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.

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.

temp feld 1

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.

temp feld 2

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.

The Brenner Pass, unseen

Yoakum Brenner Pass

Warning: this post is about a train journey to Rome as the Alps flooded. Skip if only interested in Berlin.

On Thursday my son and I took the train to Italy to meet my mother, who was in Rome for a conference. Our first train was an early afternoon ICE to Munich. I had a coffee in the dining car and my son binge-drank coffee creamers. The sandy pine flats of Brandenburg gave way to the hills of Thuringia, with their spooky-pretty onion-domed village churches, then the dark Thuringian forest. Look at those rushing rivers! I said. Look how close up to the train the water comes! Continue reading

Gone With the Wind, mysterious stamps


I recently became interested in the German relationship with the book and movie Gone With the Wind after reading  a PRI article about the curious popularity of U.S. Civil War battle reenactment in Germany.  Apparently German re-enactors tend to prefer fighting on the side of the Confederacy, and their identification with the South is ascribed in large part to the role of Gone With the Wind in German popular culture.  Continue reading

The mysteries of Leinestrasse

The night of the US elections I stayed out until 7 at an election party in Neukölln, then had the now rare to me experience of taking the subway home at an hour when other people are already on their way to work after a full night’s sleep. The party was in what you could call the graveyard district of Neukölln – not in some figurative sense of lack of action, but because there are literally six cemeteries in the vicinity of the Leinestrasse U-Bahn station. When I walked to the train in the morning, feeling bleary-eyed but electorally triumphant, the foggy cemeteries lent a lovely quietness to the neighborhood, which seemed to hold wonders and mysteries. Two of them, to be specific: the Zauberkönig magic store and the Tunnelpfeifer in the U-Bahn.

The Zauberkönig (king of magic) is a shop on Hermannstrasse abutting the St. Thomas cemetery. It sells old-school practical joke items (I saw some plastic dog poo in the window), magicians’ supplies, fireworks, costumes and stage makeup. I was intrigued by its jam-packed window display and the sign claiming it’s existed since 1884, so I looked into its history. The story I found is a fascinating microcosm of twentieth-century Berlin. Continue reading

The ruby-eyed alchemist of Peacock Island

I’ve had a few reader requests for another Berlin ghost story for Halloween (that I have a few readers in the first place came as a delightful surprise). So here, for the ghost enthusiasts, is a story from the Pfaueninsel:

The Pfaueninsel, Peacock Island, is a 67-hectare nature reserve in the Havel River on the border between Berlin and Potsdam. You reach it by what may well be the world’s shortest ferry journey. The ferry is named Luise and crosses a swathe of water only about three times its own length. You cannot bring your bike on the world’s shortest ferry journey, because bicycles  – like motor vehicles, smoking, picking the plants, and stepping off the designated trails – are banned from the Pfaueninsel.

To reach the ferry dock where Luise departs you can take bus 218 from the Wannsee S-Bahn station through several kilometers of woods. The bus that plies route 218 isn’t a normal Berlin city bus, it’s the Traditionsbus, a manila-envelope-yellow refurbished 1960s double-decker with an interior upholstered like an Oma’s den. I didn’t know this at the time I visited the Pfaueninsel, and the unexpected ride through the woods on a time-warp bus added to the island’s autumnal late-afternoon eeriness.

Continue reading

The Ghosts of Berlin

If you stand on the steps of the Natural History Museum and look across the street, you will see the building pictured above. This is Invalidenstrasse 104, a house that appears in the story “Séance with the Stasi” from German writer Sarah Khan’s book of contemporary Berlin ghost stories, Die Gespenster von Berlin. I translated this story into English for the new issue of the wonderful literary translation journal Asymptote. Continue reading

Soaring cranes, soaring rents

The sky is full of cranes again.

When I arrived here seven years ago, I looked around at the low-slung skyline and wondered where all the cranes had gone. Back then construction cranes were an icon of post-reunification Berlin. Shops sold postcards of the sky cross-hatched with cranes, of the Siegesäule ringed by them. I was told that this was a lingering image from the 90s building boom; Berlin had long since run out of money and stopped building anything. Continue reading

A bomb crater in Munich in the rain

I was in Munich this weekend. It rained the whole time, and I spent a lot of time cooped up with J. in a non-childproof holiday flat playing endless and increasingly half-assed rounds of “baby cats” (Mommy, stop that! Baby cats don’t read a book!)  while the rest of the group of relatives we’d come there to meet did things a four-year-old couldn’t participate in, like visit Dachau. I did, however, make it out to see a bomb crater. Continue reading