Coming to terms with Adventure


 

One of my first friends was an adventurer. He was a soft toy man dressed in yellow named adventurer Sam. Little did I know that in the future many of my close friends would share the same name; it must be a special name. Adventurer Sam was always well prepared. He had a soft toy water bottle and soft toy binoculars. Inside his backpack, perfectly sized for a soft toy adventurer, he carried a soft toy map. That way he would never lose his way. He was a childhood hero; a figure to look up to. If he could be an adventurer, why not me?

My parents are adventurers. In their mid 20’s they left their home land of New Zealand for The UK and started a new life in Edinburgh. Did they know they would stay in Britain for ever? I don’t know. What I do know is that they left practically everything. Family and friends all on the other side of the world, replaced with the rainy streets of the Scottish capital. Their small island in the Pacific turned into a smaller island in the Atlantic, and home was geographically as far away as you can go without leaving the planet. What a decision. I’ve always taken it for granted; that my parents lived as long As I’ve been in alive in New Zealand, then only to trade it forever. But really it’s amazing. They must have been truly brave to move so far.

I always wanted to be an adventurer. As a child I was fascinated with ancient Egypt, and while other kids wanted to be famous footballers, I dreamed of pyramids and ancient gods. I wanted to be an Egyptologist, and perhaps so myself to be a little Indiana Jones. More likely though, I wanted to be like Adventurer Sam.

We used to always spend the Easter holiday in the Lake District. When I was four my mum and step dad called my ‘the champion mountain climber’ because I had climbed one very short mountain with them. For a few years I carried that title deep in my heart and believed that it was true. I wanted to conquer the highest mountains and see the greatest views the world had to offer. My strongest memory from early childhood is walking through the forests in the Lakes, one hand held by mum, the other my step dad. We never found the bears.

I went with my dad in the summers to the west coast of Scotland where we sailed Scotland’s western isles. There I felt nature, and learned its strength. When the sun came, its light played with the sea. The waves shifted and reflected the sun over us. Sometimes dolphins swam alongside the yacht and we became for a short time a member of their community. When the dark skies came and the sea was pulled into black waves, I learned that nature must be respected. She is not evil, but she can be terrifying and violent. When you sit in a small boat that leans so far in a storm, that you are almost touching the wailing sea, you learn the violent beauty of our world.

When we landed on islands it felt as if we had found new land. We were the first people that had ever been there; the island our own kingdom. I still remember the disappointment as we found signs on the ‘black isle’ that people had been there before us. The other boat in the harbour should have been proof enough, but so is the imagination of a dreaming child.

In ‘normal’ life I lived in Cambridgeshire with my mum and step dad. In Cambridgeshire there are no lakes, no mountains, and very little nature. Instead agriculture reigns entirely. Some find the endless fields of crops beautiful. I see in it the end of nature. There is nothing to connect with there. We lived in a region we hated and stayed because of my step dad’s work. There was no adventure in Cambridgeshire. When people tell me that it is my home, it hurts. My mum grew up on a farm where the plains of central Otago meet the mountains. My step dad grew up near the lake district. I was born in Edinburgh, a city never far from hills and the sea. We never fitted into Cambridgeshire, even me who has spent most of my life there. I only ever really felt at home when I went to see dad in Scotland. The strongest influence Cambridgeshire had on me was the desperate desire to escape it.

I remember one of the teachers I respect the most from my school days telling me “you’ll grow to appreciate here after you leave it.” I’ve gone back a few times now. Every time I last a few days before questioning how I managed to stay there so long. I go there to see family, catch up with a few friends, then I leave again.

The point here is, I was always going to end up needing something I could quantify as a ‘real’ adventure. When I did finally leave Cambridgeshire after school was done and dusted, I was really running away in many respects. Maybe I still am. I’m not entirely sure.

That was four years ago now. I packed my bags, got on a plane and landed in China. At 19 years old I was moving to the Gobi desert. The adventure hasn’t stopped since. In four years I’ve been a teacher,  been a student in three countries and lived in five cities. I’ve travelled thousands of miles on trains and buses; watched from their windows as lush mountains turn to deserts. I’ve started to learn how little I know that there is to know.

At the end of my first year in China, some friends and I sat in a courtyard in Beijing and considered how surreal it would be to be back in the UK. One said: “we’ll never have an adventure like this again.” We had all lived and worked as teachers in small cities across the country, far from the well known metropoles. I didn’t believe him and promised it was only the start. In some ways that adventure never actually ended. In other ways, we truly never had an adventure like it again. If I told you that we all met on a small Scottish Island with a population of around 200 people, you probably wouldn’t believe me. That first adventure ended after all in a town of 20 million.

Going back to the UK actually was an adventure too. My Chinese city, Kuitun, had a westerner population of roughly two; me and my friend who I lived with for the year. Some others lived twenty minutes south in Dushanzi, but nonetheless in a city of 300’000 we stuck out like sore thumbs. The first day back in the UK was extremely uncomfortable, because everyone wasn’t Chinese, and it just didn’t feel right. It took a month to readjust.  I missed good food. I missed things being affordable. I missed the language. The UK was all wrong.

