Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

Book #112: Goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is one of those books where the setting is as much a character as the people.

Goodbye to Berlin is a series of semi-connected short stories about Berlin during the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. The narrator, also a British writer named Christopher Isherwood, recounts his experiences living in the city in the lead-up to World War II, complete with the sleazy and not-so-sleazy people who meets and the seedy and not-so-seedy places he lives. From a dank room in a crowded flat with a German family to a room in a rooming house with the quintessential German hausfrau Fräulein Shroeder to the wealthy Jewish family he befriends, Isherwood’s stories offer snapshots into life in a city in decline.

1930s Berlin society is far from perfect, and as it slides closer and closer to war, things continue to go downhill. However, Isherwood’s genuine affection for the people he meets and the city he lives in. Even in decline and with its flaws, Isherwood seems to love Berlin.

At one point he even writes, “It is strange how people seem to belong to places – especially to places where they were not born.”

As someone with nomadic tendencies – I get an itch to move on and try out living in new places and doing new things after about a year – this really resonated with me. I’ve felt deep connections with places I have no business feeling connected to. I’m not from Budapest, Boston, Prague, Chicago, or Salzburg, but in some ways each of these cities has made an impression on me that goes beyond just, “I visited it and I liked it.” Each of them has awakened parts of me I didn’t know were sleeping. Each of them has touched me in places that are hard to reach. I can’t say why, and it’s probably pretentious and presumptuous to say, but somehow I feel a bit like I belong to these places. Or at least I did belong to them, even if it was only for a few days.

Any time I think about these cities, the cities themselves are always part of the narrative. They’re more than just settings or places where certain things happen, they are characters with the ability to influence the events and make impressions on the people who come in contact with them. I’ve been known to call Budapest my boyfriend. I had a short summer fling with Salzburg that left me longing for more. Boston is that interesting person I met on a trip one time and would like to get back in touch with. Prague is that toxic friend you know you should probably get rid of, but you just can’t because she always makes things exciting and when things are good between you, they are so good that you forget the terrible, soul-crushing lows. Chicago is the cool older sister that I always want to hang out with.

Isherwood does an excellent job of turning Berlin into more than just a setting in Goodbye to Berlin. He’s a very good writer, and his descriptions are often perfect. The short stories themselves are interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the characters Isherwood peoples them with.

Rating: ****
Up Next: Everything Is Illuminated


Book #95: The Comfort of Strangers

I read and loved Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and I found his Enduring Love really captivating and creepy, but I don’t know what to make of The Comfort of Strangers.

I read it in a day and when I was finished I set it aside and muttered, “Well, that was. . . something.”

Unmarried lovers Colin and Mary go on vacation to an ancient, unnamed city by the seaside (read: Venice. It has canals and winding passageways and a huge square with a round-domed cathedral and a tall clock tower. It’s definitely Venice). They meet and befriend some *interesting* locals and a little bit of not-so-good things ensue.

If you have a fear of traveling and harbor any anxiety about ever leaving home and having to interact with strangers, you probably shouldn’t read this book. Just like Enduring Love made me really nervous about making eye contact with strangers who might later be able to learn my name, The Comfort of Strangers made me feel like maybe I should never ever talk to anybody, ever.

I definitely was not enjoying how much Colin and Mary seemed unable to get around Venice – sorry, WHATEVER UNNAMED CITY they were in – by themselves. There’s much talk of maps and being hopelessly lost and confused. Venice is a tad confusing, but I kept thinking, come on, guys, there’s no way you could POSSIBLY be that useless. I guess their general ineptitude at being abroad and being able to function in any way made them vulnerable to a friendship with locals who had less-than-innocent motives, but I still feel like any one with any sort of a brain would realize the danger well before they did. It was kind of like those horror movies where you’re like, “Clearly you shouldn’t go into that basement to investigate the noise,” but they do anyway. Every time.

