From elephant caretaker to private security guard

This story was first published here.

We meet in a café down the road from where the Berlin wall once stood. Olaf Schwarz is just as I remember him from our one encounter in 2014. Small, bespectacled and in his mid-sixties, he wears a silver chain around his neck and speaks so softly that I have to lean right into him to hear. He orders a beer.

I’d reached out to him because five years ago, on a bus ride to an event at which we were both volunteering, he’d mentioned that he used to work for East Germany’s state circus. He’d taken care of the elephants.

Olaf Schwarz with elephants

Olaf Schwarz taking care of elephants in the GDR in 1986 Photo: Olaf Schwarz

It’s the kind of fact that sticks and it came back to me as I was contemplating the economic impact of German reunification. I was on the search for somebody who could capture the experience of East Germans whose socialist world crumbled almost as abruptly as the Berlin wall did. Olaf Schwarz, I thought, could be my man.

On November 9th, 1989, when Germans rushed to tear down the wall that had shackled them for so long, two radically different ideologies came face-to-face for the first time in 28 years. On the western side was a nation with a thriving free-market economy that had experienced a ‘Wirtschaftswunder,’ or economic miracle. On the east was the Communist-run German Democratic Republic: a centrally-planned economy in tatters.

The GDR circus was one of many East German institutions that floundered and ultimately collapsed following reunification. Olaf Schwarz worked there between 1981 and 1987.

“It wasn’t hard to get a job in the GDR,” he says. “The circus was always looking for people.”

In many ways, it’s no surprise that he ended up there. In the years before, he’d spent most of his time hitchhiking, sleeping outdoors and avoiding the authorities. He first got a taste for it at the age of 12, when he and four friends set off on an ill-fated quest to hitchhike to the western city of Duisburg, because they’d seen a picture of it in their geography textbook. They stood on the side of the Autobahn and told the drivers who stopped for them that they were on their way to their grandmother’s funeral. Eventually, after a search warrant was put out, one of the drivers smelt a rat and the police caught up with them. Olaf Schwarz’s appetite for adventure was born.

Olaf Schwarz hitchhiking

Olaf Schwarz hitchhiking to Bulgaria in 1975

Unlike regular citizens, whose movements were heavily monitored and restricted, employees of the circus were allowed to travel freely. Their performances took them to West Germany, Austria and even Japan. The GDR authorities trusted them not to defect during their international performances.  Were they right to?

“When I went to Austria in 1983, it did occur to me not to come back,” Schwarz says. But the conditions and hierarchies he’d observed at Western circuses put him off.

“The relationship between individuals of higher and lower rank was terrible,” he says, adding that the conditions at the GDR circus, where everyone and not just the boss had access to hot showers and a kitchen, “couldn’t have been better.”

Another distinguishing feature of the East German circus was that the children in the troupe got an official state education from accredited instructors who would accompany them on their travels. Childcare was provided too, and Olaf Schwarz fell in love with one of the Kindergarten teachers. In 1987, when she began to suffer health problems and was no longer able to travel, he quit the circus so they could stay together.

He got a job at an animal welfare organization, which was on a mission to control the wild cat population. “My job was to drive to wherever the traps had been set up and pick up the cats,” he says. A few months into his new post, one such journey brought him close to a pathologist’s clinic. It was to be a turning point in his life.

He got talking to a staff member, who invited him in to see a corpse. He gazed at it impassively. As a child he’d spent a lot of time observing operations at a slaughterhouse. Death didn’t faze him.

“The guy said that if this stuff didn’t bother me, I should go work for the Berlin municipal undertaking service. He said I’d earn double there.”

He took the man’s advice and traded cats for corpses. If the salary he’d been promised as an undertaker was good, the tips he got were even better. It was for this institution that he was working when the Berlin wall came down in 1989 and the socialist regime in which he’d come of age began its final demise.

“Sure, you could have seen it coming,” he says. “If you thought about it logically, it was clear that things couldn’t continue on as they’d been.”