That year was the only full year I’ve spent in the UK since leaving school. The year after I was back in China, and I’m writing this right now from Germany, where I’ve been for the last three and a half months. Although it was a great year I had cabin fever the whole time. After a year that was split up by long train journeys across the whole of China, a whole year in Leeds felt like a cage. Because of that, I think I’m still running. I love university, but despite that A whole year in one place had become so difficult.

In three weeks I go back to the UK for the first full year since year 1 of uni. My relationship with it has completely changed. I see it more as a nice country which I like staying in, rather than a home. Four years of hopping in and out of it seems to have its toll eventually. Not so long ago I thought this point would be feel like the end of my ‘adventuring’. There are no more times where I ‘must’ live outside of the UK. That’s all done now. But it’s so problematic.  My childhood was characterised entirely by a need to run, to explore the world; and the frustration that that need couldn’t be realised. Now, after four years of changing worlds and experiences, I  feel the sense of adventure disappearing but simultaneously don’t want to stop. My friend’s comment back in Beijing comes back as a ghost. The adventures never were the same.

There is no doubt in my mind that after another whole year in the UK I’ll be itching to run away again. Already I’m considering whether it is better to move to Europe or to Asia. But for every year I keep running, the less it remains adventure, and instead becomes normal life. It becomes normal to have friends for a few months, only to wave goodbye forever at the end of that all too short time. It becomes normal to wonder if you can still keep your life to one bag if you need to. The concept of ‘your own bed’ disappears. Your own bed is wherever your sleeping at any given time. I’ve been told for example that I can have my own bed back this time I visit Cambridgeshire. The last few times I’ve been sleeping in the living room, and both ways are fine, because my bed isn’t my bed anymore.  I wouldn’t trade the experiences of the last few years for anything but in truth, for everything you gain, you lose something too. Embrace adventure too much, and it seems you lose a sense of home.

Something is still puzzling. As a kid, adventure was always associated with nature, but my last four years has been spent almost entirely in cities. How do I assimilate the root of that need to run, with the actual result? Is that why after four years something seems lacking, or does that stem from too long simply up in the air never staying in one place? The exception is my old dream of becoming an egyptologist. I have something in common with my old dream. I do explore culture, and although the cultures I learn about are very much still living, the foundation is still there.

I think over the next few years my concept of adventure will change. They say life itself is an adventure, and I believe that wholeheartedly, but that doesn’t fit with the relatively superficial conceptualisation of the word explored here. I think as this superficial material adventure becomes more and more a form of normal life, experiences gained along the way will feed a more philosophical form of adventurism. That is to an extent already happening. When you start to realise more deeply that every nation thinks differently, and that their thoughts are not right or wrong, but a different understanding of existence,  existence suddenly becomes much more fluid. There lies perhaps the next adventure: No longer in places, but in mind sets. Maybe the next few years will prove that theory wrong, but one thing is doubtless. The adventurism embodied for me in a childhood toy and hero, adventurer Sam, is not the same adventurism that lies in the future. I still need to come to terms with adventure.

 

 

 

 

A quick trip to Prague


There is something a little wrong feeling to me, writing about Prague before I’ve even really written about my new home in Leipzig in any depth, but that seems to just be how it’s going to go.

I’ll put it down to actually having taken photos in Prague, and not down to a serious case of slacking. I’m kidding myself really though.

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You have probably heard of Prague. It’s turned into a bit of a tourist hot spot in recent years, as far as I can tell. There certainly were a fair few there. That however doesn’t take away from it being a fabulous city. It’s cool, it’s arty, it’s historic, and wonderfully Gothic. Gothic will always score points with me.

So why did I end up in Prague when I should be busy exploring Leipzig? A good friend of mine came to stay and we decided to go on a trip out of town. Prague just happens to practically be down the road. It’s about an hour to Dresden on the bus, which is almost on the Czech border, then the Czech Republic (officially Czechia now, but the name apparently isn’t catching on at all) is a conveniently small land making the second half of the journey happily brief.

That’s not to say I would have complained at a longer stint through the Czech countryside. It’s beautiful. Living in deathly flat Saxony is a bit of a curse for me, seeing as my pet hate of Cambridgeshire back in the UK is its boredom-inducing views. The majority of the Czech Republic is surrounded by mountains, and although our bus drove only through comfortably rolling countryside, lofty mountains were always in the distance.

Something about the rolling fields was puzzling though. I could swear they had changed colour since Germany. The saxon fields of flatdom are at the very least of a very pleasing green (Cambridgeshire fields are usually brown and frankly crap), but over on the Czech side I swear the grass was slightly bluer. Now, I’m willing to accept I’m just mad, but that’s what I thought. Blue-ish-green fields. Lovely.

And then of course moving further east in Europe means the buildings change quite a lot. Although Prague as a city was impressively gothic, the churches appearing from the hilltops in the countryside had a distinctly orthodox feel about them. I believe that the predominant form of Christianity in the land is actually Catholicism, but the church architecture makes me think of further east. Of course, that is almost irrelevant anyway, as being a former east bloc country means that most people are irreligious these days.

