“Nuala put on the spuds:” I’m home!!

The first words I heard when I landed back on Irish soil came from a lady sitting behind me on the plane. “I’ve told Nuala to put on the spuds,” she said.

If the impossibly green landscape I’d just flown over hadn’t been enough to convince me that I was finally back home, Nuala making spuds was. I was delighted.

Terminal 2 makes Berlin Schoenefeld look like it’s stuck in the dark ages. Although a new airport is due to open in Berlin soon, an unexpected delay of several months was announced to much controversy just a week in advance of its proposed opening. The new date is amusingly, St Patrick’s Day 2013.

Terminal 2 features walls of photographs of Irish people, some prominent figures, some not. I noticed Enda beaming at me to my left and a chiselled, greying Pierce Brosnan to my right.

Some of you will have noticed my appalling attendance in the Blogosphere in the past while. Rest assured that I have been collecting Blog Fodder along the way. LSB and I spent the last two weeks in my mother’s hometown of Regensburg. I blogged about it before, when we visited my grandmother and the Christmas markets two years ago.


This time, my whole family was together, which is sadly a very rare occasion since my sister and I emigrated. Familienfest 2012 was a momentous occasion, which deserves (but might not get) a whole series of posts to itself. It was my mother’s and two aunt’s 60th birthday, my Great Uncle’s 90th and an uncle’s 50th. The combined age was 320, so the celebration was suitably large.

The Ferguson sisters pulled together from Philadelphia, Vienna and Dublin in an attempt to entertain the scores of guests with a presentation about our mother’s life. It featured cameo roles from my cousins, who re-enacted scenes from my mother and father’s courtship and a special appearance of the “Christkind” (the German version of Santa Claus), who lavished my mother with gifts.

The last while has also seen a return of my Quarter Life Crisis, so those of you nostalgic for more uncertain days will be relieved to know that they are not behind me yet. After much indecision and emotional turmoil, I decided to move back to Berlin. More on that when it happens, in two weeks’ time.

For now, I’m sitting in my suitably messy room under three quilts and a heavy blanket, delighted to be home. I found a little spider in my wardrobe and wondered how long he’d been there. Last night I had to turn on the immersion before I showered. The fridge is empty so I’m off to buy milk and organic eggs and Dairy Milk chocolate and potatoes and soda bread. There’s no place like home.

Berlin versus Vienna: a Capital Battle

After spending four months in Berlin, I took a holiday in Vienna.

If, as some claim, Berlin is a city going through puberty, then Vienna is its older, more responsible sibling. On the surface the family resemblance is clear: the beautiful Altbau (literally “old building”) style of architecture, much of it restored since World War II, can be found in both cities, though it dominates more in Vienna, where significantly less of it was destroyed.

Altbau houses are typically painted in tasteful shades of blue, pink or green and are decorated both outside and inside with elaborate plasterwork. They are tall but not imposing and, while very pretty, not particularly remarkable. In Berlin, in the fortunate neighbourhoods where Altbau buildings dominate, their charm contrasts reassuringly with the gritty Soviet blocks, which are usually within sight. In Vienna, on the other hand, where every street corner boasts yet another impressive feat of architecture, they merely add to the provincial, sophisticated feel which characterises the city.

Altbau in Berlin

While both cities boast an efficient underground transport system, in Vienna the stations look like Duplo models. They are easily navigable, childishly labelled, pristine and absolutely identical. In Berlin, they are different colours, often garish and grotty and full of musicians and homeless men with long, wild beards rooting through bins.

Both places are made for easy living. You can get around quickly until late at night and you can visit galleries and museums or lounge comfortably in the vast open spaces which surround them. In the summer, both cities set up rows of deckchairs beside their rivers. Little kiosks selling peanuts, crisps and beer pop up nearby. In Vienna you can fill your bottle with ice-cold water at Trinkwasserstations, which occur at regular intervals throughout the city. In Berlin, both the young and the old prefer to travel with a bottle of beer in their hand.

While Berlin and Vienna might share roots, their character couldn’t be more different. Vienna is stylish and self-contained, while Berlin is anarchic, vigorous and care-free.

