Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wraiths of the Wall

The story of Berlin is intrinsically linked with the stories of failure, of revolution, and of malevolence. Of course, the human spirit can (and does) overcome the fiascos like what Berlin experienced in the last 75 years; people will always be people. But to consider Berlin, one cannot overlook its troubled past. It is a trite conversation in the context of European history but the political and societal upheavals in Berlin have certain immunity to ho-hum omission. And so, drawn to this inevitable branch of German history, I chose the men of the Mauer—the guards of the Berlin Wall.

 I wanted to find the story of the Berlin Wall guards because I thought it succinctly encompassed the story of Berlin’s breakdowns. The Nazi regime and Soviet occupancy are both well known, and vilified worldwide, but the conditions of those who composed the underbelly of those machines are often disregarded. But they matter. The Berlin Wall stood for 38 years as the symbol for the Soviet insurgency and these guards were its poster boys. I had heard that the situations that these guards—and as I will reveal later, they would more aptly be called “boys”—worked in were tedious yet tense, dour and disrespected. That is all I knew going in.


Well... shit. 

And I mean it, really. I have a story to tell--my story. So, bitte, sit and listen.

When I was three years old my mom was struck across her brow by a Berlin Wall guard's baton. He stood in front of her, stolid against her defiance, as if daring my mother to raise a finger in his direction. I hunched behind her, wanting to run but frightened into submission. I remember her scream then, but nothing beyond that. I still don't know why she was hit and arrested; she doesn't talk about the incident. No one in my family ever says anything about that time anymore. It's like we were all trained overnight to live with this nagging stitch in our sides and a hair on our tongues. 

My father handled his business well. He was a bright, gregarious statesman in the DDR hub in Berlin starting in '67, following his brother and uncle into the system. He and my mom would complain that work "consumed" him, but he always made time for us. Promises used to glide off his tongue that we would fish in the Spree or hike in the Alps once the DDR expanded. Always strive to succeed, he'd murmur at dinner or when he read the papers. We lived comfortably, my two little brothers and my mom and dad, near where my mother grew up in northern Neukölln. I wore red to school every Wednesday all the way through primary school for him. On the morning I was due to register and interview for the military in my 17th year, he woke me up an hour early and we smoked two Havana cigars on the veranda. He said he was proud of me; proud to have his oldest son join rank and file for his country. When the government report arrived--to send me on assignment to Prague, and then to active duty in Afghanistan--he pulled some strings to keep me in Berlin. It's better to stand in place than to fall in war, he said. Anyways, we'll go fishing soon.

My dad died of heart failure five months after I started as a municipal guard on the Wall, on 2nd October, 1987. My captain at the time, a mean fucker named Heinrich, gave me a week's leave with pay and coldly reminded me of this "generosity" whenever I talked back after that. I missed my family. My mother adjusted well after my father's heart gave out, but the DDR was poor when he died and we never received our due compensation from the state. (Thanks, Honecker! You ass.) I had my own flat in Kreuzberg but seldom used it. It was capacious but bare. I liked to go home after work for a warm meal and to see my mother and brothers. Finn started smoking cigarettes and so I had to stop lighting up after meals in the house, but Lukas was still young and inviolable--he liked striking matches for me. My mother was never ungrateful for my visits; you know how moms are. She rested more assured even if I was just sleeping in my old room. The bed was small but so am I.

Work was always the worst part of my day. I got into the practice of tying my boots too tight just so my ankles wouldn't ache during a long shift. The insufferable repetition of the day-to-day grind wore me down more than the walking. Picture yourself clutching to childhood career dreams while standing at an ell or pacing behind concrete demarcators for forty-eight hours a week. The problem was that any excitement was worse: blaring sirens and shrill whistles made every hair stand erect for a moment as the rush of the moment stirred you from a numbing reverie. Then after a moment, and this is the lowest part of any week, I realized that every iota of this delight is at the expense of some poor civilian like my mom. I heard my own whistle and remember cowering behind my mother as someone wearing that same damn uniform beat her. It was my job, certainly not a career but my debut in the system nonetheless, and I hated it.

The West never really gave a shit about me. What we did, who we arrested, what we stood for--all pointless to them. I used to look out across the bare strip on the West side and imagine helicopters rushing over to give me ice cream and magazines with Brooke Shields on the cover and fly me to Amsterdam. The Eurythmics staged a concert in Spring '88 and I found myself crying that night as I saw the lights flicker on the window of my apartment. I despise The Eurythmics, but I'll be damned if I didn't envy what they symbolized that night. The West had style, they had Twinkies. The only little treats we got were the random bits we managed to confiscate. When the system started to break down in '89 and blockades between East and West sides were less strict, the other guards stole contraband from fellow DDR Germans without discretion. I never took anything. I'm no bottom-feeder. 

Dealing with my old compatriots in the East was the most difficult. They didn't like me, or the guys I worked with. (I mean, I didn't like the guys I worked with. But it's the principle.) I heard some stories about guards who had to arrest their teachers or old friends. One poor guy accidentally shot a woman in the thigh when her hat blew off towards the Wall and she chased it a little too close. Thankfully, I never had to bear that sort of weight. I'm too timid.

When the DDR began to crumble and my two checkpoints practically became tourist spots, I was fired.  There was no ceremony and no blast of fury; just a silent stony whimper and the final check in the mail a week and a half later. I watched the parties on TV; fatuous revelry poured into the streets like a once-mighty river coasting through an obliterated dam. I scoffed at the time, but now I understand their, I don't know exactly how to say it... glee.  I'm still not completely happy though. I've been freed from working on the Wall for, what is it?, 20 years next month? Any work programs for servicemen were hopeless because the situation with our old government was so bad by the end. And it is well documented how the Westies made ridiculously paltry (to use a nicety) attempts to assimilate us into their broadened system. Basically, we had no choice but to slip away and eke out any opportunity that passed. I know some guys who are very successful and some others who fell by the wayside. We haven't talked much in years, even my closest friends from the guard. What is left is to work and step in line with the folks around us. We carry expiable feelings and heavy pressures with no outlet... But waking up with guilt in your stomach is easier if you are well fed.

This is why I've been eluding people like you, John. I am sorry if I or my fellow guards frustrated you, but it's a lifestyle--ja know? I've spent 20 years repairing the three-year gap in my life. I went to University in '91, throwing a fake Polish or French accent into my admissions interviews to cover my trail. I learned English so I could get over to the Netherlands or England, or even America. (It stings to want to go to America, knowing what my dad would think were he alive--honestly, I worked near Checkpoint Charlie for a year and a half and spat every time I saw your flag billow on a German wind.) I went westward and found a job in Dusseldorf as a mechanic. I've managed to create a pretty good life here. But I hope and pray my lies do not unravel. I can't go into details, of course, but my swines are bacon if the wrong people start asking questions. Only my wife knows that I was a DDR posterboy. Putting up with stupid tricks and invented histories is a pitiful way to go, John. I'm impressed that you were able to track down my address but please do not contact me again. I am sorry if this displeases you or hinders your project, but even this contact is probably not worth the risk. I wish you all the luck in the world. Give a proßt to Berlin for me. 

