Looking for the truth? Go to the theatre.

Last night I went to a small Berlin theatre to see a one-woman play called Blonde Poison.

It’s about Stella Goldschlag, a German woman who collaborated with the Nazis to send hundreds, if not thousands of people to their deaths.

Using a poisonous cocktail of good looks and charm, she infiltrated hiding places and revealed them to the Gestapo.

Ferocious in her pursuit of victims, she was a dream come true for the Führer and his followers.

Blue-eyed and blonde, she epitomized the Aryan ideal.

Except for one thing.

She was Jewish.

Yes, you read that right.

Stella Goldschlag was a Jewish woman who embodied Nazi terror.

It’s an uncomfortable thing to write. Especially here in Germany, where the horrors inflicted on six million Jews are omnipresent – carved, literally, into the pavements and our consciousness.

The notion of a Jewish woman engineering the brutal deaths of her own people is something we might prefer not to think about.

Except, of course, that we must.

Because whether you consider her a monster, a victim of one, or something in between, Stella Goldschlag was a real person.

And real people do grotesque things. Most of the time, without considering themselves vile.

In the production I saw at the Brotfabrik, Stella Goldschlag is brilliantly portrayed by Dulcie Smart as an old woman waiting for a journalist to come and interview her.

As she paces nervously about the stage, counting down the minutes until she can put the coffee on, we witness an extraordinary pyschological range, which reveals not only the intelligence but also the empathy of the actress, who flits seamlessly from one state of heightened emotion to the next.

We see the girlish traces of vanity and vivaciousness and the suggestion of how they could have morphed into tools of treachery and deceit.

The flickers of innocence and pride as she recalls the way her father used to call her “Pünktchen” – and tell her she was destined to become a star.

We learn that Stella Goldschlag continued to betray Jews even after her parents were murdered at Auschwitz.

dulcie

Dulcie Smart as Stella Goldschlag Source: Brotfabrik

We watch in horror as her thoughts advance unrestrained.

She speaks of the mortification which must be experienced by those who get spinach stuck in their teeth. To tell them or not to? That is the question.

She is proud of her clean, white smile and examines it frequently in the mirror.

Her anti-Semitism is expressed in the disgust she has for the hooked noses and black hair of her fellow Jews.

Is she mad or bad or both, we wonder.

A victim or an engine of a totalitarian regime?

You will leave the theatre with an unsettled feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Embrace it.

It’s the sting of a painful truth.

Despite our enormous appetite for it, there is no such thing as a single story.

No one embodiment of monstrosity.

No defined point at which democracy erodes.

No real wisdom that can fit into 142 characters or less.

We may be closer to the truth in the theatre than on Twitter.

But even then, the sign of a good production is one that reminds us that in a functioning democracy, the absolute truth is allowed to elude us.

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World Apart

I get the U8 to work.

Berliners call it the Drogen Linie – a title it’s earned.

Men and women with drooping eyelids and sad shuffles inhabit the line.

On the platforms, people with trolleys containing their belongings shine torches into bins looking for bottles to recycle.

Once, a girl with black eyes got on my carriage. Her dark hair was pulled back loosely and she had on a flowing skirt. She was breast-feeding a big baby, who was clinging on to her very pregnant belly. The baby was playing with a copper coin.

It toppled to the carriage floor. The lady sitting opposite picked it up and handed it, almost apologetically, to the girl. She took it. Her fingernails – black with dirt. She was no more than fourteen.

I get out at Gesundbrunnen, in the middle of the line. In the eighteenth century, the area was famous for a spa dedicated to the Prussian Queen Louise.

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

When it joined the city of Berlin a century later, Gesundbrunnen became a working class district. Today, over half of its residents are people Germans describe as having a Migrationshintergrund, or “migrant background.”

The term includes people like me but in the media it’s almost synonymous with second and third generation Turks whose parents and grandparents arrived in the 1960’s and 70’s as Gastarbeiter – guest workers – to help build up post-war broken Germany.

The area is home to a sprawling mall called the “Gesundbrunnen Center.” It’s right next to the train station, which is also the starting point for tours of Berlin’s former bunkers.

The mall is always full. It is like every shopping centre, with an enormous H&M, plenty of stalls selling implausibly fragrant nuts and lots of red-faced children weeping tears of indignation as they are dragged from shop to shop.

To ease the suffering of those unfortunate children and their parents, an enterprising group has recently set up a pony-rental service on the ground floor. The ponies are life-sized stuffed animals on wheels. They come in three sizes and their prices vary accordingly.

The children glide along; their backs held straight and their expressions changing rapidly from concentration to joy. Their parents point smart phones at them to preserve the ride for posterity.

Close to the ponies-on-wheels there is a pet store. I go there to look at the guinea pigs. Earlier today, a sales assistant with pale skin and lots of piercings opened the snake cage to spray water inside. A woman wearing a headscarf looked on curiously.

