It was not all bad in East Germany

 

For those of you who are too young to remember, Germany was divided into two separate countries, West Germany and East Germany (‘DDR’), between the end of World War 2 (‘WW2’) and 1990 (when the two countries were united into one). The DDR was a socialist republic overshadowed by the USSR.

Many years after the re-unification of Germany, our German-built Bosch dish-washing machine broke down. The engineer who came to mend it, fixed it in a couple of minutes, but remained talking to us for half an hour. He had been brought up in the DDR. He wanted to explain to us that contrary to all that we might have heard about the evils of the DDR and the difficulties its citizens faced, it was not all bad. He told us that, for example, education was good, there was little or no unemployment, and there had been a great sense of camaraderie. It was very important for our engineer that we should not think ill of the former DDR.

Recently, I finished reading an excellent book about the DDR, Red Love written by Maxim Leo and published in English in 2013. Leo was born in 1970, and like our Bosch engineer, does not damn the DDR, but takes care to point out that living in that former country was not at all easy or straightforward. For anyone curious about life in the DDR, this book is very illuminating. However, there is much more to this short book than describing the DDR.

What is most fascinating in Leo’s book is his stories about his two grandfathers, both of whom lived in the DDR. One of them remembered life being reasonable during the Nazi regime. Despite his grandson’s questioning, it is not clear what he did during those terrible times. The other grandfather led an exciting and dangerous life as a member of the French resistance during WW2. His story is gripping. 

Leo’s parents are also interestingly described. They were both in favour of, or atleast not completely against, the regime in the DDR. Each of them expressed their didfferent critical views of the political system, but neither of them did so strongly that they fell out of favour with it.

The book is a very readable translation of the original German translation. It provides a fascinating insight into life in the DDR and the period that preceded it. It was a book that I found difficult to put down, a real ‘page-turner’. Some of what I read in it chimes well with what our dish washing machine engineer told us.

The Wall

DDR

 

The Berlin Wall ceased to be a barrier between capitalist West Germany and socialist East Germany in late 1989. It marked the ending of the ‘Cold War’ and the recent collapse of the former USSR. 

At that time, my father made an interesting observation, which I want to sahre with you. He is a retired academic at the world famous London School of Economics (‘LSE’). The LSE had a large number of academics with an expert interest in politics. He told me that the end of the Cold War had come as a complete surprise to his colleagues, who professed to be experts on the subject. Not one of them had predicted either the downfall of the USSR or the ending of the Cold War. I was staggered by this information, and my faith in ‘experts’ reduced a bit.

So, now when I listen to ‘expert’ after ‘expert’ giving opinions on the outcome of ‘Brexit’ and the future of politics in the UK (or elsewhere), I take what they say with the proverbial ‘pinch of salt’.

 

Picture: The emblem of the DDR, sourced from Wikipedia

Cheese is nice

 

Once, we spent a weekend with a German friend living in Germany. She was a great cook and spent much time preparing delicious meals for us in her kitchen. 

I was sitting in the living room, which was next to the kitchen when I heard our hostess angrily shouting what sounded to me like “cheese is nice”. Now, I would be the first to agree with that sentence. However, she kept repeating it angrily whilst crashing about in the kitchen. I could not see why anyone except possibly a vegan could possibly use that sentence so angrily.

After a while, it dawned on me that our friend was not talking to herself about cheese, but about Jesus, whose name she pronounced as ‘Cheesus’. What she was really saying angrily in her strong German accent in English was ‘Jesus Christ’.

View of palms

I am not certain when I first saw palm trees. Maybe, it was when I was three years old. Then, my parents took me for a holiday in South Africa, where they were born.

Some of the first palm trees that I remember seeing are still growing in a small garden next to the entrance of St John’s Wood Underground station near Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. We used to visit St John’s Wood regularly when I was a child because our family dentist, Dr Samuels – a refugee from Nazi Germany, had his surgery opposite the station.

My first view of palm trees growing en-masse was from the air on an early morning in late December 1993. Our plane was landing at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We were travelling via Colombo to Bangalore in India. A week or so after seeing this vast plantation of palms, my wife and I were married during a colourful Hindu ceremony.

Although I have seen many, many palm trees since then, I still find them beautiful and exotic.

