Berlin: City of Fairies and Desires

Author: Leander Steinkopf
Translator: Stefan Kramer

For everyone, there is a fairy that will fulfill one wish. But only a few will remember the
wish that they made; only a few therefore recognize that fulfillment later in life.
–  Walter Benjamin

A bum lies down on the sidewalk, stretches his arms towards the sky and sings Ave Maria. I pause, the flow of pedestrian traffic piles up behind me. Actually, I feel like lying down on the ground with him. I don’t want to sing along, I’d rather keep my hands in my pockets, stare into the sky, and enjoy being an obstacle. But I step over him, as if I had someplace to go. I like this part of Friedrichstrasse; it feels like you’re in a real city. Here, one can observe people who have responsibilities and are in a hurry. Everywhere else in Berlin, watching means exchanging glances among idlers – but along these few hundred yards of real city, from the river Spree towards the south, one finds that special peace of asserting one’s own slowness against the agitation of the others. Only here, and not for long, as one soon runs into the shoppers, and their sauntering makes that slowness seem vulgar.

In Dussmann’s bookstore tall men with suits, trench coats, and briefcases rise above the lowered heads of the readers. With open mouths and sharp eyes they look over the tables of new publications. Even when they are standing still, their coats continue to flutter with urgency. Over the shoulders of the readers they grab a hardcover book from the pile, quickly turn it every which way as if inspecting a vegetable for flaws, then pay for it with a credit card and have it gift-wrapped.

I go to the shelves in the Personal Improvement section. Nobody pauses there; they only glance  at the book titles in passing. To stop would mean admitting that one has problems. It’s enough to take a book in hand or just fixate on a title long enough, and one’s cover is blown: as a smoker who can’t quit or a yes-man who can never say “no,” as depressive or impotent. I like to linger here and look at these books. Not those that might help me, but the others that I cannot comprehend. I think they could have their greatest effect not when they’re read at home in secrecy, but when read openly, on the subway. You could see everyone’s greatest weakness from their book covers, and you’d be less alone with your inadequacies.

I walk along the river Spree, where potheads smoke their first joint of the day and office workers take a break to refresh their memory of what the sun looks like. The government district seems to consist almost solely of glass, it seems to require no fences or walls; everything is open, access denied only by the heat sensors and surveillance cameras. Looking from the promenade along the Spree at the federal Chancellery, it looks dead quiet; there’s only an occasional flock of birds rising into the empty sky, as if the German chancellor only reigned over a field on which some crows pick at grains.

Some way further along the Spree, a bridge is weighing down on the river, squeezing the promenade into a tunnel, where four bums reside. They’re not at home at the moment, just their four mattresses are lying here, the top ends towards the wall with equal gaps between them, as if in a four-bed room. At the head end of each mattress, where there would be a nightstand next to a bed, there is one plastic bag each with their belongings, protected only by the outward appearance that nothing could be less worth stealing. Someone appears to be lying on the last mattress, but a closer look reveals it’s only a rolled-up blanket, covered with another – an arrangement borrowed from the hero of old spy movies, when he knows that he may be shot dead while asleep.

The small park at Turmstrasse has been newly redone – the lawn, the playground, the benches, everything. The whole place is a foreign object in the Moabit borough, without any of the grime that would form a connection to its surroundings. The politicians believe that such a small  area of promise could change the city, could lift one of its districts out of its squalor. But the city takes back what belongs to it. First, it’s only a few beer bottle caps, trampled into the ground near the trampolines, and cigarette butts in the sand under the jungle gym; that is the seed for what is to come. Soon tendrils grow over this foreign object, first hastily smeared tags on the playground equipment, then a proliferation of graffiti. Shoots grow into each crack, tear the planks off the park benches and the wastebaskets from their mounts. Shortcut footpaths cut diagonally across the lawn. Dog shit mixes into the gravel paths. At some point the first child gets bloody fingers from the broken glass and the discarded syringes in the sand of the playground, and the parents take their child elsewhere. Dog owners avoid the place because their dogs jump into the ever-deepening puddles and carry the mud into their homes. Old folks don’t find a place to sit down anymore, for on every seating surface there is a shadow of dried urine. When only the boozers still come, followed by those who collect empty beer bottles for their 25-cent deposits, then the ecological equilibrium of the city has been restored; let the next politician come and try to change anything.

