This story was first published here.
We meet in a café down the road from where the Berlin wall once stood. Olaf Schwarz is just as I remember him from our one encounter in 2014. Small, bespectacled and in his mid-sixties, he wears a silver chain around his neck and speaks so softly that I have to lean right into him to hear. He orders a beer.
I’d reached out to him because five years ago, on a bus ride to an event at which we were both volunteering, he’d mentioned that he used to work for East Germany’s state circus. He’d taken care of the elephants.
It’s the kind of fact that sticks and it came back to me as I was contemplating the economic impact of German reunification. I was on the search for somebody who could capture the experience of East Germans whose socialist world crumbled almost as abruptly as the Berlin wall did. Olaf Schwarz, I thought, could be my man.
On November 9th, 1989, when Germans rushed to tear down the wall that had shackled them for so long, two radically different ideologies came face-to-face for the first time in 28 years. On the western side was a nation with a thriving free-market economy that had experienced a ‘Wirtschaftswunder,’ or economic miracle. On the east was the Communist-run German Democratic Republic: a centrally-planned economy in tatters.
The GDR circus was one of many East German institutions that floundered and ultimately collapsed following reunification. Olaf Schwarz worked there between 1981 and 1987.
“It wasn’t hard to get a job in the GDR,” he says. “The circus was always looking for people.”
In many ways, it’s no surprise that he ended up there. In the years before, he’d spent most of his time hitchhiking, sleeping outdoors and avoiding the authorities. He first got a taste for it at the age of 12, when he and four friends set off on an ill-fated quest to hitchhike to the western city of Duisburg, because they’d seen a picture of it in their geography textbook. They stood on the side of the Autobahn and told the drivers who stopped for them that they were on their way to their grandmother’s funeral. Eventually, after a search warrant was put out, one of the drivers smelt a rat and the police caught up with them. Olaf Schwarz’s appetite for adventure was born.
Unlike regular citizens, whose movements were heavily monitored and restricted, employees of the circus were allowed to travel freely. Their performances took them to West Germany, Austria and even Japan. The GDR authorities trusted them not to defect during their international performances. Were they right to?
“When I went to Austria in 1983, it did occur to me not to come back,” Schwarz says. But the conditions and hierarchies he’d observed at Western circuses put him off.
“The relationship between individuals of higher and lower rank was terrible,” he says, adding that the conditions at the GDR circus, where everyone and not just the boss had access to hot showers and a kitchen, “couldn’t have been better.”
Another distinguishing feature of the East German circus was that the children in the troupe got an official state education from accredited instructors who would accompany them on their travels. Childcare was provided too, and Olaf Schwarz fell in love with one of the Kindergarten teachers. In 1987, when she began to suffer health problems and was no longer able to travel, he quit the circus so they could stay together.
He got a job at an animal welfare organization, which was on a mission to control the wild cat population. “My job was to drive to wherever the traps had been set up and pick up the cats,” he says. A few months into his new post, one such journey brought him close to a pathologist’s clinic. It was to be a turning point in his life.
He got talking to a staff member, who invited him in to see a corpse. He gazed at it impassively. As a child he’d spent a lot of time observing operations at a slaughterhouse. Death didn’t faze him.
“The guy said that if this stuff didn’t bother me, I should go work for the Berlin municipal undertaking service. He said I’d earn double there.”
He took the man’s advice and traded cats for corpses. If the salary he’d been promised as an undertaker was good, the tips he got were even better. It was for this institution that he was working when the Berlin wall came down in 1989 and the socialist regime in which he’d come of age began its final demise.
“Sure, you could have seen it coming,” he says. “If you thought about it logically, it was clear that things couldn’t continue on as they’d been.”
In the beginning, nothing much was said and the staff kept on working as normal. Within weeks however, the old managers, all of whom had been members of the East German Communist Party, had been replaced. For Olaf Scholz though, an even bigger change was to come.
The following year, the East German currency, the Ostmark was replaced by the West German Deutsche Mark. “Overnight, the tips stopped,” he says. There is indignation in his voice. “We got nothing anymore.” I ask him why he thinks this was. “People were too stingy to give away their Western money,” he says simply. Perhaps, I think, they realized its worth.
The GDR undertaking service did not survive long after reunification. There was briefly talk of it remaining a government entity, but the well-established private funeral parlors in west Berlin spoke out in opposition. Once again, it was time for Olaf Schwarz to look for a new job.
