6 October 2008


On 3rd October the German nation celebrates unification of East and West – Tag der Deutschen Einheit. Everything is closed for the day, flags fly on public buildings and the ordinary worker marks the occasion by partaking of an extra long lie-in, lazing about at home and not venturing outdoors until the next day. Here in our building at least, there was no sign of life whatsoever. Nobody came out even to empty their rubbish.

The Great and the Good, on the other hand, could not take advantage of a lie-in in their dressing gowns (life’s tough at the top). They were on public show, participating in various events, beating the drum to boost the morale of the masses and reminding them that solidarity and uniformity still reign.

Horst Köhler, Federal President, braved torrential rain together with Mrs Merkel and virtually the entire government, in attending a special ceremony of thanksgiving in Hamburg. In Berlin, the people celebrated on their own in front of the Brandenburg Gate – events for the folks had been organised with live rock performances, shows, children’s entertainments and such like.

“Our people are free and politically united. We live within secure borders surrounded by friends and partners.” Herr Köhler talked of what unites the German people but omitted to talk about the many things that divide them still.

Berliner Morgenpost reveals on page 3 that the new Germany may have come of age (having celebrated 18 years of existence) but bare statistics tell a different story.

East (incl. Berlin) West
Population 16.6 million 65.66 million
Jobless 15.1% 7.5%
Wage per hour €19.79 €25.93

Having said this, it is unrealistic of commentators to expect the country (or any other progressive, democratic, western, free market economy) to aspire to total unity in everything. It is somewhat utopian to expect high salaries, services, benefits etc. to be spread uniformly throughout a nation, especially one the size of Germany (both in terms of population and land mass). In this respect, Germany is no different to any other European nation – some regions enjoy prosperity while others do not. Our modern societies are characterised by fragmentation, by regionalism, by local narratives and not grand, national narratives. The Union in Britain is on its last legs thanks to devolution. The war-ravaged Balkans have reverted to their tribal allegiances. The Soviet Union is history. For Germany to try to stay united at this particular historical moment is swimming against the current. It is to their credit that they have achieved so much in just 18 years.

p.s. I don’t know if this is a good sign or not but Herr Köhler closed his speech at the thanksgiving service with an Americanised “God bless our German Fatherland”.


International market research places Germany at No1 when compared to other nations. Here are the Top 10.

1. Deutschland
2. France
3. Great Britain
4. Canada
5. Japan
6. Italy
7. USA
8. Switzerland
9. Australia
10. Sweden

[Of course, the Brits will be cheesed off: not because they didn’t make it to Number 1, but because France got ahead of them!]

The survey asked respondents to judge countries as brand names and each country was assessed according to exports, government, culture, people, tourism, immigration, investment. In other words, what image does a particular country have with the rest of the world. Note the preponderance of European nations.


As it is the season for dreaded infections, the weather is changeable and not many citizens believe in the benefits of fresh air via open tram windows, it is more than likely that you will catch a cold sooner or later. The newspaper recommends, NOT going to your local doctor and dosing up on expensive antibiotics but taking instead salt-water gargles for a sore throat. If your problem is a blocked nose, try oil from eucalyptus or pine needles in a bowl of hot water and inhale the fumes. The article even compares symptoms of the common cold and influenza, just in case you are tempted to exagerrate.

[All the above snippets from Berliner Morgenpost of Saturday 4 October]


The Berliner Zeitung reported this week on another anniversary, that of Potsdamer Platz.

It has been ten years since its reopening.

For five years, the area was a permanent building site with a forest of cranes visible from all parts of the city and piles of mud and rubble everywhere. Everyone had big expectations – surely all this time, trouble and expense would come to something. A desolate wasteland could not be left as a scar on the face of the city; it would be a reminder of bleaker days in the past and we must erase those dark days and move forward.

Potsdamer Platz is now a mecca for commuters. Literally thousands of them end their morning journeys here when they arrive for work in their shiny, sanitised, high-tec, impersonal office blocks. A sort of European imitation of Manhattan, but instead of draughty boulevards we have bare open spaces.