What struck me most about this story is how little, during my travels, I ever worried about the people I met. I’ve traveled abroad my myself a couple times. I’ve always met interesting people and even made friends just by talking with people in hostels or on the train. Granted, I’ve only ever met and hung out with strangers in public, and I have pretty good “wow, you’re a creep, look at that I have a train to catch and it leaves SO SOON, I have to run, bye!” instincts. I do know people who have gone abroad and wound up couchsurfing with strangers, though. Of course, like I said, this is always after meeting them in public first. It’s a tough balance, because locals know the coolest places to go, and it’s kind of fun to discover the “real” city and go to local hangouts instead of overpriced tourist traps where you only meet other tourists.

I do have one “comfort of strangers”-esque story that obviously worked out since I’m still here. Mom, Dad, if you’re reading this, stop.

The summer I spent in Germany, my friend Heidi and I went to Munich. We went to Catholic mass on Sunday morning before our train left. During Mass, a man sat next to us and started talking. I whispered that we didn’t speak German, and he immediately got excited and switched to English. “I was saying, his Bavarian accent is so bad. I can hardly understand him and I grew up here.”

We had a few hours to kill before our train left, and he insisted on taking us to the only open cafe in the neighborhood for coffee. He was so excited to meet and talk with Americans. The dude turned out to be pretty weird. First he started talking about the time he snuck onto a boat and smuggled Bibles into the Soviet Union in the 70s, and then he switched to talking about how 9/11 was a CIA conspiracy. Soon he was regaling us with the secret plot about how the Turkish people were taking over Germany and soon they’d have political control. Heidi and I were so torn between politeness, confusion, and general thoughts of “WHAT in the heck?!” that we kind of just sat there.

At the time, she seemed completely at ease, but I was nervous and constantly watching the time, hoping that soon we could escape with the excuse that we had to get to the Ubahn and we wanted to be early to the train station. I’ve since learned that she was just as nervous about the situation as I was, but was taking her “everything’s cool, this is fine” cues from me. I don’t know why we didn’t leave, but one thing led to another and he offered us a ride to the train station and we got in his car.

So there we were, in a car with this dude we’d met like two hours before, in a city we didn’t know very well, going who knows where. I sat in the front with one hand on the door handle, ready to bail out and say, “Peace, hope you can escape” to Heidi and run the hell away from there. The whole time our friend was happily chattering about how we had to return to Munich someday and let him know, he could drive us into the Alps to beautiful places that hardly anyone visited.

We both sat holding our breaths and hoping we were going in the direction of the train station. Fortunately, he let us out at the station just fine and presented us with two books he’d written – one about his Bible-smuggling activities and one about the “truth” behind 9/11. I still have the 9/11 one somewhere.

To this day Heidi and I can’t believe we got into a car with him. It was such a dumb thing to do. Though I’ve met plenty more interesting characters while traveling, I have never since done anything as stupid as that.

Rating: **
Up Next:
 The War of the Worlds

Book #77: Elective Affinities

All problems with Social Darwinism aside, I kind of like it when people apply scientific thinking to people. People obviously don’t behave like molecules or ions or anything, but it’s an interesting way of looking at things to pretend that they do. That’s why I thought that Goethe’s Elective Affinities was pretty neat.

When I read this book, I had to dig deep into my high school years and draw on things I learned in Mrs. V’s advanced chemistry class. I had to think about balancing chemical equations, molecular bonding, and chemical reactions. Thank goodness “Mama V” taught us so well.

In chemistry, elements react with each other to form molecular compounds. Sometimes, though, even though compounds are already formed, when a new compound is added to the mix, both original compounds split up, as elements in each are attracted to elements in the others.

It’s something like this:
AB + CD –> AD + CB

Ladies and gentleman, here in this book, I give you the first-ever double displacement human reactions.

The story centers around four people: the couple Eduard and Charlotte, on their second marriage, able to be together after their first spouses were finally out of the picture; Ottilie, Charlotte’s teenaged, orphaned niece, and the Captain, Eduard’s childhood friend.

When Eduard and Charlotte invite the Captain, who has fallen on hard times, for an extended stay and then decide to take in Ottilie, who is having trouble at her boarding school. Given what I’ve told you above, you can probably figure out what’s going to happen in the book.

Bonds form, break, and are re-formed. The characters must deal with these changing bonds and the consequences that come with them.

