The main dilemma of the past month or so has been that I have not been sure if I want to stay in Berlin or head off on further travels. It feels odd to reduce this sentiment to a single sentence, as this decision has been taking up a lot of space in my head – and has lead to a lot of unease, soul searching, general unhappiness . . . as my savings are of course finite I either need to sort things and commit OR. The mythical plan B. Which involves not going home, but probably another train or plane, and a job somewhere else. Either way – decision time has been slowly taking chunks out of me on a daily basis with the pendulum swinging according to my mood. Berlin has lost a little of the glitter it had last year, I guess things are never the same the second time around – and from the start it was missing that inherent new-city weirdness you get when you first arrive somewhere you have never been before. I wish that I’d had the money to be able to stick around last year when the enthusiasm was rolling. But its charms are nevertheless inescapable, and the thought of leaving the people I have met and abandoning the idea of living in Berlin make me feel queasy. I’m pretty much terrified either way.
On Wednesday night I went for drinks with my friend in Friedrichshain and thought that I’d pretty much cracked it. Walking over Warschauer Strasse bridge at sunset gets me every time, and it’s tempting to stick around just based on that alone. At the right time and in the right light that is my undisputed favourite view of the city. It was a quiet and happy night, I thought for better for worse I would stay – I would finally abandon travel plans for the time being and throw everything I had at Berlin.
Then I woke up on Thursday morning and decided, actually, I still wasn’t sure. I had been toying with the idea of going on a trip for a few weeks either to get it out of my system, or as a push to encourage me to maybe keep travelling. Something inside my head finally snapped and I booked flights on impulse – for that day. I have never done this before and I’m still fairly certain that it errs on the side of crazy. But anyway. I studied trains and planes out of Berlin to find cheap deals on interesting places. Vienna was top of my hitlist, but it turned out that the single train journey to Vienna cost the same price as return flights to Copenhagen.
First piece of Copenhagen travel advice would be this: Cheap flights you say? Really, really cheap flights!? Copenhagen is the third most expensive city in Europe apparently, so you might win on transport but you lose on EVERYTHING else. I ended up paying the most I have ever paid for a bed in a hostel. Although there were plenty of young people staying there, there was also a fair amount of families and a more than usual proportion of post-hostel age real adults. I should point out it was a trendy type hostel close to a lot of bars, which was definitely aimed at a younger crowd – so I’m going to put the mixed clientele down to the extortionate Copenhagen accommodation rates. I have paid the same amount for a double room in a nice guesthouse before . . . ouch.
The last minute nature of this trip meant that I had no plans at all, and virtually no idea of what interesting things there were to see and do in Copenhagen. In some ways the point of the trip was to clear my head rather than tick things off a list, so it was ok. It’s also nice to be surprised:
Nyhavn was beautifully photogenic with it’s lines of little restaurants and moored boats. I imagine this place is probably at it’s atmospheric best on a misty night, sipping whisky and listening to live music. Seems like it would be good for a sea shanty or two. Also the painted buildings remind me surprisingly of the buildings along the river in Innsbruck (the header photo of this blog) although everything was totally different of course.
I spotted the corkscrew spire of this church in the Christianshavn area and needed to get a closer look. On approach I realised that there was a staircase around the spire, and it was open to the public to climb. Now, I am not scared of heights. I have scaled the Eiffel Tower, lingered on the outdoor terrace of Heron Tower in London, been up the Empire State building; but OH GOD was the Church of Our Saviour experience terrifying. The steep, old wooden stairs on the way up should have been a good clue, but one I got outside the terrace was very exposed with the gold railings suddenly looking very unsubstantial. The floor was wooden and also ever so slightly pitched, I snapped some quick photos of the view and decided there was no way I was climbing to the top – my legs were already jelly.
As far as hollow tourist experiences go, the little mermaid statue is at the top of the list for Copenhagen. I wandered out to the docks out of a sense of duty, took photos with the rest of the hoards and left feeling slightly cheated and bemused. I have no idea why this statue is such a Big Deal, it seems like everyone has just got caught up in the Copenhagen top 10 hype. However, I will credit this statue with getting me out of the city centre to an area I might not otherwise have visited. A cruise ship had docked in the port which was a curiosity for me, and I later took a ‘shortcut’ through the Kastellet citadel/star shaped fortress near by.
