Somebody has to do it

A man in a puffy tan jacket stops in front of the memorial commemorating the night the wall fell. It is difficult to determine his age under his white knit hat, but bits of gray hair and a roughness to his cold-chapped skin mark him as old enough to remember the night the barricades had opened and people had streamed across the bridge.

He takes a rag from his pocket and carefully wipes the last day’s accumulation of snow from the plaque. The old parking lot nearby, and even the parts of the sidewalk that haven’t been shoveled are covered in inches of snow. But the memorial has barely any, even before he begins his work. He has been here every day, making sure these words can be read, though he knows that no one else will read them today. Everyone passes with their shoulders tense against the cold and their eyes scanning the sidewalk for treacherous bits of ice. That doesn’t matter to him.

When he goes, the flakes immediately begin re-whitening the brass surface. An hour later the letters have vanished; but he will be back tomorrow.

Wanted: A new political left

After four years of uncomfortable Grand Coalition, Germany’s center-right party — or more exactly, Angela Merkel, the only really popular politician here — is finally getting to lead more or less the way it wants.

This has fairly widely been dubbed the most boring election in history. Which — aren’t we in the middle of the biggest recession since the Great Depression? Wasn’t there a gigantic financial crises this time last year, technically on Merkel’s watch? Shouldn’t there be a revolution or something (and come on, 12 percent for the Linke, the former East German state party, now a left opposition, doesn’t count)?

It’s astonishing how badly the left has come out of this crisis. It’s not that the right has fantastic ideas; certainly not in the States, where they’ve collapsed into sputtering brain-fevered monosyllables. But there is no coherent alternative to centrism today. Everyone is spending like mad, in a Keynesian approach to the post-Friedman global economy. Angie’s social market economy is not radically different from what Obama wants to do the States; and here, because she’s staked out that centrist ground, she wins.

Her new partners, the liberals, want tax cuts. Maybe they’ll get some, but Germany is awash in debt, at least by its standards, and if George W. Bush has shown anything, it is that shotgun-targeted tax cuts don’t produce anything but pain and messes that have to be cleaned up later. Not much room to maneuver in that respect.

So where is the coherent left? Certainly not in Germany. Or in France. Even socialist Sweden has a center-right government. There are good ideas coming from the left, like New Deal-type spending on green technology; but this can be adopted just as well by the center-right, and will, by Merkel.

We need a new labor movement; something that reflects the realities of today’s economy. Something that represents, or is grounded in, the interests of deliberately mobile, flexible workers. Freelancers and contractors, programmers and writers and service types. Based on an economics that understands that people aren’t rational, that the free market fails miserably in many areas (but actually does work pretty well in others), and doesn’t let finance types assure the world that they’re getting hugely rich because what they’re doing is really, really good for everybody.

How to find a bus in Bucharest

We arrive in Bucharest at midday. We are only passing through; we have two options for catching a bus north to Sibiu, over the Făgăraş mountains. One option is very soon, the other gives us slightly more time. It seems simple: A taxi driver waves to us after we have found our ATM machine, and hefts our bags into his trunk. We get in, and negotiation commences.

Four hundred lei to the bus station, the driver suggests. No meters. We do the math. It comes out somewhere north of $125. This seems high. Absurd, we say. We’ll take the bus.

“It is very far. At least 40 kilometers,” the taxi diver says. We have no idea where the station is, as it was unfindable on Google maps. He might be right.  Yet the rate on the door says it is only 1.9 lei (about 64 cents) per kilometer. I point this out.

“Oh, no,” He shakes his head. His mustache bristles with authority. “In town only. Two hundred lei.”

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Observations 3: (Kopenhagener Str.)

A red station wagon screeches to a halt in the middle of the intersection. A young man leans out the driver’s window, shouting furious English-language obscenities at the top of his lungs. “You goddamn bitch, you fucking piece of fucking.… I should fucking…aaaaAAAHHHHHH…”

He pulls his head back inside, throwing the car into reverse. A minute later the car lurches forward, and the brakes squeal a second time. Again the young man leans out the window and shouts until tangling himself in his own cursing. The little audience gathered outside the coffee house laughs and claps appreciatively, and the actor turns to give them a sly smile.

Inside, the regular is delighted. “I used to see this in New Zealand. Two cars race up to a stoplight right next to each other, like this, you know?” His hands mime the cars’ sudden stop. “Guy gets out of one and the other driver, the idiot, rolls down his window. First one punches him right in the face, and then gets back in his car and drives off.”

Laughs all around. “That was a movie?” somebody asks.

“No, no, that was real.”

3. (Ecke Sonnenburger/Kopenhagener.) A red station wagon screeches to a halt in the middle of the intersection. A young man leans out the driver’s window, shouting furious English-language obscenities at the top of his lungs. “You goddamn bitch, you fucking piece of fucking.… I should fucking…aaaaAAAHHHHHH…”
He pulls his head back inside, throwing the car into reverse. A minute later the car lurches forward, and the brakes squeal a second time. Again the young man leans out the window and shouts until tangling himself in his own cursing. The little audience gathered outside the coffee house laughs and claps appreciatively, and the actor turns to give them a sly smile.
Inside, the regular is delighted. “I used to see this in New Zealand. Two cars race up to a stoplight right next to each other, like this, you know?” His hands mime the cars’ sudden stop. “Guy gets out of one and the other driver, the idiot, rolls down his window. First one punches him right in the face, and then gets back in his car and drives off.”
Laughs all around. “That was a movie?” somebody asks.
“No, no, that was real.”

Problems from the right

The first time I saw a new-Nazi march here, right past our window on Bornholmer, it was more amusing than appalling. There were maybe 30 people involved, more than half evidently from out of town, surrounded by hundreds of police and probably thousands of protestors. Before it happened, locals distributed flyers asking people along the march to blast their stereos and drown out the marchers. I figured a Chipmunks song was fairly appropriate.

Another right-winger march happened yesterday in Lichtenberg (a relatively poor eastern neighborhood known for its right-leaning tendencies). This time the numbers were more daunting. According to the Morgenpost, about 750 marchers (ie, neo-Nazi types) showed up, with about 700 protestors. Naturally police presence was high, with 1600 cops on the beat. Bottles were thrown, and somewhere around 70 people arrested, from both sides.

That’s a lot of marchers. Berlin is overwhelmingly liberal, even left-wing, with a fabulous gay mayor and anti-Nazi stickers and graffiti everywhere. It’s never going to fall too far to the right. But economic dislocation could well swell the extreme fringes on both sides. That hasn’t worked out well here in the past.