Category Archives: Cities

OUTSIDERS in London

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The past weeks have been full of travel, feeding me with new impulses and images to write about. Since I live in a cow village, it doesn’t hurt to escape natural habitat upon occasion and taste the big wide world out there, especially the kind found in a metropolis that seethes with humanity and its associated creativity. Unfortunately, travel also involves returning home to find no one has done my work. Although the weeds in my garden are still making faces at me, I’m ignoring them. I can just about peer over the mounds on my desk and see my way clear to share with you an experience I had while in London in early May.

Before we visited the exhibition “Inventing Impressionism” at the National Gallery, my husband suggested we have a look in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a church located adjacent to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. In all our many years, first living in and then visiting London, we had never been inside. After admiring the Greek Revival architecture of the interior, we descended to the crypt, now a café and exhibition space.

A photo exhibition by Milan Svanderlik, titled Outsiders in London, was on display and we had the incredible luck of visiting on a day when the photographer was present in the flesh. We were admiring his portraits and reading the stories about the subjects when Mr. Svanderlik approached us for a chat.

He spoke the excellent if accented English of one not native-born but long resident in Britain. Originally from Northern Bohemia, Mr Svanderlik had lived in Yugoslavia and Switzerland before settling in London forty years ago. His background alone gives him an excellent head start for studying outsiders.

Mr Svanderlik is a man who not only photographs interesting-looking subjects but is also deeply interested in their stories. Each portrait was accompanied by a brief introduction to that person. And each person had a history as an outsider, whether due to disability, race, nationality, beliefs or sexual orientation. Some had been able, early in their lives, to make a virtue of their outsider status, while others suffered greatly before owning up to it and accepting who they were.

   Margaret Dawn Pepper, formerly Maurice David Pepper

 

 

Rabbi Ahron Leib Cohen, anti-Zionist

Henry Fraser, quadriplegic, with his bother Will

In our conversation with him, Mr Svanderlik shared more information about his project in general and his subjects in particular. Some of them had been able not only to accept but also use their  situation as outsiders to excel in their fields. Indeed, often what made them outsiders was exactly what was needed to achieve excellence.

It made me think about the dichotomy of the human condition. In most cases, a person feels a need to belong, whether to a family, a tribe, a political party, a profession, etc. Not being accepted in any of these social structures because of something about us that the crowd cannot identify with, can lead to severe problems for an individual.

And yet, don’t many of us want to stand out in this densely populated world? We seek recognition for our talents and achievements. We don’t want to disappear in the masses of mankind. But of course, we desire the status of outsider, not as a stigma but as a badge of quality.

The people chosen by Milan Svanderlik have transformed their otherness into a virtue, and in many cases are affecting the lives of those around them in most positive ways. For outsiders who have yet to find a way to cope with their otherness, these life stories may just offer help.

Although Milan Svanderlik’s exhibition at St. Martin-in-the-Fields has finished, you can see his work and read the poignant stories about his Outsiders at: http://www.outsidersinlondon.org

All portraits appear with the kind permission of Milan Svanderlik, holder of the copyright.         (The photo of St. Martin’s is my very own pathetic tourist shot.)

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Filed under Cities, civil rights, Gender Questions, Great Britain

GERMAN REUNIFICATION – 25 YEARS AGO

WE’VE COME SO FAR – WE MUSTN’T TURN BACK

I am shaking off the stupor caused by house-related renovations to comment on a breath-taking event that took place 25 years ago. Throughout the spring and summer of 1989, the situation in the German Democratic Republic escalated. East German “tourists” went on holiday to Czechoslovakia and Hungary – just about the only places they were allowed to travel. But they did not return home. They ended up camping on the grounds of the German embassies in Prague, Budapest and even Vienna, while behind-the-scenes frantic diplomacy was deciding their fate.

Back in East Germany, while the powers-that-were were gearing up to celebrate the up-coming 40-year birthday of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) in October, activists in Leipzig and Dresden and other eastern cities continued their weekly Monday Demonstrations. The meetings and marches were non-violent and centered around the Protestant Church, an institution just about tolerated by the government. Plenty of “unofficial” Stasi operatives took part, to be sure.

What did these people want anyway? Just everyday things really. Like being allowed to travel unhindered and not be walled in. Like the freedom to speak their minds without fear of arrest. Like not being spied on by neighbors and “friends” who had been enlisted for this purpose by the Stasi – the secret state security police. Just simple things really, things we in the West have always taken for granted.

Of course on the west side of the wall, West Germans watched expectantly, fearfully. There was no telling where it would all end. And from past experience, there was a good chance it would not end well. But bit by bit, the regime granted concessions. And then, almost by accident, on November 9th the wall opened. People turned up at various Berlin border crossings, demanding to be let through. East German border guards who were not able to get any clear orders from above, raised the barriers. Thank heavens, they had no desire to fire on their own.

And my husband and I watched this spectacle, wide-eyed and incredulous, from the comfort of our West German living room, along with most other “Wessis” (West Germans). From one day to the next, separated families could be reunited, ordinary “Ossis” (East Germans) could suddenly go where they pleased. And over the following months the road taken in Trabis and Wartburgs would lead to what became an inevitable destination: reunification.