Though generally, applying scientific principles to people doesn’t work out so well, I appreciate Goethe exploring this concept and I had fun tagging along and looking into it myself. Given the fact that you know the general premise of the story pretty quickly, it’s fun to try and guess how things will happen and in what way bonds will form and be broken.

Rating: ****
Up Next: Joseph Andrews

Book #73: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was my first John le Carre book. I was excited to read it, but also a little apprehensive.

One of my good friends loves le Carre and raved about his books when we were in college. I’d heard lots of good things from her and from a lot of other people, so when my dad asked for a new book recommendation, I told him to read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He didn’t like it. I don’t think he finished it. He said it was too slow.

My friend who loves the books and I have a lot in common and really similar interests. However, my dad and I have really, really similar tastes in books. I anticipated a conflict, and I was right.

I wanted to like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but there was something about it that stopped me from really enjoying it. It had everything I could want in a plot – intrigue, East Germans, spies, Control lurking in the background of everything – but there was some unnamable thing that stopped me from getting into the the book.

I suppose I feel about this book the way I feel about the Game of Thrones books. I like the plot and I want to know what happens, but I really don’t want to have to read the books to find out.

The actual plot of le Carre’s book interested me. I really wanted to know what was going on and who had Leamas and who was actually on which side, but I did not want to do the work of reading to find out. I did, because curiosity ultimately got the best of me, but the book was a struggle for me to get through.

I can’t say what, for sure, it was about this book that I didn’t enjoy. I guess I just wasn’t interested in le Carre’s style. Maybe I prefer to get my spy/intrigue fix by watching movies instead of reading books. I don’t know.

I’ll have to see if I like any of le Carre’s other books before I write him off altogether.

Rating: **
Up Next:
The Lover

Book #6: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Next, I’m reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres.

Corelli's Mandolin book cover

I am excited for this book. I’m going to be a historian someday (I hope) and World War II is my favorite period (closely followed by the Cold War). Any time I get to read a book, fiction or nonfiction, about 1933-1945, I get pretty stoked. Of course, my studies mostly focus on Germany, so I don’t know a whole lot about Italy or the Italians’ experience in WWII. I’m willing to learn, though. Maybe reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will inspire me to study it.

Anyway, this book is about people living on the Greek island of Cephalonia in the early days of the war, before the Italians invaded. It’s a love story of sorts, I think. It’s about war, truth, history, and what makes the history we read in history books (according to Goodreads and the Big Book I got the list from). It really seems like this book is PERFECT for me. I think that Corelli and I are going to be really good friends.

It sounds like the book is going to be amusing in parts too. The fact that Corelli responds to a “Heil Hitler” with “Heil Puccini” is hilarious, in a dark and off-kilter way. That sort of joke (I’m deciding it’s a joke and if it’s not, I still find it amusing) fits perfectly with my sense of humor. Also, I know that Corelli and I are going to have a very good time together because I started reading it last night and I’m enjoying it so far. In fact, if I could, I’d be reading it right now.

The Backerei Woman

I didn’t like Out of Africa. I’m sorry, I just didn’t. Yes, Dinesen does descriptions of land and scenery beautifully. Yes, she is very good at bringing the land she loves to life. Yes, she did make everything seem mythic and even sometimes mystical.

What she didn’t do is make me care. For some reason I couldn’t connect with the narrative. It was weird. I kept trying to come closer and get into the story, but something stopped me from really getting into the text and connecting with Dinesen.

I did, however, like the fourth section, The Immigrant’s Notebook. It was a compilation of little scenes and stories about things or people Dinesen encountered. I was inspired enough to write my own about Germany. This is my favorite one:

The Backerei Woman

Blonde haired woman

Every morning my housemate and I rode the bus to Am Sande, the center of Lüneburg, and got breakfast at a bakery. I got to know one of the women who worked there very well. She was in her late thirties, possibly early forties, with strawlike blonde hair. On busy mornings she bustled around behind the counter, putting new pastries behind the glass case, punching the dysfunctional espresso machine with a lot of muttered Achs and Schades, and bantering with the ‘usuals.’

