Month: November 2014

The Fleischerei

Walking down Schönhauser Allee one misty evening, on my way to a Korean street food joint with my friend, he turns to me says, “Hey have you ever been there? I hear they have some great steak tartare.”

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Nodding across the street. I look across, see the faded looping fluorescent sign: Fleischerei*. A cool-looking minimalist interior with long trestle tables, white tablecloths. Some bearded people drinking coffee in the window. I look at him and say, “Yeah I’ve been there. But it was 18 years ago.”

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I briefly feel embarrassed, old. Wishing I was young and hip enough to say “Yeah I was there last week with friends, it was grand.” But only briefly.

For a year or two I lived in the  squat next door to the Fleischerei. We hosted film nights in the courtyard, wild, tequila-fuelled punk concerts, raucous public breakfasts on the wide pavement just up from Rosa Luxemburg Platz. God, we must’ve been annoying. I studied art at the time (of course I did) and came up with a “meat” themed textile design project. I made a dress out of bacon bought from that butcher’s shop, when Lady Gaga was still at Catholic school. And as part of the project I took photos of all the women who worked in the Fleischerei. The boss-man turned up for the photo too, and even took me out back to the freezer rooms, where I took grainy out of focus shots of massive sides of beef hanging from hooks. They didn’t really know what the heck I wanted, but they let me take my pictures. Tolerated the weird young kids who had moved in next door and giggled about blood sausage being called “Tote Oma”*. Everything was shifting and changing so fast, I wasn’t aware that I was documenting something that was already shuffling off the stage. If they realised it, with the arrogance of youth, I didn’t. I thought it was always going to stay like that; me straddling the old and the new; the old there as my own private curiosity cabinet to delve into when ever I wanted, the new to be created by me and my peers.

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So I’m always a bit torn when friends or acquaintances start bitching on about tourists, trendy beard people or rich doctors and lawyers with their four-wheel drives and organic store membership cards. On the one hand I always love a feisty bitchfest, (I didn’t get my name for being a sweetheart) but on the other hand I feel this seeping feeling of guilt because I know who kicked this whole thing off. I mean, let’s be honest, Prenzlauer Berg was not exclusively home to honest-to-god-amazing-creative-hardworking-humble-poor-people for the past 2000 years only to be suddenly overrun by the famed Swabian Muttis and American hipsters and hopsters (micro-brewing anybody?) and streams of short-term residents from overseas who populate the area now.

So let’s just adjust our perspective and step back 25 years. Oh what the fuck, let’s do it properly and go back 30.

OK what have we got?

Lots of old grannies (men, not so much, they all died in the war) and some families down on their luck who didn’t get that centrally heated flat in Marzahn or Hellersdorf. Musicians, poets, enemies of the state, people who didn’t fit in in the provinces so landed in Berlin. Oh, and about 60% empty flats. Let’s not forget, it was cold here; coals cost money, and ovens need heating. Every friggin’ morning or you freeze. Coal needs schlepping up stairs in buckets, and ash needs schlepping back down. Oh yeah.

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Enter from the wings: foreign students and lefty artists looking for a cheap place to live and work. Yes, oh doubters, there really was a time, a heavenly time, when someone sitting next to you at a bar would lean in after a few beers and say “Hey, there’s a flat free in my house. Why don’t you take it?” You’d go, break in, move in, start paying the rent to the central housing association, and if they took your money (which they always did) it was seen as tacit agreement. Three months later you had a rental contract in your pocket and 100 Marks rent a month. Oh, and a toilet in the hallway, and a shower in the kitchen if you were lucky. I was lucky: my first “real” flat had an indoor toilet. But my kitchen and bathroom didn’t have any heating whatsoever, so let’s just say I did A LOT of cooking and not much washing.

But however wonderful and idyllic this idealised past of Prenzlauer Berg seemed to be, I am not sure that Frau Schmidt next door really saw it that way. By the time me and my ilk arrived in 1991 Prenzlauer Berg was already filling up with all the Alternative Folk who had been languishing in Schwerin, Dresden, Eisenhüttenstadt but hadn’t been able to move to the big smoke before the wall came down.

Frau Schmidt was old, and ill, dying of cancer, and wore a wig. She was forever peeking out of her door to see who was coming and going, and she would bang on the wall if my music was too loud. Which it was all the time. It must’ve been hell for her. And the family above me, who actually had to work. Getting up at 4am and cleaning large factories before the workers arrived. No, they did not want to stop by for my party.

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When I was accepted at art school (after a year of hard labour working in the local council office) aside from meat themed projects, I started a massive art work that would cover the whole courtyard wall, (for courtyard think Heinrich Zille:)

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which involved everyone in the house getting a disposable camera with which I asked them to document their interior décor. They just shook their heads in incomprehension. Plus, maybe they weren’t really interested. I ended up having to go in and take the pics myself. I thought it was a bloody brilliant. One family had fake brick wallpaper in the corridor, to make it look like some surreal medieval castle. Sideboards were filled with Kinder egg figurines and ceramic swans. For me it was so exotic. But to them I was the newbie. I was the annoying equivalent of bearded guy with silly glasses and short trousers. I was the one, where when they talked about “Ausländer” they would always tag on “But we don’t mean you, you don’t count.” And I was probably a whole lot more intrusive than they would have liked. And one by one, flat by flat, as the area changed, they all disappeared. Frau Schmidt took the final exit, the cleaners moved to Strausberg, one family moved to Poland, another to the wilds of Mecklenburg. And now I am pretty much settled into my role as “Hausälteste”. Now I am the lady in the hall who says “I remember when…” Everyone around me is having babies, and complaining about the noise from the bars and the tourists. So enough already with the bitching. I own up. It was me. I started this whole gentrification thing.