The next day I went to the Tivoli Gardens, a cute little amusement park in the city. The place was filled with candyfloss scoffing kids and their grandparents, and although the chilly weather eventually prompted me (jacket-less idiot) to leave I still had a fun time. The Tivoli gardens reminded me a little bit of a British seaside town with its ferris wheel and large show pavilions, it dates from 1843 and I have a suspicion that my grandmother would have enjoyed the gardens and atmosphere here more than I did – but it was charming nonetheless.
In the evening I hit the town to see what Copenhagen had to offer. I had opted for quite drinks at the hostel and avoided going out for the few first evenings just out of sheer ennui. Berlin nightlife has really been taking it out of me, so partying wasn’t exactly top of the agenda, plus oh-my-god-the-cost-of-everything! But of course I couldn’t leave without checking out a bar or two, and my hostel companion and I discovered a few good ones.
We met some British expats extolling the virtues of living in Denmark in Charlie’s. I discovered to my absolute shock that this place sold stout brewed by Porterhouse (a small group of bars and a microwbrewery) in Dublin – one of my favourite old haunts from university times. On a tip off from the expats we then headed to a place called The Moose:
The Moose was full of moose porn murals like this one. I have absolutely no idea what was going on here, but I know this bar was awesome! We met some more expats: a guy from Dublin and a girl who had lived in Berlin for a year, and we hung out with those guys all night. This was a bit weird for me because it was my past and my present meeting – it was odd to talk to them both about beloved Dublin/Berlin places of mine – and life and local idiosyncrasies in those cities. It makes me sad in retrospect, without really being able to say why. I think maybe I’m homesick for the nostaligic idea I have of these places when I know the reality can be harsh.
Thus ends my Copenhagen adventure. I actually ended up going on a brief trip road trip across to Malmo in Sweden, which is just across the water – but it was a bit dull, so I’ll spare you the details on that one.
As for my decision on Berlin? Unsurprisingly I’m still not sure, but obviously operating on a tight deadline here. Urgh.
I recently came across a quote by travel writer Paul Theroux; ‘Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going.’ Never has this seemed more relevant to my life than it does at the moment.
On the terrace by the lake the rain pours on a Saturday afternoon. A cold glass of wine, condensation dripping down the outside. Later when the rain stops we sit by the lake at sunset, mist rising off the water. ‘It doesn’t have to be this way’. You say. But the city pulls us back on her tendrils, pulls us down into the vortex. Parties that never end, wooden floors, echoes and ghosts. Night bleeding into dawn already, but you have barely arrived.
Fleeting glances of yourself in the mirror, a reflection you hate so much. A reflection you don’t recognise, pin prick pupils or a dark pool the covers your entire eyes. Pale and shaky and cut adrift. What happened? What paths brought me here?
A reflection that you try to seduce. When you look a certain way, when you smile, lower your eyes. Change your hair. Change your dress. Try to find a combination that will make him want to fuck you. That will make people like you. That will make the city accept you. But it’s all lost when you hate what you see. Shake your head. Shake your head. Walk away.
At 4am on a U-bahn platform he tries to explain. But we’ve heard it. Before. And –
Can’t take it now.
DROWN YOUR SORROWS
Berlin is not perfect, but a different form of not-perfect to the last thing. Maybe a better form. Maybe. Nothing is ever quite perfect as our perceptions and expectations are in constant flux. Always saving for tomorrow. Accept the imperfect nature of things as they are.
But the swans and the willows by the canal on this perfect August afternoon. Happiness is as fleeting as the image of it in your head.
Smoke that blows across the grass.
A goodbye party by candle-light. Standing on the edge of the circle, skirting the fringes, the darkness at your back. All the young, and talented, and beautiful, and drunk, and drugged, and lost. And sad. Sometimes. Libations in the moonlight, but you’ve lost your tongue at dawn.
