Category Archives: Childhood

Carnival with the animals

Berlin has two zoos. One in the former East, one in the former West. They are still referred to as the Ost-Zoo and West-Zoo, and in my experience the one Berliners choose to visit is determined by the side of the wall on which they, or their families, grew up. As my British heritage removes any sense of obligation I might have for one or other establishment, I can take my pick. On Saturday I tossed a coin, bundled up my youngsters, and set off in a flurry of snow to see the western penguins in their element.

IMAG0542I am not, I should point out here, entirely comfortable with zoos, and whenever I do go, I am struck as much by the behaviour of my fellow human beings than by that of the animals they are there to see. I’m not talking about the hordes of tourists who rush from one cage to the next taking photographs at such a pace that it seems unlikely they have the time to take in what they are documenting, but about those who come alone, and talk to the animals as if they have known them for a long time. Those people catch my eye.

A couple of years back I recall walking towards the hippos behind a woman with a pram. I was pushing one of my own at the time, and thought nothing of it until she stopped to tend to her baby. I swerved to pass her, and as I did so, I saw that her baby wasn’t a baby at all, but two life-sized dolls. Dressed up and wrapped up, they stared at her with eyes and expressions as blank as her own.

Our paths crossed again in the hippo enclosure, where she whispered to her dollies, and questions whispered to me. I was thinking about her when I went to the zoo this weekend, half-wondering if she might be there somewhere. I went to the hippo house on the off chance. But the spot where she had stood on my previous visit had been given over to children in costume and adults in brightly coloured wigs. Carnival had come to the zoo.

IMAG0528Loudspeakers thrashed out German folk songs, and people stood about eating sugarcoated balls of dough and drinking coffee from paper cups. But there was no dancing, no laughter, and the atmosphere was one of forced gaiety. I asked one man who was doling out sweets if there was any particular reason for staging the event with the animals? “The hippo house is heated,” he told me. “That simple.”

In which case I think I prefer the complex. I prefer the dollies in the pram, because however plastic, they were, and perhaps still are very real.

Category: Berlin, Childhood | Tags: , ,

A beautiful trio

From where I am currently sitting – in a cafe not far from where I live – I have a wonderful view of three elderly ladies, all tucking eagerly into their lunchtime special. I might not have noticed them at all were it not for the endearingly, unwittingly comic way in which having crossed the threshold, they stood side by side in absolute stillness as they watched a father struggling to get his snotty toddler to put on its coat.

“That’s your father,” one of the women said. “Yes, your father,” added another. The third didn’t speak, but bent her rickety frame to lend a seemingly unwanted hand. The whole scene was over and done with in a matter of minutes, and the trio has probably moved on from it more quickly than I. Because here I am, half an hour on, looking at them with a certain degree of fascination.

And as I look, one of the things that strikes me is that despite their scored wrinkles, the skin that literally hangs off their cheeks and necks, and the sunken appearance of their eyes – or perhaps because of these things – there is no mistaking the fact that they are sisters. At least that is what my motherly mind tells me. And it asks me how their own mother would have responded to the sight of the three of them standing crookedly around the toddler in the way she might have done with her grandchildren, their children.

I can’t imagine she would have liked the sight, because as sweet as it was to an impartial observer, it was also a public display of elderly vulnerability. I think of my own little ones, and wonder if, 70 years from now, a stranger might recognize their blood relationship to each other when they are out for lunch. I hope so. I like the thought of their emotional and visual bond remaining close, but I’m also glad I won’t be around to see their faces droop and their legs buckle. It would break my heart.

Aesop, moderation and Christmas

It is just two days until Christmas, and as I write this, it is pitch black outside my window. A window that is open enough to let something of the swirling, roaring wind making merry with itself, come inside. It makes me think of Aesop and his sun versus wind fable. There was a time when I willingly bought the idea that the latter, cheeks full of puff, lips pursed malevolently, was the villain of the piece, while the sun was like a gentle old lady caressing the traveller out of his cloak. In this age of climate change, Aesop might have written a different tale. A tale in which the sun, the wind, the rain have all become very accomplished demons, willing at the drop of a hat, to unleash havoc the world over. He might have written about moderation, and how when it comes to the weather, excess is not the best policy. The same, he might also say, is true of Christmas.

The wind between the trees as the darkness began to turn to light

Snowy flakes are falling softly

I remember a line from a song at primary school that went… “Snowy flakes are falling softly, covering all the world in white…” I don’t know how it continues, but I do know that every time it starts to snow, those words start singing to me. What’s more, they are often accompanied by the taste of Dutch Shortcake. Proustian? Maybe. Maybe not.

Both the words and the biscuits came to me today – the latter in a blue and silver packet – when I looked out of the window to see a sky positively laden with snow. They are with me now, dancing around me like the snow flakes the song describes, and leaving me in no doubt that wherever I was when I first experienced their delights, must have been good, comforting places.

Perhaps that is why I have always loved snow so much.

Category: Berlin, Childhood, Seasons | Tags: , ,

David Miller and facebook

A school friend I have not seen for an eternity mailed me this morning to ask if I would consider joining facebook as a means of remaining in touch with her and the other two members of our once upon a time gang. A few minutes after reading the mail, I caught a snippet of a certain ‘David Miller’ sounding learned about something or other in a radio interview.

Perhaps because the email was so fresh in my mind, the very mention of the name David Miller instantly transported me to the last of five rows of scored and scorched desks in a high school science lab. From there, I could easily recall the back of another David Miller’s head, and as his neatly cropped haircut came back to me, I wondered if it had ever belonged to the man holding forth on my radio; whether the teenage boy I once knew could have acquired enough experience and knowledge in his specialist field to be speaking about it publicly?

If I were on facebook, I would probably know, or at least readily be able to find out the answer to my own question. But I am not, and I like it that way. Although I wish both David Miller and his career every health and happiness, I would prefer to recall the image of the boy in a school tie, than to dress him in a suit and imagine him speaking booming into a microphone at Broadcasting house.

My version of his life is unrealistically, unfairly even, lost in time, but in so being, it allows me to remember someone I knew rather than try to know someone I probably never will. And that allows space for my imagination to roam free. Plenty of space, I realised, when a couple of hours deeper into the day, I realised that the boy with the tie and the cropped locks was actually a Mellor not a Miller, and it is quite possible that we didn’t have biology classes together, but English, where I first remember wanting to explore thoughts like these.