Wednesday, September 30, 2009
By nature of my summer, this paper compares Rome to Berlin, and the Rome program to the Berlin program. It is unavoidable, but I think useful to see two ways of dealing with the history of a place as a traveler. Being in Rome and being confronted with similar weighty histories informed how I would later interpret Berlin and wish to interpret Berlin and its leaden despair. The nature of the Rome program was to see the history of Rome and think about it on a daily basis. Twelve hours a day, six days a week.
By the time I arrived in Berlin, I was ready to settle down. To feel like I was living somewhere, rather than visiting somewhere. The nature of Rome the program is to be a traveler, and I felt much of the nature of Berlin was to be a resident. This made all the difference in my research in Berlin. This placed me on a different timeline, on a different set of obligations, allowed me to experience Berlin for what it is now, rather than what it was, and actually see if at all history is imposing itself on someone who does not actively seek it out in Berlin.
Pamuk writes of his grandmother, “She seldom left the house after all. Like most people who live comfortably in a city, she had no interest in its monuments, history, or ‘beauties’” (105). I won’t say that I had no interest in the monuments of Berlin, but I was no longer obligated to be interested in them as I was in Rome and as I was as a traveler to Istanbul and as I was to my other few cities before and after the program. And this, I believe, was the way to see Berlin for my purpose. I sought to live out present day Berlin and see what grabbed at me, rather than grasping for it. What are the beauties of a city that are still beautiful to someone not looking for beauties? What can you see in a city when you no longer wish to look for it? I stopped seeking out essays about German Guilt or about the facts of Berlin and let this information come to me naturally, essentially as it would to someone not conducting this specific research and what I found surprised me. I learned what grabs at me, regardless of location. I learned what grabs at the government to present. I learned about the German way of dealing with problems. Maybe most importantly, I learned how I operate and what I really care about when given the freedom to care.
Berlin is a city of the present. This should be readily ironic because of its obvious and widely known history. I found Berlin to be forgiving and extremely open. It accepts you as you are, so long as you know who you are and what you want. The hardest part of Berlin was figuring that out for myself. In Rome, the difficulty lay in trying to be what Rome wanted, and maybe realizing I couldn’t live up to it, or never really knowing what she expected of me. In Berlin, it felt as if nothing was expected, as if I had walked into a blank city and John Locke was mayor. In many ways this became a more difficult sorrow, to instead of feeling inadequate, feeling un-self-aware and unenlightened about myself. But that’s why Americans go to Europe, right? If you want to do soul searching, go to Berlin. She’ll force you to choose who you are, but never force you to commit. Go to Rome to do civilization-searching. Berlin forces you to look inward while Rome forces you to look outward. I have never done as much thinking in one month as I did in Rome, because I was reading, writing about the city, and thinking about things outside myself and relating them to the city, rather than to my own journey as a writer. In Berlin, I simply lived for me. I read less, wrote less, and thought less about Baudrillard and Goethe. I didn’t memorize poems. I barely read poems. I didn’t engage in discussions after class, I stayed after and lingered to listen, but participated less than I had in Rome. I simply lost my assurance that I knew who I was and what I brought to the table. I have never been confronted with myself more than in Berlin.
I went to Berlin with the intent of researching historical preservation and the treatment of history in the public sphere. I indented to go to monuments, memorials, museums, and figure out how Berlin was dealing with its tumultuous and controversial history. Maybe more so, I wanted to know how Berliners themselves were treating their history and confronting it. Going into this program, I had no schema of how to approach this topic, or how to become a Berliner in a way that would allow me to sympathize, or even come close to how a native feels. I was and still am an outsider to the histories of Berlin even in the most basic of ways: I cannot speak or read German. Although, in many other ways, I felt I successfully imitated and even lived the life of a Berliner and lived with the history of Germany and what it was like to be able to ignore it at times, at times to feel like I was backpacking through the city with a satchel full of burden, at times to reflect and feel almost light about the history because it was making me consider the modern world in new and unique ways.
