In Praise of Shadows - Berlin by Lamplight
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Berlin, where the local time is 9.10pm.” It has been raining. Orange lights are reflected in puddles on the airport tarmac.
Schoenefeld Flugplatz. You rush through at the beginning of your stay, and hang around waiting at the end. The story begins and ends here. I am the last person through passport control and my bag has already been around the carousel once before I collect it, wheel it out of the automatic door, turn right for the bus for the short trip to the S Bahn Station, haul my bag down the long flight of steps, rumble it along the underpass until the entrance where a sign advertises a train to Spandau, haul my bag up the steps again..... and then panic.
They have introduced a new fangled touch screen ticket machine. It may be much simpler - but it is not the one that I am familiar with - and there is the train waiting to start. If I don’t get my ticket in time it may go without me. Time pressure. I ask a man. He advises me to put 2 Euros and 10 cents in it. Fortunately I had thought ahead and brought some small change.
Ten minutes later the train leaves.
The train. A tunnel of light running north west into a city visible as street lights, signs, lit windows rushing past and behind. Two young men in baseball caps, drinking out of beer cans are wanting to be noticed, but are being ignored by the S Bahn security personnel. At the end of the carriage a screen made of moving green dots reminds you that this is the S9 and says which are the next stations. Eventually it moves on to stations near the centre, in a count down to where I will get off: Ostkreuz, Warschauerstr, Ostbahnhof, Jannowitzbrucke, and then, finally, Alexanderplatz.
The Alexander Platz S Bahh station is a platform with a vast arched glass roof through which one looks down, and across, the surrounding square and buildings. Out of the train, turn left, down the escalator into the busy brighly lit shops under the platforms, turn right out of the sliding doors to the tram tracks, cross them. The number 2 takes me on the familiar route....
The large door echoes behind in the dark entrance hall, open to the weather, the courtyard with the rubbish bins (the Hof), the door to the stairs, the ground floor letter boxes and the stairwell in the dark. The switch to dim stair lights on a time switch. 5 floors of stairs carrying heavy luggage.
I sit in front of a computer screen, reading from a notebook, written two weeks ago on a trestle table made of dark wood. I return in memory to sitting at the trestle table. It has 5 one litre bottles of mineral water upon it, bought at the Kaiser Supermarket that Saturday morning, purchased together in sellophaned pack, that has been torn open at the end. My glasses are folded up besides the notepad. There is an old, large, black Sanyo radio- tape player on the table and a white tea cup, which is shaped rather like a wine glass with a handle. The white tea cup has the remnants of green tea in it. The pleasantly earthy and bitter taste of the green tea is still in my mouth.
This first Saturday morning I feel a pressure, a search for re-orientation. Things have to be done. Tomorrow, Sunday, the shops will be closed. There is a crush of priorities although I would rather do nothing except write memories and impressions into my note pad - like the descent, in several wing dipping curves, down into Berlin Schoenefeld, lower and lower, closer and closer to the blackened landscape with strings of tiny steet lights, across chains of moving headlights on the landing approach.
I cannot keep on writing in my notepad on the table. Although I have already bought in water, and some fruit and nuts, more food will be needed. I must go out again, this time, to the newly opened Bio-Laden. It is a small brightly lit supermarket on Greifwalder Strasse that sells smartly packaged ecological produce.
I have just sneezed, and hope it is not a cold. It might be an irritation in my nose from fine particles of coal ash. Brown coal bricks burn into very fine ash.
This is not a flat really but a workspace, a flat used as a studio, an experimental laboratory for Doris to work with paper. What interests Doris about paper is how it is made, its texture, its folds, what can be pressed into it. Buckets stand in the next room with paper pulp. In this room various examples of her dry products are piled on a low chest under one of the two windows. The place is littered with books, files and papers, the raw materials of a teacher’s existence and I cannot fully penetrate into the other rooms - although I have cleared a passage to a sink and to the narrow room with the frosted window and the loo with a heavy wooden seat. There used to be a large number of books in the room on a bookseld next to the loo - but now these have mostly been transferred back to Doris’s flat across the corridor, and the room is used as storage space for an artists easel and other stuff. Some books remain, however, mostly on religious themes. There’s a paperback on the floor by the loo, published in Leipzig in the 1970s, with a medieval picture of God on the front cover, plucking Eve out of Adam’s side, his spare rib.
Back in my room the mattress on which I am sleeping is behind me, with covers, duvets and sheets.
A knock at the door is Doris, come to collect firewood and coal for her own stove in the flat across the stairwell. The ofen in this white painted room room roars in a uniform muffled tone - encased in its large rectangular ceramic shell of dimpled cream tiles, that reach nearly to the ceiling. I have put in only 4 brown coal briquettes and she advises 7 for the cold night to come. It is now 28th December 2002.
Attending to the Kachelofen.
In summary: the ofen requires a squatting kind of attention at least once a day. There is a famous erotic drawing by Zille, of a woman, bare bottomed to two men, bent over to deal with the stopped up ofen. One must pay attention to ash, use gloves and/or wash your hands afterwards. You do not close the bottom oven door too soon because of carbon monoxide emissions.
