Frau Bienkowski meets LSB

“Are you alone?” Frau Bienkowski asked as I poked my face through the door.

“No,” I said. “I’ve brought somebody for you to meet.”

LSB was on his best behaviour. Earlier, he’d been fretting about the propriety of his shoes and had asked how he would know the appropriate time to shake hands.

Wandering through the streets of Berlin in the past few days, we’d rehearsed the following sentence ad nauseam:

Es freut mich, Sie zu treffen. Ich habe schon viel von Ihnen gehoert. (=It’s nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you)

LSB is a fast-learning savant but word order is not his forté.

Frau Bienkowski held out her hand. LSB smiled nervously and got ready for his moment.

But he wasn’t quick enough.

“Es freut mich, Sie zu treffen. Ich habe schon viel von Ihnen gehoert,” Frau Bienkowski said.

LSB gaped at her. “Freut mich, freut mich,” he said.

I had already recommended LSB’s services as a wheelchair driver, which meant that for the first time, we could venture outside the grounds.

Frau Bienkowski had the afternoon all planned out. She had a plastic bag full of laundry which we were to drop off at the dry-cleaners before going to the coffee shop next door.

Frau Bienkowski wanted a pot of coffee and a small treat. LSB and I decided to share an enormous piece of Zupfkuchen, a decadent chocolate-cheese cake of Russian descent.

When we brought it to the table, Frau Bienkowski looked disgusted.

“You are to have a cake each” she said. “On no account will you be sharing.” She turned to LSB, who looked bewildered and bemused. “Get yourself your own,” she said. “Go on.”

I translated for LSB. He waved his arms about ineffectually. Frau Bienkowski became sterner and LSB got back up to examine the cakes on display.

“I wish he were that obedient to me,” I said as we watched him choosing a pastry. Frau Bienkowski laughed. “You are too young to be sharing cake. It’s ridiculous.”

From the window of the café Frau Bienkowski could see the neighbourhood where she grew up. “There used to be a tram on this street,” she said. I asked her whether she remembers horses and carriages.110

“Yes,” she said. “There used to be a track for horses.” But it, along with the tram was abolished when Hitler came to power.”

“Why?”

“They widened all the roads,” she said. “For the rallies.”

She said she remembered watching them as a girl.

“What were they like?”

She paused. “They were exciting.”

Frau Bienkowski asked us to take her back to the old people’s home through the park.

The sun was out and the birds were singing.

“After the war,” Frau Bienkowski said, “there were no trees here. Everything had to be used for fuel. There was nothing left.”

Back in her room, I asked Frau Bienkowski if I could show LSB the photograph of her family.

“Yes,” she said. “Take it down from the wall so he can see better.”

I asked LSB to guess which child was Frau Bienowski.

He chose a toddler with wispy hair looking to the side.

But it wasn’t Frau Bienkowsi. She was the little girl kneeling on the bottom left, with short hair and buckled shoes.

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Saturday Morning

My underwear is spinning furiously in the washing machine next door. The bedroom walls are shaking. Somewhere close a clock I cannot see is ticking. I’m propped up in my double bed in west Berlin, thinking of LSB.

He’s hundreds of miles away. I imagine him waking up in his hostel in Edinburgh and stepping gingerly by sleeping bodies as he makes his way to the bathroom.

We Skyped last night. He was in the hostel lounge, which was lit up like a disco hall in flashing shades of red and green and purple. The way he was sitting made it look like there were daffodils sprouting out of his shoulders but when he moved I could see they were artificial flowers wedged into a plastic vase.

He’d been looking at flats all day and was fatigued. I’d spent the day copying Arabic phrases into a notebook and trying to commit the 50 states of America to memory.

We were both alone in exciting cities and we were both demoralised.

“This going away thing is not that easy,” said LSB.

“I know!”

“It’s not all glamour, is it Katzi?”

We sighed.

LSB and I are good at being alone. We don’t fall into a restless panic when idle and we don’t rush for company the moment we’re abandoned.

So yes, we have inner resources. But sometimes they too can be tested.

LSB in Sligo

For those that don’t know, I moved back to Berlin to work as a writer and translator for television. The job doesn’t start until October, and it will only be on a freelance basis then. For reasons that could fill a book, I arrived back here early. I moved into my flat two weeks ago, exhausted after an encounter with a Turkish man, who bought me buttermilk and offered me a flat.

At first I busied myself with practical things. I registered with the police, opened a bank account and got a tax number. Not thrilling achievements, but ones you can tick off a list.

I’ve been in work a bit for training but apart from that my days have been long voids punctuated by little plans, like going to Penneys or doing grocery shopping. I’m trying to better myself by learning things but I’m distracted by financial worries and as always, about what I’m doing with my life.

