Frau Bienkowski’s Photograph

“How may I help you?” asked the chiselled librarian with grey hair and round eyes.
“Do you have any books in large print that you’d recommend for a 93 year-old?”

He typed into his computer and frowned.

“We have very few books in large print left,” he said. “The demand simply isn’t there. Old people are opting for audio books.”
“I suspected as much.”
“Wait though. Come with me. We do have selected titles.”

We snaked up and down the aisles at the back of the library. “Ah this one could work … and this! he cried, snatching a book every few shelves.

He left me with a pile, from which I selected Die Pforte zum Himelreich by Irish writer Una Troy, featuring nuns in small-town Ireland and an unconventional 100 year-old lady who stirs things up. I also took Ulla Lauchauer’s Ostpreußische Lebensläufe, roughly translated as “Biographies from East Prussia.”

“Yes, the story about the nun sounds interesting,” Frau Bienkowski, who was wearing green, said later.

Then I took out the book about biographies from East Prussia. “Can you bring me that photograph?” Frau Bienkowski asked, motioning to a frame hanging over her bedside table.

Frau Bienkowski balanced the black and white photograph on her knee. She turned on the lamp on her magnifying glass.

“This is my grandparents’ Golden Wedding Anniversary in East Prussia,” she said. “If you look carefully you can see the number 50 carved into the flower arrangement at the back.”

“We were a big family. That’s me at the bottom on the left,” she said pointing to a little girl with cropped hair and buckled shoes kneeling on the ground. “Those are my grandparents in the middle and those are my aunts and their husbands. These are my cousins.”

“She was killed,” she said pointing to an aunt. “So was she, my cousin too. He fled, and so did she.

“And this man” she said pointing to the back row of the photograph. “He was married to my aunt Anne.”

“She was very ill, and told him to flee alone. He did, and she died soon after. Years later we heard from him. He got away, and married again. But he said ‘She’ll never be my Annie.'”

“Yes, they are all dead now,” she said.

Later we talk about how her perm needs to be touched up, about how she would like some new clothes from the spring catalogue and how she left everything she owned at home when she moved into the nursing home.

“I don’t want to know what happened to it all,” she said.


Once upon a time, people thought black people should serve white people, gays should be killed and children should be seen and not heard.

Lots of people who thought that way were kind and charitable too. Among them were devoted husbands, loving wives and generous uncles.

It took hundreds of years for things to change. Now directors make films about Americans quarrelling about slavery, men loving men and sad, lonely children in big houses.

I think in the future, the films will be about charismatic vegans speaking out against factory farms.

Image Source:

Image Source:

This isn’t really a post about eating animals, but if you’re into that, I’d recommend reading Jonathan Safran Foer.

It’s about suffering caused by ordinary people.

Conditions for animals in farms the world over are so bad that watching a video about what goes on in ordinary farms almost makes me sick.

The suffering is so great you can barely even imagine it.

The animals we eat go through agony. The happiest moment is their death.

Most people know this in principle. They’ve seen the odd video about factory farming, read the occasional rant in favour of veganism and realised they’d feel pretty bad about eating their pet dog.

But they haven’t quite thought about it for long enough. Like me, they’ve turned off the videos when things get too uncomfortable and skimmed the final few paragraphs of those moralistic articles. They’ve conveniently and falsely associated the vegetarian/vegan diet with a hippy lifestyle, which they’re too busy paying taxes to support.

They’ve mistaken the argument against supporting sadistic cruelty with the one against eating meat at all. Some say “well, that’s the order of things” and others wear ironic t-shirts that say “Meat is murder. Tasty, tasty murder.”

Though I don’t eat meat, I’m not against it in principle. Having been a vegetarian for many years, the idea seems very strange to me, but should my health depend on it, I would go back to it. And I would sooner eat road-kill than a cheap burger. It is not the fact of the animal’s death that disgusts me, but the horror of the life it must endure.

The most important thing for me is to avoid contributing to needless, unimaginable suffering.

Living ethically is difficult. I’m no great example. Last week I bought six eggs from a lady with wild, white wiry hair selling her produce from a trailer. I made an omelette. Later when I looked carefully at the stamp on the remaining eggs, I saw that they had the second lowest rating for quality. I’d eaten eggs produced by hens kept in deplorable conditions.

