Frau Bienkowski’s ex-boyfriend

“Did you have boyfriends before LSB?” asked Frau Bienkowski.

“I did,” I said. “But I can count them on one hand. Did you have any relationships before you met your husband?”

“When I was a girl,  I had a crush on a lad who went to the boys’ school nearby. He was quite good-looking and certainly the best-dressed among his peers.”

I nodded understandingly. (Who am I to question the selection criteria of a lady with 70 years more dating experience and a vastly superior fashion sense?)

“We were friends for a while,” said Frau B. “But then he went away to do an apprenticeship with Siemens.”

“Did you keep in touch?”

“We wrote each other letters but agreed not to be exclusive.”

wullllll

Here is a tangential picture of LSB’s sillouette

“What happened when he came back?”

“Well, one night, we all went to a ball. My mother made me a red silk dress; it really was exquisite; a perfect fit.

Months later, the boy told me that he’d always remember how well I looked that night.

Then suddenly,” said Frau B, pausing for effect, “out of nowhere, my bubble burst and he no longer paid me a scrap of attention.”

“Oh no!” I said. “Why not?”

“At first, I had no idea,” said Frau B. “Then finally, one of his friends admitted that he’d told my crush a bizarre story about me hating his guts!”

“What? Why did he do that?”

“I don’t know. Jealously probably. Anyway, we didn’t talk for months but eventually re-established contact. We wrote each other letters for years and years after that – even after we’d both married other people!”

“How did your husband feel about that?” I asked.

“He didn’t really like it,” said Frau B. “I had to reassure him sometimes. Once, when I was out walking with my husband we saw the man again. He didn’t look that great any more. I told my husband that now, were I to meet the man for the first time, I wouldn’t give him a second glance.”

“Did that reassure him?”

“It did,” said Frau B. “You’ve got to reassure men sometimes, don’t you?”

“You do,” I said, and told her all about my dating history in exchange.

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The ninetenth-century novel that sheds light on 21st century backwardness

I finished Fontane’s Effi Briest on the train back from Warsaw. Maybe I shouldn’t have. The tale of a young girl who marries a much older, politically ambitious man doesn’t end well. I burst into tears while reading the final passage. LSB, well used to my delicate sensibilities, patted my back and let me blow my nose in his scarf. Then I hid my face in his coat to avoid the stares of my fellow passengers.

Image source: Wiki Commons (c) H.-P.Haack

Image source: Wiki Commons (c) H.-P.Haack

*Spoiler Alert*

On the surface, it’s easy to see why I found the story upsetting. 17 year-old Effi is married off to Baron von Instetten, who was once in love with her mother. They move into a creepy house in the middle of nowhere. A huge shark carcass hangs in the entrance hall and Effi is scared by the strange sounds coming from an empty upstairs room. Instetten dismisses her fears and spends most of his time travelling and pursuing political ambitious in Prussia. Lonely and shunned by all but a good-natured apothecary, Effi descends into depression.

She gives birth to a baby girl and recruits a suicidal woman to nurse her.

Enter Major Crampas. He’s a married man with a reputation for infidelity. He makes advances on Effi and implies that her husband is using her fears of the haunted house to “educate” her. One night while taking a sledge ride, Crampas kisses her. It’s a nineteenth century novel, so either the rest of the affair is glossed over, or it doesn’t go any further than that.

In any case, the years go by and things improve when the family moves to Berlin and Effi can finally bid goodbye to the creepy house with the shark carcass. But while Effi is away breathing in sea air to increase the chances of bearing a son, Instetten finds old letters from Crampas in her sewing box.

Instead of being heartbroken, he’s mortified at what society will think of him. He challenges Crampas to a duel and shoots him dead. Then he banishes Effi and deprives her of seeing her daughter. Years later, when he grants a single visit, Effi realises that her daughter has been poisoned against her. Her health declines. Eventually, Effi’s parents take pity on her and allow her to come home. She dies full of remorse at age 29.

