Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Munich: "Vorsprung Durch Remix"

One approaches Munich with loaded ambivalence. After all, its star attraction is a jolly annual piss up, a kind of binge-drinker's Disneyland, which dominates the schedules of stag-dos the world over. In its spare time, however, this quietly dazzling metropole has become one of capitalism's greatest success stories. Beneath the jocular Gemütlichkeit displayed on its sleepy boulevards works a fierce, battle-ready complex of institutions promoting a truly solid culture of capitalist innovation. Indeed there is something pleasingly solid about Munich - from its weighty cuisine to its rather heavy-set men and the grand, squat halls the city authorities congregate in. Even its most recognisable landmark, the Frauenkirche, pumps its twinned towers into the air like two plump, celebratory fists. Everything exudes an attitude of satiated good health, a kind of post-masticatory glow. Yet the world of Hefeweizen and pork cutlets is not the first thing to come to mind when one pictures the cultural tropes of economic innovation. From what recesses does this dynamism spring?

The answer has something to do with Bavaria's insatiable rulers, a group composed of researchers, enlightened mandarins, and a local investment class alert to its Bildungsburgertum mission. Solidly Bavarian though its rulers mights be, one of its crucial characteristics most certainly sprang from the knotty Germanic Heimat: a historical self-awareness that manifests itself not in UKIP-style jingoist spluttering but in a keen ability to adapt to change and always come out on top. Combine this with a typically thorough mandarin culture - whose job it is to sublimate capital's appetites into a manageable routine of spectacle and grandeur - and you have an unarguable recipe for success. Through various remixes of its industrial base, things just keep getting better for the bullish Bavarian ruling class.

More startling than economic success is Munich's buried legacy of radicalism. Hard to believe, mooching about the city's royal avenues and shopping passages, that there was briefly a Bavarian Soviet Republic, declared after the end of World War One. This tantalising entree of German social revolution briefly had Bolsheviks believing their own prophecies about the irresistible spread of insurrection. Germany was always considered the grand prize and key state to be won in the battle for Permanent Revolution. Here was floundering evidence of its birth pangs. But even in its short life the Republic was not gaffe-free. The Deputy for Foreign Affairs declared war on - of all places - Switzerland for not sending the Bavarians enough tractors. The usual murders were carried out, apparently on Lenin's advice. Still, given the utter chaos elsewhere, housing the homeless and redistributing food supplies look like pretty impressive achievements.

The Soviet Republic's demise was enforced by a rallying ruling class who, for the first but by no means last time, enlisted ultra-nationalist militias in their cause. Among them was the infamous Freikorps who had already by 1919 debuted that arcane, Oriental symbol, the Swastika, on their uniforms. As they say, behind every Fascism is a failed socialist revolution. Rapid war-time industrialisation, combined with mass food shortages and even starvation, produced Munich's most tumultuous era of class struggle. But with the demise of Bavarian radicalism and the precarious hegemony of Weimar liberalism, space would be created for the Nazis' rise. Bavaria was, in the end, Nazism's incubator and bedrock.

Munich's, and by extension Bavaria's, contemporary eminence is partly the result of its uneven inclusion in the German industrial machine and partly the state's good fortune. It landed on the American side of the immediate postwar carve up and became host to a landslide of skilled eastern European refugees. Its delayed incorporation into German capitalism meant that it was perfectly poised to benefit from the postwar Wirtschaftswunder that took hold of the West's redeveloping economy. Bavaria was instrumental in capital's postwar achievements in Germany, an intensive zone of growth to which capital could relocate as the old, creaky industries of the Ruhr declined. Karl Marx might have labelled this the "annihilation of space through time", saving capital from its own ossification and driving it into new, innovative terrains.

One shocker about Munich, however, is its U-Bahn. Given the city's reputation for technical elegance, I had anticipated stepping inside an ululating, cylindrical womb, an unworldly, sterile calm issuing from its artificially regulated atmosphere. Sort of like being inside the brain of Hal, the computer from 2001, at least before it starts reaching for the lasers. Yet here it rolled up more tugboat than spacecraft, clanking laboriously to a halt and hissing expectantly at our toes. If it ain't broke, why fix it? Not an apothegm I had expected to cast light on the Munich metro. Truer for the state as a whole would be: even if it ain't broke, remix it. Vorsprung durch remix, I thought to myself as I strolled through the various perspex confections of postmodern consumerism artificially implanted in the city's neoclassical avenues. But then, this damaged metro with its grouchy cargo of labourers and old women, the windows strewn with graffiti, and the upholstery a rather insalubrious 1970s beige, could work as a metaphor for the two faces of the city itself.

