Two perfect angels moved into Dracula’s mansion last week. When I say angels I mean rats.The transgressive and withdrawing Hermann and the convivial and attention-seeking Kotti. They are named after two U bahn stops near us.
Their human had regretfully placed them in my care having developed an allergic reaction to them. She loaded me down with their plush blankets, a pot of their favourite treats and their multiple toilet trays. She also warned me not to give Hermann too much coconut water -- it’s making him fat -- and not to smother them.
Rats like doing their own thing, and, like cats, prefer to approach their human for affection as and when suits them. After spending the day running around the flat, which is now filled with all sorts of rat toys, they retreat to their elaborate cage to munch on greek yogurt and muesli and nap in a hammock I wash each week.
Perhaps there’s a comment to be made here about the gentrification of pets. I don’t know. The more pressing point to make is that rats make excellent company. Even Hermann, whose intrepid spirit means we sometimes wind up playing a prolonged game of hide and seek in which he always thinks he’s outsmarted me -- even when he’s tucked under a pile of clothes with his tail poking out (“nothing to see here, lady”), has scampered his way into my heart.
Kotti likes to have the side of his face stroked, this is heaven for him. And if I’ve been out for long, I’ll come home to find him pressed against his cage waiting for a greeting. I put my finger through the cage once, and he reached out with his little hand (hands, not claws) placed it on my nail, and looked into my eyes. When I give them treats, they take them so politely with both hands you’d think they’d gone to butler school.
Ludvik Vaculik's Guinea Pigs
Caring for them has made me think of a Czech novel I studied at university. Ludvik Vaculik’s The Guinea Pigs is a dark comedy set in Cold War-era Czechoslovakia by a dissident writer. Here’s a passage:
“The hardest thing in the world, girls and boys, is to change your life by your own free will. Even if you are absolutely convinced that you're the engineer on your own locomotive, someone else is always going to flip the switch that makes you change tracks, and it's usually someone who knows much less than you do.”
It tells a story of a banker living under the absurd and hopeless conditions that characterize corrupt authoritarian rule. As an escape, he turns to his pet guinea pigs for solace. He takes refuge in their vulnerability, in fact, it empowers him. He finds himself playing games with them that help him feel powerful where elsewhere he is powerless. At one point, he finds himself, well, waterboarding them:
“Take a paper bag, place it open on a table and let the guinea pig crawl inside. Then twist the bag shit, just so the air can get in, and go to the movies. When you get back, you'll find everything just the way it was when you left. Take a glass, fill it with water, then change your mind and pour the water out, and take the glass and turn it upside down over the guinea pig. You can observe the guinea pig through the glass walls, watch it sit there in astonishment, its nostrils quivering in excitement, its tummy undulating nervously, and yet it doesn't even try to determine the penetrability of the wall around it, at least not during the first hour”.
Monkey see, monkey do. Especially when it comes to the exploitation of power.
Nightmares about war
The day I picked up my rats from their human, she told me she’d slept badly that night. She’d had a nightmare about a war she’d have to fight in. I’ve been having nightmares too. An elaborate one about trying to stalk down a murderer who was after a friend of mine. Another in which my teeth are pulled out. One counting dead rhinos, a whole field of them.
I have a friend in Russia who is eight months pregnant. I send her pictures of the rats doing silly things and she responds with hearts and kisses. It seems crazy to think that not even a year ago we were walking through Tempelhof together talking in German about how much we liked foreign languages. She was planning to learn Arabic. I agreed that the script is beautiful.
She’s one of my only Russian friends. Another one once falsely described Chopin as Russian. She backtracked very quickly when I pointed out that he was Polish. That was the end of that conversion. We quickly went on to discuss how great corgis are -- a far more comfortable conversation.
My own family history means that I’m wired to mistrust the Russians, it’s been a bias I’ve had to work on.
I view pictures of the Kremlin the way my Hong Kong friends think about Tiananmen. Creeps me out. So I’m not as shocked about the decisions that have been made within the Kremlin by a certain steroid-addled gnome-faced freakshow as maybe others are, but I am of course horrified.
I went for drinks last week with a journalist friend from New Zealand who's been covering the Middle East beat for almost a decade, so she is not surprised by the level of brutality that has been on display. She took in a Syrian sniper a few years ago, when she asked him what made him join the resistance.
“It was a gradual thing. He didn’t think he would fight initially, he just joined the protests. But then he did,” she said. The righteous indignation made him take up arms.
“I was thinking, if the war came here, would I stay and fight? I think I would,” she said. “Would the Germans, though. Would they stay? Are they ready for something like that?".
I don’t mean to be alarmist, and I’m not interested in making any predictions about how this war will end and what role average Europeans outside of Ukraine and Russia will play in it. As a reminder, few people predicted the fall of the Iron Curtain in ‘89, that deeply traumatic event for Putin.
A new precarious era
I think the fact that this horror feels closer to home than most Europeans of our generation are used to is worth examining.
These are the conversations we are having as we enter a new era of global uncertainty and precarity, and in which the faultlines of authoritarianism versus democracy have been clearly drawn.
If it came to it, would I stay and fight? Like those Ukrainian women cutting down their lacquered nails to hold AK 47s? I know I’m in the physical shape for it. But the mental game? And the threat of rape? Let’s move to another topic. A clip from a female Ukrainian politician who has stayed to fight plays out in my head a lot. She talks about going to bomb shelters and teaching children to “drop down and play turtle” when the siren goes off.
“What our generation wanted was for our children to grow up without trauma. We failed them,” she said.
I went for drinks with a group of non-Europeans this weekend, hoping to get a break from the doom scrolling.
We were in a very Berlin bar where burlesque dancers poured hot wax onto one another and complained about a meddling neighbour trying to shut them down. An American had been saying that, if push came to shove and they needed to get out of Europe, Central America would be their exit strategy. Imagine that. Leaving Europe for the safety of Central America.
“I’m sick of how Eurocentric the coverage has been,” said another friend of Asian descent. These were words I didn’t really want to hear, given how painful the last couple of weeks of witnessing have been. But there is a point there, too.
Living without the precarity of a looming war (with, albeit, the threat of the looming climate crisis) has been a privilege here. As has living with the assumption that freedom can be taken for granted. That was something that really depressed me when I first came back to the city two years ago, having witnessed Hong Kong’s bitter fight for freedom.
That’s changed now, at least, perceptually.
Nothing can be taken for granted.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.