The first thing I wrote on my blog, before any of the posts, before even I had a title for it, was “I can by excited by almost anything.” This remains true. However, I used to count it as one of my best traits, maybe even my most admirable quality as a human being, but after Berlin, I began to question the benefits of these flitting excitements. Could I ever appreciate or be interested in something long enough to make a difference? Or were my passions merely manifestations of the “it” thing at that time. I memorized “Ode to a Nightingale,” but did I do it because I genuinely wanted to, or because it was the cool thing to do at the end of the Rome Program? My answer was consistently both, and so naturally I became worries that I had no real convictions or interests or set of beliefs that informed what I thought was “cool.”
This was my greatest personal struggle in Berlin. Because Berlin wants you as you, I had to determine who I was—something I had not been confronted with elsewhere. In this process, I stopped looking for research. I stopped extending myself beyond the borders of myself and allowed those things to osmose naturally into me rather than consuming them like an amoeba. Unfortunately none of this was totally intentional, but I believe it was the right way to treat my time in Berlin. It was not until Manuella gave me this postcard at the end of the month that I fully realized how I had been treating the city and myself in it.
What I found by researching in this way is that history in Berlin is largely ignored and easily ignorable, and though not necessarily forgotten, I came to treat it, as others, with a local and traveling apathy. It is available if you want it, but it is certainly not imposing. Sure, there are imposing structures like the Berliner Dome, Brandenburg Gate, etc. but these structures are what is imposing, not their history or any information about them or what they represent for Berlin. There are times when putting up a plaque is enough. There are times when educational bus stops are enough. But there are also times when these gestures are not enough, for example the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. All different and all easily available and ignorable. They are there if you care, but you definitely don’t have to. And you shouldn’t have to, I came to think. It is not beneficial for a city to be constantly looking backwards, to be regretting its mistakes and to by hyper aware of those.
Berlin is a hyper aware city because of recent history, but it promotes this reality with a sort of tired admission. It wants to move on. Berlin, you can feel, I felt, wants to move on. This is what I mean by calling the city immediate. It is striving to live in the now. It is striving for the future, knowing that the past must be dealt with officially, but that it need not be dealt with popularly, by which I mean by the lay citizenry. It is an official problem, if I may call it that, but it is not one that is necessary to confront daily anymore. Hence we have stopplesteine, the red brick line of the former wall, the touristification of Mitte and the presence of optional historical confrontations, like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, which one chooses to go into.
This is how I treated history in Berlin. I lived for the present and lived for the graffiti, for the fleeting colors, for recognizing stumble stones when I saw them, but also for going to Kaiser’s and cooking spaghetti in my apartment. Keeping a notebook helped me record my immediate thoughts which are now being synthesized in this paper. The final showcase raised more questions about movement through public space and movement through history and reconciling that with the unending and constant push of time. It’s the Peter Pan effect. Time chases after all of us and in Berlin, nothing is stagnant; Berlin chases after itself. Its past chases after the present in the form of memorials as well as in the form of historical preservation of historic sites. Its present chases after its future, as if it’s willing itself into the next stage of its life. The future of Berlin chases after the hearts of the public, by trying to persuade positively for change and progress. The residents chase after each other. Artists after money. Government after squats. The Köpi after Tacheles. Postcards after tourists. Berlin is playing a never-ending game of tag with itself.
Consequently, I believe, I started to feel like I as well was always chasing after myself. Like I was always coming into thoughts, but never reaching them. Like I was always just about to figure something out that I loved, but falling short. I always felt like my experiences were not as profound as I thought they would be, as I thought I deserved even. I did not have any rapture of interest, but simple and plain interest. The first time I heard about the Stopplesteinen, I was keen to listen and to try to figure out how I would use them for my project, rather than considering their actual meaning. Later on, I began to do this ever so slightly. I would get somber for a second or two after pointing out with glee, “Look! Three of them!” What the fuck was I thinking? That is living in the moment in Berlin. The moment is of recognizing something you have a knowledge about, rather than considering the implications of that knowledge. The moment is always interested, but unfailingly loses interest when she looks away from you. This is the solemnity of Berlin.
