There is nothing better for a child than to grow up at the ends of the earth. There’s not much traffic there, so the asphalt is free for roller-skating, and parents don’t have to worry about any bad guys roaming around. What business would a bad guy have on a dead-end street?
The apartment that we’re living in when I’m first old enough to go down to the street on my own is on the third floor of an elegant old building with elegantly crumbling plaster, bay windows, enormous double doors for an entrance, and a wooden staircase, the monstrous head at the end of the banister has been worn to a shine by countless hands. Flora Strasse 2A, Flora Strasse 2A, Flora Strasse 2A. The first words I learn after mama and papa are this street name and this house number. That way if I ever get lost I can always say where I belong. Flora Strasse 2A. Squatting in the stairwell of that building, I learn how to tie my shoes. Just around the corner, on Wollank Strasse, is the bakery where I’m allowed to go shopping by myself for the first time in my life, at age four or five, when my parents send me down with a shopping bag and the magic coins that they’ve counted out to buy rolls for breakfast. The bakery has hand-carved wooden shelves and a cash register where the cashier turns a crank before she puts the money in. A bell chimes when the drawer is opened. Wollank Strasse comes to an abrupt end a few hundred meters farther down, at a wall. That’s the end of the line for bus number 50. My parents don’t have to worry about any bad guys roaming around, what business would a bad guy have on a dead-end street? In those days, they send me down to the courtyard to play by myself in the sand, a large fir tree casts its shadow on the sandbox, and when dinner is ready my mother calls down to me from the window. There’s a dance school on the second floor of our building, from the courtyard you can hear the tinkling of the piano and the voice of the teacher instructing her students in the steps.
On the other side of the wall, past what I know as the end of Wollank Strasse, the elevated train goes by. It runs to the left and to the right, but neither of those directions is open to us. One station farther to the left, but on our own side of the wall, my grandmother lives together with her husband and my great-grandmother in a two-room apartment, in one of those Berlin tenements with one courtyard after another. To reach their apartment you have to go all the way to the third courtyard back from the street. The building is actually on a corner, and if you could enter from the other side, their apartment would be at the front. But since that side has been declared a part of the border strip, the passable part of the street comes to an abrupt end just shy of the corner, at a wall. In this neighborhood, where my grandmother and great-grandmother live in their tenement, it’s always winter. When I look at the snowflakes in the greenish glow of the streetlights, I feel dizzy, coal is hauled up from the cellar, the third courtyard is paved with concrete, and the ash cans in the courtyard are always surrounded by puddles or dingy reddish snow. Baths are taken only once a week in this household, since the bathwater has to be heated in a special furnace. The only ventilation for the bathroom comes from a tiny window that can be opened with a metal rod mounted above the toilet, a rod that I believe is infinitely long. It runs the entire length of the ventilation shaft, beginning in the bathroom and continuing across the top of the pantry (which is separated off from the kitchen) until it finally reaches that tiny window, which I never actually see. In the kitchen, there’s a big, round glass jug on the floor filled with fermenting grape juice that’s supposed to turn into wine, but sometimes it turns into vinegar. On the sideboard I see a canning jar full of the leeches that my grandmother has to apply to herself to prevent thrombosis. When I spoon out the pear compote for dessert, I look uneasily at the leeches and the lids of the jars. My grandmother doesn’t wash the dishes under running water, she uses two bowls that she pulls out of the kitchen table like drawers. In my great-grandmother’s bedroom, where I sleep too when I spend the night, a lacquered wooden clock with golden numbers ticks throughout my entire childhood. This room, which is never heated, is also where my great-grandmother stores her pepsin wine, and she keeps her knitting inside the compartment of the unused tiled stove. In that same compartment, alongside her knitting, she also lays the pins that she removes from her hair before going to bed, undoing her bun and letting her long, gray braid fall down her back. When I look from the bedroom or the living room down to the street, which isn’t a street anymore, I can watch the soldiers on patrol, or count the elevated trains that pass, running left and right. I see the strip of sand, the fluorescent lights, the snowflakes swirling in their green light, then the barricades, the watchtowers, and the wall, behind that the train tracks, behind the train tracks the garden plots, and behind the garden plots an enormous building with many windows, perhaps it’s a school, or a barracks. On Sundays, when I come to the tenement house where my grandmother lives with her husband and her mother, it always smells like roast pork, steamed potatoes, and cauliflower; it could be the roast pork, steamed potatoes, and cauliflower that my grandmother has prepared, but it could be from the neighbors. You never know.