The Kachelofen using brown coal bricks is the traditional means of heating these tenement flats all over Berlin. The ceramic exterior is about 7 feet high by five feet by 3 feet. The big rectangular box of tiles is bounded in thin metal strips, stands on ceramic legs goes and reaches virtually to the ceiling. The tiles are heated by the fire in the ofen encased inside. You can sit with your back on the tiles and warm yourself. Since 1990 many people have converted to central heating.
Central heating is “convenient” but making and tending fires has a different quality. It adds a ritual to daily life, a routine that develops a familiar quality, that helps you appreciate the warmth more, because you have had to organise it. The fire is part of your life, part of the quality of winter, it isn't a taken for granted background warmth that you no longer even notice.
This is an edited simplification of the process.
The oven interior consists of a blackened elongated iron chamber over a grate. There is another metal chamber beneath, into which the ash falls, where you put a long rectangular ash bin. Both the fire chamber and the ash chamber are accessible through heavy black iron doors which can be screwed shut. There is also an inner door to the fire chamber, that can be hooked open or shut, and which keeps sparks out of the room.
Step one is to clean out the soft orange brown ash, without it leaving a fine dust in the room. Even a small amount each day accumulates so one must be disciplined, clean. The bin is pulled out and the ash slipped very gently down into a bucket, with a cloth put immediately over. Otherwise the fine cloud drifts upwards, coming down on the floor and anything else on the floor - like the socks on your feet - or hovering around and irritating your nostrils, nostrils which are already vulnerable from the assault of the icy wind outside....
Doris makes fire with a firelighter. She ignites it, pushes it into the chamber, puts kindling wood on top, until there is a fierce enough wood fire to put coal bricks on. She uses leather coal gloves to reach into the oven.
I make fire by gathering a sequence of paper, light twigs, heavier pieces and then yet bigger pieces of wood. I light the paper first with a match and put the small twigs upon the flames, then the larger pieces of wood and then yet larger pieces on top as the fire catches hold.
By closing the door to the fire chamber above, but leaving open the door to the ash chamber below, an upward draught through the grate creates a fierce roar that tells you that you are in business. Using gloved hands you quickly unscrew the upper door to put the coal bricks into the yellow burn of flame consumed wood. Each coal brick has the word UNION stamped on it.
The top door is closed again, but the bottom door is left open. Later you check that the coal is no longer burning with yellow flames. It needs to be glowing a uniform red - closing the bottom door prematurely could mean death by carbon monoxide poisoning. When the coal is burning in the right way both doors are screwed firmly shut and can be left for hours. The heat from the metal transfers into the ceramic tiles till the entire oven is hot to the touch and warms the room through.
The coal is in the shared cellar, 5 stories where all residents have their own little cubicle secured behind their individually padlocked gate. The cellar, smelling of damp, is also used as a place to store, and dump, bikes. Every two days you must carry the weight of the coal up the stairs to the top. Coal bricks are heavy and if you stop to take rests, the light in the stairwell, which is on a timer switch, goes out before you get to the top.
Stillness, Light, Shadows
The German word for quiet is “still”. This room is in a block off the Hinterhof. There is no one above the fifth floor- only attic rooms used by Doris as a further work space. The other side is a stairwell - and the people below, and on the other side, are never to be heard. Any traffic noise is shielded out by the front block and the windows are doubled glazed.
The room is completely still. It is a repeated memory of visits here, in summer and winter, to sit in these rooms in total silence. Through the windows nothing moves, except perhaps, slowly drifting clouds. Here is a good place too, to watch the snow fall, silently, down between the flats, into the Hof.
Across the other side of the Hof, we are almost level to the roof of the block directly adjacent to the street. It is constructed of red corrugated tiles and complete with chimneys and television aerials. It is like thousands of roofs, on thousands of 5 storey streets in the tenements of Berlin.
On the street near Kollowitz Platz an artist has put a large poster behind a glass panel. On it there are photos of 20 unnamed people with their quotes about big city life. One anonymous woman is quoted as saying that, in order not to get bored, she has trained herself to make minute detailed observations of everyday things.
Doris lends me a book by a Japanese artist called In Praise of Shadows. Written in the 1930s this small book explains the core of Japanese aesthetics as lying in matters to do with light and shade, in a love of shadows. Many aspects of Japanese art and culture cannot be appreciated in modern lighting the book argues - it is best appreciated in shade, of windows made with paper that lets only a diffused light through, and objects observed in everyday light by the flickering of candlelight. She is delighted with the book and the distinction between things that become more beautiful with age, because their surface acquires a patina, contrasted with those high gloss modern objects observed in neonlight light which become uglier with time. In the dull light, things do not need polishing.
The idea extends even to food and its preparation - some foodstuffs require to be eaten in a dark steaming bowl in dark shade and under bright light would look unappetising. Perhaps out of this enthusiasm Doris has prepared a meal in the Japanese style. The candles and lamps in her study living room are pleasantly and comfortably subdued. However, directing her attention to matters of light and shadow, she has forgotten to catered for my specific tastes as a vegetarian, because it is based on sushi. Moreover she has put fish in the rice salad and used the tofu that I had acquired earlier for her main course, effectively depriving me of anything but the soup and a box of chocolates.