That was the bit that got me. Effi dies believing herself monstrous. Despite the fact that she was undoubtedly the victim of a stifling, money-driven, image-obsessed society with a questionable understanding of a woman’s worth, as well as of sexual consent.

Now we get to the crux of it. I wasn’t just in floods of tears because of Effi. After all, she’s fictional!

What made me really inconsolable was recognising that young women these days are still being subjected to outrageous social pressures. And that many, like Effi, accept the blame for things which are not their fault.

Let’s take the fact that Effi’s parents have control over her sexual and marital fate. Nineteenth century craziness, right? Not really. A recent documentary followed the purity movement in the United States, where apparently one in six girls takes a pledge to stay a virgin until she marries. Specifically, it followed the troubling phenomenon of “father-daughter purity balls” where teenage girls, many of them much younger than Effi, pledge that their father will be their only boyfriend until they marry.

What about power dynamics in relationships? Did young Effi really have a choice when the sleazy Crampas came on to her in the sleigh? A video on Upworthy which went went viral last week features a young woman promoting what’s dubbed “consent culture.” She details in crystal clear language what consent is and what it is not. She argues that in some cases, consent is impossible. For example she says, “you can’t get consent from someone you have power over.” Well over a hundred years after Fontante wrote Effi Briest, campaigners still need to spell out that some relationships are by their very existence, exploitative. Echoes of wealthy, manipulative Crampas preying on young and vulnerable Effi are all around us.

Finally, let’s consider the image-based culture Effi is subjected to. She’s paraded around society, where she is expected to display flawless beauty. Last month, 17 year-old singer Lorde took to Twitter to express her frustration that a publication had doctored an image of her to correct her skin blemishes. “Remember flaws are ok :)” she tweeted to her 1.46 million followers.

If only that, and the other important messages Fontane was sending us, would actually catch on in the 21st century.

LSB moves to Berlin, starts blog

LSB moved to Berlin, just like that.

One moment we were waiting for the 16A in grubby, familiar Camden Street and the next we were on the U7 to Spandau.

Berlin is different with him here.

I’ve had to stop sleeping in the shape of a large star fish.

I’ve had to allow cheese in the fridge.

And I’ve started becoming one of those people who complains when the lids of shampoo bottles aren’t replaced after use.

I used to spend my evenings munching Rittersport chocolate, scrolling through my Facebook feed and contemplating my existence.

Now we do that together.

Sometimes LSB laments the fact that he is arbeitslos.

The other day we saw a happy-looking postman in a green uniform on the subway. He was on a poster, recruiting.
I told LSB that my best ever job was being a postwoman in Rathgar in the run-up to Christmas. I got a bike and men’s overalls and everything. We noted down the number.

Today we went to an enormous Turkish market. First, I bought a sewing set, some elastic and six wooden buttons.

copyright: LSB

copyright: LSB

LSB advised me to haggle but I refused. Not for the first time that morning, I cursed my tentativeness. Instead, I slunk away from the rude man behind the stall to another whose face I preferred. He under-charged me for the buttons.

I felt completely vindicated.

I don’t need painted wooden buttons. But sometimes I fantasize about making my own dresses.

I have similar daydreams of baking apple pies and looking adorable on a bicycle.

Next I bought three mangoes, six avocados, two courgettes and a punnet of pears.

I was so pleased with my purchases that I dragged LSB into Kaiser’s so we could calculate how much we’d saved.

This evening, LSB told me gently that I hadn’t stopped talking about mangoes all day. I asked him if he understood what a bargain it was to get three mangoes for a euro and six avocados for two.

He said he did but his eyes told a different story.

They were glazed from having been at a computer for too long.

I looked at him carefully.

I might not be a doctor but I’ve often been praised for having a physician’s intuition. I knew immediately that he had joined WordPress.

