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

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

The ice cream gentrification index on Falckensteinstraße

ice cream

Until a few years ago I lived in Treptow within shouting distance of the Landwehr Canal. Wrangelkiez – the part of Kreuzberg across the canal from me – felt like my neighborhood. I especially spent a lot of time on Falckensteinstraße, the street that runs from the Oberbaumbrücke to Görlitzer Park. My main interests on this street were the bookstore, the good-by-Berlin-standards Pakistani restaurant, the slices of pizza and the ice cream place across the street from the pizza place that is run by the same people. At the time I believed the ice cream place, Aldemir Eisdiele, to serve the best ice cream  in Berlin.

In the intervening years I have not only moved away to the opposite end of Kreuzberg but also chatted once with a food policy specialist who told me that most commercial ice cream is pumped full of air and guar gum as a filler to make it cheaper, and that the way you can tell whether you are eating real ice cream or filler cream is to notice whether it foams on your tongue or just plain melts. If it foams, it’s full of guar gum. I’m aware that guar gum is pretty innocuous as far as food additives go (though apparently involved in fracking?), but I’d still rather my ice cream were made out of ice and cream. “Some of the most popular ice cream places in Berlin use a lot of guar gum,” the food policy person said. “Including the one on Falckensteinstraße.”

On Friday afternoon, by way of  Görlitzer Park, my son and I were back in the old neighborhood and went to Falckensteinstraße for some ice cream. Speaking of Görlitzer Park, that 80-police-officer Großrazzia at the end of July seems to have been effective, because the number of drug dealers in the park was noticeably lower – for the first time in years I *could* have thrown a rock without hitting one. When we arrived on Falckensteinstraße, I began to wonder if the crackdown on the Görlitzer Park drug dealers had been inspired by pressure from the forces of gentrification: the street was aflame in anti-gentrification sentiment. Posters and signs about rising rents seemed to coat every surface. Pictured above is the ice-cream-eating area in front of Aldemir; the sign in the background announces an anti-gentrification protest to be held there the next day. Most poignantly, a Kinderladen (preschool/daycare) that has been in the neighborhood since 1978  announced it was being driven out by rising rents:


As for the ice cream at Aldemir, it not only foamed unmistakably but also cost way more than it used to – €1.20 a scoop. I remember it as costing €0.80 a scoop (and people complaining about the price bump from €0.70 a scoop), and I only moved away three years ago. It was the same price per scoop as the excellent non-guar-gum ice cream at Vanille & Marille in my supposedly more bourgeois new neighborhood. Ice cream prices seem like a good analogy to Berlin rents – still much lower than in many cities, but rising far more rapidly.

I’m fascinated by the New York Pizza Connection – the phenomenon that the price of a subway ticket and the price of a slice of pizza have always risen in tandem in New York City since about 1960 – and I was curious if you could come up with a similar index for ice cream and rents in Berlin. Does the price of a scoop of ice cream in a given neighborhood correspond to the average cost of rent per square meter? In the case of the Falckensteinstraße  Kinderladen, yes and no: In recent years, according to a taz article about its closure and the gentrification issues surrounding it, the Kinderladen‘s rent had gone up from about 8 euros per square meter to about 12, which would perfectly fit my ice cream index. But the reason they had to close is that the landlord then suddenly jacked the rent up to an astronomical 35 euros per square meter. Be on the lookout for €3.50-a-scoop ice cream.

Lady Fitness and Mrs.Sporty: The Denglish world of exercise


The proliferation of English words in German, which got some attention from The Economist this week, is nowhere more rampant than in the realm of fitness and wellness (known in German as die Fitness and die Wellness). It took me years to find a yoga studio where the instructors speak in ordinary German rather than a highly distracting stream of  sentences like “im downward Hund geht es darum, zu relaxen und gleichzeitig zu stretchen, immer in the moment zu sein.”