In the beginning, nothing much was said and the staff kept on working as normal. Within weeks however, the old managers, all of whom had been members of the East German Communist Party, had been replaced. For Olaf Scholz though, an even bigger change was to come.

The following year, the East German currency, the Ostmark was replaced by the West German Deutsche Mark. “Overnight, the tips stopped,” he says. There is indignation in his voice. “We got nothing anymore.” I ask him why he thinks this was. “People were too stingy to give away their Western money,” he says simply. Perhaps, I think, they realized its worth.

The GDR undertaking service did not survive long after reunification. There was briefly talk of it remaining a government entity, but the well-established private funeral parlors in west Berlin spoke out in opposition. Once again, it was time for Olaf Schwarz to look for a new job.

Never one to turn down a challenge, he became a security guard for a private US security company in west Berlin. He even got a firearms license as part of his training. His job included patrolling the villas by the Wannsee lake, which to this day are home to some of the city’s wealthiest residents. To a person who had spent almost three decades living in a system that forbade the accumulation, let alone the flaunting of wealth, it must have come as quite a shock.

“It was interesting,” he says. “Some of the villas had swimming pools in their basements. And places to dock their boats.”

He worked in the security business for several years, before once again getting a job at a funeral parlor. He was there all the way up to 2007, when the business folded.

It was then that his first and only prolonged period of unemployment began. It was to last for a decade, until he reached retirement age.

He filled his time taking free courses for people out of work. He learnt how to operate a camera and it was in this capacity that we met in 2014, when we spent a day working together to produce a report about an event at a seniors’ club in Berlin. Today, he continues to shoot videos, which he uploads to his YouTube channel.

One of the greatest pleasures and challenges of storytelling is when the tale you thought you were going to tell morphs into something else. Before our conversation, I thought that Olaf Schwarz might represent a kind of common East German experience. Perhaps, I thought, as he reflected on his time at the circus, he would display a certain kind of Nostalgie, a yearning for the certainties, if not the repression of the GDR regime. Alternatively, I considered, maybe he typified the East German who was quick to embrace the freedoms that capitalism offered. An entrepreneur of sorts who was able to grasp hold of new opportunities.

Both narratives are far too limiting. Like the millions of Germans whose sensibilities were shaped by the cold war, his response to the political and economic events of his time was entirely unique. If I did have to identify a single thread that has run through his life and got him to where he is today, it would be a healthy disregard for authority.

“To be honest, whether it was then, or now, I don’t trust any government,” he says. “I just do my thing.”

 

 

 

 

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On bonnets and bunnies

For the last three months, LSH and I have been washing our clothes and dishes in the bathtub.

At first it felt kind of rustic. I imagined myself in a bonnet, whistling as I wrung out a sopping pair of jeans.

But the glamor faded faster than the stains.

“This moving-apartment-melarky isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” I grumbled as I watched LSH arched like a cat over the bathtub.

“What?”

“This moving-apartment mel…”

But I didn’t finish because LSH likes to listen to podcasts as he scrubs the saucepan ferociously with a scouring pad.

haiku

This poem is about a very weird experience we had when looking for an apartment.

I took to writing poems instead.  Some are deeply personal accounts of ringing internet providers and power companies. Others chronicle the 76 times we traipsed between our old and new apartment with suitcases full of books we will never read. A select few are odes to the hot plate we borrowed from a friend.

Poetry can help but it is no replacement for the Internet, and so I kept calling 02. Months later, a young man from Bavaria arrived at our door.

He loooked exhausted.

It was hot that day, and there are 92 steps up to our apartment.

I should have mentioned that in one of my poems. Pathos is one of literature’s greatest powers.

“I’m not from around here,” he said, pausing to catch his breath.

“I know,” I said. “You’re from Bavaria. You sound like my relatives.”

“They’re so short-staffed in Berlin, they had to bring us up.”

Demand for basic digital infrastructure is high in the German capital.

But if you want something done, ask a Bavarian.

Within fifteen minutes, he had re-connected us to the world.

