When I informed Glen and Plumpy at the language school of my approaching internship, the two women told me that I would be unable to continue with my current teacher Marcel, as he only taught in the day time. Instead I would join Günther’s class. Glen assured me that ‘Günther’ was undoubtedly the second best teach at the language school, and that many students in his class found that he pleased them very much, and consequently many of them asked to continue with him into the next month.
‘It is true,’ Plumpy said, sipping the herbal tea that she held in both hands to her lips. And as if reciting a mantra: ‘Once they have experienced Günther, they want more of Günther.’
Günther was without doubt the worst teacher I was to have at the language school. Though he professed to love grammar he had apathy to explaining it. He wrote on the white board in an illegible hand and would rather play games than delve into the tangly business of sentence structure and pronunciation. Despite this I remember his lessons with greater warmth than any of the others. When I walked into his classroom that first evening he greeted me with lingering, vapid pale blues eyes and took my hand in a limp one of his. He was a spectacled, bald man of about 40 with a ragged three day beard stubbled over his chin and creeping down his neck. His room always stank of sweat. It appeared not to bother Günther and the window stayed firmly shut collecting condensation. I was never entirely sure whether the stench came from him or a particular active earlier class.
Any such activity certainly wasn’t from the rigour of Günther’s grammar exercises which consisted of him scrawling down a few examples on the white board in a drooping, spidery hand then looking at us with a mild sense of puzzlement that reflected our own. He would respond to our questions with first bewilderment and then, eventually, impatience. When one person happened to stumble upon the correct sentence formation in an exercise he let out a relieved ‘genau’ (‘exactly) and then progress on to the next thing, perfectly satisfied that knowledge had been imparted.
In spite of all this Plumpy had spoken truly: much of the class I joined had indeed experienced Günther before and had come back wanting more. In fact one burly Mexican in the class had been with him for the last four months since he had begun learning German at A1. They were close to Günther and mercilessly mocked him as much he mocked them. Günther led his classes with us with a method of teaching that put the emphasis firmly upon speaking and listening, allowing grammar, writing and reading to be left aside. At the start of each lesson he would ask each of us in turn ‘Was ist neugierig?’ - ‘What’s new?’ And we would falteringly attempt to answer. In contrast to this practice in regular language classes, it was clear that Günther was not bothered about our German, but instead was genuinely interested in our lives. Though this was flattering, it meant that we could speak in any ugly jumble of German that we felt like, without a hint of correction from the good Günther. When we didn’t know a word we would say it in English and he would skip over to the white board and as if presenting us with a gift, scrawl the German word upon the board. He wouldn’t write the translation next to it, so if you were slow of the mark there was little chance of catching up as by the end of the lesson the board would simply be scrawled with alien words, illegible and nonsensical. It was the utter contrast to Marcel’s meticulous colour co-ordinated approach.
Günther wouldn’t just probe us for information about our lives but would provide us with tip-bits of his own; stories of when he was a stowaway on a ship crossing the Atlantic Sea, or when he worked on a stage production of Tim und Struppi and met his now-estranged thespian wife.
Günther had also once lived in Russia, and in the ‘Pause’ that came an hour and half into the lesson, would huddle and sit engrossed over some piece of Russian grammar with Dimitriv from St Petersburg, lamenting his poor memory of the language. (I think in the month I was in Günther’s class I think he learnt more Russian than I did German.) When the Pause came to an end half way through the class Günther would call out, ‘Jing Jong! Ding Dong?’ At this point a Korean girl called Jing Jong (or something of the sort) would hop up from the private sketches she was scribbling over her grammar notes with the surprise of a startled mouse caught napping on the cheese board. Out of the room she would scuttle and call down the corridor, ‘Ding Dong! Ding Dong!’ Through the puzzled faces that gazed back at her those in Günther’s class would lumber towards the proud little Korean girl: the small and sombre Miguel from Santiago, the fat and grumpy Rodriguez of Mexico, and then Antonio from Madrid at the end, beaming enough for the three of them.
In most lessons I sat next to a fierce girl called Ola from Serbia. She would go over her notes in the Pause while munching on an energy bar. When the lesson resumed she would look expectantly up at Günther, ever optimistic that this time she would actually learn something. Like myself she was new to Günther and had been indignant at his weak explanations of the trickier parts of the Genitive Case and his penchant for games and chatter. She had however warmed up since the first week. At the start she had scowled furiously while Günther implored her to take part in one of his silly games which the rest of the glass, in particular the Hispanic trio, adored, and would call for as soon as the first hour of the lesson was up. Ola didn’t understand Günther’s games but reluctantly took part and commenced to habitually break the rules. We attempted to put her straight but she only shrugged and pouted and shook her head, saying that she didn’t know such games and was sure they wouldn’t help her learn German. She repeated the mistakes over and over again, unconsciously cheating each round, and after a while none of us had the stomach to call her out upon it.
