Berlin: A remarkable story of courage and politics

 

The last time I was in Berlin was 1975. I was a fairly fresh faced fifteen year old on a school trip. A day trip to Berlin was the wonderful excuse for skipping lessons for the day. We flew from Gatwick with Freddie Laker at the crack of dawn and arrived in Templehoff in pouring rain.

We were driven around West Berlin in a coach while the terribly eager tour guide told us how many more trees there were in the West than the East. She even claimed ideological superiority on the basis that West Berlin has more dogs than East Berlin.

This reminded me of a meeting I attended at SHAPE where a US Army colonel explained the mineshaft theory, claiming the Soviets would ‘win’ because they could hide more of their population in mineshafts than the US to avoid nuclear armageddon .

Eventually we were dropped at Checkpoint Charlie and literally moved from a world of colour and neon to black and white. East Berlin was all grey concrete and most of the shops were closed. I remember going into a book store that seemed to only carry every word written by Marx or Lenin in every language known to man. I bought a hard backed copy of Das Capital in English for about 20p.

A gang of us school boys went into a foreigners store with visions of cut price caviar and vodka on our minds. Strangely the only things they had was picked cucumbers and Cadbury Dairy Milk.

Despite the gloom there were no street lights on and the whole of Unter Den Linden looked like a set from a spy movie. Which in many ways in was.

We came back through Checkpoint Charlie and as the only kid with an American passport mine was held back for checking. I made some quip about them not having to worry because I was a spy. That went down like a bacon sandwich at an ISIS convention. But I was 15.

Then back to West Berlin and the lights came on. Neon spewed from every bar and shop front. Our teachers foolishly gave us an hour to explore so a bunch of chums found the nearest bar where the staff were only too happy to sell us high tar German cigarettes, Rott Hande, from memory and we fired up these super cheap gaspers while guzzling our beer.

So Berlin was part artificial capitalist shop window and part hideous endorsement of the failure of the Eastern Block. Both sides maintained a high state of tension secure in the fact that West Berlin was capable of being over run by the East in about fifteen minutes.

Fast forward thirty five years and I’m back in Berlin staying in the fabulous Hotel Adlon in Unter den Linden by the Brandenburg Gate in what was East Berlin.

Yes it’s changed out of all recognition but the reason for this post isn’t the physical changes it is a salute to the politicians and people of Berlin.

Most cities suffer catastrophic upheaval maybe once in a century. Berlin had it twice, in 1941-45 and 1961-1989. However, it’s not the destruction that I want to focus on but the spirit of the city.

Germany as a whole has been very upfront about acknowledging it’s Nazi past. Hard not to. Berlin has many powerful memorials to the Jews of Europe who died.

The Holocaust Memorial is particularly powerful as you walk between concrete blocks all of different heights symbolising the individuals who died. The unnerving bit is that you hear voices in other rows rather like the voices of ghosts. Go. And take your time.

I was expecting the Nazi past was going to be the most central theme in Berlin but of course it couldn’t be. The division of the country from 1961-1990 was the greatest wound the country suffered in many ways and the supreme act of political will in reunification it’s greatest triumph. The sensitivity in which the city has both commemorated and celebrated the wall and it’s fall is an object lesson to cities everywhere.

wp-1463514479108.jpgThe path the wall took is remembered by a double row of bricks that snakes around the city pavements in a seemly never ending band. In places single sections of the wall remain with plaques explaining the history. It is a remarkable and powerful reminder of the division that effected not only city but the country.

So visit Berlin but understand that this is a special city with a unique history and set of challenges. But the effort required in reunification was immense and I applaud them for their success.

wp-1463514437264.jpgNow onto the political bit. I am by nature a glass-half-full person so the idea of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union depresses me beyond belief. If you want to effect change then roll your sleeves up and try and change things from within rather than stand on the sidelines chucking rocks. Or come to Berlin and see how politicians with vision and people with courage can effect change.

What the bleeping hell is wrong with kitchen appliances

microwaveI’ve been thinking about the way modern kitchen appliances have gone mad. I mean seriously mad.