I sit down in a Turkish fish shop and order a plate of Hamsi anchovies. On the TV, the players of Istanbul’s soccer club trot into the half-time break, then Erdogan receives Abbas for a state visit. At the second table, an Indonesian mother sits with her little son, squeezed between the entrance door and the seafood display. A hundred fish eyes stare up from the crushed ice in it. Her husband comes in with two beers from the organic food store next door. They have ordered fried seabreams, and a mackerel sandwich for their son. The old Turkish owner isn’t in; his daughter is running the store today. Her mouth never smiles, is pierced in one corner; it spits out words as if they tasted bitter. She wears a wool cap and athletic jacket against the cold behind the seafood counter and the mist of frying grease that descends upon everything. She puts on a metal-reinforced glove and scrapes the innards out of the seabreams with a short knife.

A young man enters: so German, so polite, so soft, with pale skin that immediately sunburns on the first day of spring. He has waited two weeks for his three-day beard to grow. I know some people like him as well as I know myself.  The German knows that he does not belong here, that he’s the stranger here, that any kindness he encounters is mere hospitality. The young Turkish storekeeper turns around, her eyes icy blue, and asks him, “What’d you like”? “I’d like some of the salmon fillet,” he replies with a coarse voice and clears his throat. “What?” she says, and he repeats himself. Ever since he’s lived around here, he’s been looking longingly at the oriental beauties; he can’t help himself, not even after finding, suddenly and conclusively, a woman of the type he knows from his school days, ash-blonde and Occidental.

There are things I don’t really do anymore  eating Döner, taking the U1 subway, and visiting Friedrichshain. But Judith lives at Boxhagener Platz, in the worst of Friedrichshain, where the people are loud and happy, the tourists sit packed tight in leatherette pubs, and tattoos seem to grow all by themselves, like a fungal breakout in a public pool.

It’s slowly getting dark, so it’s getting crowded at the Warschauer Strasse train station. The security guards of the Deutsche Bahn are leaning against the railings of the bridges that connect the train platforms. There are four of them, looking at the young women, talking about them, occasionally shouting something at them from behind in Arabic.  Visitors to Berlin are lining up at the Currywurst vendor and at the instant photo booth, for they need some sustenance and memories before the long night ahead.

I too have memories of this neighborhood, and when I stay away from Friedrichshain, it’s primarily to avoid them. There once was a woman who stopped me as if she wanted to ask me for directions, but then she asked me what should be done with the twenty-four hours before her departure. I showed her the city, and she discovered it for me with her fresh gaze. In the morning we had to run for her train, we stretched our necks like meerkats on the escalator up to the platform, and saw the train still waiting there. She left me behind in this city, and I roamed restlessly. Memories pulled me into building entrances where we had stepped aside to kiss, and I followed the paths on which we had gotten lost. She was sitting in the train, sometimes got up to smoke a strong cigarette at the window, then sat down again when she got dizzy. The city was contaminated by her love for a long time.

She was only one of the many who come here with their pent-up drive for freedom, who want to experience every night until dawn, who see opportunity behind every fence and life in every crowd. They vacation in this city without regard for the people who live here, for whom there is a tomorrow. And then they travel back home, take a long shower, sleep in, and go back to their daily routines. But for several days after that woman’s departure, my brain remained dirty and fragile, like an unsteady pile of dishes standing in turbid water in the kitchen sink.

In the burger joint at Boxhagener Platz, numbers are called out over the loudspeaker like they do at the unemployment office. The hungry customers sit outside the door, drinking beer from the late-night store while waiting for their order. The lawn in the middle of the square seethes with conversations. Off and on, a hissing noise foams from the slush of voices – that unique sound that’s made when someone opens a beer bottle with a cigarette lighter. In a pub the music is turned up. The evening has grown warm from all these people.

“Come on up, the door is open,” says Judith over the intercom. She’s sitting in the kitchen, at a soundproof window with a view of the noisy party outside. She’s made herself chamomile tea and holds the teabag on its string inside the tea cup as if expecting that something may still bite today. “How goes it?” I ask. She doesn’t answer. “Do you want some tea?” she asks after a while. “Coffee,” I say. She goes to the range and unscrews the coffee pot. She tries to empty the coffee grounds into the composting waste bin, but she isn’t slapping the pot hard enough, so she scrapes it with a spoon, very slowly, like an archaeologist excavating a fossil. She then fills the pot with fresh water from the faucet in a thin stream, and when she switches on the stove, she turns up the heat click by click, six times in one-second intervals, before she places the pot onto the burner. “There’s a party on the rooftop,” she says with a longing in her voice as if the roof wasn’t just up two flights of stairs.

I let her climb the ladder first, so she can’t escape back into her apartment behind me.  Then I ascend to the fourth step, put my coffee cup onto the roof and climb up after her. I notice that Judith briefly smiles as she looks around. Blankets have been spread out on the gritty roofing, candles are burning, people are crouching and hand-rolling cigarettes in their laps. They are drinking warm beer.  They tear off pieces of flatbread to wipe the food remains from nearly empty plastic bowls. The sun is setting, bands of clouds catch the colors. TV antennas poke into the evening sky like blades of grass. Chimneys are everywhere, the natural furnishing of the roof surface.  Their bricks radiate the warmth of the sun that they have collected during the day, just like the warmth of childhood fantasies: Mary Poppins and Karlsson-on-the-Roof.

Judith regards all this with a smile, but then she looks around intensely, and squats down as if getting ready for a fight.  Her gaze seeks and finds a nearby chimney. She pushes against it with her back and slides down it slowly, now sits there with her knees pulled up. She may be enjoying all this, but she is fearful that her body will disobey her for a few seconds, get up, run, and jump.

I sit down next to her and she rests her head against my shoulder. In the light of the sunset you can now see the dark contours of two men who daringly stand with one foot forward at the edge of the roof, and hope that a woman, receptive to the prevailing romantic mood, will fall in love with that pose. But even without any women they delight in standing silently at the precipice,  as if it was wonderfully  different from waiting at the edge of a sidewalk to throw oneself in front of a bus.

The light in the sky is red, then pink, then purple, finally blue; the city is changing color like a bruise. And I suddenly feel lonely, because I don’t know who I would call to watch the end of the world with me … who would be willing to come? I turn my head towards Judith, but I would not want to be with her when the end of the world arrives – although I can vaguely remember a time when I would have accepted the end of the world if it meant I could be with her. I feel so forsaken that it nearly makes me panicky. Nearing the apocalypse, one could finally be honest with oneself; the next day, one wouldn’t have to lie when someone asks, “How was it for you?” But I can’t think of anything honest that I could do right now. Then it’s finally dark, and again the end of the world has not come.

A young woman looks up from the bowl of hummus that she just now still wiped clean with a piece of bread – slowly, as if meditating. She looks at me and smiles suddenly, then gets up and heads towards me. I get up, too, since her purposefulness calls for a goal.  She gives me a tight hug, as if we’ve known each other forever and haven’t seen each other for a long time. The scent behind her ear radiates so strongly that I have to blink. And she knows my name, so I don’t ask for hers.

One of the men who was standing  at the edge of the roof earlier hunkers down next to Judith, who is cowering beside the chimney. She is holding her legs pulled towards her, her forehead rests on her knees, her long locks cover her shins. The man looks like he’s straight out of the military, a hybrid of beer drinking and bodybuilding. Somehow, he wears his muscles the way a bank trainee wears his suit: they don’t seem to fit, he constantly plucks at them. He talks to Judith with an empathic voice: “Hey, little one, what’s wrong?” He really does say “little one” and sits down next to her, exactly where I just sat. When he notices that I observe him, he gives me a kind of fraternizing wink, as if we had just agreed on our territories without saying a word. And I know exactly what will happen. He will feel her up, and she won’t object, but neither will she raise her head. And then he will embrace the bundle that is Judith with both arms, and she will cry because she now feels secure, and both will remain like that for a while. And when she finally lifts her head, he will kiss her, and her tongue will dig around in his mouth mechanically, like a power shovel excavating a trench. Then he could just throw her over his shoulder and carry her home – he’d certainly be strong enough.

The woman who knows my name takes my lack of attention for the absent-mindedness of genius. It makes me uncomfortable when a woman takes an interest in me without my doing anything to deserve it. Something must be wrong with her; perhaps I remind her of the father she never had, or I am the chaos that’s missing in her perfect relationship. I have already experienced that often. A woman has found the prince of her dreams, but now the fairy tale of seeking and finding is over, and they are in the “happily ever after” phase. And in time, she develops the desire for a man who is all that that her prince is not. And exactly because the prince of dreams is so perfect, she desires some washed-up guy. In fact, she should be happy, dammit, but if I were to simply ask, in the middle of our conversation: “Are you missing something in life?”, she would immediately begin to cry, so that I would console her. She does not want to betray her perfect prince, but even less does she want to betray herself.

I see that the military man is getting up and offering Judith his hand to help her up. Judith looks at me, briefly and guiltily, and I shake my head in disbelief. Then I briefly feel a hot flush over my skin.  Impatient, I grab her arm, and her indifference lets her be swept along. We go down the ladder as fast as if it were a waterslide. The military man stands at the top and looks dumbfounded. And the woman who knows my name smiles,licks her lips,and thinks: interesting.


Excerpted from:   Leander Steinkopf,  Stadt der Feen und Wünsche.  Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2018.