Here in Germany, the “organic” industry is being rocked by a scandal of deception and mislabelling. It turns out that the expensive and well-sold “bio” products are not quite so bio after all.

According to my own principles, I should go vegan. I’ve thought about it and am held back by two factors: the fear that my health would suffer, and the high cost of animal substitutes designed for vegans.

Image source:

Image source:

The world we live in can seem farcical. I can follow the whims of celebrities across the world on Twitter, but I can’t tell you where my yoghurt came from.

I’ve lived in a city all my life. The only foods I’ve sourced have been blackberries from the garden, or the occasional potato at the bottom of the compost heap.

I am ignorant but not naïve. There is another way and it starts with widespread exposure to the horrors of modern farming. Looking away has always been the surest way of supporting what is immoral. Consumers of animal products have a moral obligation to find out about the industry they’re supporting.

The argument that everything is about profit has been brought to an immoral extreme in many industries, but in farming it has been bizarrely accepted.

Part of what makes humans put themselves on a pedestal above other animals is what many identify as a superior capacity for moral reasoning. The irony of that assumption in the context of the conditions allowed for meat production should not be overlooked.

I am no paragon of morality. But education and information have made me change my habits for the better. I’ve still far to go.

I firmly believe that the scale and depth of suffering being inflicted by humans on animals in our time will be the stuff of horror history documentaries in the future.

Our descendants will ask “How did people do nothing for so long?” They will consider us barbaric and sadistic. They will pity us for our immoral economy and greed. They will question how things went on for so long, even in a time of instant, mass communication.

None of that will happen soon. But give it a few hundred years, and people will say that among those who supported these practices were devoted husbands, loving wives, generous uncles, and even passionate pet-owners.

Watching the snow with Frau Bienkowski

“You should always avail of the free coffee here,” Frau Bienkowski said. “Sure, why wouldn’t you?”

“I did,” I assured her. “I had a latte downstairs. It was delicious.”

The dress Frau Bienkowski admired

The dress Frau Bienkowski admired

“Good,” she said, looking at me closely. “Now, this is a dress I haven’t seen before! It’s lovely!”

“Thank you!” I said and admired her pastel-coloured floral two-piece.

Outside, thick snowflakes were swirling in the air. “It’s such a shame about the weather,” said Frau Bienkowski.”I still have to give you a tour of the grounds.”

“And you promised to tell me the story behind the funny little statue outside,” I said.

“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten!”

“How have you been sleeping?”

“Not well,” said Frau Bienkowski. “The other night I was awake the whole night. When the alarm went off at 7 o’clock I just couldn’t face getting up. So when the first lady came in, I had to think of some reason to stay in bed, so I told her I had a headache.”

“She asked me where,” Frau Bienkowski continued, smiling wickedly. “So I waved my hand about and said from front to back. Of course they got the doctor to check up on me. Then they took my blood. And of course I’d a perfect reading.”

I laughed. “Would you not tell them you’ve trouble sleeping?”

“Ach, I told you before, I haven’t been able to sleep since my husband died. And that was a long time ago.”

“Do you listen to the radio or watch TV in the evenings?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Frau Bienkowski. “I only watch television in the evenings. But listen to this; the other day a message to turn down my TV came from a lady all the way down the corridor. There was no way she could have heard it. I even asked my next-door neighbours if they could hear my TV. They couldn’t. Sure we are all hard of hearing here.”

“Difficult neighbours can be found everywhere!” I said.

“That they can,” she said. “Now, tell me about these CD players.”

“Well, I did a price check,” I told her. “And the ones with the decent speakers are about €50. The smaller ones with low quality speakers are around €30, but you wouldn’t be able to hear from bed if we plug it in over there.”

“We’ll have to wait so” said Frau Bienkowski. “I spent €12.50 on that coffee jug last week,” so I can’t afford to spend any more money for a while.”

Frau Bienkowski looked at the clock. “Be careful you’re not late for your night shift!”

“Don’t worry, I’ve my eye on the time,” I told her.

“How long are you working tonight?” she asked.

