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 …

Duty Free Dreaming and Departure Lounges; the final leg of the long haul flight

Airplane travel is nature’s way of making you look like your passport photo.

Al Gore

Another stop, Dubai now, for what was meant to be an hour and a half but I have a sneaking suspicion it has been, and will be, longer than that.

I’m in another departure lounge. I don’t quite understand the use of the word lounge in this context. “Lounge” conjures up all sorts of images, none of which are even remotely like the thing I am sitting in.  It is not that this departure “lounge” is any worse than others I have been trapped in. They’re all pretty much the same. Cheap, heavy-duty carpet with mind-blogging patterns. Vinyl bench seats in a colour scheme which clashes beautifully with the mind-boggling carpet. Big, empty white walls. Big, nasty fluro lights. That constant beep-beep, beep-beep as they recheck boarding passes and passports.

This particular departure lounge is spinning. It could be the carpet. Or the lights. Or the fact I haven’t slept in 24 hours. Probably some sort of combination of the three. The carpets makes 3D shapes which jump into my face whenever I look down.

I should stop looking down.

I feel disgusting but at least I smell nice.

Upon passing through security I was greeted by the bright lights and empty promises of the Duty Free stores. The United Arab Emirates Dirham makes everything look expensive. The US Dollar makes everything look affordable. I wasn’t fooled; Australian Dollars will get you nowhere. So I browsed and attempted to keep that nonchalant I-could-afford-it-if-I-wanted-it expression plastered on my face. I tried to not look guilty every time I passed a security guard. Not that I had anything to feel guilty about – except, possibly, the fact that there was no way in the world I was actually going to buy anything or shoplift anything for that matter. That feeling of guilt for not actually doing anything wrong always happens when I have to show my bag to the security guy at the door of the store or when I walk past a cop … It’s just a thing I think.

Anyway, I tried on some Chanel perfume because Keira Knightley strikes me as a really lovely person and someone I think I could be great friends with one day. (OK, OK, I know – I just completely sucked in to celebrity branding. Gross.) I put on the perfume with my nonchalant expression.

The girl with the nonchalant expression decided she didn’t want the perfume.

The girl within the girl with the nonchalant expression really, really did want it …

But you can’t just buy something so extravagant before your adventure / international experience / holiday even begins, can you? Plus, you know, I am going to Paris so there’s that. Yeah.  Paris.

Meanwhile, back in the departure lounge …

A man in a fluro vest (so he must be official and know what is going on) just made everyone seated in rows 1 to 21 stand, expectantly, to board the bus which will take us to the plane (finally).

So I stood. And waited.

He was wrong.

Despite the fluro vest.

Everyone in seated rows 1 to 21 could sit down again.

Most of them didn’t want to.

I can understand that.

What I don’t understand is why this part of the airport even exists. We got off the plane. Went through security. I wandered around the Duty Free stores. I tried on expensive perfume. Then I had to show my boarding pass, again, and passport, again, and wait in this thing they call a lounge which is more like a holding pen. Or the setting for some bizarre psychology experiment. Stand up. Sit down. Beep-beep. There are no bathrooms here. No water. Not even enough places to sit. Just crazy carpet. And vinyl seats.

And a lonely girl wearing Chanel perfume she cannot really afford.

Roll on Heathrow …

Fluro lights of the departure lounge

On board; grumblings from a long haul flight

There are only two emotions in a plane:  boredom and terror.

Orson Welles

The girl who sat next to me on the plane to Dubai had the sulky look of a moody teenager. She compared university timetables with her friend (who was less sulky and not sitting next to me), listed off all the airlines she’d flown with (there are a lot of airlines) and responded negatively to the blessing of the plane (I am sitting in an aluminium tube, 40,000 feet in the air – I appreciate the blessing. Thank you).

I did not like her.

I don’t like to make snap decisions about people. I like to take my time before coming to a like / dislike / indifferent conclusion about a fellow human being. Well. Mostly. There have been, of course, some snap decisions about people have lead to things I have regretted: dating a psychopath, buying a John Mayer album … I have learnt from the errors of making a snap judgement. Like writing an essay, you need to find the evidence to support your argument. So I tried, I really tried, not to dislike the girl next to me on the long-haul flight.

But then …

She used the common arm-rest like it was her own.

I took a deep breath.

