“Who the hell do you think you are?”
That was the question I kept asking myself from the time I booked my trip to Germany from the time I got back on the plane to Philly. It was a selfish retreat albeit a necessary culture excursion. I’ve been kind of stagnant in seeking out alternative forms of intellectual and artistic enlightenment.
I have had a pretty unhealthy fascination with the tribulations of WWII for as long as I can remember, which is one of the reasons I chose Berlin. I’ve never really geeked out from a historian’s perspective, but from an aesthetic point of view. I will never understand the fundamentals of persecution and genocide, but I can’t help but wonder what it is psychologically speaking that inspires the catalyst for action and also, the unintentional condoning of such actions that have taken place since the beginning of time.
While it is impossible to accept the heinous activities conducted by Hitler, there is so much obvious speculation and study regarding his life and crimes, which one may or may not admit, were the product of a mad genius. I recently had a short-lived conversation about Hilter amongst a group of intoxicated folk and everyone was scared to broach the issue at hand. How was he so convincing? How did this happen? Could it had been avoided? What tools do you have to have in order to accomplish such dubious feats?
When I arrived at the Frankfurt airport, I was on edge. The sheer tension of order and control reigned supreme as soon as I found myself lost amidst the indecipherable words on the signage that led me back to the same place over and over again. The authority figures weren’t hard to spot, and I was abruptly made aware of their presence due to the more fashionable uniforms they adorn themselves with. What’s with that?
In all honesty, I was way too proud, trying to come off as a well-traveled, citizen of the world, so I refused to ask for help. Plus, I never bothered with learning German because I’m kind of an asshole like that. Sure enough, my fears subsided and I received assistance from one of the friendly yet stoic airport employees who exclaimed, “But of course!” when I asked if she spoke any English (in English, but of course).
I was happy in an ironic way to see that there were smoking cabins in the airport, a double-edged luxury that surely Europeans appreciate more than the average denizen. I hesitated to partake in a fag before my flight, but I thought to myself I might as well do as the foreigners do, even though it was me who was the foreigner.
I was happy once I found my way to the terminal. Also, I was so relieved to have gotten off the first flight in which I sat across from a couple who were obviously first time parents, unable to control their unruly toddler. I think they were convinced that you’re supposed to treat a 3 year-old like a 3 month old, because they kept coddling it the more it cried despite the fact that there were several other silent babies on the flight. I felt bad, but at the same time I was annoyed. I almost handed my scotch to them and said, “Here, put this in her bottle.” I digress.
The second flight was quick and easy. The Berlin airport was well organized and clean, the complete antithesis of the Philadelphia airport. I was kind of sad to leave the plane, I was becoming quite accustomed to the courtesies of the Lufthansa staff and their attention to the details of keeping you utterly loaded with fine spirits. Oh the wine I had!
I was greeted by the brisk German air which explained why all of a sudden everyone had thick scarves wrapped around their necks. It wasn’t fashion, it was a necessity. A short(ish) bus ride later and it was time for me to bust out my navigational skills. I was pleased when I learned that there was a bus that took you right downtown to a stop a few blocks away from my apartment. I was confused as to how the ticket system worked, apparently it was way too convenient to understand, coming from the world of SEPTA. I felt like I was a visitor from a time machine and that all the modern technology was astounding and difficult to use, but I got the hang of it. Turns out, you buy an (affordable) all day ticket, get it stamped at your first stop, and you can use it for all modes of transportation throughout the day. How novel!
On the bus ride, the first few miles (or kilometers, I should say) felt a lot like home. There were rundown buildings and old abandoned factories rife with graffiti. Streets interrupted the steady flow of other streets that were parallel to a major highway. The signage was more all-inclusive appropriate, with picture graphics depicting bikes and arrows in an obvious statement of who and what was supposed to go where. The entire ride, there was an older couple staring at me, probably asking themselves the same question I was asking myself, “Who do you think you are?”.
I arrived at my destination that I couldn’t pronounce for shit, but I knew what direction I was going, so I was fine. I doubted myself and stopped by a Postmark (Post Office?) and they told me I was a long way off but going in the right direction. Approximately 4 minutes later, I had arrived. But I realized, I hadn’t contacted the owner of the apartment since my arrival, I was too carried away with being immersed in the culture and architecture of fair Berlin. Whoops.
I went next door to the apartment to eat at a Thai food place and I assumed (being the ignorant American) that I could communicate with the lovely hostess slash owner slash waitress slash cook lady that was running the joint. It didn’t work. I pointed at something on the menu that looked vaguely familiar (I think the words “Pad” and “Thai” were involved) then she asked me something in German and I turned into Bambi. “CHICKEN!?” she yelled at me and I was unjustly offended that she would assume such a thing. I shook my head yes.
After I slowly finished my CHICKEN and unsuccessfully tried to connect to the internet on my laptop to email the apartment owner, I sat outside and had the first of 10,000 cigarettes I was to smoke on my vacation.
