Fotoautomat

April 8, 2008

Yesterday, being my birthday, I decided I would give myself a present. I would convert the five rolls of film sitting on my shelf into photographs. As much as I liked them there, holding their secrets, I wondered what they contained. Even though I know that airport x-rays are safe for film these days, I wondered if perhaps they had been zapped, blanked, and in fact they held nothing. How would I feel?

I already feel a sense of loss from the two packages I sent myself that never arrived, full of my carefully collected paper ephemera. I can only imagine that the envelopes fell apart and scattered my cards and notes and papers through the bundles of mail, the better-packaged envelopes. There is something spooky about sending things to yourself, like it is something that is not meant to happen. So perhaps if I had used my pseudonym, my packages would have arrived safely. I still hold hopes that one might appear, like a bedraggled pet, wet and dirty from mystery journeys.

My photos were mostly of Berlin, and when I spread them out and looked over all their greyness, I tried to make the key turn in my memory, to put myself back there. But it is difficult, when I am back in the most familiar place I have, and I am now surrounded by so much colour. I look out my window and count the bright orange hibiscus flowers, being supped at by a red wattlebird. Things smell right again, and I can choose from about a hundred dresses rather than three. But I have not totally been gobbled by my return to everyday life. What I did feel again was a sense of how it felt to walk around and explore, that lovely, open feeling, where you don’t know what will be around the next corner.

Zuruck

April 2, 2008

I am home and I love the weeds growing through cracks in concrete driveways, and the smell of gardens. I am pleased to be home because I feel like I have had quite enough experience for the time being, I need time to drag it away and chew on it.

Because of the many problems I had in Leipzig, I didn’t get to write on this blog as much as I had planned, or wished to, which is a shame. Over the next few weeks I will post some scanned pages from my notebook, and then that will be it. So short, our affair. So, in advance, before the notebook pages start popping up, thank you for reading my letters from Germany. I will perhaps see you in the non-virtual world, which I feel I inhabit more successfully.

Ostalgie

March 19, 2008

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It was comfortable in the living room. I wanted to lie down on the couch, snuggle into the cushions, and reach for a packet of biscuits. I could have fallen asleep.
But this was an installation, a recreation of a DDR-era living room by the artist Stefan Roloff. It wasn’t anyone’s home. It was a recreation, stuck together from fragments of people’s past lives.
During my past six weeks in Germany, I have seen many recreations of DDR living rooms. I have peered over ropes to look into them, or pawed the glass cases that separate them from the museum visitors. What is it about them that is so fascinating?

In Berlin, the DDR museum is completely dedicated to ostalgie. Naturally, this includes a recreation of a DDR apartment. You can sit on the sofa, open the drawers in the kitchen to discover everyday objects, and take endless photos of yourself posing anachronistically surrounded by brown and orange and mustard furnishings. When I visited this museum last year, I left feeling very uncomfortable. It was so obvious in its fetishisation. Perhaps it made me question my own interest in ostalgie, and made me admit that I too indulged in this fetishisation to some extent.
But (I protest to no one in particular) my feelings about it are complex, a tight bundle of thought, too dense to separate easily. Ostalgie keys into many of my key interests: memory, reconstruction, everyday life, nostalgia, the 1970s, domestic spaces… sometimes I feel that, if I think about it all hard enough, I will be able to unlock something crucial, some kind of key to the balance between memory and everyday life.

What happens to memories once they become fetishised and recreated? People look happy as they sit behind the wheel of the Trabant you can ‘drive’ through video images of streets lined with Plattenbauten. They laugh at the daggy jeans in the wardrobe and the bright 70s dresses. They are fabricating their own memories of a DDR they most probably did not experience. It makes me feel uncomfortable, but is there anything ‘wrong’ with this? People want to sit on the sofas, they want to put themselves inside the time capsule that will for ever be around the DDR. But, surround yourself with as many of the objects as you want, the sense of everyday life that we think we can almost feel is probably nothing like what we imagine.

Readings

March 18, 2008

At the first reading, I sat on a sofa made out of books and read my story about impossible love. How much would people understand? The rest of the readings had been in German. I sat there listening to the texture of the language, and words I understood popped out like crocodile heads in that arcade game where you have to hit them down again with a club. It felt good to read, it is something I love doing. I would like to have a job where I just read stories to people, like the village letter writer, I could be the village story reader.

