Stories from Paris – Guest Post by Alex Christofi

Today I am delighted to welcome Alex Christofi to my blog. Alex’s first novel, Glass (which I review here), was longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize and won the Betty Trask Prize. His follow up, Let Us Be True, was published this week (my review is here). In this guest post he shares his thoughts on five real places from the book, and the stories from them that he had to include.

 

While researching my new novel, Let Us Be True, I became fascinated by the history of Paris. Wherever I looked, there were incredible stories to be found, of pioneering gardeners, hidden wine cellars, put-upon architects and bloody clashes in the streets. A few of these stories I couldn’t let go, and they made it into the novel: here are my five favourites.

1 – The Tour d’Argent

Overhead, the clouds bruised and cracked. There was a brief flash of lightning, the thunder inaudible behind the glass. He was in the world’s oldest restaurant, eating duck with a stranger who had just punched him in the head.

This Michelin-starred restaurant lays claim to being the oldest restaurant in the world, purportedly founded in 1582. Their speciality is the pressed duck, which was traditionally eight weeks old, fattened for fifteen days and then strangled, to retain the blood. The wine list is also 400 pages long. It has a great literary heritage, having been referenced not only by Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway, but also the 2007 Pixar animated adventure Ratatouille.

2 – Nanterre

Ralf followed the road, hoping to ask someone for directions. Next to the cleared land of the building site was an improvised town, laid out in rows to give the impression of planning, of order – a place where great pride and care presided over mud and scrap metal.

Nanterre is a fascinating place, though a little off the tourist beat. Once an improvised slum (a bidonville or ‘jerrycan town’) housing poor Algerian immigrants, who sometimes found it difficult to rent in the city either because of the cost or because of the prejudices of
landlords, the University of Paris bought a site there and built a huge brutalist campus, a little like the Barbican, but uglier and easier to navigate. The Nanterre campus would be one of the epicentres of the 1968 student protests, which spread and developed over the course of the spring into full blown riots and a general strike, bringing the whole country to a halt.

3 – The Tuileries

‘You know what they do to silk moths?’ said Elsa. ‘They boil them alive and unravel the whole cocoon using tiny looms.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘No. All sorts of things have happened here. I think it’s untoward for a garden to have so much history.’

The Tuileries in the centre of the city might look like an oasis of calm, but they are probably the most eventful gardens in the world. Named after the roof tilers that used to work there before Catherine de Medici bought the land, the garden was the site of the one of the first hot air balloon flights. At one point, they were vast royal gardens, and the head gardener decided to grow mulberry trees to foster a domestic silk industry there. Robespierre had a weird secular festival there, burning mannequins that represented an idiosyncratic group of sins (one of them was ‘False Simplicity’). It was a Russian garrison after the fall of Napoleon, and was also, at one point, used to store artwork looted by the Nazis – a Monet was seriously damaged in a shootout during the liberation.

4 – the Pont Saint-Michel

A police van pulled up at the far end of the bridge, and another on their side, at the entrance to Saint-Michel Métro.

An innocuous bridge metres from some of Paris’s tourist hotspots, the Pont Saint-Michel was the site of a terrible massacre of peaceful protesters by the police. On 17 October 1961, men, women and children were peacefully protesting against the curfew that had been set for all Muslim citizens. The Algerian War had been going on for years, with atrocious violence on both sides, and trust between communities was at a nadir. Unfortunately, a sub-section of the police were right-wing nationalists – in fact, the head of police at the time was Maurice Papon, who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war to deport Jews. The police violently suppressed the protest, beating people with long white batons and throwing them off the bridge into the Seine. There is no official death toll, but estimates are in the dozens.

5 – the Tour Eiffel

He looked out at the city. The sun backlit the dark clouds in chiaroscuro and for a moment broke through, catching each drop of rain so that the sunlight fell not just on surfaces but everywhere at once, manifested endlessly through the air.

