The end

 “I look like I’ve been on a sun holiday,” Frau B said from her hospital bed on a Sunday evening in early January.

“You sure do!” I said, laughing. “Mallorca was it?”

She nodded conspiratorially.

Her skin had a yellowish glow, but it was difficult to know how much that had to do with the room’s artificial lighting.

There were two other women in the ward. Both attached to tubes and staring glumly at the wall in front of them, they seemed in far worse condition than Frau B.

“What do you need from the home?” I asked quietly.

“A pair of shoes for sure. The navy ones. My pink cardigan. The pocket mirror. A comb. Some hair slides. And I’m pretty sure there are still some grapes in the fruit bowl?”

“Got it,” I said. “I’ll bring everything over tomorrow.”

“Oh Katechen!” she said happily.

****

“She was in good form,” I texted to Frieda. “In fact, I think the change of scene has been good for her! They’re doing tests tomorrow.”

Frieda is Frau B’s next-of-kin. She’s in her seventies and lives in Hamburg. Until recently, she worked in the bicycle business, selling helmets to clients all over the world.

Their grandmothers were sisters but to keep things simple, they tell people that Frau B is Frieda’s aunt.

Frieda and I have met a few times and keep in sporadic contact. It was she who’d informed me that Frau B had been hospitalised.

“What a relief!” she texted back. “So glad you’re there.”

****

A few days later, Frau B was discharged.

When we spoke on the phone, her voice was wispy and her speech slurred.

She said something about cancer. I didn’t catch what exactly.

I asked her what she needed from the shops. The question stressed her.

“The usual, Katechen. You know yourself.”

I hung up and said to LSH: “It’s the beginning of the end.”

He looked up from his laptop, surprised.

***

I bought yellow tulips (her favourite), some grapes and a couple of pears. All safe bets.

***

I began visiting Frau B once a week nearly exactly five years ago. There have been occasional gaps, when I’ve been abroad, but even then we’ve spoken by phone. Her number is the only one I know off-by-heart.

We arrange the visits days ahead.

Each time, I’ve knocked, listened out for her two-syllable “Ja-a” and opened the door to find her sitting, waiting.

In the early years she’d been in her green armchair. Later, her wheelchair. Almost always in her Sunday best, she would watch me come in and take off my coat, then demand I come closer so she could take a look at the pattern on my dress.

“Nice,” she would say, tracing her fingers along the material. Or once, before Christmas about my woollen boyfriend cardigan, “it’s a good material but a little oversized don’t you think?”

This time, there was no reply when I knocked.

A bag full of red fluid hung from the side of the bed. Somewhere under her nightie she was attached to a tube.

She was making terrible rasping sounds as she slept.

I put the tulips in a vase and the pears in the bowl she’d inherited from her mother-in-law.

Then I sat there, watching her.

I’m not next-of-kin, and the information I was getting through Frieda was being drip-fed.

I took my phone out and went onto some forums. The yellow colour and the extreme rasping pointed to the final stages of liver cancer.

People who’d watched their loved ones die this way had thought to write about their experience and I was grateful for it.

***

I left the room to look for the care staff. They were in the dining hall serving lunch.

Temps from an agency, none of them looked familiar to me.

Like everywhere else, here too they’re understaffed. The pay is terrible; the job is tough and thankless.

“I’m a friend of Frau B,” I said, awkwardly addressing them as a collective. “She, erm, doesn’t seem well at all. I was wondering if anyone could give me some information?”

The faces looked at me, kindly and blankly.

PICCHA

This picture used to hang in Frau B’s room. It was her wedding gift to LSH and me. It now hangs in our bedroom.

 

They didn’t know her.

“Hanna should be able to tell you more,” one said.

Hanna is the head of the section. I know her.

“Thanks,” I said.

I couldn’t find her.

***

I continued, helplessly, to listen to her rasping.

I did some Googling to try and find out what the red stuff in the bag was. I wondered if it could be doxorubicin, a cancer drug otherwise known as the “red devil.”

(It turned out it wasn’t. It was actually a catheter containing her waste).

The rasps and gasps continued. I was terrified that Frau B would simply stop breathing.

Then, like a miracle, she woke up, just before they brought the food in.

“Who is it?” she asked.

“Katechen,” I said.

“Oh Katechen!”

“You were asleep,” I said gently.

“No I wasn’t!” she said. “I just had my eyes closed.”

“Oh really?”