Warm sunlight non-judgemental
Walk alone by the canal
Turn the handle
High ceiling and wooden floor
Silence in the courtyard
Her sleeping back, bare and smooth
Another day. Another night.
YESTERDAY WAS DRAMATIC – TODAY IS OK
Peace in this empty Berlin altbau on an early autumn evening. Low lights and houseplants, emails and wine. Neukölln night progresses around you as the clock on the kitchen wall ticks. Away.
Crying into coffee and scrambled eggs this morning. ‘Write it out’, you said. Draw out the poison. Time melts when we are together. Seconds and eternity hard to distinguish between.
Disclaimer: This is raw from my notebook, so, yeah.
Last year while helping to put together a travel guide on Berlin I wrote a review about this memorial. It’s a clever little space occupying a dark corner of the tourist trail only a short stroll from the Brandenburg Gate. Undulating pathways rise and fall through the 2711 concrete blocks; but gradually towards the centre the path slopes lower and the blocks begin to rise above you. It gets dark. The width of the pathway has been designed to only allow for one person to walk down at a time and you quickly find yourself alone. Your friends become lost amongst the blocks as they take their own path, and you catch glimpses of the others as you make your own way to the other side. The design is simple and effective, it works on both a visual and emotional level and certainly made me think – I thought it was a worthy memorial. However, as I began to conduct some research for my review I discovered a mammoth controversy surrounding the project. A company called Degussa was involved in the estimated 25 million euro construction process, providing the anti-graffitti for the ‘stelae’ concrete blocks. It just so happened that the collection of companies that Degussa belonged to (under the wartime umbrella of the behemoth IG Farben) had been responsible for the production of Zyklon B – the pesticide used in the gas chambers. All work on the memorial ceased while a decision was being made on Degussa’s involvement. Despite much criticism from the Jewish community and journalist Henryk M. Broder commenting that “the Jews don’t need this memorial, and they are not prepared to declare a pig sty kosher” the board of directors decided to continue building with material from Degussa. The argument for this was that it would have been ‘impossible’ to exclude companies who had collaborated with the Nazi’s as German politician Wolfgang Thierse stated, “the past intrudes into our society”. No doubt financial constraints also influenced decisions.
The controversy surrounding the Holocaust memorial (as it is often referred to) left a bitter taste in my mouth. In no city that I have ever visited has the past ever intruded so much as it does in Berlin. No matter where you go the war and the wall have a way of creeping into your conscience; history is everywhere. I read some arguments suggesting that it was fitting that Degussa should take part in building a memorial as acknowledgment of their past and reparations for their part in the Holocaust. But hold on just a minute; Degussa got paid for their construction work, they didn’t offer it as a too-little-too-late goodwill gesture. Nor did they bid for the contract with the aim to make amends, I’m sure they hoped that in the mess of subsidiary companies, and merged companies, and disbanded companies – plus several decades – their connection to the gas chambers might be overlooked.
At the moment I am working for a German chemical company which was one of the collection of companies which merged in 1925 to form IG Farben, which collaborated closely with the Nazi’s before being disbanded for war crimes in 1945. IG Farben held the patent for Zyklon B. It used slave labour from concentration camps in the manufacture of materials for the armed forces, most notably the Buna synthetic rubber factory at Auschwitz. A number of employees were prosecuted for war crimes. Understandably IG Farben was not allowed to continue to exist after the war, however, the original founding companies were quickly reestablished under their old names and continue to exist to this day. And I am working for one of them.
It surprised me to learn that actually quite a lot of well known companies have a brush with the Nazi’s, although come to think of it – if a German company pre-dates 1939 it’s likely that they’ve had a tryst with party one way or another. Kodak used labour from camps, so did Volkswagon and Siemens. Hugo Boss got a contract to produce SS uniforms, and the parent company of Random House, Bertelsmann A.G, published Nazi propaganda. So cameras, cars, clothes. But I’m part of the company that has Zyklon B languishing in its back catalogues, no matter how much they try to sever the tie from IG Farben. Over the past few months that I have been working there this subject has been on my mind quite a bit, which has prompted me to dig deeper. Surely, I thought, this company must have issued a formal acknowledgement and corporate apology for its prominent role in mass murder – and in order to satisfy my uneasy mind it was necessary for me find this apology. But no such apology exists.
