Being a Legal Alien

fish and chips 1 croppedOr A German In London
*Warning: clichés and stereotypes  abound

I first came to Britain on a class trip in 1992 and nothing prepared me for the melting pot that was and is London. Walking down the street, I couldn’t believe the sheer diversity of faces, nationalities, religions and cultures. This was G. E. Lessing’s dream of (religious) tolerance put into practice in everyday Britain in the late 20th century. Coming from a country where there was hardly any non-German soul living/working/studying/on benefits – this was extraordinary. Continue reading

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Confessions of Felix Krull

the shell game, already popular in Ancient Greece
The shell game, dating back to Ancient Greece

I’ve borrowed the title from an unfinished novel by Thomas Mann, who in turn was inspired by the 19th century Romanian con artist Georges Manolescu. The novel is about a charming man unhampered by moral precepts and so skilled in the art of subterfuge that he manages to gain access to the highest reaches of European society. Continue reading

Which Muppet Are You?

Austro-Hungarian émigrés Statler & Waldorf always felt more like Animal inside
Austro-Hungarian émigrés Statler & Waldorf always felt more like Animal inside

Ha! I’ve just used click bait. In order to lure you onto this page I cunningly posed a question you are dying to find the answer to. Now I got you here but in order to find out which Muppet you are, you will have to read the whole post. No claim, no pain, no gain.

I could have also used a statement which gets you witlessly worried, such as: You Won’t Believe the Effect the Internet’s Having On Your Brain. Actually, that’s quite a scary subject matter and I will deal with this in another post.

But back to the essential bits of life. The other week a friend complained about not being able to go online for 2! hours, sending her into a spiral of Weltschmerz and meaninglessness. Not a stranger to smug replies, I suggested, try reading a book, wink wink.

That’s when karma got me by the derriere. Only when it happened to me, it wasn’t just 2 hours but a whole week of being sans internet. And no, I couldn’t use my phone because my data-allowance lasts a whole day these days because:
1. I didn’t listen to my friend Rubi when I got my contract.
2. Instagram used to be something other people did who didn’t have a life.

No. Internet. For. One. Week.

I wish I could say my sense of smell returned, or that I perceived colours more colourfully, or that suddenly there was a spring in my step and the sun shone brighter. But nay. I felt bereft. Somewhere I knew that there was still purpose to my life, I just had to find it. Quickly.

In order to maintain an air of dignified calm I kept telling myself, I don’t really need internet. Even people who think they really really need internet, don’t really need internet. They think they do, which is different. I think I do, which is not. To make sure, I looked up Maslow’s pyramid of life’s necessities, starting with the basic ones and going up to more unbasic ones. My fears were confirmed, the Internet was nowhere on it.

pyramid

Internet isn’t food. It isn’t housing. It isn’t friends. It isn’t air to breathe. It isn’t a life-partner, even though for some of us it might seem that way. To find out just how important the Internet is for you, answer this simple question (no, it’s not the Muppet one):    Would you die without Internet?

If your answer is a firm YES than there is nothing else to do but get unlimited data allowance, grab your recharger, stay close to a plug, smile at your phone lovingly, inhale deeply and hug it very very tightly.

If your answer is NO, then really I don’t know what to say. You obviously have a life. You must have found meaning elsewhere. Maybe even in the real world. Maybe in paper-bound books. Maybe in mixed tapes you rewind by turning your finger inside the serrated hole. Maybe you found it by wiping printer’s ink off your face. Maybe you are talking to real people in the real world. You might even be hugging trees instead of looking at a picture of one.

On a whole, you are wholly superior to the rest of us phone huggers. But remember, we are in a parallel universe, so don’t get bothered by us needing to be constantly online, because, after all, we are only trying to find out which Muppet we truly are.

How To Grow Up Socialist-Realist or Not At All

The Russian artist called it: Help me to survive this deadly love.
The Russian artist Dimitri Vrubel called his graffiti: My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love

The Past Is A Different Country Altogether

Dreading the moment my time of magical thinking will come to an end and my bank account will tell me to look for a job, I’ve been thinking about my CV. All 100 versions of it. I also thought about all the places who offer help in presenting me in the best possible light and advise on what to put in and what, most importantly, leave out. How in the past I squeezed and distorted my past experiences to fit some kind of job description, usually ending up feeling diminished and not wanting a job at all.

