All the dogs in Berlin had the same face. A wiry, bearded face with intelligent eyes and perked ears. None of the dogs paid me the slightest bit of attention even though I was so dog hungry, missing our Labradoodle and yellow Lab back home in Boston. The German dogs trotted with purpose and never veered from the path to chase a duck or leap into the water or bark to say hi or keep away. This is what it means to be a good dog in Berlin.
It was 2018 and my husband and I were living in Berlin, where he was on an academic fellowship and I was there as “spouse of.” My position relegated me to the outer circle of the big-headed fellows, which was fine with me. It was part of the story of our relationship—he was a front guy, I preferred to watch the scene around me. We were also there to try and put our marriage back together following my husband’s gender transition from a queer woman to a man, which began two years earlier, in 2016. How would it be to live someplace where nobody knew our specific relationship history or had known us in a previous incarnation as a queer couple? Were we still a queer couple? The hope was that in a setting where somebody was cooking and cleaning for us, we would stop fighting about whose turn it was to vacuum and what’s for dinner and get to the big fights, such as, were we going to stay married?
We were living in Wannsee, a southwestern suburb of Berlin, on the River Havel. While there, I visited the late summer garden at the Liebermann-Villa, the summer residence of the painter Max Liebermann, on a tour with a cohort of fellows. A small birch allée leads to Lake Wannsee and features prominently in many of Liebermann’s paintings. There is a bronze otter fountain, purple cabbages planted among the dahlias, a rose arbor. It is an artist’s garden, with vivid colors and crafted views. After Liebermann died in 1935, the house was confiscated by the Nazis. I wandered nearly next door to the House of the Wannsee Conference, an imposing villa that now operates as a museum, where, in 1942, in an eighty-five-minute meeting, fifteen men decided “the final solution to the Jewish question,” and then were served lunch and drank cognac.
At the obligatory group dinner every night, a dreamy Italian German waiter pulled out the chairs for all the women and poured endless glasses of wine with his hand over his heart. I felt lit up in the spotlight of his beautiful service. He was soft-spoken and had a delicious accent. He greeted me with warmth and eagerness, anticipated my needs, and spoke to me as though he were kissing my hand. He was my favorite. My husband sat with his elbows on the table, chatting up his fellow fellows about digital philosophy and Balkan politics and the fifteenth-century Ottoman empire.
“To reduce a gender transition to being in the wrong flesh bag in my experience is problematic…”
“If the condemned recanted, the person was strangled before the fire was lit—a mercy execution.”
“…neoliberalism is about the individual, not the group!”
My husband was the first trans person to be selected as a fellow for this program, to sit at this table. His award had been publicized, which mostly preempted the need for him to introduce himself as trans, which he had no hesitation about doing. It did happen, more than once, though, that when he described living as a “white, Midwestern girl from a small town in Indiana for fifty years,” an audience member didn’t recognize the signifier—the bearded, burly guy in the designer glasses—as the signified. “Who was the middle-aged woman from Indiana you were talking about?” he was asked.
There were two single women among the fellows. When I wanted to get my girl on, we sneaked cigarettes and complimented each other’s wardrobe selections. “I love your shoes!” “I love your shoes!” My husband called them my lesbian girlfriends. They were my favorites.
My husband liked to dress in streetwear and overpriced sneakers. He was peppy and happy and filled with joy. Before the transition, he never sweated. In Berlin, he sweat and sweat like a hairy sweating man. He was proud of his sweat. “Look at this sweat,” he said at the dinner table, happily sweating.
As conversations went on around me, I nodded agreeably left and right, chewing and swallowing my German meaty meat meals—pink boar’s meat ravioli, twice-cooked venison, mussels with fennel and blood oranges, lamb’s lettuce with grape and bacon vinaigrette. If anybody asked me anything directly, I panicked into muteness.
“Your husband says you like to cook; maybe you can take a cooking class during your time in Berlin.”
“Perhaps you are interested in cheese culture?”
“What are the ruins of capitalism?”
Every table conversation felt like an interview for a job I was not going to get.
My husband’s question for me was, could I love a man, specifically, him? I had the same question for myself. I mean, you love the person, not a body, not a gender, and what did it matter after nearly twenty years together? People stay married for all kinds of reasons. My husband and I had a joint bank account. We shared an aesthetic sensibility, except for my disdain for streetwear and sneakers. We were both Italian. We weren’t going to break up, were we?
What is the point of these mandatory group dinners?” asked a visiting scholar.
“To enjoy each other’s company?” I said, my mouth full of the most delicious plum torte, made with the tiny, blue-green plums that were in season right that minute.
In a conversation about the varieties of gender, the visiting scholar, a journalist, said they had always felt like a boy but had learned how to be a girl. They’d had a double mastectomy and then breast reconstruction, and were now taking testosterone. They described their relationship to this new body as the way one would think of inhabiting a new country. I wondered about the experience of being in relationship to a new body in a new country—like an American lesbian married to a man in Berlin.
