Dispatches from isolation

I had a friend in college. One of those brilliant, troubled types. A writer and a chemist. He used to make his own drugs. Ordered the  ingredients online. Mixed them in his bedroom. I remember sitting with him upstairs in Bewley’s one afternoon. He told me about roaming around at night, sleeping outdoors.

On the grass in Stephen’s Green another time, describing how it felt when all the colors and sensations around you melded into one. He came from a family of high achievers. His older siblings with their diplomas in frames all over his sitting room.

For his birthday once, he invited a small group of us to his house. We played Balderdash and Piffle in his bedroom. Then he brought out some tubes of paint, and asked us to fling colors at the wall. For years, I had this brown woolen cardigan with a small yellow paint stain that I couldn’t get off. His mother drove us home at 3 in the morning.

“If you had to choose,” he asked me once in Café Sol on Dawson Street. “Between never seeing anyone again but having the Internet. Or seeing a small number of people and not having the Internet, what would you choose?”

Naturally, he was considering the first. And I said, I mean, I know where you’re coming from.

We were young and stupid and dealing in hypotheticals.

It’s been around two weeks now. Most of it spent right here at the dining room table. My laptop and a cup of something. Often, with candles too. Little things. LSH works in the kitchen. He likes the bar table. He’s used to standing in his office. Suits me well. 

“So, we haven’t A/B tested that yet,” he says through the wall. The apartment is now filled with the voices from his conference calls.  Sometimes he comes out and his face is all different. He doesn’t know it. More self-possessed. A little further away than normal. A sense of purpose. His world is in our kitchen now.

Another day, he’s on the sofa, his head hunched over his phone in a professorial manner. I creep up behind him. The closer I get, the surer I am. I know those shapes and colors! I know that concentrated, contended expression. This is what middle-aged Germans do on the train after they have completed all the Sudokus in their flimsy puzzle books.

“You play Candy Crush?!” I say. I am beside myself. I had no idea.

A friend recently asked if there was anything that still surprised me about my husband. Sure, I’d said. But I hadn’t been able to think of a concrete example.

“I only just downloaded it,” he says. “It’s actually pretty good!”

“There’s no need to be defensive,” I say. “It’s just that all of a sudden, I feel like I barely know you.” 

I resolve to play Kebab world again. Make time, for the things that matter.

When we venture outside together, I am insufferable.

“Stop scratching your nose.”

“I wasn’t scratching my nose.”

“You absolutely were. You do it all the time.”

“Stop treating me like a 5-year-old.”

“Stop acting like one.”

“I think it’s because we can laugh at ourselves,” LSH says in bed one night. “I think we defuse arguments that way.”

“So you think that’s why it works? Because even though we are very different we can both laugh at ourselves?”

“Yes, Katzi.” He is tired. He does a good impression of my incessant questioning. Do you think I’m a good person? If you were an animal, what would you be? What two people would you most hate to be stuck in qurantine with? I am maddening to live with. But so is he.

Taking out the bins and hanging up the laundry have become thrilling activities. Sometimes we fight over who gets to do it. Occasionally, we do it together. Slowly, we are becoming better people.

I’ve been writing more. The other day, I was having trouble focusing. Felt all tingly and restless. I brushed my teeth. It changed everything.

“It’s easy to forget,” says LSH. One of the reasons I married him is because he is kind.

I haven’t had a haircut in much too long. I no longer wear makeup. I slouch in front of the computer in the same green cardigan every day. I am startling to look at.

bad hair

Social isolation has made me startling to look at.

In the outside world, people are dying. Across the road, in Rosmann, people line up in a neat, sad, socially distant line.

I listen to music really, really loud now. Sigur Ros when I’m writing. LSH says I hum along, really loud. He hears me through the door. “You must know you’re doing it,” he says.

I do.

The da-da-DING of Whatsapp notifications punctuate our days. We are not alone.

We chat on Zoom with five friends in Dublin. All of us in our sitting rooms or bedrooms. In this strange thing together. They tell us the street traders at home are selling masks now. My friend’s three-and-a-half-year-old teaches us some Mandarin he picked up at preschool.

Watching the news is always bleak. Never more so than now. But I indulge in small pleasures. Examining the travel books on the financial correspondent’s bookshelves. A medical expert’s spice rack. A political analyst’s balcony.

The clocks go forward.  “Look,” says LSH. He points out the window. We are on the sofa, watching Tiger King.  It is 7 o’clock. Still bright. 

I go to Edeka to buy ricotta. It is remarkably cold. I stock up on the essentials: triple chocolate chip cookies and a jar of kale.

Inspired by a friend’s kindness, I scan through a box of Lindt chocolates separately. “For you,” I tell the cashier. “As a thanks.”

