Berlin

I think Berlin is one of the most interesting cities in Europe! There are many layers of history in this city and I found some of the most intriguing neighbourhoods and street art there. The guidebook said “Berlin is poor but sexy” and I found it an apt description. There seems to be a lack of funds for a lot of flashy (and useless) things but the city has a lot of spirit and the run-down (but always working) facilities help add to its real and unpretentious character.

IMG_20140622_125104I arrived in Berlin on a Saturday evening where the world cup games were being shown everywhere on the streets. After watching the second half of a disappointing Iran-Argentina match, I stepped out into the streets and in the space of three hours had experienced an underground techno party, a gypsy band playing live, a wild gay parade dance party on the streets and a huge atmospheric electronic music club. Pretty cool!

The next day, I went for some more exploring with an old high school friend I had not seen in 15 years and connected through Facebook! He kindly gave me a tour of the city including a really cool neighbourhood called Keruzberg-Friedrichshain with lots of alternative shops and restaurants and bookstores. There is a very strong Turkish presence in Germany and while it seems there are some challenges in integration, their presence adds a unique flavour and diversity to the city. One evening, I invited friends to a Turkish restaurant called Hasir which is apparently the place where donair kebab was invented! It was a nice place where I eat a couple of times more before leaving Berlin (especially they have tripe soup which was heavy but really tasty).

20140623_203335The next day, I visited another german friend whom I had met in Toronto last summer and he also gave me a tour of the interesting places in East Berlin, including a cool bar called White Trash Fast Food! The area where this club was, around the Spree River looks rough with lots of graffiti and tattooed punk people but is actually safe and friendly. It gave me an image of Berlin as this mean-looking guy in black leader and mohawk who is actually very sensitive, loves flowers and watches children animation!

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There seems to be a lot of political interest in Berlin with some people living in communal houses and believing in the ideal of a socialist society. One day, I saw a big protest with lots of people wearing black clothes and running with big red flags. Before seeing the flags I thought they might be neo-nazis but they were actually anarchists and were protesting against immigrants being evacuated from a school! I had brought a book on revolutionary thought in South America really enjoyed reading it in this atmosphere.

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Graffiti is on another level in Berlin: you can see amazing work both outside, for example, at the East Side Gallery which is a surviving part of the Berlin Wall, or at the Hamburger Banhoff which is a really cool modern art museum. Speaking of the Berlin wall, I was very aware of the dark 20th century history of Berlin. It would be easy to spend weeks exploring the history of the city. You can visit the area where all the Nazi buildings once stood and read about the buildings and people who have vanished from there like smoke. Or you can go to the former East Berlin and see watch towers from which people would have been shot if trying to cross the wall or walk through the Karl Marx Strasse which has leafy trees on one side and communist style building blocks on the other.

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One of the most powerful museums I have been in is the Berlin Jewish Museum. Through a creative and unusual architecture this museum achieves a hard goal: conveying the pain and confusion of the Jewish experience in Germany through subtle moods touched by environmental factors. For example, there is a Garden of Exile, where the uneven ground and the many obstacles, create a sense of almost nauseous claustrophobia. In another room, completely empty, unheated and uninsulated and light up by only a ray of the sun barely shining through a crack in the ceiling, one is filled with desolation, a feeling of abandonment and yet a small hint of hope. I was deeply touched by my experiences here. In another side of town, you see the Monument to the Fallen Soldiers, another touching building: a neo-classical building that is empty but for the statue of a mother grieving over her dead son. The symbolism and poetry in these buildings were superb.

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On one of the days I was exploring the Brandenburg Gate area, which was too busy and touristy for me, suddenly I saw a sign that said Room of Silence. I walked in and was greeted by an old lady who pointed me to an empty room where one can sit silently. I sat there for some time and really enjoyed the moment. As I was sitting in the middle of bustling Berlin, I felt these words being formed in my head: “Be silent so you can hear the Truth within!”

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Aarhus

The last six weeks or so have been amazing! So much happened so fast that it has been hard to keep up and write about anything. I have been to six countries and have been through 10 airports, participated in two conferences and two fieldwork projects. Overall, I’m extremely happy but also exhausted! Since coming back to Toronto about a week ago, I’ve been mainly resting and relaxing. In the next few posts, I start to slowly write about my experiences.

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My international trips this summer started with Mexico, where I was co-conducting a second series of workshops with art and technology in Oaxaca. It was an amazing experience and I was lucky to work closely with my collaborator Karla, her partner, Jonathan, and 7 talented design, art history and architecture students creating arts and installations with children. This was a fantastic experience where we collected a lot of data (and it was a continuation of our previous work there). I shall write about it in more detail in a dedicated future post.

After coming back from Mexico for a night in Toronto, I left for Copenhagen via Paris. After a brief stay in Copenhagen and seeing some great friends, I left for Aarhus, where I was attending the Interaction Design and Children Conference. I love this conference! Not only there are amazing projects and interesting ideas but the best part is the people: researchers coming from all over the world to share their joy of creativity and innovation. Last time I was at IDC, many ideas took root and I met my great friend and colleague Karla with whom I am working in Mexico. This time, I was presenting the results of our project in Mexico.

Upon arrival in Aarhus, I got to an apartment I was renting through airbnb. As it turned out, my host, who I met very briefly, as she was leaving for Copenhagen was a young and prolific Danish actress, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen.

Before the conference, I participated in a workshop on interaction design for children with disabilities where I met inspiring and open hearted researchers. The best part was talking about our dilemmas around including children in the design process, keeping our values pure and balancing different aspects of a project.

The next day, the conference started with a talk by Paulo Blikstein from Stanford. Two great ideas I took from his talk was the importance of epistemological pluralism, the idea of the existence of different ways of knowing things, and, the idea that the achievement of all the technology that brings us comfort and extra time is the possibility of living creatively. Especially, this second idea resonates very much with me and explains the belief that the comfort of mind that new modes of living have afforded us should result in more freedom of mind and creativity.

The talks, presentations and demos that followed were a feast of creativity and playfulness and at the same time rigorous research. I met many amazing people there and saw many great projects. A couple of highlights were 3D printed books for blind children and Youtopia which is a table top game to teach children about sustainability and the environment.

In my presentation, I used a poetic style of presentation, where I used a lot of metaphors, narratives and humour to tell the story of our project and the children we work with. One slightly controversial idea I used was, in the context of using technology to facilitate learning and creativity in developing countries, to spice, which is very important to use but can ruin a dish if used too much!

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As part of the conference, we visited Aarhus’ fantastic museum and also at the last day saw the Lego factory, which is futuristic with many robots running around, collecting pieces and categorizing them! The closing keynote was also thought provoking and given by Marilyn Fleer. She is an expert in Vygotsky’s theories of development and emphasized the importance of socio-historical factors (in addition to cognitive ones) in the development of children and their tools and techniques.

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An amazing coincidence was that I found out that by complete coincidence a good friend from Bhutan was in Aarhus exactly at the same time that I was visiting there! This was a very pleasant surprise because it was the first time for both of us to be there and to be there at the same time (and for different events) was a very improbably coincidence. She kindly invited me to one of her friends’ houses for some Bhutanese food which was fantastic and a nice deja-vu!

I enjoyed the conference so much that it was hard to leave Aarhus after that but I got on the bus for the next leg of my trip, on to Berlin.