Posted in Culture

200 countries, 200 years

Heartbreaking and encouraging all at the same time.

Encouraging, because overall, people are living longer and healthier lives.  In most places across the globe.

Heartbreaking, because there is and was so much that’s wrong.  The wars that caused so much death.  The selfishness that leaves others behind, across borders and within countries.

Encouraging because there is a lot of good that has come out of medical and technological advances that people have poured their hearts and energy into.

Heartbreaking because there also is a lot of bad.

Beyond all the numbers, there is so much that can never be measured, never be put into statistics – even snazzy ones like this.  All the stories, all the individual lives.  So much smaller and yet so much bigger than the whole.


Posted in Photography

The Power of an Image #1

Screen shot 2014-06-04 at 8.13.45 PMNow you see it, now you don’t.  Just a random bit of wall and yet so instantly recognisable.  And then it’s gone.  An image that tells so many stories.  A city once divided, now united.  Where once there were soldiers, now there is a cyclist (admittedly, in Berlin they can be rather dangerous as well).

An image that tells a story of courage, of hope, of suffering. Of joy and then disillusionment.  The story of a miracle.

An image that for some in this city is just history. For many, the story of something that shaped their lives. For others (like myself) something remembered but only experienced from a distance.  Yet still it chokes me up a bit.

The power of an image.

Picture from

Posted in Photography, Uncategorized

Weekly Photo Challenge: Monument

1779218_10152231050961445_803043737_nThe funny thing about monuments is that they are so familiar, so much part of the landscape.  Yet so often, what they were meant to commemorate is so far removed as to be virtually forgotten.

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.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Berlin In All Of Us


…a wonderful, terrible city that wears its scars on its sleeve…

…a city like a great organic stenograph, constantly writing the past into the present…

Looking at your city through someone else’s eyes.  Seeing things from a completely different angle.  A South African historian’s take on Berlin, interpreting her own country and its history in light of what she sees here.  Fascinating!

History.  There is so much ugliness, certainly here, and in South Africa as well.  What do you do with that?  This is what the author notices in Berlin:

The city carries its past crimes and defeats in plain sight. Walking from the Brandenburg Gate down the elegant stretch of the Strasse Des 17 Juni towards the Berlin Victory Column, you come upon the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten. An imposing structure with Russian lettering on its facade, this memorial to the Red Army soldiers who fell in the final days of the battle for Berlin in 1945 is arresting. The apex is an enormous statue of a Red Army soldier, his hand raised in haughty domination above the city he has conquered. The monument, built in the months after the end of World War II, is kept up by the City of Berlin. So there it is: the defeated Germans tending the monument of their conquerors, out of respect for what was defeated by those conquerors, which was Nazism.

In Berlin, history is everywhere.  There is no hiding it, ignoring it.  The Holocaust memorial, the double row of cobbled stones marking the path of the wall through the city, war memorials, Stolpersteine – it’s all there, people pass it every day.  It’s woven into the fabric of modern day Berlin.  Apparently (and I can only rely on the article for this), that is not the case in South Africa.  Her explanation:

In Germany, the perpetrators of Nazism were the German people, and they remained the majority who themselves had to carry forward the burden of accounting, acknowledging, healing and seeking redemption.

In South Africa, the white minority that perpetrated apartheid is now just a white minority, full stop. The mentality of the minority is often the laager, and old enmities can simmer and burn inside it. Now the national narrative is being retold from the perspective of the victims as victors. Is this why, I thought, standing before the Soviet monument in the Tiergarten, we care so little for this kind of tangible symbol of atonement in South Africa?

“…had to carry forward the burden…”  That’s probably it – had to.  There was no choice.  The evil that had happened was so stark, so in your face.  And everyone was a part of it.  Ignoring it, simply leaving it behind, would have felt like a very attractive option, I’m sure.  But it was not an option that was available.  Moving forward, yes.  But in that, weaving the past into the future.  We had no choice.  Maybe that was a blessing in disguise.  Some of it is sincere, some more a facade.  There are constant arguments and struggles over what it should look like.  But it is there.  However imperfectly.

How have you seen this played out in different places?

