100 Favourite Places, the Stabi

100 FP

In my years of freelancing in Berlin, I’ve had a lot of workspaces, many of them terrible: a desk in my two-room apartment in Treptow, damp with the smell of laundry drying indoors in winter, as a baby crawled on me. A basement office share next to Görlitzer Park where my Australian fashion designer office-mates were great but there was no heating. A sunny, well-heated open-plan office which I unfortunately turned out to be sharing with a two-person cell of attachment parenting extremists who insisted that toddlers should be rampaging around the office at all times. More recently I’ve spent a lot of time in coffeeshops, where distractions – music, Internet, overheard conversations – abound, and where the implicit hourly rent is paid in more caffeine than is good for me.

But no more, for now I have belatedly discovered the best place to work in Berlin, if not the world: the Stabi, the state library (Staatsbibliothek) at Potsdamer Platz. Although I knew several grad student friends had written their dissertations at the Stabi, for far too long I was too lazy to go through the hassle of getting the membership that’s required for entrance to the reading room. I am so glad I finally overcame my inner dog-pig and did so! The Stabi has some books and periodicals, but above all it has workspaces and magnificent silence – acres of desks spread across four floors, each outfitted with a crimson work lamp and a plug for your computer cord. The search for an unoccupied desk has taken me to many corners of the library: today I am writing this from a terrace of desks overlooking the Rechtswissenschaft reference works; yesterday I worked in the Sonderbereich for periodicals about Eastern Europe. The Stabi also has a funny retro cafeteria – dimly lit and overlooking the Potsdamer Platz mall, equipped with a fridge that doesn’t actually cool anything – and a lot of rules. For a non-German, the protocol here takes some getting used to: your coat and computer case must remain in a locker at the entrance. Everything you carry into the library must be in a clear plastic bag. You’re not allowed any food or drink, but a bottle of water will be tolerated as long as you keep it under rather than on your desk.

I work so much better at the Stabi than anywhere else that I am tempted to ascribe to it supernatural powers of inducing productivity. A more rational explanation might be that I don’t have Internet access here. Everyone I know who works at the Stabi says it is imperative never to figure out how to access the Internet there (by the way, if gaining Internet access at the Stabi is not in fact an onerous bureaucratic process, and you know how to do so, and you share that information in a comment on this post, you will be BANNED FOREVER from this blog).


The Stabi is not only my current favorite place; it is also one of the 100 corners of Berlin profiled in 100 Favourite Places, the enchanting new book by the thoughtful local travel website Slow Travel Berlin. As a Slow Travel Berlin contributor, I had the privilege of reading the proofs of the book,* and I highly recommend it to both visitors and residents. From a refurbished 19th century market hall to a medical history museum, from places I’ve long loved – the open-air gas lantern museum in the Tiergarten, the Tajik tea room in Mitte – to places I’d never heard of before – a shop exclusively devoted to Turkish Delight, a Japanese deli in Prenzlauer Berg – the book is bursting with unexpected treasures and infused with a charming combination of local savvy and wide-eyed wonder.

100 Favourite Places tells me the Stabi was built between 1967 and 1978; the “cluster of pomander-like hanging lanterns on the ceiling” is Günter Ssymank’s Philharmonieleuchte;  and the reading room is kept “at a constant 22 degrees – for the books, not the readers.”

100 Favourite Places is available in print and as an e-book. A Stabi membership costs €12 for a month or €30 for a year; you’ll need to show your passport and Meldebescheinigung.

Photo at top is from 100 Favourite Places.

*I didn’t write any of it, this isn’t self-promotion.



After a long, unpleasant bout of intestinal problems that made me feel like I was perishing of some 19th-century wasting disease, I have been feeling better since my gastroenterologist put me on a gluten- and casein (milk protein)-free diet. The diet has helped me a lot, but it’s also expensive (because most cheap food involves gluten) and high-maintenance (because most food that can be grabbed on the go involves gluten). I mostly eat steamed vegetables, rice, fish, and meat. Quite a lot of meat, in fact, because my malady has also made me both iron deficient and bad at stomaching iron pills. There really should be a German word for the complicated guilt-tinged delight that a person who feels guilty about eating meat but finds it very tasty experiences upon being given doctor’s orders to eat a lot of red meat.

