How living here ruins your language skills

One of the weird things living in an international city is what happens to languages. How they shift, merge, mix, and get combined in a 100.000 different ways. How this on one hand improves your language skills, and you start recognizing languages, even when you don’t speak one word. And on the other hand, you tend to lose the skills in each language by itself. Because. You start combining yourself. The languages merge in your head. Or because some words from a language are simply untranslatable and you need that one specific word to describe exactly what you mean. 

During my shift at the free shop, I take a small cigarette break outside. One of the many people bringing stuff pops outside quickly. Points at my shoes. What size do you have?  “38” She grabs into the bag she’s carrying, and takes out never-worn sport shoes “Here, for you, you take them”. Pushes them into my hands. I smile, sport shoes aren’t really my thing, but I appreciate the gesture. She goes through the t-shirts we have outside, looking for something for her 15-year old daughter. Tells one of our regular guests her daughter is much bigger than her. She’s vietnamese, the daddy is italian. “He’s a BIG daddy, so I have a big daughter, much bigger than me”. The other customer asks what language they speak at home. “Well, german of course”. “You didn’t teach your daughter vietnamese?” She shrugs. “We live here now, no use for my language”. She asks me how old I think she is. I’m really bad at estimating anyone’s age (and I don’t care anyway), so that’s what I tell her. “Ah, that’s always what people tell us asian people, that they can’t tell our age”. She shrugs again, this time at the prejudice, it’s just how it is.

Just a sunny day at Tempelhofer Feld. My family is visiting, and we’ve decided to take the kids for some biking, skate-boarding, kite-surfing, and well, anything else you can do at an old airport-made-free-space for all. While we walk around the collective garden, a young kid climbs one of the self-built constructions in that garden, a wooden airplane. In a mixture of german, american-english and chinese he starts pretending to be the pilot. Mummy and daddy arrive, combining words from the same languages. After we leave the collective garden, we walk past the barbecue area. Where, no matter were people are born, or wherever their parents or grandparents were born, they have all adopted the favorite german summer hobby “Grilling”. A few Roma families have started early by roasting whole pigs. One of their small dogs starts running with us, his not-so-skinny owner trying to catch up. We fetch the dog and give it to him. Hearing him “tut-tut”-ing and scolding the dog in his own language while carrying it back. We stop at a coffee stand, where the guy serving the coffee easily switches between italian, german and I guess russian, depending on who he’s serving. When we walk away, I ask the kids to listen to the people around them, and tell me how many languages they are hearing. After one hour, they give up counting.

In the back of the free shop when hanging the t-shirts to the t-shirts and the pants to the pants, I overhear some broad-shouldered guys going through the children’s clothing. They keep repeating “dobre, dobre”. Since this is the first word I ever learned in serbocroation/bosnian,  I can’t help to ask them what language they are speaking. We’re from Serbia, they tell me. Stop themselves: “but we’re not serbian,  we actually have our own language, but we also use many serbian words”. When I tell them I’m planning to learn serbocroation, and happy I at least recognized the language, they smile. “It’s a beautiful language”.

A woman comes in looking for black shoes and black pants. It’s not for her, but for her afghan friend. He’s looking for a job, has been invited for a job interview and wants to look smart. We go to the shoes and the pants department together, and find some, but she’s not sure about his size. I notice when she talks about him, she suddenly loses her german language skills, and starts using Farsi words, though she’s most certainly a native german, from Sachsen if I’m not mistaking her accent. In the end, she decides he better come to the shop himself to try the stuff on, she’ll come with him to translate.

While passing through the – rather full again – shop, I hear one of our older customers compliment a younger one trying on a beautiful velvet jacket. She excuses herself, she’s portuguese, her german isn’t that good yet. The older woman just automatically switches to english, repeats the compliment, and they discuss the problem of having a cat and velvet clothing.

I always like to play some weird music from all over the world when I do my shift. When I play some music from Lapland, a huge smile appears on the face of one of our guests. She hasn’t heard yoiking for quite some time, and starts singing along in Sami. Another time, when I was playing some music from the balkan, I couldn’t help dancing a bit, and one of our regulars, who likes the irish line-dancing starts wiggling her toes. While we combine my tribal fusion moves and her irish steps, from the corner of my eyes I see how the faces of a few women from somewhere south-east of here light up, and they stop going through the clothing and, giggling a bit, start moving to the music too. The language of dancing is universal, even when the moves are like different accents.

