OPINION

Letter from Berlin

The burning issue last weekend in Athens and Berlin was basketball. Once again there were thousands of Greeks making their merry way to Berlin to watch the Euroleague Final Four. It is true that Greece has got great talent in this game and we could claim to be among the best, at least in this field. With over 380,000 Greeks living in Germany and with many charter flights coming in, Berlin was flooded with Greeks. I had lived in this city – in the west part – for a decade when it was still an abnormal place, the symbol of the East-West division of Europe – and I feel almost a Berliner, which sometimes is better than being proud of your nationality.  Nowadays, when the basketball (or soccer) fans from Athens or Thessaloniki travel to a game or to one of the few far-left international gatherings, security officials are always alarmed. Much as football hooligans like to travel to the World Cup for shows of strength, political hooligans are fond of heading to the annual G-8 meetings to battle with the host nation’s security forces. Alas, Greeks have made a bad name for themselves at such gatherings. Let’s not forget that two years ago German security officials were concerned about the Southern European hooligans ahead of the G-8 summit at Heiligendamm in 2007. German anarchists, who have seen things get a bit quiet at home since the heyday of the May Day riots of the 1980s, looked forward to the arrival of their Greek associates. «Cool, the Greeks are coming!» one excited anarchist told the left-leaning Die Tageszeitung newspaper at the time. The media reported that the Greeks, as well as Spaniards, Italians and Scandinavians were far from reserved in their behavior. The foreign bands of anarchists, armed with chunks of paving stone, got as near as 15 meters to the German riot police, one Berlin far-leftist approvingly told Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel newspaper. There may be some justification: Greek anarchists in the Exarchia district of downtown Athens, where skirmishes with the police are hardly a surprising occurrence, view themselves as part of a tradition of resistance that started under the military junta. Therefore, riots may be considered quite normal here. Every November 17 the anarchists mark the anniversary of the bloodily suppressed student revolts at the Athens Polytechnic. In fact, the campus itself becomes a refuge for rioters. In Berlin on Thursday evening, following a tradition that goes back decades, anti-capitalist protesters clashed with riot police in a warmup for the main event on Friday, May 1. That same Friday evening, Panathinaikos bested archrival Olympiakos Piraeus 82-84 in a memorable second semifinal of the 2009 Euroleague Basketball Final Four. In what has become something of a choreography of confrontation, the usually peaceful May Day street parties and concerts, particularly in the «Turkish» district of Kreuzberg, traditionally a multiethnic area with a long tradition of squatters and urban counterculture, tend to give way to car burning and stone throwing as day turns into night; a sight that would make an Athenian – especially one living on Skoufa or Solonos Street – feel very much at home! Between Friday and Sunday, Greens and Reds, that is Panathinaikos and Olympiakos fans respectively, must have had at least an hour or two of their time in Berlin that wasn’t taken up by German baiting/face painting/drinking themselves into an early grave. This means that they could have easily visited some of the sights or shows. Berlin has enough history to keep even soccer aficionados happy, and there are plenty of different ways here to enjoy it. Museum-goers and military history enthusiasts might well consider Berlin a small slice of heaven, and even if it’s not usually your cup of tea, places like Checkpoint Charlie (the former Berlin Wall gate) are worth a visit. However, yesterday evening as the Greens advanced to face defending champion CSKA Moscow, there were some people crazy enough to go – of all places – to the theater. Imagine that! The choice in Berlin – the only capital with three opera companies – is immense. Last night the Komische Oper had a light operetta on its program – Eduard Kunneke’s «Der Vetter aus Dingsda» – while the Deutsches Theater was presenting a frightening play in the guise of a cartoon, «The Presidents» by Werner Schwab. Note that the cabarets here are supposed to be that much more daring and witty than elsewhere. And life in Berlin goes on after other German cities have rolled up the pavements for the night. It has always been like this. Berliners do not want to be normal. They think they live somewhere special, which should be celebrated as such. However, in these days of economic turmoil Berlin is particularly quiet. While the French are kidnapping managers and we Greeks take to the streets in protest against the global downturn, our fellow Europeans in Germany seem curiously unmoved by the economic nosedive – at least for the time being. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of a «serious economic collapse,» and Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck spoke of unrelenting downward dynamic. For his part, German Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg predicted a «very, very difficult year.» Since my student days 30 years ago, I remember Germans wrestling with economic questions as well as collective guilt and responsibility. Germans have more inferiority complexes than most Europeans. The people here like what they call harmony. And even now, after all these years, I found them still feeling like they are being watched by their somewhat distrustful fellow Europeans.  Sure enough, there are many differences with Greeks: Germans may not like their bosses but, unlike us, the standard approach is to keep quiet about it. Another significant difference is that Berlin has a brilliant over- and underground train system, which, handily, remains easy to use. This is good. Here the trains are as frequent and efficient as you’d expect from the Germans, and although Berlin doesn’t really have one main terminus, you can’t stagger drunkenly beneath a green or red jester’s hat for more than half a mile without finding a station. You’ll have a bit of a walk from the station to the stadium, but if you time it right you’ll probably find about 56,000 other fans to follow. The trains run fairly late in Berlin, but if you’ve partied into the small hours (or spent several hours explaining to a bemused German barman exactly why it’s unfair that the Greeks – or Russians – lost), there are taxis (those beige Mercedes) everywhere, and they’re pretty cheap.