Soon enough, as the cold rain sprinkled down on my superfluous layers of clothing (to avoid bag check), my host, Clemens arrived, looking dapper and fabulous with his stylish jacket, couture jeans, bald head and serious smile. He came baring flowers. For me?
He apologized for being late and I explained that nothing bothered me, I was on holiday. He put the lovely flowers in the vase, straightened up the place, collected the remaining balance and told me where the cafes were. He said I could leave the keys on the table in the dining area so we wouldn’t have to see each other and I pouted in spite of myself, hoping that he had other plans for me, including me, with me, you get the gist…
I was officially in Germany. With it’s torrid past and innovative future, I was pleasantly at home there. Despite the cold and the rain, I was ready to be inspired.
Walking down the streets to the cafe, it felt ordinarily European, with its wobbly stoned streets and the remnants of building structures that are hundreds of years old. Everyone had scarves in varying degrees of colors, styles and thicknesses. I immediately noticed how natural looking the females were, with little makeup, but proud, beautiful faces full of prominent features: thick lips, bulbous noses, thick hair. The men were all voluptuous in stature, with strong gaits, plump faces, and a large amount of men had little hair or shaved heads. There was also an abundance of clean shaven faces. Oh well.
I first went looking for an Apokethe (Pharmacy?) so I could buy all of those things I couldn’t put in my one bag that I was traveling with. Before long I realized that not a lot of places accept credit cards or any bill over 50 Euro, so I had to double back a couple of times. But soon enough I was in business. There were so many different cuisines represented amongst the plethora of fast food and dining restaurants, all scattered amongst the cafes and clothing shops and residential buildings. I was in Schöneberg, which is on the West side, in the preDOMinantly gay area. There were rainbow flags and stickers everywhere, fetish shops here and there, and a lot of bars. We gays love the sex and booze I suppose.
Considering the amount of stuff there was in the 10 block radius of the apartment where I was staying, it was still relatively quiet.
One of the first places I went to hang out (that I can’t spell, let alone pronounce) was a big pub-like bar slash cafe that had free wireless. A godsend. I was fortunate enough to not have an internet connection in the apartment, it would have really robbed me of a lot of time to explore, so having a limited amount of time at the cafe bar proved to be the best solution to satiate my workaholic needs. The bartender was uber friendly and spoke several languages and once again I was plagued with the dilemma of to-tip-or-not-to tip, a hotly contested issue in some European cities. I’ve heard so many different versions that I just go with my gut and throw out a Euro or two to thank them for their hospitality.
As aforementioned, there was a certain air of comfort and home, and certainly a fair amount of order and respect for authority. There were no turnstiles, no police walking around, dogs followed their owners without leashes, there were trans cans on every block and their bus stops had GPS schedules letting you know what time the next one was coming. People got on the train with their open cans of beer and there was no sense of chaos anywhere I went. People walked up to me and asked to listen to my headphones to see what I was listening to. Whenever someone overheard me speaking English, they jumped at the opportunity to practice the language (sans that bitch who yelled “CHICKEN!?” at me).
Still, there was this overpowering amount of sadness in my brain thinking about all the people who were murdered there or close to there. The monuments, the rebuilding, it is all quite noticeable the amount of strife that town has had to endure. I really enjoyed feeling like I was in a modern and hip town, but I couldn’t help but think about what it used to be.
I tried to assimilate the treacherous demands the Nazi regime made on Germany and other countries. Many times I stood still and held my breath, remembering how people must have suffered, so innocent, so unfairly. It was emotionally trying for me, and of course, quite inspirational. The town has really tried to shed that abominable reputation while going out of their way to remember what they have survived. I thought of home. I thought of the struggle of my people. I thought of all the people currently suffering at the hands of callous politicians and militant extremists.
And of course with all of this came the wine and dine and romance that Europe is so well known for. I was seduced by their food and their sweetly aggressive men. I was wooed, bothered, bewildered. It is just plain weird to think of yourself as a “sexy American”, but it becomes quite clear when you are thrust into a world of purebreds and transients.
I thought a lot about love, listening to the cooing of the Berliners. It was so nice to sit in a crowded place and not know what anyone was saying. I got to zone out and smile to myself, enjoying the inability to communicate. It was divine, really. The greatest escape. Also, it gave me a lot of ideas for movement pieces as I witnessed how people communicated with their bodies, because I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.
Sadly, I didn’t make it to the museums. I was lucky enough to meet a fine gentleman to tour me around to some of the historical sites downtown in the center city where East meets West. I also did not venture to the East side, but I have to say that my short time was well spent. All I really wanted to do was live like the locals do, feasting on foods, shopping, drinking, walking around, smoking lots of cigarettes. It was just what I needed and I came back with a lot more than I expected. Not that I had expectations at all, but I know that I did find a part of myself that I never knew, so now I am one step closer to answering that elusive question.