The Eiffel Tower had to turn up at some point, didn’t it? You can’t visit the city without the tower peeking through the gaps between buildings, especially now that it’s equipped with that bizarre light which seems to have been inspired by the Eye of Sauron. Paris is unimaginable without it, but when it was built, poor Gustave Eiffel was the most hated architect in France. In 1887, a group of writers and artists clubbed together to petition against it, competing to see who could hurl the best insult (my personal favourites are ‘tragic street lamp’ and ‘barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture’). How times change.

 

This post is a stop on the Let Us Be True Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Let Us Be True is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available to buy now.

A Bookish Tour of London

I wrote the following article for Structo Magazine as a contribution to their ‘tour’ series. After some consideration the editors decided it did not fit with their ethos: “Structo is dedicated to small independent presses, works in translation and writing that may not always be covered elsewhere.” I  support this ethos and hope to write for Structo in the future. In the meantime, I post my article here.   

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Excitement in my rural Wiltshire village is rare. A mobile library visits once a month. To buy a book I must travel five miles to the nearest small town. This town also boasts a mainline railway station. It is my gateway to city life, to London and beyond.

My knowledge of London has been gleaned from books. Their stories paint pictures of places I dream of visiting, and it is to these that I am drawn when I plan a tour. My interest lies in the lives of the ordinary. History may be told by the victors, but it is made by the masses. If I visit a landmark it is to consider not the benefactor but those who built his pedestal.

Let us travel then to London as I view it through literature. I will avoid the tourist trails and the better known books. Others may seek out Shakespeare and Dickens, or the power hungry world of Wolf Hall. Included here are a mixture of more ordinary works, so if you harbour prejudices, set them aside.

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Like Paddington Bear, I arrive in the capital via his eponymous station, empathising with his feelings of excitement and anticipation at the adventures ahead. Stepping down from the train into the melee of commuters, tourists and students, I am carried by the crowd to the ticket barriers. From here I descend into the bowels of the city. The warm air of the underground rushes up to meet me. Where to first?

Travelling the underground is an adventure in itself. I glimpse abandoned stations through flickering lights and wonder at their demise. I could read of this in Ben Pedroche’s Do Not Alight, one of the few non-fiction books to grace my shelves. I prefer instead to imagine Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, his monsters and saints, murderers and angels. I think of the tunnels explored in Anna Smaill’s The Chimes. I can almost hear her music in the whoosh and scream of train on track.

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I travel first to Highgate Cemetery. Since reading Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Perfect Symmetry, I have been eager to take the tour detailed in her book. On east side and west I seek the graves of writers – Douglas Adams, George Eliot and Karl Marx are all here. The sense of history and the spirit of the place bring peace from the bustling, traffic-filled surrounds.

A short walk through Highgate and I may explore Hampstead Heath, scene of so many fictional murders. My most recent happened in Aga Lesiewicz’s Rebound, a chilling tale that causes me to glance anew at the Lycra-clad runners passing by. I visit Ladies Pond, climb Parliament Hill and admire the city stretched out below. I avoid the dark and quiet woods. The bushes may keep the cruiser’s secrets.

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When I think of London I see the Thames. Travelling to the Embankment, I marvel at the feats of civil engineering which have reclaimed this marshy land, enclosing the busy waterway. I walk alongside the river and time travel to the eighteenth century. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River evoked a London life hard to imagine today: raw sewage-strewn alleyways; overcrowded and freezing lodgings; watermen working the muddy riverbanks ferrying the wealthy for a few small coins, becoming sodden so that delicate slippers may be kept clean.

M.D. Murphy’s Dark River Melody encapsulates the social conditions, inequalities and injustices of the Georgian period. Through it all runs the river breathing in and out; emanating life, power, beauty and menace; representing the unstoppable progression of time. It is an excellent evocation of the city and the bewildering variety of life that populates its streets.

I look across the water to Battersea Power Station and consider the continuing inequalities of today. Sarah Hilary’s Tastes Like Fear tells of run down estates just beyond the luxury flats that now grace this iconic landmark. I pass the beggars, the troubled who sit ignored. Since reading Richard Butchin’s Pavement, I wonder at their thought processes, how they channel anger at so much conspicuous wealth when they struggle to find food enough to live. We must hope that they will not choose to become serial killers as Butchen’s protagonist did.  

