Home from Heaven
It’s 1981, the end of the summer holidays, and my mother has just returned from a three-week Communist Party study trip to the German Democratic Republic. In 1981 I am nine and my mother is thirty-three. And even though she is frequently away, at lectures or the library, or at endless Communist Party meetings and socials, I’ve still missed her, my mother of the expensive perfume, of the slow heartbeat, of the carefully feathered hair. In the middle week of her absence my father took my brother and me to London, to Scotland by boat, and then South by train, where I walked the teeming streets reading books like an absentminded professor. Back in Jordanstown, in our motherless house, missing her has become increasingly painful, a shard lodged under my breastbone, sharpest as I fall asleep or when I wake. And then one afternoon I look out of the window and she’s there, standing beside a beaten-up car, and a tall scruffy bearded man is handing her a suitcase. She’s wearing a headscarf and the oddest looking shoes I’ve ever seen. She’s home.
Later, while my father makes dinner, my mother calls me into the living-room. She wants to talk. Alongside other memorable conversations from my childhood (“Your father and I are separating”; “I’ve just found the Truth, and it’s in this book”) what follows marks me for life. My mother is extraordinarily happy. Her eyes sparkle. Our new vacuum cleaner has been left out on the carpet in front of us, squat and shiny, a tangle of cable and suction tube. And while my mother talks and I listen, this vacuum cleaner absorbs the timbre of her tale, transmogrifying into a machine of the future.
“I’ve been to heaven,” says my mother; “I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes.”
Heaven? My parents don’t believe in heaven. The fact that every morning in school assembly we stand and intone Our Father Who Art in Heaven is a shameful betrayal I’ve sweated to keep from them. It turns out heaven is Dresden.
“Heaven-on-earth,” she continues, “the perfect society.”
As is often the case in conversations with my parents, I have to mentally assimilate new information very fast. They aren’t used to speaking to my brother and me as though we are children, and so pitch Big Ideas at us, casually, like lobbing a ball we’re always expected to catch and lob back. The perfect society. Is society something like everyone? Or is society the law? Or is it both together? I stare at her and wait.
“From babies to old people, everyone is taken care of by the State. They took us to a nursery ‒ all the tiny children playing together in their sensible dungarees. In the GDR children are treated as a national treasure.”
I know enough to understand that my mother has been over there, to the other side of the Wall, and that as a Communist she’s been granted access to a domain ordinary people in the West, where we live, can’t ever see. I try and imagine an over-there nursery. Enormous windows. Bunk beds for naps. Vacuum cleaners like ours – tiny but powerful. Gingham pops into my mind (in school last year we made ridiculous gingham aprons, or rather the girls did, in needlework, while the boys made useful things in woodwork, like stools): the dungarees the children wear in an over-there nursery are made from black-and-white chequered gingham squares; the floors from black-and-white tiles to match. An array of beneficent teachers, all of them women, wear dungarees too and no make-up. They have long fair hair, parted in the middle. They smile all the time. My mother holds her hand out low over the carpet:
“From this high, to death. In the GDR, you’re looked after your whole life long.”
I don’t know yet that people in the West are not looked after. I’ve never seen a homeless person. There are homeless people in Dublin, apparently, which makes me never want to go there, but there are none in Belfast. Still, tripping to keep up, I nod along. I accept what she is saying as an absolutely good thing.
“And our group leaders were fantastic.”
And here she slips into her recently acquired favourite German phrase:
“Guten Morgen Liebe Genossen und Genossinnen! – Good morning Lady and Gentlemen Comrade Friends! Guten Morgen! we’d all shout back. They were so enthusiastic.”
My mother’s enthusiasm is just as infectious. It always is. Whether the horrors of the Great Potato Famine or the Liberation of the Bastille, I want to share in whatever animates her as a way of being close to her, as a way of making her see me too. I doubt I decide to learn German this particular summer afternoon – which I later do, spending ten years of my life studying the language – but certainly a seed is sown, an association forged, in my arduously listening head, between German and Paradise.
My mother laughs and holds up one foot, angling the ankle.
“Do you like my boots? They’re GDR Worker Boots.”
Navy-blue canvas, open toes, two flaps, laces, a square heel: they look neither practical, which surprises me – how could you do any work in those? – nor glamorous, which surprises me even more, as my mother is always glamorous.
“They call Dresden the Jewel Box. Can you imagine it? Lit up at night? The castle and the churches and the opera house and the river – all the glittering reflections.”