On the company website there is a detailed run down of the long history of the company, from it being founded pre WWI to the IG Farben merger and the reestablishment of the company after the war – and up to the present day. There was a little bit of information about use of slave labour at the Buna factory, but absolutely no mention of Zyklon B, let alone anything resembling an apology. The company has skipped over this, expunged it from the records – and they are not alone. Several other ex-IG Farben companies, and these are very big multi-nantional companies with turnovers running into several billion euros, have also not apologised for their collaboration with the Nazi’s. I find this deeply disappointing, and I have lost a lot of respect for the company I am working for as a result. I appreciate that the Holocaust is a period in history which they would rather gloss over as obviously it is a terrible business association, but an apology would gain my respect, and an apology is what I would expect from any company after involvement in something so awful. The company I am working for has a set of ethical guidelines outlining a long list of things it will not take part in today – however, without an apology for the past these guidelines are a mockery. How can we be sure that they won’t participate in chemical warfare the next time around? In my opinion these companies should not have been allowed to reestablish themselves under their old names as if the Holocaust had not happened. With German infrastructure so delicate after the war it would have been cruel to completely bulldoze what was left of these chemical/construction/medical companies as they were much needed to rebuild the country. However, I do think they should have been forced to properly rename and reform as entirely new companies, with no link to the past.
At the opening of Berlin’s memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, Holocaust survivor Sabina Wolanski emphasised that the children of the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not responsible for the acts of their parents. While the employees of today are not responsible for the acts of the past, the companies still are. It is not too late to apologise, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one waiting.
There is always a danger when revisiting books you read a long time ago that they might not be as good as you remember. This realisation can be such a terrible let down, you feel cheated that you carried around a certain idea of something for such a long time and then you wonder at your own lack of taste the first time around. This feeling is exacerbated by the amount of time that has elapsed since you first read the book, one should exercise a certain caution then in re-reading something from childhood. Of course sometimes that book is everything you remembered it to be, and it’s an absolute pleasure –
I read One Hot Summer in St.Petersburg by Duncan Fallowell a very long time ago. It wasn’t quite a childhood read, if I had to estimate I would say I was about 12 – and undoubtably there was plenty in there that was not age appropriate. Literature wise I got away with absolute murder when I was younger, the consequence of being surrounded by adults who don’t read is they they never check what you’re greedily getting stuck into. Something about this book stuck with me though, the heady atmosphere of a foreign city in summer, a city undergoing massive upheaval, a city in all its moods, daydream, reality, insanity.
Years later I’m glad to say I found this book to be a marvellous rediscovery, whatever caught me the first time is still there in the same way that I remember. I think now I’m a (sort of) adult what strikes me is that there is a lot in this book that is similar to the way I travel and experience places, or surrender to places, I can see myself reflected here which is why I like it so much. When I was younger I couldn’t have known that, but must have picked up on the mood anyway. I’m busy making my own plans to spend the summer in Berlin so I think re-reading One Hot Summer has been somewhat tantilising. I can feel the essence of my old european summers in the pages; running through Prague in a thunder storm one night in July, forks of lightening illuminating the skyline. Sunburn in Paris after a day at Versailles. Endless nights in Berlin, drinking wine in the park, walking home at 9am. And all the really awful stuff as well, when you want to cry for no reason, when you feel like a city is alluding you, when it all seems too intense, when you struggle to make a connection to it as a ‘real’ place. I’ve found that almost inevitably wherever you are the best and worst part is always the people. It’s almost time for summer on the continent again, but not quite, so reading this book was both satisfying and frustrating at the same time. I just wanted to be in it, now.