As they say in the old country, Auf Wiedersehen!

Matthias Frings

Berlin was the trip of a lifetime because of the friends on the trip and dynamics of Berlin itself, but the matter at hand (the guards) always stood firmly in front of me. The trouble was finding them. It became a silly habit to ask people we’d meet if they knew any Berlin Wall guards. It is the equivalent of walking around New York asking passers-by if they’ve broken bread with Frank Sinatra—yet I held hope. I spent hours on some days just asking for a point in the right direction. Those who gave me a second of their time did not avail themselves, besides telling me to go to a museum or to shove it up somewhere. Three full weeks in Berlin and I never found the wraiths of the Wall: nothing, not even a whiff.

 That is not to say, contrary to what you might have thought, that ‘Honors in Berlin’ came and went without gleaning information. Clues to the guards’ experiences were out there, I just had to look at the problem from another angle. Their absence, then, was my crutch—which prompted a couple simple yet pivotal questions: what drove these men to the shadows and what keeps them behind that veil? Sure, their role in the Soviet machine was blatantly denigrated; no one blames them for seeking solitude and privacy. But now, 20 years after expulsion from that mandatory (and unpopular) duty, there is still no hint of their livelihoods. Even lifelong denizens, Manuela and her good friend, a former GDR cadet named Andreas, couldn’t help. Understanding the guards while potentially never meeting one required understanding their environment.

 It was not enough for me to see the old black-and-white photos hung in street side galleries or the Mauer Museum. Piecing together the guards’ plight meant feeling the city, letting the metaphysical clues waft around me like a ubiquitous haze. The entire basis of my argument assumes that guards were hard to find in Berlin because most of them left town in ‘89 or soon after. But what made Berlin unsuitable? I posited early on that both West and East Berliners were vindictive to the bone; guards faced ostracism. But in my four-week experience, I found that very few people are better suited than Berliners to absolve past transgressions. (Going through Nazis and Soviets in less than three generations has a way with toughening skin and changing perspectives.) They knew the guards were often 18-year-old kids born into the GDR’s regime, sent with rifles onto a turbulent pedestal. It was unfair. To paraphrase Sean Maguire: it’s not their fault; it’s not their fault; it’s not their fault. I do not believe the guards left Berlin to find solace from fellow Germans.

 My best hypothesis is that Berlin was too poor. As young recruits they integrated themselves early into the GDR machine. And as Andreas related to me, once you began working for the state it was most convenient to continue that career path if your shoulders and stomach could handle the job. “The Berlin Wall guards were drafted to the position because they were respectable and politically loyal,” he said, “and not necessarily because they were smart or influential.” I extrapolated that the guards were thus completely out of work once the GDR caved, whether or not they were still working on the Wall in 1989-1990. Most of their livelihoods must have depended on the success of the government once ingrained in the system. Since “Berlin Wall guard” is a terrible bullet point on a résumé and these boys might not have any other work or education experience, jobs would be few and far between. And the West certainly wouldn’t rush to their aid. Southern and Western Germany is the epicenter for most of the industry and agriculture, while Berlin lacks marquee corporations. What jobs there were in 1989 would not go to the poster boys of the Berlin Wall or the older captains and brigadiers who served before them. When Erich Honecker resigned as the GDR party leader and Egon Krenz took over and eventually dissolved the East German state, the money dried up. The guards must have left town and covered their tracks to find work.

 The burning question remains, though: Why would they bother to keep hidden after so long? The simplest answer I can offer is probably the most accurate. They hide because it is easier. The struggle to transition to freer, capitalistic society compounded the problems of unemployment. Getting tossed into the cage they used to tend was also a difficult reality to face. Fingers could be pointed and indignation could come flying. So why risk it? A former guard of the Berlin Wall may not necessarily have been through Hell and back like those who fought in war or served in Hitler’s Germany, but with occupation as a Berlin Wall guard came intense political symbolism and fiery opposition. So if I were to ask why the guards choose secretive reclusion in Berlin and abroad, I suppose the most appropriate answer is—wouldn’t we all?

Heavy Hearts, or Haunts Along the Sea (Assignment #3)

I’ve made a point to remember every time I feel my heart somewhere in my stomach. Once was when the first girl I really liked kissed me for the first time. One time was when my dad came home early from Iowa for my birthday with a triple-layered chocolate cake. Another time, years before, was when my mom told me that her mom died. I was too young to know exactly why she was crying, but she said I cried with her. I loved my grandma, I think. And I loved that cake.

 The last time I felt something deeply reconstructive like that was in Beijing. I was in a program a lot like ‘Honors in Berlin’ the summer before my senior year, studying international relations with other high school kids from China and the US. Every day before class for a couple weeks, I would pass a mom and her little boy selling flowers across the street from my dorms. They were never in-your-face vendors like the ones at the Silk Market or in Tiananmen Square; they stood near the curb like two solemn trees.

 A little game started up between the little boy and me: one of us would wave first, and if I could wave bigger, he would try his hardest to wave even bigger. If he won, I bought a flower and used it to sweet talk the baker’s daughter down the alley for a free sugar roll. (It all depended on if I had enough quai in pocket when I passed, really. No way that kid out-waves me in full competition. I have a wingspan like King Louie.) The little champ was about four years old but laughed like Sammy Davis jr.—three big guffaws, a hitch, and then a happy wheeze. Our times were simple but so am I.

 The tacit game went on for long enough that I wanted to get the backstory on this mom-and-son operation. So a couple days before going back to the States, I goaded my Chinese roommate, Eric, into accompanying me across the street to talk to the flower folks. I sat down on the curb next to the kid as Eric and the mom stood across from us, facing foot traffic. I asked the kid what his name is, and looked up at Eric to translate. The mom jutted in, coolly speaking to Eric but her eyes never left the passers-by. Eric retorted in Chinese, and the conversation went to and fro again. All the while, the boy examined my hair.

 “She says he’s deaf and can’t hear you. He had an infection when he was young from bad water. His name is Xiang Lee, though.” God damn it, God damn it.

 Unlike Beijing, I never knew exactly how to feel in Istanbul. Maybe I was older and a bit wiser, and maybe the things we saw just weren’t as raw. I couldn’t help myself to pass a stray kitten without giving the obligatory oohs and undergo the lugubrious pangs, but that was warm milk compared to the emotional horrors of China. Even in the geçekondu near Kanyon, where I assumed conditions would be desperate, satellite dishes pocked uneven rooftops and kids wore grimy knockoff Ralph Lauren shirts. Lifestyles appeared poor but relatively comfortable. I could not find someone gripped by the destitute conditions that I expected. Then, as these things usually do, it happened.

