Friday 4 October 2013

Ich bin Fremd hier #3

‘Everything is established in London. Here, there is still experimentation! And liberation!’ An artist from Chile is showing me the pictures of plants he has created on his MacBook; skeletal and neon they look more alien than anything of botany. He tells me about patterns and fractals, looking at me with earnest, amber eyes. Curls of silver twist about his tangled hair, down his goaty beard and along his eyebrows. He could be any age and I imagine he always has been and always will be.

He grabs my hand and holds it up. ‘It has flesh! Like this here! The plant is still living! I have not killed this plant. It is still alive today, back at home. ’

I fill the silence that quickly descends and ask more questions about fractals which excite him to the extent that ‘we drink!’ and he trots off to his dorm to bring out some absinth in a glass, blue bottle. ‘Absinth,’ he tells me, while he pours, ‘I have drunk, from this same bottle, at all the very special places in the world that I have been. At the Eiffel Tower, on London Bridge, at the Cordillera de la Costa… and now here with you. Prost!’ And we drink.

More absinthe is poured and I see beyond the Chilean artist, Jann, the big South African, walk morosely out onto the terrace. He sees me and comes over. The night before, Sam and Sammy whipped up fifteen or so of us from the hostel into a frenzy with tales of their exploits anecdotes about High Wickham that silenced stories from Prague and Budapest. Jim from Sheffield, hanging at Sam’s elbow, suggests that we play a drinking game but Sam begins rolling a spliff and tells us he knows something better. He gives a nod to Sammy who goes into the kitchen and brings back a glass and various other accoutrements for the game. After the game, at about midnight, Sam talks of the guy he knows in Golitzer Park and says that he is going to head there later to pick up. I walk with Sam and Sammy into the park and with us comes a skinny guy from somewhere nondescript with darting eyes and a high voice who began twitching as we enter and begins to hiss into my ear, ‘-this is sketchy man, this is fucking sketchy…’

As we enter we lose Sam and Sammy up ahead and are accosted by two latino looking men. One starts bopping his leg up and down between my legs as if to try and trip me up. I’m not quite aware of what is going and the two us hop together onto the grass in a kind of jig, and I catch sight of the skinny guy’s aghast white face as we dance past him. Eventually the bopping stops and I stumble back onto the path.

We head on. ‘Oh man, what was that about? You dealt with that well man! I wouldn’t have known what to do … Jesus this is fucking-’ At this point we are called back and one of the guy is pointing to my phone that is lying in the grass; the phone I’m using in Germany, of which a touchscreen is the most high-tech feature is possesses. I pop back and pick it up thanking him and it is only much later that I realise this phone must have been taken from my pocket and subsequently rejected.

Jann, with his iPhone5, following us into Golitzer Park, was less fortunate. Hours later I found him at my shoulder, keeping pace with my swaying and stumbling on the way to a club in Kreuzberg. He put a heavy arm around my shoulder.

‘Bertie, man, I gotta tell you something …’


‘I lost my phone. I was mugged! They took my phone …’


‘Tonight. In that park. These three guys surrounded me. And they took my phone man. But shush …. shhhhh - don’t tell anyone. Shusshh man, ye? Just between you and me …’ I was too drunk to feel sorry for Jann but I did in the morning. He sat down with us now and he launched into his day trying to sort out the mess. (He is one of many. A week later a Texan wearing shorts laughs about the same happening to him. ‘Fuck it! I suppose you can’t really say you’ve been to Europe unless you’ve been robbed, can you?’) When Jann gets up to leave I hear the Chilean jabbering the other side of me and I realise that he has been showing me and Jann pictures of plants for the last five minutes. He pours us more absinth and resumes.

I am very happy, sitting here drinking with the Chilean, half-listening to him talking about his art but that morning hadn’t been happy at all. Groggy and more than a little miserable I forced myself to leave the hostel and caught the U1 to Warschaur Strasse with the intention of walking towards Friedrichshain in search of the an English bookshop called ‘East of Eden’. As I got further from the hostel I felt better, and gently began to fall into the city, content in the knowledge that I had a lot of walking in front of me. I love walking through the city, through any city; on foot no one has any reason or interest to stop you. On the pavement you just walk and the houses and the tarmac and the railings were made for walkers like you, and say ‘stay with me, you can keep walking here …’

I have scribbled on to my map that ‘East of Eden’ is off Frankfurter Allee, passed Frankfuter Tor walking away from the city. The television tower must be behind me, this means. I follow my map diligently and find the street on which the shop is supposed to be situated and find no shop but beautiful houses with falling ivy and explosions of graffiti across the building, turning concrete space into that crux that lies between surface and window into another world. Indeed, here the sound of the road is muffled and it appears that I have entered another city. I forego all plans to locate ‘East of Eden’, don’t think about how long it has taken me to get here, how long it will take to get to the next book shop on the list, and walk down the street towards an avenue with a two rows of trees and a pebbled path running down the centre to steps leading up to a small church at the end.