I didn’t think he wanted me to hug him though, so instead I asked: “Can I give you a Lindt bunny as a thank you?”

bunnies

LSH is excellent at displays.

“Pardon?”

“Would you like a Lindt bunny? As a token of my appreciation?”

“I don’t really like sweet things,” he said, his eyes widening in fright as he discovered the army of chocolate bunnies on the table behind me.

Let me explain.

A while back, I was having a tough day. In desperate need of attention, I fired off a flurry of self-pitying messages to LSH on Whatsapp.

He sent the right kind of emoji back and so I thought the matter was resolved. I was working a late shift and when I got back home around 1 am, I tiptoed into the bedroom, where LSH was in a sleepy stupor.

“Katzi,” he murmured. “I think I left the radiator in the living room on. Would you mind turning it off?”

Ugh, fine, I thought to myself. But does he remember what a tough day I’ve had? How emotionally exhausted I am?

I flung open the living room door and made a beeline for the raditator.

And then I saw them.

An army of bunnies. Lined up as if for a school photograph. Flanked by nougat eggs.

The radiator was off.

“You said you had a tough day,” LSH murmured as I burst back into the bedroom.

“How did you…. ”

“They were on special offer. Got some fierce weird looks on the S-Bahn though. The big one comes in a transparent box with a handle.”

There were always many reasons to marry LSH, but this is now officially in my top three.

Anyway, all that was a few weeks ago. Since then, even without the help of my Bavarian hero, my army has shrunk dramatically.

Now it’s only “Big Berta” who remains standing. Her bell is so loud that we used it to entertain the cat we recently babysat.

Berta watches us as we wash our clothes, and cook yet another batch of tortelli on the hotplate. She was there when the hat stand was delivered and when LSH heroically proved his masculinity by bleeding the radiator. She will possibly still be there when our kitchen is delivered.

She is a reminder, in more ways than one, that good things come to those who wait.

 

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.

Let it snow, please let it snow.

It was morning, my least favourite time of day and I was tired. I’d worked until 2 am and was due back in at 10. I was still blurry eyed when I tore open the curtains and was half-way to my dresser-mirror, ready to contemplate the enormous bags that had inevitably festered themselves below my eyes, when I did a double take and let out a tiny squeal.

It was snowing.

I had not seen this coming. Granted, it’s been cold. But given that being cold is my default it would have been a leap to expect snow. I could have checked the weather forecast but with such foresight my life would be entirely without thrills.

I squealed again on the way to the train station and smiled stupidly at strangers, who looked irritated as they battled through the cold.

I sat at a computer beside a window and tried to sound hip as I translated a technology show, known apparently for its ironic tone and trendy catchphrases.

But all I could think about was snow.

Snow is the material which exempts me from adulthood. It is the compound which brings a rush through my body, makes my heart skip and causes me to squeal.

I spent every winter of my childhood in a continued state of daring hope followed by crushing disappointment. I remember vividly rushing into my parents’ bedroom at an ungodly hour to check if it had snowed overnight. I remember the familiar sadness that overcame me as soon as the green of the grass and the bleak black of the sycamore branches in the garden were revealed.

Grown-ups don’t like snow. They say it’s a pain. It causes traffic chaos and turns to sludge.

Two years ago, LSB took me to the Christmas markets in Nurnberg. It was possibly the best move he could have made in our relationship (which would you believe, celebrated its 5th birthday last week; he sent me a card with a crocodile wearing a party hat and blowing out a candle beneath the caption “5 Today”). The snow reached up to our knees and we spent three glorious days drinking mulled wine and hot chocolate laced with amaretto. For those of you nostalgic for my juvenilia, you can read about my experience with the Christmas markets in Regensburg here.

LSB and I at the Christmas markets in Nuernberg. That day the snow was not so deep..

LSB and me at the Christmas markets in Nuernberg. That day the snow was not so deep..

