My two euro cents worth.

What Next for Tempelhof?

Saturday, April 26th, 2014

Templehof, Berlin’s historic former airport, has been open to the public as a park since 2010. Plans to develop large parts of the perimeter to provide new housing and office space will be the subject of a referendum on the 25th of May.

Why I’m Voting Pirate

Friday, September 16th, 2011

There are local elections this weekend in Berlin, and I’m allowed to vote. At the moment, I’m leaning towards the Pirate Party, for two reasons: a) they’re called the Pirate Party and b) because of their advertising. I wouldn’t normally choose to vote for such apparently flippant reasons, so allow me to explain myself.

I still consume most of my news in English via the BBC. We often have a local German station (Radio Eins or Flux FM) on the radio, so I’ll hear news bulletins in German from time to time, but I have to concentrate pretty hard to understand them properly which is hard if the children are making their usual racket. I hardly ever watch the TV these days, and I’ve never really been a newspaper reader. This means my knowledge of German politics isn’t very developed, and tends to be at a national or international rather that a local level. So I haven’t got much to go on when it comes to choosing which party to vote for. To make matters worse most of the parties go by three letter acronyms, which makes it easy to mix them up. I already did that in an earlier draft of this post, confusing the Communists with the Social Democrats which Ilka thankfully corrected for me.

I first became aware it was election time because all of a sudden the streets were full of posters on lamposts. Most of the political advertising I’ve seen is pretty dull – they mostly show a picture of the candidate and the name of the party, and not much else. The Green candidate also has a lot of billboards up showing their candidate in various situations with anodyne slogans like “Renate works” or “Renate cares”. What none of this advertising tells me is what these people stand for. As advertising goes, it fails pretty miserably in this respect. What I do like, though, is that the Pirates have started subverting the lampost placards, by sticking a smaller poster underneath saying “…, or Pirates!”. Here’s an example:

A subverted election poster

The Pirate Party’s own posters do at least have some ideology on them. Though I can’t always understand all of what they’re saying, my German has improved enough that I get the gist of it. I particularly like ‘Privatise Religion Now!”.

Pirate Party poster
I’ve had a look at their website and they seem to be very keen on transparency and freedom of information, with a nod to the environment, education and families. So their advertising has been a lot more effective, at least where I’m concerned – I haven’t bothered to look at the websites of any of the other parties yet. When I first mentioned to Ilka that I might vote Pirate, she said “That’s a waste, they won’t get enough votes”. If we were still in England, that might be a reasonable argument, but as we have proportional representation here it’s a pretty weak one. She later told me that she’d heard on the radio that the polls are showing they have a large enough share of the vote to win a seat. Maybe I’m not the only one who likes their ads.

I did read the election leaflet from the SPD mayoral candidate, in the interests of some sort of balance. Klaus Wowereit has been Berlin’s mayor for the last ten years, and it looks like he’s well set for another term. He trades on this in his leaflet, which isn’t such a bad idea – apart from the fact that Berlin is burdened with a Greek-sized debt, he seems to have done a fairly good job as far as I can tell. He talks about job creation and a minimum wage (Germany doesn’t yet have one, surprisingly), free education from nursery to university (though Ilka pointed out nursery is only free from three years old) and also about holding Berlin together, and keeping it open. I actually struggled to translate this last bit, although I know exactly what he’s talking about, and he rightly describes it as the most important point. It’s a reference to the social problems Berlin is experiencing, which is the only real political topic I’ve heard discussed. Given that gentrification has become an issue on his watch, he can’t really avoid the issue. I’m not sure his administration has really handled it very well though – for example, I think a better solution could have been found and the riot avoided at the Liebig Str. squat. He says he’ll work really hard on this problem every day, but stops short of offering any real solutions.

I won’t be unhappy if Wowereit wins another term, but I don’t think I’ll be voting for him. I’ll be voting Pirate, partly because I like their name, partly because I like their ads, partly because of their ideology, and partly because it somehow feels right that Berlin should have pirates in power.

