There was even a worse horror scenario in my childhood than the sentence: “We are going to the garden!” And this fatal sentence was: “Let’s go for a whorl!”
It meant that the whole family Scheppert by order of my mother dressed up extra finely and strolled at snail’s pace through the park called Volkspark Friedrichshain. We started at our flat in Mollstreet, went to the Lenin monument, passed the restaurant called Köhlerhütten to reach the hospital and the sports and leisure centre until we finally approached the old natatorium. There was the turning point and we went back by passing the second duck pond, the bunker hill and the fairy tale well to Hans-Beimler-Street where we sometimes all stopped in the Scheppert Corner to eat toast Hawaii. Most of the times however, Benny and I went directly back to our flat to watch TV.
A whorl was only this special stroll through the park. The really good trips to the Palace of the Republic, the children’s park called Wuhlheide, the lake or the Berlin animal park we loved so much were not called whorl neither by us nor by my mother. Furthermore, we determined when we go to the animals and that was quite often, also to avoid the whorl.
Some day our family knew all the animals, every path that one could go and every new arrival. The polar bears, the elephants and the monkeys were our favourites, but we also loved the otters, the pot-bellied pigs and the okapi. Sometimes we even went to the animal park on our own and Benny had to know by heart which animal we would reach next and where it came from. I am sure that he still knows the order.
The animal park conveyed us unconsciously the feeling of width. We could sniff at faraway countries and continents, although we knew that we would never go there. Here the elephants and lions from Africa, the leopards, penguins and owls from South America and the monkeys from Southeast Asia embodied all the foreign countries for us. In the Alfred-Brehm-house where the big cats roared and in the tropical house among nervously fluttering bats we could guess how other climate zones might feel. This huge animal park in Berlin Friedrichsfelde was the symbol for limitless freedom in our childhood.
For Christmas Benny and I wanted to have two hamsters. We wrote a letter to Santa Claus and were heard. Thus, under the crippled Christmas tree that my dad as always bought at the last moment two little hamsters ran around their cage. Moritz looked nearly the same as Max only that he had a white belly. Of course we really loved how they accomplished their feats and clung to our sweaters.
But in May 1983 we had a real problem: every wallpaper, carpet, shoe, and nearly everything else that was reachable for the hamsters were nibbled off.
Dad had heard from his colleague that mice are able to climb up the cable ducts until they reach the upper storeys of the houses. Therefore he diagnosed mice in the 9th floor of Mollstreet. He put up a mouse trap.
With a piece of cheese in his mouth and a broken neck we found Moritz in the trap the next day. Because of my mother’s horrific screams I wasn’t saved from the awful sight. Benny was luckier since my mother told him very emotionally that Moritz had died and our father threw him down the waste disposal unit. Three days he cried in the evening when he lay in bed next to me.
During the second week of our summer holiday camp in Harz Mountains I received a letter from my mother saying that Max had been disappeared and that I should prepare Benny to cope with that sad scenario.
Our parents had taken the survivor of our two hamsters to the weekend home and left him in the shadow of the cherry tree. My mum was working in the patch and dad was drinking beer when suddenly a huge dog came along, grabbed Max and disappeared. When the dog reached the car park he opened his mouth and let him free. And indeed Max was still alive but he was so shocked that he started running at breakneck speed through the fence and disappeared. Benny didn’t cry as badly as the first time since I told him that we could hope to find him when we were back at home. Until late September we really combed through all the bushes, ditches and hedges. Being quite angry with our parents, we demanded a new pet.
Mum always went to the Autumn Fair in Leipzig and we had only waited for this moment. It took two days to melt our dad’s heart and we all went to the pet shop in Bötzowstreet. Totally unbiased we started the pet selection, but soon we agreed to take the ball of wool in the corner: a guinea pig. On the way back home it got already its name: Otto. We didn’t choose the name because we had an uncle called Otto or knew the swimmer Kristin Otto, we both loved the comedian from West German television: Otto Waalkes.
Being hardly at home dad went to Scheppert Corner to get his after work beer. When dad was gone it took only 5 seconds until Otto disappeared behind the wall unit in the sitting room. Benny started crying.
We tried to tempt the guinea pig with all edible stuff we could find at home, but we didn’t hear a single sound. When dad came home at around 10 p.m. he was in a good mood thanks to the beers and snaps he had drunk. He found his two boys wailing in the sitting room and decided to disassemble the wall unit straight away. When all the pieces of the wall unit lay separately on the ground we could free Otto that looked very dazed and put it in its cage. The wall unit we reassembled only one day before mum returned home from the Autumn Fair.
Without mum we three felt quite contented in between the chaos and dirt we had created on our own. But on the other hand, we ate broilers from the restaurant around the corner instead of bread for dinner, we were allowed to watch television until the end and we welcomed a new family member: Otto, the guinea pig. The whole family loved Otto even our very sceptical mother. We argued about cleaning the cage, feeding Otto or taking him to the vet. Otto was the ideal pet for us.
This strong affection lasted for about one year. In the meantime he wasn’t the small cosy animal anymore, he turned out to be massive and took already one forth of the cage. When he woke up at half past six in the morning and started squealing we drowsily threw some carrots, salad leaves or grass into the cage hoping that he will stop making annoying sounds. After a short time Otto’s cage started stinking horribly. So this animal became a real burden.