 We went out like gangbusters for Dan Kashima’s birthday Sunday night. After dinner and frequent indulgences of raki, we went to a club in Taksim Square to embrace whatever revels Istanbul offered. Once people started winding down, I went out to smoke hookah with a small group to keep the night’s buzz roiling into the morning. The idea of staying up to watch the sunset over the Bosporus was tossed around at the beginning of the trip, and that only sounded more appealing as the hour neared. I kept Joe, Muhammed, and Dan awake for a couple extra hours. No one should watch sunrises alone.

 My feet were light on our jaunt towards the bridge. It was about 5:45 in the morning then, and as we gamboled through the empty streets and shadow-drenched walkways I remember feeling like life was ripening with each forward step. And then, with alcohol and shisha still coursing through my veins, we passed two young boys sleeping on wooden benches outside a mosque near the bridge. They were not there to get a jumpstart on their morning prayers. They shivered silently. In those moments that we passed the mosque, I felt the little boy in Beijing’s pain, my mother’s pain. More than anything else, though, I felt my heart sinking into my stomach again. Fourteen years old, fifteen maybe, and needing solace on a mosque’s outer bench—when I looked at myself, wearing a sweatshirt with a logo and still high from hookah, the unfairness stung. This was the side of Istanbul that I knew lay too close to the surface to miss in one weekend. I had high hopes, but hope can’t change reality alone.

 We hopped on the bridge deck with heavier steps. The anticipation of the sunrise still made my senses buzz wildly, and I took pictures of anything that caught my eye as if it was my first and last chance to use a camera, but I couldn’t shake the remorse for those boys. And I started to think: what if I had to bivouac night after night with a dingy sweater for a pillow? How easily could I lose my cotton-candy life?

 The sunrise was, by any stretch, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. We overestimated how quickly the sun actually rises, though, and so anticipation gradually subsided. Joe almost fell asleep sitting on the light-rail curb. It’s a lazy orb, the sun.

 Strangely, my thoughts meandered to a barbequed-corn vendor I had seen earlier in the night. He noiselessly passed my table outside a bar, pushing his wares with a blank stare down the street. He had no glint in his eye and no pride in his posture. He just, and I don’t know exactly how to put it—hoped. It didn’t make sense to me until I saw those two kids on the bench, but that is Istanbul to me. People call it a migrant city, or a bridge of East and West, or even the next up-and-coming metropolis. I beg to differ. To me, Istanbul is an old, stodgy corn peddler who silently begs; it is a moribund litter of stray kittens; it is two kids sleeping on a mosque’s bare bench.

 Flecks of tangerine light crept over the horizon and I felt good again. I vowed then to give my jacket to one of the sleeping boys—for that moment shedding the guilt of comfort. We took pictures of the rising sun (and it really was stunning, like seeing fresh snow in your backyard for the first time) all the while I thought how great it would be to bring those guys back to that same spot some years down the road. Sadly, the bridge top sunrise will fade in my memory while the benches linger.

 The boys were gone when we walked back to the Bilgi dorms. I took some more sunrise pictures, but the mood was killed. The vacant benches stirred feelings with chilling severity. Istanbul evoked a lot of things: culturally, socioeconomically and spiritually, but no emotion was stronger than the letdown when we realized the poor kids were somewhere in the city. I drank the guilt without tonic before sleep.


Portraits of the Artist (Assignment #2 & #4)

(A note: I was never good with a camera. It wasn't that I was incapable of noticing beauty or that my sense of photography was unsalvageable. It just never clicked. I could turn an SLR into a POS with ease. Berlin was somewhat of my 'debut d'artes,' and I learned to love my own pictures. So with sincere apologies to Shawn, I opted to use my own photos in lieu of someone else's at 0,40 Euro a card. This is not due to my incorrigible frugality, but rather I preferred to use pictures that have a deeper meaning to me than "I went there!" Thank you for reading and looking, and as always, I hope you enjoy.) Assignment #4 will be shown in bold lettering.

Day 1) 

"Tough to say where home is now. My vision is a little bit hazy and my head hangs heavily from a lack of sleep. No one ever warned that Berlin is more fun without frequent arm-jerks because of all the caffeine coursing through me. In what seems like a blink, I'm 4,800 miles from my comfy bed and my wallet already misses seeing Abe and George in green ink. I think I'll buy an ice cream to mollify the drama.

How cool is this place? A shrill scream lingers in the muggy summer air for seconds after a woman jumped off the Park Inn rooftop. From a distance you cannot see the cables and platform. I think that's the idea. (What sick-os!)

The smell of our neighborhood is different than Alexanderplatz. Salt purses the nostrils from all the fries and frankfurters around.

Why did I never expect the babies here to sound funny when they speak German?? It's hilarious! A toddler asks for food from his toddler seat and I think of Kaiser Wilhelm doing whippets of helium. I need serious therapy."

~ When we weren't out exploring the city that first day, Muhammed and I were sleeping. We slept like newborns. We hibernated like bears. I cannot make this point any more long-worded: we had multiple bouts with narcolepsy and enjoyed every second of it. Unfortunately, that does not lend itself well to Assignment #4. Consider the next portion my mulligan.

Day 2)

"I was looking the other direction when a bubble hit me squarely on both ears. Kids giggled and ran around me like I was the Pied Piper. Cassie stood for a while, getting a picture, while Daniel pleaded with the bubble man to fit him inside of one. The Berliners are communal here. Kids play with strangers' kids while parents soak toes or bask in the sun. Most t-shirt sleeves are rolled up over the shoulders, conveniently revealing thatches of armpit hair. (As if the all-female beach volleyball game we passed wasn't disturbing enough.)

The statue is not the attraction as much as the water in this particular fountain. Jove sits upon his throne with cherubs fluttering about, straining to be noticed. Bubble guy wins out--no competition on that one."

~ I went to the market with Muhammed after picking up some useful vocabulary--nudeln, suppe, brot, großen, klein, bier--and proceded to forget every single one except suppe and bier (the necessities, some would say). We set up shop in the kitchen, organized our rooms better, and did some research. Our hearts were telling us to go out and explore the city but our bodies stiffened on the reins. I went to bed relatively late but woke up at 5:00 a.m.

Day 3)

"Jet lag has its perks, and this one comes in the form of a sunrise. My lens doesn't quite capture the fuchsias and purples that shine dully like amethysts.  You only see color like this here. I crept around the apartment to find my camera, trying not to wake up Muhammed. We don't know each other that well yet... and 5:20 wake-ups are against Man-Law. I can smell the remnants of last night's spaghetti festering in the small trash can. I shudder to think of the orgies being performed by fruit flies in there. People stir in the building across the street from our little bakery. Some folks stumble back from a night of revelry and a couple younger men rush to their Renault and VW while jangling keys and shaving with a Norelco. Sleep is for the meek. I'm with you, nocturnal homies."

