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Saturday, 17 June 2017

German interlude: healing divisions



Last Thursday I went to vote in Britain’s surprise election and then got on a plane and left the rest of the country to deal with the fallout. The political situation in Britain is really toxic. But I’d rather talk about my holiday in Germany and the interesting talk on trans matters I had with one of my hosts.

Berlin is a place I’ve been to many times. Fascinating from a historical point of view, if disturbing in so many ways. The city now is vibrant and very liveable, despite the many problems that all big cities have. This time I stayed with good friends, who are a gay couple.


Healing divisions

As far as sightseeing went, I visited Potsdamer Platz, which used to be a bombed out wasteland with the Berlin Wall running through it but is now a buzzing business district with new office blocks and the commercial Sony Centre, a good place for a coffee. Some buildings have been placed right over the old demarcation line, a symbol of the formerly divided city being reunited.

Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz showcases Berlin's modern architecture and reconstruction


Just up the road is the Holocaust memorial that covers the site of Hitler’s infamous Bunker. It’s hard to know how to represent the atrocity and the artist has created an undulating landscape crisscrossed by avenues of concrete blocks that vary in height and tilt, a symbol of the confusion of victims in a supposedly ordered system that has no human connection. It certainly has a weird effect on the mind as you wander into it – you can see a way out, yet you are hemmed by this dark oppressiveness.



The Soviet War Memorial, put up immediately the city was captured, though it subsequently ended up in the British Sector when the city was divided among the four victorious powers, is now open to the public. I am delighted to see that little sparrows have made their nests in the barrels of the two tanks and two guns that form part of the monument.

Soviet T34 tank at Soviet War Memorial. You can just spot the little bird on the gun barrel.

Birdie living in a howitzer


You can’t go to Berlin without taking a photo of the famous Brandenburg Gate …



The German Technology Museum is brilliant. Built around the old train sheds of a bombed station, it has a wonderful collection of railway locomotives and carriages, many locos in the characteristic black with red wheels. The aviation and shipping galleries are superb, too, and the section on rockets is important. I was interested to see a model of the German warships lying on the bed of Scapa Flow, which I visited last year, and that the war rockets and buzzbombs on display were all on loan from British institutions, as if a little kid had asked for his ball back from the neighbour’s yard! Plus, there's a Dakota on the roof!



As well as Berlin itself I took a boat with my friends on the Wannsee lake on the outskirts of the city to Kladow and we enjoyed lunch in a restaurant with a beautiful walled garden shaded by trees. Even in these idyllic spots you can’t get away from grim history, though – the boat passes the house of the Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution was agreed early in 1942, and the nearby Glienicker Bridge is where US and Soviet spies were exchanged during the Cold War.



Life’s better for all now with less political extremism, distrust, hate and violence, I’d say. It’s pointless asking some of contemporary politicians to note this fact, though.


Food and art

There was also the annual asparagus festival in neighbouring Brandenburg. The North European Plain is dull, flat and rural and Brandenburg is a fairly typical part of it. I’ve never been all that excited by asparagus but the stalks grown here in the dark end up ghostly white and plump and, coupled with a local lake fish, the Zander, they makes a tasty dinner. I tried this fish elsewhere with ham and saffron rice and it was even better. By the way, German wheat beers are wonderful.

I also spent a few days in Dresden, rebuilt largely as it was before the 1945 air raids that destroyed the city. And very fine the buildings look, too, like a small-scale St Petersburg that was built at much the same time. They contain some of Europe’s most significant artworks and scientific instruments, collected and commissioned by the Electors of Saxony. Dresden is relatively expensive, though, being a bit of a tourist trap. However, it was very worth visiting.


The Frauenkirche. Controversially bombed, controversially reconstructed. But a building of great beauty and breathtaking boldness in design.

Pretend you're the artist Canaletto who's just been commissioned to paint views of Dresden. You even get an easel to line up your photo!

The beautiful Zwinger palace

Clever reconstruction of historic palaces and neighbouring homes. Modern reinforced concrete frames clad in tiles and stone (some original), with modern plumbing and electrics, lifts, fire safety, etc. Air conditioning outlets replace chimney pots and a typically modern glass roofing covers a courtyard. The topmost Latin inscription reads, "Was reconstructed 1986-2013"

Dresden from the tower of the Schloss: the Opera House and River Elbe. What looks like a Turkish mosque in the background is actually an old cigarette factory!


Crossdressing German style

Although I had brought my makeup and hair with me I didn’t, in the end, go out in full femme. My clothes are virtually all female clothes but are essentially unisex most of the time. The reason was that, although Berlin is full of gay and trans people, my friends felt it was a little more dangerous in their part of town. That’s their official version, which I’m not really convinced by. But, in fact, I think they felt slightly uncomfortable about it since they don’t fully understand trans matters. They already feel a little bit discriminated against and not always well received as a gay couple by their neighbours and perhaps compounding this by being seen in company with a TGirl was more than they felt happy with. I feel one should respect one’s hosts’ wishes, whatever the motive.

But I did have a long chat with one of my friends about crossdressing, which he used to do a lot in his younger years with his mother’s blessing (lucky boy). But for him it was just that he wanted to pretend he was an air hostess or a princess, just for play. It was the role that was important. He felt puzzled when I said I dress as a woman because it’s the easiest way for people to identify what I am and that I want to be treated as a woman, and I felt he was challenging me to prove I wasn’t just adopting a role as he used to do. It’s hard to prove something that you yourself don’t understand and nobody has yet come up with an explanation for. I think part of the lack of understanding that gay people have for trans people stems from the fact that, although we are often lumped together, there is no direct connection between sexuality and gender. Being gay (or straight) is about who you like to sleep with; being trans is who you feel you are.