Oh Dear: I Appear To Be A Yuppie Invader

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

At least that’s how a friend described me in his email subject line recently when sending me a link to this article on the Guardian website. The loft style apartments mentioned in the article are at the bottom of our street. I must admit that the gentrification debate had largely passed me by, despite Ilka coming across this article in a magazine not long after we arrived, about the next street along from ours. For those of you that don’t speak German, the article is about a photographer who who used to live in the street and who photographed it in the late 80s before the Wall fell, and then again last year. He bemoans the fact that he can only find one of the families he photographed in the 80s, and wishes that his old neighbourhood hadn’t been ‘saved’. He also mentions that the average age of the neighbourhood is late 30s, that this area has the highest density of children in the whole of Germany, and that there are lots of cafes and restaurants. All of which are reasons we wanted to move here. Carla’s nursery even gets a mention.
Guilty as charged?
My ignorance of the issue might well be due to the fact that I don’t consume very much news in German, but it got brought into sharp relief last week. I heard a report on the radio news about a big protest over a squat eviction, and later that day Ilka mentioned something about the people next door to some of our friends being evicted. I didn’t put the two together until I heard another radio report the next day which mentioned the street – Liebigstrasse, not in any way coincidentally where our friends live.
I feel rather uneasy about being a yuppie invader. One of the things I like about Berlin is that it reminds me of London in the 70s when I grew up there. There’s an awful lot of building going on, for example – one of my enduring memories of London as a child is watching the wrecking balls bringing buildings down. There’s also a similar kind of vibe – the punk ethos of London is echoed here, and that’s what is threatened, apparently by people like me who are slowly destroying what they like about the place. Or so some people would have you believe. I don’t feel like a yuppie, and in fact you could say I’m actually a victim of gentrification. One of the other main reasons we moved here is that we can’t afford to live like this in London – at least not in Islington, where I grew up.
I haven’t seen any evidence of the city being made less attractive to incomers, although there has been a bit of bother in town recently over the evictions, as can been seen in this article, which somewhat paradoxically actually paints a slightly brighter picture of the situation. My political sympathies lie with the protesters so I’m hoping for the peaceful co-existence that this article hints at, and that so far I’ve experienced.

* For those of you who do read German, here is another article from the same issue of Geo written by the photographer himself.

My Career As A Political Blogger…

Monday, June 14th, 2010

…is over. One of the reasons for setting up this blog in the first place was to comment on politics, in the hope of being invited on to the radio to share my cutting insight into the world of Westminster (see here for more). I’ll happily admit now that I am a miserable failure as a political blogger. During arguably the most interesting general election campaign in living memory, I managed to say practically nothing. This is in no small part due to the fact that I underestimated the amount of work it takes – I couldn’t take the idea of people whose sole claim to fame was blogging seriously at first. To all of those bloggers: sorry!
The more perspicacious among you will have noticed that I haven’t actually posted on any topic for quite a while now. It’s fair to say I got a bit bored with the plastic bag thing, as I’m sure did you – it wasn’t really enough of a challenge. So I’m dropping that too. It filled a gap, but now I’m going to focus on something a lot closer to home: the fact that we’ve just moved to Germany, and what it’s like here for an Englishman. The good news is that so far, it’s pretty good. We’ve been here for two weeks now and we’re getting on pretty well. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, and we still have an awful lot of stuff in boxes, but our new flat is big enough to cope. Ironically I found quite a large number of uses for plastic bags during the move, but I digress…