I didn’t get any photos of that lovely Czech countryside. I was too busy enjoying it. I never get any good shots from bus windows anyway really.

So. After rolling along in a coach over rolling, slightly blue-ish (mainly green) hills, Demi and I arrived in Prague. We only had a day and a half, so had to use our time well to get the most out of it.

Naturally we through that idea to the wind and spent a good chunk of time in coffee shops.

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being Bohemian in Bohemia

I’m going to put it out there and say that doing so is almost justified in a place like Prague. If there is a positive word for those strange folk like me that find themselves willingly holed up in coffee shops for the best hours of the day, every day, then that would could well be bohemian. Prague just happens to be the main city of Bohemia. Although this land may not exist today, the feel attributed to the word certainly does. Therefore I (and I hope Demi too) feel no regret at the dangerous amount of time spent sipping coffees on a more dangerous time restriction.

We spent the rest of the time wondering the wonderful streets with our cameras.

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or taking photos of cameras inside the coffee shops.

Honestly, we did actually go outside a bit.

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How could you not, when a city looks as good as Prague does?

There’s clearly so much to do in the city. I was quite desperate for example to go to the Kafka Museum, as a huge fan of that genius existential miseryguts. Being a former east bloc city, there is also a communism museum hidden in its windy streets. Then of course towering over the river from the old town is Prague castle, apparently one of the largest castle complexes in the world.

Unfortunately the old town was so touristy we turned back for quieter streets, and never quite made it to the castle. I get the feeling it is a must see however, if you are not busy being ‘bohemian’ in coffee shops.

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I’ll just put some proof of actually stepping outside now.

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Prague sits comfortably on Vlatva, which is the longest river running through the Czech Republic. I showed my ignorance by thinking that it was the Danube. Nope.

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The buildings really are beautifully ornate in Prague. I’ve never really been one for balconies, but I’d be pretty chuffed if my house had a balcony like those in Prague.

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I even appreciated the road signs in Prague. I don’t drive, so I can’t say the road signs are my favourite thing in the world, but I have to applaud a town which has road signs for segways.

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And signs for classy gentlemen to cross roads.

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See, this shouldn’t have surprised me so much, as former East Germany still holds on proudly to its Ampelmann. The fellow of traffic crossing light fame even has his own shop in Berlin.

Prague does of course have historic links, for better or for worse, to the German speaking world. It was an important city in the Habsburg Empire after all. Kafka after all, wrote his stories in German, not Czech. It is worth pointing out that he wasn’t hugely fond of German, despite it being his chosen creative language. He saw German as the language of bureaucracy – no surprise really, when you consider it was  the ruling language despite Czech being the native tongue.

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Remants of German on an older street sign.

In fact, when I think about it, Prague and the Czech Republic has had a rough past. Most nations with ‘Republic’ in the name have had to stand up to something annoyingly aggressive in their histories, and within the last a hundred years, this city has been part of politically unstable Habsburg empire, with all the in-fighting that came with being part of that unhappy club. Then it found itself part of the communist east bloc. The country (as Czechoslovakia) was flung into an anti-communist revolution after the fall of the Berlin wall and the ensuing collapse of the east bloc. By 1992, The Czech Republic had come into being.

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Now back to wondering streets. The part of the city I was really looking forward to seeing was Charles bridge, a gloriously Gothic construction running directly to the old town. Despite standing directly on the bridge, I don’t recall seeing it. I think if you removed all the brickwork of the given bridge, Demi and I still could have crossed the bridge quite happily as long as the tourists left hanging in mid air by the lack of bricks stayed where they were.

Ignore physics for a second, and imagine it’s perfectly plausible they would just float there. Charles Bridge was absolutely stuffed with humans.

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I had to look for details on the bridge instead, as there wasn’t much chance of a dramatic panorama of the bridge itself. These saintly looking fellows were practically telling me it was a mistake to try fighting through the crowds.

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As for this saintly looking fellow, it seemed to be a tradition to touch him as you cross the bridge. No idea why. I could research it, but I think its more fun to puzzle over it instead.

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This saintly fellow was telling me to get off the bridge, offering a kindly recommendation for the castle you see in the background. Demi and I, as previously mentioned, ignored the suggestion due to crowds. We were not smited, and are both in good health after refusing kindly instruction from such a religious looking dude.

IMG_6997 I had also heard before getting to Prague that the city has a love of puppets. This man was the only puppeteer I saw in the whole city, but at least his puppet fitted wonderfully with its Gothic home. I had Sonata Arctica’The boy who wanted to be a real puppet in my head for the rest of the day.

On all things arty, I’m so happy that the trip to Prague taught me the name of an artist I’ve been wishing to know the name of for a while. Mucha. I absolutely love his rich, almost mystical style, but I didn’t know his name until bumping into his work throughout his homeland.

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Luckily his art work was proudly shown all over the place. It also suggested trying the local absinthe. So we did.

