Overheard – Stories from Unnamed Places No.03

‘I’ve made a note in my journal,’ the blonde woman said, as the tram rattled around the corner to follow the embankment above the river. ‘It’s a countdown. Four years and thirty-six days. And then I’m leaving.’

She spoke to her friend as if no-one else on the tram could understand what she was saying, and it seemed like a reasonable assumption. They were a long way from home, a long way from that small corner of her country where her language was spoken, and even there only by a minority of those living in the mountains and along the coast. She seemed to feel a safety in her mother tongue, confident in its impenetrability as she discussed the many and varied faults of a man she wished she had never married. Her fellow passengers did not flinch as she discussed her miserable sex life or the quiet despair of long evenings in a dreary living room, with only the television to break the silence. She could speak freely, confident that even if they heard her, they did not understand.

T. understood. His ears had picked up the sound of a familiar language over the rattle of the tram and the tinny, recorded announcements of the next stop. He was as surprised to hear the language of his grandmother as the blonde woman would have been to discover that there was another person on that tram who could also speak it, however imperfectly or inexpertly.

T.’s father had never learned. As a family, their language was that of the plains and the big cities. There seemed little point back then in teaching a young boy the words spoken by only a few thousand others. How could it possibly help? So his father had grown up speaking to T.’s grandmother in a language she herself had only learned in later life. Even when T.’s grandfather died, lost to a long illness that seemed to accelerate and thus was not long enough, mother and son continued to speak in her adopted tongue. By then there was no-one left in the family capable of reading the books she read, or her diary, which she continued to write in the language of her childhood, the language of her thoughts and dreams.

Why had T. decided to learn his grandmother’s language? The diary was part of it. She had left it to him, delivered via her lawyer in a large packing box. Sixty-seven volumes in all, covering nearly seven decades, from her late teens to her final month. There was something else too, some romantic notion he developed as he headed off to university, as he left the mountains for the big city, that there was a part of his past that he could not reach, that he would be unable to reach, until he learned to speak and read the language of his grandmother. On this, he would be disappointed. There was no great spiritual awakening to be had once he understood the language of his grandmother and his great-grandparents. He felt no extra sense of belonging or ownership on that first journey back to the mountains, now that he could speak to some of his old neighbours in their old tongue. For their part, they found it amusing, although they professed to be pleased that he had, unlike many of the younger generation, made an effort.

There may have been no great awakening, but he could read now read his grandmother’s diary. And he knew that if he could go back in time to speak with her, he would have been better able to know her as she expressed those thoughts and dreams in words that instead she had transcribed onto the page in her neat handwriting. There was something else, too. He noticed that his own thoughts and ways of expressing himself changed, now that there was a second language in his head. The new one influenced the old one in all kinds of ways. There were some words, expressing feelings or ways of understanding the world, that existed in his grandmother’s language but which were unsatisfactorily translated into his own mother tongue. He loaned one language words and idioms from the other, if only in his thoughts, and he felt subtle shifts in sentence structure, as one language made gentle suggestions to the other.

He moved on from his grandmother’s diary to her small library of books. Works of poetry and fiction, natural history and geography. He saw how his grandmother’s language had given names and places to mountains and streams, valleys and waterfalls. He had always thought the names had sounded so lyrical, but now he realised how prosaic they were. The Rocky Cliff. The Red Mountain. The High Falls. The Valley above the Woods.

And now, a long way from home, he could understand the women on the tram.

It struck T. as almost absurd, that he could follow their conversation in all of its intimate, melancholy detail, and yet he could not even read, let alone understand, the signs and the advertising hoardings that the tram passed as it moved along the river. The women did not know it, but they shared something, just as he now shared something with his grandmother, even if she too would be aware of it.

What he had realised, once the language had begun to stick and he began to be able to read his grandmother’s diaries, was that what he shared with her, and now with these women on the tram, had nothing to do with heritage or birth. There was no deeper connection to the mountains, the valleys and the cliffs through lineage or blood. What they shared now was a language, and all that flowed from it. Music, culture, poetry and the uninspired names of summits and ridges. And as far as he understood it, you were not born with language. It was not passed down along the bloodline. It was taught. It was learned. And thus, it was open to anyone.

As the tram reached his stop he caught the blonde woman’s eye as he waited for the door to open. He smiled and she hesitated, pausing in her conversation for just a second. Calculating the odds. It was unlikely, he could almost see her think. A tiny shake of her head as her gaze returned to her friend sitting opposite. ‘He does have nice eyes,’ she said, her voice weary now. ‘That much hasn’t changed.’

