Saturday, February 24, 2007

Who knocked down the wall?!

In November 1989 a mere six weeks after cutting loose from the family home to discover student life I already had somewhat of a routine. Around one o’clock I would wander into the TV room off the JCR to find my friends if I hadn’t had classes with them. We would chat quite a bit and then around one thirty a kind of hush would settle as the familiar first bars of Neighbours filled the room. On this particular day the TV room was unusually full and kept filling up and what made it even stranger is that all heads were turned to the TV screen and we were silent, dead silent. I don’t know what was going through everyone’s heads as we watched the scenes of East Germans and West Germans partying in front of the Brandenburg Gate, but I had a lump in my throat and I knew I had just watched the tide of history change: I had just watched the Berlin Wall came down. Seventeen and a half years later I would discover what actually happened on that day.

We were wandering towards Gendarmenmarkt when a red woolly hat attached to a rather elfin figure bounced by braying “Free English Tour” at the top of her voice. We looked at each other wearily and kept up our pace of gentle amble when she turned back again: “I’m not kidding, it’s a free tour, in English, come and join us.” We still wondered what the catch was, but we were now in Gendarmenmarkt and she had launched into an explanation of this church and that church and why church and what church and she was kind of amusing and I was the only person in the whole group who had seen “Run Lola Run” (apparently there are many scenes filmed there), plus the crowning glory of this whole tour was ‘How the Berlin Wall came down by mistake.’ “That’s what it said at Checkpoint Charlie.” I mused. So we decided to tag along and hear the whole story.

Tucked up in corner of the Alte National Museum opposite the old Parliament building that is now being torn down because it’s full of asbestos, our red hatted guide from New Berlin tours began. She gave us some background, how Hungary had opened up its borders earlier in the year, how the Monday night protests began in Leipzig, how the East Berliners were waiting for some momentous change, but instead all they got was Erich Honecker vowing that the wall would stay up for another hundred years. As opposition grew and Honecker was replaced by Krenz, the state became aware that they had to do something and that’s where Günter Schabowski comes into the picture.

Our guide’s story went something along these lines: apparently Schabowski had run some newspaper back in the day and he was chosen to host the GDR’s second only Press conference. The problem with Schabowski was that he was a bit fond of a tipple or two and come the morning of the press conference when he was due to meet with the other officials where they would discuss freedom to travel, Schabowski was nursing a momentous hangover instead. During the meeting SED officials discussed relaxing freedom to travel, discussion being the operative word. When Schabowski turned up for the otherwise rehearsed and prepped Press Conference he had no idea what had been discussed that morning. As he went into the press conference he was handed a paper that (so the story goes) he shoved into this pocket.

And so begins that historic press conference. Schabowski reads for two hours or so about sock production going up here and bolt production going down here and the East German journalists ask their well rehearsed questions and apparently everything is fantastic in East Germany. That is until one foreign journalist gets a bit bored and sticks his hand up and asks: “What about freedom to travel?”

Mistake number two takes place right then, Schabowski reaches into his pocket and pulls out that document, he misses the great big red TOP SECRET letters and answers. “Yep, East Germans have freedom to travel.” Apparently it didn’t quite say that, it said that the state would discuss freedom to travel everyday ad infinitum.

Next journalist sticks his hand up (they are now well off the script) and asks: “Including East Berliners?” Schabowski can’t find any reference to East Berliners in his TOP SECRET document, so he just says: “Yes.”

Journalist number three sticks his hand up and asks: “When?”

Schabowski’s skim reading skills are thrown into turmoil as he searches vainly for a date, but the only date he can find is the date the meeting took place at the top of the document. He may have also noticed TOP SECRET at this stage, but we will never know. “Effective immediately.”

And the rest as they say is history, or rather it was her story (with a fair amount of poetic license on my part).

And that’s the thing about History; historical knowledge is gleaned from what is written, what is said and what is preserved. I enjoyed the New Berlin version of events and although half the tour group appeared to be asleep, I’m not sure any of us walked away thinking it was gospel truth (at least I hope not). We read The Story of Berlin version of events (see photo below) and I found some articles on wikipedia and I also found this article on Earthling Concerned here and a transcript of the November 9th Press conference here. I think in the end that it’s pretty clear that Schabowski didn’t quite know what he was saying on the day; whether he alone can be credited with causing the fall of the wall is questionable. What is interesting though, is that Schabowski later heavily criticized East Germany.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Love at First Sight

I'm back from my few days in Berlin and I have to say that yes I fell in love at first sight. I looked up and there he was clicking away, his arms wide open in a protective manner. He looked all warm and cuddly as the cold north wind ruffled my fluffy white ear muffs and I... oh I just felt all gooey inside. I knew then that my life would never be the same, this man was going to have a lasting effect on me.

