East Berlin TimeFall

A rose left in a fragment of the Berlin Wall

On our first night in Berlin, M and I spied a translation of Philip K. Dick in the window of a bookshop: Marsianischer Zeitsturz.  We were consumed with laughter.  Zeitsturz, time slip/fall/stumble…that’s exactly what it felt like to be here twenty years to the day after the wall  had come down.  We were time travelers dropped from space, come from the future to witness the past.

The view from our flat on Karl Marx Allee; typical Stalinist "wedding cake" apartments

East Berlin’s wide avenues and Stalinist urban planning mark out much of the city.  What I thought would be grim, mid-twentieth century modernity turned out to be soothingly elegant.  The clean, brightly tiled U-bahn stations and the grand “wedding cake” style apartment buildings on Karl Marx Allee provide a stately backdrop to everyday life, making the smallest things seem like part of a grander narrative.  In this respect, if it is at all possible to separate the dire human rights in the GDR, the planning wins at dignifying the mundane.   Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the aesthetics of the GDR-era East, makes a weird kind of sense.

A fragment of the wall

But all that is changing.  The city is busy reinventing itself yet again.  Most of the “death strip” of the wall has been built over and turned into parks.  A public installation about the wall claims that even locals can’t make out the scale of the original border.

A Starbucks sits at the foot of the old symbol of East Berlin, the Fernsehturm, like a flag on the moon. The deafening sound of industry– jackhammers and drills– follows you everywhere, even through the Topography of Terror exhibition.  This “open wound at the heart of the city” is an outdoor exhibition exhaustively documenting the orgy of sadism that was the Third Reich.  It was unseasonably cold as I made my way from panel to panel mounted on the chain-link fence.  Numbed physically and emotionally, I reached the end where a group of teenage girls huddled together singing brazenly at tasteless volume, Whitney Houston’s hit from 1987, “I Want to Dance with Somebody.” Their hair peroxided beyond Aryan-ness, their eyes darkened with too much kohl, they dressed in the over-sized layers of the mid 80s, a style from before they were born, before the wall had fallen.  Zeitsturz indeed.

Dusk at the Holocaust Memorial

My friend Carolyn said that when she went to the Holocaust Memorial, German teenagers were displaying similarly disrespectful behavior, playing hide-and-seek amongst the gargantuan plinths.  We went at twilight, when only the dimmest of lights illuminated the maze of sarcophagi which grow as you enter, the cobblestones at your feet slanting and dipping.  Before we got too deep M said to me, “If we lose each other, where should we meet?” which seemed poignant, imbuing the monument with a metaphoric, empathetic narrative.  Walking the structure you glimpse others passing by, and then they vanish in the claustrophobic space.

Display case in Alexanderplatz

It is difficult not to dwell on the wounds of the city, though to do so risks a ghoulish curiosity.  Or is it bearing witness?  Because I couldn’t answer this question I did not go to any of the prison or concentration camp sites, though I considered it, I was more interested in signs of life. They are everywhere.  Alexanderplatz features glass cases of mimeograph machines, children’s stamp sets and silkscreens used to make illegal zines before the Mauerfall.  I remember these machines from my childhood,  their pungent smell and rhythmic sound. Here they were used for something much more risky and important than my multiplication tables. Though through my cold war childhood I learned to be terrified of my own government, its senile leader. Fresh ink on worksheets for Social Studies, defining Mutually Assured Distruction.  This was not some remote history.  Looking at the photo murals in the square of people climbing the wall in 1989, people who looked just like my friends and me at the time– young, determined and maybe a little crazy; I was reduced to tears.

Another Country, a bookstore specializing in English language used books, operates as a kind of lending library and gathering place for the vibrant ex-pat community in Berlin.  Every month they have dinner and a movie there for a fiver, and the place is packed with English speakers catching up with each other.  There I met this warm man with the round, lazy vowels of a SoCal native.  He was, of course, from El Monte.  He explained the why if not the how of being there, “Berlin chooses you, not the other way around.”

