Friday, 1 July 2011

Review: Strassenfeger and Motz

As part of an occasional look at culture outside of Poland here is a look at the newspapers which as, along with Konkret (review coming up in the future) the best regular read in Germany.

When I first moved to Germany I was told to look out for Stern and Spiegel.  They're alright.  Nothing to go pulling up trees, though (a few historical articles in Stern notwithstanding).

Strassenfeger (which means 'Road sweeper'), however, is a little gem, hardly known of by fellow immigrants in Germany and even by Germans themselves.  Whenever I'm in Berlin I always try to buy it as I find that it has really interesting articles.

A similar newspaper is Motz.

Now, they're only available in Berlin, which is one reason why most Germans don't know them.

The thing is, the main reason that even Berliners will not know or even buy them is that it's homeless people who sell them (welfare recipients and other poor people can also sell Motz), and some of the money raised from selling the newspaper (90 cents from the 1:50 Euros for Strassenfeger, 80 cents from 1:20 for Motz) goes to the person selling it.  You buy it from the man (nearly always men, due to the massive disproportion of homeless men compared to homeless women) on the tube (U-Bahn or S-Bahn), and Motz can also be bought by sellers by shops, and passageways.  Consequently, one can almost literally say that they are underground newspapers.

Life can be interesting

I hardly read anything in the newspapers that doesn't interest me.  Unlike, say, The Big Issue' in GB which combines articles on social concerns together with whichever bland celebrity/pop band is the flavour of the moment, Strassenfeger and Motz are entirely earthy.  You'll hear about events and things which you won't read about in the big media, and I mean that in a good way.

To give some examples.  The last copy of Strassenfeger I bought devoted a whole issue to women.  I thought this would be boring, but I was surprised at that I read the newspaper quickly from cover to cover.  From an analysis of the current feminism conflict between Alice Schwarzer and Bascha Mika (the latter briefly mentioned by myself here); a look at the Polish painter Erna Rosenstein, the situation of women's rights in Tunisia, the proposed quota system for female big business leaders, domestic violence (against both women AND men) and Rosa Parks, there was plenty to read.

The copy before that had a whole issue devoted to Poland (man kann hier alles auf Deutsch lesen), with articles not about, say, Polish celebrities or guides to travelling through Poland (things that would undoubtedly fill mainstream magazines), but about a Polish club for young artisans in Berlin; films in Poland, a critical look at patriotism, Polish footballers from the black-and-white past who played in Germany and more.

The last Motz  newspaper I brought had a feature on life in three cities in Brazil, an analysis of the political situation with the CDU/CSU, FDP and SDP parties regarding Hartz IV, a history of the building of the Berlin wall, a very interesting article about the connection between industry and the military, the story of the buying of Motz from one particular seller who has now died and also a piece on Vietnamese people in eastern Germany.

Reading Strassenfeger and Motz I get the impression that I am getting in touch with real life in Berlin, not a life dictated to by the interests of various businesses (which often happens in Zitty) or the angst that one can miss some cultural event.  No, I get the impression that real life in Berlin, with all its wonderful idiosyncrasies, biographies, diversity and bloody-mindedness is to be seen and understood.

The writers of the articles are really top class.  Possibly because they are not having to pay heed to sponsors, they write about things that interest them, and it shows.  One of my favourite articles in the past was about snow-sailing, a sport I had never heard of and one that sounds very relaxing.  This article happened because the writer was with friends and happened to see a boat on the ice and got talking with the sailor.  One gets the impression that, if you take a break away from the dashing from home to work to whatever trendy nightclub or restaurant is in vogue, you can actually see some hidden, fascinating event or person right in front of you.

Why don't you buy them?

I know why some (I don't mean you, dear reader, I mean other people) people don't buy them.  Sadly, prejudice against homeless people is as big in the 'tolerant' Berlin as anywhere else.  You don't believe me?  Look at the faces of people when a newspaper seller gets on the train.  The faces often show disgust, fear or shame.  Sometimes, the voice of the person announcing sales may sound like the person has had too much alcohol or drugs in the past.   But only sometimes.

I have had people telling me that they don't want to buy the newspaper as it's sold by people who have only themselves to blame for being alcoholics.  This is a form of prejudice.  Alcohol is certainly a problem for some homeless people, but not for all (indeed, this article in German focuses on homelessness among Polish immigrants to the capital).  Anyone who has even spoken with homeless people will know that a great multitude of reasons may result in people becoming homeless: Breakdown of relationship (with parents, siblings, extended family or lovers); physical, emotional or sexual abuse, being kicked out of home, unemployment and other financial problems, physical or mental illness, intellectual disability, gambling, grief or less, not enough affordable housing, overcrowding or indeed drug and alcohol abuse.

I've spoken with homeless people and got the impression that becoming homeless is something that can happen just that that.  One minute you have a job and wife, next minute you make you redundant and you are deemed to be not entitled to benefits; the relationship with the wife breaks down and before you know where you are you're kipping on friends' settees before eventually overstaying your welcome and ending up on the streets.  Maybe then, you'll start drinking in order to numb the pain.

So, even if you think that the Strassenfeger or Motz seller is to blame for his or her situation, at the very least your buying of the newspaper will help him or her to have a regular income, to settle into a balanced life (they have working hours) and, as we say in English, put their feet on the floor.  You may think that they will use the money to buy something that will harm then, but you don't know that for a fact, do you?  In any case, a slurred speech may not indicate alcohol abuse, but rather medication.

In any case, Strassenfeger does contain one or two pages dealing with issues with benefits and how to apply for them.  This is important, even I in my relatively powerful position had all manner of both with the Neukölln Job Centre when I applied for Hartz IV.  It seems that certain Job Centres don't want applicants to be successful.  The advice that Strassenfeger offers is valuable.

It's not just about helping others, though

I try not to preach about issues.  I recommend buying the newspapers largely because it's dead interesting.  I sincerely consider the cultural, historical, political and social analysis in both newspapers to be of a higher quality than in the mainstream magazines.  On top of that will be stories and poems to interest you.
Seriously, give them a go.  You'll be pleasantly surprised.

Do what they do

I have seen other newspapers for homeless people in Germany and they all go focus their articles on the needs of homeless people.  Fair enough, like, but this is quite a niche market and the articles are not relevant for the average buyer, who buys purely from the wish to help.  Nothing wrong with that, but perhaps they would raise more money if they were to take the Strassenfeger or Motz approach.

Such newspapers would be welcome in Poland.  With one possible exception in Warsaw (can someone verify this?) there are no such newspapers here.  I am sure that the establishment of such newspapers would not only help homeless people here, but also help to counter prejudice and discrimination that homeless people face in Poland.

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