Hello, Lenin? (Berlin, 1997)

Rebecca Schuman | Schadenfreude, A Love Story | Flatiron Books | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2950 words)

This excerpt was adapted from Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Awkward Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations that Only They Have Words For, Rebecca Schuman’s memoir of her adventures in German culture.

* * *

Ostalgie. n. Longing for the good old days of the German Democratic Republic, from east and nostalgia.

My German flatmate was named Gertrud, and I lived with her in the former East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, which was, according to Herr Neudorf, my professor back in the U.S., where “all the punks lived.” Gertrud was from Chemnitz, a town in the former German Democratic Republic that was once called Karl-Marx-Stadt. And while she definitely possessed her genetic allotment of efficiency — she was punctual everywhere she went; she never ran out of or misplaced anything; she traveled everywhere by bicycle, even in the dead of winter, and knew how to maneuver through traffic with a deft mixture of caution and aggression — her tenure as my mentor, cultural ambassador, and only German friend led me to the greatest epiphany about the Germans of my short life: It wasn’t that Germans didn’t like me. It was that West Germans didn’t like me.

East Germans (Ossis) like her were patiently curious about the way I did certain things — walked around barefoot, answered the phone “Hello?” instead of barking my last name into it, failed to stand up and move toward the train door a full stop before I was due to exit the U-Bahn — whereas West Germans (what we would now consider “Germans”) could be mortally offended if I changed from my outdoor shoes to my indoor shoes (Hausschuhe) five minutes too late for their liking. According to Gertrud, this was not because, as I had assumed before, I was a patently offensive person — it was because Wessis were spoiled pains in the ass, who assumed they were better and more cultured than their Eastern counterparts just because they’d had uninterrupted access to Coca-Cola for the last half-century.

Look, I’ve seen Good-Bye Lenin! and The Lives of Others more times than I can count. I’ve taken a tour of the Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison led by a former inmate, who described in excruciating detail the time she was made to sit in the water-torture machine for seventeen straight hours. I am aware that the division of Berlin ripped families apart and killed people. I know the Stasi were among the most brutal surveillance forces ever to exist. But I’m just saying: there were things about the Ossi mentality that I very much preferred. Things that had less to do with guaranteed employment and lack of toxic late-capitalist morality than people being way less uptight about all of the things I did wrong, such as drink water from the tap.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one suffering from early-onset Ostalgie. In this I was joined by a rather sizable demographic — one that has, alas, all but disappeared in the intervening decades. This disappearance is not, as you might think, the natural result of twenty-first-century German capitalism’s sensible-suited dominance, but rather it owes to the whims of Mother Nature herself. I speak here of the venerable extinct creature known as the East Berlin Oma, or granny: violet of hair, slow of gait, thick of dialect, crotchety of disposition. If, in the late 1990s, you happened upon a purple-coiffed Dame of Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Treptow, or Lichtenberg and asked her about reunification, chances are she would tell you without hesitation she preferred things the way they were before.

I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of just this sort of lady — her name was Frau Helga — during my third week in Berlin, after leaving my purse on the S-Bahn one Friday afternoon. I’d gotten distracted by the East Berliner Oma’s diametric opposite, the Wessi pensioner with nothing better to do than inform complete strangers exactly how wrongly they are doing everything. She had been yelling at me for speaking too loudly to a friend. “Ruhe!” she cried across the train car. “Sie sind nicht auf der Bühne!” (“Shut up! You’re not onstage!”) Despite the indisputable fact that I definitely could have taken that old broad, I found this incident rattling enough that I lost my bearings and skedaddled without my purse. When I returned to Gertrud’s and realized what I’d done, I nearly knocked myself unconscious smacking my own forehead. For in that purse, along with several extravagant MAC lipsticks, directions to the German for Foreigners test I was definitely going to flunk that coming Monday, and an entire week’s budget in cold hard Deutsche Marks, I’d also been carrying my U.S. passport.

Sure, we won the war, and the war before that, and the Cold War, too, but at least they never lose their goddamned car keys.

Even under the best of circumstances, it is never advisable to lose track of an important document in Germany — not because it’s particularly dangerous (although a genuine U.S. passport would, in 1997, have fetched a good price), but because Germans really lack empathy about this sort of thing. Germans simply do not misplace their stuff, like, ever, so the sneering superiority they display when an American admits to having done so is nigh on intolerable. Sure, we won the war, and the war before that, and the Cold War, too, but at least they never lose their goddamned car keys. I had only recently learned this when, just a few nights before I lost my purse, after dancing all night at the Metropol club, I reached into the pocket of my omnipresent late-’90s black stretch trousers, only to find that my coat-check ticket had been sacrificed to the gods of the dance, or possibly dropped in the toilet. When I explained this to the coat-check woman, she looked at me like I was a cannibal.

Verloren?” She snorted. “Wie ist das nur möglich?” (“Lost? How is that even possible?”)

“Well,” I said, “I had it, and now I don’t.”

