, she proceeded to do the same job, and slowly, but without real dialogue, she supplied all the answers, or as many as we were going to get. Her point was something about how Gauss knew the real truth, and everyone else was blindly following some wrong and evil tradition… it wasn’t about understanding maths at all! She was then quiet for a while, only to turn around her page to display what she had been working on – a cartoon of many maths professors, fat and wearing wrinkly clothes, prostrate on the ground worshiping the idea of the square root of minus one! They proceeded to discuss these non-ideas of the philosophy behind the maths, before diligently turning back to the paper. As earnest as they were, I doubt Socrates would have been impressed. The other example I had of the style was where someone challenged me to double a square. He drew a rough little square on paper and wanted me to draw another of double the area. He doggedly refused to explain anything to me so that I could work it out for myself – but unfortunately this included not clarifying what he was asking, why I should do it, or anything else, so I was completely unprepared and could not do it. I never did find out whether it was a trick, or whether there was a way of doing it precisely, or whether, though I doubt it, it was actually a problem to which there could be several methods, which requires some creativity and thought. Once I was safely away a couple of people reminded me that if you draw a diagonal line from corner to corner of a square, that is the side length of a square with double the area of the original.

At any rate, I had been living there for 24 hours, and had been present for all the large group activities, and many people didn’t know I had gone and wandered around the city while they were out proselytising in groups of two or three. They naturally thought I was one of them, the Australian contingent, so I got to see some of the less public face of the movement, where, in the same breath as they called themselves revolutionary, they admitted to being ‘conservative, or rather preservative’. They talked of euthanasia as people being killed off in hospitals, and some abstract idea of life which is always worth living no matter what horrible hypothetical situation was presented. I naturally asked what they thought of abortion, and after some shuffling, one of them mumbled that surely they should be against it? This was typical of the group’s responses to my questions, the movement has some nasty views, but the most problematic ones obviously don’t get discussed too much with the people on the ground. They get told what they need to, what will keep them in the movement, motivated and isolated from the rest of the complex world. maybe if they stay to out-grow the youth movement they’ll be so indoctrinated by their strange experience of the world to never question things that, at the moment, most of them don’t want to think about. It’s all about a moral revolution! After dinner someone pulled me aside and in a round about way told me there was really no room for me that night. I was quite glad to run away as what I had just heard made many slightly disturbing loose ends fall into place about them, though it would have been nice to tell me this before 9pm. I set off with my coats and bags to find a youth hostel they had recommended, and wandered up and down a dark, snowy street with heavy bags looking for a non-existent hotel. I started talking to someone who confirmed there was no such place, and invited me in for coffee, which I was so tired that I accepted. I had to get myself out of there rather quickly, but still an orange juice and five minutes sitting in the warmth, without my bags on, did wonders for my ability to get back to the station and find a place to stay. By the time I checked into a backpackers hostel across the road from where I first got in to Berlin, everyone was asleep but I was more than happy to change in the dark and crawl into my slightly overpriced but secure bed.

The rest of my stay in Berlin, I was only in danger of freezing. There was much more snow on the ground than in Münster, and I tramped through inches of it, with piles of autumn leaves underneath, through an enormous park full of larger than life monuments, covering half of west berlin. I also got to walk over an icy stream, which was exciting. It felt quite peculiar, partly from insecure footing and partly from the idea of walking on a river. That day I made it to the Technical university, and found the stall of some kind of student union or strike action group, set up near the main entrance. They had the same complaints as the Münster people, although there was obviously more happening, as could be expected in a major city. Apparently the Free University (free as in not legally restricted in which subjects it can offer) cut its sociology department down to one lecturer, who somehow felt unwelcome, and left to set up the Open University. I don’t know much about how it works, but it seems to run whole courses and carry on like a small department, while it uses a few rooms in another uni. German unis seem to be very tolerant of students using the campus in whatever way they please. The larouche people were escorted off the premises when they were singing and making noise, but then they didn’t belong there, either. There are banners draped everywhere around the campus, and my first thought on seeing them was ‘how did they get permission to do that???’ Notably there was an enormous one, somehow secured to the high ceiling, a very prominent position in the main official entrance to the uni, some kind of snowed over display with broken pickets out front, and six bedsheets, each bearing a letter of “streik” hanging out of a row of windows high up in the building across the road. Of course the right to such free expression, in protests, alternative education or even setting up stalls in prominent places is likely to be one of those things under attack in the restructure of the next two years.

