Sunday 29 June 2014

Ich bin Fremd hier #14

One day before my shift at the Irish Pub I headed into Tiergarten where I hadn’t been since the summer, when had I ventured into the outskirts of the park with two friends from Liverpool for a photo opportunity. Tiergarten is Berlin’s second largest park, after Tempelhofer Feld, the old airfield which is now left for the free ranger of joggers and cyclists and loungers and rollerbladers. I settled down by one of the glistening lakes that are spotted throughout the underbrush and spotted three people rowing slowly in a boat on the water. If I look in their direction I could see very clearly little else apart from the green and brown of the trees, the water reflecting the same jungle hews, and of course, the boat and its cargo. I thought of the Jews escaping from Nazi Germany, or Ossies crossing the Spree to reach the West. Alas, they are far too languid and relaxed for any of these fantasies to be long sustained. I’m not sure they are even rowing but just sitting still in the water.

Rousing myself and walking on a little further I took a turning off one of the principle arteries that cuts up the park and wandered over a little stone bridge and down to the water once more where I saw the rowing boat again. I passed some girls taking pictures of themselves against the trees in a patch of evening sunlight that lights up the leaves. The light was beautiful and the leaves had come alive in it. The girls pout and bend and laugh at each other. I wondered if this was how Calan’s photoshoot had been. Of course not. I think of Calan and wonder what she is up to now. How is she living in Berlin?

As I walk on I come across more photographers and models; this time it is a women taking a picture of her child sat on a man’s shoulders. They are all wrapped up and quietly content and I fear – as I often do these days – that I appear something of a vagrant, even if a colourful one that doesn’t smell. I am wearing my white shoes that are too small to be called boots (and would make inefficient snow boots too, due to the holes) but are still too big for my feet. I look a little clownish in them. I am also wearing my dark blue trousers which were once smart like a sailor’s but are now tattered and faded and there are holes in the front two pockets. Baggy t-shirt and baggy maroon jumper; bright yellow headphones, granddad glasses … I had lost my big brown winter jacket from Chicago when I left the first hostel. I would come to miss that sorely. Then I have my trusty brown rucksack and I carry a bottle of Hofferader. Not as cheap as Sternberg (at 50c in a shop around the corner from Frankfurter Tor) but the cheapest the lovely lady in Zoologischer Garten Bahnhof had. In Chalottenburg one quickly misses the Spätkaufies that are peppered throughout Neukölln and Kreuzberg. I also feel a bit ashamed to drink Sternberg. It is known as the cheapest beer going. Drinking Sternberg once with once with some of Red’s friends they had told me that it was a drink for baby-eaters I hadn’t really known how to respond to that. 

I walked down to the water again. For ten minutes I stood there and no one passed behind me on the track or in front of me at the water. Only later does something dark leap out of the greenery to my right. At first I thought it was an excited fox that hadn’t noticed me or perhaps something wilder! Alas, it I was only a dog. Two ladies follow it along the path. They called ‘Alfie! Alfie!’ and whistled and clapped. Then they too get out a camera and commence taking photos. The dog acted nonchalant, feigning interest in a shrub hidden amongst the undergrowth until they desisted with their cooing. The three of them left me walking toward the edges of the park and I turned back to the water and think how glorious it is. But what to do with this! the same gnawing question returns. Take a picture? I turn to a tree trunk and settled down and bring out my Buch für Berlin and begin to write. But I soon get distracted, as a painter never could, as a musician cannot not, and begin scribbling something about the bells in The Sound of Music. I completely neglect the oily marble water that astounds me, because apart from that – oily marble water that astounds me ­– I don’t know what else to say. Maybe something else about Nazis and Ossies …  