~ We spent the day getting around to all the big parts of the city. My favorite spot of the day was a little restaurant village a few blocks from our place, in Kreuzberg. On one end of the avenue is a Singaporean restaurant and some neat pubs flank its sides. We stopped into a hostel down the same street and chewed the fat with an old Irish roomtender named Josiah. Our families hail from the same area, Tipperary, and so we shared some firm handshakes before taking off. The next morning, Muhammed made fun of me for having a mancrush on the Irish guy. I'm cool with that. Eiremen need to stick together.

Day 4)

"The debate rages between me and Lauren: porn website or artistic activism website? (Note: she wins; is dedicated to a music venue/record label.) This picture reminds me of a drunken conversation Cassie and I shared a few months back, when we talked late and I came up with the notion that our beings are just a collage of experiences and impartations. I loved those talks even though I never had a clue as to what I was saying. 

I think that's Catherine of Aragon's eye piercing the frame. I have no idea why she's famous other than her designation as the Queen of Hearts in most decks around the world. But who owns the mouth? Honecker? The picture doesn't show it at all, but a crowd of bees must be attracted to the white's reflection. Two or three bees will buzz up at a time and peruse the character's face. I think there is a rose hip shrubbery behind the poster; they must be confused."

~ In our continued endeavor to walk everywhere in the city, a small group woke up early and walked to a hole-in-the-wall crêpe place along the river. It was cozy and the food was all right, but ordering was difficult. Up to that point, we had always used others' English skills as a crutch. The staff was exclusively German-speaking and so we guessed on the menu. I had the equivalent of a Denver omelet on a mini-pancake. You know what they say, don't knock it 'til you try it. 

Day 5)

"Damn, it's long. From an engineering standpoint, the Wall is friggin' enormous. It would take a lot of beavers to make this dam. I was replete with anticipation to see the still-standing Berlin Wall but came without any expectation of how to feel. Sadly, nothing stirs. I look at the concrete slabs and think what a bitch it was to construct and dismantle.

Most people walk faster than I do from tableau to tableau. The artists don't reveal how old they were when they made their pieces--that is always a bonus for me, to see when in the artist's development the picture came to be.

People weren't kidding when they said Berlin was a museum unto itself. I love this."

~ Our first night out to a bar as a big group. This was fun, but in a relaxed way. We got lost at first, finally picking a brightly colored bar and realizing it was a gay bar a few moments too late. On the way, we met a group of Italians from Torino and split a few pitchers' worth and chit-chatted. Everyone's hair was done, all the veils lifted and shells tucked away. I wish that we had taken more time to go out together like this--the other times were more upbeat and hectic. If there was any night where I first thought to myself, 'This is good, Berlin. You and I are getting along just swell,' this was it.

Day 6) 

"Wind picks up a little bit as you pass this monolithic statue and walk towards the main gallery. The alder trees flash green and white like a million butterflies teasing the wind. The whole setting is aesthetically and meaningfully pretty, unexpected for the Soviets. Some ants march towards my foot while I meditate here for a moment. Like a battalion of quixotic warriors, they charge my foot and attempt to invade my adidas. I do a couple Gene Autry heel kicks to flick them off.

I can't pinpoint the smell, but something is acrid underneath the main steps. It's not necessarily anything rotten, but maybe a harsh chemical. I wish the wind would come back but the air is dormant. Sometimes nature gets lazy."

~ It still pains me to think about, but this was the night Muhammed and I realized our Prague and Amsterdam trips would not work. We'd erroneously thought for months that we would be fine if we waited until the week-of to buy train or plane tickets to get around. I was pissed, Mu' was distraught. Instead of those other crummy *dumbstupidgoodfornothing* cities, he and I resolved to make the most of Berlin. Manuela agreed with our mindsets, saying that there was no way we could run out of amazing opportunities within the city limits. We would just have to dig deeper. Still sore from the loss of Amsterdam and the Czech heartland, I remember swearing to make Berlin my one true love. 

Day 7)

"I like this picture; it seems epic, like the title would be 'The Hug' or 'Reunion.' Either I am well behind the group (entirely possible) or I was the only person to stop and see this photo. I like to think it is my personal memento from November 9, 1989. I wasn't old enough then to hike over and take pictures, so this will have to do. The best part is the slight regard for the camera-toter by the woman in white. She knows some reporter has his lens a couple feet from her face but she doesn't care. Every fiber in her soul is devoted to that hug. You, whomever is reading this, remembers the last time you were hugged like that. The last time I had such a warm embrace was when Memphis went back home. There were fewer tears but he has a knack for squeezing the Christ out of you with his hugs. That would've made a good picture, too."

~ Here is a fun little experiment I did this day: take the train from one end of the city to another, sitting in the same seat the whole way. Then, every two minutes, take a picture of what is directly in front of you. Sit in the same posture and hold the camera so that the frame never changes. The time lapse series this generated was a venerable photo essay. I captured a couple dreadlocked lovers, a single mother, an old man, a couple empty seats, a woman with twins, and a toothsome student. It was a good way to kill an hour, and, looking back, the cross section of Berlin life that I captured in photos is spot-on. The essence of Berlin (or any city) lies in these little snippets of our experience. I didn't say a word for that hour but spoke volumes with the space in front of me.

Day 8)

"It's hot and humid in the dome, and the depravity of wind constricts the air even more. People rush to the top and bottom, hoping for a little relief once outside. I stop to snap this photo at the wrong time. An obese woman in a wheelchair offers some obscenities (I think) to get me moving. Okay, okay. Be nice... it's too hot for them fightin' words!

This cascade of mirrors seems like an expensive endeavor, but its craftsmanship is enthralling. We can make our jokes, but the Germans really can impress with their engineering. I had a thought: the convex series of mirrors' nadir is directly above the speaker's podium in the main meeting room. This seems fishy. My best guess is that it is secretly a death ray device to be used as soon as one of the Chancellors gets too uppity on a high-UV summer day. Lower wages for government workers, Herr Chancellor


~ I did not feel very good this day, poorly done seafood or something. Whatever the matter, it was warm out and I was reduced to my chair. I made the repeated mistake of sitting there without a shirt on. Getting up to pour myself a glass of water--SHHHPLLIIIITTTT. Going to the bathroom after drinking said glass of water--SHHHPLLIIIITTTT. Explaining to Muhammed what that shhhplliiiitttting sound is--SHHHPLLIIIITTTT. I couldn't avoid it, and it stung every time. I had a shplitty day. 

Day 8, pt. 2)

"Too tourist-y. I can see at least 40 people taking the exact same photo as me. What's the use? With every snap, I'm that much more hypocritical for disliking the unabashed out-of-towning.

The history of this place shouldn't be tossed to the wayside, though. Checkpoint Charlie isn't on the next list of the Seven Wonders, but the history is important enough to merit a couple photos. What I don't like are the throngs of vendors and indulgent, sunburnt customers. The crowd jostles from spot to spot according to the traffic. It's like salmon waiting for the next step in the Ballard Locks. A guy shlepped a bit of ketchup on my shirt. Keep your greasy US-of-A hotdog somewhere else, Chip!"

