East BerlinTue, September 4, 2007 - 8:08 AM
It's not completely updated, but close.
Anyway, more "Traveling Adventures with Harvey" below:
A cheap hostel is not necessarily a good hostel. Never stay at the AO Hostel at the West Berlin Zoo. Never. The place was clean enough, but it was in West Berlin, which reminds me of the most plastic parts of LA. Downstairs was an Erotik Museum, a sex shop, a Burger King, and an adult video arcade. All these things (with the exclusion of the Burger King) are fine and present no ethical dilemma for me, but I don't want to sleep directly upstairs.
I went out for some Italian food around 22:30 and for the first time since I left the States, felt afraid on the streets at night. I slept with my passport and wallet underneath my pillow. The next morning, I bought some overpriced but tasty kaffee (Deutsch for Coffee) and called my friend Julika, a jewelry maker who was a visitor at CESTA early on in the month of August. She asked me to come over to her house in East Berlin.
The moment I stepped off the S-Bahn, I knew I was in a good place. The streets were cobblestone and there were artful graffiti, no-Nazis signs and murals everywhere I looked. Julika met me at the station. I have rarely been so glad to see someone I hardly new in all my life. We walked to her flat, a three-story walk-up, stopping for kaffee and pastry along the way. Julika lives in a rough building (not unlike CESTA) that used to be a squat. Then all of the artists and tenants that lived there started paying rent, and now, sadly, the owner is selling the building. Julika will move out and into another neighborhood in East Berlin in the middle of September, but on Sunday night, she invites my to stay with her. But let's backtrack.
Julika's flat is modest. She lives there by herself, but half the time her 7 year-old son, Neo lives there also. The ceilings are high and drying laundry hangs on the walls of the bathroom like friendly ghosts. Neo's friend Lotte, also 7, is with him. They are being watched by Lotte's father who lives downstairs. But right now all three of them are upstairs with Lotte's new hamster, who has just had babies. There are three of them. I find it interesting that I have never seen a baby hamster, even though my father, the late great Dr. Monkey, was a veterinarian and I worked for him throughout my adolescence. Then I am thinking about how he once told me that he never had an urge to go to Germany, and how I can understand this, but I am finally happy to be here. Then I am holding a baby hamster, and then it is time to check out Neo's very special school in Pankov (pronounced 'Panko'), a town right outside Berlin. (The holocaust stuff is coming, but not yet. First, Neo's school.)
I don't know what your normal, average German pre-school (called Kindergarten) or primary school is like, but Julika is involved with a group of parents who are making their own school, called Freie Naturschule. They are hiring teachers and fixing up some land and buildings in Pankov. It is complete enough to open the school on Monday, September 3rd. Today is just finishing touches, hanging out, eating soup made from plants in the garden, and children running around like maniacs.
The first thing I notice about the place is everything is green. I feel like I am on a farm. The schoolhouse is small. On one side is a light-wooden room with a small kitchen. This will be the Kindergarten, for ages 3-5. On the other side are two or three rooms with brightly colored rugs on their wooden floors. These are for the rest of the school, ages 6-10. I am meandering around, looking at pictures in the German children's books scattered on a low table, when a boy of around 6 in a long, red yarn wing hops out at me from behind a door. Without even thinking about it, I start to clown. He has a small toy sword, and I act afraid. The boy charges. I 'die,' falling on the floor and flailing around. Getting up, I ask "Sprechen sie Englisch?"
"Nien." Says the boy, ready to charge me again.
"In Deutsch,” I ask, and make a dead face and sound.
"Kaupfab." The boy says. This time when he charges, I yell "Kaupfab!"
The garden of the school is beautiful, lots of blackberry bushes, chickpeas, and nasturtiums. And the snails are different from Czech snails. Their shells are somehow more like the snails I remember from growing up in Santa Barbara.
After a time, we leave the beautiful school and go back to East Berlin. Julika drives around, pointing certain things out. “The wall used to be right there, along where those trees are. And those buildings there, that used to be Hitler’s, how do you say in English, headquarters.” An almost visible chill runs through her body.
