One of the people I love most in the world: It's so great you're in Berlin again! You must be so excited!

Me: I know, it really is great....yeah....

That-person: So what have you been doing so far? I bet you've had an amazing time!

Me: Um.....well mainly to be honest, so far, I've been sitting on the balcony a lot. With the cat. Reading, you know? And then...well I joined the library in Steglitz. I've got a lot of books. yes! I've been out on my bike quite a lot, along the canal.

The-one-of-the-people-I-love-most: Oh. (Pause). Well! That's nice! Sometimes it's good to be boring.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The most boring Bezirk in Berlin? A homage to Zehlendorf

It's Christmas, and I'm leaving Berlin again. I've said goodbye to Berlin so often that it's become comical; everyone knows that I will never really leave, and never really stay. But it's taken me much longer to realise the truth of it. This city has been my home for longer than anywhere else in the world. And like every home, there are corners of it that are particularly home, that you don't realise have made you what you are until you start to leave them. Zehlendorf is one of those corners.

I've always lived in and out of Zehlendorf, passed through it (in the old days, as fast as possible) on the way from the city to Kleinmachnow, when I lived there, or from Kleinmachnow to the city, on the way to school or university or to the breathtaking, almost unbearable excitement of a night out. I'd hurry from bus to S-Bahn or from S-Bahn to bus, anxious to get through this most boring of Bezirke as soon as possible on my way to somewhere real, as I felt it to be then, like, say, Neukoelln or Zoo. Yet then something changed. No, I changed. Perhaps I became more real myself, and began to notice other realities more as a result. And through all the changes, through all the excitement, the many moves and dislocations I've undergone in this and other cities, Zehlendorf has always been there, in its particular reality, reliably, almost unchangingly (changing less, perhaps, than it ought to have done); one might say, boringly.

And plenty of people would say just that. Zehlendorf, for many Berliners, is possibly the most boring Bezirk in the whole city. Although technically speaking, Zehlendorf is no longer a Bezirk in its own right. In a municipal shake-up in 2001, as Wikipedia notes with a resigned sigh on its page called "Berlin Administrative Districts" (a subject so tortuously, incomprehensibly dull as to make even Wikipedia blanch), it ceased to be a Bezirk and was downgraded to an "Ortsteil"; a place for which Wiki can find no other definition than "a place that has its own identity".

Well, thank you Wiki, it certainly has. But not the one you might think. Zehlendorf's reputation for staid, respectable wealth and snobbishness is only one part of the story. Its joys are manifold, likewise its mediocrities, its absurdities and its irritations. And you don't have to be a cool kid from Neukoelln or a punk from Friedrichshain to find parts of it alienating - Wannsee for example,  where vast villas with never a soul to be seen blankly shine their dead eyes towards the lake, huge cars purr their way through empty roads and yachts sail across the blue bay while unfathomable money talks its way into and out of everything. But here in Zehlendorf proper, we are not like that. 

In Zehlendorf proper, that is, the small town centre of Zehlendorf from where the S-Bahn has been taking me into the city or out to the lakes and the forests for over 25 years now, we are a mixed bunch. We like the certainties of our little town, the Turkish greengrocers at the bottom of the S-Bahn steps endlessly chanting the sweetness of their mangos or in winter, of their clementines (Suess suess suess, mango mango mango!) and exchanging "Guten Tag"s with the young families on their way to school, while inside, the women dole out hummus or tsatsiki or figs and you pay for your vegetables amidst piles of pumpkins and crates of cauliflowers. We like going to Butter Lindner where on a Saturday you stand forever in the queue while middle-aged, well-dressed Germans lurk shiftily, trying to steal a march while you're not looking and get their bread rolls, croissants and Stollen before you do, while their womenfolk in upmarket furs or down at heel padded jackets wait to be served by young, glittering, disillusioned waiters with sliced veal, caviar or Italian ham. The cheaper bakeries up the street where elderly men stand alone at red linoleum tables drinking coffee and frowning at their cheap newspapers, and contractors, staring off into the middle distance with fatigue, munch on sausage and Schrippen. The Tchibo where middle-aged couples sit at the bar for hours chatting over that epitome of the German shopping experience, Tchibo coffee, or wandering the shop in search of reduced leisurewear or Christmas candle-holders. 

