Black Sea Cossacks

March 5, 2008

I could spend a long time in the record basement. At first I start going through “Alternative Rock”, but it is much less interesting than “World” or “Folk”. Specifically, I would like some sad Russian folk music. Perhaps sad is the wrong adjective for it. I would like some failed crops and only stones to eat type of music.

I look for these kinds of records when I go to Ashwoods in Sydney. This store is very similar to Ashwoods, although the overall quality of music is better. It has the same serious male record collector types in it, and the same feeling of claustrophobia. Both are underground, although this store is over two levels. I leave my Tasche at the desk and descend the steep stairs into the record basement. It is comforting down there, and I am alone. You could stay down there all day and no one would make you leave until closing time. While there are thousands of records down there, I like the fact that each has been individually priced and slipped into a protective plastic sleeve.

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I find a seam of Russian records in the folk section. I buy such records going off my instincts, without listening to them beforehand. I like to imagine certain records give me certain feelings for a reason. My initial feeling upon discovering “Songs and Rites of the Black Sea Cossacks”, was fear, as it had some of the creepiest cover art I had ever seen. Here is a recreation:

________________________________________________________________________
Price sticker, €5.00

Logo of The International Organisation of Folk Art

Text in Russian, in red, with flowers.

A photograph of a goat. The goat has a
wooden snout, with real fur and horns. It has
a crazy red and white eye painted on. It has a
carnation in its mouth and is wearing a floral,
70s grandma dress, and numerous strings of
pearls around its neck. It has its mouth open
as if it is in the midst of giving some advice.
There is a bell hanging from its beard.

Songs and Rites
of the Black Sea
Cossacks
Stanitsa Anastasievskaya
Krasnodar Region
________________________________________________________________________

However, anyway you can imagine this, it will not come close to the creepiness of the original. It is a challenge for my descriptive powers (I am not able to photograph it because if I try, the camera seizes up). I will try one more thing. Imagine your grandmother, a woman who enjoys dressing in bright, floral 70s dresses, with a lot of cheap jewellery, has been turned into a wooden goat with black fur and a thick tuft of beard. She sits up in her chair like she always does, as if nothing has changed.

I expect the man at the counter to make a comment about my record when I buy it, but he doesn’t. Still, I like to think that he imagines me as a connoisseur of the most obscure kinds of world music, and that he is very impressed I didn’t just come for the new Jens Lekman LP or the Young Marble Giants reissue. I like to imagine that the serious record collector men are intrigued by me and my obscure tastes, as I stride out into the night with Songs and Rites of the Black Sea Cossacks.

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Tempelhof

March 5, 2008

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It is ghostly in Tempelhof airport. This is why I have come here. An airport where the only flights go from Berlin to Brussels and back is going to be a peaceful place. Parked out the front is a line of empty taxis: the drivers are inside, standing at tables, drinking cups of coffee. The most action is here, around the little coffee kiosk. Inside the hall, the strongest presence is the air.
There is a lot of air trapped in here. Through it resounds the small sounds of the few people waiting. A man shakes and folds his newspaper. Another zips up a bag. Footsteps echo. It is calm here, a good place to sit and think.
It is strange to see an empty airport. Usually they are such busy places, with queues and different languages, all the chairs taken by people waiting and long waits at the vending machine as people try to use up the last of their coins. At Tempelhof, I sit with two businessmen, staring at the indicator board.
BRÜSSEL
BRÜSSEL
BRÜSSEL
BRÜSSEL
There is a change on the board. A plane has landed. I’m excited about this, it is like when the pigeons fly past in Andy Warhol’s film of the Empire State building. Soon, a small group of businessmen emerge from the gates. The men staffing the security point sit up straighter and close their magazines. I like to think of these men changing things as they walk, activating the Tempelhof staff and the taxi drivers, who swill the last of their cups of coffee, and go back to their BMWs.