In the beginning, we stumbled through early exchanges with pointing and pantomiming.



“Kann ich Ihnen helfen?” Can I help you?

Milchkaffee“…ummm…ja. Ich….eine Kaffee. Und…das…” (vague gesture to a pastry that looked good) “Und…wir…nicht hier essen.”  Ummm…Yes. I…coffee. And…the… (gesture) And..we…not eat here.

Eventually she started using her limited English (which was about as good as my German). We started to trade languages. Every morning for five minutes we would talk. She in her broken English and me in my beginners’ German.

“It RAINS today. Rain! Regnet! I learned RAIN!

“Ja! Heute es regnet,” I would agree. Since it rains nearly every day in Lüneburg, we got very good at talking about the rain.

I would proudly find an excuse to show off my improving German.

“Gestern BIN ich ZU Hamburg gefahen! Ich BIN gefahren!! Yesterday I went to Hamburg. (With extra excitement about choosing the correct modal verb)

By July, it would be like this:

HER: Hello! Hi!
ME: Hallo! Wie geht es Ihnen? Hi, how are you?
HER: I am good. I practice lots of English! Listen: Today it is SUNNY. Tomorrow it WILL rain!
ME: Ja! Es ist sehr schön. Aber morgen würde es regen. Futur! Ich lerne mehr immer Deutsch! Yeah. It’s very nice. But tomorrow it would rain. Future tense! I learn more always German!
HER: Sehr good. Very nice! Almost right. What today?  Käse Brötchen
ME: Ummm…ich möchte…diese.  Ummm…I would like…these.
HER: No. You must speak.
ME: Eine käse brötchen. Meine Lieblints…dinge. A cheesy bun. My favorite…thing.
HER: Sehr gut. Very nice. Und..And…coffee. Mit…with…zwei…two….ehmmmmmm Zucker….Zucker…Schade.
ME: Genau. Zucker…Auf Englisch sugar.
HER: Ja! Sugar. Eine Milchskaffee mit zwei  Zucker! Yeah! A milk coffee with two sugars!

It seems that even in foreign countries, I can become such a regular that baristas know my order. My mornings in the bakery trading languages with a German woman are some of my fondest memories of Germany.

Rating: **
Up Next: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Rameau’s Nephew. 

Book #4: Out of Africa

I’m not sure about Out of Africa. I’m sure about writing about wanting to read Out of Africa (well, that’s probably because I DON’T want to read Out of Africa). There are just other things I’d prefer to read right now. I’m going to try and make the most of it, though. I think I’ll be able to relate to Dinesen on certain things.

When it comes down to it, I get the sense that she’s writing about a place she’s lived and loved that is not her “home.” Except I get the feeling that Dinesen does consider Africa her home. I can relate to that. I lived in Germany last summer and fell in love with it. I was only there for 90 days, but I have claimed it as “home” ever since. I love it like I love the U.S. (actually, I might even love it more than I love the U.S., but shhh…I don’t want the Secret Service after me). I wasn’t born there, I didn’t grow up there. It’s not technically *my* country to love. Except that it is because I’m claiming it. I feel like Dinesen might feel this way about Kenya. And, of course, she lived there much longer than I lived in Germany. She had a home there; I only had a small, spartan room in the basement of a random family’s house.

I worry, though, that this is going to turn into a highly romanticized ode to a simpler, “purer” culture. When people write that way about the “less-developed” [read: non-Western] cultures, it really botheres me. We don’t need an “African pastoral” to hold up and idealize as THE way to live. Why can’t we just look at how awesome it is that we have all of these different ways of living all around the world?

BUT I do NOT plan on reading this as some pastoral ode to earlier, simpler, better times. I plan on reading it as a love letter from Dinesen to a country she loves that is not hers. And maybe I’ll even write my own love letter to Germany.

Futher, I used to want to be a travel writer. I still try and write “travel-themed” pieces (that I never share with anybody). Maybe reading this will give me some tips on ways to make a place more central to my narratives. I’m interested to see how this memoir hangs together.

Here goes nothing!

%d bloggers like this: