Falling leaves

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

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

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

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

“The weather doesn’t help,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frau B was having none of it.

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

I politely persevered.

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

I put the stickers away.

“You meant well,” she said.

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nonsense!”

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

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

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

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Reader, I married him.

Reader, I married him.

In a tower in the forest.

On a wet and windy August afternoon.

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

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

We took a taxi to the forest.

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

The driver appeared indifferent to our finery.

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

He nodded. “What’s the address?”

Our journey began in amicable pre-marital silence.

The windscreen wipers swished back and forth.

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

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

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

“How hardy are your guests?” she asked.

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

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

“Very hardy,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

balloons

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

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

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

It was an awkward but happy shuffle.

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

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

“Let’s get the others up,” he said.

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

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

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

There were no swans this year.

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

da rock

The rock, where we said yes.

 

One old lady’s quest for a fish sandwich

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

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

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

In case this sounds implausible here is a picture:

IMG-20170731-WA0011(1)

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

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

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

I nodded, as if processing a routine request.

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

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

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

For one, it didn’t smell fishy.

The lights were out.

The shutters boarded up.

“No!” we cried theatrically. “WHY?”

It was an hour past closing time.

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

But that’s what we had to do.

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

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

“Closed?” she said, rasping. “Oh!”

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

She didn’t understand.

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

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

“Penny,” she said.

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

“No Penny.”

She held up two fingers and moved her arm around.

“Warm fish..” she said.

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

We had no choice but to try again.

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

We set off again.

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

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

There wasn’t but we did pass a bakery.

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

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

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

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

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

I pointed at it enthusiastically.

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

“For here or takeaway?”

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

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

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

We returned to the old lady.

“Ah!” she said, beaming. “Warm?”

I nodded.

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

We made to leave.

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

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

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

She took a deep breath and smiled.

“Schönen Tag noch!”

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

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

 

On enountering a tipsy punk

I was on the way to work the other day, preoccupied with global problems, like Donald Trump and the war in Syria. I’d just read a New Yorker article covering these topics and, not uncommonly for the newly enlightened, was energized by the urgent conviction that I must act to better the world. Immediately thereafter I was filled with the foreboding that I didn’t know how. And that even if I did, I probably didn’t have the courage to follow through.

I’d rolled the magazine up and packed it under my arm as I waited to change to the U9 line. The screen revealed I had a three-minute wait.

Enough time for a woman with a large dog and a leather jacked adorned with Tipp-Ex to engage me in conversation.

“Is this the right side for Hansaplatz?” she asked.

I paused to think (I shouldn’t have had to since this is my daily commute but remember, I was carrying the combined weight of the world’s problems as well as my New Yorker).

Punk-27947

By Pax – Transferred from pl.wikipedia.org to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2118607

Then said: “Yes!” a little too brightly, hoping to make up for my hesitation.

“Good,” she said. “I was afraid of getting it in the wrong direction.”

“Oh, I do that all the time,” I said. (It’s true.)

“My friends will be wondering where I am!” she continued. “I spent all night partying in Tiergarten with the other punks.”

I nodded knowingly, hoping to convey mindfulness of alternative lifestyles.

It seemed to work because she kept talking.

“I turned 30 yesterday!” she said.

“You did?! Happy Birthday!” I blurted enthusiastically.

She combed her hand through a mass of hair in the center of her otherwise shaved head.

“Thanks!” she said. “Got my hair done too. Had to, for the occasion.”

“It looks great,” I said, and meant it.

“Check out my jacket,” she continued. “All my buddies signed it.”

She pointed to various names signed in Tipp-Ex. “That’s my best friend Nina .. and my buddy Timo!”

She was the kind of intoxicated we all aspire to: cheerful but not embarrassing, her non sequiturs redeemed by elegant syntax.

As I was nodding along, I couldn’t help but think: we’re almost the same age! And she lives in the park, with her huge dog and all her lovely punk friends, enjoying life instead of obsessing over her failure to make a meaningful impact. And then, because such things are in my nature, I felt inadequate in the presence of such hard-won resilience.

As the train came, she pulled out a bottle of liquor from the inside of her jacket pocket and waved it in the air.

“Breakfast!” she said happily, before ushering her hound on board.