“Until 2.30 in the morning,” I said. “When I’m on my way home, you’ll be awake in bed, hopefully with the radio on.”

“Yes,” she said.

On Love

I grew up in a large, cold house. In the winter, I would curl up beside the gas heater until I became dizzy from the fumes. We didn’t have anything fancy like instant hot water. If you wanted to have a shower, you had to plan at least 40 minutes in advance. Waiting for the water to heat up was an opportunity to work on my juvenilia, or to stare at people on the street below.

It was character-building, nineteenth-century-style.

It was the kind of cold that seeps through to your bones. Sometimes my father would suggest I dip my blue-white fingers into boiling soapy water to get the blood flowing again. Other times my mother would enter the kitchen in mid-summer and drape a gigantic coat over my shivering frame.

Like in all good Victorian novels, love shone through in actions, not words.

Earlier when I was wracking my brains about how to write about love in a way that was not insufferable, a memory – one of my earliest- popped into my head.

I was a small child, well below school-going age. The house was, you guessed it, cold and I was waiting virtuously outside the toilet. My mother emerged and lifted me onto the pea-green seat.

She had pre-warmed it, like a mother hen.

That was love.The Gift of Warmth

In my formative years, I continued to gravitate towards those providing warmth. I became enamoured by electric heater salesmen and canteen staff with large ladles of steaming hot soup.

Romantically too, I have favoured those offering to make me warmer. LSB’s shaggy hairstyle, spare coats and facial hair have proven to be a winning combination.

And I have to give it to him: LSB was quick to pick up on my requirements. Once in our early courtship, I was on a bus on the way to Crumlin. It was a dark and dreary night and we were going to a party. When I got off the bus, I found him waiting with a hot-water bottle.

That went down so well that on the New Year’s Eve just passed, he packed it again for our walk up Calton Hill.

A warm and fuzzy feeling, on demand.

Happy Valentine’s Day. This year, consider giving the gift of warmth.

Another cup with Frau Bienkowski

When I arrived at the nursing home earlier this afternoon, I passed a group of ladies pushing Zimmer frames and wearing feathered masks. Before I went up to Frau Bienkowski, I ordered a coffee downstairs. I was served by a lady with whiskers and a tail.

Frau Bienkowski said she would prefer to forgo the carnival celebrations downstairs, but we turned on the TV and watched an enormous red float make its way through the centre of Duesseldorf.

“When I was young,” Frau Bienkowski said, “we didn’t dress up that much for Carnival. But we had a masquerade ball.”


“At midnight, you would take off your mask to reveal your face to your dancing partner.. Of course it wasn’t always a surprise. You knew some people by their hands, or the way they moved.”

She paused. “You aren’t wearing that beautiful pattern today,” she said, studying me carefully. “But that skirt is nice too.”

I complimented Frau Bienkowski on her green two-piece suit.

Then I emptied out my bag. “I brought something for you,” I said.


“Well, since you said you liked reading, but that your eyes were no longer quite up to it, I took out some audio books from the library.”

“Audio books?”

“Yes, here have a look.”

“I didn’t know there was a such thing as audio books,” she said. “And you can take these out of the library?”

“You can! And you can even borrow films too,” I said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and borrow a CD player.”

“Will it be big?” asked Frau Buenkowski.

“It might be,” I said.

“Here, take this,” she said, pushing her Zimmer frame over to me. “And would you mind picking up some coffee too?”

I made my way down the hallway to the communal sitting room. Five ladies in wheelchairs were seated around a table, eating cake and drinking coffee.

“Did you hear the Pope has resigned?” said one.

“Oh, I knew that already!” replied another.

“On grounds of age,” chirped in a third.

I unplugged the CD player and popped it inside the basket of my Zimmer frame. I filled up two cups of coffee and balanced them precariously on top.

Frau Bienkowski and I listened to a few minutes of a German novel, read by the author himself.

“Do you think you might like this?” I asked.

Frau Bienkowski nodded. She looked happy.

“Which library did you go to?” she asked.

I told her. “Did you know that the building used to be a Sparkasse bank?” she asked.

I didn’t. “It was a vault, which the Russians plundered after the war. Back in the day, people had less jewellery, and they used to bring it there for safekeeping. One of my friends never saw her necklace again.”