Just to round this off, you may like to know that one ruler from the junior lines of the house of Saxony, Augustus the Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg (reigned 1804-1822), was evidently transgender and liked to be called Emilie. (His grandson Albert was Queen Victoria’s husband.) And it seems like he was not the only one in that extended family to be. You see, you can't get away from the fact that transgender people have existed throughout history. Yet history shows also how little understood we are.


Emilie in boy mode

Mainly, though, I feel rested and that can only be good after a difficult 12 months.

Sue x


Sunday, 4 June 2017

Face 2 Face Time, a play about being trans in a relationship


Last week I went to Putney Arts Theatre in South West London to see seven new short plays about “Love in the Time of Tinder”.

In case you don’t know, Tinder is a dating app. A bit like Pokemon Go, the idea is you swipe to find monsters in your area!

The main reason I went, apart from having the opportunity to make the cheap joke above, is the fact that I love live theatre and that local performances can often be as good or better than shows at the main theatres, and that one of the plays was written by my friend Grace Johnstone. And it was about being trans and in a relationship. What’s not to like?

Just to run through the other six playlets first. They were all very good, well-written and well-performed, all entertaining and thought-provoking with much humour and plenty of opportunities for the audience to recognise themselves in the characters, behaviour and situations.

Fifteen Minutes: literally that, about a somewhat awkward speed dating event linked to an app, veering between funny and cringemaking. A good insight into how digital life can take over real connection between people.

It’s Complicated: a longer play with various scenes, a lot of laughs and time to develop characters, namely a man and a woman who are pressed by their respective friends to get back out there after the end of previous relationships. I found the last scene, when the would-be couple who have been messaging finally meet in a bar, very realistic and well performed. I very much liked this one.

Party Poopers: a man obsessed with breasts and a happily divorced woman meet at a party, not accidentally it would seem. Their very different outlooks create an edgy encounter with some sharp dialogue.

A Human Heart: you wonder throughout what this rather disturbing situation is all about, where a couple are subjected to intense and intimate questioning about their relationship; only at the very end does the purpose of the test become clear. Despite the emotional discomfort of the test, they pass where all others have failed.

Delayed: This was, along with Grace’s, the most humane of the plays and the only one in which there was a kiss, a lovely, sweet heart-warming kiss. I went “aww!” at that point. Two commuters chat briefly each morning on a London station platform but, like most commuters, are more tied up with their iPods and dating apps than the nice person next to them, until the end.

Seeing Red: This appealed, too. A bumbling prejudiced guy scoffs at the modern art at a gallery before realising he’s insulting two of the artists. A sad mistake, since they are undoubtedly desirable! Sharp dialogue.



The penultimate play was Face 2 Face Time, Grace’s work. Arguably the most serious of the plays, I immediately recognised the situation only too well: TGirls chatting online about coming out to their partners, and one who does so dramatically by quite literally coming out to her girlfriend from her hiding place fully dressed and made up.

One of the regular props in these plays was a pair of giant smartphones and here they were used to good effect, backlit with two M2F trans people appearing in sideways silhouette as they chatted to each other, a conversation held a thousand times over on every trans forum and chat site. To me that was almost like watching a documentary, although it was presumably a new take on revelations/confessions to the rest of the audience. I felt that although I knew the situation, the fact that the two trans women were played by female actresses might have confused the audience; at least, I think if I wasn’t trans I’d have been puzzled by what was happening there. Maybe having two male actors, but with female wigs, so the silhouette was feminine, though not totally, and you got the deeper voices that are usually characteristic of us M2F trans people, would have made the audience realise that something more unusual was afoot. However, that would have reduced the surprise of Dave in the next scene emerging dressed into the limelight and his girlfriend’s view for the first time.

Dave, though nervous as hell, is honest and explains his other side fully to his girlfriend, and there’s a lot to explain. I’m sorry that the audience laughed when he declared “I’m Gemma” but I think they accepted – as Dave’s girlfriend did – that here was a relationship that could still work, even thrive, with hard work and compromise. Food for thought.

I suppose the real challenge for Grace was to get such a large amount of information on transgender issues and relationships into just 15 - 20 minutes. Like I say, it was a more serious play than the others but I think the audience warmed to Dave/Gemma and did somewhat root for his girlfriend Sarah who was determined to make a go of it. If I’d not been trans I might have got lost on some of the concepts and jargon (what’s “transition”?)

It’s hard for me to be objective when I recognise so much of myself and my own life there, so let me refer you to Maggie Dixon’s review (link above) as she was impressed and much moved by this play.

The one puzzle – and this is largely because, although she had written it, Grace did not get involved with the staging of the play - was that Gemma dressed seemingly in Indian style: kurti or shift dress, loose leggings and flats. But we all know, of course, that TGirls always dress in leather miniskirts, stockings and skyscraper heels! So that didn’t work. (Only kidding, although it was an unusual selection by the props department).

Sadly, the plays were on only for one week. But I hope they will be performed again soon, in their home in Putney or elsewhere. There wasn’t a single dud play there and one of them is that all-important trans one. A very enjoyable evening. It’s a nice little theatre, too, and right in the middle of this bustling suburb of London.

Sue x