I rise again and walk deeper into Tiergarten wishing that I could be living a life where I could just walk and drink and look forever, and that the start of the shift would never arrive. You can easily get lost in Tiergarten despite the frequent maps placed at the points where the twisting and diagonal paths meet. It was originally a park constructed for hunting – hence the name, Animal Garden. There are a lot of statues about the place. There is one of Goethe at one edge, standing erect and proud and regal and around him half-naked fat boys and women tending to them. White statue of Mozart, Beethoven and Hadyn can also be found. These I all find a little dull and ugly. The ones I love are the freeze frames of hunting parties: men in big caps holding muskets on horses with fierce hounds snapping and leaping on their quarry. Now, the place is inhabited by rabbits which, when you stand still, will soon emerge from the underbrush and venture onto the open grass to nibble at the lawn and gamble about each other. I would stand and wait for them and then slowly crouch down to get a better view. I wondered how Milla, Kalimero and Bumblebee, Red’s rabbits in the flat would fare if we took them down to Tiergarten one day and set them free.

Walking through the path, away from Charlottenburg and towards Mitte and Brandenburger Tor, I came across a little fenced off cottage. It looked that the ginger bread house that Hansel and Gretel stumble upon. I don’t know who lives there now but I imagine it was originally the abode of the gamekeeper. The rabbits graze at their own pleasure here, whether I move or not, and at the corner of the little garden amongst piles of damp leaves and compost lie to large statues of what I think are mule. They look placidly over the lawn at the rabbits and appear rather splendid despite the bird shit that is littered across their smooth rumps. Further along the path I walked and eventually came to the North East corner of the park where there is a statue of a ferocious looking lion. Turning right, or South, I arrived at an open area where there are five points laid out in a circle of either a selection of rocks or one large one. These are ‘The Rocks of the World’, one clump for each continent and each are designated – or are innately supposed to express - an emotion: love, awakening, hope, peace and forgiveness. It was the life work of the artist Wolfgang Kraker von Schwarzenfeld who brought the rocks to Berlin as a gift to the city. They are so placed that at one point each year they reflect the sun’s light into one single beam into the sky. They are beautiful and grand, and all the more so for the children that were scrambling over them leaping off the edges and running from the father, or the couples leaning against another smoking and kissing and laughing.  

Just on from here you can come to a black box, the size of a small garden shed, which is a memorial to the homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis. Peering through a window you can watch a short film on a loop, showing clips of gay couples making out: in one a mother yanks away her young son who is gazing in wonder at two women kissing; in another, two women fondle each other on a train and smile guiltily when a middle aged woman enters their train compartment, and then continue when she gives a knowing glance in return. In a third, two bearded men in a crowd ignore the scowls men behind them as they hold hands and lock lips.  

Just on from this, outside the boundaries of the park is the Holocaust memorial. 2, 711 concrete columns are laid out over an area of 204, 4000 square feet. There is no text, and no images. The idea is: what could anyone possibly say that would adequately express the horror and the shame of what happened? Too much said? Not enough? Even as it is has received criticism for being both too simple, and also for being too aesthetically designed.

As you reach the memorial it appears like just a platz of black stone, but as you enter in, the ground begins to sharply decline and suddenly what you thought were blocks at the height of a park bench, suddenly rise to become columns and you are in of what, to me, stacked coffins on their head.

It is remarkably disorientating. As Chloe Aridjis writes in her novel Book of Clouds:

‘The sloping ground made it hard to secure a foothold and very few meters I found myself grabbing onto the slabs to steady myself, although I had the feeling that at any moment they might treacherously tilt away. It was the topography of the place that threw me off balance, not the tequila from the bar, and before long everything was undulating and vertiginous and the only steady presence was the moon, whose beams washed the stones, skimmed the tops and dissolved.’

Indeed it is easy to be thrown of balance here, the place being like a maze. When I was first there, there was a large group of Spanish school children who were making use of it as just that, running and shouting, and shrieking when they turned a corner and found me silently facing them. I tried not to be annoyed at them and their insensitivity, telling myself that it wasn’t really insensitivity. Just because people aren’t quite at a memorial doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be saddened and horrified when forced to look the subject of the memorial in the face. Or that some of them wouldn’t be heroes in resisting such a thing happening, or will be heroes in resisting something like it in the future. And there is nothing to say that those who sit quiet and think about it get it more than the rest of us, or think about it more, or care more. Or indeed, that they aren’t capable of perpetrating such atrocities themselves, and may well do so in the future. And anyway, how can any of us, even the most informed and the most thoughtful, really comprehend what happened, and why it happened, and how the people there then felt? And so we return to the idea behind the decision not to have images or text.

