Talking About Sex and War with a 102-Year-Old
"I prefer younger men – the old ones are no fun. But I haven't actually wanted a boyfriend for ages. It would be such a burden to be in a relationship at my age."
All photos by Florian Medl
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
Ilse Simchen was born in August 1915 – one year after the beginning of WWI. She is also well-travelled, had her fair share of relationships and her favourite drink is Campari Orange. Since the internet keeps inventing ways to remind me that as a millennial I suck at life, I figured I'd turn to her for advice on what truly matters, and what doesn't.
I met her the day after her 102nd birthday in her modern, two-bedroom apartment in Selb, a small town in eastern Germany. Her family, friends and some press had gathered to celebrate her milestone, but I did manage to chat with her in private for a few minutes.
VICE: What would you say is the secret to a long and happy life?
Ilse Simchen: Be laid-back and optimistic. I have a few pessimistic friends, but I never argue with them – I just leave them to their opinions. You'll be a lot happier if you focus on the pleasant things in life. That would also be my advice to all those old people who just talk about their illnesses.
I've grown up thinking that I'll be happy once I buy a home and have 1.6 children like everyone else. But that now feels irrelevant. What do you think I should actually do with my life to be happy?
You should do whatever you want to do, but make sure you're always learning something new. I personally never wanted to buy a house, and that worked out just fine for me. Most of the women in my nursing home have sold their homes, because they don't need them anymore. And although I've always liked children, I never had any of my own. That's okay, because I've had the chance to spend time with other people's kids and that made me happy.
Do young people think too much about stuff that doesn't matter in the end?
Do young people think at all? No, I'm joking. Can I ask you a few questions now? Where do you live and have you graduated from university yet?
I live in Berlin, and I graduated a while ago.
The last time I was in Berlin was for the 1936 Olympics. I bet you can't find many people who can say the same. I stood on the side of the street with hundreds of people and watched the torchbearer run past. Do you know where I was during the 1972 Munich Olympics?
No, where were you?
I was out at sea on a fantastic cruise with a friend. I've been on some amazing trips in my life. When I was 90, I went on a cruise to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx of Giza. I strolled around the ship a lot during that trip, and met so many nice young men.
Do you still flirt with men?
Of course! I prefer younger men – the old ones are no fun. The need for a partner you can have a nice, stimulating conversation with never dies, no matter how old you are. But I haven't actually wanted a boyfriend for ages – it would be such a burden to be in a relationship at this age. Naturally, when I was younger, I saw things very differently. I made a proper effort back in the day – I was very sporty, fashionable and chic. I had a lot of admirers.
If this was a date, what would you expect from me?
An understanding and appreciation for the things that interest me. That's the most important thing.
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What is your favourite drink?
Campari orange or a few sips of a very good cognac. You should learn to drink Cognac, too – good cognac is heaven. When I was 98, I met a couple of vineyard owners from Mainz at a health resort. We spent most of our time there drinking at the bar, and they told me all about making wine. I love new experiences, trying out new things. I've always been that way – especially before WWII, when I had a really good life.
What was the hardest part of your life?
The two World Wars, obviously. I was born a member of the German population of Sudetenland, which at the time was part of Czechoslovakia but was annexed by Nazi Germany just before WWII. One of my brothers died in the Battle of Moscow in 1941. Two years later, my other brother was also shot in Russia. My fiancée, who was a pilot, died when his plane was shot down by the British. We had planned to marry after the war. The grief was terrible.
After the war, when I was 29, the region was returned to Czechoslovakia so my family and I were forced to flee to Germany. We walked 120 miles from our hometown Litoměřice to Leipzig. At that time, Germany was divided between the Allies into four different zones, and we were in the zone controlled by the Soviets. Life was so hard, I simply stopped doing many of the things I loved, like singing. I only started singing again a few years ago. Well, maybe you can't really call it singing, but I hum along to the music I like a bit.
What's the best way to get through a difficult time?
Working helped me, but it took a long time for my soul to fully heal.
What should I learn more about?
History. Young people know too little about our history and they should make more of an effort to study it. Sometimes I think they don't want to know.
Are there things that I should stop doing when I hit a certain age?
Ha, no. Honestly, you should focus on living a great life, like I have. I drove a car until I was 95. Eventually, I decided to give up my license. But only because I realised that if I had an accident – even if I wasn't responsible – people would automatically assume it was my fault, because of my age.
Do you think I should take more risks?
Yes, of course. Everyone needs excitement in their lives. I've always tried to make life as exciting as possible. After the war, I would leave Leipzig in the middle of the night and sneak into the British zone, where I wasn't supposed to be. I had so much fun and was never afraid. I was an adventurous girl who had nothing to lose. To survive, all you need is a bit of luck.
What do you think of my tattoos?
I think they're horrible. I don't understand why anyone would get tattoos. The thing is, I'm quite old-fashioned. I especially don't like it when women get tattoos. To be honest, I still don't like seeing women smoking in public. But it's my turn to ask some questions again. Do you have a girlfriend?
Are you too picky?
I think everyone should be a bit picky. But, at some point, you need to make your mind up. At your age, you should consider starting a family. If you asked me to marry you now, I wouldn't say no.