Friday, 27 February 2015

Berlin to Łódź 2013: Day 2

world-map berlin

Greetings!

Whilst the real world has seen me exploring the French capital lately, in cyberspace this week’s posting is all about the German one. In our offering today, Mike and I explore the delights of Berlin, perhaps not the prettiest city on earth but definitely one of the most interesting. This visit however, was not my first: aside from a brief pass through in 2003, I spent an amazing three days there in 2007, the account of which can be found here and which is, incidentally, the most visited post on Uncle Travelling Matt. So check that out as well as my two V-logs of this trip.

V-log 9: East to West Berlin

V-log 10: Berlin

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

And also check out my 2007 Berlin travelogue!

berlin tourist map

germany-poland-map 1

DAY 2

The next morning we breakfasted German-style on pastry and coffee and then took the train back into the centre of the city. This visit to the German capital was to be a bit of a whistle-stop tour as our train to Poland was scheduled to leave late in the afternoon but that didn't bother me particularly as I had pretty much blitzed – pun intended – the city back in 2007. There was however, one sight that I still wanted to see and so we headed for Alexanderplatz, once the heart of East Berlin.

Alexanderplatz had changed in the intervening six and a half years since my previous visit. Back then it had been a vast, grey, dismal, windswept and rain-drenched plaza of astonishing dreariness, topped off by a feature clock that would struggle to look good in Milton Keynes. Now, whilst perhaps not one of the continent's more memorable urban spaces, it was cheerier, brighter, busier and the sun was shining. Only the clock remained to remind me of past awfulness. It was still crap.

B2L04Alexanderplatz: Crap Clock

But we hadn't alighted at Alexanderplatz to admire the concrete, but instead I wanted to check out the one place that I hadn't managed to fit in on my 2007 city tour. The Fernsehturm (TV tower) is, at 365m high, the second tallest structure in Europe and a well-known symbol of the city. It was East Germany's proud boast of its modernity to the West, (from where it was clearly visible), but the gesture backfired since the sunlight reflected on the panels at the top to form a cross. The locals dubbed it “The Pope's Revenge”. Proud proletarian statement it may have been, but I was dismayed to see the entry price of €13, something that this old prole could not afford. So, after mooching round the shop in its base, Mike and I left that Berlin box unticked and continued on our way.

B2L05Fernsehturm

I decided to take Mike on a walking tour of some of the highlights of the capital which was all new to him, so we headed down past the Marienkirche and impressive Rotes Rathaus to the wonderfully East German Marx-Engels Forum where sits one of my favourite statues in the whole world. I say that because not only does it feature the two granddaddies of the Left, but they are arranged in such a way – Engels standing on the right, then Marx sitting – that it seems designed for a third to join them – you! - and if you do stand by Marx then because they are so much larger than life – in more ways than one – then the downward pattern is maintained. However, here too, changes had taken place and for no apparent reason they'd been moved 180 degrees from their former position with the Palast der Republik as a backdrop so that they now face the building site that that great eyesore once occupied. And I don't know why, but that bothered me somehow, as if some great act of disrespect had been committed.

B2L06Three Great Socialists

The Palast der Republik was the home of the East German parliament; an immense concrete monstrosity nicknamed Erichs Lampladen (Erich's Lamp Shop), due to the hundreds of lamps hanging from the ceiling of the main foyer and Erich Honecker being the resident dictator. Back in 2007 it had been an empty shell, condemned due to asbestos, but now it had been completely razed to the ground and work was underway on constructing an exact replica of the building that was demolished to make way for it: the Stadtschloss, the old imperial palace of Prussia. I need hardly say that, despite my left-leaning sympathies, I approve heartily although the least said the better about the Humboldt Box, an abstract angular piece of post-modern dross that temporarily occupies part of the site. Still, at least it is temporary and what was better, connected to the institution was a series of information boards detailing the lives of famous dead Berliners, most of the Jewish or socialist.

Over the Spree and we were now on the Unter den Linden, Berlin's most famous thoroughfare along which most of its finest building are located. Last time I visited I attended Holy Communion in the magnificent Berliner Dom to our right and then I'd visited the Pergamon Museum which is behind it and which I consider to be up there with the best two or three museums in the world. But Berlin has an amazing selection of museums and so this time I decided to hit another of them. Whilst the Pergamon is an exposition of all things Ancient and Classical from Greek temples to the Blue Gates of Babylon, the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) charts, as its name suggests, the history of the German nation. Mike and I thus spent the next few hours exploring all things Deutsch, from the Pagan forest-dwelling tribes who fought the Romans to the Thirty Years' War, the Battle of Austerlitz, industrialisation and then, of course, the chaos of World War II and the divided country that emerged from its ashes. It was fascinating and it would have been the ideal introduction to an extended tour of the country. Alas though, our train out was that afternoon. Oh well, next time...

B2L08Deutsches Historisches Museum

We continued our walk along Unter den Linden, stopping for some traditional Berliner sustenance at a currywurst stall before ending up in Pariser Platz in front of the Brandenburger Tor, the symbol of the city that once stood right beside the Wall which so cruelly divided it. Taking photos there we fell into conversation with an American couple who were touring Europe – and were most surprised and impressed when we told them how little we pay for flights in Europe – and then watched a rowdy demonstration by a large group of people waving Kurdish flags and complaining about some specific injustice which seemed to relate to political prisoners in Iraq.