Because I never really bought or cooked meat in the past, suddenly having to eat a lot of it is a bit perplexing. What’s really perplexing, though, is how incredibly pork-centric the German meat realm is. I have come to believe that the German diet has exactly three components: gluten, casein and pork. Whether at the butcher’s counter or in the packages-of-meat section of the supermarket, what “meat” seems to mean here is a vast array of pork products with a wee smattering of beef, chicken and mutton. I stand before the meat stumped. I have no idea how to distinguish among Schweinelachs, Schweinekamm, Schweinebauchscheiben, Schweinefilet, and Vordereisbein vom Schwein, nor what exactly one is supposed to do with any of them.  I guess I’d noticed before that Germans eat a lot of pork, though I never understood how marginal other meats were. In all the canteens of my Berlin office jobs the one hot meal that was served every day without fail was a slab of pork with a side of potatoes. A lot of canteen-goers – especially men – seemed to eat a slab of pork for lunch literally every single day. Even the salad bar was generously sprinkled with pork. I remember German colleagues remarking that it just wasn’t an office Christmas party without a proper meal of pork.


I have never in my life eaten a slab of pork. The Vorstellung of meat that I grew up with was that chicken was what you ate for dinner on an ordinary day, and beef was the more expensive, less healthy meat you ate a few times a month. Pork was at most the occasional piece of bacon at breakfast. At some point in my childhood the US pork industry ran a widely mocked advertising campaign for “pork, the other white meat,” which seemed like a sad attempt to convince people to eat something nobody ate. So was my childhood impression that pork was some obscure, little-consumed butt of jokes a US-German difference or were my family’s food habits just weird? The latter was a distinct possibility – I’d only very recently learned that eating your scrambled eggs with cottage cheese was “a thing my weird family did” as opposed to “a thing Americans do”.

So I looked up some global meat consumption statistics and it turns out that in this case, my family wasn’t weird: Germans eat pork, and Americans eat chicken and beef. More broadly, Europeans and East Asians eat the most pork while North and South Americans and Australians eat the most beef. The average American ate 125 kilos of meat in 2007, according to the Economist, with US meat consumption declining since then. 40% of it is poultry, 34% beef and 24% pork. Germans eat a more modest 88 kilos a year of meat, and about two-thirds of that – 56 kilos – is pork. Only 15% of German meat consumption is beef, and only 17% is poultry. Germans aren’t the world’s leading pork-eaters, though – that title goes to Austria, at 66 annual kilos of pork per capita.

A Scottish friend (perhaps herself harboring some residual Scottish pork taboo) once told me that just as Europe can be divided into tea-drinking countries and coffee-drinking countries, it also divides into lamb-eating countries and pork-eating countries. Lamb and tea don’t line up in all cases, but both tend to be found at the periphery – Greece, Iceland, the UK & Ireland – ringing a heavy coffee-and-pork belt at the center of the continent. At least the coffee here in the pork belt is excellent – and free of gluten, casein or pork.

Here are a couple of resources for the challenging task of gluten-free eating in very bread-y Berlin:



The moveable kitchen in the Berliner Zimmer

berliner zimmer before

The Berliner Zimmer – a large room connecting the front and back houses of old buildings – is perhaps Berlin’s least popular distinctive architectural feature. With only a single window angled sharply to the yard, the room is often very dark, especially on lower floors, and its cut as a walkthrough room makes it incredibly awkward. Berliners have been complaining about the Berliner Zimmer basically since the moment 19th-century architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel invented it. Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, the apartments that had a Berliner Zimmer were larger: the room served as a connecting space between the “on stage” rooms in the front of the house where the bourgeois family resided and entertained guests and the “back stage” servants’ quarters, workrooms and kitchen. But now a lot of these old apartments have been chopped up into smaller ones, resulting in places like mine where the Berliner Zimmer is a sizable proportion of the total area – one of only two large rooms in the whole flat – which makes its unwieldiness a much bigger problem.

Too dark and corridor-like for a living room, too exposed for a bedroom, my Berliner Zimmer went through many awkward incarnations as a much-resented unused-dining-room-and-storage-area until I finally hit on the perfect solution: moving the kitchen in there. I mean, a kitchen is a room you’re going to use regardless of whether the light conditions are nice, and it doesn’t much matter if it’s a walkthrough. The kitchen had previously been in a small, non-walkthrough room at the back of the apartment that actually makes a perfectly suitable child’s bedroom, so moving the kitchen into the Berliner Zimmer not only made a big useless room useful and gained me a much larger kitchen, it also turned a one-bedroom apartment into a two-bedroom apartment (if you’re counting rooms in the American style; in the German style of room-counting it is and remains a three-room apartment). Moving the kitchen has made my apartment vastly more livable.

