Sunday, June 14, 2009
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
I was sitting on a bench eating my kokosnuss icecream when a black hatchback swung in fast. A woman in a black dress with the most astonishing tower of hair ducked out. She looked about quickly, and, as I was closest, fixed on me. *Something in Deutsch*
--Ja, sure, I said, but I only speak English.
--Oh, okay. Can you watch my car? I really need this icecream.
I nodded and she smiled and… she ran. All five metres. To the icecream shop.
I was puzzled. Watch it? She’d parked it in a no-standing-zone perpendicular to all of the other cars. If the police saw it about the only thing I could do for her would be to create a diversion by chucking my dessert at them and hoofing it. Maybe then they’d chase me instead—no thankyou. But I scanned the street dutifully until she came back, walking slowly this time, the paddle in her mouth. She was entranced.
She sat down next to me on the wooden slat and we sat for a moment, appreciating.
Her hair was died black and collected at the back of her head in a thin yet perfect beehive, the strands plastered together with spray into a topiary cone that overlooked a series of smaller mounds built toward her forehead. She must have been in her early fifties. She had traced green eyebrows and firm eyes.
--Thankyou, she said. The police, you know.
--It is the best icecream here, in Berlin. The best.
She looked over at my icecream and then gestured excitedly at her own.
Today I wandered through the markets along Maybachufer just south of the canal, then up along Oranienstrasse where I sought out a copy of Canetti’s Die Blendung to give to R—. We had spoken about it in a café on the first night we met. She had read Crowds and Power but hadn’t noted his other writing. Embarrassingly enough we got onto the subject whilst talking about places we’d like to visit; I said Budapest was on my list and she asked why. I described Canetti’s memoirs, in particular his descriptions of life in the Sephardic community in Budapest when he was a child. Then we moved onto his Berlin and Vienna years and the people he associated with: Grosz, Brecht (whom he detested), Musil, Karl Krauss—most of whom I’m only very faintly familiar with, really. The discerning reader will have noticed the mistake—and a bad one it is too—Canetti was a child in Bulgaria. Those eastern European places. They’re all the same.
The funny thing is I’ve been telling people I’d like to go to Budapest for so long that now I feel like I should go anyway, even if I’m no longer following a literary star. It’s not authentic, but the name of the place will have to do; I’m not really burning to head off to Rustchuck. There’s displacement. But geez—mortification.
Anyway, R— expressed an interest and I described Die Blendung with its grotesques and its delectable parody of Kant. I remember that Canetti wrote in his memoirs that he was haunted by guilt afterwards for what he had done to Kant. I recall, reading this, envying him such belief in the life of his creations. To think that they should be so important, to have such a sense of an ethical responsibility toward their suffering, seemed so at odds with the unyielding savagery of that novel and yet somehow so pure. I found a copy in the second bookshop and took it to front of the shop, where the thin, gentle man behind the counter smiled indulgently as I asked in English what he had said, and he replied in English that he was offering me a bag for my book which was written in German; he knew I couldn’t read a single page of it, and I handed over the money and felt like a dill.
Afterwards I walked west and then south until I hit the jagged edge of Libeskind’s unravelled Star of David, where I spent a few hours. Inside, Menashe Kadishman's steel faces clanked underfoot and didn’t rest. Strange, and awful, that the aesthetic should gather this memorialising function to itself.
Monday, July 14, 2008
At Heathrow I gathered in the detritus of the flight—the eye-mask, the melted chocolate bar, my beaten hardback, my shoes—packed it all together and feigned sprightliness as we all shuffled and stopped, shuffled and stopped toward the hatch where the too-collected attendant smiled through her lipstick and wished us a pleasant stay. My stay was brief and strange: causeway, escalator, a shuttle across to Terminal 5 (stuck behind what looked like a tractor that had taken a wrong turn somewhere way out and couldn’t find its way out of this little concrete city), escalator, corral, plaza. When I came to the screens and watch shops I asked an official if there was somewhere to shower and she told me no, there wasn’t, but if I was boarding another plane straightaway I should just sit down and rest. Thanks, I said. I sat, for the last leg to Berlin, in the fume of my own stench, embarrassed and dressed in tracksuit pants. As the plane turned over Berlin I saw, looking from the window, a vast brown smokedrift over the nearby forest, swinging toward us on the wind like a greeting. From above the city looked like a rubble-heap in the middle of nowhere.
I tried to get changed in the terminal toilet but had to be rescued by a middle-aged German man who, despite the fact that I had an airport trolley wedged halfway in and halfway out of the doorway, blocking all traffic, remained polite and refused, in his impeccable English, to express any shadow of surprise.