I feel a bit at a loss about what to talk about. My German doesn’t seem to flow as I try to converse with Tante (Auntie) Vera. She explains how she had been left to look after someone’s flat while they were away for 3 weeks, to water the plants. After 3 days she went there and found the flat warm, fresh fruit in the bowl and evidence that someone had been there. Standing there aroused, anxious and confused about what was happening, she suddenly heard the key turn in the latch.......
Not an intruder, it was her friend. She had been ill and the doctor had told her not to travel and she had forgotten to tell Vera. Vera was rather put out by the experience.
Rheinhart comes and I feel equally “stumpf” trying to talk to him. Perhaps you are a bit jet lagged he suggests - though it is only one hour’s time difference. In fact I have just not used my German for a while and the conversation, though friendly, does not rouse me to the articulacy that comes with being passionate about things.
Rheinhart is staying overnight. He is working as a travel courier on a mystery coach trip for 50 people over the next three days. It will include New Year’s Eve, or Silvester as they call it in Germany. The secret destination that the guests will learn the next day is Meissen, via Leipzig. We talk about the stresses of being a courier - how one must share oneself around everyone equally, no matter how interesting or deadly dull they are, and endure complaints, sometimes about trivialities.
The lights of Berlin
Since 1990 the most visible superficial change in Berlin has been the arrival of high gloss, brightly lit civilisation. More of the surfaces are shiny and reflective, more of the colours have electric lights behind them, more of the products are in packages with an outer layer of cellophane, more of the street level shops are brightly lit and more of the vertical public spaces are claimed by technicolour adverts and placades, more of the buildings are made of glass, polished stone and stainless steel or other metal, in the department stores more of the women’s faces are polished and high gloss, like the women selling cosmetics at counters in Boots (back in Nottingham).
The new modern buildings along Friedrichstrasse and around Potsdamerplatz exemplify this most strikingly. Everything is set up for visual opulance as if one is walking around in some vast technicolour film set. This does not stop the icy wind being accelerated through these high buildings, although the people who will have created these mega glass towers probably do not notice as they travel around in their glossy Mercedes and BMWs.
As in every modern city much of life is spent travelling, looking through glass, for example on the Strassenbahn, the trams. It is late December. As dusk falls, and the long night comes in, the ratio changes between what one sees outside the window, and the reflections on the same windows of the internal contents of the tram - the muffled up passengers, the tram interior, and perhaps, at the right angle of one’s own face in the window. Outside there is little to be seen in the blackness, surfaces of light are barely visible in the gloom, only small areas surrounding individual lights - for example up and along the facades of the multi story flats on both sides of Greifswalderstrasse, between Otto Braun Strasse and Friedrichshein. The tram travels, as if in a wide canyon between the high dark buildings. In the flats it seems that a randomly distributed 20% of the windows are lit and half of these have christmas lights visible, either as a little triangular arc, or as a rounded hill of (electric) “candles”. Otherwise it is black.
One can see these rectangles of light into other private worlds, other lives, at closer hand in the tenements of Prenzlauerberg. Across the Hof, there are other flats like your own, above you, or below, or on the same level. You are aware that, without curtains people can look down into your small world, just as you can look down and across the dark onto others, watching them work in their kitchens, or seeing the flickering shimmer from a television far away. Perhaps for that reason too, the lights in these private worlds are dim. Not that one wants to stop and look, of course. These sights of other lives are not stared at but more caught as glimpses, constantly there, a reminder that there is a world bigger than one’s own.
In the bars and restaurants of Prenzlauerberg itself the lights are mostly subdued and candles flicker at the tables, illuminating circles of faces. These little caves and caverns of illumination, with their curtains at the door to keep out the cold, try to be rather like your own front room, with photos and paintings on the walls. They are painted mostly in a light reddish brown, in a well contrived fashion which leaves the brushstrokes visible.
I have a conversation with Doris about glossy women when I hear a programme on the old radio about women and make up. She says there are women for whose faces make up works and those for whom it does not work. It does not work for her she says.
This is an area for artists. Near the converted water tower Doris and I visit a gallery. It is a well lit space that you enter through a restaurant/bar. You go by the rail for expensive overcoats, hung up at the back. The gallery, with its office, reaches out and around the Hof, on the ground floor, in an L shape. It was probably a workshop at one time. I opinionate that the prices for the art works have nothing to do with the quality of the product. My German suddenly improves. I feel animated and express myself fluently - people make money in the art world, not by talent so much as being in with the people who have money. These works are uninteresting. Some have agitated energy but no content, others have an ideas - but no life or energy. Only a few statues have elegance and style. One of a slender young woman reminds me of Gabi. Is she in Berlin?
Tucked up. Comfortable. Returning, unfinished thoughts, dream threads, half consciousness. Wrists in armpits under my own weight. In the Hof, huge rubbish containers rumble as they are wheeled, 5 stories below. I am gripping my bladder. I am warm.....
.....heading for the loo. En route to the narrow room with the loo, the view out of the window registers for the first time.
Snow is falling silently, steadily.
Snow. Back in my sleeping room again I slip back between the covers, on the mattress on the floor that is my temporary bed. The window blinds are do not cover the full window. Without spectacles, I can see a light white speckle, against the background of the red tiled roof opposite.