I read last, after three men, all of whom left straight after they had finished. Once the applause faded, their coats were on and they were down the stairs. There was a big reading at the Moritz Bastei that they were all going to. At least most of the audience stayed to hear me. As I read, one man smiled beamingly the whole way through. He was in his 50s, I guess, wearing a yellow jumper, sitting up very straight, and looking very very happy. I read my story for this man.

After I finished, Ulrike read the translation of it. It is the first time I’ve had something translated, it is a strange experience to hear your story made into something else. I like it, it was like it was not mine anymore, it was alive and it had evolved. Ulrike and I are exchange partners, I guess I would say, she came to Sydney last year. I felt like we were both given the same set of blocks, but when we held up our constructions, despite being of the same stuff, they looked completely different. Mine had structural faults.

The second reading was at the launch party of the student anthology, Tippgemeinschaft. There were white blossoms in big glass vases and white tablecloths. Each of the authors in the anthology had a corresponding portrait, which was printed on postcards and also slipped into matchboxes. The matchbox on my seat had Alexander Langer in it, which I decided to take as a good sign, Alexander is one of my lucky names.
But Alexander did not help me. I could only read a few pages before I had to stop. The terrible cough that had been plaguing me for the last few days took over and I had to stop at the end of a paragraph about ice buckets and apologise that I could not read any longer. I went back to my seat in the front row, feeling disappointed. One of the presenters of the evening got up and said how sorry she was, and that I must get better.

“Can you get everyone to say it?” I asked, and she did!
”1-2-3 Get Better!” the whole room said in unison.

Afterwards, Ryan said that this was probably the only time this has ever happened at a literary event. He is possibly correct.

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Ha-Neu

March 17, 2008

The building collapsed, it simply gave up. It had been one of the rotten ones, with broken windows and graffiti, dark at night, its connections slowly loosening. It was the bad tooth, the failed brother. Here it is now in pieces.
Approaching the rubble, the smell of concrete and plaster reaches for me. It smells like hallways, which is a strange scent to enclose you when you are outside. The building has been turned inside out. It is horrible, it is fascinating. At one corner, a yellow earthmover picks at the pieces of concrete, eats them.
The empty buildings are a shock. The first I see is almost twenty stories high, with a huge banner hanging off it, zu verkaufen. Yes, I think I might be in the market for a huge, empty, run down Plattenbauten in Halle Neustadt. I stare at it from the tram: could it really be empty? All the windows are black, and the balconies are falling apart. All those walls and floors and ceilings, doing nothing but dividing up space.
The empty buildings keep appearing. Out of a row of four with the same design, the same textured panels on the façade, same size, same shape, the dead one is a shock. It has the doors bricked up, the windows spraypainted. It surprises me that seeing this makes me feel so much, sad and happy both at once. I can’t get to the root of it. Seeing these buildings actually makes me gasp.
Perhaps it is just the fulfilment of my expectations. I had read how Halle Neustadt was built in the 1960s to house the workers from the chemical industries, how once almost 100 000 people lived there, but now the buildings are slowly emptying, and there are plans for many of them to be demolished.
I stay on the tram until I can no longer stand to observe anymore. This is at the point where I see the demolished building. I feel like I’m standing in a graveyard as I breathe in the scent of the concrete. From here I walk back along the main road. One of the buildings has only recently been deserted. I walk over the damp grass towards it, trying to sense whether there were people living inside. At first I think there are, but then I see through the windows to the empty rooms inside. Up this close I can hear the sound of the wind creaking the loose panels on the balconies. It had the feeling like a room recently empty of people, where the breath and movement of bodies still remained. From where I was standing I could see no other people. I felt frightened, I felt free.
Some streets away, I spoke to the ladies of the Plattenbauten. They frolic on the empty, concrete fountain, as old men in parkas shuffle by. They tell me how it used to be, when they featured on postcards. They tell me that if I could open up one of the buildings like a cabinet, I would be surprised by the colours. They tell me how the empty cabinets give them nightmares, but it hurts every time one is demolished. They say: It wasn’t meant to turn out this way.