Those were heady days, weeks and months. We became addicted to following the news reports on TV and radio, anxious to hear of the next unbelievable milestone in the journey to once again becoming one Volk. And 25 years later a generation has grown up that did not know the sorrow of a Germany rent in two by the post-World War II settlements. Those young people can’t imagine what it means not to be free.

And although the east of the country still lags behind economically, huge strides have been made, billions have been invested in infrastructure. BMW builds cars in Leipzig, VW in Dresden. Berlin is now, once again as it should be, the capital of the country. Both the Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Federal President, Joachim Gauck, hail from the east.

Of course, the fall of the inner-German border was just the beginning. Along with it, the entire Iron Curtain came crashing down and the Soviet Union dissolved. Voila, the end of the Cold War and the commencement of a new world order.

Unfortunately, black shadows loom overhead. Need I list the crises that dominate the news every night? The new world order has not brought world peace but new instability. One of the crises in particular seems to me to be so stoppable. That would be the Ukraine.

Why, dear Mr Putin, do you want to go backwards rather than forwards?
I wish he’d give us an answer.

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Filed under Beginnings, Cities, Endings, German History, Remembering

WARSAW II: Five Days in May

Warsaw Old Town

Warsaw Old Town

We had no illusions that the days we would spend in Warsaw in the year’s merriest of months would be filled with unmitigated delight. For what could such a visit be but a heavy-duty history lesson, one not lost on people already interested in the subject and people who, although not German, have lived all their adult lives in Germany.

The tragedies suffered by the Poles did not begin in the 20th century, but as I mentioned in my last post, had already culminated in 1795 with the partitioning of the country between the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Not until the end of World War I did Poland resume its existence as a nation. Barely had it recovered its national identity when it was once again under siege by Germany, and soon afterwards, by Russia.

A morning visit to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising was an eye-opener and I covered that in my last post. The old Jewish Cemetery and the new Jewish Museum, designed to look live the wave that parted the Red Sea for the Jews to escape from Egypt, both bear witness to the rich past of the Polish Jewish population and its abrupt demise at the hands of Nazi Germany.

However, I am very pleased to be able to report, on a much more upbeat note, about what we experienced of Poland in the here and now and beyond the historic sites. It seems we had inadvertently chosen the time of our stay well. The weather was perfect with sunshine and temperatures in the high 70s centigrade. This meant the whole population was out and about enjoying their city. Everywhere we went something was going on.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Festival in the Old Town

Festival in the Old Town

Along the main thoroughfare of the old town, a children’s festival was in full swing with lots of clowns and balloons and music playing. The street restaurants and cafes were busy; the cold beer tasted refreshing as it washed down our lunch of grilled kielbasa. One thing jumped right out and struck me in the face: What a young population lived in Warsaw! Kids, teens, babies in buggies, young-marrieds and lots of young pregnant women(!) – everyone was having a good time; everyone looked well-off.

On the Sunday we crossed the Wisla River to Praga on the other side. In Praski Park, located along the river, families strolled by, on their way to or from the zoo. Kids rode bikes or whooshed by on skates. We followed the sound of music and landed at a pavilion where a 4-piece band was playing. People sat on benches, consuming their own picnics and fetching cold brews from a stand. We couldn’t resist joining them. Soon the musicians were substituted by a group of seniors who sang and danced. The dozen or so ladies all wore straw hats and gloves and floral skirts. The three token gents had cloth caps on their heads. Although the music they sang was foreign to our ears, it wasn’t to the multigenerational crowd. They sang along. One lady in the audience danced with her poodle in her arms. Others danced, too, women with women or mothers with sons. Small children wandered onto the stage and danced in circles.

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At home we are always hearing about the flood of young Poles who leave the country seeking work in western Europe or beyond. Either there are still plenty left behind or they were all back visiting on that May weekend. Assuming the latter is unlikely, we had the distinct impression that Poland will not any time soon be suffering from the demographic problem – the ageing of society – that plagues many of the world’s advanced industrialized countries.

Discovering whether the Polish baby boom can be attributed to their strict adherence to the anti-birth control policies of the Vatican, or if their fecundity is more a reflection of their deep love of family, would require a visit longer than a few days in May. What I can conclude from the visit though, is that Poland has made great strides since the walls and curtains of eastern Europe fell 25 years ago.

After all the tragic history lessons, how great it is to leave Poland with a positive feeling.

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Filed under Ageing, Cities, German History

The Warsaw Pact Takes on New Meaning

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When we were visiting Warsaw a week ago, I had no idea we were just missing Barak Obama’s arrival. After five days there, spent delving more deeply into the history of Poland in general and Warsaw in particular, I appreciate the President’s confirmation of the resolve of the US and NATO to defend, if necessary, Poland and the other former Soviet satellite states which are, indeed, now members of NATO. For the Ukraine crisis has certainly given the countries at our eastern outposts a mighty case of the jitters. And for good reason: Promises are one thing, carrying through can be quite another.

