Wednesday, 25 February 2015

How to parent like a German

"The Jugendweihe: A Pledge to the Great and Noble Cause of Socialism"

A friend pointed out this article in TIME magazine: How to parent like a German. It's by an American mother living in Berlin and reads like a typical global hipster piece. There are plenty of fun observations on free-range parenting and cute German traditions like Zuckertüte (or Schultüte), the giant cardboard cone filled with sweets and stationary that we are given to celebrate our first day at school.
But then there was this passage on the "Jugendweihe", a coming-of-age ritual:

"Jugendweihe happens when a child turns 14. It involves a ... ceremony, party, and gifts, marking the next stage of growing up. With all the negativity heaped on adolescents, there’s something to be said for this way of celebrating young adulthood."

The author doesn't seem to realise that "Jugendweihe", the ceremony she so warmly recommends to Americans, was popularised by the East German regime as an alternative to more traditional religious rites of passage. It was part of the totalitarian effort at what we call Gleichschaltung, bringing everyone into line, making sure there was no allegiance to entities other than the East German regime. It was also part of the broader discrimination against religious folk. Refusing the Jugendweihe could mean hurting your entire family's job prospects and certainly attracted the attention of the secret service, the Stasi. Joachim Gauck, the German president and former pastor who oversaw the opening of the Stasi archive, wrote quite forcefully about this in his memoir. 

It's fine if people feel the ritual is meaningful to them anyway. There's nothing wrong with an American embracing an atheist alternative to communion, confirmation or bar/bat mitzvah. What made me cross was the complete unawareness of the historical context. Sure, there's an argument to be made that some traditions of the Real-Socialist Republic are worth preserving. The concept of Jugendweihe dates back to the 19th century, and while it was used as a political instrument by the East German regime, there must be ways to reinvent it. It's still popular with many East Germans, indeed more popular than the Christian equivalent, confirmation, according to official data. But this author didn't make an argument, she just went for a bright and innocent: 'Jugendweihe! Awesome!'. She refused to engage with the past, either out of ignorance or because it would have spoiled the fluffy optimism of the piece.

I know, I'm probably overreacting. It was a light-hearted and friendly take on some of the more positive aspects of my culture. Yet I do sometimes wonder if Berlin's global hipsters are even aware my country was divided once. Or if they just think the GDR was like one big retro shop with cool vintage fonts and cute orange furniture. 

Sorry, rant over. Next: ironic Stalin moustaches.

Monday, 16 February 2015

A visit to the Buttes Chaumont

I was in Paris this weekend, vising my old neighbourhood, the 19th arrondissement. At its heart lies the Buttes Chaumont park, which I've always seen as a heart-warming symbol of successful multi-culturalism. My first novel was set there, and I've spent many hours sitting on the grass and enjoying the urban soap operas around me. On any given weekend, you'll see hip young Parisians with trilby hats, big Muslim and orthodox Jewish families, little boys with kippas and girls with headscarves, maybe a gay wedding or two, runners, picnickers and Chinese pensioners practicing tai chi. Plus the guy with the Shetland ponies.

When I heard that the Charlie Hebdo attackers had been part of a gang of jihadis known as the "Buttes-Chaumont gang", who met and exercised in the park, I felt a strange sense of territorial outrage. It's irrational - out of all the things the attackers did, where and how they exercised is really the least important aspect. But I couldn't help it, I felt so angry that a small number of violent men hijacked *our* park as their extremist club house. I don't want them to be known as the Buttes-Chaumont group, because it's not their damned park. It's one of the most beautiful green spaces in Paris, a real gem in a very mixed neighbourhood, and 99% of people go there for the tulips and the trees. They're the real Buttes-Chaumont group!

As for Paris, it was as beautiful as always, but I did notice a lot of tension and nervousness that hadn't been there before. Big armed guys in camouflage were guarding all the Jewish schools and cultural centres. It's reassuring that there's extra protection, but also heart-breaking that this should be necessary. The only island of calm was the guy at my local kosher supermarket, right next to the park. When I asked him why he wasn't taking extra security measures, he just smiled and said "God protects us."