Rarely 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!
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.
It’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!
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.
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. 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!)
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.
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.
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.