Crooked Street

February 27, 2008

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Walter Benjamin’s Krumme Straße was “lined on both sides with small establishments full of excitement and danger”: the swimming pool, pawnbrokers shop, writing materials store with rosettes and Chinese lanterns in the window, the municipal reading room, a jostling crowd. What would I find there now?
A Max & Moritz, offering half roasted chickens, to be eaten standing up, and the S-bahn, behind a noise-buffering concrete wall. The first stretch is lined by the long side of a department store, with posters rather than mannequins in the window displays. This is the place the fire exits emerge, the insignificant street you cannot imagine being used for anything but cigarette breaks and parking spots. A man waits in his green station wagon as the trains above go east, go west.
A gardener rakes over a patch of earth where a tree has recently been cut. Only two feet of the trunk still remains, no branches. Behind him, a couple argue. The man is in a hurry, and urges his wife to stop dawdling. It is difficult to take him seriously, as he is wearing a brown velour track suit with brown leather shoes. His belly stretches the velour, and shows it wobbling with his every step. He is the first person I have seen wearing a track suit outside an exercise context since I left Australia. This is not something that I have missed.
This corner, the bend that gives the street its name, was where Benjamin’s swimming pool used to be, and the bric and brac shops with their “decrepit” merchandise. Now there are empty shops with bright signs announcing their closure on the windows. Inside, piles of plaster and sweepings. What once was a musical instrument store still has the staves decorating the windows, and green felt lining the display areathe impressions of the objects once resting on it still faintly visible. I go into a doorway and look at the names of the people who live in the apartments above: Scheer, Rösicke, Beichel. All are on labels stuck over the original name, all in different handwriting. Other labels have been torn off, the apartments must be empty.
At the first intersection, the bonsai shop has a Japanese maple tree outside it, and a man rides past on a kind of modern day penny farthing, and there is a store that sells fine pens and stationery. At least Benjamin and I could visit here together, in search of specific writing implements (which he believed were very important). Yes, Walter Benjamin is my other uncle. Beuys can be the uncle that I don’t see very often, the wacky one that no one really understands, who appears at family gatherings and has weird things in his pockets, and Walter is the uncle who takes me out in the city for adventures. Although it is not nice to play favourites, I love Uncle Walter more.
For him I am here in Charlottenburg, and not the nice, genteel part of it, with handsome men in the coffee houses and marble entranceways, the scrabby part of it, cannibalised by a shopping mall a few streets away. Here people hang their horseshoes sideways on their balconies, and fill their pots with red and grey plants. This is where to find the wig shops and the podiatrists. Side by side, feet and scalps. The rest of the body must be in the wall in between.
The Schicha Lounge leaks its sweet smell from underneath the door and through the red curtains. Beside it, men bend over plates of noodles in the blue and white tiled Vietnamese restaurant. In every shop there is some kind of busy activity, like a man fixing shoes surrounded by equipment and mirrors. The word “Lededartikelreparatur” is comfortable taking up the entire width of the front window.
“Esst Obst!” orders the brown paper bag I step over, on my way towards a display of rakes, shovels and brooms. They lean up against the wall, like pieces from a game of Jack Straws. I could make off with one if I chose, snatch one of the rakes and run, perhaps go back to the beginning of the street and help the man rake the patch of earth around the stump. But I don’t, of course I don’t. I’m taking enough just by looking closely at this unassuming street. It is excites me, all the tiny things that I have noticed, I feel full of electrons.
I turn the corner, into a different street, and pass by a playground. On one of the items of play equipment, a raised pathway made out of sheets of thick rubber, sits a woman holding a small white dog. She has pointy black boots and a gold brooch in the shape of the sun, which glows as if it were providing its own light. She smiles at me as I pass. I climbed over the low stone wall because I had the feeling I must enter the park, although I don’t know why. She smiles and I look up. Covering the wall of the building beside us is a trompe l’oeil painting of a hot air balloon, rising up in between marble columns. Hot air balloons are my symbol of hope, happiness and love, and I gasp to see this one through the black arms of the trees. Thank you Uncle Walter.