In the old days, like three years ago, you bought a washing machine or an oven and it just did its job. No alerting, no insane bleeping, it just did what you asked of it.

Fast forward a few years and the average kitchen device has become a health and safety Nazi. If I get too close to my oven it bleeps so that I don’t charbroil my genitals. My gas hob won’t start unless I sign a consent form and our washing machine ends its cycle with a cacophony of bleeps and chimes that go on longer than Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

My only friend in the kitchen is a fifteen year old microwave that just does what it originally promised.It heats food by the use of a simple timer. It doesn’t weigh the food or calculate the cooking time based on orbit of Mars, it just heats stuff. Given it’s age it probably irriatiates my genitals but that’s a risk I’m happy to take.

So now I’ve decided that I will keep every kitchen appliance until it explodes or simply gives up because the new ones are wonderfully sophisticated, but totally useless.

Black & Decker: Industrial design in the hands of five year old

Black-Decker-Screwdriver-1024x1024If you asked an alien to design a sex toy or five year old to design a spacecraft, you’d end up with a similar design.

Luckily for Black & Decker this creates a host of new ideas for their latest crop of insane home ‘improvement’ gadgets. Not only do these products looks like the bastard love child of Anne Summers and the Transformer they are also about as easy to use as a Rubic’s Cube on a unicycle.

BD jaws

This little beauty is some sort of cutting devise but surely the five year old in charge thought it should looks like a character from Nemo .

It matters not, as the life cycle of these products is the same as a Mayfly, and each insane model will be replaced by something equally bonkers in three months .

My advice is, if you think you are Luke Skywalker and are 5 years old; buy Black & Decker. If not, don’t and enjoy life as a grownup.

 

 

Musing on Cruising #6 Should you go on a cruise or is it the ultimate in luxury non-travel?

imageOf all the aspects of why people go cruising the psychology fascinates me the most. Cruising is a multibillion dollar business serving millions of passengers every year but the great question for me is why do people choose to take this most peculiar type of holiday.

Imagine for a moment the following fictitious ad for a new hotel

Come to the Hotel Queen Mary 2

Applications are now being taken for holidays at the Queen May 2 hotel. You will join over 2000 other passengers in a 1200 feet long hotel from which you will not be allowed to leave for up to seven days. You can walk around the deck in 70mph winds if you wish. The hotel will spend most of its time passing identical martime scenery and the may list uncomfortably if the sea conditions or wind are unfavourable.

You may experience prolonged periods of nausea but highly priced medical services are available. You will not however be permitted to leave the hotel in mid-holiday.

You can spend your time eating and drinking to excess and then exercise in one of the ships 7 minute hip-baths we laughingly refer to as swimming pools.

There are a wide variety of diverting entertainment few of which you would ever consider attending if you were not staying at the hotel Queen Mary 2 and in the evening a draconian dress code will be enforced together with a ridged class system in order that those with more money feel extra privileged.

Due to poplar demand bookings are now being taken for 2018

It doesn’t sound too appealing but the strange thing is that cruising actually works and I thought I’d spend a while trying to decipher why this strange and bizarre form of tourism isn’t just popular but is thriving.

Having spent almost three weeks at sea both crossing the Atlantic and the Caribbean I am convinced that Cunard are probably the most sophisticated psychological marketers on earth. By the use of a large variety of subtle psychological techniques and triggers they not only shape and control the experience of over 2300 people they manage to make it highly enjoyable.

There are so many things that simply shouldn’t work but they do and in many cases work spectacularly well. In no particular order here are my thoughts

Continue reading Musing on Cruising #6 Should you go on a cruise or is it the ultimate in luxury non-travel?

Musing on Cruising #5 Transatlantic in December

imageWhen you think of cruising your mind conjures up images of sunshine, steamer chairs in the deck, white jacketed waiters bringing you iced drinks. That may be the case except in the Atlantic in December. Here you should be thinking about Master and Commander, The Cruel Sea and any other movie that features black seas, violent storms and a pitching ship.

