Saturday 25 January 2014

Ich bin Fremd hier #9

             The next day was the day of the meal in the quirky English bookshop. I had been looking for it all day, and I had had fun imagining what would happen. Six or seven of us there would be, each of them much older than me. They would have had families but be estranged from them now, even if they didn’t admit it. This would be their current family, the ones around this table now, meeting as they had done for years since they were young and their lives outside the shop exciting and wild. Inside this bookshop they would look out of high windows into ideas and arguments and poetry. But then their lives would have dried up a little, until the bookshop became the best part of the week, and with the other relics of the city, the other queer fish that were no longer beautiful – in fact they looked a little ill - still frequented, and yet the wrinkles on their face, the food that they ate and the quantity of wine they passed around harked back to a freer age. An age that though a mere shadow of delights past to them, was a shining example of how life could be to me.

            They would smile on me and welcome me as I was introduced by the lady behind the desk, now in her cooking apron and oven gloves. A ruddy cheeked lady of inexact age and origin, with orange hair and bright eyes, would take my hand in her small and wrinkled one and sit me down next to her, peppering me with questions of unpracticed motherly tenderness. At the other end of the table, far from me, would be a man with the broken voice of an old sea captain and he would barely recognise my presence, not valuing me enough to see me as a hindrance but more of a nuisance, at worst, a display of disrespected to the sincerity of their friendship around that table.

            But he wouldn’t be enough to dampen the evening, and I would munch happily away on the food – principally vegetarian, but with fish, all organic – and accept more wine poured by the ginger haired lady who took none herself.

            There would be a pretty young woman there who acted, due to her eagerness and youthful energy as a kind of waitress, in and out of the room with dishes and jugs, and jumping up when someone realised that the salad dressing or salt had been forgotten. She would speak good English in an Italian accent, and looked up at the others with an admired, awe and respect, and they to her with an amused delight, covering up dependence with tenderness.

            It wasn’t to appear too different from this. Though there would be more people, and I would eat more food.

I arrived at eight, an hour early, keen to explore the book shelves. I paid for my plate and a beer from the fruit and entered eagerly into the back room where there were more books and about six chairs and a few side tables on which ashtrays and more books sat alongside flyers for the shop.

Noticing the label ‘travel’ I bent down and after seeing Bryson, Morris, Palin … I pick up a book lain on top, clean and seemingly unread. To my wonder it was Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘Between the Woods and the Water.’ My father had given me Paddy’s biography for my birthday that year. Besides his kidnap of a German general in Crete during World War Two, Paddy is perhaps best known for walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople when he was just eighteen years old. ‘Between the Woods and the Water’ was the second of the intended trilogy he wrote years later accounting this trip. Beautiful and insightful, Paddy accounts his trip through from his crossing of the Mária Valéria bridge between Czechoslovakia and Hungary, to reaching the Danube on the boundary between the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Romania. He writes at this point, ‘there is one more book to come which will carry us to the end of the journey and beyond.’ However the third and final book is unwritten. His biography I had kept through Spring and Summer, through exams and embarking upon declinations, and then, at my grandmother’s house, a couple of weeks before coming to Berlin, I had started it. Talking of her late husband, my grandmother had said: ‘Do you know he was on the same ship as Patrick?’

The idea of walking from Holland to Constantinople had instantly excited my imagination. Paddy had simply woken up one day in London – with a hangover I believe - and started to walk. He had a bag, a sleeping bag, and a winter coat. I don’t think he had a stick. Though his possessions were sparse they were not tied into a handkerchief pouch. Yet it reminded me instantly of the travellers of old, those I had known as a child, from Hazel and Fiver, to Pigling Bland. Where to go to find this lost adventure? I would read of the excitement of pigs skipping over a bridge to pastures with dancing rabbits, or the Sound of Music, going up through the mountains, and I would want to join them. You never know where they will go, what was over the hills and where they would end up. One can only return again and again to the beginning.