~ Back in the apartments, room parties became the new norm. For one, it was much cheaper to crack open a bottle of wine with the girls downstairs than to do it in a restaurant. And more poignantly, it left us the option to go out or stay in. If the party dulled, we went for a change of scenery. If it was more fun, we saved the cash and stayed in. But problems arose when there was a split decision. Battle lines were drawn quickly and decisively, ubiquitously followed by a few rounds of bitching and kvetching. Muhammed, Joe and I typically sat on the fringes of these skirmishes and decided what to do on our own. We're easier like that. The girls made an executive decision to go to a bar called Cake while the rest of the gang wanted to stay in a little while longer. We waited with the rest of the gang in Lauren's apartment. And, lo and behold, we waited a long time. It was still a fun night, but nothing happened. With the goal in mind to meet up with the rest of the crew, we ended up sitting around dithering. I wish that I could've at least looked forward to the next day, but... Sachsenhausen isn't exactly Disney World. 

Day 9)

"God damn Nazis. This photo accompanies a host of crushed feelings. The stale scent of ash and char never quite left Station Z. No one smiles. The guide really kills the group with his explanation of the strategy for mass-murdering here. I almost feel like I'm back in '44, hearing and smelling the slaughter but not really able to pick out which side of the fence I'm on. Extremely low chance of seeing a get propose on bended knee here.

Oddly enough, today probably features the most beautiful sky I've seen yet. Skies like this are the antithesis of cold-blooded murder. I feel a little nauseated. The statue behind me doesn't help."

~ With an achy heart and newfound perspective, I went to the internet café for about five hours and caught up on my blogging. Other members of the group came and went, but I stayed through a few strong lattés and a marionberry scone. There really wasn't much going on, so I was content with my perch in a plush beige chair. At first, the writing came slowly. But with successive free hefeweisens from the waitress and a realization that Berlin was rife with story ideas, my fingers started tickling keys. Right around that time, I started focusing on the little things that make up a day. Tackling too much is no fun and so I went the other way. 'Haven't looked back since.

Day 10)

"I lost the tour group, so I'm hanging out with good ol' Lost His Body. He looks remarkably like a bust of Pericles that I saw in Florence last summer. Things like that I remember, but homework...? I accidentally revealed that I'm a history dork earlier today. I'll live.

I love how this museum tries to recreate the ancient city. It would help if they laid some sand here and there, maybe led camels in the front door. You have 'ta think the curator was asked if he would want to dress up like the Sheik of Araby and ride through the museum once or twice a month before getting his first paycheck. Oh man, if I ran the zoo...

A couple kids are running amok, playing tag around some vases and statuettes. It makes me wonder what protocol is for the museum staff if they see a person about to break an artifact. Suppose a 45 year old deranged man makes a dash for the Statue of David with a hack saw. What then? Shoot-to-kill is going way too far, but is dropkick-to-maim out of the question? Again, you have 'ta think the curator answered these types of questions before he was hired."

~ That day, just before we took off for the Hertha game, I made a Bucket List for Berlin. I had a little over two weeks left and suddenly felt like my thrills were too cheap up to that point. I was having fun, but without direction. My Bucket List looked something like this: 1) Have a meal with a bunch of Germans without saying a word, yet make them think you're (a) German and (b) cool; 2) play soccer with a pro or semi-pro soccer team; 3) eat something you can't pronounce; 4) dance like no one's watching; 5) smoke from a 10-foot hookah in Istanbul; and finally, 6) find a David Hasselhoff t-shirt. Only one of these goals was ever accomplished. See if you can guess which one I successfully completed.

Day 11)

"Everyone around is at least one of three things: drunk, yelling, or wearing capris. It's unbelievable how many mini-pants are being shown off. Old Navy would have a field day. Despite the lack of fashion sense, I really like the atmosphere at this game. Hertha BSC is a mid-level football club in the Bundesliga, but you would never ever ever ever hear that from the Hertha faithful. They're the Wunderklub or Gottes Geschenk. We'll see what the score says come 90.

What I can't quite wrap my head around is how similar this feels to a UW football or Seahawks atmosphere. Fight songs blare sloppily from frothing maws, the smell is definitively undercooked sausages and spilt lagers. I find myself clapping along. It's not like the wave of emotion controls my hands, but it's tough to keep myself from finding and replicating the rhythm. Everything is catchy... except capris."

The dogs here are outrageous. I went back to the Eastside Gallery with Muhammed and followed what I thought was a stray for about a mile. The mutt jumped here and there, alternatively chasing his tail and a wasp. I was enamored with the pup, going as far as naming him Rolfe, after Liesl's boyfriend in "The Sound of Music." At the park where we finished our first tour, Rolfe ran over to a shirtless guy who was either tanning or asleep. Not surprised in the least by a slobbering dog, the guy leashed Rolfe up and walked away. How the hell does a dog wander for a mile and return to its master without the guy giving any hint of surprise? Was this a daily thing? I swear, dogs here are robots. 

Day 12) 

"Yeah, it is 4:10 in the morning. For the first time, there is no one down here but us. The train that we just missed was empty save for the somber engineer. We are all tired. Adam and Lauren light cigarettes, carefully expelling the fumes away from me. It's about time they mind my requests for clean air. I'm third wheeling; I relish that power. 

The slight buzz of the lights and the hiss of too-tightly rolled cigarettes are the only sounds between trains. The air is thicker this late, when the cold of night sates the air with residue and moisture. Sweat still meanders down my brow and cheeks from our dash to the station from the club. The grinding peals of the next train grow louder and without a word Adam and Lauren grind their cigarettes onto a pillar. The embers dance for a moment before turning to sleep."

~ The late night took its toll; I blessed some demiurge for Saturday. Sleeping in has its upside but it usually kills the rest of my day. Breakfast is a must, no matter what time. So I wandered down to AldiMarkt at 12:30 or so, cooked my eggs and ham, and laid down for a nap. Muhammed's door slammed at about 3:00 and I took this second opportunity to start the day to heart--into the kitchen again for a sandwich and then into the shower. We had no plans, no cares, and no duties for the day. And so I did nothing productive. My writing was poor and longwinded so I gave up. The run I was supposed to go on was put on hold because I couldn't find one of my shoes. The whole day just went to hell in a hand basket. Thankfully, the girls came up and guilted me into doing something with the day and so we met up with some new friends they'd made. Then I caught some sleep. Meeting people can really take it out of you.

Day 13) 

"Creepy, right? The whole scene seems sort of unreal. What is most remarkable is the subdued quiet of this place. Considering the throngs of shoppers, the heat, the serpentine bramble of pathways, and the nature of flea markets, this place is tame. Vendors sit calmly behind their wares. Haggling is at a minimum. I consider buying this doll for a long while so I can hide it in Molly's room. The realization that it's not worth banana peels takes a while to set in. Maybe I'm just tired.

