Berlin in December

Berlin in December. The temperature hovering a little below freezing and wisps of mist seemed to lower the grey clouds onto the bare ruined choirs of the Lime trees on Unten den Linden as we make our way home. Ramona has redefined such days as ‘lovely’ as there is no rain or wind unlike in London or Liverpool. And in a way she’s right there’s much more certainty about the seasons here. Berliners tell me the summer nights can still be balmy and light at midnight and that more than twenty degrees below happens pretty regularly in the depths of the winter along with snow that can sit on the ground for weeks. And what this means of course, as Dominic and I make our slow way to the Strassenbahn and the Volkshochschule to learn German each early morning, is that everyone dresses like the Michelin man or woman, layers of scarves, wooly hats and jumpers, bubble jackets. Fortunately  german central heating radiators (that are rather charmingly called, Heizkoerper, literally, ‘hot bodies’,) are really good, heating spaces that to an English eye it looks like they couldn’t possibly warm but they do.

The Volkshochschule in Prenzlauer Berg is a kind of Adult Education College, with Dance and Yoga classes, but with a big emphasis on courses for recent immigrants to learn German. As our teacher tells us, Prenzlauer Berg was just a generation ago a working class area but now is being rapidly ‘gentrified’. The school backs on to Kollwitzstrasse, named after Kathe Kollwitz the artist who lived there and who so movingly depicted the poverty and suffering of the Berlin ‘arbeiterklasse’ in the first half of the last century.

These school classes have long reflected the political situation in Europe. During the Balkan Wars there were many Bosnians in the classes, today there are many Italiens, interestingly Brazilians, as always some Irish, but especially young Spaniards. ‘The Spaniards are coming’ was the headline to an article in one of Berlin’s main newspapers last week. For the most part they are university educated, some to masters level, in Mathematics, Computing, Architecture, Geology, Local Development, and they’re learning German as a third or even fourth language, most of them already speaking good English. Exactly the kind of dynamic capable young people business leaders in the UK are concerned that the Coalition Government’s immigration quotas will exclude. As Dulce Matuz, the kind of campaigner for the marginalized Kollwitz would have admired, argues of the ‘sin papeles’ in the US….

…these young people will be a vital part of Germany’s future prosperity. Indeed I read recently, although I’ve now lost the reference….that a quarter of all patents registered in the US in the early part of the last century were by people making their lives in the US but who had been born outside of its borders.

Being in a classroom again is, of course, strange for me having stopped working in education after twenty five years a little while ago. But while its hard for me not to critique all that’s happening in the class I feel humbled, as I always do when faced with the women, and it is mostly women, who work in the ‘caring’ services and keep our societies fit to live in. And contrary to the images Brits might have of a well resourced german public sector, the teacher’s day begins with fetching a bucket of water from the ladies loo, carrying it half full along the corridor beneath the walls, damp and with gravity defying bubbles of peeling paint, and then washing the blackboard clean ready for the first class. No high tech smart boards here! A suspicion lurks somewhere of course that the obvious underfunding may be because we’re foreigners , but it is more likely because, as everyone says here, Berlin is sexy but poor.

Most of my classmates too are for the moment poor as church mice which makes it impossible for them to be the agents of the ‘gentrification’ that, rightly, worries so many Berliners. But anger against ‘foreigners’ on this false assumption seems to be an increasing problem. A 20 year old Berliner of Asian heritage was beaten to death recently in Alexanderplatz and a rabbi was attacked and beaten apparently just because he was wearing his Kippah. The Guardian reported recently on a grass roots attempt to take this anti-‘foreigner’ feeling on…..

The real agent of gentrification is of course the economic crisis. Moneyed people everywhere are looking for safe havens for their cash and Berlin (as well as other German cities), with historically low property prices, is an ideal place to buy. Inevitably they then want to make a return so you get ordinary flats suddenly being redeveloped, or just redefined, as luxury flats at rents ordinary earners can’t afford. And so exactly the same pointless propety bubble that has screwed the Irish and Spanish economies, and which Osborne would gladly wish again on Britain as he tries to get rid of any effective planning controls, may be worming its way into the German economy. That the money is often foreign, from the Middle East, or Russia, is really irrelevant. All the matters is which German political party will have the balls to impose properly stringent rent controls and so stop the practice in its tracks which is what the vast majority of Berliners and Germans, new and old alike, want to see. Arriving back in Weissensee this is a question we’re going to put to Thomas in our Kiez’s (our local area’s) best cafe over a Gluhwein and a Rooiboss, as the light fades, and a light snow falls…..