O Tannenbaum!

Nestled in the flat I’m in creative mode as a forest of Origami Tannenbäume, or Christmas trees, have appeared on the kitchen table. Germany is famous for its forests, and also for inventing Christmas trees, with the Protestant reformer Martin Luther adding lights to one after being inspired by a starry night.

Nürnberg the Toytown

Although Nuremberg (Nürnberg) is often associated with a nasty period in history, there is another far brighter association. Several museums show that before Hitler’s exploitations Nuremburg was a place of optimism, even joy. It was once a strategic trading town in the middle of Europe. It is also a city which celebrates the innovation and manufacture of toys, as I found out at the city’s excellent toy museum. I remember as a child playing with our German-made Märklin train set. On cold December days such as these the old town quarter has a toy-town fairytale feel to it, especially with the Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Market) now up and running. Fröhliche Weihnachten!

Puzzling Times

Well here in Berlin and probably in many another capital around the world all eyes are fixed on the United Kingdom tonight. Big Ben is being watched, as I was reminded when I saw a German jigsaw puzzle of the same by the till in my local supermarket. Are these puzzling times nearly over?


While in Britain we see accusations of religious prejudice in politics, here in Germany there are ways of preventing it at ground level. Its prevention is literally engraved on the streets. I’ve only got to walk outside the front door and a few metres away there are two Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, embedded in the pavement. They are small brass-plated concrete cubes inscribed with the names of (many Jewish) victims who were murdered at the hands of the Nazis. There are over 8000 of these stones around Berlin. The effect is to make you say every day: ‘never again’ and ‘zero tolerance’.

The Czech Connection

When we travel abroad and are lucky enough to see different places we often develop a special fondness for a special place. For me it is the Czech and Slovak Republics, generated when, as a young kid, I saw Czechoslovakia’s Antonin Panenka score the most audacious penalty in the European Football Championship final in 1976 (they won). I never looked back: I later learnt the Czech language, worked in the Czech Republic, studied Czech and Slovak history, met the Czech Republic’s first President, and made Czech friends. It is a special moment today because it is the 30th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. Which foreign place do you have a strong connection with? We can learn so much about ourselves and others when we take on another culture.

1989: The Gethsemane Effect

The more I think about it the more I can see how the Church played a significant part in the 1989 Revolutions thirty years ago. It was a close-run thing, with Communist leaders in the whole region hesitant to know what to do with more and more people moving onto the streets. The Church played a part in maintaining discipline among the people, anxious not to provoke counter-measures. At the very geopolitical centre of the Cold War in Berlin, the Gethsemane Church in Prenzlauerberg acted as a cool nerve-centre (if it can be called that), presided by the pastor Werner Widrat. Their slogan: ‘keep watch and pray’. Which is exactly what Christ did in Gethsamene. Here presently in front of the church is a statue of Christ that had previously stood vulnerable and alone in the death zone between the infamous walls. Humility won the day.

Tear Down This Wall!

Around the world there are many walls and barriers going up. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. And it has stayed down. There is a genuine sense of openness among the city-dwellers. In order to get the attention of shoppers in the uber-trendy Berlin shopping mall, a remarkable exhibition marking 30 years since the Fall of the Wall has been laid on (as in other places around the city). You can get into a Trabant (as we did) and view in virtual reality what it was like to go through Checkpoint Charlie. And there are hitherto unseen photographs of people walking through Brandenburg Gate the moment the border guards turned a blind eye on that cold November night (remember people rarely carried around cameras in those days). And a reminder of Big Brother: a picture of an East German Stasi (secret police) report on movements of people at the moment of freedom. All this a warning to the world not to slip into bad habits.

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