Tag Archives: Berlin

Taking Up Smoking at the End of the World

John Sherman | Longreads | September 2017 | 9 minutes (2,250 words)

 

I started smoking this year. In Berlin, where I lived before recently returning to New York, almost everyone seems to smoke, almost everywhere, almost all the time. It’s like a 1970s game show, but in German and with better hair.

It wasn’t the ubiquity of smoking that sold me as much as the opportunity to become excellent at rolling cigarettes — a simple task that is wildly impressive when done well. The most practiced rollers can assemble a factory-grade filtered cigarette in about ten seconds, packing it casually against a thumbnail while your own attempt looks like a slightly crumpled, pregnant snake, leaking tobacco from both ends.

I’ve watched Berliners roll cigarettes walking, standing up in a moving subway car, and even once while biking through traffic on Karl-Marx-Straße. A German friend claimed her father could roll a cigarette inside his pants pocket, which, bullshit or not, puts the bar for trick-rolling higher than I can even imagine.

Aside from being a cheap way to smoke — about €5 for a bag of decent rolling tobacco, plus €1 each for filters and rolling paper — it’s an excellent sideline for fidgeters, people like me who can’t help but curl straw wrappers into intricate fiddleheads, or peel the label off their beer bottle to fold origami fortune tellers. Cigarette rolling is a mini-craft project unto itself, repeatable and perfectible. I probably enjoy rolling cigarettes even more than I enjoy smoking them.

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I don’t mean to be flip about the health hazards of smoking, which are illustrated in full color on every side of every tobacco product I’ve ever purchased, and rattled off by every serious smoker I’ve ever talked to about it. I was born in America in 1989; the only thing I know about smoking is that it’s bad for me.

Read more…

Hello, Lenin? (Berlin, 1997)

East Berlin, August 1990. Image by Sludge G (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Rebecca Schuman | Schadenfreude, A Love Story | Flatiron Books | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2950 words)

 

This excerpt was adapted from Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Awkward Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations that Only They Have Words For, Rebecca Schuman’s memoir of her adventures in German culture.

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Ostalgie. n. Longing for the good old days of the German Democratic Republic, from east and nostalgia.

My German flatmate was named Gertrud, and I lived with her in the former East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, which was, according to Herr Neudorf, my professor back in the U.S., where “all the punks lived.” Gertrud was from Chemnitz, a town in the former German Democratic Republic that was once called Karl-Marx-Stadt. And while she definitely possessed her genetic allotment of efficiency — she was punctual everywhere she went; she never ran out of or misplaced anything; she traveled everywhere by bicycle, even in the dead of winter, and knew how to maneuver through traffic with a deft mixture of caution and aggression — her tenure as my mentor, cultural ambassador, and only German friend led me to the greatest epiphany about the Germans of my short life: It wasn’t that Germans didn’t like me. It was that West Germans didn’t like me.

East Germans (Ossis) like her were patiently curious about the way I did certain things — walked around barefoot, answered the phone “Hello?” instead of barking my last name into it, failed to stand up and move toward the train door a full stop before I was due to exit the U-Bahn — whereas West Germans (what we would now consider “Germans”) could be mortally offended if I changed from my outdoor shoes to my indoor shoes (Hausschuhe) five minutes too late for their liking. According to Gertrud, this was not because, as I had assumed before, I was a patently offensive person — it was because Wessis were spoiled pains in the ass, who assumed they were better and more cultured than their Eastern counterparts just because they’d had uninterrupted access to Coca-Cola for the last half-century.

Look, I’ve seen Good-Bye Lenin! and The Lives of Others more times than I can count. I’ve taken a tour of the Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison led by a former inmate, who described in excruciating detail the time she was made to sit in the water-torture machine for seventeen straight hours. I am aware that the division of Berlin ripped families apart and killed people. I know the Stasi were among the most brutal surveillance forces ever to exist. But I’m just saying: there were things about the Ossi mentality that I very much preferred. Things that had less to do with guaranteed employment and lack of toxic late-capitalist morality than people being way less uptight about all of the things I did wrong, such as drink water from the tap.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one suffering from early-onset Ostalgie. In this I was joined by a rather sizable demographic — one that has, alas, all but disappeared in the intervening decades. This disappearance is not, as you might think, the natural result of twenty-first-century German capitalism’s sensible-suited dominance, but rather it owes to the whims of Mother Nature herself. I speak here of the venerable extinct creature known as the East Berlin Oma, or granny: violet of hair, slow of gait, thick of dialect, crotchety of disposition. If, in the late 1990s, you happened upon a purple-coiffed Dame of Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Treptow, or Lichtenberg and asked her about reunification, chances are she would tell you without hesitation she preferred things the way they were before. Read more…

The Walls of Berlin: A Reading List

The Berlin Wall still exerts incredible power over our imaginations, 25 years after Germans on both sides of the city began the process of demolishing it. Its existence had always invited wildly divergent reactions, making it not only a physical structure, but also a canvas on which political and cultural dreams could be projected. This is as true today, for a generation that has never lived in its shadow, as it was during the Cold War. Here are four stories that attempt to trace its legacy.  Read more…