B2L09By the Brandenburg Gate

B2L10The protesters by the gate

Walking on, we then checked out my favourite Berlin landmark, the eerie Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Now, generally speaking, abstract public art does little for me, this one really is the exception to the rule. Built to (superficially) resemble the Jewish cemetery in Prague, you enter it feeling that it is much like a normal cemetery, except that the “graves” are blank and, on the extreme periphery of the work, set into the pavement. But as you progress walking between them, before you know it, you are engulfed by the monument and those “graves”, formerly only waist height, now tower above you, closing in, suffocating you. You are now in the midst of a hellish maze and to me it conveys as well as any art can how most Jews did not fully realise what was coming with the advent of Nazism – the rumours can't be true, they wouldn't really kill us, those stories of camps are exaggerated, we can always emigrate, this will pass, we are too useful to them – until it was too late and they were cast into the nightmare of the Holocaust with little or no hope of ever getting out.

B2L11Mike at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews

We finished our quick walking tour of the German capital at the redeveloped Potsdamer Platz where a section of the Berlin Wall still remains for tourists like us to stand next to and have their photos taken. We however, were far more taken by the impressive Sony Centre, a large circular courtyard with a tent-like roof and glass-covered buildings which reflect the multitude of angles spectacularly. I lay on my back on a bench and photographed and videoed it for it was well worth savouring.

B2L12Reflections in the glass, Sony Centre, Potsdamer Platz

Our time now limited and our feet sore, we jumped on the U-bahn to make one more stop. Mike had now seen a lot of the old East Berlin but nothing of the West, so we headed over to Kurfürstendamm, once the heart of the old capitalist enclave. To be fair though, the Osters had the best of it for there's not a lot to see save for an impressive array of sex emporia which are always worth a look around if only to broaden the mind – if you can think of it, there's a fetish devoted to it somewhere – before then heading to Kurfürstendamm's main railway station, Zoologischer Garten, in order to purchase our onward tickets to Poznań.

Except that there we hit a problem. On the internet I'd sourced the train times and found there to be one, very conveniently, at 16:29. upon investigation however, it transpired that this train did not in fact, exist: DB had not updated their website since 2009 (how very un-German!). However, there was a train leaving the Hauptbahnhof at 15:37, just half an hour or so away, so we got our tickets and jumped onto the next train up-track to Berlin's new central station.

I'd visited – and been bowled over by – Berlin's new Hauptbahnhof back in 2007. Then it had not just been new, but very new indeed, officially opened only the year before. I'd reached it then by walking across a wasteland of undeveloped real estate lots, the legacy of the area being the no-man's land in-between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. Now most of those lots are filled with towering office blocks and its title of 'Central' seems a little more justified. It is, unlike so many railway stations built since the Second World War, a station worth departing from with its enormous glass overall roof and layers of railways all running on top of one another. Back on my last visit I'd caught a local stopper service for Charlottenburg from there, a journey of only a couple of miles, but today we were doing the grand terminal justice by boarding the international express bound for Gdańsk and our destination – Poznań Główny – was a respectable three hours distant. So, climbing onto the white PNR coach, a currywurst each in hand, we said goodbye to Berlin and looked forwards to pastures new.

The journey to Poznań however, was not quite what I had anticipated. You'd expect Berlin, capital of the most populous and powerful nation in Europe,[1] to be like London and Paris, to be swamped by mile after mile of bland middle-class suburbs. But no, almost as soon as we were out of the centre, we plunged into a vast forest that lasted not only up until the Polish border, but a good way into Poland itself. It was dense and primeval and it made one rethink one's perceptions of Germany as this über-developed people-heavy land. But then again, we often forget that Germany is not like Britain and France just as Berlin is neither Paris nor London. Up until as recent as 1870 the country existed as a concept only and even today – in a process exacerbated by the traumatic post-war split into two states – the country is far less centralised than the other two great European powers. Berlin may be its capital, but the dominant West's government was situated in Bonn until 1990, the industrial powerhouse has always been the distant Rhine-Rühr conurbation, Munich is undoubtedly the boss in the south whilst Frankfurt-am-Main is the financial centre.

We soon passed through Frankfurt, but not the money-drenched one. Frankfurt-an-der-Oder is now the last city in Germany and as we rattled over the Oder River which gives it its name, we passed into Polish territory. However, things have not always been so and traditionally Germany has been more easterly situated than it is today. Prior to 1945, large swathes of what is now Poland was German territory and indeed the Prussian capital Berlin was chosen as the administrative heart of the new German Empire in 1870 primarily because it was geographically at the heart of the new entity. Even a cursory glance at the map today shows us that this is no longer the case. For centuries much of Western Poland has had a large German population and many of its urban centres were Germanised and had German names: Poznań – Posen; Gdańsk – Danzig; Szczecin – Stettin and Wrocław – Breslau. In moves not often talked about but still felt keenly by many Germans, the border was shifted to the Oder giving Poland East Prussia and most of Pomerania and Silesia in compensation for territory that the USSR annexed off it in the east. And with the shift in borders also came a shift in people. By 1950 between twelve and fourteen million ethnic Germans were forcibly uprooted from their homes in Central and Eastern Europe, often places where their families had lived for centuries, and resettled within Germany. The number from Poland alone was seven million. How many were killed in the process is up for debate. There are 473,000 confirmed deaths and some estimates talk of two million although the most accepted seems to be that of the Deutsches Historisches Museum which gives a figure of around 600,000. whatever the truth, one thing is for sure: wandering around the region between Berlin, Kaliningrad, Lvov and Budapest can often be a very sobering experience for much of the literature, art, culture, industry and architecture of those places was the product of two peoples conspicuous by their absence: the Germans and the Jews.[2]

