A Travellerspoint blog

Anti-Fascist protest in memory of Silvio Meier

And musings on mass psychology

overcast 7 °C

The protest was called for 3pm. We (which is to say I, my roommate and her boyfriend) emerged from the Samariterstrasse U-bahn station at 3:30pm to find everyone still standing around waiting. Demonstrators were clustered in the street holding flags and banners, and crowds filled the sidewalks. Most people were young, clad in black, and smoking. Police stood around looking disinterested. A small van with large speakers on the roof alternated between playing music to keep the crowd energized and brief speeches expressing political positions towards or sometimes off the left end of the spectrum.

For example: “Twenty-one years ago today, Silvio Meier was brutally attacked and murdered right here in this U-bahn station by Nazis. There are still Nazis active today. They are marching in towns all around Germany. It is just as important to gather together now as it was twenty one years ago to show them that we will not put up with their Nazi sh*t!”

Or: “This is an international struggle. We must show solidarity! Last week, Antifa protesters in Sweden were violently stopped by the police and some were imprisoned just for expressing their opinions. We are all in this together, with our comrades around the world who are also standing up for human rights and standing against abuses of power by authority!”


A song booming from the sound system chanted the lyrics, “You gonna die for your government, die for your country – that’s sh*t! That’s sh*t!” It grew colder and darker (this time of year, dusk comes to Berlin around 4pm). The woman on the loudspeaker explained that we were still waiting because a core group of Antifa’s had just taken part in a counter-protest to Nazis and were coming by bus from another part of the city. The crowd maintained a medium energy level; by no means losing steam, just waiting for the action to begin.

Finally, towards 4:30, a large black bus with tinted windows appeared on scene; ostensibly the protesters, who were hailed as heroes as they descended. A few minutes later, the crowd surged forward. We were on our way. As we began moving through the streets, people stood on nearby rooftops waving flares and sending up firecrackers against the now dark sky to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd. Banners with the anarchy symbol unfurled from windows. Chants broke out spontaneously in a fluid progression of blending ideologies:
“Alerta, Antifascista!”
“In Deutschland nie wieder!” (Never again in Germany)
“No border, no nation, stop deportation!”
“No nation, no border, fight law and order!”


In my undergraduate “Intro to Psych” course taught by professor/celebrity Philip Zimbardo (or “Zim,” as I think his license plate read), the unit on social psychology mentioned a series of experiments involving elevators: The subject would enter an elevator with several other men who – unbeknownst to him – were part of the experimenter’s set-up. Everyone else in the elevator would then do something a little odd, like turn around to face the back wall, or take off their hats all at once. Nine times out of ten, within the short stretch of time sharing a closed space with the group, the subject would follow suit , for no reason than that everyone else was doing it. Sometimes the hidden camera revealed a moment of indecision, confusion or discomfort, but you could almost see the wheels turning: The subject ultimately deciding that it was a harmless little thing to do - to ride facing away from the door or remove his hat - and not really worth the discomfort of rebelling, so he did it. And so it was that I found myself feeling just about compelled to shout along with the crowd’s slogans regardless of whether I concurred the content. Of course, me being me, walking along and thinking about social psych elevator experiments and such, I tried to make sure that the words coming out of my mouth were actually in accordance with beliefs I hold or can at least stomach.

After an hour or so we stepped out of the march and headed for home. No particular reason, other than it had been enough. As the protesters went on without us we saw a procession of police dutifully trailing behind. The silent counter-protest of law and order.


I have to say, there was something strange about having this moment in Germany. Although the raison d’etre for this march was anti-Nazi, it embodied the very mob mentality I associate with the Nazi rise to power. Moreover, much as I like the idea of joining other conscious citizens in protesting neo-Nazi activity and hate crimes, there is a [very sizable] part of me that does not like being part of any large crowd, no matter the purpose. I don’t trust crowds. Your voice becomes not-your-own. You may, for example, want to protest Nazis (great), find yourself advocating for immigrant rights (good), and end up as part of a crowd shouting for socialism or outright anarchy (...huh?). At which point it becomes irrelevant what you actually think. Your body is present, to all outward appearances you have voted with your feet, and no one other than you - not even your friend right next to you in all this noise - knows whether you are saying the words or not.

Posted by sbw2109 05:07 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

A minor peculiarity of German libraries

Encountering cultural differences

I just screwed up the time of a course and arrived to compus several hours early. No matter, I think; I can just as well sit and work.