As I write this we have been at sea for five days. We have seen the sun for twenty minutes and the wind speed hasn’t dropped below Force 7 or about 38mph. Our record this afternoon was Hurricane Force 12 with wind over the deck of 78knts or just under 90mph and then it started to snow.

The wind causes a few problems with stability but the Queen Mary 2 is very sure footed. The problem is the pitching. When the swell is a moderate 10 feet most people wither retire to their cabins or totter about the ship looking slightly drunk as they gently bump into walls and furniture. Here is my guide to transatlantic wind speed and how to judge it

20mph – 30mph      Moderate swell

Brits are talking about it being a smooth as silk and Americans are jogging around the deck

30mph-40mph         Rough Force 8

Brits are using words like ‘choppy’ and have switched from beer to spirits. A few Americans are still jogging.

40mph-50mph         Rough Force 10

Brits are talking about having a light supper and only one cocktail. Last American still jogging

50mph-60mph       Big Swell Hurricane Force 11

Passengers using both hands on the banisters, bars half empty, doors to the decks are closed. No Americans jogging

60mph-70mph         Hurricane Force 12

Shows cancelled but the Balls carry on regardless. Dancing style goes out of the windows as people try to slow waltz by adding extra steps in a desperate attempt to keep their feet on the floor. Spin turns result in couples exiting the dance floor uncontrollably and ending up in the bar. Or was that just us.

70+mph        Armageddon

Brits crash into one another in corridors smiling while saying “I haven’t had my first gin yet”. All soup is cancelled. Every second lift is shut down and the Captain makes impromptu announcement that we needn’t worry as the ship will be the through the worst of this in the next six hours. Seats available anywhere you want. The sea looks like it’s going backwards and the wave hit the windows on deck 7. People start hallucinating claiming to have seen dolphins, whales, Wales, submarines, land or mermaids out of the windows.

In reality the condition aren’t too bad if you have reasonable sea legs but I wouldn’t do a transatlantic again. Six days at sea with no sun is just too boring regardless of however many balls and dinners they offer. Either start in the sun or start sailing when there is the remotest chance of some sunshine however brief.

Musing on Cruising #4 Getting on board Queen Mary 2

imageElly and I have been through a few airports in our time and I’ve even been arrested in one but maybe that’s a story for another time.  We’ve been first class, business. economy and capitalist hyena class of whatever the Cambodian regime calls it but the one feature that unifies every flight, is it takes a serious amount of time to get from pavement to seat. 

Board the Queen Mary 2 with a Queens Grill booking in Southampton and everything changes.  Like all passengers your luggage is whisked away at curb side and you enter the terminal.  Then for Priority Boarding you join a queue of one, have your picture taken and hand over your credit card.  From that point on the Cunard fantasyland experience starts.

Through security and you’re on board and your find yourself in a photo line up with two munchkins dressed like Buttons from Cinderella.  Find your way to your room sorry stateroom, in our case a suite and the reality distortion field kicks in.

Meet Adrian our Butler

I always through that was another Cunard piece of marketing fluff and your Butler was just a waiter in a better uniform.  Wrong.  So wrong.

The first thing Adrian and his sidekick did was unpack, neatly fold and put away all our clothes and possessions.  I mean all seven bags, hat carriers and other assorted paraphernalia.  This is probably worth the enormous fare on its own given how long it took to pack.  The secret joy is knowing they’ll repack everything at the end of the trip as well.

Then we were free to explore the 500 sq.ft. that will be our home for the next 26 nights. The Q5 level suite (#9017) is large compared to a comparable hotel room and has more storage than our house. Apart from a huge walk in closet for Elly there are shelves and wardrobes from me and a huge bar area with glass cabinets, fridge and so forth. You simply tick a sheet confirming the spirits you want and your butler keeps them fully supplied while you are on board. As we don’t drink he asked what we’d like and then made sure that every day the fridge was topped up with Pepsi, iced tea, tomato juice and so forth.