Drinking at the fountain of the AfD’s youth

Being right-wing in Berlin is like turning up to a steak house and announcing you’re a vegetarian. At best, it’s a mild provocation and at worst, downright offensive. Being young and right-wing is akin to adding that you can’t have the burger buns either, because you’ve decided to go gluten-free.

A primal curiosity for the proverbially maligned vegetarian prompted me to make my way to the leafy district of Zehlendorf on Thursday evening for a meeting of the youth branch of the far-right AfD (‘Alternative for Germany’) party.

Grilling_Steaks_(with_border)

Image: Wikipedia Creative Commons by BuBBy

Getting to this point had been no walk in the park. Unsurprisingly, the ‘Junge Alternative’ (‘Young Alternatives’) do not disclose the location of their monthly meetings on the Internet. Instead, they ask prospective attendees to send an e-mail to the party to register their interest. I got through that step and when I wrote to thank the individual I’d been dealing with (he turned out to be one of the group’s three deputy chairpersons) he replied that the “license fee should, after all, be justified.”

It was accompanied by a winky emoticon but the implication was clear: he’d Googled me and discovered the identity of my employer. After all, I’d never mentioned being a journalist.

It was only a mild provocation but it foreshadowed the offensive he was to launch when we met in person.

From the outside, the façade seemed like a highly unlikely meeting point for Germany’s right-wing youth. A generous, gated two-storey house in a residential area, it was the kind of nondescript place you might imagine one of your posher friends to have grown up in.

The meeting took place in a backroom, which had been converted into a bizarre kind of pub. The young man I’d been communicating with via e-mail was standing behind the bar. He was wearing suspenders.

People came and went but there were about a dozen of us at any given time. If I had to guess, morbid curiosity had attracted at least three others to the event. The rest were hard-core members. I’d expected some formalities but soon realised the evening was to offer something far more enlightening: a drinking session.

These are the fragmented stories of four individuals I spoke to over the course of the evening.

The first was a young woman from Swabia, who’d welcomed me and shown me where to hang my coat when I arrived.

(For readers outside Germany, Swabia is a region in the south-west associated with either good old-fashioned values or bourgeois pettiness, depending on where you stand politically. The stereotype of Swabians as hardworking but miserly is common in Germany and casual racism directed at Swabians is alarmingly widespread in Berlin. An airport bus run by the BVG transport company even features the slogan “Dear Swabians, we’ll gladly take you to the airport.”)

This young woman found her move from Swabia to Berlin a challenge. “I found it hard to get used to everyone being late,” she told me. “Where I come from, things happen on time. You turn up when you’re supposed to, you eat lunch at 12 pm. It’s how it goes.”

She struck me as a sensitive, conscientious type and I can imagine the brashness and condescension she encountered in the capital felt like an affront. “I used to be in the CDU,” she said. “But I felt completely betrayed by them.” She was referring to Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to refugees.  “Without borders, we are no longer a country.”

In late 2015, she applied to join the AfD. Weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, a wave of sexual assaults took place in Cologne. They appeared to have been coordinated and carried out by both asylum-seekers and refugees.

The police’s slow response and apparent reluctance to release information about the origins of the suspects caused consternation and eventually led to the resignation of the city’s police chief.

“It was at that point I knew I’d made the right decision to join the AfD,” she said.

Another young man I talked to had come to the party as a Christian who felt it provided a safe platform to express his conservative values.

“I feel like these days, the traditional family structure is hardly represented anymore,” he said. “You know, mother, father, child… I’m not saying that alternative structures like homosexuality are necessarily wrong but I feel like the conventional way no longer gets a look in.”

An opponent of abortion, he said the AfD allowed him  to air his views freely, even if they didn’t necessarily reflect the party line. He also told me he believes the state should provide subsidies for families who choose to keep one parent at home to look after the children.

In the context of what he perceives as a movement to strip people of their right to feel proud of where they came from, he mentioned his reverence for his grandfather, who had a clock-making business which the post-war East German Communist regime tried to suppress.

Like the young woman I’d talked to, he seemed like someone who felt the modern world was denying him the right to hold fast to his values.

The third person I spoke to was by far the most intriguing. He immediately piqued my interest because his German, both fluent and a tad academic, had a hint of an accent I couldn’t identify. He turned out to be an American and an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump. “I was behind him from the very start,” he said. “He is the best thing ever.”