Shoot - I brought my laptop charger but no converter, so the charger is useless, and the laptop is almost out of juice. No matter; there are computer pools in the library.

German libraries have one minor peculiarty (at least one - I have not ventured far enough to discover more, for reasons soon to be revealed), and that is that you cannot bring your bag or jacket in with you. You are expected to store it in a Garderobe, which is a room full of cubbies. In the main campus library you can use your 'Mensa card' to lock a cubby for free. It all seems a little silly to me, but, well, alright.

I arrive to a room full of occupied cubbies. I wait for about five minutes, during which time one person who I THINK arrived after me takes the next available cubby. I wait some more. Several people come, open their cubbies to retrieve something, then re-lock them and leave. Another 5-7 people are now also waiting for cubbies. The room is large enough that there is no real line or priority system; if someone happens to vacate a cubby where you are hanging out, you could be polite and offer it to the person who has been waiting longest... but you could also just take it yourself.

I get fed up and leave. No matter, there is another library in the German Studies building where the Garderobe will surely not be such a hot scene. Sure enough, there are empty lockers. But wait - these require a payment of 1 Euro.* I am supposed to pay 1 Euro every time I use the library? Just to store my bag and coat?? Because I might steal a book or drink on the sly???

This is all a little tough to swallow. Europe may have a more liberal society in many ways, but I think there are just a lot less rules in America. I do not, generally speaking, like rules. I most especially like places like Tonga where you can sit on the roof of the ferry and no one cares, or Laos where you can rent a motorbike with no license, or the Pyrenees where you can camp anywhere you please. I suppose one could consider this a period of cultural adjustment to complement the linguistic learning curve.

So here I am writing form a little pool of computers just inside the German Studies Library door where you are still allowed to carry dangerous contraband goods like bags and jackets. I am also, as much out of spite as out of thirst, drinking tea by the computer.


In my ire, I jumped to a hasty conclusion. To be fair, upon further investigation, you only have to deposit 1 Euro to use the lockers in the German library. You get it back when you return the key. Again, I suppose, so people do not steal keys or permanently occupy lockers. And as if the 1 Euro will actually prevent that. (Again with the rules...)

Posted by sbw2109 02:19 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Taking classes in German

My brain needs more RAM

I took German from 3rd through 11th grade, took a few classes in college to ward off complete obsolescence, and found the occasional conversation partner when possible (it is not exactly the most common language). In recent years I have played with German texts as Musil and Wittgenstein caught my interest, and have spent a few months in Germany if you add it all up. . .

But I have never taken university-level classes carried out entirely in German. Last week was my first-ever experience of that. It was at turns challenging, frustrating, exciting, humbling, thought-provoking, and absolutely disheartening. Here’s how it works.

I usually understand 90-95% of what the professor and other students say, depending how much background knowledge and subject-specific vocabulary I have. So that is a decent start. Caveat – that drops to around 25% if I get very tired, which is liable to happen in the late afternoon and early evening. But let’s assume I am still pert and alert. In English, I am a pretty good note-taker; I can jot down the essence of a lecture or conversation plus interesting sidebars while still following the thread. In German, however, the moment I go to write, my auditory processing quite simply ceases. I cannot seem to do both at once. If it takes me a minute to write something down, I will just rejoin the discussion one minute later lacking the last sixty seconds of context. It also takes longer to write, as I am trying to take notes solely in German. I think more slowly in German, the words themselves seem a lot longer, and there is a fine motor aspect because even my hand does write the letter combinations as readily. But I am going to the trouble of taking notes in German because this seems to me one way of internalizing some of the expressive vocabulary I hope to gain. Nay, need to gain.

Which brings me to the most emotionally frustrating aspect of the past week: I feel utterly incapable of talking in class. For one thing, I am usually so focused on merely understanding that I lack the extra processing power to turn the material over in my mind and come up with questions or comments. For another thing, even when I do have the occasional insight I might want to share, I start trying to formulate it in German, and by the time I am halfway done we are way past the point where my comment would have been relevant. Finally, and worst of all, even if the class would stop and wait for me to get my thought out in German, my ultimate expressive ability is nowhere near the level of sophistication I am accustomed to having in English. Compared to the other native speakers and even second-language speakers around me, I feel like a kindergartener making crude crayon drawings. I have a whole new level of empathy for anyone who has ever studied in a language that is not their mother tongue. It is brutal.