Though it is sunny and mild, the view outside our living-room window – a field, trees, a cottage, tennis courts, and just around the corner, the sea – is diminished ever so slightly by the light suddenly radiating from the other side of the Iron Divide, sealed like a jewellery box to everyone else, yet magically opened to my mother, who has bathed her beautiful face in its shine, and been changed.
Fast-forward thirteen years to 1994 and I’m in former East Berlin, crying in a car showroom. I’m twenty-one, on a year out from university, and when I’m not visiting Berlin I’m living in Flensburg – the most northerly town in Germany, with its staircase house gables and Baltic harbour, where I’ve been teaching English in a secondary school and working my German up to easy, slippery fluency – so easy, so slippery I’m already dreaming in the language. I am reinventing who I am with borrowed words and alien syntax, trying on an alternative skin.
It’s five years since the Fall of the Wall. Disorientating change has been the tenor of my own life too. My mother has vanished, run off to New Zealand without telling anyone, to marry a fellow member of an obscure religious sect. My boyfriend and I have foundered acrimoniously. The family house in Belfast has been sold and I have nowhere else to live. The seed planted on that distant afternoon did indeed take root and grow, blossoming first into German at school, then German at university, a job as a waitress on Juist, a German-speaking island in the North Sea, then two further summers waitressing in Imfeld in the Swiss Alps, where German lilted alarmingly and came fragranced with bog-black wood and flowers. So as the ground gave way under my feet in Ireland and the bonds holding my family together – under strain for as long as I could remember – finally snapped, Germany beckoned me back.
I liked German Me better. German Me lived in a three-storey house with a garden. German Me was intrepid. German Me was terrified of teaching but did it anyway, twelve classes a week, facing down the terror every time. German Me took trains all over Europe and a bus to Prague for the weekend. German Me went to clubs on her own and danced. Sometimes, with no one to share it with, German Me felt stripped to the bone by beauty, splashing through phosphorescent plankton at midnight, or cycling past Glücksburg Castle into sleet, the horizon momentarily framed by falling leaves and the sky ringing with cold.
In Spring 1994 I find myself the guest of a teaching colleague and his family on a weekend trip to Berlin, “in order,” said the wife, kindly but bossily, “to complete my education”. As it turns out, the family have other business there too – the business of eviction. Since 1990, property disputes have become a hallmark of the new Germany: affluent Wessies descending on the former East, deeds in hand, to claim back the houses their parents fled from in 1945 ahead of the Red Army advance. And so we have a weekend in Berlin: Saturday for sightseeing; Sunday for issuing eviction notices to residents of a former eighteenth-century mansion in Potsdam, converted to State apartments by the GDR government.
On Saturday we start early, out beyond Volkspark Friedrichshain, and walk West. East Berlin as it must have been is still all around us, albeit spattered with graffiti – the effervescent expression of a newly liberated people. Building by building, sector by sector, the reunification facelift is underway, but there is so much ground to cover, so much that has to be shaken up, spruced down and made respectable again, the structures and materials of a suddenly defunct country remain visible everywhere we look.
Walking through East Berlin this drear March Saturday is like dragging a fingernail slowly down a blackboard. The buildings are decrepit, uniformly grey and in a poor state of repair, paint flaking from door jambs and window-sills. How colourless Communism must have been, I think, bar its lurid totalitarian totems, how squat and square and remorseless. And in spite of what I now know about the Stasi and surveillance, in spite of watching trainloads of GDR refugees arriving into Bavaria through the long hot days of August 1989, when optimists in the West were predicting the Fall of the Wall within a decade, in spite of Berliners from both sides of the divide smashing the Wall to bits just twelve weeks later – the density of the ambience here astonishes me.
Because through all the intervening years and against all evidence to the contrary, I realize I have continued to believe my mother. Or at least part of me has. Attuned to the insidiousness of Capitalism and encouraged to take an opposing view of dominant narratives from the earliest age, I have listened to West Germans talk me through the GDR’s failings – no eggs in the grocery shops for weeks, letters steamed open and scrutinized for deviancy – with engrained scepticism. And yet here I am on Socialist soil, after the fact, inevitably, but here nevertheless, feeling flayed. Where was my mother’s jewel box? What had she seen? What, I need to ask her, if I only knew how to reach her, had she been thinking?
