A Ghoulish Mare of General Meetings

blog-2_v1As October draws to a close and everyone has a good rummage around for their scariest Halloween costume, I don’t feel like I necessarily need to add another layer of spookiness to what has already been quite a surreal month. For a sampling of spine-tingling events, we only have to look towards the recent rise in nationalism and xenophobia throughout Europe, the chilling prospect of the Trump in the White House, as well as the latest climate research which confirms we are all collectively hurtling towards calamity. I mean, how much more hair-raising does it get? Well, there’s always that fearsome feeling that you’ve got more AGMs to go to than there are haunted places in Scotland.

I don’t think there has ever before been a time when I had 6 AGMs in the diary, all scheduled for the same month. Well, I have to come out and admit straight away that because there are only so many Chair’s Reports one can take, I only managed to attend a measly 4 of them – I know, tut tut!

So why would anyone do it to themselves? For much the same reasons that I am putting my translation skills almost exclusively at the disposal of clients who work on human rights, environmental and social justice issues: because I would like to see a world where people take responsibility for their actions towards each other and the planet. And that means empowering people and creating opportunities and options for them at the local level. In order to get involved in projects aiming to do precisely that (and to learn more about my specialist subjects in the process – a bit like continuous CPD!), over the past year I joined Bristol Women’s Voice, the Bristol Energy Cooperative, the Bristol Community Land Trust and the Bristol Green Party. And their AGMs seemed like the obvious starting point for getting truly informed and stuck in.

Apart from lots of information about organisational structures, budgets, board compositions and targets, was there anything useful I took away from this AGM marathon? Well, yes: the realisation that this kind of scene is actually smaller than you might expect for a city of about half a million people. I came away with the impression that the Bristol activist scene is pretty much run by about a dozen people. And these certainly aren’t the people that can be seen at the proverbial barricades, waving banners and shouting slogans. They are the hard grafters, winning the grassroots revolution through their relentless determination to make stuff happen: wading through Council regulations, doing untold amounts of behind-the-scenes organising, applying for grants and lobbying MPs.

I guess my role as an “activist translator” has always lain somewhere in between these spheres – being a cog in the process of producing internal and published materials for organising, campaigning and awareness-raising. By its very nature this sort of work is fairly international, so it’s great to also be able to play a part in effecting change at my own local level with all the wonderful organisations we have in Bristol.

In wrapping up, I feel a rallying cry coming on. Here it is: Join the grassroots revolution in your community! And be prepared for paper cuts, points of information and any other business. Lots and lots of it.

E bukura Shqiperi!

albania blog haus

“Man, Albanian is hard!” This I realised when, in preparation for my last holiday, I did what any self-respecting linguist would do before travelling abroad: practising to produce passable versions of the most basic phrases in the language of your destination country, safe in the knowledge that you are now able to say hello, explain that you are lost, and ask for the way – only to then immediately revert back to hands-and-feet communication, as your chances of ever understanding the helpful advice you are given gravitate towards zero.

Still, we love it! And it’s usually worth the effort, if only for the small reward of getting a friendly smile, and knowing that the other person has understood what you just said AND, amazingly, is actually saying something back.

However, even just figuring out how to start off a conversation can be tricky. My knowledge of Albanian still being severely limited by the time I set off for Albania (mainly due to me totally failing to get to grips with pronunciation and, amongst others, definite and indefinite articles), I figured the best way forward would be to quiz our Albanian mountain guide about useful phrases to learn.

It soon became apparent, however, that it was not as straightforward as just saying “Hello”, for example. I was already confused about “Hello”, as there was one phrasebook which suggested that the Albanian for this was “Përshëndetje”, whereas another claimed that the correct term was “Tungjatjeta”. (I have since learned that, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s to do with formality: the former seems to be a more formal, the latter a less formal expression.) However, our young guide dismissed both of these options out of hand, claiming that no-one other than a well-meaning foreigner would ever use them. Instead, he explained that the proper thing to say on greeting an Albanian was “Are you tired?”, as in: “Are you tired from working hard all day?” I was fascinated by this and how much it told me about Albanian culture. By this point, we were hiking through a mountain range in Northern Albania called the “Accursed Mountains”, so named because of how tough life there used to be (and, in some cases, still is) for shepherds and other mountain-dwelling families. Case in point.