Friday, October 23rd, 2009

So maybe it’s not so difficult to go without plastic bags after all. Since coming back from Sardinia I think I’ve only had to turn down a bag about three times. Not everyone thinks this way, though – in the chemist last week I was queuing behind a young woman who bought a packet of Nurofen. She asked for a bag for this. For one small item. She needed the bag to carry her Nurofen out to the her car which was parked just outside. I probably should have remonstrated with her but at the time I wasn’t feeling well (hence the visit to the chemist) so I let it go. I did though refuse the bag I was offered…
The downside about it not being so difficult is that it doesn’t give me much to write about…I was hoping I’d have enough material for a small book, as annualism seems to be in vogue at the moment (here’s an article about it), but clearly going without plastic bags isn’t as radical as doing without sex or living on a pound a day. Plus of course by the time the year is up and I’ve collated it all, it probably won’t be fashionable any more. Ho hum.
I must admit that blogging is harder work than I originally thought. My first thought behind starting this blog was to focus on politics, so that I could be invited to give my opinions on topical issues on the breakfast program on Radio 5. They often introduce people as ‘political bloggers’ and I thought “How hard can that be?” and “That’s not really a job, is it?”. While the collapse of the world’s economy and the current Labour administration have provided the odd interesting tidbit, I have to say that politics just doesn’t seem as interesting or exciting as it did was the 80s. So I haven’t really posted much about politics, and can’t see it coming up much until the general election campaigning starts in earnest. The plastic bag theme seemed like a good substitute – after all, most good blogs stick to one theme, while this one has had a more scattergun approach. In fact, the posts that have had the most hits have been ones that featured pictures of the kids. So maybe I should just stick to Twitter and Flikr and leave the blogging to people who don’t have to spend eight hours in the office every day. More than once while I was writing my offline blog on holiday (it will surface at some point, when I’ve got the time to edit it) I found myself writing “Hard work, this blogging business”. Even more depressing was reading (some) of Stephen Fry’s lastest blog entry. He often posts what he calls ‘miniblogs’ which are about as long as most of my posts. “If this is a miniblog,” I thought, “what on earth must his blogs be like?”. Well, his most recent post is six pages, which made me want to jack the whole thing in at once. I can’t compete with that. I don’t have the time to read six pages of blog, let alone write six pages.
Over to you, dear readers, if there are any of you left. I’m half tempted to stick a poll widget on here and ask you to vote for whether I should a) continue b) change topic or c) cease and desist, but I don’t think I’d like the answers…quite apart from the fact that it would be a busman’s holiday. Feel free to add a comment and let me know. Or not.

Plastic bags on holiday

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Hello there. Apologies for the lack of posts of late – we’ve been on holiday in Sardinia and my Internet access was limited to say the least. Which was probably a good thing, as it meant I spent some time with my family for a change instead of being glued to a screen.
I’ll be posting some photos and an offline diary I kept for those of you who are interested as soon as I get a chance. As far as plastic bags though – well, yes, we did end up accepting quite a few, despite having taken two re-usable carriers with us. We did manage to re-use every single one as a rubbish bag though, and in an ironic twist of fate, found ourselves desiring one on our last day as we would have had no bin-bag otherwise. I also thought I had managed to fish one off the bottom of the sea while snorkelling which gave me an immense sense of satisfaction until I discovered that it had fallen out of my pocket as I swam back to shore. Ho hum.

The Online Shopping Conundrum

Friday, September 18th, 2009

I mentioned in a recent post that one of the problems in avoiding single-use plastic bags was the fact that we usually order our grocery shopping online and have it delivered. Ilka usually does this – who am I kidding, Ilka always does this, so I’m not sure if it’s possible to tell Sainsbury’s or Ocado ‘no plastic bags please’, but I doubt it. In their favour, both of these organisations offer to recycle the plastic bags they give you, but you have to keep the bags somewhere and give them back to the driver next time you have a delivery. We invariably seem to forget to do this. Here’s what Ocado and Sainsbury’s say about recycling bags.
I always mention the fact that I’m trying to live without plastic bags for a year when I’m refusing to take one, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the postive reactions I’ve had. One local shopkeeper even bemoaned the fact that some kids even ask for a plastic bag when they’ve only bought one item and really don’t need one. When I refused a bag at Cafe Soho the other day, I got into a conversation with the guy who runs it about the problem of the bags the online shopping comes in. We agreed that their packing is awful – they sometimes put as few as one or two items in a bag, for starters – and I told him I was struggling to come up with some better ideas to suggest to the retailers. After all, it wouldn’t be right to say “Don’t use plastic bags” without offering an alternative solution. I had started thinking along the lines of giving people their shopping in the plastic crates they use to bring it to the door in – but then one would have to store them and I can see that being an issue. Mark came up with a much better idea – cardboard boxes, and where bags are necessary, paper bags. Much easier to recycle all round. Make the cardboard boxes foldable, and they can be re-used for shopping. Nice one, Mark – I’m going to write to Ocado, Sainsbury’s and in all likelihood the other online grocery retailers and suggest this. I’ll post their replies when I get them.
We do have another use for these bags, though – we use them as bin liners. The Ocado ones are particularly good for this. Ironically if they stop using them for deliveries we might have to start buying bin liners. Hmmmm.

