Last week I parked my friend’s bike under a construction platform* and went inside a corner restaurant that Tony and I had noticed in December. (At the time, they’d advertised a German language poetry reading; my husband in an I’ll appeal to her sensibilities frame of mind had suggested it as one of our evening activities; something else ended up rising to the forefront of our minds instead.) I ordered the Senfeier** and then struck up a conversation with the waitress as I asked her about the shadow theater that was taking place in the restaurant’s basement on the upcoming Saturday.
“Do you do shadow puppetry?” she asked.***
“No,” I replied.
“But the theater? Are you involved with theater?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Ich auch,” she quickly stated.
“You’re involved in theater too? Kool. Do you know of anything going on over the next few weeks where I could help out?”
“Hmm,” she thought for a moment, “No, but my mind’s been preoccupied since I’m going to Barcelona next week; I’m going to stay for four months.”
“Oh?” And something made me ask, “Are you from there?”
It ends up that there’s a rather large community of people from Spain (particularly Barcelona based on my limited experience) who live in Berlin. Why? The cost of living is a lot less expensive. Many Spaniards do learn and speak German, but many don’t as well. How do they get by? Why with Englisch, of course! It’s the Latin of today’s world.*iv
“But oh,” she said suddenly, “there is something going on that you can participate in this coming Friday. It’s called Widersprüchliche Abend. Do you know what that means? It means that people contradict each other; that’s the focus of the evening’s activity. This week’s theme is: Ich bin nicht du.” (I’m not you.)
Sounds great, I thought, and with that I proceeded to ask her to kindly write the address in my little black book. She also wrote, “New Yorck.” Oh, I thought, that must be the setting of where one person isn’t another, New York.
My lunch came, and we ended our conversation.
When Friday arrived, I prepared myself by using my new tried-and-true traveling navigation system, I googled the address, entered the corresponding “starting from” information and clicked “Route berechnen.” The next step, while in Hamburg, had been to write down the key direction notes on a scrap piece of paper. I then held it in my hand as I rode the bike from point A to B to C as the paper quickly became a wadded mess. Here, I have the extremely convenient privilege of using a printer. After making a few such print-outs, I’ve found that I usually simply need to make a note of the wheres and whens, using my new internal guide as the foundation to build upon.
Okay, it looked pretty easy, I thought. And with that I set off in the direction of Mariannenplatz 2.
As I rode up the bumpy Mariannestraße, I slowly became aware that I was entering a large circular complex of buildings. Number eight, six, four, two. That was easy! There was a crowd of people mingling outside smoking and laughing. Cool, I thought, looks like I’ll meet some more people.
But once I went inside, I only found a rather hip looking restaurant and the opening night of an art exhibition *v, but no one who knew about a Widersprüchlihe Abend.
Okay, I’ll just mingle for bit, I thought. I went into several different rooms and saw an assorted collection of all kinds of oddities: a completely dark room with LPs scattered along the floor (I could see them because someone gave me a flashlight to use so that I could see a little), a pallet covered with an assortment of video editing equipment from the mid to late 80’s when Tony and I began our production company (3/4” decks, Betacam tapes, etc. It looked like someone had gone into our studio and simply taken some of our machinery and put it on display!) Yes, a classic modern art type of exhibition.
Honestly, it wasn’t that compelling; so I bought a beer from a temporary stand set-up for visitors and continued to wander about in this massive two-story building. While upstairs in an empty wing, I happened upon two other people looking equally lost. Widersprüchlihe Abend? I asked. New Yorck, the female replied.
So in the way that people confidently set about to find an answer once they’re no longer alone, we proceeded to find a guard who directed us to exit the building at its main entrance, go around to the right, and there we would find New Yorck.
With beer in hand, I set out into the freezing cold with my new friends. The building was huge, so just around the corner took a good 2-minutes to reach. But lo and behold, there was New Yorck spray-painted upon the side of the building (along with all other types of things). We climbed the stairs and immediately felt that we were in the right place.
|Inside the art house Tacheles
We had entered a world a million miles away from the yuppie vibe just on the other side of the thick walls. Graffiti covered almost every square inch of the flaking interior. There was a 3 Euro entrance fee which the kind waitress had told me about; it was being collected for the inhabitants of another building in the circular courtyard that had caught fire in December. Fortunately for the residents, that particular wing still stood, but the electricity needed to be replaced. Otherwise, I was told, Widersprüchlihe Abends are normally free.
In lieu of the standard stamp that one normally receives upon entrance to a paid event, I had the nail of my third finger painted a hideous yellow. “Wow,” I said, “That’s a first for me.”
“For me too,” she replied, as she held my hand and painted my nail. She then pointed to a pile of stamps in all shapes and sizes. “They’re all kaput. I just happened to have this polish on hand . . .”
