The rabbit cage

A few years ago, a large grey rabbit appeared in the hallway of the nursing home.

Residents would park their Zimmer frames and wheelchairs by its cage and stick their fingers through the bars.

The rabbit would twitch its nose in curiosity, and in response they’d exchange satisfied smiles.

Frau B told me it belonged to Alessandro, one of the care-workers. She said his girlfriend had thrown him out of the flat they shared and ordered him to take the rabbit with him.

This wasn’t true. But it was amusing, and so I went along with it.

I wasn’t sure Frau B really, truly believed it either.

Sometimes, when Alessandro came into the room, Frau B would say, “Here he is! The rabbit’s daddy.”

“It’s NOT my rabbit,” Alessandro would reply through gritted teeth. Then he’d slam the little cup that contained her painkillers down on the table and leave before she could say another word.

Frau B’s stories always had a dramatic narrative arc. When an old man named Mr Klein moved into the room next to her, she swore he was having a liaison with one of the women at her table.

She said she’d caught them looking at each other across the dining hall.

It was a most appealing tale which conveniently erased Mr Klein’s wife, who lives downstairs.

Still, I nodded indulgently.

As time went by, Frau B’s stories changed. They became less Mills and Boon.

She became increasingly paranoid.

The care-workers were coming into her room at night and eating her pears.

The cleaners were stealing her money and helping themselves to her jewelry.

The other residents were giving her dirty looks and talking about her behind her back.

She had deliberately been given a wheelchair with a faulty brake.

Frau B didn’t respond well to my attempts at gentle persuasion, so I mastered the art of deflection.

I’d listen as she catalogued the slights against her, then change the subject. I’d tell her about my friends’ love lives, or read to her from the Erich Kästner book.

For a while, it seemed to work.

But things are different now.

She insists that the staff  hate her.

And that the people she sits with at mealtimes are conspiring against her.

She sits in her room all day, ruminating about their treachery.

As a result of these perceived slights, this year, she is boycotting the Christmas party I’ve accompanied her to for the past five years.

The one where one of her favourite care-workers dresses up as Santa Claus and distributes gifts to every single one of the residents.

When I suggested she may regret not going, she became angry.

I didn’t bring it up again.

Last Sunday, when LSH and I came to visit, we found her looking for money.

She’d hidden it envelopes all around the room and couldn’t remember where she’d put it.

I offered to help, but she refused, in a tone that suggested she thought I wanted to pocket it.

We unpacked the shopping she’d ordered on the phone the day before: pears; hair slides (the long ones; she can’t grip the shorter ones with her arthritis-ridden fingers); two bars of chocolate and baby powder. We’d also picked up her jumper from the dry-cleaners.

“Is that all?” she said.

“Oh?” I said. “Did you need anything else?”

“You know I did,” she said. “Why didn’t you get grapes?”

I tried to explain as politely as I could that she hadn’t asked for any.

“And what about the pine branch?” she asked.

On this, she had a point.

She’d been talking about getting a small festive centerpiece for her table.

I’d actually bought her one already. But when I’d arrived with it last week, I discovered that her niece from Hamburg had been around in the interim and had supplied her with an alternative. It featured a glittery cut-out of a reindeer wedged inside a box of festive vegetation.

Frau B preferred mine, but thought it would be too risky to switch them in case her niece came back. On her instructions, I took the little pot home back home.

Photo from Katzi

Photo: LSH aka Andrew Hayden: instagram.com/andrewchayden

She did mention pimping her inferior centerpiece with a real pine branch. But she hadn’t brought it up again when I called, and – after a tiring week of getting up at half past three for work every morning – it had slipped my mind.

“So you’ve begun to exploit me too,” she said. “You think you can do what you like because I’ll forget.”

“That’s not fair,” I said, calmly.

“I told you I wanted a pine branch,” she said, her voice rising in anger.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get you one,” I said, curtly now. “I’ll get one this week.”

“You’re playing me for a fool.”

“Let’s read,” I suggested.

I thought it would help.

But she interrupted and said she needed the bathroom.

I let her wheel herself in and closed the door behind her – a small dignity she still insists on.

“Let me know if you need help,” I called after her.

LSH and I sat there, looking at our phones and whispering about how this wasn’t a very enjoyable visit.

Suddenly, a terrible cry came from the toilet.

I shot up and found Frau B hovering over the seat, clutching the bar with one hand and trying to pull her soiled underpants back over her knees with the other.