Shortly before I start school, we move to Leipziger Strasse 47. A boxy pair of blue-and-white high-rises, ours is twenty-three stories tall, the one next door is twenty-six; these are the first buildings to be finished along the grand socialist avenue that leads to Potsdamer Platz, at least that’s how it would be described today. But during my childhood Leipziger Strasse doesn’t lead to Potsdamer Platz, instead it comes to an abrupt end just shy of Potsdamer Platz, at the point where the wall turns a corner. That means that the West is there to the left of our building, and the West is also there farther along, where the wall turns the corner, just past the end of the line for bus number 32. I learned about that on Wollank Strasse, in the Berlin neighborhood of Pankow. But there are other things that I didn’t learn in Pankow. In Leipziger Strasse, when we move in, there’s just the pair of buildings where we live, a supermarket, a school, and two apartment buildings that were seriously damaged in the war, nothing else. In Pankow, I learned to ride a bike in the public park, I fed ducks in the palace gardens, I dragged my feet through the autumn leaves when we went for Sunday strolls in the Schönholzer Heide. Now there’s nothing around us but mud. My walk to school leads through the mud of the giant construction site, my walk to the supermarket leads through the mud of the giant construction site, my walk to piano lessons leads through the mud of the giant construction site. In the mud, I find a twenty-mark bill, it’s green. If I hadn’t found that bill in the mud—a miracle!—I surely would have forgotten by now what a twenty-mark bill looked like back then. Our Sunday strolls take us down the smaller streets that branch off from Friedrich Strasse to the west, since that’s the only place with asphalt where I can roller-skate, the asphalt is bright gray and smooth, and we can walk down the middle of the street, since there isn’t any traffic there. What business would a driver have on a dead-end street?
The high-rises keep growing and filling up with people, including children who become my friends in school. When my friend in the building across from ours oversleeps, we see the one dark square in the seventh row of windows, between countless little bright squares, and we call to wake her up. The construction of socialism is always tied in my mind to this construction site where I live. To the left of our building is the high-rise that houses the Springer publishing company, but that’s on the other side of the wall, as if the wall were a mirror reflecting our evil twin back to us. And farther along, near the bend in the wall, roughly across from my schoolyard, the upper half of a building can be seen, its facade displaying not only two glowing cursive letters, BZ, but also a glowing clock. Throughout all of my years in school, I read the time for my socialist life from this clock in the other world.
We live on the thirteenth floor. On the thirteenth floor, a child starts to wonder about certain things, for instance, if it would be possible to balance on the balcony railing. I decide against it, for reasons that I no longer remember, but it’s a close call. Sometimes, when I forget my key to the apartment and my mother isn’t home yet, I stand at the hallway window facing west, passing the time by counting the double-decker buses that come and go from the Springer high-rise. We don’t have double-decker buses in the East. From thirteen floors up, I have a good perspective. Depending on the time of day, the buses come every five or ten minutes. One day I set a record, I count twenty-six buses. At some point we move into a larger apartment, which means moving to the sixth floor. A high-rise that large is like a city unto itself, and changing apartments just means rolling up or down a few floors, from one space to another, hauling the furniture up or down in the elevator. Living on the sixth floor isn’t just an advantage from the standpoint of my survival, since the temptation of vertigo isn’t so strong, it’s also an advantage because when all three elevators are out of service, it doesn’t take so long to climb the stairs. Whenever I climb up or leap down the shallow steps of that stairwell with its smell of piss and dust, its walls painted a rusty red, I think of our geography teacher’s advice that in case of a nuclear attack we should take shelter in the stairwell near the banister. The nuclear attack never comes while I’m living on Leipziger Strasse, there’s only a small earthquake one night—we and many of our neighbors run down the rusty red stairwell with its smell of piss and dust, our sweaters pulled over our nightshirts, all the way down to the ground floor, where we stand outside the giant block that has spit us out, looking up at it with concern and considering the possibility that all twenty-three floors might fall on our heads, but that doesn’t happen either.
At the age of thirteen, a child starts to wonder about certain things. For instance, whether both people have to stick their tongues out when they French kiss, or just one person at a time. The ABCs of kissing are recorded on a scrap of paper that’s grown crumpled from repeated studying. My school friends and I always bring it with us when we venture into the ruins of the Deutscher Dom on the Gendarmenmarkt, where we discuss the hierarchy of kisses and test out our conclusions with a series of experiments: a kiss on the hand—respect; a kiss on the forehead—admiration; a kiss on the cheek—affection; a kiss on the mouth—love. In these ruins we always have the sky above us. In our dusty clothes we return home to our newly built apartments. As childhood gradually turns into something else, and Leipziger Strasse finally becomes a real street instead of a construction site, we move. My mother has seen enough of these blue-and-white boxes, we move into an old building on Reinhardt Strasse at Albrecht Strasse, diagonally across from the Deutsches Theater. Looking out the window of my childhood bedroom, I now enjoy a stunning view—across the lots that bombs left clear—of old Berlin apartment houses silhouetted against the sunset. The sun still sets in the West. At some point, Reinhardt Strasse comes to an abrupt end at a wall. A hundred meters from our house is the end of the line for bus number 78. Now that I know the ABCs of kissing by heart, a boyfriend takes me to the ruins on Museum Island. A birch tree is growing on the ground level. To get to the second floor, you have to climb the birch and then carefully cross over to the cracked marble floor. Up there, a white Venus stands in front of the burned-out windows of the gallery. There is nothing better for a child than to grow up at the ends of the earth.
—Translated from the German by Kurt Beals
Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967. Her previous books include The Old Child, The Book of Words, Visitation, The End of Days, and Go, Went, Gone.
Kurt Beals is an associate professor in the department of Germanic languages and literatures at Washington University in St. Louis. He has previously translated books by Anja Utler, Regina Ullmann, and Reiner Stach.
From Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Kurt Beals. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.