Berlin - In his epic novel Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Lately, I’ve come to realise that the same can be said about coronavirus: those who are now free from virus restrictions share a unique post-pandemic joy (looking at you, New Zealand), but lockdown somehow manages to find ways to make life uniquely rubbish for everyone still having to live at the behest of Covid-19.
Although I count myself very lucky to be able to live in my own place, meaning I don’t have to deal with demon flatmates or the extra demands parents face of juggling home school and work, that doesn’t make other aspects of lockdown any easier. I’ve had few opportunities to make new friends here. Having moved during the pandemic, socialisation in the office is now a rare occurrence, and I don’t know when I’ll next get to see my family or friends at home in the UK. Things can get pretty lonely sometimes.
I’m often relieved to be dealing with this phenomenon in Germany, rather than in the UK. Back home, our standard conversation opener of: “How are you?” – “Oh fine, how are you?” – “Yeah, fine” - is a call and response etched into our national muscle memory. In my experience from recent conversations, when Germans ask how you are, it’s a genuine question asked with interest in the answer. That makes it a lot easier to be open and honest, to unburden yourself a little, and to help you feel a bit less on your own.
In short, the ability to speak directly is something I’ve come to appreciate lately as lockdown drags on. It’s something that’s been celebrated in the last week in the tributes paid to the legendary Berlin artist and singer Françoise Cactus and her uncompromising work, after she passed away aged 57. The book and film Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo wouldn’t hold the place they do within German culture without their unflinching approach to portraying 1970s Berlin’s shadowy underworld – we’ll see if the new remake does the same.
Taking a direct approach has also been deployed to more comic and mildly ridiculous effect this week first by the mystery person who is suspected to have dumped salt on a Friedrichshain toboggan run popular with kids, hypothetically to spoil their fun and keep the noise down. That was followed by the police helicopters that descended on the lake at Weissensee to tell people to get off the ice for their own safety. See a problem, deal with it in the most straightforward if clumsiest way possible – that’s German efficiency.
Germany’s most senior politicians have rarely shied away from delivering the harsh realities in conveying how (badly) our pandemic stats are going, even if that doesn’t leave much room for optimism. Yet it’s the stories of the valued community spaces and cherished small businesses that cut through the noise and really bring home the impact of the pandemic – and the question of how well it’s been handled.
We continued Berliner Zeitung’s series this week on the local favourites hit hard during the pandemic on a visit to Kreuzberg’s Oya, which has barely been able to open since its new management took over just before lockdown, but has still established itself as a valued centrepoint for the local queer and BIPOC community. It’s hard to imagine what Berlin would look like if places like it went under on a broad scale. An honest conversation about the post-pandemic prospects of small, independent establishments in Berlin and across Germany might be a bit more difficult to prise from our leaders.
But the main story on our minds today reminds us how essential it is to directly confront uncomfortable issues that mustn’t be suppressed. Many Germans today are better than previous generations at being able to critically confront the dark parts of their national history, as Maurice Frank explored in a personal essay this week. But as we remember the victims of the racist shooting in Hanau one year ago today, we should heed the words of their grieving families – racism is a real problem in German society, one that needs to be confronted head-on with meaningful action, and acknowledged much more openly than it has been by those not affected by it every day.
In the case of the uncomfortable truths that are proved more by listening to each other than by scientific data curves, it’s here that honesty and directness matters most of all.