There is a man

There is a man in a wheelchair who is nearly always in the café where I go to write.

We have a history.

A long time ago, he stopped me on the street and asked me to take him home.

His head droops to one side. He has trouble speaking. He keeps a set of used straws down the side of his chair. He’s about 50.

I pushed him down the road to his house. An Altbau with a grand entrance hall. One small, rickety lift.

A teenage girl came out of one of the doors. I looked at her searchingly.

“Fourth floor,” she said.

Every day probably. A stranger off the street. A woman.

There wasn’t enough room for us both in the lift. I got him in, pressed the button and took the stairs.

Outside his door, he fumbled for his key. Close to him now, I thought I caught alcohol on his breath.

“Will – you – come – in?”  An age to get the words out. Huge eyes. Big lopsided smile.

“I’m sorry I can’t.”  Breezy. “I have to be somewhere. Sorry.”

He wouldn’t have the strength, I thought. From his chair.

The key was heavy and awkward. Like something from the olden days.

Finally got the door open. Pushed him inside.

He held my gaze.  “I – hope – we’ll  – see – each – other – again.”

We do. All the time. He spends his days in the café.

There have been times when, from a distance, I have seen him making his way there. His floppy head from behind. The rainbow-colored wheels. Crawling along.

And I have crossed the road. I don’t have time, I tell myself. I don’t have time today.

In the café it’s different. There undeniably, I have time.

A few months ago, he offered me a job.

“To – take – care – of – me – at – home.”

“Oh!”

“Just – small – tasks – get – me – up – in – the – morning.”

“Thanks!” Bright and breezy.  “But I already have a job. Look.”

Showed him my diary. All my shifts marked in. So busy.

“Some weeks I start at 6 am.”  Pointing elaborately, like a Kindergarten teacher. “Other times I work late. Like here. Look.”

I flicked through the pages, flustered and apologetic. Cat-like, he pounced.

“I’d – pay – you -very-well.”

“I cant quit my job.”

Pool eyes again. A wistful smile.

“Sch-ade.”

Was I a bad person for crossing the street sometimes?

Then, last week again.  The first time I’d been in the café in a while. A hot  day. Couldn’t see my laptop screen with the sun. Pen in hand instead. Old-school. Wondering why one of my characters wasn’t working. Did I even know her, I wondered.

A presence at my side.

Looked up. Smiled. Couldn’t not. Don’t have that quality. Would keep me up at night to keep my head bowed. He knows.

“Nice – to – see – you – again.”

“And you!”

We talked for a while but then they brought his Coke outside for him so he had to go.

“Enjoy the sun!” I said. Bright and breezy.

Bright and breezy.

Went back to my novel. She felt flat. Why was it that I was having trouble getting to know her?

“I – have – an – offer – for – you.”

Not even five minutes had passed.

The same one as last time.

I showed him my diary. All those shifts. Busy, busy. Breezy, breezy. “Look, this week – I’m working late. That’s the only reason I can go to the café.”

“Sch-ade.”

Half an hour later, that feeling again. Looming by my side. Took longer this time to look up. But still, couldn’t not. He knows.

“I’m – very – self-sufficient.” Huge eyes. Lopsided smile. Clever. Had he children, I wondered? Any he knew about?

“I really do have a job,” I said. “I’ll get in trouble if I stop turning up.”

“Sch-ade.” He wore an expression that, whether by accident or design, could make you cry.

Wheeled himself back to his Coke. Went back to my character. Didn’t know enough about her past. Needed to care more. Who was she even? Deep down. Who was she?

I was scribbling furiously when he returned for the last time.

More playful now. He had weighed it up. The cost of self-respect.

He had loose change in his hand.

“I – have – three- euros – thirty,” he said. Smiling. But panting too, to get the words out. Big eyes. Head collapsed to one side.

Confused, I made a leap. The wrong one.

“Oh,” I said, gesturing elaborately to my drink. “I’m good with my coffee. But thanks so much!”

He laughed and placed his hand on his chest. “I-think-you’ve-misunderstood- I’m – asking-” he moved his hand from his chest towards me – “you– for- money.” 

I laughed then, too. At myself, and in relief. “Do you want me to get you another drink?”

“Zi -ga-re-tten.”

“Oh. Em. Okay. How much do you need?”

“How – much-are-you-willing-to-give?” There it was again. That look. The smile. His big green eyes.

Charm written into his facial features. The only physical force he still possessed.

“You can have two euros, if you like.”What did I even have in my purse? How much were cigarettes? What were you supposed to give? Anything even? If he wasn’t in a wheelchair, what would I have done?

“Danke!” he said as I dropped the coin into his hand.

Big, lopsided smile. Power in incapacity, too.

“I – won’t-bother-you-again.”

“No worries! Enjoy your smoke.”

He never approaches men, I thought. I have never seen him with another man.

Later, as I was leaving the café, I saw him again. A cigarette in his drooping mouth.

A middle-aged woman pushing his chair. Unsure exactly where he wanted her to take him.

I looked at him and he gazed right back.

Something sheepish in his expression. Triumphant too.

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Reader, I married him.

Reader, I married him.

In a tower in the forest.

On a wet and windy August afternoon.

“Pity about the weather,” the florist said when I appeared, drenched, to pick up my bridal bouquet.

“Wrong weather, right man,” I quipped, a little too enthusiastically.

We took a taxi to the forest.

LSB, gallant as well as handsome in a three-piece suit, held a giant pink umbrella over my head as I clambered in with my sopping bouquet.

The driver appeared indifferent to our finery.

“We’re getting married,” I said, in case clarification was needed.

He nodded. “What’s the address?”

Our journey began in amicable pre-marital silence.

The windscreen wipers swished back and forth.

“The weather could be better,” the driver said, finally.

“Wrong weather, right man,” I quipped, a little too enthusiastically.

On arrival at the tower, we held a conference with the manager.

“How hardy are your guests?” she asked.

I thought about our Irish cohort. All but the youngest had survived at least one recession, years of rule by the Catholic Church and the indignity of immersion heaters.

Then I thought about our Bavarian relatives. My mother is one of nine. They are Nachkriegskinder – or “post-war children” – a generation constantly reminded of the horrors they narrowly escaped.

“Very hardy,” I said.

“Very well,” she said. “We’ll do the ceremony outside.”

LSB and I walked down the aisle to the Queen of Sheba, played beautifully on the violin by my cousin and sister.IMG-20170826-WA0032(1)

Everyone gazed at us benignly, snapping pictures as if we were a Very Important Couple indeed.

This, I thought, is what it feels like to be the Duchess of Cambridge.

The celebrants, two of our best friends, performed their roles superbly, holding fast to their flimsy folders as gusts of wind attacked its pages.

LSB and I took turns to read this poem. A friend sang. Another read The Trees by Philip Larkin.

And we planted an olive tree. (Or at least we moved it, ceremoniously, from one pot to another.)

We also let off 50 red balloons, one more, apparently, than local authorities allow.

balloons

Photo: Emma Chaze https://berlinerdiary.com/

But the highlight for many came later, with the performance of my Bavarian family’s choir. Members had disappeared discreetly after dinner. Later they paraded in, singing a traditional Bavarian wedding song in cannon. They brought the house down.

We did a first dance too, one of the few concessions we made to convention.

It was an awkward but happy shuffle.

“We did it,” LSH whispered to me as we took a look around at all of the people we love, gathered together.

“We sure did,” I said giddily, swerving to avoid his toes.

“Let’s get the others up,” he said.

We gestured wildly to our friends and family and soon the dancefloor was packed with people, boogying joyously to a playlist we’d compiled with the help of YouTube autoplay. (If you need 100 classically cheesy tracks in one place, write to me).

It was a glorious day, made so by the people who honored us with their presence.

We returned to the island of Rügen for our honeymoon and found the rock, where one year earlier, we’d said yes.  

There were no swans this year.

But as we stood there, gazing out to sea, we remembered how they’d drifted past – showing us this point in time.

da rock

The rock, where we said yes.