I had to approach the green fairy with some care, as I had been warned by my mum that there was a potential family heritage risk with it. High quality absinthe contains a hallucinogen, and mum had warned me she reacted badly once to a related compound found in a medicine she had been told to take. The waitress at Absinthe Time did also give us practically a briefing on the drink before we bought anything.

I still love her description. She told us that Absinthe will potentially “change our perspective of reality”.

In small amounts, a good Absinthe is meant merely to give you euphoric feelings. That is I imagine unless you choose Absinthe on the menu with 8 times the recommended amount of narcotic in it.

Me, paying heed partly to mums advice, and partly to the advice of my wallet, opted for something a bit more standard. It turns out that a good Absinthe is actually a gorgeous drink. If you don’t like the taste of anise then give it a miss, but otherwise it has to be one of the most drinkable spirits out there.

The correct process for preparing the drink is also quite the performance. The waitress came over to our table with a bottle of absinthe, two glasses, sugar, a special spoon, and a lighter. Anyone with any reasonable sense, or absolutely none at all, will know that spirits set on fire quite easily. That was the intention with the Absinthe. Our waitress set our absinthe on fire, and slowly melted the sugar cubes into the glasses of absinthe. After leaving the glasses to cool, our drinks were ready.

Euphoria was the word. We left the bar with a strange mixed feeling of being lightly tipsy, but at the same time strikingly chirpy for a state of drunkenness. Great fun.

As it happens, the Czech republic is simply a land known for its alcohol. Somehow I wasn’t fully aware of to what extent before getting there. The Czech republic is famous as home of the Pils. Pils comes unsurprisingly from Pilsen. Despite living in the part of Germany that is more into pilsner than weissbier and so on, I’m not really a Pils person myself. I gave the local pils a go nonetheless, and discovered that, actually, the Czech republic knows how to make a pilsner. I’m left wondering if Germany’s world fame for beer should perhaps be gifted over across the board to Czechia, because although German beer is good, damn, that Czech beer is also good. In terms of Pilsner, Germany is left floundering awkwardly somewhere behind the Saxon Alps.

A discerning Demi approved. Ignore for a moment that her beer is actually not a pilsner. It is at least definitely Czech.

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Beer is always the right place to end. If you follow in the footsteps of some of my local Leipziger folks, then it is also quite a reasonable way to begin, namely a hearty morning pint on the tram on the way to work. But for today, seeing as this post has been about a short visit to Prague, I will leave Leipziger drinking habits to another day.

 

That time I moved to Germany, and became critical of organised education


Two weeks ago I moved to Germany, but let me talk about something completely different and seemingly unrelated. (I get to Germany later on)

I love and hate my degree simultaneously. On one hand, it lets me be an explorer of sorts. That extends much further than literal travel, although that certainly plays a part! On the other hand, it gnaws away at my attempts to hold onto my other interests. Where can I find time to create, be it writing, drawing, painting or music; when essays and language practice watch over like vultures?

I’ve been acutely aware for months how draining it is to sacrifice everything in the name of a piece of paper. That piece of paper will in the end be the bearer of a number for others to nod at with disinterest before nodding with disinterest at another piece of paper bearing a similar number. For me it may symbolize four years of loving struggle; a pursuit of knowledge and skills. Hidden within that number will be stories, excitement and pain, friends many gained and a few lost along the way. For the disinterested nodders, I will be that number, and that number will carry as much depth as curved line can without context to explain it.

Yet us students keep on striving for that number.

For the past two years my main goal has been to work less hard. Yes, less hard. The problem is, I just can’t do it. Back in the UK I would wake up early so I could work a few hours before uni began, then between lectures I would work. Some of that work I would do in coffee shops – that was my break for the day. Back at the flat, I would cook, then work again. For the last few months before I moved to Germany, I did actually succeed in making time for guitar most evenings too, and occasionally writing articles for my student paper. Weekends? What’s a weekend.

A small number of my readers will know that I used to write fairly profusely before I began my degree, and since then something has appeared here maybe once every couple of months. In every post over that time of sparse writing, I’ve written about how rarely I write, then claim that this time I’ll be back to writing properly…and then I’m gone again for months. That comes down simply to not giving myself free time.

For me, it’s a testament to why the myth that hard work guarantees success is just that, a myth. What I gain from over-work is to sit at a slightly higher than average spot on my degree, but far from the ‘best’, whatever that may mean. What I lose is peace of mind, and my interests outside of my degree. There is a difference between hard work and efficient work.

The paradox lies in how much I actually love what I study. Language learning is practically a game. You learn the rules, and as you progress you open up new skills, stories and places. Further on your entire way of thinking changes. It is no hyperbole to say that language learning does change your world entirely. But neither is it my whole world.

To further that paradox, my other interests which I am ‘losing’ to my degree benefit so much from my degree. My writing now enjoys global influence. Musically I’m no longer restricted to the (relatively) limited approach to music of the English speaking world. Yet with no time dedicated to letting these rich influences grow into my own creations, I’m left wondering whether in the end I gain or lose more.

