Berlin, October 29

Berlin, October 29
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Photo by GabPRR (copied from Flickr)
Photo by GabPRR (copied from Flickr)

When she got there, she was eager to write something. Berlin was that kind of city. The kind of place where you walk around and get the feeling that people are doing something somewhere that’s meaningful and creative.  She spent her first weekend after settling into her room just walking through the streets littered with autumn leaves, thinking about all the things that she would do here.

Her room was in an Altbau, the tall ceilings and wooden floors, although it seemed like all the buildings here were Altbaus. Otto, her roommate, an almost unemployed Hungarian photographer was rather depressed. He had shown her round the area on Google maps in a mechanical way, repeating a routine she imagined he had gone through before with countless guests. This is my favourite street in Berlin, he told her of his own street, although of course she didn’t believe him. Here, he said pointing a little further along to the West, is the oldest neighbourhood in Berlin not destroyed in the war. Here is the park that used to be an airport, it is really amazing, he said in his flat cheerless, voice, looking at her over the rim of his wireframe glasses.

The flat was one long, thin, L-shaped corridor. Her room was done up for guests who usually rented it by the night for shorts breaks. It had a double bed, and a sofa bed. No desk or anything, a large cupboard and a balcony with a view of the street and the city to the south. In the winter, he told her, this is not so funny, because its cold, no not cold, he corrected himself, but it won’t be warm. Otto said everything without a smile. On the one occasion she managed to make him laugh it made her jump out of her skin.

The flat was in the south of an area called Neukolln, the latest immigrant neighbourhood to start the slow process of gentrification. Five years ago, he told her, you couldn’t walk the streets here, there were shootings. Now, on the corner of their street, there were three coffee shops filled with young and cool people, next to the Turkish spatkauf and the betting shop with the darkened windows. Otto was usually in the kitchen. When she moved into the flat, he was there with his coffee and his laptop. When she woke up early the first morning with the excitement of the new room in the new city, he was sitting in the same place. She spent her entire Sunday walking through Neukolln, trying to understand its streets. She made her way up the canal on Maybuchafer, and north to what she thought was Kreuzberg. In Kreuzberg the buildings were taller, and from the 1880s. But coming from Tel Aviv, where most of the buildings are no more than four stories high, everything seemed enormous.

She was struck a number of times with the feeling that she was just one small person in a very large world, and unconsciously struggled with this feeling of alienation and loneliness at the edge of her new-arrival euphoria for the entire day. She brought a book with her, but she could hardly read it. She was too excited about all the things she would be able to do here. One of her colleagues at work joked with her before she left that in Berlin she should write her novel. She had tucked that idea away somewhere, and it kept popping up that Sunday in between the healthy strides across wet pavements and the cosy cappuccinos. So she was very eager to write something.

The second day in the flat she woke up even before Otto and sat at the kitchen table with her laptop. She tried to conjure up the beginning of a story she wrote but abandoned years ago, but sitting at the kitchen table her mind was empty and full of the fatigue left over from the thrill of being here. She stared at the blank Word document. She stared out of the window at the dark morning sky. She looked at her hands above the laptop, which she now noticed was filthy with years of use. B – e  -r – l – i – n, she typed out, slowly. October 29, 2013. That old story was about a woman who moves to London (the city she grew up in) from somewhere else to explore her sexuality. The story began with a post-modern meta-narrative voice talking to the reader about the story about to be told – she was so much cleverer when she was 24. There was a scene at a bar and at a family dinner. She remembered that the text was funny. She remembered reading it and quietly chuckling and feeling very pleased with herself. When she wrote it, she had just finished university and was waitressing somewhere in the city. She remembered writing plot points on a napkin on an early morning shift and feeling like a real writer. And then, of course, she fell in love with a co-worker, briefly, and the story died with the distraction.

