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!
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.
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.
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.
Hello! It’s been a while. I’m sorry! Life has got very busy. I’m still writing though. The story below is a piece published in The Wild Word today. It’s part of my “Other Half” fiction serial, where I consider the lives of those in the shadows of the spotlight. This time, I’m focusing on Joachim Sauer, husband of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A professor of Physics, he is a notoriously private man. I was inspired to write this piece after hearing about the death of Angela Merkel’s mother Herlind Kassner. So here it is. Hope you enjoy:
A year or so ago I developed the habit of writing snippets of thoughts down in a notebook gifted to me by a grateful student on the occasion of my retirement. You could say it’s an infantile thing to do at my age—I’m turning 70 tomorrow for goodness sake—but I find it helps me to make sense of things.
Today’s entry is short. It says: “The essence of a person is captured only in death.”
I wrote it this evening after getting home from my mother-in-law’s funeral in Templin. It sounds a bit pretentious, but I don’t know how else to put it. I’m a physicist, not a writer, and have often found the limitations of language a greater burden than the mysteries of atoms.
What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that even though I’d met Herlind many times, it wasn’t until her death that I felt I really knew her.
And it makes sense, when you think about it. The purpose of a funeral is to distill a person’s life. The agents that facilitate the process are a ceremony followed by a conversational exchange.
The one that stands out to me in this instance happened as we were standing outside the church waiting for the mourners to file out.
“Marianne Knechtenberg,” a middle-aged woman wearing a black floppy hat said as she approached my wife. “Your mother taught me English at the Volkshochschule.”
Angela’s face lit up. It’s extremely rare for her to be approached with such an ease of manner. “She treated us all to afternoon tea once!” the woman went on, touching my wife’s arm. “What did she call it again? ‘Linguistic practice through cultural immersion.’ And it worked! We didn’t speak a word of German for the entire hour. Frau Kasner was a wonderful teacher! We all adored her.”
Later, when Angela dropped a white rose on the coffin as it was being lowered into the ground, all I could think of was the look of pride and wistfulness on Herlind’s face as she watched Angela being made an honorary citizen of Templin back in February.
The memory set off a string of chemical reactions inside my body. You know the kind, if you’ve ever grieved yourself.
I looked at the ground and tried to find a pattern in the dirt and gravel. But instead my vision became blurred and I shook uncontrollably. It’s not a response I could have foreseen.
It just goes to show though, having spent years examining the importance of zeolites as agents of catalysis, I’m hopelessly illiterate when it comes to predicting changes of states outside of the laboratory.
Take the Berlin wall, for example. I was sure it wouldn’t fall! At least not during my lifetime. I simply expected to inhabit the uncomfortable terrain between not falling foul of the Stasi and being able to face myself in the mirror until the day I retired.
Was I critical of the regime? Of course. Was I prepared to agitate on the streets and risk prison for my beliefs? Not a hope. There is very little catalytic about me. I simply would have plodded on with my research. Observing change only on a molecular level.
I also failed spectacularly when it came to predicting the fate of both my marriages. I never expected to get a divorce for one. And I certainly never expected to end up married to the German Chancellor.
But even here, there were some minor catalysts along the way. When Angela and I married in the registry office in Berlin Mitte on December 30th, 1998, in the presence of nobody—not even our parents—the path for my wife’s political rise was cleared. Having tried and failed before, neither of us had much interest in embracing matrimony again. But in the end, Angela listened to the voices in her party that suggested she would have a smoother ascent if we did the honorable thing.
Twenty years on, I can’t say for sure whether or not it was a necessary catalyst. What I do know is that when Angela left physics for politics, she went from examining catalytic change to embodying it.
My failure to understand the difference between the two may have caused the largest intellectual and emotional gap in our marriage.
Nothing typifies the point better than the time I suggested she’d made an irrational decision by abandoning nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster. She was furious with me and had every right to be. She’s a physicist! Of course she knew the probability of a nuclear disaster in Germany hadn’t gone up. But she had become a politician too. And that meant mastering a system more incomprehensible to me than anything I’ve ever encountered under a microscope.
