Berliner, für eine Woche

Ich bin ein Berliner

Mein Sohn, im Reichstag

Mein Sohn, im Reichstag

a break in the in-fightingRarely do I travel somewhere new and Berlin had been on my hit list for a long time. This autumn was the last chance for D and I to take our son there with the intention of getting him to speak some German: a bit of practice ahead of his GSCE Exam. It was an ambition at which we failed epically. As he was chaperoned from one awesomely symbolic site to another, the juvenile ingrate hardly opened his mouth, except to say – in English – that he’d rather be at home doing his shit 🙄

Oh he didn’t mean it!

Mrs Anthony and Form 3 Orange, last day FSSG

Frau Anthony and Schulklasse 3 Orange

I speak a little (crumbling) German which I studied for two years while living in Sierra Leone in the 80s. As a ‘new girl’ from then-Yugoslavia, I’d just joined Form 2 of Freetown Secondary School for Girls and was still struggling to understand the accent of the girls in my class (and they mine) when in walked the new German teacher: young, lovely, dressed in an Indian skirt (I loved hippies!) and, well, German! The class was stunned – though it didn’t take long for the rowdier elements to judge every aspect of Frau Decker a source of absolute hilarity… The lessons would be frequently sabotaged by explosions of mass laughter. Frau Decker would try to remain relentlessly cheerful, for whenever she got upset or angry (she could have resorted to the cane, but was one of the few teachers who didn’t), the mood difference would only result in even more laughter. I felt kindred spirits with her and an affinity for the language, liking its amusingly harsh consonants, unambiguous vowels and even the three genders – masculine, feminine, neuter – which occur also in Croatian, my mother tongue. We were sad when at the end of that school year Frau Decker left, but I felt relief too.  Her successor was also a foreigner, this time from Jamaica.  Form 2 was followed by a year of relative calm because the rowdier elements flunked while I lost my own novelty value and made friends. But then, aged fourteen, I came to England where I wasn’t able to continue with German though I later sat a GCSE and scraped through with a C.

map reading skilzIt’s disorienting to land in a country where the language is strange. Each street around Alexanderplatz – where we spilled out, hungry and dazzled by sunlight – seemed to have a similar-sounding twin. My ageing eyes struggled to read the tiny maps in my pocket guide book. At dusk that first evening, while we searched for our apartment, we pressed the map to our noses, phone torches ablaze!

'Die Brücke'

‘Die Brücke’

On Torstrasse however, I did glance up to see a lit up shop window with a display of corsets – yes, a modern day corsetiere – and I remembered reading how at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the artists of Die Brücke movement approved the young model he’d been sent, saying her figure hadn’t been ‘deformed’ by the wearing of fashion corsets.

'Fallen Leaves', Jüdisches Museum

‘Fallen Leaves’, Jüdisches Museum

This is a wandering post, with no demonstration of any sewing activity whatsoever, inspired by the very enjoyable writings of  a ‘lapsed sewist’  😉  (no less interesting for that) Stephanie.  I didn’t even come across a fabric shop during my daily treks across Berlin, yet fabric is  woven into the story of every big city: in the clothes worn by its people, their occupations, their art.  Particularly poignant was an exhibit in the Jewish Museum: a finely-beaded bag given in lieu of payment to a seamstress who’d repaired the coats of a family about to attempt their escape from the a city turned hostile. africa chair bauhaus archiv In the Bauhaus Museum, the towering throne that is the Africa Chair, built by designer and architect Marcel Breuer but ‘softened’ and made vibrant by the textile artist Gunta Stölzl who produced the seat and back.  (By the way, we might not have liked ‘Herr Bauhaus’ Walter Gropius much; how he seemed to resent women artists, filling up valuable space with their looms!)

The floor of the Bauhaus Archiv

The floor of the Bauhaus Archiv

About a year ago, I heard a Radio 4 programme about Barlach’s Angel, and wanted to discover more about the artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) so we visited her museum  in the south-west part of the city.  Charlottenburg is elegant (think Kensington) but Kollwitz lived and worked in the deprived east, where her husband was a doctor and of whose patients she made an admiring study.  The ground floor of the museum contains startling photographs of Berlin in Kollwitz’ time.  There are images of dead or wounded World War One soldiers which shock as much as the more familiar images of the horrors of the Second World War.  But I was struck by a photograph of a seamstress in a tiny and dark attic, surrounded by her piecemeal work, her children sitting about in a mixture of decorum and apathy.  I realise there are parts of the world where this is going on now, in the more industrialised setting of the factory floor and catering to an insatiable world-wide demand.  I was gutted when on the way back from the museum we emerged into the swish shopping area of Kurfürstendamm and, instigated by my daughter, stepped into one of those international clothing stores that caters to the young female.  I tried at first to find a bargain but I’d never seen some many rails of different garments, each rivalling its neighbour in cheapness of material and ugliness of style.

Ein 'Selfie'

Ein ‘Selfie’

Kollwitz’ son joined the War as a volunteer and was killed soon after, which largely explains the artist’s resulting pacifism and her persistent portrayal of motherhood.   My great-grandfather fought on the same side as Peter Kollwitz, having been an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army.  He was killed weeks after getting married.  His son (whom he never met) took the photograph below while his widow, my great-grandmother, is sitting on the left of the picture (I do believe I look more like her the older I get).  My father is on the right, on the lap of my grandmother Karmela.  Karmela was an English teacher (as is my mother – hence my tendency to empathise with the teaching profession!).  She too saw great deprivation in her early years of life in the cities of Zagreb and Sarajevo and was grateful to the Communist government of post-war Yugoslavia for endeavouring to promote unity and egalitarianism.