After going to the Kunsthalle I went to see Public Enemies at the Sony Center.
After spending 45 minutes in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe I ate a sandwich and had a cappuccino.
After signing the petition to preserve Tacheles I went to sleep.
After the dance and movement workshop I had a cigarette.
After the showcase, I wrote these poems:
The skin is flush across an earnest face,
Below the flattery of present tense,
And in a nightly pack-a-day rat race
Toward lives led just beside the Übermensch,
Between mistranslating the predicate,
And conjugating love with two more beers.
The smoke top climbs into a figure eight,
That lasts as long as over-crowded cheers
For city-paid magicians stopping time
By painting purples, reds, and burgundies,
And yellowed herringbone in soothing strokes
That cross a weathered Rubicon and mime,
"Now, now! Here you see the linden trees.
Forget the starboard kiss of falling oaks."
At the Start of the Sea
You see, there is a map that shows where you have been
With little brown circles where other men have touched,
And let their soil blossom like a leaking pen
In a breast pocket, stuffed with notes, that a man rushed
Down on paper napkins, or a porthole curtain—
The anchor weighed. The silt of waning land is pushed,
And the pen runs dry.
When I mention the cities I visited this last summer, I always neglect to mention Istanbul. I go in order from start to finish, lumping Berlin as one city, glazing over Istanbul, I say, “Prague, Berlin, Paris.” Not even a waver as to whether to mention Istanbul, but a total absence. Until it is brought up in conversation later, or I suddenly remember those four nights, my time in Istanbul is relegated to someplace in my memory similar to where I have been on vacation. I’m from Lansing, Michigan. Oh, I’ve been to Lansing. I would never offer up the information that I have been to Lansing until it is pertinent to the conversation, much in the same way I do not mention Istanbul on my travel list. It, apparently doesn’t seem relevant enough to say, or was, perhaps, too much like a vacation than a study. This is not because of what happened in Istanbul, but more because of the time spent there in the middle of Berlin comparatively. It was, essentially, a break from Berlin, and from here, it is not much of a jump to say a holiday from Berlin. Not necessarily from the program, or learning, quite the contrary, but certainly from the city of Berlin. For me, Berlin was the program, and now, Istanbul seems to have this tenuous connection to that time spent abroad. It seems more a dream than a part of my time in Berlin (Berlin the program, not Berlin the city). Yes. I studied abroad in Berlin. Did I study abroad in Istanbul? I’m not sure.
Istanbul is a city on the edge of civilization. A city steeped in melancholy. A city of a Caravaggio painting. A city of spices and color. A city of canyons and ridges and waterways and bridges. Istanbul, it seems, is a city that cannot decide on an identity. Istanbul is struggling within herself. She, as all European cities, struggles with the modern dilemma of the treatment of history. Starbucks is adjacent to the Blue Mosque. All New Europe tours start from a Starbucks in the historic city center. Is this really that big of a deal? I’ve been to Beijing, and into the Forbidden City. At the dead center of it is a Starbucks. I bought a t-shirt there.
In Istanbul, I sat in that Starbucks for two hours. The question I asked myself there was whether this is the real Istanbul or not. There are Starbucks everywhere, and they are all identical. It is certainly part of the real world. But by being so, does it necessarily become a part of the real Istanbul? Yes. It is a part. Our mistake as tourists and travelers is to assume this is posing as the real Istanbul. We know it is not. That burden to dissociate these universalities from the uniqueness of the city rests on us as visitors to the city.
I. The Hookah Bar
The charcoals glow each time we inhale. After, they return to this stasis color of ash and soot. Still, there is an ember and it has to stay lit and so we continue to puff away at “Ahman’s Special No. 1.” The waiter comes over to us and explains.“There is milk in the water. We also mix coconut too so the smoke gets fuller.” We fail to get the full-bodied exhalation of smoke that the others in the bar have. We’re also pretty sure we’re being laughed at at our expense because of it. As soon as we sat down, the men in the booth across from us turned and stared. When we said we wanted to sit outside, this drew more looks from more booths. I didn’t think Turks were supposed to know English. Maybe I just missed the translation.