SoCal followed us around Berlin, in fact.  At White Trash Fast Food, over our amazing veggie burgers and chili fries (Just like famous Tommy Burger’s but vegetarian), we marveled at the DJ’s selections in this uber-cool rockabilly bar– the first song was White Girl by X, and then the selections grew increasingly obscure, focusing on early SoCal punk rock.  The crazy thing is that maybe for the Germans this was pastiche Americana but to the expats in the place, it was the home you could no longer find at home. So to speak.

Another American badgered me at the Tacheles, an artists’ squat in a bombed-out department store.  The New Yorker insisted I looked “scared,” and decried my cursory glance at his mediocre paintings, “What’s with you? You come to an art show but don’t look at the art?” Nothing else that I could see was much better, but the space itself was marvelous it its apocalyptic grandeur.  In the past the art must have been better.  It would have had to have been.

Americans have flocked here it seems. Perhaps because this place offers a glimpse of what our country is supposedly famous for: freedom.  Here, it’s been hard won, though to see that you would have to look past the tourists posing with a “border guard” at the reconstructed Checkpoint Charlie, or past the stalls selling Russian kitsch in front of the Brandenburg gate.

Here is a list of more favourite places:

La Mano Verde, Weisbadener Str. 79, posh vegan eatery, a bit expensive but worth it.  I had the raw beet ravioli and farmer’s nuggets in jus with German potato salad and divine chocolate mousse.  Comfort food extraordinaire, but done lightly.  The service was attentive but unfussy.

G for Goulash— this intimate eatery only has two tables and a bar, and it only serves Goulash– but it’s veggie heaven.  They will make their delish stew with seitan if you don’t eat meat– absolutely amazing.  They also do takeaway, serving the stew in a pretty, re-useable glass jar.

Chagall Cafe on Schonhauser Str– a dark, candle-lit cafe with chipped walls and wooden benches, perfect  for a tryst if you’ve got one planned. They specialize in Russian food– while we were there everyone was bent intently over their steaming bowls of borscht.  They have many vegetarian options.  We went with the vat of garlic cream and bread, drinking many beers here.  The service here was warm, welcoming and exceptional.

Hops and Barley microbrewery–Wühlischstr 22/23. This is a small brewery run by two wonderful guys who really care about beer.  When I was in they had an amber on that was gorgeous, and their cider was a quite tart but not too dry– dangerously drinkable.  Every beer I had there was a winner, and they play Old School (SoCal) punk rock on the stereo.

The Medical History Museum, butting up against what used to be the “death strip” before the Mauerfall, is worth checking out. Gallstones like false dice are displayed in jewel cases.  Fetal anomalies, tattooed skin fragments, and surgical instruments on the third floor are humanized by the narrative displays on the fourth which feature stories of individual patients.  Objects from the collection are used to illustrate their “cases”, and these artifacts– from a crocheted bonnet, rusted bed or false nose, take the initial displays beyond side-show voyeurism.

Kathe Kollwitz Self Portrait

The Kathe Kollwitz Museum, an impressive collection of the artists major works, is housed in this rather posh shopping area in the west.  Her work was important to me as a teen.  After seeing her lithographs in high school, I majored in printmaking in college.  Seeing her familiar work again now, images I used to train my eye and hand, was like seeing an old friend who you’ve outgrown.  While the emotional urgency of the images of “War against War” seems exhausted to me now, it is essential in understanding Berlin, a place that resisted the Nazis even as they consumed the city, and a place that eventually ushered in this most modern of revolutions, the end of the Cold War.  In Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood argues that even as the Nazis march through the streets of Berlin, the city doesn’t belong to them but to the workers, the people who sang out in defiance.  Looking at the room of Kollwitz’s self portraits one sees the face of a Berliner– earthy, candidly ironic and freedom-bent.

…just don’t mention the war…

Two weeks in Bavaria was definitely not part of the original plan, but things have conspired against us. Through the generosity of our friend Nicky, we have a place to crash in Munich and he’s been showing us around, driving to many Bavarian breweries where I’ve been sampling all the dunkles I can find.