I re-inserted the sanitary towel that had slid down the inside of her tights, pulled up her underpants and tucked her vest into them.

Then she slid back into her wheelchair, and broke down.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “I can’t go on.”

I bent down before her, and looked her right in the eye.

“Today is a bad day,” I said. “Tomorrow will be better.”

“I’ve been horrible to you,” she said.

“Don’t worry.”

“I need to get out,” she said. “I need to leave this room.”

We left LSH in the bedroom to ward of the thieves and I wheeled her up and down the corridor.

When we came back, some of the darkness had lifted. I made up stories about my baby niece I knew would make her laugh.

Still, a heaviness accompanied LSH and me home that evening.

The next day, I called her on my way home from work.

“Who’s this?” she said.

She sounded agitated and I realised she would have to strain to hear me above the traffic.

“Das Kätchen!”

“Kätchen?”

“Yep, it’s me.”

“I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I just wanted to see how you were.”

“I’m feeling ashamed,” she said.

“Don’t,” I said.

“I treated you terribly.”

“It’s nothing.”

“And to think that after everything I said, you still call me.”

“I was worried about you.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“I often think I’m no longer capable of crying,” she said finally. “But the thought that there’s still someone who worries about me is enough to make me shed tears of joy.”

Now it was my turn to pause.

Then, in a matronly tone designed to stop me from welling up, I said: “Of course I care! How could I not?”

We hung up just as it began to drizzle.

As I walked on towards the train station, I imagined her watching the clouds form from her bedroom window, imprisoned in a cage she had a part in making.

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Why I’m a tree hugger and you should be too

When Frau B looks out of her fourth-floor bedroom window, she sees two tall trees. On the left is a spruce. Its mass of deep-green needles presents a burst of colour all-year-round.treehuga

But she’s more interested in the maple tree beside it. Each September, she watches its leaves turn from vibrant green to grimy brown and yellow. A few weeks later, the wind snatches them away, leaving a stark tangle of branches for Frau B to observe during the winter months.

At the age of 97, even she is a whipper-snapper compared to a tree.

When I told her the other day that scientists in Norway had discovered a 9,500-year-old spruce, she sighed.

tree2

a tree community in Volkspark Humboldthain

“Mich nimmt der liebe Gott auch nicht,” she said, meaning ‘God won’t take me either.’

It’s something she says quite often, usually with a smile. This time, it conjured up an image of a long line at the gates of heaven. When Frau B eventually gets to the top, she is rejected alongside a Norwegian spruce. Together, they lament the curse of their longevity.

In the past few weeks, my relationship to trees has morphed from passive appreciation to zealous awe. Peter Wohlleben, the author of The Hidden Life of Trees is mostly responsible.

The book was an impulse-buy, having met my three criteria for spontaneous literary purchases: an inviting title, a pretty cover and the promise that I would be a slightly different person after reading it.

My transformation has become especially apparent to LSB, who now finds himself at the receiving end of a barrage of excited outbursts:

“Do you know that trees use fungal networks to communicate?”

“Woah! You will NOT believe this! Trees can detect the saliva of insects and use THAT knowledge to send out chemicals to attract their predators!”

bark.jpg

tree bark in Volkspark Humboldthain

“Okay, I promise this is the last one: did you know that parent trees deprive their children of LIGHT in order to keep their growth rate steady?”

“…I know, I know: I’m sorry but I just have to tell you this: trees of the same species INFORM each other about impending environmental threats!”

At first, he listened politely, nodding occasionally as he scrolled through his phone. But as the days turned to weeks and my enthusiasm failed to wane, he advised me gently that I was putting the “bore”into arboreal.

It hasn’t stopped me though.

What I find so extraordinary about trees is in fact quite unremarkable: they’re just like us.

They have memories, which they can pass on. Communication happens via a sophisticated electric network forged over millions of years. The sick are nursed and the tendency is to protect one’s own.

Eventually though, like you, me and Frau B, they breathe their last and descend into the ground. There they turn to humus and enable new life, once again, to begin.

trees

a sick tree is propped up by its neighbour in Volkspark Humboldthain

Lidl children

Whenever I go to Lidl, the cashier asks if I’m collecting the football stickers. When I say “no,” she looks surprised and a tiny bit relieved.

Yesterday I went to another branch closer to work. There were loads of little girls loitering at the entrance, eyeing up the customers. If they had been bigger, I would have felt very threatened.