Throughout our hiking trip, we stayed in village guesthouses along the way and enjoyed the most sensational hospitality. By the end of it, another language quirk finally made sense to me: One of my phrasebooks claimed that the Albanian language had 27 words for “moustache” and just as many for “eyebrows”. Now, surely that’s just a tiny bit unnecessary – or so I thought. But after learning more about Albanian society (quite patriarchal), the Albanian people (tallest in the world, apparently) and their traditional dress and appearance (more facial hair equals greater authority), this seemingly excessive number of synonyms suddenly made eminent sense to me. Oh, the moustaches we saw!

So, in summary – yes, Albanian is hard. Or even, as some climbers might label it, hard very difficult. In fact, I would not shy away from describing it as difficult, difficult, lemon difficult. But this shouldn’t deter anyone from giving it a jolly good go whilst exploring an endlessly fascinating country.

Beautiful Albania, I will certainly be back – with an interpreter in tow, if I have to!

albania blog

You are a European


I am an immigrant.

Here for love – not for money.

In work – and precariously renting.

Paying taxes and NICs –

yet waiting weeks to be seen by my GP.

I have a stake in this, but no voice.

A story not unlike yours,

were you to fall in love with another national

…and another country.

Choosing where to live,

a freedom for you, your kids, your friends to enjoy;

it’s your life, so it should be your choice.

Let’s remember our shared humanity

regardless of borders.

We have more in common

than that which divides us.

More than an empty phrase.

It’s up to us to fill it with life.

I am a European.

You are a European.

…and ACTION!

vor der morgenröte© http://www.vordermorgenroete.x-verleih.de/

So the reason why I am foregoing the international jet-setting interpreting career I was so clearly destined to have is also the exact same reason why instead of strutting my stuff on the red carpet in Berlin a few days ago, I was at home eating beans on toast like any other self-respecting Bristol denizen on a Monday night. If there is going to be a techno fix for global warming, as they keep telling us, then when are they going to invent teleporting as a low-carbon way of getting around, is what I want to know?! Anyway, due to a distinct lack of teleporting technology, I did not attend the premiere of “Vor der Morgenröte” (Before Dawn), a German cinema film production about the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, which will see my humble visage projected onto the big screen in a minor role as an English interpreter before the week is out.

Whilst it is tempting to pretend that there is a constant stream of agents relentlessly beating a path to my door in a bid to cast me for their next blockbuster, I have to be frank and admit that nothing could be further from the truth. I came to this role in the usual way: by knowing someone who knew someone who had been approached by someone who was looking for an interpreter willing to audition for a film role. So, one casting and one fitting later, I found myself on set for the day of shooting.

The reason I decided to write about this experience is that it was fascinating on both a personal and a professional level. In a way, it was the most bizarre and most thrilling interpreting job I have ever done. Far from being able to yes, look neat and professional, but otherwise unobtrusively blend into the background, here there were stylists despairing over my hair, which was apparently completely wrong in every way (“…straight, red hair AND a fringe! Someone didn’t think this through, did they!”), and assistants fussing over my outfit and make-up during each and every break. My two interpreting colleagues and I were prompted to whisper audibly – where normally you would try and keep noise levels to a minimum during whispered interpreting – to contribute to the overall feel of the scene, and it was certainly the first time I had interpreted in a room where people were being positively encouraged to smoke!

At this point you might think: Yes, all very well, but surely the whole thing required more in the way of acting than actual interpreting? And it is true that we did get given the script, which we were then able to translate beforehand – which is clearly nothing like real life, where they always promise to send you all the presentations in advance but never do! Yet despite knowing all the dialogues intimately, it still felt just as exhausting as any other ‘proper’ interpreting assignment. And the fact that we spent all day shooting the same five-minute scene over and over again meant that I kept rephrasing my output in a bid to keep polishing and refining it, a chance you seldom – if ever!  – get in interpreting.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the whole experience was that according to the director, they had also invited actors to audition for the interpreting roles, but apparently it was just too obvious that they were pretending. So if there is a moral to the story, it’s that looking like a professional interpreter is just as hard as actually being one. And that a 24-hour personal stylist might prompt me to reconsider that glitzy interpreting career… perhaps.

