Archives for the month of: March, 2014


Thirty minutes to go until I leave the house.  My room is cleaned and aired, in case my roommates have any guests who want to use it while I’m gone.  I’m packed as neatly as possible – one of the advantages is that I’m flying home, where all my favourite ancient clothes are, for mooching around the house, so I don’t need to bring much with me.  I took the winter woollies, as I figure Berlin is over the worst of winter, and will bring back teeshirts instead.

Just as you are careening along with everything under control, life can throw you what the Americans so colourfully call a curveball.  Last weekend, I caught a cold, and gave it the usual gallons-of-water-and-early-nights treatment. However, it just wouldn’t shift, and as the week went on, it got worse.  On the way home from babysitting one night, my ear suddenly blocked and I’ve been deaf on that side ever since.  Oh we never appreciate our faculties until they disappear.  In my head, it sounds as if there’s a factory churning, and I have to tilt my head in the direction of whoever is speaking.  However, it wasn’t so bad as to stop me from babysitting, but I had thought I’d have a week of meeting people who are heading off into adventures, and instead, I was in bed early every night.  On Wednesday, Alexander (7) was sitting on the couch, and I leaned over him to ask him if he could help me clear the table. With that, he jumped up with enthusiasm, and his (very hard) head hit me right in the left eye.  Zora (9) dashed off for a bag of peas from the freezer, and I went into the downstairs bathroom to look at the damage.  I could see a bruise rising into a little egg which made me murmur “fuck!” under my breath (I thought!).  The children thought it was the funniest thing –  they danced around chanting “Lulu said the F-word! Lulu said the F-word!”.  All I could think of was flying home to Ireland with a black eye, but after a while, I could see the funny side of it, and it wasn’t too bad by the next day – It looked as if I’d put kohl on just one side.

When I went out next day, I forgot about the black eye, and it’s strange to see people’s reactions in shops – they think you’re either a victim, or maybe dangerous yourself, and keep you at a safe distance.  On the train, I was looked by very sympathetically by lots of younger women, who assumed I was a poor old beaten-up wife, but I felt it was rather healthy that they had such empathy with older women. By the time Friday rolled around, I began to wonder if I’d ever get better, and would I be okay to fly, so I went to the doctor.  Claudia, the children’s mother, recommended her doctor, and they said I could come to the open hour and just wait.  Eventually, I got in to see Dr. Hamm (“Yes! Hamm, just like the meat!”), who welcomed me with open arms.  He had just booked to go to Co. Kerry for a holiday in August, and spent the next quarter of an hour talking about Ireland.  I gave him a gentle nudge, saying actually, my throat and ear, ahem ahem, and he swabbed my throat, explained the procedure (using a kit not unlike a pregnancy test – if two stripes show up, you have strep throat, if only one, you’re clear).  No, he said, you have no strep throat, so you don’t need an antibiotic. He recommended nose drops for the ear, and was totally chipper about flying. He gave me such a lift, I suddenly felt a million times better, and a view of Ireland cleared through the clouds, it was totally possible to be healthy again. Bon voyage chez nous, Lulu, or turas sábháilte, as we say in the ould sod.


Having more time off doesn’t necessarily mean I write more in the blog, but I do get out and see lots of Berlin. We have had the most amazing weather – full sunny spring – since mid-February, and, of course I didn’t feel like going indoors to any museums (which I had originally planned for this break).  Instead, I explored green spaces; I took the u-bahn to Krumme Lanke, which is just a few stops from the University.  There I found a lovely, almost deserted lake, which I noted was for swimming (later in the year). I explored Hasen Heide, a tremendous green space with a petting zoo, super playground and cafe. There are drug dealers at every gate, but they aren’t interested in you, they’re doing business.  And I went to Volkspark Friedrichshain, which has two of the only “hills” in the whole city – Berlin is a totally flat city, a cyclists heaven.  The “hills” are, in fact World War II rubble, which was placed in an enormous mound, and then greened over.  Quite lovely, the steep steps going up the side were reminiscent of the Pyramid at Coba, and on the other side, there was the usual busy café overlooking a small lake.