Since the eye-stinging smell did my head in I had the perfect idea on a hot summer morning. I took Otto out of the cage and threw the content out of the window of the 9th floor. That was quick and easy. All the wet sawdust and the guinea pig excrements were gone. Five minutes later the doorbell rang and when I opened Mr Romer from the 8th floor pulled me by my ears into his flat. He gave me a vacuum cleaner and I had to clean their bedroom. Thousands of pissed pieces of sawdust decorated their carpet. And although I had accepted this humiliation he even told my mother everything when she came home in the evening. I was standing next to her and felt lucky that my dad was in the Scheppert Corner. On the next morning however, my dad put Otto in a shoe carton and took him back to the pet shop. Shit, mum did tell him everything.
The next day a small boy robbed his piggy bank and went to the pet shop in Bötzowstreet full of hope. With tears in his eyes Benny was looking for his guinea pig Otto. But the lovely, cute and frizzy animal had just been sold 20 minutes ago and the salesman couldn’t remember the person he sold it to. Every attempt to find out who bought Otto failed and so the guinea pig had been our last pet.
Distracting him from his grief I played with my brother the underground game “wall, picture or writing”. We went from our station to the animal park station by underground and had to guess which of the three things appears in front of the window opposite our seats when the train stops. “Wall” meant just the blank glazed tiles of the underground stations, “pictures” were the empty, white billboards even though one couldn’t see anything on them and “writing” were the names of the stations. That game was good for Benny since he had a higher chance to beat me. Every time we happily entered the park of the socialist animals.
When Melli, Jürgen and I left Bernd’s party in Berlin-Karlshorst I had lost my bearings completely. I was tired and didn’t know how to get home. However, the two boys accompanying me didn’t seem to be in the same state. They wanted to continue partying. I hadn’t known the two for long, but I knew at least that one of them also lived in Friedrichshain, so I expected that we could share a taxi home. Melli had grown up here in the vicinity and had a totally different adventurous idea. It was a warm summer night and when we went through the unpeopled streets I could suddenly recognize the logo of one of my most favourite places: the animal park Berlin. Melli ran forward and when I saw him sitting 15 metres above the ground on the artificial hill of the bear compound I knew what he contemplated. We followed Melli and also climbed up the hill at the entrance and down on the backside.
There was a strange atmosphere in the animal park at that time of the night. Empty paths led us through the wide area. The only sounds we heard were our excited but whispering voices, some bird twittering and some grumbling, yelping, howling and chattering of several animals. Even in the total darkness I found my way perfectly and led my friends through the park. We passed the moon and polar bears, arrived at the cute marine otter, next to the pot-bellied pigs to reach the okapi and the shoebill. We more or less respected the animals’ peace, except that we climbed up the rock wall that led to the polar bears again, our jumping over the water ditch of the bison compound and Jürgen’s attempts to ride an obstinate donkey for a few metres.
In the Japan-macaques’ compound there was brisk business. The little monkeys seemed to burn the candle at both ends, jumped up and down on their artificially built temples. As if by magic Jürgen took a sixpack of beer out of his rucksack. With a smile in our faces we sat down on the grass with a beer in our hands and watched the monkeys doing their sensational flights below the clear starry sky. When we had nearly finished our second beer and Melli already sat on the wall to the macaques’ compound, we suddenly heard somebody screaming about 200 metres away: “There they are, these bastards.” The moon was shining very bright and so we could see two fat guys approaching us quickly wearing green overalls and being armed with two pitchforks. Maybe it would have been more useful for them to be silent since we benefited from having a commanding lead: being in panic we started running. Some weeks before the newspapers had reported about some perverts that had broken into the animal park torturing the poor animals senselessly, some even to death. Persecuted by the screaming men with the pitchforks we suddenly guessed that they probably thought we were the animal abusers.
We sprinted through the animal park, passed the zebras, kangaroos, the shrieking monkeys and gawking camels. Finally we reached the snakes’ house just behind the old castle. The other two watched me eagerly as I had led them. Now it helped me a lot that I regularly visited the animal park since my fourth birthday. We climbed on the roof of the administrative building and ran until we reached the end of the house. Right here the roof abutted on the high wall that surrounded the park. But now we faced the bigger problem: on the backside of the building there was a yawning chasm of about 3 metres before we could reach the rescuing street. Surely we would break our bones. However, Melli who didn’t know any fear let himself slip down very easily and then helped Jürgen and me to jump down. It felt terribly long until I reached the ground, but drunks never harm themselves seriously. We could hear the zookeepers screaming angrily on the other side and still far away the sirens of a police car. Jubilating and laughing we went home – what a great night walk.
On the next day I became aware of the fact how lucky we had been the night before. What should I have said if Ihad been arrested? That I love animals so much? That my relationship with animals is extraordinarily good? That I have saved our guinea pig Otto together with Benny and my dad when it stuck behind the wall unit? Would that be enough to rescue me? We shouldn’t deceive ourselves: one dead and one missing hamster and a guinea pig that was brought back to the pet shop aren’t a good record concerning pets.
When I walk through the park in Friedrichshain today together with my mother, we mostly end up in a comfortable Italian café where we eat an ice cream and drink cappuccino. The other tradition in my family I couldn’t continue since the so called “Scheppert Corner” doesn’t exist anymore. At that corner there is a huge gap and they even renamed the street. In the near future there will be built a hotel at that place with some shops in the ground floor and absolutely nothing will remind us that there was the favourite pub of Mr Scheppert.
Today is Sunday and I just called my mother and asked: “shouldn’t we go for a whorl?”
If you want to read more: Generation Wall