As a savant, LSB naturally upstages me in most respects. But now that he’s started a hilarious photo blog, I’m more in his shadow than ever.

To make matters worse, he’s even threatened to start posting about “LSG.”

Familienfest: The Ferguson Sisters’ Moment of Truth

“Keep your gaze fixed at the back of the room,” LSB had said, against the conventional wisdom of imagining your audience naked.

I instinctively disregarded his counsel, and fixed my eye creepily on a number of individuals I believed would be sympathetic. I looked most often at my mother, who had abandoned her high-heels in favour of a pair of sensible sandals.

Given that I often fail to entertain myself, the prospect of commanding the attention of the entire Schultz family and even attempting a few quips along the way was rather daunting.

My mama’s letter to the Christ Child

However, there I was standing in my black graduation dress with all the Schultzs staring at me, desperate to figure out what the Irish contingent had come up with this year. I decided the best thing to do was to start speaking.

“When our mother was a little girl,” I began (in German) “and adults asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, her answer was always the same.”

I paused for effect and a Schultz baby (third generation) began to cry. Unable to decide whether it was in empathy or disgust I continued:

“She wanted to be a martyr.”

The baby wailed again. My sister clicked the next slide and a picture of my mother as a child beside a stock image of Martin Luther (the reformer) appeared.

I regaled my audience with a hilarious anecdote about my mother challenging an irate nun in class. The Schultz family laughed politely. The baby demanded to leave the room.

Before I knew it, it was time for the first theatrical performance.

As part of the research into our mother’s past, we had stumbled across a letter she had written to the “Christkind” when she was a little girl.

While the Christkind fulfils the same role in Germany as Santa Claus does in this part of the world, there are notable differences between the two. For one, the Christkind is an angel, rather than a Coca-Cola-inspired fat man, and according to my mother, genderless. He/she flies from the heavens on Christmas Eve and deposits presents under the trees of good children.

My mother made modest demands of the Christkind. She asked for a pair of tights, a bottle of Rotbaeckchen juice and a fountain pen.

The Christkind

I acquired these items in Regensburg and decided that a cameo appearance from the Christkind simply had to feature as part of the presentation. Having mentally auditioned the entire younger generation of Schultzs, I finally cast my 17-year-old cousin in the role. She is a natural Child of Christ, waif-like with long blonde hair and an angelic countenance.

She fashioned herself a golden costume featuring an enormous pair of glittery wings and to complete the transformation, LSB had the ingenious idea of covering our Frisbee with tinfoil to make a halo.

Shortly before the presentation (we were interrupted by the Family Song) the Christ Child and I briefly rehearsed what cue she would need in order to fly to my mother at just the right time. She had prepared to hide in a little adjoining room until the time was right.

Up to that point –all things considered — my performance had been without major hitch. I was fair-minded enough to put the baby’s reaction down to the stress of his first ever introduction to the Schultz family and accounted for his disappointment at the standard of my opener by diagnosing a case of precociousness.

When I spoke the Christ Child’s cue (“To show our mother that dreams really can come true, we have invited the Christ Child here today to lavish her with gifts”), nothing happened.

No Christ Child flew in, bearing fruit juice, a pair of tights and a fountain pen.

I paused and spoke again.

Still no Christchild.

The Schultzs were quiet. No baby cried now.

I paused a while.

In spite of my meticulous preparation for this event, I had not tested the acoustics of the room next door.

I became increasingly desperate.

“Christchild,” I yelled. “CHRISTCHILD.”

There was a flutter of wings at the door and the Christchild flew in to a great cheer from the Schultzs.

My mother was overwhelmed by her winnings and immediately asked the Christchild to pose for a photograph.

The public’s positive reaction to the Christ Child’s appearance was unprecedented and I relaxed in the confidence that the next theatrical performance would go down just as well.

It did.