But I must admit I’m weary of sitting around with people who are eating pig knuckles and roasted baby animals. It’s meat, meat meat at every meal. Sometimes meat is the lightest option available on the menu, as the vegetarian stuff is full of butter and cheese. I’ve been living on salty pretzels and beer and now my extremities are swollen from water retention.

Edie is back in the Netherlands, trying to get some work done on the Something’s Brewing piece at the University of Utrecht. Bob and I will be joining her in less than a week. Apparently on her way to Utrecht via train someone threw themselves in front of the tracks. As she was in the first car right behind the driver, she saw the driver go into shock. This must happen a lot, as when M and I were traveling to Vienna someone threw themselves on the tracks and I felt it go “bump”. When this whole piece of Edie’s comes off, in whatever form it takes, it will be an heroic piece of art making, no lie.

Earlier in the week, we trudged up the mountain to Neuschwanstein, the castle which inspired Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” castle in the heart of Disneyland. I’d already been there and I preferred it last time as the winter fog softened its plastic-looking, 19th century edges. There were so many tourists, I bailed on the tour. While everyone else went inside I waited and watched the stream of humans going in and out, many of them American or Japanese tourists in bright, casual clothes that made them look like children– engaging in a second-hand fantasy. All aberrations removed from the fairy tale in favor of the most mundane of happy endings.

Stern conformity still hangs heavy over Munich, despite locals’ insistence that “the past is history” and that Bavaria is part of a tolerant, modern EU state. The uneasy pact with the past is all too present. And this brutal history is all too similar to what it is happening in my own country. In school, history always seemed to stop at the Nazi invasion of Poland– the summer would come before we ever got Korea or Viet Nam.

One person my age I’ve met here said she was too young to remember the war, so why talk about it all the time? But how can I not think about it when my own government cynically uses the holocaust and the “good war” as a metaphor for their bloody and bankrupt foreign policy?

At the start of our visit to Bavaria, were in the little house in Rieder, in the countryside, with my friend Nicky. After the war, this house sheltered men coming home from the front, wanderers lost in the chaos after surrender. We cooked on the wood burning stove and watched a cat stalking through the grass. Everything was green and lush outside. Cows luxuriated in the fields, their bells ringing. Poppies nodded in the wind and I still thought of war. It was impossible to be there and not feel the surreality of peace. I wonder about the ambiguity of this place, so near Dachau– idyllic and terrible at the same time. Nicky is full of stories from the woman, his mother-in-law, who grew up in the country house. She said that after the war you would see all these children running around wearing red trousers. Their mothers had cut up the Nazi flags. Got to use them for something.

Before Edie left, we went to the Haus der Kunst and I was amazed by the architecture– the old glass building was rebuilt in a heavy neoclassical style by Paul Ludwig Troost, according to Hitlers vision (himself a mediocre painter). The iron doors and massive columns support the roof’s clean, soulless planes. Some buildings give themselves away, and insist on the past even through present reinvention– the Haus der Kunst is such a place. Ivy has tried to grow over the surface, leaving dead veins to mark the cold stone– which resembles more a giant mausoleum rather than an art museum. The pictures of the Degenerate Art Show, hung in a corridor by the toiletten, revealed the Nazi’s mythopoesis of hatred. Perhaps one of my fascinations with WWII is that it always seems so shockingly allegorical.

The Haus der Kunst was currently showing Georg Petel’s Baroque sculptures of crucifixions and meaty Saint Sebastians. I peeked at the catalogue and the stuff seemed Mannerist in its purposeful distortions and risks. I would assume he was working from corpses as the tortured bodies of his sculptures were obsessively rendered. I’ve had enough in-your-face-meat to last me for a while, so I skipped out on that and instead sat watching the Gilbert & George video, a preview of their upcoming show which is now at the Tate. It was in English, and as I listened to them finishing each other’s sentences, I was surprised at their sincerity. Why had I thought they would be ironic and distant, speaking in riddles? Gilbert is Italian but has been with George in Spitalfields for 40 years now. They are Londoners, and I understand their work now, more than before, because now I am a Londoner, too. Unlike Munich, London makes room for the passionate eccentric, the willful iconoclast. How I miss it.

Beer, Bombs and Bones

A token representation of the 11,000 VirginsEdith, Bob and I are in Cologne. Yesterday we went to another brewery, strictly for research purposes, of course. The Pfeffen kölsch served there was very different there from the kölsch at Fruh– fruitier and more like an ale– a bit like Fuller’s Discovery, but with a creamier head, more carbonation and served much colder. I drank it with the seasonal dish– asparagus with Holländische sauce, potatoes and salad. It was delish.

We also went to the Roman museum whose impressive collection is mainly gleaned from the 1941 discovery of a Roman settlement adjacent to the Dom. The site was discovered while digging to build an air raid shelter.

I was particularly fascinated with the delicate and almost ephemeral Hellenistic gold work as well as the “local deities”– Celtic & Germanic goddesses whose names are unmentioned. They resemble the Ursuline virgins in the Ursulaplatz with their benevolent smiles and diadem coiffures. Like the virgins, these goddesses are now decorative objects. Moon-headed, they sit in threes on little couches, the triple goddess present as trifling objects next to the monumental columns of Jupiter’s temple, souvenirs from a forgotten destination.

Three impressive floor mosaics are almost entirely preserved. One features a pattern of swastikas. One can only imagine the sense of vindication the Nazis might have felt uncovering this, even as they were burrowing for shelter from the bombs that would eventually destroy the city.

The souvenir shops are full of black and white postcards depicting the city in ruins. Here is an image of the damage Köln endured in WWII. The Dom remains standing, and the smog-blackened facade greets you as you leave the train station. No matter where you are in Köln, you can find your way via the spires of the Dom.

Cologne is a city that wears its scars proudly, incorporating fragments of the old, pre-war buildings in the modern restoration. Even the cobblestone streets were laid by hand again in the 1950s, giving the town a kind of postmodern melancholy.

Today we also visited the Ursulaplatz, the main reason why I was excited about visiting Köln. Many years ago I wrote a poem based on the story of Saint Ursula in the Golden Legend. The whole thing is quite grisly, as are most of the women saints’ deaths in that book. More popular than the bible at the time it was written, The Golden Legend was a kind of compiled oral hagiography. Many of the female saints in the book are almost superheroes, despite their grizly deaths, or maybe because of them. Ursula is no exception. I love the suggestive number of her entourage– 11,000– and the gory depictions of mass slaughter. Campy blood and guts! Even the doors of the Ursulaplatz feature the headless bodies of the virgins piled atop one another. The story of Ursula has always suggested to me an “open” space in the patriarchal medieval church– a willful woman would leading an army of girls down the Rhine– it suggests many subversive possibilities. I’m sure I’m not the first to imagine the story another way, and maybe this is the reason for the sadistic deaths of many of the female saints in the Golden Legend. A strong woman is safer dead, rewarded and silent in heaven– but I digress.The Ossuary of Ursulaplatz
Above shelves of Reliquaries, the bones spell out latin words. (photo by Edith Abeyta)

The impressive ossuary in the Ursulaplatz supposedly contains the bones of the virgin martyrs. However, history seems to suggest these bones were from a mass grave of some sort, and in order to explain the multitudes, the story was embroidered. One version has monks digging the bones up and putting them back together so that some of the virgins actually materialize again in Frankensteinian fashion. Whatever fable one attaches to this morbid spectacle, it is impossible to not see it as a kind of percursor to the modern horror movie, but it also transcends this facile comparison and becomes something more: a consoling attempt to make whole a brutal array of fragments– a poetic display of remains, not unlike Cologne itself.

On the run in Central Europe

When I arrived in the Netherlands over a week ago, I stayed in a massive building which was first a 16th century cloister, and after the dissolution of the Catholic Church here, it became an orphanage. My friend Edie was doing an art piece there and when she told me about it and said, “Think The Shining” I thought she was joking, but it’s pretty right on.

In its last manifestation, the place was a mis-managed and ill used art space. For several years students had abused it as studio space. There were four of us in this massive building. The place is so large that the first time I went to take a shower I went through 5 hallways and down one flight of stairs and up another, through 7 other rooms and I still didn’t find it and instead ended up right back in front of my own room.

I say was because the place is no more. There was talk of the potential remodeling, but no one could give Edie or Bob, who was brewing the beer for her art piece, any information about when it would start. The people who run the artspace (and I use the term loosely) were suspiciously out of the country while all this was going down and their line was that the work would be minor and contained in one far wing of the building. This is most ridiculous and hostile “artist residency” I have ever come across. I am furious, dismayed and depressed at the treatment of my friend Edith Abetya, whose work deserves an international audience and whose treatment here has been criminal.

Tuesday arrived, as did the developers who began at the main entrance, shattering the glass-walled foyer and tearing out the dry wall. They were going to gut all the internal walls and remove the shower and front entrance, and yet the people running the residency insisted Edie and Bob continue to stay there. It has a certain Kafkaesque absurdity to it. We had to flee, as Edie pointed out, like the nuns centuries ago. We left Hotel Mariakapel in a cloud of dust and showers of broken glass.

My initial intention was help Edie with the installation, to write a bit, research potential agents/publishing options for the completed novel and kick around ideas for the next project. But what’s happened instead is a kind of whirlwind tour. We took off to Cologne to drink beer and try to relax and maybe find a way to laugh about it all. That’s where I am now.

Before arriving in Cologne, we spent a few days in Amsterdam, wandering around, eating space cakes and dodging bicycles. It was pretty heavenly. It felt a lot like a kind of ancient San Francisco, or maybe I should say I felt the same way about Amsterdam as I did about SF when I visited it as a teenager– with a wide, happy hope– someday I will live here— Maybe it is a cliche to be an American falling in love with Amsterdam, but it is a bustling place scored by water, softened by the drift of pot smoke. We avoided the red light district so the city seemed to me relaxed, civilized and whimsical. So unlike London. That I should land in a place like London and not Amsterdam is evidence that the universe thought I needed a kind of tough love. And I suppose the Labyrinth still has lessons to teach me. The challenge of London is not just to love it, but to get it to love you, and with all humility, I may be winning at that.

But I’m relieved to be in Germany now. I can’t really generalize about the Netherlands from one little town, but Hoorn was a drag. The people of Hoorn are starers. Stop-in-their-tracks, turn-around-as-you-walk-by, jaws-agape starers. For some stupid reason I thougth a lot of the Dutch countryside would be like England’s– full of friendly eccentrics or bemused urban transplants. Or, hell, I thought the villages would be hippie enclaves where Lengendary Pink Dots type bands were squatting in old farm houses. Instead, it feels a lot more like Door County, Wisconsin circa 1985. Except Door County had tourists.

As we were leaving Amsterdam several days ago, we walked toward the train station, stopping in a small market to pick up some snacks for the train ride back to Hoorn. In the doorway behind me, a kind of junkie version of Neil Gaiman stood, cradling a black cat in his arms. He said something to me that I didn’t understand, squeezed past me and I watched him put the cat, heavily pregnant, down in the back of the store, slap some money on the counter and leave. The cat wandered slowly out and looked for him, but he had vanished. She sat down and waited patiently, and I looked around for him. He had abandoned her. She let Edie pet her and for a moment we entertained the idea of taking her back to Hoorn with us. She looked us over, eyes like big green beads, knowing on some primal level that we were plotting to take her to a god-forsaken village in the wet countryside, and she was an Amsterdam kitty, bastard master or no. Her tail straight and flicking at us, she took off.

I’ve been thinking about her. About the narrative I imposed on her to make it bearable: the paradox of a restless soul with a willful love of place, and the blessing of feral fecundity in a careless world.

The bells of the Dom call the hour.