The skin on her fingers had grown dry with the cold, she noticed, as she stared at the dirt on her laptop keyboard, and it wasn’t even that cold yet in Berlin. Staring at a blank page kills your creativity, she told herself, just start to type. Otto by this point had woken up and she could hear him moving about in his room, which was right by the kitchen. She knew very little about Otto, although she knew his real name was something that Germans found difficult to pronounce, so he adopted Otto after moving here a few years ago. She knew he came to Germany for a girlfriend, long gone, and that now he was just here, for no better reason than the fact that he was here, and that being an almost unemployed photographer in Berlin is more comfortable than being an almost unemployed photographer in Budapest.

Another day, she took her laptop out to a café and opened up that same blank word document. She ordered cappuccino, which is what she always ordered in cafés and typed the date out at the top of the page again. The café was small, with a stripped pine floor, and dark wooden tables and chairs.  The man behind the bar was polishing spoons with a towel and clanking them loudly into some sort of container she could not see but could only imagine. She began to type. Once upon a time, she wrote as a joke to herself, and then deleted it and started again. The boy was small and slim, she wrote. He was so small and slim that he could fit through any hole in the fence that surrounded his lonely home on top of a lonely cliff. She liked that. She sipped her coffee and carried on writing, until her battery ran out and she realised that she didn’t have her charger.

October in Berlin. Everyone she had told she was coming had promised her a cold freeze, but it was yet to arrive. Her computer was filled with half-written stories, or even just beginnings whose potential had yet to be fulfilled. She was great at beginnings.  She had taken the time off to come here and try to write. There had been many visits to Berlin before. The first when she was 21 years old, and then sporadically throughout the next decade, and here she was again, alone and with a plan. Her laptop was heavy, which was a problem. She carried it around coffee shops in her backpack and by the time she got there she was tired from the effort, and didn’t feel like writing anymore. She was also anxious that she wouldn’t write anything worthwhile, because she would be here a limited amount of time, and then she would leave, and what if she couldn’t finish anything? By the end of the first week she managed to write three good beginnings, which she was pleased with.

***

Otto, the almost unemployed Hungarian photographer, spent most of his time in limbo in his apartment, waiting to find out whether or not his current employer was keeping him on, or whether he had to find a new job. Otto had been working for the past few years photographing cars for a used car sales website. The money was good, even if the work was dull. And he would rather that than nothing. He rented the spare room in his apartment to tourists he resented, but it covered his rent and then some, so he wasn’t complaining. The new tenant was quiet enough, although she sat in the kitchen in the mornings, which meant that he couldn’t sit there quietly drinking his coffee. Instead he sat in his room on his one chair or on the edge of his mattress on the floor.

Last month, Otto went to Budapest to try and clear his head. The company was bought by someone else, and he worked with them through a contractor, and they might change contractors, so while he waited to find out, he bought a cheap ticket home, and slept on his mother’s couch, and saw school friends, and they all told him the same thing. Budapest is no place for you to be now, better to lose a job in Berlin, city of possibility, than in Budapest, city of sorrow.  He spent a week seeing old friends and most were doing okay, some had children in the past few years, and were all pretty miserable, as far as he could see. He spent the rest of the time in the public spas, which were the one thing he really missed about home. And then he came back to his lonely, dark apartment in the wrong part of Neukolln, and didn’t want to leave the house for days.

Whenever a tourist came to rent the room he would tell them that this was his favourite street, his favourite part of the city. It wasn’t a complete lie. He had a special place in his heart for this street because it was home. But tourists can be pretty stupid, he realised, and they will believe anything you tell them.

***

After a little over a week of being in Berlin, time started to do that thing it does where it becomes both fast and slow at the same time. She felt that the days were slipping by without leaving her enough time to get anything done, and then when she looked back on the week that had just passed, it seemed as if a whole year had gone by. It is funny, she thought to herself as she lay in the bathtub that was the one luxurious thing about the flat, how time always does that.  That week, she sat in a different café each day and tried to write.  She spent mornings walking the length of her street to the park at the end which used to be an airport, and which Berliners were now fighting to keep from out of the paws of developers. She had woken up at 7am with the dark, and got home late in the evening almost every day, and she still didn’t feel cold, or lovely, or as if she was far away from home.