Aside from the office park, what else can you actually do in Potsdamer Platz? What is its real use? According to the writer, all you can do in the area is go shopping for shoes and eat a Big Mac afterwards. This is the net result of the investment and work of five years.

A poignant piece of irrelevancy – the world’s first pedestrian lights were installed in Potsdamer Platz.

2 October 2008

Let it rain!

Today the heavens opened and it rained like it’s never rained before. It rained that much that the tram system came to a juddering halt. One tram broke down at a stop and twenty others piled up in a row behind it, unable to make any progress. Passengers had to abandon ship and make their own arrangements. For a short time, the road (a major artery out of the city centre) was obstructed as a second tram towed away the disabled one. Some drivers became extremely tetchy and short tempered in the wet weather and were inclined to rely on their car horns more than usual. Particular offenders were those driving vans delivering a specific brand of soft drink. Maybe they get paid according to how many bottles they deliver, so their impatience perhaps is understandable. Drivers, however, of locally manufactured vehicles showed consideration of the inclement weather and waited stoically for the mother of all traffic jams to dissolve.

The radio reports that conditions were much worse to the west in Spandau. The storm brought down a tree, injuring two women.

Luckily today I had my umbrella with me, otherwise I would have been soaked to the skin. I have learned my lesson and now pay heed to what the weather forecast predicts for the next day. They are accurate 99.9% of the time – ignore the forecast at your peril!

No matter what the weather, life goes on. A school party of toddlers was spotted setting off on their school trip this morning. Crowded into a packed tram, fitted out with Wellington boots and waterproof macs, nothing would daunt them. Four lucky little boys (perhaps teacher’s pets?) occupied prime position in a wooden hand cart being pushed by one of the teachers. At least they could get wet without having to walk anywhere.

1 October 2008

Serious and not so serious



A Political Monopoly Ends in Bavaria

The conservative Christian Social Union turned in its worst election result since 1954 in Bavarian state elections on Sunday. The ballot box collapse brings a decades-long political monopoly to an end -- and may call Chancellor Angela Merkel’s re-election into question.

In the run up to Sunday’s state parliamentary elections in Bavaria, it was clear that the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the party which has dominated the state’s political leadership almost since World War II, was in trouble. Nobody, though, expected the result to be quite as bad as it turned out.

The CSU, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), ended up with just 43.4 percent of the vote. It was the party’s worst result since 1954 and fully 17.3 percentage points lower than its vote total in the last state elections five years ago. Even worse, the ballot-box flop could indicate that Merkel’s re-election next autumn might not be the foregone conclusion many have taken it to be.

“We were caught totally unprepared,” said Erwin Huber, head of the CSU, on Sunday evening on Bavarian television. “It has been a black and painful day.” Günther Beckstein, the CSU governor of Bavaria, said that “none of us expected that we would lose 17 percent.”

The vote also marks the first time since 1962 that the CSU has not won an absolute majority in Bavaria, meaning that Beckstein will now have to begin the search for a coalition partner. And he’s got a number of parties to choose from. The pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) made large gains over its 2003 result to finish with 8.0 percent of the vote, the Greens ended up with an impressive 9.4 percent, and the conservative protest group Freie Wähler (free voters) came out of nowhere to get 10.2 percent. The far-left Left Party grabbed 4.7 percent of the votes, but did not manage to clear the 5 percent hurdle necessary to send representatives to the state parliament.

Indeed, the only party that didn’t benefit from the collapse of the CSU was the hapless Social Democrats. The party has fallen on hard times across Germany, and on Sunday in Bavaria it garnered only 18.6 percent of the vote, the SPD’s worst result in Bavaria since 1945 and one percentage point lower than its disastrous showing in 2003.

