As usual, the chairs were empty at Rizgar's Café because the regulars were all leaning on the counter. The Café del Tercer Mundo, to give Rizgar's Cafe its full name, is in Berlin, in the Kreuzberg district, which in the 1980s was well known for its political squatter movements as much as being home to very successful counter-culture groups.
The Kreuzberg of today is not even a pale shadow of what it used to be. Berlin's police (der Polizei) would race through the streets of Kreuzberg in their green-and-white Volkswagens, usually in a hurry just to get away from there. Kreuzberg was not anti-establishment or disestablishment or any position vis-à-vis an establishment. It was Berlin's 'multi-kulti' before that slightly silly Deutsch term was swiped by the political parties to promote stuffy old Deutschland as open-minded and welcoming (hoots and jeers from Kreuzberg).
The banner reads 'Solidarität mit dem Griechischen volk' (solidarity with the Greek people), at a protest in Berlin about the social impacts of financial collapse
Rizgar is Kurdish, and I had met him on a bus many years ago. We were travelling to Nürnberg, and in those days there was still an Ost Deutschland (East Germany or, as it was more correctly called, der Deutsche Demokratische Republik, and more simply, 'DDR'). Once you left the borders of Berlin - it was strange to leave a city through a continuous and well-defined international border - your vehicle was not permitted to stop until you crossed the next frontier, about three hours away if you were travelling south. That's how it was. If your car or bus broke down on the way, it was a catastrophe and West Germans I heard of who had experienced such an incident seemed unable to shake off the trauma.
We had travelled together and shared some sandwiches and coffee, both being rather broke (one in Third World, del Tercer Mundo, terms and the other in ethnic refugee terms). When we got off the bus at Nürnberg hauptbahnhof I took down his address in Berlin and promised to visit for a meal. He lived with a family he said in Kreuzberg and I was pleased to hear that because I knew the district well. I didn't keep the promise, South-Eastern Europe became a war zone, Deutschland reunified, and Kreuzberg was gentrified to an unbearable degree - where once you heard fierce political arguments in Farsi, Pushto, Dari and Azerbaijani you now heard clueless multimedia tyros babbling about online democracies as they sipped bland transatlantic coffees. It was all too much.
The small, diesel-powered Trabant, the East German car which went from people's auto in the East to collectible in the West
About three years ago I found by utter chance and happy circumstance that Rizgar had returned to Berlin and was running a small cafe. It wasn't in Kreuzberg, which had become even more unbearable now that tourists were also wandering through it, looking for evidence of 'squatter resistance' as described in the more sensational tourist pamphlets, and now that antique dealers, bric-a-brac merchants, boutique bars, internet cafes, financial hedge fund offices, renewable energy startups and yoga centres had all flocked to the buildings emptied of squatters. Blundering about in their eagerness to spread goodness and marzipan, these new Kreuzbergers are about as substantial as characters from Noddy in Toyland.
Worse, many of them believe that the European Central bank is a Good Thing and that European social democracy is a Good Idea. Sickened and saddened and surrounded by incense and stock options, the old Kreuzbergers moved out. They couldn't go to Prenzlauer Berg, which used to be in East Berlin those days, but which had the similar sort of urban topology, because Prenzlauer Berg had also been overrun by the same lot of goofy invaders. So some dispersed to West Deutschland (we still call it that, it's a habit, but it only means the Germany which used to be West Germany) and others formed loose communities and repaired to Friedrichshain in north-central Berlin, which in the old days was also East Berlin, but has resisted the invaders.
'Was that really how the Wall fell?' A couple in Berlin ponder photographs of 1989
It is here in Friedrichshain that Rizgar has found a place for Café del Tercer Mundo. There are a few partners and they cook, serve, clean and moderate the daily discussion, which is easily the most strenuous job. Some Kreuzberg old-timers are among the regulars, and Rizgar makes an effort to include the new arrivals who he thinks have something useful to say. There is Pascoal the hydraulics engineer, there is Berta who runs a small bookshop, there is Mehmet who installs elder-friendly furniture and fixtures in the apartments of people who refuse to be carted off to the senioren-wohnheims of Berlin, there is Rudi who coaches children at football (or soccer, as the "Amis" know it, he always says with a grin, and "Amis" is old slang for Americans), there is Devaki who is a manager of the neighbourhood LPG store (the cooperative which brings organic produce into fair-price shops based on community-supported agriculture models), there is Miroslav who ran a private radio station in Romania until he was hunted out by the state police. There are more such individuals, only a few below 45, because the strength of the Kreuzberg generation is in their experience and that comes with tough years and not college degrees.