The Second World War, Hitler’s rise to power, and the atrocities committed in the name of Deutschland hang heavily on the shoulders of the German people. There is a shame and a somberness here that is indescribable. There are no statues or monuments to this horrible man. There is no marker for where his headquarters, where he sat on high and made his catastrophic plans, or the bunker were he finally took his life once were. He has no grave. But the German people know. Sometimes, you hear mutterings about neo-Nazi skinheads (I have taken to checking the laces on people’s boots. Neo-Nazis wear white.) But most people (thankfully) don’t see them and don’t want to. German police are very serious about dealing with them. To Sieg Heil is illegal, punishable by imprisonment. Legend has it that after Adolph Hitler and Eva Brown drank their cyanide cocktails, the orders to the SS were to take their bodies outside and burn them. But the fire was not hot enough. These two demon people did not disintegrate into ash, but turned into a blackened and charred bubbling mess. One of the Allied forces (I don’t remember which one) took the remains and burned them, and legend has it that his ashes were flushed down the toilet. How appropriate. May his monstrous soul forever drown in the ocean of tears he has created.
Julika won’t tell me were we are going. She just says, “You’ll know.” We pass a building with a copper statue of Fortuna on top. “See that?” She points. “That’s Fortuna. I made her. Someday, she’ll patina.”
We arrive at a monument that covers an entire block. The ground is cobblestone and there are large, rectangular platforms, all of different heights growing out of the ground. We are at the Memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe. It is a vast place. There are no names here. Just numbers. Neo and Lotte think it is a huge playground. For some reason, this doesn’t bother me. Children create and understand games. Who wouldn’t want to play hide-and-seek here? Julika explains to them (in German) a little bit about where we are. But it doesn’t sink in. They are 7. In a few years, they will understand.
I walk through the maze, running my hands across the cool, smooth surface of the blocks. In many places, they are so high that they shut out the sunlight.
There is a museum downstairs that tells individual stories of several Jews who died at the hands of Hitler, but I don’t have the hour and a half to take it all in today. I will come back alone. With my notebook. Right before leaving, two men in wheelchairs and with tracheotomies and monitoring systems come up out of the museum exhibition with their caregivers/family. They seem to be in their 40s, look sad and are silent. I wonder why they are here, what has pulled them to this place. Are they at the end of their lives or will they recover? Are they Jewish? Did they have relatives in the SS? Why did they have to see all of this?
- - - - - - - - - - - -
We drop Neo and Lotte off with Lotte’s father and I walk with Julika to her choir rehearsal at LichtBlick Kino, a space that used to be a squat but now is (unfortunately) owned. LichtBlick Kino is a rehearsal studio, performance space, and movie house. On the way there, we pass the Lette’m Sleep a hostel that is painted bright orange and blue. (I will stay there when I get back to Berlin on the 7th and let you know how it ranks.)
Walking down the Kasanienallee, I can’t believe my eyes. Again everywhere is art. Everywhere a mural or a sculpture. And EVERYONE is speaking English. Julika goes to rehearsal and I walk around, exploring. There are street musicians on the corner outside the S-Bahn. A guitar and saxophone (though sometimes melodika) and looping station, they are playing what seems to be a combination of Reggae and Jazz Manouche. There is a girl in brightly colored, patched together clothing. She is the only person I have ever seen who dresses like my friend in the States, Max Salamander. She is dancing to the music, and I join her. She leans over in my ear and says something in German. “Spechen sie Englisch?” I ask.
“My name’s Hilke,” she replies. “You have really good energy! Where are you from?”
We talk and dance, exchange email addresses and I can tell I have found some of my tribe. I ask one of the musicians if I can use the mic and sing. “Sure!” I bust out for 15 or 20 minutes. A trans-woman with frosted pink lipstick and big hoop earrings starts talking to me. She’s from Spain, but is moving to Berlin. After asking me if I sing professionally, she says, “Berlin is wonderful. You can be whomever you want and no one bothers you. And it’s so cheap!”
A note about the English language for a moment: I feel incredibly bad about corporate America’s effect on the world. English as a universal language is a by-product of our capitalism and consumerism, but it is NICE to be able to communicate with everyone, and for Spanish, German, Czech, and Japanese people to all have a common language among them. So while I do try to learn a bit of the native tongue everywhere I visit, I am glad that we can all speak one tongue together.
Yesterday I took the train to Sczcecin, Poland, a town on the border of Poland and Germany. I’m visiting some friends I made at CESTA. I’m only here for four days, but am trying to stumble through the rudimentary phrases of this complicated language anyway. Till next time. . .
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