Ironically my first step to escaping the domination of my degree over my life was to do even more. At the start of this year I started reading at least a book a week outside of my degree, and what a decision that has been. Aside from forcing me take time out from university content, my learning has become so much richer over the space of a few months. One books in particular has ripped apart my view of learning and exposed a certain futility in the organised education system which practically encapsulates my life.

The book is relatively well known, a cult classic so to say: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To those unaware of this book, it is much more gripping that the title makes it sound. In fact, Earth shattering is how I would describe it.  I don’t want to give away too much about its story, but the book is extremely critical of modern organised education. The character Phaedrus is driven mad (ahem, got to be careful with words here) by university’s goal of good marks over accumulation of knowledge. As a professor he plays with removing grades entirely from his classes, which is met by opposition from students obsessed numbers on pieces of paper.

Phaedrus is also highly critical of modern education’s rationality. This may seem an odd criticism, but as he points out in the book modern society has rationalized the world to a point where all that cannot be empirically analysed. University sneers at any other approach, despite rationality’s interdependence on the irrational. What does a degree accumulate to? A number. What does self study result in? You choose. It doesn’t have to  result in anything other than the journey. The point is, when education is too structured and too rationalized, it becomes a means to an end. An abstract number is valued thousandfold over the road taken to get there.

In passing I’ll just say that this topic is just one of many within the book. Up to the last sentence (actually, especially the last sentence) I found personal philosophies and world views being teased and snapped into tiny pieces. But back to education.

Applied to my own university experience, I see parallels with both Phaedrus (extremely worrying given the events in the book) and his students. The striving for grades is strangely counter-productive. In order to give grades, a particular content must be fed to students. In offering a particular content, certain elements must be considered more important that others, and each student learns not what is most valuable to them, but instead what is plastered onto all.

But what other option is there? We all need to get our little number so we can be chosen to be a number in another organisation further along the people production line.

An interesting thing happens when Phaedrus abolishes grades. That course suddenly becomes about the journey. With no way of checking progress, the students have to go out of their way to learn. With no abstract goal to achieve, the goal becomes the road instead.

I think rich, meaningful education is to be found on the road, not the mountain top. Somehow we all forget that once you’ve climbed up to a peak, there’s another path to take on the way back.

These ideas where actually coming into my head before I read zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance but the book helped consolidate those views. The fact I read it in the first place was a result of trying to escape the abstract goal-oriented university approach. It was only after reading the book however that it became clearer where the standard university learning approach was leading: Eventual burnout imposed disinterest to my studies and the loss of all my other interests. That is not the place where I want to be.

This is the context in which I start my time in Germany. Yes, I am studying here and that makes everything I’ve written here look contradictory, but really this is about unhinging the dominance of university based study. I intend to write regularly about my life here over the next few months. Much of that will be in this context of my struggle with structure.

At the end of March I moved to Leipzig, a city in the east of Germany near the Czech republic. These days it’s known as a cultural hub, with a huge music scene, a plethora of museums, and numerous events throughout the year. I’ve heard that people from Europe’s city of Cool, Berlin, are even moving to Leipzig. Sure enough, there is plenty happening here. I only need to walk for a few minutes from my flat and I usually find something interesting happening. To impromptu street gigs to guys painting forests on buildings, this is a city living and breathing creativity.

Yet Leipzig is in the former east. Not so long ago, it was one of the major cities of the German Democratic Republic. Hints to that past are everywhere. The west of the city where I live is a region marked for redevelopment, highlighting its past as a factory district. What is now the cool cultural part of town in the near past was dominated by industry. The city is much more openly left wing than anywhere else I’ve ever lived before too, and by that mean most of the left spectrum is covered. Die Linke are the German political party with its roots in the communist past, and they have a meeting place just down my street. They’re rather popular in the city. There’s a definite presence of something a bit more anarchic too in my part of town. Some of the local graffiti reads for example “Capitalism kills; kill capitalism”, or “Burn all prisons! Solidarity for all Prisoners!” On a lighter end of the political spectrum, social initiatives are everywhere, and there is a feeling of strong local solidarity. I haven’t got out with my camera yet, but I’ll have some examples from the street for you all soon no doubt.

Seeing as I’m here in Leipzig for a few months I’ll keep everything simply to an overview tonight. I’ll write more in detail  as I have more to say!

Although my university course back in the UK is German and Chinese, that’s not what I study here. It would admittedly be a little odd studying German in Germany…as it’s best simply to live the language of a country where you live. As for Chinese, I get a much needed break. Instead, I study a mix of politics and German literature. I also chose a Swedish course as an opportunity to move forward a language that’s been in limbo for a while. Studying in a second language is quite the experience, so there will be plenty to write about there. The hours are unnaturally short in comparison to the course at Leeds, and this will hopefully be the perfect environment for working out my uni study and interest balance. I refuse to let Leipzig steal my writing time at the very least!

It was always my intention to get involved in the music scene here in Leipzig. One of the most exciting things for me, is that Leipzig is home to one of the world’s largest goth festivals. Now that’s something a bit different, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to it.