My eyes were becoming wider. “Anyway,” Frau Bienkowski continued. “Tell me about what you’ve been up to.”

I told her I’d worked a rather uneventful night shift last night. Frau Bienkowski laughed. “It’s not every day the Pope resigns, is it? I don’t know why they picked someone so old in the first place.”

Frau Bienkowski, like me, suffers from insomnia. Hers is much worse. “I haven’t been able to sleep since my husband died,” she said. “Last night I was awake until 5 o’clock, but I got up again at 7. Routine is important.”

I asked her if she was plagued by racing thoughts.

“No,” she said. “My husband and I used to have wonderful times together. We went to the museum a lot. I have a wonderful talent to recall these happy thoughts. Some other people are riddled with anxiety at night, but I simply think of these good times with my husband.”

We talked for two more hours and I said I would call Frau Bienkowski later that week. She looked at me. “I never want you to feel obliged to come see me,” she said.

Frau Bienkowski, forgive me my bluntness but you could not be further from the mark. And this week, I am going to buy you a little CD player from Medienmarkt.

Coffee with Frau Bienkowski

“I don’t want to live to be 100,” Frau Bienkowski* said, stirring her coffee.
“A lady here turned 101 last week,” she said. “That’s not for me!”

Frau Bienkowski is 93.

When I met her for the first time, she was nestled in an armchair with a newspaper and an enormous magnifying glass on her lap. The walls of her room were decorated with black and white photographs. Her husband and her son sat politely in their frames, wearing suits, ties and pleasant expressions.

“I think your son has your eyes?” I suggested.

“No,” she replied. “He had my nose. His eyes were blue like his father’s. But you can’t see that from the photographs.”

Frau Bienkowski’s husband died in the war; her son in a traffic accident. When she was left alone with her son, her parents helped out. She never forgot it and when they grew old, and she had lost her son too, she nursed them by herself, until they too died. Now she is living in a home in west Berlin, close to where she grew up and she has been kind enough to accept my weekly visits.

When I came into her room last week, she pointed at my dress and said, “Look at that pattern! It’s beautiful!”

LSB had given it to me for Christmas. It’s the pattern of a painting by Klimt. It’s actually a skirt but I have transformed it into a dress with the help of a belt and a big black bow.

“I used to be a seamstress,” Frau Bienkowski said. “I notice these things.”

She worked in a shop on Kudamm, a famous shopping street in west Berlin. When it was fashion show season, she would stay up sewing until the early hours of the morning. She made ballroom dresses out of pure silks. The war interrupted her work and when she married she gave it up. She found it difficult, not working any more.

Many of her memories are of an occupied Berlin. “There was no talking to the Russian soldiers,” she said, “nor to the Brits either really. The Americans were all right actually.”

We talked about Prince William and Kate Middleton. “I wonder if the Queen will ever abdicate,” she mused, “and whether Charles will ever be king. The Dutch queen did; it was the right thing to do.”

She said she thought the Dutch royals seemed like a happy bunch.

Frau Bienkowski loves reading. She asked me to reach up to her bookshelf to take some titles down for her. She showed me a series of books about German royalty, and some stories of romance in India. I told her I was reading Anna Karenina. (still, the shame!). She said she had read it several times and seen the 1935 version of the film.

Next we read a little from the paper. Germany’s, former (as of yesterday) education minister Annette Schavan had been stripped of her doctorate from the University of Duesseldorf, for plagiarism. “They took it away, did they?” Frau Bienkowski asked. “Just like zu Guttenburg, she added, referring to the minister of defence, who resigned in 2011 after it was found that he too had copied large chunks of his doctoral thesis.

Frau Bienkowski grew up in a flat in a big house, where she had three very good friends who lived below. The group stayed in touch and only one moved to another area of the city. They’ve all died now but Frau Bienkowski keeps them alive in her head.

She met her husband at a dance.

I imagine that she was wearing an exquisite silk dress.

This morning, when I woke up missing LSB, I thought of Frau Bienkowski.

*not her real name.

Shine, Jesus, Shine.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment it became cool to join the Christian Union at school. All I know is that one day people were carefully tearing away the threads that bound their little blue hymn books together and the next you were being shoved out of the way for a go at the Prayer Wall.