My husband started testosterone shortly after the 2016 American presidential election, and I couldn’t seem to separate the political disaster of our country from our ongoing personal disaster. I couldn’t bear to listen to the news. I couldn’t stop listening to the news. I had never felt so implicated by the news, by what white men in America were doing. As a queer woman in America, I thought I had sorted out my personal and political affiliations with gender years before. I mostly didn’t pay attention to men unless I loved them, like my father and my nephews and a few dear friends, or they were interrupting me or talking over me or hitting on me or threatening me or taking up too much space or in my way. They didn’t get my time or energy or attention. Now men were impossible to ignore. Day after day, I would open my computer, resolved to delete my social media accounts, and then not delete them. Day after day, I would read my husband’s latest Facebook post about navigating the men’s bathroom, about drinking bourbon at a bar with other men drinking bourbon, about being called sir and boss, buddy and bro.
“How does it feel to be straight?” he’d joke to me. “We’re like a hetero couple now.”
Nothing is funny to me. For twenty years, I never had to think about my identity in relation to my marriage. Everybody saw me as queer. I saw myself as queer. What did I look like next to a man? Not myself, not queer.
I needed to speak about his transition, but I wasn’t able to—not to our friends, my friends, my family. In spite of my husband’s talking and talking about his transition, I didn’t have language or vocabulary to respond, to say my own things. He was becoming the person he always wanted to be, the person he always was. But in some way I thought his transition erased our history, my history, and invented a new present for me. “What do you think of my beard?” my husband would ask me. I had nothing to say. He was so happy. I said no good ever came from talking about anything. I put my hand over his mouth. “Stop talking. Just shut up. Shut the fuck up.”
One of the fellows was a Hungarian filmmaker, most of whose films had been banned in his native country. Every day, he wore a version of the same khaki jacket with multiple pockets. He packed the pockets with pens and notebooks and Kleenex and called it his office. He was my favorite. Several of his films were available with English subtitles, and on Monday nights we adjourned to the library after dinner to watch his movies, often with chocolate and brandy as though we were in a Merchant Ivory movie. One of his films was a documentary about a contest sponsored by the Hungarian Young Communist League to hire a pop band to entertain the young workers at an oil refinery. In the film, the Young Communist League discusses their criteria for the band—no hippie-length hair, no ragged jeans, no cursing on stage, no groupies. They talk and smoke and talk and talk—about the role of music in a political movement, about how to recruit more young people to the Young Communist League, about the seditious dangers of unbridled rock music. None of the bands audition for the job by actually playing instruments or singing together, and nothing the committee says in their talking has anything to do with music or art. Ultimately, they hire the band most compliant with their interests, which is to say socialist Hungary’s interests. The film is sad and funny, a curiously gentle illustration of the importance and impossibility of making art in a totalitarian society. With his work, the filmmaker could communicate the things he was not allowed to say.
Every morning, I would sneak down to the breakfast table before the crowd descended and fill a plate with seeded bread, a selection of meats and cheeses, and fresh fruit, and I would wait for a custom-made cup of coffee. Most days, I avoided the pastries and the people. Then I would go back to our apartment and read, my little breakfast picnic spread around me. I read Stasiland by Anna Funder, an account published in 2003 about the conditions in East Berlin before the wall came down. Two hundred and seventy-four thousand people worked for the Stasi between 1950 and 1989. In a country of sixteen million people, the Stasi kept files on six million citizens. Most of these files are now in an official archive, where they are accessible to the public. They include 39 million file cards, 1.4 million photographs, 34,000 film and sound documents. Laid out end to end, these records would cover more than 100 kilometers—over half the length of the Berlin Wall. The Stasi reported on everything: what time you left your apartment, where you stopped for coffee, who you talked to on the phone, who came to your home.
They kept scent samples on persons of interest, the theory being that a person’s scent was as identifiable as fingerprints. Scent samples were collected by stealing an article of clothing from a suspect or by wiping a chair the suspect had sat on with a cloth that was then stored in a glass jar. Dogs were used to track suspects based on their smells. How did East Germans live like that for more than thirty years? Family members spying on each other—husbands spying on wives, children reporting on parents. When the wall came down, did they forgive one another? How did they make sense of their history? The East German peace activist and politician Vera Lengsfeld discovered that her husband, the father of their two children, had spied on her throughout their marriage. She divorced him in 1992, and more than a decade later he wrote to her and begged for her forgiveness.
Since I was in Berlin, I decided to watch all of Werner Herzog’s movies. And as no Herzog scholars had revealed themselves at the dinner table, I thought I might work myself up to saying something like, “That guy who got eaten by the bear, that was crazy, right? And what was up with his hair?” In a scene in Fitzcarraldo that says everything about the sanctity and stupidity of the dreams of white men, Klaus Kinski, a white Messiah in a white suit with a halo of radiant blonde hair, directs all the brown people in the jungle to haul a three-hundred-twenty-ton steamship over a mountain.