While I’m here I also need to be thinking about a dissertation topic. As it happens, as I was wondering around the streets near my flat, it suddenly struck me how much of the Leipzig vibe is dependent on it’s Communist history. There could well be a dissertation topic in there. ‘Ostalgie’ or nostalgia for East Germany is well documented, but most discussion of positive remnants left from the DDR are concerned with social elements and not culture. That needs more thought, but it could be really interesting.

So there we go. I’ll be writing as I explore Leipzig, but see this as an introduction of sorts. I just want to wrap this all up with a thought about my rant on education that makes up over half of this post. Although I am technically here to study, in many ways I am using my time in Leipzig as 1/ a break from the uphill fight that my degree has been, and 2/ an opportunity to balance the system with my drowned out interests. My time in Leipzig isn’t meant to be about goals, but about moving along a road and making that road a little bit wider.

 

 

 

 

 

Holocaust memorial off-limits to AfD leader


originally published at The Leipzig Glocal

 

Even with a global rise of the extreme-right, it’s safe to say no one would expect its leaders to visit a holocaust memorial with any intention other than to cause trouble. That seems to have been the thinking as member of the far-right wing AfD Björn Höcke was blocked from attending a holocaust memorial at the former concentration camp Buchenwald. Such a decision at first seems reasonable; even sensible, but there are implications. It was certainly right to block him entry to the memorial, but that doesn’t mean his spiteful opinions should be silenced entirely, as to do so has its own dangers.

Would Höcke have been rejected entry to the memorial if he had not made his recent speech in which he called for an end to what in his eyes is a culture of lingering on nazi crimes?

He described the Berlin holocaust memorial as a ‘memorial of shame’ and demanded a ‘180 degree turn in political memory’. These are hardly the words of a politician wishing to attend a holocaust memorial to pay respects. Either he is a hypocrite who likes to make controversial statements for fun and not for action, or Höcke intended to carry out some form of twisted protest at the very site of historical horror and regret.

Höcke’s party leader, Frauke Petry, even denounced the speech, stating that “Björn Höcke has become a burden for the party, with his go-it-alone attitude and constant sniping”. This highlights how much he and his views stand outside of an already far-right party. Petry’s condemnation could however be taken to be in the light of the recent attempted ban of the extreme-right NPD. The AfD cannot risk being seen as too far-right as that would risk being considered Verfassungswidrig, against the constitution.

As right-populist as the AfD is, they are not the NPD. It appears as if Höcke would fit nicely into the more extreme, but in disarray party. The decision not to ban the NPD was followed by disbelief at the time, as the reason given was that the part was too insignificant to damage Germany’s democracy. The AfD in contrast is not insignificant and therefore would not have the same defence against an attempted ban. As unfortunate as Höcke’s views are, he should be allowed to express them. We know from the past that banning extreme opinions in their entirety causes greater problems by driving supporters of such views underground. That eventually leads to groups like the NSU and the RAF terrorist organisations of the not-so-far past.

Höcke’s ban from attending the memorial therefore comes down to location. Although historical memorials do have a political background and do have political consequences, they are not the location for aggressively stirring up emotionally-fuelled political questions. It is impossible not to be shaken emotionally by a visit to a former concentration camp. Many visiting the Buchenwald memorial will have been affected more personally than others.  Whether Germany does as Höcke believes linger too much on past horrors or not, a place symbolic of millions of innocent lives lost is not and never will be the place to express that opinion.

We are left in the difficult situation of having to grant Höcke his unpleasant beliefs, but that certainly does not make him welcome where his beliefs would bite hardest.

by Timothy Van Gardingen

Feature photo: Björn Höcke at open house in Thüringer Landtag, 13 Juni 2015. By © Vincent Eisfeld / vincent-eisfeld.de, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

 

 

 

Is’civilized’ just imagined superiority?


Last week I was reading a book called Danubia, which is all about the Habsburg empire. Like most of the old empires, you won’t find it on a modern map anymore, but once upon a time is was the leading force in Europe and leaves its distinctive mark across Central Europe to this day.

In fact the Habsburgs didn’t really start to get left behind until the late colonial era. Where much of Europe had been having great fun being evil tyrants around the world, The Habsburg empire was busy fighting over the same territories it had been fighting over for centuries. The author of Danubia, Simon Winder, made a particularly insightful comment in regards to the colonial nations.

“These were societies which could resort to any level of violence in support of racial supremacy. Indeed, an interesting  global history could be written about the ferocity of a period which seems, very superficially, to be so ‘civilized‘.

Winder’s comment, and it must be noted that it was certainly a side comment rather than central to the book, got me thinking about that odd little word, ‘civilized’. This is a term rarely seen in a negative context, unless it happens to be collapsing. In that case, the said collapse is deemed a bad thing, so the civilization in question must once again be considered good up to its destruction.

At the very least one cannot escape the feeling of a dark side to the  notion of ‘civilized’ in Winder’s words. If the colonial powers were indeed the epitome of ‘civilized’, then being civilized must involve its fair share of killing, destruction and oppression. That’s certainly not what I imagine  goes through the mind of guests at ‘civilized’ parties and meetings.

