On enountering a tipsy punk

I was on the way to work the other day, preoccupied with global problems, like Donald Trump and the war in Syria. I’d just read a New Yorker article covering these topics and, not uncommonly for the newly enlightened, was energized by the urgent conviction that I must act to better the world. Immediately thereafter I was filled with the foreboding that I didn’t know how. And that even if I did, I probably didn’t have the courage to follow through.

I’d rolled the magazine up and packed it under my arm as I waited to change to the U9 line. The screen revealed I had a three-minute wait.

Enough time for a woman with a large dog and a leather jacked adorned with Tipp-Ex to engage me in conversation.

“Is this the right side for Hansaplatz?” she asked.

I paused to think (I shouldn’t have had to since this is my daily commute but remember, I was carrying the combined weight of the world’s problems as well as my New Yorker).

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By Pax – Transferred from pl.wikipedia.org to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2118607

Then said: “Yes!” a little too brightly, hoping to make up for my hesitation.

“Good,” she said. “I was afraid of getting it in the wrong direction.”

“Oh, I do that all the time,” I said. (It’s true.)

“My friends will be wondering where I am!” she continued. “I spent all night partying in Tiergarten with the other punks.”

I nodded knowingly, hoping to convey mindfulness of alternative lifestyles.

It seemed to work because she kept talking.

“I turned 30 yesterday!” she said.

“You did?! Happy Birthday!” I blurted enthusiastically.

She combed her hand through a mass of hair in the center of her otherwise shaved head.

“Thanks!” she said. “Got my hair done too. Had to, for the occasion.”

“It looks great,” I said, and meant it.

“Check out my jacket,” she continued. “All my buddies signed it.”

She pointed to various names signed in Tipp-Ex. “That’s my best friend Nina .. and my buddy Timo!”

She was the kind of intoxicated we all aspire to: cheerful but not embarrassing, her non sequiturs redeemed by elegant syntax.

As I was nodding along, I couldn’t help but think: we’re almost the same age! And she lives in the park, with her huge dog and all her lovely punk friends, enjoying life instead of obsessing over her failure to make a meaningful impact. And then, because such things are in my nature, I felt inadequate in the presence of such hard-won resilience.

As the train came, she pulled out a bottle of liquor from the inside of her jacket pocket and waved it in the air.

“Breakfast!” she said happily, before ushering her hound on board.

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On bombs and sock drawers

“When will we open the bottle of wine?” Frau Bienkowski asked.

We agreed we’d have it the next time LSB came around.moser-roth-edel-bitter-85

“I was very sad over Christmas,” she said. “There were many times I could have cried.”

Then, probably changing the subject, she continued: “I think someone stole my chocolate.”

I was pretty sure I could fix one of those things. I began opening drawers tentatively.

Frau B has recently developed the habit of finding elaborate hiding places for her personal items.

They’re so good she often can’t find things herself afterwards.

I got lucky after rummaging through her sock drawer. Three bars of Aldi’s Moser Roth, buried deep within a knot of nylon tights.

“Well, there you have it,” she said, retracting her accusation of theft by implicature alone.

“Now, tell me about Alicia*!”

Alicia is my six-month-old niece. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee and charmed practically the entire island of Ireland with her visit at Christmas.

Nothing makes Frau B happier than hearing about her.

“You must have some photographs,” she said, pointing at my phone.

I did. Alicia and her parents in front of the Christmas tree. Alicia dressed in red sitting on an armchair with her grandfather looking on benevolently. Alicia playing with wrapping paper. Alicia with her aunt Kate Katharina.

Frau B sat in her wheelchair, the phone clasped in both her hands, her face lit up in delight.

Babies have that effect.

She told me about her son, Uli, born in 1940 as the bombs were falling on Berlin. Her husband at war, she stayed for two years, taking cover in the cellar during the raids.

Then, in 1942, mother and child moved to the safety of the countryside in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

They stayed in a guesthouse until 1945.

“If it hadn’t been for the war,” she said, “I would say they were the happiest years of my life.”

She and her husband exchanged countless letters.  I wonder what became of them but don’t ask. Frau B has spoken before of the pain she experiences thinking of all the possessions she parted with when she moved into the home.

In Mecklenburg, she became friendly with a protestant priest. He got on famously with Uli, perhaps on account of the affection he had for his mother.

“He told me that if my husband weren’t to survive the war, he’d marry me in a heartbeat,” said Frau B.

“Yes,” she continued. “I could have married three or four times in my life.”

