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Scene in Berlin

Kate Katharina Ferguson
August 9, 2013

Now a busy, multi-cultural hub for startups and techno, Berlin has been through a lot in recent years. DW's Kate Katharina Ferguson experiences the city through the eyes of someone who's known it for nearly a century.

Postcard of the Berlin City Palace in 1925
Image: ullstein bild - Stary

I first met Frau P six months ago. She was nestled in an armchair by the window, clasping a magnifying glass. On the table in front of her were a pile of newspapers and a packet of sugar-free sweets.

She considered me carefully while I was introduced: "Kate is a 25-year-old freelancer from Ireland and is interested in volunteering at the nursing home."

Earlier, one of the staff members downstairs had run his finger down a list of names and alighted on Frau P's. "I think she could do with some visits," he'd said. "The only surviving relative she has is a niece and she lives in another city."

Frau P (who preferred not to give her full name) has pale blue eyes that sparkle, a soft white perm and flawless skin. I found it hard to believe that she was 93. She said I was welcome to visit her. We arranged a day.

Scene in Berlin

Generations gone

Frau P's room is bright and clean. There's enough space to wheel a walker around comfortably but not enough to jump rope. A large black and white photograph hangs on the wall above the bedside table. Once, Frau P asked me to take it down so we could look at it more closely.

"This is my grandparents' golden wedding anniversary in East Prussia," she said. "If you look carefully you can see the number 50 carved into the flower arrangement at the back.

"We were a big family. That's me at the bottom on the left," she continued, pointing to a little girl with cropped hair and buckled shoes kneeling on the ground. "Those are my grandparents in the middle and those are my aunts and their husbands. These are my cousins.

"She was killed," she said, pointing to an aunt. "So was she, my cousin too. He fled, and so did she."

"And this man," she said pointing to the back row of the photograph, "He was married to my aunt Anne. Anne was very ill, and told him to flee alone. He did, and she died soon after. Years later we heard from him. He got away and married again. But he said, 'She'll never be my Annie.'"

Wrestling with the past

Frau P, like me, does not always sleep well.

"I haven't been able to sleep properly since my husband died," she said. That was many years ago. Her only child predeceased her too.

I asked her if she was plagued by racing thoughts.

Aschingers Bierquelle, a restaurant in Berlin-Mitte, pictured in the 1920s
A restaurant in Berlin's Mitte distrinct, pictured around the time Frau P was bornImage: picture-alliance/akg

"No," she said. "My husband and I used to have wonderful times together. We went to the museum a lot. I have a wonderful talent to recall these happy thoughts. Some other people are riddled with anxiety at night, but I simply think of these good times with my husband."

As a young woman, Frau P worked as a seamstress on west Berlin's famous Kurfürstendamm shopping street. Though she gave up working when she married, she has not lost her eye for detail.

She never fails to notice what I am wearing. She compliments the colors and patterns of my dresses and when I tell her that she herself is looking well, she says she really needs to get her perm touched up.

The secret to longevity

Frau P loves reading but these days it's impossible without her magnifying glass. It tires her out.

One afternoon I asked my local librarian whether there was a book he could recommend for a 93-year-old. We snaked through the aisles and collected a few titles. Finally I chose "Die Pforte zum Himmelreich," a German translation of a novel by Irish writer Una Troy. It features a cantankerous 100-year-old nun and an upstart journalist desperate for the scoop on her longevity.

I read a little bit of it to Frau P each week, putting on my best effeminate whine for the young man and a low, grumpy growl for the old nun. Sometimes Frau P laughs out loud.

The library where I got the book was once a Sparkasse bank, Frau P told me. Before the War it was used as a vault to store jewelry and other precious possessions. After the War, the Russians plundered it and one of Frau P's friends never saw her necklace again.

Frau P also remembers the roads in the area widening to keep up with Hitler's rise to power. "There were rallies and marches all the time," she explained. As a young girl, they seemed exciting.

Flowers on the window sill in Frau P's room
Life is a cycleImage: DW/K. Ferguson

New life

Frau P can move seamlessly from the profound to the practical. One moment we are talking about life and love and loss, and the next we are comparing the price of coffee pots.

Back in March, when Frau P turned 94, I bought her a pot of carnations from the florist at my local underground stop. She put them on her windowsill.

Last week, Frau P asked me to bring her some apricots. We sat by the window, munching one each. It was a dull day, but every now and then the sun broke out from behind the clouds.

"Look," said Frau P, pointing at the carnations.

They were deep pink and in full bloom.

Kate Katharina Ferguson blogs at katekatharina.com.

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