To be civilized is itself relative to the existence of the ‘uncivilized’, whatever or whoever that may be. Watch any film or read any book with colonial Brits in and by some point you will be confronted with a haughty character accusing another, most likely a person of a colonized nation, of being thoroughly ‘uncivilized’. In the view of the accuser that is to say  rude, ignorant or perhaps even barbaric. What is really meant however is ‘different’ and in such a way to be inferior. At the heart of the word ‘civilized’ is a superiority complex.

Let’s take this back a step. ‘Civilized’ comes from ‘civilization’. The Oxford Dictionary gives a few different definitions, so I will take two which I feel express the implications of the words deeply.

“[mass noun] The stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced” 

or

The society, culture, and way of life of a particular area”

Let’s tackle the former first, as it fits best with our haughty British colonist. In labeling another society as uncivilized, a person raises themselves to an imagined pinnacle of being. You may justifiable ask, “But what if that person truly is a member of the greatest civilization on earth?”. I would argue that that has never existed. In Europe we often look to ancient Greece and Rome as the pinnacle of civilization, but numbering amongst  their contemporaries were Egyptians,  Han dynasty China and the Parthians. They were of course eventually brought down to their knees by ‘barbarian’ nations like the Visigoths. Who’s civilized now, Rome?

The fact is, the very idea of ‘civilized’ is highly fluid.

Let’s have a look now at the more egalitarian second definition. Given that civilization by this definition changes to the location, the very idea of ‘uncivilized’ becomes very difficult to fathom. Whether you live in a metropolis or a cave in Siberia you will take part in a form of civilization. With this definition, the concept of ‘uncivilised’ just doesn’t work.

So what do we really mean if we call ourselves civilized, or another uncivilized?

‘civilized’ is a word that claims a (usually imagined) superiority. It belittles those we feel disconnected from and the cultures we do not understand. It creates a framework for what is right or wrong in a world where these morals are largely constructs in the first place rather than  set in stone universal laws.

‘uncivilized’ denotes an other-ed person or society. The ‘uncivilized’ are by no means bad, just in the same way the ‘civilized’ are not necessarily good. Perhaps for the latter, the opposite is actually more likely. Two groups in conflict may well consider themselves to be civilized, whilst believing the other to be uncivilized. Sometimes that imagined belief alone is cause for conflict.

I’m going to jump right back to the Habsburg empire now just to clear something up. I may have accidentally given an impression of the former Central European power as being a beautifully egalitarian state in which its leaders abused no feelings of superiority. Sorry, but that’s not the case either. They just formed a lovely introduction to the colonial guys who have acted as my models of the dark side to being ‘civilized’.

The fact is, The Habsburg empire felt very superior for most of its history and got involved in a fair amount of conflict because of that. When you think about it, so have most societies throughout history. Sadly even today, the rising tide of nationalism sweeping the globe is fueled by feelings of superiority. The ‘civilized’ fear the ‘uncivilized’ and become alienated.

Perhaps one day, the shroud of imagined superiority will fall and then just maybe people will come to see being ‘civilized’ as a form of lowly bigotry instead.

 

 

 

 

The threat to journalism in the post-truth era


orginally posted at The Gryphon

It wouldn’t be an official Trump announcement without a light hint of outrage. This time it is journalists who had a lot to worry about. In his first press conference since becoming President-Elect – something he appears to have actively avoided until now – Trump blocked certain media groups from speaking. He accused them of cultivating ‘fake news’ and therefore should remain silent.

Trump’s stance is worrying. It shows a willingness to break unsaid rules and expectations regarding political transparency. It is also a direct attack on freedom of speech, that fundamental concept which the US claims to champion so vehemently.

Unfortunately there is popular fuel for his statement. ‘Fake news’ is becoming a norm, not an exception.  A woman in Germany, for example, reported a horrific attack carried out on a teenager by an asylum seeker. It came to light later that it never happened, but not before the fakes news had spread.

On the surface then, it may well look as if the President-Elect would be justified in denouncing fake news. The problem is that, to him, his critics are the creators of fake news. A word against Trump is not a truth. What is not ‘truth’ is now to be censored. If the alarm bells are not ringing yet, they should be.

When the President-Elect, soon to be one of the most powerful people in the world, can decide who can and cannot express their views, there is a distinct threat to freedom of the press. It is essential that all sides of debate are free to question, criticize and praise as they will, because it is fundamental to the transparency of a democracy. The powerful must be held to account and that becomes impossible when critical voices are silenced.

How does this case affect the rest of the world? It spreads. A meeting of the European parliament group ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom) has already followed suit. The meeting, where right-populist leaders including Frauke Petry, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders attended, likewise denied entry to left-leaning news sources. Trump has set a new precedent.

Transparency is on the way out and with it comes the rise of actual fake news. A new website has opened called ‘hoaxmap’ which plots all recently discovered fake news stories across Germany and Austria (not yet for the UK, but perhaps the website will expand in the future). The map is completely covered. Whatever you think of the media, one of its main roles theoretically is to keep the leaders of the world in check. It cannot enforce, but it can raise awareness and encourage action. If the journalistic sphere becomes inundated with fake news it will become impossible to do so. Journalists will face more false leads and a permanent threat of being blocked from important events. At the same time people will lose total trust in the press.