Testimonials became all the rage. Powerful, popular student speakers would address school assembly and describe their conversion at pop concerts. The Christian Union band became a staple feature of morning gatherings and suddenly everybody was belting out Shine, Jesus Shine as if their lives depended on it.

My best friend and I set out on a surveillance Mission. One Friday after school, we walked in on an Open Mic prayer session. The cream of the crop were gathered in a circle, waiting patiently for their turn with the mic. A tall brunette girl with ringlets finally got her go. She clutched the microphone, shut her eyes tightly and said “Dear God, please help me not do something I regret on Junior Certs results night.”

I was amazed, because I was doing all I could to prevent divine intervention on Junior Cert Results night.

The Junior Cert is a set of exams that Irish school children take when they are 15. They sit in sports halls with no windows and answer questions about Romeo and Juliet, Pythagoras’ theorem and volcanoes. During the exams, the sun comes out and shines all over the country. Flowers blossom and birds sing. When the adjudicator says “Pens down” after the final exam, it begins to rain.

Anyway, “results night” is when under-age teenagers sneak their way into night clubs around Dublin. The girls are usually naked and the boys wear oversized shirts with their collars pulled up. If things go to plan, the next morning the streets will be lined with neat little pools of vomit.

I had done hideously well in the Junior Cert. So well, that cool boys in the corridor cried my result at me whenever I passed. I thought the way they yelled “12 As” every time I went by was flirtatious, until somebody suggested that I was being bullied, which seemed more

Anyway, as I was ironing my hair that night, I decided it was high time I started drinking alcohol. Contemporaries had been doing it for months, and I felt I was missing out on a developmental stage. I thought the prospects that night were good. I had an invitation to a party at a boy’s house.

I made sure my hair was flat and lifeless before I headed out. When I got to the party, it was still bright and everyone was in the garden, bouncing on a trampoline. I joined them, certain that the illicit activity would begin after dark.

As dusk was settling, I spotted some boys retreating behind the bushes. One of them caught my eye. This was very promising. We exchanged a dangerous glance. I slipped off the trampoline and into the cover of a suburban hedge. An Evian bottle was being passed around. It was dirty and there was murky liquid inside. “It’s a mix,” one of the boys told me.

I thought for just a moment about cold sores, and about how once you got the Herpes virus, you have it for life. But then I remembered that alcohol was a prime ingredient in many household cleaning products, and my spirits lifted again.

I took a swig. I put great effort into appearing underwhelmed. The bottle got passed around. Before I knew it, it was empty and ready for the recycle bin.

I wondered whether it was possible to be so drunk as to not notice any effect at all. I tried hard to identify the symptoms of intoxication. I wondered whether I might be unsteady on my feet, but my legs stubbornly obeyed my commands. I thought it might be an idea to display irrational behaviour, but I was painfully uninspired.

I’ve always been confused by behaviour that occurs while drinking alcohol. You see, you just never know if the behaviour and the alcohol have anything to do with each other. The very last thing you want to do is to mix up causation with correlation. At least, that’s what the Psychology lecturers at college used to say.

Not so long ago, years after I left my school-days behind me, I found myself drifting on the fringes of a dance-floor. I spotted a cool boy I had been to school with. I tapped him on the shoulder.

“Kate!” he said. “SO good to see you!”

“And you,” I said, beaming.

“You know what,” he continued. “You’re just dead on. You are just such a good person. You know, I just have so much respect for you and the path you have taken.”

I was unemployed at the time.

He looked wistfully beyond me, his gaze otherworldly.

“Is that your boyfriend?” he asked suddenly.

I dragged LSB under the disco ball.

“Yes,” I said.

“You’re some lucky fucker,” he said, “you really are.”

We exchanged phone numbers. “Let’s seriously, definitely, actually meet for coffee,” the boy said.

I was delighted. I imagined the conversation would continue exactly where it had left off. I would gaze modestly into my latte, stirring the foam with my little finger and say, “Stop, no really… Did you honestly..? … you really always thought that of me? And all that time I thought you were cool and I wasn’t?! Gas.. No look stop now, you’re embarrassing me..”