Later that afternoon after smiling coyly at him whenever I could I discovered that the fall of the Berlin wall and reunification had almost been the end of him. As the west set about modernising and unifying, he was replaced by a most boring upright figure, who in my opinion just doesn't cut it. But the East Berliners, now used to protesting stood up for my little friend and nowadays he delineates the old east and west borders instead of a huge concrete wall. Where my friend stands was the east and where he disappears was the west.

I hope you like him as much as I do!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

It's a little bit funny, this feeling inside...

All my bags are not packed and I am not ready to go. In fact I haven't even quite worked out how to get to the airport yet. I'm on half-term, or ski break as it is known on this side of the channel. Everyone has packed their ski's and ski jackets and health insurance and is heading off to the pistes, although I suppose I should qualify that everyone. Jane has gone to Africa, several of my friends are going nowhere (although Colleen now probably wishes she was going somewhere as her long list of things to do has now doubled and includes a mammoth trip around Paris to every art supplies shop I know so that she can find me cellophane; rolls and rolls of it) and I'm going to Berlin, where - as I told Estrella this morning - the BBC world weather site said it was going to be: FUCKING FREEZING. I don't quite feel like I'm on holiday yet. I also have this rather foreboding feeling that somehow this journey is going to be horrendous. And frankly you can't really blame me, the last time I flew I spent hours and hours in a airport terminal. And today I'm going from Orly.

In six years in France, I've only flown from Orly three times. The first time was to go to Nice for a conference. The flight was at 5am, so I couldn't really tell you whether it went well or badly or anything about it, because I slept through the whole experience. The second time was to go to Corsica. The Corsican flag depicts a curly haired man with his white head band flowing behind him. It's always reminded me somewhat of pirates, or corsairs. The check-in line to get onto the flight to Bastia also reminded me of pirates, or rebels or a bunch of extremely crazy people. There were several desks open but the idea of queuing was obviously a particularly British construct. It was more like a loud babbling crowd with boxes being passed to and fro overhead, bags that were large enough to hold bodies being checked in and many many screaming children. This was as close to chaos I would get to until the next time I passed through Orly. The fact that my luggage and I eventually got checked in and I eventually got on the plane seems incidental, that the chaos continued on the plane was perhaps indicative of the kind of place I was about to visit, but that would be another post, right now I'm trying to explain my bad feeling about Orly.

On return from Corsica, I watched as the luggage carousel stopped moving and security guards tried to shuffle us backwards away from ... what was it? A black bag? My bag was black! No, mine was black and green wasn't it? I couldn't quite remember it was new, but I was fairly sure it wasn't that one. Perhaps it was the fact that I had just come back from Corsica and was surrounded by Corsicans, but when the bomb squad arrived I jostled closer and closer to the red and white tape like a lot of other mad people around me. Yes, the bag could have been dangerous, yes I could have been blown up, but in the end it was a rather disappointing 'Poof' and a plume of smoke. There were no socks flying in the air or underpants draped over the face of bystanders. I was surprised afterwards that the security had let us stand so close. Maybe it was a regular occurence after Corsica flights. Nobody came screaming through the terminal shouting: "You've blown my dirty knockers up!" It was all a bit bizzare.

A year and a bit later I found myself in the airport again. There was a partial strike by the luggage handlers, so partial that the airport hadn't even bothered informing the general public; but as we stood in the check-in queues and watched people climbing over the conveyor belts and trying to haul bags manually we became a little suspicious. Still despite the obvious evidence that our luggage was going nowhere they kept gleefully checking us in and handing out boarding cards with over optimistic boarding times and we pootled off to the gate.

I was going to Morocco. To help me get into the mood of the claustrophobic and over stimulating souks they packed five plane loads of passengers to Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and oh who knows where into one little terminal. We couldn't move, we couldn't sit, we didn't know what the hell was going on and every time a poor man from the airport came out with his clip board he barely managed to make it through the crowds with his shirt on his back. Eventually they closed the gate doors with us on the other side. Various delegations of women were sent in packs to plead and howl at the gates and gradually after a few hours lists were produced and names were called and certain people got through. At this point the Grandmother's began fainting and occasionally that worked to get them through too. When we got through three hours later we were told by one rather vexed airport employee that this particular day was one of the busiest days in the summer, that they had overbooked flights to leave from the airport anyway and with or without the strike it would have been chaos . On arrival in Morocco, my partner's luggage didn't arrive!