During the week, I also went to see Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, the first of it’s kind in Germany, built in 1933.  When the memorial to the murdered Jews was opened in the city centre, many people didn’t want it so centrally placed, and suggested that they could extend and improve facilities at Sachsenhausen, for people to visit and remember.  Having gone there, I can testify that it takes a long time to get there, and the location of the city-centre Gedankstaette makes far more sense. However, always one to enjoy a train journey, I settled down to see the northern part of Berlin.  Initially, it was industrial and downmarket-looking, but then it thinned out into nice suburbs and then pure countryside.  What amazed me is just how big Berlin is, and how little of it I know. When you get to Oranienburg, you can either walk or take a bus to Sachsenhausen, which is a couple of kilometres outside of town.  This was built as a Musteranlage, a model camp, as a prototype for camps to come.  Its’ proximity to Berlin was a big factor, plus the fact that they could easily extend the 15 or so acres they already had.

Many of us are, in a way, spoiled by Hollywood, in that we recognise the shape and architecture of the camp, the irony of the big gate with “Arbeit macht frei” built into the wrought iron.  It was a beautiful day, so it was less depressing than it might be on a wet and windy day, though the whole place looked bare and sad, with scrappy grass between big swathes of large-rock gravel.  I toured the now-converted buildings, which is a fascinating museum, with pictures of police chiefs from Spain and the Middle East, taken with the Camp Commendant; they were on tour (in the early 1930’s) to see how to control dissidents, undesirables and political opponents.  Even if they started by thinking they would simply “control” dissidents, it soon became a camp for gays, gypsies and Jews, along with regular criminals.  Nobody (including the regular criminals) had an exit date, and, before long, they began to experiment with inmates diets, to see how little they could exist on, whilst still being productive.  There was a whole room devoted to what happened to the Roma.  At 4am on 16th July, 1936, the police rounded up all the Gypsies in a bid to “clean up” Berlin in time for the Olympics.  They were placed in Berlin-Marzahn Concentration Camp (actually called a Rastplatz – “Resting place” – it was an open field sandwiched between a sewage plant and a cemetery). Within a short while, the authorities surrounded it with barbed wire and started a forced labour programme. In 1938 the men were sent to Sachsenhausen, and in 1941, the women and children were sent to Auschwitz. It’s when you see the pictures of individual families, all the men with violins, all the women in swirly skirts, all killed, that it hits you.  The sheer numbers just numb you in the end.

This was also one of the camps where they did experiments – after all, they had a captive audience, they could do something useful to help the Wehrmacht, fighting for the Fatherland. Germany had a great shortage of leather, for boots and shoes (I imagine very important if you’re going to be marching to Russia).  Some bright-spark chemist/doctor decided that they would make shoes from synthetic materials and test them on the prisoners.  They also wanted to test drugs like cocaine and pervitin (methamphetamine, commonly known now as chrystal meth).  The German army were already giving pervitin to their soldiers, in a bid to keep them active for longer, hence the prisoners were used as guinea pigs, to see how far they could march, loaded with weights, and full of pervitin. Some reports there said they marched (on those still visible gravel pits) for up to 5 days with barely any sleep, they couldn’t sleep. Of course, you also have to think of the unfortunates on the Russian front, being fed pervitin to keep facing into the enemy. Just as an aside, this is common practice in military conflict today, though it’s more likely to be cocaine than chrystal meth.

There were other experiments, giving a whole slew of children hepatitis to isolate the germ – since the Army, once again, had had problems with jaundiced soldiers. These experiments took place in all the camps, some of them more gorey than others.  Sachsenhausen became a place to try things out, mobile gas wagons, crematoria, then an actual gas chamber, which, when successful, were then passed on to other camps. In terms of numbers, Sachsenhausen doesn’t compare with Auschwitz, but there were people living right at the edge of the barbed-wire fence.  Surely they must have heard the 10,000+ Soviet Prisoners-of-war being shot individually in the head?  Apparently, the camp commendant didn’t want a riot, so played very loud classical music (probably Wagner) to cover the sounds.  And people dying of hunger don’t make any noise. In 1945, with the approach of the Russians, the Germans marched all those able to march (45,000 prisoners) on what is now called a “Death March”, as far as Wittstock, travelling between 20 and 40 kilometres a day, with no food, in bad weather, sleeping in the open. Approximately 7,000 died, left unburied along the route.  After the liberation of the camp (3,000 sick or dying had been left behind), the inmates insisted on inviting the locals up to have a look, but there was very little response.  The Soviets then took it over and used it as an NKVD Special Camp for internment of Fascists, ex-Nazis and dissidents, under the control of the Gulag.  Also known as Sweigelager, “Silence Camps”, the inmates had no contact with the outside world. The existence of the camp was kept secret, until exposed by Western press. Inmates were not legally charged and nothing was documented. In 1950, it was handed over to the East German Government, who used Sachsenhausen as a sister camp to Hohenshoenhausen (the centre for the STASI).  Just under 200,000 prisoners were kept there, with almost 50,000 dying of hunger and awful conditions, though these numbers are disputed by German and Russian authorities.