Butter Lindner at Christmas.
The accordeon man with the bad teeth and cloth cap who is there summer and winter outside the now closed Commerzbank, endlessly smiling, in all weathers, forever playing the same tune. The respectable mid-range clothes shops with their anxious lady shop assistants, unsure whether their customers are rich or poor (it can be hard to tell in Zehlendorf, where respectability demands that one makes an effort, no matter what one's circumstances), alongside the little independent bookseller-cum-chocolatier with its delicately assorted books and every imaginable kind of chocolate, always full of enthusiastic Zehlendorfers (mostly women in the bookshop, more men in the chocolate shop). We even like the strange designer, organic clothing shops where the sales lady eyes you suspiciously as you stare in the window, trying to work out why the skirt on display costs 300 euros. (There is a reason. As the shop-owners know, the need to be thrifty wages perpetual war with the need to display one' s well-to-do-ness in the hearts of elderly Zehlendorf women, determinedly donning their smart heeled shoes even though they know they will need a Zimmer frame to get on the bus, while in their conversations, they cunningly vie for the moral high ground while shamelessly stepping in front of any young people who might have the audacity to be before them in a queue.)

Looking up Zehlendorf high street
All these things I will miss, more than I could have thought possible 25 years ago when I first learned to stand patiently, or not so patiently, outside the Volksbank waiting for a 101 bus. (The 101 does not go to Kleinmachnow, where I first lived, so I always had to get off it at the crossroads and walk another half hour home, but it is a proper Berlin bus, run by the BVG, so I feel able to lay claim to it; it is and has always been my bus.) Back then I never noticed the other passengers; in the obscuring fug of my twenty-something self-absorption, those people didn't even exist.

Now things are different. I am older, of course, perhaps myself on the way to becoming one of those stalwart elderly women whose beliefs, political passions, habits, manners (or lack of them) are as certain and reliable as the S-Bahn; more so, actually. I have learned to cherish the fact that I see the same people most days; that the shops and their owners make an effort to invite you in, to be pleasant; that as soon as one o'clock strikes, the streets flood with over-excited school-children gossiping, shouting, teasing, eating, dreaming and drifting their way home. I like the fact that people of all ages stop to chat on the high street, exchanging political views or family news. I like the way that there are little cafes full of people who know each other, and that there are music groups, reading groups, a library that is busy every day, but also a kebab shop, a Lidl, bicycle shops and shoe-mending shops.  I like it being boring, because it is not; because there are pockets of interest wherever you look, in people's everyday lives, people who are not absorbed, as I was, just in themselves, but in the life all around them. But now we are leaving. 

We are going to Mitte for two months; a temporary flat before we leave Berlin for a while to go back to the UK. I am scared, but excited too. What will it mean, being at home in the centre of town? Well... I suddenly realise it. One thing won't change. We'll be on another border. Here, we' re five minutes from where the Wall once cut Berlin off from Teltow, Potsdam, Kleinmachnow itself; where the 101 came, and still comes, to its end, unable to go further; we live with the trees, the canal, overgrown paths, secret places where those who slipped through were forever suspicious, and only staying in one place could keep you, theoretically, safe. But now we will be at that place where Berlin was cut off from itself. On Bernauer Strasse, where the front door of your house marked the border; where the Wall ran down the middle of the street, where tunnels criss-crossed the earth, where Conrad Schumann jumped to the West over the barbed wire, where people died as they tried to escape across the death strip and families saw each other reflected in warped mirrors, one street to another, one world to another a minute apart. It's not boring. It's dislocating, disturbing, at the edge of what one can imagine and yet one has to try to imagine it, and beyond it all Berlin's skyline drifts into transcendence, into the vagueness of all cities at dusk, and there won't be elderly women to annoy and comfort me as I make my way along the streets, because they've been mostly forced out by the young tourists, the start-ups and the investors who've been buying up and colonising the area. But that's a whole other story. For now it's enough to bid farewell to Zehlendorf, knowing that inevitably, one day sooner or later, I will be back. Thank you for being boring.