Never one to turn down a challenge, he became a security guard for a private US security company in west Berlin. He even got a firearms license as part of his training. His job included patrolling the villas by the Wannsee lake, which to this day are home to some of the city’s wealthiest residents. To a person who had spent almost three decades living in a system that forbade the accumulation, let alone the flaunting of wealth, it must have come as quite a shock.
“It was interesting,” he says. “Some of the villas had swimming pools in their basements. And places to dock their boats.”
He worked in the security business for several years, before once again getting a job at a funeral parlor. He was there all the way up to 2007, when the business folded.
It was then that his first and only prolonged period of unemployment began. It was to last for a decade, until he reached retirement age.
He filled his time taking free courses for people out of work. He learnt how to operate a camera and it was in this capacity that we met in 2014, when we spent a day working together to produce a report about an event at a seniors’ club in Berlin. Today, he continues to shoot videos, which he uploads to his YouTube channel.
One of the greatest pleasures and challenges of storytelling is when the tale you thought you were going to tell morphs into something else. Before our conversation, I thought that Olaf Schwarz might represent a kind of common East German experience. Perhaps, I thought, as he reflected on his time at the circus, he would display a certain kind of Nostalgie, a yearning for the certainties, if not the repression of the GDR regime. Alternatively, I considered, maybe he typified the East German who was quick to embrace the freedoms that capitalism offered. An entrepreneur of sorts who was able to grasp hold of new opportunities.
Both narratives are far too limiting. Like the millions of Germans whose sensibilities were shaped by the cold war, his response to the political and economic events of his time was entirely unique. If I did have to identify a single thread that has run through his life and got him to where he is today, it would be a healthy disregard for authority.
“To be honest, whether it was then, or now, I don’t trust any government,” he says. “I just do my thing.”
There is a man in a wheelchair who is nearly always in the café where I go to write.
We have a history.
A long time ago, he stopped me on the street and asked me to take him home.
His head droops to one side. He has trouble speaking. He keeps a set of used straws down the side of his chair. He’s about 50.
I pushed him down the road to his house. An Altbau with a grand entrance hall. One small, rickety lift.
A teenage girl came out of one of the doors. I looked at her searchingly.
“Fourth floor,” she said.
Every day probably. A stranger off the street. A woman.
There wasn’t enough room for us both in the lift. I got him in, pressed the button and took the stairs.
Outside his door, he fumbled for his key. Close to him now, I thought I caught alcohol on his breath.
“Will – you – come – in?” An age to get the words out. Huge eyes. Big lopsided smile.
“I’m sorry I can’t.” Breezy. “I have to be somewhere. Sorry.”
He wouldn’t have the strength, I thought. From his chair.
The key was heavy and awkward. Like something from the olden days.
Finally got the door open. Pushed him inside.
He held my gaze. “I – hope – we’ll – see – each – other – again.”
We do. All the time. He spends his days in the café.
There have been times when, from a distance, I have seen him making his way there. His floppy head from behind. The rainbow-colored wheels. Crawling along.
And I have crossed the road. I don’t have time, I tell myself. I don’t have time today.
In the café it’s different. There undeniably, I have time.
A few months ago, he offered me a job.
“To – take – care – of – me – at – home.”
“Just – small – tasks – get – me – up – in – the – morning.”
“Thanks!” Bright and breezy. “But I already have a job. Look.”
Showed him my diary. All my shifts marked in. So busy.
“Some weeks I start at 6 am.” Pointing elaborately, like a Kindergarten teacher. “Other times I work late. Like here. Look.”
I flicked through the pages, flustered and apologetic. Cat-like, he pounced.
“I’d – pay – you -very-well.”
“I cant quit my job.”
Pool eyes again. A wistful smile.
Was I a bad person for crossing the street sometimes?
Then, last week again. The first time I’d been in the café in a while. A hot day. Couldn’t see my laptop screen with the sun. Pen in hand instead. Old-school. Wondering why one of my characters wasn’t working. Did I even know her, I wondered.
A presence at my side.
Looked up. Smiled. Couldn’t not. Don’t have that quality. Would keep me up at night to keep my head bowed. He knows.
“Nice – to – see – you – again.”
We talked for a while but then they brought his Coke outside for him so he had to go.
“Enjoy the sun!” I said. Bright and breezy.
Bright and breezy.
Went back to my novel. She felt flat. Why was it that I was having trouble getting to know her?
“I – have – an – offer – for – you.”
Not even five minutes had passed.
