Another cup with Frau Bienkowski

When I arrived at the nursing home earlier this afternoon, I passed a group of ladies pushing Zimmer frames and wearing feathered masks. Before I went up to Frau Bienkowski, I ordered a coffee downstairs. I was served by a lady with whiskers and a tail.

Frau Bienkowski said she would prefer to forgo the carnival celebrations downstairs, but we turned on the TV and watched an enormous red float make its way through the centre of Duesseldorf.

“When I was young,” Frau Bienkowski said, “we didn’t dress up that much for Carnival. But we had a masquerade ball.”

masq

“At midnight, you would take off your mask to reveal your face to your dancing partner.. Of course it wasn’t always a surprise. You knew some people by their hands, or the way they moved.”

She paused. “You aren’t wearing that beautiful pattern today,” she said, studying me carefully. “But that skirt is nice too.”

I complimented Frau Bienkowski on her green two-piece suit.

Then I emptied out my bag. “I brought something for you,” I said.

“Oh?”

“Well, since you said you liked reading, but that your eyes were no longer quite up to it, I took out some audio books from the library.”

“Audio books?”

“Yes, here have a look.”

“I didn’t know there was a such thing as audio books,” she said. “And you can take these out of the library?”

“You can! And you can even borrow films too,” I said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and borrow a CD player.”

“Will it be big?” asked Frau Buenkowski.

“It might be,” I said.

“Here, take this,” she said, pushing her Zimmer frame over to me. “And would you mind picking up some coffee too?”

I made my way down the hallway to the communal sitting room. Five ladies in wheelchairs were seated around a table, eating cake and drinking coffee.

“Did you hear the Pope has resigned?” said one.

“Oh, I knew that already!” replied another.

“On grounds of age,” chirped in a third.

I unplugged the CD player and popped it inside the basket of my Zimmer frame. I filled up two cups of coffee and balanced them precariously on top.

Frau Bienkowski and I listened to a few minutes of a German novel, read by the author himself.

“Do you think you might like this?” I asked.

Frau Bienkowski nodded. She looked happy.

“Which library did you go to?” she asked.

I told her. “Did you know that the building used to be a Sparkasse bank?” she asked.

I didn’t. “It was a vault, which the Russians plundered after the war. Back in the day, people had less jewellery, and they used to bring it there for safekeeping. One of my friends never saw her necklace again.”

My eyes were becoming wider. “Anyway,” Frau Bienkowski continued. “Tell me about what you’ve been up to.”

I told her I’d worked a rather uneventful night shift last night. Frau Bienkowski laughed. “It’s not every day the Pope resigns, is it? I don’t know why they picked someone so old in the first place.”

Frau Bienkowski, like me, suffers from insomnia. Hers is much worse. “I haven’t been able to sleep since my husband died,” she said. “Last night I was awake until 5 o’clock, but I got up again at 7. Routine is important.”

I asked her if she was plagued by racing thoughts.

“No,” she said. “My husband and I used to have wonderful times together. We went to the museum a lot. I have a wonderful talent to recall these happy thoughts. Some other people are riddled with anxiety at night, but I simply think of these good times with my husband.”

We talked for two more hours and I said I would call Frau Bienkowski later that week. She looked at me. “I never want you to feel obliged to come see me,” she said.

Frau Bienkowski, forgive me my bluntness but you could not be further from the mark. And this week, I am going to buy you a little CD player from Medienmarkt.

An Aggressive Defence of Nice People

Someday my father and I are going to co-write a novel. We’ve been talking about it for years now. We are considering the epistolary form. The content will be largely autobiographical and we shall take a wry look at society and its conventions. Our own treatment as largely unsuccessful literary layabouts will be suitably ironic.

I have been collecting characters for our novel and I thought it was high time to write an aggressive defence of one of my most cherished prototypes: the nice person.

Since I’ve been in Berlin I’ve had the advantage of meeting lots of new people, many of whom vary substantially on a spectrum of pleasantness.

I have a “breaking news” example. I’m writing from my local library, where I am perched comfortably at a round table with my back to a radiator and a view to a study area.

Just now, my train of thought was interrupted by a booming voice. I looked up to see a large man approach a desk where two young girls, one in a floral headscarf and the other with a stripy jumper were studying.

“How DARE you talk in a library” he yelled. “This is supposed to be a QUIET area. The ImPERTINENCE. How DARE you?”

The girls’ faces were frozen with terror while his was red with vitriol.

Jumping in the air in defence of nice people in Philadelphia, almost a year ago.

“HAVE I MADE MYSELF UNDERSTOOD?”

They nodded.

I had not even been aware of so much as a whisper from the girls. But I was certainly interrupted by this foul-mouthed miscreant, who had taken library discipline into his own hands.

(By the way, I take respectful behaviour in libraries very seriously and absolutely believe in regulation. But in this case the offence was minor and the intervention disproportionate and without mandate.)

Nice people, thankfully, are not in short supply. They are the ones that instinctively apologise when you step on their toe and spend hours nodding sympathetically even when confronted by a dull narrative.