I am looking for a plain, white t-shirt but only find creepy little dolls. The problem with these types of markets is that what you want is never present and seldom cheap; the convenience store has found its opposite. My lunch was a currywurst with a twice-cut tomato. The preparation was worth a laugh: cook a sausage, add curry, cut a tomato, cut it again. Finito! I'm still hungry but 4,50 Euro poorer. Maybe I can trade the doll for a banana. I'm definitely stealing the plate."

~ I met an extremely strange girl on the U-bahn home from the flea market today. She was speaking perfectly clear English on the phone, but her German had a definite stutter. He clothes were of typical Berlin scenester fashion but she did not wear them loose like most other kids. She was prim and proper, if not businesslike, in her tattered-and-then-patched pants and jacket. Some of the people you meet here... wild characters.

That night was another internet café writing-binge night for me. I didn't see many people, nor did I want to. I was in a funk. I had no lack of energy, but there was a definite reservation to do anything with my time. My little short stories served as a release for whatever ill feelings I harbored, however, and I slept easily back in the apartment after kicking it with Nuxoll across the hall. 

Day 14)

"The carpet is plush vermillion, with enough cushioning to make repeated kneeling bearable. The space inside is surprisingly small for how large the building is, but the domed ceilings and ornate décor make the mosque seem larger. The gilded scribbles are breathtaking in spite of their illegibility. I feel comfortable. The mosque is stunning, inside and outside and metaphysically. It's difficult to say how, but I can't shake a feeling of peaceful belonging here. I'l like to sit here until sunset to see how the fading light plays in stained glass windows. I still don't know why our guide made the distinction that this is a 'Turkish style' mosque--it resembles every other mosque I've been in, as far as I can tell. Maybe it's the big pulpit, maybe it's just nominal. Turks can be so cheeky."

~ Muhammed and I stayed at the mosque after the rest of the group left. Muhammed was inspired to pray in the mosque that night for the sunset prayer, and I have fostered a strange affection with Islam for too long to pass up the opportunity. On the way back, Muhammed and I discussed faith. As a strident atheist, I have some God issues. The topic of hate and treachery came up. We talked about adoration of a seemingly absent figure. I argued that organized religion seemed to stem from survival techniques and a whole lot of horsepucky, and Muhammed's rejoinder was that his faith in something was proof that there was something out there to believe in. After all was said and argued, we got ice cream. That's why I love Muhammed. We can be at each other's throats but we are close enough and he is a cool enough guy to get beyond petty differences. (Big ups to Muhammed, by the way.)

Day 15)

"A bug just flew into my mouth as the flash went off. I'd like to think that was an accident, but, ya know, it's been one of those days. It is entirely possible I deserved it.

We were told that the Berlinerdome was gorgeous at night, lit up as the jewel of the city. It looked more like a muted capital building in some obscure Midwest county's seat. I was underwhelmed. Are my standards too high? No, no. This just kind of sucks. My feet already hate me for the walk back home."

~ It's been almost two weeks without a cell phone and it dons on me how sad it is that I probably only have one voicemail (if that) and a couple texts asking me for money on my cell phone. I haven't kept up with friends back home and that makes me a little homesick. To combat the pangs, I shoot some buddies an e-mail and tell them to read my blog. They laugh at me for having a blog, but that's what I love about them; I'm never out of my place. I like to think that some of the people I've gotten close to in Berlin will be close like my friends back home. Muhammed and I will certainly keep in touch, but I hope that the Laurens and Molly and Amy don't drift away. A major part of this trip has been our relationships with each other as well as our relationship with this city. And I gotta say, the people mean more.

Day 16)

"We're jostling uncomfortably with heavy packs towards Tegel. The mood is mixed amongst the group. Some want to stay in Berlin; we were just starting to love it. Others have trouble containing their excitement. A few, me included, promise to enjoy the better parts of Berlin--the crazy group and Muhammed's Jason Mraz renditions--along the Bosporus.

A guy on the U-bahn starts chatting up Sally and Katie. Sally eats it up, but Katie is a little put off. Personally, I'm a fan of the between-stops friendships. What keeps us silent on the train? If you're only going to see a person once for a couple stops along the tram line, why not hear his story? People can be so crude.

The guy Joe's looking at is hungover. He smells like Jim Beam's barn and probably feels like Hell. Muhammed and I will sing to calm his system."

~ Anna fell asleep a few times as we waited for our plane to arrive after a fairly lengthy delay. I'm impressed by her, she can sleep anywhere. Me, I need stacks of pillows and a comforter that would turn Attila soft. This girl could make big bucks as a model for statues if she was allowed to sleep sitting up on the pedestal. Just think of the possibilities if she knew Rodin! I cracked Sebald's book again, reading over his first couple chapters again. I really don't care for Sebald's writing style. It could be that his style is skewed in translation, but his diction always strikes me as over-thought and yet trite. He doesn't embrace language the way you or I do--it's a means instead of a joy. Putting down The Emigrants was kind of fun, as was ripping out a page to deposit my chewed gum. Maybe I should do that more often.

Day 17)

"Well, this meant so-long to Berlin, and a huge howdy-do to Istanbul. I slept for a minute and dreamt that we had gone up in the air and circled Berlin for four and a half hours before touching back down at Tegel. Every dream person loved the joke but me. It didn't help that Jerry Garcia was co-piloting with my dad.

From this view, Istanbul looks like a heaving blanket of lights. The ships in harbor dance like pixies and the hills reach to caress the night sky. The black liquid jewel of the Mediterranean sinks to the pits of my eyes. Hot damn that water looks good. Our pilot goes on air to announce our arrival, and I wasn't sure which of his three versions was English.  The faux meat sticks in between my teeth petulantly. Steward, I'd like two toothpicks and a bottle of water. Tesekkür!"

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Assignment #1

There are two things one never associates with the batshit crazies in this world: bicycles and Geoffrey Chaucer.

 After hearing the assignment to buy a journal, I went to AldiMarkt. They did not have any journals in stock, but I bought the 0,4€ liter of shampoo/four-stroke engine cleaner. It smells like sourkraut and makes my hair feel like baleen, but what low prices!

 I went to Kaïser’s next, hoping that I wouldn’t have to leave the neighborhood for a cheap spiral notebook. Kaïser’s has eight different kinds of butter, an annex devoted to beer, and an aisle of weight loss powders. But stationary? Fat chance.

 I figured that as long as I had to hop on a train to get my journal, I might as well venture down to see Dussman along Freidrichstraße. On my way up to street level from the U2, I walked behind a curious fellow. He wore the tattered clothing and shaky grimace of a mentally deranged homeless person. The stench that accompanied this guy was expected, in a way—the typical “I proudly threw my poop this morning” mix of caked-on sweat, sea bass, and Schnapps.

 At an unceremonious spot along the steps, My Guy turned towards the faded teal tile wall and yelled. He didn’t yell anything in particular. His inflection never changed, nor his body language and facial expression. He just held a loud, throaty C-sharp for four seconds, and then continued up the stairs nonchalantly, as if his stentorian scream was just another exhale. If not taken aback, I was impressed. This guy has pipes.

