This is the Place (part two); I Heart Berlin (OK?)

BERLIN WALL

I am not cool. It has not and will not ever be a word I could associate with myself. I mean, it is a dumb word anyway, when you think about it … Cool. And we say it far too often. Regardless. Cool is cool and I am not that. Berlin, on the other hand, is the epitome of cool. At least, it seemed that way to me which is why I had assumed we just wouldn’t, you know, hit it off …

I had no intention of making Berlin The Place. New York, yes. Paris, obviously. But Berlin?

I was wrong.

Berlin is cool. And that’s OK. The thing is, you don’t have to be cool. And that’s OK. In Berlin, everything is kind of cool. So, by default, you are cool … OK?

On my first night in Berlin I dreamt of an old man selling fruit. I say dreamt but he was standing right beside me. He didn’t know I was there.

There are ghosts all over this city.

The ghosts and the people live side by side.

From my little apartment I can hear them all. It’s a noisy street. Traditional Turkish music mixes with the chimes of church bells. Apartment buzzers buzz. High heels click on cobblestone. Talking. Laughter. Clinking of beer bottles. Kids throwing tantrums (which sound the same in every language).  Cars parallel parking. Double parking. Sirens (which sound different in every language).

On my street, like many other streets in Berlin, are kindergärtens. I see dads and mums dropping their kinder off in the morning. They don’t just drop and run. They ride in together. Walk in together. Converse together. Together.

On my street, like many other streets in Berlin, are informal gatherings at little tables and chairs set outside little shops. They drink and smoke and chat with the shop-owner, who keeps half an eye on the store.

On my street, like many other streets in Berlin, people tumble out of clubs at all hours. No one minds.

On my street, like many other streets in Berlin, is a stolperstein. A stumbling block. A brass plate set in the cobblestone to commemorate a victim of the holocaust. On my street is Johann “Rukeli” Trollman. On another are the families Adler and Heilfron. On another is Max Bayer

Here they remember.

Here is the Berlin Wall.

And the Brandenburg Gate. And The Fernsehturm. And Karl-Marx-Allee. And Alexanderplatz, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg, Mitte …

Here is green space and parks and the river Spree and people using them. Here are big people, small people, overweight people, thin people, all people riding bikes. Everyone. Everywhere.

Here is the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn. Frequent and on time. Here is public transport where the most difficult thing to deal with is pronunciation.

Here are galleries and museums and galleries and museums. And architecture. And street art, street art, street art. Here are bullet holes in the walls. 

Here is me feeling like me in a place where I don’t speak the language. All I can say is Sprechen Sie Englisch and Nein and Ja and Schwarzer Kaffee and Hallo (which is German for hello) and Ciao (which is Italian and Berlin for goodbye). I know that zahnfleischschutz is toothpaste but I have no idea how to say it.

Here I pack my own groceries into my own bag. Here nothing is open on Sunday. Here I leave my empty bottles outside the bin so those who collect them for cash don’t have to rummage through the rubbish to find them. Here I lie to the gypsies who ask me if I “speak English?” and feel terrible about it.

Here I meet writers and artists and people not from here. Here I sit with writers from Egypt and Italy and Munich and Hong Kong and the UK and USA. Here we sit amongst the tumbling bookshelves, the rising damp, the lamplight in the basement of the bookstore. We talk about writing. We write. We watch films. We drink. We listen to stories about the East and the West. And the Wall. My tutor smokes, inside, amongst the paperbacks and I try not to plan my evacuation route. They make me realise, without doing anything in particular, how big the world is …

Here I try to eat my lunch but instead get told off by two old East Berliners for not following the rules: You Can’t Eat Here. I smile. They do not.

Here at the train station a man I do not know carries my suitcase down three flights of stairs. He doesn’t speak a word. He just does it like it is the most natural, expected thing in the world. It’s OK. Here the junkie at the top of the stairs offers to carry my bag back up. He offers like it is the most natural, expected thing in the world. His arms are skinnier than mine. I decline but say Danke because that is another German word I know. He smiles. It’s OK. 

Here are thunderstorms in the late afternoon and warm evenings and bright mornings.

Here is The Place.

Now that I am back here, which is away from there, I am the ghost – wandering the streets of Berlin in my dreams. I stand next to an old man selling fruit. He still doesn’t know I’m there.

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This is The Place (part one); I Heart London (I think)

LONDON

I have this problem. Anytime I visit anywhere I decide that is where I am going to live. This is The Place. And I know, I know, I know … It’s a warped, unrealistic, romanticised view of a place – just like Sandy meeting the wonderful Danny in the summer holidays only to then meet the jerk Danny in Rydell High. Of  course the place you visit is better than the place you live; you don’t have to go to work, it’s exciting, it’s different, you have actually budgeted money for shopping and eating out. And, in this case,  it was summer. I know it was a rare summer for them. The best summer they’d had in a long time. But still, like Sandy’s hopeless devotion … I wanted to move to the UK.

I spent time walking through old houses and palaces. I touched doorways and walls because, underneath all those other touches, somewhere, is a fingerprint belonging to Winston Churchill or the Duchess of this or the Earl of that. I spent time inhaling musty air and wondered; did it always smell like this?

I spent time admiring flowers. And flowers. And flowers. And bumblebees on flowers.

I squinted into the sad, pretend eyes of taxidermied animals in private collections of Lord this or that who liked to stuff what he had killed. As a keepsake. Of course. I glanced at collections of exotic butterflies; beautiful wings under glass, pinned through the heart or where I assumed their heart would be; I didn’t listen as much as I should have during biology.