They are the cashiers that give you an extra nod when you’ve completed your purchase and the reporters that say “Oh don’t worry, I was useless at the start” when you display incompetence.

They are the people that do not recoil when a foul-smelling and batty woman sits next to them on the bus and the ones that engage in mini sprints to catch up with you when you’ve dropped a mitten.

Nice people, contrary to the individualist-inspired meme, do not (necessarily) end up on welfare.

Nice people are mostly self-consciously so. They have weighed up the cost of an unpleasant smell and dull conversation against the happy after-glow of having been pleasant. It’s moral mathematics.

Nice people are not walk-overs either. Sometimes they will startle you with their outrage or righteous indignation.

Nice people are sometimes quiet but that does not mean they are taciturn or shy. They are watchful. If you adopt a scornful and derisive tone, they will greet you with a steely silence. The effect is something in between disregard and non-compliance.

In our novel, the nice people won’t end up on welfare. And if they do, it will be very generous.

The Art of Being Alone

I’ve got what many of you might envy: a tonne of free time in Berlin.

Just imagine: I’m at leisure in one of the most exciting cities in the world. I’ve no one to answer to, no pressing business to attend to and no  miscreant alarm clock  ripping me from my slumbers.

Kate Katharina: a lady of leisure? image source: store.craftsbyveronica.com

Bliss?

Not so much. The exhilaration I felt the first time I arrived in the city has dissipated. I know my way around and though I’m still impressed by the public transport, travelling on the underground no longer gives me butterflies.

My days are clumsily punctuated by grocery shopping, small errands and the quest for personal improvement.

When I go grocery shopping, I invest a lot of energy into not falling  for any of the tricks I learnt about in the Psychology of Economics class I took at college. I evaluate the price of items per kilogram, I immediately avoid all products at eye level and cast my gaze downwards to where the discounted goods tend to be displayed. After all, if there’s one thing I remember from that course, it’s the mantra, “Eye level is buy level.”

Shortly before my life began to be defined by trips to my local discounters, I organised my days around navigating German bureaucracy. It was so horrifying that I considered dedicating a series of posts to it but I’ve since concluded that writing about it might trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress. In summary, German bureaucracy is a delightful contrivance, designed to test the upper limits of patience, sanity and cognition. Now that I am officially registered extant, have been issued with a tax number and opened a bank account, I feel equipped to take on any challenge.

If only one would present itself.

Since I am unemployed (happily only temporarily), and know very few people here, I am trying desperately to channel my social deficit into intellectual pursuit.

I’ve re-ignited my passion for Arabic.  I sit at my desk with a little notebook and take down the Arabic word of the day on Youtube and practise making guttural sounds when I am sure my flatmates aren’t within hearing distance. I’m getting better.

I’ve read a few books.

I’ve got out at underground stops I select on a whim to explore new parts of town.

I’ve even started running and enrolled in a yoga class. And the other day, I went on a picnic alone. I thought it would be idyllic.

My destination was a historical palace with beautiful gardens that border a colossal park. On the day of my picnic it was very warm. I packed my Pocahontas towel along with a lunch box full of grapes and a tofu sandwich.

I found a beautiful spot beside a little lake. I rolled up my hippy pants, took out my food and began to read my book. Beautiful solitude, I was thinking to myself. How lucky I am to be wedged between a palace and a lake, munching on a soggy but delicious tofu sandwich.

Suddenly I sensed a presence behind me.  “Good Afternoon” said a voice.

I turned around to find a self-important middle-aged man on a bicycle pointing at me. “Sie befinden sich jetzt im Barock Garten, junge Dame!” Since I find it amusing to translate German literally and will be fired if I do it when working in TV, I’ll do so now. What the man said was “You are now situated in the Baroque garden, young Madam.”

I lost a piece of tofu in my fright. He continued. “You are not permitted to lounge in such an area.”

Since I am by nature irrationally apologetic, I said I was terribly sorry. I gathered up my stuff and made my way through the park. He nodded at me grimly and cycled away.

I set up camp on a little patch of grass beside a bench and close to the river Spree. I was there for about half and hour and I was ripping through my book. The sun was making me sleepy.

My picnic spot. Image source: http://www.german-architecture-info.net

Tyres ground to a halt behind me. “Good Afternoon, young Madam.” Dread shot through me. I turned around. We recognised each other instantly. “You again!”

I nodded.

“You find yourself at this time in the Louisen Garten, officially attached to the palace of Charlottenburg. This is a restricted area, unsuited to lounging. You must move along.”

“Where to?” I asked. This time I was not as apologetic.

“Beyond that far bridge, you will find an area dedicated to the general public.”

I packed up my things and made my way to the bridge.

On the way I spotted several other people enjoying the sun. The park warden called over to me from his bicycle. “Don’t get any ideas from these loungers, young Madam. They are also in prohibited areas and will be moving along shortly.”

He cycled up to a mother feeding her baby. “Young mother, you find yourself in the Luisen Garten!”

She looked bewildered. As did the other people he approached. I was close enough to see him point at me and call out, “Follow that young lady, who will lead you to an acceptable lounging area.”

