6 Months in West Berlin

It was in January 1983 that I set out on my adventure into West Berlin. Margaret Thatcher had recently won the Falklands war; the British Labour Party was shortly to suffer one of its greatest electoral defeats in post war history. Princess Di was the darling of the British public and the unfaithfulness of Prince Charles was beyond the belief of ordinary people. The Cold War was at its height and West Berlin was a fascinating enclave within the Eastern Block attractive to someone such as myself not completely at ease with the idea that I was part of the free world and that the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact were our implacable enemy.

I had a friend Heather who on finishing university had gone to live and work in West Germany and who was at that time sharing a house with her German boyfriend Rheiner, in Hamburg. Heather had spent time in Berlin however and knew people still living there. More important from my point of view, the people she knew had knowledge of squatted houses in West Berlin – places where I believed one could just turn up and where one might expect to secure accommodation at a reasonable price.

Having spent a few days with Heather and Rheiner in Hamburg, I hitch-hiked into West Berlin. This was possible along what I suppose was a corridor road through East Germany. I remember the thrill of seeing Russian soldiers as we passed through the outskirts of Berlin and entered the Western part of the city. I can’t quite remember how I acquired the address in Kreuzberg. It was a part of Berlin not far from the wall – Das Mauer. Though run down, and marked by contemporary graffitii, these residential streets had largely been untouched by the allied bombing. I remember my feelings clearly as I walked towards Willi-Bald Alexis Strasse, as night fell, with a sense of real excitement and adventure mixed with fear, because I wasn’t at all sure what awaited me.

Having gained entry to the squat I was brought into a large shared kitchen area. The building was a tenement, I suppose on the scale of Glasgow tenements, substantial apartments grouped around a common staircase and built round a courtyard. Plainly in a previous era it had been occupied by people of some means. At the time of my arrival it was accommodating perhaps 30 or 40 people and was in a fairly dilapidated state.

I was welcomed with some slight suspicion. Sprechen Sie Deutch? Ein Bissien I replied, although truly I did not understand how hopelessly inadequate my German was.

I had always been interested in languages but was a poor linguist. I learnt French to O-level in school, and having hitch-hiked a little in France, had consolidated this sufficiently to get by. My preparation for my trip into West Berlin however was little more than listening to a few language lessons on tape. My hope was that immersion in the real world of German language would help me to break through into some kind of fluency. Looking back from this point I can see that I underestimated the scale of the task – though perhaps, had I stayed longer in Germany, as was my original plan, I might have been more successful. In the end I was gone by July.

On the night of my arrival I agreed terms – so much per week and an agreement to share in the work, the shopping and food preparation of the household. I had enough money to make a down payment and this was well received.

I was provided with a room of my own. A large room, as I recall, low down in the building, and I suspect recently vacated by another squatter who had moved on . The furnishings were fairly primitive, but there was a rough bed and more important, given the time of year, a stove. This was not like any stove with which I was familiar. It was about 3 feet wide, covered with white tiles and stood, as I remember, taller than myself to one side of the room. I was told to fuel it with “braun kohl” which, I would have called peat briquettes, and which was apparently a common fuel at the time in West Berlin, I suppose because it was cheap. Certainly I don’t remember ever being cold during my stay in the city.

At an early stage I went to visit a Spanish friend of Heather – I forget his name, but unlike myself he was a very talented linguist, who spoke six languages and was living in West Berlin with the intention of perfecting his already very competent German. He told me that he had just that day left a job as a dishwasher at the Hotel Mondial on the Kurfuerstendam. Had he been sacked? Or had he just walked out? I can’t quite remember; what was clear was that if I were to turn up innocently at the Hotel the following morning early, taking care not to make any reference to him, I would almost certainly be pressed into service as a dishwasher or a spooler as the job was called. The plan worked perfectly and for my entire stay in West Berlin this job provided me with the income I needed to survive and to make the regular payments which kept my fellow Haus Besetzers happy.

In the world of the hotel kitchen, the Spooler was a person of low status and not always looked on very kindly by the chefs; however, I was prepared for all of this and in time made friends with some of them, one in particular, Uve, who was working in West Berlin as a means to avoid doing his army service. At morning shift, we would all stop for breakfast and the whole kitchen staff would sit down together to dine on coffee, bread cheese and sliced sausage. It was a brief and very pleasant respite from the mostly frantic activity of the kitchen.

Meals at Willi-Bald Alexis Strasse however were an even more memorable experience, in particular the breakfasts. People would take it in turns to do the shopping and would lay out on the kitchen table a very splendid selection of German bread, cheese and salamis served up with coffee from huge pumped flasks. There was no set time for breakfast; early or late, there was a pleasantly sociable atmosphere and generally enough for everyone.

