Monthly Archives: June 2012

This is a story of a city that has been cold, grey and rainy for most of June. Temperatures hover around the lower sixties and people are beginning to look hollow with fear that this summer in Berlin could be as shitty as the last.

Berlin is infamous for its miserable winters and for that reason, its residents need long, warm, bright days to balance them off and keep them from losing their minds. Last summer did not provide so this year, everyone’s walking around like a shell-shocked veteran, jumping at the slightest raindrop and dark cloud.

At these moments, I wonder why anyone ever settled here in the first place. Slavic tribes began wandering around Brandenburg in the 6th century, and Berlin was officially founded in 1237 -a date that makes me shiver when I think about what winter must have been like then. I took out a book from the library called “Berlin in the Middle Ages” to try to figure out what drew people to this dark, cold plain so far from the sea. The very first chapter begins with this sentence: “Berlin is favored by nature… offering a temperate climate and good conditions for human settlement…”

About a week ago I got a postcard from Amanda who was traveling in Turkey, a hot Mediterranean country from which almost ten percent of Berlin’s population comes. The card was from Ephesus, which Amanda writes is an impressive ancient city that was “Ionian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Egyptian all at various times.” This makes perfect sense -a coastal city in a warm climate, no wonder so many different populations settled there over thousands of years.

Ephesus is also the site of the Seven Sleepers, a legend which has particular pull for Berliners right now. The story goes that in 250 AD, seven Christian youths fled persecution from the Roman authorities by hiding in a cave in Ephesus. Inside they fell asleep and did not wake up until some 300 years later, when they were shocked to find the city had become Christianized. There is also an Islamic version of the story with a dog that entered the cave with the seven youths, as told in the Qur’an.

Today is Seven Sleeper Day in Germany -not another Christian holiday but a carefully observed date of meteorological importance. According to farming folklore, the weather today is a good indicator of how it will be for the next seven weeks. When I lived in Berlin in 2000, this proved to be quite accurate. It rained on the 27th and then almost everyday the rest of the summer, with a brief respite in August when it was dry and warmed slightly before dipping into a brisk, cold fall.

I am happy to report that the weather this morning looks promising -it’s a bit warmer and it’s sunny and dry so far, though the weather report is less optimistic:

I will attempt to translate some Seven Sleeper sayings:

Das Wetter am Siebenschläfertag sieben Wochen bleiben mag -the weather on Seven Sleepers Day seven weeks will so stay

Wie’s Wetter am Siebenschläfertag, so der Juli werden mag – what the weather’s like on Seven Sleepers Day is how July wants to stay

Wenn die Siebenschläfer Regen kochen, dann regnet’s ganze sieben Wochen -when the Seven Sleepers cook up rain, seven weeks will it rainy remain

We’ll see what the Seven Sleepers cook up this summer, and it better be sun.


My friend Matze is part of a very special project transforming an old freight train depot into an artists residence. His organization Kunst Republik won the bid from the city to renovate the building for a new use and it’s a huge, ambitious and exciting undertaking. I first saw the station under construction in November  -workmen everywhere were sealing up walls, laying bricks, cutting things with loud power tools. The building had been closed for sometime and held interesting artifacts from the GDR and even a Nazi-era poster asking for support for a “winter-aid” program. There’s a “panic-room” on the ground floor, complete with slots to fire at your enemies from, and a bunker in the basement. At one point, a Chinese restaurant stored a bunch of ornate wall panels there and forgot to pick them up. There’s still a lot of mystery about the building and everything that transpired there.

Yesterday I was there again to help with a “cleaning action.” Most of the construction is finished and help was needed to do some of the less technical work, mainly sweeping and washing the floors, sorting and picking up trash from the painting, etc. It was amazing to see how far things had come -all the walls are built and the ceilings repaired, everything covered in a fresh coat of white paint. All the windows are installed and tile laid -it looks really beautiful! Tons of light poured into the building and the large space seems full of possibilities.

The work was hard and incredibly dirty (unbelievable how much dust there was), but I didn’t mind it at all. We had a really nice lunch sitting together outside on the platform eating pizza and watermelon. The landscaping around the station is finished and there’s a fantastic view of the old brick buildings of the west port along the Spree. It’s really such a spectacular place and I am so impressed with Kunst Republik. All day, I kept thinking about the scene in Andrei Rublev in which a young man directs dozens of workers in the seemingly impossible task of casting a bell. Only after the bell is finished does he admit that he didn’t know what he was doing, and you realize that the whole thing was executed by pure faith -not to suggest that Matze & co. don’t know what they are doing, but the sheer scale of this project certainly required a leap into the unknown, and it’s fantastic to see it being realized.