Just like the movies!

Whilst in real life, international jet-set interpreting jobs have pretty much been sacrificed at the altar of trying to minimise my carbon footprint, at least I can say that the world of Hollywood is still clamouring for my skills! And when I say Hollywood, I mean Berlin. Exciting. Way too exciting. I need a lie-down. Come back for the big reveal next week.

Berlin in 12 linguistic snippets

This is a newly revised version of 12 mini posts which were first published on my old blog from September 2015 as a weekly series. Images are my own unless otherwise stated. Enjoy!

Berlin is often referred to as the “city that isn’t really Germany”.  Here, I would like to share some of my favourite linguistic gems and absurdities from Berlin. Here goes…


Week 1: Hasenheide: “rabbit moor” [ˈhaːzɘnˈhaidə]

A spacious park in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg/Neukölln that has it all: green spaces, a petting zoo, crazy golf, playgrounds, a rose garden, an outdoor cinema, drug dealers (mostly harmless), a skate park, the legendary “Hasenschänke” where you can enjoy a Berliner beer or two or three – and a May funfair! Internet legend has it that it is called “rabbit moor” because back in the 17th century, the Great Elector Frederick William used the land as a breeding ground for hares. Today, hares are a rare sight and you are more likely to spot the odd red squirrel feasting on birthday party or BBQ leftovers.

Hasenheide Schänke_ink_resized


Week 2: Hinterhaus: “rear house” [ˈhɪntɐhaus]

The bane of postmen all over Berlin. Berlin residential buildings often sport five storeys with three flats on each floor, and can have as many as two or three „rear houses“ attached to the main house (which, in turn, is called the „Vorderhaus“). The rear houses are accessed by entering through the front entrance or gate and typically crossing over a small courtyard. It gets hugely complicated when there are no doorbells or letterboxes outside the main entrance of the Hinterhaus you live in, as was the case at my place. Once, my flatmate and I found ourselves having to retrieve 3 DHL packages from a „trusted neighbour“ in the Vorderhaus (whom we had in fact never met before), left there by a postie too exasperated to try and find our Hinterhaus, never mind our actual flat.

The upside is that you can find all sorts of weird and wonderful things lurking in these endless urban corridors – from tiny subterranean clubs to funky art galleries and – a favourite! – quirky residents‘ flea markets. So, next time you’re in Berlin: remember to look behind the facade!



Week 3: Kiez: „da hood“ [ˈkiːts]

You could be forgiven if the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the word “Kiez” is the Reeperbahn in Hamburg. This famous red-light district has traditionally been called “der Kiez”. But come to Berlin, and all of a sudden you are surrounded by “Kieze”. Surely there can’t be this many red-light districts in Berlin? Breathe easy, the concept of a “Kiez” in Berlin is a much more family-friendly one. It comes down to this: Your Kiez is where you live. And you absolutely love it there. You are loyal to your Kiez. You never leave your Kiez. For anything. Ever. Except perhaps to watch an arthouse cinema show in a neighbouring Kiez. Or to check out that totally-to-die-for vegan falafel place at the other side of town…

But I digress. So you might say: I got it, your Kiez is your neighbourhood. Well, yes. And no. It depends on who you ask. A lot of the time, a Kiez is viewed to be the wider municipal area you live in, e.g. Mitte, Wedding, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg, Neukölln. But then, you might also find micro-level Kieze within that area. For example, where I lived in Neukölln, I was surrounded by at least 4 Kieze, all of which were areas small enough for me to theoretically fall into them. I spent months trying to work out whether I lived in the Weichselkiez, Reuterkiez, Rollbergkiez or Flughafenkiez (it was the latter, incidentally).

So it is your immediate neighbourhood? In geographical terms, yes. But there are lots more elements to the definition of what makes a Kiez. The one I like best is the prerequisite of a “heterogeneous population living in close proximity to each other within a social framework, and connected by an invisible bond”. Also essential are local shops, pubs and a thriving cultural scene. So – why WOULD you leave your Kiez?