The same one as last time.
I showed him my diary. All those shifts. Busy, busy. Breezy, breezy. “Look, this week – I’m working late. That’s the only reason I can go to the café.”
Half an hour later, that feeling again. Looming by my side. Took longer this time to look up. But still, couldn’t not. He knows.
“I’m – very – self-sufficient.” Huge eyes. Lopsided smile. Clever. Had he children, I wondered? Any he knew about?
“I really do have a job,” I said. “I’ll get in trouble if I stop turning up.”
“Sch-ade.” He wore an expression that, whether by accident or design, could make you cry.
Wheeled himself back to his Coke. Went back to my character. Didn’t know enough about her past. Needed to care more. Who was she even? Deep down. Who was she?
I was scribbling furiously when he returned for the last time.
More playful now. He had weighed it up. The cost of self-respect.
He had loose change in his hand.
“I – have – three- euros – thirty,” he said. Smiling. But panting too, to get the words out. Big eyes. Head collapsed to one side.
Confused, I made a leap. The wrong one.
“Oh,” I said, gesturing elaborately to my drink. “I’m good with my coffee. But thanks so much!”
He laughed and placed his hand on his chest. “I-think-you’ve-misunderstood- I’m – asking-” he moved his hand from his chest towards me – “you– for- money.”
I laughed then, too. At myself, and in relief. “Do you want me to get you another drink?”
“Oh. Em. Okay. How much do you need?”
“How – much-are-you-willing-to-give?” There it was again. That look. The smile. His big green eyes.
Charm written into his facial features. The only physical force he still possessed.
“You can have two euros, if you like.”What did I even have in my purse? How much were cigarettes? What were you supposed to give? Anything even? If he wasn’t in a wheelchair, what would I have done?
“Danke!” he said as I dropped the coin into his hand.
Big, lopsided smile. Power in incapacity, too.
“I – won’t-bother-you-again.”
“No worries! Enjoy your smoke.”
He never approaches men, I thought. I have never seen him with another man.
Later, as I was leaving the café, I saw him again. A cigarette in his drooping mouth.
A middle-aged woman pushing his chair. Unsure exactly where he wanted her to take him.
I looked at him and he gazed right back.
Something sheepish in his expression. Triumphant too.
Post coming soon!
We brought our bikes on the train, and cycled to a campsite where we rented a wooden lodge with a lakeside view. There was a small shop nearby that sold gherkin beer. On our first evening, we cracked open a couple of bottles.
LSH practically spat his out in disgust, but he was just being melodramatic. If you’re wondering, imagine a bog-standard lager with a cucumber floating in it, and you have the flavor.
We toasted to a restful and restorative weekend that would leave us ready to embrace the challenges of everyday life with a fresh sense of purpose.
Less than twenty-four hours later, we were back in the lodge, splayed on the couch with a pain known only to those who spend 364 days of the year sedentary and then cycle for ten hours straight.
We turned on the television – yes, we were glamping – with the innocent intention of unwinding briefly while we rested our weary limbs.
There was no way we could have known that we would spend the next several hours transfixed by the shopping channel and that I would return to Berlin not rested and restored but fixated on the idea of buying “WC Zauber Pulver,” an extraordinarily potent powder which turns into a magnificent blue foam when you pour it down the toilet.
It was mesmerizing. I’d never seen anything like it! Just fifteen minutes, the woman said for a deep clean of your most poo-encrusted lavatory.
Well, she didn’t actually say the last bit, but it was heavily implied.
“Drop it all in in one swift motion,” she said, tipping the plastic cup into the toilet with all the confidence of a person who sells WC Zauber Pulver” for a living.
The transformation happened before our eyes.
“Why not deep clean the toilet brush while you’re at it?” she asked, popping it in.
As the foam filled the entire toilet bowl, an animation showed the deep cleaning taking place beneath the rim, too subtle for the naked eye to perceive.
“Just one bucket will last you a whole year,” the evangelist said. “And why stop at toilets? You can use WC Zauber Pulver to clean any kind of drainpipe!”
She popped some powder into a lonely free-standing sink in the middle of the studio.
“There’s nothing that cleans like it,” she said. “And available only today, for just €19.99, what are you waiting for? Pick up the phone. Oh no, stop! What’s my producer telling me? They’re going fast! We’re nearly sold out! If you want to get your hands on this product, you have got to act fast.”
The number on the screen was dropping faster than I could dial.
My heart was racing. In the background, the foam in the toilet had reached the rim.