“Are they poisonous?” the woman asked, pointing to two grotesque snakes coiled around each other, exposing their forked tongues every few moments.

“No. We don’t sell poisonous snakes,” the member of staff answered in a remarkable monotone.

The snakes are fed with dead white mice. I wonder if the store is supplied with dead mice or whether they simply taken them from the cages selling mice as pets. If the latter is the case, I wonder how – and where – the killing takes place.

On the street leading to my office, there is an unassuming and cheerful cake shop. It sells pieces of kiwi sponge for a euro and boasts a special blend of Arabic coffee. It’s family-run and open late. In the evenings when it’s quiet, the teenage daughters take care of the tills and bring you coffee. They seem well brought-up. One of them sports charmingly chipped red nail polish.

There are high-rise blocks of flats along the entire road. Chained absurdly to a lamppost outside one of the buildings are two plastic cars for toddlers.

None of it is my world. But sometimes I realise that being an outsider is where I feel most at home.

Why did the three little boys go to the market?

Yesterday LSB and I wandered into a little shop in Crumlin called “Better Value”. It was full of cardboard boxes and handwritten signs in black marker advertising Pringles, Chocolate Chip cookies and washing detergent. It looked like something from a feature film about Ireland in the 1980’s and I liked it very much.

image source: dublin.ratemyarea.com

The man at the counter was tall and thin and had a nice tanned face. He was being bombarded by three little boys, aged about seven. Two had freckles and similar round faces and the third had black eyes and floppy hair. They were hurling questions at the shopkeeper and he said, “Where’s your manners?”

The three boys each bought a bottle of Jones soda. “I’ve never had the blue one!!” said one. Outside, they ripped the wrappers off their bottles and dropped them on the pavement, where they curled up and quivered in the breeze.

image source: compare.productwiki.com

“Are you going to pick that up?” I asked one of the boys with freckles.

“No,” he said loudly. He was defiant and tiny.

I was wearing a black puffy jacket. In it, I was more than twice his size.

“And why not?” I asked him.

“Cause I don’t wanta,” he said.

I told him about dirty streets and the poor people that had to pick things up after litter bugs.

He talked over me to his friends.

LSB was standing a little away from the scene. The boys and I walked towards him.

LSB was wearing headphones.

“Are they beats?” one of the boys shouted at him.

image source :lovefont.blogspot.com

Apparently “beats” are the name of a pair of extortionate headphones produced by American rapper Dr Dre. Harvey Norman sell them for €299.

LSB shook his head.

The three little boys, clutching their bottles of American soda, schooled only in commercialism and brashness, brushed by us in a blur.

Alone in Berlin: Part Two

In late February Berlin was brown and the air was cool. I saw a Chinese man standing by the bin at the entrance to my underground station every morning. He had a blank face and kept a neat shoulder bag slung over his body. At first, I wondered who he was waiting for. Then I learnt that he sold cigarettes, which he kept in tight plastic packaging in the bottom of his bag.

He never moved, but some days when he was feeling bold, he would line up three or four packets of Marlboro on the edge of the bin to eliminate any doubt about why he was there.

His brazen passivity intrigued me. I developed the involuntary habit of staring him right in the eye as I turned to go down the steps to the platform.

I sat in a corner on the eighth floor of a silent office. It was a five-minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate. When it became warmer, I would sit by the Spree at lunchtime and watch the tourist boats go by. Sometimes I would read or listen to music, but mostly I just sat.

One night my flatmate came home and said “We’re going out.” It was shortly before midnight. He took me to a rundown sports hall. Inside it was dark. Illuminated figures were racing across a badminton field, firing glow-in-the-dark shuttlecocks at each other. It smelt of sweat and alcohol. Even the nets glowed. Afterwards, a girl offered me a sip of bubble tea. It tasted like lentils and bath salts. Now I’m on the mailing list for “Spedminton,” a sport you play in the dark, while drunk.

Another time, I went to the punk bar down the road. Men and women in their forties, wearing leather jackets and vacant expressions, sat in clouds of smoke. They drank beer and had conversations about life and sometimes death. In the corner of the bar, completely out-of-place, was a foozeball table. My flatmate directed me towards it. I played so badly that his friend told me I must be tired. I thought I was at the top of my game.

At the weekends I went walking in the city. I watched teenagers nodding their heads to beat boxes, homeless men reaching into bins and Roma girls with clipboards approaching tourists, always with the same high-pitched greeting, “Speak English?”

My flatmate asked me to wipe the tiles dry after I showered. He had a special scraper for it. I would stand there, naked and dripping, pretending I was a window cleaner. A few weeks later, in a moment of rebellion, I simply stopped.

Overnight, I became a journalist. I made phone calls to surly trade unionists, government representatives and natural history museums, from a little sound-proof glass box, where my colleagues couldn’t hear me.