—Where are you from, the waiter asks.
—America, we say.
More looks. America is universally understood.
It’s easy to ignore the stares though. The colors in this place are more vibrant than my digital palate of 256 font colors to choose from in word. I always thought that was a beautifully made palate. But these are radiant. On the building are international flags. We try to see how many we can name. To the left are lamps. They look like bits of glass glued together, or beads, or like a shattered Nite-Brite. Above it all rises the smoke from the hookahs. Pure white. We are still not getting the full smoke we expect. The Turks blow full-blown cumulus walls of cotton that obscure everything on the other side. We blow whiffs of cirrus hairs that whimper out of our lungs like dogs with tails between their legs. Still, the smoke hangs in the air just long enough to connect us. It comes from our mouths and hovers above, becoming one blanketing cloud for a moment before dissipating in the night colors. But once this veil is lifted, a mosque appears behind, under-lit and glowing against the black of the distant night.
—This is the way to see Istanbul. A golden-lit mosque, past color beaded lamps, through a thick white cloud of smoke just exhaled from your lungs.
The word “real” is often used when there is an apparent dichotomy in a city, or when the user is living outside what they perceive to be the real city. But the fact is that all these are parts of the real city, it then becomes a matter of choosing the parts you see in the time you are allowed.
As a native of the Puget Sound, I had no qualms sitting in a Starbucks for two hours in high school. They were the only coffee shops in Gig Harbor and it made sense to drink my coffee there. But tourists in search of the real Gig Harbor would take their money elsewhere, likely to the harbor proper for their espresso. But for me, a native, Starbucks was the real Gig Harbor. Part of this distinction is the time spent there. I was at leisure to experience the entire city because I lived there. A visitor has a limit to their wanderings. So, the obvious thing to do is go places you could not go elsewhere. This, I believe, is a common distinction that is seldom made: the real city versus the distinct city.
II. The Tour Bus
When it started moving again, I wondered if anyone realized what actually just happened. I mean, we just took a chartered tour bus through a geçikondu. Did anyone know, or feel at all weird about doing that? Anyone? It was just weird. We imposed on this already cramped neighborhood, yes, with our 20 selves, our physical bodies, but also with a fucking tour bus. In my three months gone this summer, I never felt so geographically out of place. Our bus probably had more square footage than some of the houses, and definitely than some of the apartments. And as a group, we seemed to gaily accept that this was normal. Or as normal as taking a tour of the Haga Sophia or the old palace hill and the hippodrome. Sure, in some ways it was though. That we saw them both, with the same tour guide, Orhan, in the same bus, contextualizes both experiences with each other. What we see in a given setting is based on its surroundings, and so we saw the geçikondu on the heels of the palace. This informs out treatment of them both, or at the very least, it informed my treatment of both locations in the city. Obviously, it was “not just another tourist site,” but for me it was interpreted as such like a ride through Universal Studios where you see the Bates Motel and a staged flash flood and Main Street in every Old West movie you’ve seen. These places lose their uniqueness when combined, but on the other hand, they also clump together. They become the whole Universal Studios.
And so, in the way chimneys rise to blankets over cities, this whole is Istanbul.
The melancholy I feel for Istanbul does not come from the city itself, but from my lack of time there. I do not feel sadness when I think about the city’s monuments of intellect and their neglect, but my sorrow comes more from a place of not feeling like I gave Istanbul enough, of feeling like it deserved more than what I offered. I was crunched for time, and yet, I seemed to have enough of it to spend two hours sitting in a Starbucks by the Blue Mosque. Was I in Starbucks or Istanbul? As a visitor, I was in Starbucks because I had come to see Istanbul. I came to see what was unique about Istanbul and while I maintain I was in a part of the real Istanbul, what made Istanbul Istanbul lay outside the door. If I lived there and stopped by Starbucks regularly, I would not hesitate to say, “Yes. I am in Istanbul.” But for us as tourists, it’s almost shameful to admit what happened. We were visitors and tourists, not residents.