Mid day meals were your own responsibility, but the evening meal was another communal event. To cook for 20 or 30 people was quite a daunting undertaking and the time gradually approached when I knew I would have to take my turn. Tastes in the household were fairly cosmopolitan. I remember for example people making their own pasta with a pasta maker, something I had never witnessed previously. The evening meals were, nutritious, and generous, and unlike the breakfasts, more cosmopolitan in character, though perhaps with something of a whole grain influence. It would not be accurate to characterise the residents of the house as “hippies” but the influence of health and whole foods was certainly there.

What could I possibly cook? I decided to try a curry. This was truly ambitious and not a cuisine particularly well known in West Berlin, where Turkish Restaurants were more characteristic than the Indian restaurants I was used to in the UK. Somehow or another I managed to pull together the ingredients to make my curry. I quite enjoy cooking generally but this a more stressful experience though the meal was politely enough received.

The other residents of the house were a very mixed group, some working, some not working. Some regarding their presence in the house as a very political statement, and others seeing the house simply as a convenient place to stay. There were spiky haired punks, long haired hippies and others with neatly cut hair. I remember them all as friendly. There was Die Renate who was part of a theatre group. Die Anka, with whom I would sometimes exchange a few words in French to prove that I could communicate in a langauge other than Englaish. There was Der Hucky who seemed mostly interested in cars and Volkswagen campers. There was red haired Volker and his girlfriend also with red hair, whose name I can’t recall and who together consumed unfeasible amounts of raw garlic on slices of bread.   There was Die Christina, who was recovering from a suicide attempt following a breakup with her boyfriend and whose chief pleasure in life was reading the novels of Agatha Christie in German translation.

Opportunities to speak German were not easy to find for they all spoke good English, liked to practice it. They soon became impatient with the inadequacies of my German, as did I, given that there was so many things I wanted to talk about. It is a curious fact that the most exhilarating conversation I had in the German language whilst I was in West Berlin was with a young Turkish man who I encountered at a demonstration and who spoke very little English but whose German was probably just a little better than my own. Miraculously we seemed to be able to understand one another though I do wonder what a German speaker overhearing our conversation would have made of it.

On the other hand, living at Willibald Alexis Strasse, I did truly feel immersed in German, but the experience was one of frustrated incomprehension and not the gradual distillation into meaning that I had hoped for. On a fairly regular basis the household would gather for what they called Plenum. A particularly intense subject of discussion at Plenum was the plan to regularise the situation of the household. The squatters were in discussion with a Church organisation who were acting as an intermediary with, presumably the owners of the property, in an attempt to establish an agreement which would enable the squatters to obtain some kind of tenancy or perhaps even ownership. Their starting point was of course somewhat hostile to the owners who they believed were cynical speculators who had left the property to rot in the hope of making a windfall gain at some future time. Tthere was evidently a need for accommodation in the city this was irresponsible and immoral. The negotiations appeared to be proceeding with optimism and hope for a successful outcome. I would sit in on them frequently straining to catch a phrase or even a word, but truth to tell I only had the faintest notion of what was being said and this was for the most part derived from my conversations in English after the event.

I did have other strategies for improving my German. In particular I had a acquired a parallel text of short stories, with German on the left hand page and the English translation on the right. Painstakingly I worked my way through them. One story in particular I read and reread: Die Blase Anna from Heinrich Boll. Poor as my German was, from this single story I started to acquire a feeling for the atmosphere of Germany in the years immediately following the 2nd World War, permeated by a bleak sense of regret and depression but also importantly telling the story of people whose commitment to the Third Reich had always been reluctant.

I also had the idea that it would be interesting to read German children’s literature. Children learn language easily and it follows – or so I thought – that children’s literature is often well written and would offer a route into the language which could be interesting and amusing and perhaps offer some insights into the culture. And I do think there is truth in this. I have three books with me tonight: the simplest of the three: Ich und Klara und der Dackel Schuffi, is the only one I can read without constant reference to a dictionary, though I do have to guess quite a few words still. It’s very whimsical and amusing. Then comes: Papadakis, the story of Jannis, the son of Greek migrants; and finally, In Jedem Wald ist eine Maus die Geige Spielt. This last book I still find very challenging.

Being in West Berlin in 1983, the Berlin Wall was an inescapable presence and would loom up at the end of streets unexpectedly reminding me that I had not yet ventured into that other part of the city – the East. Eventually I did manage to spend an afternoon in East Berlin wandering freely about the streets, a mixture of wide Boulevards flanked by brutalist Soviet style architecture, and in some quarters, crumbling tenements not unlike the buildings in Kreuzberg where I was staying. I had time to visit what I remember as an impressive Museum on the other side of the Brandenburg Gates on Unter den Linden I found my my way out to the huge Soviet War Memorial, chatting with some East German punk rockers as I took the train back into the city centre and finally managed to get into conversation with a young German man and his friends. They were visiting Berlin and from the town of Brandenburg. We went for an evening meal together and enjoyed a relaxed conversation. Perhaps the Stazi were watching but if so I had no knowledge of this. I was obliged nevertheless to return to West Berlin before nightfall and dutifully – no doubt wisely – I crossed back through Check Point Charlie in good time and returned the short distance to Willi Bald Alexis Strasse.