Viennese Coffee Culture

In Vienna, the sophisticated coffee shop culture and well-dressed middle-aged lady reign supreme.

In Berlin it’s the punk bars and anybody inside themthat claims to want to fight the system.

In Vienna, most of the art is kept in museums which charge a high entry fee. In Berlin it’s all around you and changes at the whim of the latest anarchist movement.

The street-corners in Berlin are alive with fire-breathers, hip-hop dancers and human statues covered in body paint. In Vienna, the police politely ask the street musicians for their papers and the latter move on without complaint when they fail to produce the right ones.

Vienna is a city that no longer has much to fight for and whose history has been tastefully, expertly painted over. Berlin is attacking its raw wounds with an aggressive, momentous vigour.

Berlin is growing up. If it develops like Vienna, in a few years it will mourn the loss of adolescent ideals, which many of us too grow up to grieve. And there’ll be fewer beer bottles for the homeless men to collect.

A Hangover, a Prayer and a Pond

I was slumped on a bench in Vienna Stadtpark a couple of days ago, hungover, watching ducks in a pond. A black coot swam over to a drake and unprovoked, nipped it in the buttocks. The drake spun around to face his aggressor, then thought the better of it and glided away.

On the bench to my left, a girl was sitting alone, smiling to herself. She was waif-like and innocent-looking with long brown hair and large eyes. She seemed unusually still.

Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, two girls clutching tiny pads of paper approached her. They began very quietly, to question her. All the time the girl murmured her answers, she kept the little otherworldly smile on her lips. The others were noting down her answers and nodding sympathetically; their faces full of vivid reassurance. I couldn’t make out a word of what they were saying.

The air was cooler than it had been the last few days.

Suddenly a gust of wind snatched some sheets of paper from the girls’ grip. They flew up into the air and landed in the pond. The girls gasped, turned, stretched out their arms, laughed, then gave up and pointed helplessly at the white specks as they dispersed across the water.

I forgot about them for a while because I was distracted by a lady on the other side of me playing with her grandson. He was bouncing on her knee and laughing. I caught the lady’s eye and smiled. She had auburn hair and an elegant face. After a little while, her daughter came back. “Look,” she’s back, the older lady told the baby, turning him so that he faced his mother. He beamed and she sat down beside him and rubbed his nose.

I looked back at the three girls beside me. They had closed their eyes and were speaking to God. All I could hear was the address “Herr.” Soon it was over, and the two girls disappeared. The original one remained on the bench, sitting bolt upright, her expression and posture unchanged. Though it was pasted to her face, her smile had an ephemeral quality. She had been touched.

The grandmother and her daughter laid the baby between them and together changed his nappy. They couldn’t have looked any happier. The pleasure they took from the task was nourishing.

As I was leaving the park, I passed a man wearing a red plastic nose, a pair of plastic glasses and a floppy hat. He was dipping a folded piece of rope into a bucket of soapy water and blowing giant bubbles. A little girl was clapping her hands and chasing them before they disappeared into the gravel on the ground.

I wandered home and some of the guilty hollowness left by the hangover was gone.

Vienna: “Clocking” In

It’s 8 am and the Danube is the colour my father’s Wellington boots used to be. I’m sitting by the window in my pyjamas while LSB sleeps curled to the side with his mouth slightly open. By the riverside, joggers in white hot-pants are battling the heat. Every so often a crow takes flight and I watch its shadow glide effortlessly over the water. A white cruise ship had just gone by. In the distance is a gigantic Ferris wheel.

View from where I’m writing

LSB and I arrived in Vienna on Saturday evening, worse for wear. We had spent the previous night in a cocktail bar in Kreuzberg and arrived home at 5 am to finish off the packing, only to rise again at 7, to make our way to the train station.

Four months of my life amounted to two suitcases and five bags. I had winter coats, summer dresses, an obscene amount of books and sentimental rubbish I cannot throw away. LSB was heroic in lugging so much of my existence on his shoulders.

We sat in a stuffy train compartment with a German couple and their teenage son. I held a poorly-packed plastic bag on my lap and fell asleep, uncomfortably, with my head resting on a damp towel at the top of the bag. I jolted awake suddenly, with the terrifying sense that everybody’s attention was directed upon me.