It’s always fun to surprise people by starting to talk to them in their own language because you recognize the accent in their german. Especially a not-so-common language like dutch. The short confusion on their face followed by a happy “what? you’re dutch?” is worth it. At work, some of the projects which I take care of like to surprise ME though, when they recognize the dutch accent in my german, and practice the (sometimes little, sometimes a bit more) of dutch they know. One of those people told me, though being german himself, he has a dutch wife. Funny how recognized where she was born because of the accent he had in his dutch (except the german one of course).

On a random friday at the free shop, I made some fresh peppermint tea with the herbs I saved with foodsharing the day before for our guests. Unfortunately, it’s not that popular. On a regular basis, people start telling me what kind of OTHER mint, from moroccan to vietnamese they prefer. Just not regular peppermint. In the end, a discussion arises between our guests how many sorts of mint there actually are, but the tea stays undrunk. Next time I’ll mix it, just like the languages we use.

Just after I close the Free Shop and start the cleaning and sorting, I hear a knock at the window. Two kids around age 12. I point to the sign, and say, sorry, we’re closed. They look a bit disappointed. But ah well. I go back cleaning. They persist in knocking. So I open the window. They point to a nice blue and yellow bike behind them. “We want to give it away”. I have to tell them we don’t have enough space for bikes. Oh. Disappointed faces. “We tried to give it away, since it’s such a good bike, and we’ve outgrown it. But everyone thinks we have stolen it.” They shrug, used to being misjudged: though speaking perfect german – except for the heavy berlin accent – they’re not exactly blond & blue-eyed. I go into the back, take a piece of paper and a pen. “Here, write “for free” on it, and park it against the fence over there, it will probably be gone soonish”. “Can’t you write it, we’re not german” “Neither am I”. Smiles on their faces. “You’re not?”. I laugh. This part of Berlin, how many people here are german, I wonder aloud. They start laughing with me. I write the sign for them, they stick it to the bike, park it against the fence, and themselves on a bench near it. Waiting for it to be taken. When I leave the shop, both the bike and the boys are gone.

Heading home, I pass the local squatting pub. I hear people discussing their favorite bands in german, english, spanish, french and dutch. The sign of the irish small restaurant on the corner advertises its meals in english with some  german and french words randomly put in between. I do some quick shopping. A woman and her boyfriend are discussing what food to take for their dog in a mixture of italian and swedish, sometimes falling back on another mixture of english and german to avoid misunderstanding. Outside the shop, a few guys balance their skateboards on the handlebar of their bike, stop to buy some mate. At least, that’s the only word I definitively recognized from their conversation, the rest was some kind of combination of at least four languages, which I stopped trying to match with the language patterns in my head.

Taking a shortcut through the park, a few adolescents rap along to some german hiphop music with a turkish accent. On the grass, a group of ravers is having an intense political discussion in english. I recognize at least a greek, a polish and some scandinavian accent in their english, and it’s littered with german words when they can’t find the right word in english. I pass the senior hooligans in their corner of the park. Where the differences between russian, hungarian and original berlin, or about which football team is the best, are smoothed out with cheap beer.  I greet the woman from my favorite evening shop, who stops talking to her friend in thai to say hello to me in german. At a recently opened little lunchroom, the owner corrects his dog sniffing another dog’s behind in arabic, before continuing to serve his customers. They are using yet another language – one I can’t place, indian? – between them. Coming home, the preparation for the african mass in the church behind our backyard has started, and through the open window I hear the preacher switching between english and french, both with a heavy african accent.


And at the playground, the kids don’t care about the languages, they just create their own.



Note: all doodles made by myself when enjoying the parks or getting transported. See Twisted Kritters if you want to see more of them.

Hell’s Aftermath

Contrary to common belief, the sun is still rising over Hamburg

The G20 is over. The aftershock, not only of what happened inside the luxury chambers, but especially what happened outside the sealed-off area, might linger a bit longer.

In the mean time, there’s screaming all over the internet, the papers and among politicians. About the burned down cars, the smashed windows. Screaming of the mainstream, that “the left” should condemn the actions. Screaming from the “other left” how a few ruined the chances of many to make a point. Others screaming that bombs are far worse than a few burned out cars, so what the Hell is everyone screaming about.

And I sit here in my neighborhood, gnawing my knuckles.