Life, compacted

Saturday, 14 October 2017

We live in different cities

I am cycling home on a windy autumn night, leaves blowing across my path, seen patchily and scrappily in occasional lamplight that seems to thread through the branches like the wind itself. I am carried in and out of darkness, and now as it gets later there nothing and no-one on the roads but me. The wind rustles and groans in the trees around me, but otherwise it is silent except for the regular revolve of the bike chain and the squeak of the pedals.
                I am approaching the border. Just to my right was once forbidden territory, East Germany running alongside West Berlin. The last houses veer off to my left, their lights extinguished. I am thinking of home, not far now, a freewheel through a few more streets at the edge of Berlin, then warmth and light and bed.
                Suddenly, a hundred yards ahead of me, where the road turns to cobbles and horses sleep in their stalls in the dark, a wild boar gallops across the road. Silently, out of the shadows, through the yellow light of a streetlamp, hedged round with darkness, and into the shadows again. Its silhouette is a single furious mass of direction and speed as it swerves across the street, and I can't see the gleam of its eye, just the shape of its tusks, its heavy head, its short, fast legs, the intensity of its whole body leaning into its speed as it runs alone into the woods and is gone, gone into a blackness that I nearly cycled into a few minutes before, before a sense of danger told me to go the other way.
                I have stopped short, waiting, holding my breath. Now I let my bike roll on down the incline of the road, at first slowly, then I speed it up. I pass the entrance to the boar's territory to my right, looking into the dark to try to see it, but I don't slow down in case it comes back. The thought of the boar stays with me, that night and the next day and the days thereafter, the image of its desperate shape, hurtling into the night as I waited motionless on the dark road. Each of us alone, and separate, and scared, but also intent on home, going somewhere the other had no idea of.
                A few days later, I am chatting to someone, quite casually, and as we talk, I realise that she knows things I don't know about this city. She was talking about a bus trip she'd taken to get to somewhere or other, a totally unimportant conversation, but I realised I'd never taken that bus to get to that particular place. "And then we went past..." My friend named a theatre I'd never heard of, a shop I'd never seen. And I realised that we live in completely different cities. Not metaphorically, but actually. Her city is different to mine, although there are points where they intersect, names they share, buses that go through both of them. So, I thought, does that mean there are three and a half million different Berlins, not just the one? And I thought of how no-one, not one single person in Berlin was there when the wild boar ran past. No-one saw it but me.
                We live in different cities, millions of us living alongside each other, each of us alone. But from one city, you could find a way into another, perhaps. Unless something stops you. A wall built by people who think that everyone lives in fixed, determined groups, in a single city bounded by unchanging beliefs, that one person, one group, cannot possibly cross into the city of another. Or belief itself; a belief that colour, race, politics somehow puts certain people on one side of this wall, while certain people are on the other. But everyone around you, everyone you think is sharing your city, is in fact in a city of their own, intent on a home no-one else can see, no-one else can even know; intent on a journey through streets, voices, conversations, loves and hates, that they alone can inhabit.
It's not lonely. It's a gift. My world is not the only world. There are millions more, just beyond my thinking, just out there in the dark.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Chapel of Light aka, When Not to Take Pictures

Hidden away like a precious secret, or a memory, at the centre of Berlin, there is a small, quiet space, surrounded and protected by tall dark trees within a tall grey wall. You can only find it by making your way through a tangle of tramlines, empty spaces where buildings once stood, tourist cafes, U-Bahns and roads busy with lorries going in and out of the Charité hospital. But the Dorotheenstadt cemetery on Chausseestrasse is a bit like the Tardis – once you go in, it feels bigger than it did from the outside, and you start to forget that the outside is even there. I felt I could easily stay there til dusk, content to fall asleep next to the calm gravestones and sheltering trees.

Although I had never even heard of it until this year, it's a famous place, a place suffused with Berlin memories and histories. Stories about Berlin suddenly become less abstract, more human, as I see the names of the people buried here: Bertoldt Brecht, Helene Weigel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Berlin's architects Schinkel and Stüler, Johann Borsig (one of Berlin´s first industrialists, the factories named after him are still going); the writers Anna Seghers and Christa Wolf, the GDR dramatist Heiner Müller, Sven Lehmann of "Herr Lehmann" fame (actor and poet late of Kreuzberg, dead at 42), Gisele May (actress of Berlin renown, dead at 90-odd after a last stint on the Ku'damm); poets and actors, architects and politicians, philosophers and men of industry (not to mention the man who invented the pillars you put adverts on in Germany, Mr. Litfass). Their Berlin bones all lie here and speak to us of Berlin itself. Brecht and Helene Weigel lived next door when they returned to Germany; Johann Borsig worked here a century earlier in a huge grey house that survived the bombs and still bears his name above the pompous, larger than life statue that decorates the façade. People bring flowers (or cigars, or whisky, or photographs of Ibiza) and leave them for their heroes or heroines.