I became aware of a continuous beeping sound, the kind associated with either a bomb or a digital timepiece. “It’s coming from around here,” said the woman, body-searching her teenage son but with her eyes still on me. I maintained a rightful expression of innocent curiosity. I peeked into my bags and shook my head quizically, keen to share in the bewilderment but even keener to return my head to my damp and malodorous pillow. I was positive I hadn’t packed a bomb.

The beeping continued and so did the search. The woman put her ear under my seat and said, “There! It’s coming from that bag.”

With the last strength my feeble arms could muster, I swept the offending carrier onto my lap. The beeping became louder. LSB, who at the time had been in the corridor by the window admiring some charming north German village or other, peered into the compartment at the commotion. He looked bemused.

I rummaged awkwardly through loose batteries, postcards, underwear and socks. When I saw LSB, I motioned for him to come over. I dumped the bag on him, he left the compartment, I slid the door closed.


The German couple looked at me kindly and tried to mask their triumph.

A little while later, LSB returned, clutching a black alarm clock which I could have sworn I had never encountered before.

The couple laughed, their son smirked and I protested feebly, “I’ve never seen it before!”

On mature reflection, I realised it was the alarm clock my mother had packed for me before I left but which I hadn’t used since my very first night in Berlin, when I decided it was defective.

In four months, the alarm clock had failed to announce its continued existence. Evidently, I had stuffed it in the corner of a bag and forgotten about it, relying instead on the unhygienic house cat to wake me up. I can only assume that it had been stewing, furious at my neglect for the past four months, and had plotted the whole thing.

While I have been writing this, LSB has woken up and fallen back asleep. Every so often, he scratches the back of his leg with his other foot. Now on the river bank, two dogs on the same lead have been let loose by their owner. They are playing together and getting themselves in a tangle. And a lady in blue pants is jogging by.

Inclined to Recline in Vienna

LSB’s feet

On Friday, LSB and I packed my life into seven bags and fell onto a train. After a grubby, sweaty and exhausting journey, we arrived in Vienna. The last time we were here was in the summer of 2009 when we fell in love with the city’s implausible majesty. The highlight of the trip then, and now are the “etsies” in the museum quarter. “Etsies” are bright-coloured spongy loungers in various shapes which have been a feature of the city since 2002. They change colour from year to year. You can sit, lie, climb or sleep on them. LSB and I curled up on one tonight, holding hands and reading our books. We must have looked insufferable. After a little while, my bum began to hurt and we went home.

Alone in Berlin: Part 1

At first it was exhilarating.

I wanted the hostel, where I stayed the first few nights, to be my home forever. I loved the anonymity of the place – the backpackers waiting for a leftover packet of pasta to boil, the discarded tea bags, the little laminated signs asking travellers to consider the environment before throwing away their rubbish.

There were two Asian-looking girls in the kitchen one evening. One had an American accent, the other was British. They had met at the hostel and now they were friends. The American wanted to go to “school” in Europe. The other nodded and made dinner.

Alone in Berlin, reading Alone in Berlin

In the evenings I bought a falafel sandwich or a slice of pizza on the main street which was soon to become my neighbourhood.

One morning — my first in Berlin, I took a bus tour of the city. On the top deck, a round lady with red-painted lips and peroxide hair gripped a microphone and gave a commentary of the city in English that was so broken that a tourist behind me muttered that he had more chance of understanding German. Her smile was fixed to her face like a stubborn mole, her face was wrinkled. If she had had no folds on her face, she would have looked like a doll. I knew she had grown up in east Germany. She learnt Russian at school. No west German tour guide would speak so little English.

I scribbled down the names of places that looked interesting from the bus. I saw pink water pipes all over the city, the president’s house, the parks, and a beautiful square.

I found my workplace and my heart jumped when I saw that it was five minutes away from the Brandenburg Gate. I found a little photo booth and got a picture taken for my student travel card. I followed the instructions for getting a passport photograph taken. “Don’t smile” said the machine. “You must not tilt your head, or obscure your face with your hair.”

I look so stony in the picture that weeks later, when the secretary at Spiegel looked at the card she said “but you are so cross!”

After I checked into my hostel on that first night, I went out to try to find the apartment I would be moving in to.
It wasn’t far from the hostel. It was late February and it was dark. I approached the flat from a direction I never walk now. I found the shoe shop and the children’s book store that Google Maps had promised me. The street was quiet and I was alone.

Obeying The Machine

I found the number and glanced up at the building. It was too dark to see anything.

I walked past a church, back to the main street. Next to my hostel was a photocopying shop and a video store. All rentals one euro. There was a large adult movie section on display in the window.

The day before I moved into my new flat, I met a book vendor outside Humboldt University. He had wild white hair and a black hat. He said: “You don’t think I have mornings when I wake up and say ‘Fuck this shit. I don’t want to stand at this fucking table selling books all day? And then you know what? I see children laughing and playing and nothing matters any more.”

I nodded at him, I think I smiled. I thought we were the only two people in the city. The sky turned midnight blue and the TV tower was lit up in the distance. I bought a book called “Der Steppenwolf”. The cover is blue and there are bits of paper still stuffed inside a page in the middle of the book, where I stopped reading it.

As the lights came on and I got into a grubby underground train, something danced in my brain. Now I realise it was the taste of freedom.

“Thanks for the bailout”: Irish Celebrate in Berlin

“Thanks for the bailout,” cried a girl in a leprechaun hat, holding a placard featuring Jedward.
“Careful now,” yelled a boy at her, tooting his plastic horn. Ahead, the Berlin pipe band continued its drone and children dressed in Viking hats danced a jig.

It’s 4 pm in Goerlitzer Park in Kreuzberg, a district in west Berlin. The Irish “parade” is making a haphazard round of the park. “St Patrick,” tall, thin with a long brown beard and a wooden cane is in front. A paper dragon is floating beside him, held up by three girls in green felt, dressed as shamrocks.

I joined in just as the gathering entered the park. There were a few hundred Irish at least, bottles of Weissbier in one hand, and mini tricolours in the other.

Jedward featured in the parade.

Thick country accents initiated a rendition of “The Fields of Athenry,” which rippled a few rows up before it gave way to traditional songs I had never heard before.

I had no idea that there were so many Irish in Berlin. I was hoping for a similar-minded awkward loner, with which I could strike up a friendship. But it wasn’t to be. The people were already tipsy, and, dressed in leprechaun hats, moving only in large groups.

I found myself behind the Irish ambassador to Germany. Actually, when I come to think of it, thats’s just who I think he was. But, if circumstantial evidence stands, he was the only man in a suit and green tie with a well-groomed wife in an emerald outfit by his side.

Irish and Germans celebrate in Goerlitzer Park

Despite being lonesome on such a day of festivities, I went into a bar decorated with green paper shamrocks. I asked for a Berliner Weiss but they said “nicht hetute.” So I got a Guinness, for the day that was in it. It cost twice as much as the other beers, and tasted foul.

It came in a plastic cup, which I took back to Goerlitzer park.

I sat on top of a hill and watched the people around me.

Next to me was a group of six teenage boys. They were taking drugs of some sort. At one point two of them put their faces together, cupping each other’s mouths as if they were going to kiss in secret. They stayed like that for a few seconds and after, the blonde boy’s face broke into a gloriously pure smile, like that of an infant: ecstasy.

Berlin pipe band lift spirits

Lower down the hill, a couple was playing chess on a magnetic travel board. She had a long flowing skirt and three dreadlocks, and he was bald apart from a floppy green Mohawk hanging limp to one side.

A woman in a dirty black leather jacket and a face entirely obscured by scraggly hair, stumbled to the couple and asked “Hast du eine Zigarette?” The man had a bag of tobacco, which he pushed towards her. She fumbled in it and then flopped down beside the girl. The couple continued to play their game of chess. The woman in black began writhing beside them, and moving closer to the girl, until her head was resting on her lap. Every once in a while, she would raise her feet and kick the air.

When the couple had finished their game, they got up gingerly and said “tchuess” to their dosed-up friend.
She didn’t hear them, and lay alone, her head in the grass.