Munich is home to one of the most skilled, professional and over-achieving coordinator classes in the world. The famous Munich mix of research institutions, public funding and a vast array of services and high-tech manufactures makes the city the envy of the world. Yet precedent suggests capital's tendency to move on to pastures new, having exhausted a region's potential for profitability. What keeps it in Munich? Capital fails to ditch Munich for the same reasons it cannot ditch London: the city's innovative potential is limitless; the state's power to incentivise capitalist activity irresistible (though the British capital is markedly more interested in speculative financial flows). Yet this success can only be reproduced indefinitely if the cushion supporting German profits - the moribund European market for investment and trade - sputters back to life. If this doesn't happen soon, and there is a decline in the EU's power to compensate for market collapses, capital will be forced to move on no matter what Munich's economy remixes next.

There are no such conflicts visible in Munich's centre, which exudes enviable charm and a uniquely Bavarian self-confidence. That latter trait is most in evidence in the city's royal avenues, which stretch out in faultless grandeur around the old town. All the clustered symbols of Bavarian monarchical history, however obscure, unfurl along them. A rather ill maintained Bismarck idles under a leafy canopy near the Deutsches Museum on a bend in the Isar River, while the altogether less world-straddling Ludwig I von Bayern gets pride of place on Odeonsplatz. Bavarians are understandably choosy about what in their history gets officially celebrated. Yet there is a second, buried history - malingering beneath the perfect fetish-object of the city's surfaces - which the frozen past of the statues effaces.

It was on Odeonsplatz in 1923 that Hitler's first stab at power - the ill-fated Beer Hall Putsch - was repudiated at gunpoint. His amatuerishness was not to last. By all accounts, the beer halls cultivated more than just dreamers. In fact they produced a whole brace of professional revolutionaries. It was in Munich's beer halls that, according to many interpreters, Hitler got his political education. Much as the beer halls and the squares contain a trace of their chaotic history, so a seed of the labour of past generations is splashed across the city's confident facades. The chaotic history of capitalist uneven geographical development emits a telluric pulse from beneath the cobbled pavements. It is this uneven development which is contained today by Munich's innovative mix. Yet even as Bavaria basks in its tech driven miracle, those past tensions have not yet been resolved, only displaced.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Four Underrated Things about Living Abroad

There are some nice bits abroad

What's properly worthwhile about living in a foreign country? Actually, not the things you'd assume.

It's not down to learning a foreign language, which is of course a perfectly justifiable thing to do but something that can really be done anywhere. It's certainly not down to meeting new people, which again can be done more or less anywhere. People are probably all the same and certainly someone's foreignness doesn't mark them out as intrinsically more valuable. Of course, here I'm the foreigner, a fact which marks me out either for curiosity - like a baffling pet that occasionally, parrot-like, says a proper word, much to everyone's amusement - or casual disinterest.

What makes living abroad really worthwhile is, at root, having a minimal level of estrangement from the everyday world around you. A few years ago I watched a TV show based around the idea of strapping a pillow to the front of one particularly bumbling man and seeing how he got on looking and feeling a bit like a pregnant woman. Foreignness is a bit like the pillow: a fixed, slightly embarrassing weight that accompanies you wherever you go and makes paying for shopping and using public transport slightly more annoying processes than they need to be.

Daily life

But that rather tenuous metaphor doesn't quite cover it, because the underlying sense of alienation needn't be unpleasant (obviously pregnancy needn't be either). In fact, living abroad gives one key advantage to those who do it: the time and repeated exposure needed to develop a sense of the small social contrasts that define and particularize places. My semi-permanent foreignness gets me closer to the reality of daily life than a tourist but still bars me from being absorbed entirely into it. I realize I sound a lot like a smug hippy, but living somewhere really does get you intimate access to things you just don't notice on a weekend trip. 

Here's four of those specific to Prague and the Czech Republic.

