Monday, June 25, 2007

A theme song in a popular kids show when I was growing up showed a hand puting out a burning candle with bare fingers; that line said "You too can change the end of the play". Ever since then, using my fingers to put out candle flames was something I craved and feared. When years later I found myself living in a house without electricity not far from the Thames, I cherished the opportunity to practice this art. I discovered that like in many things, if you falter, it will hurt. If you believe in yourself, do it quick and with determination, you won't get burnt. (Although licking your fingers before also helps). As my life was changing course and I was embracing a more precarious but also more rewarding form of existence , being able to put out the flames before going to sleep made me feel that I was not only handling the situation but also making it into an empowering exprience.

During my recent power breakdown I realized that being empowered not only means being able to deal with difficult circumstances but also not to get addicted to them. I didn't mind not having hot water for the last year, and living with limited - or no - supply of electricity, but life without daylight was too much. It made my body ache and my spirit low. Squatting is not a purpose in itself; it is not a trench i have to deffend. It was useful for me when I had no money to pay rent; even more useful to develop my thinking, it threw me into unexpected corners from which many former beliefs looked far less obvious; it helped me make many friends and learn about solidarity in a city that is too often alienating and lonely. But clinging on to squatting when it was doing me harm was sentimental. These are the final months of my thesis writing, a long last push of a four years journey. It was good to realise that I cared about this project and that it is something I wanted to put first. Once I have made up my mind, and was content to - god forbid - pay rent, life produced its usual magic, dropping pieces in unexpected places... And so, a new beginning.

Monday, June 18, 2007

5 Comments from Berlin

1. The line of Ortlieb bicycle panniers in Berlin includes not only the red, black, yellow and green popular in London, but also silver and - my new favourite - orange.

2. Bagels - New York style, filled with cheese, and salmon - are all the rage in Berlin, served in the student cafes and in art galleries. P says that's a new development. Personally, I'm not too keen on bagels, unless its past midnight and I'm near the cheap 24 hour Brick Lane bagel shop: their bagels are very filling. But it's not something I grew up eating: unlike other Jewish East European foods, bagels never made it to Israel, that is until the 1990s and globalisation, when New York bagel shops started appearing. There are, of course, the Jerusalem bagels of the old city, but they are something completely different (I still have to find the history behind them) tastier - thinner, long and crispy, they are eaten with Zaatar (tyme, sesame, salt). - Pretsel, however, is a long tradition in Germany; strangely, they spell it Bretzel.

New York Bagel

Jerusalem Bagel

3. Cliches about Germany made me expect the train loudspeaker announcement to be delivered in a shrill and aggressive man's voice, ending with a stamping of his shiny boots. I was surprised to hear a woman's voice, almost whispering the names of the stations in the most seductive tone one can imagine. Sexier than any underground announcements I've ever heard, including Madrid.

4. The gap in the heart of Berlin, the legacy of the cold war, is still not quite filled. Construction work is largely over, but something still has to sink in, to take its shape. All the buildings - new or renovated - seem too clean. In former East Berlin, history was cleared away with the soot, and the result is somewhat contrived. Maybe it is yet too early, and things will congeal and flow. At the moment, like all large nationalistic projects of regeneration, there is still too many facades, and too little to bring them together.

5. It was my first time to Berlin and yet the city felt very familiar. Partly it's the modernist architecture which reminds me of Tel Aviv. But a lot of this familiarity is because of the beautiful children books of Erich Kästner which I read dozens of times as a child. Kästner's world of sausages restaurants, trams and cafes, and little boys who travel on the train to Berlin, was an fantasy land of which we knew nothing but could, somehow, imagine. These books are probably the reason for the dejavu feeling I had swimming in the small lake in the centre of a city park, and eating fried fish and Kartoffelsalat while standing by the bar in a west Berlin Deli-supermarket. There is more to say about that lost Europe and its resonance in a Israeli childhood.

Emil und die Detektive, in Hebrew

Like a voice trying to speak after a long gap in the conversation, life now trembles slightly, learning to live with its own sound which it had forgotten in the caesura. A wall of red bricks through a large, large window: daylight, and rain, and a woman on the opposite balcony, checking the laundry, holding her hands together. A new temporariness, a new room. A London estate.

Last night I still slept in my sleeping bag, like I always do in the first few days of a new house. The makeshift bed with its familiar synthetic feel is anchoring and comforting. Beginnings are always haphazard and tenuous, and all I have (the books, the olive oil, the red lentils) is still there. Time to start again.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

We were approaching the end of the class, laying our bodies on the floor, closing our eyes and waiting to relax. The dusk light tiptoed into the room but the noise from the other room was becoming unbearable. The teacher spoke.

Distraction and outside noise can be used as a useful tool. What is the point in trying to achieve mental calm if it can only be found in perfectly relaxing circumstances? we would like to be able to find peace in real life. You should not aim to block out the disturbing factor, but rather - simply - to ignore it, and focus on what is important, in this case, your breathing.

This is how I often thought about my experiences in recent years. Living under the threat of eviction in unusual cirtcumstances (no sewage, no electricity and no hot water) is challenging and taught me many practical skills. But the main skill - the one I hope to take with me as I leave the twilight zone and move out of my philosopher-squatters cave - is the ability find inner calm in the face of debilitating anxieties.