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Travelling east I visit Greenwich Park and the locations so vividly portrayed in Alan WiIliam’s Blackheath Séance Parlour. I see no great winged creatures lurking overhead but may still view the Ranger’s House, the Royal Observatory, St Alfege’s Church, and enjoy a drink at a recently refurbished Hare and Billet. I find that a Dartmouth Terrace still exists but it is not where the sisters would have lived. The original terrace was demolished last century following war damage.  

All cities exist in a state of flux. There are still many blocks of ordinary looking houses to admire, although priced now beyond the reach of the families for whom they were built. I think of Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, how the blitz of the Second World War destroyed so many homes and lives. I note the modern proliferation of luxury apartment blocks and ponder what it would take to drive these into the chaos depicted in J.G. Ballard’s High Rise.

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I end my journey on Charing Cross Road. There are still many bookshops to enjoy but it is the site of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road to which I am drawn. It saddens me that this no longer exists. I take comfort in a visit to Foyles.

And then west to catch the train home. As I pull away from the station I pass back gardens and become Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. All journeys offer potential for a story, and all stories for a journey.

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Book Review: The Foreign Passion

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The Foreign Passion, by Cristian Aliaga (translated by Ben Bollig), is a collection of prose poems that deliver a devastating critique of the cultural blindness on which contemporary capitalism relies. Unlike much of the author’s previous works, which were written from and of his home country, Argentina, this collection emerged from an eight month long European residency when he was a visiting professor at the University of Leeds, England.

Each of the poems offers a moment of encounter at a precise location visited during this time. These may be sites of conflict, rundown cities or bucolic landscapes. Also included are “centres of ‘Western’ culture that those from the edge of the world are told to admire.” The reader is offered a different perspective, the experience of place presented in concentrated phrases that culminate in a sense of what has been lost.

The book opens with an introduction by the translator. In this he talks of why we travel and what we seek, musing that the tourist goes in search of authentic experiences which are no longer there, often due to tourists. Few go to view everyday existence.

“Their culture is of no interest to the international traveller in search of untouched nature or examples of aboriginal cultures, in both cases very often (re)constructions specifically designed for the tourist market.”

He discusses the impact of globalisation and what this means.

“the exportation of work practices now unacceptable in developed countries either to distant countries or to less visible zones in the country itself”

“These regions dispensible yet indispensible for the functioning of the global capitalist system.”

“Aliga’s poetry focuses precisely on that which is left over or remains”

The poems are presented in both Spanish and English. None is longer than a page yet each packs a powerful, poignant punch.

I was particularly taken by ‘natural life’ in which the author is on the M62, Leeds-Manchester. He passes fields, “natural life in the midst of the profit civilisation”. He views plot after plot containing lifestock and closed up houses where:

“the inhabitants do their work, alien to the dozens of vehicles that fly by each minute. Inside each machine that passes this oval of land at a modern-day speed, the members of the family last a second, like figures from an old movie, and disappear for ever.”

The prose style of this collection made for straightforward perusal allowing concentration to focus on content. There is much to consider.

“We travel to come back different, to lose on the journey our reason and the ingrained habits of the mind. We return, full or empty, to mend the holes in our words”

What Aliaga seeks is an investigation of culture, a “resistance against the erasure of lives and histories excluded by neoliberal capitalist narratives and policies.” The paradox of his work is that he is aware his target audience is unlikely to be reached.

“For he who sings while
his children burn alive, because he doesn’t know, he doesn’t
notice the smell.
[…]
For them I write, those who
won’t stop to read.”

Contemporary capitalism relies on societal collusion. These poems provide a succinct and important reminder of the cost.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Sun, sea and sand

It was lovely to get away for a few days this week, to enjoy a change of scenery and some down time with my boys. It was also lovely to come home afterwards for a rest. Holidays are fun but exhausting, does that make me sound ungrateful? I am not, I enjoyed our time away immensely. Now though I need to catch up on sleep and on thinking time.