 When I made the last step, I saw the nut-job appraising a bicycle with his eyes. He then thumbed the back tire and gave the rear brake handle a gentle squeeze. I wondered if he was flirting with the Huffy. Dammit, I thought. I don’t know how to report a stolen bike. But just as soon, the guy took a small key ring out of his pocket and unlocked his bike—simultaneously, snorting phlegm and hawking a loogie square onto his seat. I liked this guy already.

 I made my way towards Dussman about 15 feet behind the homeless guy. We never made a green light but he kept puttering along, not giving two shits about traffic. When he stopped in front of Dussman to yell again, I was half a block behind.

 My loony companion disappeared behind a crowd of businessmen and an Italian tour bus. And right then, I missed him. It’s strange how some things stick with you like that: without rhyme or reason, he was the hook and I was the felt in our spontaneous Velcro arrangement.

 I went to the second floor of Dussman with a heavy heart. I found my journal, 150 college-ruled pages proud, and waited in line. As I was counting out my change (who charges 1.57€ for a journal?!), a familiar sound caterwauled through the bookstore. On the floor below me, with a security guard and employee wrangling, was my buddy. His bike was gone (probably wedged in the underbelly of an escalator or shoved into a women’s toilet, knowing his style of humor), which made it easier to throw him out. The security guard huffed and puffed back in the store, tossing a thick book down onto the information desk as he passed. I found it lying there on my way out. The motherfucker had ripped about half the pages out of the translated version of Canterbury Tales.

 I wrote in my new journal with thick underlines and a jagged frame: If I’m the pilgrim, he can be the minstrel.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

August 22, 2009

A Note to Bryan (22.08.2009)

I’m sorry to bug you, Bryan, but I think we got cut off early today. I suppose it’s not your fault. You have your places to be, as I have mine. I just wish our paths ran parallel a few stops more on the Tram.

When you found me I was lost—not romantically or spiritually, but rather I didn’t know where the fuck I had gotten myself in Berlin. I stopped in front of a Loona poster at an M5 station to look at my scribbled directions, and you stomped on my foot with a combat boot. Did you mean to plant and pivot there? Or did you not see me? I only ask because I’ve never met someone with all-white color contacts and I have no idea if your vision is impaired. I gotta hand it to you… Awesome pupils, dude.

Anyways, I fully accept your apology. It’s funny that you crushed my metatarsals, since we are two proper English-speaking gentlemen in a Deutsche land. You said 'Saury' with a dense brogue, but your guttural voice kept me off your ancestral trail. Are you Scotch, Bryan? Maybe Welsh? I guess that will remain a mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, how did you get into Satanism? I wouldn’t have asked on the train under normal circumstances, but your up-turned devil horn tattoos and “Lucifer” neck chain gave it away. I like that you’re up front with your belief system, however aberrant society might deem it. It’s just annoying when people subject their views passive-aggressively—instead, when I asked about the tattoos, you said “I worship the Devil” like someone else would say “I donate to public radio.” Good on ya, mate. I’m not big on religion myself, but if that’s your bailiwick—mazel tov.

Really great outfit today, by the way. I’d never be able to pull off black-on-black with a sleeveless trenchcoat. You just never find enough people with unique style anymore; Ralph Lauren has turned the world into a catwalk for monotony. A couple questions, though: Do you make the spiked armbands and bracelets yourself? (It’s funny, Bowser has the same look.) And, secondly, does it annoy you when you’re treated differently for your appearance and submission to the Fallen Angel? You seem like a great chap to me. I bet you’re a registered organ donor.

Well, buddy, it’s time I wrap this—

Wow! I can’t believe I almost said goodbye without asking about your other tattoos. How long did it take to get the sword on your arm? And did the red ink for the pool of blood hurt more? I don’t know if it is true, but I always expect the colored tattoos to sting like the dickens. I was happy to see that you got a wrist tattoo for your grandfather, too. Did you get that inked before or after you gave your soul to the Dark Army? I’m willing to bet it was after the skull on your neck but before the headstone of Saint Peter. The memorial is touching, though. Antilogies like that always get me; kinda like those pictures of puppies and kittens napping together.

I guess this is goodbye, again. Great chat today! I hope you enjoy your stay in Berlin (however long that is) and take in the good times. I hear the Berlinerdome is spectacular at night if you’re up for a little walk. Bring your camera, maybe make a sketch of the façade. I also recommend YAAM very highly. You’ll scare the crap out of the Jamaicans, but hey, they’ve had it coming.

All the best, Bryan the Devil Worshipper. Keep on keepin’ on.

— John

PS my foot feels fine. Don’t lose any sleep over it! (Ha ha, as if you sleep.) Miss ya already!

August 18, 2009

How It All Went Down… (18.8.2009)

 “Close the fucking window,” Benoît yelled without looking up from his cereal. “I’m freezing!”

 It was a cold winter in Montréal. The incessant chill stung the skin and gnawed at bones. Benoît sat back, chewing the Frosted Flakes his mother dropped off earlier that week slowly, quietly. Each bite sounded a little bit more like the crunch of hitting rock bottom. He looked across the table at the empty milk carton, locking eyes with the winking cartoon cow. Don’t give me that shit-eating grin. Benoît scolded the carton between spoonfuls. What are you looking at, Cow?

 Benoît was a little drunk, and why not? As far as he could tell, he hadn’t done anything constructive in years. He was 37, single, and unemployed. The only women in his life were his mom and his dealer, and neither of them liked to call except on holidays. Benoît lived with a couple other guys, Hahn and Laurent, two dropouts from the university, in a basement sublet below a Polish deli on Rue de Cyrano near the tracks. Hahn was reading Kerouac on his bed, ensconced in an old eiderdown quilt. Laurent, as he did every afternoon after his shift at the deli, read want-ads.

 “Close your own window, putain!” Hahn yelled back. It was in fact Benoît’s; he only had to reach about three feet to snap the single-paned fenêtre shut. Benoît didn’t really care, anyways. He just hated the silence.

 “We have to do something, fellas,” Benoît said as he pushed his bowl aside and burped. “I’m not going to sit here for the rest of my life, wishing I made something of myself.” Laurent rolled his eyes and circled a dairy farmer’s number in the paper; they needed a shit picker-upper. The three men had never held down an honest job in years: Benoît tried (and subsequently failed) to climb the ranks of the amateur Canadian boxing scene during his 20s and early 30s, Hahn was a stage musician at a chic club in downtown Toronto but was fired for stealing toilet paper and breath mints, and Laurent sold pot outside a McGill café until “shit got too real,” as he liked to put it. They were desperately poor and low on hope.

 “What do you suggest we do?” Hahn demanded with a twinge of sarcasm. He’d heard this spiel from Benoît weekly for a couple years. The ennui was palpable. “I won’t hunt Canada geese again.”

 “No, no. We won’t do waterfowl this time,” Benoît answered. “This time, I’m thinking…” He actually hadn’t thought of anything yet, and instead scoured his brain for any sort of idea. “I’m thinking art.”

