Notebook: Old tensions bubble up over the lasagne

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The Independent Online
My hostess seems nervous. "They are watching me," she says, eyeing the movements of the curtain at the house next door. Her neighbour is a former Stasi agent, she explains, who continues to pursue his old profession as a hobby. From his window he peers through binoculars, jotting down arrivals and departures, noting visitors' number plates.

I see nothing. Perhaps she is imagining things, but after what has been happening to Gabriela Mendling, a touch of paranoia is bound to creep in. Her son was badly beaten up at school and hounded outside the gates by neo-Nazi skinheads. Then her husband's brand-new Mercedes was vandalised, and her own car sprayed with white paint. After that their son's two pet rabbits were clubbed to death by persons unknown. The vigilant neighbour, apparently, saw nothing.

When the denunciatory leaflets started going up in the operating theatre of the hospital where her husband works, Mrs Mendling knew for certain that somebody was out to get her. And she knew it was because of her book. Under a pseudonym, Mrs Mendling has written about her personal experiences in her adopted town, Frankfurt-on-the -Oder, where they moved because her husband was offered a better job than he had in western Germany. Four years she has lived in this "unbearable place" on the eastern edge of supposedly unified Germany, just across the river from Poland. Originally she came from Berlin, only an hour's drive up the motorway, growing up in the west of the city. Her book makes clear that the mental transition from there to a place near the banks of the Oder covered a great distance. You have got to cross, in her words, the "wall" in your head. Her neighbours say she has failed.

The book, NeuLand, has been a sensation in Germany, and is already enjoying its fifth reprint half a year after it appeared in the first print run of 1,500. It is an account of her experiences in this strange place, where the high street is still named after Karl Marx, and where the locals wear shell suits, have strange hair styles and lack table manners.

NeuLand is populated by Stasi agents and other vodka-swilling Communist types. Ugly, dim-witted yokels to the last man, she reckons, they communicate with one another in a dialect that sounds like a mishmash of Saxon and Brandenburg, a kind of imaginary "East-speak". And they do not talk to outsiders like herself. "You are so alone here," she laments. To prove she is not alone in that view she digs out a cutting from an Australian travel book. "It is difficult to imagine a city in all of Germany less welcoming than Frankfurt-on-the-Oder," declares the writer. You get the picture; people can get beaten up here for speaking with a foreign accent.

The locals, though, feel that maybe Mrs Mendling, too, was not very open- minded when she moved in. Maybe she could have made more adjustments in this her adopted home. In fact, the mocking tone of Mrs Mendling's book betrays as much sympathy for the natives as might a 19th century white settler's account of Africa.

In one episode, she describes introducing a guest to lasagne. "It's Italian," she explains. "Layers of noodles and meat sauce." After some contemplation, the visitor grabs a chunk with his hands and stuffs it into his mouth. No, he says, he doesn't need the knife and fork. "Now that I've tasted Italian, I know I can live without it."

There are more stories like this, enough to fill 184 pages. Readers in western Germany love it all. The book has shot up the bestseller list and spawned countless literary works, including a poem called "Neuland- Lied", written as a riposte by an eastern German. "I am a strange hard Eastman," it begins, in English, to prove that not all from the eastern side - Ossis - are mono-lingual. "I don't know what champagne tastes like with lobster soup," it goes on in Hochdeutsch. "I go hunting for Wessis/ If you come too close to me/ You will die in the taiga."

Mrs Mendling complains: "That is not humour, it's aggression." The image of dying in the taiga appeared to her like a death threat.

It did not take long for the townsfolk of Frankfurt-on-the-Oder to work out which Wessi doctor's Wessi wife lurked behind the alias Luise Endlich. Anonymous leaflets were spread around the town and her husband's clinic inviting eastern Germans to evening classes on the subject of "Beauty through perfection". They said: "The beautiful Frau Mendling will demonstrate to us East Germans how nothing can be turned into absolutely nothing. At the end of her lecture, she will demonstrate how lasagne can be eaten with two hands, using no utensils ... Ossis are requested to refrain from belching and passing wind."

Mrs Mendling says some of her best friends are Ossis. "And they eat lasagne, and not with their fingers because they are civilised." She shows letters written by eastern Germans, expressing delight with her honesty. She is so encouraged she wants to write a sequel - about arrogant, patronising Wessis.