Why did I have the following memory? Huddled inside the railway station door at Dessau, at the stand up table in the little cafe, getting morning coffee and baquette with cheese and mayonaisse. Outside the station door, down the steps, is the dark and icy open space where the tram loops at the end of the line. The station concourse hall is muddy from slush brought in. A steaming warm cup, food eat straight out a paper bag. Snow at breakfast time. The snow reminds me that getting up means breakfast.
I smell my body. It is slightly sulphorous. But who notices the scent of bodies under several layers of winter clothing? I had a bath yesterday. A bath will require a heated room before it becomes comfortable. In a heated space it will be winter pleasure but entails a work sequence, arrangements, rearranging my drying clothes in Doris’s bathroom, to be able to get to the bath. All these are thoughts, evaluations of possibilities of life after getting up from this mattress, sheet and duvet.
But couldn’t that wait? I don’t know what time it is. It might be a little early for breakfast which Doris likes to have together. There again it might be late, she might have gone out.
Laziness means legimately taking your time. In a room that is not very warm you think carefully before you get up. Planning is made while still in bed. My bags with clean clothes are at the other end of the room. Laziness is thinking about things beforehand - like changes of clothes, rather than standing, in front of your luggage, nearly naked, while making up your mind.
When was the thought that preceded the fact that I am now standing up in the room, unwrapped of warm duvet and sleeping bag, separated from soft mattress on the floor? The decision to get up seems to have been made by someone else, since I am aware of it first when I am already over at my luggage, rummaging through the bag for some clean and warm clothing. I am surprised and do not remember the decision to get up, yet I am standing here.
I discover a complete change of clean clothing and shirt - but the only socks left are thin ones and it is snowing. My lower back aches too, as it did yesterday when I got up. A few stretching exercises - but without sufficient concentration - because my thoughts are on whether my socks, laundered yesterday, which was the day after my arrival, will yet be dry. That is doubtful. I am pre-occupied by socks. (Is it necessary to describe why I have brought socks in need of laundering to Germany? If so, it is because I did not come here directly, but via my mother's flat, in Kent.)
I switch on the black radio. Maybe the radio will give me the time. There is a discussion about the professionalisation of politics in Germany - its about how politicians have never done anything else except politics, or perhaps as civil servants. A very few have a background as teachers. That sounds like Britain.
Across the landing in the other flat I greet Doris and ask if I have trocken socken - dry socks. Wearing the guest slippers, I take the most comfortable seat, at her insistence, hemmed in between the table and the fridge, and talk to her about politicians. There is a huge slab of cheese on the table which reminds me that I am supposed to exercise, eat less saturated fat, less salt and 5 fruit and vegetables a day.
But they say that on your holidays you can do what you like. It is a holiday - it follows that it is open season on cheese.
Doris believes politicians have their own language that no one else understands. The same radio programme is on here in the kitchen and someone is suggesting a party less quota be elected. Mention is made about community involvement in town planning. I look up a phrase I do not understand “Rechenschaft ablegen ueber..” It means 'to answer for....' The programme is about politicians being genuinely answerable...
Over bread, cheese and blackcurrant jam, Doris persuades me to accompany her to a feminist social historical lecture on women and the Eckenkneipe - the neighbourhood pubs at the corner of each block. She promises it will be very entertaining - although perhaps rather cold, as the lecture is to be conducted on the hoof, following te lecturer from pub to pub, getting the anecdotes, I suppose, about local women characters, barmaids and others who passed into folklore.
In the Anita Wronsky
The clock says 1.15. We are sitting at a small square wooden table. An expedition to a local bookshop has discovered that In Praise of Shadows is not in stock so I have ordered it. Doris is sitting to my left, drinking milky coffee and playing with the spoon in the foam. My speactacles are folded in front of me so that I can talk to her in focus. The vegetable soup of the day is brought to me in a deep white bowl on a plate, with folded serviette and 4 slices of baguette bread. The door and windows are behind me and source the daylight. The drinks bar is ahead rather to my right and directly ahead is a Gaggia coffee machine, whose rising and subsiding roar, when in service, smothers out all but the base notes of the latin music audible on the stereo system. When coffee machine roar fades away, the notes of the accordion re-emerges. A child trundles over the floor on a brighly coloured plastic car. A man in an overcoat makes another cup of coffee. He was waylaid to serve some more customers.
Doris writes in German on my notepad. We have a saying in German she says, and she writes it down. “Ich nehme vor lauter Bauemen den Wald nicht wahr.” It translates almost exactly to “I cannot see the wood for the trees.” She goes.
My soup finished I catch the eye of the waitress who brings the bill - she has assumed that, with Doris gone, I want to go. In fact, I wanted a green tea, as I tell her, apologetically. I apologise, as if I have misled her, when it is she that has misinterpreted. Nevertheless, she is a bit embarrassed. Relationships can start over such tiny things. An instrumental relationship acquires an emotional edge to it.
It arrives. The tea bag label, in yellow and green says - Lord Nelson Gruener Tee. A microscopic almond biscuit, shaped like a comma or a sprouted seed is laid in the open spoon.
Although there is day light there are candles flickering light onto the dappled brown walls. Over the bar three shelves of spirits bottles and shelves of upturned empty glasses. Two lights are suspended from very long cables over the bar, and these cables, in turn, twined with a cable with 30 plus smaller coloured lights. I finish my green tea. It is 1.45. I cram myself, slightly too clumsily, into jacket and overcoat at the same time, struggling to get my arms in my coat sleeves, look back and exchange smiles with the waitress and step out into the street.
