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Sankt Oberholz

Mac users at Sankt Oberholz (Photo by –lucky cat– @Flickr)

As you enter Sankt Oberholz, the most conspicuous café at Rosenthaler Platz, you notice, on all the walls, neatly printed menus. This is a commercial realm, you think. If you turn your head to the right, you see, under the huge menus, never-ending bar tables and, throning on the bar stools, a population of Mac owners. This is a place where one comes to work, you think. If you turn your head to the left, you see a population of PC owners, mixed with a chatting population. This is a place where you can work, you are assured. Meanwhile, your latte, in a tall glass, is ready and you pay. This is a place where English is the first language––you understand. You look for the WiFi password and then notice a glass for tips, in which you spot a paper with a motivating text. “Tipping is not a city in China,” the text said in 2012 (the phrase dates back to 1975 and is attributed to Earl Wilson, I now find out). The current motivator is a drawing of a fish on the bottom of the glass that begs: “Save me, I can only swim in $.”

A film about Sankt Oberholz would have to start with a close-up on this glass, just as the novel of the French writer Patrick Grainville Lumière du Rat starts with the insides of a chicken that the main characters are disemboweling. Pardon the simile, but I think this glass for tips shows what Sankt Oberholz is from the inside(s): a commercial place, yes, but humorous enough to make you forget about it.

The ritual continues. Because most of the tables are quite busy at this, and at any, time you climb the almost spiral staircase, careful not to spill the hot beverage. Once upstairs, you walk in between tables with the same care, while also hunting for a free spot. It is hard to divide your attention. It is very hard. It is hard because it is also dangerous. To convince you that this is not a commercial: our fellow student and blog writer Jelena burned her arm quite badly a couple of years ago while walking upstairs, carrying a glass of tea (luckily, she seems to have a healthy attitude towards the Sankt Oberholz mark). Finally, you feel like a hero when you find a free spot at a table, which you now share with some other 5 or more people. The next step is to locate the extension cords under the table (they are, luckily, ubiquitous, but, unluckily, dusty and crowded with plugs of all species). Here, upstairs, besides the dominant population of Mac users, you can find some people with books. Around, a lot of work meetings, a lot of Skyping. Facebook-flâneurs.

It is not surprising that the place looks like a field of laptops (imagine a field of solar panels) rather than a café. Sankt Oberholz was one of the first venues in Berlin to offer free WiFi. And it worked – tourists, expats, coffee addicts, laptop owners of all kinds gathered like bees to honey. Generally, it is thought of as a very hipster, very techie place. But, again, there is some irony and humor in the way Sankt Oberholz treats its not being quite a typical café (and it is perhaps this that makes it feel so hipster). I already mentioned its humorous attitude towards commerce; I can only add that a typical bill from Sankt Oberholz quotes the title of a webcomic by Sarah Burrini: “Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof” (“Life Ain’t No Ponyfarm”). And, even though minimalistic, the café has some eclectic elements which read almost like a comment on the too eclectic Berlin cafés. For instance, nothing connects the neatly printed menus on the walls on the ground floor with the bizarre bathrooms upstairs, where one can find awkwardly shaped yellow soap on a stick (apparently, a Korean invention), while an absurd radio station plays in the background; nothing but a staircase. The café also has a funny website on which they post, among other things, pictures and descriptions of the objects lost/found in the café. One entry in November 2012 begins: “Somebody forgot an inscribed napkin. The napkin is 16 x 8 cm. It looks exactly like those napkins we use at the café. Somebody wrote on it, “1745772xxx for the cute bartender with the black shirt.” […] We don’t know when this napkin was forgotten, maybe last night already. Since then we had three cute bartenders with a black shirt working”.

I have been trying to look for a rational explanation as to why, in some historical periods of ECLA of Bard’s existence, Sankt Oberholz has been the alternative reading room. Nay, the alternative ECLA – students and sometimes professors seemed to be able to spend days in a row in the café, feeding on nothing but lattes and cappuccinos while reading or writing.

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Music Connecting People

Music Connecting People

The first few weeks of the ISU pushed us into a whirlwind of new impressions consisting of lots of historical and cultural visits all around Berlin, lectures and seminars on Prussia’s history. In between, there are the small night escapades that all of us made individually.

Somewhere in the middle of ISU week two, I decided to stop for a minute and look back at these past two weeks. Something was missing, I realised, and after some thinking, it became clear that somehow we missed the social part of this summer school. How do we get to do some bonding?

The answer to this riddle came out of the blue, in the form of the short and completely spontaneous guitar show that we attended last Wednesday. Peter’s birthday being the excuse for the gathering, we stayed on the lawn in front of our dorms and opened the evening with Radiohead’s well-known Creep.

Before we knew it, other ECLA students joined in and we all sang along to fellow student Andrei’s guitar riff. The familiar sounds of Nirvana, The Cranberries, Damien Rice and Beirut could be heard all around and it was amazing to hear us all coming from different parts of the world and yet sing in unison.

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Think Aloud or Debate

Think Aloud or Debate

The art of speaking is hard to master.