The deviancy of perception itself can be unfathomable. Years later I’ll stand at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers in Chongqing. What precious little daylight has made it through the city’s choking atmosphere is already on the wane. “You can see the different colours of the two rivers,” my guide is saying, “the green of the Jialing and the brown of the Yangtze, even after they’ve joined.” I’ll look again. Brown foamy torrent meeting brown foamy torrent. “Which one is green?” I’ll ask. “That one.” I’ll look harder. And then the two of us will lapse into silence because where else can this conversation go? Stories pitched against other stories. Will-o’-the-wisps, goblins, ghosts. To claim to see anything at all is to stand on quicksand.
Dilapidated Prussian avenues unfurl before us. We stop to eat herring rolls in a café at Alexanderplatz, under the hoary eye of the Television Tower, set off again towards Unter den Linden. The trees are spiky black skeletons against the stacked white air. It starts to snow. We step inside the portico of the Neue Wache and are confronted by Käthe Kollwitz’sMother and Her Dead Son – a pietà in bronze of a woman clutching a corpse. In the roof, an oculus opens to the sky. Snowflakes land on her briefly, then melt. In my skinless state, the very rivenness of Berlin seems packed into this space: the boomerang arc of the Russian campaign, the sons marching East, the Red Army tanks rolling West, everything crushed in between, roads, bridges, houses, kitchens, families, bodies, flags. And the clash so monumental, yet so fine-tuned in the end to these streets, these bricks, these lampposts, when the world is sliced in two for the next forty-four years, it is Berlin which is recreated as the epicentre of the fracture, dogs and guns on one side, advertising on the other, holding nuclear annihilation at bay.
At the end of Unter den Linden itinerant tradespeople – Roma? Moldovans? Estonians? – blow on their hands to keep warm. “What debris a ruined Empire / leaves behind it!” exclaims Ciaran Carson in his great poem “The War Correspondent”. For sale, the flotsam of Communism’s downfall – tablecloths, hats, pins, coins – valid once on their own legitimate terms in the not-too-distant past, converted instantly to marketable kitsch. I buy a black lacquer hairslide painted with flowers that falls apart within days.
We have not intended to visit a Volkswagen dealership. The itinerary drawn up weeks before (complete with timings, kilometres, and public transport connections) has not included looking at cars. Yet here they are parked on the street of the former East, in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, brilliant as beetles. We drift over like fish to a lure.
“Colour is life because we imagine a life without colour as death”; “There is no model, there is only colour”; “Colour is all. When colour is right, form is right. Colour is everything, colour is vibration, like music” … The interior of the showroom is decorated with these quotations, printed out and framed, while the new-range metallic sheen off the cars is blinding – everything the day has held out to us so far, the drab boulevards and trees eaten by mist and the smoke of our own breath and the sky, pierced through by colour’s triumph, for who could withstand lemon or vermillion or turquoise or aquamarine after decades of sepia? What hope to halt the ingress of Capitalism when its imperatives to sell come dressed in such lovely raiments as these?
Eviction Day is sunnier. We arrive at the house in Potsdam to find graffiti on the gable wall: “Wieso wollt ihr von uns was ihr nicht braucht?” (“Why do you want from us what you do not need?”) But the family is undeterred. While the husband goes off to knock on individual apartment doors brandishing proof of ownership, the wife and children and I go through to the back of the building to wait. Amazingly, there’s a lake, complete with reeds and a bobbing rowboat. The children run off to explore while the wife and I toss shame and blame between us like a ball.
“The residents – how long before they have to leave?”
“We’re putting the rents up in six months. If they can’t pay the market rent by then, they’ll have to go.”
“But where to? If it’s the same all over? If so many properties are being claimed?”
“Well that’s not really our concern. It’s going to cost a lot you know, to renovate this place. The money has to come from somewhere.”
“But it’s not their fault.”
Fault. In German: Schuld. And the word for “innocent” – unschuldig, “without fault”. The statue of Marx and Engels near the Cathedral, wir sind unschuldig (“we are innocent”), spray-painted underneath. Our faults, our trespasses, woven all about us, so entangled we can’t cut through. Is it the tenants’ fault the governing body of their country requisitioned empty property in 1945? Is it my hostess’s fault they’re about to be kicked out on the street? She already owns an Audi and lives in a house near the sea with two bathrooms and a basement. And here I am in Berlin by virtue of her inordinate kindness towards me, struggling – and failing – not to judge.
“We can’t afford to just let this building go. I have Michael and Verena to think of. This is for them too. And you shouldn’t worry too much about the tenants. Anyone who lived somewhere as luxurious as this was almost certainly working for the Stasi. You don’t know what they did.”