I finished my Guinness just as it was getting dark.

On the way home I got off at Alexander Platz, the former centre of east Berlin.

TV tower lit up in green

There I saw the iconic television tower, glowing green. I looked up at it for a while. Then I disappeared underground again and made my way home, where the cat was waiting for me.

Ich bin angekommen!

So here I am alone in a hostel in east Berlin, munching on Rittersport (Knusperkeks flavour) chocolate. The original plan was to sit alone drinking beer, but when I checked in I was presented with a formidable list of “Hausregeln” (or “House Rules”). One of them said that drinking alcohol in the dorms was prohibited. Dejected, I scrawled “Kate Katharina” in the appropriate place and signed my humble plan away.

So now it’s just me, the single square of chocolate that’s left and a potted plant with spindly leaves, which greeted me from the window sill when I arrived.

Earlier when I got off the plane and into the arrivals hall at Schönefeld, I set eyes on a peculiarly tall youngster. He was dressed all in white – in a baggy tracksuit and matching pristine cap (which he was wearing backwards). He was holding an artificial bunch of roses upside down. I thought he might have jumped out of one of Eminem’s music videos, but then it occurred to me that it might be LSB in disguise.

Given his tendency towards deceit and his elaborate plan to surprise me for Valentine’s Day again this year, I thought it was reasonably plausible that he had taken a night flight after we parted ways yesterday (underneath Ranelagh Luas Bridge) in order to welcome me in Berlin.

I looked over expectantly but the rapper-romancer was oblivious to me. There was nothing for it but to continue my journey to the Airport train station.

My going-away gifts for LSB

Schönefeld airport reminded me much more of Ireland than the swanky Terminal 2 in Dublin. It’s a modest building, and you collect your luggage from a sluggish conveyor belt in cramped space. While you’re waiting for it, entertainment comes on a screen which shows the three-day weather forecast, the business news and an advertisement for a back massage clinic in continuous rotation. It had a charming higgledy-piggledy feel which made me feel right at home.
While I was yanking my unobliging cases through the walkway on the way to the trains, I passed a man lurking about holding a sign that read “Need ticket” in neat black biro print. Some kind lady stopped to give him change. I wondered how he had landed there.

I was happily prepared to soak up my first impressions of Berliners on the S9 to Friedrichshain. I even asked the train driver, a man in his fifties with half his face taken up by a magnificent curly grey beard, if I was on the right line. I was. When I asked if he stopped at Frankfurter Allé, he paused dramatically, so that I might think I was way off.

Then he grinned and said “Ja, da fahre ich hin”.

I could have been on Dublin bus.

My mum told me that Berliners are known to have a sharp sense of humour, that can be cutting at times. It’s called the “Berliner Schautze” (the Berlin Snout). More of that in future posts.

Having taken a seat on the S9, I stared at the people around me, as I have the bad habit of doing. Opposite me sat a lady with a nest of red hair that concluded in a limp tail that looped around her left shoulder. She was wearing sunglasses and orange and blue snow boots and got off at a stop which translates as “Tree School”.

I paused to consider what kind of things young saplings might need to learn but was stumped after I came up with dendrochronology.

An Australian lady with wavy blonde hair and a nose piercing was reading an academic paper with the title “The roots of gender inequality in Government”. She was marking the important bits with a yellow highlighter.

Unfortunately, my desire to get an authentic flavour of Berlin was thwarted by a group of noisy Irish students who had also been on my flight. They were talking loudly about who they were “shifting”, about the strapless tops they’d bought in Penneys and about the RTE player.

I sighed.

When I got off, I was immediately confronted by a murmuring drug addict looking for money. On the way to the hostel I passed a man lying on a few blankets with a broken shopping trolley and two large dogs for company. A few yards up a homeless woman, her face distorted by drug use, was muttering to herself. It was surreal to hear the language of drug abuse and poverty being spoken in German. I don’t know what I expected. They couldn’t all have a flat Dublin drawl.

It was far from the fairytale villages I know from Bavaria but it was exciting, with cars whizzing by, darkness beginning to descend and the scores of pizzerias and kebab shops tempting me to dinner.

