This was day one and after a bit of a walk along the beach, I was sitting in a little taverna, sipping a cool drink and looking out across the bay. Sun, heat, the Med – I could feel the stress and tension starting to drop off as I eased into holiday mood.
In Berlin, it is often worth looking down for interesting signs.
You find Stolpersteine all across the city, remembering people who had lived in those buildings and who died in concentration camps.
Around Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, you find plaques reminding us of people who managed to escape from East to West Berlin in that particular place:
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In recent months, there has been a lot of talk in the UK media about “an unverified, anonymous letter that set out a strategy for a group of hard-line Muslims to install sympathetic staff and governors in Birmingham schools.” You can read more about the whole story here. I don’t want to go into the ins and outs of it all (I understand way too little about it to do that).
What struck me was the picture above. Golden Hillock is one of the schools at the centre of the story. It is also a school I have been in many a time. A number of years ago, I was helping with school assemblies in the area, and Golden Hillock was one of the schools we’d go into. Which means that when I look at the picture, I don’t think of the scandal, the questions, the arguments. I think of kids and their struggles. I think of teachers doing their best in a difficult situation. Because I have seen their faces. I have talked with them. I know this story involves real people.
How often do I forget that? Day in day out, I hear so many news story. Stories about places I know nothing about. It is so easy to forget that behind it all, there are real people. Let this picture serve as a reminder of that.
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The picture of this empty Russian train heading from Moscow to the Ukraine caught my eye because it brings back so many memories. Over teh years, I have spent a fair few days and nights on Russian trains and this is not what they should look like! Usually they’re full of life, crowded with people who have brought enough food to last for 2 weeks, rather than the 20something hours the journey should take.
Very quickly, a temporary community is built, food and drink shared. And if you’re lucky enough not have someone near you who has had rather too much to drink, they can be fun times.
Now the trains are empty, no one wanting to head to the Ukrainian coast for a holiday.
The thing is, I have been in that building. And waited in front of it for some considerable time. Years ago, but still. We had taken the overnight train from Moscow to Kiev (see above). Before going on to the conference we were to attend, we had to make sure we would be able to get back into Russia a few days later. Which required getting a visa. So we headed straight from the station to the embassy. For what felt like a very long time, we had to wait for the place to open. It was cold (February mornings in Kiev are definitely not warm…) and I seem to remember there being a lot of annoying dogs around.
At one point, it seemed like we wouldn’t even make it in. Too many people ahead of us in the queue. But then one of the guards realised we were German. He had lived in East Germany and liked the place. So he let us in and we got our visas.
Very strange when the news story we get so used to seeing suddenly feature places we know!
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“I wonder what different people see as they watch this?” That was the question in my mind as this Guiness advert was making the rounds on Facebook on St Patrick’s Day. Do we all see the same thing?
There is the obvious story. Rather silly, but endearing and fun. A dog herding a bunch of guys into a pub for a Guiness.
What about all the sub-plots, though? How many outside the UK will have heard of “One Man and His Dog“? Already the plot is slightly less random.
And the Indian restaurant. Not just any restaurant, but an Indian one. Couldn’t really be anything else. “Going for a curry“. So much part of British life. It implies a night out with friends. Not really significant in the advert but still there. But lost to many who lack the background.
Silly, I know. What does it matter whether or not we get these things. But.
How often does that happen in the stories we tell each other? Stories about ourselves? Phrases we use, little references – all are significant. But the other likely will miss those. And we feel misunderstood, not really known.
Even when we share a lot of the same frame of reference that happens. How much more between different cultures! It is so easy to think we understand and then to pass judgement. Yet we only hear what’s on the surface and so easily miss what’s behind, the real meaning.
What we see, what we hear, can be so wrong, so far from what is meant.
Oh for the wisdom to hold my tongue, to listen, to seek understanding!
“Scenes and Narratives from German History” (first published in London 1861) and German textbook for Russians (published 1934), with handwritten translations into Russian.
Berlin is full of history. The Siegessäule (in the background, built 1873) commemorates various Prussian victories. Prussia is no longer even a country! Or anything, really. And with all that’s happened in German history since then, anything remotely nationalistic is a definite no-no.
Yet “Goldelse” (as Berliners affectionately call her) is as much part of Berlin life now as she was then. History might be forgotten, monuments remain and take on a new and different significance.