Soap and Bananas

My East German friend Eva was a film actress who in the 1970s was best known for playing teenage girls in coming-of-age movies. Featuring first-love, end-of-innocence and rite-of-passage themes, these movies were popular in East Germany, and so was Eva. When I met her in 1975, she was twenty-five years old, but looked like she was just sixteen or seventeen. She was also very attractive and had a natural, innocent look that made her the perfect choice for adolescent roles in these films focusing on the transition from youth to adulthood. But Eva was not innocent; she was married to a film director who was much older than she and had a one-year-old son. She and I had a mutual friend, the prominent GDR author, screenplay writer, and filmmaker, Ulrich Plenzdorf, the person who introduced the two of us in Berlin.

Eva was well-connected and well-liked in the circles of GDR society that included writers, artists, and persons from the film industry. Because she had a young child, she was on an extended maternity leave when we met and had a lot of time on her hands. As we got to know one another, she took an interest in my project on GDR literature in the 1970s which involved interviewing GDR writers, and she offered to help me widen the circle of authors I might approach and ask to participate. She was happy to contact some writers she knew on my behalf and to arrange for us to pay them a visit. Once the connection was made, and making those connections was a lot of fun, the rest would be up to me and the writer.

When we began visiting people, I would receive invitations from some of them to social gatherings and dinner parties. In the GDR, most people preferred to entertain at home because of the difficulties associated with dining out—e.g., reserving a table, dealing with unfriendly waiters, driving after having consumed an alcoholic beverage—the GDR had a zero tolerance policy here. Eva let me know that she would be pleased to accompany me to any such social events and drive us back and forth. She had her own automobile, did not drink, and her husband would be happy to babysit. It was an ideal situation! Of course, I was delighted to have a movie actress accompany me to parties and Eva was good company. She was also more than welcome everywhere because of her celebrity status and effervescent personality. Her husband was not particularly interested in this type of socializing, so this was a convenient way for Eva to get out and about during her maternity leave. She and I got along very well and I think, in retrospect, that we made a good couple—the actress and her American friend.

At the private dinner parties there would usually be eight to ten people— our hosts, some of their family members or friends, and the two of us. Everyone was eager to know about my work on GDR literature and my contacts with prominent writers which many people viewed as remarkable, since I was a Westerner. They seemed flattered by the fact that I was so interested in GDR literature and the GDR itself. They were also very eager to hear about life in the US, so I always fielded lots of questions at these gatherings and did my best to answer them honestly, even if that involved being critical of certain things in the US. I tried to the best of my ability to discern and then answer the question behind the question, because the question being asked was often not the one that really required an answer. Understandably, many people were suspicious of me; they wondered if I was what I in fact claimed to be (and was!), an American Germanist with a keen interest in East German literature and writers.

I came to understand and appreciate that having a private dinner party in the GDR was a major and expensive undertaking that involved considerable planning and effort. One could not go to the butcher shop intent upon buying a beef or pork roast; you had to buy what was available. And you could not easily find fresh vegetables, other than white and red cabbage, in the grocery stores. The most difficult thing to find was fresh fruit. While apples were almost always available, it was nearly impossible to come by fruits like bananas and pineapples or melons and berries, fruits that were not grown in the GDR. Hence, having a dinner party for an East German film celebrity and an American visitor—probably the only ones you had ever met—was definitely going to be a stressful undertaking. Still, people were eager to do it for all sorts of reasons, the main one being exposure to something new and different. Life in East Germany was extremely monotonous, so stimulation of any kind was welcome.

Eva, my companion at many private parties in East Berlin, explained that such gatherings in someone’s honor were uncommon in the GDR. Most East Germans limited their socializing to a small circle of family and friends, with whom they would celebrate special occasions. After I returned to East Berlin in the fall of 1977, she revealed that the persons who had invited us to dinner had concluded that I was not an operative working for the secret police (Stasi), the opposite of what they had initially suspected. They had arrived at this conclusion by observing my behavior at dinner parties where I did two things an East German would never do.

Eva enlightened me. She reminded me that our hosts often served fresh fruit for dessert, exotic fruits that came from tropical and subtropical countries: bananas, for example. Bananas were of course not grown in the GDR, nor were they routinely for sale in East German grocery stores. Only someone with a good friend or relative in West Berlin would be able to come by bananas, figs, pineapples, fresh grapefruits or oranges. Apart from the considerable effort and expense involved in acquiring such fruit, one had to inconvenience a third party—a relative or friend—to do so. For East Germans, the opportunity to eat such fruits for dessert (or at any time) was a rare and delicious treat. But I have never been much of a dessert eater, preferring instead to fill up on “real food.” As Eva and others had observed, I always declined the offer of fresh fruit for dessert, undoubtedly to their utter amazement.

Eva also explained that virtually every GDR household had a bar of finely milled soap, unused, which they would put on prominent display in the bathroom when entertaining special guests. Another bar of ordinary soap would also be available and within sight. Every East German knew not to use the fine soap that came from France or another Western country; it was for show only. But since I didn’t know the code of correct conduct, I always did use the deluxe soap that was reserved for special occasions.

Eva went on to tell me that no one from the GDR would be able to resist the opportunity to eat exotic fresh fruit, especially bananas. And, no East German would dare wash his hands with the “special occasion” soap, since he would know and comply with the protocol. So my unusual behavior had led the people we visited to conclude that I was an authentic American after all and not someone secretly working for the Stasi. “We know you’re for real,” Eva exclaimed. “You use the soap and don’t eat the bananas!”

In all honesty, I never suspected at the time that my hosts—at least some of them—doubted that I was what I claimed to be. But given the paranoid nature of GDR society, with its all-pervasive spying by the Stasi and their legions of unofficial collaborators, that certainly is understandable. Hence, it was not the careful way I answered the questions about my research that persuaded them, but rather my minor social infractions, my obvious ignorance of East German culture. Soap and bananas! Who would have guessed!!