Beckstein has made it clear that the only party he is unwilling to consider as a coalition partner is the Green Party, but most observers say that a match-up with the FDP is the most likely outcome. The SPD has raised the possibility of creating a so-called “rainbow coalition” made up of the SPD, the FDP, the Freie Wähler and the Greens, but that seems unlikely given the FDP’s stated opposition to such a combination.

Given the dimensions of the election-day disaster, however, the CSU leadership itself is also up for discussion. A number of party honchos have begun questioning whether Huber will be allowed to remain in his position as leader of the party. Horst Seehofer, a minister in Merkel’s cabinet, likewise said that “changes will have to be made.” One leading CSU member even raised the possibility that Seehofer could take over as both CSU party head and as Bavarian governor.

Of more concern for Merkel’s conservatives, however, is what implications the CSU collapse might have for nationwide elections a year from now. Even as the Social Democrats have experienced one of their most difficult years in the 125 year history of the party, Germany’s conservatives have not benefited as much as one might expect. In 2005, Merkel’s victory was razor thin -- and she would have found herself on the outside looking in without the almost 50 percent result achieved by the CSU in Bavaria.

It is difficult to imagine the SPD coming back far enough to effectively challenge a still popular Chancellor Merkel. But a number of smaller parties -- including the FDP, the Greens and especially the Left Party -- have managed to wrest voters away from both the SPD and the CDU. In Bavaria, the rise of the Freie Wähler seems symptomatic of an electorate frustrated with the two parties that have dominated German politics since World War II.

In Bavaria, the most immediate reason for that frustration can be found in the last two years of chaos within the CSU. Long-time Bavarian governor and ex-party head Edmund Stoiber stepped down last year following an uprising from the party’s grassroots. Many of the party’s younger members had grown increasingly tired of his controlling leadership style.

Stoiber left Germany for Brussels, where he is now battling bureaucracy in the European Union, but the leadership tandem of Beckstein and Huber has hardly fared better than its predecessor. The significant troubles run into by the Bavarian state bank BayernLB combined with the state’s failure to secure funding for the high-profile magnetic-levitation project linking the Munich airport to the city’s train station led many to question the CSU leadership.

* * * * *

Bavarian politicians are bemoaning the fact that they only scraped by with a lamentable 43.4% of the vote. In national elections in some other states this result would be greeted with much fanfare and jubilation. A result of this magnitude constitutes a landslide victory elsewhere.

In the 1997 elections, New Labour’s landslide came about with 43.2% of all the votes cast (marginally less than that of the CSU). Those voting for New Labour only slightly outnumbered those who were too busy to vote. Turnout was 71.4% - the lowest general election figure since 1935. Nevertheless, these figures were enough to ensure the ruling party enjoyed a 179-seat majority. Mrs Merkel & Co should not be too downhearted.

* * * * *

Coffee and the spreading of news

On a more aromatic note …

There was a time in the 17th century when people (i.e. men) would gather in the London coffee houses to read all the newspapers available there and exchange business gossip with other customers. Coffee and the spreading of local intelligence went hand in hand. Things seem to have come full circle now with businesses like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts where you can not only drink a mediocre cup of brown sludge (trying to pass itself off as coffee) accompanied by something high in calories/fat and low in taste, but also use your laptop to surf the Web. The irony is that the person reading your blog may be sitting at the table next to you but you will never know. Even social communication has entered the digital sphere. I can’t turn on a computer anywhere (other than my own) and not find links for Facebook and other suchlike “networking” gizmos. Is the real world out there really that bad? Networking has always existed as long as human society has been around: only in the past people found common connections face-to-face via their local communities – church, sports clubs, evening classes, voluntary societies and so on. All these have fallen by the wayside or else mutated into electronic versions in Cyberspace.

They say the art of letter writing is dead: I predict that the art of social intercourse will also soon bite the dust.

Personally, I like to drink my own (homemade) coffee in the comfort of domesticity while perusing the local paper that a beloved family member still continues to bring home for us.
Creative Commons License
Squeaky Door by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.