That’s cool. I mean it is that weird territory, a grey area, isn’t it? I don’t really know what the rules are on that one. All I know is that I have been wedged between two strangers on a flight where neither wanted to give up the shared arm-rest. I never want anyone to experience that. So, I always try to be accommodating to the person in the middle seat; the worst seat on the plane. The girl next to me, however, had commandeered both arm-rests whilst I was shoved up against the window. Suddenly the worst seat on the plane looked far more appealing than the overrated window seat.

She had drawn up some inequitable borders and proceeded to invade my territory with her elbow. She leant into my seat. She put her foot up on the gap between the two seats in front. She spread her legs wider than a cowboy, her knee hovering over my legs. She dusted her peanut crumbs over me. Peanut. Crumbs.

It was difficult to find evidence to support an argument for feeling indifferent about this person.

But maybe that’s to be expected when you’re squashed into economy on a long haul flight.

The girl next to me spoke loudly. Everything she said sounded like it was the Most Important And Intelligent Thing Ever Said. Until you actually listened to the words spewing from her mouth. The girl next to me explained:

  • the problem she faced in having skinny legs but a belly that bulged,
  • how she would scream whenever she heard thunder and lightning (and I wondered, but did not ask, how she heard lightning), and
  • that she was studying psychology (really?) but might do some Vet Science subjects because she really loves animals and surely “a vet must get paid more than a doctor cos they have to know about more than one species”.

Yep.

It was a long flight.

A very, very long flight …

In transit; ramblings from Brunei Airport

It’s no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase “As pretty as an airport” appear

Douglas Adams

In the bathroom at Brunei airport the taps were running. I don’t know why. I turned them off. Habit, I suppose. I still don’t know if I was meant to or not. Airports can be confusing places; particularly the bathrooms.

I found the only functioning bathroom in Brunei airport. Due to renovations. I waited at the end of a queue for the western toilet, whilst the squat toilets mocked me; their doors open, empty, ready and waiting. I felt like an idiot. I wish I could have whipped off my tights and straddled the hole in the ground. But, like an arrogant westerner, I waited and tried, desperately, not to look concerned at the water and paper that flooded the floor or the massive hole in the ceiling.

I washed my hands and looked for something to dry them on. A lovely woman understood the international sign for I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-my-wet-hands and handed me a roll of toilet paper. We smiled. I said thanks and wished I’d taken the time to learn some other thank-yous before embarking on this trip: danke, merci, grazie … I hadn’t even thought about the thank yous I would need in transit. I stood amongst women I couldn’t understand and plaited my hair as they adjusted their headscarves. I felt ashamed of my plait. I applied some moisturiser whilst they did the same. When most of them had left I turned off the taps. I snapped a picture. To remember.

I was confined to Brunei’s damp and humid airport for about two hours. There wasn’t much happening. Due to renovations. There was one little shop selling souvenirs, lollies and water (it only accepted Brunei dollars) and a foreign cash exchange window (clever). 

I really wished that I had learnt more about the place of my two-closer-to-three-hour transit.

As the plane descended into Brunei I pressed my face against the window to get a better look at the landscape. It was beautiful. Green and lush. Mountains and valleys covered in trees upon trees. They all looked like they were pushing each other out of the way; jostling for the best spot or standing on each other’s shoulders like a crowd in a mosh-pit.

Low clouds covered the valley, slowly rolling by … no, no – not rolling – they were really too wispy to be rolling. The clouds reminded me of that stuff Mum and Nan would call “angel’s hair” and spread over the artificial branches of our artificial Christmas tree to create an artificial winter wonderland in the midst of Perth’s very hot summer. The trees here were greener than any of our fake Christmas trees.

The trees thinned out to make way for little pockets of little houses and little driveways that lead up to little doors. The trees fight for space, gathered together in mournful gangs here and there until there are more houses than trees. Still, it is nothing like the roofs and roofs and roofs that cover the aerial view of Melbourne. The roofs as we come into land at Brunei are blue and red and yellow and orange.

There are some spots where the houses look exactly the same; like someone had gone crazy with the copy + paste function – identical blue roofs all in a neat little row, identical triangular houses built around a cleared rectangle. Suddenly one massive house interrupts the pattern – a manor house with a red roof and manicured lawn.

Next time I’d like to leave the musty airport and feel the damp air and humidity against my face and, maybe, meet the people who live in those identical houses. I wonder if those identical houses are part of a new development, an estate, something the people here have been given as some sort of dream they feel they have to aspire to. I hope it never becomes the roof rather than the tree jostling for the best spot.

I want to learn more about Brunei.

I want to know when to join a queue.

I want to know more about clouds.

But, I am in transit …