Her face changes. I struggle to key in my pin number with my disposable gloves. I step outside.

It is snowing. The day after summer time began.

A winter wonderland. Thick, fluffy flakes, like you see in picture books.

I watch them swirl over the empty playground. Choosing which daffodil to land on.

I return home, disinfect my phone, put the ricotta in the fridge.

LSH is in the kitchen. Looking out the window at the snow.

playground

 

 

February: novelling and anchoring and pigeon watching

There’ve been two developments in my professional life recently.

The first is that I’ve started anchoring the business news on TV. I’ll devote a whole post to that curious world soon.

The second is that I’m still working on my novel and that I’m really hoping to complete the first draft this year. I have 50,000 words. I still have a long way to go to make sure they’re the right 50,000 words, in the right order. Writing a book is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, but also one of the most meaningful.

A long time ago, some very kind readers from different parts of the world volunteered to take a look at my first 20,000 words. Their feedback was invaluable. So, if any of you are still reading, or if anyone – preferably someone I don’t know too well personally – wants to read the entire manuscript when it’s done, drop me a line!

I write from the library, where I have come to know a homeless man in a hat who comes here every day to sit and eat a croissant, which he extracts from a sealed Cellophane bag. He plugs his phone into the socket in the wall and watches videos on the free wifi. Today, he was smiling and drunk. Other times, he seems subdued.

pidge

Check out this INCREDIBLE pigeon family’s nesting spot. 

Earlier, I called LSH to tell him about a pigeons’ nest I saw. It was ingeniously crafted under a stairwell leading to a mosque, where rows of spikes had been erected to keep birds out. But this pigeon family had prevailed, laying a dirty tissue over a bent spike to protect their feet. A perfect entrance mat. The babies were learning to fly by launching themselves from between the spikes.

“That’s nice, Katzi,” LSH had said. I had interrupted him vacuuming.

“Thanks for telling me.”

 

 

 

 

Eire

The light at 3 o’clock:

A kind of promising, teasing grey.

A kind I don’t remember.

As I make my way to the Swan Centre Rathmines.

And into Dunnes.

Once upon a time, it was a grubby place. I used to play hopscotch on the pink and white tiles. Avoiding the white ones. I think that was the game.

My mother bought mince meat.

And margarine in big square tubs. Thirty years later, I find them in the basement. Now housing Christmas tree decorations.

There used to be a kind of a ledge where you could pack your shopping bags. A little girl’s mother offered me a fruit pastel once when I was perched there.

I didn’t know what to do so my mother said no thank you. Too many artificial colors.

Now there are self-service tills and a woman’s voice telling you there’s an unexepected item in the bagging area.

She sounds slick and sophisiticated. Fits right in with her surroundings:

Freshly-baked scones bulging with berries. Overpriced bunches of flowers. Exotic fruits.

The stationery shop where I applied for a job is now an organic butcher’s. I remember the woman at the till questioning my potential commitment when I handed my CV in.

I am flexible, I insisted. Any day but Saturday, because I have a few teaching hours.

But there was a recession on. They couldn’t get enough of it on Morning Ireland. I remember googling haircut, European Stability Mechanism, bank deposit guarantee.

I thought I’d need to understand the terms when I moved over to Berlin for a job.

I’m reading a book by Hugo Hamilton at the moment called ‘Dublin Palms’and there’s a line that says something like: an emigrant is always the one left behind.

LSH and I go to Mulligans first thing after we land because we’ve been watching Bachelors Walk  on YouTube and the characters are always going there.

I go up to order the second set of Guinnesses.

“Do you want a mincepice?” the barman asks.

“Sure, why not?”

Never quite sure in Ireland what is sincere and what not. I enjoy the uncertainity. Just go along with it. Worst you can do is buy a mincepie.

He disappears.

The woman next to me, a regular, looks up incredulous.

“I thought he was joking!” she says, in the flattest Dublin accent you’ve ever heard. “Where’s he got the mincepies from? But that’s Noel for you. That’s so like Noel.”

It comes in a tinfoil holder. “It’s on the house,” he says. “I’ve already had three.”

He goes out for a smoke while the Guinness is settling.

“Where d’you get the mincepie?” says LSH. He’s kind of giddy, even after one.

“Noel,” I say.

“You charmer.”

Actually, not sure what is charming in Ireland anymore. Everything is less overt.

We go to another pub one afternoon and there’s a plaque hanging on the door that says “No tracksuits.” It’s ridiculous-looking. No tracksuits, etched in bronze.

Is that sincere, I wonder. I think it is. A funny country.

Inside around the table, some of the faces we haven’t seen in years. When was the last time? Such-and-such-a-person’s wedding? Yes, that was it.

“How’s London treating you anyway?”

“Grand. Can’t see myself staying longterm though.”

And the years go by.