B2L13Crossing the Oder, the (present day) border between Germany and Poland

If the journey to Poznań was a little contrary to expectations, the arrival was even more so. We drew into the dingy confines of Główny (Central) Station – as good an example of what modern architecture shouldn't be as Berlin Hauptbahnhof is of what it should – and then made the short walk to our pre-booked accommodation, Pension Xantier (PLN99 p/n). Except that when we rang the bell, there was no answer. So we knocked on the door. Still no answer. So Mike called the number on the booking confirmation. And we heard the phone ringing in the office, but, unsurprisingly, no one picked it up. Stumped, we waited, then we waited some more, then we went to the shop and then we came back to wait some more. And then, just as we were about to leave and seek alternative accommodation, a girl arrived. She didn't speak any English, but was dashed pretty which at least made up for our inconvenience a little. However, she wasn't the owner of the hotel, nor even did she work there. She was, I discovered through the fog of several Slavic tongues, sort-of living in the hotel and sort-of a friend of the guy who sort-of owned it. Nonetheless, all these “sort ofs” equalled one definite which was his mobile number which she duly rang for us and he promised to get down to us prompto and asked if his sort-of live in friend could sort-of open the room up for us. The question was, why hadn't he been there himself?

Hmm... it seems like he'd sort-of closed the hotel for the winter and most definitely forgot that he'd received an internet booking.

And so, after dropping off our bags, we were finally able to start exploring the second of our three cities. We walked into the heart of Poznań as the sun went down and ended up where every tourist does, the breath-taking Stary Rynek (literally “Old market, i.e. the central square), where, ensconced in one of the cobbleside bars, we toasted our return to the Land of the White Eagle, the country which we had enjoyed so much the year before, and then sat back to ogle the stunning mediaeval architecture and the even more captivating Polish women who passed by on their evening strolls.

 


[1]I exclude Russia and Turkey since they're mostly in Asia.

[2]I explore the subject of Eastern Europe’s missing Germans and their legacy in far more depth in my travelogue 'The Missing Link' where I meet one of the few survivors, Anton Bremer, an ethnic German in Northern Romania.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Berlin to Łódź 2013: Day 1

world-map berlin

Greetings!

Just returned from a great few days in Paris, doing all the standard things that a sightseer must do in that city on their first visit. Eiffel Tower climbed, Notre Dame checked out, the only thing left undone was a visit to the Louvre (time ran out) although I did get my photo snapped by the glass pyramid. Anyway, more on that trip later when I get round to writing it up.

DSC00373

In the meantime, we’ll be leaving Japan for a while and starting a new travelogue, one which records the short break that I took in the autumn of 2013 when we travelled from Berlin to Łódź in Poland checking out some of the interesting sights on the way. Hope you like it.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

And also check out my 2007 Berlin travelogue!

INTRODUCTION

Back in 2003 I took a trip. Along with my brother we journeyed by rail from Varna in Bulgaria to Zierikzee in the Netherlands. The trip was significant for me since it physically linked the Balkans where I had been living and which I knew well with the Netherlands which I also knew intimately and which I had already travelled to by land (and a little bit of sea) from my home country. Eastern Europe to Western Europe, the evolution of one familiar part of the world into another, through half a dozen countries virtually or completely unknown to me. And it was a good trip, a fun trip, but as we raced from capital to capital, I felt that I was missing something, I was only getting a taster, a superficial experience of this unknown region once referred to as Mitteleuropa. So when I returned to the UK back in 2005, I decided to get underneath the surface a bit more and go back to explore more of those places that I'd merely passed through on our great railway journey. In 2007 I went to Berlin, the city where we'd literally got off one train in Zoologischer Garten station and jumped onto another so fed up were we by then of capitals, and then in 2008 I took a trip around Slovakia before finally, in 2012, I linked up that 2003 trip with my other great train adventure, closing the Missing Link between Konotop in Ukraine and Bucharest and in the process exploring a lot of Romania and Moldova.

In 2012 though, I also went on another, much shorter, European expedition, a few days in and around Kraków. This time I travelled with Mike, a colleague from work. It was my first trip to Poland and I discovered another country very much to my taste buds. So, when Mike suggested jetting off east again, who was I to disagree, albeit under one proviso: that I could link it to my other journeyings, to see exactly how Poland fits into the glorious European jigsaw.

DAY 1

Berlin Schönefeld was familiar territory and it hadn't changed much since my last visit six years earlier. We left the terminal with our light bags and took the S-bahn into the centre. I must admit, I like that introduction to Berlin as the S-bahn traverses where the wall once stood and you get a panorama of East to West. This time I took out my camera and filmed from Alexanderplatz through to Zoologischer Garten, a journey which now takes just over ten minutes but, when my dad did it in the 1970s, lasted several hours and involved several customs and passport checks. Well, at least mankind has moved forward in some areas.

We got off at Charlottenburg where the map on the internet had told me our hotel was, but then we hit a problem as it clearly wasn't there at all and even my back-up option of going to the hotel where I'd stayed in 2007 – which was right by the station – was a no-go as that place had gone upmarket in the intervening years and was well beyond our price range. Ever resourceful, we headed into a corner shop and asked for a map, but even that didn't help as Gürtelstraße, the street in the hotel's address, was nowhere to be found, even in the index. The lady behind the counter wanted to help but she spoke no English and my German consists entirely of phrases garnered from war films watched with my granddad as a kid. I suspected that 'Achtung!', 'Mein Gott!' and 'Heil Hitler!' might not be much use here, but then a chance encounter saved us: a customer entered to buy some cigarettes and spoke to our host in Russian which she was, apparently, fluent in. Realising that we now had something approaching a common tongue after all, we had a discussion in some sort of vague Slavic about our predicament and discovered that Friedrichshain – the district where the hotel was located – was in fact off the map, and so, things sorted, we headed off deep into the suburbs of what was once East Berlin and there, just off a crossroads that could have been in Kiev, Krakow or Krasnoyarsk, opposite an election poster of Angela Merkel[1] that had been imaginatively defaced to give her devil eyes, we found the Hostel Georghof, our cheap[2] sleep for the night which was surreally housed in a former office block, our twin room perhaps being the HR department for some middling Berlin sales company only a few years before.

