A stitch in time

The last time I visited Frau Bienkowski I was wearing a red cotton skirt. The pattern featured lots of identical girls and boys holding hands and strolling past apple trees.

“What lovely material,” she said, motioning for me to come over so she could have a closer look.

“Yes, I love it,” I said. “But the problem is that the elastic at the waist has come loose and I’ve got into a terrible habit of tying it into an ugly knot to stop it falling down.”

“Bring it to me next week and I’ll sew it up.”

“Oh no..”

“Do. I can’t guarantee that it’ll be pretty but it’ll do the trick.”

I called my mother on Skype. I was deeply ashamed of my elastic knot. It stood for both incompetence and laziness.

“You should let her do it, Katzi,” my mother said. “I’m sure she’d love to do something for you.”

So last Friday I went to the Turkish market. And as well as purchasing six avocados and three mangos, I bought some elastic and a little sewing kit.

“Did you bring the skirt?” Frau Bienkowski asked the moment I entered her room last Saturday.

“I did. And pears too.”

“Good. Now, let me have a look.”

I handed her the skirt and rummaged in my bag for the sewing kit and the elastic.

“Can you thread me a needle?”

I tried but Frau Bienkowski wanted a double thread.

I tried again.

“Oh but that’s a little too short, Katechen,” she said.

I tried a third time. This time Frau Bienkowski approved.

“Good,” she said. “Now, how about you either read to me or tell me about your week while I get a start on this.”

I could have told her about my week, which was rather eventful, but I got distracted.

Frau B’s hands were flying. She tore out my ugly knot of elastic and started weaving stitches furiously. The waistband was restored in minutes.

Then she asked me to put my finger and thumb on the flap where she’d placed the last stitch and told me to come over to her armchair so she could measure my waist.

Her hands moved the elastic easily about my waist.

With a few marvellous swoops, she sewed it in. She wasn’t even looking at what she was doing. When she saw how astonished I was, she said: “But Katechen, this was my job. You never lose the feel for it.”

My red cotton skirt used to live at the bottom of a large wicker basket. It shared its home with an enormous plastic nose, several berets and a pair of bee’s wings. I used to match it with ugly purple beads when I pretended to be the Queen of England.

Wearing the skirt while inter-railing in the summer of 2009.

Wearing the skirt while inter-railing in the summer of 2009.

With the terrible dawn of adolescence, my dressing-up basket was cast into the bottom of a basement wardrobe.

Years later I re-discovered it and found that the skirt’s loose elastic made it a one-size fits all. The queen’s skirt had turned boho-chic.

I took it with me when I went inter-railing in 2009 because it was light and didn’t crumple easily. I also fancied myself as some kind of honorary gypsy in it; a fantasy I indulged in while gazing out the windows of the slow trains which hauled me through eastern Europe.

Frau Bienkowsi, her fingers moving like those of a master pianist across a keyboard, broke the silence.

“Katechen,” she said. “I don’t want you to say Sie to me any longer. “I’m not Frau Bienkowski any more. I am Lotta.”

“Auf die Minute!”

Auf die Minute! Frau Bienkowski says, glancing at the clock which hangs to her right.

This is always my greeting. It is the third and final thing that happens before we shake hands.

First I knock twice on the door. Frau Bienkowski says “Ja” in two syllables, which she stresses equally.

And as I am pushing open the door and making my way past where her coat hangs, she says it.

Auf die Minute! – to the minute!

Once, Frau Bienkowski had another visitor – a lady – when I knocked on the door at precisely 3 o’clock.

Auf die Minute! they said in unison, because Frau Bienkowski had told the lady that I come exactly on time, every time. And we all laughed.

“So gehört es sich auch,” – that’s how it should be – I retort as I take the hand she has outstretched.

Sometimes Frau Bienkowski playfully teases me about my punctuality.

“You must pace around the corridors!” she says.

“The corridors? Are you joking? I go for a walk in the gardens!”

It is a source of immeasurable pride that my punctuality amuses and reassures a German. A 94-year-old German at that.