She’d been asleep.

The carer handed me a bowl of hot mush. Mashed potato, friend vegetables and bits of chicken.

“Hanna says you can come see her in her office if you have questions.”

“Thanks” I said.

I decided I’d feed Frau B first.

She was lying flat and didn’t have the energy to sit up.

I was a little worried about her choking, so I started with the mashed potatoes.

She ate them hungrily.

I moved on to the softened vegetables.

She ate them too.

She’s still got an appetite, I thought to myself. This is really good.

“Is there no meat?” she asked.

Never before has a vegetarian been so glad to hear the question.

“Of course there is!” I said.

I cut the chicken up as best I could with the spoon.

She wolfed it down.

I couldn’t find Hanna on the way out.

***

I began an all-consuming course at work, learning to operate a professional camera. We had class all day Monday to Friday. In our spare time we had to organise shoots. The weekends were for filming.

I went to see Frau B as many evenings as I could.

The tone of my conversations with Frieda began to change.

“Don’t worry about anything,” she’d said one evening on the phone as I was leaving work and making my way to the home.

I’ve taken care of everything. The undertakers. The room. It’s all sorted. You don’t need to do anything.”

“Thanks,” I’d said.

***

The last story I read to her was by our beloved Erich Kästner. It’s about a vicious snowball fight between pupils from rival schools.

I made an effort to read it dramatically. Commanding Frau B’s full attention was a challenge that when met, felt like a triumph.

This time, I succeeded.

“He writes so well,” she said as I closed the book for the last time.

“I know!”

I was pleased to have spotted Im Schnee, a collection of his winter-related writing, in the bookshop just before Christmas. Having read our way through the Lyrische Hausapotheke and Sonderbares vom Kufürstendamm, this was the perfect title to get us through a long Berlin winter.

After we read, Frau B requested I feed her some grapes.

“Be careful with the fruit bowl” she said as I approached it, adding significantly, “It’s in your interest.”

Over the years, whenever I brought fruit, I’d ask Frau B to hold the bowl as I placed the pears, apricots, grapes, or whatever else inside.

It had become part of a ritual, which I hoped reminded Frau B that this was a relationship – a friendship – of equals and not of one-sided reliance as she occasionally implied.

I’d often compliment the bowl, knowing that it would trigger an anecdote about her mother-in-law. “If only she knew we were still using her bowl!” she’d say.

“She’d be delighted!” I’d reply.

Perhaps, from where Frau B was sitting, it sounded like I was coveting it.

She wasn’t strong enough to hold the bowl now but she was certainly still interested in the grapes.

I popped them near her mouth and she caught them neatly like a fish.

“Just one more,” she said a few times.

Before I left that night she said, “Katechen, you’re going to laugh at me, but I have a question.”

“Yes?”

“When I’m gone, will you visit someone else?”

One of the managers had asked me that the week before, and I didn’t appreciate it.

Now, coming from Frau B it broke my heart.

“I really don’t know,” I said. “This has turned into a friendship. It wouldn’t be the same.”

***

 

When Frau B and I first met, I was a new arrival in Berlin, scrambling for work and unsure how long I’d be staying. LSB was abroad and I didn’t know many people in the city. As a result, I had plenty of time on my hands.

Five years on, LSB is LSH; together we have a coffee machine from Woolworths, a solid group of friends and far less free time than we’d like.

After he moved to Berlin, LSH, always impeccably behaved (unrecognisable at times), accompanied me on many of my visits to Frau B.

At first he sat mutely in the corner, reluctantly eating the creamy cakes Frau B insisted on saving for him. Then, as his German improved he was given a modest role calculating how much Frau B owed us for the shopping.

We called him “Der Rechner” (or “the calculator”).

His promotion was largely attributable to Frau B’s suspicion that I was undercharging her.

Much to her dismay, LSH’s bills didn’t come to any more than mine had.

“I’m sorry, but Rosmann own-brand Hairspray really does only cost 79 cent,” we’d protest. “We can’t help being thrifty!”

“You’re not to be trusted,” she’d say, shaking her head as she handed over the money.

(We did occasionally undercharge her but only because she sometimes insisted, ridiculously, on tipping us).

***

If I could go back in time and re-capture a single moment with Frau B as she lay dying, it would be this one.

It was, I think, the last time I saw her when she was still awake.

She was very weak, and no longer wanted to eat.

A bunch of  grapes lay untouched in her mother-in-law’s fruit bowl.