LSB, happily or unhappily, is in the same boat. Saturday stretches ahead of us. These cities are full of possibilities. We need only step outside or on a train, but something inside of us, human and inert, guides us to inaction.

Some time ago the washing machine let out a shrill cry. My underwear is clean. A small conquest.

LSB and the Great Lockout of 2012

LSB has countless talents to recommend him and among the many, is calmness in the face of austerity. Last Friday was an exception to the rule.

When I got home, I rang the bell of the main building hoping that he would be able to buzz me in from above.

But instead LSB, red-faced and brimming full of nervous energy, emerged from the stairwell and opened up himself.

I was confused.

“I thought you were locked in?” I said.
“No Katzi, I’m locked out.”
“Did you leave the key in the apartment?”
“No Katzi.”
“… well then why don’t you just open the door?”

Silence of the kind before a bull charges.

“It.Won’t.Open.”

I took the key from him. We went upstairs. I opened the door.

LSB employed a string of expletives.

Then, in a tone low and dangerous he said, “I’ve been trying for the last 40 minutes.”

Few things are more insulting than somebody making light of your misery.

I couldn’t help it; I laughed.

He glared at me.

“You just have to turn twice and then sort of tug the door towards you,” I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t make it clearer.”

“Let me try again.”

“Are you sure you’re in the right frame of mind?”

He snatched the key from me, shoved it in the lock, tugged and the door swung open.

LSB in less stressful circumstances

“What have you got to smile about?”

Last Friday morning I woke up displeased. The cat was licking my nose and even in my sleepy state I remembered that I had discovered it lapping out of the toilet bowl the day before. I yanked my eyes open and looked at LSB who was fast asleep, wearing an angelic countenance and taking up most of the bed.

We had been to a concert the night before and I hadn’t slept enough. Going to work seemed like a waste of a day, especially when LSB was in town. I rolled to the bathroom, wearily sliced the heads off my strawberries and left LSB a little note explaining how the key worked.

The only person in the office when I arrived was Benji, the curly-haired production assistant. He sits opposite me and I like him very much. He often chuckles to himself at things he reads or overhears and I find he has an unusually pleasant and uncomplicated presence.

“Morning! How are you doing?” I said cheerily, for it is only my nearest and dearest that I privilege to the unbridled version of my morning grumpiness.

“Not good,” he said.

“What? Why?”

“The internet’s down!”

“No?!”

“Yes.”

Internet problems are an inconvenience at the best of times but when you work for a website, it’s enough to..

Take the day off.

It was that simple. At first they were talking about calling me to come back in when the connection was restored but then one of the editors pulled me over and whispered “go out and have a nice day with your boyfriend.”

When I texted LSB to tell him the news, he thought it was a prank.

We arranged to meet at Alexanderplatz, the large square featuring the iconic TV tower which was lit up green when I visited it all alone on St Patrick’s Day.

On my way there I was delayed by an old man who wanted to sell me a subscription to Die Zeit, a German weekly. I tried to explain very gently that I had only stopped because I thought he was giving out a free copy but the sweeter I was, the more enthusiastic he became. He positively glowed as he told me about the special money-off coupons I would be entitled to should I sign up. In the end, I apologised and he let me go. He even winked at me as I was walking away.

Since I had time to kill and was in a joyous mood, I decided it was a good time to pay my €40 fine.

“Next,” a dreary voice behind the counter called.

“Hello!” I said to a long-faced man with glassy eyes and a thin, white moustache that fell in an incomplete rectangle over his lips.

He didn’t reply so I continued, “I would like to pay my fine please.”

“Well then what on earth have you got to smile about?” he asked.

“Well..” I was going to tell him the truth about my day off but thought it might be insensitive.

Instead I told him that I had made an honest mistake so instead of feeling guilty, I considered it one of life’s comparatively unimportant annoyances.

“It’s a costly mistake to make,” he said, as if he were a sage tasked with evaluating the severity of my misdemeanor.

“Well, yes,” I said “but as of now I’m free of my punishment and I’m looking forward to returning to normal life.”

I may have been mistaken but a tiny grin seemed to creep its way towards the incomplete rectangle of his moustache.

Back at Alexanderplatz, LSB seemed to be taking much too long.

Suddenly my phone (or Haendy, as the locals call it) rang. It was LSB. And he was upset and agitated.

“Katzi.” he said.

“Yes?”

“I can’t open the door.”

“What door?”

“Your door.”

“Why?”

“It won’t open.”

“What do you mean it won’t open?”

“JUST THAT.”

“Well.. have you tried the key?”

Strangely, the question seemed to irk him.

“Katzi. I can’t get out.”

“Did you see the note I left with the key?”

Silence.

