Friday 25 October 2013

Ich bin Fremd hier #7

That second Friday evening found me once again feigning enthusiasm on the steps of Frankfurter Tor. I was designated to promote at the hostel that I was actually staying at. This was a little awkward as I was acutely aware that due to my focus upon learning German and applying for jobs, like at the last hostel, I have built up an unsocial reputation. Each day I sit on the much desired high-table that I claim early each morning, reciting verb formations, remaining until lunch when I munch upon some tomato and cheese, before leaving for an afternoon handing out CVs. In the evening I continue the job search online. And now, I will have to casually join them around the fuseball table or discussing politics on the terrace and try to entice them upon a night of shots and Beer-Pong.

To my relief, as I return to the hostel I spot new arrivals. Four lads from Liverpool. I approach them and open a discussion on the city and when asked tell them that a little shisha bar I know in Friedrichshain is undoubtedly the best spot I have found in Berlin. ‘In fact I am going there tonight,’ and pull out some flyers from my pockets, attempting nonchalance. My heart thumps as they mumble to each other, ‘Well we’re pretty lost here … have no idea where else to go …’

I leave these four drinking on the bunkbeds and am approached by a Swedish guy – with an accent so British I initially thought he was mocking me - who had spoken to Ela the night she was promoting at the hostel. He has shown interest in coming along later in the week and said that he would ‘poke his head in’ that night. He directs me towards an Australian girl who was also keen, and she in turn nods her head towards Gerty of Holland, who was meeting three friends from Amsterdam that night who would were hoping to visit a few bars in East Berlin. With the addition of one lone traveller from Australia twiddling his thumbs on his last night in Berlin, I suddenly found myself elatedly leading eleven people back to Frankfurter Tor, repeatedly multiplying eleven by four. 44€! I think of Leo shepherding myself, Barry, the Swiss sisters and the rest of that crowd on this route just a week before. Look at me now!

I was still happily multiplying on the tram when the Swede calls out to me: ‘Ur-hum, excuse me! Are we not supposed to get off here?’ We were. I sprang into action and leaped in between the beeping doors of the tram, holding them back as my group tumbled excitedly passed me under the red flashing lights and out onto the pavement. I released the doors and I follow them out, thanking the Swede as he delicately folded his map and placed it back into his breast pocket. Trying to regain some authority I trot in front of them spieling off some garb about the classic Stalinist architectural style, and lead them onwards to the first bar where Garth is waiting for them outside.  

I don’t join them on the Crawl that evening but think of them the next day as I walk along Warschauer Straße and past the club they would have ended up in. I love walking about here as it reminds me of the last day of my first trip to Berlin the previous summer. It was a Sunday and my German friend took me down to a flea market here and I came across a bright orange school satchel with red reflectors and a picture of Disney’s Robin Hood and Prince John. The man on the stall didn’t speak English so I told my German friend that she would have to bargain for it. I told her I would pay no more the 10€, but my will was week and her bargaining half-hearted and so I walked away with the satchel strapped upon my back having paid 25€. We then walked to another flea market. This second one was further into Friedrichshain and much bigger. Here I had leafed through German children books, Peter und die Wolf, Emil und die Deketive, Die unendliche Geshichte, and quietly contemplated learning the language. Afterwards we had had ice coffee off the grass square and I had thought of Berlin as not the scruffy underdog of Europe but in its Wilhelmian splendour. And it was with the taste of that coffee in my mouth and that satchel digging into my shoulders that, on the way back to Schonefield Airport, I had looked at my faint reflection against the landscape of bare Templeoffer Freiheit and half-consciously thought to myself, I could move to Berlin.

Through Friedrichshain and then up to Prenzlauer Berg I hand out more CVs to more hostels and bars and slowly my enthusiasm for the city begins to ebb once again. Walking down Landsberger Allee I saw a stone archway with a rusted iron gate leading in to a tatty rubble and grass lane at the near end of which I could see only trunks and leaves. On one of the pillars there was a mettle plaque with illegible German. If the gate had been closed I would have thought it was perhaps the entrance to a small mid-city estate. Wearily I turned up the path and came to what first appeared to be an ugly and deprived city park, shaded from the light and noise of the road and flowing self-absorbed city life that I had been traipsing through.

As I entered, amongst the trees to my right was a mettle railing which barred me from a gravelled playing court and I thought I spotted a little wall that enclosed us. About me in other directions were scraggly bushes and shrubbery and immersed between these I saw grave stones and realised to my delight that I was in a cemetery. I was tired and knew that here I wouldn’t be disturbed. I found a little bench along the twisting paths and saw a gap in the wall which I assumed led to another great road of the like that I had just escaped. I would stay here.