On the window sill was a little pot I’d brought a few days before. It contained a hyacinth bulb. After days of doing nothing, it had finally blossomed.

I’d bought it in a rush and hadn’t known what colour it would be.

As it turned out, it was a deep, dark pink.

I picked it up, delighted and brought it over to her.

“Look what blossomed!” I said, holding the pot over her bedside.

She was so weak I expected her, perhaps, to muster a wobbly smile.

Instead, she grabbed the pot and pulled it to her nose.

I had no idea she still had that kind of strength left inside her.

“It smells lovely!” she said.

“I wish we had captured that on camera,” I whispered to LSH.

“Remember it instead,” he whispered back.

***

The last time I saw Frau B, she was already making her way to another place.

They’d removed the catheter to make the journey more comfortable.

LSH and I sat by her bedside.

She seemed smaller. Her glasses were off, making her features appear even more delicate.  Her false teeth, too, had been removed. The bile was still colouring her yellow.

She looked unbearably beautiful, like a tropical fish.

There was no rasping now.

In fact, Frau B looked like she was swimming.

She was thrashing her arms about the way you see babies do in amniotic fluid.

Sometimes, like when I’d reach out to take her hand, she would lift her arm up and away, as if to say – this this – is my point in time.

***

I got the call the next morning. I was in the middle of filming a report with LSH.

“She’s gone,” said Frieda. “She’s at peace now.”

LSH’s friends were coming around that evening to complete the shoot. Cancelling wasn’t an option.

They left in high spirits at 1am; I filmed the entire thing.

When the door closed, I broke down in a way I’ve never done before.

***

The next day LSH and I met Frieda for lunch.

“It all happened so fast,” she said.

“I know.”

“You’re to get the fruit bowl,” she said. “I’ll make sure that happens.”

“Thanks.”

“It’s nothing.” She dabbed at her eyes with a piece of tissue. “She was the last remaining member of my family,” she said. “Now it’s just me.”

“She asked to be cremated,” she continued. “And for her ashes to be placed in an unmarked grave.”

I willed myself not to cry again.

At home, I’d shed more tears than I knew I had. My eyes looked like those almond flakes you buy for baking.

“I think it’s time for a toast,” I said.

We raised our wine glasses.

“To Dora,” Frieda said.

“To Dora,” we replied.

To Frau B, I thought: I’ll remember the spot. I might even mark it with a hyacinth bulb.

***

flowers

Picture: John O’Neill  – Wikipedia Creative Commons

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The rabbit cage

A few years ago, a large grey rabbit appeared in the hallway of the nursing home.

Residents would park their Zimmer frames and wheelchairs by its cage and stick their fingers through the bars.

The rabbit would twitch its nose in curiosity, and in response they’d exchange satisfied smiles.

Frau B told me it belonged to Alessandro, one of the care-workers. She said his girlfriend had thrown him out of the flat they shared and ordered him to take the rabbit with him.

This wasn’t true. But it was amusing, and so I went along with it.

I wasn’t sure Frau B really, truly believed it either.

Sometimes, when Alessandro came into the room, Frau B would say, “Here he is! The rabbit’s daddy.”

“It’s NOT my rabbit,” Alessandro would reply through gritted teeth. Then he’d slam the little cup that contained her painkillers down on the table and leave before she could say another word.

Frau B’s stories always had a dramatic narrative arc. When an old man named Mr Klein moved into the room next to her, she swore he was having a liaison with one of the women at her table.

She said she’d caught them looking at each other across the dining hall.

It was a most appealing tale which conveniently erased Mr Klein’s wife, who lives downstairs.

Still, I nodded indulgently.

As time went by, Frau B’s stories changed. They became less Mills and Boon.

She became increasingly paranoid.

The care-workers were coming into her room at night and eating her pears.

The cleaners were stealing her money and helping themselves to her jewelry.

The other residents were giving her dirty looks and talking about her behind her back.

She had deliberately been given a wheelchair with a faulty brake.

Frau B didn’t respond well to my attempts at gentle persuasion, so I mastered the art of deflection.

I’d listen as she catalogued the slights against her, then change the subject. I’d tell her about my friends’ love lives, or read to her from the Erich Kästner book.

For a while, it seemed to work.

But things are different now.

She insists that the staff  hate her.

And that the people she sits with at mealtimes are conspiring against her.

She sits in her room all day, ruminating about their treachery.