Adrian delivers breakfast to the room, compliments us on our outfits and at about 5.30pm each day brings us canape in case the sheer act of dressing for dinner has made us weak with hunger. He also collect and hangs laundry, arranges the fresh flowers and most importantly ensures that the handmade chocolates are in the suite when we return from a hard evening dancing.

I understand he will also run your bath, tie your bow tie and serve drinks and canapes to your guests but there are limits to even my indolence.

Musing on Cruising #3 – Packing or why only the paranoid survive

imagePacking for our cruise has been stressful to put it mildly. Not only are we away for almost a month but the range of temperatures and the types of clothes needed is extreme. New York in December will be somewhat colder than St Lucia (I hope) and the the clothes needed for a beach in St Kitts will be somewhat different from a Royal Ascot Ball.  So for guidance I turned to the CruiseCritic forums for a solution.

It seems that there are two types of packer; the liar and the paranoid.

The liar, often male, claims to not have even thought about clothes or packing and intends to ‘throw a few things in a case’ the night before travel.  He’ll moan about having to take a dress suit and will ask intentionally provocative questions like ” Can I wear swimming trunks to a ball” in order to have the paranoids start screaming at him. These represent about 2% of travelers.

2015-12-01 17.30.35
The initial selection

The paranoids, or the rest of us, engage in a complex discussion of room size vs. number of nights vs. temperature. On Cunard you change your clothes at least twice a day if you’re a man and potentially more than that if you’re a woman. Multiply that by 26 nights, temperatures ranging from -5C to +30C and add in fascinators, dance shoes,make-up and jewelry and the list becomes enormous. So given there is no restriction on the number of bags and we have a suite we will be packing heavy. By my rough estimation five cases and a suit bag.

I thought that maybe other cruise lines had useful tips of what to pack and turned up these gems from Disney Cruises. They range from the strange to the downright bizarre. Under the heading of ‘Other items to consider packing’ they had:

Books – if you think you have time to read. Who wouldn’t have time to read but maybe on Disney you are continually pursued around the deck by men dressed in huge mouse costumes so you won’t have time.

Bungee chord – for connecting cabins. I presume these are your own cabins not some bizarre game where you tie random door handles together and watch the fun. Come to think of that I might slip a couple for when the mood strikes.

Dry erase board – to communicate with your family. I usually prefer talking to my wife but maybe writing to each other on a four foot white board might be novel.

Duct tape – I presume to stop communicating with your family. “Time to duct tape Young Josh again he’s getting a  bit irritating”

Glow necklace – to find your family at night I assume

Two way radio – Can you imagine a trip with a hundred families talking to their children on two way radios. The horror. The horror.

Suction cups – to hang wet swimming truncks at the porthole also I presume to muzzle the children if the duct tape fails.

But leaving the duct tape, dry erase boards and radios to one side here are my tips for packing happiness.

  • Buy lots of suitcases. You’ll never use them again but that is why your house has a loft.
  • Take everything you can conceivably think of, however unlikely. The collapsible shoe tree will have its place and the oil painting of Great Auntie Margret will make your minute cabin feel more homely.
  • Take duplicate items assuming a waiter will spill soup on you at every meal and the laundry breaks down. So 52 changes of clothes for 26 nights is not unreasonable.
  • Think of the most unlikely scenarios and plan that these happen regularly. “Oh no, that pesky swarm of killer phone charger bees have stolen my 3rd back-up laptop charger….again”
  • Know that the cruise line makes a note of each outfit you wear and will fine you for repetitive dressing. Pack accordingly.
  • Assume that the boat has the facilities of a small life raft and pack everything you might need that they clearly won’t be able to provide; like soap.
  • Work on the assumption that the cabin staff will lose half your clothes so pack extras just in case.
  • Understand that with time changes each day is 37 hours long so take extra clothes to cover the additional hours.
  • Expect the unexpected. It could snow in the Caribbean in January and there could be a heatwave in New York in December. Remember that there are no shops in New York or the Caribbean.

Follow the other parts of Musing on Cruising below

Musing on Cruising #1

Musing on Cruising #2

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.