I had a really nice time celebrating my birthday with my Berlin friends yesterday. We had a big picnic in Humboltdhain Park. I was very impressed by all the food people brought, a lot of it made from scratch and really delicious. Everyone was extremely generous and contributed something so we had a giant feast that went on for hours.

Although I had specified no gifts, many people brought them anyway and I was really touched by their thoughtfulness. Clearly, my friends here already have a sense of who I am. It’s easy to underestimate the culture shock of being in a city where I have lived before, in a country not so culturally different than the US. But I am a foreigner so it’s great to feel understood.

After a break for the Spain v. France game, the party continued at a karaoke bar on Warschauer Str. In a tiny, stuffy private room we sang until four o’clock in the morning. There were so many good moments, but I think the highlight may have been a duet that Dennis and Simon sang from the soundtrack to Watership Down. It was heartbreakingly beautiful!

On Monday I went with Dennis and Mieke to the “Keine Rendite mit der Miete” march. The protest was spurred by a camp in Kottbuser Tor where a group of Turkish residents have been occupying for weeks. They can no longer afford the rent in the social housing where they have lived for decades. Many of them receive welfare from the state which pays their rent, but only up to a certain amount. Currently, there are no caps to how much landlords can charge for rent in social housing, essentially forcing out those residents. In Berlin, apartments at the rate that the welfare program pays are far from the city center and therefor far from jobs and other support networks.

We marched to the Ritz Carlton hotel in Potsdamer Platz where an annual meeting of property investors were meeting with the politicians responsible for the development of Berlin. Sound fishy? I must admit that I don’t fully understand how these systems operate, but it seems that elected officials should be protecting the interests of the residents of Berlin, not helping speculators turn a profit.
A small but diverse crowd gathered in the police barricades set up for the demonstration directly across from the hotel entrance. As the conference participants left the building for their fancy dinner at the Kulturbrauerei, everyone started yelling and screaming for them to “get the hell out!”

Everyone thinks that Berlin is a dreamland of giant apartments for little money. That was true in the 90s, but it’s not really the case anymore. It’s amazing to see how the city has transformed over time, but things seem to have hit some sort of saturation point where there’s no more room for the people displaced by gentrification.

More info on the Kotti Camp:

Datei:Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F005191-0040, Berlin, Aufstand, sowjetischer Panzer.jpgUnten den Linden is probably Berlin’s most famous street. It is a actually an old carriage road that begins where the old city castle used to stand and extends west in a straight line to the Prussian army training grounds that are now the Döberitzer Heide (where Christian and I went hiking last month). The street is so long that it changes names several times, becoming “Straße 17 Juni” on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate. The name commemorates the sad day fifty-nine years ago when the new East German government brutally suppressed an uprising against deteriorating living conditions in the young socialist state.

It was only eight years since the end of the war. Berlin was still a mess but much of the rubble had been cleared and rebuilding had begun. The first large scale building project was Karl Marx Alle, the Soviet-styled tree-lined strolling boulevard of tiled apartment buildings and modern glass-cube cafes. But the East German government was having problems producing enough consumer goods and housing for its population. Farms and businesses had been turned over to the state, but there were constant food and energy shortages. People were fleeing to the west at an alarming rate, creating a brain-drain that only worsened production problems. The government’s solution: to increase production quotas and lower wages.

When this news was announced on the 16th of June, construction workers on Karl Marx Alle immediately set down their tools and began to strike. They argued that the existing quotas were already unrealistic and the new demands impossible. The protest caught fire and by the next morning, 25,000 people gathered on Leipziger Street in front of the Ministry of Interior, a Nazi building where the GDR had set up headquarters. Their demand had grown beyond the recall of the new quotas to a resignation of the governing socialist party. The protest spread to other parts of the country and hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated, calling out for freedom.

With the support of the Soviet Union, the GDR sent soldiers in and tanks fired into the crowds in Berlin. At least 55 people were killed (some estimates put it at twice that amount) and martial law was instituted. Official reports blamed reactionary fascists from the west as the cause of the uprising, an enemy that would also be cited as the reason for building the wall ten years later.

At memorial site on on Sunday, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Federal Minister Annette Schavan paid their respects to those who lost their lives on the 17th of June and drew parallels to the violence in Syria today. In another part of town, Neo-nazis gathered to hold their own 17th of June event and were meet with an opposition demonstration of over 400 people. The next day, I joined Mieke and Dennis in another demonstration against the rising rents in Berlin.