Whilst away I did not manage to read or write, what I got instead was activity and conversation. We made the most of spending time together without our usual distractions. I need to mentally process all of this as I resume the rhythm of my everyday life. My batteries have been successfully recharged, it is now time to move forward.

Booking a few days on the coast in February was always going to be risky weather wise. After the storms and floods of recent weeks I did wonder how we would cope if we were confined to our hotel by the elements. In the event we were lucky and spent much of our time away walking and enjoying the long, sandy beaches and promenades in glorious sunshine.

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The south coast of England is a popular place for retirees as well as holidaymakers. As I do not like crowds I tend to avoid the more built up areas. On one of our walks this week we ended up in Bournemouth and I was reminded why. It was my husband who accurately noted that the irritations of walking through noisy, crowded streets filled with slow moving pedestrians left us feeling more drained than the five mile walk to get there. We were happy to return to the tranquility of the peninsula where our hotel was located.

My daughter had chosen to stay at home so I had my three boys for company. They made good use of the hotel facilities with my elder son joining my husband in the gym while my younger son braved the cold to swim outside despite the wind and evening rain.

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It was accepted that I wished to relax at times, even though I could not find sufficient time to write coherently. I have come home with a notebook filled with words which I hope I will be able to use in subsequent posts. I have so many plans and ideas swirling around in my head. I feel mentally replenished.

I also feel physically over fed. The food was delicious and plentiful, there seemed little point in not indulging while I had the opportunity. My husband and elder son were particularly appreciative of the various chefs’ skills and I will review our restaurant experiences in other posts. Suffice to say here that these were highlights of the trip.

How different this was to previous experiences of eating out when my children were younger. I wonder if my own lack of imagination and skill in the kitchen at home has resulted in a family who can value variety of taste and presentation when it is offered. Even my younger son was willing to try new dishes on this trip. Our evening’s out were enjoyed by all.

We returned home to a daughter who had made good use of having a house to herself. Friends had been round, food of choice cooked, but she had not forgotten to care for our hens or carry out the other few tasks I had left for her. I missed her company but am happy to see her cope responsibly with independence.

I now have a weekend to get the house in order, deal with laundry and indulge my own needs. We also have the third season of Game of Thrones to finish. If we have time this evening then we will watch the final two episodes. I have been warned about the Red Wedding already.

Preparations

As often happens at this time of year, my life seems to have stepped up a gear. I have a long list of jobs that I need to complete in the next few days if I am to meet other’s expectations. I am not good at coping with obligations that I did not agree to but are presumed accepted.

After the initial wobble when December arrived and I realised that I could not realistically hide under my duvet for the entire month, I have been coping with the preparations for Christmas reasonably well. It will be very low key in our house this year, but the event will be marked. There has been some irritation from my children that I am not displaying the expected enthusiasm; sorry guys, I’m doing the best I can.

I had an added challenge this week as my daughter is attending a conference at a university 160 miles from our home. I have written before about my dislike of driving but, on this occasion, I had to balance my antipathy against the worry I would have to deal with if I sent her on her own by train. The compromise we arrived at was for me to drive her there the evening before and stay overnight in a cheap hotel to remove the pressure of having to complete the journey in a set time. This worked well and I actually rather enjoyed my time away.

With three children and a husband to consider, it can be hard to spend time with just one member of my family. Months can go by without this happening, although I have benefited from two such occasions this week.

On Sunday my husband and I had a meal out together, just the two of us. We do not have regular date nights so this was a rare treat. Admittedly it only came about because we had to bring my daughter home from a Black Veil Brides concert that was due to finish after the last train home had departed. As a trip to the city was necessary we decided to make use of the need to travel and park by indulging ourselves. I still had to cook a dinner for my sons before we left, but it was good to spend time alone with my husband. I almost felt young again.

