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Annett Gröschner: “I’m interested in the Berlin of the broke, the downtrodden”

Annett Gröschner's work looks at Berlin from the margins. Having grown up in in East Berlin, the latest book for this poet of public transport is Die Bernauer Straße, coming out in early 2023.

Photo: William Bertoni

Since moving to Prenzlauer Berg in 1983, Annett Gröschner has established herself as a defining literary voice of the city and a prominent caretaker of its past. Her work eschews cliché by looking at the city from its margins: physical borderlands, neglected populations and forgotten histories – particularly those of women and East Germans. Gröschner is also a passionate user of public transport and has published multiple (sadly untranslated) books about her journeys on buses and trams.

How did you come to write about the theme of public transport?

I started during the GDR, when I was travelling around the Eastern Bloc – Hungary, Romania, the USSR, Poland. I liked getting out of the tourist areas, so I would jump on a tram to go to one end of its route, then travel all the way to the other end, just to see what was there. Typically it would be major train stations, or perhaps shopping centres nowadays – back then it was often industrial areas. All of that still fascinates me. On buses and trams, you get a double perspective – you can see the world inside and the world outside. I wanted to capture both of those worlds.

In one of your books, you ride line 4 in cities all over the world, because that was the line you used to take in Magdeburg…

I first started riding public transport ‘professionally’ here in Berlin from 1999 to 2002. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung had a Berlin page and wanted to try and bring the old feuilleton form into the 21st century. This was 10 years after reunification, and there were still so many invisible borders in Berlin. I sought out lines that crossed borders, whether East and West, political borders, city and country, poor and rich. I rode some 20 lines which took me to all corners of Berlin. In those years, I was travelling a lot. I decided to keep riding public transport and write about it, and I needed something to tie it all together – so I took line 4, the first tram line of my life.

Are we all shaped by our first bus or tram line?

Well, I think part of line 4 is that you search for your childhood everywhere, right? (laughs) Looking back, I am glad that my mother first bought a car once I was already grown up – that was very formative for me. Even today, I always take public transport. It’s safe and lets me encounter people I might not otherwise see in my daily life. Writing can often be a solitary business. You sit at home and write – and then maybe you don’t understand the world anymore, because you don’t go out and things have changed. But if you take public transport, you can see how society changes very clearly.

What did you think about the €9-Ticket, as an author and a Berliner?

And as someone who doesn’t own a car! (laughs) I am absolutely for making public transport more affordable. We simply have to make this Verkehrswende happen. But what’s been happening instead is, paradoxically, that cars have been getting bigger. These massive SUVs that you see now are like tanks, you could practically send them to war. That’s completely the wrong direction. Private transport messes up the whole city, and it’s only when all those cars aren’t there that you see what better possibilities there are.

There have been plenty of economic and ecological arguments about the €9-Ticket, the €49-Ticket and so on. Is there also a cultural and social value to making public transport more accessible?

Yes. The €9-Ticket was really amazing, especially for people who don’t have a car and can’t usually afford to travel. The €49-Ticket excludes those who cannot afford it and that is really regrettable. Still, it’s great that it includes regional trains. Eastern Germany has been neglected in the long-distance rail network, so plenty of places can only be reached by regional trains – Magdeburg, for example, but that is just my own personal perk! (laughs) On regional trains, you get to see Germany from a whole different angle. Whether it’s apprentices going a couple of stops to their instructor, or a bunch of punks using a shopping trolley as a suitcase and drinking beer out of it – that’s the world we got to experience with the €9-Ticket.

Beyond public transport, you have written a lot about the present and past of Berlin. In your newest collection, the fabulous Berliner Bürger*Stuben, you describe the city as a palimpsest. What do you mean by that?

When I arrived in East Berlin in 1983, the city was still really shaped by the war – you could walk through Mitte and see all these old ‘Kolonialwaren’ signs above shops. There were all these vestiges everywhere. Decoding the city’s traces was something I found increasingly enthralling. In the years after the Wall came down, I noticed that a lot of the older people who lived in these historic neighbourhoods – especially Prenzlauer Berg, where I was – were either losing their apartments or dying out. So I began interviewing the old women, asking them about the war and the Nazi era and so on. And I learned that they and I moved through a totally different Berlin. They walked around a Berlin that no longer existed – there was a grocer’s here or a hair salon there when they were young. Now I am older and sometimes say that I’ve been walking down Dimitroffstraße, although it’s been called Danziger Straße for two decades now. So then I think, well now I’m exactly like Frau Globisch, my old neighbour.

What’s it like chronicling a city that changes so fast?

I wouldn’t say I’m the chronicler of the city. I have a very subjective viewpoint on things. And I’m not equally interested in all of Berlin – the mansions in Grunewald or people living in fancy lofts. I’m far more drawn to the Berlin of the broke, the downtrodden. And I’m drawn to the margins, the borders, the places where one world buts up against another: that’s why Bernauer Straße is so interesting to me, because it is rich on one side and poor on the other.

You write about underrepresented aspects of Berlin history, such as the East German Frauenbewegung of the 1980s and 1990s…

The Frauenbewegung was a diverse, queer women’s movement. A lot of what I see young people doing these days – I know it from 40 years ago! Maybe that’s why I’m out of step with all those folks from my generation who reject anything that’s ‘woke’ or queer or antiracist. I have had a lot of arguments about this. Because I absolutely stand on the side of the young. We should be concerning ourselves with all the injustices of the world.

As someone who speaks bluntly about gentrification and how the city has changed for the worse – how can Neuberliner*innen help preserve what’s great about the place?

When I talk about gentrification, I’m not bashing individuals who just happen to have money. It’s more about: How are we going to live together? And what is going to happen to the vulnerable, to the homeless, to the people that have sought asylum here? To be a Berliner, you need tolerance and respect. And I have always liked that people here don’t take every- thing so seriously. Those old Berliner women would tell me the most horrible things, but tell them in such a way that you just had to laugh. That’s Berlin: the horror and the humour, deeply connected.

Annett Gröschner was born in Magdeburg in 1964 and moved to East Berlin in 1983, where she established herself on the fringes of the Prenzlauer Berg cultural underground. Since the 1990s, she has published reportage in German newspapers, written two celebrated novels and released numerous nonfiction books – most recently a collection of essays and sketches about contemporary Berlin, Berliner Bürger*Stuben. Palimpseste und Geschichten (Nautilus, 2020). Among her many prizes are the Anna-Seghers-Stipendium of the Akademie der Künste and the Großer Berliner Kunstpreis in 2021. Her next book, Die Bernauer Straße (be.bra), will be out early 2023.