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What did I have to learn after the political transformation of 1989?en

Jochen Schmidt © Tim Jockel
Jochen Schmidt © Tim Jockel
Jochen Schmidt
Freelance writer, Berlin

That you could also order a steak “medium”.

My new five-figure postcode.

The colour spectrum of rubbish bins.

To eat a doner kebab with one hand while riding a bicycle.

When watching TV, to develop a sense of when the advertising was over so as to switch back to the film at precisely the right moment.

The New Year’s Eve fireworks were not allowed to be so loud, motor scooters were not allowed to be so fast. Was the mustard still as hot as it used to be? At any rate, the magnets were much stronger.

Boxers no longer wore shirts when they were boxing.

The doors of the S-Bahn could no longer be pulled open; you had to push a button that sometimes did not work. Ticket inspectors sometimes looked like homeless people.

Currywurst could also be served in little slices. Just like bread could be bought pre-sliced.

In aeroplanes, not everyone got their own parachute.

You were now allowed to call the Wall “the Wall”, you were also allowed to say “Russian”, and Frederick II was now once again called Frederick the Great. But they called Bertolt Brecht “Bert” Brecht.

Because gardeners planted juniper and other conifers, pear trellis rust spread and there were no longer any good pears.

Because everyone got their own telephone, you did not have to visit people at home anymore.

In front of the theatres, mobile vendors offered cheese and ham baguettes in large baskets in the break.

Pupils were not allowed to be distracted by their new, brightly-coloured pencil cases. The teachers taught them how to recognise counterfeit money and how not to become a drug addict.

In the newspaper there were no more party conference speeches, but share prices in small print.

Jeans’ sizes were shown by W for “width” and L for “length”.

A good pizza was always a bit bigger than the plate.

In West Berlin there was no tram, but there was a motorway that went right through the residential areas.

There were now two buttons to flush the toilet, a large one and a small one. People who pressed the large one probably also voted for the CDU. With soap dispensers, sometimes you had to pull a lever, sometimes you had to press it and sometimes you had to bend a bit of soft plastic tubing to make the liquid soap drip out. But you never knew exactly where the soap was coming out, and during the first few years a lot of it went down the drain.

Kindergarten children wore bright neon-coloured vests at the playground. The mothers often looked like grandmothers and the grandmothers like mothers.

Everyone used metal sponges for washing up, and you got yourself a garlic press. There were also peaches without the unpleasant peach skin - they were called nectarines. Frozen spinach was already divided into practical small cubes in the pack, and rubbish was put into special bags.

Our parents were now using wide breakfast knives to cut bread rolls, but they did not taste good anymore. Most bakeries closed down; only larger chains were left, where hair was allegedly used as a baking ingredient.

When you made a phone call, you had to press the hash key ever more frequently at the end.

You could not take your bike into the first carriage.

On most pavements in East Berlin, a sign saying “Damaged pavement” appeared so that no one who tripped over could sue the city.

If yoghurt did not taste of anything, you had to look down to see whether there was any fruit on the floor. If so, it was yoghurt with toppings to add yourself. Vanilla yoghurt was now yellow because that was the usual colour for vanilla.

In the mornings it was not worth going to the door when the doorbell rang because it was usually advertising.

It was important to go the dentist once a year and to have your visit confirmed with a stamp because otherwise dentures would be too expensive. All amalgam fillings were removed from your permanent teeth.

It was not easy to take a CD out of its cover using your pointer finger, middle finger and thumb without damaging it. The reason why CDs were invented, i.e. because records got scratched, was also true of CDs.

The next thing you had to learn was how to open a bottle of Vicks Medinite syrup.

In the West, they said “Oppa” instead of “Opa” for Granddad, “Tschüühüüss” instead of “Tschüss” for bye-bye and “Balkohn” instead of “Balkong” for veranda. They said “with mineral water” instead of “with carbon dioxide”, and they ordered “a water” instead of “water”. And they were always drinking water. When they spread themselves a slice of bread, they called it ein Brot instead of eine Stulle . “Willst du noch ein Brot?” (in the author’s language use, this means “Would you like another loaf of bread?”) What that meant was “Willst du noch eine Stulle?” (Would you like another slice of bread?) You could not manage a whole loaf of bread by yourself.

