Friday 25 October 2013

Ich bin Fremd hier #6

‘So I went into the house and took off the wall the fiddle I played so well, and my father gave me a few coppers to help me on my way, and off I strolled down the long street and out of the village …’[1] Another adventure begins in Joseph von Eichendorff’s ‘Life of a Good-for-Nothing’ and I wonder what my fiddle could be in Berlin. I turn to look out at the city below but the window has misted over. Another feast is being prepared behind me. The smell of fried egg and mushroom fills the hostel and I look down morosely at my Turkish yoghurt and soft banana. The meals that are created throughout the day at this hostel are fantastic: all kinds of food from all the cuisines that Berlin has to offer, frying and roasting and boiling and bubbling over my shoulder, and backpackers conglomerate together over the roasted banquet of vegetables and steaming sweet potatoes and sprinkled nutmeg, and delicately torn meat that spits and sizzles giving up scents of home, and healthy luxury throughout the hostel.

Through the haze of blazing peppers Happy Henry, in suit and tie, waves at me from reception, ‘Cheerio!’, and disappears with his briefcase down the grey stairs into the vortex of Kottbusser Tor. He would appear out of place, offensively so perhaps, but for his great ginger afro and huge grin places him at ease with everyone, staff and arties and Turkish kebab venders alike. Having flamboyantly quit his job at PricewaterhouseCoopers after only one year, with great eyes brimming with excitement and a juddering Adam’s apple, Henry had arrived the day before with his neat black briefcase inside his shining black suitcase, and told us – by ‘us’ I mean everyone else in the hostel, while I crouched like a gremlin over Craig’s List in the background - that he was starting an internship the next day and now frantically (but exuberantly) was searching for a flat. He was soon pointed, with whispers, in my direction with the information that I had also recently moved to the city. He parked up his laptop next to mine as he introduced himself and told me about his search for accommodation. I wasn’t yet searching for accommodation, having decided to stick it out for now in hostels and friend’s places, until I had regular employment. I didn’t want to break Henry’s excitement though, so kept this quiet and kept asking questions about the flat. That evening, through a tangle of leads and tottering bottles of Berliner Kindle, he would swivel his screen around every few minutes to show me another great two-bedroom find.

‘I could cover you for a bit,’ he offered, ‘if need be. And I can pass a credit cheque and can easily show my last three month’s pay checks. Although getting hold of them from the office might prove a little tricky …’ and he raised his left index finger to tap ponderously upon his chin. Henry had a plan that we put on suits and ties and shave and go round some of these flats pretending that we are based in London but looking for a work-pad in Berlin. ‘It would be much better than a flat-share. It would just take a little preparation. You have a tie I suppose? If not I could lend you one. And we could both get haircuts.’

Henry was only the latest in many that I have met in Berlin who like me had come to the city in search of exciting opportunities. ‘Not trying to start a life but find one,’ he said to me as we add each other to our German sim-cards. At the first hostel I had met Francisca who had moved to Berlin from Italy. She had begun a language course and the school had found her a flat. She was hoping to find work in an Italian restaurant, then try to set up a stall at a flea market and sell her jewellery. There was Joseph of course, and also Niel from Conventry, teaching himself with Tin Tin in German (Tim und Struppi), confident in finding work as a manual labourer then searching for something better when his German improved. And I met Calan, the bracelet-sparkling Amazonian Queen of this hostel and rich fountain of knowledge on secret corners of Berlin which she had pioneered into the week before. Calan had – as she related with stressed nonchalance the next day over breakfast of steamed pumpkin and cinnamon – paused on the street to look at a mural the other morning in one seldom-frequented district of Berlin and been approached by a couple of Germans who liked her look and asked her to a photo-shoot in Tiergarten. They took her for a beer afterwards and then offered their sofa for as long as she wants it.

And I was to meet Serious Roger who like Henry had left a well-paid job in the UK, but otherwise opposed the smiling cockney right down to his, gaunt gullet, and dark mournful eyes, and the tone of a professor of Emily Dickenson. Then there was Leo, of the Pub Crawl, who had only been staying in the city for the summer while his girlfriend had an internship here; and Ela who had been studying here for one semester, and the great Garth who had arrived in the spring, the crazed Mike from Leicester, cherubic Mike, smoky Mike. And there was Dai and Baz and Sam, Evelyn … I would meet more and more in the next few weeks, who like me had come to Berlin hoping to stay. Each of us one of the many flooding to the city, not out of necessity but with the thin idea that Berlin is simply cooler than London, or Melbourne, or Shannon. In search of the spark that we read about and hear about and watch on each cinema screen and yet is so elusive under days of necessity and CVs and TV; that stone conveyor belt we have stepped since Reception.

How is Joseph different from, Calan, or Leo or Evelyn? We are all Auslanders, happening to be in Berlin. Nuzzling our way in, or finding comfortable corners; walking confidently through Alexanderplatz and looking down upon those with packs on their back. This place, before it was filled with dawdling tourists bending their heads back to look up at the television tower, and before the U-bahn station and Döblin’s nightlife, and before the enterprising Jews from the eastern marshes arrived and occupied the ‘Scheunenviertel’, what is now Alexanderplatz, home of the World Clock, was a cattle market where outsiders from afar would come to trade their stock and make some cash. Since the Friesians, still cheap and with space to grow, Berlin has continued to develop as a ‘Welstadt’, welcoming the world to its streets, from refugees to the rich and beautiful, and seemingly thriving because of it; the place Bowie and Kafka and Isherwood escaped to.