I’ve never belonged to a gym in Berlin – in a place where sunlight is so scarce, I prefer to just go running outside so that I can combine exercise with Vitamin D absorption. But a few weeks ago a stretch of weather too hot to run outside had me contemplating das Fitnessstudio. Also, my neighborhood women’s gym was offering discounts during Ramadan, pictured above (the staff said non-Muslim ladies could also take advantage). An attempt to compare their (totally non-transparent) pricing scheme with competitors led me to the ultradenglish realm of Berlin-area women’s gym names. Here’s a sampling:

Lady Fitness


Womenclub Frauenfitness

Frauenfitness Ladyline

Jonny M. Women


I guess the word “lady” is generally used more in global English than in native speaker English – I heard it a lot in Southeast Asia (where I was also frequently addressed as “sir”, but I digress) – but these gyms sure do lay the “lady” on thick. Is Lady Fitness the Dowager Countess of Fitnessshire? Did LadyCompany make an advantageous marriage to LordCompany? Jonny M. Women sounds like a pretty sketchy dude. Silliest of all is Mrs.Sporty, which besides its odd punctuation seems to arise from the common German-to-English translation error of assuming Mrs. = Frau. Is it just me or does Mrs. Sporty evoke the image more of Mr. Sporty’s frazzled wife than of a woman who is herself sporty? Also, a lot of the names are very Ladywomenfrauensportysport – among other things, Denglish tends to lead to very repetitive slogans and names.

Also: if your ladygym is going to run a Ramadan special, you should probably consider staying open late during Ramadan so that the ladies have have time to exercise after the iftar.

Cafe in the Cemetery

cafe strauss

It sounds like a Smiths song, but it is an actual place, and it’s wonderful: the cafe in the cemetery. A Viennese Kaffeehaus called Cafe Strauss has recently opened in a former funeral parlor just inside the gates of the Friedrichswerderscher Kirchhof on Bergmannstrasse.  The outdoor seating on a sheltered patio overlooks well-tended 19th- and 20th-century graves; the indoor space is airy and spare with soaring arches. Just a few blocks from the noise of Mehringdamm and Gneisenaustrasse, Cafe Strauss is startlingly tranquil, the kind of quiet that makes you realize how loud the rest of the neighborhood is. It’s also cool on a hot day – like the day before yesterday, when I ordered the delightful iced coffee pictured above. A real iced coffee (no ice cream!), with a twist of lovely presentation. I also had a bowl of red currants and gooseberries with yogurt; tart berries featured prominently in the promising-looking selection of cakes as well.  However peaceful it is to sit outside there in summer, I’m sure it will fit its surroundings especially splendidly in cold weather: the sight of chessboards stacked on the piano at the back of the cafe promised so much autumnal coziness it almost made me look forward to the end of summer.

The name Cafe Strauss is a triple-entendre: the Viennese waltz composers, the German word for ostrich, and the name of the couple who own the place, Martin and Olga Strauss. In a fascinating interview with the Tagesspiegel a few months ago, the Strausses said that the space they converted into the cafe first began to be used as a funeral parlor in the 19th century. At that time, bodies had to be laid out for three days out of fear of accidentally burying someone alive. Bells were tied to them in case they woke up; what is now the toilet of the cafe was the room where a watchman sat listening for the bells. I’d say that even by Berlin standards, “cafe toilet in the place a man used to sit waiting for Scheintoten to ring bells” is a pretty unusual repurposed space.

And how perfect is it to put a *Viennese* cafe inside a cemetery? I mean, Vienna is the city of the schöne Leiche, home to the world’s only funeral museum, a place whose love of baroque melancholy carries on into the 21st century. As recently as 2008, when longtime mayor Helmut Zilk died, four horses pulled his coffin to the Zentralfriedhof in a hundred-year-old glass coach after a two-hour funeral at St. Stephen’s Cathedral featuring performances of Bruckner’s Mass in D minor and the Blue Danube Waltz by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. There’s nowhere like Vienna for funereal flair.

I like the way the cafe is integrated into the graveyard. One of the main paths of the cemetery runs in front of its terrace. As I drank my iced coffee and read the newspaper, people walked past with flowers, on their way to visit loved ones’ graves. Cemeteries are oases of quiet and green, and it makes sense for the living to spend time in them – sense both in terms of using urban green spaces and as a counterweight to our culturally unhealthy lack of contact with death, the dying, and anything that reminds us of our own mortality. Martin Strauss told the Tagesspiegel he thinks the time he and his wife spend in the cemetery makes them “live more consciously because here we’re always reminded that life is finite.” The cafe’s small selection of items for sale subtly encourages cafegoers to spend some time among the dead: along with their own infused syrups, they sell red grave candles and a coffee table book about Berlin gravestones called Unter jedem Grabstein eine Weltgeschichte.

The Strausses also said the cafe gets a lot of animal visitors, most notably a fox who reclines on the roofs of mausoleums to watch funerals, who keeps away rabbits that would otherwise eat the flowers from the graves.

Cafe Strauss, Bergmannstr. 42, Kreuzberg. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 9am (closing time seasonal depending on cemetery hours, open until 8pm in summer).