Do read Lauren van Vuuren’s full article here

Posted in Culture

Fragments of a Country


From where I was sitting, that was all I could read on the monument the other side of the square.  1918-1920?  What was significant about those years?  1914-1918, yes, that would make sense.  All across Europe we are used to seeing memorials for those killed in World War I.  But 1918-1920?  I had no idea.

This was my first visit to Tallinn/Estonia and I was sitting in Freedom Square (though I didn’t know that at the time).  1918-1920 was the Estonian War of Independence.  An independence that was short-lived, as Estonia was occupied again only 22 years later (by the Soviets, then the Germans and then the Soviets again), only regaining independence in 1991.

Centuries of occupation, now free at last.  A history that has shaped the people and the way they see the world.

Music featured very prominently in the opening evening of the conference I attended in Tallinn.  How very appropriate for a country that had a Singing Revolution and that boasts one of the largest amateur choral events in the world. And that produced one of my all time favourite pieces of music, “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt (see – or rather listen – above).  I was very glad we got to experience a strong Estonian influence, before entering the more generic culture of a European conference.

I love hearing Russian.  It’s a beautiful language and I get excited to still understand a word or a phrase here and there.  Here’s one of my favourite words: мороженое.  I love the way it sounds and I love the actual “thing” 🙂  So of course I noticed how much Russian was being spoken around me in Tallinn.  Estonia has always had a Russian minority but after being incorporated (if that is the right word…) into the Soviet Union, the government initiated a “population transfer”  (sounds kind of harmless…) which means that now about a quarter of the population are ethnically Russian.  After independence in 1991, about 30% of the population suddenly found themselves without citizenship in any country (though that figure is now down to about 8%).  So many big (political) and small (personal) stories here!

There is so much more: the fascinating mix of Scandinavian and Slavic influences – the high tech country (Skype was invented here!) with free wifi everywhere – honey beer (not sure there’s any deeper significance but I liked it :-)) – more glimpses into history: discovering the plaque below and Iceland being thanked for being the first country to recognise Estonian independence in 1991 (again, on both counts I had no idea!).

Fragments of a country, a culture, a people.  As with any jigsaw, each piece just raises more questions and promises more fun exploring.  Hope I get to go back soon to unearth more fragments and to see more context for the ones I already “have”!

Posted in Uncategorized

Walking on History

Last night, I was watching the movie “Valkyrie” about one of the failed attempts to assassinate Hitler.  In the final scene, most of the plotters are executed by firing squad.  This scene was filmed where it actually happened – at Bendlerblock here in Berlin (see picture above).  At the end, you were almost looking down into the courtyard.  Which is when it hit me: I have stood in the exact same spot where these brave men died.  Of course I knew that when I was there at the memorial but the scene in the movie brought it home in a much more powerful way.

Walking on history

In Berlin, you often do that quite literally.

You find these Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) outside a good number of buildings in Berlin (and elsewhere in Germany and beyond.  Read more here).  These particular ones I often pass on my way to the station.  What a powerful reminder of people who used to walk these same streets.

Admittedly Berlin has had more than its fair share of history but aside from the big stuff, I do often wonder about the lives that were lived in my little apartment in the 100 or so years before I moved in…

Posted in Uncategorized

Something Old, Something New

A few days ago, I had an interesting conversation with a Taiwanese friend of mine.  Somehow we got talking about history.  I was waxing lyrical about the National Trust and about discovering history by visiting historic places, rather than from textbooks.

She then commented that East Asians are often a bit disappointed when they come to the UK, because all they find here is history (her words, not mine!).  She was saying that people often prefer visiting the continent because there they get some history but also lots of modern technology.

It was one of those classic eye openers, of realising how different cultures see the same thing in totally opposite ways.  The Chinese are obviously very proud of their own history.  However, it seems that at this point, they are very intent on advancing economically, technologically, etc.  So what they are looking for when they go abroad is anything that could inspire and challenge them in that quest.  Looking to the future is what it’s all about.

For me (and this might just be a personal thing?), technology is useful, sometimes fun, but really no more than a tool.  When I visit another country or place, I would not be the slightest bit interested in what technology they might have but rather in where they’ve come from and what I can see of the cultural backdrop in front of which modern life is played out.

Wow, lots of potential for miscommunication – and for helping each other see a different angle!