Having studied German, he moved to Berlin in 2012, where he now works for the AfD. When I asked him what it was specifically that he did, he responded politely that it was nothing personal, but he didn’t want to tell me in case it was “all over Deutsche Welle tomorrow.” I assured him that I was at the meeting in a personal capacity and not on behalf of DW but, wisely perhaps, he insisted on keeping his job description under his hat. Fascinatingly, being a foreigner (and ineligible to vote in national elections) in a notoriously anti-immigrant party did not seem to faze him.

In the interests of not playing into the hands of my suspender-wearing correspondent, I have deliberately kept a description of our encounter to last.

As I mentioned earlier, he’d done his research on me, and laid his cards out on the table pretty early on.

I, for my part, had kept mine closer to my chest. I knew he was a law student who’d stood for regional elections last year and that one of his main concerns appeared to be a decision by Humboldt University to change the name of their Student Union from Studentenwerk to Studierendenwerk at a cost, he claims of €800,000. The subtlety is lost in the English language, but the new term neutralises the gender of the word from “union of male students” to “union of those who study.”

He also lamented the loss of what he described as deutsche Erholungskultur, roughly translated as the culture of German recreation in the city’s central Tiergarten park to what he termed ‘bunter’ Krawallkultur, or ‘colorful’ riot culture.

As far as Internet research went, it was one-all.

At the beginning of the evening, I was treated to an unsolicited appraisal of my journalistic credentials. “I don’t like your work,” he said. “It’s boring and one-sided.”  I was genuinely baffled by what he was referring to but on reflection, I suspect he may have found this article I wrote about my experience of welcoming refugees coming off trains at Schönefeld airport or perhaps this video report featuring a soundbite expressing the opinion that refugees could help boost the Greek economy.

syria

Aleppo in 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Flickr) http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/

While others I spoke to appeared to have arrived at the party following a personal journey of increasing disenchantment, this young man spoke with totalitarian-style conviction. “You’re either born right-wing or you eventually see sense,” he said.

He maintains that German culture is in the process of being eroded. I asked him several times if he could define the term. He said it was too complex. But he is sure it is being destroyed.

When it came to Syria, he denied that Bashar al-Assad is bombing his own people. This was the only point at which I mildly lost my cool. “Are you serious?”

“He’s bombing Islamic State,” he said, dripping with derision. “And you deny that civilians are dying?” I asked. He eventually conceded that ordinary people were likely to have been caught up in the process.

Still, he maintained that vast swathes of Syria were perfectly safe. “What about Aleppo?” I asked. “Do you think the harrowing images we are seeing are doctored? Overblown?”

“A tiny part is under bombardment,” he said, and told me a story about a refugee he knew who recently returned to Syria and apparently posted pictures of himself having a jolly old time at the beach. “It certainly makes you think,” he said.

When it comes to recruitment, he was keen to advertise the attractions of being a member of the Young AfD.

grafitti

Graffiti I spotted at the train station on the way home.. It says: “Why must my son beg? Because he is German.”

Addressing the three individuals I suspected to be open-minded sceptics, he said: “we provide training in public speaking, we go climbing… we go for beers.” He went on to describe the ‘Junge Alternative’ as “more radical” than its parent and spoke in somewhat scathing terms about the “boring people in their 50s” who come knocking on the youth wing’s door for help navigating the Internet.

Despite riling against the various “extremist” Leftist movements at his university, he did make some concessions:

“If I go drinking with a Communist, we often find after a beer or two, that we’re not actually that far apart.”

When it comes to common ground within the party though, or the elusive “alternative”promised in its name, there was little evidence of either on display.

My dominant impression was of a group of youngsters with profoundly conflicting sensibilities. From a conservative Christian who reveres his clock-making grandfather to a disaffected punctual Swabian and a chirpy American taking on a nationalist cause in a foreign country, this was a group of various misfits bound together by little more than the sense that the world is moving in a direction that doesn’t suit them.

That, however, is no reason to dismiss their potential.

All it might take to gain mainstream approval for a gluten-free, vegetarian option in the steak house, is another terrorist attack on German soil, perpetrated by someone with a foreign-sounding name.

On bombs and sock drawers

“When will we open the bottle of wine?” Frau Bienkowski asked.

We agreed we’d have it the next time LSB came around.moser-roth-edel-bitter-85

“I was very sad over Christmas,” she said. “There were many times I could have cried.”