As I type my eyes are becoming heavy. I’m installed cosily beside a radiator at a desk nestled in the corner of my little private room, which is attached to a four-bed dorm. Impressively, I’ve already made a friend. We met in the kitchen. I had my mouth full of falafels when he walked in.

His name is Tom. He’s forty-six and I saved him from burning his stew. He’d popped out of the hostel kitchen muttering something about “missing the vital ingredient” and left the pot unattended.
When he came back bearing a bottle of wine, I was dealing with the cauldron, where bubbles had begun to burst at the brim.

Me and my falafel.

So we had a chat over dinner and he told me that I had a distinct gypsy vibe. My eyes and the shape of my face, he said. I lauded his perception. After all, I recently found out that all of the women in my family have rare mitochondrial DNA associated with the Roma tribe. He said that he definitely wouldn’t have put me as either Irish or German. Russian perhaps, or Polish.

Just as well I’m living in east Berlin, I suppose. My guidebook charmingly describes Friedrichshain as “a traditionally rather dowdy working-class district which is increasingly being discovered by the well-to. I’ve a feeling I’ll fit right in.

Now, where can I recycle my Rittersport Knusperkeks wrapper?

American Diary Part 1: The Land of contradiction

Compensation Culture

Cruising down the highway on a megabus from New York to Philadelphia I am bombarded by a series of enormous billboards advertising attorneys. They feature pictures of balding men with captions like “Had an accident? Get compensation! Call 15800COMP”. The first thing I see on the Long Island railroad from JFK to Penn Station is a poster of a vacant-looking woman with the accompanying text “Suffering health complications as a result of vaginal mesh surgery? You may be entitled to compensation! Call 1800MONEYBACK to speak to a professional with a track-record of payouts”. “What is vaginal mesh surgery?” I whisper to LSB, who looks bewildered and uncomfortable, because he hasn’t seen the ad I am talking about. “I don’t know, Katzi”, he replies, shifting in his seat. Another morning LSB and I are watching an excellent episode of Family Feud only to be interrupted by yet more flashy ads for attorneys promising to ensure you BIG $ compensation and no fee unless successful”. They all look offensively shifty and everything that flashes on the screen is aggressive and in your face. I feel my televisual aura being invaded.


We walk a total of ninety-five blocks all the way from Central Park to the centre of Manhattan. We hit upon Time Square: lights, colours, enormity; everywhere. It conveys an overload of sensation and an adrenalin rush to the pit of my stomach. The changing colours of billboard lights make it instantly addictive. I stare stupefied at my surroundings, and like all the others, I whip out my camera and add to the numbifying flashes of lights. Each skyscraper in Time Square is servant to an enormous screen, which casts rapidly-changing images onto the ground, where we as tiny human creatures stand as awe-struck consumers of a world we are too tiny to control. It’s an enormously impressive place: its size, its lights, its sensations. Forever 21 there is open until 2 am each night. From the store-front an enormous screen shows a live video of the people passing by on the street below. This video provides the backdrop to a dancing model, who pops up between the little speckles of real people behind her. We stand underneath the screen for a while, searching for ourselves as if we were in a “Where’s Wally” page and then, predictably – find ourselves in the corner, point excitedly and pull out our cameras.

Brilliance and its victims

Forever 21's live video of crowds below

The ‘New’ in New York sure lives up to its name. The skyscrapers and omnipresent screens are like something from the future. Genius entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin have changed the way in which we live. At the same time, they have created a culture of technological dependency and fuelled a society whose commerce feeds off a perpetual feeling of inadequacy, social comparison and greed. We have an accident and our immediate thought is: “I can make some money. Where is that Attorney’s number?” We want to look good all the time, so we vote with our feet and make it commercially successful to open a clothes store until 2am each night.
We ignore the little guy holding a hand-made globe on top of his head in Time Square to raise awareness about Climate Change because he doesn’t have flashing lights and isn’t tall enough to scratch the clouds. America is a story of brilliance and its victims.

