The place where I was born has no name. Everybody simply called it Miwepa, which stood for Mitteldeutsche Wellpappenfabrik and means something like ‘The Central German Corrugated Cardboard Factory’. The factory, which today is called SCA Packaging Mivepa Gmbh, was located on one side of the main road and was surrounded by a fence above which you could see the chimneys and the roofs of the factory buildings. On the other side of the road there were a handful of houses, but they were always enveloped in smoke and fumes, so that the windows were barely visible and any human beings lost to view. From time to time the factory gate would open and disgorge a handful of vans. In the evening a bus would emerge full of workers on their way home. This was followed by a wave of people on mopeds and bikes.

The house I grew up in was part of that small group of six buildings, some of them old farmhouses, others more recent constructions that had been built with ‘bricks saved from the mouth’.

“Every one of those bricks meant a slice of bread less for us, that’s how we managed to build the house”, said my grandmother. “Your grandfather bought those bricks and the gap they left in his wallet meant hunger for us”.

Every time I heard her say this I felt the bricks of the house groan under the weight of the hunger as if they themselves were suffering from an empty stomach.

Myself, I was never hungry. They had to force me to sit down and eat, sometimes actually spooning the soup into my mouth. Soup every second day, either lentil or barley, while on sundays it was a clear broth with homemade noodles floating around in it. Whichever it was, it was always fatty. Big bubbles of fat stared up at me out of the bowl like huge eyes and fumed threateningly - they reminded me of the eyes of some monster. I didn’t quite know whether it was the monster of hunger or the monster of satiety. But what I did know was that there was no way I was going to eat them. I was simply horrified at the idea of those fuming fatty eyes inside me, sliding their way down my throat and inspecting my insides.

“One day you will miss all that good fat”, my grandmother used to say, with a mild tone of rebuke, as my mother removed the soup that I hadn’t touched and gave me a slice of bread instead. “One day you will be sorry for all these things that you have left”.

In reality I didn’t even want the bread; all I wanted was to be outside in the courtyard with my dog Senta. I liked to hide away in her kennel, the Hundehütte. Of course, I was not supposed to do this but sometimes I did so nevertheless. I would sit inside, while Senta stood guard at the entrance, protecting me from the house – a vast stomach was how I saw it – and the voices that emerged from it. The voices that stood out were those of my mother and grandmother. They were calling me, but I stayed put in the Hundehütte and did not breathe a word while they ran backwards and forwards between the house and the garden anxiously looking for me. Those voices seemed to be telling me a story, like the voices that emerged from the rugs on the floor of my bedroom - voices of the fairy tale characters depicted there or of others that I had simply imagined. No other room in the house had rugs with human figures. No other room spoke to me like this.

There were eight rooms: four on the ground floor, the kitchen, the dining room, the sitting room, and my parents’ bedroom. The other four were on the first floor: my grandmother’s room, my room, and two smaller bedrooms where my cousins slept when they came to visit my grandmother. And then there was the cellar - a large cellar with a huge, dark room that had a strange echo effect which meant that you could hear what was going on when someone was down there stowing away newly dug-up potatoes or hanging up the salamis the day after the pig was slaughtered. Autumn days and winter days. Days without much light, days that seemed to fade away only too willingly into the inviting darkness of the cellar, where they could wait for someone to come down, switch on the light and finally illuminate them.

None of the women of the house was very happy about going down to the cellar. It was cold down there, even in summer, and always very dark. But my grandmother used to go down, and this was  because she was old enough to remember the ditch that had been there before the cellar was built.

“I am going down to my youth”, was how she used to announce her intention of going down there. And she stayed there a long time, much longer than my father ever did. On one occasion, everyone was worried that something might have happened to her, and they sent me down to get her. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, I saw my grandmother sitting on a barrel that had been laid on its side. She was talking, I had no idea to whom. I waited a little at the bottom of the stairs and then went back up on tiptoe. I stopped before I got to the kitchen door and waited until she came up. She took me by the hand and led me into the kitchen. My father turned round and said, “What happened? Did you meet someone down there?”

In the house next door lived my grandmother’s sister, Auntie Anna. She sat the whole time in front of her house, and her hands were never idle. She would make repairs to clothes, or knit, or peel vegetables. If there was no work like this to do, she would have a rosary in her hands. Her lips moved as she passed the beads between her fingers. In that place, time only really seemed to pass by if it could be felt to pass through one’s fingers.

Our house and Auntie Anna’s were at the foot of a hill. The village was at the top of the hill, and one got there by taking a turning off the main road. Just after this turning, facing our house, lived a friend of my father, Paul Klingebiel.

Paul Klingebiel worked at the Miwepa. He was not directly involved in the production of cardboard, but he always had a lot of it lying around and used it to make models. At weekends, he and his son built cars and ships out of the cardboard. There were two particular models of car and two ships that they were particularly good at producing. The best examples of these were made out of light brown cardboard. The majority of them, however, were grey, a grey that seemed to suggest years and years of wear. But I hardly even noticed this.