Gandhi to Hitler

GTO H 2

On the 24th of December 1940 Mohandas Gandhi (the ‘Mahatma’) wrote to the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. Amongst other things that he wrote in his letter, the following extracts suffice to give the gist of it:

I hope you will have the time and desire to know how a good portion of humanity who have view living under the influence of that doctrine of universal friendship view your action. We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness. Such are your humiliation of Czechoslovakia, the rape of Poland and the swallowing of Denmark. I am aware that your view of life regards such spoliations as virtuous acts. But we have been taught from childhood to regard them as acts degrading humanity. Hence we cannot possibly wish success to your arms.

But ours is a unique position. We resist British Imperialism no less than Nazism. If there is a difference, it is in degree. One-fifth of the human race has been brought under the British heel by means that will not bear scrutiny. Our resistance to it does not mean harm to the British people. We seek to convert them, not to defeat them on the battle-field. Ours is an unarmed revolt against the British rule. But whether we convert them or not, we are determined to make their rule impossible by non-violent non-co-operation…

…During this season when the hearts of the peoples of Europe yearn for peace, we have suspended even our own peaceful struggle. Is it too much to ask you to make an effort for peace during a time which may mean nothing to you personally but which must mean much to the millions of Europeans whose dumb cry for peace I hear, for my ears are attended to hearing the dumb millions? I had intended to address a joint appeal to you and Signor Mussolini, whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was in Rome during my visit to England as a delegate to the Round Table Conference. I hope that he will take this as addressed to him also with the necessary changes.” (see: https://www.mkgandhi.org/letters/hitler_ltr1.htm).

I do not think that this unbelievable letter ever reached the Führer. However, it formed the basis for a film, which was on general release in India briefly.

G TO H

[Source: MensXP.com]

In 2011, an Indian film, “Gandhi to Hitler”, was put out on general release in India. One newspaper accorded it a rating of half a star out of five. We were staying in Bangalore when it was showing, and I was dying to see a film whose name juxtaposed the peace-loving Gandhi with the war-mongering Adolf Hitler.

Only one cinema was showing the film in Bangalore. It was a long way from where we were staying. We arrived for the 10 am performance and joined a long queue of school-aged children waiting at the box office of the cinema multiplex. When we reached the ticket office, I said to the ticket seller:

“Two for the Gandhi/Hitler film.”

“Not possible, sir,” came the reply.

“Why not?”

“I must sell three tickets before we can screen a film, and you are only two.”

“But,” I protested, “we have come all the way from London to see this film.”

I thought for a moment, and then said:

“Sell me three tickets, and then you can screen the film.”

The seller was happy with this. We walked over to the lift that would take us up to the cinema. While we were waiting, the ticket man came rushing up to us, waving one of the notes with which we had paid for our tickets. He had managed to find a third taker for the film and refunded our third ticket.

Apart from an usher, there were only three of us in the large auditorium. The film was so dreadful that it was quite amusing. The plot had three main strands that ran in parallel. The first was Gandhi and his followers walking endlessly around a lovely garden. One of the followers was the wife of a man, who appears in the second strand. This aspect of the plot revolved around a group of Indian soldiers who had joined the German Army but were trying to desert from it. For those who are unaware of it, some Indian soldiers did actually join the Wehrmacht during WW2, hoping that a German defeat of the British might hasten the independence of India. Throughout the film, this forlorn band of soldiers trudged through a snowy mountainous landscape that was supposed to be the Alps but looked more like the Himalayas. Somehow, quite inexplicably, the woman in India was able to correspond by letters with the soldier tramping through the ‘Alps’.

The third strand of the film, which had no obvious connection with the other two strands, was set in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin during the last days of the Third Reich. Anyone who has watched the excellent film “Downfall” (2004) would be able to see that the bunker in the Indian film is a very crude copy of that in the German film. Unlike Adolf Hitler, the man portraying him in the Indian film is a true Aryan, an Indian. Goebbels is played by a character who looks like an elegant Italian. The Indian Hitler kept forgetting which of his arms was supposed to be lame.

There was an interval half way through the film. We left the auditorium to stretch our legs. When we returned for the second half of the film, my wife and I were the only people left in the auditorium.

Safety first!