Plastic bag FAIL!

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Well, I didn’t quite manage to last a month, let alone a year. I treated myself to a slap-up takeaway lunch today (a Hog Roast sandwich meal deal from Cattle Grid, if you must know) and while I was waiting for it, I went to the loo. As I was hoping, on my return it was ready – I pointed to the bag on the table in front of the counter and said “Is that mine?”. When the friendly waiter said “Yes”, I grabbed it and started to make my way back to the office, having already paid when I made the order. I was more than half way back when I realised that the bag in question was of the single use plastic variety. Had I not been so hungry, I might have gone back and offered it back to them. Technically, I never got the chance to refuse it. But in my heart of hearts I know it’s still a fail. Plastic Bags 1, McCormick Smith…0?

Plastic Bags: An Update

Monday, September 7th, 2009

Yes, my life is terribly interesting. That’s why I’m talking about plastic bags again.
In all seriousness, though, I’ve done pretty well on the plastic bag front since I posted on the topic a week ago. Thankfully, I’ve had no more transport-related plastic bag incidents, and in fact I’ve only had to refuse a plastic bag once in the interim – at the chip shop on Friday night, when I managed to refuse one despite having had a beer or three beforehand. There were two other occasions which needed some thought though, and one I still haven’t managed to work out. The first one is this: I often take in a tupperware full of leftovers from the previous evening’s meal to have for lunch. I usually put this in a plastic bag in case it leaks en route, and I had to re-think this on Wednesday. In the end, I wrapped it in some newspaper with an elastic band around it. I could probably manage without this, as I can’t remember the last time a tupperware leaked; however I have a feeling that one must have done once upon a time otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten into the habit of using the plastic bag…
The next issue was the trainers I take to badminton, which normally go inside a ‘posh’ plastic bag in the rucksack I use to take my kit. There are two reasons for this: one is the fact that they tend to reek after two hours of badminton, and the other is that the changing room floors are usually very sandy and I don’t like sand getting all over the rest of my stuff. Particularly so as my t-shirt is usually sopping wet and thus picks up sand very easily. I fell down on this one: I used the posh plastic bag again. I call it posh because it’s not your ordinary Sainsburys or corner shop type thin single-use intended plastic bag – it’s from a shoe shop and is one of those that have a drawstring and can be carried over the shoulder. It’s also made from much heavier-duty plastic. So, dear reader, I ask you: is this allowed? Or should I be looking for a cloth shoe bag?
I’m going to leave the last, and thorniest, issue for another post, though I’ll trail it here: what should I do about the grocery shopping? We usually order online and have it delivered, it always comes bagged, and usually very badly packed so that more bags are used than necessary…

Oh dear

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Gordon Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister is beginning to look like a very strange mixture of tragedy and farce. Every time he tries to give himself a boost, someone goes and resigns and spoils it all for him. This time it’s relatively unknown MOD aide Eric Joyce, though of course he’ll be a lot better known after this, coming as it does on the eve of a speech by Gordon Brown on Afghanistan. He also came out recently and slammed the government for taking two soldiers to court to try and reduce the amount of compensation they had been awarded, so you could say he has some form. What really hurts Gordon here is that Joyce is a former soldier and so can reasonably be assumed to have a clue about defence issues.
So OK, my political posts are a bit like buses – none for ages then two at once. Boris Johnson has been caught claiming public money for his website, which contained all sorts of contraband content forbidden by the fees office including campaign material and advertisments for his own books. Tut tut Boris. That was rather careless, wasn’t it? I quite like Boris, just because he proves that someone with the persona of a Beano character can still make it to the top in British politics. And also because he’s so wonderfully gaffe-prone. I would rather he wasn’t mayor though. I preferred him when he was the plain old member for Henly.