Hell’s Bells

Nope, I was not in Hamburg. Every “fact” I mention here either comes from the news, the big bad internet, or (woohoo) hearsay and rumors.

Nope, I didn’t go there to protest. Though everything the G20 stands for is a reason to protest. Climate change, the kind of political and economical deals which are made there, it’s a lot of issues I care about. Not to mention the fact a part of the city was hermetically sealed of, because of “security reasons”, and basically, human rights were switched off inside that area. Something I can’t stand.

Deep waters

Already weeks before, it became clear the people in charge were not keen on a strategy of “de-escalation”. The police boss in charge is known to be a hard-liner, and it showed. A little tent camp of people gathering for protests became the focus point of both physical, and juristic, confrontations. Also on the non-authority side things happened which weren’t really signs of peaceful protest . The first expensive cars were burned down, for example.

I have to admit, though I hate violence, most definitively against people, but also against objects, my reaction to those actions was *shrug*, that’s what you get when organizing something like the G20 a few 100 meters from an alternative neighborhood. If you want peace & quiet to make your deals, grab yourself a luxury castle in Bavaria or something. Plenty of those available. Already organizing the event exactly at that spot, and next sealing it hermetically off the rest of the city, was seen as a provocation by many, and not just the “lefties”.

Both in the city itself and in the media, the voices became louder, and more and more polarized. Even creative and artful protests such as the “1000 Gestalten” couldn’t change that anymore. The tone was set. Quite a few people I know had something like “Going there? I don’t feel like getting beaten up”.

So yep, the first layer of skin on my knuckles was already slightly damaged before the G20 even started.

Pushed against Hell’s Walls

I thoroughly began gnawing my knuckles after seeing how the “Welcome to Hell” demo was forced against a wall, people scrambling up that wall while part of the demo was being blown apart by water cannons, pepper-sprayed, and randomly charged by the police.

Now, the first stories I’ve heard was that it was all about the “mask ban” here in Germany. Bit of background: this is a law, which makes it a crime to make yourself unidentifiable during a demonstration. As in, wearing a scarf, sunglasses or even a red clown’s nose. And a crime. Not some petty offense, but a crime. As in one, where you can go to prison for. The reason why you are wearing a scarf, be it to indeed plan something really really criminal, or because it’s, well, cold, are not important anymore.
Hiding your face is a crime, and you should, and will, be arrested for it. Worse, some cops even feel it’s their duty to arrest you because you are hiding your face, and will charge into a completely peaceful demonstration to grab that one person who, maybe even for a few minutes, put a scarf in front of his mouth. I’ve witnessed this more than once. And I think the use of that much force for something which, in my humble opinion, should not be considered a crime, is most definitively excessive. What happened at the beginning of the Welcome to Hell demo was excessive.

2,5 Million Shades of Black

However, maybe because of that often violent reaction of  “Daddy State”, it has become a sort of, well, statement, to DO hide your face. Especially the so-called “Black Block” likes to make that statement over and over again. And dress in black (nothing wrong with that). And, indeed, march almost looking alike in a dense block, closed in by banners. So they can’t get dispersed easily. And yes, it looks scary from a distance.

Now, there might be occasions where this serves a purpose. Especially in other countries. From the Black Block with its masked, uniformly looking people, people actually take action outside the demonstration and then dive back in for protection. You might or might not agree with the action (sometimes no more than spray-painting a wall), but the strategy is effective. And it’s not only useful, but even necessary, in more totalitarian states, where just taking part in a peaceful demonstration might endanger your life. So better hide your face, better hide in a group.

Black Block. Pic by 20 Protestwelle, [CC by 2.0]
But here in Germany? Excuses to all the Black Block people out there, but. It has become a statement. A demo is not complete with the Black Block marching up front, shouting slogans, and holding on firmly to those banners. Oh, it does have its uses as a “buffer” between the peaceful demonstrators and the police. But the whole densely packed, almost identical looking, group up front nowadays causes aversion even with people who would side with the “cause”. On the other hand, the whole “panicking” in the media about the Black Block is so utterly pathetic. If I’m really sarcastic: the Black Block has become a bit the Scouts of the left scene.  In short, it’s more than slightly overrated.

The videos of the Welcome to Hell demonstration also showed exactly the weak point of the Black Block. Because they stick together. And keep sticking together. While behind them, the demonstration was broken up, and the Black Block was slowly but steadily forced up against the wall.