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Horse Apple

March 16, 2008

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You buy this from a small fruit stall at Halle train station. You eat it while the train slides through the fields, and people sitting around you finish off their day’s work on laptops, or shut their eyes and dream. The apple is from China. One had the Playboy symbol and the words “I Live You” on it. You found the horse more appropriate, but no less strange.

You are on a train from Halle to Leipzig, eating a Chinese apple with a horse design bleached onto it.

You are thinking what you are doing while you are doing it. It runs through your head like a caption. Much much rarer is to just find yourself being, without you thoughts being moulded into descriptions. You cannot remember the last time you caught yourself unawares.

Wildfutter

March 16, 2008

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You buy this from the machine at the Wildpark.

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Hey Ho Heino

March 16, 2008

The police roadblock is set up just after the record stores, which is lucky, because that’s where we want to go. At the first store I buy an album of Russian folk songs and Ryan buys Hip Priest and Kamerads. We’re in there for a while and we forget about the police until we’re outside again. Some lean against their vans, eyes shut, absorbing the sun. Others are blowing steam off the tops of cups of coffee. There’s a picnic kind of atmosphere at the roadblock. What on earth are they doing?
”The Neo-Nazis planned a demonstration, but they didn’t turn up,” the man in the second record store says. He is very enthusiastic. “The anarchists are there, though. There are a hundred anarchists in between all the police. Is there anything you’re looking for in particular?”
No, we say, just browsing. He asks us if we’d like coffee. Sure! He bounds out to the back room and I can hear the sounds of a tap running as he fills the kettle. He brings a basket full of teas out for me and I choose Arabische. I’m not sure what is in it but there’s a nice camel on the packet.
I feel so good being in this shop, surrounded by records, with this enthusiastic man telling us about the Nazi demonstration. Every one of his sentences travels in a wide arc, they bounce with excitement. He is thrilled by the action. His phone keeps ringing and he speaks into it in bursts. I can hear other, excitable voices buzzing from the receiver. I look from him out the windows to the sunbaking policemen, their white riot helmets dangling from their hands as they yawn.
I sip at my tea a bit, then go off into easy listening land.

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Upon seeing this, I have a question for the man in the shop.
“Can you explain Heino to me?”

I first encountered Heino in the book Incredibly Strange Music. Heino seemed too weird to be real, too good to be true. At the time I was learning Russian and I had a German guy in my class. I asked him about Heino and showed him the book, and he gave me a look of utter surprise. He was amazed that anyone outside of Germany would know about Heino. He described the busloads of old women who go to his concerts, and, most interestingly, that he is an albino. I have since realised that everyone who talks about Heino must mention this fact. In the break he went to photocopy the article, as he wanted to show it to his friends. “There will be many laughs tonight,” he said, famously.

Now I am unable to resist the chance for another explanation of Heino. As I expected the record store guy pounces at my question. He comes out from behind the counter and joins me at the Heino section. He flips through, purposefully, all the while explaining Heino.
“Do you know Schlager? Heino is the most famous of all the Schlager singers.”
”Does he own a restaurant?” I ask. (A Heino fact my fellow Russian student told me.)
“It is possible. Here, at first he is wearing the normal glasses,” he pulls out a very early Heino album. “And then he is wearing the dark glasses. He is an albino.”
“Yes!”
He is obviously looking for something in particular.
“I am sorry to say that I have a Heino album, and I put it on when I want people to leave my home,” I say. I feel a bit bad about this. The guy obviously is proud of Heino in some way. I can imagine how you would feel proud of Heino, but I still can’t imagine listening to any of his dozens of records. The record store guy even sings excerpts as he flips past Heino after Heino. Every record cover features him on it, always with the shock of white blonde hair and the dark glasses. Heino’s house must be full of framed pictures of himself.
“Ah,” he says, taking out a Christmas album. Inside the gatefold sleeve is a pop up nativity scene. Mein Gott! I laugh and call Ryan in from the next room.
“You have to see this.”
“Coming!” he says. We feel very at home in the record store, what with the coffee and tea and chatter.
He joins us regarding the pop up nativity.
“Heino should be in it,” I say.
“Maybe he’s in the manger,” Ryan suggests.
The record store man starts to tell me about Schlager. He picks out some albums to put on for me, as examples, while explaining the structure of the one record company that existed in the DDR, VEB Deutsche Schallplatten. Amiga was the popular music branch of it. Now I noticed that every record in the section we were looking at had AMIGA in the corner. Amiga Amiga Amiga.
The first record he puts on, I know within 20 seconds that I will buy. It has that wide, warm 60s sound and makes me feel instantly happy. My friend is very pleased that I like it so much, and leaves me to listen as he bounces off to help some other customers, his blonde hair swinging. It is cut very straight, just below his ears.
I can imagine myself listening to this record at home in a few weeks time, lying on my bed, with all my reassuring clutter around me, taking me back to this one lovely sunny morning in Leipzig, looking at records with Ryan, dozy cops outside, drinking a cup of tea made by this surprisingly friendly man, who tells me, when I buy the record, to look after it, because it is very special.

