Jonathan was my first real Western friend. He was one of my new neighbors in East Berlin. He was proud of his non-renovated apartment with its coal heating and its shared toilet in the hallway, but when he invited me to dinner, there was always steamed fennel with cream sauce, whole grain bread, and Bordeaux or Beaujolais. My fork trembled in my hand. Jonathan would talk about how "authentic" the overweight milk ladies were in their white aprons; about how to best light a coal oven; and about how he had learned to appreciate East European dishes like sojanka and goulash. It was all so quaint! Meanwhile, I tried to memorize the vegetables on my plate, so I could ask for them by name on my next trip to the market.
When we went shopping together, Jonathan asked the dumbfounded clerk whether the tomatoes were "native produce." When I put my chocolate cookies and Coke down next to his purchases on the check-out conveyer belt, he stared in horror. To judge from me, you'd think the Wall had only come down yesterday, he said. To me, I guess it had. I hoped he'd be patient with me.
I got my first pair of acid-washed jeans just after the Wall fell. They were hand-me-downs from my mom. Dad had got them for her at one of the exclusive shops set up by the GDR to relieve West Germans of some of their hard currency. The jeans were already way out of style, but I wore them with pride, and to pep them up, I sewed two brightly colored shoelaces, one orange and the other green, to the outer seams. An old friend later told me that he earned a living in the GDR selling colored shoelaces. He'd buy white ones by the carton and then take them home and dye them with food coloring in great big pots on his stove. He always had hundreds of them hanging out to dry in his tiny apartment. It must have looked as though it were raining colored threads.
Our mothers did everything they could to see that we were properly dressed. Hand-me-downs from the West were shared not just among family members but with neighbors and co-workers as well. Week in, week out, our mothers scoured the stores, not to buy what was necessary, but to see what was possible. They knitted us homemade sweatshirts, hand stenciling them with brand names we selected from out-of-date Western catalogues.
Now I get a bit nauseated when I go through old photos. I look at myself, a sulky preteen, posing awkwardly in my homemade fashions. Hesitant, somewhat spooked, and always inappropriately dressed, I stare into the camera. You can see in my eyes that I only want to do things right. All the embarrassment comes rushing back—the shame I used to feel when, on holidays in Hungary and Bulgaria, we'd run across well-dressed West German kids. How I wished that someday, somehow, I would look exactly like them. Now that I'm older, and people can no longer tell at a glance where I come from, I sometimes pause to watch the ten-year-olds horsing around on their way home from school. They all grew up in East Berlin, yet their fashion sense is right on. They're so young, and they already look like real Westerners. How did they do it?
Pub date: 03/03/08
Price: $14.95/18.00 Canada
5 3⁄16 x 7 5⁄8
b/w photos throughout
Carton Quantity: 32
Selling Territory: USCOM