All the young men in Germany have the same haircut: a taper fade, long on top, shaved on the sides and back. My husband is not young but this is how his hair is cut. One day I met him at a barber shop in Schöneberg. I got there early and saw him with shaving cream on his face getting his beard trimmed, the barber’s chair tilted like a steamship heading up a mountain. His eyes were closed in a dreamy dream of manhood and all that was needed to complete the picture was a cigar and Caruso singing in the background.
History is infrastructure. There is personal history and there is the history of a relationship. There is the history of where we are from, the places we lived, where we traveled, the dogs we owned. I married a woman. That is my history.
Erich Mielke was the Minister for State Security from 1957 until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. At the Stasi museum, I saw Mielke’s office, his private bathroom, his emergency sleeping quarters for when he had to work late. There were pictures of him throughout the museum: a short, squat man with small eyes, wearing a uniform and saluting, medals spread all over his chest. He would be less than a mouthful for the visiting scholar. They could eat him in one bite of their Klaus Kinski mouth. But he fancied himself a big politician, a policeman, a manly man, a numbers man on the hunting field: a hundred dead deer gutted and laid out on the killing field in front of him, including frozen carcasses purchased to inflate the kill numbers.
I went to a book club of American, Canadian, and British expats who had been living in Berlin from between ten and forty years. Some of the book club members were married to German citizens, had German family, or had connections to German history. We were reading Stasiland. The first comment among the readers was that the title Stasiland was problematic. Book club members told me they were reluctant to read the book in public. A young woman in the group said she only read it on the S-Bahn if nobody was sitting across from her on the train to see the title. “The Germans think everybody should be over this by now.”
I had thought that in the book club we’d meet each other speaking a common language with shared assumptions. Not so. What I heard from the book club was that those citizen informers the Stasi employed were doing the best they could. They were working to take care of their families, to pay rent and buy food. And there was free healthcare, free education. No, it wasn’t a perfect system, but better a neighbor or relative informing on you, the assumption being that maybe the informer you know wouldn’t say anything too awful about you. It was a corrupt system and “we were all its victims.”
I wanted to draw clear lines between the good men and the bad, but they refused. Is it possible to be a good man in a corrupt system? Does the system reveal the good men or protect the bad ones?
“When I was with the opera, we did a concert at Moabit Prison in Berlin,” the retired singer in the book club said. “He was there, Mielke, the few years he was locked up. He was an old man then, weak.”
I was an American in Berlin in 2018. The daily onslaught of news from the US was unbearable. The Eastern Europeans had a shrug-and-sigh attitude about the creep or lunge toward totalitarianism. They’d been down this road, around this corner, before. When the news reported on Hungary’s intensifying policy to keep the country “Christian” and reject multiculturalism and immigration, the Hungarian filmmaker whose work was banned, whose university mentor informed on him to the state, who left his home with his family to make a better life for his children in the West, said over a massive pork hock with red cabbage and a mound of spätzle, “What can you do? Make your art.”
What could I do? I went to the opera. I listened to music at the Berlin Philharmonie. In a country where I didn’t have language, neither the local language nor a vocabulary to express how I was feeling, I wanted to be submerged in big emotion and big sound. I wanted to be reset. I was trying to regroup. I was trying to make sense of my history, and to consider an opening for my husband’s new physicality, his widening shoulders and deep voice, his new name.
We saw Achim Freyer’s production of Verdi’s Requiem at the Deutsche Oper. The production was a fantastic moving frieze of repeating characters in black and white and red. The procession was relentless and mechanical. The staging suggested a language of object and color about mourning. Was I in mourning for my queer marriage?
In November in Berlin, when everyone else was wearing black or gray, my husband wore bright yellow sweatpants and a blue short-sleeve tee-shirt with the sleeves rolled up so you could see all his tattoos. When we walked along the East Side Gallery with all the murals painted on the remnant of the Berlin Wall, he looked like part of the artwork.
At the Collectors Room Berlin there was an exhibition called the Wunderkammer Olbricht, a personal collector’s exhibit with objects from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. It was like a writing prompt curiosity cabinet full of little odd things with stories to tell—a ten-foot long narwhal tooth that visitors can touch and make a wish upon; a miniature, anatomically correct replica of a pregnant woman carved out of ivory; iridescent-green scarab beetles as big as a man’s hand. My husband and I visited the exhibit and we each picked out an object as our personal talisman. My husband chose a small gold and enamel turning head from about 1600 that likely hung on the end of a ten-bead rosary. One face is a skull and the other is a beautiful youth. My pick is an objet naturalia, a porcupine pufferfish, fierce and menacing.
The man who is still my husband and I walked around Lake Schlachtensee. He was wearing sneakers that looked like a three-ring circus on his feet. His sneakers could have led a parade. He’d never seemed more easy with himself, unconfined in a body that feels like his. He was my favorite. All the people on the path can’t help looking at his footwear in their restrained, German way. The German dogs looked at us both with love. This is what makes them the good dogs.