 

One old lady’s quest for a fish sandwich

LSB and I were out walking in Charlottenburg this weekend, when we happened upon an old woman sitting on her Zimmerframe.

It’s not an unusual sight in this part of town, known primarily for its elderly population and the leafy neighborhoods they frequent.

We would have walked right by her, without a second glance, except that she gestured at us to come over and handed me a handwritten note, wrapped in a five-euro note.

In case this sounds implausible here is a picture:

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The note says: “Please buy me half a smoked fish in a sandwich (salted fish) No salad! ROGACKI.”

I haven’t eaten fish in a decade but I do know Rogacki. The family-run fish shop, located on the Wilmersdorfer Straße shopping street, has been there since 1932. It’s an institution and you can smell it a mile away.

The old lady was wearing a breathing apparatus underneath her clothing. “Fish.. Warm.. No lunch,” she said in between gasps, then smiled sweetly in anticipation.

I nodded, as if processing a routine request.

“What on earth..?”said LSB as we made our way to Rogacki. “Why do things like this always happen to you?”

I can only assume I was born with the kind of face that invites old ladies’ requests to buy fish sandwiches (Smoked. No salad).

We knew there was something wrong as soon as we turned onto Wilmersdorfer Straße.

For one, it didn’t smell fishy.

The lights were out.

The shutters boarded up.

“No!” we cried theatrically. “WHY?”

It was an hour past closing time.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one cannot return empty-handed to an old woman gasping for breath and in need of a fish sandwich.

But that’s what we had to do.

She looked up in happy expectation as we returned, presumably relieved we hadn’t made off with her fiver and carefully crafted note.

“Closed,” I said, gesturing wildly, before remembering she wasn’t deaf.

“Closed?” she said, rasping. “Oh!”

She looked crestfallen. I asked her if I could get her anything else instead.

She didn’t understand.

“Polish,” she said. “Little German.” (It explained the spelling of Rogacki.)

I offered her the fiver back. But she was not ready to give up.

“Penny,” she said.

“Yes!” I replied. Penny is a supermarket nearby.

“No Penny.”

She held up two fingers and moved her arm around.

“Warm fish..” she said.

I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I looked over at LSB but he looked just as confused as I did.

We had no choice but to try again.

“Me” (she pointed at herself) “Wait here,” she said and stroked my arm in appreciation.

We set off again.

“I have no idea what she was trying to say,” I said to LSB.

“Maybe there’s a fish place two doors down from Penny?” he suggested.

There wasn’t but we did pass a bakery.

I peered desperately into the glass display, my crazed expression attracting the attention of a young cashier.

“Do you have any smoked fish?” I asked. “You see, a lady gave me a note and…”

Her look, a combination of complete incomprehension and mild contempt, caused me to trail away.

Then, suddenly,  among the salami rolls and cheese and tomato baguettes, beckoning like a jewel, I discovered it.

One half of a roll, with a piece of smoked salmon slapped upon it.

I pointed at it enthusiastically.

“Could you heat this up for me?” I said. “Please?”

“For here or takeaway?”

“Oh, definitely takeaway!” I said, picturing the old lady gasping for breath as her stomach grumbled.

It wasn’t salted. It wasn’t smoked. But it would have to do.

She placed it in a bag, which was pleasingly warm to touch. It cost €1.50.

We returned to the old lady.

“Ah!” she said, beaming. “Warm?”

I nodded.

She smiled widely, as I tucked €3.50 worth of coins into the handwritten note, and handed it back to her.

We made to leave.

“Wait!” she said, and with an enormous effort, heaved around to reach into the basket of her Zimmerframe.

She handed me a sweet in a purple wrapper. Devastated, she looked at LSB.

“We’ll share!” I said, again gesturing with excessive enthusiasm.

She took a deep breath and smiled.

“Schönen Tag noch!”

“You have a good day too!” we said and walked away, relieved, yet bewildered.

How long, I wondered, had she been sitting on her Zimmerframe, waiting for a fish sandwich? And does she do it every day?

 

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).

Punk-27947

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.

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.