An American in Berlin
15 May, 2018
Oh hey, Writer’s Block. What’s up? Ugh, you guys. I’ve tried writing a post – the same post – twice already, and just…I’m not feeling it. So I’m officially ditching it and starting a new one. Maybe I’ll circle back at the end though and try to recapture some of it though. Not that you, dear reader, would know the diff if I didn’t tell you. So why am I telling you? Because it’s my blogue and I can ramble if I want to.
Anyway, Germany. No matter how much I like this country and its fine people, there’s always gonna be some shit that’s just straight up weird, you know? And by weird, I mean, yeah, every culture is different and they’re all valid and blah blah blah. But listen to this and tell me if you don’t think it’s fucking weird.
So a couple of weeks back, I went for one of my walks. I ended up in Friedrichshagen, which is adorable and one of my favorite spots in this neck of the woods. There’s a Japanese joint I really like there as well as what passes for a good Vietnamese spot in this town. It was at this Vietnamese outpost that I stopped for a late lunch after several hours of strolling. I got a bowl of Pho, which was quite good for Berlin, but wouldn’t even make the menu at Pho Grand. Such is life.
Anyway, after this lovely meal, I mosey up the block where I encounter a little gelato shop. Well, remembering how nice it was to have a bit of gelato back when I was in Florence, I decided to get a little desert. I mean, a little gelato never hurt anybody, right? Well, it hurts me if it has lactose. So I ask what they’ve got that’s lactose free and the lady behind the counter gives me my options.
And at first, it seemed like I was getting the answer I was hoping for. Namely that they had both a chocolate and a raspberry that were lactose-free. Great. So I ask the lady if I can get a small half-chocolate-half raspberry. And that’s where things got weird. Cos the lady looked at me like I had three heads and said, “Halbkugeln geht nicht bei uns.” We don’t do half scoops. And I’m like, how do you say “Can’t…or won’t?” in German?
Like, what the actual fuck is that? I mean, what exactly is stopping you from taking half a scoop of one and half a scoop of the other and jamming them into the same tiny little cup? Sure, I get that they won’t be exactly halves. And, yeah, maybe that offends your German sense of…what, even? Exactitude? I ain’t exactly asking you to go in the back and concoct an entirely new flavor, just for me, you know? And I’m not asking for extra ice cream.
I’m literally asking for the same total amount of product for the listed price. And you know what even? Fuck the listed price. If you need to charge me an extra twenty cents for asking for something “off-menu,” so be it. Although, even that, honestly would be weird. But just flat out being all, “Yeeaaah, sorry, we don’t do half scoops”??? Oh, and not even “sorry.” Just straight up, “We don’t do that, [implied] you monster.” Like, that can’t be normal.
Except, apparently, that’s totally normal. Here, I mean. Apparently it’s totally normal here. It’s obviously not normal. What I mean is, I’ve told this story to like three people here; three Germans. And it was the same reaction each time. Every time I get to the part where I ask for half-&-half, their eyes go wide and the look at me like I’ve just kicked their dog. I can see it in their faces. Oh gods, you’re going to take her side, aren’t you?
“So she says – get this – she says, ‘Halbkugeln geht nicht bei uns.’ Can you believe that?” And they all said the same thing. “Dude, this is Germany.” As if that were sufficient as an explanation. I try to reason with them. I try to make them see where I’m coming from. They can’t. Because Germany.
They have a saying here. Kunden ist König – the customer is king. Unless the customer asks for two half scoops. Then apparently, the customer is a mad king and needs to be protected from himself. It’s weird, is all I’m saying.
Anyway, Saturday I went for another walk. I didn’t really have a plan. Just, it was a nice day. So why not grab a brew and stroll? Well, so I do that, and it’s lovely. I got back to my Infinite Monkey Cage podcast.1 For some reason, it feels like a summer podcast to me. My first time here, in 2015, I listened to it a lot whilst exploring. So it evokes that – this – time of year for me. I’m rambling again.
Well, as my walk is winding down, I notice that it’s about 4pm and also that I haven’t really eaten anything yet. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, when you consider I couldn’t be bothered to get my ass out of bed before noon. But I was hungry, is the point.
So I pass a döner shop and awkwardly pause to look in the window. It looks good, but there’s another one up the block, so I decide to check that one out too before making a decision. I dunno why. Not like they’re gonna be vastly different. Meanwhile, I say that, and sure enough, the second one doesn’t look quite as good as the first.
What I mean by that is, the huge rotating döner in the window of the first shop looked crispier. Which I like. Because first of all, I feel like if it’s crispier, then it’s less likely to be super greasy and therefore a bit easier on my not-so-iron gut. But also, when it’s crispy, you get that nice little crunch.
OK, now I sound like Billy Crystal in the Princess Bride. You know, with the MLT – Mutton, Lettuce and Tomato, when the mutton is nice and lean…
Right, so I decide I want to go back to the first shop. The only problem is, I’ve now lingered in front of both their windows; long enough for the guys behind the counter to see me. And like, that’s awkward. I mean, it’s not awkward for the more well-adjusted among us. But I’m like, Great, Döner Guy #1 is gonna be all, “Oh, now you want my sammich only after deciding you didn’t want the other one more?” And then I’d have to re-walk past the second shop with my purchase from the first shop in hand. So then Döner Guy #2 could be all, “Oh, I see how it is. My sammich isn’t good enough for you? So you bought one from my competitor and are walking past my shop with it, what, to rub it in my face?”
