Die Wende

November 30, 2019 at 10:21 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

We all jumped when we heard it. My teacher opened the classroom door and peered out.

Thirty years ago this month, I can still remember every moment.

We heard the loud and joyous exclamation repeated in muffled Flemish from other classrooms. When my teacher rushed out the door, the students in my class began to follow him. I didn’t join them, for one good reason.

I hadn’t understood the sentence.

As celebrations erupted around the school, I tried to work it out. I was four months into a year-long exchange program in Brussels, a city I’d instantly fallen in love with. The languages, however, I was struggling with. Belgium has three: French, Flemish and German, and for that extra challenge they sometimes like to mix them all up in the colourful but impenetrable Bruxellois dialect.

The walk home was equally puzzling. Drivers honked; people hung out of car windows waving and bellowing. The elderly couple who ran the fruit stall slow-danced in the street. It was only when I heard German being sung that the shouted sentence in my high school hallway finally made sense.

My god, had the Berlin Wall come down?

Line of the Berlin Wall

I ran the last few steps. My host parents were standing in their butcher shop with white aprons tied tight, holding a bottle of champagne high enough to touch the smoked hams hanging from the ceiling. Everyone burst into cheers when they saw me. A torrent of Flemish and French surged around my host parents and their customers. The joy was undeniable, but I still needed confirmation, and I needed it in English. I headed upstairs to the lounge room, and the BBC.

I knew next to nothing about politics. Until that point my only political participation had been singing along to punk songs excoriating Margaret Thatcher. But that last year of the 1980’s was an incredible time to land in Europe, with the mass demonstrations and revolutionary fervour sweeping across the continent. Watching footage of protests in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia was utterly invigorating. I was about to turn eighteen, and more than ready to see the world as an adult.

The fall of the Berlin Wall brought that home. We’d heard reports of the demonstrations gathering force, but were not quite able to tell the rumours from reality. Watching footage of the West Berliners line the roads with flower and cheers, welcoming the incredulous East Berliners as they streamed across the united city, was a sight I’ll never forget.

I couldn’t shake the spell of that city. Not long after the wall opened, I went to a travel agent. He took one look at the age on my passport and shook his head. It was impossible to find anyone who’d book a seventeen year old on a 750km bus trip from Brussels to Berlin that soon after November 9. What if the wall went back up, and I was trapped there? For some, euphoria was still tempered by suspicion: the shadow of the DDR loomed large.

I settled for the Rhine Valley instead. I spent my eighteenth birthday in Cologne, sneaking into punk clubs and learning German slang beside the world’s biggest Gothic cathedral. I loved my taste of Germany, but the whole time my gaze was on the east, and the promise of Berlin.

That night in November 1989 when I sat cross-legged on my host parents’ floor, watching the news unfold, had sunk hooks deep within me.

They led me to a degree in Germanic Languages and Linguistics, where I studied Nietzsche with scepticism, Goethe with fascination, and Nina Hagen with admiration. The compulsory subjects based on Die Wende, the change of political systems that brought with it the fall of the Berlin Wall, were pure joy to me.

When I finally made it to Berlin, it was even better than I’d anticipated. The city was a revelation.

Berlin street art

On my first trip I went to Bebelplatz, the square where the Nazi book burnings took place. When I was told that Berliners brought candles and pillows every May 10, the anniversary of the burnings, and that they curled up to read their favourite passages from the books that were banned, I knew I would be back.

On my third trip to Berlin I met up with my Dutch pen-pal, and went to a feminist punk festival held in a squat in Kreuzberg where the black coffee was so strong we felt ill and had to go back to the hostel to lie down.

On my fifth trip to Berlin, I rented a flat with an ex-lover who’d flown in from Switzerland. Under a thunderstorm and with sticky glasses of Grand Marnier, he told me I could never be a ‘real writer’ until I’d studied all the French greats of literature. The liqueur left a sweet taste in my mouth; his words did not.

On my seventh trip to Berlin, I landed on the 50th anniversary of the barbed wire being rolled out that would become the Berlin Wall. At midday there was a minute of silence. I watched from my balcony as pedestrians stopped on the footpath with heads bowed. I joined them, honouring not just the people killed trying to cross the wall, but all those whose lives were overshadowed by the enormity of its presence.

On my latest visit I brought my husband. He fell under the spell of the city immediately, connecting, just as I do, to the regeneration and resilience on every street corner.

The landlord of our apartment showed us around. He handed me the keys and a map of the city.

‘Thanks, but this is my eleventh visit. I know this city well.’

He raised his eyebrows.

‘If you love Berlin so much, why don’t you just live here then?’

I didn’t have an answer. It’s a question I ask myself often, every time I visit.

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If you need to hug reindeer…

March 1, 2011 at 11:25 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

I collect phrasebooks.

I also collect red shoes, snake tattoos, and musician ex-boyfriends, but that’s a whole different story.

Matt Burke Photography

I was fifteen when I found a 1967 edition of ‘Teach Yourself Norwegian’ in a secondhand bookstore. Always drawn to the exotic words of snowy lands, I taught myself how to order black coffee, croon endearments to reindeer, and ask for a lift to Sweden.

Then, on page 147, the author was apparently compelled to teach me ‘You will be shot at dawn.’

Hmm, curious.

A few pages further, it read ‘If you continue, I will shriek loudly!’ (Varer det stort lenger, skriker jeg høyt!), and the enigmatic  ‘The first thing I saw was a pig’ (Det første jeg så, var en gris).

Really, what kind of holidays did they have in the sixties?!

All it took for a word wench like myself was that one intriguing spark, and my collection began to grow. I can’t pass a secondhand bookstore without scanning its shelves for more quirky old phrasebooks and their gems, and now I have the joys of the internet as well, I doubt I’ll stop anytime soon.

How could I resist, with treasures such as these?

* I don’t mind watching, but I’d rather not join in (No me importa mirar, pero prefiero no participar) – Spanish

* My hedgehog is not stupid! (Min igelkott är inte dum!) – Swedish

* Je suis desolé de vous quitter, mais je dois acheter un chapeau (I am sorry I have to leave you, but I must buy a hat) – French

* Oho! Tota noin … Eihän se vaa ollu’ sun ajokoira? (I’m awfully sorry … was that your hound?) – Finnish

* Nár fhág sé a chlaíomh ar an mbord? (Didn’t he leave his sword on the table?) – Irish

While it’s entirely possible I spend far too much time diving into dictionaries and chuckling at the sheer magic of words, who hasn’t been in a situation where you’ve looked around and thought, damn, wish I knew how to say I want to hug that squirrel in Esperanto? And because of course you now need to know, it’s Mi volas brakumi tium sciuron.

But my absolute favourite has to go to those glorious Germans, who thoughtfully provided us with this priceless line:

* I am not a conference delegate, nevertheless I would like a penguin (Ich bin kein Mitglied dieser Konferenz, dennoch möchte Ich einen Pinguin).

If you’re anything like me, I bet you’re dying to work that into a conversation.

For more delights like this, try out http://www.bbc.uk.co/languages and http://www.omniglot.language.

 And if you ever get to use them in a real life travel context, by all means, let me know!

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