"Like frontier railways": Prague's heroic tramways

4. Public transport

I should preface this: I'm definitely not a trainspotter. Everyone hates public transport - that's a given. And in practice I hate it too. But strictly in theory I'm a believer in how a city's public transport can define it. The red and white trams of Prague are iconic, while its metro system is strikingly dingy and surreal. I'm not really interested in carriage numbers or what model of tram I'm riding - again, I swear I'm no anorak (well, I do secretly  have my favourites). More important than the models are the routes - the scouring of the city by twinned tram carriages, cutting between hills and over rivers like frontier railways (well, a bit). Not to mention the metro stations: bleakly austere dungeons of grey marble, often home to vast, semi-deserted underground shopping centres. In this permanently nocturnal habitat whole working lives play themselves out to the hum of escalators and the constant shuffle of feet. A few shoppers mill in the perma-gloom, bathed in bleary, flickering yellow lights. Bright fashions and fishing essentials are displayed inside shop-fronts, on pale mannequins never to see the light of day. All this marks a significant philosophical departure from London, where no one is ever encouraged to stop anywhere inside a tube station. After all, when have you ever found a toilet at a tube stop? In Prague they're everywhere, invariably guarded by a bouffanted, cigarette-puffing older lady and her rough-looking boyfriend, the walls jazzed up with a few stylish pictures of dogs or flowers, doilies covering the desk, obligatory 1970s radio crackling out forgotten hits. And always an ancient and dank looking armchair. Both above and under the ground, the transport system delineates a second city built into the margins of the first.

"A permanently nocturnal habitat": Under the ground

3. Neighbourhoods

Prague is not the most neighbourhoody of cities. It has them, like everywhere, and they have their unique characteristics, but broadly the demographic mix seems pretty consistent. True, there are more older people in Vrsovice than anywhere else and Prague Four, which is huge, seems to have a lot of young famlies. And of course no one's ever going to mistake the Old Town for Skalka. But the neighbourhoods I've always had a fondness for are the ones outside the historic centre, especially some of the big communist-era estates, and this is because some of them are really quite nice.

Picturesque housing estates

It's often difficult to picture nice housing blocks in western Europe: we're partly conditioned by the epic failures of the sixties and seventies to think of them as universally blighted. No doubt in Prague too there are blighted estates. But many of the ones I've been to are really quite peaceful. Last year we lived on one and I had a great time wandering around it in spring, cutting down sleepy, bushy pathways and sitting on benches overhung by enormous trees. At the time I described my estate as a sort of post-communist Butlin's, stuffed with greenery and young families. But now, again in spring, they feel more intimate, like small, self-enclosed towns lined with dozens of trees and little parks. OK, maybe growing up in one is dull or maybe it's not as nice as growing up in the actual countryside, but I wouldn't know and this is my blog so I get the right to conclude from my own impressions. And many communist-era housing estates seem like genuinely lovely places, where de-commodified public space is maintained in common and old and young mix "like in the old days." Although even the best are far from perfect, there's a rare few in Prague that have provided what looks like a convincing answer to the chronic problem of creating decent mass housing.

In the woods. Not sure what they're all looking for.

2. The countryside

It took moving to the Czech Republic to win me over to the countryside. Not that it's unique here but it is well loved. That said, the Czech countryside wins over a lot of places. Poland is as flat as a pancake run over by a big car or something (need to work on those similes). And southern Europe, with its bare rock and stubbly, straw strewn hills, always looks a bit barren to me. By contrast, nature in the Czech Republic was made for adjectives like "lush" and "verdant" (which in the name of decent writing I'll endeavour not to use). And to my surprise it turns out that being in it, as well as just looking at it, can be nice. Czechs also win on attitude to nature. Basically, they love it. Everyone flocks to it at the weekend. The names of trees and plants and sub-species of squirrel can be recited off-hand by the most settled of urbanites.  

Back to nature

There's proper countryside and then there's countryside-in-the-city. Prague is broken up by woody valleys and hills, which you can often walk into just by stepping off your estate and into some trees. Various hiking paths dissect the city. Yes, hiking paths. They're all over the place. Prague is, in essence, a sort of big, semi-rural town. So it surprises me a little when a student shakes their head and says, "I wasn't made for this big, dirty city life," while outside rows of trees wave in the breeze and there are signposts to a village cloaked in miles of lush, verdant woodland. 

Prokopske Udoli. About ten minutes by tram from the centre of Prague.

1. Drinking

I've never seen a fight in Prague. I've seen at least one in every British town I've ever been to, so why not here? Why are Czechs such an apparently peaceable bunch? The answer, predictably, boils down to the drinking culture. Pubs are cheap; people often drink locally; they stay in one place over the course of the night; and at the end of it all they stagger home. Not much opportunity for a fight if there's no detour via a kebab van or a club. 

Now, I don't presume to fully understand Czech drinking culture. Actually, I probably don't understand Czech drinking culture at all. Conversation topics, manners, silent codes of conduct - all are alien to me. However, pubs are the perfect places to speculate about social etiquette. For example, the obsession with beer mats (presumably to protect the tables, which is practical enough). The insistence on table service as a crucial sign of civility (otherwise, I suppose, you're just like McDonald's). The precise manner in which toasts are made and drinks are paid for and tips are given. All of these knit society together in a way that largely dodges the need for pissed up brawling. No wonder Brits on holiday are considered so peculiar.

