"Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood." - Marie Skłodowska-Curie

Dienstag, 16. Oktober 2012

Bearpit Karaoke - Mauerpark on a Sunday

When I find myself shaken with travel fever and I am really itching to get away, but I'm stuck in the grey, weird, awesome and stressful monstrosity that is Berlin, Bearpit Karaoke at Mauerpark is a remedy that has proven to be helpful every single time for several reasons. I'll take you on a quick stroll through a Sunday afternoon at the pit to explain to you why that is.

On any given Sunday between sometime in Spring and the last halfway decent day in Autumn, I will get to the pit and there will still be a gymnast, a magician or a stand up comedian heating up the crowd that is bound to be sitting on the steps already. As long as they are still going, I will peform the art of choosing the right place to sit (not too close to the speakers, perfect distance from the stage, preferably in the sun etc.). When around three o'clock the artist of the day will have wrapped it up, Joe Hatchiban arrives with his orange bike that magically transports everything he needs to get the show started - including speakers specifically designed for the pit's acoustic conditions, wicked!! And the cheering begins. And I cheer, too, for Bearpit Karaoke heals my travel itch, as it is a bit like travelling in itself. And here are the reasons why:

Reason #1: It is a place completely out of space and time. If you took this little patch of land and isolated it from its surroundings, there would be no way to tell where you took it from. The language that is spoken most is English with any given accent, and the German accent is not necessarily the most common one in the crowd. I could forget that I am not abroad when I am here. There literally are people present aged 1 through 80 from any country with any background. 

Reason #2: Everyone's equal in the pit. Because the crowd - I am horrible with estimating numbers, but appearantly there are more than a thousand onlookers on a sunny day - will cheer with equal enthusiasm for someone who is really horrible and for someone who is just rockstar amazing. The people will reward what the performance manages to get across - and even someone who cannot sing can make a thousand people dance, or laugh, or just plain feel something.
Reason #3: When I am there, it is easy to believe that the world is a good place. There is an image that is among my most favorite memories ever. Joe always walks around with a tin collecting donations. The way that everyone stretches out their arms to him is getting to me every time. People are doing it not because they want to take something from him, but because they want to give something to him! There is this immense willingness to give back for all the joy that this event imposes upon everyone who is there. And it looks so beautiful when Joe is jumping up and down stairs and arms are reaching for the tin from every direction to underline the feeling of gratefulness that encircles the pit. Really I am not here to flatter, but Joe is a pretty awesome dude for making this all happen.
Reason #4: Unexpected things happen. A blind Brasilian girl is led to the stage, seeming insecure, and then she's singing the Scorpions' "Rock me like a hurricane" like an absolute pro. A plain, short, bearded man that in teh street you would easily overlook is coming into the centre and then singing a German version of Sinatra's "My way" with so much soul and ernest that you're just completely taken by him (granted, he is not bearded anymore and also he does this every Sunday, but the first time it is really unexpected! And also, it doesn't cease to be endearing). Most recently, four people are starting to sing "Gangnam Style" and all the remains of the pit are storming the stage and starting to dance. There are marriage proposals. Declarations of Love. And just plain old good entertainment.

Reason #5: When I travel, I never have to care about tomorrow - just about the moment. When I am singing for an audience, I feel the same way. Yes, I am a sucker for the stage. I love singing, and I love the funny things that stagefright does to my tummy - especially when there is an audience that I do not know. I find it much harder to perform for people I care about, because I put a lot more pressure on myself. At the pit I go in there and I'm allowed to forget about my ambitions. I just let go and sing. And I return to my seat with adrenalin shooting through my body, and I am feeling alive. There really is no need to be afraid of a performance at the pit. Nothing to lose. Just so much to gain.

As I make my way back to my bike through the park when the show is over, past all the people with their guitars, their drum sets made from cans and boxes, their artwork, their dancing, their hula hooping or whatever else they may have on display, I can't believe that I am walking on what used to be the death strip. To my left - the former West. To my right - the former East. Today it's multiculturalism at its best. And a whole lot of happy up for grabs. 

Mittwoch, 3. Oktober 2012

Two Germanies

There is a story in the family about me being four years of age and explaining to my mom that there were two Germanies, the Federal Republic and the GDR, and that we were living in the Federal Republic and the people in the GDR were the surpressed ones. Only I didn't say surpressed, I said squished - easy to confuse "unterdrückt" and "zerdrückt" for a little girl.

I do remember the day the wall came down. I was barely five years old. My mom and dad were crying and I had no idea what was going on, but there were lots of people on TV celebrating and appearantly all was well. I asked my mom about that day many many years later and she said that aside from the births of her children, it may just have been the greatest day in her lifetime.

Another family legend tells of the time between the wall's downfall and the reunification when my parents took my sisters and me to see Schwerin. My dad, who never spent money lightly, had to change a certain amount of GDR currency that we needed to spend, and there was a fair, and we were allowed to go on rides until we almost threw up. I have a very faint image of a rusty merry-go-round in my head. 

I think I speak for most Western German children of the 1980s when I say that we grew up with certain ideas about the GDR, the majority of which were grey, dark and solemn. Also, by the time most of us were old enough to judge for ourselves, we didn't find that part of German history to be much of an issue. It's not like it was World War II and we were, as a collective, to be blamed for the deaths of millions of people. It was an unfortunate epoch that now lay behind us. No big deal. 

Only when I moved to the former East when I started college did I realize that it was different for other people my age - namely for those who didn't grow up in the West. They had actual memories of things changing. Their parents had gone through identity crises when the political change came upon them. Everything they knew was re-evaluated - from their breakfast cereal to the educational system that made up their schools and kindergartens.
One friend told me that she was the first year not to become a pioneer anymore. The Thälmann Pioneers were a youth organization in the GDR, in the younger years they were like a scouts movement; the older the children got the more ideological the contents became. The initiation to the pioneers was a big deal and my friend told me that she was heartbroken because she would not get the necktie that belonged with the uniform.
Another friend told me that she was riding the city bus with her mom, and the way she had gotten used to, she started singing, and she sang her favorite song from kindergarten. But right away her mom shushed her and said harshly: "You're not allowed to sing that anymore!!!" It was the song about the red Soviet star.
All of a sudden there was room for me to realize that while nothing had ever changed fundamentally in my own life, it was different for my friends. And I keep trying to understand the differences that came about between us with this political event every day. 

In Berlin the course of the wall is indicated in the street pavement by the use of different looking paving stones. Every day on my way to work I cross this line on the ground as I go from the former West to the former East. It has become somewhat regular, but on most days I still smile when I do. The idea that it would have been impossible 25 years ago is unspeakable. 

Who would I be if Germany had not been reunited 22 years ago today?
I could write a long list of speculations here that I could not possibly prove. I'll just make one statement that I am fairly certain about: I wouldn't have been able to leave my heart in so many places. And man, I'd hate that.