berliner zimmer

At this point, especially if you’re in an anglophone country, you may be wondering whether the fact that I undertook such a major renovation suggests that I own this apartment: nope, I’m a renter. In Germany the culture of rental apartments is very different: along with buying their own appliances, renters tend to make much more significant changes to their living spaces. Is this a waste of money? Well, clearly I’m not going to gain anything in property value from my kitchen, so it would be stupid of me to install marble countertops or something, but I think the improvement in the functionality of my apartment (whose low rent is due at least in part to its awkward layout) is worth the roughly €900 in plumber’s and electrician’s fees that it cost me to have the kitchen moved. It would certainly cost me more than that to move to a better apartment – and more than that to have a professional Hochbett built, which is the far less satisfactory way many people deal with a Berliner-Zimmer-afflicted apartment. If you’re a fellow Berlin renter with a Berliner Zimmer who would like to copy this idea, be aware that you need to get your Hausverwaltung‘s permission first. This is a lengthy bureaucratic process which may entail such stumbling blocks as needing the consent of downstairs neighbors who are in Turkey for the next six months.

I hesitated to post this because my kitchen is not finished: I still want to move out the bookshelves, paint the rest of the walls blue, organize my son’s Bastel-area better, etc. The picture of my kitchen is still a “during”, not an “after” like a design blog would have. But my whole life feels more like a “during” than a “before/after” – as do, I’d suspect, a lot of people’s lives, which is why the design blog before/after narrative sometimes feels uncomfortably close to being the 30-year-old’s version of the teen magazine makeover narrative. Also, a “before/after” is supposed to have more flattering lighting conditions in the “after” –  what I have is the opposite of this. The “before” picture was taken in May, pretty much the only time of year when my Berliner Zimmer gets direct sunlight, and the “after” was taken on this sunless October day.

war damage cat pee

On the old pitch-pine boards in the middle of my Berliner Zimmer, underneath the green rug, there is a large, dark multi-splotch stain. For years I assumed this stain to be some sort of war damage, and found it vaguely spooky. Only after a friend in Ohio mentioned moving into an old house with cat pee stains on the floorboards did this ickier and less sinister possibility occur to me. Two tenants ago a woman with cats lived in my apartment. Realizing this far likelier origin of the stain in my floor, I was equal parts relieved and disappointed.

Revisiting seedy West Berlin with Christiane F. and Patricia Highsmith

christiane f

Every few years, Berlin newspapers run a where-is-she-now story on Christiane F., the onetime heroin-addicted teen prostitute made famous by the book and movie Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo. This past week she’s been plastered all over the German media in advance of the October 10 release of her memoir Mein Zweites Leben (My Second Life). Christiane, now a remarkably well-preserved 51, has racked up plenty of memoir material since attaining celebrity status as a sort of real-life Go Ask Alice in the late seventies. In the early eighties she had a musical career with her then-boyfriend, Alexander Hacke of the industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. She hung out with Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, and Billy Idol; went on cocaine binges with Van Halen; circled above Berlin with David Bowie in the Rolling Stones’ private jet. In the 35 years since Bahnhof Zoo she’s continued to struggle with heroin: she was last in the news in 2008, when she lost custody of her now 17-year-old son during a relapse. One interesting detail of her story is that for all this turmoil, she’s been far more financially stable than many celebrities: knowing herself to be a junkie, she invested the money from her first book in a way that blocked her from ever being able to access too much of it at once.


From the Gropiusstadt high-rise in Neukölln where Christiane lived with her mother to the Charlottenburg and Schöneberg street corners where she traded sex for heroin, the 1981 film Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo is steeped in West Berlin seediness.  In the late Cold War cultural imagination, the figure of the train station junkie epitomized a certain Western European urban seaminess much as the breadline beneath an overcast sky embodied Eastern Bloc bleakness. As in so many things, the divided Berlin offered a microcosm of these East-West tropes: glam-tinted sleaze is to the image of Cold War West Berlin roughly as oppressive grayness is to the image of Cold War East Berlin.