No I don’t, I think. But then you don’t know either. And you also don’t know what you’d have done, if you’d have been them, here, at this time. And neither do I.
The one resident spared notice of the rent increase is “a friend of the family from over fifty years ago” living in the attic. I’m not sure if this equates to paying the same rent, or staying on for free, but before we all squeeze back into the car and drive three hundred miles north to Flensburg, we climb to the top of the house for a final visit. What am I doing here? I wonder, as a stout little man in a stained waistcoat opens his door and smiles. And what does “friend of the family” mean?
Inside his flat it’s like Berlin before the War: low ceilings, poky rooms, no bathroom. But because these were originally servant quarters, he doesn’t even have running water. We sit awkwardly under the window. The room is packed with heavy furniture, the way rooms used to be: functional heirlooms, a table, a sideboard, a chair, passed down through generations. I am mortified by the fourteen-year old daughter, brassily polite, who doesn’t want to touch his funny chocolates or the juice in his best-cabinet-glass.
Guests are clearly a novelty, his peculiar outlying position in the building – enemy-within for the landlord? Informant? Saboteur? – accentuating his physical separation from the residents below. He is jittery and dying to talk. I’m so uneasy with the weirdness of the whole day I just want to fade into the background, but he seems especially keen to talk to me, the unexpectedly sprung-upon-him visitor from Ireland.
“Does she understand German?” he asks the wife, who nods.
And then out pours his life story: conscripted into the Wehrmacht, deployed to the Eastern Front, captured by the Red Army, imprisoned in a POW camp in Siberia, released in 1956, sent home to what had since become the fledgling GDR, to this house where he and his parents lived before the war, where he’s managed to find tenure ever since, too old and possibly too traumatized to get married or have children of his own. I’m guessing his parents were servants to the parents of my colleague, though the power dynamics remain unclear. Debt. Loss. Fault. Ownership. Loyalty. Guilt. “We owe him his flat,” said the mother mysteriously in the garden, where she didn’t appear to feel morally indebted to anyone. “All the other tenants will probably have to leave, but he can stay.”
Through most of his story, I no longer have to undertake the in-between footwork of translation – the lugging across from one word to its equivalent, the heavy lifting. I simply understand. And I realize this is what fluency is: not after-the-fact decoding, time-lagged and exhausting, but rather effortless transmission and reception, first one way and then the other; an electromagnetic signal carried in waves.
In keeping with the spirit of my mother’s over-there Paradise, German has gifted me many things, even if the letter of the GDR, as it was lived by over sixteen million people, turned out to be at odds with her ideologically-determined view. She soon moved on anyway to different enthusiasms, just as the Soviet Bloc itself inched inexorably towards collapse. The Jewel Box had never been Dresden, whose vanished ‘truth’ after Reunification would forever be impossible to catch, but the bright coincidence of that afternoon, of her being home again after three weeks apart, and of the two of us chit-chatting together on the sofa, buoyed up by love.
German taught me how, word by word, rule by rule, one might enter an alternative world; that one might engage, as a plant or spy shuttling between languages, in spectacular acts of trespass. In my early twenties, as who I understood myself to be was made, unmade, made again, my multiple sojourns in German-speaking places were both a test and a reward. I discovered I could reinvent myself, and that the new me flexed differently.
When individuals as emblematic of History’s moves and countermoves as the elderly man in the attic are encountered in a book, it’s easy to read them as a statistic – an act of perceptual violence at the heart of Stalin’s most famous epigram. It is another matter entirely to sit amongst a person’s antimacassars and Biedermeier furniture and listen to them talk. Which of course is true of listening to anyone. But the fact that this was neither my country nor my history heightened the privilege. With every encounter reality wasn’t merely doubled – it was expanded exponentially. My time in Germany was like walking down a corridor with doors on either side to which I’d been handed a magic key, each room an affirmation of lived complexity.
In my single recurring dream, which I’ve dreamed off and on for twenty years, I am trying to get into the sea and can’t. The aim is submersion. But either I’ll walk steadily towards the waves as they step further and further back; or I’ll wade in and the tide will suddenly drain away, leaving me dry; or the water will be too salty and I’ll bob like a cork. I dream this dream most frequently when I can’t write. Soon after this dream began I realized the sea was language, that I had reconfigured my relationship to language as a relationship with the sea. For a brief spell, towards the end of my year in Flensburg, as my diary entries flipped over to German and comprehension grew ever more effortless, I found myself inside the flowing element of not one language, but two. I had entered the water without the lifebelt of translation, and could swim.