Thursday, April 14, 2016

east + west, words + freedom, walls + borders, tax + refugees, and 2 murals

This started as a currently-reading blog post - yet the books that I recently read are both connected to my visit to the Leipzig book fair. Driving there brought up the whole theme of East and West Germany, of borders, of change, of the recent German history. It's so present there - like when you walk into the inner city of Leipzig from the train station, you walk past a giant colorful mural. It took a moment for me to see its central line: the wall, closed still on the upper corner, opening in the lower corner.

The walk through Leipzig city happened on the day before the fair opened. That morning, I strolled through the fairhalls that were both empty and buzzing with get-things-prepared-activities. One of the moments that touched me was this one: walking through the entry area, past black signs that said "Für das Wort und die Freiheit" - "For the word and for freedom":

Freedom of speech, we so often take it for granted. But it isn't. And even in Europe, just some decades ago, it was another world in many places: writing the wrong word could mean trouble and prison.

Sometimes, granting the right of freedom of speech is painful. There was one booth in the fair that felt like a slap in the face: Compact was there, a rather borderline right-wing magazine.

The police was present, to make sure there would be no trouble. The thing is, freedom of course always is also the freedom of the one with another opinion. It's just stinging to see that if they were in charge, they probably wouldn't care much for other opinions, or dialogue, or compassion, or human rights.... And their slogans! Like from a different time and place, stirring fear and anger. And as always, it is so much easier to throw around fear and to blame refugees, than to contemplate the complex problems of our days.

The complexity of problems, that was, in a good way, the slogan of one of the radio stations that was present, "DRadio". One of the stations that has a focus on interviews and information, people and themes. Their motto:
"Es ist kompliziert. Dazu guter Pop."
"It is complicated. Accompanied by good pop."
And it is complicated, Europe these days. There are so many difficult themes. Questions without easy answers. Long and hard debates. A feeling that all is connected, more than ever.

Another moment that still touches me: walking through the European hall, and seeing a "Taiwan" sign - turns out, there is a writer-in-residency exchange program between Germany and Taiwan. They had some small collections from authors who joined, the series is titled: "Life is an island". One is from author Badai. He writes in his introduction that he doesn't know Germany - but that he is deeply impressed by the fact that Germany was the first country to open borders for Syrian refugees. Interesting to get to read this outside view. It also made me think that the regions in former East Germany have the most recent own experience with living in an oppressive state. And many fled the region - becoming German-German refugees. It's strange that the right-wing is especially strong in these regions.

The book from Taiwan, I brought it home, and after reading brought it as souvenir to the local librarian - we had talked about the Leipzig bookfair before I went, I actually borrowed a travel guide there. She never was in Leipzig herself, she told me. "I bring you something from there", I said. I guess that's one of the things I like about books, that they sometimes do their own travels, connecting places and people.

In a sweet twist, I got offered a book called "Europe", on that first day - but I was on the way to the city. "I'd love to, but I would have to carry it around Leipzig atll day", I explained. Of course, I later regretted it. Fast forward two days: I walked through the halls for a final round. Actually thought of the Europe book. And walking up the next stairway, see a copy there - abandoned by someone else, and left there. So the book now has its own arrival-story for me. And it's a moving book. "My name is Europe - a political travelbook" by Alexander Cern. With a bit of a mystic touch, reflections, walks, word associations, and conversations along the way, about life and the world. With lines like this (i tried a translation):
"You talk about our capitals and economical centres?"
"I talk about all the cities and countries of this world where the lust of one group is paid by the dumbness and the death of the others."
"And how do you want to stop this mechanism?"
"The troubling thing is that the mechanisms are well known."
"But then, one could..."
"Yes, one could, if one wanted..."
And interesting, this peculiar German grammar construct of the impersonal "one", that doesn't even expect someone to act: "man könnte"....

The quoted lines, reading them now, they almost feel like a commentary on the Panama Papers and the whole system of offshore companies and tax avoidance, and the unbelievable dimension of this hidden system. One of the repeated quotes on twitter tried to link both themes, the papers and the refugees, and give a larger perspective:

“Nicht die Flüchtlinge sind unser Problem - sondern die Steuerflüchtlinge."
"Not the refugees are our problem - but the tax-refugees”."

(In German, it’s indeed the same word that is used in both cases: a refugee is a "Flüchtling", and someone who tries to avoid taxes by moving money abroad is a "tax-refugee": "Steuerflüchtling".)


From Taiwan and Europe to... a game of chess and life
In contrast to the heavier political themes, I came across a book set on the Greek island Naxos, a story about finding ones way and following ones passion even when it's difficult, and when you are "only" working as a hotel maid. Reading it also brought back the memories of my own stay in Greece. Here's a photo that I had no memory of... a painted wall:

The book itself is not from Leipzig, but from the telephone book box. The title is: "the chess player" - or rather, the female form of it (in German, you don't have defined neutral forms for professions, you have to define the gender, or go for non-defined, "some chess-player".) so the book title is "Die Schachspielerin" -"she chess-player-woman". For that it's the turn her life takes when she comes across a chess game in process in the room of a couple from Paris. Seeing it makes her dream of Paris, and of playing chess with her own husband. It wakes a curiousity she didn't know she had. And from there, things roll on. And she starts to learn chess, and has to learn that people think her ridiculous for it, and her husband especially doesn't share her dream, and instead feels embarassed by her. "A delicate book about chance and the courage for change," is the short description. It also connects with a quote I copied before I came across the book:
"Always go with your passions. Never ask yourself if it’s realistic or not."
– Deepak Chopra

More links
- bookshelf
- Leipzig moments

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