“I’ll be right there,” I said, hoping it wasn’t a prank.

Loose Change

Uncharacteristic affection for the cat

Here in Berlin I sleep in an extremely comfortable double bed in a light, airy room where the sun shines in through linen curtains.

Sometimes the cat wakes me up by jumping in my face or by scratching at the door until I let him in. Other times it’s the alarm on my phone, which goes off at 6.50 am, the exact time it used to ring in Dublin.

I eat breakfast with my flatmate at a little plastic table in the kitchen. I have peach yoghurt with strawberries and he eats a jam or meat salad sandwich. We don’t buy cereal.

He goes to his job in an insurance company and I get the underground to work.

On the way home in the evenings I pick up some scallions or pesto or whatever else I have run out of.

It’s eerie how quickly I have got used to it. To my corner in the office, to the daily news meetings where I pitch story ideas, to the fact that the Brandenburg Gate is around the corner, to calling German museums and asking them about rhinoceros horns.

I talk to my family and LSB almost every day. I tune in to Drivetime on RTE and I click onto the Irish news websites. I’m on Facebook. I know what’s going on in Ireland.

And yet it is as if I have been remade here. As if I have been encased in a little protective shell and rolled across the continent.

I never knew how easy it was to be alone.

And suddenly I’m sitting next to LSB in the train with my placard stuffed back into my bag and I think, How strange.

How strange it all is, the way my life has been transformed and his hasn’t.

“This is a bit surreal,” he says as we change from the train to the underground. “This is all new to me. But for you, it’s.. just commonplace.”

“I know,” I say. “Is it strange for you?”

“A bit,” he says. “I just hope you haven’t forgotten me.”

“Of course not.”

When we arrive in the flat, the boys are still playing poker.

For the next few days, LSB and my flatmate (from now on we shall call him “Klaus”) are much more polite than I know either of them to be. Klaus stops teasing me as he is accustomed to do, and LSB sticks up for him when we have a jocular disagreement.

I sleep terribly the first night of LSB’s visit. Because suddenly a piece of home, and a piece of me is tapping at that little shell. I find myself caught between two places.

But I am so happy to see him.

LSB comes to work with me. At the U Bahn he doesn’t have enough change for his ticket so he puts his Laser card into the machine and asks, “Katzi, what does all this stuff mean? All I want to do is pay for my ticket!”

Tomorrow: LSB’s Chocolate Tour of Berlin

LSB Makes Berlin Debut

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

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

LSB placard and Easter-themed welcome gifts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He blinked.

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

His face dropped and I returned to the saucepan.

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

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

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

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

Ruffians, I thought.

Until one approached me.

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

But he had one of those machines.

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

His lip curled a little.

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

“A what now?”

“An extension ticket.”

“Em.. No?”

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

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

“I’m sorry,” I offered.

“Please show me your passport,” he said.

Mother of divine comedy, I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, LSB emerged from behind the screen.

I waved my placard madly.

He ran to me.

“Katzi!”

“Wilkommen in Berlin!”

“What on earth is this?” he gasped.

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

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

More on LSB in Berlin to come.

My boyfriend is a savant

My boyfriend is a savant. He can multiply enormous numbers by each other in seconds and can list the members of my expansive German family in order of age without ever having been formally taught. He can recall facts about obscure historical figures I’ve never heard of and whenever we share a book to read, I have to skip paragraphs to keep up with his page turning.

Of course he denies it. He shakes his head with a bemused smile, masking the beginnings of faint frustration and says, “I’m not a savant, Katzi”. Then I ask him to multiply 678 by 78 and he says “52,884”.

“Is it really?”
“I think so”, he replies modestly.
I check it on my phone. He’s always right. I have found that he finds it difficult to refuse an offer to compute.

Being a savant’s girlfriend has its complications. One becomes idle. Instead of whipping out a calculator, or typing something into Google, or even better lifting one of my enormous encyclopaedias, I call him.

Another problem I have found is that it is extremely difficult to find a fault or defect to offset the genius quality. As well as knowing lots, he’s also unbearably humble.

The difference between us is that I don’t like to let the facts get in the way of a good diagnosis. I understand that according to the Strict Diagnostic criteria, LSB unfortunately does not qualify as a savant. However, this does not stop me from addressing text messages to him with “What’s up, Savantface?”

In an effort to refute my hypothesis, this Christmas he gave me a book with the title “Islands of Genius” with a foreword written by my hero Daniel Tammet. I fear he thought that reason was the way to a change of heart. This book, like most academic works, disguises interesting and insightful points with dull prose.

Peculiarly, though I received it last week, the inside cover claims it to have been “first published in 2012”. I see this as nothing more than further evidence of LSB’s preternatural processing speed.