As it turns out, then, people aren't all exactly the same - some like to lamp each other more than others. Perhaps it's not the most philosophical sounding discovery but I consider this last fact well worth learning.          


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Teaching Business

"Business English" is a grizzly little epithet. It suggests something too much at ease in conference centres and on team-building excursions. What business English teaching attempts is a tidy reduction of the language to  battle-ready nuggets of usefulness: thus such aggressively targeted niches of study as "language for describing key players in e-commerce." In theory I've nothing against this. Who wants to study the future perfect continuous when you only really want to be able to go on holiday and, in the words of one student, "not look stupid"? So, of course, teach students what they need. 

The problem comes when things get too obscure. When the basic value of learning English for most people is that it's a holiday necessity (like beachwear or sun-tan lotion), it's probably best not to push things too far.  I've never met anyone who really cared about learning the precise etiquette of email writing in English because, unless you're a sociopath, you'll generally intuit it. The same thing goes for "lexis relating to conference calls" or "chatting at the water-cooler".

Like everything else that happens there, people who study English at work are utterly alienated from it. That pretty much rules out homework. Or often attendance. The lessons are a routine only slightly more preoccupying than ordering something from a vending machine or going to make coffee. Indeed, in such conditions, my function is not wholly dissimilar to that of a vending machine: they make a selection, I spit out the right thing. This is consumed with the force at least of habit, though not with any noticeable satisfaction. Its memory is discarded moments later.

Providing such services can be oddly degrading. At least when I'm teaching seven year-olds can and can't there's actual learning going on. I arrive at companies feeling like a cheap door to door salesman, or worse, some kind of motivational speaker. 'Let's all get up and stand in a circle,' I've been known to say. Understandable, then, that the only response is a heavy sinking feeling. The distant whirr of photocopiers grows louder in the conference room quiet. Post-lunch jaws slacken around me. Ties are loosened. Chairs creak under the weight of impatient bottoms.

This quiet weight of expectation is hard to shoulder. I feel, in psychoanalytic terms,like  the classic hysteric: frantically trying to impress some inscrutable master. 'How about this one on over-fishing in the Indian Ocean?' Someone picks at a finger-nail. 'How about this one on the Notting Hill carnival?' A muted sigh. A cleared throat. My most frequently asked question of myself while I'm teaching is: How much of a dick am I being? Not what are they learning? But how annoying am I? This is, I suppose, as it should be, when you're asking for the attention of lots of people who are much older and more experienced than you are. In a business English class, however, the answer is necessarily: Quite a lot of a dick. That's because most people, when they're at work, just want to work. Or not work and talk about what they want. Or better, not work and not talk and stare out the window or do crosswords.

The most terrifying thing about business English and its invasion of the workplace is this: it participates in that postmodern managerial desire to make all time simultaneously recreational and productive. It's not so much a desire to eliminate relaxation, more that those in charge hanker for a world where the division between work and leisure no longer exists: massages and clay pigeon shooting and walking holidays and studying in your spare time and even staring out the window all become legitimate parts of the working day. It's with horror that I imagine myself a part of that.

There is the occasional, heart warming exception. Take Jirka and David. Two computer programmers who work for the incessantly modern Avast (rumoured to have "barefoot" days at the office), they are typically awkward IT types. Neither do any homework, of course. But that's fine: Jirka has a two year-old daughter. David, I think, just comes along for the company. While Jirka is a sort of quiet stoner who enjoys listening to Pink Floyd, David is a short, bald, very shy man in his thirties. Both come along for an hour and a half, and together we do very little. They talk about software, how rubbish they both think Apple is, their families, and what good beers I should try. Then they leave. Their only motivation in coming is, I think, to escape the office for a bit. It's a relief I'm more than happy to provide.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Prague Spring

Prague in Spring

Somebody has moved the Indian Chief on Francouzska street so that he faces away from the road. Where his arm used to shield his eyes from the sun it now cradles a drunken head, his elbow propping him up against the wall of the non-stop pub which is his lookout. My tram shunts past and a few of us crane our heads at it.

It's spring-time in Prague.

Last week - the end of March - a Russian teenager got dressed up in army fatigues and took the tram to Krymská. His friends were waiting for him at the stop and they laughed in solidarity and recognition as he stepped off. Together they marched with their air rifles in mock formation down the road. A few passers by, mostly on the trams, craned their necks as they passed. Krym is Czech for the peninsula the west calls Crimea.