“We need to get some WC Zauber Pulver.”
“No we don’t,” said LSH.
“We absolutely don’t.”
The woman returned to the toilet, and flushed. As if it had all been a dream, the foam disappeared, leaving the inside of the bowl as sparkling and pristine as freshly fallen snow.
“That’s incredible,” I said.
“You’re not actually serious?”
“I am deadly serious.”
“I can’t believe you’re falling for this.”
“Sleep on it.”
I still want to order an industrial-sized bucket of WC Zauber Pulver.
This is not a sponsored post.
For the last three months, LSH and I have been washing our clothes and dishes in the bathtub.
At first it felt kind of rustic. I imagined myself in a bonnet, whistling as I wrung out a sopping pair of jeans.
But the glamor faded faster than the stains.
“This moving-apartment-melarky isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” I grumbled as I watched LSH arched like a cat over the bathtub.
“This moving-apartment mel…”
But I didn’t finish because LSH likes to listen to podcasts as he scrubs the saucepan ferociously with a scouring pad.
I took to writing poems instead. Some are deeply personal accounts of ringing internet providers and power companies. Others chronicle the 76 times we traipsed between our old and new apartment with suitcases full of books we will never read. A select few are odes to the hot plate we borrowed from a friend.
Poetry can help but it is no replacement for the Internet, and so I kept calling 02. Months later, a young man from Bavaria arrived at our door.
He loooked exhausted.
It was hot that day, and there are 92 steps up to our apartment.
I should have mentioned that in one of my poems. Pathos is one of literature’s greatest powers.
“I’m not from around here,” he said, pausing to catch his breath.
“I know,” I said. “You’re from Bavaria. You sound like my relatives.”
“They’re so short-staffed in Berlin, they had to bring us up.”
Demand for basic digital infrastructure is high in the German capital.
But if you want something done, ask a Bavarian.
Within fifteen minutes, he had re-connected us to the world.
I didn’t think he wanted me to hug him though, so instead I asked: “Can I give you a Lindt bunny as a thank you?”
“Would you like a Lindt bunny? As a token of my appreciation?”
“I don’t really like sweet things,” he said, his eyes widening in fright as he discovered the army of chocolate bunnies on the table behind me.
Let me explain.
A while back, I was having a tough day. In desperate need of attention, I fired off a flurry of self-pitying messages to LSH on Whatsapp.
He sent the right kind of emoji back and so I thought the matter was resolved. I was working a late shift and when I got back home around 1 am, I tiptoed into the bedroom, where LSH was in a sleepy stupor.
“Katzi,” he murmured. “I think I left the radiator in the living room on. Would you mind turning it off?”
Ugh, fine, I thought to myself. But does he remember what a tough day I’ve had? How emotionally exhausted I am?
I flung open the living room door and made a beeline for the raditator.
And then I saw them.
An army of bunnies. Lined up as if for a school photograph. Flanked by nougat eggs.
The radiator was off.
“You said you had a tough day,” LSH murmured as I burst back into the bedroom.
“How did you…. ”
“They were on special offer. Got some fierce weird looks on the S-Bahn though. The big one comes in a transparent box with a handle.”
There were always many reasons to marry LSH, but this is now officially in my top three.
Anyway, all that was a few weeks ago. Since then, even without the help of my Bavarian hero, my army has shrunk dramatically.
Now it’s only “Big Berta” who remains standing. Her bell is so loud that we used it to entertain the cat we recently babysat.
Berta watches us as we wash our clothes, and cook yet another batch of tortelli on the hotplate. She was there when the hat stand was delivered and when LSH heroically proved his masculinity by bleeding the radiator. She will possibly still be there when our kitchen is delivered.
She is a reminder, in more ways than one, that good things come to those who wait.
The following is a short story I wrote for The Wild Word as part of my Other Half series. It’s inspired by the relationship between Pamela Anderson and Julian Assange.
“I want to know what happens when I touch you,” I told Julian the first time we met in the Ecuadorian embassy.
He was in his swivel chair with his feet on the bed. The cat was asleep on his lap.
“Come see then.”
I stepped over a pair of dirty pants and a takeaway box that stank of chicken curry.
“It’s kinda filthy here.”
“Hard to give a shit about cleaning when you’re imprisoned.”
“You could at least change the litter tray. And eat humanely.”
“What, like leaves and seeds?”
I moved right up to him and pressed my thumb against his cheek. A purple blotch rose and ebbed beneath my touch.
