Saturday, 21 May 2016

I Uncover A Souvenir

One of the anomalies of my teenage years was that I had two penfriends: one Swedish, and one German, but the languages I learnt at school were French and Italian.

With my own children, I've tried to break the inheritance of linguistic mis-match.  So my younger son who learns French went to France on a school trip.  And my elder son, who learns German, has had a German penfriend, and been to Germany twice on school trips, and to Berlin with his father.  So when I found a souvenir brochure about East Berlin when sorting out my books today, I did the new thing, and showed it to him.

I went to East Berlin in 1980 as a guest of my German penfriend's family, after taking French and all the other O levels, when the DDR was at the height of its pride. 36 years later, finding the brochure I've kept since then was a surprise.  I had forgotten all about it, and about its tone.  "Take a good look around our city," it reads on page three.  "It is plain to see  that no one here has any fears about what the future has in store.  Young people know what they are learning and studying for."  I remember feeling slightly ill-at-ease leaving West Berlin, crossing through Checkpoint Charlie and having to account for myself in a few halting phrases to an East German border guard.  If only I'd learnt German, or gone to France instead, I too would have known what I was studying for - life would've been clearer.  According to page five, the vague sense of dis-ease I experienced must've been one I brought with me - "There are no crises here ... though ... much remains to be done in order to overcome the legacy of capitalist tenement building ..."

That German holiday was wonderful - for the first time I flew, sailed a dinghy, ate black cherries straight from the tree, gargled the national anthem and played tennis indoors.   I was to have another wonderful holiday in 1982 in Sweden - the souvenir that remains from that trip is an absurdly giant yellow comb which I won at the Gothenburg funfair.  There, I felt completely at ease.

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