My Greek cousins re-enacted my parents’ first dance with rare and delicate sensibility. My research had revealed that my father and mother had communicated in French when they first met and that my father was an exceptionally poor dancer. My male cousin, dressed in an afro wig similar to my father’s hairstyle of the time, grabbed his sister around the neck and stepping on her toes, misdirected her in an unfortunate and entirely graceless waltz around the room. She, a method actor in turn, called out “Oh la la,” and “Fais les petits pas” in what came across as very genuine desperation.

Here’s a picture of us all that Onkel Fritz took it just before the presentation. Do we look nervous?

Having completed the first section of the presentation, I breathed a sigh of relief, let my sisters take over and took a seat in front of the laptop. On my way, I managed to catch LSB’s eye. He couldn’t give me the thumbs-up because he was holding his camera at arm’s length (much to the mortification of my sisters) but he winked encouragingly at me.

At this point in the story, perhaps I should offer some insight into the background to this curious presentation. This might be of particular interest to my mother, who at time of writing, remains in the dark.

The Ferguson sisters are like any series of collectables. We are essentially the same but we each have some nice individual characteristics to recommend us to the peculiarly attentive.

When we were little, our father used to invent stories featuring my sisters and me in a parallel ancient Greek world. So that they don’t beat me up, I’m going to refer to them by the names our dad invented for us. My oldest sister, Penelope is the DIY extraordinaire and one not to libel, the middle child, Hermione is the scientist and bag-maker in Philadelphia and you all know me, Persephone as the youngest, least accomplished one that isn’t quite sure what she’s doing with her life.

In preparation for the presentation, Penelope scoured the family archives (dusty boxes in the basement) for photographs, Hermione compiled them into a Powerpoint file and I, Persephone wrote the accompanying text.

In the weeks leading up to the Familienfest we encountered a series of artistic differences, which were fortunately tempered by the great physical distance between us.

On the day however, as I watched Penelope and Hermione present our mother finally with a magnificent home-made medal (a speed limit sign with the number “60” within it) and I closed our speech with reference to her love of etymology (the word “martyr” is related to “memory…”) I realised that no matter how far apart, the Ferguson sisters are a bizarre force to be reckoned with.

Belated Happy Birthday, Mama. Hope you liked the juice.

“Disc”overing Ourselves

LSB and I are bookish types. We met in a library, not on a sports field. While he gallops through the classics, I canter along beside him, skimming paragraphs to keep up. Altogether we’re contented.

But ever since our arrival in Vienna, we’ve been committed to a course of self-improvement. When we’re not saving ladybirds or relaxing in the museum quarter, we’re exchanging skills. I’m teaching him German (his progress is remarkable) and he’s introducing me to chess. I now know my rook from my knight and he can distinguish between the genitive and the accusative case.

LSB in a coffee shop off Mariahilfestrasse, where he began teaching me chess

It’s all well and good to study a new language and familiarise yourself with chess; for bookish types like us, both activities qualify as recreational. To really test our commitment to self-improvement, we need to tread outside our comfort zone.

Conversation turned to that very theme last week, while we were walking down Mariahilfestrasse.

“Let’s buy a frisbee,” said LSB.

How could I resist?

We went into a sports shop. I saw some kids trying out the treadmills so I did the same. A shop assistant came over to reprimand the children, accusing them of breaking the machines. Then she came to me wearing a large smile and asked if she could be of help. I said I was just “looking” and ran away as fast as I could.

Eventually we found the section we were looking for. In between snorkels and body boards, we found some large plastic discs.

“There we are,” I said. “How much is that?”

LSB picked it up and gasped.

“20 euro! Forget about it.”

“Sure we could use a paper plate for free!”

We continued down Mariahilfestrasse.

We passed a stamp shop, a furniture store and a hat shop.

Finally we found a toy store.

We found some frisbees inside a basket of Barbie beach balls.

LSB pulled some out.

“Grey or green?”

“What a toughie! Go grey.”

