You must go to Berlin

 

 

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Living by the Rosa-Luxemburg Platz U-bahn, Berlin in November.

“You must go to Berlin” is a refrain we heard from Oslo to Budapest. Travelers and vagabonds swore by it. The itinerant European indicated a promise of a unique experience. The returning Israeli soldier insisted on how Berlin suited his travel (how its spirit suited him) in Europe hitting back after every leap out into the creases and frontiers of Europe. This time he was returning from Iceland, where we had met him a few weeks back. Another one insisted on joining her as she traveled to Berlin for a porn film festival. I didn’t know what to make of these until the evening I coursed through its multi-level underground metro and bahn system and surfaced above, on the massive Potsdamer Platz square. Larger still and standing in contrast is the Alexander Platz square which appears as though the city planners didn’t know what to do with the twenty acre plot. It is a gift of planning from the former East Germany. The strange looking  placement of Park Inn Hotel, the world clock and the shopping complex with confused looking trams and vehicles stopping across the the roads for signal.

Berlin is a restless city. Restless, not in an Asian-city sense and certainly not in its pace. It is restless in its production, its opinion, its taste and in its character. I say this from having spent time mostly in the East Berlin. For a visitor it is hard to characterize Berlin. It is a relief that such a place exists which has slipped out from the many attempts to stereotype it. Berlin’s hard to stereotype character is sensed when travelers – frequent or first timers like me, take a pause after the first “It is an interesting city” remark. Nothing follows by the way of explanation after that. The difficulty is then covered by the traveler recollecting her experiences or personal life stories that unfolded in the city but nothing that could explain why one found it ‘interesting’. Berlin renders clichés like ‘enigmatic’ and ‘rich’ hollow in their meaning. To a traveler who has been a reader of its history and spectator of its present the city is a stream of cultural, intellectual and political rapids with currents of every grade that occurred along the course of its history still whirling by. The traveler can begin rafting at any level and get washed away in the ensuing course.

As I arrived and got on to its dense network of U-bahn and tried in vain to make sense of the profusion of graffiti that covered every visible surface from foot level to the top of multistory buildings. The little buttons on the traffic signals too were in service of the graffiti messages. They displayed messages from chiding the reader of his bourgeois life to assertions of an independent taste and opinion on matters from artistic taste to sexuality. And unlike Oslo, the graffiti here dared with their placement and by their reach from the wagons of metro trains, sides of buildings and of course on the still remaining stretches of the Berlin wall. The city bursts with opinion on every issue – fringe or mainstream, big or small. I think every Berliner in his life must have had some paint on her and made a graffiti at least once in her life. That should perhaps be a more suitable definition of a Berliner than the beaten one that a Berliner crosses the road only when it is flashes green for the pedestrian.

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Sections of the Berlin Wall as seen at Potsdamer Platz. These were the L-shaped concrete blocks which were used to replace the conventional wall after a German soldier from East Berlin used an armoured vehicle to ram into the wall, break it and escape. 

On the political front, the city continues to nurture Marxist intellectualism and attracts scholars from the frontiers of communist thought and political action into spending some time exploring the tomes in its many archives and libraries. A mere walk around its main thoroughfares itself is an education in communist history – from Karl Marx allee to Rosa Lumxembourg Platz. Elsewhere, Lepizig renamed its Ho Chi Minh Strasse and back home Kolkata stayed with its Ho chi Minh Sarani. Berlin tried renaming in dozens, yet a fair deal remains. When it came to renaming Clara-Setkin Strasse which runs along the Reichstag, a leading Berlin feminist Marianne Kriszio is reported to have asked “Have we nothing better to do than to slander the memory of such women?” Evidently, renaming is a touchy subject. This is pretty much similar back home in India, from Delhi to Bengaluru. Renaming of streets can evoke public sentiments as fast as a monsoon roll over of dark clouds.

I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s quote as I recollect losing our way finding the Berlin Philharmonic and later, the way to Rosa Luxembourg Platz on a late evening – “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”  It was November rain quite literally as I walked down from the skyscraper lined Bahnof Potsdamer Platz towards Brandenburg Gate and looked at remains of the wall all along. This arc of history on a single avenue is quite rare in metropolitans of our times, a sure sight to revel in. I imagined that a walk down this avenue on an afternoon can do the work of two weeks of world history classes for the students I teach here in school.

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The approach to Brandenburg Gate from the Victory Pillar

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The approach to Reichstag from Brandenburg Gate

Berlin’s socialism, its workers’ unions and their almost militant activism to safeguard wages and its intellectualism in art, music, lifestyle, philosophy and political thought is unmatched. No other city perhaps exhibits such a wide spectrum. If there is the classic socialism, then there is also the new left and both challenged menacingly by the right wing conservatives like AfD.