Work.

Weddings.

Births.

Deaths.

“You’re on telly now,” says my brother-in-law over dinner on Dame Street. “I see your links on Twitter.”

“Do you want my autograph?” I ask.

My sister and niece return to the United States.

On our last night we have dinner at home with my parents, my other sister and her family.

Then LSH and I head for wine at a friend’s.

We miss the last bus home. It’s drizzling as we make our way to the tram instead. I pass my old school.

This is so strange, I say.

Twenty-four hours later, we’re back in Berlin.

We plug the dehumidifiers back in. Do some grocery shopping. Wash our underwear.

 

My love affair with German trains

This post first appeared here. 

Berlin’s transport company, the BVG, is campaigning for the city’s transit network to be recognized as a World Heritage site and I am beside myself with enthusiasm. The call-to-action video features a series of ridiculous yet highly relatable images of a changing Berlin: a hip bar where people are downing shots of mouthwash, a cyclist wearing an animal mask for no good reason and a waiter who speaks only English.

The antidote to all this pretension is the salt-of-the-Earth Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe where you can rely on gruff drivers, congested, trash-filled carriages and regular delays. In other words, a rare and precious constant in need of preservation.

The ‘real Berlin’ 

There’s an obvious confidence underlying the BVG’s self-deprecation. No one, not even a transport operator, draws attention to their faults unless they find them at least a little bit endearing.

Speaking of faults, one of mine is that I have never learned to drive. As a result, I get some form of public transport — whether subway, bus or tram — pretty much every day. What began as an exhilarating fling — “I can go anywhere and it’s cheap” — has since morphed into something else entirely: a love for what feels like the “real” Berlin:

The man who travels with a parrot on one shoulder and a cat on the other. The deafening, life-affirming chatter of herds of kindergarten children in high-vis vests. The exhausted cry of their teacher: Nächste Station! Wir steigen aus!

A subway train arriving at Alexanderplatz station in downtown Berlin — you really have to love people to enjoy the ride 🙂

Late at night, an old woman moving her finger over the Koran in the same carriage as a bunch of teenagers drinking Berliner Kindls and blasting German rap. Early in the morning, just after 5 o’clock, the young woman opening the coffee stall on the platform on the U8 line. The croissants sliding down the display case one by one.

The men and women lying on benches. Their faces buried in sleeping bags. Empty bottles at their feet ready to trade in for a deposit at daybreak. The sight, the other morning, of a man picking his bottles up after the Lidl bag they were in split. The way he was so careful in how he rearranged them in his rucksack. How they didn’t all fit.

Horrible things too. A man thrashing his two little boys on the far end of the platform. The lump in your throat five minutes later when the train hasn’t come and you’re still thinking if you should have intervened. Then you look over and the kids are running around again playing. The father looking at his phone. The mother staring into the distance.

Old posh people in their Sunday best, going to the opera on the U2. Stopping off for a glass of wine first. A crazed individual spouting out conspiracy theories. Dogs. So many dogs! Their wet snouts peeking out from beneath the seats. Their panting just audible above the roar of the train. The way you look up at their owner to see if they fit together.


Berlin buses are getting ready for the age of e-mobility, but progress is slow

The sound of Arabic and Turkish and Spanish and English and Italian and every other language under the sun. The three guys with the boom box who sing “Hit the Road Jack” and nothing else. The flautist. The woman in plaits who sells the street magazine and smiles like an angel if you buy it.

And yes, it’s about economics. Go to London and try to get onto a platform without a ticket. No benches for the homeless there, just turnstiles. You literally can’t be part of the network without having money.

In Berlin you pay €81 ($90) for a monthly travel pass which includes the subway, trains, buses and trams. In London, it’s €276 for a ticket that doesn’t even include buses or trams.

In the next four years, Berlin’s government, made up of a coalition of the center-left Social Democrats, Left Party and the Greens, will spend €25 billion on the city. Most of it will go toward building housing and schools and updating transport networks.

We pay for it with our taxes and as with so many things in this city, the policy is unrepresentative of notoriously thrifty Germany. But every day as I travel to and from work, I am reminded of the value to be gained from sharing a seat, a clammy pole or simply a moment with a person you would otherwise never encounter.

In a world that is becoming so much more polarized, such a culture is precious and worth preserving.

From elephant caretaker to private security guard

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.

Olaf Schwarz with elephants

Olaf Schwarz taking care of elephants in the GDR in 1986 Photo: Olaf Schwarz

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.

Olaf Schwarz hitchhiking

Olaf Schwarz hitchhiking to Bulgaria in 1975

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

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.”

“Oh!”

“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.

“Sch-ade.”

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.”

“And you!”

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.”

“Sch-ade.”

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?”

“Zi -ga-re-tten.”

“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.