I have not told Frau Bienkowski that she alone benefits from my impeccable timekeeping and that back home, my parents are bemused by what they called my “scurry” – a trademark dash out the door which I perform with my shoulders hunched forward, my head down and usually missing an item vital to the appointment I am trying to make.

Today Frau Bienkowski is wearing a yellow jumper with short sleeves. She matches the apricots I have brought her.

“I couldn’t find the Turkish apricots which you requested,” I tell her. “These are Greek.”

“Oh, perfect,” she says.

“And they are still a little hard. But I chose them deliberately because they go soft so quickly.”

“Absolutely right,” she says, digging out her purse and pouring coins onto the table. “Now, what do I owe you?”

“Nothing,” I say. “I get a monthly travel allowance of €25 for visiting you, which I do not use because I walk. I think it’s well spent on apricots.”

“Katechen,” she says, as more coins topple out of her purse. “I swear to you, I will not ask you to get me anything ever again if you do this!”

“But I don’t need the…”


“They cost €2.29,” I say.

“Good,” she says. “Take €2.50.”

“Ha! You must be joking.”

Frau Bienkowski digs her fingers through the netting of the plastic container. She gropes the apricots, pressing them with her forefinger and thumb.

“Let’s have one each,” she says.

I take them and rinse them under the tap in her toilet sink.

To the left there is a plastic shower seat, where Frau Bienkowski sits when she gets her back washed.

“It is the only thing I can’t do for myself,” she has told me many times. “I can still do everything else. I can get dressed, and make my way downstairs for lunch. I always say, as long as I still can, I will…But I can’t reach my back any longer.”

We sit by the window, munching apricots.

It is a dull day, but every now and then, the sun breaks out from behind the clouds.

On the window sill is a line of pots.

“Look,” Frau Bienkowski says, pointing to the pot of carnations I brought for her birthday.

They are deep pink and in full bloom.


“So many beautiful young women’s legs are wasted by wearing trousers,” said Frau Bienkowski.

I nodded sympathetically. I was in an asymmetrical chequered skirt and thick brown tights.

“Your hair looks very nice today,” she said. “Is it freshly-washed?”

“I washed it this morning though that’s not unusual. But I’ve been out in the rain.”

She nodded. “That could explain it; it’s sitting very nicely.”

I wheeled the Zimmerframe down the corridor and picked up two cups of coffee.

“Here, have this 200 gram-bar of chocolate,” Frau Bienkowski said.

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly..”

“They’re putting me on a diet, I’m getting too fat!”

“Oh, if you insist!”

Outside the rain pelted down. The sky was white and grey. The trees swayed sadly and their leaves hung limp.

“Weren’t we waiting for a rainy day to clear out the cupboard?” I asked.

“Oh, but it’s Sunday.. are you sure?”

image source: centralavenuepub.wordpress.com

image source: centralavenuepub.wordpress.com

“Sure as can be.”

“Why don’t you use that walking stick to pull out all the stuff at the bottom?”

I fetched the dark mahogany stick and poked absurdly around the bottom of the cupboard, pulling out piles of clothing, carrier bags, cardboard boxes and four rolls of kitchen paper.

We made several piles: too big, too small, keep, discard.

I held up some wide navy trousers.

“They’re for hospital,” she said. “My only pair! Put them in the hospital bag.”

Later, we continued reading from Una Troy’s book about the cantankerous Irish nun.

I read a passage detailing the monotony of convent life. Frau Bienkowski nodded the whole way through.

“Just like here,” she said.

Afterwards I asked her whether she’d listened to the audio book.

“No, Katechen” she said. “I’m so listless and uninterested in life. I sit here and keep my eyes closed.”

“But you could just try it out for five minutes,” I insisted.

“Yes,” she said. “I could. But I am depressed. Well, I don’t know whether I am. But the weather doesn’t help. Every day is the same.”

“You have a lively mind,” I said. “You need more stimulation.”