As a result of these perceived slights, this year, she is boycotting the Christmas party I’ve accompanied her to for the past five years.

The one where one of her favourite care-workers dresses up as Santa Claus and distributes gifts to every single one of the residents.

When I suggested she may regret not going, she became angry.

I didn’t bring it up again.

Last Sunday, when LSH and I came to visit, we found her looking for money.

She’d hidden it envelopes all around the room and couldn’t remember where she’d put it.

I offered to help, but she refused, in a tone that suggested she thought I wanted to pocket it.

We unpacked the shopping she’d ordered on the phone the day before: pears; hair slides (the long ones; she can’t grip the shorter ones with her arthritis-ridden fingers); two bars of chocolate and baby powder. We’d also picked up her jumper from the dry-cleaners.

“Is that all?” she said.

“Oh?” I said. “Did you need anything else?”

“You know I did,” she said. “Why didn’t you get grapes?”

I tried to explain as politely as I could that she hadn’t asked for any.

“And what about the pine branch?” she asked.

On this, she had a point.

She’d been talking about getting a small festive centerpiece for her table.

I’d actually bought her one already. But when I’d arrived with it last week, I discovered that her niece from Hamburg had been around in the interim and had supplied her with an alternative. It featured a glittery cut-out of a reindeer wedged inside a box of festive vegetation.

Frau B preferred mine, but thought it would be too risky to switch them in case her niece came back. On her instructions, I took the little pot home back home.

Photo from Katzi

Photo: LSH aka Andrew Hayden: instagram.com/andrewchayden

She did mention pimping her inferior centerpiece with a real pine branch. But she hadn’t brought it up again when I called, and – after a tiring week of getting up at half past three for work every morning – it had slipped my mind.

“So you’ve begun to exploit me too,” she said. “You think you can do what you like because I’ll forget.”

“That’s not fair,” I said, calmly.

“I told you I wanted a pine branch,” she said, her voice rising in anger.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get you one,” I said, curtly now. “I’ll get one this week.”

“You’re playing me for a fool.”

“Let’s read,” I suggested.

I thought it would help.

But she interrupted and said she needed the bathroom.

I let her wheel herself in and closed the door behind her – a small dignity she still insists on.

“Let me know if you need help,” I called after her.

LSH and I sat there, looking at our phones and whispering about how this wasn’t a very enjoyable visit.

Suddenly, a terrible cry came from the toilet.

I shot up and found Frau B hovering over the seat, clutching the bar with one hand and trying to pull her soiled underpants back over her knees with the other.

I re-inserted the sanitary towel that had slid down the inside of her tights, pulled up her underpants and tucked her vest into them.

Then she slid back into her wheelchair, and broke down.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “I can’t go on.”

I bent down before her, and looked her right in the eye.

“Today is a bad day,” I said. “Tomorrow will be better.”

“I’ve been horrible to you,” she said.

“Don’t worry.”

“I need to get out,” she said. “I need to leave this room.”

We left LSH in the bedroom to ward of the thieves and I wheeled her up and down the corridor.

When we came back, some of the darkness had lifted. I made up stories about my baby niece I knew would make her laugh.

Still, a heaviness accompanied LSH and me home that evening.

The next day, I called her on my way home from work.

“Who’s this?” she said.

She sounded agitated and I realised she would have to strain to hear me above the traffic.

“Das Kätchen!”

“Kätchen?”

“Yep, it’s me.”

“I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I just wanted to see how you were.”

“I’m feeling ashamed,” she said.

“Don’t,” I said.

“I treated you terribly.”

“It’s nothing.”

“And to think that after everything I said, you still call me.”

“I was worried about you.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“I often think I’m no longer capable of crying,” she said finally. “But the thought that there’s still someone who worries about me is enough to make me shed tears of joy.”

Now it was my turn to pause.

Then, in a matronly tone designed to stop me from welling up, I said: “Of course I care! How could I not?”

We hung up just as it began to drizzle.

As I walked on towards the train station, I imagined her watching the clouds form from her bedroom window, imprisoned in a cage she had a part in making.

Dear Deplorable, Love Libtard

Dear Deplorable,

Sometimes, when I am in the mood to expand my worldview, I follow people on Twitter whose views diverge from my own. It’s an attempt to get outside of my big, fat, liberal media bubble.

I thought you might appreciate that. But I was wrong.