‘Many times in life one may encounter someone who touches us with an adorable and perplexing charm, who cuts the ordinary day with a moment of magic, and almost at once the person has gone, been swept away, sucked back into the crowd. When rarely, through force of circumstance or ingenuity or imagination or daring, one manages to arrest this transience, to jam the conveyor belt of passing events and say no, stop, yes, hullo, and retrieve that person from their fall into the pit of what might have been, and bring him or her forward into the real, the now, the light, your life, this is . . . important. And it means still more in a place where one has little, nothing. And this happened. And as suddenly, it came to naught. I thought this contact meant something. Does anything mean anything here, or is it all fucking quicksand? Is every gesture hollow? How can a person be so full of it one day, and the next – nothing? Is it possible to know someone in this town?’
– One Hot Summer in St.Petersburg
If you’re interested then here’s an interview with Duncan Fallowell: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/duncanfallowellinterviewed/
Recently I have bought Photoshop Elements 11 and I have been doing some playing around today. I used photoshop quite a lot at college while studying art but my skills are a bit rusty these days. Photoshop can be kind of tricky if you’ve never used it before, but my advice is to stay away from the books for the most part if you’re entirely new to it. The best way is to just mess around until you get the hang of the basics and then go from there. I think I am going to use Elements to do a travel series, hopefully turn my tourist-y snaps into something cool while getting some practice in.
Something cooler than these anyway, not a bad start though. Watch this space!
Labyrinths. There’s something about labyrinths that I find endlessly (no pun intended) fascinating. I think it must the element of danger or the excitement of the unknown. Something beautiful, intricate, deadly – always alluring and yet sure to hold something nasty.
Maybe when you think of labyrinths you are transported first to ancient Greece. On the island of Crete King Minos would periodically chose seven boys and seven girls to be sent into his labyrinth. Inside they would be hunted and eaten by ‘Asterion’ – the Minotaur, a mythical creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. So the legend goes, when the third sacrifice approached Theseus volunteered to slay the monster. Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos fell madly in love with Theseus and offered him a ball of thread to help him to find his way out of the labyrinth. Theseus successfully killed the Minotaur and was able to lead the surviving youths out of the labyrinth with the help of Ariadne’s thread.
Skipping forward to more modern times the labyrinth has proved popular fodder for creative types.
Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges imagines the labyrinth at Knossos (Crete) from the point of view of the Minotaur. Lonely and bored he plays games, imagines meeting another Minotaur and reflects on the labyrinth itself,
‘All parts of the house are repeated many times, any place is like another place. There is no one pool, courtyard, drinking trough, manger; the mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards, pools are infinite in number. The house is the same size as the world; or rather, it is the world.’ ~ The House of Asterion, 1947
Another Argentinian writer, Ernesto Sabato drew upon the image of the labyrinth in his short story The Tunnel. The Tunnel is a tale of the dark psychological distress of painter Juan Pablo Castel and his obsession and subsequent murder of Maria Iribarne. Sabato uses the dark twisted pathways of the labyrinth to reflect the state of Castel’s mind. The painter muses that;
‘And it was as if the two of us had been living in parallel passageways or tunnels, never knowing that we were moving side by side, like souls in like times, finally to meet at the end of those passageways before a scene I had painted as a kind of key meant for her alone, as a kind of secret sign that i was there ahead of her and that the passageways finally had joined and the hour for our meeting had come.’
But eventually Castel comes to realise that:
‘ . . . the whole story of the passageways was my own ridiculous invention, and that after all there was only one tunnel, dark and solitary: mine, the tunnel in which I had spent my childhood , my youth, my entire life.’ ~The Tunnel, 1948
Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth explores the idea of a mythical labyrinth as imagined by a little girl named Ofelia. Despite appearances Pan’s Labyrinth is not really a suitable film for young children, the real life drama will give you nightmares if the mythical monsters don’t do the trick. Ofelia is going through some tough times. The story is set in Spain in 1944, and Ofelia and her pregnant mother have come to live with Captain Vidal who is to be Ofelia’s new father. It’s post civil war era and Captain Vidal is busy rooting out anti-Franco rebels and being generally unpleasant. Ofelia finds a labyrinth in the woods nearby, and it here that she meets a faun who recognises her as the long lost Princess Moanna. As things become more difficult at home, her mother is ill and Vidal reveals himself be bloodthirsty in his pursuit of the rebels; Ofelia increasingly escapes into the world of the faun, completing a number of tasks for him. When everything really begins to fall apart at the end Ofelia runs into the woods and is drawn back to the labyrinth.
