My wife The German Chancellor

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.

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Melanija

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.

Kate Katharina is looking for an Agony Aunt… and she’d better be real.

Earlier this morning, I was asleep on a plane with a copy of Anna Karenina abandoned on my knee, when I was jolted awake by an adapter plug, which hit me in the face. I looked up to see a young man hovering over me. He looked mortified.

He had been searching for something in his case in the luggage carrier over my head and seemed startled to have launched a missile.

“I’m so sorry!” he said, grabbing the offending converter.

“Don’t worry!” I said, compensating for my drowsiness by employing an inappropriately bright tone.

He then had the unenviable obligation to continue looking for whatever he needed while leaning over me.

It was a laptop. He took it to his seat, which was diagonally across from me, and opened up a Word file containing many pages of text. The font was too small for me to make out. He must have sensed my dismay because just as I was craning my neck to make the title out, he turned to me and apologised again.

Kate Katharina being unimaginative among natural beauty recently.

Kate Katharina being unimaginative among natural beauty recently.

“Not a problem!” I said, waving my hand as if flicking away some trifling annoyance, like a fly or an undeserved compliment.

I thought that if this were the beginning of a story, our paths might cross again in an awkward collision on the way to the tiny plane toilet or while looking for lost baggage.

Inspired by the few pages of Anna Karenina I had managed to read, I began to weave a narrative in the style of a nineteenth century Russian novel. But soon enough, the prose became less imaginative, and the young man who had fired the plug morphed into LSB, and his glamorous but troubled victim, a peasant girl masquerading as a wealthy actress, became me again.

This is the problem, you see.

Reality claws its way into my writing. The effect is similar to the sense of confinement suffered when entrapped by an uncomfortably tight scarf.

Fiction is of course, suitably, the dream. Everyone wants to write a novel. And blogger types like me really want to. Sure you’d be mad not to. What could be more satisfying than cementing your immortality in pretty prose?

But the cruel tug of real life gets in the way of my dreams. Every time I sit down to write a story about things that are not true, things that are creep in.

When I actually managed to complete a short story recently, I sent it to my father to read. I thought I had struck a happy medium. Much of the story was true, but the interesting, pivotal bit was not. He liked it all but for the bit I had fabricated, which he found, *sigh* unconvincing.

He tried to comfort me by reminding me of the virtues of lesser writing, like travel memoirs and historical essays.

“Nonsense”, I said. Non-fiction is the refuge of the unimaginative. “Like me”, I added sadly.

It’s not as if I can’t make things up. In fact, LSB frequently accuses me of shameless fabrication. I’m able to imagine stories of boys with magical powers, dystopian universes and tales of dwellings made entirely of marzipan and inhabited by colonies of chocolate worms.

I just don’t seem to be able to write about them. Any time I go to write about something that was not, it occurs to me that I am infinitely more qualified to describe something that in fact, was. And so I write about the giant dog I accosted on the train, or the time LSB rolled down the hill.

Everything I have written above is the *sigh* true tale of a non-fiction writer in denial. But perhaps dreams can come true. I know many of you casual readers out there are talented weavers of convincing deceit. I’m left with little choice but to appeal to you, to teach me your art. In other words, help me before I am irretrievably lost to the Real.

Yours helplessly grounded,

Kate Katharina

Naked Gloria

Right at this very moment, a man with grey floppy hair and a stripy woollen jumper is sitting in front of his laptop in a coffee shop in west Berlin, reading, what I suspect is his own story. It’s called “The Tutor” and begins: “Even with the fan beating her naked body, Gloria was dripping wet.”

I had to crane my neck to make that out.

I hope the person immediately behind me isn’t taking similar note of what I’m writing. That said, it would be rather nice to instigate a pretentious metafictional trail.

This coffee shop is a couple of stops away from where I live but it’s become my “local.” It’s where I went in my despair when the power failed. Since then I’ve spent hours here writing articles aimed at billionaire investors in the German real estate market, consoling myself by consuming the enormous chunks of floating ginger in my tea. It’s also where I teach English to a lovely young woman, who responded to one of the many poorly-designed posters I pasted around west Berlin.

The staff here are as attractive and cosmopolitan as the cocktails on the menu. One woman is raven-haired and French and speaks a charming nasal German. When she’s on shift with the men, they tease her about her love life. I suspect they’re looking for a way into it. Another one of the waitresses is Chinese. She wears a bemused smile. Another staff member is German but speaks fluent English with the many foreign customers. She’s got a delicate sensibility and is eager to please. One of the regulars told her today that he was homesick. She reported that to the Chinese waitress, her voice full of empathy.

Every so often when I breathe in I taste smoke. Boxed off in a glass house next to me is the Smoking Lounge. I like staring at the people inside. They always seem more anarchic. They slouch, stay longer than the people in my section and carry on as if governed by healthy resignation to their fate. I just glanced over, and as if it were scripted, a lady let out an almighty cough.

Anyway, the waiter whom I bewildered by tipping 50% on my day of need, has just placed a candle on my table. I think it’s time to go. The “fan”-fiction writer left a few paragraphs ago. If he ever Googles his opening sentence, he might find me. If that happens, just remember, I discovered you first, in your stripy jumper in west Berlin.

I can only hope that Gloria dries off in the end.