By the time I completed my last jazzy sentence for the technology show, the snow had disappeared but the feeling remained. I headed into town and spent the evening wandering around the Christmas markets at Alexander Platz. I treated myself to a little cardboard plate of rosemary potatoes. I even paid an extra 50 cent for Tzatziki. The texture was divine, the rosemary subtle but brilliant. But they were cold.

As I waiting for the underground home, I watched an old woman drinking beer. She was wearing Birkenstock sandals with socks. She had a wide face and a big forehead. She almost looked noble but I suspect in fact that she was very sad.

News Flash

I have 508 Facebook friends. One of them is a girl from Israel and another is a boy from Gaza. I met them both in the summer of 2009 when I went to study for a month at the University of Bayreuth in southern Germany.

This weekend the boy from Gaza posted pictures of destroyed homes, families covered in blood and clouds of smoke in the sky. The Israeli girl posted pictures of the sub-par bomb shelter she had been hiding in.
Some people left comments along the lines of “We stand with Israel” on the girl’s wall. She said it was the worst thing to say because Israel had “started it.”

At work, we’re following developments. The politicians are so tentative. Obama talks about Israel’s right to defend itself and neglects to mention the mounting civilian deaths. The German press secretary reminds us that Israel is firing in response to rockets from Gaza.

We showed footage of an overturned truck carrying tomatoes in Gaza. Three brothers inside were killed when it was hit by a rocket.

The screens showing agency video feeds flitted back and forth between footage of destruction and diplomacy. The UN condemns civilian deaths, western politicians don’t mention them, Egypt says it won’t tolerate them.

Image source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/ retrieved 19/11/2012

Polite conversation skirts around the violence. People don’t like to pass remarks on Israel. They think Hamas is dodgy so maybe there’s no other way. Not many like to defend killing children, and brothers driving trucks full of tomatoes. And when images of wailing women searching for loved ones amid destroyed buildings pops up on the screen, they don’t know where to look.

Meanwhile in Mali, Islamic militants have taken control of the north. Their leaders hold up guns and say they’re fighting with weapons, not words. Women have begun covering their hair. They might make the news tomorrow.

Katekatharina Is Offline

I’ve been sitting in a cosy café, on a brown leather sofa, ordering coffee derivatives all day. I can’t describe how grateful I am for the free Wifi they provide. A fuse blew in my flat last night and I’ve been forced to shower in the dark and to plug the kettle into one of the remaining functioning sockets in my bedroom. When the water boils, it looks like my carpet is breathing. At  least I haven’t been deprived of my last remaining comfort: a cup of tea in my Chinese mug which comes with a lid and in-built filter.

Today is a public holiday in Germany. Berliners are supposed to be celebrating national unity but I suspect they are all sleeping. The streets are eerily empty. It took me ages to find a coffee shop open. Even Starbucks has closed its doors. My plight seems all then more acute today of all days, given that a personal wall has been erected between me and the outside world.

I can do without lolcats and Youtube and even breaking news. But I find it deeply distressing to be without contact to family and friends. Katekatharina.com lives and breathes off a web of readers Googling things like “Armpit hair.” I’m yet to encounter a person who stumbles across me in real life with the same enquiry. When you begin blogging, you write to a void, but over time that develops into a small and precious collection of loyal readers who are kind enough to read your twitterings as soon as they’re posted.

I have now sat through an entire shift here. The waitress who served me my iced latté and more recently my cappuccino, has been replaced by a blonde lady with an impressive pony tail and crinkly scarf.  I am relieved because the new staff do not know for how long I’ve been here (though I suspect the waitress from before may have warned them of my infinite presence). They are tactful and haven’t asked me once to re-order. I’m going to show my gratitude by ordering a third beverage shortly.

Katekatharina in a similarly stressful situation some months ago (that time I couldn’t open a tin of tomatoes bit the sense of helpless incapacity was similar)

Anyway, on a happier note, I was delighted to find out that I’ve been chosen as a finalist in the Blog Awards Ireland. I’m terribly sorry not to be able to attend the ceremony. I wonder if the organisers would consider streaming it online.. They’d have one avid viewer in west Berlin for sure. Check out the wonderful bloggers in my category  here:  The Style Account, Wise Words, Nialler9 and Iblogfashion.