They are socialist, to varying degrees, and partial to as many forms of socialist praxis and method as there are cigarette butts in the ashtrays on the counter. They despise what the Deutsch state has become, but they will not run away to a tax haven - as others have done - or run away to pursue a lucrative but culturally sterile career in some foreign land. They instead prefer to rebuild the essence and spirit of the old Kreuzberg community, never mind that there is no longer a Kreuzberg and that every day they have to politely but firmly shunt glib pretenders out of the neighbourhood who come looking for some crumbling piece of 1960s real estate upon which to erect a spa or hedge fund office or erotic shop.
"At first we tried political arguments but this lot knows nothing about politics and used to take out their cheque books," Berta had said one evening. "Then we found the cultural argument works best - by which we tell them that the neighbourhood is full of rather poor unemployables who will make their clientele nervous. That's when they get the message and go away."
A caravan for tourism promotion in Paris - the ironic symbol that some can travel (citzens) but other travellers are 'problems' (Roma)
She is exasperated that other things, equally revolting, stubbornly refuse to go away. Deutschland is home to a medley of right-wing groups, some merely loony, others whose only agenda is violence and the spread of racial hatred. Deutschland is run by a ruling cabal, supported by en export-obsessed industry, intent on tearing down the social welfare framework that helped support the intellectual freedom and social experiments of the 1970s and 1980s, and which in turn sowed many of the communal and participatory ideas that have in the last decade taken root all over Europe.
"Can we export the squatter manifesto, Berta?" Miroslav one evening mischievously asked. "Can we turn it into a development project and get Angie's nutcases to sponsor its export?" (Angie is the more polite name for Angela Merkel, Deutschland's chancellor.) "We can attach a royalty clause if Rizgar can find a way to patent the process. Maybe America is a good market now (they have a funny system where they measure their economy according to housing). Maybe Africa still is. Who knows these days - we may even franchise the whole thing and retire in Monaco."
But Rizgar is historically serious when he steers the discussion towards the Roma, they who were rounded up in the France of Sarkozy and sent home on a one-way ticket each with two plastic bags of their belongings for company. "There's no liberté, egalité and fraternité in France if you're Roma," he said. Rizgar hasn't talked about his years as a Kurdish refugee, the beginning of which I unknowingly shared on that bus ride long ago to Nürnberg.
His is a practical view of what the Eurocrats in Brussels like to call the 'European Project', as if they are lofty beings distributing the most elementary lesson of social justice and equality to an untutored and brutish population. The Eurocrats - sadly there are thousands of these creatures, and they are attended to by scores of national agencies, departments, institutions and other formal paraphernalia no one can correctly name in any of the European Union's 28 official languages, nor could they find suitable adjectives and expletives to describe this noisome menagerie in all Europe's dialects.
Toy cars spell 'love' in a Berlin shop window. Cars, globalisation and social democracy go together, don't they?
"Remember what Charles de Gaulle's diagnosis was of 1965?", said Pascoal one evening, when a particularly palatable bottle of retsina had been found. "He said, 'The general progress has left a cloud hanging over the individual; the old serenity of nations of peasants certain of a mediocre but secure existence on the land, has been replaced in the children of the century with a stifling fear of the uprooted'. And now we are surrounded by these educated misanthropes."
"You know, we thought we saw the last of that nonsense when the Ost Bloc collapsed," said Miroslav, "Because for eight out of ten people from anywhere behind the Iron Curtain (now there's a label I don't get to use much nowadays) which means Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians and Poles, the gypsy was the incarnation of the diabolical other. That's why in the 1990s, Czech president Vaclav Havel (the rest of Europe liked to hear him called the philosopher-president, remember?) tore down a ghetto in which his own people wanted to see the 'travelling folk' incarcerated. So strange isn't it, that the old and completely irrational fear of the gypsy, the Roma, has not found its way into fear of globalisation, where everything - especially money but also people - has to do with travelling?"
And so it goes in Rizgar's Café. They deride the pronouncements of the ruling social democrats which amount to a Euroland intellectual revolution (haven't we had those already Angie?) spreading from the citadels of the prosperous nations. They mock the minty-mouthed Greens of Euroland for their enthusiasm in mowing down GM plants in front of the TV cameras of news channels, but whose blundering silence on the Roma deportations is matched only by their eagerness to clutch the sooty certificates of bogus carbon emission reductions. The Kreuzberg veterans are alive and well and they tell us, over old bock and home-made goulasch, that the right to informed errancy is what makes democracy tick.