Suddenly I was leading a pack of transgressors. When I had crossed the bridge, I found the “lounging area.” The grass rose up to my knees. It was an unpromising destination for the pilgrims I was guiding but it was sanctioned by the park warden. I sighed and laid down my Pocahontas towel for a third time.

And then I thought that maybe what I’m learning here has nothing to do with Arabic, or fitness or journalism. With every empty day that passes, I’m being schooled in the art of being alone.

Were you born in Dublin or in “Baile Átha Cliath?”

The lady in the bank squinted at my passport.

“Were you born in Dublin or in Baile Átha Cliath?” she asked.

“They’re the same place,” I said. “Baile Átha Cliath is the Irish word for Dublin.

She paused. “Can I just fill in Dublin?”

“Sure!”

“Thank Goodness. It’s much shorter,” she said, beginning to tap on her computer.

Earlier at the town hall, where I had gone to register with the police (it’s a blanket requirement rather than a sign of criminality here) I was seen by a woman whose sister had married a Northern Irish man.

“He comes from Coleraine,” she said. “But I still haven’t got around to visiting.”

Kate Katharina at her most patriotic

I felt compelled to tell her about the wildness of the west, the incessant drizzle and the friendliness of our people.

“Now I really want to go!” she said.

I told her she should.

Just in time for my move back to Berlin, the Irish Times is concerned this week with the relationship between the Germans and the Irish. In their aptly-titled series “A German Complex,” journalists are writing about Kerrygold and the idyllic German view of the Irish.

As the product of a German-Irish relationship and a literature graduate, my favourite article in the series so far has no doubt been the descriptions of the Irish by German writers and poets.

I was personally flattered by Heinrich Heine’s opinion, expressed in 1828, that an “amalgamation of the two elements would produce something excellent” and was strangely moved by Johann Georg Kohl’s conclusion in 1842 that “this island of misfortune and discontent, this country of so many incongruities otherwise unknown in the rest of Europe – can quite justly be called, like Prospero’s, an island of wonders.”

The observation which really stopped me in my tracks came from Philipp Andreas Nemnich in 1806, who found that “the Irish often express themselves too obligingly. They seem never to be able to turn down a request, and yet they never keep their promises, no matter how often one reminds them.”

I recognised myself immediately. Like many of my fellow Irish, I too am inflicted by a rather pleasant disposition. I find myself smiling at strangers and being very polite even to people I dislike. I make offers I expressly do not wish to be taken up and then curse myself when they are accepted.

All that wouldn’t be so bad if I simply didn’t bother to keep my promises, as Nemnich claims most Irish people fail to do. But I have inherited the unfortunate trait of reliability from my mother and invariably end up keeping the promises I did not wish to make.

I wonder what Philipp Andreas Nemnich would make of me.

I was asked earlier this year to carry out a Vox Pop in Berlin to find out what German people thought of Ireland. The old stereotypes prevailed: Guinness, green pastures and traditional music were the most common responses.

There’s a lot they know less about here though. Our wonderful writers for one. Our excellence in cultivating potatoes. Our uncomplicated kindness alongside our cynicism and repression.

The poor lady at the bank now knows about our national language though. Then again, she’ll find that out as soon as she lands at Dublin airport and is greeted by a poster of the beaming Westlife lads and a “Fáilte” signpost.

I love the Irish language, but don’t get me started on the signposting in Dublin airport…

So to all our potential German tourists, I hope you enjoy your stay as much as I enjoy recommending it.

Go n-Éirí and bóthar leat because the road signs sure won’t bring you any luck.

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.

Three Ideas That Have Changed The Way I Think

1. Creativity Is Not What You Think It Is

If you are struggling to think of what to say, or how to say it, or of what to bake or how to dress, you probably need to stop worrying about being “original.” One of my favourite realisations last year was that stealing is okay, and that without it, there’d be no such thing as the “creative process.” I used to think “original” meant “never been done before.” Now I know it means “never been done in this way before.”

Austin Kleon, a young artist whom I have written about before, couldn’t think of anything to put into a short story. He sat in his home in Texas, dreaming of being an artist but his mind felt like blocked toilet. Then he took a copy of the New York Times, and with a marker, started to blot out the words he didn’t like. Before he knew it, he was choosing the words he blotted out very carefully. He had become a poet, and now his books “Newspaper Blackout” and “Steal Like An Artist” are bouncing off the bookshelves.

2. Encouragement Is A Gift

My mama is magic in a lot of ways. But one of her special powers is in her capacity to encourage. When I was young and scared she held me in her arms and said “Ich kann es und ich will es auch.” (I can do it and I want to do it too). So I learnt to swim and climb and jump and to take nearly everything that people told me with a pinch of salt. Encouragement works like a magic powder added to water. The second you release it, it moves through you, opening up, spreading out like a flower burst from a bud. It can change your life. And usually it’s only a few carefully-chosen words or a little smile away.

3. Too Many Choices Is A Bad Thing

What will I buy? What shall I wear? Who will I marry? Where will I go? What should I become? What should I write my novel about? We’re overwhelmed! Freedom is precious and good but too much choice can stifle us. Here is Barry Schwartz explaining it all:

What ideas have changed the way you think?