In the days and weeks that followed, I thought about bringing my phone for a routine check-up, just in case there were some calls not getting through or something. But as the weeks turned into months, I began to wonder if the boy had been under the Influence.

The Noisy Peeing Girl and The Sexy Reporter

When I was at school, it was considered polite to put on the hand dryers in the bathroom while somebody else was peeing. One day I went into the toilet and straight past two Cool Girls, who were applying lip gloss and scowling in the mirror. I started doing my business but the dryer didn’t come on.

“Oh my God,” one of the girls said. “That sounds so weird.”
“Yeah,I know” said the other.

I kept on peeing, as you do. When I came out, instead of saying something witty or challenging like “Oh, so your magic lip gloss makes you pee silently then, does it?” I stared at them, long and hard.

They might have thought it was a look of defiance but in fact it was shameless curiosity. I was always trying to figure out how Cool Girls worked. Now that I knew they’d never heard the sound of peeing before, I was wondering whether they had extraordinary bladder control, or whether they struck underhand deals with each other about manning the dryer: I’ll lend you my sparkly eye shadow in exchange for three shifts by the dryer next Tuesday… No? Oh fine, go on then, I’ll throw in a go of my bronzer too. Sheesh, you’re a tough bargain. Okay, done

You should never underestimate the effort that goes into being a Cool Girl. Once I was in the bathroom tucking my shirt into my oversized trousers, when I noticed a Cool Girl adjusting her navy knee socks, a couple of millimetres at a time. I tried to look sympathetic, thinking she had an itch. But when she saw me looking she said, “It’s the fake tan.” I wanted to say something really in the know like “Oh I bet it’s St Tropez – such a pain .. try Rimmel, hon” but instead I just kept watching her.

She must have been having a weak moment because we got talking. She told me all about how she applied tan every morning but only on the bits of skin that were exposed by the school uniform. That meant that as well as her perfect golden face and sleek neck, she had to cover the couple of inches between where her socks ended and her skirt began and where her t-shirt ended and her tiny little arms began. It sounded like solid honest work requiring patience and precision, like old ladies sewing outfits for tiny dolls. I was full of awe. I didn’t even shower every

The only time I ever tried fake tan I was with my best friend. We thought we’d try it in a safe environment so that if we had any side effects we’d have a support network around us. We wanted to remember what it’d be like so we decided we’d do it on the night of the school production. Even though the two of us are naturally exceptionally gifted actresses, who chose to devote ourselves to the lucrative study of humanities over the stage, we were given identical, very minor roles. We were “reporter 1 and 2,” which is kind of funny when you think about it because I’m still in that role now.

Anyway, we decided we’d pep up our image a bit by dressing all sexy. You wouldn’t believe how easy that is. Just put on a really short skirt and super high heels and there you have it. It was strategic really because what’s the point of fake tan if you’ve only got a tiny bit of skin to cover. (That was during the Celtic Tiger days, before rationing came in).

So I whipped out the tube and hurled a couple of globs at my thigh. I could feel my cool factor rise with every smear. It all got terribly streaky but we didn’t let that get in the way of anything. We were sexy reporters and streaks were part of our feminine mystique.

Streaks were also part of my feminine mystique when I got orange highlights but that’s another story altogether.

Anyway, just before the production, all the Cool Girls came into the bathroom to touch up on their fake tan. Some of them were opting for the strip and re-apply method, which I’ve heard is also the right one if you’re thinking of re-wallpapering.

One of them shouted out: “Anyone got some toothpaste for this?”

Now I’m not good on general knowledge, but I had picked up somewhere in the Corridors of Cool that toothpaste was an excellent way of getting rid of fake tan. I was staying over at my best friend’s house that night so naturally I’d packed a nice little collection of toiletries.

“I’ve some,” I cried out, cautiously at first and then triumphant, as I saw the hungry eyes flickering in my direction.

The Cool Girls formed an orderly queue. At first I was overcome by the novelty of being such a sensation but after a while, I got little perturbed by how quickly my Colgate was disappearing. After the seventh Cool Girl had squeezed out a much-too-generous glob of it and abandoned the tube on the floor, I picked it up. It looked limp, dejected and betrayed.