Berlin in summer

1970 in Berlin – that was a summer to remember.

It was a long time coming. When we arrived – February – snow covered the ground. Cold, cold air bit into our noses, our wrists, our ears, my knees. Our Sydney winter clothes were hopelessly inadequate. My son whimpered when we opened the front door of the yellow villa. I carried him a few paces, then put him down.

What kind of idiot would wear a mini-skirt in February?
Strangers in the snow
A little later, in giant mittens

He did not leap for joy at his first sight of snow. It was alien, freezing. The two-block walk to the supermarket was an Antarctic trudge. To add to our misery, we were passed by a woman in a fur hat and boots, pulling a sled. On the sled was a red splodge. As we squinted through the snow glare, this proved to be a small child, coocooned in a zip-up snowsuit.

I was mentally practising my textbook German, but language was not going to be the only challenge.

Spring was late. The last snow fell on the first of April. Our neighbours from the left-wing commune next door shouted cheerfully to one another as they scraped snow off the windscreen of their 2CV. I always greeted these people but they never replied. Maybe they managed a curt nod once or twice. I was hurt. Perhaps they thought someone their age who was already a mother must be unbearably bourgeois? Only later did I learn that our landlady’s preferred tenants, including the couple upstairs, were US Army intelligence.

Let’s skip spring, the little green-tipped snowdrops and the buds on the linden trees. The window boxes bright with pink flowers.

Flowers, colour, warmth…

Summer! It sang. It shimmered. Nightingales chorused in clear skies. The parkland smelt of freshly-mown grass. Everything was green, green, green. Squirrels leapt from one branch to another, or, to the fury of the landlady’s husband, foraged in garden beds.

My husband rode everywhere on his bicycle, while my son and I were now experts at using the local bus and S-Bahn. By this time, German phrases came to me without much effort. One day we got ready for the day out. I put a sundress over my swimsuit and packed a towel. We set off for the Wannsee, my son thrilled to be wheeled along on his father’s bike.

Cycling over cobblestones, Berlin

Past the supermarket, past the station, and into the shady woods. Finally, in a burst of light, there was the lake, with its small sandy beach and great stretch of water. There were a few wooden bathing boxes, like the ones in Clarice Beckett paintings. The sea was calm, but a few small yachts were in sight. White swans glided across the water and begged for snacks from picnickers.

Berlin’s well-fed, very confident swans

Children were everywhere, the pre-schoolers running around naked. Their mothers stood squirming awkwardly under long kaftans, shedding undergarments, before emerging in sensible one-piece bathing costumes.

I flung off my sundress and sat on a towel. The stress of our first months in Berlin was evaporating.

My son wanted to dash into the water, but I held him back.

“Sunscreen,” I said. “Be still for a second while I put some sunscreen on your shoulders.”

Summer friends at the Wannsee

PENELOPE NELSON

October 2021

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