Ofelia’s labyrinth is very much one that is linked to her emotions and her mind; a psychological retreat. I’m never quite sure what to make of the faun, as at times he is creepy and cold and although he ultimately helps Ofelia I wouldn’t exactly describe him as a benign influence. Interestingly enough the word ‘pan’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘all’ – like the all encompassing nature of the labyrinth perhaps? Pan was the Greek god of the wild, and in Roman mythology appeared as a faun.
If you haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth then it’s definitely worth a look as it’s an incredibly beautiful piece of cinematography and actually deals with some very difficult themes. (I also highly recommend The Orphanage, 2007, which del Toro worked on as executive producer).
I’m a long time fan of Neil Gaiman’s Death and Sandman, and they’re probably amongst a small pile of books that I’d describe as ‘comfort reading’. Easily my favourite out of the lot is the seventh book in the series; Brief Lives. Brooding and miserable after being ditched by his girlfriend, Dream is drawn into Delirium’s hunt for their missing brother Destruction while harbouring his own ulterior motives. After a series of mishaps and arguments Delirium and Dream eventually decide to consult their brother Destiny for help in finding their missing sibling. They decide to walk to the garden of Destiny, and there’s only one way there: through a labyrinth.
As Dream and Delirium walk through the labyrinth it twists and changes until they finally emerge into the Garden of Destiny. It is interesting that this should be the route to Destiny and is a thoughtful reflection on the course of our lives. No matter what paths we take are we always ‘destined’ to end up at the same place? Are all paths really the same path? I have mixed thoughts on the concept of ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’ so my answer to this is that I just don’t know.
The indisputable beginning of my obsession with labyrinths was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, one of my all time favourite books. This book is quite long and complex so I’m only going to give a very abbreviated summary. An average American family moves into an average American house in what is supposed to be a dream move to the country. Shortly after moving in the family discover that the house is larger on the inside than on the outside, something which the father – Will Navidson is determined to get to the bottom of. One day a doorway appears in the living room, the doorway leads into a cold dark corridor that seems to extend impossibly beyond the dimensions of the house. Navidson is eventually moved to assemble a team of professional explorers to plumb the depths of the labyrinth he has discovered. The story has several different narrators, each calling into question the accuracy of the next. The entire book is a semioticians dream – if you’re into that sort thing. And if not, well it’s still pretty addictive.
The labyrinths in House of Leaves are varied and many. First of all it is possible to get lost in the text itself which twists and turns according to the story:
The house is often linked to the mental state of those exploring it. If they are frightened or lost then it expands, if they are sure of the way then they paths become shorter and easier to navigate. All those who come into contact with the house are moved to explore the depths and pathways of own their mind, forcing them to reflect on the things that have shaped them and the things that are important.
The final labyrinth on my list is one that I have actually been to at The Salon zur Wilden Renate in Berlin. This labyrinth is inside a very cool club, and for 10 euros you are given a gold coin and a message of welcome:
After waiting in the bar for a while I was blindfolded and taken to the entrance of labyrinth. Once there I deposited my gold coin in the the door and entered. Although I’d heard people talking about this place and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore a real labyrinth I have to say I was a little bit nervous – anything could have been inside. What I actually discovered was a womb or heart like chamber with a number of ‘corridors’ leading off it. Some of the corridors became crawlspaces, some were dead ends, and when I finally did want to leave pretty much all of them seemed to lead back to the same place! The most terrifying part was a door that lead into a completely pitch black brick corridor. However old you are there is always something terrifying about being unexpectedly alone in the pitch black in an unfamiliar place, and I could hear my heart beating. As I felt my way along the corridor a bright light would flash every few seconds, and I am now reminded of Ernesto Sabato’s words, ‘My mind is dark as a labyrinth. Sometimes there are flashes, like lightening, that illuminate some of the passageways . . .‘ When I finally did find the exit and was talking to my friend afterwards he suggested that it wasn’t scary in there unless you made it that way – what you find in there is yourself.