Now, still not wanting to be employed but simply be a Mensch who gets paid for writing, I can finally pen a more comprehensive, less glamorous but ultimately, more realistic account of my life.

I was born in 1973 in a town on the Polish border to a father who was born in Zagan, Silesia, in what is now Poland. In the gruesome winter of 1945 his mother, fleeing from the Russians and her past, carted him together with his two siblings in a trolley all the way to Thuringia where she sold the little jewelry (and other non-material things) she had in exchange for food and worked in semi-slavery for a farmer. That was the story of bravery and survival she told us and the one she had decided to live with, conveniently leaving out the nasty bits of what happened before, during and after the War.

My mother’s family had been brought to Thuringia by my grandfather from Teplice in Czech. After ’45, with all the so-called anti-fascists and communists remaining in the Russian sector, what was to become East Germany after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, my grandfather became chief of the local agricultural production cooperative (LPG).

My parents, possibly brought together by a shared past of immigration and displacement, fell in love in their teens and later moved to Frankfurt/Oder where I was born. My mother was appointed judge overseeing company law, thus circumventing more political and therefore treacherous judicial appointments and resolved herself to resolving petty conflicts between socialist companies who generally didn’t meet their targets according to whatever 5-Year-Plan had been concocted.

However, after the Fall of the Wall in 1989 when DDR-citizens were allowed to view their Stasi-Files, it became apparent that she also was an IM, which stands for ‘Informeller Mitarbeiter’ (informal collaborator) for the secret service Staatssicherheit. To show you how short memories are, she was allowed to continue working as a judge regardless and later sent into retirement with flying colours.

My father, a surveyor without a proper degree, in the meantime managed to lead a somewhat Bohemian life, working as football trainer for kids and a few other things. And because he lacked professional ambition and the required mindset he got away with not joining the Workers’ Party.

According to government policy, everyone was looked after, had a flat and a job. Some merited the job they had, some didn’t. Mostly, the lowly jobs generally available didn’t merit the people doing them.  A career, even though that word was not part of GDR vocabulary, was only possible if you kept personal opinions to yourself, informed on friends, family and colleagues and were a member of The Party. Being a dictatorship of the proletariat (that term in itself as absurd as it was fictitious) everybody was meant to be equal. There was no class-system; wages were not that different whether you were a dentist or factory worker. So far so Animal Farm.

As most things, apart from the basics, were in short supply, a culture of exchange and swapping deeds was thriving. Car parts in exchange for a sack of cement, Germina trainers in exchange for a bottle of Czech Schnapps. The carpenter swapped his services with the plumber, the builder who got you the bricks for your Dacha was paid in-kind. People depended on one another which brought about a sense of solidarity, ingenuity and, not always voluntary, mutual appreciation.

And thus Ossis went about their daily lives, keeping their hopes low and horizons small, which was aided by only being allowed to travel within the Eastern Bloc countries and having limited access to Western media. Knowing all the time that Big Brother Stasi was watching and keeping meticulous records to later use for blackmail, intimidation and, most importantly, to assert power and control over its unruly citizens.

The dismay of knowing the watchful eyes and keen ears of the Secret Police were everywhere was so inherent in the people’s psyche that the Stasi’s means of mass surveillance became a quasi urban myth. In order to cope with its abstract and at the same time real threat and to go on regardless, the Stasi and its functionaries became something to make fun of with the people one trusted.

It wasn’t until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power that Ossis dared to hope for some light at the end of the tunnel. Words like Perestroika and Glasnost were radical not only in the sense of utter change and renewal they implied but also in the magic they subtly weaved in people’s blocked and brainwashed minds. What a man. What a politician. I still wonder how a quiet revolutionary like him made it to the top of a corrupt and deeply reactionary political system. I had the fortune to see and hear Mr. Gorbachev at the Cinema for Peace Gala at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009 and knew there was the man who not only changed the course of history but also the course of my life in myriad ways. I cried.

If I want to cheer myself up and feel boundless gratitude, I think about what would have become of me if the Berlin Wall hadn’t come down.

I was 15 years old in 1989 and for various reasons not selected for A-levels. The only possibility to get my A-levels anyhow and not end up in some factory polishing metal parts for electric fence energisers for the rest of my life, was to take up an apprenticeship as Storage Technician and do my A-levels on the side.

Trying to picture my impending future brought up Kafkaesque visions of huge storage facilities filled to the brim with boxes and me on a forklift going around and around to nowhere. An adolescent sense of doom descended and I envisioned my life as a grey mass of imprisoned nothingness.