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

Summer Rain – Stories from Unnamed Places No.02

It was after a summer storm that he most enjoyed his walks in the forest. He would head out from his flat overlooking the main market square and follow the street north where, within minutes, he reached the last of the houses with their neat gardens and the point where the road became a track, engulfed by the trees on the lower slopes of the mountain. After the storm a light mist would hang between the trees and the air was thick with moisture, the scent of pine and moss, and the sound of the thunder still rolling around the next valley. He would follow the trail as the beads of water continued to drip from the branches, until he reached the treeline, where moss and ferns gave way to scree and chalky  rock, and the path began to snake up the side of the steepening slope, until it hit the ridge above.

For most of the walkers who came to stay in the town, sleeping in one of the hotels, holiday apartments or at the youth hostel down by the river, the forest was something to be got through before the real fun began, but he rarely ventured above the treeline. He was not interested in the summits or the ridges, but the discoveries of the forest floor. The traces of the animals who lived there but rarely showed themselves. The spent cartridges of the hunters who tracked them. The hardy flowers and other plants that somehow survived in the permanent shade beneath the thick canopy.

When he had been a teacher, he had often brought his class into the forest. The children were wary at first, their heads full of fairy tales and other gruesome stories about what lurked in the shadows. Lower to the ground than he was, they would often spot things he had missed, and he enjoyed observing them as they crouched down to watch ants crossing the trail or a solitary beetle as it made steady progress with little concern for the heavy boots that might at any moment come crashing down from above.

He used to walk there with his wife. And with his friends, who came to the town to stay and to walk the forests and the mountains around. When he was younger, he offered tours to groups staying at the youth hostel. When he walked, he used to say, he liked to have company, and although in later years he was known throughout the town for his solitary wanderings, this was more necessity than choice. He had never understood those who saw walking as a solitary activity. For him it was social. When he and his wife had something to discuss, or a decision to be made, or simply in order to get some time together, they went for a walk. No distractions, she would say, and they would head out together, holding hands until the end.

Not long after she died, they announced the school was closing. It was not a surprise. The number of families living in the town had decreased as more and more properties switched to holiday lets. He was offered a position in the next town, but he decided not to take it. There were only a few years until he was due to retire, and the district made him a good offer. Sometimes he did supply work; a few days in one school, a week in another. But it wasn’t the same.

After his wife died, he also realised how little he now saw their friends. She had always been the one to keep in touch, and many of them were busy now, busier than they had ever been in their working life, filling up their days with grandchildren and extravagant holidays. The weekend visits that once seemed to fill up all the the summer months faded to nothing. And so he walked alone, following the street from the main square to the forest five or six times a week, and never more joyfully than after the summer rain.

One day he went into the forest and never came back. It took a while for the alarm to be raised. It was a neighbour who first noticed he was missing. After a while, the police also got involved, asking around. It was true, people thought, they hadn’t seem him for at least a week, maybe longer. They thought back, trying to remember the last time they had glimpsed the familiar figure, his red socks poking out from the top of his boots, as he strode across the market square towards the hillside.

Slowly, a day was agreed upon. Forestry workers confirmed they had seen someone similar, high at the treeline, right where the cable car crossed the main forest trail. He had been carrying a stick and greeted them with a smile and a few cheerful words. Now that they thought about it, they remembered him walking away, up towards the mountain path, as the sky darkened and the first distant rumbles of thunder could be heard. When the rain came, they had sheltered in their cab. They remembered joking about the poor walker they had so recently seen. About how he would be soaked to the skin. If he was to return in the next few minutes, they said to each other, they would offer him a ride back down into town.

He never returned.

With this information, the police triggered a mountain rescue search, although everyone was sure that with so much time having elapsed, what they would be looking for was more likely to be a body. Some of the people in the town couldn’t help thinking that they were looking in the wrong place. Why would he have gone up high? He had always preferred to walk in the forest, enclosed by the trees. Especially if he had looked up at the darkening sky and realised another storm was on the way. He would soon be able to walk through those trees after another downpour of summer rain. It was how it liked the forest the best. No, if they were going to find him anywhere, it would be there, resting beneath the branches, among the ants and the beetles, the moss and the ferns.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

Desert – Stories from Unnamed Places No.01

P. had gone to the village because she was told it would be good for her. The desert air. The sea breeze. The walks along the coast or into the hills. The quiet of the nights, far from the city, beneath big skies filled with stars.