Like Ola and I, Dimitriv was also new, and initially unimpressed. Yet somehow, the haplessness of Günther, his openness, his eager eyes and quivering smile, he resistance to stony glares and exasperated confusion, his prevailing attempts to reach out to people and make them laugh, led Ola and myself and Dimitriv to come to love Günther’s lessons and, indeed, Günther himself. The transformation in Dimitriv was like watching the thawing of a Soviet winter. Dimitriv’s cheeks fleshed out more, but not like a portly man, but like a chubby boy, they were red and glossy like English apples and wobbled when he laughed at Günther’s jokes and horse-play with Antonio, like a little fat boy, panting and content playing in the meadows of summer.
Although I was particularly glad to have German friends in Berlin – something that is easy to avoid – I also revelled in the expat scene. It is easy to get wrapped up in this scene whether it is through language class, work, or attending CouchSurfer meet-ups and international comedy nights. When considering our globalised world, these comedy nights are interesting in terms of international relations and reputations. After the poor set-upon Germans (with their vicious language and obsession with rules), it is probably stupid, fat American who find themselves at the butt of most jokes. Russia, certainly since Ukraine flared up, comes in at a relentless third. Of course, all nationalities take their share: incomprehensible Turks, hairy Italians, ugly Brits.
Israel is too hot to touch, certainly in Berlin, but there is a common tug of the stomach when someone says they are from Israel at a comedy night, purely in expectation of what could be said, one way or the other. Unlike perhaps any other two countries, when one person in your language class introduces themselves as Eli from Jerusalem, Israel, and then another stands up to introduce himself as Ali from Jerusalem, Palestine, a shuddering silence rises, everyone terrified of putting a foot wrong. Let’s just forget where you come from. It doesn’t have to matter. We can easily talk about other things. It is similar when I would meet someone and they would say they are from Afghanistan or Syria. My initial gut reaction, I admit, is, How have you managed to get here? But what do you say? Whereabouts? I have no idea whereabouts anywhere is in those countries. Perhaps later, when a foundation of mutual respect and trust has been built up, you can venture into your nagging questions: what is it like there? what have you seen? what do you think …? But it is not like most other countries: Ah! A Springbok! Are you a rugger fan then? … I love France! Cheese and wine, what more does one need! … Haha! Let’s put another shrimp on the barbie, eh? …
These clichés can be very boring to hear rehashed time and time again. If I was a German I would boycott these comedy nights simply to avoid the tedium of hearing once more how hard the German language is, and how ridiculous German are for not walking when the traffic light is red. Nevertheless, the internationality of this city is one of the things I love most about it. The classes at the language school appeared to me to be a clean slice of the Berlin young expat scene. And I revelled in it.
It was a similar situation at the English Theatre Berlin where I still volunteered alongside Fins, Italians, Americans, South Africans, and other more exotic places. Once outside the theatre, I spoke to an American who worked there fulltime. He had a quivering dog on his lap that looked like one of the sickly lambs that the narrator of Le Petit Prince draws. This dog had a great twisting white moustache that looked ridiculous against its shorn body, and looked up at me from between his owner’s legs with pitiful, pleading eyes. ‘Dali’ the man told me it was called. ‘Because of the moustache.’ I was to ask over the dear little Dali a few months later, and his owner – who had a great ginger beard as striking as Dali’s moustache - told me that he had acted in a play in one of the major theatres in Berlin.
‘O yes, a new dog now. You wouldn’t recognise him! Wants treats all the time. Showbiz got to Dali I tell you! I wouldn’t be surprised to come back evening to find him in bed with two Siamese cats, sniffing Kanine Krunchy Frosties. Hahaha!’
In absence of the real Dali, I was greatly please to meet this scared little dog. The first day I was in Berlin I was excited to see that there was a Dali exhibition on at Potsdammer Platz. I had only a little knowledge of him but was interested in the exhibition as only a few days before I came to Berlin I had seen a play called ‘Hysteria’ which featured the Spanish surrealist. It appeared to me there would be a nice sense of continuity if I was to now go and see his paintings in Berlin. I didn’t manage to get over there in the first couple of months and now that I was trying to live pretty thinly I couldn’t justify the expenditure. The play in London had been at Hampstead Theatre in Swiss Cottage. This part of North London was where Freud came to live after leaving Germany. This is also where, some say, he went mad. It is certainly where he died. But before he died it was where he was visited by the flamboyant and extraordinary Salvidore Dali. Little is known by the general public as to what occurred at the meeting. What is known is that upon leaving the pioneering psychologist, Dali said that in the face of Freud he saw ‘the death of Europe.’