But history had different plans.

As tectonic plates were already shifting in the summer of 1989 and new opportunities sprung up left, right and center I managed to get a place at the local Lyceum, and surrounded by old class mates who had made it as well, the two best years of my life so far commenced. Although the tough East German exam-system was still in place and I almost failed math and chemistry, I remember laughing and joking with my best friend so much that one of us was regularly asked to leave the classroom. Looking back I think it was the hysteria of never-before tasted freedom and possibilities which made us giddy with joy.

Throughout one thought was festering: I NEED TO GET OUT. Leave my home, my hometown, my former socialist-realist home country, to see and become part of the WORLD.

Consequently I did what all American tourists do when they come to Europe – see as much as possible in as little days as possible. And off on an inter-rail adventure my bestie and I went: Paris, Marseille, Arcachon, Rome, Venice, Athens, Corfu, Istanbul. Wide-eyed natives staring at the Eiffel Tower and throwing up in a bistro, sleeping rough in Italian train stations, passports tied around the waist, riding horses on the beach, suffering sun stroke and diarrhea on the ferry, encountering our first proper West Germans in the form of fellow travelers, smoking our first dope, learning from an American girl how to use toilet paper to blow our noses, schlepping our backpacks through Venice in the August heat looking for Marco Polo, drinking apple tea with carpet sellers in Istanbul and wondering briefly whether it would be a good idea to take a bus to the Middle East.

By then well versed in the art of prioritising and survival, culture was taking a backseat and we opted to stay put and for a tourist meal rather than visiting the Acropolis once we got to the top of the hill.

Then I turned eighteen and my life truly began.

Of course, just like my CV, this is an abridged and polished version of my experiences. I left many more things out than I put in. But for now this has to do.

Ode to Procrastination

mañana is good enough for me
mañana is good enough for me

‘Is the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus putting off impending tasks to a later time.’

Procrastination is good. I could leave it that and everybody would agree but let’s go into the heart of the matter. It’s only when we have procrastinated enough, when we are truly fed up with delaying our life/the essential any longer that we do what really matters.

Only, it’s more complicated than that. Before we can start something new we need to go to the end of whatever came before. That holds true for relationships, for unsatisfying jobs or waiting for the bus until we notice the stop is no longer in use.

Procrastination is the great leveller. It might turn out that, having procrastinated long enough, the urgent thing we’ve been avoiding just doesn’t exist anymore, i.e. the flowers we should have watered died, the all-clearing conversation has become pointless now that the relationship is over, or by the time we are actually ready for a walk it’s raining.

Another bonus of procrastination is that the important thing we’ve been delaying has simply lost its importance. Which totally frees us of guilt, because time did that. It wasn’t us.

So don’t be afraid to go to the very end of your hedging. Try stretching it ad infinitum and you’ll sloth your life away. However, it’s more likely you will get bothered with it eventually. It might take an hour or ten years but there will probably come a time when procrastination just won’t do anymore.

It’s not that your flat couldn’t do with another cleaning, or what about that film you’ve only watched nine times and still offers dialogue subtleties you missed previously, or keeping up with the latest FB updates. You are not really postponing, you just don’t want to miss out on life-changing events.

In my case, whatever it is I don’t want to do the most, or perceive as hardest moves furthest down the list. So if I have something I really don’t fancy doing but deep down know that my life including myself would really benefit from, I find something I feel even less like doing.

Suddenly the thing I didn’t want to do doesn’t look so unattractive anymore simply because it moved upwards on the list of things I’m trying to avoid.

So my trick is just finding that one worse thing. Let’s stick with the homely and homemade. I’m still mending clothes and sometimes customise them. Even though this is satisfying work, also in a good-for-our-planet-screw-you-cheap-clothes-slave-labour-kind-of-way, I will avoid it for as long as possible.

In comes the notion that I should be writing my next blog. And yes, I start mending things that are perfectly alright and customise clothes for no reason other than spending an hour not doing that other thing. Now all I need to find is something less pleasurable than sitting down and piecing my brain cells together for writing.

I obviously found it.

How to not get paid writing work

still from my short NIGHT DUTY
writer trying to focus

Zero. That’s how many replies I received for my hustling.

Not even a no-thank-you-no-unsolicited-material-but-thank-you note. Well, it either went straight into the trash or to the wrong person. And they deleted it. Or to the right person. And they deleted it. Or to no person at all but a spam blocker which nervously flashed a red warning light when it saw my email coming and shredded it before it could clutter anyone’s in-box. Or, rather more prosaically, the intern was having a bad day.