So, what does a trip to a concentration camp do to you? It makes you wonder about today’s tyrants, Putin and Obama, having a face-off.  Germany is terrified of what might happen in Ukraine. It’s all very well to have a debate about Syria or Venezuela, but Ukraine is very close to home, and an ancient enemy.  Someone pointed out to me that Angela Merkel doesn’t use the familiar “du” with Putin, they are still on very formal and frosty terms.  It also makes you wonder about how we can leave countries in the financial lurch, which Germany was between the wars, a wide open vacuum for Adolf Hitler to step into.  And then the numbers of dead people, so many that disposing of them became a logistical problem, and they had to introduce things like gas chambers or cremation. It also puts your own relatively benevolent history into perspective. What I have to admire is the German’s honesty in facing up to the past, and looking at what a different generation did, indeed bequeathed to them.  There is still resistance to stories of individual Germans and what they experienced, like the tremendous book I have just read “A Woman in Berlin”, written anonymously, by a 30-year old journalist in the spring of 1945, when the Russians “liberated” Berlin, but that will come with time.


I helped three different friends move apartments last week.  The first two were French friends, moving to Pankow together, in the north of the city, from Neukoelln and Kreuzberg, respectively, both southside. Three of us hauled huge wheelie-suitcases and IKEA bags across town, two trips on the U-bahn, and up 10 flights of stairs (5th floor) to settle them in.  Then I went directly to help another friend who was moving only a short distance, and had managed to wangle a car and driver.  However, there was another 6 flights of stairs (3rd floor), but since there was 6 of us, it was a fairly swift operation.  Helping people move is an interesting experience.  The French friends have moved a few times already, and are only moving in to this apartment for the next 3 months, as a sublet. My other friend is making the move from a shared apartment to living alone.  What amazed me was the amount of stuff people hang on to. One girl had a huge lightweight box, that was really awkward to carry, and when we tried to re-pack, we discovered it was full of used plastic bags, which of course could be squished down to nothing. I know I arrived here with a suitcase and if I had to move, it would probably be more than that, but I always saw moving house as an opportunity to clear out and get rid of stuff that I no longer needed. I guess people nest each time they move in to a new place, and bring their feathers and twigs with them for a sense of home. People move a lot here, it’s regarded as quite normal to live in zwischenmiete (sublets) if you are here for less than a year, and people who are permanently here often move a few times until they find where they are most comfortable.

On this very subject, I finally heard from my flatmates that I can stay until the end of my academic year, which is a big relief.  We celebrated with beer, crisps and nuts.  I had re-cycled all the empties that were cluttering up the hall (8c per bottle for beer, 25c per bot for plastics) and had bought beer. I dreaded having to go through the business of WG-Gesucht again, which is the agency for renting, and have to present myself for inspection by prospective roommates.  Not only is it disheartening (even for young and beautiful flat-seekers), but it is incredibly time-consuming to search, find, contact, view, cross fingers, and then, usually, be rejected. Of course, this time, I know the city, and perhaps, if I had to move, I’d find something even more amazing and possibly cheaper.  However, moving is always a roulette wheel, and the last friend who I helped move on Saturday only moved in there last September, and waxed lyrical about flatmates, building and location, at the time. By the time she was leaving, she hadn’t a good word to say about it.  I am still in love with Neukoelln and my lovely flatmates, and am enjoying the changing seasons outside my bedroom window. We are on the third floor, so right up in the trees, which are planted everywhere in Berlin (500,000 at the last count).  I arrived when the trees were still in full summer costume, watched an amazing Autumn colour change, and then the bareness of Winter, and snow on the branches. Now the first buds are pushing through, even though it feels like the shortest Winter I ever experienced. We didn’t turn the heating on until it snowed on January 20th.  I realised why shortly before Christmas – the heating pipes for the whole building run through people’s apartments, so if the people upstairs have the heating on, you have the benefit of a heated pipe en route (mine is beside my desk). Because we had very low temperatures during the snow, the heating was on until Jan 30th, when it melted. When I helped my friends move last week, I realised that we are probably unusual here – my friends’ apartments were like ovens.  I guess is suits everyone to have three thrifty people, who wear more than tee-shirts at home, who like to cook and drink beer together (albeit alcohol-free for me), who share the same taste in music, who value their space, living together. This is the experience I missed before I got married, almost 39 years ago, and it feels all the better for having to have waited for it.