You see, when your profile popped up on my timeline the other day, I thought: here’s someone whose thoughts I don’t hear at dinner parties very often. Your bio read:

“Voted for President Trump! Am NOT PC so if your feelings get hurt easy to (sic) bad. It’s why I block cry-baby liberals.”

The picture that goes with your account is of a middle-aged white woman with blonde hair. You’re smiling, but not in an unconditional, friendliness-for-all, Socialist kind of way. Definitely not like that.

Hmm, I thought. I wonder what kinds of experiences you have had and how they have shaped you into the non-cry-baby, un-PC, Trump-lover you are today. What, I wonder, would your bio have read before the era of Trump? And, also, are you a Russian bot?

I hit follow.

Not long afterwards, you wrote me this succinct note, and blocked me before I could reply.

deplorable

 

If you had allowed me a few moments of grace, I would have asked you to clarify what you meant by:

“Go in your country” – back you mean? Go back to my country? To Ireland from Germany? Hmm, well, I could I suppose. But the thing is, the European Union has this thing called Freedom of Movement, which makes it legal to live and work in other EU countries. Kind of the way you’re free to move from one American state to another, except in our case, we can cross national borders legally. Crazy, huh?

Or maybe you were under the impression that I live in the United States? I don’t. I’ve visited a few times, but that’s it. So don’t worry. I’m not planning any type of liberal invasion. Phew! You can sleep easy!

“We just had another terrorist attack.” I think you were referring to the terrible attack in New York on Halloween, which left eight people dead. But there were many other terrifying incidents of recent gun violence you could be referring to. Perhaps terrorism is less scary for you when the attacker has the same background and skin color as you do? It would have been nice of you to clarify.

“Yes, enjoy your Muzzies.” – What are “Muzzies?” Is it slang for muzzles? An ironic comment on being muzzled by the politically-correct fake news media? Or are you actually referring to Muslim people? If so, I don’t really know what you mean when you say enjoy. Perhaps I might have found out if you’d let me follow you. Alas though, I’ve been Muzzied from doing so.

Anyway, I’d better get back to my bubble. It was a silly idea to try and break out.

Have a nice day!

Lots of love,

Libtard

xxx

Falling leaves

The doors of the lift slid open and I found Frau B sitting in her wheelchair, waiting.

Heaviness hung in the air. It was a bad day for me to be late.

“I’ve been so sad this past while,” she said when we were back in her room. “I couldn’t hold back the tears.”

We looked out the window at the tree. Its stark crown stood out against the grey sky. A gust of wind swept a handful of orange leaves off its lower branches. We watched them swirl to the ground.

“The weather doesn’t help,” she said.

We’d arranged to clear out the wardrobe, a task I was not looking forward to. Frau B is a back-seat tidier.

“No Katechen!” she will say as I stand haplessly before the wardrobe. “Hang it up so the zip faces left!”

“No!” she exclaims when I do what I’m told. “Put it over there with the blouses.”

We got the job done, and by the time I’d closed the wardrobe door, Frau B’s sadness had morphed to anger.

I found out when I tried to convince her that a sticker might be the solution to an ongoing problem she’s been having with her television.

Frau B’s fingers are crooked and hook-like so she often ends up pressing the wrong button on her remote control.

This results in a maddening situation where she cannot remove the teletext from the screen.

My suggested solution, as with all uncooperative technology, is to turn the offending device off and on again.

But there’s little point if you don’t know where the on button is. So I’d brought along some luminous stickers I thought could be used to mark the right button.

Frau B was having none of it.

“That’s not the on button,” she insisted when I showed her. “It’s somewhere down here.”

I politely persevered.

“NO Katechen!” she snapped. “That’s NOT where it is!” 1478964532403

I put the stickers away.

“You meant well,” she said.

I reached for the book and we continued the story about Rosa Luxembourg, which had captivated Frau B last week.

I was a few sentences in when she asked me to stop. “Let’s just chat instead,” she said.

“Sure.”

Frau B’s sadness-turned anger had morphed into remorse.

“You’re my one and only, Katechen” she said. “You really have no idea where I’d be without you….”

Her eyes were glistening and her gaze reached far beyond me.

“And me without you!” I said, with that false kind of brightness that stops you from welling up.

“And I was so snappy with you!” she said.

“Nonsense!”

“My mother always said I would find someone to take care of me in old age,” she said. “And then you came along.”

“You see, mothers are always right!” I said, and made her laugh.