By the middle of the second week, she was up to four beginnings, and the fourth was her favourite. It went like this: The girl was old and grey, even though she was only young. Her fingertips were ice-cold shards of skin and bone with which she poked her younger sister and brother in the cheek when they did not do what she wanted. Her entire body, in fact, was ice-cold, fragile and thin, and when she hugged her younger brother and sister, they felt a chill run down their spine and through their bones. She was not a good sister. There. A good beginning. Intriguing. Who knew where that story would go. Which was part of her problem, once she started, she lost enthusiasm and didn’t know where to go with the story. She had written complete stories once, when she was younger. But it was years now since she managed to finish something.

 ***

A light comes on in the back of the apartment, and then a rustle and she hears the sound of footsteps making their way down the L-shaped corridor toward the kitchen. It’s Otto. He has come home from somewhere and is setting about to make himself a coffee. He mumbles hello, as she looks up from the laptop to also mumble hello. She says no thank you to the coffee, but doesn’t know whether she can keep typing  – which she does loudly at a frenetic speed – or whether she should try to engage her flatmate in conversation. Otto is looking especially miserable today. His eyes are red and puffy, and the skin on his lips and fingers looks dry. He has been out for a walk, he volunteers. It’s cold outside. She tells him she doesn’t think it’s that cold, actually.  And then he starts watching the coffee machine, not looking at her sitting at the table, and she doesn’t really have anything to say, so she just sits there, and at some point the weight of the silence is so unbearable that she has to say something, so she tells him she is trying to write a story, and for a moment she thinks that he might even be a little bit impressed, but he just grunts at her, and then pick ups the coffeepot, and pours himself a cup. He offers her some again. No thanks, she says. The kitchen is their only communal space, and she is suddenly overcome by a sadness that they have yet to spend time there together. So without thinking too much about it, she invites him to sit with her, and much to her surprise, he says okay.

Otto has a very large forehead, something she never realised before sitting opposite him at the table that afternoon. For want of a better topic of conversation, she tells him about her four beginnings so far, and even more to her surprise he likes them, and seems to think that she has written only beginnings on purpose, and, what’s more, he suggests that they take photographs in his studio to illustrate them. One for each beginning. She likes the idea, and spends the rest of the day rereading her beginnings and imagining a scene to represent them. She imagines the ice-cold girl fashioned out of grey cloth somehow, and the small slim boy perhaps a plastic figurine.

She had little in the way of props, but Otto’s flat was filled with the kind of stuff people buy in second-hand shops and flea markets, and the city was huge and full of places selling cheap tat. Otto showed her some of his work for inspiration. The studio shots with bare lighting and elaborate make-up were his favourites, he said. He decorated much of his room with his art, and one wall was a mosaic of prints, some yellowed at the edges, others flat, and shiny and new. He seemed excited in his own low-key, quiet way, at the idea that they would work together.

The next day, she went to the five-floor second-hand shop on Alexanderplatz to see what she could find for the photos. She started at one end of the first floor and worked her way across the room, leafing through the items on the hangers. In the centre of the room there was a collection of floor-length 1980s dresses and ball gowns. She made her way through two-and-a-half floors before leaving with a feeling that she had failed somehow. Alexanderplatz was a big flat concrete monstrosity with huge shopping malls arranged around it in what felt like some sort of chaos. She got on the U-bahn and went back to the flat, but Otto wasn’t home, so she couldn’t tell him about her aborted excursion. She got into bed and slept for what she hoped would be a short nap, but ended up being a three-hour deep sleep, after which she woke completely disoriented. She could hear noises coming down the L-shaped corridor. Her room was dark and the thin window had let in a cold into the room. She was scared to take off the blanket and get out of bed.

***

Otto came home to a dark and seemingly empty flat, and felt lonelier than ever. It was his mother’s birthday, and he wanted to call her but she didn’t answer the phone when he tried. His mother loved celebrating her birthday. Soon she would have people round at the house, and she would have made some sort of a cake, and be marvelling at her presents. Otto had not inherited his mother’s love of company. He preferred always to be alone, and to spend time with people more out of the conviction that he should want to, that it was good for you, like going for a run in the morning. His roommate still wasn’t home, and he had set up the camera in his room on the tripod and one strong spot light so that they could start with the photographs. There was nothing emptier, it seemed to him, than a photo studio set up for a subject that hadn’t arrived. His white backdrop, he now saw, had started to yellow and was covered in stains in the middle. Perhaps when he found out about his job, he would get a new one.

Two people are really three people. There is the first person, and the second person, and then the third, which is the relationship between them.  In this case there was Otto, and the girl and the silence of the house tinged with the awkwardness of people who don’t know each other very well, and must face each other in some sort of intimacy. When he heard her leave her room and walk to the kitchen, he instinctively held his breath and stopped moving so she wouldn’t know he was there. He heard her footsteps come past his door heavy and clumsy. And then he knew she was in the kitchen, waiting for him to show his face somewhere and talk about the photos. So he decided to open the door, and walk to the kitchen, and ask her if she wanted to go for a beer, and she looks so happy that he asked her that it worries him.

The bar they end up in is this strange place with low pink lighting that he tells her is one of his favourites. She orders a Moscow Mule, which has become her Berlin drink of choice. This one drink has made her feel dizzy. She gets up and orders another. Otto wants a beer. I only just got out of bed, she thinks, looking back at Otto who is smoking on his bar stool. She likes to sit at the bar, because then she feels like she is living in a novel. The place is pretty empty this early in the evening, but they still chose to sit at the bar. The barman is English, she thinks, but she speaks to him in her kitchen German anyway. Ein Bier und ein Moscow Mule, Danke, Bitte. Otto is blowing smoke rings and moving two coins around each other on the bar, in an obsessive, repetitive way. He takes the beer and smiles, and she smiles back. In the end they are drunk, and they just go home and go to bed. The photos can wait till morning.

Then, weeks pass like this, with her and Otto drinking not only at the local bars but also at the Christmas markets, which have pitched up around the city.  They were a nice surprise, the wooden huts, and the German food and the hot, spiced wine. She hopes that the markets will inspire in her some sort of story, so she goes to a different one almost every other day, usually also with Otto, hoping for a story to boil up inside her. Now she is going to bed later than she had been, and she finds it tough to wake up early and write. She gets out of bed at around ten or eleven, and then sits half-hungover in the kitchen over coffee, listening to Otto’s movements behind his closed door. At some point, he will emerge and make his way down the corridor to the kitchen, and set about making his coffee. She’ll pretend she didn’t hear him coming, but really she has been sitting there waiting for him to join her.

One day, she begins: The Christmas market had gone up on Wednesday, but no one came. The food was not eaten, the drink was not drunk. The villagers did not know that everyone had gone to a new one not so far away. They slowly realised, as they waited for the crowds to show, that no one was coming. She stopped writing and imagined the market, sad and empty. She would be going home soon, she realised. She wondered if Otto would miss their beers together or the beginnings she would tell him about sometimes. Next time, at the bar, she asked him directly. Yes, maybe, he said. But she didn’t know whether to believe him.

Alona Ferber

About Alona Ferber

Alona Ferber is a journalist, writer, editor and some-time translator currently living in Tel Aviv. She was born in Israel, and came back here a few years ago via London, where she grew up, Mexico City, where she went next, and a few other places along the way.

Alona Ferber is a journalist, writer, editor and some-time translator currently living in Tel Aviv. She was born in Israel, and came back here a few years ago via London, where she grew up, Mexico City, where she went next, and a few other places along the way.

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