The late return home after we had collected my daughter, followed by the need to get up for school the next day, meant that I had four hours sleep on Sunday night. This was not the best way to ready myself for the long drive on Monday evening.

I had prepared the family dinner in advance so that all my husband had to do in order to feed himself and our boys was to reheat the contents of a couple of pots. I was impressed on my return to find that they had been washed.

My daughter and I planned to eat on arrival, although I brought along a packed meal just in case we suffered delays or could not find a suitable eatery. I worry a lot about potential problems and feel better if I have contingency plans.

The journey up was exhausting. I am not used to having to drive in the dark and the traffic was very heavy. The unknown roads were confusing at times, despite the many maps and detailed directions that I had printed off. As I had to concentrate hard on my driving I needed my daughter to act as navigator. As a non driver, she struggled at times to understand what it was that I needed to know.

However, we reached our destination after about four hours and were able to walk to a restaurant from our hotel. After a delicious meal we relaxed for an hour or so before settling down for an early night. I slept better and for longer than I normally do at home.

The next morning we spent a pleasant enough couple of hours exploring the university campus before I left my daughter to find her own way into her conference. It was obvious from the many students on site that I was something of an anachronism but, having made the journey, I wished to see what the university had to offer as it is one that my daughter may consider applying to. She showed signs of irritation at my behaviour at times but coped well.

After a picnic lunch I then had to face the drive home on my own. Nobody seemed to have missed me and I was back in time to cook the family dinner. My daughter texted me to say that she was having an awesome time and had made friends already so I do not need to worry about her for the rest of the week.

My week, meanwhile, must continue apace. School finishes for the Christmas holidays on Friday and I still have letters and cards to sort as well as presents to wrap. With one week to go I am struggling to keep my mood up.

However, I am coping. I may not get to the gym as planned, or manage a walk this week, but I should be able to tick off all the essential tasks on my Do List. I also plan to do more writing as that is a guaranteed mood lifter. How grateful I am to have found this outlet for my vacillating emotions.

My house is a mess so I shall now tackle some chores before I face those festive tasks. I hope that your preparations are coming along as you would wish. One week to go and counting.

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Challenges and change

Today I have been mostly sorting and packing and tidying; worrying about important things that I might forget, about the amount of stuff that I seem to be taking for just a few days away.

Despite the fact that I am hugely excited about my forthcoming trip, I feel stressed by the preparation. I am nervous and concerned at the same time as being eager to set off. I am used to having to pack for family holidays, yet do not have the confidence of a seasoned traveller.

It made sense for me to take time out this afternoon for a swim; a sure fire method of calming me down. Having gently propelled myself through the water for just a short half hour, the demands of preparation seem much less arduous; I have come home and allowed myself a little time to relax.

The last few times I have been swimming I have run into friends and acquaintances. I use my swims to unwind in my chosen solitary state, yet it feels good to catch up, however briefly, with people I see infrequently. In so many ways social interaction worries me, but these brief conversations have lifted my mood.

How can it be that I should look forward to an exciting trip yet suffer stress because of it; that I should avoid social occasions yet enjoy meeting up with friends? I am comfortable leading the life that I do and have grown accustomed to avoiding situations that cause me discomfort, yet when I allow my comfort zone to be challenged I remind myself that I am capable of so much more. I wonder if I need to recalibrate the balance of my life.

In many ways this trip away is doing just that. It is a challenge to the conformity in which I normally exist. I know that I would not have dared to travel without my husband to an unknown country and city if it were not for the prize of a chance to spend time with an old friend whose company I enjoy. I am defying my normal conventions in order to attain a goal that would otherwise be unavailable.

Yet even with this clear sighted desire I am nervous and worried. I do not understand why my reflex is to crawl away and hide when any challenge to my invisible existence is presented. When did I become so insular? How did this happen?

I want to open my mind to new ideas; to question the assumptions that those around me accept; to challenge the preconceptions that others have of me. To do this I need to experience change. Living in conservative, southern, rural England I do not come into contact with many liberal influences. I do not often get the chance to debate issues with those who are willing to voice thoughts that run counter to an accepted conformity.