I sat on the bench and sighed into my solitude. In front of me were a couple of small, neglected and slanted grave stones and to my right there was a man crouching silently on the ground. He had come here not to get away, I thought to myself, but to connect, or travel back to what was lost. A moment later a woman turned up at his side and they began bickering in agitated muffled German. Was he visiting the grave of dead mistress? Were they perhaps siblings, rivals over the disputed will of a lost parent? Old lovers encountering each other at the grave of their lost child? In bursts and beats they argued there for about ten minutes and then disappeared down the path, still snapping at each other.

In time I rose and thought to do a quick round of the cemetery before heading back onto the noise and stretch of Landsberger Allee. I took the path the couple had taken and found that it led through another stone archway and saw that the cemetery expanded to an enormous size in leafy splendour housing magnificent graves and small crypts, reminding me of Angkor Watt and ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’.  This place stretched far beyond the little guttering corner I had stumbled upon and lingered in so readily. In the distance I spotted the man and woman quietly sitting on another bench by other gravestones. Maybe they were also simply searching for a fragile tranquillity, meeting tempestuously in their lunch breaks. 

On the path I was confronted by a fat cat with a squashed face. It was no Salem or Binx but looked arrogant and satisfied, at complete at peace with the world, living and dead. I was wondering from whence he came when I heard a voice saying ‘Langsammer! Langsammer!’ Walking on I saw that crouched amongst the grave stones was an equally fat woman pouring cat food into a steel dish, next to watch filled up with water. Two more cats meowed about her ankles, squeezing their portly bodies under her thighs and buttocks, needing at her calves and then dipping their ugly, crumpled faces into the bowls. As I wandered further along the path I saw more of these cats, licking their paws and gazing indifferently at me. They didn’t seem very graveyard; they didn’t seem very Berlin either. But nonetheless, I was certainly on their turf.  

I turned off the path to a where there were more family crypts and no path but wooded floor; more leaves and twigs here. ‘Familie Otto’, ‘Familie Shmittd’, ‘Familie Ende.’ Often it was only a husband and wife named. Where were all the children? Perhaps they were sterile siblings. They were dying in the 1920s and 1930s, as Weimar and then Nazi Germany took hold, and the Imperial country of Prussia and Wilhelm dissolved further into the ground.

I was aware that I was gratifying a voyeuristic tendency. My German friend told me that she believe we like art galleries so much as they have enough life within them to engage us, but are devoid of the clutter that the rest of our lives confront us with. Cemeteries are similar; simply walking through them there is little of people to see or know, but enough to stir interest. I am always surprised how sparse the words on gravestones are. How does one connect to that person beneath there? Is it possible at all? We like to think that a connection is possible. That because once men levelled the coffin down into a whole that was dug by other men and a stone was placed and the beloved’s family knelt by it, and that we are now standing in that exact same spot we have somehow bypassed time.  Do these places have a memory? Is there still an essence of what was? The ivy and shrubbery took the stones back and the inhabitants lay quiet and neglected and forgotten inside. Such a sight, though beautiful to the uninvolved wanderer, is a fantastic argument for incineration. Two generations go by after your death and you are left to neglect and vegetation. Not part of it, but simply held beneath it, as vagrants drink tinnies and people walk their dogs. Bertolt Brecht’s had apparently requested that his gravestone be just an ordinary stone ‘which every dog wants to piss on.’ This would be a place for that. Not somewhere like the famous Père Lachaisey cemetery in Paris. Brecht should have been buried here. If the dogs aren’t scared off by the cats.

Walking my aunt’s dogs in a cemetery in Fulham, it was not cats but foxes that I was wary of. I saw no foxes here in Berlin, but did to my joy look at one point to see a bushy red squirrel swinging from the branches above me. This was the first time I had seen a red squirrel and I remained swaying with the branches underneath the tree after it had disappeared. Fat cats and red squirrels! In his book ‘Germania’, Simon Windsor describes the latter, ‘with straggling tufts of unkempt hair and hectic eyes that give them something of the air of traditional Berlin squatters.’[1] I sat down on the twig-strewn ground next to a particularly black grave and looked up in the trees, hoping to see more of these squatters. I felt very much alive. Cemeteries give me this feeling; a feeling of youth, and power in being alive, when so many others aren’t. The sootier and grimier and more crumbled gravestone, the better I feel spending time amongst them. I would like to think that those beneath would be grateful for my time, if they could be. And I dwell upon that imaginary connection that only exists in a mind turning in upon itself.  For what can be felt in cold stone but the comparative heat of our own palm?

Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2013

[1] Simon Winder, Germania, (Parador, London), 2010.

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