D2L03Angela Merkel: Would you vote for this woman…?

That evening we had an appointment to keep. Not with a local, but with a bona fide resident of the German capital. Like London, Paris and a dozen other world cities, Berlin is an international place and Dzhilbert was a product of this. I got to know him fifteen years earlier when he was living in a sleepy little town in Northern Bulgaria and studying in the local university. Since then he's studied further in more illustrious establishments and then lived in various cities across Europe and Asia whilst following a successful career in finance. I hadn't seen him since 2008 when we'd caught up in Budapest at the end of my Slovakia trip, but in the meantime I'd visited his mum and dad in Bulgaria and he'd met my mother-in-law in far flung Vietnam. It was time to meet up.

We made our rendezvous outside Hackescher Markt railway station – one of the prettier in Berlin – and after introductions made our way to our dining venue. The area around Hackescher Markt had been notable during my last visit for the large number of girls walking around wearing very tight corsets. I'd later learnt that they were all prostitutes and that it was the main red light district, but regardless of this, as a man who has always admired the corseted female form, they were a pleasant visual distraction. Sadly, this time they were only notable by their absence. Have street-walking fashions changed or had the area been cleaned up?

I'd deliberately kept our dinner venue as a surprise from Mike, (Dzhilbert had heard about it before), and whilst he knew that something was up, he hadn't enough Deutsch to translate its name: Unsicht Bar. This was a place that I'd read about back in 2004, tried to visit in 2007 – it had been fully booked up – and made sure not to miss this time around. Unsicht Bar – the name translates roughly as “No Sight Bar” - is operated and staffed completely by blind Berliners and it gives diners a chance to explore their world. After ordering from the ambiguous menu in the reception area, you are then led to your table by your own personal waiter/waitress and you dine in the dark. Mike certainly hadn't expected that, (I think he'd been anticipating something a little kinkier – if only the corsets had been out on display!), but he, along with Dzhilbert, was up for a new experience. The question is though, how was it? Well, they say that the lack of sight enhances the other senses and so the taste buds should be amongst them and I must say, the food that we were served was damned tasty, although whether that would have been the case if it were served “normally” I cannot say. What struck me more however, was how our personal interactions changed. With no sight to rely on, our conversation became more muted as we were more aware of the volume of our speech and also there was no talking over one another, instead we naturally fell into a pattern of taking turns. Also noticeable was how difficult it was to actually find your food on the plate and to know when you're finished. Finally, there was a worrying feeling of dependency which I have not felt since childhood. Whenever you wanted anything you had to call for your waitress by name and then just hope that she heard and would come soon. Without her you were as helpless as a baby.

B2L01The weird and wonderful menu at Unsicht Bar

After Unsicht Bar we had a couple of beers in a bar by Hackescher Markt station where I caught up further with Dzhilbert, and then we made our separate ways, Mike and I heading back to Hostel Georghof where we bought a load more beers from the proprietor and then drank away the first night of our mini-break in our strange office with beds in it.

D2L02Beers with Dzhilbert

Next part: Day 2


[1]Elections were only a few week's hence and Merkel was comfortably in the lead. On a personal level though, I struggle to see why anyone would be tempted to vote for her but then again, I'm neither German nor right-wing which could explain it. Nonetheless, from the graffiti viewed on display in Berlin, I suspect that many of the locals would agree with me.

[2]€32 p/n

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Japanese Musings XIII: Valentine’s Day

world-map osawano

Greetings!

A topical post this week when, on that day for lovers everywhere, I explore how the Japanese celebrate… and money make… St. Valentine’s Day.

And in keeping with the romantic theme, I’m off to the City of Love myself this Tuesday, Paris here I come! Can’t wait.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japan_map

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

Japanese Musings XII: Engrish

Japanese Musings XIII: Valentine’s Day

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

Japanese Musings XIII: Valentine’s Day

heartwarmy

Last week included of course that infamous day of the year, feared by millions, known as Saint Valentine's Day. Quite who Saint Valentine ever was and what he actually did I haven't a clue, though I would take an educated guess that it was completely unrelated to the lovey-dovey crap that his day now symbolises, and I'm also sure that he turns in his grave every February 14th, in repentance of all the unhappiness caused to the permanently single in his name.

Year upon year however I have the arduous task of going down to the Post Office and arranging to have my Valentine's mail delivered by truck and apologising in advance for the extra-workload placed upon the shoulders of the good postmen and women in the locality. Ok, so that's not entirely true, in fact the opposite is the case, that is until this year when I received a grand total of three (yes, three!) cards on Vallies Day, which I proudly displayed on my work desk.

Actually 'received' is a wee bit of a strong work, I actually had to go into town to pick two of them up beforehand, but nonetheless they were all made by someone other than myself, and without payment to the individual in question, so who's complaining? Not me that's for sure.

The reason why this particular Valentine's Day was such an unmitigated (and unprecedented) success was not due however to that annoying little cupid and his bow and arrows, instead that more practical reason entitled 'forward planning'. Several weeks before, myself and three friends were dismally contemplating another wretched Day of the Valentiney Ones, when we decided to do something about it and send cards to each other, which is a good idea indeed, despite that fact one of the ensuing results was that I received my first ever Valentines card off a bloke.