Experience learn’d

damages suffer’d

must consider safety first

 

My late mother was involved in a motor car accident near Cape Town in South Africa when she was a young girl in the 1930s.

HBY 60s 36 HW

“Our family dentist, at least the first one who ever looked after me (during the 1950s and early 1960s), was Dr Samuels, an elderly Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. This kindly man, who must have been in his late 60s or early 70s when he treated me, told my mother how he had to smuggle gold out of Germany. When he, and for that matter any other Jew, was fleeing from Germany in the 1930s, it was not permitted to carry anything of financial value out of the country. His resourceful wife prepared sandwiches for his journey. Instead of filling them with lettuce leaves, she filled them with sheets of gold leaf – a material that used to be used a great deal in dentistry. Thus, if he had encountered inquisitive Nazi officials on the train, he could have concealed the gold he was carrying by munching his precious sandwiches. I am not sure when he retired, but I remember him telling my mother that he would not cease practising until the last of his patients abandoned him. I do not know when this was, but I do know that he helped to conceal from us the fact that my mother was missing some teeth.

 

In all the 28 years that I knew her, I had no inkling that my mother had two missing front teeth. I knew that she had missing teeth because she often reminded us about the accident that she had suffered, but it was not until she was dead that I discovered, almost by chance, that it was two of her front teeth that she lost.

 

FIAT 1100 60s BSY

I am sure that it was having been involved in this accident that led to my mother having seat-belts installed in our Fiat Millecento. She arranged for this to be done at least 20 years before they became mandatory in the UK. I have no idea how and from where she got the idea of installing car seat-belts in 1960, but she did. And, with a little persistence she found somewhere where these items, which were almost unknown in cars, could be installed in our Fiat.

 

Seat-belts were not routinely fitted into cars before the 1980s, with the exception of some Swedish cars such as Saab and Volvo. There were very few of these on British roads in the early 1960s. Therefore, my mother’s idea of installing them into our Millecento in 1960 was little short of revolutionary. The two front seats of the car were fitted with complex harnesses. A strap went over each of the wearer’s shoulders and these were connected together by a waist strap. The people in the front ended up wearing what looked like the sort of safety harness worn by a jet pilot. These complicated straps were extremely difficult to adjust properly.

 

The rear of the car was fitted with two lap straps such as are found in aircraft passenger seats. My sister and I used one each except when there was a third person in the back. In this case, my sister and I had to share one strap. To avoid fighting, my mother separated us in the strapby placing a pillow between us.”

 

The passage written above is an extract from a book, “Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me”.  It does not mention the extra locks my mother had fitted in the rear doors of our car. These were to prevent my sister and me from opening the doors while were diving. Had we been in an accident, it would have made it very difficult for rescuers to open these doors as the keys were attched to the ring with the car keys.

 

I only learnt about my mother’s missing fron teeth when after her tragic demise, I found her partial denture lying around in our house.

 

Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me” is available by clicking : HERE

Also available on Kindle

In Germany, we only eat…

High up in the sky,

a compartmented tray,

consuming airline food 

FLIGHT 1

 

Since I was a little boy (many decades ago), I have been travelling on aeroplanes, usually to and from holiday destinations. The food served during flights has always intrigued me. As a child, I used to collect the miniature containers of salt and pepper that appeared on the compartmented food trays. I can remember these better than the far from memorable food served with them.

In 1963, we took an overnight flight from New York to London. When the breakfast tray arrived, I remember that there was a hot, foil-wrapped item on the tray. Cautiously, I unwrapped it to reveal a long spindle of something yellow and rubbery. I hit it with a knife. The knife bounced off it. My mother told me that what I had revealed was an omelette. To this day, omelettes on ‘planes have repelled me. I love freshly made omelettes, but one made several hours earlier and reheated has no appeal for me.

The best food I have eaten in the air was on Air Lanka ‘planes in the mid-1990s when we were travelling between London and Colombo. The food was served in large foil containers, rather than in in tiny neat plastic dishes. Delicious Sri Lankan curries were served. They tasted as if they had been lovingly prepared in someone’s home rather than in an industrial kitchen. My wife recalls eating whole steaks and caviar on an Aeroflot flight between Moscow and New Delhi in the late 1980’s. The burly stewardesses served the food on real porcelain plates.