We sat there for a while, looking at the falling leaves, safe in the knowledge that this kind of melancholy too would lift.

Antifa vs AfD: resisting the rise of Germany’s far-right

Today, a far-right, xenophobic party became Germany’s third largest political force.

Pundits will point to the refugee crisis, the concurrent surge in right-wing populist sentiment elsewhere in the world, and the significant minority of Germans suffering from Merkel fatigue.

But these factors go only so far to explain how a party whose campaign featured slogans like “Burkas? We prefer bikinis” and “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves” could succeed in a country that, ostensibly at least, remains traumatised by the atrocities committed in its Nazi past.

20170921_110900

One of many openly racist AfD campaign posters

One truth likely to be overlooked is that  while the outrage may have been large, the resistance was not.

20170923_154627

Protest setting off from Savignyplatz

This isn’t to say that there was no resistance; it just wasn’t as sizeable as you might expect.

On Saturday afternoon, on the eve of this potentially momentous event in German post-war history, a group of a few hundred people in Berlin did resist.

Draped in rainbow flags and carrying banners that read “Stop the AfD,” they gathered by a patch of green at Savignyplatz in the leafy, well-to-do district of Charlottenburg in the west of the city.

20170923_155737

Antifa protester on skates

It was a carefully chosen location. Antifa, the self-described “radical left” organisers of the protest, have identified Charlottenburg as a hot-bed of the far-right. Their specific aim is to erode the institutions that facilitate its activities.

This was clearly reflected in the route chosen for the march.

Their first stop was Schlüterstrasse 32, where Carsten Schrank, a lawyer known for defending members of the neo-Nazi NPD group, has his office.

Then it was on to the Bibliothek des Konservatismus (Library of Conservatism) on Fasanenstrasse, an institution established in 2012 to house a collection of right-wing literature and serve as a meeting point for far-right sympathisers.

Another significant stop: Hardenbergstrasse  12, home to the offices of the Berliner Medien Vertrieb (Berlin Media Distribution) which manages the publication of the far-right weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit.  If  you are looking for an insight into their editorial stance, a current poll is titled “Sex attacks: Is Germany a safe country for women?”

As the protesters stood outside these places, they chanted slogans like: “AfD Rassistenpack!Wir haben euch zum Kotzen satt.” (AfD: racist crew. We’re sick to death of  you!) and “Say it loud, say it clear: Refugees are welcome here!”

The first half of the march passed without incident. The mood was largely one of joyful defiance, with police and protesters respecting each other’s boundaries.

This changed when the group got to Ernst-Reuter-Platz. The traffic junction, near Berlin’s Technical University, features a large patch of grass which all the political parties have used to accommodate their largest campaign billboards.

Some of these, including one featuring Merkel’s Social Democratic challenger Martin Schulz, had been defaced, with the word “NEGER” (nigger) strewn across it in large black letters.

When the protesters saw this, a handful of them reacted impulsively and slapped their Antifa stickers and posters over the offensive word.

In response, the police detained two of those responsible, accusing them of Sachschaden, or property damage.

Unsurprisingly, this elicited a furious response from the crowd. The protest ground to a standstill as angry demonstrators yelled at the police to let their friends go.

20170923_164419

The word ‘Neger’ written across Martin Schulz’s forehead and face obscured by Antifa stickers and posters

A heated exchange took place between an old woman and a young policeman near the scene of the action:

“So you’d rather the word ‘Nigger’ stayed on the placard?” she asked.

“That isn’t the point,” he said.

“So how come the people covering up the racial slur get in trouble but those who put it there in the first place don’t?”

“They’re two separate incidents,” he said. “Both amount to property damage. Both will be investigated. Our job is to uphold the rule of law. That’s what we’re doing here.”

“Just following orders,” another protester interjected derisively, a thinly veiled reference to the defence used by those who co-operated with the Nazi regime.

The two men were eventually let go on the proviso that a report into the alleged property damage would be compiled.

The march eventually moved on towards its final destination on Otto-Suhr-Allee, a long, impressive boulevard that bears the scars of its bombardment during the war.

Ugly blocks of flats co-exist with beautifully preserved exemplars of nineteenth century Altbau architecture.

As the demonstrators made their way down the street, they encountered their first hecklers.

You had to look upwards to see them.

On a balcony on the second floor of a drab apartment block, two men and a woman were chanting “AfD, AfD!”