This was in 1938. War was about to engulf the continent once more.
Today, Europe and other parts of the world are looking back 100 years to the start of the First World War. In Westminster, there was an hour or darkness to commemorate the well-known words of the then British Foreign Secretary at the time war broke out. Earl Grey is reported to have said, upon hearing that Germany had marched across Belgium and while watching the lights of Hyde Park being lit, ‘The lanterns are going out all over Europe, and I do not think we will be alive to see them relit.’
I feel a great sense of a family between the Europe however much citizens of the individual countries spout their patriotism. Of course, in one way at least, it was once a family at the top, with George and Wilhelm and Alexander. Even just as a symbol, this highlights the shared ancestry of this continent. Looking back through the history of Europe I get utterly enthralled by what appears to me a narrative of adventure, and suspicion, rivalry and intrigue, skulduggery, scandal and glamour. Essentially, I get wrapped up the romanticism, and the art that has come out of this continent, as opposed to the gritty reality. As opposed to what Europe was really like for the majority of people.
Paddy Leigh Fermor - who I believe was susceptible to the same dreamy indulgencies - writes in his memoir Between the Woods and the Water of his ignorance as to what was going on around him as he walked from Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s. Much of the world he walked through was to be destroyed. Europe was never to be the same again. ‘Every part of Europe I had crossed so far was to be torn and shattered by the war.’ The book ends with Paddy sitting at the quay of Orsova on the Danube, where the river formed the boundary between the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Romania. With the vantage point of foresight, upon what was to come Paddy writes: ‘ … myths, lost voices, history and hearsay have all been put to rout, leaving nothing but this valley of the shadow.’ This gorge is called the ‘Iron Gates’, with a eerie foreshadowing of the curtain was to descend as the dust settled after World War Two.
After WW2 Europe was broken, and Germany became the battle ground for the USA and USSR. The East of Europe was sucked in to the orbit of the USSR and the West retreated into itself, crippled under debt, sustained upon hand-outs from the US. Berlin was the sitting room of it all, and suffered from the follies many times more than London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo or anywhere in the States. It became a hollow bay, and when the lights of the last shells died away a horrific steel partition was heaved up to tear through the broken and reeling city.
And here we all are now, learning German. If we consider how Europe was then, it seems bizarre what we are bickering about today. Like a bitter old family, chucked into the old person’s home, looked upon with a pity and patronisation. In the fear-mongering, patriotism, and short-sightedness of the mildest anti-EU camps, the seeds of the worst of the Second World War – indeed, the seeds of the worst wars the world has ever seen – can be spied.
On what world did these lanterns shine on before being extinguished in 1914? In what gaiety, prosperity, hope and carelessness was Europe living in before the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand? Was it so much brighter than the woods and rivers through which Paddy Leigh Fermor walked? Was it simply more innocence? Simply more ignorant? In spite of ‘never again’ and ‘we won’t forget’ the wars have only got longer and bloodier. Were the trenches of WW1 just a strong statement saying, this is the beginning? This is now your fate?
And yet not in Europe. At least, not throughout Europe. Sitting at the small WW1 memorial in the old village of Marzahn one evening, I read through the names of the twenty or so young men from Marzahn that died in WW1. Nineteen, twenty one, twenty five … all around my age. I would have fought them if I had been born 100 years earlier. Instead I now sit on a bench opposite them with my flatmate from Leipzig of the same age. And sitting there with him, opposite that little memorial, is no less of a wonder of how far we have come (or at the very least, how lucky we are) than the shrieking Spanish children playing hide and seek in the Holocaust memorial. Or indeed, sitting in a classroom with Russians, Americans, Spanish, French … Is that not a wonder – even if just a small one – itself? In this city that has seen so much horror, and wears it so openly, here we are, learning how to speak the German language, becoming, transiently, Berliners. None of us really get how lucky we are, but all of us benefit from it.
We do not know what is to come, but we are at least happy and living in peace now. It is perhaps time for this weary city to stabilise, gentrify, and either take on the rush of London or become a museum like Barcelona and Venice. Or will it suffer the upheavals of geo-politics and scared and greedy men once more. If not here where in Europe? If the Berlin of the history books and scintillating dramas, where is it? Athens, some say. Wherever it is, it is not here. If I take anything from this, it is that we cannot return. ‘All gone, ripped apart’, Paddy writes. ‘Rumania’, Yugoslaia, Transylvania, The Great Hungarian Plain. This landscape is lost.’ But what of the past is not lost? To quote cheap greeting cards and Bumper Stick philosophy: all we have is now, and perhaps tomorrow too.
Bertie Digby Alexander