That was what she was told. What she found was a village a few kilometres inland from the sea, tucked beneath a series of low hills that had been hollowed out over the decades by a mine that still stood, bare and abandoned, looking down on the cluster of whitewashed houses and sandy-coloured ruins beneath. The village existed because of the mine, but the mine had closed years before and at the north end of the village the ruins of the houses, taverns, shops and social clubs that had once been the focus of life above ground were closed off behind high fences to prevent curious souls from endangering themselves inside the skeleton-frames of the abandoned buildings.

After the mine stopped operations, the village hung on, home to a motley assortment of locals with nowhere to go and a blow-in crowd of alternative types who set up camp in their vans or the few miner’s cottages that had not succumbed to the salty, dry air. The miners themselves had scattered. Some headed north, to the city and the factory floor. Others had crossed an ocean in search of a future above ground in another country.

Over time the village would attract more visitors, who would find accommodation in new buildings at the southern end of the main street. These rows of slender, white houses looked up the hillside towards the new botanical gardens that had been planted on the desert scrubland between the village and the the ruins of the mine. Botanists came for the plants. Artists came for the light. Birdwatchers for the rare species that could be found nowhere else on the continent. And the sick and afflicted came to try and get better.

They always had. On the day P. moved into the small house that looked out across the botanical garden towards the volcanic hills beyond, she found a map of the area on the coffee table. It detailed the towns and villages, the farmhouses and the beaches, as well as the names of the hills and the walking routes that ran between them. One led out from the end of her road, skirting the botanical gardens until it reached a river, which it followed until the path turned once more and crossed a ridge between two hills, dropping down into a high, hanging valley. A solitary building was marked on the map, with a name: Healer’s Cottage.

For the first few days P. did little but sit out on her terrace, listening to the sound of corn buntings hidden in the scrub across the street and watching for the small lizards that liked to dart between gaps in the stone wall outside her house. She would sleep through the hottest part of the day and in the late afternoon walk into the village, to browse in the small shop and grab a bite to eat in the bar on the main square.

In the shop she found a dusty guide to the region that had been published in a language she could understand. It was a decade old, but as she sat outside the bar with a glass of beer and began to read, she realised not much had changed in the intervening years. From the guide she learned more about the Healer’s Cottage, about how the Healer had lived there, impossibly, from before the mine was built until after the last of the miners had left. She read about how people would travel from across the country to the village and then follow the stony path along the river for consultations, and the herbal remedies they would return home with. And how the Healer’s Cottage had been abandoned when, overcome by solitude and too much of one of her own remedies, the Healer finally lost her mind. The story was that she climbed down into the hill, through one of the mine openings, and was never seen again.

The next morning P. followed the hiking trail out from the end of her road. The path skirted the botanical gardens until it met the river. On the map the river was marked in brilliant blue, but in reality it was dry and stony, and it looked like it had been a long time since any water had flowed over these dusty rocks. P. kept walking, ever higher into the hills. Above her she could see the mine road, carved out of the hillside and wide enough for the ghosts of two articulated lorries to pass with space to spare, but the path to the Healer’s Cottage was narrow and rutted between bushes of prickly pears, and she had to keep her eyes down so as not to trip. Higher she climbed, and as she approached the ridge there were moments she had to use her hands to steady herself, scrambling over thick, red stones.

At the ridge she could look back, across the landscape to where it met the rolling surf of the sea, and forward, down into the hanging valley. The Healer’s Cottage was at the bottom, the track snaking its way down the steep slope to four crumbling walls, none more that three or four bricks high and barely distinguishable from the rocky ground around. Carefully P. made her way down, until she reached the cottage. Now there was no view but the sides of the valley and the blue sky above. No wind could reach her and the air was heavy. She could smell lavender and the constant hum of insects filled her ears.

It has been said that hikers in the hills have heard the sound of a woman’s voice from deep inside the many mine openings to be found on the hillside…

From where she sat on the tumbledown walls of the Healer’s Cottage, P. shouted as loud as she could. What she shouted, she would not remember, but the feeling would stay with her. As she began to climb back up, to the ridge with its view of the rest of the world, she knew it was true what she had been told: this place would be good for her.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

Invisible Borders at WoWFest Liverpool – 15 May 2018

I am really excited to be teaming up with Marcel Krueger again to discuss borders visible and invisible with Dr Andy Davies of the University of Liverpool as part of the fantastic Writing on the Wall Festival in Liverpool on Tuesday 15th May. Both Marcel and I have long had an interest in borders, how they shift and how they shape our perception of place and history. We will be talking not only about our respective books, but also (no doubt) Marcel’s corridor project in Ireland and both our explorations of the Berlin Wall trail here in Berlin.