A few months ago, while working on a book review, I came across another striking depiction of sordid West Berlin and gray East Berlin in Patricia Highsmith’s 1980 crime novel The Boy Who Followed Ripley. Kreuzberg doesn’t figure very heavily in Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, but for Highsmith it’s the lurid epicenter of West Berlin sleaze. When Tom Ripley arrives on a “dismal-looking” Kreuzberg street, two “urchins” beg money from him, implicitly threatening to damage his car if he doesn’t fork over a few pfennige. One of the urchins, a ten-year-old girl in a pinned-together window curtain and messy lipstick, is a child prostitute; the other is her eight-year-old pimp. Filthy-windowed apartment houses smell of boiling cabbage; their denizens live, at best, from petty crime and welfare scams. I know that Kreuzberg circa 1980 was a far cry from the enclave of fair-trade espresso, wine bars, and organic Scandinavian children’s clothing where I live today, but it’s hard to imagine any place being quite as unsavory as the Cold War Kreuzberg of Patricia Highsmith’s imagination, and when I read the description I had trouble believing it.


So I was intrigued when Christiane F.‘s recent slew of interviews in German newspapers mentioned her having spent time with Patricia Highsmith in Switzerland. Aha! I thought. If Patricia Highsmith was hanging around with Christiane F., no wonder she described West Berlin the way she did. Not exactly, as it turns out: Highsmith and F. met in Zurich around 1982, well after Highsmith wrote The Boy Who Followed Ripley. And as Christiane tells it, they weren’t the best of friends:  “Patricia was always giving me dirty looks when [Swiss writer Friedrich] Dürrenmatt chatted with me at dinner,” she told Die Presse.

The descriptions in The Boy Who Followed Ripley stem from notes Highsmith took during visits to Berlin in the winter of 1977-78. Biographer Andrew Wilson writes that she “was intrigued by the boy and girl prostitutes of Kreuzberg – ‘Turks, all made up and in curious period costumes’ – which she marvelled at with her friend.“ While in Berlin, Highsmith fell madly in love with a much younger German woman named Tabea Blumenschein. “One day they visited the zoo to see the crocodiles,” Wilson writes, “and in her notebook Highsmith wrote of how she would always remember the sight of Tabea pointing at the creatures’ wounds, a detail she incorporated into The Boy Who Followed Ripley.“

tabea blumenschein

West Berlin has changed less than East Berlin since the Wall came down: there are far more traces of lonely-capitalist-outpost Cold War era sleaze in Charlottenburg than there are of the GDR in Prenzlauer Berg or Mitte. Kreuzberg, however, has changed enough to render Highsmith’s take on it utterly unrecognizable. Perhaps more resonant is what she said about Berlin at the time: “Berlin is bizarre, producing a desperate desire in individuals to be more bizarre, in a curious effort to be ‘stronger’ than what is left of the city. The individual feels he must count for something, prove to himself that he is worth something, that he exists.”

Pictures, from top: 1. Christiane F. today; 2. film poster for English version of Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo; 3. Patricia Highsmith, perhaps in the late 70s; 4. Tabea Blumenschein in 1975, photographed by Ulrike Ottinger

On Stadtbad Schöneberg and a life of ceaseless deliberation between two places

stadtbad schöneberg

Last week I joined my son’s preschool group on a trip to swim at Stadtbad Schöneberg. Like many Berlin swimming pools, Stadtbad Schöneberg is annoyingly crowded a lot of the time, but if you catch it at a quiet time – like on a Wednesday at 10 am – it’s amazing. It’s been recently renovated, with a big waterslide and an indoor-outdoor pool downstairs, where you can swim out through a sort of cat flap and do laps out in the fresh air amidst rising steam. Upstairs, the highlight is a salt-water hot tub. It all felt so spacious and airy, it reminded me of how Berlin is in part an experience of getting to live in a city without feeling crowded, a sense of expansive space I’ve never known in any other city.

About a year ago I decided I was going to leave Berlin. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a foreign country. My family and old friends were so far away. I felt held back in my career by living in a non-native-English-speaking country. The food here was so boring, and I would never ever get used to the six-month lightless winters. I began to imagine living in a quiet town somewhere in New England in a little house with a garden. I quit my job and started building up freelance work with the intention of bringing it with me when I moved back. Because this all lacked a set deadline – I could aim to move in time for my son to start first grade in America, or maybe second grade – the decision about when to move became a constantly shifting verdict on how I felt about Berlin at any given moment.