I've flown from many airports and even though I quite hate Heathrow, it still ain't as hateful as Orly. Even though CDG is the strangest airport I've ever been to, it still ain't as strange as Orly. Even though Mexico was a pretty disorganised place, Benito Juarez still wasn't as disorganised as Orly. Now how the hell do I get there?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Who are we ?

We are inhabited by an other,
‘til their voice fades,
their story told,
Or ‘til they whisper:
'Not today, another time.'

Another homework set by Skint. I’ve been pondering about this over the crazy weekend of rushing from here to there and back to here again and obviously what I needed to do was sit still for a few minutes. Funny where inspiration hits you!

Copyright, 2007, Verilion

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Write a Picture

Jane and I sat supping hot chocolate in Wang’s bar while the sky grew heavy and finally unable to support its load rained down. Our conversation wended this way and that, Wang came to check on us when we began cackling out loud and as I turned my head back to the window the most beautiful rainbow appeared. All seven colours shone out brilliantly from behind the Eiffel Tower, while under my nose a hunched up old lady in a green coat shuffled in with two of the most pathetic attempts at the canine species I had ever seen. Wang efficient as ever appeared behind her with her cup of tea and I watched with mild amusement as the dogs weaved their way between her legs and the table and the bench until I almost believed they would make a cat’s cradle or knock the poor dear down. But she was wise to their wily ways and dropped the leads and scooped them up onto little cushions she had made for each of them with her coat and bag. Meanwhile our conversation had waned as Jane rooted in her bag for the change necessary to pay for our drinks. Jane sniffled and said: “You’re probably going to write about her one day.”

Skint’s back and asking us to write about what it means to be a writer. As a writer I sit in front of an empty space and wonder how to fill it. As a writer I observe. As a writer I take my palette of language, experiences and observations and try to write a picture.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

CED – complete and unabridged*

On Monday I spent something like ten minutes googling the word ‘communion’. In my head I had this idea that there were various other meanings that did not involve a wafer thin host. Despite this certainty Google was not initially forthcoming. And then it slapped me in the face: I don’t have a dictionary. What sort of writer doesn’t have a dictionary? I used to have a dictionary, or rather I lived in a house where there was a dictionary and when I left that house the dictionary sort of accidentally on purpose ended up in my boxes. The only problem with that little ploy was that when I needed somewhere to store my stuff when I moved to Mexico, I used the same house that I had pilfered the dictionary from in the first place. I was left with no choice but to return it to its rightful owner. Then as I may have mentioned before I moved eight times and on seven of those occasions there was always a dictionary in the house, as well as a BIG Spanish-English dictionary and a BIG French-English dictionary, but no BIG English dictionary and recently before my eighth move no dictionary at all and it didn’t seem a problem until Monday night.

So how do you choose a dictionary? The first decision involves deciding where to buy it. I didn’t want to turn up at home with a huge tome and discover I had accidentally bought a US English Dictionary. To limit the probability of that event I decided to go to the hugely over-priced WHSmiths on rue de Rivoli. I thought it would be hard to focus on buying the dictionary and I would get distracted by all the millions of fictional words around me. I was distracted until I turned them over and the 19€ price tag brought me crashing back to reality. So having wended my way to the little room where all things Englishy may be found I discovered that I didn’t really have that big a decision to make: Collins or Oxford English Dictionary. Oh, I had kind of hoped I would have a little more choice to make.

So I pulled the display copies off the shelf and read the definition of communion in both: communion 1 an exhange of thoughts, emotions, etc. 2 possessing or sharing in common; participation 3 (foll by with) emotional or spiritual feelings (for):communion with nature. And then we get onto the religious definitions... Yep, I was definitely communing with this dictionary. The Oxford definition left me cold. But was one word enough to clinch it? So, I turned to the word I once thought I had invented: tootles. Tootle 1 to go, esp by car. Mmm, Oxford mentioned in a lesiurely manner which fit in more with my definition that to tootle was to do so in a Pooh bear state of wandering. But then I found toodle-pip in the Collins and I decided that actually the definition of communion was more important than a word I had defined years ago.

And now that I have the nearly 2000 page tome propped open beside me I’m finding out all sort of stuff, like did you know that ‘butters’ is British slang for very ugly? Or that drink-dialling is the inadvisable practice of making a phone-call while drunk?

* although I was tempted to call this post milf!


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