Today, like everyday, I go to Krymská, the street named after Crimea, and climb the hill to Slovenská. Ruská is not far away, if you follow the hill all the way down to the bottom. My street, Lužická runs not far from the top. I climb the blossoming paths that lead to Bezručovy Park, up the steepest side of the hill that separates two historical neighbourhoods - Královské Vinohrady and Vršovice. Though Neruda rarely left the villagey splendour of Mala Strana and Kafka had an abiding affection for the scuzzy working-class district of Žižkov, this anonymous hill packs in as much varied life and mystery as its more famous counterparts. Beyond Vršovice is Nusle, the smog-cloaked valley bisected by Nuselsky most (Nusle Bridge), Prague's great, rumbling road bridge, designed precisely in order to cut out the sultry, silty, stacked tenements below. Nuselský most connects the edge of the New Town (Nové Město), itself cut to shreds by hollering traffic, with the outcrop of Vyšehrad. This huge hill-top, jutting out over the Vltava was home to the first local settlement, belonging in some myths to Libuše, Queen of Vyšehrad, who would eventually prophesy the founding of Prague and the famous castle at neighbouring Hradčany. Thus, via Nuselsky most - a short modernist diversion - the hill between Vinohrady and Vršovice is joined to Hradčany, the seat of national power. The radio used by the Czechoslovak resistance in Prague - the resistance that assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the Blonde Beast, Himmler's right hand - was also called Libuše. Her anti-fascist credentials are beyond question. 

In Prague it is sometimes necessary to take these scrambled paths through history.


I sit in our local beer garden, tucked away in a bushy corner of the hill between Vršovice and Vinohrady, and watch everyone looking up at a dog which, startled by some distant ricochet of a siren, lets out a long, maudlin whimper. Her owner hushes her and gets her to lie back down on their shared bench. The drinkers return to their drinking as the last of the cool spring sun peels back the clouds.

Across the valley, the jumbled, fume-streaked stacks of Nusle roll up the side of the hill, while behind them the glass-and-steel of last decade's modernity - the modernity of the boom and the bubble - fan out across the horizon. Interspersed are the concrete juggernauts of the panelaky peeking out of a light city mist.  

A few of my students tell me their families used to live in Vinohrady, when rents were affordable and the concrete was still crumbling. But oh, the high ceilings!

Krymská is not far from either Ruská or Ukrainská. Curiously, though, it runs parallel with Francouszká (France street). Nearby are Italská, Anglická Americká, Belgická, and so on. In fact almost all the roads are named after the Allies of the First World War, the victors in a conquest that saw the birth of Czechoslovakia and in the wake of which Královske Vinohrady, Vršovice, and other villages were formally incorporated into Prague. This fairytale city at the heart of Europe would become the anchor for what Benedict Anderson famously called an "imagined community". Yet isn't Europe itself an imagined community - an aspiration and an idea for balancing inter-imperial conflict - of which Prague was repeatedly the star player and the key to power? After all, without Prague's rebellion there would have been no Thirty Year's War and no Treaty of Westphalia - the key moment in the construction of an imaginary world of sovereign nations which would legitimate, restrain and extend imperialisms. In other words, the birth of the idea of Europe. Czechoslovakia-as-nation-state (and later just the Czech Republic) simply represented the territorial intensification of Prague's enduring significance.

The roads of Vinohrady and Vršovice - the roads of the Allied countries of the FirstWorld War - converge - in what could be a marvellous display of Czech humour - on Náměstí Míru or Peace Square.

Not all the road names are national. Some, like Jana Masaryka, lament and memorialize the dead. Jan Masaryk was the son of T.G. Masaryak, Czechoslovakia's first President. He was also Foreign Minister after World War Two. Bucking the national trend - or rather inverting it - he threw himself out of a window and died in 1948. A plaque dedicated to him on the road not far from where I live says "Pravda vítězí, ale dá to fušku" - "Truth wins, but it's hard work." Though his death has the whiff of Communist cover-up, it's never been fully established. Still, there's a certain bleak irony in a Czech leader defenestrating himself. The nobility has a habit here of falling out of windows. At least he took his destiny into his own hands. After he died people joked, "Jan Masaryk was a very tidy man. He was such a tidy man that when he jumped he shut the window after himself."

In the beer garden a Dutch man with long grey hair is pointedly telling a young woman, "It's best to save money for travel. Better than having things for your flat." He stops to drink his beer, which is already half-raised and has been bobbing around in his hand for some time. She nods and he goes on with his sermon until, somehow, he has started talking about Putin. "He wants his old satellites back," he says sagely. In the city of pastiche, of entangled and enmeshed historical time, perched on a hill in a quiet residential neighbourhood, he says, lowering his voice to a sweetly saddened pitch, "Even here in Czechoslovakia! It's terrible."