I stood behind some French girls, about twenty, who were saying that they were glad they were going to see their families—but wouldn’t it be sad to leave.
And then, naturally, I got lost on the way to the flat. It was hot and I hadn’t slept much for thirty-odd hours. The bus bumped along swiftly by a canal over streets for which I had no reference—that travelling strangeness that turns everything, the most mundane things, video shops and footpaths, into spectacle. I saw the S-bahn station on the right but thought it must be the wrong one, and ended up at the glassy arch of Hauptbanhof, just north of the centre. I staggered across the bus lanes and through a turning door. Platforms shot off on three levels. Standing there, bewildered, gawking at the blue scrolling screens, I was approached by a young American, similarly carapaced under his own backpack.
--Do you speak English? He said.
--Yes, I replied. Hi.
--Where are you staying? I need a hostel.
(It may have been hot and bright and dusty outside but it was eight at night and by the look of him, having just got off the plane, he was getting desperate.)
I told him I couldn’t help, sorry—I had my own place sorted and it was a private sublet. We stood. He looked around, then back at me. He nodded. A moment of mutual decision. Then both wanting to look as though we knew where we were going, we chose a direction each and strode off purposefully—in slow-motion, under our luggage. How ridiculous.
Five minutes later I doubled back past the same spot. Ach.
Eventually, though, after two more changes and a funny conversation with a ticket officer, I climbed down from a yellow U-bahn carriage, made my way past the mall and the church and found my way here. Checking my notebook for directions I wandered up over the cobbles and alongside the red brick wall of the school. High walls and a green gate. People were sitting and eating under trees and the twilight had started to sit over the evening like a soft sheet. I buzzed.
The door buzzed back. I pushed.
M—’s head and forearms were draped out over the courtyard from a window ten or fifteen metres up and—I have to tell you—my heart sank.
--What happened? He said.
--I took the wrong train.
--Up the stairs. It’s on the fourth floor, he said, from the fourth floor.
Help me with this pack, you bastard.
M— met me at the door. M— is Peruvian, a filmmaker, and into biorobotics.
--Have you heard of Stelarc? I studied. I met him.
I indicated I had.
--So, you are Australian? What are you doing here?
I told him that I had taken six months off work and that I didn’t know what I would do yet. But I hoped to be in Berlin for six months and travel round a bit, do some reading, maybe some writing, who knows. Time out.
--Well, he said, you’ve come at a good time. This summer there are lots of girls. Last summer it was not so good. Everyone was sad.
He has this way of speaking, M—, as though he is your best friend. He speaks about six languages and his accent is so blurry it feels as though you are listening to a tape recording that has started to decay. We fixed up the money straight away and he told me that there was a butō performance on soon that I should come to, seeing as I was a drama teacher. Thanks, I said, that would be great.
--There is a Canadian guy in this other room. He is nice.
We stood. Then, after grabbing my number, he left. The door closed, I shucked my pack and aeroplane socks, stood semi-conscious under the shower for fifteen whole minutes, and crashed into bed under a garish orange doona, where I slept soundly until the morning light found me at five-thirty.
Last night I went with H— and R— (of whom more later) to the Berghain. It’s a massive place: a concrete shell of a building in Friedrichshain near the Ostbahnhof. We sat in a courtyard outside by a fountain, drinking bionade until one o’clock when the queue started moving, when we ducked and found ourselves being patted down airport-security style by bouncers looking for cameras. We handed them over to a surly old punk who gave us a ticket in return, then passed through into a cement atrium reaching up thirty metres to the ceiling above. Behind us stood a local cowboy, flares and jacket and ten gallon hat all in white. Booths with red lighting were tucked away over to one side of the rambling, extended floor and up past the concrete columns a staircase ran up to the balustrade of the next floor, another fifteen metres above. The light was blue and gold in beams carving down from the darkness. It was like being in an old church or lost theatre.
On the floor above a couple of muscular gay earlybirds were dancing solo in and out of the shifting indigo ripples projected down across the floor. A wall of glass ran along the length of one side behind the speakers—and early in the morning when the music was really loud the panes started to crack in long jagged lines—behind which a haughty barwoman presided over her bench. At the end of this bar were swinging seats and out past the floor, over the gulf of the atrium, a caged metal walkway. The speakers were towers—six gigantic insect legs leading up to an invisible monstrosity. There was another floor upstairs with artworks by Wolfgang Tillmans—some wavy lines and a fashion shot—a woman’s naked lower torso, legs spread, with T-shirt rising up out of shot so that you could only see her vagina and no face—like Courbet, I suppose, and just as problematic. More cages and booths and a smokers’ balcony that was completely enclosed by glass, from which you could look out coolly over the sunrise and the long queue outside.
