Sauna and oysters: Merkel remembers Berlin Wall fall

The future chancellor of Germany was indulging in a favourite German winter pastime on the night that led to German reunification.

Sauna and oysters: Merkel remembers Berlin Wall fall
Merkel at the former Berlin Wall on the 25th anniversary of its fall in

“Every Thursday, I would go to the sauna with a friend,” Merkel, in power since 2005, recounted to Berlin schoolchildren a few years ago.

At the time Merkel was a 35-year-old physicist at the East Berlin Academy of Sciences.

Born in Hamburg but raised in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), she was
already divorced from the first husband whose name she still uses.

Merkel camping in Himmelpfort in Brandenburg, then part of the GDR, in 1973. Photo: DPA

She lived then in a two-room flat in Prenzlauer Berg, these days a favourite haunt of trendy young professionals.

Before her sauna session on November 9th, Merkel called her mother Herlind
Kasner, who lived around 80 kilometres north of the capital.

She had just heard that East German citizens were free to cross the border.

But in those confusing first hours as the barriers opened, no-one could quite believe it was really happening.

“I didn't really understand what I was hearing,” Merkel has said.

Oysters at Kempinski's 

The family had “an in-joke” at the time that Merkel would take her mother “to eat oysters at Kempinski's”, a high-end hotel in the West.

“Watch out mum, there's something up today,” she warned her mother, before hanging up and heading to the sauna.

Hotel Kempinski in 2016. Photo: DPA

While she was enjoying the heat, history shifted up a gear.

The first border crossing opened not far from Merkel's flat, and champagne corks popped as people celebrated the end of the division that had scarred Germany and Europe since the Second World War.

One of the crowd 

On her way home, she saw people on their way to the crossing.

“I'll never forget it, it was maybe 10:30 pm, or 11, or even a little later,” the chancellor recalled.

“I was alone but I followed the crowd… and suddenly we found ourselves on the western side of Berlin.”

Just another member of the crowd, Merkel drank her first can of Western beer in a flat rented by total strangers.

READ ALSO: Five key moments that shaped Angela Merkel's remarkable career

But the thought of her alarm sounding in the morning dogged the scientist even through that historic night, sending her home long before the festivities were over.

Soon after, Merkel left physics behind to begin a career in politics.

In 1990, she was elected an MP for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), then led by Helmut Kohl.

Photo: Merkel shaking hands with mentor Helmut Kohl on December 15th, 1991. Photo: DPA

The following year, Kohl named her a minister for the very first time.

But in all the years since, Merkel never got to fulfil her pre-1989 wish.

“I never went to Kempinski's to eat oysters with my mother,” Merkel has admitted. Her mother died earlier this year, aged 90.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.