It is no longer snowing and has not settled. I wander back but decide, at Prenzlauer Alle to take a tram down to Hackescher Markt and from there an S Bahn train down to Friedrichstrasse, in the plush centre, and visit Dussmans book shop and then return on the same two hour ticket.
That afternoon I hear, for the very first time, Poo Bear in a series on German radio. It’s the one where Christopher Robin acquires a balloon for Poo Bear from Ferkel’s party. Ferkel is the German name for Piglet. Then we have a meal. And that is all I will say over that.
The feminist pub lecture is off. Instead, we head off on an evening tram to Alex and then down via the U Bahn to Potsdamerplatz to an archeological exhibition being held at the Martin Gropius Bau.
The building’s exhibition halls are organised around a central hall. There are thousands of shallow wooden boxes on the floor of a dimly lit central hall. Each box is full of pieces of broken pots. It makes the point, quite well, that most of archeology is about digging up pots. At least, that is what I take it to mean. The main exhibition areas are in the rooms around the central area. They take us through pre-human archeology - fossils, skeletons and then human remains. In history everyone is dead so you rediscover it by digging up their graves and heaps of broken rubbish. There are super scientific interdisciplinary studies based on digging up graveyards – mapped, colour coded by gender and age...
All in all, an early evening out entertainment for Berlin middle classes, and people like us to look at, before searching out a bar. To summarise the rest - between the 17th and 14th century BC, a warrior aristocracy seems to have emerged - or should I say the first gangsters? Later on it’s the German tribes versus the Romans and after that we shoot into the Middle Ages, and so up to the present.
I spend an inordinately long time in the Martin Gropius Bau bookshop because there is too much to choose between. As I look at all the sumptuous and interesting books the thought that goes through my head is “But would I actually have time to read them? Would I just put them on the shelf and then never come back to them?”. Shopping is shopping. I make a familiar, and safe shopping choice - I decide to buy nothing at all, save a couple of postcards.
The huge European, German, and Berlin flags ripple their floodlit cloth and shade across road from the main door as we exit. The snow is at last beginning to settle, finely dusting the ground and, fortunately, still not slippery. Street lights radiate out into black space, illuminating close surfaces and the flakes of snow drifting one way, and then the other, or just around and around. The snow is not even falling particularly, but hovering in a confused temporary jumble of directions on contradictory air currents.
Weather change - New Years Eve
“Good taste is a cold matter” Saito Ryku’u.
Awake to blue sky through the window, above the roof tops. There are no clouds visible from my mattress bed. A surface on the wall opposite is sunlit. It is perfectly quiet.
Go to local bookshop for my book on shadows and then to the Anita Wronsky. I sit, this time, on the balcony seat, the area, to the left of the door, where one can look down on the rest of the cafe, and order a green tea. The waiter asks if I want any of the large buffet that they have laid out below, in front of the bar. I decline. It is 11.00 a.m on the 31st December.
I look down over the balcony railings, painted black, over the rest of the cafe bar. There are two bangs, to knock out the coffee grounds from the attachment that goes in the expresso machine. Teaspoons rattle in an opened draw, chairs scrape on the floor. The light from the window reflects a lustrous glow on the big black leather clad bottom of a woman who eases herself onto a wooden chair, at the table in front of me. Most of the people here are dressed darkly. They come and go collecting things from buffet. I have been told that the Anita Wronsky is a cafe bar where one can go and write. I have seen people writing here, sitting in the window seats.
The trousers of the waiter hang slack from his bottom. In my mouth the bitter taste of green tea. I open and read the book that I ordered from the bookshop yesterday and have just collected. It is by Tanizaki Junichiro. His book starts by a discussion of the seclusion and peace in the 'aborts' of traditional Japanese temples. They have a fine gloomy character. Abort, it turns out, is the word for loo. So I am reading a discussion of the aesthetics of outside loos. They can be very cold but “good taste is a cold matter.”
A woman in the corner is reading Der Spiegel. After a while it is time to go.
The sun dazzles but, as it is so low in the sky, it bestows little warmth. A freezing wind leaves fractured ice patches in the pavement hollows and preserve the thin snow layer on patches of waste ground. Cold is pain. It rigidifies the flesh on my face, etching stiffness onto forehead, it licks ice into the soft tissues, the muscles and bones of my cheeks. It creeps up my trouser legs and seeks out the vulnerable places, where trousers and shirts are inadequately joined over together. Walking back down Marienburgerstr I go straight to the Bio Markt and get more water, Tofu - plus a bottle of bio-wine as an afterthought.
Washing up in Doris’s kitchen is a multi dimensional challenge. Although there are 2 sinks side by side, what is one to do with what one has just washed? Both sinks are full, piled up above a level that will actually hold any water and there is no draining board. You cannot put washed up dishes on the tiny table behind, where we eat, because it is also already covered with other things, some of which also need washing up. Thus there is no place to put the outputs of washing up. You cannot put them back in the cupboard as they are wet still – there is no obvious tea towel to dry things with.
Then there is the problem of what one is actually going to wash things in. The jumble of plates, knives, forks, glasses, cups, saucers, saucepans, are all piled up, willy nilly, above the level of the sink. So if one poured water to the brim it would not reach the things on top.
Having hit upon the idea that I might wash things in a saucepan, balanced on everything else, I was then struck by the problem of what I was actually going to do the washing up with. There was washing up liquid, but no obvious cloth, sponge or brush. However, there was something that looked like a shaving brush, whose bristles were however, very stiff - plus a metal pad.
It is 3.30pm as I began the washing up challenge. Washing things in a saucepan, balanced precariously on everything else, also had a catch. The saucepan was thickly matted at the bottom with a layer of white rice, over a layer of browned rice, over a very hard layer of black burned rice. The first task was to scrape this out.
But this too was a challenge. The rubbish bag, over by the oven and the wall by the door, was almost full already - and was the only spare bag that seemed to available.
Nonetheless – in this situation, just do one thing at a time - and then keep on going.
I was damned if I was going to dry up. When all the washing up was in a clean pile in one sink I celebrated with 3 or 4 dried apricots and half a jam donut that was left on the table. Then I discover 3 more dirty wine glasses from last night and 2 tea cups that need washing.
The book In Praise of Shadows implies a particular kind of relationship to dust and dirt, as Doris herself drew to my attention. By 4.00pm the kitchen was getting dark and the light had faded outside. I could easily miss cups that had the residue of tea in them if it got much darker.
Change of Scene – New Year Eve, Prelude
7.15pm in the bar across the road from the Sophienkirche. Doris, Werner and myself have a glass or warming grappa. The waiter, his long hair in a bun, is terribly embarrassed because he does not have the right kind of glasses for the spirit. Then over the road and down the path between two terraces of old houses to the door of the Sophienkirche for 7.30pm. We are waiting for Tante Vera, but she doesn’t show.
Princess Sophie had this church built in the 16th century - or was it Queen Sophie? Anyway she was married to a Prussian monarch I think. Miracululously it has survived the bombing and the Battle for Berlin. Very elegant outside, with tall spires, it is very gaunt inside, with few of the monumental features or plaques that would see in British churches. I suppose such plaques in English churches commonly celebrate wars and war dead - here there is none of that. The grandeur lies therefore chiefly in the soaring windows with their arched tops and multiple panes of plain glass, through which only blackness is now visible. The few gestures to ornateness are in the stone pulpit with its spiral of stone steps, the altar with open book and 6 flickering candles on either side of it, a heavy ornate cross and flanked by two giant candles. Opposite the altar is a large christmas tree, with a spiral of little electric lights around it.
During the course of the concert the rows of candles melt down at different rates. A young man called Constantin Alex is playing at the organ behind us, on the balcony above - Leon Boellman’s Suite Gothique, Cesar Franck’s Choral No 3 in e minor and Louise Vierne Symponie No 1 in d minor - which confuses me as I did not know one could play a symphony on one intrument, even an organ.
It is a struggle to be attentive to the music. Not all of it grabs my attention.
I think about why I am here. I have been to this concert before, last New Years Eve – and I sense the attraction of getting into a tradition. Making one's life by repetitions that become comfortable, create a predictability about life, drawing the mind into a reverie about continuity. The continuity of a place, like this church building, preserves something. Perhaps congregations then feel drawn back week by week, year by year, generation by generation to be part of this continuity, to be part of something that transcends them. I fantasise the generations that have been through these doors, who have made part of their lives here. Herein lies perhaps the cosiness of conservatism, it’s sense of security and belonging (which does not make its ideology either right or wrong).
I have to wrestle my attention back to the music. Competing for my attention are the issues of how to stay comfortable on these hard, dark wooden pews; the itch on the back of my neck; my breathing, which is cramped, by sitting too hunched forward; not wanting to make too much of a self display by changing posture and fidgeting too often; the faces of other people who are visible to me, on side pews, turned facing the organist whom I cannot see. Is their attention wandering like mine? Perhaps next year we should go up on the balcony? Several people have their eyes closed. Are they asleep? Perhaps not as they would slump....
In the night outside someone has let off bangers, or knallers. The candle at the far left end of the altar table are close to burning out completely in a puddle of wax.
The last movement of the Vierne restores my full attention on the music. Flowing notes move insistently forward in rows of exploring steps, now this way and now that, lifting my spirit up and up to the final crescendo.
Applause. It's OK to turn around now. The young man, who is dressed casually, bows from the balcony at the back and walks off erectly. People begin to stand, pulling heavy overcoats back on, wrapping scarves around necks, shuffling along to the side into the aisles and queuing up to get through the door into the vestry. There is a collection which people are stuffing generously with lots of Euro notes. Doris and Werner, who has stayed behind to peer at one of the few wall plaques, finally catch up.
As we step outside into the cold night we meet, finally, Tante Vera, who had heard the concert but who arrived just a little late. We walk down fast to Hackesche Markt where Tante Vera however catches a tram go home and we head off looking for an Irish pub near to Rosa Luxumbourg platz where Werner can drink some Guinness. The same magnificient collages along Rosa Luxembourg Platz U Bahn with photos from on and after world war are still there, after ten years of coming here. I guess that they were so good no one wanted to take them down but, over the years, they have become blacker and blacker with grime and now they have been scrawled over with graffiti.