Contrary to the popular idea in the West that the people in the East were deprived of a balanced picture of world affairs, it was clear that the East Berliners, who were free to listen to television from West Berlin, were very well informed, with more freedom than one might have supposed, to express their dissatisfactions. I do remember however visiting a book shop stuffed with very reasonably priced copies of the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin and not a great deal else. One of the conversations I do remember with the friends I made that afternoon in East Berlin was about George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a revered but banned text.

Each day I got on the number 17 bus service which took me from Kreuzberg along the Kurfuerstendam past the Gedactnis Kirke to the Hotel Mondial. The Gedächtniskirche was the remnant of a bombed church which had been left as a memorial. It reminded me of a similar bombed church in the city of Liverpool. The 17 bus was a 24 hour service and ran both ways along the KuDamm, as I heard Kurfursendamm called. I had a bus pass and it occurred to me that someone arriving in Berlin and finding work in a Hotel on the Kudam, as I had, could probably have made their home on the 17 bus service, stopped off for work at their Hotel, perhaps stolen the opportunity for an occasional shower and change of clothes and outside working hours lived off the readily available Kebabs provided by the resident Turkish Community. They could have enjoyed their pick of art, music, theatre and other entertainments in this exciting city. Another way to learn German I thought.

Meanwhile the negotiations rumbled on until one day, quite shockingly, from my point of view, the police – Die Polizie, or more colloquially, Die Bullen, turned us out on the street. We had had a previous visit from them, when we were marched out onto the street and the house was searched, but on that occasion we were dealt with politely enough and then allowed to return. But this second time we were properly evicted or ausgeraumt. It was I think at this time that I acquired a little blue card which I assume to be a kind of visa – I notice it had validity until 21 April 1988 – but to tell the truth I am not quite sure of the significance of this piece of paper, though I still have it.

As it turned out, many of those who had been living in Willi-Bald Alexis Strasse were able to find accommodation probably less than a couple of hundred yards from where we had been staying. I joined them there. The atmosphere though was very different. For one thing, I no longer had my own room but had to share a kind of dormitory accommodation – a schlaf zimmer – as it was known. Actually the previous house also had schlaff zimmern, and many people, even where they had their own room, would choose to sleep in the schlaf zimmer. This was mixed sex accommodation. I dare say many Irish or Scottish people observing the young squatters would have taken this as evidence that their life style was promiscuous and dissolute, but this was not my observation. The people I was encountering were unual sample of the West German population; nevertheless I could compare them a squat I had stayed in briefly in London and in general found them to be more generally at ease with their body image. For example as the year drew on and we experienced some hotter weather I was invited to a lake out on the edge of the city where we would go swimming. Swimming costumes were definitely not a requirement and everyone seemed relaxed swimming and sunbathing naked. Yet in their personal relationships these same young people were, if anything, more discrete in their relationships with one another than comparable British young people of that era – so for the most part schlaf zimmern were exactly that – places to sleep.

Not surprisingly there were uncertainties around the future of this new accommodation. The old household had been broken up and scattered about the city. Some residents had decided to leave Berlin. I on the other hand was coming under pressure to return home to Northern Ireland where my eldest brother Michael had not been well. My parents seeing that I had no serious commitments in Berlin were I am sure doubtful that their 29 year old son was spending his time profitably. They saw no reason for me to linger.

And so with some reluctance I took leave of the city. Over the years I have watched the news of Berlin with interest. During the Cold War, West Berlin was closed in and claustrophobic; perhaps because of this unique atmosphere it became a magnet for bohemia, for people who did not fit in elsewhere and who were in search of the freedom to be themselves. In the midst of this ferment it is not surprising that the creative arts flourished. More suprisingly, the prevailing mood of the city was exhilaration. I was lucky enough to experience this briefly. With the fall of the Berlin Wall the city has gone through a huge reconstructive transformation, with the Bundestag restored as the parliament, the Brandenburg Gates once again open for movement from East to West and crumbling areas such as Kreuzburg resurgent. Someday I would like to return.

The above text formed the basis of a talk to the Dumfries German Society on Thursday 21Feb2013.   Following the talk one of the audience who had been living in West Germany at about the same time as I was visiting Berlin, remarked that she had never previously heard anything good said about Kreuzberg.

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