Warsaw is a city resurrected – by its own strength and resolve – from the ashes of World War II. Although under Soviet dictatorship, the citizens immediately started to rebuild their city, not a modern incarnation of it, but as it had been, as they had loved it before 1939.

Before / After

Before / After

After a visit to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which presented blow-by-blow the city’s last-ditch struggle to survive, I came away realizing that it wasn’t just the Germans and the Russians who raped Poland. In September 1939 when the country was invaded first from the west by the Germans and then from the east by the Russians, Poland’s allies – Great Britain and France – did not lift a finger. They were powerless; they could only let the invaders have their way.

With its low plains, Poland had always been an easy target for armies to march across. Napoleon certainly took advantage of that. And its geopolitical location between three greedy empires (Austro-Hungary, Russia and Germany) made it a tempting target. Thus in 1795 Poland became the tragic victim of its geography and topography. It was divided into pieces, like a cake, between Austria, Germany and Russia. Only at the end of the First World War did it reappear on the map as a sovereign nation.

In 1939 the German National Socialist regime was determined, once and for all, to quash Polish identity. One element of that was leveling Warsaw. In their perception, that would destroy their national identity. By 1945, 90% of Warsaw had been bombed and burned out. But they underestimated the will of the people to stay Polish, as evidenced by their final uprising in the summer of 1944. They went down but they went down fighting.

 Warsaw reborn_0002

Aerial view of a city devastated

 

During the war, the Polish government was in exile in London; Polish troops fought side-by-side with the British, French, Americans, Canadians and others. What remained of their airforce flew with the RAF. They fought bravely and believed when the war was won that they would get their country back.

At Yalta, a seaside town in then (and now once again!) Russian Crimea, in February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin set the framework for the post-war political landscape of Europe. Poland was already occupied by Russia. The western allies, again, did not have enough strength to counter Stalin’s drive to secure his sphere of influence. Poland was left to Stalin. The rest is, obviously, history. My conclusion: Poland was f***ked, repeatedly, not only by her enemies but also by those she thought her friends.

Let’s hope and pray that the USA, within the scope of the NATO alliance, does in fact, this time, defend Poland and the other former Iron Curtain countries from Vladimir Putin’s latest version of Russian egomania and paranoia, should this become necessary. The rest of western Europe must move on from its tentative measures and show more backbone. For with one eye on 20th century history, it is easy to understand the nervous twitch from which Poland and her eastern neighbors are lately suffering.

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Filed under Cities, Fiction and Other Truths, German History, Great Britain, Holocaust, Politics, Remembering

Buffalo, New York – Armpit of the East?

Trimmed with art-deco

  Buffalo’s art-deco City Hall stands proud on the skyline

Today your intrepid blogger is checking in with you from her hometown, Buffalo, New York. Situated on Lake Erie, Buffalo was once home to prosperous steel, car and flour milling industries. It succumbed to the changing fortunes of those manufacturers, caused by the rise of new technologies and foreign competition.

The city was relegated, along with many other American cities, to the ranks of the Rust Belt. It became the brunt of endless jokes, my favorite (if I’m allowed one) comes up in the musical A Chorus Line. When one of the dancers confesses that when living in Buffalo, he was so depressed he considered killing himself. But he soon realized:  Committing suicide in Buffalo was redundant.

This is my first visit “home” in about 16 years and it’s given me the opportunity to counter some of this bad press. Buffalo ain’t what it used to be. It’s bouncing back, re-creating itself in a 21st century incarnation that will – hopefully – equip it for sustained growth in this still-young millennium.

Today I had the privilege of being taken on a guided tour by a native Buffalonian Booster who showed us where the city was heading.  And I am talking about serious inner-city redevelopment. Our guide, Peter Z, told us the mantra is Med/ Ed.

Several world-reknowned medical research enterprises have led the way by building state-of-the-art facilities in Buffalo’s city center. The University of Buffalo is boldly following suit and also moving its medical campus downtown. The face of the city is being tranformed.

Introducing students to the area – moving them in from the suburban campuses – brings in fresh young blood. It’s not unknown for students from elsewhere to graduate and stay to settle down in there newly acquired hometown.

These developments reflect the daunting challenge facing every city in every country in the developed world: demographics. A population increasingly suffering from diseases that typically afflict the ageing will require more medical facilities and research to better fight those ailments. Jobs in the medical care professions are bound to proliferate.

As we cruised along streets lined with old factories, we were confronted by buildings impressively rejuvenated to house offices and lofts and the amenities needed to serve the inhabitants. There are still many more properties requiring the same treatment, but the word on the street is that real estate prices are rising as we speak.

Meanwhile down on the waterfront, the decaying harbor facilities necessary for Buffalo’s once-thriving industrial life are being aggressively replaced by water-side promenades and gardens to create leisure options for all of those professionals now working – and even living – downtown.

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NO MORE ARMPIT

Optimism is the word to describe the smell of the air in Buffalo these days. Although it may still have a long road to travel to regain its former glory and affluence, the city is well on its way. I wish it well on its odyssey.

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Filed under Beginnings, Cities