Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A cold day in Leipzig

I went to Leipzig on Monday as part of my new project to check out as many post-Socialist cities as possible before I die. The first thing I did when I got off the train was walk accross the street to the tourist information office. I got stuck in a line. Being bored, I began listening to the conversation of the lady who was preventing me from getting back on the streets and seeing the sights.

She was Russian but spoke decent enough German. The lady serving her was about 60 and, based on her accent, most definitely had spent her life in the Leipzig area. They kept talking and talking and the Leipziger then asked her co-worker (who was just standing around rather than answering my questions) for help.

I officially began eavesdropping. Turns out the Russian lady wanted to find Ho Chi Minh Street. Soon after East Germany became Germany, they changed street names in a hurry. I assume they thought it would some how bring closer them to Capitalism a little more quickly. Karl Marx Square became Augustus Square and Ho Chi Minh Street become something else. Nobody knows what (at the tourist office).

Turns out, the Leipzig tourist info lady was no help. More so, however, because she didn´t know how to spell Ho Chi Minh. The Russian was of no help. She tried to tell the woman to look up Ho T-S-C-H-I Min. I guess that is the litteral transliteration of Хо Ши Мин

The Leipzig lady says to her co-worker. "Do you know how to spell Ho Chi Minh?"

Response: "Ho Tschi Min?"

Leipzig lady: "Ja, Ho Tschi Min. He was some sort of Asian Communist leader."

So what really got me was, after being in post-Socialist Leipzig for about 4 minutes, that the person who was supposed to be able to tell me about the city she had been living in since about 1950 didn´t even know where Ho Chi Minh was from. This woman lived in Communist East Germany for East Germany´s entire existance and was about 20 in 1969 when good old Ho kicked the bucket.

In school, all these people learned about were the other Communist "Friendship Countries". And she didn`t know how to spell Ho freaking Chi freaking Minh.

I decided to tell them. I went out on a limb and guessed Ho Chi Minh. The German guy, probably from the West (based on the fact that he was a tourist), confirmed the fact that this 25 year-old Canadian was right. Soon after, the Leipzig lady was able to tell the Russian that she couldn`t find the street.

PS - Ho Chi Minh even in freaking Vietnamese is spelled Hồ Chí Minh

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


There is a charming little town on the Polish border, a mere 20 kilometres away from what is referred as the most depressing city in Germany and 21 kilometres away from an equally depressing, but cheaper, city in Poland. This place is called Eisenhüttenstadt, directly translated as Ironhutcity. More properly translated, it would be called Ironworksville. Either way, it doesn't scream cosmopolitan.

It first caught my attention because trains going to the airport in Berlin ultimately end up there. The name was so alluring, I had to know more. And was I ever in for a surprise. Turns out, when they built this very well-planned city in the early 1950s, they were planning on calling it Karl-Marx-Stadt. But then the man himself, Stalin, died. So screw Karl Marx. The man who single handedly liberated half of Europe from Fascism should at least get his name on a symmetrical, industrial, small town. So they changed their plans and were set on Stalin-Stadt. They tossed Karl-Marx-Stadt on to Chemnitz, and let the worship begin.

All they gave old Karl was a street name.

Then crisis. Turns out Stalin was a bad guy. And Karl-Marx-Stadt was already in use. So, like any urban planner would do, they chose Ironhutville and kept on building.

Captivated by this story, I decided I should go there. It just happened to be, however, the most dead city of 35,000 people I have ever seen. My little sister, Lizz, was visiting. She only had 5 days in Germany and I decided to make her spend one of them in Ironhutville. It was like a residential neighbourhood of East Berlin, but empty.
We did the rounds and checked out the Russian monument. Then we decided to go to Frankfurt Oder, Germany's most depressing city, on the Polish border. In comparison, it was a centre of action and culture. License plates from as far away as Hanover were rushing over the border to buy cheap lettuce and pickles in Polish supermarkets.

Here I am in Germany's other Frankfurt.

After the Capitalist take over of the German Democratic Republic, they stripped Karl Marx of all his glory and renamed Chemnitz Chemnitz. With the name again available, it is unfortunate that Ironhutville has yet to reclaim is orginially intended glory.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I first learned about the Euro in 1999 when the Europeans (originators of the Euro) invented themselves a digital currency. In 2002, it hit the markets and ever since there's been a Euro Zone, and I can go from Portugal to Andalusia and back again without having to make any currency conversions.

The Germans had it easy. Two marks bought them one Euro, so they switched systems in typical German fashion very quickly. The French were more stubborn about things. To this day, they have a law that forces grocery stores (and other places where Euros are used) to include the price of everything in both Euros and francs on the shelves and on the receipts.

The Spanish, however, do both and neither. They don't mess around like the French do. If the ham now costs 2 euros, well that is what they are going to talk about. However, the Spanish are seemingly incapable of understanding large sums of money in anything but the monetary system they have been using since 1869 when Spain joined the "Latin Monetary Union"

So when you tell a Spaniard that your new Seat (Spanish car) cost 15,000 Euros, he is dumbfounded. He just can't grasp how much that could possibly be. To deal with large sums, the Spaniard converts the Euro value into the much less valuable Peseta. So instead, with a straight face, he prefers to tell you that his car cost a mere two million, four hundred and ninety-five thousand, seven hundred and ninety pesetas. Just to keep things simple.

The Spanish insistence on complicating big numbers with even bigger ones is even more problematic, however, because they don't have a cool 2 to 1 conversion rate like the Germans do. Instead, numbers like 24,000 need to be multiplied by 166! That way a BMW's price makes sense. In clean, solid, traditional pesetas.

This mathematical nightmare leads to me never really believing a Spaniard when he tells me how much something costs.

Ben: How much does an apartment cost in Barcelona.
Spaniard: 66 million pesetas.
Ben: What the hell are you saying?
Spaniard: A euro is 60, Si. 160. So that means about 300,000 euros.

This average Spaniard just divided sixty-six million by 160 in about 3 seconds. As a result, he was off by more than 100,000 Euros.

What makes them lack even more credibility, however, is the fact that unlike the French, the official price is no longer quoted in the old currency. To to get to the sum of 66 million, at some point in the past they had to multiply some number like 400,000 by 166. Given their rapid division skills, I doubt their abilities to mulitply on the fly. So I am never really sure they know how much they paid for their apartment. They thought they were getting a place for a mere 66 million, but it actually cost them 500,000 Euros.

So once the original Euro price has been muliplied on the fly by 160 and then divided again by 160, I get told how much something in Spain is worth, even though it wasn't bought nor will it be sold for that price.