Later (hearsay) I’ve heard rumors the police charges weren’t aimed so much at the “Black Block” but at the Kurdish people right behind them. I don’t know if it’s true. And I really have no clue why the (Berlin) police charged the Kurdish people. But it broke the front of the demonstration, and set the mood for the rest of the weekend. Even though the demonstration went on – peacefully – ahead after this.

Well, let’s be honest. No matter how disciplined you behave. No matter how non-pacifist and full of resistance and power you feel. No matter how much you shout, or sing songs to keep the spirit up.

Neuer Pferdemarkt I
Schanzenviertel. Pic by R. Anders [CC BY 2.0]
Daddy State has more resources than you. They have more vehicles, weaponry, gas, and can keep pouring in more forces. And will use those forces. Forces who might be individual human beings, but not in that situation. They have given away their individual responsibility, their conscience to a line of command.

Unless you are capable, and willing, to use the same amount of force as Daddy State, militarizing yourself is not a real option. The last thing anyone wants, is a full blown civil war in the middle of what is actually a peaceful demonstration. No individual in a demonstration wants that on their conscience. The only other option is indeed non-violent resistance.

And get beaten up, bruised by water cannons, poisoned by pepper-spray and so on. Indeed. It was not for nothing even in mainstream media the discussion about the excessive use of force started.

So, the skin on the back of my hand was slightly damaged, but at least something good came out of it, that discussion was long overdue.

Enter Hell

Gnawing away, I started reaching the bones of my knuckles, when I saw what was happening in the “Schanzeviertel”. And the not-so-immediate reaction of “the authorities”. I was shocked to see the images of cops with machine guns “securing the area” house by house, pointing their guns at people standing in the window.

Mit Pumpgun, Patronengürtel und Maschinenpistole an der Feldstraße
Special police forces in the Schanzenviertel. Yes, that’s a machine gun. Pic by T. Schröder [CC BY 2.0]

Why are my knuckles bleeding by now?

Because the neighborhood I live in isn’t that much different than the one in Hamburg. It’s a poor neighborhood with lots of people coming from different countries. Lots of strange artists and musicians. Weird little shops, “house projects” and quite a few DIY-initiatives. A bit of a free zone.

And our little neighborhood is subject to gentrification. Because, you know, those weirdos make an area lively. Pubs, clubs, shops and small initiatives pop up. Making it more interesting. So people want to move there. So investors come. Rents are raised, or houses are for sale instead of to let. And the newcomers start complaining about the mess, the garbage, the alcoholics, the homeless, the music on the streets and in the pubs, the graffiti, well, everything that comes with a lively neighborhood. So the people and the initiatives are forced to leave. Can’t afford the rent, pubs are closed.

And there’s protest against it. Just like in that neighborhood in Hamburg.

Occasionally, an expensive car is burned down. Or stones fly when “the authorities” are trying to take control. Just like in that neighborhood in Hamburg.

Dangerous goods

We had house searches where dangerous materials such as fire extinguishers were confiscated, just like in Hamburg when toilet brushes were confiscated. (if you ever wonder why people hold toilet brushes during demonstrations, it’s because they have been confiscated as “dangerous weapons” in the past).    We’ve had the “danger zone” with 300 riot cops stationed for months in front of a house project because there were lose “suspicions” there was some kind of link between that house and the burning of cars.

All this kinda stuff was also happening in that neighborhood in Hamburg. The good stuff as well as the bad stuff.

Would the G20 been held 200 meters from our neighborhood, the chances would have been huge the same things would have happened here.

After the demonstration and everything building up, tenses would have gone up here too. Now rumors say the whole car burning and shop smashing was a deliberate action, where only big supermarkets and rich man shops were a target, no small shop owners were attacked. I don’t know if this is true. And not that this makes it ok. But it wasn’t just a wrong way of anger management. Other sources, including a few of the shops being attacked, state it wasn’t the alternative scene doing the really bad stuff, but drunk partygoers. They even state the so-called black-block people tried to prevent damage to small shops (sorry, post is in German, but if you can read it, do… it’s one of the most sensible reactions, and from people directly facing the consequences.)

Also here, there would probably be rumors about molotov cocktails and sidewalk tiles lying on roofs. It is still strange with all those rumors and the authorities waiting for army equipment to go “secure” the neighborhood, not one molotov cocktails has been thrown, or a tile fell down. But who am I.