I began my debating career almost three years ago in Pakistan. Slowly and gradually I climbed the ladder of public speaking. It was right after I had achieved a big break in debating that I came to Berlin and found myself in one of ECLA’s seminars, dumbfounded and numb. The article below will reveal a lot of the things I discovered speaking and expressing myself in the seminars and as I started debating with the Berlin Debating Union.

ECLA seminars demanded extreme honesty on extremely difficult and demanding texts. Not only was seminar participation focused on your input about a certain text but other people’s ideas and questions instigated one to participate. It took me some time to understand the actual meaning of this participation and I struggled to speak my heart and mind about philosophers I esteemed. I was so scared having never meddled with them so casually before.

I was also learning what it meant to engage with a literary idea with all your heart and soul. The peer pressure was humungous. Initially everybody noticed your way of speaking, what you had to say and the recurrent theme in your questions and ideas. In close quarters, everyone discussed each other’s way of speaking. Some people were permanent favorites and others marred for good.

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Existentialists On Ice

Existentialists On Ice

During the Christmas break, our Dean Peter Hajnal proposed a trip to Erika Hess Eisstadion Ice Rink as a holiday gift to the students who refused to desert ECLA’s stronghold during the winter break. All of us high-fived each other in excitement and the impatient wait for our ice-skating excursion began.

A few days of waiting for the eagerly anticipated Wednesday afternoon allowed me to fully prepare, both physically and mentally, for my first face-off with an ice rink. While waiting for our excursion I watched countless figure-skating performances and I learned all of the important phrases such as: “Don’t land that Triple Lutz Double Toe so close to the wall,” and “You need to improve your Toe Pick Jump Takeoff.”

Additionally, I researched in minute detail all of the important ice-skating tricks and techniques. For instance, I carefully studied and memorized the following questions: “How does one turn when one is moving really fast,” and “when one jumps and spins, is it better to take off and land on one’s dominant leg?” questions that unfortunately would have absolutely no use for me when I stepped onto the ice.

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Dr. Andrea Despot

Dr. Andrea Despot

When the opening meeting of the ECLA Politics Club was announced, it did not take long before someone came up to me and suspiciously inquired whether the Politics Club was a cheesy debate club. I found this pretty funny and guaranteed the person in question that this was not the case. “Good,” she said, “then I’ll be there.”

Fair enough I thought, for who would possibly want to join a club devoted to banal platitudes and pretentious rhetoric? There is an annoying superabundance of that stuff anyway. To be perfectly honest, I also think that Politics Club is a rather poor label. The almost snotty implications of the word club are enough to lead anyone slightly astray.

What, then, is the ECLA Politics Club all about? Well, the real question is not what the politics club is, but what one makes of it. The Politics Club is very much in its genesis.

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Thanksgiving Turkey

Thanksgiving Turkey

On Thursday November 25, 2010, ECLA celebrated its very first Thanksgiving under the impressive leadership of Lili Pach and Riana Betzler. Students and faculty alike contributed their culinary wisdom to prepare three golden turkeys and a ‘tofurkey’, a large bucket’s worth of mashed potatoes, and all the essential fixins’ of a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, right down to the pumpkin pie dessert.

There was no official headcount, but the estimate is that 20-30 were happily in attendance. Being a unique celebration of Thanksgiving where non-Americans far outnumbered Americans, some post-food-coma reflection on what it was that just took place might illuminate the community to what this phenomenon of Americana culture is all about. The following are some of my own reflections.

The satisfying and soporific spell of tryptophan has been cast upon me, and its languorous effect is quite welcomed. Let this American abroad take the time to say: today was a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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Badminton Tournament

Badminton Tournament

In an ordinary day of October, the brave, the mighty and the talented of ECLA gathered at the SPOK fitness centre for the annual badminton tournament. Grouped in six teams, with each team playing a match against every other team, students and professor alike indulged in the pleasures and pains of badminton. After almost two hours of playing, a little tired, the participants headed towards the centre of the arena to find out the results of their Sunday effort.

Although nobody contested the triumph of the dean, with five consecutive wins and no losses, the announcement of the second place for the team formed by Karen and Jakob caused great stir amongst the participants. Milan, the initial third place runner up, contested the officials’ Martin and Helmich criteria for deciding the final standings, considering it unjust and deeply unfair.

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Football and Angels

Football and Angels

“Every time you lose at dodge-ball an innocent angel dies,” is what my mother used to tell her once meek and sickly son in order to incite a competitive spirit. My mother’s plan worked to perfection. From the very first time I heard that the lives of angels depended on my playground performance, I have seldom lost at anything. The consequence of growing up with this immense responsibility that entails guarding the lives of innocent angels was a firmly established competitive hunger that needs to be regularly satiated.

Coming to the European College of Liberal Arts, I thought that my competitive nature needed to be tamed in order to better fit ECLA’s intellectual environment. But then I discovered the soccer field right behind my dorm. On it, I noticed this round thing and patches of burrowed grass and dirt which told me that the field was recently used. The competitive spirit inside me was suddenly roused and I was compelled to run around the field a few times just to calm down so that I could proceed with other daily activities.

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