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.
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.
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.