If you had to throw one from a parachute, it wouldn’t be a hard call. Off-white ink-stained trainers or blacker than your soul is black doc martens. Not the boots but ankle-knuckle blistering low-rise, better in shoes than in jeans or bread loaves or meringue.
It always is a little about food. After I buy them will come the consumer high then the crash and my sister suggests scones. They rise only a little in the oven but the sugar buzz is like swifts on an evening before a clear baby blue morning where the lid of the sky is blown right off by sun. And it happens.
Across the way they sell black dungarees. The combination is the bomb. Yellow-stitched rubber-soled lanolin-beeswax-coconut-oil polished midnight leather. Naked ankles. Ready to paint and one strap off the shoulder. Look: (wannabe) artist/writer, taller than most Berlin days but smaller than going out in Stoke nights, up Hanley duck, dropped haitches and vodka coke. Don’t they come from the workers? E asks, didn’t they wear them first?
What's Going on Out There
In my bed-bound state, the flu and its origins become a low budget whodunnit, replete with wonky, sepia-washed flashbacks. Who did I brush up against that one time I took the U-bahn? Was it the unbridled excitement of seeing Chris in her unbuttoned red silk shirt doing powerful sexy French dancing at the Christine and the Queens gig? Or was it the little white lie I told, the time I claimed I was ill precisely one day before I became ill? Was it the open window, blowing smoke rings from it into a Hinterhof on Skalitzerstrasse as a man opposite brushed his teeth and danced, was it the bad wine, the nervous sweating up three flights of stairs, the mad dash across Berlin to hand in a late semester essay?
The clocks change the day after I finish having the flu. Apparently we’re all a bit jet-lagged, and if we’re not, we should be. We would be if we went to bed like clockwork. The sky swallows Schöneberg up charcoal grey while my back is quite literally turned at work. It’s dark long before I cycle home now.
What’s going on out there? asks E when I get back. She has the flu now, too. Die Decke fällt mir auf dem Kopf; the ceiling is falling on our heads; we’re Wick VapoRubbed out and floundering under tissue snow drifts, backs aching from lying.
What’s going on is a fine drizzle is falling. The man cycling in front of me down Urbanstrasse swerves around the spaces where the tree roots lie dormant under the bike lane, weaving away onto the pavement and then back again. Nine times out of ten, there’s nothing there. It makes me nervous, in the dark.
What’s going on is it’s Halloween, and every child I have seen traipsing with paper bags full of potential through Graefekiez is either a pirate or Dracula. The mothers are the most into it. Back at home, there’s not a single cough drop left. We turn the lights off. Last year, the kids smeared toothpaste on my door knob. The year before that, it was ketchup.
The homeless man who often sits in the bus shelter round the corner is sitting in the bus shelter round the corner. As usual, he holds a book several centimetres away from the tip of his nose and reads under the dim glow of the street lamp. I think about stopping to ask what he’s reading. It has at least 600 hundred pages; most of his books do. His prescription is probably wrong and his gloves are fingerless. I don’t stop; I will wait until it’s really cold and then supply him with tea in thermos cans. Where does he sleep? I want to ask. Where does he get his books from? Does he have any recommendations? What’s his name?
Fatigued by prolonged exposure to the outside world after a lengthy chicken broth-fuelled convalescence, I make it to the Freie Universität for the first time since the new semester started. I’m done with seminars and have only my thesis to write. I feel as anonymous walking through the Rost und Silberlaube campus as I do at the supermarket or the gym, and miss the group of people I met in my first semester two years ago with such force that I almost turn back. But then I remind myself that I’m here for a reason, pull myself together and meet my supervisor before picking up more books from the library than fit in my rucksack. On the way home, delighting in a chapter on Absent and Wicked (Step-)Mothers, I celebrate having come to my senses and sparing myself six months of intensive Shakespeare immersion. Winter hibernation needs more postmodern fairy tale novels, more of Helen Oyeyemi curled up with me against the hot tiles of my coal oven, Angela Carter making the occasional appearance.
The U-bahn again, Ersatzverkehr again. A man sneezes and I take cover behind the hardback I’m holding. What’s going on out there is mass malaise, grey people dragging themselves feverishly across the city, queues snaking from the Apotheke door and out into the rain. They’ve run out of free tissues, they tell me at the counter. Stay at home if you can, they say. It’s a risky time to be out and about.
Here and Elsewhere
Two things have happened simultaneously: I have stopped writing, and moving between places has become difficult. Some places are altogether no-go: the area around Jannowitzbrücke, Treptower Park, Oranienstrasse, Alexanderplatz, Prenzlauer Berg, the street parallel to mine, most other parks, the Hauptbahnhof, all S Bahn lines apart from the U7, the cafe at the end of my street, everything within a kilometre of the cemetery near Leinestrasse, etc.
I do a thing that is a bit like intensively imagining yourself standing on the knife-edged arête of Snowdon’s Crib Goch to combat vertigo: I sign up to a weekend-long place writing workshop, organized by The Reader Berlin and run by Paul Scraton and Marcel Krüger from Elsewhere journal.
In a building in the same Hinterhof, an after-party judders into life and rattles at the glass in the wooden window frames as we pick up our pens, drain our coffees and talk about other people who write about other places.
“So much of place writing is about loss,” Paul says, and my bookshelf is testimony to that. There’s Jessica J. Lee’s Turning, which documents her year of swimming in Berlin’s lakes following a break-up, and Sara Baume’s novel, A Line Made By Walking, in which the narrator moves from the city to her dead grandmother’s bungalow in rural Ireland where she systematically loses her sanity and finds dead animals. In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she writes about losing yourself: “a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.”
On my post-work run, I try getting lost in Berlin. It is dark. My system is crossing roads when traffic lights I pass happen to turn green, and I suppose the dark is also an incidental part of my system. I come across so many green lights that I lose count, but I never quite manage to lose myself, which means, to quote Solnit, “the world has [not] become larger than [my] knowledge of it”. Which means I know I’ve been here before. When I get back home, the clock in my kitchen says I’ve only been gone thirty-four minutes; it seems I don’t have the patience or the endurance for getting lost in my own city.
I’ve definitely been here before. “Perhaps I need to go away for a bit,” I tell my girlfriend. She says something like perhaps I should stay to face the music.
Day two of the workshop: another after-party. I arrive cocooned in down jacket with the hood pulled down over my eyebrows. I feel like a disembodied head, which is how all my hangovers have felt since I stopped qualifying for a Young Person’s Railcard back in the UK. The sound in the room is of second-hand techno and writers from Berlin and beyond sharpening their brains.
In the afternoon, we walk around Kreuzberg. A sprightly woman, always a minute and a metre ahead, draws apricot arrows in chalk that we follow. My notebook says: Dogs in coats and collars. It says the air is no longer the autumn crisp of last month but frustratingly muffled, like a muted trumpet.
It also says, in capitals: OUT OF SIGHT / OUT OF MIND, like rivers under cities. It says that some trees are numbered and others are as feathery as wire brush drumsticks. It says we stopped at the Schwerbelastungskörper in Tempelhof, and then, in a shorthand of sorts:
Remember cycling along the Danube for five weeks and coming back to Berlin to that, almost the first thing we see stepping off the sleeper train? The squat concrete cylinder was erected by Hitler’s architect to test whether the ground would hold a triumphal arch... N. tells the story as we cycle from Südkreuz train station back to Kreuzberg... But the land groaned under the 12,650 tonnes and swallowed it centimeter by centimeter, until twenty were gone.
That is the end of the story. It is a beautiful September morning, 6am, the sky is particularly far away for Berlin and the palest orange-blue, and we are so relieved to be home. It is reassuring to have the story of a thing in a place told, and it is reassuring when Marcel and Paul tell it again.
As we walk, a fellow participant is talking to everyone in the group, one by one. He plans to knit these talks together to create a map of conversations with strangers, a kind of palimpsest of story and map. I wish for a second I thought of that first; however reassuring I find stories of things in places, I prefer stories of people in places.
The workshop walk is almost over when I find that I am, for a moment, refreshingly lost in Berlin.