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Three Vignettes From Berlin

Illustration by Chloey Accardi

ISSUE:  Summer 2013


It seemed that every moment winter would touch its own back. The year’s last snow melted in the daytime, budded again overnight from sidewalks and car hoods, consuming into March and then into April days the deep patience of the most euphoric innkeepers, who at the first rays of better prospects populated the sidewalks with tables and chairs. Winter was so long that even Berlin’s biggest stay-​at-​homes enjoyed it when spring finally came. She didn’t come as a newborn, she hobbled like a warty old woman on a cane. She pulled a green curtain and covered with the first open buds the denuded crowns of lindens and plane trees and chestnuts, shielding the view, which all winter every so often wandered into the bedroom, kitchen, or study next door from the other side of the street. Meanwhile Berliners had accepted their fate of eternally anticipating warm evenings. Stoically they sat wrapped in blankets in the vicinity of outdoor heaters of restaurants and bars, and at least with this fairly transparent simulation attempted to deceive the North Sea and Baltic winds. When the cold fronts finally emigrated some May night, in the city an unbearable enterprising spirit began to reign. Gardeners greeted each other with a wave of the hand like boat skippers in remote waters. I immediately capitulated under the pressure of green from all sides and on the balcony planted a cypress (which soon after this would die due to the drought) and in a pot in the kitchen basil (which soon after this would succumb to starvation). Green was a miraculous head-​covering for the city, its invisible cap. After three weeks of warmer after-noons trees no longer bordered the streets and avenues, but all Berlin was plunging more and more into forest, became a shady ciudad perdida amid a regime of treetops and grasses. The buzzing of pneumatic hammers from the neighborhood streets soothed the leaves with rustling, winter’s bleak street was shattered into a myriad of light rabbits, who playfully crept through all the rarer openings of branches in the sky and staged indomitable choreographies of light around the ground and shoes of walkers. In Tiergarten Park the first naked human bodies were falling from the sky. For a short time, as long as a blink lasts, people sunbathed at fifteen degrees (59° F) in the few places in the park that have not grown trees, but it probably was a mirage. The first growth ring in the center of these tree trunks bordered a war. Berliners, in the early postwar years, were forced to clear-​cut in the heart of the city. None of the spruce, oak, beech, or their relatives in the Tiergarten had fifty years, and every year in the trunks of these trees signified another slight deviation in the direction of luxury, removing the bark of everyday life from those times, which stuck in the very heart of the trees in the heart of the city. I went to the far end of the first railway platform at the nearby station, Zoo. The view toward Tiergarten revealed the superiority of the greenery above this city; the treetops, which a few weeks ago still screamed like skeletons next to the snowy clouds in the sky, were now drunkenly bobbing back and forth in the evening breeze like content customers at a folk concert. I got lucky. About a year later one could no longer admire the luster of the Siegessäule from the Zoo station. Soon tree branches will shield the look on the face of the gold Else, at which a man longs for unreachable distances. No wonder that he does not notice that spring, which only yesterday he skeptically and with an infinitely heavy heart awaited, already said goodbye today. Like winter and spring, summer also entered the city silently and insidiously with snow. But this time the hot wind whitened the streets with leaves of chestnut flowers, and Berliners could happily start to wail over the heat, pollen, and the price of asparagus, which this year sprouted so fearlessly from the soil.

Next Station: Selftest

History has cultivated the sidewalk so it would rise like puffed-​up dough. Barefoot or shod, daily bread, in east Berlin I stepped along your cracked crust. Or was, as is often the case with Christological metaphors, the crunching of steps there the approach of a certain divine feeling, divine insofar as it is being lost in the childish and dreamy? From the park in Friedrichshain all the way to Schönhauser Allee, the feeling of floating, walking on the braided loaves of the sidewalks, stumbling over their burned surfaces, from which the crust withdraws, catching balance. While the feet step into the unknown, the head gazing upward, to the gentleness of the tops of spring sycamores, to windows, which with half-​veiled variegation invite a look, so that he enters and walks by the bookshelves, writing desks, crystal chandeliers, and the nakedness of torn-​down walls. But such dreamy loitering is something swiftly ecstatic, off balance in catching one’s own step. The tidy feeling of Berlin in the east has an intentionally run-​down look, which validates its own beauty. The colorful order of renovated house-​fronts boasts openly of the uneven sidewalks in front of them, with sixty-​year-​old shrapnel in the firewalls, with passersby, constantly searching for something, although they have claimed to have, yes, this time truly to have found it many times. In no city is there such an obvious connection between walking and falling, between starting and faltering, between the hesitant conquering of distance and the willingness to embark once more on a pilgrimage at any moment. The stroller of Prenzlauer Berg is not permitted undisturbed daydreams. A thought, torn between sky, treetops, and the faces of passersby, finds a counterpoint in the staccato of soles, which unexpectedly brush against the asphalt crust. As if beneath these streets is still another world, which slowly grows to the surface, a secret volcano or unknown civilization, which constantly observes our upper one and every so often moves the tiles of its own arch, the flaky asphalt plates of sidewalks. A daydreamer must always interrupt his daydream anew, newly adjust one’s step, dash forward, to the delight of the more intelligent ones, who would rather sit around in cafés watching the one who stumbles. When tired from such walking I have a seat at the S 42; the screen, which displays the stations, displays the alternating

