On memory, boredom, fissures
I recently returned to Berlin after a number of years, eight or so, since I’d lived there in a strange period of my life. It was where I first took writing seriously, learning about the rhythms of urban inhabitation and the singularity of being a person wandering. Benjaminian ghosts may be a tad conceited as a comparable image, gauche, though it speaks to the unravelling. In a full circle moment I was coming back to the city as a more fleshed-out writer and editor for a reading and workshop for the press, though as the date kept on being pushed back for covid-related reasons I didn’t give it much thought about the ramifications of what returning might be like. Flight cancellations adding to the air of uncertainty and surreality of the visit.
Apart from Benjamin, Christopher Isherwood’s description of boredom that permeates the city was something that I latched onto during my wayward time there. The image of slow toil in one of Sohrab Shahid Saless’ films, Far from Home (1975) I think, plays on my mind too. A tale of Turkish migrant labourers in the slums of West Berlin; a parallel story of displacement of my grandparents to Birmingham and London perhaps. And there I was in an old coal-oven heated apartment in Wedding, wrapped in blankets watching arthouse films and reading slowly. Depressed, probably. Formative.
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I only read Paul Beatty’s Slumberland after I’d left, and it's a shame because it would have been useful as a point of grounding, if not exactly relatable. There’s a bit where he goes, making abundantly clear though I won’t give away the punchline (let’s just say it involves a wall – what wall? – exactly), that hedonism is the only game in town for the western interloper. History; politics; ridden over roughshod for the thrill of contextless grime and perverse fun. He’s talking about the 80s as a Black American but it held up. Yet I wasn’t there for that. Sure, I went clubbing, in fact learnt about club culture, but it was an intense aesthetic experience, one that broke up the monotony of the days more than anything else. I was imbibing a lot shit, which meant Europe, seeing a defamiliarised look into a world very much contiguous with Britain. It was deeply strange, particularly learning the various racial and sexual codes.
We had been put up in one of these new contactless hotels, all pristine, mechanical and unyielding in its impersonal code-entry systems. A stone’s throw from the bookshop, it’s fairly evident that this new-build, part of a block of developments, is not entirely welcome judging from the local boys hassling the bookshop staff, and certainly not in keeping with the endearing quality of low-rent Wedding. Again, in a strange turn, this is about a ten minute leisurely walk from where I used to live, along the canal, opposite the various industrial plants and immigration centre.
After a late-night doner situation, I wake relatively early and go for a wander down Leopoldstrasse, amble around Leopoldplatz with its strewn-out stalls, ice-cream, coffee, bakeries – all very normal and low-key. I am reminded of the ethical promise of urban life, something which Berlin always glimmers with, meanwhile the open-space leaves you light-headed and disoriented. I walk down backstreets, past a place known for gemüse kebab, fairly near to where the sushi place we used to frequent once stood. I recall the infamous Mustafa’s that we drove past last night in Mehringdamm, and on Hermanstrasse in Neukölln on the bridge above the tracks.
I am aiming for a bakery we used to go to, and one I remember for the friendly Turkish-German women who served us. The walk took me past a brewery and apple juice place under some housing near a park, a place I had totally forgotten and felt deeply sentimental about. Memory is an odd thing. Nothing much had changed bar the Extinction Rebellion stickers reading: “NO SPÄTIS ON A DEAD WORLD”. You’d have to be a pig not to laugh. The bakery had revamped itself and looked too schicky for my tastes, so I went back around the corner to the old white German bakery and got myself a coffee and a nuss-nougatcroissant – so called to highlight its superiority to the pan au chocolat, or so I like to think – grunting in slightly improved German, though none-the-wiser to the Berliner reply I received. I sat outside and wrote some poetry. I’d put it here but I’m wary of this becoming a poetry-dumping space, so I’ll hold off for now.
The evening reading went well, had Yogurtlu Adana for dinner after, wandered about the city, went to bed, another schokocroissant in the morning followed by fruit to soften the stodge, and workshop to finish up the work commitments. My partner A was to join that evening, and we were staying down in Neukölln, out of necessity, rather than choice. We stayed down there, in two places, when we initially moved back in 2014. The place was heaving, I was knackered, it was hot. Checked-in and lied down, willing myself to rise and find a mandelhörnchen for A’s arrival before all the bakeries shut. I lumbered around, had a belegtes brötchen to regain vigour, one filled with fish fingers and sweet chilli sauce; super. No hörnchen though. There was some bustle on the street. A wedding convoy had been held up by the police. Lots of well-groomed brown men looking very serious milled around. I joined the groups of fairly interested folks, though it didn’t feel tense at all, more like passing the time looking for a shared spectacle. Found the elusive sweet treats nearby, all dense almondy goodness, and bought three, not really noticing in the blur of navigating deutsche Sprache that they were enormous.