 Hahn threw his book to the side and laughed. “That’s great man. You get to work on your Mona and we’ll start pimping you to galleries. Can’t miss…”

 Benoît felt like the world had him cornered; he rolled another joint. “But wait…wait,” he started again. “Let’s think about this. What do dumb, uppity people with money love more than art? And who can really say what good art is?”

 Laurent put the paper to the side. He hadn’t heard Benoît talk like this before.

 “So what are we any good at?” Benoît posited as he raised a finger, trying to look smart. “Hahn, you can still play the violin, right?”

 “Wull yeah, but I don’t have a bow anymore and I’m missing a string.” Hahn now stood, reaching for the Frosted Flakes.

 “Fuck the bow, you can play it like a ukulele!” Benoît was impressed with his own ingenuity. “And Laurent, remember that story about the time you ate shrooms freshman year and made pictures on Microsoft Paint for six hours? Can you still use all that stuff?”

 “Yeah man, it’s no sweat. All I really know how to make are weird little ninja dudes and a bunch of quick scribbles, though,” Laurent said, making the twitchy gesticulations with his right hand. Benoît couldn’t quite put it all together, but he knew he was on to something. If one of his friends played an out-of-tune violin, and another one of his friends could pretend to know what he was doing on Microsoft Paint…

 “Hot damn, I have it.” Benoît looked out, past his two comrades and towards the ankles of the passers-by on the street. “I’m going to dance," he said, sounding aplomb all of a sudden. "I won’t dance like a normal person, though. I’ll have to do it like a cracked-out toddler.”

 “What?” Hahn and Laurent blurted out in unison. They were on board before, but Benoît’s last part was too weird.

 “Hang on, hang on,” Benoît said, calmly. “My sister hitchhiked through Germany a while ago, and she said that all the dancing over there is terrible. As long as I look like I’m not trying to dance well, and in fact dance like a schizo for a couple hours, we’re golden… all we have to do is pretend we’re a raging success here, in Montréal, and convince a studio in Berlin that we’re legit.”

 Hahn slumped back onto his bed. The idea of going to Berlin was enticing, but Benoît had stretched the possibilities too far. “They’ll never go for that. Who are you kidding, man? Me trying to play violin? Laurent getting high and messing around on a computer? And you dancing like—what did you even say? A crack baby?”

 Benoît was indignant. He put his cereal away, tossed some trash through the alley-side window, and swore to no one in particular that he was sick of the pessimism. “What else are we going to fuck-ing do?” he yelled so loud, the old woman ordering her Reuben-on-rye upstairs blushed. “This idea is good! Getting artsy-fartsy folks in Berlin to pay 30€ a ticket is the only way I can think of to keep food on the table. And it’s simple,” Benoît’s diction was getting more and more majestic. “Hahn plays whatever choppy notes he still can, you mess around on Paint, and I’ll be up on stage doing my thing until they pull the curtains on us. We can even say that we have a fourth person in the troupe just to seem more artistic. At the very least, we’ll get some quick cash!”

 Laurent was still unconvinced. “What do we call this whole cherade? You’ll probably want to name it something completely ridiculous so people think you’re full of angst, huh? Is you serious, man?”

 “Exactly!” Benoît replied, not giving Laurent’s tired sarcasm a second thought. “But ‘Is You Serious’ doesn’t quite have the right syllables.” Benoît went deep into thought. Is You Single? Is You There, Papa? Is You You? Is You Me? Is You Me!

 “I think I have an idea...” Benoît said, beside himself with this rush of creative spontaneity. “So all we have to do is figure out costumes and what’s going to be on stage.”

 Hahn and Laurent put their heads down, thinking silently as Benoît practiced dancing convulsively in front of the mirror near the stairs. Laurent spoke up this time: “I can connect to a projector so I can shoot my pictures on to a wall. And I have a pretty cool screen saver – it’s just little wingdings bouncing up and down, but if my cat likes to watch it I’m sure Berliners will, too. But what about the stage? I got nothing.”

 “Hahn, didn’t you used to wear a bunch of white and black and green spandexes when you worked at the carnival? You stole those, right?” Benoît was back in his chair now. Hahn nodded and looked towards a box marked inutile merde. “Well fuck, if I make a little ramp and bounce around in pantyhose, I think we’re set,” Benoît declared.

 It was at that moment that Benoît promised himself to start showering again. The mane of botryoidal dreadlocks that bounced down his back was unfit for the stage, no matter how artsy he strove to be.

 “I’m in Benny,” Hahn said, chuckling sheepishly. He even started rummaging around for his violin, though Hahn knew he and Laurent had traded it to a pawnshop years ago for a pair of numchucks. “You still have your stepdad’s frequent flyer password, right Laurent?” Laurent nodded with an unmistakably rueful frown.

 “Let’s make this happen, guys. We leave tomorrow,” Benoît interrupted, extending his hand. Hahn slapped his mitt down on Benoît’s and the duo waited for their friend to give in. Reluctantly, Laurent placed his hands on theirs.

 “They’ll tell stories about us for years,” Benoît said with a lopsided smile. “Of how three talentless nobodies brought the art world to its knees.” 

August 12, 2009

Between Blinks (12.08.2009)

 The carpet is plush vermillion, with enough cushioning to make repeated kneeling bearable. The space inside is surprisingly small for how large the building is, but the domed ceilings and ornate décor make the mosque seem larger. The gilded scribbles are breathtaking in spite of their illegibility. I feel comfortable.

 The mosque is stunning, inside and outside and metaphysically. It’s difficult to say how, but I can’t shake a feeling of peaceful belonging here. I’d like to sit here until sunset to see how the fading light plays in stained glass windows. I still don’t know why our guide made the distinction that this is a ‘Turkish style’ mosque—it resembles every other mosque I’ve been in, as far as I can tell. Maybe it’s the big pulpit, maybe it’s just nominal. Turks can be so cheeky.

 (Eyes are stinging a little bit.)

 I want Muhammed to show me around the mosque, to translate the Arabic calligraphy and teach me what the prayers mean, but I don’t want to be rude. Artists must have spent weeks decorating this mosque. To call it aesthetically impressive is an understatement—the deep colors and gold trim remind me of a jeweled necklace.

 When I stand directly under the chandelier my voice echoes from the dome above. I think Trang is within my little reverberating sphere; she turned and looked up when I let out a Hoo. My socks are leaving little traces of white on the carpet fibers. I’ll tip-toe from now on.

 (Tearing up.)

 The cantor hums a few unrecognizable bars, probably of the call to prayer. He sounds a little bit like an a capella Stevie Nicks if you don’t listen closely. I think, when I’m old, I’ll take my kids to see different religious centers around the world—mosques, churches, temples, synagogues, McDonald’s. I’ve never been a fan of organized religion but I’ll be damned if my progeny doesn’t appreciate good architecture. Talk about the pillars of religion, eh?

 The group starts to sit and—