Week 4: Mediaspree [ˈmeːdi̯aʃpreː]

The only thing that’s amusing about Mediaspree is probably the name itself – contrary to what it sounds like, it has nothing to do with the media going on the rampage, but refers to an investment and development project in Berlin-Friedrichshain at the banks of the river Spree.

As a mere (non-Berlin) mortal, I can’t claim to know the ins and outs of it, but basically the project has been in the pipeline for a good few decades and does not look like it will ever be completed, due to the indomitable spirit of Berlin residents who have seized on the plans as an opportunity for one of their most favourite pastimes: democratic protest. There have been numerous protest campaigns and citizens’ initiatives over the years, one of which managed to trigger a referendum on the Mediaspree plans with a voter turnout so high it is classed as the most successful Berlin citizens’ movement to date. Needless to say, a clear majority of people voted against commercial plans and in favour of alternative proposals.

So even if we’re still in the dark about what Mediaspree actually is, or who ever came up with the name, one thing we can be certain about is that it is a prime example of Berlin-style grassroots resistance. See photo. Parental guidance is advised.



© “Former GASAG offices, 2013” by FoxyOrange – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Former_GASAG_offices,_2013.JPG#/media/File:Former_GASAG_offices,_2013.JPG 


Week 5: Spätkauf: “Late Buy” [ˈʃpɛːtkauf]

There is a “Späti” at every corner in Berlin, and they quite literally keep the metropolis going. These corner shops are open till late, so in a country where shops and supermarkets traditionally close quite early, the average Berliner relies on their Späti for everything from out-of-hours loo roll emergencies to that cheeky nightcap. When there was talk of actually enforcing a national law which governs the hours of trading and under which Spätis would need to stay closed on a Sunday, riots in the streets and picket lines with banners saying “Hands off my Späti!” didn’t seem an unlikely prospect.

What you have to understand is that Spätis are much more than just shops: they are social meeting places, often equipped with chairs and tables outside for on-the-spot drinking and socialising. Some of them have acquired something akin to cult status – like the legendary “Späti International” on Weserstraße, which has been termed “the party corner shop in North Neukölln” on Berlin’s official tourist website, and even has its own facebook page. Na dann: Prost!



Week 6: Stolpersteine: “stumbling blocks” [ˈʃtɔlpɐʃtainə]

Little memorial plaques set in amongst the cobbles on the pavement to look like cobblestones to the undiscerning eye. The first 50 of these “stumbling blocks” were laid in Berlin in 1996 by an artist called Gunter Demnig to commemorate former residents of Berlin who were killed in Auschwitz under the Nazi regime. This being Berlin, the whole thing was initially done without permission from the authorities. Ever since then (and after obtaining permission to do so), Gunter Demnig has laid over 5,000 Stolpersteine in Berlin, and you can now find more than 38,000 Stolpersteine in 12 European states and 800 German cities and municipalities.

So next time you’re in Berlin – remember to look down… (Good advice on more than one front, trust me.)



Week 7: Pfannkuchen/Berliner: Pancakes vs. Doughnuts [ˈpfanˈkuːxn̩] / [bɛɐˈliːnɐ]

A “Pfannkuchen” is a pancake virtually everywhere in Germany, except in Berlin, where it’s a jam-filled doughnut. In the South of Germany, a jam doughnut would be called a “Krapfen”, whereas in the North you would ask for a “Berliner” – obviously! So the question is: Can John F. Kennedy actually and reasonably be accused to have claimed to be a jam doughnut when he famously proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner”, when this very foodstuff is not even called a Berliner in Berlin? Well, I guess so – if he had been from Northern Germany.

Oh, and by the way: If you would actually like to order a pancake in Berlin, ask for “Eierkuchen” (“egg cake”). Guten Appetit!


Week 8: Querstadtein: “cross city” [ˈkveːɐ̯ʃtatˈain]

Fancy a guided tour around Berlin that is a bit different? Off the beaten track, as it were? Sort of “cross country”, but in the city? Well, you can now go “cross city”, thanks to the social and linguistic entrepreneurial spirit of “querstadtein”, who have taken the German word “querfeldein” (cross country) and adapted it to describe the not-so-well-trodden path they encourage you to take through the urban landscape. This non-profit organisation offers guided tours around Berlin, looking at what it means to be homeless in this bustling city. The tours are led by people who used to be homeless themselves and who will open your eyes to what it is like to be out on the streets, constantly on the move to find food, drink and shelter.

