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Berlin notebook [2]

Berlin, September 2014

The name of the palace, built by workers for Frederick the Great in the 1740s, is Sanssouci. Meaning ‘carefree’. But everywhere the evidence of great pains taken to ordain the landscape just so. Extremely orderly vegetable rows, the house set on a hill with a precise vista, geometric mowing, lawns punctuated by evenly placed statuary.

Berlin, September 2014

No matter how much empire desires order, the chard bolts, the nasturtiums unfurl over everything. It’s not a new thought, but I was struck by it here. The order of the placement of things. My feeling for the correctness of placement an order in and of itself: how some things seem, by dint of a habit of historical association, to belong together. How surprised and not surprised I was to cross a bridge and see the Italianate building there (so beautiful and graceful; so Italian, all of a sudden in the German landscape, a reminder about how recently the invisible lines we call national borders were applied, and how fluidly culture moves across them, even now but certainly in the past of this land and these buildings, if one is only rich enough). The building itself crumbling inside, windows boarded up on the back façade. In an upstairs room I saw a huge black-and-white poster of a Classical statue. Kings may have intents and purposes for their kingdoms, but individual humans/plants/animals—not to mention the movement of tectonic plates, the action of water on concrete and metal, the accumulation of toxins and abrasives in rainwater—tend to circumvent these plans. At least in fragile, minuscule ways.

Berlin, September 2014

A palace is an attempt at preservation. For one, the building (even ownership of the land) retains value and pomp and position in ways that currency or gold cannot; ownership of a building like this is not anonymous. It will always have belonged to the emperor. I nearly wrote ‘it will always have been built by F. the G.’, but realized that tic is habitual. The emperor did not build his own house, but his is nearly the only name that remains (yes, the architect is known. But who were the masons?). And now the palace is Historic; a double preserve. Holding the Name in itself, and held from outside by the State which longs to maintain a sense of its past. The Way We Were.

Berlin, September 2014

Sanssouci is fascinated with a past it imagines itself into: not only the palace of Now imagining itself into the time of the great emperor, but the palace as it was in 1747 imagining itself (in company with palaces all over Europe, not to mention buildings elsewhere) back into a refracted Classical antiquity. Geometry a demonstration of the perfection of forms. The ‘true style‘—simple and symmetrical. In Man as in Nature (no place for Woman, then, except as allegory to be subdued—domesticated and made to bear fruit).

Berlin, September 2014

In the woods (sometimes almost wild, but never so unkempt or uncontrolled that I forgot I was walking on a planned estate—and never far from a paved path, even when I walked on a dirt one), we came across hidden gardens or remnants of gardens. A statue of the empress has been missing since the early part of the last century. There were plinths without busts. A rose garden where the rosebushes were absent and the grass had been mown into the geometric shapes—complex, interlocking circles and rectangles—where they would have been. The follies included a truly hideous ‘Chinese house’ which I thought might be a building brought in by the emperor (like the Chinese Pavilion in Brussels) but which turned out to be this. An overdecorated imperial cupcake. I suppose another right of empire is the right to control the depiction of the other.

Berlin, September 2014

As usual the things that appealed to me most were the gardens that were used to produce flowers and vegetables, and to work in—not the formal gardens or lawns or the remnants thereof, but the ‘parent’ gardens (above, where plants are grown for transplanting throughout the park). And also the yellow-ochre house with its cape of rosehips and the server in the outdoor café just behind the house, who made jokes when we asked whether they had tea. We saw maybe a quarter or a fifth of the grounds in an afternoon, and even after so little it was hard to imagine how anyone really could have lived in these places or why they should stand empty as historical markers when there are families who have nowhere to live and when, in the history the houses and grounds are meant to mark, there would have been hundreds of courtiers, royal family members, and servants living in these spaces. The daily life of the human is the first thing to go when it comes to historical sites, I guess. If people lived here, their presence would ruin the effect of timelessness (timelessness in sites like this is the representation of history-in-the-now; history-then is gone and unrepresentable, at least in life, maybe in books it is still there).

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Berlin notebook [1]

Berlin, September 2014

Berlin: the buildings are very tall (as they are in Paris) but more stucco and concrete, painted different colors. Less surface-level charm—the city itself trying less to be charming than Brussels, which always feels to me like it is capering a little, aware that while it is a Capital it is not a capital in the sense that Paris and Berlin and even Amsterdam are. So there is something self-assured and sedate about the houses in Berlin. I suppose the other side of that might be arrogance and myopia, a city convinced that it has it all in hand. The colors of the houses are pale sage, ivory, gray, salmon pink, rosy pink, pale blue, gray-blue, yellow. Some have ornate motifs on the sides. The doors have painted wooden frames that recall art deco shapes. There is often graffiti over the doors and on roller screens over closed shops, also on walls. Street-art and large, intricate tags, and plain, hurried letters in green, black, pink, gold.

