Sunday, September 11


I've spent the last two weeks in Halberstadt, a small town in the middle of Germany. I didn't know exactly what I was getting into when I came here. All that I was told was that it was a camp to combat racism, which is pretty vague. Still, it's rare that you get the chance to live in a country as it's citizens do, even if it's only for a short time. It wasn't a chance I wanted to pass on.

There were about ten other Germans here with Barbara [whom I met in France, and the person who asked me to go there] and I, making me the only foreigner for the first week. This made for some awkwardness. On the one hand, it's nice to be able to see how a people live in their own country, but when you don't speak the language, it's easy to feel isolated. The people in our group gave more of an effort to speak in English than any group from a different culture that I've been around, and I appreciate that effort very much. Yet at the same time, it's only natural that people in such a group revert back to their native language, especially when they get stuck for words in the one they're trying to speak. Most times they didn't even notice that they had switched to German. Luckily, we were joined by two Spanish girls in the second week, neither of whom spoke German. This made things a bit easier.

Things were more challenging walking around the town itself. Although a few of the younger towns people spoke a bit of English, they really didn't want to use it. The adults had learned Russian when they were younger, and didn't speak any English at all. This didn't bother me too much, as I was willing to switch to charades. This solved most of my problems, but sometimes people weren't satisfied with it. They'd look at me like I was retarded, and then hit me with full speed German. They've probably never been very far outside their town [I'm told there are quite a few people here who haven't], and this place isn't exactly a tourist mecca. So I suppose it's rare that they have to deal with someone who doesn't speak German.

In camp itself started off with a little less structure than I wanted. Most of the people here would be considered hippies, and one of the points of the camp [which, unfortunately, I didn't discover until a few days into it] was to run it in a 'Basic Democracy' model. This amounts to the same thing as running everything on consensus. Although I was annoyed at how much this slowed everything down [sometimes we would spend 10 minutes discussing how long the break in the discussion should be], after I accepted things for what they were, things went fine. It was more about taking the whole project as a learning experience, without any expectations about what to accomplish.

By the middle of the first week, we were taking daily trips to the refugee camps to visit the people seeking asylum. The German system is to stick people applying for refugee status in run down apartment building, with fences built around it and one or two security guards. Still, the refugees aren't prisoners, as the fences are described as being 'protective', to keep vandals out. In eastern Germany, where the unemployment rate runs around 25%, it's popular to blame everything on the immigrants. As a consequence, they get neo-nazis causing trouble for anyone who's not part of the 'master race'. For the most part the refugees are free to come and go as they please.

We invited them over for dinner, as well as any other outings we could think of, as much as possible. The majority were from western Africa. About half were English speaking, while the others spoke French. I was elected translator for people of the French speaking group who didn't know any English, as English was the language for most of our discussions. Still, at times even the accent of the English speakers gave me a hard time, and with the French I could barely understand anything. Still, every time I asked them to repeat, they would always give me the same musical but indiscernible accent.

Still, most of them were very nice. Others were a bit quiet. Several had quite a few scars, sometimes on their faces. It's hard to imagine what they've been through. I talked to a few from the Sudan, but most were from Western Africa. And a few were even insane. One, named Zoul, always had a cocky look on his face, told every girl in our group that he was in love with them, and kept reminding me what a wonderful name he had [apparently it's a VERY STRONG sounding name].

One of the places that we found to hold events was a local youth center, mostly frequented by punks. Watching African refugees partying with German punks was a memorable sight, since the punks only spoke German and most of the refugees didn't. I spent most of the night at the foosball table, with a bulky partner from Benin who only spoke French. It didn't stop him from trying to trash talk the opposition, who didn't understand a word he was saying, but would fire back in German, which didn't work much better.

Now I'm back in Berlin, but I'll probably just spend one night here. I want to get to Scandinavia, and the longer I wait, the colder it will be. Tomorrow I'll head for Copenhagen, and after a few days there, move on to Sweden.


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