This time, the cashier simply handed me two football stickers with my receipt.

Outside the shop, the girls lunged at me.

“Did you get a football sticker?”

I rummaged awkwardly in my bag.

“ME! GIVE IT TO ME, GIMME!” they cried.

They were encircling me now, like prey.

“Give them to me, PLEASE!” the ringleader of the group said, coming very close to me. She had a long black plait and reached up to my shoulder.

I looked around helplessly at the many eager faces.

I picked out the one I found least threatening because it was furthest away.

“Are you collecting them too?” I asked her. She nodded shyly.

“She’s my sister!” the girl with the plait shouted.

“Are you really?” I asked the quiet one.

“Yes!”

“We’ll share,” the plaited girl said.

I gave up and handed her the cards.

“Promise you’ll share?”

“PROMISE!” she said, grabbing the stickers and running away.

The others followed her like wolves.

Image source: www.lidl.de

Image source: http://www.lidl.de

When I was a little girl, my mother used to buy me rolls of stickers from the Pound shop. I stuck the best ones in a special sticker album. I kept the rest in a plastic case for future use decorating envelopes and sticking on dolls.

My album contained an entire section of glow-in-the-dark grasshopper stickers. My piece de resistance was a hologram sticker that glimmered green, blue or yellow depending on how you looked at it.

These days I don’t collect anything except for empty beer bottles. There must be about sixty in the kitchen now. Some day soon, I’ll bring them back to Lidl and get an enormous “Pfand.”

I’ll probably spend the “Pfand” on more beer. Then I’ll get more football stickers, which I’ll pass on to another pack of schoolchildren.

The circle of life.

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.

How to turn flat-hunting into a hobby

Regular readers know I’m more than a bit of a creep. I stare unashamedly at strangers and note down snippets of conversations I hear on trains. And – no I am not joking, LSB got me a periscope for Christmas.

So, despite the well-documented tedium of finding a flat in Berlin and a certain Mr Humphreys who tried to scam me into moving into a restaurant, looking for a flat over the past few months has provided me with a welcome opportunity to poke around thirteen strangers’ homes without getting arrested.

Prenzlauerberg  Source: Wikipedia

Prenzlauerberg
Source: Wikipedia

One such stranger was Jürgen. He and his wife were giving up their apartment in Prenzlauerberg to move into something bigger. Their neat second-floor flat overlooked a street full of restored period houses which had been painted green.

LSB and I were only vaguely interested in the flat because the advertisement had mentioned that applicants willing to buy the in-built hall cupboard for €1300 would be preferred.

The moment we walked in we knew it was not for us. The flat was oddly misshapen – a hexagonal kitchen jutted left off the hallway and the bedroom straight ahead was small and windowless. It looked vaguely like the nearby bar dedicated to life in the GDR.

But we continued on anyway, browsing awkwardly and exchanging false smiles with our prospective competitors. As we were trying to make a beeline for the front door, Jürgen – bespectacled, earnest and thoroughly decent- caught us.

(We had decided that when looking for flats, we would play by ear whether to tell people that LSB was only beginning to learn German. In some cases, I simply translated and in others, people were all too eager to practise their English.)

Jürgen however was unconcerned about LSB’s language skills. All he wanted to talk about was his hall cupboard.

“Schau mal,” he said, opening a long mirrored door. “I built this myself. It is a perfect fit.”

“Mmm” said LSB appreciatively.

An entirely different cupboard which I probably would pay for. Source: Wikipedia

An entirely different cupboard which I probably would pay for. Source: Wikipedia

“And take a look at this!” he said, showing us some shelf fittings.

We listened politely as Jürgen continued to speak extensively about his carpentry.

Every now and then, LSB nodded in confusion and said: “Ah!”

Jürgen, delighted with the enthusiastic, if deferential response, pulled open yet another door.

This went on for ten minutes and concluded with: “A better cupboard for this spot you will not get.”

Back on the street, LSB said: “I didn’t understand a word of that.”

I didn’t understand much, either.

But I liked Jürgen. He was an uncomplicated, dignified kind of person who took great pleasure from his work. There was nothing cynical about his spiel. He really just wanted to speak at length about his self-built cupboards.

Tania from Tiergarten, on the other hand, did not wish to speak at length.

When we arrived for a private viewing of her apartment, she opened the door slightly and said: “Schuhe aus!”

LSB and I almost tripped over each other in the attempt to remove our shoes at speed.

