Today my hair kept tangling in the buttons at the back of my coat. I spent a long time standing in doorways or under trees, thoughtfully fishing there with my fingers, dreamily, gingerly unwinding. I’ve been spending time in a cafe that was opened “ca. 1930” by the stout pretty dark-haired woman whose blurred photograph on the front page of the menu (hand-written) may have been one of the last ever taken of her. Berlin’s dark, sour, staining history runs alongside every step, like the raised seam of bricks which traces where the much more recent Wall has been carted off and destroyed: maybe she was torn down, maybe deprived of her life and livelihood, maybe dispatched, grossly outraged, starved, murdered, ruined, unforgivably gone.
The brass plaques, size of a cigarette packet, that here and there replace one or two cobblestones with a name or a family of gone names are, I found out, the work of one artist.
I spent much of the day in her cafe, writing and writing, had a bowl of broth with pancakes rolled and thinly sliced into it, lingered, in the air spiked with smoke, over a menu of dishes I couldn’t understand. Because even where I can translate, the concepts are unfamiliar and dim: Leberknoedel, Schupfnudeln, alles mit Kartoffelecken.
When I came out the blue hour had struck and everything felt festive. I went into a hat shop and wound my way along the walls right to the back. I picked up and fingered things, stroking and probing. I stood in front of their long polished mirror wearing a crimson top hat that was too big and came down over my brows.
My new Kiez is studded with turreted buildings, an old tollhouse, an old gatekeep. Many of them now are restaurants and the golden interiors, the white clothed tables, the solicitous bending of waiters in the windows – the shimmering, old-glazed, inviting windows – were so irresistible. I resisted. I went into the supermarket which bursting like fruit from a basket was so much more vivid, more lively than the dreamily acquiescent twilighttime street, and filled with families. Stubbornly determined to cook in my two-room palace of hired minimalism which has no pepper grinder, no chopping block, and no knives, I snatched up a small sack of potatoes, some garlic and onions, a roll of butter. I have powdered stock and a Swiss army knife and I reckon it’s enough to make soup.
It’s so cold. The insides of the windows are cold. Not too cold. Not just yet. Deliciously so. My landlady hovers like a ghost in the hollow of her white apartment, her beauty, her wide frightened blue eyes with their large pupils staring like bullets. I found our bed last night to be beautifully cosy and soft, woke to a window of tree. Once I’d had a bath there seemed little else to do and I felt so happy about that.
In the evening after I’d moved in, before the bath, I went out exploring, feeling hollow and hungry inside. A restaurant golden and beckoning softened the corner of my new street. I stood shivering in the dark for ten minutes and walked up and down and up and down again before I found the courage to walk in the door and thus enter its enchanted, entire, intact civil world. It was disconcerting, after all this long travel, how hard it felt just to walk in. Intruding on the community of this new district, unknown to me like a new city, by this decision to eat out took far more courage than I’d expected. I so often eat alone and I like that. But I guess my adventurousness is exhausted.
In Melbourne I used to notice this, every morning even when I’d been writing over my breakfast in the same cafe every day for months: the forcefield that people establish or emit when they form an unconscious community, shiftingly, by being all in the premises, by forming a varied, large party, strikes me like shyness buzzing electric across the doorway of every new cafe, and always has; this felt far harder.
Now, this evening, everything feels different. I can feel I have found my way. The new part of town is becoming my Kiez. Its dark streets of houses feel now already less intimidating and austere, more quietly homey and interesting and wan. My sublet in its dank courtyard is divided from the welcoming bustle of shops by a river of rushing lights pouring the hill, like sand, from one glass to another. My sight clears and I start to see. Not everyone here has money. Between the lifestyle shops are the lifeline shops, where hungry people find what they eat. I am hungry. I’m always so hungry. At the supermarket checkout a man in front of me said to the cashier, Holst du mir mal vierzig Cent? Ich habe keine Brille mit. Can you grab me the forty cents? I don’t have my glasses. Obligingly the guy sorted through the coins, patiently, turning them and showing them til he found the right ones. The guy behind me made a friendly remark and I turned it to advantage – a politician! Laying a finger on his bright yellow toilet rolls I asked, Have you ever thought of trying out the recycled kind? No, he said, in a tone that showed it’s never crossed his mind. It’s just that the trees take such a long time to grow, I said. And it takes a long time to replace the ones we chop. He gave me his twinkling smile. Next time, he promised, I’m going to remember that. I piled the stuff into my knapsack and took up the mesh bag of potatoes by its uppermost root. The corner of the sack yielded a perfect potato, an archetype, shaped and sized exactly like an egg. I closed my fingers and palm right round it and used that to carry them home, internally a handle. The high blue wintery sky and red lights were so absorbing that I accidentally walked right past my street and found a brand new park. The grass was still dimly green but the trees already blackened by night. Little children darted round the path, excited, calling out. As I turned back for home I saw a little family, with very young children, slowly climbing the damp stone steps carrying candle lanterns. The parents’ lamps genteelly leap-frogged each step, one by one, the candles swinging three feet up from the stone. But the littlest child, to whom walking is still a labour of concentration, held his lantern outstretched and swung it right forward with the effort of each step’s climb. I came home and put the potatoes on and put on all her lamps. The window above the bare desk is a square of black in this white soft room and I can hear as I’m typing the dark-throated toll of some old church’s beautiful, wild, German bells.