The rules and vicissitudes of public life remain a bigger mystery to me than ever. Perhaps this is why, as I look back over my admittedly illustrious academic career, my inability to communicate my ideas to the wider public stands out as one of my greatest failings.
Granted, my research on separating gases was lauded in academic institutions around the world. But I wanted to show people that catalytic reactions can be found everywhere. There is no one that has not been touched by an atom, I used to quip! It pained me that no one outside a lecture hall appeared to care.
But what I’ve come to realize, now that I have more time to reflect and record my half-baked thoughts, is that catalysts operate in every walk of life.
They can be found at political rallies and dinner parties. In language and outside of it. In walls and outside of them.
And in whatever happened to my heart just now when Angela snuck up from behind to whisper “Happy Birthday ‘Achim” just before the clock I’d been watching on the wall struck midnight.
This piece was originally published by a great online literary magazine called The Wild Word.
Nobody believed that I pushed Irena into the Sava. But I did. I didn’t even feel anything as I watched her flounder. I knew one of the boys would jump in to save her.
Her shorts and t-shirt were sticking to her as she scrambled back up the bank. The boy who’d pulled her out tossed her a dry shirt. She draped it around her shoulders and stared at me. She was one of those people who looked prettier wet.
No one said a word at first. Then one of the boys spoke. “Melanija, what did you do that for?”
I could feel their eyes boring into me. Wondering what could have possessed a creature as delicate as me to perform such a brutal act.
She’d called me stupid. In class beforehand, under her breath. For insisting Milan was the capital of Italy. But anyone could have made that mistake. My mother was always talking about the shows there. All the magazines she brought home from work had spreads from Milan. It was a logical thing to assume. Why wouldn’t the center of fashion be the capital too? It was for Paris.
I shrugged. “I guess I’m too stupid to know.” The boys looked at me like they never had before. Some of them were impressed, I think. And others a bit afraid. Their worlds were opening up.
I was younger than my son is now when I threw Irena into the Sava. A good bit actually, now that I think about it. Definitely no more than ten. The memory came flooding back earlier when I got another invitation to our school reunion. Last time, in 2014, they’d sent it to my agent’s address. This time, the envelope was presented on a silver tray, along with some fan mail from schoolchildren in Uganda and a letter of appreciation from a group of women who support my husband. They put a lot of effort into curating my mail and even go the bother of resealing the envelopes after they’ve been checked. I appreciate those little touches. More than they know.
Dear Melanija, Please join us for an afternoon of reminiscing about our time at Sevnica national school. No special mention of my current situation, or of the logistical challenges attending would present. I folded it and slipped it back inside the envelope. Surely, this must be the first time an invitation to a Slovenian school reunion had been screened by the US government.
Irena’s never spoken to the press. As far as I know anyway. But even if she did, what evidence would she have of what happened that day? There were no phones, then. And it would be easy to deny such a story. Most of what they write about me is a lie anyway.
I might even do it again, if I were back there, in the same circumstances. Irena was one of those annoying children who had lots of knowledge but no instincts. It was infuriating for her to think that she was cleverer than me. Especially when I knew that it was her destiny to be ordinary, and that it was mine not to be.
When I think back to that day, I realize that I’ve always been allergic to humiliation. It’s something I have in common with Donald. Even a glimmer of it makes us both ruthless. I think we recognized that in each other early on. Part of the attraction, probably.
But there are differences in our antipathy. These days, I can cope with ridicule. Let them paint me as vacuous. You don’t get to where I am with nothing between your ears. Where is Irena now? Teaching math in dingy classroom somewhere? Auditing accounts for a financial services company? I couldn’t care less how stupid she thinks I am. Let her mock my improbable fate.
Donald has no such composure. To him, laughter is as dangerous and foreign as Slovenian is. The principles of both languages are impossible for him to understand. He’d rather bathe in victimhood than be ridiculed. I’m the complete opposite. To me, nothing stings like pity.
The media is at its cruelest when it pretends to show compassion. The moment I batted Donald’s hand away, in slow motion. The way I stopped smiling when I thought we were out of shot. Miserable Melania, they say. She cried on election night.