However, when I really think about it, zero is way more interesting than having editors clamouring for my work. I’d be faced with a bidding war and, negotiating without an agent, would be promising everything to everybody. Breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about it.

Honestly, zero is preferable to abundance as it could quickly become overwhelming. The silver lining on this particular cloud is that I can learn from it. Grow. Go on a Journey and ponder what it is the universe wants to tell me.

The list of possible messages is long. The favourite and most soothing for my bruised ego naturally comes first.

  1. I’m simply too good and keeping me out means other writers won’t lose their jobs.
  2. My writing sucks but no one wanted to tell me.
  3. My writing is interesting but no one needs it. Especially not in August.
  4. Previous means of making a living weren’t too bad after all.
  5. I have to try again. And again. And.
  6. The unemployed writers’ diet of baked beans was good for me and I should continue.
  7. Get a one-way plane ticket and stay there.
  8. When I’m there learn what I was meant to learn from this experience.
  9. Figuring out that there isn’t such a bad place after all.
  10. Get a job in a hipster café.
  11. Write about life in a hipster café.
  12. In my spare time go fishing and on safari.
  13. Meditate to make it all go away.
  14. Have a good think about life and what it all means. Or doesn’t.
  15. Eventually go to bed, hoping that tomorrow will be filled with orthographic miracles and ice cream.

Once I have learned all these lessons on my Journey there will be nothing left to do but rewind my life and do it all again.

Only differently.

How Films Save Your Life

moonlight room
photo: U-Sun Hu

Like with a book, I can tell a good film/TVseries/anythingmoving from a mediocre one within the first 2 minutes. The opening either captivates me or doesn’t. If it does, then there is nothing I need to do but let myself be immersed in what runs before my eyes. If it doesn’t, I either press STOP or leave the cinema as quickly as possible. I have sat through films that tore at my nerve ends, angry at the idiocy or wankiness of whatever it was I was watching. Bearing in mind that I am about to spend at least one and a half hours of my life, the thing I am spending this time on should be worth the while.

And this isn’t about being high-brow or lofty. Conan the Barbarian, for instance, is a great action film and also the beginning of Schwarzenegger’s political career. He did a great job of reminding the voters-to-be of just how competent he is in ridding the world of evil characters with nothing more than a sword and an oily body on which his enemies simply slipped off. Nowadays where wars are being fought with state-of-the-art technology and preferably long-distance, California’s ex-governor was right there in the midst of it, getting his hands bloody. Impressive.

But film/TV/everythingthatmoves is not only important for launching future political careers, there is the entertainment aspect too. Because, let’s admit it, life is dreadful. It sucks the very marrow from your bones. It takes some time to fully realise this but once you do, your longing for any kind of distraction from dwelling on this fact for too long increases. Of course, there are different kinds of distraction, like having kids, or collecting Russian-orthodox icons, but sooner or later it will hit you again and you are yearning for a different reality, a life you could lead if you were, for example, born in Little Rock or Düsseldorf. If you were a legal secretary or a guerilla fighter or making easy bucks selling drugs outside schools. That’s why I watch films. To be there with people in messy situations and find a way out of them, by killing or stealing or throwing china across cosy living rooms. Until now I have committed nothing of the previously mentioned problem-solving things, even though the urge has certainly been there.

Fortunately, we always have choices and different ways of dealing with whatever life throws at us. As a civilised and cowardly being I usually take the route of the least resistance, the one that,
seemingly, offers me the bargain price. But then I watch films and I see all the other things I could have done instead, the lives I could be living. This keeps my primal instincts at bay and also keeps me from going to Africa to do charity work.

And this brings me conveniently to the third aspect of why moving imagery is important. It keeps people’s minds occupied. It appeases our unruly selves. After a mindless day at work, what is better than coming home and switching on the TV/computer/microwave? If it wasn’t for the hypnotising moving imagery we would be wanting sex all the time, or rob the corner shop, or talk to our partner and find out that the relationship is non-existent. But instead film does it all for us, the revolutions, the arguments, the affairs, and, most importantly, calming down the infrequent amorous, murderous and making-the-world-a-better-place urges.

AND THAT IS WHY WE NEED ANY KIND OF MOVING IMAGE WE CAN GET HOLD OF.