 But it is surprisingly quiet. When I went there first, on my own, a couple of months back, there was hardly anyone about. The noise of the city seemed to suddenly dim as I made my way through the gates and up the sandy paths towards the little cafe. A large black cat with stripy paws like monochrome socks was licking its paws casually in the middle of the path. A Berlin-chic, middle-aged couple with leather jackets and bleached hair argued quietly over coffee before continuing their argument amongst the gravestones, but they turned out to be the people who look after the graves (obviously even the volunteers are glamorous). Some Japanese tourists with black umbrellas clutched coffee as they stood uncertainly by some of the more imposing graves.  All these people, and the cat, kept disappearing and reappearing out of the little paths as I wandered slowly from place to place absorbing the strangeness and quiet of it all, as if the cemetery liked to keep its visitors to itself; they seemed a long way away. It felt as though a thirst I didn't know I had was being slaked; a thirst for stillness, continuity, a sense of the past, a sense that people's bodies are still connected to the earth and the trees, even in this most disconnected of cities.
Gravestone of the poet Becher

Two ladies buried together...

But there's also an oddly futuristic element to it. Again like the Tardis, the strange simultaneity of history is conspicuous, bringing you smack bang up against the odd nature of past and future everywhere. Towards the back of the cemetery is a wall commemorating the family of the Austrian Ambassador in the nineteenth century; he and his wife are buried there with their five French-sounding daughters, who all predeceased them in the space of months. Yet, the wall is also marked with the scars of shells fired in the last days of the Second World War. Just along the way, a delicate pillar marks Schinkel´s tomb, surprisingly modest, recalling for us an elegant, enlightened Berlin. But his life overlapped with the industrial revolution right here on this street. Johann Borsig, buried a few yards away, built one of Berlin's first factories on the corner of Chausseestrasse itself, shortly before Schinkel's death, and evidently enjoyed bombast; in a disconcerting homage to Schinkel, Borsig's tomb is designed like a miniature opera house, complete with a miniature copy of Schinkel's design for The Magic Flute decorating the interior of its dome. It also has a touchingly large stone plate commemorating his wife: a Prussian, not overly elegant matron in stone, surrounded by cherubs.
Schinkel's tomb (front)

Borsig's tomb and the memorial plate to his wife; Stuler's grave beyond, left
Borsig-Haus, Chausseestrasse

But as you enter the cemetery, one thing stands out oddly, a bright white plain building that at first glance appears to have no particular relation to the rest of the graveyard. This is the chapel, where we came on a Friday night to see James Turrell´s light installation, something I´d heard about but never seen.
            James Turrell is a Canadian artist who specialises in light. Light for him is a revelation of many mysteries and he designed the installation for Berlin some years ago. Every evening, the light in the chapel gradually changes, bathing the building, and its visitors, in different combinations of colour and shadow. Around 50 of us had gathered on the plain wooden benches inside as it got darker outside. One of the guides introduced us to what was going to happen. It was impossible to see where the light changes were coming from, but gradually, we became aware of how the white altar now looked blue, or turquoise, or grey. And as the light changed, our brains changed their perceptions too. Our brain creates colour in response to other colours; if our eyes are exposed in a particular way to blue, for example, we will see other things as orange even if they “are not actually” orange. Orange is the complement to blue as green is to red.  And so gradually we became immersed in a pool of light where we also were actors, creating the colours around us that in turn influence our own emotions and mood.

Our guide asked us, at the artist's request, not to take photos, although it is not forbidden. She didn't say why, but this is my guess. Photographs act by capturing light, pinning it down. And they also try to pin down a moment of time: this is exactly what this looked like when...But the installation questions our perceptions, not only of light but of time; light is what informs our perception of time. The cemetery questions our perception of time too, and the chapel had its own Tardis-like aspect; as the light changed, it seemed sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller than it had from the outside. This can't be seen on a picture, but something of the beauty of the colours can be felt. Maybe.
Over the next few days, as we visited gardens, lakes and buildings, I wondered what pictures I was creating in my brain and how one thing I saw was influencing all the others things I was seeing. Like in Milan, where after I'd seen hundreds of Renaissance paintings, I started seeing the people around me as if an artist had grouped them with a profound intent. Their meaning began to shine out differently; time seemed to slow down as I looked at them. 
            And here are some pictures after all –  not ones I took, but postcards that the cemetery administration has produced in order for people like me to find a compromise and tell other people to come and see the installation for themselves. So you see, I can't resist a good picture either. Even though my pictures of pictures are only the tiniest reflection of what the experience was like...