When I next get online, I will tell you about the old man for whom I called an ambulance last night. I might even tell you a little about my new job. In the meantime, do send me  a text. It’s my last remaining way to instantly communicate.

Boston or Berlin?

It was the summer of 2000 and things were going swimmingly. Ireland was the fastest growing economy in the developed world and the unemployment rate had dropped from 10% to 5% in three years. Mary Harney, second in command, had been invited to address the annual meeting of the American Bar Association at Blackhall Place in Dublin.

Mary Harney’s message was a positive, American-friendly one. Image source: http://www.imt.ie

Her short speech sparked a debate which has since become known as “Boston or Berlin.” Harney drew attention to Ireland’s unique position wedged between Europe and America and summarised the characteristics commonly associated with each continent. Europe stood for social inclusion and governmental regulation while America championed the freedom of the individual and minimal government involvement. She acknowledged that they were simplified descriptions but concluded that “spiritually we are probably a lot closer to Boston than Berlin.”
Twelve years later, Ireland’s unemployment rate is 14.9%, emigration is at its highest rate since the 1980s and the continents on both sides of our shores are in crisis.

Without the background roar of the Celtic Tiger and the allure of shiny cars and kitchen extensions, now might be the time to revisit the debate from a more sober perspective.

What did Harney mean when she said we were “spiritually” closer to Boston than Berlin? Was she referring to our economic model, which had been defined by tax cuts and incentives for foreign investors? Or was she talking about our common language, our history and culture; our national psyche?

Boston
Image Source: irishcentral.com

Whether or not economic policy can be divorced from the ideology or “spirit” of a place is debatable but given that Ireland matched corporate incentives with a generous welfare system, our affiliation with either Boston or Berlin isn’t even clear in fiscal terms. Our identity crisis is totally understandable. We are a tiny, teddy-bear shaped island on the outskirts of Europe and on the passageway to America. We’ve only been independent since 1922. And we stayed out of the Second World War.

This second fact is absolutely central to any lack of affinity we have with Europe. The European Union we know today is the product of a collective abhorrence of the horrors suffered and inflicted during the war and a resolve – at all costs- to prevent evil from recurring. The focus has always been on unity. The foundation of the United States, on the other hand, arose from a very different impulse: a determination for independence and resistance to the coloniser.

We can relate more to the latter than to the former. We too rose up against what we conceived as an oppressor. And though we can read and learn about it, we cannot really fathom the horrors of World War II. Here in Berlin, they are etched into bronze plaques on buildings, in concrete slabs on train platforms and in the minds of thousands whose lives were brutally dismantled.

Ireland is in a lucky place: we are liked by our neighbours on both sides. Americans find us charming and endearing and mainland Europeans find us wholesome, mysterious and other-worldly.
And while we happily consume and model American culture, we are less familiar with that of our closer neighbours in Europe.

German, with over 90 million native speakers, is the most spoken language in Europe but only 18% of Irish school pupils learn the language. That compares with the 94% of German and 99% of French pupils learning English. Of course, English has become the biggest international language of trade and technology and we can easily “get away” with not knowing another foreign language, but we also lose out on the opportunities to work and travel elsewhere in the European Union, safe in the knowledge that our basic living needs will be met by our membership.

To live and work in Boston you must prove that no American would be fit to take your job whereas to live and work in Berlin, you just need to turn up and register yourself with the authorities.
America is a place where a large portion of people do not believe that it is the government’s responsibility to protect its most vulnerable citizens and where a channel with as big a following as Fox News can claim without irony that the Muppets movie promotes a Communist agenda. It might be united by a common language and culture but its artificial two-party system results in less understanding and consensus than the 23 languages of the European Union do.

Berlin Image Source: a-t-s.net

Back in Blackhall Place in the summer of 2000, Mary Harney, referring to Ireland’s economic model said, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Now that it’s very much broken, we might do well to look at Berlin as well as Boston.