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material culture, migration and everyday life

Tag: material culture

Letters from the field, Berlin #4: neighborhood life and shopping

On an evening spent at home, at the beginning of my stay in Berlin, I felt like eating something sweet. As I had nothing decadent enough at home, I decided to pop to the nearest Späti to buy a chocolate bar. The Späti, or in its complete formulation, Die Spätkauf, is a kind of convenience store in Berlin that stays open out of hours.

On the way there, I took the time to make a phone call. I entered Späti while still on the phone and was taking time to choose the chocolate I wanted. At one point the gentleman behind the counter started to speak at me angerly, and with gestures seemed to send me out and finish the call on the street. I interrupted the call and exchanged a few unsavoury words with him, before leaving the shop with my chocolate because I had no alternative place to buy it at that time in the evening.

When I got home and told my German co-inhabitants what happened, the answer I got from them was that my attitude had been disrespectful, as “in Germany, people behind the counter want to be treated as people” and not ignored, as was the case. I realized that even though I said a distracted and perhaps barely audible hallo! when I entered the shop, having been on the phone all the time without trying to make a casual conversation with the Späti’s attendant, had been an attitude that was beyond impolite, too impersonal for what would be expected in this context. My idea that anonymity and impersonality would be normal in a city the size of Berlin turned out to be unmistakably wrong.

The Späti is a convenience store where we can buy newspapers and magazines, the lottery, the occasional soda or beer, a packaged snack, or collect our DHL parcels. Both the store itself, and the person behind the counter – who usually owns the store -,  are viewed as a neighbourhood institution.

Going back to that night, as I continued my account about the unpleasant exchange of words between the Späti and myself, one of my interlocutors stared at me with some shock and disbelief, as if I had committed heresy and said “oh no, you don’t want to mess with the Späti”, further proving the symbolic power of this institution in Berlin society.

The outside of a Späti (which is also a DHL parcel shop) in my neighbourhood.

I have observed that, despite being a big city, Berlin has in its neighbourhoods the centre of the daily life of its inhabitants. One of the things that stands out when strolling through the various districts of Berlin is that there is no clear separation between residential, work, shopping and leisure areas. I have also been observing in the neighbourhood where I live that the street remains dynamic throughout the day, animated whether by traditional commerce and small businesses or by the infrastructure that enables people not to have to move far from building where they live to carry on with daily life in all of its dimensions.

A focal point in my neighbourhood, with the fenced playground and ping-pong table in the background and a sitting area in front of the pharmacy.

The interaction between neighbours in public space is constant. The green spaces mark the urban landscape. In gardens and parks, people sit and talk while sipping a beer bottle or sharing a bottle of wine; birthday parties and barbecues take place on the lawns among larger and noisier groups. Playgrounds with swings and a sand area, spot every corner, and are the meeting place for parents and young children: children play barefoot with shovels and buckets in the sand while parents sitting on benches or the floor talk to each other while watching over the children. The pavement outside the ice cream parlours are also popular places for parents and children to hang out.

Geladaria em Prenzlauer Berg.

Another traditional area of ​​the neighbourhood is the bakery, in German Bäckerei. This is where one buys bread and rolls daily. The bakery also sells a variety of cakes – slices or the entire thing -, serves coffee, juices, and quick meals for breakfast, such as eggs and sausage. Essential goods that a Berlin home cannot miss, such as eggs, milk or butter are also available. There are less traditional, more gourmet bakeries in more affluent or gentrified neighbourhoods, which announce the sale of the fashionable sourdough bread, the use of organic ingredients, and offer the same kind of small meals as traditional bakeries, but made with rarer and more expensive ingredients such as avocado

The neighbourhood shopping network also includes the pharmacy, pubs selling drinks and the occasional schnitzel, cafés where small groups can be found enjoying their Kaffee und Kuchen, small restaurants and hairdressers… This network seems to be highly valued by both older and younger residents, both Germans and foreigners. The attendants, who often own the business, exchange greetings and short but friendly conversations with customers. These exchanges are a good source of neighbourhood news.

The inside of a bakery in Lichtenberg. All rights reserved.

Leaving the heart of the neighbourhood, in only a few minutes we can reach one of the main arteries of the district, whatever is the district, where commerce gains another dimension. These busiest streets and avenues are what the British call the high street. There we find the drugstore, a reference in everyday shopping in Berlin. DM and Rossman are the most well-known drugstore chains. There is at least one – oftentimes more – in every main street. There, toiletries and household items can be bought. There is also the make-up section, photo development section, an area for baby clothing and other baby articles, and a section with some organic packaged goods such as biscuit, cereals spices, teas and sauces, usually cheaper than in organic supermarkets.

