Photo: (Small) Part of my childhood library

(The German-speaking readers may download a translated version of the following text as a PDF.)

What is it that makes us, that defines us, gives us shape and smell and haptic? Whatever the answer, it must be things that are endlessly more intense and important than what we all too often deem relevant – especially than our opinions. Opinion is like a fungus covering reality, tarnishing it, smothering it, and spreading ever more rapidly since the urge to share our opinions has become a dominant force in our lives.

As for me, I’m growing tired of listening to never asked-for opinions, of listening to comments and judgements on anything and everyone. And tired of giving my own opinion, too.

I never get weary, however, of listening to anecdotes – above all to the stories people tell from their early lives. One of these little narrations brings people closer to you than all their opinions combined.

The shorter such anecdotes, the better. Just sparks that throw a momentary bright spotlight onto some scene in the past. I much prefer them to lengthy stories. You can collect such sparks. Or perhaps we’d rather see them as the colourful glass chips in a kaleidoscope? Every shake bringing up a new image, a new scene.

Shake!

See the little boy there by the river? It’s the blog author, me, trying to make flat stones jump over the smooth (and oily and smelly) waters of the Elbe. ––– Shake! Walking through the vegetable patches and greenhouses of the nursery where grandpa works, feeling the rough, leathery skin of his hand in mine, the lines and wrinkles of his palm indelibly marked with black earth – and with the thumb missing (a chicken had eaten it, he kept telling me). ––– Shake! Our first home in the eery, dilapidated house by the tracks, with cargo trains being shunted night and day. And the mystic giant maple tree in the ragged premises where the woodlice were swarming under the ever-moist, flat stones. ––– Shake! The dead cow with the big round belly dancing beneath the little waterfall of the Weißeritz (just before it enters the Elbe).

Shake, shake, shake!

Throwing my toys (and my dad’s medals) out of the window, just for fun. Then regretting and wailing. My parents compelled to spend hours in the thorny shrubs beneath, searching. ––– Simone who bit off her tongue when falling over with her chair in kindergarten. All the blood … ––– Beautiful frost flowers on the windows in the winter.  ––– May parade. (For us kids just another form of carnival. I loved seeing real guns.) ––– The dwarf man on the W… Straße who fascinated me beyond description and who made me ask my mom countless questions in a loud voice while pointing at the man excitedly (my mother not exactly sharing my enthusiasm and instead pulling me away hurriedly). ––– Lo and behold, a sister! ––– Moving to our new shiny, modern flat with central heating and a separate room just for me. ––– Long walks with my parents and sister, in any weather, through woods and parks and the botanic garden and museums, lots of museums and all kinds. ––– Dominik, my best friend, and I, haunting the neighbourhood like Siamese twins. ––– Playing knights during break at school and, in juvenile ardour, striking down my classmate Tibor with a vigorous blow of my sword (i.e. my wooden ruler) that hit his temple. Teacher not amused. ––– Books.

Endless summer holidays, our tenement block baking in the sun and the wasteland around it teeming with children of all ages. ––– Poking the beautiful, smooth pebbles out of the exposed aggregate concrete. ––– My big sky-blue alarm clock on the breakfast table, showing me when to push the book aside and leave for school. ––– Dodging the big pupils and their random gut punches. (But not worrying too much.) ––– Being taught that we were the good ones and the West was evil and fascist, yet at the same time coveting the enemy’s toys and chewing gum and Disney clips. ––– Asthma. Sent to a cure two times, once even to the sea. Nevertheless quite good at running and long-jump. ––– Playing »Indianer« (we were an imaginary sub-tribe of the Lakota) and building tipis, or rather tree huts, and making bows and arrows and calumets (yep: we were really evil »cultural appropriators«). We’d even hunt buffaloes, that is: try to steal white cabbage from the nearby field and then suddenly run away in panic from »the man with the white helmet«. ––– More books.

The smell of soot and smoke over the city in the cold season. ––– Swapping things at school: stamps, old tin soldiers, cartoons from packages of chewing gum, … ––– Building »unauthorised« gardens together with Dominik. Growing flowers and onions and carrots. Proud entrepreneurs! ––– The thick ant trail right through our classroom. ––– Inventing stories around every house and tree and puddle in the quarter. The barracks of the Soviet army that we’d pass on our way to school were a particularly fruitful inspiration for us. We vied with one another at inventing ever scarier stories about the world behind its walls. ––– Not saying a word to anyone about it for two years, not telling that my family would leave. Not even Dominik knowing about it right until the last day. ––– Playing »Indianer« during break at school and, in juvenile ardour, catching my classmate Tibor with my lasso (i.e. my scarf) and almost strangling him. This time my teacher wrote a rebuke that my parents had to sign. The note read: »Today I choked my classmate Tibor with a lasso.« Mom and dad not amused. ––– Then, some day in May, arriving on the other side. Realizing very early in my life what propaganda and indoctrination can do, having ever since despised ideologues, bigots, fanatics, and opportunists (and developed a keen eye for discerning them whatever names they give themselves). ––– New books.

Shake, shake, shake!

New scenes. New people. And ever and ever and ever again: books.

But now I’ll pass the caleidoscope to you. Go ahead, shake! And tell.

Photo: Just a small part of my childhood library, found at my parent’s where there are books in almost every room, including the staircase and the cellar.