In the end, it was just once. Her husband came home, injured. And the priest was killed in cold blood when the Russians arrived.

*not her real name

The German town that dedicates an entire festival to asparagus

Before I moved to Germany, asparagus never played more than a supporting role on my dinner plate.

I regarded it as a bog-standard vegetable: average-tasting in a soup and appropriately assigned to side-dish status.

I soon realised this kind of indifference would turn me into a pariah here.

sparg

My relationship to asparagus has developed since I moved to Germany.

The German language has a term to describe the period when asparagus is in season: Spargelzeit.  It’s generally between mid-April and mid-June.

In Berlin, Beelitzer Spargel is celebrated as the most exquisite – and comes with the price tag to match.

Beelitz is a 30-minute train ride south of Berlin and home to around 12,000 people. Its official website defines it as a Spargelstadt – an asparagus town.

Every year, it devotes a festival to the asparagus and crowns a local woman Asparagus Queen. This year, in an attempt to complete our integration into German culture, LSB and I decided to attend the event.

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Bavaria’s most attractive all-women band (or so I’ve been told)

From Beelitz train station, you can catch the Spargel shuttle bus to the town center. LSB and I decided to walk. It wasn’t far and the streets were well sign-posted with arrows on every other lamppost directing you to the Spargelfest.

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Costumed asparagus and Asparagus Queen greet festival-goers

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The 2016 Spargel Queen

We arrived in time for the 11 am performance of a Bavarian band called The Midnight Ladies. They advertised themselves as Bavaria’s “most attractive all-women band” – a title I was not in a position to judge but that seemed plausible, given how dashing they looked in their glamorous traditional garb.

Milling around the town were two giant asparagus: one green, one white. The costumed vegetables flanked the Asparagus Queen as she shook the hands and kissed the babies of stall-holders and visitors alike.

The highlight of the performances was undoubtedly the dance of the Spargelfrauen (or Asparagus women). The group of a dozen women have been performing at the asparagus festival for 20 years and it certainly shows in their choreography.

At 2 o’clock, it was time for the asparagus parade. LSB and I had an enviable spot right next to the stage, where two anchors from a local TV station provided a running commentary on the floats.

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Members of the Asparagus Women dance troupe perform at the festival

Asparagus farmers drove through the crowds in their tractors, handing out baskets of the vegetables to lucky onlookers (myself included). Any local organisation you can imagine, from volunteer firefighters to a children’s rope-skipping group took part. Even an historical society marched through, with members proudly pulling two replica medieval cannon-shooters through the town.

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Costumed asparagus receives assistance getting in the door.

It went on for an hour. Tragically, I could only capture five minutes on film.

I did however manage to snap a rather comic moment earlier on, when one of the costumed asparagus had to be escorted to the bathroom and an assistant recruited to get his head through the door.

After the parade, LSB and I went for lunch. We dined on a classic: white asparagus, served with butter and potatoes on the side.

The festival concluded with a tearful expression of thanks from the mayor and the Asparagus Queen. The former told the crowd he had already confirmed the visiting acts for Spargelfest 2017.

Never again will I consider asparagus as anything but the main act.

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Beelitz town

Frau B takes on “the modern condition”

“Nice haircut, Frau B!”

She pats the sides of  her head, self-conscious and pleased. “Like it? You’re the only one who bothers to notice.”

There’s a knock on the door. A young woman, slight and dark-haired, sporting a pale green uniform, walks in.

“Julia!” says Frau B. “Now you can finally meet Katechen, my little Iren.”

Julia and I greet each other.

“Julia comes from Spain,” says Frau B. “Don’t you?”

“Yes, ” says Julia and hands us both a cup of coffee.

“She speaks very good German,” Frau B says after she’s left. “She came here because there were no jobs at home. Just like you did!”

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00134 / CC-BY-SA via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00134 / CC-BY-SA via Wikipedia Creative Commons

We talk about mass unemployment and the effect it has on the political landscape of Europe. Frau B was a child when Germany was in its deepest ever financial crisis.

“1929 and 1930 were the worst years,” she says. Even my father was unemployed for nine months. People said that if he had no work, it meant there really was none.”

“What did he do?”

“He was a precision mechanic. He was very good with his hands.”

“Something you inherited!”

“I sure did. I got his feet too. He had tiny feet, for a man.”

Screen grab from Daily Telegraph article of 27 January 2012

Screen grab from Daily Telegraph article of 27 January 2012

She takes a sip of coffee and continues:

“Hitler would never have come to power were it not for unemployment. See, he re-built the army and got people back to work.”