H— tried without luck to find his supplier and while he was standing by the window was approached (as we all were during the night) by a petite man in braces and striped top. He stood, demi-dancing, nearby, and when I came back he moved away. R— was hit on by a guy from Belfast and a weird young guy who, despite the soaking heat, wore his hoodie over his head and danced around darkly like a bobbing flagpole.
I danced until my feet were sore. I gave up at six and R— decided to leave then too so we limped out into the daylight, squinting bleakly and rolling our shoulders. At the train station we became aware of the smell of our hair, our bedraggled appearance.
At Alexanderplatz I saw a fight.
...that's it for today.
Friday, July 11, 2008
A week and a half ago, after classes finished for the day, I grabbed my briefcase and thumped out past the canteen to the Drama Studio, over the black scabs of chewie, for a last rehearsal. The usual ravenous scene—styrofoam cups, milo, chocolate biscuits, apples—clustering by the kitchen, feeling special, my (lovely) colleague L— fielding gossip, giving directions, directing the traffic. So I got there and sat down. L— called them in and they mustered.
And—and I did not expect it—they gave me this:
Yes, I'm holding Teaching for Dummies.
Inside the card were written a whole assortment of notes. I won’t reproduce many, as it was really very, very generous of them. But this one, I think, rates a moment:
Dear Mr M—,
I never had you as a teacher & the first time I spoke to you yelled at me J but it’s okay I still think your awesome. J have a good trip sir! Be safe! Take care! ª R— xo
The thing is this: R— is not in the cast of this play. Nor was he present at that rehearsal. Nor do I remember ever yelling at him (or all but two kids at that school—“yelling” often is merely synonymous with “telling off”). It can’t have been much of an episode. But, here’s the worst part given the bubbly and friendly tone: I don’t even know who R— is. Who the fuck is R—? Isn’t that awful? When I go back, I’ll find out.
This one, too, left me scratching my head:
Good luck sir. Take your time.
At the airport I faffed along like a distorted tortoise under my green and orange backpack. We checked it in and then stood about like cranes in airport time, flicking through magazines and staring at the fat biography of John Howard, odious man. Dad said he wanted to rip them up; I was disgusted by the pulpy paper and poor print quality. We drank chain coffee in jumbocups. Stood on granite tiling. Considered neck-cushions. My sister called to say goodbye again. Then I got all edgy and impatient and said I should go, though there was still time. Mum and Dad kissed me by the customs gates and I waved as I walked through.
They took my toothpaste, the bastards. Before a thirty-hour flight. Stupid: I’m much more dangerous without my toothpaste.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
I had a class full of meerkats yesterday. The year 8 boys are obsessed—and have become competitive. As the girls pretend not to look on, the boys shoot up and look about with their top lips raised above their teeth. They move their heads from one side to the other as though keeping a jerky lookout, put the weight on their heels, extend their necks and hold out their arms in coathanger paws.
I thought: okay. I’m prepared to go with this.
It was quite joyous, really.
And it’s working, too. At the lockers today I caught J— and S— in a skirted huddle, comparing pictures of meerkats that they had found on the net. They were trying to figure out which one was the best looking.
“That one looks more like B—,” insisted S—. (B— is the hot boy in the class.)
“Yeah, but this one’s cuter.”
An awkward pause. Then: “Yeah.”
“Well, I don’t care,” S— continued, “I still think B—is okay.”
And below: a loving tribute to yours truly submitted by two year tens in place of an actual essay:
One day Mr M. walked into class and saw M— and the F—man all by themselves, so he said, “screw this, let’s party!!” He ripped off all his clothes (except underwear…eww) and magically music came on and he started dancing to partyboy. Then magically we were zapped to Berlin and a bunch of German people started to slap Mr M.’s legs.
He had the hairiest legs in the whole of Germany, till the Germans slapped all his hair off!! “Oh no,” he said! “My girly legs are showing!!” So F—man said, “here have a bit of muscle!” F—man threw Mr M. muscle. Mr M. grew muscle on his legs instantly! Mr M. said, “Thanks F—man. Now I don’t have to show off my girly legs off any more.” M— threw Mr M. extra hair! Mr M. obliged and said, “Thanks, M—, my tank legs look rugged now!!”
Then Mr M. jumped into the Louvre and started singin I’m a Barbie Girl by acqua and showin off his tank legs in the partyboy suit. Over 25 men were by his side instantly!!
They were zapped back to Australia coz his singing is so bad and he went back to his girly self, and M— went back to his hairiness and F—man went back to his tankiness!!
From F—man and C—boy.
It’s a sign of affection. Yep, they’re going to miss me.