Paddy left home, on foot. Walking is important.

At the beginning of ‘Between the Woods and the Water’, he quotes from Robert Brownings’ The Flight of the Duchess.
Up and up the pine-trees go,
So like black priests up, and so
Down the other side again
To another greater, wilder country.

Towards that greater, wilder country there was a freedom there like no other. A freedom, whether possible or not, inconceivable to many, and terrifying to others. The sensation of movement and the idea of following a trail through forests and fields or walking no path at all over hills was terrifyingly exciting to me. ‘Why was I travelling?’ was a question Paddy never asked himself, but was frequently asked by others. ‘To see the world, to study, to learn languages? I wasn’t quite clear myself. Yes, some of these things, but mostly – I couldn’t think of the word at first – and when I found it – “for fun” – it didn’t sound right and their brows were still puckered.’

It was this excitement that had got me to Berlin, but later, when I had a job, and I had a flat, I harboured doubt that in moving to Berlin and in getting all these things I had been yearning for in these first few weeks, I was simply swapping one capital city for another. One cheap district for another cheap district, one job, one routine, one tedious life for another. I wasn’t satisfying the desire to travel. The preference for the journey over the destination. I know that many people feel this way but I had in the past feared that my case was chronic. I would love taking a train journey where I could dwell on leaving one place, mull over the memories, echoes and reflections, savouring them in their nostalgic glow, and bask in the poignancy of leaving somewhere. And then I could look ahead to the exciting next step, the towers rising in the distant, the wall circling and the gates opening. Those waiting, and the expectancy of the arrival somewhere. On the train you are in neither place at all. And I would be cherry picking the refractions and angles of my life, splinters of existence, into an unreality.

And these cherries inject poignancy into the real pleasure of what you find on your travels. It could be looking at the lights of an urban sprawl at night, a river glowing purple at sunset, the smell of in the city in the morning. I find nature has the effect, more often than which is manmade. The touch of greenery, the sinking of a food into soft mud, the crunch over leaves and crumble over stones. The auburn of trees. In Between the Woods and the Water Paddy went to grand diners and stayed with barons of the old empires of Austria and Hungary and Romania, and they spoke to him in German and French as well as English and he responded. Yet the author Jan Morris writes that it was on the plains, in the countryside with the sheep trotting across the river, or coming face to face with a stag in the night, that Paddy was most joyous on his journey. It was with nature and the world and walking that he found a fulfilment that had eluded him before.

I think everyone knows this feeling. My heart at times appears to expand and a swell in my breast in a moment of innocent unabashed pleasure at the modest beauty of the world and our presence in it. CS Lewis wrote of ‘joy’, which he depicted as the pleasure at catching a glimpse of what live is like in the Kingdom of Heaven; and he asks us to try and imagine the bliss of living in such a state of ecstasy for eternity. Think of the rapture. When we stay too long, the moment we recognise such an emotion inside us it falls away, like water through open fingers, and we are left perhaps a little startled, swaying inside, at what had just hit us. As the enormity of what you are appreciating is too much to comprehend, too much to feel, for longer than a moment. It is a beauty that cannot be rationally appreciated, and when I feel it, I love myself in that moment for responding to it so fully.

Dickens talks of this sensation, which like Lewis he writes is only invoked by nature. Contrary to Lewis, he casts the sensation as more of a memory of heaven, as oppose to a foretaste of heaven.

In Oliver Twist, he writes:

‘Who can describe the pleasure and delight, the peace of mind and soft tranquility, the sickly boy felt in the balmy air, and among the green hills and rich woods, of an inland village! Who can tell how scenes of peace and quietude sink into the minds of pain-worn dwellers in close and noisy places, and carry their own freshness, deep into their jaded hearts! Men who have lived in crowded pent-up streets, through lives of toil, and who have never wished for change; men to whom custom has indeed been second nature, and who have come almost to love each brick and stone that formed the narrow boundaries of their daily walks; even they with the hand of death upon them, have been known to yearn at last for one short glimpse of Nature’s face … Crawling forth, from day to day, to some green sunny spot, they have had such memories wakened up within the by the sight of sky, and hill and plain, and glistening water … The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, nor of its thoughts and hopes.’