While a fraction of young Berliners choose to propagate and be a part of the Identitarian Movement, spreading fast across Germany and France, there is the horde of bohemians and hipsters who confuse the identitarians with their disregard for nationalism and to rigid ideologies. The ideological inclinations of the Berlin hipsters appear to be as diverse as their facial hair styles and marked by as many different thoughts as their body piercings. That is the beauty of Berlin. It all comes together as a very busy, forever changing collage, where each piece is a history as well as a commentary on the contemporary at the same time. Berlin seems to vow to not let any new wall ever get erected!

To a traveler, I’d respond in the same eager tone – You must go to Berlin! This European capital is a river with rapids to be rafted by the visitor. Jack Lang’s words stringing the two cities in a single sentence sure seem apt, “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!”

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Paris, in full faith

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Paris, November 2016

Paris was up next when Berlin’s time was up on this tour of the European capitals. Then,  the bus turned to Leipzig and onward to Amsterdam through the night until the morning broke over the Dutch landscapes and the autobahn cooling it off as it  entered the Netherlands. The night was frantic on the  German side with its super large trailers bellowing  through on the road network in many directions. Paris would rise on the horizon after a day long bus ride over the Flanders and across Belgium, the country known as the Battleground of Europe.

Paris of November, 2016 – the very real would keep  punching the Paris of literary imagination in its face over the next week. Literary Paris, which those outside France have read about and imagined. The ‘lost generation’ and its many writers were cradled by the streets and spaces and pubs of this beautiful city. Shakespeare and Co, the  legendary bookstore wasn’t any better than the good old Bangalore bookshop which has supplied its readers with serendipitous finds buried in the several book racks over three floors. The only difference was that Shakespeare and Co had a legend behind it and travelers like me walking through its doors everyday trying to catch hold of at least an iota of that legendary space that the writers of yore from Paris have written about. One imagines if there would be any significant difference between the cemetery close by at Montparnasse and this bookstore besides the books and a live person sitting by the counter.

By the way of confession, I must write that I was digging this bookstore’s pics and the many bits of references about Paris in writings for long before I walked this city’s streets. The full faith lived as long as the first twenty four hours. After that it was a pack of butter carried across on a tropical journey.

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Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Paris

This isn’t about my disappointment with the city. Neither am I undergoing the proverbial Syndrome de Paris or Pari shōkōgun as the Japanese call it. It is by any measure a very fine city and capital. No complaints with its people either. The acts of restraint and a weak sense of willingness to help visitors is not just Parisian. It is a malice of the metropolis and likely to be seen in any large city of the world. Try stopping anyone in Mumbai hurrying past during the rush hour.

It is about the misplaced emphasis. It is also about trying to find life and requisite words to describe them in dead places and empty structures. The Paris of today is coming to life in its many levels of metro trains and RERS underground. It is unfolding in the trams snaking through the familiar boulevards into the suburbs which are coloured red, green and yellows signboards of Doner Kebabs, Vietnamese food and the Bombay restaurants.

The Afro sporting heads are far too many in the sea of heads that emerge from the Gare Du Nord and dissolve away on the several streets that branch out. The small framed Asians hustle through in the Parisian rain having made peace with the European weather. Then there are those milling in the crowd practicing the right pronunciation of Champs Elysees.

An evening of Open Mic at Spoken Word revealed somewhat different face of the city. An intereting picture of the city was seen in that basement at Au Chat Noir where the poems were being read. The ones who signed up to read their works or of others, were as much immigrant in their origins as the ones that the city is seeking to resist at its borders.

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Open Mic at Spoken Word, Au Chat Noir, Paris

Proust’s, Baudelaire’s or Gertrude Stein’s Paris appears changed way beyond its character of those decades. The borders are more visible and the paranoia of terror more felt than ever. Amidst this, what writing can do is to try recognizing the appearance of the city as it stands today. Only the gaze of the Gargoyle that sits on Notre Dame Cathedral remains the same. In its form and content the writing of today needs to see Paris as it is today, if it ever intends to help Paris syndrome from affecting travelers. The syndrome afflicting Parisians might also get worked upon when contemporary writing holds up the mirror to them.

Even as the immigrant camp in Paris was being erased and the migrants forced to move on, it failed to realize that it were the very same immigrants that made Paris in its cultural and knowledge production. If it were not for them perhaps twentieth century in France would have been a blank page.

James Thurber saw Paris as a post-graduate course in everything. He wrote, “The whole of Paris is a vast university of Art, Literature and Music… it is worth anyone’s while to dally here for years. Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in everything.”. And this to me stands as the most appropriate quote about Paris from the pile of mush that writers have said of it.

Without a doubt Paris is a beautiful city with original tastes and adorable, idiosyncratic ways. However, to soak in this alone would be delusional. Much violence happens underneath it which the blinds of literature, culture and fashion doesn’t make visible.