Then, probably changing the subject, she continued: “I think someone stole my chocolate.”

I was pretty sure I could fix one of those things. I began opening drawers tentatively.

Frau B has recently developed the habit of finding elaborate hiding places for her personal items.

They’re so good she often can’t find things herself afterwards.

I got lucky after rummaging through her sock drawer. Three bars of Aldi’s Moser Roth, buried deep within a knot of nylon tights.

“Well, there you have it,” she said, retracting her accusation of theft by implicature alone.

“Now, tell me about Alicia*!”

Alicia is my six-month-old niece. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee and charmed practically the entire island of Ireland with her visit at Christmas.

Nothing makes Frau B happier than hearing about her.

“You must have some photographs,” she said, pointing at my phone.

I did. Alicia and her parents in front of the Christmas tree. Alicia dressed in red sitting on an armchair with her grandfather looking on benevolently. Alicia playing with wrapping paper. Alicia with her aunt Kate Katharina.

Frau B sat in her wheelchair, the phone clasped in both her hands, her face lit up in delight.

Babies have that effect.

She told me about her son, Uli, born in 1940 as the bombs were falling on Berlin. Her husband at war, she stayed for two years, taking cover in the cellar during the raids.

Then, in 1942, mother and child moved to the safety of the countryside in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

They stayed in a guesthouse until 1945.

“If it hadn’t been for the war,” she said, “I would say they were the happiest years of my life.”

She and her husband exchanged countless letters.  I wonder what became of them but don’t ask. Frau B has spoken before of the pain she experiences thinking of all the possessions she parted with when she moved into the home.

In Mecklenburg, she became friendly with a protestant priest. He got on famously with Uli, perhaps on account of the affection he had for his mother.

“He told me that if my husband weren’t to survive the war, he’d marry me in a heartbeat,” said Frau B.

“Yes,” she continued. “I could have married three or four times in my life.”

In the end, it was just once. Her husband came home, injured. And the priest was killed in cold blood when the Russians arrived.

*not her real name

The airport and the hawk

Last month I took a trip to Nashville, Tennessee to visit my sister. I was rolling my little green suitcase towards the security gate in Berlin when all of a sudden a woman swooped towards me, like a hawk.

She was wearing an airport security uniform.

“Excuse me,” she said.  (But I don’t think she meant it.)

“Yes?”

“A moment ago, you had a German passport. Then you switched.”

I paused. This was a rather odd accusation. I don’t have a German passport. And I certainly hadn’t taken anyone else’s.

“No, I didn’t,” I answered eventually, trying to avoid her piercing eyes.

She began firing questions at me. They weren’t hard but she phrased them oddly, so sometimes I had to think a moment before answering.

“With whom has your case been this morning?” she asked.

“With me” I said.

“Who packed it?”

“I did.”

“What items have you purchased at this airport?”

“None.”

“What did that man whisper to you?”

She turned to point at LSB. He was watching the scene from afar, looking rather puzzled.

“I’m sorry? I asked.

“Who is that man?”

“My boyfriend,” I replied. “But I don’t remember him whispering anything. Wait, let me ask him.”

I motioned for him to come over. “What did you whisper to me just now?” I asked, forcing LSB into the same position hawk lady had put me in.

“I think I said goodbye?” he said. “But I wasn’t whispering.”

Our confused expressions seemed to satisfy her. “Okay, fine. Off you go,” she said.

I toddled off, taking care that my farewell nod to LSB didn’t appear conspiratorial.

I’m not used to this kind of treatment.  It’s one of the unfair advantages of being non-descript, female and white.

I imagined the kind of terror I could prompt by browsing the airport shopping area sporting a long beard, turban or burqa.

When I set foot in the United States, a nice customs officer asked me some more questions about myself.

“Do you have food in your bag?”

I knew he only wanted to know if I was bringing  fruit, seeds or meat into his country. But I didn’t want to give him a single reason to send me back to the scary hawk lady in Berlin, so I confessed I was carrying some Puffreiss Schokolade for my sister.

He wasn’t interested in my snacks. But he did want to know how long I intended to stay.

“Only eight days?” he asked. “Do you not want to stay here forever?”

“No,” I said. “No, thank you.”

“Why not?”

I mumbled something about being content in Europe, which seemed to surprise him. But he handed me back my (not German) passport and wished me a pleasant stay.