The German Riveter: Wende Memories – SMELL THE DIFFERENCE by Katy Derbyshire

When we first conceived the idea for The German Riveter we wanted to bring you snapshots of 1989 from the point of view of those who’d lived through it. The writer, translator and publisher Katy Derbyshire has collected and translated for us a selection of memories of the Wende (‘the changes, the turning point’) from eight of Germany’s best-known writers.


In 1989 I had just left my London comprehensive for the dizzy sophistication of sixth-form college. Against my expectations, however, it hadn’t made me automatically cool. It turned out I was still a nerd with a burning interest in Germany. Still, the college boasted language labs and a TV hanging from the ceiling in a corridor, showing teletext news. So that was how, while I was doing my A-Levels, I heard about two world-changing events: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Thatcher’s reign. I felt like more of an expert than most sixteen-year-olds; after all, I could read the placards in the newspaper photos. Our German teachers were already planning a trip for our class, and it went ahead just after monetary union in 1990. Some joker in a state-owned supermarket palmed us off with aluminium GDR coins, which we tried and failed to spend in West Berlin. We danced to Deee-Lite and UB40 from our own cassettes in an East German youth-hostel disco, which felt like cultural diplomacy at the time. We got lost in the tunnels under Alexanderplatz, right near where I live now. We’d learned at college about the East German public transport maps that showed West Berlin as a blank patch, but now we could smell the difference between East and West stations; astringent cleaning fluid or stockpiled coal. These days, they all smell the same. 

By Katy Derbyshire

Read The German Riveter here.

Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.


Katy Derbyshire is a London-born, award-winning translator who has lived in Berlin for over twenty years. She is now also publisher at V & Q Books, and in 2020 will be the London Book Fair’s Literary Translator of the Fair.

Category: The Riveter

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