I am often inclined to look through rose-colored glasses, find the silver lining, etc., so I now find myself wanting to put a positive spin on all this… and what do you know, there is one. It is as follows: After one week of class, I can already feel myself processing academic German a little better. Also, my words now come more easily in casual conversations with friends and roommates (though remarkably enough, I have dramatically disparate ‘on’ days and ‘off’ days, much like turns in ballet class). Last but not least, although I read comparatively v..e..r..y….s..l..o..w..l..y in German, I am enjoying tackling my readings, and find myself wanting to stay up late following spin-off threads and tangents. I think this all just might work out... and I just might enjoy it.

Posted by sbw2109 13:44 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Reflections upon the occasion of my one-week birthday

Little Berlin highlights and delights

I arrived one week ago today and am pretty much over the jet lag (i.e., any remaining inclination to sleep until noon can safely be considered my own laziness). I am, of course, still discovering Berlin. Loving it, really. We are in the honeymoon phase. It has jerked me around a little – for example, it rained spitefully on Kristina and me as we made our way to a party Saturday night – but on the whole, it has given me a grand welcome.

Yesterday it wooed me with a flea market in a community garden (the rather famous “Prinzessinnengarten”) not five minutes’ walk from my front door. The German term for flea market is a literal translation, Flohmarkt, but this particular one called itself the Flowmarkt in hopes of helping secondhand goods flow to new users. I went with my roommate Sara and we sat in the garden’s leaf-shaded, sun-dappled café talking for a couple hours.

Today I visited an old favorite from my last stint here, a café in Charlottenburg called “Frau Behrens Torten." Cakes and tortes and pies – oh my. Every bit as good as I remember.

Then there is Marameo, a dance studio in an unassuming brick building with daily professional classes. marameo.jpg
I believe I packed my ballet stuff only out of a vague sense of nostalgia, as opposed to actually intending to use it. But Marameo is about ten minutes’ walk from home, the classes are lovely and very affordable, and for all the parts of my body that no longer work properly, there is a dancing soul in there that still manages to get out and enjoy.

All that said, I have had some funny little in-between moments. After enjoying my slice of cake-heaven this afternoon, I took the M29 bus back across town. It is a just a regular city bus, but double-decker, so if you are lucky you can sit right in front on the top level and feel like you are on a private tour. It was a cloudy yet potent sunset, giving the buildings a deep evening glow to match the red and yellow leaves in all their fall(ing) glory. Watching the city glide by, I felt a little… homesick? I love this city, but it is not MY city. My loved ones are far away. I wondered if there will come a time when I get tired of exploring and discovering, tired even of Frau Behren’s illustrious desserts, and long for home. Might happen in the course of ten months. We’ll see. Meanwhile, however, classes start tomorrow, and I suspect that processing lectures and readings in German will command much of my mental energy.

Posted by sbw2109 13:27 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

I cry 'uncle'

If you can't beat 'em join 'em

There is no fighting German bureaucracy. You just comply. Submit. Gather all the required documents, stand in line, wait your turn, and be very, very polite to the official helping you.

I do not consider any of this interesting per se, but it feels like an accomplishment nonetheless. Thus, I will document how I spent today:

- Obtain my Anmeldebestätigung (carried out in German, after 2+ hours of queuing at the bureau)
- Open a bank account (also carried out in German)
- Arrange direct deposit of my stipend into said bank account (a pretty simple task accomplished by virtue of filling out yet one more form and dropping it off)
- Obtain a waiver from buying German health insurance, saving me perhaps 50€/mo
- Show up to the Immatrikulation ground zero bearing my Anmeldebestätigung and half a dozen other required components to complete the matriculation process. This earned me my student ID, library card and Semesterticket (transit pass)
- Purchase a “Mensa card” that is needed to pay for various things around campus
- Go to the library to activate my student account and get set up on the university Wi-Fi
- Attend a soporific but useful tutorial on Humboldt University’s various online platforms (the only thing all day that I allowed myself in English)
- Return home exhausted.

The devil is truly in the details. On the up-side, after a day of dueling with details, I just need a cell phone and a bicycle and will be set to function in Berlin.

Posted by sbw2109 14:08 Archived in Germany Comments (1)

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