When I took the tour earlier this year, I learned that there are different ways of categorising park benches for a good or bad night’s sleep, depending on how many slats they have or how hard or soft a material they are made of. And that you can use the River Spree as a fridge. But on a more serious note, I also learned that the German government keeps no records or statistics on homelessness. Which made me think: You can’t solve what you can’t measure, right? It strikes me as alarming that there appears to be so little political interest in what is clearly becoming more and more of an issue, as increasing amounts of people struggle to get by. Let’s not be this complacent ourselves. Next time you’re in Berlin, take querstadtein up on their offer to show you what it is really like to be homeless.



Week 9: Trümmerberg: “rubble mountain” [ˈtryːmɐbɛɾk]

Berlin on the whole is pretty flat. So you might rightly wonder where some of those hills come from that can be found in various parks and green spaces across the city. Chances are you are looking at one of 14 “rubble mountains” – literally created from the ruins of World War II. With so many destroyed buildings and bunkers, there was rather a lot of rubble to be got rid of, so what better way to do so than pile it high and cover it all up.

My favourite “Trümmerberg” was the one in Volkspark Hasenheide: Called “Rixdorfer Höhe”, it is 69 metres high and was created from 700,000 cubic metres of rubble. It’s the highest point in the park – which gives you some idea of just how flat Berlin really is!

Trümmerberg Rixdorfer Höhe_ink


Week 10: Schwangere Auster: “Pregnant Oyster” [ˈʃvaŋɐrə ˈaustɐ]

I doubt anyone has actually ever seen a pregnant oyster, but this is clearly what first sprang to mind for Berliners bestowing this loving nickname on what is now the House of World Cultures in Berlin-Mitte: A remarkable listed building constructed in 1957 by US-architect Hugh Stubbins. It was built in a design meant to invoke the idea of complete freedom – hence the characteristically curved roof reminiscent of a pair of wings. Or of an oyster shell, as it were.

Either way, whether you view the building as pertaining to the air or the sea: Do visit the pregnant oyster when you’re in Berlin, there is always something fabulous going on within its walls – excuse me: shell!


© holger doelle [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Week 11: Retourkutsche: “return carriage” [reˈtuːɐˈkʊtʃə]

This refers to the horse-drawn chariot atop the Brandenburg Gate (Quadriga of Victory) and is a bit of a complicated one, so hold on to your hats: The German word “Retourkutsche” was originally used to describe a horse-drawn carriage making a return journey. Over time, the term came to mean a quick and witty comeback to a slur or rude remark, which is how it is still used today.

When Napoleon occupied Berlin in 1806, he reportedly took the Quadriga back to France with him. It was only returned to Berlin in 1814 after the European allies defeated Napoleon. Ever since then, it has been dubbed the Retourkutsche– literally the carriage that has come back (and figuratively inferring that the Germans got their own back by reappropriating it).



Week 12: Neukölln: “New Cologne”? (Almost, but not quite) [ˈnɔʏkœln]

Neukölln, a vibrant and multi-cultural district in the south of Berlin, derives its name from what was in medieval times known as the twin city of Berlin-Cölln. The district comprises a rather large area which used to be called Rixdorf and was renamed Neukölln (“New-Cölln”) in 1912. Why the renaming? Well, this seems to have been something of a rebranding exercise: The city of Rixdorf, with its quarter of a million inhabitants, enjoyed a bit of a dubious reputation during the time of the German Empire. It was viewed as a place of poverty, a socialist hotbed and a breeding ground for vice and debauchery. This didn’t sit well with a small political elite of Rixdorf property owners and investors who, even back then, knew a thing or two about effective lobbying. So in one fell swoop, Rixdorf was rebranded Neukölln in an effort to boost its reputation – and property values to boot.

Since then, Neukölln has seen its fair share of ups and downs, of poverty and prosperity, of people flowing in and others being crowded out.

And today? I will let the images below do the talking.

 Neukölln I Neukölln II