It is Sunday morning and I sit down on one of the benches under the trees.  

A man in loose sky blue shirt and brown trouser pushing a pram slowly down the avenue towards me. He walks slowly and looks about him, his eyes briefly passing over me and then retreated unconcerned and relaxed to hover over nothing in particular. The baby was silent and invisible under white blankets. The man walked slowly with a slight board but content expression. After him comes a woman and her dog, coming down at a quicker pace, the dog skipping ahead while she looked at the screen in her hand. Neither noticed me save for half a sniff in my general direction. A van drives up the avenues and parks opposite me, breaking the quiet for the street, and then silence again for a moment before, the rumble of the men’s voices, a quiet echo of the rumble of the engine, and the clap and swing as they opened up the back of the van and began to unload furniture.

It is true, that there are no foreign countries, just foreign people.  

Here I see a Berlin. That ‘real’ Berlin that I have had glimpses when, for instance, my friend rushes to meet me, late because she got tied up in a meeting at work; or the school children who play football in the playground that hostel balcony look onto. (‘Jesus,’ Jann said to me one morning. ‘There are children in Kreuzberg?’) A Berlin that is functioning like any other city, home to people with lives like those in Paris and London, with work and school. There are no tours to see that city, and it is one with almost complete exclusivity, until you too live in this city. Until you work in the city.

Rising from my bench and thumbing my wind-battered Lebenslauf I yearn to be part of it all. It was a beautiful autumn day, and as I wandered about the pretty streets off Gneisenau Strasse and Sonnenalle and Kottbusser Dam I watch people sitting outside cafes, restaurants and bars, eating and drinking and laughing. It looked beautiful and I saw myself sitting with them relaxing after a week of work and retiring to our favourite spot in the city and complaining about things like construction on the U-bahn and negligent landlords. But as I passed each table German words mocked my incomprehension and attacked my spirit. The chirping voices on my BBC Learn German Disk (Kann ich hier deise Reisencheck erinlosen?) were not from here. The people weren’t welcoming me with breezy, languid directions. The voices are no more Berlin than I am   

The light was beginning to fade when I came across a great gothic church. I wasn’t sure where I was and as yet haven’t been able to locate this church again: I was somewhere in between a pub in Charlottenburg and a theatre in Kreuzberg. I decided to stop and sit, and went up to the great gothic building that reminded me of the castle in Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’. It was scissored by two roads where cars and bikes sped past, and looked resentful and sulky at what had grown up around him.

Old churches, like old pubs, I love, and hold a presence that I find hard to feel in building such as the Reichstag or Big Ben, impressive architecturally they may be. Imagining Stresseman drafting laws or Churhcill or Disraeli’s speeches, or even the lighting of the Reichstag fire of the Gun Powder Plot aren’t as accessible as simply thinking at the doors or a pub or church: who has walked through these doors to sit inside? What murder and conception and skulduggery happened here? How many students, travellers, artists and pilgrims have arrived at these doors seeking sanctuary and comfort from the road?

The Reichstag, Big Ben and the like are to look at - you can’t see the Eiffel Tower from the top of the Eiffel Tower. But confronted by this church here with only an imagined history what is best to do is to go inside, and if closed – as this was - but to sit on its steps, and feel place your hand on its cold stone – picking up a pebble if there is one - and join the many that have come before.

Back on the terrace that evening I don’t recognise many people. Sam and Sammy are nowhere to be seen. Jim from Sheffield left that morning for Amsterdam; the Swiss sisters were going home that morning as well, and camp Barry had caught a flight to Munich the day before. Joseph and his girlfriend had returned to the UK.

I sit down on a table with includes four Israelis and an Australian who attempts, seriously, to speak Hebrew to them, and cites his Syrian heritage every few sentences. Soon it is too cold for the Israelis. They head inside followed by the Australian and I am left with the Chilean artist. 

 ‘Tomorrow I will drink it at the Berlin Wall,’ he smacks his lips. ‘Very good yes? Very special drink absinth. You an artist, I can see that! Like me, you are an artist! And together we drink to art, and the city. Of course, it is not completely right. If we could be like Baudelaire and drink with opium. Then we would be ready to create art!’

He falls into a gabbled Spanish and I begin to laugh. He begins to laugh also, for no apparent reason other than I am, and that we can, and that we are together and there is really no reason not to, and now we have started, no reason to stop.

Bertie Digby Alexander

Berlin 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment