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.