We proceeded in and received a swift, efficient tour of the airy apartment, which we learned was to be rented out unfurnished.

The most remarkable thing about the bedroom was a colossal square of purple on the otherwise white-painted wall.

Tania motioned to a large tin of paint sitting on a table.

“Should you take the place, you will be contractually obliged to paint over the purple square. I have purchased paint for the purpose. I don’t have time to do it.”

We nodded. We would learn to do a lot of that as our flat hunt continued.

Next up was a flat in Friedrichshain, a punk-friendly area in the east of the city where I lived when I first moved here.

Tim, the young man offering the flat, was a DJ who was going travelling for a year.

The entrance hall of the large front house was like a cringeworthy movie set dedicated to Berlin’s “alternative scene.” No centimetre of the wall was free of graffiti, which featured slogans such as “Fuck the police,” “The revolution begins now” and “Go vegan.”

A house in Friedrichshain (not the one we went to) source: Wikipdia

A house in Friedrichshain (not the one we went to) source: Wikipdia

It was horribly dirty. To get into Tim’s flat, we had to cross a pitch-black yard. As we were making our way to the door, a large terrier bounded at us out of the darkness. I didn’t scream. When I am terrified, I go mute.

We made our way up the graffitied stairway to Tim’s place and rang the bell.

Tim had shaggy hair and glasses.

“Hey, you guys,” he said. “You found it! I know the buildings are pretty run-down man, but you got the best one here.”

The flat stank of smoke. Tim led us past the kitchen, where a pile of dirty dishes towered next to the sink. There were hundreds of records on the shelves in the hallway.

In the living room was a tatty armchair and a fridge. “For the beer! Nothing better than having a nice beer ready for you when you stumble home at 4 am!”

LSB and I nodded excessively.

“Cool,” I said.

“Very handy,” said LSB.

“And of course you guys can smoke in here! No problem at all,” said Tim.

“Brilliant!” I said.

(LSB and I do not smoke.)

“The only thing really,” said Tim – “don’t touch the records. At all. They are my babies.”

We saw ten other places. Writing about them all would be boring.

Suffice it to say, one of the strangers became our friend. It’s unsurprising really because she has a corner couch and a Goethe quotation painted on the wall. I’d be lying if I said I’d always wanted a Goethe quote, but the corner couch has been a dream of mine for quite some time. She also has a copious supply of kitchen utensils.

She left us a crate of beer, a charming welcome note and plenty of shelf space.

LSB and I have colour-coded our books. We have a red, blue, green and yellow section.

And even though our small, north-facing balcony overlooks a car park, there is a school building across the way.

Some mornings, I peek out from behind the curtains and try to make out the teacher’s power point presentations.

Kate Katharina appears in rag, LSB brings home bottled water

Some of you might have noticed that I’ve been blogging less since LSB moved here. But, as my psychology professor used to enjoy pointing out, correlation does not equal causation.

I mean, of course we do spend the occasional evening in streaming epsiodes of 7th heaven. (We’re on Season 5 – Mary is in big trouble because – instead of going to college – she’s working at a pizza joint where she makes unsuitable friends who smoke pot and have premarital sex).

The Camdens of 7th Heaven. Image source: Wiki Media

The Camdens of 7th Heaven. Image source: Wiki Media

But, truth be told, most of the time we are awfully busy having our own lives and co-habiting on the side.

Take this week for instance. LSB started an internship at an advertising agency, where he gets “thinking time,” free yoga classes and and an endless supply of bottled water. (His interview for the position took place on a bean bag).

I, on the other hand, made it into the notorious BILD tabloid – Germany’s equivalent of the Daily Mail – with the seniors’ blogging project I co-founded last year. The blog – Berlin ab 50 is a place for the over 50’s in Berlin to share their experiences of getting older in the city.

Safe to say, I was a little bewildered that BILD – the world’s second best-selling newspaper with a circulation of nearly four million requested an interview with us.

And cynic that I am (in fairness, BILD is a rather nasty publication) I wondered whether my group of senior bloggers – three of whom are in their sixties – were sitting on a big dirty secret. Had they been in the Stasi? Had an ill-advised fling with a high-ranking official?