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Locals chant “AfD, AfD” as protest passes them by

This unleashed a furious response. Protesters gave them the finger. And the trio responded in kind, clenching their fists and gesturing to the crowd as if to ask: “you want to come up here for a fight?”

The moment passed. But it was a strange and unnerving one.

This incident happened only a short walk away from the march’s final destination: 102 Otto-Suhr-Allee.

It’s the address of the Ratskeller restaurant. Attached to the imposing historical town hall building, it has become a regular haunt for members of the AfD.

A row of police officers guarded the restaurant’s entrance as a member of the West Berlin branch of Antifa chronicled the Ratskeller’s history of hosting far-right groups.

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Police officers guard the Ratskeller restaurant

In the 1990s, it allegedly welcomed members of Die Republikaner, a largely unsuccessful party that positions itself firmly to the right of the Conservative CDU and runs on an anti-immigration platform.

In the following years, it also supposedly hosted the so-called Tuesday Conversations (‘Dienstagsgespräche’), a closed event where members of the far-right exchange ideas.

And in 2016, it was here the AfD celebrated its entry into Berlin’s Senate.

The plan had in fact been for the AfD  to hold its election party here on Sunday night. But, prompted – one can strongly suspect – by lobbying from Antifa, the event was called off on short notice. 

When this news was delivered via mega speaker, a cheer erupted from the crowd.

But there was resignation too. The party would take place elsewhere and the Ratskeller was likely to continue to host the AfD’s regular meet-ups.

The protest ended with an announcement that Solitrinken, or “drinks of solidarity” would be taking place that evening to raise money for a Ghanaian asylum-seeker awaiting deportation.

By the time he leaves the country, the AfD will have entered parliament on an election program that identifies “a relationship between crime and foreigners” and describes an increase in the number of Muslims as  a “threat to peace.”

 

Reader, I married him.

Reader, I married him.

In a tower in the forest.

On a wet and windy August afternoon.

“Pity about the weather,” the florist said when I appeared, drenched, to pick up my bridal bouquet.

“Wrong weather, right man,” I quipped, a little too enthusiastically.

We took a taxi to the forest.

LSB, gallant as well as handsome in a three-piece suit, held a giant pink umbrella over my head as I clambered in with my sopping bouquet.

The driver appeared indifferent to our finery.

“We’re getting married,” I said, in case clarification was needed.

He nodded. “What’s the address?”

Our journey began in amicable pre-marital silence.

The windscreen wipers swished back and forth.

“The weather could be better,” the driver said, finally.

“Wrong weather, right man,” I quipped, a little too enthusiastically.

On arrival at the tower, we held a conference with the manager.

“How hardy are your guests?” she asked.

I thought about our Irish cohort. All but the youngest had survived at least one recession, years of rule by the Catholic Church and the indignity of immersion heaters.

Then I thought about our Bavarian relatives. My mother is one of nine. They are Nachkriegskinder – or “post-war children” – a generation constantly reminded of the horrors they narrowly escaped.

“Very hardy,” I said.

“Very well,” she said. “We’ll do the ceremony outside.”

LSB and I walked down the aisle to the Queen of Sheba, played beautifully on the violin by my cousin and sister.IMG-20170826-WA0032(1)

Everyone gazed at us benignly, snapping pictures as if we were a Very Important Couple indeed.

This, I thought, is what it feels like to be the Duchess of Cambridge.

The celebrants, two of our best friends, performed their roles superbly, holding fast to their flimsy folders as gusts of wind attacked its pages.

LSB and I took turns to read this poem. A friend sang. Another read The Trees by Philip Larkin.

And we planted an olive tree. (Or at least we moved it, ceremoniously, from one pot to another.)

We also let off 50 red balloons, one more, apparently, than local authorities allow.

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Photo: Emma Chaze https://berlinerdiary.com/

But the highlight for many came later, with the performance of my Bavarian family’s choir. Members had disappeared discreetly after dinner. Later they paraded in, singing a traditional Bavarian wedding song in cannon. They brought the house down.

We did a first dance too, one of the few concessions we made to convention.

It was an awkward but happy shuffle.

“We did it,” LSH whispered to me as we took a look around at all of the people we love, gathered together.

“We sure did,” I said giddily, swerving to avoid his toes.

“Let’s get the others up,” he said.

We gestured wildly to our friends and family and soon the dancefloor was packed with people, boogying joyously to a playlist we’d compiled with the help of YouTube autoplay. (If you need 100 classically cheesy tracks in one place, write to me).