The architect Peter Eisenman apparently said that he would be happy for people to graffiti on the memorial, perhaps the idea of the East Side Gallery now, where next to the political art berating walls, and exposing a shared humanity, are the scrawled messages such as ‘I love Justin Bieber.’ What matters that we are here, in Berlin, together, having a good time. What matters that we can run and scream and play, and, express our love for Justin Bieber.

Alas, the beginning of my shift was fast approaching, and so I made my way back to Charlottenburg and Zoo Station. I was thankful to see that I wouldn’t be working with Johnny that evening. Instead I was to work with an Australian called Merle. He seemed to lack any sense of humour and was of inexact age. To me he could have been anything between 25 and 40. In any case he looked too morose to be and Ozzie exploring Europe and paying his way by working in pubs. This was in fact the second Irish Pub he had worked in Berlin, the first being the one in Hackascher Martkt which was owned by the same people who owned ours. He told me that he had been fired from that pub for taking time of work to see his father who had come to visit.

‘Bastard. Horrible man,’ he kept saying, referring to the manager there. ‘I told him I was going to take the time off. I told him months in advance. And then when I returned from dropping my father of at Tegel Airport he told me I was four weeks late for my shift and no longer had a job. Just horrible. He hated me from the start. Just horrible.’

If nothing else, Merle was a good worker. He threw himself into the work joylessly but with an expertise that I envied. I found that evening that no matter how much time we spent pouring over the till trying to find the right button for a ‘Shamrock’, I made considerably less mistakes with him next to me and found myself enjoying myself more there than I had yet. My pints came out calmer, I calculated the change quicker, and all in all had to ask less questions. In short, I remembered that I actually quite enjoyed working behind the bar.

I worked until one that evening but as it is a weekend the trains are running all night so I head straight to Zoo Station. Despite the long distance I had to travel the S7 would take me all the way back to Mehrower Allee. However that evening the S7 wasn’t on the board when I arrived at the platform so I jumped on the first S75 which should have at least taken me to Springfuhl, a few stops before Mehrower Allee. 

Like a lot of people I think, I liked train stations. I always found the underground system of a foreign city exciting to use, comparing the colours, and the sounds, and the speeds. The names are always quite exciting, and they were nonetheless so in Berlin where I found half of them impossible to pronounce. At this stage into my time in Berlin, the U and S-Bahn hadn’t yet lost their wonder. Almost as fun visiting to new stations, was getting to know old ones better. I think that however long I stay in Berlin, and wherever I end up living, a part of me will always think of Görlitzer Bahnhof as my home station, purely because it was the station outside my first hostel. Though Görli is pretty grotty as stations go, I will always prefer it to Kotti. Görlitzer has some daredevil charm in its shabbiness and the queer types that gather under its haunches. Kotti is merely grotty and seedy and like Zoo Stations packed with gaudy fast food joints and building works. Schlesisches Tor, in my mind, comes with the other two, and is certainly the most beautiful. Dirty, of course, as everything seems to be in Berlin, but the stone is ornate, and infused with the shadows of grander times. The station looks as if it was built in a time when train stations were still commonly something to get excited about. From the outside, if you couldn’t see the tracks that stuck out from it above street level, you might think it was an old parish town hall. Hollow on the inside of course, like the tracks were the trajectory of a bullet that had blown its brains out.