Soaking on a weekday morning in the uncrowded salt-water hot tub (sidenote: the salt water does really cool things to your hair) of the Stadtbad, I had this feeling of having it far better in life than a person like me – a single parent with student loans – would ever be able to get away with back in my own country. I thought about how when they left the lovely public swimming pool my son’s three dedicated, highly trained teachers would shepherd the six children back on the efficient bus system to the Kita to eat the home-cooked organic lunch the kids receive every day, for all of which which I pay about €100 a month while back home even my upper-middle-class double-income friends fret about applying for financial aid at their kids’ preschools. I would return to the pretty, centrally located apartment I can afford because this is Berlin. Sure, I would probably work for a few hours after my son went to bed that evening to make up for the morning’s lost work, but the freelance work that allows me the luxury of such schedule changes feels like a European privilege too: when I quit my job in May I never had to worry about how my or my son’s health insurance would be affected. And as always when I feel grateful for something in Berlin, the next thought was: what the hell am I thinking to leave this place for my troubled country?

Because that’s how it is when you live abroad and expect to go home at a yet-to-be-determined time: a good day is never just a good day, a bad day never just a bad day. Everything  is a point either on the side of staying in Berlin or of leaving it. And it isn’t just days, it’s seasonal cycles: in late winter everyone is threatening to move back home, in late summer nobody is. On my bike ride home from the Stadtbad, the traffic was heavy and the feeling of breathing exhaust fumes was oppressive. I wished for clean country air: a tally mark in the column of leaving Berlin soon.

When I talk to friends in the States about the wonders of living in Europe, I sometimes worry that it sounds like bragging. I don’t mean to gloat about these things, it’s just that I’m always weighing them against the pull of home.

Feather-white exploding wine


As mentioned in a previous post, I love Germany’s food seasons: Erdbeerzeit, Spargelzeit, Pfifferlingszeit.  In late September and early October, after the grape harvest, comes the best one of all: Federweißerzeit, the season of fermented freshly pressed grape juice that is in the midst of becoming wine. Federweißer means feather-white, and it encompasses all liminal stages between fermented grape juice and wine. It is a delightfully protean beast: as it sits on the shelf and on your counter and in your glass, it noticeably turns cloudier and less sweet. Stronger, too –  its alcohol content rises from 4% to 10%.

Before the start of Federweißerzeit proper, there is an early September pre-season when purported Federweißer from Italy is displayed at the supermarket next to Zweibelkuchen and Flammkuchen. This Italian wannabe Federweißer is looked down upon, which is kind of hilarious, because when else is coming from Italy a strike against a wine? Federweißerzeit starts in earnest only when proto-wine arrives from Rheinland-Pfalz.

A few days ago I bought a bottle of Rheinischer Federweißer for about €3 at the Bio Company (the Bio Company is a surprisingly good source of Federweißer). While I have made some great strides of Integrationsfähigkeit recently, such as remembering to buy my son’s snowsuit in September this year, I remain a somewhat hapless foreigner. So when I brought the Federweißer up to the checkout counter, I laid the bottle down on its side as I thought one is supposed to do with bottles at checkout counters in Germany. The cashier and the woman behind me in line both urgently dove at the Federweißer to set it upright. “Don’t ever do that!” the cashier scolded me (in a looking-out-for-my-safety way, not a mean way). “Federweißer MUST ALWAYS REMAIN UPRIGHT. Otherwise there’s a great danger of the bottle exploding.” Apparently the things happening inside a Federweißer bottle are so wildly volatile that it not only has to remain upright at all times, but also can’t be corked – instead it has a thin seal, because a cork would make the pressure build up to the point of explosion. I felt like I was buying a chemistry experiment.


When I opened my Federweißer that evening, it looked clear and tasted sweet like grape juice; I didn’t much like it. So I left it out on the counter. The next night it was cloudy and pleasingly less sweet. As long as Federweißer‘s at room temperature it keeps fermenting quickly; you’re supposed to refrigerate it when it reaches the point you want.  The third night my musicologist friend came over in her new badass leather jacket from the Flowmarkt and we drank the rest of the bottle. I had two glasses, and I woke up the next morning feeling like death warmed over, with the kind of headache that would suggest I’d been double-fisting White Russians and Long Island Iced Teas all night. Federweißer is notorious for inducing vile headaches even when drunk in moderation. Apparently the way you’re supposed to prevent this is to eat Zwiebelkuchen (pictured above) or Flammkuchen (pictured below) while drinking it; as hapless foreigners, my friend and I neglected to do so.


Learn from my mistakes, dear readers: always pair your Federweißer with hearty autumnal fare, and always keep the bottle upright. And hurry: Federweißerzeit is fleeting.

Philipp Rösler’s Asian Face, Uncle Barack’s Cabin, and my translation of the Taz interview


After the childbirth horror story and the Nazi labor camp post, I wanted my next post to be something more upbeat. But now I feel compelled to comment on the taz/Philipp Rösler racism debacle, so bear with me, readers. The next post will be lighter, I promise.

