Elvis has left the (Fort)bildung

About three days ago the city took a sudden and stomach-turning lunge back towards temperatures circling a painful -10 to -14 degrees C, which once again meant that being outdoors for any length of time is physically sore, that the sheer glimmer of a flake of snow in the air makes everyone pause with fright like the kids watching the rippling glass of water in Jurassic Park, and most importantly coincided with me losing my third pair of gloves (not including one hat). Nonetheless, I spent a miserable couple of days with my chipolatas ice-cold in my emergency skiing gloves before I eventually splashed out a whole Euro on the absolute best and warmest gloves I have ever had the pleasure of having encase my fingers.The moral being that price really does never signify quality. 

Although I am at a loss to explain why I felt it necessary to recount that astoundingly mundane story, the fact remains that Winter is back and this time there are no presents or Lebkuchen to even things out. My eye is particularly drawn to the disarming globs of spit on the pavements which have all frozen into crystalline, frothy mounds that one is genuinely able to feel through the soles of one’s shoes. If one could feel one’s own feet.

Yesterday was a day spent principally out in this cold as even after striding manfully from class to meeting to class and so on I then had to make the somewhat epic journey from Lübars (a part of Berlin so remote the nearest cafe can only make you a cup of tea by boiling water in a saucepan) to Savignyplatz for my silversmithing Fortbildung (further education, i.e. night school) class. 

After three lessons I am now starting to get into the swing of things at this class, but it was certainly not easy. The problem with Volkshochschule courses is that the choice is fantastic but the price you pay is that the majority of the tutors are only (if you’re lucky) qualified in the thing they do, not in teaching in general. Generally this is not much of an issue as for the highly specialised courses the tutors have dedicated their lives to the subject for a very good reason and are enthusiastic enough to teach adequately with no training; after all, if you have become an expert in ancient Celtic felting techniques you are probably interested enough to make it sound interesting to others. However, language courses suffer hugely, as a mass of people come to Berlin and simply fall into Volkshochschule language teaching because they happen to simultaneously need money and possess the ability to speak at least one language. And the problem which I have encountered with this course of mine is that with no training or set requirements one also has no structure or body to the lessons unless the teacher can be bothered.

Thus we work in this woman’s own flat, which is also her workshop, and while it is excellently well-equipped this is only a guess as I cannot even begin to explain how preposterously disorganised her workshop actually is. Like most artists or handworkers she keeps everything in jam jars or old mugs, in old canisters and wine boxes, and because she is seventy-two she can neither remember nor see where anything is. Her torches and metal roller, among other pieces of equipment, are genuinely almost a hundred years old, meaning that the torches in particular are rather hard work; you have to blow through a tube (with a bit of old sawn-off biro stuck in the end) to get the flame to metalworking temperatures and since the flames are also rather cool this means that soldering anything bigger than a fingernail involves emptying your entire body of every single wisp of breath, since every new breath you take lets the silver immediately cool back down again. 

As it sounds, however, it is certainly a fun and almost romantic place to work; the work-bench is a huge and ancient wooden slab, in the middle of which our tutor always lays out a selection of biscuits, boiled sweets and tea for us, and all the old equipment is subtly beautiful. The main clamp is nailed to a gigantic tree stump in the corner of the room and the soldering room (though it seems to be appropriate to call it a chamber) is a dark little place – you need darkness to see the heat of the metal properly – where the only light is the few work-lights and the flicker of the torches.

Yet as a seasoned veteran of silversmithing courses, having done it for two years already, this is all rather hard to reconcile with how difficult it is to work with a course that is not in any way based on teaching but rather on a person trying to make a bit of cash out of a skill they have. The skill levels of the class are wide-ranging and mixed but our woman treats us all with admirable equality in that she leaves us all the hell alone while she chats about reading glasses. The poor beginners are left to flounder and I end up constantly having to try to help them and give advice, which the tutor later announces is ‘Blödsinn’ because she does it differently, thus earning me many a bitter look from my classmates. She helps everyone exactly two-thirds as much as they actually need; she advised me to reuse all my old silver scrap and cast it as new sheet rather than buying sheet silver due to the vastly increased price. She then cast it for me as I had never done it before and told me to get to work rolling it to the right thinness on the roller. She then ignored me with vigorous determination as I spent the following two hours tearing my biceps to shreds gradually rolling a half-centimetre-thick chunk of metal down to a half-millimetre in increments as small as a hair’s breadth on a century-old roller which was not bolted to the floor but was wobbly like a schooldesk and pressed a charming but unwanted bananalike curve into the metal as I continued to work it. And if anyone does ask this woman a question she responds with her ubiquitous and enraging, “Ist egal…” (it doesn’t matter).

It is a ridiculous course and I love it. I love that it is so flexible that in the past two lessons people have melted old gold teeth into jewellery-gold just like in The Hand of Fate. Our tutor is incredible because she is seventy-two and has long, grey hair that she plaits into two Viking braids and wears great rings of shadowy black kohl around her (short-sighted) eyes. We are allowed to drink tea while we work and there are funny grey sculptures on all of the walls. My classmates include a woman with a wonderfully obvious and shiny wig, a Russian lady who only ever complains that she cannot be bothered to make or do anything and a woman who has a constant conversation with the earrings she is making. Although when I watch her melt them into a shapeless amoeba for the fourth time I thank the heavens that I am not an Anfänger.

Rose T