 
Berlin, September 2014

I didn’t anticipate how being here would make me think about my writing. Much of what I’ve worked on for the past five years has dealt with the years between 1900 and 1968 in Europe. I’ve particularly been reading about genocide, revolution, and resistance, which has meant a lot of my work has been around German history of that time. (My interest in the second world war and the Holocaust began when, as a ‘smart’ fourth grader, I was exiled to the library during reading lessons. I found the history section and came across a large book of images from the war. I read the whole thing and every book in the section.) So maybe it should have occurred to me that being here would move what had been textual/archival into the Real.

 

We were on the S-Bahn (city train) from the airport to Berlin itself and I realized that countries, even those devastated by bombing, don’t generally revise their infrastructure; they rebuild it along the same corridors, or they repair it. What does it mean to ride a train into Berlin? It means being simultaneously aware and unaware that less than a century ago the trains heading out of this city included those packed with people being deported by the state with the express purpose of exterminating them. Unaware, I imagine, so that one can go about one’s daily business as the good subject of late capitalism that one is meant to be. With a permanently raw nerve for the past here, how could one pop into H&M for a €20 sweater made in Bangladesh? But the city has designed it so that you cannot forget—not necessarily so that you remember (what, precisely are you remembering? Not something that happened to you, and often not something evoked in particular or immediate terms), but so that you do not forget. Something Happened Here says the whole city, as we go about our business in the bright shops of Prenzlauer Berg. But it does not necessarily specify; maybe it cannot (maybe specification, true, empathic, affective specificity is unavailable via official channels). There are small brass steles embedded in front of houses where people were taken and deported; there are cobblestones that mark the width and direction of the now-destroyed wall, and plaques in the ground where people fled across. Sometimes the plaques indicate that the person died there.

Berlin, September 2014

 

Unlike Paris, which feels like a museum, Berlin feels like a monument or memorial. Less a collection than an index (with the meaning index has of ‘indication’ and pointing, and therefore direction).

 

It is cheap to eat in many restaurants. There are chestnut and hazelnut trees along the streets, which feel broad but not so much as in American cities, where the width of the street makes crossing to something interesting on the other side seem forbidding. The public toilets have signs in English, French, Turkish, and German. There seem to be infinite young children, pregnant women, and families. The parks take themselves very seriously. You can buy ice cream and bratwurst almost anywhere. When people say “Tschußi!” (“buh-bye!” or maybe “bye-si-bye!”) I find it hilarious, both cute and kind of off-putting, same as when Flemish-speaking women use the diminutive to excess. It feels mostly clean (exception: lots of dog poop), and even the graffiti feels orderly and seems to be in its correct, approved areas (bridges, public walls, doors). On a school we passed, the graffiti covered most of the wall to shoulder height, but whoever had done it had made sure not to mark the memorial embedded in the wall—they had painted right around, but not across, it. Neubau (buildings that replaced bombed ones or were built later than the surrounding ones) sit demurely among the houses of a century previous.

 
Berlin, September 2014

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om te leren

MIEL stationery for autumn 2014                 MIEL stationery for autumn 2014

The past two and a half years have been learning, mostly just by being-trying-listening, to speak Dutch and to figure out where I belong in Belgium. Nu wil ik wat anders leren doen. As always for me, ‘learning’ tends to take the direction ‘pay attention/then attempt’. Watch the older kids, then do it yourself. Figure out the correct way to behave by watching, then repeat, modify, etc. So I will use YouTube for this. For example. And continue going to dance classes, now including a technique lesson every week that’s mixed-level—I find mixed-level classes both daunting and useful, and feel more free to push myself in them. Also someone very nice sent me a pattern for a dress and I want to sew a few and get better at construction. That will probably be enough for this fall, but in case it’s not I’m making a reading plan and hope to get through a big chunk of this and this (the Davis). Yr plans, invisible reader? The season is upon us—

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Dickinson House

Dickinson House: Writers' Residency | Literary B&B

The project I have been working on for over a year, and which I had to keep silent about, is this. Dickinson House is a residency space for artists and writers. It’s located in rural East Flanders, Belgium—about three hours by train from Paris and Amsterdam, seven hours by train from Berlin, four hours by train from London. It’s been an exhausting, daunting, overwhelming year of trying to make this ready, trying to figure out if this was really what I/we wanted to do, and waiting for permissions to come through from the government. But now it’s here. And it’s waiting for you, writers and artists, if you need a place that will support you while you make your work. We have pretty reasonable rates for month-long stays (and shorter stays, too), and fellowships for 2015. We’ll start taking applications in December. If you’re willing to spread the word, I’d be grateful!

Dickinson House: Writers' Residency | Literary B&B