Strangely though, I felt at home. I perhaps too readily considered myself at home and a resident. This I believe, is why I felt it acceptable to sit at Starbucks—I was acting as if I had all the time of a resident, when, even sitting there and ignoring time, I felt I was neglecting my role as a tourist. I was ashamed to be sitting there and yet did not care.
III. The Blue Mosque
Time passed meaninglessly. It was the first occasion in which I felt no obligation to be anywhere else. In which I felt it was right for me to be there. That there was nothing else I should be doing. I entered and left on my own terms with nothing else on my mind except the immediate place: the colors, the script, the people, tourists, pilgrims, regulars. I saw children running. I saw a man and woman kiss and a guard walk across the room to tell them it was inappropriate. I saw a woman fall asleep. And everyone was barefoot. It puts everyone on the same level, barefootness. The guards don’t even wear shoes and for it they are actually less authoritative and imposing a force. I felt at home. In this public, tourist, busy space I felt isolated and content and relaxed, even more so than in my apartment in Berlin. The simple act of taking off shoes was certainly a sign of respect, but it also turned out to be incredibly soothing, almost therapeutic. Even in the grandiosity of the basilica I never felt imposed upon, nor like I was imposing. It was a stark contrast to Christian cathedrals in Rome and especially to the geçikondu the day before.
Much of my time there was spent looking at shadows on the ceiling and patterns of light, trying to figure out if they were from the sin, or hidden inside lights. As the time progressed, we decided they were due to natural light. We had been there long enough to recognize changes in the light.
I never checked my watch, or wrote in my notebook.
This is the way to see Istanbul.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
In Chronological Order:
3 August - 20 August, 2009
I found a bi-lingual edition of The Odyssey in German and attic Greek used outside Humbolt. Sally said I should buy it. I did not.
I met a man at YAAM who called himself Jamaica Boy. His birth name was something like Raymond or Darryl. He was missing one of his teeth on top.
"Rose water? What, are you Audrey Hepburn or something?"
"I like it."
"This isn't the 20s."
"Uh, Audrey Hepburn was acting in the 60s."
"OK, Okay. Let's not dwell on the past, guys. Alright?"
Robert gave me a roast beef / mozzarella sandwich because it was not what he ordered. For free. He also carried it around in his bag until I was ready to eat it.
I bought my first doner and ate it for dinner.
Found a photobooth and took a photostrip.
Found a bicycle in the road and rode it to the Turkish flea market in Kreuzberg to buy wrenches. I worked on it all afternoon and could only get two of the 10 speeds to work. The brakes never did.
I tripped while walking on the sidewalk. My ankle caught my other calf and I almost fell into an old lady. No one saw.
Went to the Temporare Kunsthalle and cowered in the center as the tap dancer moved above me. I wrote my first poem in almost weeks there. Then I saw Public Enemies at the Sony Center.
Smoking is bad for group cohesion. Especially at airports and without telling anyone. Later Went to a hookah bar and was grossly overcharged. Karma.
At a mosque, the man handing out head scarves gave Lauren a brown one and Amy a blue one, looked at them and the scarves, took them away, and switched them. Both scarves then matched their eyes perfectly. I took a photograph.
Fifteen Americans "hit the flo'" at once when commanded to by the lyrics of the "boots with the fur" song: "She hit the flo' / Next thing you know / She was goin low low low low..." I took frequent cigarette breaks.
I bought sut outside the Blue Mosque with Lauren. When we paid separately, all the vendor said to me was: "The man always pays. You are not a gentleman."
A man approached me with a clipboard and started speaking to me in German. When I told him I didn't speak German, he said in perfect English: "Oh, sorry. My mistake. This is not for you."
I bought a doner with everything on it and ate it all. For the first time. That is, without taking any of the vegetables out, rather than not finishing it.
A funny think happened on the way to... Art show. I drew a circular star pattern on a graphite wall with an eraser. After, we walked back from Prenzlauerberg because the U-Bahn had stopped running. On the way, we got pommes frites at Heinrich Heine. It was the first time I had been there. It was not the last.