Gibt’s doch gar nicht,” she said, which means “I can’t believe it,” but literally means “That doesn’t exist at all.” The Metropol club literally did not have a protocol for lost coat-check tickets, because literally nobody had ever done it before in the history of the Metropol club.

The ideal situation with my purse would have been simply not to tell any Germans what had happened, go straight to the U.S. embassy, and wait for four hours to get a replacement passport, with nobody to see my transgression but a fellow American witness (to swear under oath about my citizenship), and a giant smiling portrait of Bill Clinton. But that wasn’t possible, because German offices — even the American embassy — go dead to the world beginning about 2:00 p.m. on Fridays. I had no way of rectifying the situation until at least Monday — when, of course, I would be required to present said passport as identification at the German for Foreigners exam I wouldn’t be able to find and would certainly not pass. For the entire weekend, I was a stateless person, dependent upon the kindness of strangers, or at any rate having to borrow money from my unimpressed German flatmate Gertrud, as soon as she was able to wrap her mind conceptually around such a bizarre and unthinkable act as the one I had committed.

“What do you mean you lost your passport?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “curiously, what I mean is that I had it, and now I don’t.”

Gibt’s doch gar nicht.”

On Monday, I showed up to language class ready to beg someone to come spend the day with me at the embassy (and lend me two hundred marks) — only to find a genuine Deutsche Post snail-mail letter addressed to me, care of the study-abroad office, in German handwriting:

Esteemed Frau Schuman

On the night of 25 February 1997 you left your handbag on the S3 train. I recovered it and brought it home. You may telephone me and set up an appointment to come retrieve it between the hours of three and five in the afternoon on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Regards Fr Helga Haider

Although exceptions certainly exist, when a German finds something that doesn’t belong to him — even if that something is a wallet, with credit cards and a passport and cash — he methodically and calmly tracks down the original owner and returns it, cash included. That’s not to say that Americans are inveterate found-wallet thieves — I once managed to drop my wallet onto the New York City subway tracks, and it was recovered by an MTA worker who went through every business card in it until he found someone who could call me. But when I finally shuffled to the Union Square police station to recover my possessions, the forty dollars or so in cash was understandably gone, and I didn’t care, because any cash in a found wallet is due reward for the finder. It’s the American way.

What blew my pomade-crusted little head off about the whole debacle was how unsurprised every German I told about it was. “Of course someone found it,” they all said. “Of course she’s returning it to you.” Natürlich!

“It was very stupid of you to leave your purse on the train like that,” said Frau Helga, when I finally worked up enough courage to telephone her. “Very, very, very stupid.”

Danke schön,” I said.

“You really shouldn’t have done that. You’re lucky I found it. It’s a purse, I told myself when I saw it. A purse! Who leaves a purse sitting around? What a stupid thing to do.”

Jawohl,” I said. “Danke schön.”

“And then I saw that you were an American exchange student, of all things! Do Americans often just leave their purses on the train?”

Danke,” I said. “Vielen, vielen Dank.”

Frau Helga eventually gave me directions to her apartment and implored me to come recover my possessions as soon as possible. Her building was a sooty concrete number in an even more distant part of the Eastern district of Prenzlauer Berg than where I lived with Gertrud. The place was substantially larger than ours, with an actual living room and an actual sofa, upon which the plump, mercifully slow-talking Helga welcomed me to sit, and upon which my purse waited for me — with, unsurprisingly, all of its contents, down to the pfennig. Everything in the apartment kind of matched my vintage purse, since it had easily been there since 1962. The furniture, the tchotchkes, even (especially) the tin of wafer cookies Helga graciously served me were aged; I didn’t nibble on them so much as gnaw. It occurred to me that Helga, living alone as she did, probably didn’t entertain much, and I wondered with a bit of sadness how long that tin of cookies had been waiting for company.

So,” Helga said, “was machen Sie hier?”

“I have come in order to pick up my purse,” I said.

“No,” she said, “I mean here in Berlin?”

“I am a student of German literature at the FU.”

“That’s nice,” said Helga. “I don’t like to read.”

Ja,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say.

“Your German is very good,” she said. Aw. I liked her.

Sie sind so schön,” she said. (“You’re so beautiful.”)

I ventured an awkward Danke and clawed my coffee cup in one hand and the Lucite handle of the purse in the other.

“When you’re beautiful, life is easier for you,” she said. “I was never beautiful, and I had a hard life.”

I wanted to know: How hard, and why? Hard in what way? I thought it would be rude to ask, though — and I also didn’t know how to say “in what way” yet. So instead I just looked at the nicely framed picture of a teenage girl that Helga had placed on her mantel.

Meine Tochter,” she said, following my eyes. (“My daughter.”) “She wasn’t beautiful, either.”

Germans are nothing if not blunt, and so this was true, at least in that photo, which showed a young woman, about eighteen or nineteen, with squinty eyes, a bulbous nose, squishy cheeks, and an unfortunately prominent snaggletooth. As I mulled the linguistic nuance that would have enabled me to say something palliative (she had, for example, very nice hair), I realized that Helga had used the past tense about her daughter. Meine Tochter war nicht schön. My daughter wasn’t beautiful.