Still Alone in Berlin, still reading Alone in Berlin

Once I met a man who thought I was more important than I was. He invited me to his office, which overlooked the Brandenburg Gate and he said, “So are you going to become a TV presenter?” I looked at him incredulously. And he said “You have the personality for it. You’re charming.” I told him that I was shy and didn’t want to be famous.

The dizzy feeling of accomplishment I got from publication made me afraid. I learnt that I am equally scared of success as I am of failure. Sometimes to atone, I would buy a newspaper from the crippled homeless man on Friedrichstrasse. I made a point of reading it on the way home, in case the emptiness of achieving my dream overcame me.

When Dublin Meets Berlin

There was a delay on one of the underground lines in Berlin a few weeks ago because a homeless man had fallen asleep on the tracks. Security personnel rushed to the scene and the man was woken up. Bewildered, he growled at the passengers staring at him. He was escorted off the platform but it all took time. There was a short delay before service resumed.

Meanwhile, a public announcement had urged passengers to take alternative routes. I got on another train which would take me close to where I needed to go. Sitting opposite me were two little girls, aged about nine and eleven, who had also been waiting for the first train. We’d barely been on the second for five minutes when it was announced that “Service has now resumed on the U8.”

The smaller of the girls pursed her lips and shook her head, disgusted. “What an absolute joke,” she said. “Why didn’t they announce that it would only take five minutes to clear the line?” The other rolled her eyes and sighed. “This kind of thing is always occurring. It’s a farce.”

My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. First of all, the transport system in Berlin is the single best I have ever encountered. And second, here were two tiny German girls complaining about bad service in language so adult and earnest that it was comical.

This, I thought is the difference between the Germans and the Irish.

I imagined a similar situation in Ireland, where a conversation might have gone like this: “Jaysus, the poor fella. Did you get a look at him? Lucky somebody saw him and he wasn’t driven over … Jaysus! Sure we’ll be fashionably late. It’ll be grand sure. We’ve a story to tell.”

As our economy wilts and theirs prospers, it’s worth examining what makes the Germans German and the Irish Irish. I’m in a rather convenient position to do so, being half of each.

People here tell me that when I begin to complain habitually about everything, I can be called a “Berliner.”

Complaining in Germany, as in Ireland is a national hobby. The difference here is that complaints are taken seriously.

The reason that complaints are taken seriously is that responsibility is too. When you go to a ticket vendor or to buy a hot dog, you’re served with the same level of attention as you are in a bank or a lawyer’s office.

Some time ago, I was working on a story about low wage workers and got talking to a middle-aged woman selling hot dogs on the street. “I take my job seriously,” she told me, after she spoke perfect English while serving some American tourists. “I want people to enjoy their food.” She was earning about six euro an hour and was finding it hard to make ends meet.

Sincerity too is an integral part of the German mindset. If you say “We must meet up for a coffee. I’ll give you a call in the next couple of days,” it means that you will certainly arrange a date within three working days.

Shortly after I moved into my apartment, I made my flatmate dinner. It was vegetarian Shephard’s Pie and I was worried that it hadn’t turned out well. As we sat down to eat it, he took a few mouthfuls and said nothing. I was nervous. Perhaps it wasn’t to his taste. I waited for a while and then tentatively asked whether the food was alright.

“It’s delicious,” he said.
“Then why didn’t you say anything?” I cried.
“Well I had to wait to taste it properly,” he said. “It would have been insincere to say it was nice straightaway.”

I thought about that for a long time.

While the Germans are responsible, reliable and sincere, the Irish are compassionate, humorous and wily.

When my parents visited me recently, they were a little slow in buying their train ticket at the machine. A woman in her twenties standing behind cursed at them and shoved them out of the way. I would like to think that in Ireland, she would have given them a hand. For all its Celtic Tiger madness, Ireland has remained a place, where, as my mother so nicely puts it, “eejits and eccentrics are well tolerated.”

Before I moved to Berlin, my boyfriend made me a mix tape which included two anthems to remind me of home. One of them is the speech Enda Kenny made to welcome Barack Obama to the country and the other is the lament, with mandolin accompaniment, performed by Joe Duffy following Thiery Henri’s handball in 2009, which crushed Ireland’s dream of qualifying for the World Cup.

The latter is ridiculous and hilarious and features lines such as “Will You be Out of Favour To Sell Gillette Razors?” and “It’s a pity for the South African nation without us at their world celebration.” Enda’s speech on the other hand, is so full of passion and pride that it’s hard not to feel a pang of affection for the little nation, which despite falling to pieces, has still managed to maintain a healthy dose of national pride.

While the Irish might champion mediocrity, they do it with charm. Ireland is like the child in the psychological experiment that gobbled up the single marshmallow, despite knowing that if it had waited, it would have received two. Germany is the child that waits for the second marshmallow but wonders whether, by the same principle, it would make more sense to continue to wait rather than to enjoy the two already gained.