More recently, I have been travelling regularly to India. There is a direct flight between London and Bangalore operated by British Airways (‘BA’), on which we used to travel. The staff on these flights were coolly efficient. The meals were not so good. For some years I had a dental patient, a friendly fellow, who worked for BA as a cabin crew member. When I told him that I was not keen on what was served on BA, he suggested that I pre-order the seafood meals. These turned out to be better than the regular meals, and we ordered these on several successive flights. Then, on one BA flight I was seated next to a very devout Muslim couple, who did a lot of praying during the ten-hour flight. When their meals arrived, a delicious aroma spread from their trays. When they removed the foil from their hot dishes, I saw that they had been served with what looked like really nice curries and biryanis.

After seeing these halal meals, that is what I pre-ordered on all our subsequent bookings with BA. We were not disappointed. BA used a good quality halal caterer. Many people who order halal food are teetotal. The BA crew did not raise an eyebrow when we ordered gin and tonic or bloody Mary cocktails with our so-called ‘Muslim meals’.

FLIGHT 2

Before BA operated the direct flights between London and Bangalore, we had to make the journey with one change of ‘plane. The German airline, Lufthansa, ran a convenient flight from Frankfurt (Main) to Bangalore. On one occasion, we were served two meals on the flight. The first meal included some meat. Several hours later, the second meal arrived. It was a selection of vegetarian food items. Now, I have nothing against vegetarians and vegetarian food, but I like a bit of meat or fish with my veg. I called the stewardess and asked if there was a non-vegetarian option as there had been during the earlier meal.

“No,” she said abruptly.

“Why?” I asked.

“In Germany,” she explained, “we only eat meat once a day.”

What nonsense, I thought. Whenever I have visited Germany, I have seen people eating meat at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in between these repasts. I was not going to put up with her inaccurate reasoning.

“Well,” I replied, feeling a little bit hypoglycaemic, “I shall be ill if I eat this vegetarian offering. You must find me some meat.”

“One moment, please.”

She disappeared out of our cabin. Maybe, she was worried that I might eat her. After some minutes, she returned with a tray containing some very tasty pieces of fish.

Apparently, Germans who travel business class eat non-vegetarian food more than once a day.

POSTSCRIPT:

I cannot understand why airlines feel that they have to serve hot dishes mid-air. Most of these dishes are shoddy versions of the descriptions given to them on the tiny menus handed out to fool you into thinking that the airline will treat you to ‘fine dining’. I believe that many people would be happy with a selection of tubs of what the Greeks call ‘meze’. These could include things like hummus, taramosalata, tzatziki, olives, cole-slaw, nuts, mutabel, guacamole, salsa, etc. No cooking required, and fun to eat.

REQUIEM FOR THE EMBLEM OF POWER

Cork Street, near London’s famous Burlington Arcade, has long been home to quite a number of art galleries. Recently, the greed of property developers has led to the closure and disappearance of many of these. Dadiani Fine Art, a small gallery, at number 30 Cork Street has survived so far. This gallery is hosting an exhibition of works by Paul Wager, entitled “Requiem for the Emblem of Power”. The show, which opened in January 2018, commemorates the centenary of the ending of the First World War ‘WW1’). Althoug the website states that the show was due to finish in April 2018, it was still available for viewing in September 2018. So, you might still be able to ‘catch’ it.

wager 0

Paul Wager, British, was born in Hartlepool in 1949, four years after the end of the Second World War. According to the gallery’s website, Paul Wager wrote:

I find myself at the interzone of painting and sculpture; my work is a heavy metal cocktail of male fantasies, obsessive and confrontational. It is a chemical haze of alternative sound and vision, religion and politics, conflict and war, tragedy and loss. A crucible of liquid observations and memories which stimulate my pending offering to the uncharted future of art.”

wager 1

The works on display in Cork Street reinforce this statement this well. According to Umberto Eco:

“Art now in general may be seen as conveying a much higher degree of information though not necessarily a higher degree of meaning.

However, the Gallery notes:

Wager’s paintings are a profound statement of information and meaning

Be that as it may, I found the art works, visually alluring, powerful, and moving. Finely crafted, both in detail and as a whole, and creatively designed, they are  fitting, original contributions to the large body of recent creations made to celebrate the passing of 100 years since 1918.

wager 2