Now I suppose you are now sitting there and thinking that the whole caboodle is more than a little bit sad, but wait I beg you. For we are no longer at home and here in the Japans, Valentines Day is celebrated a wee bit differently.

Of course, as was the case with Christmas complete with Surfing Santa's and Singing Snowmen, the natives of the Land of the Rising Sun do not care one iota that Saint Valentine's Day is a celebration of a faith foreign to them, so long as it can get commercial. And indeed commercial it does get for of this special day girls must all send their beau a card and box of choccies. But not only that!! In the good old Eastern tradition of making money out of nothing at all, they must also send chocs to their colleagues, and boss, plus friends too if they've enough yen left over. In fact, did you know, that half of the chocolate bought in Japan in a year is bought for Valentine's Day?

[Fate-stay night] Illyasviel von Einzbern Saber Valentine

But what about the lads, I hear you feminists holler? Why should they get away scott free whilst their poor impoverished sisters dig deep in their pockets? Fear thee not, for precisely a month later, on March 14th, falls White Day. White Day is a day with no significance whatsoever, except that it is a month after Valentine's Day, and thus is the ideal opportunity for all the lads to buy their belles, buddies and bosses lovey dovey junk, in particular white chocolate and, (it is rumoured), lacy underwear (though maybe not for the boss)?!

white-day-1


And thus, all is fair, both sexes have yet another opportunity to waste money on tacky rubbish, and the blatant commercialism of Valentine's Day is doubled at one fell swoop! Brilliant!

So thank you to Hannah, Sandra and Conor for the cards, but unfortunately I'm not Japanese so it stops here, and you can buy your own Milky Bars on White Day!

valentines_white_day_by_yui_22-d5vt0c5

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Japanese Musings XII: Engrish

world-map osawano

Greetings!

Another Japanese Musing this week, this time on the subject of how my mother tongue can be so very elegantly butchered. Being an ESOL teacher, I’ve heard this done in many different ways over many, many years but I have to admit that these flowery examples still bring a smile to my face.

Let’s enjoy the multifarious usage of English language to enliven our joyful lives! 

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japan_map

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

Japanese Musings XII: Engrish

Japanese Musings XIII: Valentine’s Day

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

Japanese Musings XII: Engrish

One of the stranger features of Japanese life is perhaps the widespread use of what is known as ‘Engrish’. Now Engrish is a difficult concept to explain but it comes about through a widespread use of English in advertising and the existence of a population who know not what they are reading. For the Japanese I imagine, English must have a pretty cool look about it, and that’s why it is used extensively. However, since very few people speak the language, I assume that it matters not what is said, but more the appearance of the slogan.

Of course bad English usage is not limited to Japan and indeed every country produces certain hilarious language faux-pas. I remember well from my time on Corfu that the common girl’s name ‘Pippa’ is actually Greek for ‘oral sex’. This of course produced many snigger inducing moments, though perhaps the funniest overall is when Greek TV bought the rights of the Australian soap ‘Home and Away’, only to have to cancel the show after the first airing due to complaints from the virtuous public that one was the central characters had the name ‘blowjob’. Indeed, Japan provides us with many similar cases, CRAP washing powder being one of the best. However, when I refer to Engrish, I am actually talking about something entirely different. Engrish is where our Japanese friends have purposely created a slogan in English for their product that somehow is not quite right…

For example, the other day I decided to enjoy a pleasant can of coffee from a vending machine. However, Japan has more vending machines than any other country on earth, so the choice is remarkable. Which brand should I pick?

Firstly there was the slightly humorously named ‘Blendy’ coffee which is “Casual, yet rich in substance. That’s how you are, and so is Blendy.”

blendy

Hmm, casual yet rich in substance. They know me well and I must admit, I was tempted but in the end I opted for Blendy’s rival Cafe Miami. Here's why...

“We established a fine coffee

What everybody can say TASTY!

It’s fresh, so-mild, with special coffee’s bitter and sour taste

‘LET’S HAVE SUCH A COFFEE NOW!’ is our selling copy

Please love CAFE MIAMI

Many thanks”

How could I not buy it?

But of course, here in the land of commercialism and bad English combined, it doesn’t stop with coffee. How about some mineral water...?

“Moistens your body rapidly and softens your soul gently. Postonic is life for us all.”

That was Postonic water, which I of course bought after I read that it was “Newly Tastly Improved Enhanced.” What more could one ask for?

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Another pasture of creative opportunity for the slogan-maker is stationery, such as the exquisite ‘BITS’ stationery range.

“The perfect Goods to climax a happy occasion... to make any occasion happy BITS goods goes along.

MY NAME IS BITS, BORN IN JAPAN, I’M AN USEFUL AND ENJOYABLE STATIONERY. LET’S GO ALONG WITH ME!”

Or we could go Pastel Vivre....

“Pastel Vivre Notebook

The smoothness of the paper guarantees satisfaction.

The best quality goods always make you happy.

This is the most comfortable notebook you have run into.”

Or what about the auto industry for which Japan is famous? The Nissan Terrano is a must buy:

“NISSAN TERRANO is for the car enthusiast who wants to feel the beat of life in his own life.”

“Whenever and everywhere we can meet our best friend nature. Take a grip of steering, NISSAN TERRANO.”

Actually, Mother Nature features rather heavily in car slogans. Countless times have I pulled up behind a 4wd drive emblazoned with slogans urging me to ‘respect’ and ‘nurture’ Mother Nature, obviously exactly what the environmentally-conscious 4wd drivers are doing in purchasing petrol-guzzling mobiles, (such as the Nissan Terrano...).