The protocol governing political transparency exists for a reason. That transparency is necessary for our society to function properly. If any change was ever needed, it would be towards a more transparent system; not change in which the looking glass slowly frosts over.

By Timothy Van Gardingen

Real Life


 

I wasn’t ready for it. All those years of education and now, I was about to plug in to Real Life.

It seemed as if everyone considered Real Life to be normal. Something nagged at me, screaming silently that it wasn’t so.

“Education over, I guess it’s now just Real Life from now on”, and endless varieties on that phrase had covered Facebook for weeks. After a while I even started to believe it myself; that all I had ever worked for was simply to plug in.

London’s main office for Real Life was directly next to King’s cross, to help workers living in the outreach connect quicker. Quicker, I say with gritted teeth and a particularly large metaphorical pinch of salt. No one seems to have asked why, with all the developments in work technology, why did we still rely on this outdated transport system?

We have to get to Real Life somehow, after all.

All offices were near train stations. Some thought it would be better if all the offices were merged with the head office at King’s cross, but imagine the havoc if the entire country’s population descended upon one station each morning? It’s bad enough spread across three.

A cold breeze pushed unforgiving across the grey platform. The crowd shifting towards the exit barriers payed it no heed, to them it was just another insignificant part of the daily commute. To me, it carried a sense of the forgotten. This place was new, yet I already knew something was missing.

I spotted a sudden burst of colour on one of the walls. “Remember 9 3/4” sprawled decade-old graffiti, the red paint lonely in its surrounding sea of grey. No idea what it meant. Most graffiti was just surreal, nonsensical phrases. Maybe it meant something in the past, but now each message seemed hopelessly lost. I don’t remember where I learned that word, graffiti. Most people don’t know it exists. Some are vaguely aware of the images and of the words that appeared from time to time splayed across walls. Most however didn’t even see it. As I watched the other workers scrawl like ants across the platform, it was clear none of them could even see the graffiti within a stone’s throw from them all.

A distraction. Today would be my first day of Real Life, and here I was staring at irrelevant markings from another, insignificant age. As cynical as I was of plugging in for the first time, it was a rite of passage in this most modern of ages and I couldn’t be seen as being distracted on my first day of joining the system.

Eventually I followed along with the crowds and got off platform 79. The crowd headed towards the signs marked ‘REAL LIFE – LONDON MAIN OFFICE’. It made sense to follow the pack.

 

It suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea what kind of work I would be expected to do at Real Life.  If I think back to when I was younger, my parents never talked much about work. Sometimes I might hear if they were forced to be plugged in for an hour longer, or if Reality shut down unexpectedly for part of the day, but that was about it. It suddenly struck me; I wasn’t sure what Reality even was.

 

The mindless flow of the crowd didn’t stop for my thoughts. I shook my head and managed to weave my way through the last few steps to the station’s exit. The doors led out to huge square dotted with lifts heading straight down into the ground. It was surprising to see such a wide open space considering how tight for space London was supposed to be, but it was clear from the lifts that the majority of the city was underground. The square was just a worker sorting pen: queues lined up solemnly at each lift as they filed out of King’s Cross. Anxiety filled me – I didn’t know where I needed to go. There was only one option. I followed.

 

Someone was watching. In a crowd in near-perfect unison, the slightest divergence is a scream in deafening silence. I kept walking, panicking that something terrible was about to happen. No one else seemed to have the slightest sense of fear on their stone-etched faces. Maybe I was just going mad, pressured by my new surroundings. This wasn’t the outreach anymore. The crowd marched on.

 

A red flash filled the square; a deafening crack followed. Terror now gripped my being; there wasn’t even as much as a blink to sense from the snaking bundle of bodies surrounding me. Was this normal? Were they all completely desensitized?

 

Suddenly red banners fell from the top of towering citadels enveloping the square and revealed a one word message as they draped downwards to the ground.

 

“DISCONNECT”.

 

I could just make out miniature shadows now, seemingly running along the citadels’ silhouette, releasing more banners as they went. The message of the mysterious figures surrounded the square. The message was for all the workers of Real Life to see, and yet it remained unseen. There was just me staring in fear and awe. The crowd waited for their lifts to arrive.

 

It became lucidly clear how much I stood out and promptly moved into a queue. I had no idea if I was going where I needed to go, safety is in the crowd. I still however felt watched. It must have be the shadows on the citadel. I stole one more look to the skyline. The figures were gone, but dull flashes could be seen from behind where they had been. One last banner had appeared in the short time that I had looked away:

 

“Real Life is not real life”

 

In a state of deep fear and confusion, I reached the doors of a lift down to the underbelly of London. I tried my best to forget the shadows and their banners. Maybe they never were even there – anxiety does strange things to a person.

 

The lift arrived. I guess it’s Real Life from now on.