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Sleeping in Berlin

February 25, 2008

Today I go out without a coat and without a map. I’ve ceased to feel the cold and ceased to make wrong turns. After eighteen hours of sleep, with the students downstairs constantly playing the guitar and the flocks of birds flying over the roof, something changed in me. Yesterday I had come to the end of my energy and sleep was all I could do.
It came on in the Beuys wing of the Hamburger Bahnhof. Standing next to the big blocks of wax in the centre of the room, I want to put my arms around one and fall asleep in it. I feel like Beuys is my uncle. I imagine the family photographs of me and Uncle Joseph, my arm around the shoulders of his felt suit. The wax horse, still in its cast, was made for me. I try to draw it in my notepad but it is too difficult. It is not until I try to draw something that I notice just how detailed everything is. Now I’m staring at the wax horse listening to the Spanish couple nearby, discussing something passionately. The man repeats a word over and over, which I think is “energista”, but there would be at least ten other possibilities for it. Like the endless detail of the horse, the sounds can be endlessly rearranged. I am so tired that I am sinking into everything.
I look around to see if the guard is watching. Svea warned me about the guards in the Hamburger Bahnhof, after she was yelled at across the room for spending too much time too close to the paint by numbers Warhol. I had noticed the guards’ severe facial expressions. Nowhere was there a fresh faced art student girl with her handbag slung over the chair. It was all grizzle, old resentments tractoring through minds as they made sure no one was about to flash photograph a Cy Twombly.
I have the terrible idea that I might want to poke one of the blocks of wax. I know this is bad of me: if everyone poked the Beuys, it would go completely out of shape, and then it wouldn’t be a Beuys anymore, it would be a mass of fingerprints of the undistinguished. The guard can sense my intentions, he is like a fox. He is watching me and not dropping his gaze. His eyes follow me the whole way out of the room, and I feel relief when I turn a corner (surely, he can’t see through walls?). But upstairs, after doing a turn around the Cremaster room, the guard up there makes a strange face at me, which I realise is a parody of my facial expression. I had been biting my lips, and now he was doing it back to me, exaggerated. This convince me that I must go home and go to sleep immediately.

Bed is my favourite place, if I had to choose, and sleeping is probably my favourite activity. It seems wrong to have a favourite activity that requires no activity. (For the record, my second favourite activity is writing and my third is going through junk in op shops and flea markets.) One of the things I like best about sleep is the fact that everything else continues without me thinking about it. Everything will continue regardless of whether I am there to scrutinise it or not. And waking up, there is always the chance that it will be one of those magical days, where in the late afternoon everyone is carrying some interesting item that they have bought from the flea market (records, silver boxes, chairs), or has spiky punk hair, or is waiting for their photos from the Fotoautomat, or is with their best friend wearing matching coats. A man on the street corner hands me what I think is a menu for an Indian restaurant, but when I open it up is a certificate that says that I, coatless, mapless, have pricked the skin of the city.