With a gulp, I wondered whether perhaps I was the villain of the story. However, I quickly realised I was far too much of a square to make it legitimately into the pages of a rag. Bloggers in BILD! source: http://www.bild.de/regional/berlin/berlin-aktuell/drei-seniorinnen-haben-einen-internet-blog-34082682.bild.html

Well, as it turned out, the BILD journalist was a very nice young woman who spent a whole hour asking us questions about our blog. Her colleague – a thin photographer who tried not to look bored during the interview – got the three seniors in the group to pose with laptops and smart phones around a table on which he had strategically placed some coffee cups.

The article, which you can see here, leads with the bold headline “We are Berlin’s oldest bloggers.”

Of course, our hits went through the roof. And then we started getting media requests from everywhere. We’ve even been invited to go on television.

I know.

Speaking of television, you’d be surprised how many people write to it.

You see, another reason I’ve been awfully busy in the past few months is that I’ve taken on additional job at the international broadcaster where I work. It’s in the Zuschauerpost or “Viewer Correspondence” department and it’s my job to answer the e-mails and letters people send to the television station. When I took the job lots of people said: “Why on earth would you want to do that? Only crazies write in to TV stations.” To them I say: perk of the job.

I get some very sad mails from people in developing countries who have access to a television but not to adequate medical care. And I get some very entertaining complaints. I derive a guilty pleasure from composing eloquent replies to ridiculous requests.

But it comes on top of my regular job as a writer and translator at the company, my shifts at The Local, my senior’s blogging project and my treasured visits to Frau Bienkowski.

Oh, and did I mention LSB and I found a flat? And moved into it?

preparing for a 7th Heaven session.

preparing for a 7th Heaven session.

Well, we did. More on all of that to come. But for now, it’s time for beer and a bit of 7th heaven. Got to get our priorities right.

(By the way, this post from The Atlantic about the worth of blogging as a medium, inspired me to finally sit down and write a post again! Check it out- it’s definitely worth a read)

Christmas with Frau B

Willy Brandt wouldn’t really have been my type,” Frau Bienkowski says, examining the Tagesspiegel’s full-page spread in his honour.

“Nor mine” I say.

“He was a bit of a womaniser.”

“Well, just as well he’s not our type!”

Willy Brandt  source: Wiki Media

Willy Brandt
source: Wiki Media

She laughs. “Shall we get some coffee?”

“Sure!”

“So Katechen, tell me about your week.”

I tell her about my friend’s visit and our trip to Dresden. And about work and the Christmas parties I’d been to.

She tells me her niece is arranging a little Christmas party for her and that the cooks downstairs have agreed to roast them a goose.

This will be Frau B’s 95th Christmas. She has decorated her room with electric candles (real ones are deemed too hazardous in the home), a bunch of deep red flowers and a table cloth she made herself.

We agree that Christmas is an event choreographed by women and enjoyed by men.

“I remember my father standing by the fire once. It was just after Christmas and he was saying ‘Oh, it’s a wonderful time of year! I could do this all over again.’ Quick as lightening my mother piped up ‘No wonder – you didn’t have to lift a finger! ’”

Frau P smiles. “I’ll never forget that!”

I take out my gift for Frau P.

It is poorly wrapped in grey tissue paper.

She opens it gingerly and fingers the picture frame.

Because she has impeccable manners she says immediately: “Oh, it’s lovely!”

But I can tell she hasn’t seen it properly yet. I wait for a moment while she examines it more closely.

“Is that… us?” she asks.

“Yes!”

“But when..?”

“Do you remember my parents when my parents came to visit in the summer?” I say.

“Oh yes!” she says. “Thank you, Katechen – that makes me really happy!”

“Now,” she says. “It’s my turn.”

“What? Frau B … you’re shouldn’t have.. ”

She hands me a little package wrapped in reindeer-themed paper. “It’s just five bars of chocolate,” she says. “You know I can’t get out to the shops.” Then she presses an envelope into my hand.

“Open this at home,” she says. “It’s for you and Andrew. I made an attempt at writing but you know I’m no longer capable of it.”

I stammer a thanks and tuck the envelope into my bag.

I pick up the book about the Irish nuns.

(My current fine on it is €8.75)

“It’s amazing how long we’ve been at this,” she says. “We are just so good at chatting!”

“I reckon we’ll have it done by this time next year,” I venture.

“Oh come on Katechen,” she says. “How long are you expecting me to live?”

“Oh, there’s life left in you yet!” I say – brightly because that is the only way to talk about death to a 95 year-old.

Later on at home, I open the envelope. Inside is €30.

I can’t make out much of what it says in the card inside but I can discern the word “Katechen.”