Apart from a visit to the Pergamon museum, an amazing mix of ancient greek, babylonian, assyrian and I can’t remember what else artifacts, I spent the rest of my time wandering around east berlin. It’s an amazing place; there are some fancy old buildings, and some shiny new ones, but the majority of the place is full of the big grey severe blocks that one can expect to find there. They are very beautiful in there own way, they are solidly located in history and still have a real atmosphere about them. They are covered in graffiti which is much more expressive than what I’m used to seeing, and besides, there is a certain style and spare elegance about much of the architecture itself.

I made it down to the East side gallery, one of the few remaining sections of the Berlin wall, which is covered in a series of paintings. It seems they were painted throughout the period the wall was standing, and many have been restored since that time. It is a long wall, separating a highway from a river, and despite never having been so cold in my life, I walked the length of it. Many of the paintings are beautiful, all in different styles, some exploring themes of freedom or the lack thereof, and some not, but the wall itself is fairly innocuous. It had a few sections of barbed wire along the top, but so did north sydney girls high. The wall reminded me more of any other barrier against a highway, rather than a tool of repression or site of resistance. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to hunt down the other one or two sections of the wall still in existence, to see if they still carry more meaning. On saturday morning I had to set off back to Münster where I got to see the place Marie-Claire and Gerwin are about to move into. It’s further out of the city and had views of a cute row of houses beside a field with horses and sheep, and it’s enormous compared to where they are now. It’s a unit on two levels, and upstairs has a very high ceiling, which is only about half a metre wide, and then falls steeply down to the walls, which are less than a metre tall. There are no light fittings, just wires sticking out, which is apparently common in Germany; the tenant supplies almost everything, including lights and kitchen! This was a rare find, already having a kitchen.

The next morning I got on another train to Copenhagen. I felt a little ill, but I wasn’t sure why until I looked behind me, to discover I was sitting in the very last row of the non smoking section, which was marked off from half a dozen people chain smoking, by panels of glass between the seats, yet absolutely nothing closing the aisle. I was almost at Hamburg, where I had to change trains, but I was in such a hurry to get away that I got off at the stop called Hamburg – Harburg, and by the time I lugged my dodgy suitcase, backpack and other stuff up the stairs and realised I was in the wrong place, my train had left. I easily got another train to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, but I had missed my connection, and there wasn’t another train for four hours, most of which I spent dragging my luggage from one end of the huge station to the other, trying to find information, waiting for another train which never came and would have had an extra two connections and only saved an hour anyway, and trying to phone my mentor who was to pick me up at the station. Eventually I found a service point with a phone that I could use to call another country, but when it was a wrong number I dismally settled down to wait, figuring there was nothing else I could do. Luckily I started talking to someone who decided to help me for the reason that I was roughly the same age as her son. She lived in Denmark, so she knew that it was the code I had been told to phone that was wrong, and she let (made!) me use her phone as soon as we were over the border, got me to call again when we realised we would arrive 25 minutes earlier than we had thought, helped when the conductor fussed about me not having a reservation, gave me money for a payphone in case I couldn’t find them, made me eat half her food, bought me a drink, and gave me an impromptu Danish lesson! For this, I was obliged to sit with her in the smoking section, although it wasn’t as bad as the other train. The end of this story is that I did make it to Copenhagen, my mentor found me and it all worked out; I have my first class at 9 tomorrow morning, so I shall hopefully be able to send both these emails tomorrow and leave an account of this place to another day.




1 Comment

  1. Skull / Bones » Blog Archive » Robert Dreyfuss — Then and Now said,

    […] like Jones, Beck, and Paul are mere populists with no ideas.  This man needs to attend one these meetings discussed by this Berlin traveller to get his mind straight on that […]

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