The supermarkets are also located on the high street. With or without car parking facilities, the truth is that walking or cycling is privileged in Berlin, because in this continuity between residential and shopping areas, the distances are never long. The types of supermarkets are varied: from discounters like Netto, Penny, Aldi or Lidl, to the more regular ones like Edeka, Rewe or Kaufland. With hygiene products purchased at the drugstore, grocery shopping in supermarkets is usually limited to food items.

The already traditional Turkish supermarkets, located in both residential and main arteries, usually have a colourfull and attractive fruit and vegetable stand outside. Inside, products from the Middle East, fresh bread spreads, and thick Turkish yoghurt, along with fruits and vegetables, attract non-Arab clients.

The outside of a Turkish supermarket in Treptow.

Organic supermarkets can also be of a smaller size in the heart of neighbourhoods, or they may belong to a chain, and these are usually located in the high street. The best-known chains are Bio Company, Denn’s, Alnatura or LPG. In these supermarkets, fruits and vegetables are privileged by buyers, as well as dairy products and eggs, not only because they are of biological origin, but also because there are regional and local options available.

Regional tomatoes in a bio supermarket.

It has been interesting to observe and talk with our participants about how this neighbourhood and shopping culture and dynamics influence the consumption habits of Portuguese migrants in Berlin. So, to learn more about this, stay tuned to TRANSITS.

Until next time!

Diana

Letters from the field, Berlin #3 – A Portuguese supermarket in Berlin

Very near the Portuguese Embassy in Berlin, there is a Portuguese Supermarket which everyone has been telling me about ever since I arrived. The Portuguese families I have met, very rarely shop there, but they all have visited the supermarket at least once. They may go there looking for specific items for a special occasion like when they want to showcase Portuguese cuisine to friends or to get something for themselves as a “cure” for homesickness.

The supermarket displays many of the familiar food brands, bearing packages and tastes that remind us of home. Foods from Spain and South America can also be found. The corner café at the entrance serves coffee (including the Portuguese espresso, bica) and Portuguese pastries, but also homemade food cooked more to the taste of what is commonly served in other German cafés and restaurants. Indeed, the cashier informs me, most of the costumes are German who either live or work around the area, but also tourists staying in the next door hostel.

Cinnamon, a classic ingredient of patry cooking.

 

Candy.

Fried potatoes chips cut in the form of match sticks are an ingredient of one of our favourite salted cod recipes: bacalhau à Brás

Frozen salted cod fish.

One of the better-known rice brands.

One of the better-known pasta brands.

Soft drinks.

Water and beer.

 

Olive oil.

International brands like Nestle, own national brands with which we have a longstanding familiarity.

Wheat and corn flours.

The two better-known breakfast oats for children.

In the café, I had a bica (espresso) and a pão de ló cake.

More pastries in display at the café.

Petiscos including cold meats and seasoned olives.

 

 

Letters from the field – Berlin, week 1

12 April 2019

It has become common place to say that the ethnographer’s self is very much a part of ethnography and ethnographic writing. I argue that this statement is truer for the ethnographer who has to move from her country into a new country and city in order to do research, here about migrants… specially if those migrants have moved from that same country and into that same new city, albeit for different reasons.
The ethnographer in question is me. I was born and raised in Portugal and moved to Berlin last week in order to do ethnography with Portuguese families living in Berlin. If we exclude the personal variables of motivations, objectives and, off course, length of stay, I, as an ethnographer am following the steps of the migrants who will participate in the research.
Furthermore, when your intention as an ethnographer is to understand material culture and consumption, a dimension of your subjects’ life which is probably present in a similar way in your own life, putting yourself in your subject’s shoes becomes a fairly easy exercise. Just like the migrants I am about to meet, I too had to pack; I had to select what I wanted to take and, upon my arrival I had to find the things that I cannot envisage myself living without on my everyday life.
Thus, for the purpose of this blog post, I am going to write about myself and the choices I have made regarding my traveling to and settling in Berlin.

Moabit

Upon arrival at Tegel airport, I took the TXL bus. Direction: Alexander Platz. The destination: my neighborhood, Moabit. As I approached the end of my ride, the bus entered Turmstraße, a very densely commercial street, filled with burger, pizza and doner kebab restaurants, Turkish coffee shops, small supermarkets with fresh vegetable street stands. I could also spot some organic/natural/biologic trendy supermarkets.

Turmstraße, a main street in Moabit.