Space is everywhere in Berlin. Along from Schlesisches Tor, over the Spree and out of Kreuzberg into Friedrichshain you come to Warschauer Straße where U1 meets the S-Bahn. As well as there being a busy hub for commuters in the morning, it is also bustling at night. But there is space here still, despite the crowds. The tracks that spread towards Alexanderplatz on one side and the out East on the other are like a second river. On the far side of the bank are what could be seen to be the old boat houses, Suicide Circus and Urban Spree, forlorn and derelict but similarly coming alive at night as electro clubs and smoky bars. They is a large half-pipe for skaters in one of the buildings but most of them are bars. Down steps from the appropriately named Reveler Straße as if entering a separate plain, here you can pee and pick up weed there any time of the day, and no one will grant you a second look. There is a lot of space there too day and night, though at weekends there is a flea market and I imagine at other times in the year it is put to good use. Tramlines are still imbedded in the ground though I don’t know how long ago it was that they were last in use. The bridge made up of scaffolding that totters in the air and takes you down to the S-Bahn platforms hosts a couple of huts of its own, which look like the boxes that builders put up on a construction site as a make-shift office. The whole place looks like a building site frozen in its tracks, and strolling over the walkway, high above the steel river, I wonder how much space will be left when the construction is finally over.

The stations I hate are those of Sudkreuz and Ostkreuz. They are metallic and soulless, and I imagine the replacement of stations that once stood there with a charm like those in Kreuzberg, before being blown up. The two unnerve me in their eerie likeness to one another. They look like they are shiny metal things that a child has found and placed on a muddy sprawl upon which he is constructing a city. They are like space ships from the future, landing amongst, the dirty, the scruffy, the chaotic, barbarian past. There is little human about these stations.

Ostkreuz is deserted when I arrive there that evening after the Irish Pub, and all the more disconcerting for it. Even the human surroundings have been torn up at here. Piles of sand and cement and bricks. On the platforms heading East or West there is no shelter and no comfort. The screens don’t tell you when the next train will come. Hell where time isn’t offered and cannot be counted, and the sings stubbornly say only Eiche and Warschauer Straße. I look at the empty coffee stands, black screens, and signs saying ‘Wannsee Wansee Wannsee. As if a stone had just fallen into my stomach I realise that there are no more trains heading out to Marzahn and that I am stranded. I stand alone in this half built station to nowhere. It is the edges of the world where you do not stop, and it is not made to care.

With no other choice I take the train back to Ostbahnhof, thinking that at least there I would be inside. When I arrive the signs are no more optimistic. The numbers of minutes I had to wait were so large quick they look off: 19 minutes, 29 minutes ... I go to other platforms, knowing that most of them are for national trains and are no help to me. But it is cold and I want to keep moving. Escalators startle from their sleep and take me slowly upwards to nothing … even colder here, no blackness; an emptying out of letters and numbers, of thinking technology and life. Empty, bright , blue screens offer nothing. Nichts. There are no trains to take me home. Nothing tells me why there are no trains, and there is no one to ask. Although, I think, I probably wouldn’t be able to understand the answer even if there was someone. Over this side of the tracks it is eerie, and I scuttle back and down and up the other side, knowing there is no hope and little comfort. Stopping and starting, pulling and pushing the sluggish trains make their way about the square circle, leaving a cold, trail for the next to track, carrying more individuals sheltering all but me from the city at night.

I end up getting on to a train back to Alexandeplatz, in the direction I previously came from. I   hope to find a tram but there are no going in my direction until 7 in the morning. I decide I will go and ride the Ring and write. I go up to Schonhauser Allee. And take the train. It is almost empty. On the Ring I find that I have no pen. I fall back on the seat and sleep next to my bag. I wake up somewhere around Halensee with a man sitting on the seat opposite me, smiling guilty. I straighten myself, grab my bag and he gets up and retreats to the other end of the carriage. I rode the Ring twice then got a train from Schonhauser Allee back down to Alex.

It was dawn when I arrived there. There are others there already making their way to work, and other from dancing still drinking. Then there are vagrants, people with suitcases leaving, people with suitcases arriving. A mist had descended over the city and on Alexanderplatz looking up I could see only one third of the great tower, the rest disappearing into the fog. It appeared all the more grander, and all the more foreboding with only its stub visible. I tried to imagine that I had just arrived that morning in the city and knew nothing of Alexanderplatz and the Fernseturm and would up at the tower disappearing into the clouds and wonder how high it rose, and what else was lurking, hidden in the mist about me. What other ghosts were lying unseen in the gaps of the city?

Bertie Digby Alexander
Berlin 2014

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