As I did my best to chew her wafers and gulp down her coffee, she looked at me like she wanted to swallow me whole, a grief-stricken witch to my poorly comprehending Gretel.

Only then did I start to notice that gazing at me from every available surface in the apartment was the same picture of the girl, which looked like a standard-issue class portrait, likely from her last year of school. It dawned on me, as Helga talked and I understood about a third of what she said, that when there is a framed picture of a girl on the mantel and that same picture embroidered on a pillow, and indeed all the pictures of that girl stop at a certain age, that girl is dead. And she was. And it was awful.

“An accident,” Helga explained. The daughter, with the homely face and the hard life, had been killed in the early eighties. Helga didn’t have any other children. As I did my best to chew her wafers and gulp down her coffee, she looked at me like she wanted to swallow me whole, a grief-stricken witch to my poorly comprehending Gretel. I don’t know if I would have been able to say the right thing to her even if I’d been a native speaker of German. In my present state it was hopeless. I looked at her and nodded solemnly with a mouthful of wafer.

“But you,” she said. “You’re so beautiful and you’re still so young.”

Danke,” I said, because I couldn’t say anything else.

Eventually the conversation turned to something that didn’t make me want to hurtle myself face-first into a river of my own tears: die Mauer, the Wall, as in, nostalgia for. The veritable ease of life for the beautiful, and whether or not I belonged to that demographic, and the anguish of grieving one’s own child — those would have been beyond my meager, self-absorbed little skill set even if I’d been able to sustain a conversation. But the relentless encroachment of crass Western capitalism into the helpless eastern districts, and its veritable steamrolling of the elderly population, which was just minding its own damn business — this I could get behind. I perked up immediately. “Everything’s so different now,” Helga said, “with the Mauer gone.”

Nod.

“Worse.”

Another vigorous nod.

And then: “There’s black people everywhere now.” Oh boy.

I froze and one of those infernal wafer cookies, never making good progress to begin with, lodged itself in the back of my mouth. Not particularly loquacious before, I was now rendered 100 percent mute. My experience with blatant American racists (as opposed to the passive-aggressive or dog-whistle kind we all know and probably don’t love) was limited to my maternal grandfather, who used the n-word in front of me once before my mom read him the riot act. And my German acquaintances were limited to progressive-minded younger people. What I would soon find out from my program directors upon relating this anecdote, though, was that the Frau Helgas of the former East were not anomalous, and their sentiments unfortunately extended to some of their grandchildren, who had taken up with neo-Nazis. For several years after reunification, in fact, the Berlin guide books warned Jews and people of color to avoid the more remote eastern districts altogether, for fear of violence against “foreigners.”

All of my insistence about the superiority of the East was suddenly threatened: They might not be keen on yelling at me for walking in the wrong direction on the sidewalk, but were they racist? Because even someone as self-absorbed as I was knew that was worse. One of the many unfortunate side effects of the Eastern Bloc’s isolation was a near-total lack of immigration from any non-communist country. The West, on the other hand, had instituted a “guest worker” program after the war, which had brought in a massive influx of cheap labor from Turkey and North Africa. This program was, of course, exploitative — but it meant that folks in Düsseldorf, Cologne, West Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich had at least seen a person of color before 1990.

In 1997, despite the confusion of my Jewish grandpa — himself the son of a man who’d escaped from pogroms on foot at the age of eight, bribing the guards at the Polish border to fire their guns into the air and deliberately miss (basically the Jewish emigration tariff of 1884) — as to why I’d want to devote my undergraduate years to German Studies and set foot in the Fatherland to begin with, and indeed, despite my own selectively Jewish righteousness and insistence that everyone around me feel guilty all the time, there were still more neo-Nazis in my own Fatherland than there were in Germany. But what neo-Nazis there were lived in my precious East Berlin and fed off the xenophobia and fear engendered by five decades of communism, fomenting the very resistance to reunification that I had found it so charming to adopt.

I finally managed to swallow my wafer cookie, washed down with the last of the now-tepid coffee. “Once again,” I said, cradling my purse safe in my lap like a little baby, “I thank you so much. But now I must be going.”

“Of course,” said Helga. “But be careful out there. It’s dark now, and this neighborhood — it’s terrible. You’ll walk an entire block without seeing a German anywhere.” (Including, of course, myself.) I took one last glance at the needlepoint pillow of Helga’s daughter and let the heavy door of her apartment shut behind me. I heard three locks click as I shuffled down the pitch-black hallway, fumbling for the thirty-second-long light switch I knew was somewhere.

* * *

Adapted and reprinted from Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Awkward Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations that Only They Have Words For. Copyright © 2017 by Rebecca Schuman. All rights reserved.


from Longreads https://longreads.com/2017/02/02/ostalgie-berlin-1997/

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