New books were shrink packed so you could not take a look inside at the shop and perhaps be put off buying them as a result.

Nail clippers were better than nail scissors – you could cut the nails on your right hand with your left hand.

Because the pubs were open for so long, everyone drank and smoked until they were too tired to go to the other person’s flat and have sex.

Fire escapes were now attached to the outside of all public buildings. If that was not possible, the buildings were pulled down and replaced by new buildings with a smooth, anthracite grey facade.

In comics in the West, the speech bubbles were round, not square.

Because you went shopping by car and could push your trolley to the car park, the trollies in the store were secured with money.

For Western money, you not only got records, stickers and aerated chocolate; you also used it to buy milk, butter and onions, and for those things one could have continued to use East German money.

The button for “bananas” was always on the top left.

More expensive products were sometimes no better than cheap ones – price was not an adequate quality criterion.

Cinema seats now had bottle holders. Perhaps because there were hours of advertising before every film and otherwise you would have died of thirst.

The Barmer health insurance company had nothing to do with Erbarmen.

In the pubs there was now wheat beer and you had to learn how to drink tequila with salt and a slice of lemon in the right order. You also had to know the hierarchy of the different kinds of whisky, but the really good ones were the ones you could neither pronounce nor afford.

Toothpaste tubes were now sealed with a small piece of silver foil that you always put in your trouser pocket in the bathroom out of laziness.

Martens were suddenly interested in car cables and nibbled them – a little bag of garlic helped to keep them away.

Dimitroffstraße in Berlin, previously called Danziger Straße, now reverted to being called Danziger Straße again, and was previously called Dimitroffstraße.

You could open a Zippo cigarette lighter with one hand.

Some telephones only worked with a phone card that you could insert into the slot in four different ways, sometimes even more, although that seems illogical.

Pocket calculators now had soft keys.

Leaves from the trees were no longer swept up, but were blown onto the street or in front of the house next door using a special apparatus. Weeds on the pavement were removed by municipal staff using a flamer.

There was no school on Saturdays anymore. That was a good thing too, because there were now channels showing children’s programmes around the clock.

People from the West did not say “Fünf Schrippen, bitte” (five bread rolls please), but “Ich bekomme fünf Brötchen” (I’ll have five bread rolls). The bakers put on transparent rubber gloves to hand over a loaf of bread. Many bakery products now had annoying seeds stuck to them.

You could eat raw fish - it was called “sushi” - and with a bit of luck, if you ate it often, you could become as old as the Japanese.

You could refill ink cartridges yourself as they were more expensive than the printer.

There was no obligation to attend university lectures. The blackboard was no longer cleaned by the students, but by the professor, or it was done at night by a cleaning woman.

To type texts, you basically only needed your thumb.

In cars, the direction indicators now went off by themselves after a curve. When the engine was idling, you no longer had to put your foot on the accelerator to stop it stalling. You no longer changed its spark plugs yourself.

Many pensioners caught the window-shopper’s disease.

The rubbish dumps on new estates were now locked, not to stop people stealing rubbish, but to stop them adding their rubbish.

You could no longer roam through backyards because fences were put up everywhere.

Instead of combine harvesters impressively spitting out bales of straw onto a lorry being driven next to it, the straw was now rolled into large round bales in the fields and a plastic cover was put over them.

Gollum used to be a hobbit.

Jochen Schmidt

Jochen Schmidt was born in 1970. He is a freelance writer and lives in Berlin.
He co-founded the reading stage “Chaussee der Enthusiasten”
and is a member of the German writers’ national football team.

His most recently published works are his novel “Schneckenmühle” (Snail’s Mill, 2013) about the last summer holiday camp in the GDR in 1989 and “Drüben und Drüben” (Over there and over there, 2014), written with co-author David Wagner, about childhoods in East and West.

Autumn 2014