Alongside relishing delicious tapas, sunbathing, and swimming in the sea, I spent our two-week summer holiday in Andalusia last year reading “Tales of the Alhambra” by Washington Irving. Reading relevant books for the location is something I like to do – Henry James in Italy, Jan Morris in the Middle East, Alice Walker in the US – providing a more nuanced dimension to fact-filled travel guides.
I did this, too, when I first came to Berlin as a student – sniffing out obscure, vaguely relevant works in the glorious Staatsbibliothek on Potsdamer Platz. Though after 6 years here, my location-focused intellectual pursuits have been waylaid by work, family life and lots of other good, unrelated books I’ve been keen to read, I still believe books – both fiction and memoir – representone of the best ways to understand the spirit of Berlin. Here are my top seven recommendations spanning genre and historical period – mostly available in translation – to help you get to know Berlin.
1. “Die Poggenpuhls” / Theodor Fontane
Set in 1888 in what is referred to as the Kaiserreich, “Die Poggenpuhls” depicts an impoverished Prussian aristocratic family struggling by in Berlin. The father has died, the two brothers are away with the army, leaving the mother and three sisters in a pokey, rented apartment just on the edge of an acceptable part of town, desperately keeping up appearances despite the financial constraints. The novel shows the shifting of power and wider societal change at a crucial point in German history. Continue reading →
When I first came to Berlin in 2002, Pfefferberg was just about the coolest place I’d ever been to. Sitting out under the stars in the Berlin summer, drinking a good German beer, and listening to live music was for me the absolute height of sophistication. On the way up the hill along Schönhauser Allee going towards Mauerpark and what was then the pretty scruffy, vibrant east of Berlin (now much more touristy and rather gentrified), Pfefferberg was (and still is) a bar, club, restaurant, and cultural complex occupying the half-derelict site of an old brewery and beer garden, whose presence could be dated back to the mid-nineteenth century. In the in-between time, the site was used for other industry (pre-WWII ) and as a printers and publishers (GDR). But the beer garden was in active use throughout. Post-reunification the site stayed in public hands. Local groups got organized to make the area into a communal area for culture. Renovation started in 2000, a gallery opened in 2001, the beer garden was still there, and the rest has built up gradually, with the latest addition being the Pfefferberg Theater Berlin – celebrating its opening on 13 – 15th November. And that’s what I want to talk about here. Continue reading →
Entrance to University of Bielefeld Photo: Jay Malone
Jane wrote back in October about the announcement that is still causing jaws to drop from Miami to Maui: the news that Germany, thanks to late arrival Lower Saxony, is now a country free of college tuition. Germany has long been known for its superlative system of higher education, and for many, like myself, the free tuition was just gravy. So for those of us who finished our undergraduate degree in the States, the only question to answer after recognizing the value of this opportunity is what to study. Fortunately, the German university scene is awash in graduate study programs certain to pique myriad interests while opening up future career opportunities in a variety of fields, enough to tempt just about anyone to pick up stakes and catch the first flight to Frankfurt. Here are a few standouts.
One facet of German culture that continues to impress me is how they have dealt with their WWII history. German authors have written extensively about it from the “inside” of German perspective, although I have yet to delve into their works. As an outsider, it is easier for me to identify with stories written by English-speaking authors, and there are a number of novels I have read that give insight into life as a German during those difficult times. We are all familiar with the Diary of Anne Frank, and many movies and TV series have made this horrific period of history painfully real. Literature remains one of the most powerful ways to represent the multitude of stories of that age, and as a self-confessed bookworm, I have collected many books set in the time period.
By no means exhaustive, nor in order of greatness, here are a number of my recommendations: Continue reading →