I can’t wait to get back over to Liverpool, and you can find out more information about the event, including tickets, venue and all the important stuff, here on the Writing on the Wall festival website. And if you are within striking distance of Liverpool, check out the rest of the programme, as there are loads of great events going on.

Notes from a Bohemian village

At the bottom of the garden, outside the half-timbered house on the old village lane, the stream rushes over pebbles worn smooth by centuries of continuous flow. From here it enters the woods, cutting deep gorges through the sandstone landscape and flowing beneath frozen ponds until it joins a bigger stream, and then a river, and then finally the Elbe and its long journey to the North Sea, on that short stretch where one bank is Germany and the other is the Czech Republic. This stream at the bottom of the garden does not look up to much, but it explains the village.


Not far from here is an old trade route, for moving salt and grain through the forest between Lausitz, Saxony and Bohemia. Where the old ways crossed the stream, settlements were established. In the village, the business was wood and textiles, and one of the oldest glassworks in Europe, founded in the 14th century. Along the track that followed the path of the stream, houses were built, stretched out in four directions from a central square. Many of the village houses are wooden constructions, dating back to the 1700s. Others are more recent, with the distinctive style of a long lost empire that once stretched from the Balkans to Bohemia. At the start of the twentieth century, over two thousand people called this village home. They worked in the textile industry, and at the glassworks, but next hundred years left their mark. Different flags, different capitals. Ideologies imposed from far beyond the banks of the stream. In the cemetery of the Gothic church, a memorial to the 49 victims of WWI. In the upper village, a memorial to the mass grave of 22 who succumbed to a death march at the end of the next war. Outside the factory, two flags fly. The Czech tricolour and the European stars. The lorries lined up outside a modern-looking warehouse have Danish plates. The population of the village is no longer fixed. It swells and falls, with the season and the days of the week. I wonder what the local phrase for ‘up from Prague’ is, but on a Tuesday morning in February, there’s no-one around to ask.

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Memories of a city: The afterlife of the Berlin Wall

This morning, as I rode the U-Bahn south with my daughter on her way to school, we passed beneath the old dividing line in the city at Bernauer Straße almost at the moment the news headline flashed up on the television screens in the train carriage. As of today, the Berlin Wall has been history for more days than it ever existed; a site of memory longer than it was a dividing line written in concrete and defended by guards with guns. For 28 years, two months and 27 days it surrounded West Berlin and split the city in two; from that August day when barbed wire was rolled out along city streets to that November night when Berliners danced in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate. The debate about what should be done with this symbol of a divided Germany began the very next morning.

Most of it was quickly removed. Memorials were erected to those who died attempting to cross the border and to other momentous events during those 28 years. The route of the Wall became the Mauerweg or Berlin Wall Trail, a waymarked hiking and cycling route running for 160 kilometres through the very heart of the city and out around the edge. Parts of the former security strip became parks and other public spaces. Some sections were gradually filled in as the city once more grew together. Yet other sections were returned to the forest, no longer offering any barrier to the deer and wild boar who cross the once-more invisible dividing line at will. In the past few years wolves have been spotted within Berlin’s city limits, for the first time in two centuries.

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Allowing the walls to talk, Erfurt

On the top floor of the exhibition, arrows guided visitors from the lift and through a heavy metal door. To the right: the guard’s office, still fitted with a small desk, a telephone and a seat. To the left: a corridor, floor polished by the footsteps of countless guards, remand prisoners, democracy protestors and today, visitors to the exhibition. It had been left as was. Exposed pipes and padded cell doors. Bars on the windows. Strip lights and a sink. The cell doors were open, but otherwise this was the view the guards would have had from their command post. Weak winter light shined in from the opposite end of the hall.

From the founding of the German Democratic Republic in 1949 to the dramatic events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall just over forty years later, the remand prison of the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) stood on Andreasstraße in Erfurt, within sight of the main cathedral square and the gingerbread half-timbered houses of the picturesque Old Town. Over those years some five thousand people were held there, awaiting trial for crimes that for the most part amounted to little more than political opposition to the GDR regime. A banner, requesting that the government abide by the human rights agreements of Helsinki. A satirical slogan, spray-painted on the wall. That was enough to land you in these cells. Men upstairs. Women downstairs.