Peacock Island

February 25, 2008

The bus that took us to the Pfaueninsel was not like the others. It had driven straight from the 1970s. My dress matched the seats, we were both red, orange and yellow. I was flowers, it was a thick weave. The walls were covered with wood-look linoleum. The signs were faded. I noticed that we were sitting in the seat reserved for the elderly, as the sign next to it was a seat with a fat, square cross over it. I looked behind me and saw that all of the seats in the front half of the bus had this sign.
So important was this trip to me that I had run over the particulars of the journey in my mind many times. Crucial was this bus, the 218, which only came every two hours. There was some greater truth in the moment when the 218 drove up to the stop at Wannsee and became reality. When the anticipated becomes real, I feel like all my preconceptions are suitcases that I throw out the window. There go my anticipations (that it was going to be an ornate sled, hung with bells; or a snub-nosed mini-bus, disappointingly modern) as I scramble to take it all the real details.
The bus took us through a forest.
“This will be glorious in summer,” Steph said, and she was right, but there was something I liked about it in winter, the way the light came through the empty branches, the way it looked forlorn. I find myself continually going to describe the trees as dead, and then having to correct myself. It is hard to adjust to a place full of deciduous trees when one comes from the land of evergreens. We were only on the bus for ten minutes before being dropped off at the end of the line, the ferry stop. The ferry was on the other side, about 100 metres away. We laughed when we got on, about taking out one’s thick novel, shifting to get comfortable, reading the words “Chapter One” and then, toot toot! – you have arrived.
The idea of an island populated by peacocks and architectural follies sounded like a dream, but here we were, strolling around the paths, looking over the rippling river, looking out for peacocks. I had of course imagined the island to be swarming with them, but after half an hour we were still waiting to see one. Other birds twittered in the trees around us, and we decided we could be birdwatchers. We listed the paraphernalia, the books, the binoculars, the dungarees, “the infa-red,” Steph said, and I did the wide-legged stance that we’d adopt to use our high-tech birdwatching machinery.
We were sitting for a moment, watching the lake, when I heard a loud knocking. My suspicions were confirmed when I looked up and saw a kind of woodpecker, ramming its beak into the trunk of the tree behind us. I had never seen a woodpecker, and it struck me how violent it was, slamming its beak hard enough to make such a noise. It is foolish of course to expect that I could imagine “what it felt like”, but I could not help thinking of headaches. We watched it for a while, and as we walked onwards, we could still hear it tapping. Why was it tapping? I suggested “mites, borers”, but Steph was sure there was another reason.
We didn’t know. I have come to enjoy the feeling of not knowing, of being unconnected to information sources like the very one on which you are reading this. This is where imagination swims, in the not-knowing. Not knowing, I observed it very keenly, as I observed the other woodpeckers we encountered in the nearby trees. Closing my eyes, I could hear knocking from all directions.
The first peacock was a shock. It was too big, too bright. It perched on the edge of the Vogelhaus and regarded us with disinterest. His tail hung down, many green eyes hiding among the tassels, as we approached, he moved as if it were a terrible chore. I imagined the blue of his body to get brighter as we approached, until it was the bluest blue either of us had ever seen.
The Vogelhaus was an octagonal building with eight enclosures radiating off it. In one huddled the female peacocks.
“I’m not taking a photo that’s the kind of photo an eight year old would take,” Steph said, and I laughed because I knew exactly what she meant. Any photo of an animal taken through a wire mesh, or a fence, has this quality about it. We peered in at the peacocks, the peacocks peered out at us.
At the top of the path, a lot was going on. One of the male peacocks had his tail fanned out and was shaking it, to impress the lady peacocks (peahens? I am not sure). We got in his way to take photographs. I stood just behind his fan, it shook with a sound like rattling brass bedheads. I felt like this was a bit unfair to the peacocks; they were trying to go about nature’s business as I used them for background! Humans have no idea what this is like. There is no equivalent for us, when we are going about our mating rituals. Nothing buzzes around us and points weird machines at us. To the peacocks’ credit, they did not pay much attention. Some of them went over to investigate my coat, which I had cast onto the ground in excitement. They peered down at it, and this made me giggle. Peacocks are an animal that you can easily fill in speech bubbles for. They say: “What is this?” and “Aren’t I beautiful?” They can only ever look surprised or smug.
We finished taking photos and let the peacocks go on with their business. They walked over towards the water, and towards an enclosure where we saw the heads of two white peacocks peering over the wire mesh that covered the door. Their exclamation point heads said: “Hey! Let me out of here! I want to parade!”

Treehouse

February 21, 2008

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Here I am in the treehouse in the playground. There are no children in the playground, my only companions are the wooden animals carved into the wooden struts of the house, and the many texta words written inside. The ink has bled into the wood; the messages are gradually dissolving. They are all about love, even the angry ones.

I feel at home in the treehouse. I’m sitting hunched up, my big black and white coat bunched around me, peering out through the windows at the people walking past on Knesebeckstraße. I’m happy in here, I could set up office. Piled very neatly in one corner is a stack of empty, flattened tobacco pouches. The unfamiliar brands make me more aware of them as objects, and I think of all the times these people’s hands must have dipped into the pouches for another pinch of tobacco, before discarding this well handled, softened object.

I will be here, alone, all day, in the treehouse. No children will come, they are all behind the fence in the school, or preserved carefully from the cold by their parents, wrapped in layers of puffy jackets, too bundled up to be able to move. Their footprints are in the sand and their fingerprints on the railings, but they have given the playground to me for the day. I fumble over the rope bridges, designed for bodies with lower centres of gravity, I thump down into the sand and nod at the empty condom packet half-buried there. I feel pleased in that way that I do when I think: if I was a different person, in another life, I would do that here.

It is very genteel in this part of the city. Looking in the windows of the cafes, there are men sitting very straight, dangling their spectacles in their hands as they read newspapers. No doubt they are wearing cashmere jumpers and their shoes are made from the hide of iguanas, or stallions, or elephants. The trees are spidery in a way that matches the decorations on the buildings, the streets are like women who have dressed carefully for the evening. The playground is the only place for sand and textas, the place where order is remade as the treehouse becomes a fort, becomes a heaven, becomes a prison, becomes a bed. For me it is a balloon for my thoughts to fill.