I learnt about titles and inheritance.

I learnt about Gypsies and Travellers.

Esperance me console. 

I spent time in Essex and Southend-On-Sea and Kent and loved it, even though I don’t think I’m meant to admit it.

I spent time in London and loved it, even though I think that’s expected.

I learnt to accept the blisters on blisters and grimaced through poor choices in footwear. I limped over cobblestone and ran through crowds of tourists to make meetings I regretted arranging until I was actually there. I kept my cool when lost on South Bank (only I could have trouble locating the city’s largest theatre). I had meetings and cups of coffee / tea / water / nothing, thanks, I’m fine, in foyers / out the back / coffee shops just across the road. I nodded and smiled and gradually got better at describing the kind of work you do and what are you working on now and what makes your work unique and feel free to send us some of your work. But I could not think of anything to say when they asked why don’t you just move here?

I stared at police with machine guns instead of the landmarks they were guarding. No one else seemed to notice. Some tourist got photos. Others asked for directions. These guys are far more accommodating than the Grenadier Guardsman. Despite the machine guns.

I jumped on and off of the tube with varying degrees of success. I avoided peak hour. I enjoyed the quiet carriage. I saw a lot of theatre and visited a lot of galleries and bought a lot of second-hand books. I drank in pubs and parks and by the river but nowhere near as much as my English counterparts.

I tried really hard not to roll my eyes every time I was told I must have brought the weather with me.

I embraced the long nights and the early mornings and reminded myself this was a rare summer, everyone said this was a rare summer.

Yep, I was ready to move there even though I know that there would be less time for old houses and flowers and taxidermy, that peak hour would be more difficult to avoid and footwear would need to be more sensible and meetings would be less forthcoming and police with machine guns would not be so easy to dismiss and the quiet carriage would get noisy and summers like that are rare …

But then I went to Berlin … Now, this is The Place …

New memories in old places

My sister, Claire, and Grandad fishing at our piece of beach (circa 1987)My sister (Claire) and Grandad fishing from our piece of beach – circa 1987

We all headed to the spot we thought was the spot where, as children, we played on the beach for a week in February. It looked different but Dad worked out a path from the tree he remembered which I said I remembered but I don’t really know if I did.

The asbestos chalets and caravan sites were gone, replaced by two-storey mansions with balconies and timber decks and six-burner stainless steel barbecues and expensive cars in double-garages and signs warning people not to enter beyond this point because this is an exclusive resort for the people who can afford it.

We squinted as we tried to look through the mansions; superimposing over their imposing structures with the little green asbestos chalet we’d call home for week in February. It was hard to imagine but I desperately wanted to get it back. That’s when Dad said that tree was the tree that was once in front of the chalet we’d called home for a week in February, and that’s why I said I remembered it when maybe I didn’t …

We traced a path from the tree Dad recognised to the beach and all agreed that this was the spot; our little plot of sand and sea that was our beach for a week in February. The beach looked smaller now, the sand not as white, water not as clear. But it was the spot. We all agreed. It was too cold to swim so we stood in the water and I sang that stupid song that we made up one holiday which we all found hilarious back when we were four and five and eight and ten but now it simply made my 12-year old niece look at me with that funny eyebrow thing she does when I make a joke.

We weren’t all there, my brother had plans and one of my sisters had just had a baby, but it was still a good turn-out. We were all staying in this new two-storey holiday house which lacked both character and enough bathrooms. I wanted it to be the same as it was back then but it wasn’t; we couldn’t hear the waves as we fell asleep, there were no bunk beds, no early morning runs along the beach with Grandad, no card-games, no jelly-fish stings, no straining our ears to hear what the adults were talking about when we reluctantly went off to bed. We are older. We are adults. My sisters now have their own families to bring here or somewhere like here and make new memories.

On our last morning I went out for a run to retrace the steps we would take with Grandad on his morning jogs during these annual family holidays. He would jog, or attempt to jog, whilst we got distracted by the treasures that had washed up on the shore overnight; shells and sea jelly and cuttlebone and seaweed.

I ran to the point he would run to. It seemed a lot further out when I was eight. I walked out onto the rocks and waited for a sign. For something. A vision. A rainbow. A dolphin leaping into the sky. Even just a slightly different wave to break up the tempo a bit. I breathed in the fresh, sea air and waited … But the waves kept on in their hypnotic rhythm, the sky was clear and the dolphins weren’t playing along.

I had desperately wanted a new memory, a significant moment, to sit alongside all the memories I had of this place. I wanted something that would reinforce the importance of our time spent here all those years ago. I wanted to feel as if they hadn’t gone; my Nan, my Grandad, those childhood memories.

I ran back to the house to find my niece waiting for me. Everyone else was asleep. She was up. And dressed. And waiting.

“Want to go the beach?” I asked her.

We went back to that piece of beach which was our piece of beach. We threw our shoes off and walked on the sandbars. They still felt like they could go on forever, into the horizon. We marvelled at the flat sea and the colours of the sky. She drew her name in the sand. We collected handfuls of shells. We walked in the freezing cold water until our feet ached, and then went back for more. We talked and laughed and told stories. We watched old men walk their old dogs. We walked and walked without getting anywhere in particular. There were no dolphins or rainbows or visions but it didn’t matter; I loved that morning spent with my niece.

I couldn’t recapture the childhood memories of that place but I did get a new memory – something that will now sit alongside those older memories.

That simple morning beach walk – I hope that will become a memory for my niece and one day, in twenty years time, she revisits this place that was hers for three days in December and builds another, new memory to sit alongside it … and so it continues.