A arrived, we went looking for the Sudanese place we used to go to, ended up somewhere similar in Kreuzberg, but it didn’t match the standards implanted in our memories. Next morning we visited our old flat in Wedding, which has been inhabited uninterrupted by our friend N for the period since. He had made us gluten-free apricot oat biscuits which we munched on while caught up in the hot, smoky flat. Orange sheets functioned as curtains lending an insta-friendly filter to the occasion; all luminous and surreal. We’d brought Fritz Limo Orange - his favourite, serendipitously. He’d made a vegetable soup with chunks of potato, carrot and so on, and fried up gluten-free bread for croutons. It tasted fairly similar to my mum’s standard soup growing up, when we didn’t mush it up, and, ironically N told us about how an old English Mitbewohner decades ago had influenced him. He found it novel that she used lemon in everything. We parted with some sentimentality, and headed back south to meet with H and a friend of his. There was some gallery weekender and we just milled about chatting, drinking and smoking. The friend had recently been to a great bao place so we headed that way.
There was a mundane intensity to everything that seemed to be occurring. We were passing through a green part whereupon a kitted-out cyclist frantically waved at us. A man had passed out, not breathing, blood trailing down his arm from shoot-up marks and he hadn’t a phone. Noone else had stopped; ‘this is Berlin’, he said. We weren’t sure if he meant this is Berlin and he expected better, or this is Berlin and all its all gone to shit. We gave CPR while on the phone, and of course the ambulances turned up right at the moment of his waking moment; cue contempt for addicts, rather than empathy for life-endangerment.
We went off, shaken a bit, to find the bao place full. We headed to a Mexican, where I had a very cheesy quesadilla. Content and calmed, we were sat on a square gnattering away, mossies at the call. Bed beckoned. Next day. Out to one the lakes, something we’d never done before. Hit the early season before all the crap and piss had accumulated it seemed. Had a lunch of matjes and baked potato which was reminiscent of a meal I had relatively recently at Munich airport. We’d been searching for good matjes ever since we’d eaten an incredible belegtes brötchen out in Moabit on a low day way back when. We went back to the station and picked up soft-serve ice cream, with alternate streams of chocolate and vanilla. A lot the trip revolved around memory, the deployment and recapturing of tastes, the novelistic drive to accumulate and reflect on details. It felt cathartic and therapeutic.
Jonathan Nunn has written on his coinage of “gastrogeography”:
“to refer to the mapping out of a city via its food and restaurants, a kind of joke referring to the Situationist theory of psychogeography (itself a kind of joke) and the possibility of some overlap between the kind of restaurant writing I’m interested in and writers working in other fields.”
Nunn’s non-food writer in this case is the ever-present Iain Sinclair:
“whose fictional and non-fictional works perambulate around London, sometimes figuratively, often literally, [Sinclair] is obsessed with escaping London’s financial gravity and trying to find where the fabric of the city has warped enough to produce something interesting, where the city of his youth has disappeared to.”
This warping that Nunn refers to is very reminiscent of the fissures that someone like Sean Bonney sees throughout the city; zones, edges, surfaces that marked out the secret cargo of the oppressed that laid in-wait, exuding latent molten energy at the instance of contemporary crisis (Bonney was also keen to distance himself from Sinclair’s coterie of psychogeographic mappers).
In both versions–Nunn’s and Bonney’s-a peripatetic mapping, sensual experience and literary sedimentation is emphasised. I have been interested, in many guises, with the layering of urban histories, cultural memory and contemporary experience. Mapping out Berlin, for me–from gemüse kebab, nuss-nougatcroissant, through to mandelhörnchens and belegte brötchens–has been a way to connect an uneasy time through to something more settled and knowing. It's the sort of reflection, I hope, that seeks to both articulate something generative–and true–about a place, a wider polity, a cultural modality, as well as feed the emotive and sensory aspects of an interior life that make up my subjectivity.
The ongoing saga, that was giving me incalculable grief, was my inability to obtain a turkish tea. At every turn it either hadn’t been boiled yet, or I was too late, it had been turned off. On the last night we had Vietnamese food with H and strolled along for a while soaking in the town. On the way back we noticed a baklava place and decided off-the-cuff to get a few pieces. We ended up getting one piece of each variety, and, lo and behold, the elusive turkish tea for all. Succulent mouthfuls of pistachio-green goodness accompanied with prolonged draughts of astringent red liquid, sugar-cube dissolving slowly. Job done.
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