The Living and the Dead

March 16, 2008

The only people who catch trams in Leipzig are old ladies, people who need to transport their dogs long distances and do not have cars for this purpose, and school children. Tourists don’t seem to catch them either, they are busy in the centre of the city, photographing the statue of Goethe. Goethe looks over their heads and up to the sky, pleased at the heavy thoughts in his brass head.

I catch trams because it is impossible for me to stay in the guesthouse and read Chekhov and write, which is what I would be doing otherwise. The guesthouse is being renovated, and the place resounds with drills. I imagine that I am in a big mouth, full of rotten teeth, that requires much dental work. I think I can bear it, but then a drill starts up so loudly I am sure I will see the end of the bit poking through the wall. “Get out!” it says. “Or I will eat you!”

I stay on the tram until the end of the line. Although I have been here long enough to get used to it, I am still surprised at all the empty buildings. Whole, long apartment buildings are empty. Their striped 70s awning are fading, and there’s graffiti all over them. Each window is host to a spraypainted letter, another clue to an overall cryptic message, spread over the windows of Leipzig. I’m surprised there’s enough people left to tag these empty buildings, but the artists are thorough, no empty building is able to remain a secret. Some of the buildings have for sale signs on them and I wonder how much it must be for one of these crumbling buildings with smashed windows, taken over by pigeons.

Next to them are the living buildings, with lace curtains and plants on the windowsills. I glide past many of these on the tram, every lace curtain different until it’s the terminus. There’s nothing here but a park and people’s garden allotments, with a thick yellow pipe running over the huts and the fruit trees. “Pipe-zig”, I think foolishly, every time I see one of these big pipes. Every time I think it is funny.

I wonder if the tram driver noticed me get off the tram and get back on it again. People here don’t seem to comment on such weirdnesses, like they would in Australia. At home I would at least get a, “you right love?” and because I expect it I start to work out how I would explain myself in German. The word “Touristin” would feature heavily. Then how to explain that I am as interested in everyday things as the extraordinary? That I like to see the different areas? I think the right word for area is “Bezirk”, but that word makes me laugh, and I don’t think I’d be able to even say it…

But no one asks. The driver is smoking and staring at the receding storm clouds. I get on the waiting tram and after a few minutes the doors shut and it glides back towards the city.

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Elk

March 10, 2008

The elk is nosing his snout along the bars. The two layers of fencing are designed so that I cannot reach him, no matter how hard I stretch forward. I want to pat his velvety snout very badly, I think this will make me feel better.

Before I left Sydney, many people asked me what a writer in residence does. I have the answers now: I am woken up at 7am by drills on the other side of the wall, forcing me to flee my cardboard apartment. I find it difficult to write on my blog as my computer is not compatible with the university’s network, and as an iBook is an obscure machine, there is nothing that can be done about this. Even if there was, everybody in the university is on holidays. I get sick of hearing ‘I cannot help you’.

I am left to watch disasters on the streets: bicycles colliding, people dropping their sandwiches. To this I nod, because this is exactly the kind of bad luck that has been plauging me, too. Too afraid to venture out at night, with a telephone that only connects to University phone numbers, I eat chocolate bars and listen to people’s voices echoing in the stairwells.

I think all this as I stare at the elk. The elk regards me, thinking that I perhaps have food. If the elk ate disappointment he would be greatly satisfied.


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