Posted by Carlos
This is an unusually personal blog. In addition to the millions who have succumbed to this deadly virus, the world over has been struggling with COVID-19 in a multitude of ways for more than a year now. What stands out is when we help our fellow human beings. Of course, there are the applauded yet overworked and underpaid heroes in our healthcare systems; however, even when not on the frontlines, everyone can make a significant difference within their own remit. Located in Berlin’s western district of Charlottenburg and priding itself in being ‘the hotel with a difference’, Pension Peters is a case in point.
In what is now a decade of working as a guide, I have been fortunate to travel Europe and to meet a kaleidoscope of characters with one thing in common: a genuine openness to strangers. This comes as little of a surprise in the case of Pension Peters, given Johanna and Olga Steiner’s Swedish and Czech heritage. The two sisters own and run the hotel in its second generation, with an affinity for art and sustainability. They take a genuine interest in their guests, whose check-ins resemble less a formal procdure than they do a conversation among old friends who have not seen each other for years. The hotel supports local, still unknown artists by adorning their corridors with paintings and hosting an exhibition at least once a year. The Steiner sisters share their knowledge and passion for Berlin as well as any guide could. It is not least for this reason that the Hotel Pension Peters has worked with Rick Steves even before his fame reached dizzying heights.
Of course, the Hotel Pension Peters has been affected dramatically by the pandemic. With tourism being one of Berlin’s most important industries, the economic ripple effects of Corona have been real and tangible. Over a hundred fellow guides, many of whom are friends, have lost their livelihoods. In the absence of tourists, small businesses, such as hotels, bars and restaurants have been struggling to stay afloat.
This backdrop makes the story I was able to witness particularly moving. Johanna and Olga had been receiving and looking after an ailing guest since the beginning of 2019. Working in Switzerland, this guest repeatedly had contracted cancer and sought treatment in Berlin each time. Staying at the Pension Peters placed her within walking distance of her oncologist and close to her son, who lived nearby. In addition, she got to know the Steiner family well and enjoyed long conversations about history, theatre and life in general with the sisters’ mother Annika.
Spring 2020 saw difficult times descend upon this guest. Until then, it had appeared as though she would remain cancer-free, having undergone a mastectomy a few years before and passing all check-ups with flying colours ever since. She had looked forward to returning to her home on the other side of the Atlantic and dividing her retirement between there and Berlin. After sustaining a fall, her visit to the doctor bore worse news than a broken sternum: she had contracted breast cancer for a fourth time; and this time it was incurable.
The Steiner sisters stepped up to help their guest and her family in this time of need. They already had struck up a friendship with her from the outset. They now allocated her a room on the ground floor, which was otherwise sealed off to guests, and gave her access to kitchen as well as the usual facilities hotel guests enjoy. They provided her son with a spare key so that he could visit and look after her on a regular basis. Soon the guest suffered from further complications, notably liquid filling her lungs. This required her to spend several stints in about half a dozen of Berlin’s hospitals over the summer. In this time, the Steiners maintained her room and supported the family all the same. When she was released from hospital and returned to the hotel, they served as the “eyes and ears” of her son while he worked as school teacher during the day. The hotel became a temporary caretaking station in which the guest’s son could act as a de facto nurse for as long as the situation required.
Alas the situation was tenable only for so long. The guest’s condition worsened. Metastases had spread from the lungs to the skin and chemotherapy was added to an already strenuous treatment. The concern was now a threefold one: she could succumb either to her illness, her physically frail condition or to Corona. The availability of a suitable nursing home in November provided a sigh of relief. Being ensconced promised to save her from all three lethal threats. Medical transportation to and from the oncologist for chemotherapy could be arranged for as well.
However, literally every body has its limits. By the beginning of December, the patient had undergone nine of ten sessions of chemotherapy. Her final appointment had to be postponed as her condition worsened. After appearing to be on the mend from this setback, she took both the nursing staff and her family by surprise. She passed away peacefully in her sleep on a Saturday afternoon.
In the aftermath, the Pension Peters remained true to itself. Johanna and Olga allowed their late guest’s son to retain her belongings in her room for as long as he needed. They initially refused to accept anything more than a token sum that would amount to less than an average monthly rent in Berlin in exchange for almost half a year of support. It had been their guest’s wish that they accept a multiple of that and so they had no other reasonable option but to take more.
As a guide, I often hear both from guests and operators how important it is to support local businesses. We tend to romanticise their worth and politicians across the Atlantic have an affinity for putting them on a pedestal on campaign trails. Life’s stories and realities lend more strength to this position than any romanticism ever could. As this terrible year draws to a close, a good new year’s resolution would be to make a start with the Hotel Pension Peters and its genuinely humanely beautiful owners, once it is safe to travel again.