But my favourite is this classic:

“Shining elegance

A high qualified feeling which appeals to our mind

An admirable elegance that makes us wide-eyed

Authentic elegance has an incredible power which changes the surrounding atmosphere

THIS IS SUPER!”

And what was that one found on? Well, none other than a frying pan of course!!

Of course, absolute honesty is not always necessary when creating the right slogan. A friend of mine has a “beautiful ceramic heater which provides enjoyable warmth for all, everybody.” Yet her heater is plastic.

What’s more, this Engrish phenomenon does not limit itself to advertising, another area worth looking at is that of fashion items. Just ask my friend with the ‘Erectric Killer’ T-Shirt. Other T-Shirt slogans include “My first marriage was one of convenience”; “Let’s Flesh Milk!” and the all-time classic, “Spread Beaver – Showing in vaginal area”!! Imagine these being worn by young kids, their parents oblivious to the meaning. It’s a common sight in Japan!

spreadbeaver

Why not try a snack, such as those pretzels covered in chocolate, known as “Pocky Sticks”. Of these, the finest are the mint chocolate “Men’s Pocky Sticks” (quite why they’re not suitable for women I never got), but the packet does tell us that they are intended for “the intelligent connoisseur who enjoys the finer points in life”.

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To be honest I’m getting a bit tired of it all; the continual use of words such as ‘invigorating’, ‘connoisseur’, ‘qualified’ and ‘authentic elegance’ is beginning to hurt my brain. I’ve got to relax and what more appropriate than ‘a piece of cigarette’ for you know that “complete relaxation has been attained when one enjoys a piece of cigarette”. No wonder they all smoke here!

Considering all this, myself and a few comrades decided the other day to really try and figure out the slogan-maker’s art. The answer is simple, firstly think of a good slogan in Japanese and then translate it directly without changing the grammar. Then, why not look through the dictionary for the longest words you can find and place them liberally in your slogans? Finally, to put the icing on the cake, use a few of those English phrases you were taught at school, in particular if they start with the word ‘Let’s’ and end with ‘together’. Using these principles, one can develop a whole new way of speaking.

In the pub:

A: What are you drinking?

B: I am enjoying karua milk. The creamy goodness of the milk combines with the exhilaration of the karua to produce a taste experience that is intense.

And you?

A: I’m drinking Suntory whisky. For many years the establishment of Suntory has been taken by the world as a symbol of enjoyable and quality whisky for happy consumption.

suntory-highball

Or perhaps we suggest a day out?

A: Where shall we go today?

B: Preservation of our physical health is essential to our soul harmony. Let’s enjoy onsen experience together!

A: But in the modern world the needs of the body and soul are multiples. Let’s enjoy Fabore Shopping World where quality and value produce an invigorating and wholesome shopping experience?!

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And finally, the other day I had a lesson with a rather quiet and uninterested group of students on the topic, “Why do we study English?” Not the easiest topic to teach to a group of people unlikely ever to leave Toyama-ken), an area where speaking English is hardly that useful, since you’ll be the only one who can anyway). How could I inspire them? Luckily, I had my Engrish spiel ready...

“Do you remember child hopes and dreams? To fly in the sky or enjoy Mother Nature, our best friend? Supreme life fulfilment can only be obtained if we pursue our dreams. Study with honour and happiness. Fulfil child dreams. Let’s study English together!”

 

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

world-map osawano

Greetings!

It’s been quite a week this week due to the fact that I went to the theatre on Tuesday evening to watch ‘Yizkor’, a play about a Jewish couple who got caught up in the Holocaust. It was a powerful and moving performance staged specially for Holocaust Memorial Day which falls on the 27th February, the day when Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945.

Two years ago I went to Auschwitz. You can read about my experience here and I must say that it was one of the most powerful places that I’ve ever set foot in. I don’t believe in “must-see” sights generally, but Auschwitz is the exception: everyone should be made to go there once in their life.

Yet the Holocaust was not the only genocide in history, nor even the most recent. Travelling the world one regularly comes across places where man’s inhumanity to man is, sadly, all to evident. Places like Visegrad in Bosnia or the Killing Fields of Pol Pot. All are horrific and on the 27th February each year it is only right to stop and remember them.

Last year I visited another, the memorial to the Armenian Genocide of 1915, a genocide still not recognised by many countries including, I say with the deepest shame, my own. Nor too can we only look to the past. Attitudes cause genocides and a month ago a senior British politician described Muslims as a Fifth Column inside our country. Nigel Farage was reacting to the tragic shooting of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, martyrs for free speech if ever there were, but even so, the fact that he felt he could use such words sends a shiver down my spine. That is why we must remember the Holocaust.

And not just remember also. In a few months’ time I shall be visiting somewhere quite different to the other places described. Reports state that in North Korea at this very moment there are possibly around 200,000 people incarcerated in camps not dissimilar to Auschwitz with little or no hope if liberation.

And so please, stop for a moment and spare a thought for them also.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japan_map

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

Japanese Musings XII: Engrish

Japanese Musings XIII: Valentine’s Day

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

As we plough further and further into the Brave New World that is the 21st century, it seems to us that good old capitalism is King of the World. Gone are those nasty Commies, (well except in China, where most them always were anyway, but we won’t mention them since they're our friends these days), and our money-based lifestyle is getting more and more refined. Or so it would seem, but is it? Capitalism in its advanced stage as the analysts tell us means more for the customer, and lo, we see the evidence, though price wars and customer loyalty schemes. Well, sort of right; that is to say we do in the west, but in Japan things are done a wee bit differently....