Next Station

Two inscriptions like two legs. Initially the first step, then its friend, then, as if we would not have seen the story already, the first again. Two legs like two steps, like two boys. The first is a small Turk. On Turmstraße in Moabit he chases away a pigeon. Leaning back from the fear that it will fly into him, he stomps at it. Fluttering, it takes off, but only for a few meters, then it sits down in front of him again, and the boy again flails his arms, stretched downward, as if they held invisible crinoline, and the pigeon takes off again and they sit back down at the old place, it’s no longer clear who is the pursuer and who the tease. The second boy sits opposite me in the S-​Bahn and asks a grandfather where the right side is. The grandfather points to a window and the buildings of the river port Westhafen behind the window. The boy turns, points with his left hand to the window and says this is my right side. Of course he is correct. In Berlin only the city, and not its inhabitants, determines the sides of the sky. They are coming, so that they get lost and found, lost and found, two alternating steps, two steps, which cannot manage without the other. And the city helps them not become too accustomed to the rhythm, snatches away the ground beneath their feet, mixes up the sequence so that their dance does not become too monotonous. Therefore every daydreamer who repeatedly returns by tracking pigeons or old loves at the same squares and always stumbles anew in the same streets at the same cracks in the asphalt, manages to finish before the question, directed only to him: Selftest?

About Temples

Where Lietzensee at last slips against the shore and, like the pale memory of a glacier which we strangely dream sometimes, eventually rests, there’s an aperture into a concrete cube of the church of Saint Kanizij. The trace of a divine nail, a semi-​circular incision within the concrete, abandoned in a moment of panic? But the wooden door is usually closed, the Jesuits sleep their own stern sleep and dream of the daily prayer ahead. In the gusts of cars driven around Bismarckstraße is the fragrance of the south. Steinplatz is the last wharf of the Mediterranean. From there runs the shadow of a dream, Carmerstraße, all the way to the German longing for countries where lemons thrive outside hothouses: Savignyplatz. Along the fire wall of house number 2 climbs the shadow of Benjamin’s childhood home. And a little further on, at number 10, there is a display window for the smallest room designating it literary, as well as some other taste of west Berlin. Books observe a passerby with the certainty of religious fanatics. He must consider the story of the chalice, close his eyes in the wish to pass by, to wait, wait. But he most often fails. An eye is drawn to the red glow in the depth of space behind the display window of the bookstore, the reflection of the illuminated sign for the Carmer pharmacy. For book fanatics, bewitched by the bookstore’s display window, it is lit from behind, but at the same time glows mystically in the depth of space in front. The diffuse red light signals the need for religious sympathy. Or the necessity of first aid when in the depth of space the seller appears with a book on a silver platter like a compassionate mother who just stepped from the bloody cross. After the tinkling of the front door, the entrant is delivered to the mercy and reluctance of fallen literary demons smuggled back into heaven. He climbs humbly like some pilgrim, only two steps and he is already in the highest spheres. The air is pregnant with the smell of myrtle, bookbinding glue, and dust, and before he realizes it, a shadow of an angel’s wing of one of the classics printed in small letters has stroked him. Whoever enters must leave his reading, his literary snobbery, yes, even the power of credit, outside. Two spaces, two houses of prayer, from hell to heaven, nothing but books books books. Stern, a priestess’s gaze full of elegant distance reminds everyone that they might depart at any moment, that they are in pure ignorance. One look and a newcomer is skillfully jolted out of the daydreamed foundation of the world. This temple is a place of suspicious prophecies. The first sentence will lead to the second sentence and this will add a third and so on without end. Whoever rummages for the last book fattens the sacrificial lamb in his chest. You who are in these places to gather papery offerings are the fruit of foreseeable accidents. Nowhere is it more likely that, in reference to the highest deity, you will come across the nightmarish eyes of the Lithuanian candidate for the Nobel Prize, you will bow to the floor behind an Argentinian publisher weeping for mercy and forgiveness because of unpaid copyright fees, or a translator from a distant homeland, who is here incognito. Even after ten years of pilgrimage to this holy place, my voice has weakened from awe, “good day” and “goodbye” and “thank you” leaving lips, full of condescending guilt. Sometimes the temple is empty, but never abandoned. The stern eyes of the seller are then immersed in the study of holy letters, of footnotes scattered like sugar across a silver platter. Or it isn’t a book into which she stabs with fork and knife, but just has a snack, spread out on a fragment of aluminum foil between Sloterdijk and brother Mann. In any case, there is no greater joy than the rare moments when the stern gaze of guardian angels leaves the visitor alone. Then I close my eyes and press my ear against the backs of books. Like a doctor listening to how Benjamin’s heart throbs, how Brecht’s heart beats, how E. T. A. Hoffmann’s heart pulses, how Alfred Döblin’s heart rasps, how Else Lasker-Schüler’s heart pitches. Rancid and comforted I depart in turbulent solitude. When I step into the light of day, Hrabalov’s pigeon takes off. Where did it come from? I do not know, I have been ordained in books, which uncover the secret correspondences between Berlin and its gods. 



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