A quick online search had already taught me that Moabit is a neighborhood of Mitte, located in the west side of the central district, bordering Charlotteburg district, and was adjacent to the former Berlin Wall. For this reason, Moabit has always had a peripheral status, whether because it was where unified Central Berlin ends or West Berlin ended. The internet also told me that Moabit has historical working-class roots, which combined with its peripheral yet central location makes it affordable and attractive for newcomers. Statistically, Moabit is Berlin’s neighborhood with the largest first and second generation migrant population.
As I hopped off the bus and followed the path suggested to me by google maps to get to my new home, I entered an area in Moabit known as Westfälisches Viertel (or Westphalian district), a more bourgeois residential area, south of Turmstraße, bordering the Spree river and Tiergarten. Shops became more scarce and more expensive: bistros and bakeries mostly.

A view over the Spree river to Westfälisches Viertel in south Moabit.

I arrived at my destination and met my landlady in whose elegant house I will be renting a large and very comfortable bedroom for an affordable price. “I know how researchers struggle” my landlady points out. Indeed.

My things

In my bag, I had packed, of course, some clothes, shoes and personal hygiene and beauty products, but I decided to buy some hygiene and beauty products in Germany because I was told that they are cheaper here. For example, I had packed some rose water, which I can get for a cheap price at home and I wasn’t sure whether I was going to find some here. However, I discovered they are a very common item in Turkish shops. I also brought many packs of carob-porridge, which I was sure I wasn’t going to find here. Although this porridge is sold under an international brand, the production and selling are exclusive to Portugal. I also packed a bottle of wine to present to my landlady. With wine being a usually appreciated national product, I felt I couldn’t go wrong. I chose from my own collection of favorite wines a bottle from the region of Alentejo, a region known for its please-all wines. I didn’t pack olive oil, which I wanted to do but wasn’t sure about the correct way to store it to avoid spillage. I wish I had dedicated the time to find a way because olive oil (good quality like the one that is produced where I live) is much more expensive here!

Bags of carob porridge, rose water and a bottle of wine.

The day I arrived, my landlady was kind enough to take me around her favorite places to shop in Turmstraße. So on that first outing I bought the essential hygiene products I had purposely not brought: toothpaste, soap, shampoo, conditioner and night cream. I bought them in a DM shop, which is a chain with many shops across Berlim that sell hygiene and beauty products, household items, healthcare items, healthy food and so on… Then, in a Turkish shop which my landlady recommended for their fresh vegetables and fruit street stand, I shopped for food essentials: eggs, milk and flat bread. I also looked for instant coffee, which I later found out is as scarce product, specially in a Turkish shop, since Turkey is known for their particular method of coffee preparation. I instantly regretted not packing some instant coffee as well.

Fruit and vegetable street stand of a “turkish supermarket”.

Despite these minor glitches in my anticipation of the type of products available and their pricing, I was happy to be returning home from my first outing with enough products to have a shower and cook some eggs for breakfast on my first morning in Berlin.

A bar of soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and face cream.

Eggs and milk.

 

Mobility

My next priority for my days in Berlin: mobility. I had done some online scouting for information about public transport in Berlin and had been told about how efficient it was, with its integrated system of U-bahn, S-bahn, trams and buses. However I couldn’t help but notice the amount of bikes circulating at all times, as well as how cycling infrastructure seems to be a priority in the city. There are bike lanes and bike-parking places everywhere I look; my own building has a bike garage! Bikes are allowed inside public transport without charge, and meters away from my door are two shops that sell new and second hand bikes, and also do bike maintenance.

Bicycle parking.

A bicycle “garage” of an apartment building.

On my first days in Berlin, the weather was almost20ºC. There was an atmosphere of spring celebration in the air, the trees blooming in small pink and white cherry blossom flowers, kids playing in the parks and adults simply sitting down on benches or on the grass, enjoying the sun. I walked around my district, and went further to adjoining districts. When the time came to using public transport to reach more distant areas, I found myself wondering why so many people cycle in Berlin. I spoke with my landlady about it, and she said that using a bike is easy in Berlin, since the city is flat. Furthermore, I could observe that even on weekdays and peak hours, cars are at a minimum, which could only make cycling in Berlin safe. On considering that I would need to move around the city to get to know it and to meet participants in the research with more distant districts being at least a twenty-minute ride away, I decided to enter one of the shops near my house to investigate the price range for bikes. On my second visit, I was happy to leave the shop with a second-hand bike in mint condition for the price of 3 months of the BVG monthly pass. Hopefully the bike will make it easier to get to know this huge city.
Until next time,
Diana

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