My thoughts are a big lump, like a mass of caramel popcorn, all fused together. There’s thoughts about where I am now, thoughts about what might have happened in this place, thoughts about my own presence in this place, connections between this place and my past, thoughts about the objects in the place and their possibilites. I think how I would describe this place, grasping for words for it so I can write about it now and have it always. So I can build the walls around me and scrawl the messages into them and put myself inside it again when I’m anywhere else.

Mann und Hund

February 19, 2008

“There was an interesting man and dog combination on the train this morning,” I say to Steph. “I’ll try and describe them, but it’s like trying to describe the afternoon light. It is hard to get at exactly what about it is special.”
”Go on,” she says, and I start to describe the dog.
“Medium sized, white and fluffy, with brown spots, overweight so a big solid body, a small head with a pointy snout, pinky nose, meek expression.” I gesticulate and make a dog out of the space in front of me on the U2 platform of Alexanderplatz.
She takes in all my information about the dog and I move onto the man.
“A bit goofy looking, funny ears, sticking out a bit, goggle eyes, in his 30s, using a rainbow coloured shoelace as a lead for the dog…”
”I can picture it,” she says, and I have no doubt she can. Our ability to visualise is one of our strongest points. We are magicians who can make things appear to each other. We can move around details like eligible, charming bachelors at a dance.
“You’ll see them again,” she says, with great conviction, as we walk up the stairs. There are people rushing all around us, on every side, people we’ll never see before and never see again.
“I don’t think so!” I say. Steph looks wise, like she’s handed me a key which I think is useless, but she knows better.

Later, I’ve read the map upside down again and we’re going the wrong way. Neither of us mind though, we’ve seen sparrows perched on the edge of a birdhouse, a 70s orange library, a girl on rollerblades holding the lead of a dog that’s running to greet another dog. The only bad thing is our faces are going numb from the cold. My jaw is aching and I notice my words are not coming out correctly because I can’t move my mouth properly. We go back to the train station and are swallowed in that world for a while, tunnels and stations. As we get off the train, I notice a busker further down the carriage. He is familiar. He is the man I had described earlier that morning.
“Steph! It’s the guy!” I’m so excited I can barely speak.
She looks calm about it. “I told you you’d see him again.”
“He must have dropped the dog off home,” I said, as I watch the train slide out of the station, taking him away.
“He’s exactly like you described him,” she said.

We go to art galleries, because it’s too cold to be on the street. There’s an icy wind that makes me moan every thirty seconds. It is cutting right through my coat, which I suddenly imagine is full of tiny tiny holes. We spend a long time looking at the details in 16th century Dutch still lives, tiny caterpillars and the gleam on the sides of coins, and then amble through the rest of the decades. I pause in front of a tall Gainsborough. There’s children there, in a garden on a pale blue and green day. Their white dog, in the corner of the painting, is the man’s dog from the train this morning.
“Steph…”
“I told you that you’d see them again.”

Post

February 14, 2008

I am in a long queue at the post office. People are patient in queues here. There is no coin-jingling, no sighing, no staring at the ceiling. There might be some neck-craning, or fixation on the end point of the queue, but in a queue, one must stay alert!

Every person in front of me has a complex mail situation. Most involve parcels. I wish I had x-ray vision so I could see what these people are posting. Most of their parcels are wrapped in brown paper, with brown tape at the edges to seal it. I picture that in the fourth drawer down in every kitchen, there is brown paper, twine, and packing tape, as well as a pair of sharp, shiny silver scissors (perhaps bought from the scissors and dental instruments stall at the flea market). This is for wrapping packages, and now here everyone is, at the yellow post office, waiting to despatch them.

A few people in front of me is a man with the largest package I have ever seen – it is over 6 feet long, and about 40cm wide and deep. He drags it up to the counter and places it on the special, large scale in the centre of the counter. A number of postal workers come over to inspect it. It is like someone has come into the office with a new baby. There is some confusion about whether it is too big to post and I watch the man remove a long, cardboard tube from the box and crack it loudly in half with his foot. Everyone looks, but this seems to solve the problem. The crowd of post-ladies disperses.