“Oh my God, you’re right! Thin as rice paper.”
“I told you,” he said. “No sunlight.”
* * *
I asked to meet Julian because he was one of the few people I thought of as a true radical. Someone who went all in. Wouldn’t take no for an answer.
I’d been an animal rights activist for years. But I wanted to do so much more. I needed to connect with someone who had a warrior instinct.
Also, I knew there’d be chemistry between us. I’d watched enough interviews with him on YouTube.
It was in the micro expressions. An elevated eyebrow. A misguided glance. Julian had no inhibitions. You could see it even through a screen.
During that first visit, I asked him why he got into hacking.
He scanned me as if to figure out if I was being sincere. Then he stroked the cat and said:
“The truth is the most valuable currency in the world, Pamela. And the most volatile, too.”
I wanted him really badly when he said that.
But he must have misinterpreted my expression. Because he went on:
“Actually, the Australian authorities just knew fuck all about encryption.”
He smirked. “That first part sounds good though. I should write it down”
* * *
I started traveling to London regularly. The embassy staff got to know me.
“Good to see you again, Pamela,” the porter would say. “Please don’t forget to sign out when you leave.”
I often didn’t until the next day.
The Paparazzi would arrive at the gates at 4 o’clock in the morning. “Pamela!” they’d shout. “How’s Julian doing? Is he in good health?”
I felt bad for taking my time over breakfast when they were freezing outside. I went on chat shows to campaign for his release. “He’s an amazing man,” I said. “His only crime is telling the truth.”
When the TV hosts asked if we were romantically involved, I said, “Sure.”
When they asked if my footballer boyfriend minded, I smiled and said, “Of course.”
When they asked if I loved Julian, I said, “Yes.”
People began to treat us as if we were a couple.
* * *
One night, I made Julian watch a documentary about factory farming. When I told him he’d never eat meat again, he laughed.
The film shows chicks being crushed to death in machines. Pigs having their tails singed off. Cows, dizzy from giving birth, chasing the scent of their captured calves.
Every time I watch it, I feel nauseous. But Julian didn’t flinch.
When it was over, and I demanded a response he said: “I still think steak is as good as sex. But right now, I’ll take whichever comes first.”
* * *
I used to get a kick out of Julian’s schoolboy fantasies.
“Open your legs.” Cup your boobs,” he’d say in his funny Australian drawl.
Amazing how such banal things could come from such a brilliant mind!
But that night, when we fucked, I felt like a piece of meat, and he the butcher.
* * *
I stopped visiting and focused on my work instead. I became obsessed with Canada banning seal hunting. If I could get Russia to do it, I should be able to persuade my own country to do the same. I sent a handwritten letter to every member of the Canadian parliament and posed naked outside a fur store in Toronto.
Julian’s friends told me he wasn’t doing well and I felt bad. They said he’d started skateboarding across the wooden floors in the embassy and refused to feed the cat.
The embassy staff gave him a final warning.
One week later, his diplomatic immunity was retracted and he was arrested by British police.
* * *
I wrote to Julian and told him I was sorry. I’d underestimated the psychological torment of captivity. I, of all people, should have known better.
When people described his behavior as self-destructive, I reminded them that a caged hen plucks out its own feathers.
I visited him in Belmarsh as often as I was allowed and spoke to him through a plastic screen. His skin became even more transparent. I could see the veins beneath his eyes.
* * *
One day on the way to see him, I got an email from PETA. They’d been sent footage of baby seals being slaughtered off the Russian coast. The video had come from an anonymous source who claimed the Kremlin had been instructing authorities to stop enforcing the hunting ban I’d worked so hard to get in place.
I watched the video from start to finish and saw red.
Do you know how many hours I spent with those Kremlin dudes? How many quips about my Baywatch days I endured just to get them to pass that fucking legislation?
But I needed to verify what PETA were telling me before I got in touch with Moscow.
* * *
“No,” Julian whispered from the other side of the plastic screen.
“What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“We don’t hack the Kremlin.”
“We don’t do it. It’s against our policy.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Every organization has a code.”
“What about the truth?”
“I couldn’t give a fuck about seals being slaughtered in Russia.”
My mother taught me to count to five before uttering something you might regret.
“Asshole,” I said.
A purplish color rose to the surface of his papery cheeks.
I looked into Julian’s eyes. Dead and gray beyond the plastic guard.
And that I was all I needed to know about the man I thought I’d loved.