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Glossary:

Fleischerei = Butchers Shop

Mutti = Mummy

Hausälteste = Oldest person in the house

Tote Oma = Dead Granny

 

Ode to Berlin

When people ask me if I still love living in Berlin after 23 years, I find myself going into a reverie, whilst trying to fade out the loud American newbers (New Berliners) at the next table who have absolutely no intention of learning any German because they don’t need to, to order their galãos, and buy their Stutterheimer rain macs and get a beard trim.

And I drift back in time.

I go to that place that was uncomfortable and scary to go to. But you went there because there was nowhere else to go. That was the place I went when I moved to Berlin, back in 1991.

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Every day for lunch I’d go to a canteen in Friedrichshain, with sports news on TV in the corner, and slabs of Kassler with Sauerkraut, because it was cheap and there weren’t many other places you could go to eat on your own without attracting attention (back then, people didn’t just go out for lunch without a reason).

After a week I knew people. Berliners. I knew Olaf whose ambition was to be a roadie for the Rolling Stones. I knew Detlev, who had always wanted to move to Amsterdam but never got round to applying for an “Ausreiseantrag” and now that the wall was down, well it somehow seemed too easy. And I knew Kirstin who was setting up her own theatre because there were some empty rooms in the building next to hers.

Three weeks on, and I had a decent place to live, some mates, a job, and enough invitations to gigs and plays and art shows and shared atelier spaces to make me realise I could really do and be anything I wanted here, because when you go to the scary place and there is no where left to go, that is when the real magic happens.

Fast-forward 23 years.

To say things have changed is an understatement. Gentrification has done its work well. My area resembles a toy-town version of turn-of-the-century Berlin, adorned with shiny cars and even shinier families and studded with retro-fitted coffee shops where the language du jour is transatlantic just like the coffee roast. If I didn’t have an old rent agreement, it would be completely beyond my means to live here. The rattle of wheelies from the hostel tourists passing under my window is the soundtrack of my dreams.

And yet, and yet, I love this city, because there is still space. Pockets of air trapped in the holes of the crumbling wall, that recall the rawness of that ‘betwixt’ time: the suspended couple of years after the fall of socialism and before the deathly grip of a capitalist market economy tightened, where there was room for something different, for experiments.

So one recent rainy evening I had an urge to revisit that feeling. Might be something to do with the 25th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the wall, and the sick-making feeling I got every time I turned on the TV. Saccharine-crocodile-tear-interviews with East Germans reminiscing about that exciting moment when they first got to walk through the doors of KaDeWe chased speeches by politicians spouting off about the significance of the moment when West and East, the metaphorical brother and sister separated at birth, once more embraced. No-one mentioning the fact that the embrace was a cold one that neither partner was really sure they even wanted, and that East Germans still earn only 80% of what West Germans earn for the same job. All the tourists pouring into Berlin just to stand freezing and watch those stupid expensive white balloons lift off and disappear into the dark.

A friend had cancelled our plans, it was dark and rainy, the whole scenario was screaming: Go home and binge on Netflix. And then I thought, “C’mon, where did you leave your Berlin-balls? Remember that time, when you went “there” just because it was there, went to a show just because it was on?”

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Open-Mike Night. In Wedding. Red-Wedding. The only district in Berlin where they never voted for the Nazis back in the thirties. The last spot in Berlin where there is still space to create magic out of spit and polish and an industrial canteen. What the fuck.

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Walking up to Brunnenplatz, the Neo-Gothic Magistrates Court loomed, lit up from below, looking like a fairytale castle reflecting in the water. Seriously, if you had committed a crime and were lead in here in handcuffs, wouldn’t you just fall down on your knees on the steps and confess right off? I would. Even in broad daylight.

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It’s autumn, the bright sparkling wet leaves crushed on the ground still emanating a little summer sun. Worth it already. Even if I never even fucking find the place. Uferstrasse. Cul-de-sac. Industrial yards. Lots of sky. Empty streets. Not a soul to be seen. If this were London I would hightail it out of here before Luther had to turn up and rescue me from being chained up in some dank cellar for a week.

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(Gratuitous excuse to post a pic of Luther)

But here, I have Berlin-balls. I’ll just walk like I know where I am going. It will suddenly loom out at me I’m sure. Guy walking behind me. Half turn. Ok, he looks vaguely literary. Glasses at least. Got to be a good sign. If he follows me into this industrial wasteland it’s got to be a good sign too, right? Only in Berlin is that actually a GOOD sign.

Getting closer to the light source I turn, and ask in German if he is also looking for the open-mike night, he affirms. He says I looked like I knew where I was going. Ha. Berlin-balls. Together we search. It isn’t easy. Just to get up on stage and read five minutes of my private churnings. Jesus, next time I’ll go to Hyde Park in London and get myself a soapbox.

But then, in that old canteen, with its fifties charm, big old sofas and wood panelling, I watch Lucas, a young American student read his off-the-wall science fiction poetry (that’s a genre, honest to god), and Kathleen from New Zealand throw a poem out at us like some kind of furious white female version of Linton Kwesi Johnson, I listen to Justin’s dark timbred voice, talking about a moment where two lives collide in a car, and afterwards we all chat and laugh, and I was glad I came here not knowing anyone. Going home, I have a hand-drawn map of how to get back to the station, a short-story competition invite and an offer to help me with some translations that are getting the better of me, and a feeling that I may have made some new friends. A bit like that feeling I had all those many years ago in an old canteen in Friedrichshain near the wall.

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The taxi drops me off at my favourite Lebanese takeway, and I smiled at Najib, my falafel man, who has been here even longer than me. And he asks me with a grin, like he does every time: “Scharrffe Sossse?!” and I say, “You know what? Yeah. Fuck it. Scharfe Sosse.” As hot as you can.