Reflections On A Winter Wonderland

I trod upon this Winter Wonderland two nights ago; perhaps you can see my footprints in the snow. This is my mother’s hometown of Regensburg, Bavaria and I am seeing it for the first time in the winter. I know it from the summers of childhood and adolescence as the place where first I splashed my toes into cool drinking-water fountains and then wandered moodily into the branches of H & M and Müller in the hope of diversion from the obligations of ‘extended family’ holidays.

The German side of my family is enormous – my mother is the fourth child of nine and at last count my cousins tallied close to thirty. My memories of the summers between about 1995 and 2007 are rooted in a certain self – consciousness about the German I spoke, which I perceived as stilted in comparison to the Bavarian twang and slang with which my relatives conversed. Aware and anxious from a young age that I had but a single afternoon to persuade each branch of the German relatives of my lively personality and engaging wit, I presented invariably an image of dullness and excessive politeness which they perceived (with accuracy) as shyness and awkward sensitivity. I had an awful lot of fun in Regensburg too though – I was particularly fond of the twisty yellow waterslide at the local pool and the vast availability of playmobil and wooden dolls’ house accessories in the toy -shops. When my Grandmother moved out of the family home and into a flat nearby, she dedicated her biggest free space to a playroom for her grandchildren. There she set up a shop (or ‘Kaufladen’) which she supplied with a wooden till and weighing scales, dried apples from the garden, miniature packets of raisins and cinnamon-topped marzipan balls; all of which could be purchased in tiny cone-shaped paper bags, which she provided for her customers. It was marvellous.

Such feelings return to me as I sit on a Regensburg and Grandmother-bound train with my boyfriend, who is not a part of these memories but who has the most incredible ability to absorb and to understand information and to remain quite silent as he does so; only to amaze me with evidence of his awesome memory at appropriate points in the future.  For instance, he has recited in order the names of my mother’s brothers and sisters without ever having been formally taught, recalled anecdotes about my relatives that I don’t even remember fabricating and has learned (albeit not with great accuracy) the lyrics of the family song (yes, there is one) which is performed at the approximately bi-annual family gathering.

I would forgive you for accusing me of having notions of one day appearing on one of those ancestry-tracing television shows like ‘Who do you think you are?’ . To practise for such an occasion, I ask Andrew to take a picture of me on arrival at Regensburg train station.  I attempt to look restrained and dignified, humbled and delighted (as those minor celebrities do at important and scripted moments in the discovery of their past) but it is too much for me and I end up pointing with mock excitement at the sign above my head.

The journey begins and we battle through a blizzard along the Danube on the way to my Grandmother’s flat. We are startled by a baby rat as it darts for cover under the inches-deep layers of snow by the riverbank. When we arrive, we are heaped with white powder. I am nervous as I ring the bell – it has been three and a half years since I last saw my Grandmother and at that time I was not romantically attached. She opens the door and pops her head out. She motions us in as if we were meals on wheels. It is wonderfully reassuring. She brews a herbal tea and we sip it as the blizzard outside continues. She tells me that she misses packing Christmas parcels for her Grandchildren; it is beyond her competencies now, she tells me, as the children are looking for gadgets and games she doesn’t understand. I tell her how I loved playing shop in the playroom and how I remember her paper bags and dried apples. She smiles and tells me she has found old letters that her children wrote to the Christkind (the German equivalent of Santa Clause). I ask her eagerly if I may see them. I may. She gets up to fetch them, and I whisper a few words to Andrew, who has remained mute at the head of the table (Andrew speaks no German and my Oma no English). I leaf through the letters of my youngest aunts: they have asked for an anorak and an extendable pencil and have promised the Christkind that they have been brave Kinder all year.

Outside my Oma's flat

After an hour and a quarter, we shake hands goodbye and venture back out. We are station-bound again but have decided to check out the Christmas market by the Castle before we leave. We are ankle deep in glistening snow. Burning torches light our way to the courtyard, where stalls of mulled wine and gingerbread lure us through the cold. Four men play Christmas carols on old-fashioned horns. Beyond the glistening snowflakes and torch flames, the castle gleams. I buy Andrew a baked potato and he buys me a woolly hat. We leave our footprints in the snow. We miss our train and spend all evening in a Winter Wonderland I feel is part my own.