Simon Winder writes that the infamous Berlin of the ‘20s, portrayed in the pictures by Grasz, Dix and Beckmann, was not the reality. ‘Berlin was in the 1920s a city of ghosts, both at a private level and at a public one, with the militaty and imperial heart of the city ripped out and thrown away. The orgiastic feeling of the city, so enjoyed by foreigners, was based on a void.’[2] What are people like myself not seeing in Berlin today? How much can be seen from a hostel in Kreuzberg? It is from this district of the city, that which has taken a large brunt of the immigration to Berlin, where a wall can be found sporting the words: ‘Echter Berliner!!!! Ihr Nicht Fuck You’. ‘Real Berliner!!!! You’re Not Fuck You’.

The influx is many folded: tourism, the Wall and Nazism, the story of Berlin, sitting comfortably alongside night-time pursuits to Berghaim and the city’s famous moonlight offerings, originating in Isherwood’s cabaret. And then beneath these, are the immigrants and expats, begrudging the former group who give them a bad name. ‘Immigrants’ and ‘expats’. These two names conjure up different images and there are many of one group who would never label themselves under the title of the other. Is one of these groups less welcome in Berlin, or simply easier to mock, to rage against, to differentiate?

Immigrants and expats and real Berliners were the theme of a play staged at the English Theatre Berlin the month I arrived in the city. Having found no work going at the theatre I signed up as a volunteer and soon found myself serving customers Moscow Mules, drinking with the theatre staff, and watching their productions from the front row, kostensloss. The first play I saw was ‘Echter Berliner.’ Talking to a fellow volunteer before the show, himself a born and bred ‘Berliner’- though we were both tentative, before the show, to use the term – sighed when I told him where I was staying and asked me earnestly: ‘Where are all the Germans in Kreuzberg?

The director of the ‘Echter Berliner’ was from the States, and so like each of his five fellow actors, was, willingly or not, counted as part of an immigrant/expat community in Berlin.  The six of them interviewed ten members of their respective community to explore what it was like to move to and live in Berlin. They asked these people whether they felt like an outsider in this city; what it was to be a Berliner; and whether they could ever be one.

In attempt to recreated the tedium and anxiety of the dreaded Auslandercentre, when the audience received their tickets they were given a specifically coloured ticket dependant on where their passport was issued, and told, ‘There is likely to be a delay in the start of our performance as we are running behind.’ Indeed, they were taken into the auditorium fifteen minutes after the published starting time. The mass of Germans, clutching their red tickets in their palms, were taken in last.

Inside, the audience were faced with a sad looking character, in Jewish garb, sitting morosely on a stall and rummaging through a plastic rucksack, looking like the lost boy of a school trip. When the play begins, he is joined on stage by the other five actors, including the director looking suitably American in baseball hat and aviators, another shrouded in a Muslim shawl and a third looking like she has just glided off the set of Crouching Tiger Hided Dragon. Presented in such stark contrast, the six display the diversity of Berlin (or indeed, for that matter, New York or London) but also the stock stereotype that are cast upon individuals from these cultures. It is these stereotypes that the director is attempting to break down, however as the play continues such caricatures re-emerge to comic effect and are therefore more reinforced than dissected.

What was briefly looked at in the play is Berlin’s relationship with the rest of Germany. ‘Berlin needs to sort out its hate of people from Stuggart first!’ one of the actors cries. It is true, like London and Paris, Berlin sits apart from the rest of the country, inspiring narrowed suspicious eyes in the hinterlands beyond. Bismark distrusted Berlin. As did Hitler, who harboured designs to turn it into ‘Germania’, sporting a great dome to be called the Kuppelberg, which would dwarf St Peter’s by sixteen times. Indeed, hanging from the ceiling in my hostel, is a sign – alongside ‘I survived KitKat Club’ and ‘The staff are hot!’ – shouting: ‘Berlin is NOT Germany.’ Is that the criteria for a World City, to provoke the cold shouter of its home country in hosting the rest of the world?

As the audience listens to the trials of those who have moved to Berlin from Turkey and Taiwan and upstate New York, I wondered why there are was no testimony from someone who does undoubtedly consider themselves a true Berliner. Perhaps this is addressed at the end of the play where the one actor ‘originally’ from Berlin shouts that she knows where she’s from and doesn’t need to be told about it. Or the very last line of the play: ‘perhaps a Berliner is someone who doesn’t need to talk about it.’ Or perhaps, it is the audience who are considered the Berliners, being taught about the others in their city. Even so, it would have been nice to consider the identity of the author of that piece of graffiti in Kreuzberg.

            In Kreuzberg, from the edge of my hostel’s terrace, I cannot spot the any sign of the sad little wall that wants us out. Smoking next to me is a girl, also looking over the streets and roofs below us.  She lets out a ‘wow’ as she exhales. What do we not see? The view isn’t particularly pretty, but then much of the most spectacular in Berlin isn’t pretty. Not pretty like Paris. Neither does it have the golden grandeur of Westminster, or the crumbling splendour of Rome. Not a pouting, postcard beauty, but the rusting red balconies and swamps of ivy crawling up the building; the stretched stories that play out, frozen yet compelling, on the sides of buildings, provoking the wow of one gratified pilgrim.

‘Auslander Aus!’ one interviewees of ‘Echter Berliner’ had shouted at her once by a group of neo-Nazis. The word ‘Auslander’ has a sound to that is more repellent, than ‘foreigner’ for instance. Or even ‘extrangjero’, verging upon ‘etranger’ where loaded ‘stranger’ and clinical ‘foreigner’ ominously meet. ‘Auslander’ sounds foreboding. So I think of the word ‘Fremd’ and feel welcom here once more.

But what do I not see?

Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2013

English Theatre Berlin -

[1] Jospeh von Eichendorff, ‘Life of a Good-for-Nothing’
[2] Simon Winder, Germania, (Parador, London) 2010.

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