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To be fair I should have guessed when I opened my bank account. Now I don’t know what it is like with your bank, but back home upon opening a bank account one is normally presented with some sort of gift or enticement. British ones that spring to mind are free railcards for students, smiling piggy banks for kids (remember the NatWest Pigs?), CD vouchers, a walkman, etc, etc. Thus as I stepped inside the door of Hokuriku Bank, (that of Moomin fame), one sunny afternoon last July, I was bristling with excitement. I was opening a bank account, so what delight would one the foremost banks in the most technologically advanced nation in the world provide me with? A DVD player? A miniscule MD thingy? Or perhaps even a plastic Moomin moneybox, (since Moomins abound in Hokuriku Bank). We filled in the forms, cards were presented, bankbook too (the first that I’ve had in years), and then they said the magic word “Omiyagi!” (gift). An oblong box. Excitedly, I shook it, unwrapped it, opened it up, and pulled out… a green duster.

The bank lady beamed. “Omiyagi!” she repeated.

“Ta,” was all I could muster.

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A duster. Is that the best they can do? Hmm, I have two banks to choose from, one gives away a student railcard, 50 quid cash and CD vouchers, and the other a feather duster. Definitely bank with the second, I don’t think! But the thing is the other bank (the romantically titled Toyama Bank), is (I am told), just as crap, so what’s the point?

Even so, I am sorry but if I was the bank Special Offers Manager or whatever they are called, and my boss said to me, “Ok, Matto, you have approximately 300 yen (2 quid) to spend on omiyagi for the new customers, do your best!” I would certainly not think, ‘Hmm, I know, dusters, that's what will bring ’em in!’

But, to return to Hokuriku Bank, Ōsawano Branch. After the disappointment of the duster debacle I chanced to peruse around the establishment whilst endless forms were being processed. Upon the counter sat, in an exciting pyramid shape, several Moomin bags. Far better than dusters I may tell you. I decided there and then that I must have a Moomin Bag. Now, sorry to the majority of you readers here, but I must digress at this point and discuss Moomins, since it seems those Tubby Trolls have not hit many countries yet. Moomins come from Moomin Valley, which is in Finland. They are trolls, though unlike any other trolls they are a). not hairy and b). like the daylight. The principal Moomins are Moominmamma, Moominpappa, Moomintroll and Snork Maiden who I suspect (from her name) may be adopted. They have a TV show and I would like to tell you a little about what they do, except that as a kid I never quite got what was going on. Why I watched I don’t know, but I did, and garnered sod all from the experience.

moomin-family-and-friends-the-moomins-37430194-1024-768

But that was fifteen years ago, and I’ve matured a lot since then. At five my reading material consisted of Miffy Bunny (still popular in Japan) and the Mr Men. Now, I am proud to say that it is more Tolstoy and Shakespeare. So, bearing this in mind, since I was now a guy who banked with the Moomin Bank, I decided that I should learn a little more about those Finnish Friends, so I toddled off to the bookshop and purchased ‘Finn Family Moomintroll’ by Tove Jansson, the first of the Moomin Chronicles.

And after 170-odd pages I found that I had not furthered my knowledge on the Moomins at all, except that I was right as a kid, and they don’t make any sense. The stories all started with the Moomins going somewhere, meeting some weird creatures and then nothing whatsoever happening. After an uneventful day with strange animals and what not they would then go home, got to bed and thus the whole process started again. The most exciting part of the whole book was when Moomintroll floated off on a cloud (he didn't actually go anywhere on the cloud, just up and down). Hmm, right, if I were the Finnish Authorities, I would keep a discreet eye on Ms. Jansson's house since I suspect she enjoys illegal substances a wee bit too much.

But one digresses! Back to the bank and the Moomin bag. “Do they give Moomin bags away?” I asked my boss.

“No” replied he.

“What about for the kids’ accounts, do they get Moomin bags?”

He spoke to the bank lady. “No” was the reply.

“Oh, well can I buy a Moomin bag then?”

More conversation. “No.”

“Do they give them away?”

“No.”

“Maybe you enter a competition?”

“But I want a Moomin Bag!”

“No.”

“Oh.”

So that was that. The Moomin Bags it turns out are for “display purposes only” and under no circumstances could I have one. So the matter was left at that.

But it’s not just Moomin Bank where the idea of customer loyalty has not fully caught on. The local hardware/warehouse type store J-Mart runs a card system. Every time you spend 500 yen (about 3.50 sterling), you get a stamp. After about fifty stamps, you get the amazing prize of 500 yen off your next purchase. Wow! Hardly a Tesco Clubcard is it? "Mmm, let’s go to J-Mart since if I spend my whole month’s wages there, why I get 3.50 off, stunning offer or what?!"

Until recently there was no loyalty scheme at petrol stations. But lo! Two months ago appeared the mighty Mydo Cardo! And what a cardo that is! Spend a mere 6,000 yen and you get a yen knocked off every litre of petrol! At selected times. So translate into English, spend 50 quid and get 40p off. Good one!

Of course, if you were in Eastern Europe of China or somewhere people would undoubtedly come out with the excuse that “Oh well, they’re new to capitalism, they don’t fully understand it yet.” But wait up, were not in Kazakhstan here are we, no, more like the second biggest economy in the world, a centre of business and technology.

A centre of business and technology which doesn’t take credit card.

So that’s it, I’ve simply got to live without my Visa and my clubcard points. Last night I was sat musing in my aparto about this when my heater suddenly packed in. After ten minutes of deciphering the writing I worked out that the filter wasn’t working. I took out the filter and saw in choked with dust! What to do?! How could I save myself from the cold! Then the answer came to me, I knew how to clean the filter. I bounded into the kitchen and picked up my green duster, compliments of Hokuriku Bank…

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P.S. 2 weeks after my visit to Moomin Bank a friend of mine appeared in the bar with a Moomin Bag. “Where did you get that?” I asked.