The man with the large package is wearing a mismatching brown suit and has ratty brown hair. I can only imagine what is in his brown box, which he is now carefully sealing with brown packing tape, is brown also. I imagine it is some kind of foldable cardboard scene, a family perhaps, or a village, that the recipient will remove from the box and assemble. The recipient is wearing every colour that is not brown, and will procede to paint the cardboard family, or village in every colour other than brown.

“Hallo!” says the man behind me. It is my turn to approach one of the registers. He says “Hallo” in the same way the three men said “Hallo” when I dropped my glove in Neukölln two Sundays ago. Urgent, but polite. “Ah!” I say, and take out my postcards. I had been hiding them in my hand, embarrassed that I did not have a brown paper wrapped package to send. Worried, in fact, that I was in some kind of special package queue.

The man’s package is being dragged out the back as the post-lady puts the stamps carefully in the corners of my cards. I remember being in the main post office in Prague last year, watching the woman working at the counter slam large stamps right over what I had written on the cards. She then brought an inky, black stamp down over them to further obscure my message with the postmark. I had watched, helplessly, from the other side of the glass. But there is no glass divider here, and the stamps are small and have flowers on them and she adheres in the corner of the postcards neatly.

I feel better after they are posted, like some small, weighty parts of me have been removed. I think about how, on one of the squares of grass on the opposite side of Strausberger Platz to where I am staying, someone must have planted bulbs months ago. Now purple flowers bloom there, for everyone who walks past. These are the flowers on the postage stamps.

Das Krankenzimmer

February 13, 2008

Waking up sick this morning, I had the exact feeling that I used to get when I was sick as a child: my throat hurt in the same way, and I felt the same resignation to lying in bed for as long as it takes. My room was to become my cave. The cold must have got into my bones, or someone’s sneeze must have latched onto me: whatever the origin, I was now sick.

I had felt it coming yesterday, in the hard to ignore form of an intense headache that invaded my vision with hot, white squares. Knowing that there is no one here to bring me tissues and talking books and make me tea, I knew it was up to me to prepare. I spent the last of my remaining energy buying ingredients for pickle soup from Kaisers, and then retreated.

For most of the morning I alternated between sleeping and looking out the window. The window looks out onto a square of park and playground and carpark enclosed by Plattenbauten. This area is the domain of the crows, they waddle over the ground, they fly up into trees with scraps of food they don’t want to share with other beaks, they peck over the grass. The crows outnumber the people. I watch two men in an orange truck, some kind of maintenance vehicle. They are dressed to match the truck, in orange overalls. From my position on the fourth floor, all I can see is their arms and legs. They sit there smoking. One is turning through the pages of a newspaper from the back, as you do when you are looking at the pages rather than reading them. An old lady passes, holding a shopping bag. Potatoes are in the top of it. I go back to bed. Later, some children are playing soccer in the basketball court. There is a wet, soapy, car shaped mark on the pavement below, where someone has washed their car, and then driven off. A Krankenwagen passes, sirenless. I go back to bed. Two boys in olive green jackets run after their father, also in an olive green jacket (this is how I can tell they are related). The father opens the door of a yellow van, and they all pile in across the front seat. A man rides past on a bicycle, sitting very straight, his hands tucked into his pockets. I go back to bed.

It becomes clear to me that I will need to return to the Apothek to exercise my rudimentary German on the staff. Yesterday I was there for a Kopfschmerzen. Today, it is a Halsschmerzen. My throat feels like it is lined with shell grit, however I feel that description is beyond my translation abilities.

It felt strange to be outside. I can enjoy the weirdness of leaving the house when sick and feverish, as long as I don’t have far to go. I was to be going precisely one block, to buy some breadrolls and then go to the Apothek. I have been buying breadrolls called “Schrippen”, which I looked up in my dictionary, sure that this word must mean something else, some kind of creature or botanical oddity that somehow relates to a small white breadroll. It was not there, but I know it means something besides breadroll.

Outside the bakery I see The Girl and her Rottweiler. Yesterday I saw them hanging out outside Rossman (where one buys things like tissues, vitamins, pet food and toothbrushes). She was kissing him on the head when I went in, and when I came out she was tearing open a packet of doggy snacks for him. Today they were frolicking across Karl Marx Allee, although the Rottweiler was doing most of the frolicking, she was busy trying to stay alive: the traffic lights were out. Crossing over Strausberger Platz, which has a complicated roundabout at its heart, makes my heart race at the best of times, however with the traffic lights out it feels impossible.