Indeed, this motif reoccurs again and again in my reading. This is from Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the UK Liberal Democrat Party:

'When I crossed the shoulder of Goat Fell that night the sky was clear and blazing with stars, and a deep frost, sparkling under a full moon, lay over all the land below. As I crested the hill I saw the great shimmering expanse of the First of Clyde, pointing like a silver finger towards the loom of Glasgow's lights in the distance and edged by the dark mass of the Ayrshire coast, spangled with towns and villages spilling down to its water's edge. I am not a religious person but twice in my life I have had what I think were quasi-religious experiences, in which I felt, almost tangibly the presence of something far beyond my comprehension and which was both sublime and omnipotent. One was in 1996, when I looked down from the to of Brunelleschi's dome to see Florence and the Arno laid out at my feet; the other was on that March night on Goat Fell on the Isle of Arran.' 

The second of Ashdown's 'quasi-religious experiences' is inspired, as we see, by not only nature but also man's addition to it, in the form of Florence. Nevertheless I believe it is the wonder and incomprehensibility of nature and our seemingly accidental place in it that provokes the awareness of a greater, conscious force. 

Walking through Kreuzberg weeks later I came across a little churchyard. Here there was a great conker tree. I was taken aback at the return of excitement at these, and remembered me and my sister scrambling fiercely about after conkers in a churchyard back at home. Treasures to prise open; slits of an eye peeping out of thick jurassic lids. Running about we would desperately collect those shinny smooth balls, clenching the cold hard flesh in our soft young hands. As I spotted some on the floor I filed with a sensation like a child's excitement at Christmas. I picked up the first one I came to, unwrapped it and saw it was the biggest most perfect conker I could have found, polished and smooth. I stuffed it into my pocket, rolling and my hands over it and rubbing it as I walked down Oranienstraße. A week later it sat shrivelled and malformed on the shelf in my bedroom and I threw it away. 

That week I had been sweeping up autumn leaves at the English Theatre Berlin. The entrance to the theatre is a beautiful little spot, as perfect as any set they could ever create inside. There is a winding iron staircase that goes up to somewhere, and graffitied over the side of one wall are big colourful words shouting something. There are little huts and buildings which contain machinery and hardware behind wooden doors with bright peeling paint. Apart from the theatre the buildings are all low and face a narrow courtyard that functions as a track leading to a dead-end. Many leaves had fallen on the courtyard and sweeping them up I came across one that was so red it looked like it was a frozen flame. This leaf would have made a fantastic Instagram photo. It was utterly tweetable. I held it, and wanted to keep it and put it into my ‘Book for Berlin’ alongside dry scraps of newspaper cutting and reflections of my time in the city. But I had a restraint and understanding of the true nature of my desire that I hadn’t had with the conker in Kreuzberg. In my ‘Book for Berlin’ this leaf would be squashed and would dry out and eventually lose its form and colour. So I dropped it to the floor, and turned it over when it fell on its face. I didn’t need to do anything to it, or to possess for it still to be so beautiful, and for me to appreciate that. Instead I write about it here.