The Irish pub is closed - it appears for good. So we walk up through the icy wind to visit Elka. Small groups wandering down the street carrying open bottles of wine and throwing bangers off behind them and walking off. On a street corner, lit by the restaurant from which they have come, a group comes out with a child and sets up a wine bottle as a launching support for rockets. We skirt around them. It is getting near midnight.
Like most of Doris’s friends Elka lives on one of the top floors. We look for the light switch and then its a long climb up the stairs. Her flat is cheerful, real candles precariously balanced in a christmas tree by the table where we share a bottle of bio-wine. Her son has shot up again over the last year, compared to my memory of him. Should be go further? Vera, Doris’s daughter has urged Doris to visit a party on Lychener str. We put on our shoes and go down the stairs to the street as the seconds tick towards midnight.
My notes are untidy because I have written them drunk. It was a variety of drinks - in particular Doris had a bottle of Lutter and Wegner red Sekt. It’s sweet and frothy. There’s lots of people out at midnight - they’ve come out onto the street and people, women in their party dresses bare arms and shoulders in the below zero wind. Gather in groups round the doors.They are standing at the lighted windows too looking out as the churchbells bong bong for midnight and all the rockets go up everywhere with a rush and bangs. People are on the balconies too. There’s scattered yellow fire everywhere along the street, and lots of broken glass of bottles. Aggressive crackling fireworks. BANg BANG. Prost Neue Jahr. Wine bottles in hand on pavements, along danziger strasse young people with rucksacks stuffed with rockets like quivers of arrows. Smell of sulphur, smoke of fireworks, fire engines. Walking between the groups and the buildings otherwise in the way of rockets and bangers shot and chucked towards the road. Prost Neues Jahr. Vera said it was aggressive here last year which is why they are having a street party, playing from the balcony of her friends parent’s house. But noise wise that party from the balcony is pretty aggressive too - an incredible noise, Vera’s there and the band on the balcony playing amplified guitar and drums god knows how many thousand watts anyway. Red sekt comes around again. Red Sekt comes around again. People keep handing it to me without taking a swig and I take another swig. Its bitterly cold and who gives a fuck. Prost Neues Jahr. Lets walk back along battle zone Danzigerstr.
Fucking hell, when we get back its too early to go to bed and Petra in the flat round the corner, same floor, fifth I mean, different entrance. I take a bottle of Green Liquuer round. I mean down the stairs and up again. I mean what a treat. I never expected this at Petras. Petra is fascinating. She’s a heavy metal blond in her 40s or maybe 50 who seems to live for and through her cat, who’s called carlos and for heavy metal.. Her flat is a treat. It’s an interior decoration work of art. By the bed is her “Guardian Angel” - he’s in a suspended suit of clothing and wears a hat and big boots but you can’t see him - only the clothing around the invisible figure. The covers of the bed and the chairs are tiger skin design. Black net hangs from the ceiling - elegantly done mind. And her oven is entirely coated in gold paper. Numerous dark and mysterious paintings hang on the wall..
And Petra and Carlos match entirely. Carlos graciously accepts my greeting and then has nothing more to do wity me. He’s interested in Doris. A bit.
Meanwhile Petra’s talking about something. I’m too drunk but she keeps saying total geil and then total krass. Guile means Horny. Krass means crass (I guess). Doris is uncomfortable but petra is in full flow about something that is total gross, her very expressive mouth is moulded enthusiastically around each of the words. Guten Rutsch. I fart as we leave. Sorry. It was bending down to put my shoes on again. Lost control.
Tante Vera has done me proud this year. A soup made out of all the vegetables in the house. It’s been a cold journey to get here, but then it is worth it. Her flat is warm, comfortable, well organised. We missed the bus at Friedrichshain because the damn thing was early. We saw it shoot by. You can’t stand around in a freezing wind like this. It assaults you. It cuts your face. It makes me dizzy almost. It takes your breath away going from a warm flat into it and walking along the debri of knaller, rockets and broken glass. It reminds me of stepping into the cold sea, early in the year on Seabrook beach. You get a bit acclimatised to being cold. But this is very cold. This is seriously seriously cold. So it’s best to keep walking and catch the tram. Actually its only -3 degrees C but the wind is cutting.
We came back over the trummer berg, the park made of rubble from the bombed out buildings in 1945 and 1946. It’s the Daemmerung. The grey falls over the city and the buildings behind sink into the dismal background. It is still light enough to see our footsteps and Doris wants to climb over the berg, crunching through the snow still deep beside the tracks made by others, still deep and crisp in the long stiffly frozen grass. Coming down there is the view over Berlin over to the television tower at Alex and beyond.
As arranged I met with Martina at Hackescher Markt S Bahh platform at 7.00pm. We walked to an Italian restaurant off the Oranienburgerstr. Where, she told me, she once saw the Environment Minister, Trittin, having his dinner. This must happen in capital cities...
Martina speaks about parenthood - her son Joschka is now 3 years old. Martina complains about matching up the times of school, kindergarten and her research work at the university. I tell he about Matt and Sarah’s enthusiasm for German childcare - but is it only Prenzlauerberg, when things are so good? We share a wine and then go out and....