I can and do read widely and question orthodoxies, but my thinking and reasoning are muffled and woolly. When challenged I capitulate too easily because I have not acquired the detailed knowledge to back up my instinct for tolerance and diversity. My approach is simplistic. I am not convinced by complex and convoluted arguments that run counter to my intuitive beliefs, but cannot back up my thoughts with a cogent rejoinder. I have grown too used to submission.

I want to allow my mind to soar on the thermals of new ways of thinking; to shake off the shackles of commonly accepted behaviour that leads to a perpetuation of the wrongs that blight our society. If I cannot change the world I can at least change myself and that will be a start. It will allow me to live more contentedly with myself.

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‘It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little – do what you can.’

‘Never forget, no matter how overwhelming life’s challenges and problems seem to be, that one person can make a difference in the world. In fact, it is always because of one person that all the changes that matter in the world come about.’ 

Travel

I have not travelled abroad in many years. In my younger days, before I was married, I would think nothing of embarking on adventures to the far flung corners of the world. I would book flights or travel by boat and train to unknown continents and countries, happily assuming that I would be able to sort out cheap accommodation wherever I ended up. Many of these journeys were undertaken alone.

As a student I was always travelling on a tight budget. I would sleep on whatever transport system I was using, in a tent or find an incomplete building in a resort and curl up in my sleeping bag in a corner. Sometimes I would stay with friends of friends; if I had acquired company then we would hitch lifts in lorries or from passing strangers. I wished to see as much of the world as possible before what little money I had ran out.

I had no interest in package holidays that involved pretty clothes and sunbathing. I wanted to explore, experience new cultures and see how other people thought and lived. As well as Europe I visited Africa, the Middle East and finally, just after I started work, had a more luxurious trip to Australia. I found the long, cramped flight hard to bear and it marked the end of my globe trotting.

Had my husband been keen to go out into the world with me then I guess we would have continued to travel, but he seemed happy to explore our own country. So long as holidays involved days spent walking long distances up and down high places, followed by a copious supply of good food, he was content. I was in love; if he was happy then so was I.

We have never taken our children abroad, but they are starting to explore the world for themselves. They have each made initial forays into Europe with school, and my daughter has just returned from a month in Africa with Scouts. Last summer I flew alone for the first time in twenty-five years when I made the short hop across the Irish Sea to visit family. It reminded me that travel itself can be fulfilling and fun.

I no longer crave excitement as I once did but recognise that pushing myself just a little beyond my comfort zone is good for my inner health. So long as I do not have to cope with those who bring me down I can still blossom and enjoy new situations, scary though I may now find the prospect. Thus I took the decision to break my habit of reticence and travel abroad this summer; just me and my older two children, even if only for a few days.

It feels as though a part of me that has been lying dormant has been awakened. I no longer have the confidence that I once had, but the interest and appreciation of difference is still there. My day to day life is so insular and I wish to expand both my knowledge and my outlook.

This vague plan would not have come to fruition had a friend not made the generous offer to host us in his small apartment. As seasoned campers we will be fine with the facilities available, but I am so aware that we will be invading his space. Having said that, I am as excited about having the opportunity to spend time with him as with seeing the city. A proper catch up with an old and dear friend is a rare treat for me. I look forward to our discussions at least as much as the sight seeing.

To prepare for our visit my friend provided us with a DVD explaining some of the history of the city we will be exploring. I have always enjoyed history and am eager to learn more; this is also the main reason for taking my children. An appreciation of European history from a non British perspective can only help them to understand how we got to where we are today.

I am being offered a gentle reintroduction to exploration and discovery with an informed and friendly hand to guide me. I am stepping out into a world that was once mine for the taking rather than hiding behind my husband’s preferences and desires. For five days I will have the opportunity to be me; I am intrigued as to what I will discover.

Thus, in a couple of weeks time I will have a fascinating city to experience, a friend to spend time with, and a chance to reveal how much of the person I once was remains. It should be an interesting trip.

English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. Th...