After trials, prisoners would be transferred to the main prisons. For his Helsinki human rights banner, Gerd-Peter Leube was sentenced to three years and six months for “anti-government incitement”. For their slogan painted on the wall, six teenagers (Grit Ferber, Ulrich Jadke, Holm Kirsten, Jörn Luther, Thomas Onißeit and Andreas Tillmans) spent up to six months in prison for the crime of “hooliganism”. Continue reading

Return to the Black Mountain

It is good to be here again.

That’s what I think, but only once we have reached the top of the slippy slope. It is probably not the most sensible way to climb the mountain, but the other option is closed to us. A farmer’s gate has been moved. The alternative blocked off. Whose land is this anyway? That has long been the question on the Black Mountain.

Two years ago we walked in mist. Up the slippy slope. Across the Hatchet Field. To Terry’s cairn and along the path. Belfast was down there, somewhere, but we only caught the odd glimpse. A ghostly apparition as the cloud cleared. For a second. Two. A quick click of the camera shutter and the invisible city was gone again.

Today is different. Today the sun shines as we catch a cab to the last house in West Belfast, to the very spot where the city meets the mountain. Urb meets Rus. When we reach Hatchet Field, and hear the stories of the family who used to live up there – thick walls, great views and long walks to school – we can not only see the city laid out before us, but all the way to Scotland. Continue reading

The Cathedral of the North

A Berlin story:

Outside the church a young woman pushes her bike up the cobblestoned incline that leads from the street to the door, passing by flower beds cut back for the winter and a slender post covered in words and images that, if you press on one of the small, silver buttons, will tell you the history of this building and its surroundings in a number of different languages. She doesn’t have time, and anyway, she has heard them before. Her bike is laden with shopping bags – in the basket and hanging from the handlebars – and she needs to get home. These are not supplies picked up on this square around the church; she had to ride to the supermarket and push her bike back. There is a shop on the corner, its neon sign suggesting you might find stacks of fresh produce in crates on the uneven pavement beneath. But look below and the pavement is bare. No fruit today or any day. Behind the windows, headless dummies model elegant clothes.

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The wild white horses

All night the wind and the rain hammered at the windows and shook the walls, the story of the storm creeping into dreams and half-awake thoughts. The view down and across the field as it started to get light was of a sea beyond the cliffs that was thrashing and churning, banging off the rocks to throw explosions of spray high against the overcast sky. For a moment the sun came out, the patch of blue sky closing again almost as quickly as it opened.

We walked out, down the headland path towards the coves at the bottom of the island where we have rock-pooled and swum off the rocks, built fires on the sands or spied birds and sea rescue helicopters off the rocks. Now there was just water, a violent, flailing mass of water, swelling and crashing, the huge waves making the normally impressive cliffs seem small in comparison. The wind stung and the spray soaked us, leaving us with a strong, salty taste on the lips. One wave caught the wind and, although we were a long way from the edge of the headland, soaked us like a bucket of cold water had been tossed across the path. It was impossible to look into the wind without it hurting your face and eyes.

Beyond the rocks, the sea was like something out of folklore, like one of those vengeful seas that rises up to swallow whole a town of gluttons and hedonists after nature cannot take the debasement any more.

Down on the main beach there was no main beach, the high tide and the storm lifting the waves up to the very top of the shingle and onto the dunes. Seaweed had landed high in the grass, along with plastic debris – bottles and face-cream pots, half a petrol canister – that suggested the seas and oceans had finally had it with us dumping all our crap and had decided to throw it back at us where we walked. The spray had been joined by rain now. At the end the beach, a family stood a little bit too close to the waves. The dad took the kids by the arm and pulled them back, away from the seventh wave. The sea was not to be messed with.

A friend from university was staying at the next village up the island. Back inside – soggy clothes hanging from door frames and in the shower – I saw her videos posted on social media, the waves rolling straight in off the sea and crashing over the beach wall onto the street beyond. She told me the road to her village had been closed off. It seemed odd that we could still write to each other in the middle of the storm. The rain had closed in now. It was no longer possible to look down across the field and beyond the headland. Nothing but a grey wall. But the wild white horses were still there, the fury not yet exhausted.

Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton