Here and Elsewhere

November 2018


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.