I tell her about Ireland’s Republican party, Sinn Féín, and how they’re currently enjoying a rise in popularity.

We agree that mass unemployment and disillusionment add to the allure of extremism.

Sometime later, when we are done talking about politics, Frau B mentions her grandmother who was born in 1838.

As a child, Frau B would spend long afternoons reading the Bible in her grandmother’s rural home. But it is a detail related to her Oma’s appearance rather than any biblical verse, which has stuck most in Frau B’s mind.

“My grandmother used to be bothered by a few little hairs, which sprouted above her lips. She’d tear at them with her hands until they came out,” she says.

Now Frau B notices a few hairs growing above her lips. “It comes with age,” she says. “I pluck at them when I can’t get to sleep.”

“Some people believe vanity is unique to the modern condition,” says Frau B. “It’s really not.”

As I observe Frau B rearranging her hair-do, and think about the events which led up to the horrors of World War II, I feel both comfort and unease at how relatively small our 70-year age-gap really is.

“Had he ever said he loved me?” she wondered.

“Last night I was lying awake thinking about my husband,” said Frau Bienkowski. “And I wondered whether he had ever told me that he loved me.”

“I thought back and realised he never had,” she continued. “I think he would have considered it unmanly.”

“And did you ever say it to him?” I asked.

“No. I think if I had asked him, he would have replied, ‘haven’t you noticed?’”

“Lots of men aren’t good at expressing their emotions,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “And he did bring me flowers.”

I looked over at the windowsill. The carnations, whose longevity has astounded us, were now wilting.

“Do you think I should get rid of them?”

“I think it’s time,” I said.

source: wikimedia.org

source: wikimedia.org

Our conversation meandered.

Frau Bienkowski told me about a carer at the home who earns just €1000 a month. She is a Lithuanian law graduate in her fifties.

We talked about the possibility of Germany introducing a minimum wage, and what the outcome of Sunday’s election might be.

Frau Bienkowski follows politics closely. Last week, I sent off her postal vote.

She’s voted for the same party all her life.

Frau Bienkowski thinks Merkel is machthungrig – hungry for power- but also “ruhig” – or calm.

Even though Germany is in a good place, the poor are getting poorer.

Frau Bienkowski is anxious about LSB finding a job. He has been here for just five days. I told her that he was at home learning German.

“He’s diligent, is he?” she asked.

“He is,” I said. “He’ll find work. But for the moment, he needs to focus on learning the language.”

“Absolutely – there’s no point worrying about it this side of Christmas.”

Frau Bienkowsi says she pities young people out of work. It was the same in 1928, she told me. Unemployment was rampant.

Then Hitler rose and things changed. A man Frau Bienkowski knew had been out of work for ages. Then he got a job building a motorway. His wife was delighted.

Hitler re-built the army, even though he wasn’t allowed.

Men were kitted out in brown uniforms and had work again.

Frau Bienkowski got married just before the war broke out. She got pregnant, then her husband was conscripted. In 1940 her son was born.

“I prefer not to think of the time after the war,” she said. “It was so hard. We had no money.”

She will never forget the generosity of the Americans during the blockade.

“We gathered at Tempelhof airport,” she said. “And they dropped down packets of food for us.”

Then Frau Bienkowski wanted to talk about her winter clothes. They’re stuffed in a large box because her summer wardrobe takes up all the cupboard space.

We agreed to leave re-arranging the clothes until October in case of an Indian summer.

I told Frau Bienkowsi that LSB has complained about my many clothes taking up all the cupboard space and about how his t-shirts hang neatly, discontentedly from the top of the wardrobe door.

She laughed, her eyes lighting up with amusement, and told me to send him her love.

“Getting an abortion in 1953 wasn’t that easy.”

In 1953 Frau Bienkowski’s friend, who was having an affair with a married man, got pregnant. Though she’d had abortions before, she couldn’t get one this time. She had a baby daughter.

The man left his wife. Frau Bienkowski advised her friend not to marry the man. But she did.

After a few years they moved from Berlin to the south of Germany, where his family was from. Frau Bienkowski didn’t like the man. He wasn’t very nice and he drank a lot. He had other children too. Frau Bienkowski and her friend fell out over him for a while.

A few weeks ago, when it was Frau Bienkowski’s birthday, the woman called her.

She’s 89 now and her husband is dead. But the daughter grew up to be a wonderful woman.