Philipp Rösler is the head of the FDP, the libertarian junior partner in the current coalition government. Last week he was interviewed by the taz, an alternative-leftist newspaper that, as such, has an inherently antagonistic relationship with the FDP. The FDP then refused to allow the paper to print Rösler’s answers from the interview, on the grounds that the line of questioning was racist.

Philipp Rösler was born in Vietnam and adopted by a white West German couple as a baby. He has lived his entire life since the age of nine months in Germany. Contrary to the racist impressions of him that some German comedians like to do (pulling your eyes back to look “slanty” is also considered acceptable comedy here), he does not speak German with a Vietnamese accent. He has repeatedly stated that he self-identifies as completely German in every way. He is not, however, white.

Below is my translation of a complete list of the questions two white journalists asked Rösler in the interview. Some questions will be a bit unclear because the answers are missing, but the racist bullying is plenty clear. Of 23 questions asked to the head of a political party at the height of an election campaign, only 6 address any topic other than Rösler’s Asian face. That’s 74% “Mr. Rösler, please explain why exactly your face fails to be as white as ours” and 26% other topics.

Obviously racism isn’t limited to the left, but the German left is kinda the worst. Not in terms of racist policy positions, but in terms of racist ways of talking. White German progressive discourse has this particular maddening, smug confidence that being leftist is some sort of get-out-of-racism-free card. The way the German left talks about race combines a level of fetishization of the exotic other that would make a 19th-century anthropologist blush, an oblivious white-normativity so absurd it feels like an Onion article, and a blithe deafness to the voice of anyone who isn’t white. Now we can add to that list the conviction that racist bullying of a public figure is an appropriate way to express your disagreement with his party’s positions on tax policy. I’m not going to get into why exactly the series of questions below is racist – for more on that topic, refer to Jacinta Nandi’s righteous wrath in the Ex-Berliner (in English) – including the comments section, which is a devastating indictment of everyday racism in Germany – or these choice quotes from organizations representing German minority groups in haGalil (in German).

What I will say is that the white taz editors’ embodiment of the pompous racism of the German left rang awfully familiar: A very similar conversation occurred in June 2008 after the same “progressive” newspaper ran a picture of the White House on its cover with the headline Uncle Barack’s Cabin (Onkel Baracks Hütte). After Spiegel International and a slew of Wonkette commenters called them out on it, the taz editors joined the Wonkette comments thread to explain that all these Americans (never mind that it was also black Germans) crying racism had simply misunderstood the matter: See, a few white taz editors had decided amongst themselves before printing the cover that their intentions were satirical. Ergo, it was not racist. Racism cannot possibly occur where white Germans deem it not to be their intention! (Far from disavowing Uncle Barack’s Cabin, taz readers would a year later vote it one of the paper’s top 10 best covers ever, leading a white editor to reiterate the absurd claim that because Uncle Tom has different connotations for Germans than Americans, it was clearly not racist.)

Onkel Baracks Hütte

I’d like to think the level of awareness about racism in the German media has risen since 2008. I do see some improvements – gratuitous references to the race of non-white people in articles have become less frequent. A musical performance in Germany by an Asian woman, for example, now has better chances of being reviewed without reference to delicate Oriental blossoms. But the taz‘s Rösler interview is straight back to Uncle Barack’s Cabin and then some, and the German media’s preoccupation with Philipp Rösler’s “Asian face” is inexcusable. Yet again, the German public discourse on race is sounding like the kind of conversation a group of well-intentioned white Americans might have had in about 1960.*

Here are the interview questions: Continue reading

How I learned German: A lengthy cautionary tale featuring a childbirth horror story


VERY LONG POST WARNING: My Berliniversary a few days ago seemed like a good occasion to answer the question a reader asked a few months ago about my experience learning German in Berlin. Unfortunately, this post ballooned into a full-blown essay.

I arrived here on September 6, 2005. My new roommate met me at Tegel with a sign with my name on it. I’d always wanted to be met at an airport with a sign with my name on it; this seemed auspicious. Everything felt auspicious that day: the cloudless blue sky (which I foolishly took for the normal way of the Berlin sky), the view of the Admiralbrücke from my new apartment, the wardrobe in my bedroom (an actual wardrobe! how storybook-European!), the wicker shopping baskets my roommate Jesse and I carried to the Turkish market to buy chili olives and Fladenbrot.

