Ich bin ein festival organiser – Paul Sullivan on Berlin

On 22nd April 2012, Berlin’s famous Markthalle IX will be taken over by Slowtravelberlin for “a Celebration of Creativity, Culture and Cuisine”.  The morning will be given over to free tours that explore the city via interesting themes; from literature to street art, history, urban farming and running. The afternoon will be held in the market itself, hosting a range of activities – including workshops (screen printing, sewing, even life drawing!), a literary lounge and food market (featuring authentic Berliner goods in each) and a range of entertainment stalls.

Company founder Paul Sullivan talks to Hg2 about what motivates him to promote Berlin and the concept of sustainable tourism

Can you tell us a little bit about exactly what you did prior to setting up ‘slowtravelberlin’?

For the last decade or so I’ve worked as a freelance writer and photographer, covering mainly music, travel, lifestyle and culture. I’ve written a few music books and travel guides along the way, not least for HG2 of course, for whom I’ve produced guides on Berlin, Prague and Marrakech…

You set up Slowtravel Berlin following on from the ‘slow movement’ that began in the 1980s when Carlo Petrini protested against the opening of a McDonalds in Rome.  Why do you think it’s so important to actively protect local businesses from the might of mass corporations?

Slow Food was one inspiration, but there were actually others too. Philosophically minded organisations such as The Idler and The School Of Life in the UK have been an influence, as was Carl Honore’s book “In Praise Of Slow”, which applies/reflects the Slow influence on various aspects of life from food to parenting and sex. Re: the support of local businesses over multinationals, I suppose it’s a simple question of inequality and doing something, however small, to create a more level playing field. Being raised in a working class environment (my father worked as a coal miner) gave me first-hand experience of social and economic inequality, but in any case I think it’s fairly obvious that one of the key problems with the world today is the (non)-distribution of wealth. This is a global problem to be sure, but it’s also a local one. Figures from the UNWTO (United Nations World Trade Organisation) show that due to “economic leakage”, only around 10% of money spent in developing countries stays within the country. This figure is likely higher for a city like Berlin, but it’s clear that a large percentage of revenue from tourism, one of the city’s main economic sectors, also leaks out to international companies rather than local ones. To take one example, many chain hotels don’t pay local taxes, which is why we don’t cover or support them.

Big question – Economies have always evolved and so have cultures in tandem.  Why do you think it’s important to keep the past alive merely for the sake of it?

I’m not sure I completely understand this question. I’m not so sure that economies and cultures are always so intrinsically linked — even destitute communities usually have some form of culture, i.e. dance and song, while many very wealthy countries such as, say, Saudi Arabia, are often regarded as quite culturally bereft. I don’t think it is important to keep the past alive “for the sake of it”. But I do think it’s important to keep the past alive for context, which is what we do at STB. In the travel industry in general, there’s a lot of emphasis on the “now” and the “next big thing”, and it’s often forgotten that what came before is equally important, if not the cause of or reason for the latest trend. To take an obvious example, we regularly cover Berlin’s past in the shape of architecture, old cafes, wartime stories, past institutions like the Stasi etc. simply because without these prior eras Berlin would not be the exciting, vibrant, relatively liberal place it is today.

Soho House - A classic case of an historic building, formerly used by the Nazis as well as the Communist regime, adding some historical "panache" to a boutique hotel.

How do you think “Slow Travel Berlin – a day of creativity, culture and cuisine” will help both tourists and locals more interested in local culture?

The idea really is to present a few examples of great work being done at a local level. The morning will be given over to a handful of (mostly) small, independent tour operators who offer excellent ways of exploring the city, from Cabaret Berlin’s Christoper Isherwood tour and Jim Hudson’s architecture walk to a Senseship tour, which looks at sustainable projects in the city and how and whether they work, for example. We’ll have a “Locavore” food market run by some great local companies who will present local products from honey and bread to locally roasted coffee etc. Our Literature Lounge will feature local bookstores like Dialogue and Shakespeare and Sons selling Berlin-themed books, and a Portable Book Fair presented by SAND Journal and Kombinat Literatur Berlin; there’ll be live music from the Berlin Pop Choir and local artists like Dorothy Of The Day, live drawing from local cartoonists and artists, kid’s entertainment, a sustainable Swishing (clothes swapping) stall…it’s going to be a fun and busy day.

Kreuzberg's 100-year-old market, Markthalle IX, where the event will take place.

What do you like most about Berlin?

The fact it has a completely different atmosphere to any other city in Europe. Living here is a bit like rewinding European time a couple of decades, before Big Business stepped in and made most Western cities feel like one giant homogenous high street. There are historical reasons for this, and the fear that Berlin’s gradual process of gentrification will render it just like “the others” remains. But while in the last week or two, cultural/tourist institutions like the art-commune Tacheles and the city’s only urban camping ground Tentstation were closed to make way for property development, the city has also just announced a one million euro budget to help protect and/or relocate clubs under threat from developers. This ongoing fight and conflict feels very “Berlin”, and is necessary to keep the city unique. I think if they really did close the beloved Mauerpark, for example, there would be a bit of a revolution.

Many places, including the Mauerpark are under threat due to land development.

What do you consider the future of the ‘slow’ movement across the world?  Gaining ground or doomed to failure?

It’s both a vague and a niche concept for sure, depending on where and how it’s applied and who is applying it. But for me, the best examples of Slow have ethical, healthy and progressive dimensions that are very satisfying to work with and feel like a pleasant alternative to the frenzied, largely vacuous materialism that’s so prevalent today. So long as the world keeps speeding up, which it certainly is going to do, thanks to technology and commerce, people are going to carry on seeking respite from the fall out (the unhappy stresses and strains, the physical exhaustion, the lack of “meaning”). Our job is to provide succour in the form of art, culture and, where possible, cheesecake.

Art gallery housed in a World War II bunker with war scars on the outside

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Sunday 22 April, 2012 | Slow Travel Berlin

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