“Oh, my boss knows the guy at the bank, they gave it to me!”

Bitch.

Next musing: Engrish 

 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

world-map osawano

Greetings!

Another onsen-themed post this week which is also apt since it talks about the freezing winter weather. Oh well, at least the days are getting longer.

Actually, onsen have been very much on my mind of late since I’ve joined a gym (aaargh!) which has a sauna and steam room. The thought of ending up in them helps me get through the nasty workout bit, plus when I’m in there, I’m always remembered of good old Japan.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Japan_map_thumb3

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

Japanese Musings XII: Engrish

Japanese Musings XIII: Valentine’s Day

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

The cold, the cold. I returned to Toyama after a vacation on the sunny shores of New Zealand and that was the first thing that hit me; it’s bloody freezing here, and that's official.

japan snow 2Getting used to the cold

Of course, I appreciate that central Japan is not as cold as some places in the world. I'm getting a wee bit fed up already of Canadians going round and telling me how warm it is to minus whatever Winnipeg or super-cold Saskatchewan, or that the snow here is not the right type, it's too dry and fluffy, or wet or whatever, I simply don't care. All I know is that Toyama is considerably colder than a). New Zealand where I just returned from and b). England where I'm used to. And Blighty is not a place renowned for its great weather.

However, perhaps the most amazing thing about it all is the Japanese response to it all which is mixed to say the best. Now, these guys have supposedly been dealing with the freezing cold since time immemorial, and indeed in some respects this is evident. A scattering of snow (enough to close down most of Britain), is no sweat to the Japanese. The snow ploughs come out and (now this one impressed me) most roads have a sprinkler system down the centre which is simply turned on and the snow is washed away. That is impressive, the rest however, is far less so.

I have commented before upon Japanese houses and the fact that the architect of most of them was as a child it seems, a big fan of LEGO, Denmark's greatest export until the arrival of Aqua onto the world music scene. My little aparto is built out of plastic, walls, roof, stairs, floors, the lot. Whoever thought of that one should be shot. Not only does it look bad, gets too hot in summer, but in winter has an unbelievably low level of heat retention. Go out of the apartment for an hour or two, and you come back to somewhere that somehow manages to be colder than the outside world. How they manage it I don't know, but they do. Of course, this is not so bad, since you can always warm the place up if you have enough money to pay for the leccy. But can you, in a country where central heating is an unheard of concept. Time and time again this amazes me, a country that is so technologically advanced can at the same time be so dire with the basic things in life, (e.g. keeping warm).

So, its cold and I am further hampered by the dialect that I was brought up on. For in Stoke, when it is cold it's a bit nippy. This is not politically correct in Japan.

To escape the cold and ensuing cultural faux pas one must think of alternative ways of staying warm and it is here that one of the great Japanese cultural institutions comes into its own: the onsen.

Now, I know many of you may remember me mentioning onsen in the past and have perhaps been puzzled as to what they may be; a type of pub perhaps, or a coffee shop where one may consume caffeine with friends? Not one bit, an onsen is something pretty similar to a hot spa, a public bathhouse extraordinaire.

I have to admit that when I first considered leaving the green, green grass of home and heading for the Land of the Rising Sun, then one point which did worry me immensely is which institution shall replace the humble local as the focal point of one's existence. Now it is true that the Japanese have bars, where one may talk to the masses, just as one does in the local, if you speak very good Japanese. If you do not (that's the category that I fall into by the by), then they can be hard work. The locals still want to talk to you, but cannot. This does not stop them of course and indeed it probably makes them more enthusiastic. Thus half an hour of conversation eventually ends in them learning that I come from "somewhere near Manchester, England", that I am a teacher in Osawano, that I like Japan, karaoke too and that I am not married. The only fact I garner from them is that they do not speak English.

Dejected as to where my life would lead it was then that I discovered the beauty of the onsen; instead of the pub one can instead go with friends to the onsen and sit and talk crap for hours on end. Of course there are several major differences, the lack of alcohol is of course the biggest black mark on the onsen's card, and also the fact that the sexes are separated, so fascinating discussions with the ladies about which barman they fancy is also impossible, but nonetheless it is not too bad an alternative.

Of course I did not get into onsen immediately, and for good reason. Onsen require nakedness in front of strange people, and I am British. British and public displays of nudity go together like Afghanistan and freedom of religion. Yeah, maybe its ok for our friends across the water in Scandinavia to go prancing around in the buff together, but for the average English gent it simply is not the done thing.

japan onsen 1Onsen in the snow

In fact, it (unsurprisingly), took rather large quantities of alcohol for me to first 'bare all' and get into an onsen. However, once done, never forgotten and since that fateful day I've been getting naked ever since. A regular Sunday afternoon outing ends in an onsen, as do many mid-week evenings.

You see the thing is, not all onsen are the same, why they are in fact all unique. Some have saunas, others do not. One may be special because of the fine view, whilst another may be memorable due to the waterfalls or mineral contents of its water. There's also massage chairs, jacuzzis, shallow baths, temperatures of baths, and of course value for money to take into account. This is a serious business!

In fact, the rather sad fact about it all is that I'm now fast becoming something of an authority upon onsening within the ken, and onsen-going has reached such heights that a society has now been formed, of which I am a founder member. Myself and people equally without purpose in life have been known to sit in bars and discuss the relative merits of rotemburo (outside pools), saunas, jacuzzis and cold baths.

This is a fact of life in Japan, and one which I would love to elaborate more on.

Except I'm cold, and so I'm off to the onsen...

japan snow 1A couple of inches…

Next Musing: Moomins and Mydo Cardo