He did. We bounced to the till and paid €2.49.

Since then, LSB and I have discovered talents we never knew we had.

We may have started out unable to toss the bloody disc in any direction at all, and we have certainly hit a good number of beautiful Viennese park-dwellers, who thought they were out for a relaxing afternoon in the park, but you should see the beautiful arcs in the air that we can now achieve.

While I’m content to continue shooting long backhands, which I have mastered, LSB is keen to make swift improvements. In recent days, he has become intent on mastering the forehand. Unfortunately up to now, all attempts in that direction have landed far off target. I swear he’s doing it to make me run.

A few minutes ago, I looked up at LSB, who is sitting at the window with his laptop, looking over the Danube. A strange sound was coming from his computer. It sounded like a chorus of sea gulls.

“What are you doing?” I asked LSB, who is supposed to be preparing for his future life in Edinburgh.

“Just watching an Ultimate Frisbee Game,” he said.

The sun is beginning to set, casting a beautiful orange glow over the water. There’s just enough light left for a quick game.

Update: We played frisbee in the dark outside the national library.

Also, as regular readers may have noticed, I have a new picture as my header. If you become a fan of Katekatharina on Facebook, you can see the complete album of the photo shoot, which I’ll be posting tonight.

Books in Berlin: “How do you meet men?”

Image source: salon.com

He had fine bone structure and an English accent. I put him a little short of his 40th birthday.
He waved a pair of sunglasses from his pocket.
“I’m so sorry to be rude,” he said, putting them on and obscuring half of his face, “but the sun is blinding me.”
“Not at all.” I said.

He was an IT teacher, a former diving instructor and the partner of a Swiss diplomat. Now he was learning German at a language school. It was difficult. He was a science and maths person.

We talked about teaching and travelling. He had a boyish wonder about him, a kind of naivety. He was softly spoken. He was kind. He had seen me alone and sat down beside me.

A lady came up to us. “Rupert!” she said. “I was trying to call you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.
He turned to me. “Apologies, I don’t know your name.”
“Kate.”
“Kate, this is Georgia,” he said.

Georgia was dark, attractive, with black curly hair. Later, she told us that she was 43.

She was intelligent, expressive, sharp. She watched people carefully as she spoke to them.

The conversation meandered.

And came to sperm donation.

“You know, there was a story in The Spiegel a while ago about a Dutch serial sperm donator,” said Rupert.

“I edited it,” I said.

“You did? How funny!” said Georgia.

The man in question had fathered eighty-two children and ten more were on their way.

He didn’t just deliver his sperm in a container. He catered for women who wanted to conceive the natural way. He visited them, they made him dinner and paid for his transport and then they went to it. There were good and bad experiences. But really, he just wanted to make them happy.

“He wasn’t a looker,” said Rupert, “but by the sounds of it, he was at least of average intelligence.”

“Ha!” said Georgia.

“I have so many beautiful, successful friends in their late thirties,” Rupert went on. “And they’re all single.”

“But where do you meet men?” asked Georgia. “I mean… I’ve been with my husband for twenty years so it’s been a while since I’ve dated, but isn’t it hard to meet people?”

She turned to me.

“What’s your situation? I mean, are you single?”

“No,” I said. “but for me it was very simple really. I met my boyfriend in the university library.”

“Yeah, that’s easy,” she said.

Then Rupert told us the story about how he had met his partner.

“I was a diving instructor in Crete. And I know what you’re thinking… She was not my student.”

She was on holiday with her girlfriends. But what she didn’t know was that this was a “singles holiday.” She had brought a pile of books to read, but her friends said there were more important matters to investigate.

She talked to Rupert, who was used to being flirted with. It came with the job of diving instructor.

But she made him nervous.

“That’s how I knew,” he said.

They travelled around the island together. And now they move around the world, wherever her job takes her.

The story was winding to a close. Somebody started tapping on a wine glass.

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