Something’s burning

There probably would have been improvised barricades here to. Ok, now I’m not a professional, but to be honest, those barricades looked not really effective. Bit of wood, a thin fence or two, maybe a piece of furniture. *Goes into grandma mode* In the old days of the squatting movement, barricades actually held. Sometimes for days. They consisted of for example long steel wire hammered in between the houses, were at least 3 meter high and firmly build in a short time. And only burned when the “enemy” started approaching. *grandma mode off*.

I’ve seen plenty of these “barricades” at May 1st too. When you watch a band in Kreuzberg, smell a bit of burning plastic, see the “barricade”, turn around and watch the band again, every now and then taking a step back to let the riot cops run free.

I’m not saying it’s ok to do this. Or burn cars. Or smash shops. Heck, I wouldn’t have liked to see my neighborhood turned into that kind of mess. Like a friend of mine once told people lightning up a garbage can on May 1st: “do you really have to mess up our neighborhood? If you’re so fixed on burning the rich, go burn the rich.” (which utterly btw, they actually did in Hamburg). The usual mess we have is fine, including the dog shit and the heaps of rotten garbage, but I just don’t like the smell of burned plastic, or the risk of collateral damage when cars are burned down.

Smoke over the water

Now, except the fact I wouldn’t like it when somebody burned my bike down (I kinda depend on it), and my general aversion to violence,  I don’t see why a few individuals would have to be “punished” for something which is a far bigger thing. I also have my doubts if it would really stop gentrification. If it would keep my rent low, well, I would probably secretly support it. But I don’t think it matters. They’ll just park their car somewhere else. Heck, I actually know of one of my friends, – no, without much money – who left the neighborhood because of multiple reasons, but one of them was being afraid of collateral damage of a car burning down beneath her window, the other one was witnessing a squat being evicted, and people being beat up shitless by the cops beneath that same window. So it might actually have the opposite effect.

So, no, the end doesn’t justify the means. Especially since I have sincere doubts if those means would make a difference.

However, the reaction of “Daddy State” was pretty frikkin scary. I was glued to my monitor. Reading every live report I could find.

G20 Summit in Hamburg
Pic by K. Friese [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]
I could identify too much. Could imagine how it would be if uniformed cops in full riot gear would march into my street as if it was a war zone. Holding machine guns. Pointing them at windows.

I’d be scared out of my wits. And angry. Really really angry. Not with the people making the mess (honestly, though I do feel sorry for the owners of the damaged property, the actions itself I find mostly bloody frikkin stupid). But angry at the over-reaction of Daddy State.

Because, to be honest? Except for the so-called “political background” of the whole thing. I would really like to invite all the parties to an average New Year’s Eve in Rotterdam Zuid. No, nothing political about it. And yes, cars burned down & shops were plundered, so it was not just common goods. But the mess after that one night of “party’ is a multitude of what happened in Hamburg. Or even the worst May 1st in Berlin. And the solution there and then was to just let it burn out, clean up and repair (or not… some bus stops never ever got replaced) in the days & weeks after.

So the reaction of Daddy State was, again, excessive. Probably because it was political, and not just some random party night gone wild. Erdogan probably felt at home indeed.

And I gnawed my knuckles down to the bone.

Beyond Hell


The weekend is over. Wounds are licked. Streets are cleaned.

Humor kicks in. Yes, contrary to common belief, Germans do have a sense of humor. Like posting a picture of a street in the Schanzenviertel with people shopping, kids & musicians playing, and the caption “look at our neighborhood in Hamburg near Aleppo/Syria, it will never be the same!” Or a meme of “Je suis Auto”

Unfortunately, these are exceptions.

There’s a lot of confusion. A lot of accusations. From all sides.

There’s a lot of screaming. Pointing fingers. Condemning. On all sides.

The willingness of Daddy State to use this much excessive force scares me shitless. Especially the machine guns. It takes it all to a whole new level.

Source: the worst is yet to come. Already in politics the discussion has moved from that excessive force to deeming what happened in the Schanzenviertel as a “terrorist action”. Putting burned down cars and plundered shops on the same level as killing dozens of people. Screaming for more “screening” of would-be activists. Of exchanging databases with other countries. Taking profiling, and therefore, being guilty until proven otherwise, to a whole new level.

And this means I’m now slowly running out of knuckles to chew on…