The whole street has turned into a skating rink of black ice. It is possible to walk only with small, ultra careful steps. I have never known anything like this ever before - I have never felt so uncertain on my feet before. Everyone on the street is walking very very slowly and visibly with great care. So we shuffle along Oranienburgerstr., past the synagogue the police outside with sub machine guns and a panzerwagen, and then go into another basement cafe for another drink.
It is not a night to get drunk. Anxiety about going out again stays in the background of my mind as we share a table for 2 in the gloomy bar, full of people around tables with candles flickering inside paper bag lamp shades. I suppose I hoped it might have improved when we leave but it hasn’t. Fortunately there is a tram stop directly across the road from the door of the bar - and we both walk across gingerly, catching a tram to Hackescher Markt - where we part company.
At the point that I get off I could wait for a number 1 all the way up the Prenzlaueralle to my street - but it would be a very long walk at the other end - under normal circumstances fine but with blitzice not...I calculate that a 2, 3 or a 4 would be better because that is closer to the front door and safety...but getting to the stop for the 2, 3 or 4 is itself a dangerous walk. Even surfaces with some grit on them do not seem safe.
When the tram comes I sit in its temporary safety around to Alexanderplatz where a very elderly couple get on - an elderly man in particular looks very vulnerable to me. If he falls his bones....but his greater vulnerability does not take the edge of my fear of falling. The rain has fallen on the windows of the stassenbahn and then frozen immediately leaving streaks of ice.
When I get off the surfaces at the stop seem, if anything, even more slippery. The tram seems to stop a very long time, as if to give us extra time to take our tiny paces along the platform to its front, and then across the rails ahead of it - which takes one to the pedestrian crossing on the south flowing road carriage way. Waiting for the green man on the crossing light the traffic from the north is proceeding very slowly too - because to stop, at traffic lights turning red, carries a 100% certainty of skidding unless the cars slow ultra carefully from a very low speed.
As the light of the striding man turns green I step out onto the black ice sheet and shuffle across - reaching the other side the pavement is on the slightest of inclines and I feel even less secure - now I must cross over a few feet to cross the road again. I reach a lampost, hold on and steady myself. Although the light is already green I do not start - I want the full stretch of green light so I let it turn red and then wait for it to turn green again. While I am waiting, holding onto the lampost, I see a car eased into the curb - perhaps the driver is unsure of my intentions, or perhaps unsure of whether it will be able to stop anyway.
The light turns green and I cross the road again to the north. I reach the other side. I still have not fallen. Falling still seems highly likely. Falling still seems imminent. However here is a row of scaffolding with shelter underneath - and no ice - for about ten steps of safety and then a further stretch, not only of ultra slipperiness but broken bottles from the night before to fall onto. I pass the numbers along the street - 25, 26, 27 and finally I am there - pushing the large heavy door open - into the first courtyard, which is well gritted and then into the hall and stairwell - safety. But my mind is still full of the anxiety - so that it’s next pre-occupation is of the “what if....” Kind. What if there is ice like that for the next few days - what if the street is like this when I want to get my luggage back to the airport. Frankly I have no wish to go out again in conditions like this.
I step into a darkened flat. Doris calls out that she is already in bed.
My mind goes back to it. It is in replay still - additional memories to add. Like ambulances or the sirens of emergency services. Retrospective recall brings back several different kinds of street surfaces under the ice layer - deep and a superficial cobble styles, tarmack, tiles of concrete - the surface of the tram platforms with their oblong tiles. All of them slippery. The orange glow of the street lights reflected back out of them all in a crinkled glaze - though the tarmack outside of the lamplight seemed to be jet black, an unfathomable depth of slipperiness as if, one stepped into a darm space and falling was inevitable as it was only blackness under you.
In this sheen car headlights seemed to be deeply glossy. And everywhere the broken glass.
But now I am at the black trestle table finishing my ice notes under the table lamp, the clattering icy rain at the window, the oven radiating warmth still and it is time for bed
Morning. Deutschland Funk Radio at 9.00am about Europe. Two of the items are about Britain and one about Cyprus. The theme of one item is the aftermath to September 11th. It is about the integration of British Muslims in London. It is about their fears for the future and the growing mistrust felt for them. Then it is about a Peace House in Cyprus. Then there is an item on Royal Ascot, as the Germans see it.
The Germans see Royal Ascot as follows:
Men and women become ladies and gentlement. They dress up to participate in a piece of theatre - to be seen. All men must wear black shoes and all women must wear hats. Otherwise there is a lot of leeway - in particular the German observer notes a woman with stilleto heals and a deep decoletee studying a racing paper. Another woman with a short dress and no underwear is also memorable. Then the Queen and Prince Philip arrive. Prince Philip is looking at his shoes.
There are queues for the loos and at the cashpoints and a great deal of movement between the bars, the rail and the bookies.
In the toilets there is clear evidence for traces of chemicals that give another meaning to the term “High Society”.
At 10.00am Deutschland Funk tells us that the number of employed people has fallen in Germany. Public sector pay negotiations are tense because a 0% offer is apparently unacceptable.
Now it is breakfast with Doris and Rheinart, including a conversation about Glatteise - or Blitz Ice if you like. It happens about once a year.
© BRIAN DAVEY