The Irish are wily and endearingly naive. We wouldn’t quite call ourselves dishonest but we’d settle on being creative with the truth: the stuff of brown envelopes, dodgy property deals, shifty politicians and the Catholic Church. On the other hand, it’s also the kind of opportunistic cleverness that bagged Enda a meeting with the Chinese Vice President last February, made Jedward into national icons and allows some to hold fast to the belief that we really, really, really can win the Euros.

If we could learn accountability and responsibility from the Germans and teach them to kick back and remember that everything – probably will be grand in the end – we’d both be better off. Instead, they’ll be bailing us out for decades and we’ll be telling jokes to numb the pain.

LSB Makes Berlin Debut

I decided to greet LSB at Schoenefeld airport with a placard featuring a blown-up picture of his own face. I had all the available equipment at hand: my flatmate’s high-quality printer, a cardboard box, which I had used to carry my groceries home, and some sellotape.

The evening of LSB’s arrival, my flatmate was welcoming friends to an “All-Male Poker evening.” Though he had included me on his invitation list, he had also apologised to his guests for my sex, adding that at least I could “make myself useful by serving beer.”

LSB placard and Easter-themed welcome gifts.

I responded by crafting a formal email during work, which I had checked and improved by a very obliging production assistant. Writing to all those included in the invitation list, I mentioned that it was with extreme regret that the Poker Evening would have to be cancelled since I had made a prior commitment to host a feminist congress at the address.

One of the advantages of being Irish and odd, is that when in a foreign country, the latter is often excused by the novelty of the first.

Unfortunately as the first guests were arriving I was in the kitchen, of all places, and even worse, cooking.

I was making LSB a potato and kidney bean bake to welcome him to my motherland. But I was doing so in a highly emancipated fashion.

Of course the scene delighted my flatmate, who ushered his friends in with insufferable smugness, pointing out that I was both a woman, and in the kitchen.

One of the guests greeted me with a smirk and said “Feminist Congress, yeah?”
I beamed at him.
“Thank you so much for coming!” I said. “The discussion topics are displayed in the room next door.”

He blinked.

“What?” he asked.
“You should have got my email,” I told him straight-faced.
“I did but I thought it was a j..”
“I really appreciate you coming,” I said. “It’s always hard to get men to agree to come to these kinds of events.”

His face dropped and I returned to the saucepan.

I left for the train station just as the “boys” were seating themselves at the “poker table.”

One of my favourite things about living in Berlin is my “Azubi” train ticket. With it, I can travel all around the city without having to tag on or off and it is valid on the weekends too, meaning I can whizz about exploring the city.

In the five weeks I have been here, I have not once been checked for a ticket.

As the train was pulling into the Shoenefeld stop, a group of four young men entered the carriage. They had chains and tattoos and shaved heads and suddenly one yelled “TICKETS, PLEASE”.

Ruffians, I thought.

Until one approached me.

I looked up at him, in his torn jeans and crumpled t-shirt and thought “Are you serious?”

But he had one of those machines.

I rummaged in my bag for my wallet and whipped out my Azubi ticket, complete with hideous photo ID.

His lip curled a little.

“Do you have an extension ticket?” he asked.

“A what now?”

“An extension ticket.”

“Em.. No?”

“The zones covered by this card were transgressed at the last stop,”he said.

“Oh! I had no idea,” I said, as the door opened and the voice announced “Last Stop.”

“I’m sorry,” I offered.

“Please show me your passport,” he said.

Mother of divine comedy, I thought.

At this point I was imagining LSB loitering forlorn in the arrivals hall, thinking I had forgotten him.

All I wanted was to get away from this most unpleasant man, and wave my placard.

“Where do you live?” he asked, still in possession of my passport.

I gave him the necessary details, and avoided the question about my “police-authorized address” by asking how I was supposed to have known that “extension tickets” existed.

I did all this in a most charming manner, hoping that he would consider me diminutive and not that bright.

He was having none of it and issued me with a €40 fine.

Clasping the little slip of paper and inwardly cursing him, I ran all the way to the arrivals hall.

I saw an elderly lady dressed in a green overall arrive and embrace her dog, who was on a lead held by her daughter, whom she ignored. Then an Irish businessman was greeted by a German Paypal employee.

And finally, LSB emerged from behind the screen.

I waved my placard madly.

He ran to me.

“Katzi!”

“Wilkommen in Berlin!”

“What on earth is this?” he gasped.

“Oh, just in case you’d forgotten what you looked like,” I murmured as I took him by the hand and led him to the ticket machine, where I bought an “extension ticket” for €1.50.

LSB reading my suggested itinerary for his first day in Berlin.

More on LSB in Berlin to come.