After this leaf I began to take even more pleasure in my sweeping. I couldn’t remember when I had last swept leaves. It was cold enough to know that I would shudder in relief when back outside, but not so cold for it to be uncomfortable to stay outside. The sun was fading across this corner of the city, behind the most beautiful street in Berlin. And I happily swept, and made an effort to clear every leaf, and thought that, this kind of job, working with nature – even just a little bit of it – when light and darkness had a tangible meaning and things were done for real results, was the kind of job I wanted. Where there are no screens, few people, but lots of leaves …

A couple of months after I first went to the little bookshop for supper, and after weeks of dreaming to be out of the office and in the country; to the soil and the sheep where I could live in a little hut and wake up to breathe fresh air and see the sunrise and grant the seasons autonomy over my daily routines; to feed the animals, and dig for carrots … months after these thoughts I was taken to a farm. Not to live and work, but for a birthday brunch. I was given coffee and fine whiskey on arrival, and then we had a tour of the farm and the big farm dog, Fritz or something, lay on his stomach for me as I scratched his belly and smelt the stench of cow shit. It was all very wonderful. But in the cow shed it was cold, and something stuck to my hand as I held the railing. I yearned for my lost gloves, and in just a quick sharp moment I knew that I had been fooling myself in my daydreams.

The romantic glow of the country is not a reliable reality in this world, but the view from the warmth of a train cabin. We do not have to see those grubby lives inside or feel the cold of the water. It is special because we only see the beauty. Travelling allows us to not commit, to have minimal responsibility, to be cut adrift. However, we are aware that by only looking for a moment, we are not experiencing the entirety. And it is the entirety we seek. An entirety Lewis and Dickens would call heaven. What we do experience is comparatively weak to what we sense is there, somewhere, and yearn for. The belief that we won’t find what we are seeking – the greater whole of that beauty - by entering that door, or plunging into that river, keeps us seated in the viewing gallery. The knowledge that it isn’t enough just to see, makes us stand up and walk on. And so we move on to one place after another, fooling ourselves that we will find the entirety there. To keep going and going and appreciate mountains and seas and islands and forests only for a moment as we fly past them and beyond them and towards the next dazzling light.

On a flight to Bangkok when I was eighteen - my first time going to Asia and my first flight alone, the start of six months away from home - I had a read a book called ‘Are You Experienced?’ by William Sutcliffe. It was my stepmother’s, she had given it to me, having read it herself when she was not much older than I was then. It was about a boy going off to India for the first time and having an awful time. He didn’t ‘find himself’ but ended up hating the girl he was traveling with and getting dysentery. I loved it, and read it the whole time from London to Sri Lanka. Waiting for my flight to Thailand in Columbo, I finished it, lying across three steel chairs in a quiet terminal. Just like that it was over. His adventure was done. And I felt suddenly very alone. For the first time since the night before travelling, I was nervous. I was terrified. I had fucking flown over Iraq. But I had done it with this character from this book lying in my lap. And his horrors were comical, and calmed my fears with the thought that anything that may happen to me had happened before, and would always look better through a fictional glaze. But then I was alone.

And now, in Berlin, I was to sit down with another fellow traveller. I had thought of Paddy during the darker moment of my week in the first hostel, and at moments of worry looked at the letters I had scrawled on the first page of my ‘Book for Berlin’: WWPD? Through him I would take spirit. I would take courage. And as when looking out of a train window, or over a fence at a frozen pond, I would long for even just a teaspoon of that magic and beauty to be dropped into my life. How I can I get that? How can I feel that?

Of course, our adventures are always quite different from those we read about, from those we dream about.

I read Paddy’s biography down on the coast of Cornwall. The beaches on which I had played spies, imagining Germans swimming across the Camel Estuary. My stepmother had ripped out a cutting about the unfinished third part of the book, and I had read them. And then my sister and I had driven out of the drive, and we had waved to them all, and left. Paddy’s biography had been the last book I had read before coming to Berlin. In fact I had finished it the night I left London.

In the bookshop I picked up one of their flyers, - Another Country it said in bold writing, with a picture of a woman looking like she should be on the cover for Anna Karenina – and used this as a book mark. I picked up, Between the Woods and the World, settled into a chair, tore a corner off the flyer to use a roach, rolled a cigarette, lit it, popped open the beer with my lighter, and opened Paddy’s book.  

Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2014

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