That evening Jesse and I went to Ankerklause. We drank beer next to the canal, smoking cigarettes at a rate that would totally disgust me today. I was in love with Berlin, hadn’t even adjusted to this time zone yet but was already scheming how I could make enough money to stay here and ditch out on my return ticket to Boston at the end of November.  “So how’s your German?” Jesse asked.

“Limited to the numbers one to ten,” I said. “But I’m going to learn.”

Unlike almost every other person to whom I announced this intention in the year to come, Jesse did not tell me I had no chance of ever learning German. Instead he said I needed to think of learning German in Berlin as a war in which the Germans were my enemies. “Every conversation you ever have with a German,” he said, “is a battle between your will to speak German and their will to speak English with you.” Jesse had studied German at college and arrived here already speaking it well. After about a year in Berlin, he was sick of the place and ready to go home, which seemed to have a lot to do with the frustration of the daily linguistic battle.  

Over time I would notice an inverse correlation between how much German people spoke when they arrived here and how happy they were in Berlin. A lot of people who, like Jesse, had studied German at university began complaining bitterly about Germans within a few months of their arrival; those who understood no German and had no aspirations of learning were more inclined to find Berlin paradisiacal. At first I was at the ignorant bliss end of the spectrum. It was campaign season, as it is again now, and I traipsed around Kreuzberg not understanding any of the posters: I thought Erststimme was a first name that a lot of political candidates happened to have. I lived above a funeral parlor and never knew it because I didn’t understand the word Bestattungen.

The apartment where I lived with Jesse had a landlord named Dagmar who lived directly upstairs. Dagmar only rented the place to fresh-off-the-boat foreigners, perhaps assuming such people wouldn’t realize that the terms she offered – no lease, no deposit, Dagmar walking into your apartment unannounced to borrow the wok from your kitchen whenever she felt like it – were not normal for Germany. Dagmar used to be very beautiful. I know this because the front hallway of the apartment was papered in photo collages of her naked at FKK beaches in the 70s. Now she had some profession in the realm of alternative medicine that left her lots of free time for invading my privacy. As I worked at my computer in the kitchen, she would appear and tell me I was not keeping the apartment clean enough. Can’t you see the dust? she would say, and point to some surface on which I did not in fact see any dust. This instilled in me the belief that German women had the power to see dust that was invisible to other people. One evening in late November a lightbulb burned out. I couldn’t buy a new one because it was Sunday. While I was out Dagmar came into the apartment, saw that a lightbulb had burned out, and – apparently feeling a stand had to be taken before the apartment slipped further into invisible-dust chaos – seized my laptop. She left a note saying she’d return it when the lightbulb was replaced. I had work due the next morning. I came home, saw the note, looked up all the words to say “my landlord stole my laptop,” and called the police. (I think I accidentally used a word that means tavern-owner rather than landlord.) After the police made her give my laptop back, she became tearfully contrite and gave me an advent calendar, the price of which she later tried to tack onto my rent. I believe that all around the world, people who are freshly arrived foreigners are inclined to encounter characters like Dagmar, because characters like Dagmar know they can only get away with their inappropriate behavior around people ignorant of local customs. Anyway, I moved out of Dagmar’s apartment after the laptop incident. Continue reading

I highly recommend the free tour of the Nazi labor camp excavations on Tempelhofer Feld

FU Berlin

As a frequent Tempelhofer Feld jogger, I’ve been watching the archaeological dig there with curiosity all summer. Students are out digging almost every day, and the excavation sites wedged between the beach volleyball court and the baseball diamond have been growing since June. Last Friday I finally made it to the weekly free public tour. The tour group meets up at 3pm at the bright pink information booth between the baseball field and the mosque. The guide introduced herself as one of the grad students working on the dig. She led us up stairs to a lookout platform to start the tour with an overview of the history of Tempelhofer Feld; before she began, she surveyed the group. There were about 15 of us, including two elementary school-aged kids with their grandparents. “We’ve never had children before,” the guide said, seeming a bit stumped by this turn of events. “I’ll try to do the tour in a child-appropriate way, but you do understand it’s a very dark history?” The grandparents nodded amiably.

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Tempelhofer Feld, she told us, was a military parade ground zu Kaiserzeiten, and began operation as Germany’s first airport in 1923. In the 20s, the airport was a hub of social life: people came there to hang out at bars and restaurants and watch air shows. The Nazis held their first Berlin mass rally there on May 1, 1933 before a crowd of 1.9 million; within a year a Gestapo prison and one of Germany’s first concentration camps had opened on the airport premises.  (At this point in the story the tour guide made what may be the only successful German-language Nazi joke I have ever witnessed: she ticked off a long list of the many groups the Nazis considered undesirable and said “so as you may imagine, they ran out of space in the Gestapo prison pretty fast,” at which – to my surprise – the crowd laughed.)

Forced labor camps at the airport soon followed. Lufthansa began using Jewish forced laborers at Tempelhof in the 1930s. Weserflug, another German company still in existence (it’s now part of EADS), followed with 25 barracks housing thousands of forced laborers building its war planes. After the war began, Poles and French P.O.W.s were added to the barracks, followed by Ukrainians and eventually more than 20 nationalities. Such camps, and slave labor in general, are a recent focus of Holocaust research, and the laborers’ barracks are the subject of the current archaeological digs.

At this point the guide led us into the dig sites. She showed us barrack foundations and plumbing pipes and barbed wire. The excavations, which are funded by the city of Berlin, face various pressures and restrictions: no digging is allowed where there are sports fields or rare wildflowers; the excavations can only remain open until mid-October; the FU professors leading the project feel time pressure from the plans to develop Tempelhofer Feld late in this decade (and, I presume, from the fact that only a few survivors of the camps remain alive).  The tour guide was an excellent storyteller. She spoke vividly of the thinness of the barrack walls in cold winters, and the forced laborers’ vulnerability to the Allied bombs that began falling on Berlin in 1943. “Engaging” is, in my experience, generally a quality far more valued in English-language guided tours than their German counterparts. I have been on many a German-language historical tour that dumped information on participants with a near-comical drab precision (und nachdem die Dachziegel der Kirche 1595 teilweise ersetzt wurden, erfolgten 1601 bzw. 1607 bis 1608 weitere Dachziegel-Erneuerungsmaßnahmen). But this tour was totally engaging. Because of its clear, accessible style and the guide’s use of her surroundings as visual aids, I would even recommend the tour to people who feel shaky about their German skills.

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Trauma does strange things to memory. Survivors of the forced labor camps, the guide said, have vivid memories of pleasant one-off events: the time there was a dance in the barracks, the time they got better food than usual.  But they remember nothing of everyday life in the camp. The digs are intended to unearth objects of everyday life in the hopes that showing these objects to survivors will jog their memories. So far they’ve found dishes and cutlery and buttons and even a lock.

“Did the lock have a key?” the older of the children, a boy of about 10, piped up.

“No,” the guide said. Leider nicht.

“Who has the key?” the boy asked.

“I wish I knew,” the guide said. I wondered how I as a non-fiction writer should deal with bits of dialogue that actually occurred in real life but would sound cheesily over-the-top symbolic if they occurred in fiction.

Then, seeming to sense that a question about human remains impended, the guide said, “We’ve found a few bone fragments but there are no skeletons here. The laborers who died here are presumably buried in an unknown mass grave somewhere else.” At “somewhere else” she waved her arm unsettlingly at the part of Tempelhofer Feld where I go running every day and fly kites with my son.

After the tour everyone chatted about the fact that children had taken part in it. I had to rush off to pick up my son from KiTa, and on the way I passed a memorial to Columbia-Haus, the early concentration camp on Tempelhofer Feld that the guide had mentioned. My son’s preschool group walks past this memorial on their Wednesday trips to the gym for Turnen.  One Wednesday last year my son, then four, came home to say the kids had asked the teachers what the statue on the corner was, and the teachers had “explained about the bad police”. One of the many things I didn’t anticipate about raising a child in Berlin is that the (of course good and necessary) ubiquity of plaques and memorials and other objects commemorating the Holocaust means that you are likely to be asked questions at a point when your child is far too young to emotionally handle a thorough answer.  The teachers’ answer – I got the impression that learning to answer preschoolers’ questions about the Nazi era in an age-appropriate way had been part of their training as Erzieherinnen – was along the lines of “long ago, even before your grandparents were born, there was a terrible time when the police in Germany were bad and the bad police arrested good people for no reason and sent them to jails where some of them died.” Initially this explanation kind of bothered me – wasn’t calling the Nazi regime “bad police” a bit odd? – but however long I thought about it, I couldn’t think of a better alternative.

German-language tour of archaeological excavations at Tempelhofer Freiheit, every Friday 3-4pm from now until mid-October. Meeting point at the information booth nearest the Columbiadamm entrance. Free.