“The friend I told you about last time,” she said. “She was a year younger than me. We used to bet about who would die first. I said since she was younger it’s only right that I would go first. But she died last year.”

“Anyway, Katechen. How is Andrew?”

“He’s well. Working diligently on his dissertation.”

“And when are you next free?”

“I’ll check my diary.”

“Now, I don’t want you to…”

“Enough, Frau Bienkowski.”

She smiled.



She came with me to the lift.

“Thank you, Katechen.”

“Thank you.”

The doors slid closed but her eyes were sparkling and she was smiling before she disappeared from view.

Frau Bienkowski meets LSB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he wasn’t quick enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

She said she remembered watching them as a girl.

“What were they like?”

She paused. “They were exciting.”

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

The sun was out and the birds were singing.

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

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

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

I asked LSB to guess which child was Frau Bienowski.

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

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

“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!”

Watching the snow with Frau Bienkowski

“You should always avail of the free coffee here,” Frau Bienkowski said. “Sure, why wouldn’t you?”

“I did,” I assured her. “I had a latte downstairs. It was delicious.”

The dress Frau Bienkowski admired

The dress Frau Bienkowski admired

“Good,” she said, looking at me closely. “Now, this is a dress I haven’t seen before! It’s lovely!”

“Thank you!” I said and admired her pastel-coloured floral two-piece.

Outside, thick snowflakes were swirling in the air. “It’s such a shame about the weather,” said Frau Bienkowski.”I still have to give you a tour of the grounds.”

“And you promised to tell me the story behind the funny little statue outside,” I said.

“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten!”

“How have you been sleeping?”

“Not well,” said Frau Bienkowski. “The other night I was awake the whole night. When the alarm went off at 7 o’clock I just couldn’t face getting up. So when the first lady came in, I had to think of some reason to stay in bed, so I told her I had a headache.”

“She asked me where,” Frau Bienkowski continued, smiling wickedly. “So I waved my hand about and said from front to back. Of course they got the doctor to check up on me. Then they took my blood. And of course I’d a perfect reading.”

I laughed. “Would you not tell them you’ve trouble sleeping?”

“Ach, I told you before, I haven’t been able to sleep since my husband died. And that was a long time ago.”

“Do you listen to the radio or watch TV in the evenings?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Frau Bienkowski. “I only watch television in the evenings. But listen to this; the other day a message to turn down my TV came from a lady all the way down the corridor. There was no way she could have heard it. I even asked my next-door neighbours if they could hear my TV. They couldn’t. Sure we are all hard of hearing here.”

“Difficult neighbours can be found everywhere!” I said.

“That they can,” she said. “Now, tell me about these CD players.”

“Well, I did a price check,” I told her. “And the ones with the decent speakers are about €50. The smaller ones with low quality speakers are around €30, but you wouldn’t be able to hear from bed if we plug it in over there.”

“We’ll have to wait so” said Frau Bienkowski. “I spent €12.50 on that coffee jug last week,” so I can’t afford to spend any more money for a while.”

Frau Bienkowski looked at the clock. “Be careful you’re not late for your night shift!”

“Don’t worry, I’ve my eye on the time,” I told her.

“How long are you working tonight?” she asked.

“Until 2.30 in the morning,” I said. “When I’m on my way home, you’ll be awake in bed, hopefully with the radio on.”

“Yes,” she said.

Asylum in Ireland: The Ins and Outs

I have learnt about ice cream made from snow gathered in the Afghan mountains. A graduate of nutrition has regarded my nails and accused me of a deficiency in calcium. I have seen images of bombings transmitted through a mobile phone and I have sung the English alphabet with two Ghanaian men. Hatch Hall, just off Harcourt Street is Victorian redbrick and full of stories. Until 2004 it provided Jesuit residence for male students of UCD and it is now a centre for asylum seekers. I know it only on a Wednesday night but each week it is a new place.