Soon after this picture was taken, my father’s parents divorced  in tragic, heart-breaking circumstances.

Das Urbany Familie

Das Urbany Familie


Our apartment was in Choriner Strasse.   That first evening we were met by our landlord. ‘This is my first time in Germany,’ I told him. ‘Berlin is not Germany!’, he said.  I  laughed, thinking I knew what he meant, because isn’t this what we say about London too; that it’s not England, or Britain?  The next morning after lots of sleep, I was much less lost and the more I discovered of Berlin, the more I felt I was finding all my old homes.

1 choriner-horz

Choriner Strasse, before and now.  With thanks to Roger Schlinke


10 thoughts on “Berliner, für eine Woche

  1. I’m honoured (though heartily embarrassed!). 😉 What a glorious post and prose. I hope you will intersperse your sewing posts with more of these fascinating interludes! (I, on the other hand, will shock all of you by becoming an über-poster of sewn items, with singular focus in my writing.) Now I want to know so much more…about your time in Sierra Leone, your family history, the tragic circumstances…I find histories – all histories – compelling.

    Thank you also for the voyage to Berlin. Berlin is high on my list to visit, too. Sadly, in spite of the fact that my best friend is German, I have never learned a word of German (unless schie…or lebkuchen count). Claus reminded me once that the Germans speak much better English than the Italians, anyhow, so what was the problem with me landing in Berlin and learning the language bit by bit? I also love the sounds. I once took Gianni to an entire concert of lieder sung in German, which was a step too far for him…but I loved it! Idioms in German are absolutely fascinating, too, and of course offer a contrast to those in Latin languages. Oh it’s all so interesting! (Although your son did not speak German while there, did he gain some additional interest or enthusiasm or guilty feelings by the end of the trip?)

  2. Beautifully written account Marianna, you have a wonderful writing voice, quite similar but different to our lovely Stephanie actually. There’s nothing like a good yarn and this type of rambling gives us a lot of insight.
    I enjoyed German at school, the sounds were easier than french, but when does an Aussie use German?! You can imagine my surprise when my husband told me he scored higher in German than English in his finals, his scores were definitely saved by the higher maths!
    Having met you recently Marianna, I did think you had very beautiful diction – english teachers in the family might do that!? Language exchange to deepest darkest Germany is the only way I think, our son’s french improved no end when he lived in Bretagne for 3 months, by contrast the kids that went to Paris didn’t improve much at all because everyone kept speaking english to them!

    • Thank you.

      I did meet someone who in the 80s went on a school exchange trip where she stayed on an isolated German farm, while her German counterpart came to London and went to gigs, bright lights, etc. She was a bit disgruntled about it several decades later!

      I wonder if Australians speaking French sound very different (to the French) from the English speaking French (who often still sound English!). On the other hand, I’ve often watched Danish tv programmes thinking I was hearing Scots!

      I think now the teenager is back in his realm, he’s glad to have experienced new things and new places.

  3. A very interesting post Marianna, which had me engrossed for so long I forgot to feed the kittens – especially when I clicked on ‘Stephanie’ and got sidetracked by her posts too. I want to follow her but I’m afraid I may never get to do anything else in life apart from read blogs.
    I studied German at ‘O’ level for one year at school as a ‘filler’ while I was doing my ‘A’ levels but I gave it up as I just couldn’t get on with those harsh (to me at least) sounds. Because I didn’t like the sound of it, I felt embarrassed to speak it so there wasn’t really any point going on. So I took Geology instead which I didn’t like either.
    I love your photos, especially the black and white one of your family – so interesting and I can’t help wondering about the ‘tragic circumstances’.
    Your son sounds perfectly normal, by the way, my daughters would have been exactly the same – still are actually.

  4. Marianna, you do write well. I found this post fascinating and am now also intrigued to read more about your family. I’ll happily read this alongside your more ” sewing” related musings.

  5. Yes – a most interesting post.

    I was hoping to see a picture of you in SL. My son spent a year in Ghana and I loved the pictures of him over there. Like Where’s Wally, only really easy! Also my housing association owns Walter Gropius’s home (and block of flats) – in Lawn Road, Hampstead. Made out of concrete the Isokon building is light pink. Well worth seeing.

    I loved Berlin – we visited with a couple of rather old Berliners which was a privilege and very moving. Also my boys learnt German at school and we had German au pairs of the most amazing ability. My father spoke German having been in a German PoW camp in the war (in Poland). I do think German is an easier accent for Brits to emulate than some of the other South European tongues. The video you included is hilarious.

    • Oh funnily enough, I have the very photo you mean, taken at a prize-giving ceremony with me in a crowd of a hundred tiny faces. But mostly the photos from school don’t feature me in them as I was the only one with a camera. One day I’ll post the photos of me in SL wearing the cotton dresses made by local tailors. There were absolutely no clothes shops then, even in the capital. You could buy cheap China-made clothes in the market but mostly we went to the fabric shops, picked something nice, then took it to the tailor with a picture from a magazine.

      I’m astounded to hear your father was a PoW. What relatively easy lives the generations following have been privileged to live – and how tragic after last night’s events that some don’t realise or care.

      I wasn’t aware of the WG house – thanks!

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