It was a glorious day, made so by the people who honored us with their presence.

We returned to the island of Rügen for our honeymoon and found the rock, where one year earlier, we’d said yes.  

There were no swans this year.

But as we stood there, gazing out to sea, we remembered how they’d drifted past – showing us this point in time.

da rock

The rock, where we said yes.

 

One old lady’s quest for a fish sandwich

LSB and I were out walking in Charlottenburg this weekend, when we happened upon an old woman sitting on her Zimmerframe.

It’s not an unusual sight in this part of town, known primarily for its elderly population and the leafy neighborhoods they frequent.

We would have walked right by her, without a second glance, except that she gestured at us to come over and handed me a handwritten note, wrapped in a five-euro note.

In case this sounds implausible here is a picture:

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The note says: “Please buy me half a smoked fish in a sandwich (salted fish) No salad! ROGACKI.”

I haven’t eaten fish in a decade but I do know Rogacki. The family-run fish shop, located on the Wilmersdorfer Straße shopping street, has been there since 1932. It’s an institution and you can smell it a mile away.

The old lady was wearing a breathing apparatus underneath her clothing. “Fish.. Warm.. No lunch,” she said in between gasps, then smiled sweetly in anticipation.

I nodded, as if processing a routine request.

“What on earth..?”said LSB as we made our way to Rogacki. “Why do things like this always happen to you?”

I can only assume I was born with the kind of face that invites old ladies’ requests to buy fish sandwiches (Smoked. No salad).

We knew there was something wrong as soon as we turned onto Wilmersdorfer Straße.

For one, it didn’t smell fishy.

The lights were out.

The shutters boarded up.

“No!” we cried theatrically. “WHY?”

It was an hour past closing time.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one cannot return empty-handed to an old woman gasping for breath and in need of a fish sandwich.

But that’s what we had to do.

She looked up in happy expectation as we returned, presumably relieved we hadn’t made off with her fiver and carefully crafted note.

“Closed,” I said, gesturing wildly, before remembering she wasn’t deaf.

“Closed?” she said, rasping. “Oh!”

She looked crestfallen. I asked her if I could get her anything else instead.

She didn’t understand.

“Polish,” she said. “Little German.” (It explained the spelling of Rogacki.)

I offered her the fiver back. But she was not ready to give up.

“Penny,” she said.

“Yes!” I replied. Penny is a supermarket nearby.

“No Penny.”

She held up two fingers and moved her arm around.

“Warm fish..” she said.

I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I looked over at LSB but he looked just as confused as I did.

We had no choice but to try again.

“Me” (she pointed at herself) “Wait here,” she said and stroked my arm in appreciation.

We set off again.

“I have no idea what she was trying to say,” I said to LSB.

“Maybe there’s a fish place two doors down from Penny?” he suggested.

There wasn’t but we did pass a bakery.

I peered desperately into the glass display, my crazed expression attracting the attention of a young cashier.

“Do you have any smoked fish?” I asked. “You see, a lady gave me a note and…”

Her look, a combination of complete incomprehension and mild contempt, caused me to trail away.

Then, suddenly,  among the salami rolls and cheese and tomato baguettes, beckoning like a jewel, I discovered it.

One half of a roll, with a piece of smoked salmon slapped upon it.

I pointed at it enthusiastically.

“Could you heat this up for me?” I said. “Please?”

“For here or takeaway?”

“Oh, definitely takeaway!” I said, picturing the old lady gasping for breath as her stomach grumbled.

It wasn’t salted. It wasn’t smoked. But it would have to do.

She placed it in a bag, which was pleasingly warm to touch. It cost €1.50.

We returned to the old lady.

“Ah!” she said, beaming. “Warm?”

I nodded.

She smiled widely, as I tucked €3.50 worth of coins into the handwritten note, and handed it back to her.

We made to leave.

“Wait!” she said, and with an enormous effort, heaved around to reach into the basket of her Zimmerframe.

She handed me a sweet in a purple wrapper. Devastated, she looked at LSB.

“We’ll share!” I said, again gesturing with excessive enthusiasm.

She took a deep breath and smiled.

“Schönen Tag noch!”

“You have a good day too!” we said and walked away, relieved, yet bewildered.

How long, I wondered, had she been sitting on her Zimmerframe, waiting for a fish sandwich? And does she do it every day?