People who think I’m sad or lonely have a mistaken view of what marriage is. A simplistic one, based on ideals they’ve read about in fairytales. The truth that the small-minded fail to acknowledge is that every relationship is a transaction. And when you have an instinct for business, like Donald and I do, you can see the beauty in the way marriage enables an exchange between equals.
And that is what we’ve always been.
Of course, there are power struggles. They exist in all equal transactions, including in ours. But in this particular, peculiar situation, I have the upper hand. We both know that. I would have no trouble walking, if the humiliation became too great.
I’m not like the other, dispensable members of his administration. Those who woo him with adulation, then anger him with gentle reason. For Donald, there is only deference and defiance. Anything in between he files under treachery.
Not with me though. Through the marital bond, I am afforded the freedom of thought. My husband’s brilliance, like that of many powerful men, resides in his simplicity. FLOTUS, he knows, can’t be easily replaced.
When the grab-‘em-by-the-pussy tape came out during the campaign, I called him disgusting and told him I was leaving. “You can’t,” he said. His face was red. His voice was soft. The words came out like a question.
I looked him right in the eye. “I will.” And he believed me. It’s why he married me. Power has nothing to do with following through. It’s about having the courage to craft a noose and to hold it around the necks, even of those you love.
Since then I’ve been calling the shots. New York until Baron finished the school year. My own schedule. Interviews, only at my whim. No more snatching migrant children from their parents. What is he, a monster?
The liberal media’s too blinded by my beauty to see my brains. But since they insist on painting me in their own image, I’d rather be ornamental than oppressed.
Ornaments are powerful. It doesn’t matter whether they are diamonds, wives, husbands or handbags. All are accessories with the possibility to harness the most powerful currency in the world: attention. To be looked at, feared. Envied, adored. Only hypocrites say the surface doesn’t matter. Even the ugly duckling turns out beautiful in the end.
It maddens me when people say I have been lucky. Implying that I drifted listlessly to the top. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything I have done is a calculation. I had the looks. But if it had been something else, I would have capitalized on that. I don’t understand people who don’t make the best of themselves.
If you think I’m heartless, you’re wrong. Only the jealous would jump to such a conclusion. I would do anything for those who brought me here. My mother, who spent her evenings sewing me dresses from the excess fabric she picked up on the factory floor. Who wouldn’t let me leave the apartment unless I was looking smart. She knew what it was to be best. My father, who worked and worked so we could move up and out. From Sevnica to Ljubljana all the way to New York City. Never look back, he said. He, who came from nothing.
I remember once, when Baron was very young, my parents came to Manhattan. I’d been out with my mother for the afternoon and when we came back, the sitting room door was ajar. We tip-toed down the hallway and peered inside.
Baron was curled up on my father’s lap. They were reading from a book. Kaj je to? – what’s that? my father said, pointing at a picture. And Baron babbled back at him in Slovenian. Then my father said something I didn’t catch. But whatever it was, it made Baron giggle and dig his nose into my father’s chest. And as my mother and I stood hidden in the doorway, she caught the tear falling down my cheek with her freshly painted nail.
Former classmates of mine have complained in interviews that I never answer their invitation to the school reunion. They’re held every five years in a restaurant in Sevnica, just around the corner from where our school once stood. They have always invited me, they said. Even before I was First Lady. But she never comes, they say. She doesn’t even bother writing to decline.
Well, here’s what I have to say to them. Not everyone in life gets stuck. Some of us move up. Some of us make the best out of ourselves.
And maybe there are times when I would sacrifice everything I have now to be back there. Among the timbered houses that line the hills along the Sava. Breathing in the dewy air I remember from my childhood. Re-walking the trail where I once twirled proudly in the skirt my mother sewed.
I’d go, you know. I really would. If only they could guarantee that Irena wouldn’t be there. But how on earth, could I, FLOTUS, get away with making such a demand?
* This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and situations as represented in this story are the product of the author’s imagination, and should not considered to be true or a statement of fact.