There assembles at the entrance to the Trinity College Arts Block each week (as part of the Suas mentoring programme) a group that makes its way to Hatch Hall. A security guard buzzes us in and we make the walk through the entrance hall across the lawn and into the dining hall where there lingers in the air canteen curry and orange squash. There is a shuffling buzz as soon as the door is opened. Some familiar with the programme are seated already at a table waiting to be assigned a teacher and others, new stand alone at the periphery or chat in small groups. There are snippets of French but otherwise I recognise in the surrounding languages only sounds.

At present, an asylum seeker in Ireland receives €19.10 a week and €9.60 for their children. The system of direct provision, which has been in place since 1999, assigns the asylum seeker to specified accommodation on a full board basis rather than providing them with an allowance to live independently. In October 2009, when I first visited Hatch Hall and for which the statistics are now available, there were 54 direct provision centres in Ireland. The centres with the highest capacity are hostels, hotels and former colleges or nursing homes though a mobile home park is also in operation with a capacity of 350. In October there were 6650 people being accommodated under direct provision, which represented almost 85% of the maximum capacity of 7779. The publication of the Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC) report on 18 February revealed that many asylum seekers are spending over three years in direct provision centres waiting for their cases to be processed. In fact the largest proportion of residents (32%) have spent over three years in these facilities. That’s 2156 people. It’s the length of our Undergraduate college years and contrary to the Government’s vision of residence in these centres occurring on “a short-term basis (not more than six months)”. Those in the legal profession are aware that asylum cases represent a lucrative business. A barrister is likely to earn €1000 per tribunal ruling on asylum. The nickname Mr Njet has been given to one barrister notorious for his refusal of asylum. Word outside the chamber is that he has a few politician friends in high places. Undisputed is that he earns per ruling 50 times more than what those, whose fate he decides have to spend each week.

The moment you sit down opposite one of these 6650 people, their facts and figures evaporate into the curry sauce and orange squash air. They look you in the eye, they shake your hand, they smile: they are human. They’re no longer seeking asylum but a conversation. Some time ago a bright-eyed Afghan man with a killer white smile produced for me a photo of a gleaming red sports car and a bright-eyed Afghan man with a killer white a smile. I looked at it, then at him. ‘Is this your car?’ I asked. ‘Are you a model?’ I thought. He grinned. ‘I do photoshop’ he replied impishly. He used to work in software.    

Each week a sheet is passed from table to table where pupils and teachers sign their names. The first day I meet Mark he takes the pen and while he signs it I talk to his friend Dag. I am talking a long time and I sneak a glance over. He is forming the ‘A’ of M –A-R-K. We spend the next half hour singing and writing the alphabet and the following week he connects letters to sounds and a world begins to open up before him. Sometimes I’m asked if I believe in God and other times I have been told that Allah created everything. Quite often I’ve been asked to explain why the Irish drink so much and why so many young girls smoke. I’m still working on an answer. There are compliments too. Nowhere are the people so kind and friendly as in Ireland. Nowhere do they care so much.

Rafiq graduated with a degree in nutrition in Pakistan and speaks impeccable English. He suffers however from ‘hesitancy’. He had some difficulties in the Ilac Library last week because he came 5 minutes too late for the internet time he had booked on the computer. All he needed, he tells me were 15 minutes, but the computer had been given away by the time he arrived. To overcome his shyness we practise some role- plays and I do my best to inspire confidence with my outrageous rudeness. He notices that I don’t take sugar in my tea and asks if I have a general aversion to sweetness. I certainly do not. Next week, he promises to bring me some Pakistani treats, which he is ‘sure’ I will like. 

Before Christmas an Iranian polyglot came to the class simply to socialise. He learnt his French from time spent in prison in France and picked up Italian, German and Spanish somewhere along the way. With fluent English under his belt, and TG4 available in Hatch Hall it seems natural that he wants to learn Irish also. In three minutes he has learnt the personal pronouns and is eager to begin the pronominal declensions. He makes etymological connections at alarming speeds and smiles with glee while he does it. In another world he is working in translation for the EU or in the department of Linguistics at Harvard. The class is over and he bids me ‘Slán leat’. He could have said ‘Au Revoir’ but I have not seen him since.