Am I overthinking this?
Anyway, I decide to walk around the block the long way. That should buy me 5-7 minutes, by which time, hopefully, both Döner Guys will have forgotten about my awkward window shopping. Except, on the other side of the block, I find a cemetery. So obvi I need to go check that out.
And at first, it’s just your usual cemetery business. Nothing’s very old, mind you. The oldest stones might be from late 19th or early 20th century. But that’s OK. It’s still nice and peaceful. And it reminded me of the time me and Niki went to a cemetery. That was either one of our last “dates” or one of our first “friend activities.” We made up stories for some of the people. And this one guy, Ruben (or Rueben?), Niki actually found a picture of his family. Crazytown. Probably not any Rubens in this joint though. Not a very goyish name.
Well, as I’m looking at these stones I’m noticing the dates. And it gets my mind going. Because a great many of the people buried in this cemetery lived through the Nazi times. And for me, it’s impossible not wonder about that. Who were they? What did they do? Were some of the Nazis? Did some of them resist? Did most of them just go with the flow? The shit these people must have lived through. And why? Because they happened to be born at a certain time, in a certain place?
And that’s when things took a turn. Because then I came to a most interesting part of the cemetery. Most interesting indeed. Here, there were not the usual upstanding gravestones. More square plaques, almost flat in the ground. And I start to notice, all the death dates are 1945. These stones are very Spartan, I should say. Just a name (or “unknown”), a birth date (if known), a death date (if known), and then at the bottom “1939-1945.”
So is this a military part of the cemetery? There’s nothing to indicate branch of service, rank or anything else. But all the stones are of equal size, make, layout. And it’s got the war dates. So what’s the deal? I start to look closer, and some of the people died in their 20’s and 30’s. But some are definitely teenagers. And a lot of them have death dates of April-May ’45. So now we’re talking Battle of Berlin?
But so far, I can’t find any sign or plaque that gives actual information. So after reading a bunch of the first stones I stumble across, I make my way to the front of this little area. (I had entered from the back of it). And there I do find a plaque. But all it says is, 1st and 2nd World War.
Hey? First also? I turn around, and sure enough, at the front of this area, all the stones – which are otherwise identical to the ones above described – show the dates 1914 – 1918 across the bottom. Well now that’s interesting.
So what is actually the deal here? Did this start as only a cemetery for WWI soldiers; if indeed actually soldiers? Was it expanded after the second world war? Or was it all done at one time, later on? Were bodies exhumed from both wars and reburied here all together? I don’t know, because I can’t find any information.
But there’s layers of history here, beyond the obvious. One just has to look at the names. What I mean is, while many of the names are clearly German, a whole bunch are also Polish. Which means there are even more stories here.
First, we need to remember that a huge chunk of western Poland was part of Germany up until Versailles. So Polish names in the WWI section shouldn’t be so surprising. And Berlin, after all, is quite close to the border. So at least for these guys – the ’14 – ’18 gang – it’s probably safe to assume they were German citizens of Polish descent.
But what about the Polish names in the WWII section? Were they also German citizens, long settled in or around Berlin? Could they have been POWs or other Poles forced to fight, forced to defend Berlin in the last days of the war? Was that even a thing? Or did they see themselves as “German” as the guy buried next to them? And if so, what did they make of the war, of German aggression against Poland, of the Nazi position that the Slavs, the Poles, were subhuman? How could they take up arms in defense of that regime? Questions. But no answers.
And then, going back to the WWII stones, the ones showing deaths in April-May ’45. The dates are very clearly Battle of Berlin, and I think it’s a safe assumption given where they’re buried. Right in the path of the advancing Red Army.
But even then, what does that tell us about them? Almost nothing. The Russian Army was brutal. “The Big Red Rape Machine” would be un unflattering but historically not inaccurate epithet. So even if you hated the Nazis, do you take up arms willingly, when these guys are knocking down your door; knocking down your house; knocking down your whole block? Do you defend your family, even as you pray for the end of the Nazis and all the madness they’ve wrought?
Or were some of these guys true believers? The younger ones especially would have known nothing else. They would have been indoctrinated almost from birth. How many of them willingly gave their lives for The Führer? Again, questions. No answers.
And another point of interest. While all the WWII stones that I inspected showed 1945 death dates, some of them were as late as September, October, November. The war was already over. How did they die? In POW camps? As war criminals? From wounds or sickness sustained in battle? How does somebody die 4, 5, 6 months after the war is over and still get buried beside the fighting dead? (Again, assuming these are the fighting dead). More questions. Still no answers.
And then, finally, some answers. But answers that beg more questions. All the way in the front of this little area, I find a plaque with the following inscription:
In diesem Grab ruhen über 60 unbekannte Frauen und Männer, die infolge von Kriegseinwirkungen verstorben sind. Die Toten wurden im Jahr 2009 vom St. Laurentius-Friedhof in diese geschlossene Gräberanlage des kommunalen Friedhofsteils Rudower Straße verlegt.
