Berlin Gets Its First Microwave

“Maybe we could get a microwave too?”

I ask my boyfriend this as we drive through a suburb of East Berlin, on our way to pick up a used refrigerator for our flat.  It seemed an ideal time to make demands for new appliances, or maybe I was just trying to distract myself from my surroundings. While the wall diving East and West came down over 20 years ago, East Berlin remains its own unique place. The neighborhoods that were closest to the West have all been gentrified over the years, while the farther corners of Eastern Berlin have emptied, becoming economically depressed, and sad.

East Berlin is grey: grey sky, grey streets, grey buildings. You usually know you’re in the East when you see bright yellow streetcars (there were never any streetcars in the West, but the ones in the East remain). But even those jolly bell-ringing trolleys don’t go out as far as we’re going. Many of the apartment buildings are empty, deserted ages ago, as soon as people we’re able to leave. Broken windows and fading graffiti add to setting. It’s the kind of area that, having never known happiness or joy or light, is determined to swallow up and destroy your soul. The whole place has an aura of permanent gloom. As though in the event of nuclear meltdown it would still survive; its women will continue running their errands, pulling their shopping baskets languorously behind them, their weary eyes glued to the same grey pavement…

It is here that I realize I desperately need a microwave.

“Ja, I’m not sure. I’m not really a microwave kind of person,” he answers, obviously scoffing at the idea that I, a Canadian, feel the need for this ridiculous appliance.

Having never considered that I could define my identity through my choice of electrical appliances, I again daydream myself out of East Berlin. What kind of appliance am I? A chrome platted toaster? Do I dare imagine myself a sleek and sophisticated curling iron? I start equating my friends with certain machines: “she’s a noble rice cooker,” I think to myself, another friend is certainly a vintage style mixer. Grama is a reliable chest freezer, full of hearty soups.

It soon becomes clear to me that I’m being ridiculous, though my German boyfriend, still chattering away in his own particular version of English, doesn’t see anything wrong with likening people to appliances. That’s because for him, and many other Europeans, the microwave is the quintessential American appliance, symbolic of McCulture’s obsession with effortless instant fulfillment.

During my travels in Europe I’ve come across a number of people (French, German, British), who take on an air of light scorn toward all things considered too American: weak coffee, peanut butter, microwaves, eating with the left hand, saying “on weekends” rather than “at the weekend.” This was especially true when I taught English in France, where I often met Brits who implored me to teach “proper” English words like pavement, aubergine and lorry rather than sidewalk, eggplant and truck. I had a friend in France who was convinced herpes came from the Americas. It no longer shocks me to hear this kind Eurocentric behaviour. What’s shocking is that, so long after the end of the “great” European empires, some people still can’t hear how self-important and condescending they sound.

Things can be slow to change in Europe. East Berlin is a testament to that. Despite being sucked into progress and freedom, East Berlin is the same miserable place, just with new Western-style social and economic problems.

We did eventually get a microwave. It’s a great way to make popcorn. It turns out it’s even a convenient way to reheat yesterday’s spätzle and schnitzel. Instant fulfillment has arrived in Germany.

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