“I said to her,” said Frau Bienkowski, prodding her fork into her kiwi cake, “I said, you went through a terrible few years. But look what you’ve got now. A wonderful daughter.”

It all turned out for the best, Frau Bienkowski said. Now she has a diligent daughter – a medical assistant – to take care of her in old age.

Frau Bienkowski and I talked about abortion. I told her it was illegal in Ireland. She had heard about the case of Savita Halappanavar.

Even though her friend now has a lovely daughter to take care of her in old age and her own beloved son died, Frau Bienkowski, 94, and I, seventy years her junior, agreed that Ireland should legalise abortion, and not just if a woman tells three doctors she’s suicidal.

When Frau Bienkowski was young, the pill wasn’t available. “You had to be really careful,” she said.

I told her that when my mother came to Ireland, people went to Georgian houses where doctors illicitly provided them with condoms.

“Contraception is probably still forbidden in Ireland,” Frau Bienkowski said, laughing.

I assured her that, thankfully, it was not.

But I told her that women go to England to get abortions. “Oh, is it legal there?” Frau Bienkowski asked. For her, England and Ireland are pretty much one.

“I’m surprised there’s such a demand for abortion these days though,” Frau Bienkowski said. “With so much contraception available.”

Frau Bienkowski and I talked about men. She knew several who were serially unfaithful.

I said I didn’t like people who wanted to have an exclusive partner and also lots of secret ones. I said I could understand people wanting to have sex with lots of different people, and liking open relationships. But that deceit drove me up the wall.

Frau Bienkowski agreed.

Then she asked: “So how are things with Andrew? What’s the story with his plans?”

“I have good news,” I said.

She looked intently at me. “Yes?”

“He’s moving to Berlin!” I said.

“That’s to my advantage,” she said.

Here eyes were sparkling. “That means you’re staying!”

“It sure does,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere for a while.”

“That’s to my advantage,” she said again.

“You’re not thinking of marriage, no?” asked Frau Bienkowski.

“So we have a new pope,” Frau Bienkowski said, as I handed her the bag of medium-sized apples and two packets of sugar-free sweets she’d ordered.

“He could have been a black man,” she continued. “It wouldn’t have mattered.”

“No!” I said.

“But there was something irregular about Benedict’s resignation, wasn’t there? Popes don’t just resign!”

I agreed it wasn’t their custom.

“Could you get us some coffee?” she asked, pushing her stroller over to me. “You can put the cups at the front!”

I pushed the Zimmerframe down the corridor and passed three ladies in wheelchairs. One of them had a remarkable face, like a gazelle. They were staring straight ahead. One of them was saying, “You could write a novel about a life, if you just think back to all your encounters. You could write a novel. You really could.”

I placed Frau Bienkowski’s cup in front of her, and she pushed one of her sugar-free sweets towards me.

“So tell me, how has work been this week?”

I told her I’d been busy and that the new pope was creating a lot of work for us.

“It’s good you’ve got work,” Frau Bienkowski said, “especially as you’ve booked flights to see your boyfriend!”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I said.

“You’re not thinking of marriage, no?”

“Well, it would be difficult logistically since we live in different countries,” I said, apologetically.

She nodded. A few weeks ago she’d told me that she thought German president Joachim Gauck really ought to marry his long-term partner, since she travelled with him in an official capacity.

A little later, we got talking about Germany. “We’ll never escape our past,” she said and paused.

“They could have just removed the Jews from official positions. But there were good Jewish doctors, good workers. Sending them to concentration camps, killing them was wrong.”

For the first time, I felt uncomfortable around Frau Bienkowski.

“Of course it was,” I said.

Frau Bienkowski presented me excitedly with a fashion catalogue. “Look what I got in the post!” she said.

We spent some time leafing through the pages and commenting on the clothes.

“I like that,” I’d say, pointing at a blue and white striped cardigan.

“Yes,” she’d reply, “It’s pretty, but look at the pattern on that blouse .. it’s a bit much, isn’t it?”

We looked at a model in high-heeled shoes. “Do you like them?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” she said.

“Did you wear such high shoes when you were younger?”

“Oh yes!”

“And could you walk in them?”

She smiled. “If you wear them, you walk in them!”

We read some more of the story about the cantankerous 100 year-old living in an Irish convent.

I apologised that I wouldn’t be able to see her next week.

“Don’t you worry!” she said. “This should never be an obligation. And tell Andrew I say hello!”