In this grave rest over 60 unknown women and men, who died due to the effects of war. The dead were lain here from the St. Laurentius Cemetery in this separated grave area in 2009, by the Rudower Steet community.2
Well, the only thing I know for a fact after reading this is that this special section was only dedicated in 2009. The cemetery itself is St. Laurentius, so I gather that before ’09 all these people were buried elsewhere in the same cemetery. Oh, and women also? I didn’t see any lady names, but then I didn’t inspect every stone. And also, this plaque seemed only to be about the 60 unknowns. What about all the “knowns”?
And what about the Kriegseinwirkungen – the “effects of war”? Did they fight? Or were they just poor civilian bastards who bought it in the Battle of Berlin? From shelling or bombing or gods know what?
Indeed, now that I think about it a second time, was this plaque for the “unknowns” who were under “unknown” stones or was this a separate 60 people who didn’t even get that much? So that was good for like two answers and a shit-ton more questions.
So much of this was unexpected and unexplained. But the most unexpected, and the most wanting for explanation were the final two stones I found, set apart from all the others. Just two. The stone themselves looked just like all the others. Name, birthdate, deathdate. Only instead of the war dates across the bottom, were these words: NS – OPFER. Nazi Victim.
Well, shit. What does that mean? Political victims? Resistance fighters? Jews? Probably not Jews. I can’t imagine any Jews would find their way into this cemetery. But then again, who knows? I mean, maybe. So what was their “crime”? Why were they victims of the Nazis? Again, no answers. But whatever the reason, here they lie. And for them, for these two poor bastards, I’ll give their inscriptions. It seems worth it.
NS – OPFER
NS – OPFER
I don’t know what you did, fellas. But you pissed off those Nazi bastards enough to get yourselves killed. So here’s to you.
Anyway, that was my detour to the cemetery. I grabbed my döner on the way home. From the first shop. And it was quite good. Not too greasy and with a little bit of crunch. Just how I like it.
A few weeks ago, my friend-former student Margit asked me if I would do a bit of tutoring with her daughter. I’ve written about Mag before. She’s awesome. Half buddy, half my Berin-mom. Total wiseass.
I had written a whole thing about this, but I wasn’t happy with it. So here’s the short version. The tutoring itself was great. Super easy. Sarah, her daughter, is very smart, very good with English. But more than that, we just had fun. Not just me and Sarah. But also Margit, her husband, the other two kids; even Sarah’s French boyfriend visiting from France.3 They’re just good people, you know?
But good people can also be boring people, amirite? No fear here though. Everybody in that family is a total wise-ass. And I mean that as a compliment. They’re all very sweet. You walk in the door, and you know right away there’s a lot of love in that house. But everybody’s just giving everybody else shit all the time. I fit right in, is what I’m trying to say.
Mag is also taking classical guitar lessons. So I asked if I could try her axe. She gladly let me. It’s a great instrument. I ran through a couple of Bach preludes and the Sor variations. Thoroughly enjoyed that, I tellya. But even more fun was the Edith Piaf.
See, the kid is also studying French and has a bit of culture. So during the tutoring time, she was goofing around with Je ne regrette rien. So I’m like, “Hey kid, come here and sing this with me.” So we sat together and jammed out on that for the fam. Crazy fun. Seriously.
Like, Mag is already one of my favorite people. And not just in Berlin, either. I think I said last time, she reminds me a lot of my mom. Which, when I told her, I think she found alternately flattering and annoying. Annoying if only because who wants to be thought of as a mom by their friends?
But flattering because this. We went out for drinks around Christmas. And we wound up at some not-so-cheap (for Berlin)4 German restaurant on Unter den Linden. And she insisted on paying for the whole thing. So next time we met up, we went to a Vietnamese spot. Whereupon I insisted on paying. At first, she wasn’t having it. But I reminded her that she had paid last time and that it couldn’t have been cheap, so really she didn’t have a choice. At which point she relented, and said, “You know, your mom did a good job with you.” Which I’m not writing here to brag. Only because I know my mom reads this shit and I thought she’d like to hear the compliment. All to say, I think Mag is OK if I happen to notice some similarities between her and one Cindy A. Starr.
Anyway, I’m a big fan of this whole family. Add a few more to the list of awesome people I’ve met in this town. I mean, I’m still always wondering how much of this is luck, you know? What if I went to a different city? What if I worked in a different school? No Anne. No Margit and fam. No Jan and Zibs. No J-Dawg.
Would there be other awesome people? As awesome as these people? Maybe. I dunno. What I do know is, I think I’m pretty fucking lucky here.
Could I still kvetch? Sure. But it’s baseball season. Why would I?
- Highly recommended, btw. It’s a BBC science/comedy pod. [↩]
- My translation. It may not be perfect, but it’s close enough. [↩]
- He had virtually no English and even less German, so it was a good opportunity to speak some French; though I did get my wires crossed quite a bit. [↩]
- Which means cheap anywhere else. [↩]