As I stood stranded at the crossing, an old lady said something to me and I nodded. I was feeling feverish and weird, and the fact I could not understand her was not that I was in another country, it was the fact I was ill. I was in a dream where old ladies spoke in different languages, every old lady spoke a different one, and they all had things to say to me about minor disruptions to order.

I could see two of them inside the stationary, party supplies and greeting card store. I was outside, looking through the postcards on the rack. They had grimy edges from being looked through for the last ten years. Some were of Berlin, some were of animals, including a dingo, some were of African kiddies playing, some were motivational with pictures of castles and slogans, and some had cartoon frogs and insects on them, with messages written in cheerful lettering. What was I doing? I was far too sick to be looking at postcards. I had already paused to read an information panel about Karl Marx Allee in the 1920s, when it was called Frankfurter rather than Karl. This part of it was the area where the unemployed and low-paid clerks used to wander, while further east it was more upmarket, with department stores. Interressant!

But I must get back to bed and examine my throat lozenges. After ten minutes with my dictionary and the product information leaflet, I am convinced that they are the right thing, and I need to suck one every 1-3 hours. I should not have doubted. The ladies in the white coats in the Apothek have magic powers. Only they can negotiate the serious land of potions and concoctions behind the counter, and this gives these potions and concoctions added potency. As does the sticker on the front on which she wrote how many to take daily. At the bottom is printed: Gute Besserung! which she also said to me as I left. Now I have my blessing from the land of the white coats it is time to return to the white pillows.

Guards of the Underworld

February 11, 2008

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These were obviously the things of the recently dead, laid out in boxes, full of crockery wrapped in newspaper. Among the gravel crunching underfoot were pieces of broken glass and plates, I’d put my foot down and a piece of glass would pop underneath it, as my hands were busy pushing aside newspaper and opening notebooks and photograph albums, to see what was inside. I felt ghoulish: they were exactly like the boxes that we’d sort through at the op shop, with their framed photographs of grandchildren and spice jars with the spices still in them.

How did the Turkish men sitting smoking in the backs of their trucks, come to be the ones to disperse these objects? They stand there smoking, and blowing steam of the tops of their coffees, bestowing prices. They negotiate between the dead and the living and this gives them special powers, they can stand there comfortably in the chill morning. The cold does not creep through the soles of their shoes. The dead are protecting them, they want their things to go to good homes.
At first I’d felt too shy to look through these boxes, I could only stand back and watch other people. They had the focussed, driven expressions of people about to find something very important.
A woman finds the lid of the baking dish she has been looking for and her lips tighten with satisfaction.
A arty boy with big thick black glasses unwinds film from a reel and holds it up to the light, to see what is on it.
An old man looks through every camera in the box of Instamatics and does not welcome people getting too close.
I decide that I must join these people. Why be squeamish? Most of my belongings are from dead people. Although when they are for sale in op shops, it is like buying meat from the supermarket; you can ignore where it comes from. I think about it: if I were dead, would I want my things to have a new life? Yes.
I spend the next two hours looking through boxes of the recently dead, the newspaper grime building up on my fingers, wishing I lived here because it meant I could buy things like handsome hot water bottles and strange contraptions designed to heat glasses of milk. Many of the items are souvenirs and postcards from long-ago travels. There are an awful lot of donkey toys, which I guess might be from holidays to Greece. These objects look uncomfortably similar to my own collections of travel ephemera, there are the same bundles of postcards from art galleries, the same collections of pamphlets.
I have always liked to take my own souvenirs from the souvenirs of others, but it makes me experience the present in past tense: I can feel how it will be to remember this moment in ten, or twenty or more years time. Then one day I will be dead and my things will be in boxes.

If I lived here, I would be here every week, keeping my eye on the flow of objects from the dead to the living. I’d have many moments of beauty and sadness, where I do something like open a red purse to find a collection of keys and an engraved dog tag for “Mohnchen”, with an address on the other side and feel something in my throat, almost a sob. But then I’d look up and watch an old lady pull out a big, earthenware vase with a satisfied grunt from the box across from mine, and listen to the rustle of newspaper, all those scrunched up words, being pushed to the side, and think of people finding little things all around me, breaking apart the individual wills that bound these objects together, scattering them.