Pretty innovative, I thought; though when I could clearly see the color later, I wondered how it was that she just happened to have this particularly hideous color on hand. And yes, of course she wouldn’t want to waste one that she really liked.
So what happened next?
There were maybe 20 people lounging on an assortment of dilapidated couches and chairs along the very wide hallway. A few feet further there was a bar where I later purchased a large bottle of beer brewed in Berlin. Just past the bar was a room where a video was being projected upon the wall. I crossed in front of about 10 people who were lounging on an assortment of chairs and stools and took a seat on what I realized must sometimes be the stage. As I got comfy and began to listen, I realized that the film had been shot in this complex. Hmm, it must have taken place in the early 70s, I thought. I recognized the hair and clothing style from when I was a kid. Intently following what they were saying (it was in German with English subtitles), I realized that the buildings that comprised the circular courtyard had been taken over by this group of young people (being interviewed). They were squatters who had formed their own community comprised of self-made rules and a practical system of organization for preparing meals, buying food, etc. It was essentially Berlin’s version of Kaua‘i’s Taylor Camp.
|The East Side Gallery: three-quarters of a mile of the Berlin wall remains near the Ost Bahnhof (East train station).
During the evening I also learned that the complex had once been a hospital. When the wall was erected in Berlin in the early 1960s, it crossed very closely to these buildings, which were located in East Berlin.
|The East Side Gallery wall.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Kaua‘i phenomena, you can read about it here: http://taylorcampkauai.com/.
Once the film ended, it was casually announced that the contradictory evening would continue shortly with some music and an assortment of acts. I parked myself on a comfortable chair, now facing the stage and where I’d previously sat. Three different musical groups performed.
First came a fairly standard trio with a male guitar player, female singer, and male noise maker. I really don’t know how else to label him; he had a collection of noise makers that he played. The singer’s voice was surprisingly powerful as she casually sat and sang. The songs were essentially folk songs in a variety of languages.
Then an intriguing duo performed beat poet type of songs. The female sang in English, German, and French—the pronunciation of each language was pleasant and authentic sounding. It was fascinating how confidently and with such skill she also played a rather large saw.
The final musical act consisted of one male vocalist. As he sang, I looked around to see how everyone else was reacting. They were simply listening intently and nodding their heads. The performer was singing in the style of a ridiculous Saturday Night Live skit. For real. I kid you not. He sang with such volume as he dragged his voice around a variety of pitches in an assortment of languages. Though I was tempted, I didn’t embarrass myself and laugh, not in a making fun kind of way, but in a “Wow, so cool that he’s having so much fun!” kind of way. There was something so absolutely freeing about his musical performance. I think the applause he received was even louder than that for two the previous acts.
One of the women who’d been tending bar came out to casually say that the evening’s entertainment would continue now and then. There appeared to be no set schedule, and it was also fairly evident that it was going to be a long night.
Next followed an assortment of theatrical performances. They consisted of two to three people who gathered at the far end of the wide hallway and simply did things like peel a banana, eat it, and sit in a chair.
Okay, that was interesting.
I went back into the other room and visited with a variety of people from Berlin and Barcelona. Nice. We talked about a wide range of topics including the cool restaurant/bar close to a Spanish couple’s home. Even though they can speak no German, they love how friendly they’re treated by the locals since they live in the “hood.” Again, nice.
Suddenly the crowd of people came back into this projector/video watching/musical stage room. A small man leapt onto the stage waving a stack of papers. “Volunteers! I need volunteers!” he called out.
Being a former Tennessean*vi and simply sj, I raised my hand. What followed was a rather disjointed performance by the 4 participants who read the dialogue provided. I was Frau Schmidt. I think it was supposed to be funny, but perhaps there were just too many foreigners there (like me) for it to be a success. Regardless, the audience politely clapped when we finished.
And what was the gist of the skit? Well, this one woman was waiting in the wings. My character repeatedly said, “No one’s there.” After the third or fourth time of saying that, someone was suddenly there.
Yeah, I didn’t get it either; the Germans in the room appeared to laugh.
And on this rather anti-climactic note, the Widersprüchlihe Abend ended for me. It was around 1 a.m., and I’d had the experience I wanted—to be in the midst of an “underground” community of artists in a graffiti filled building. That’s Berlin. : )
As I watch the snow continue to fall, the question remains: shall I go there by bike?
Until next time.
* This is one of the weird things that happens when one immerses oneself in a language; words in the Muttersprache or another Sprache often fall to the wayside. Scaffolding! It just came to me; that was the word that I was searching for in this brain of mine. And in that same vein, I initially typed, “to the wasteside.” Sounded right to me. : )
** Senfeier is a typical German dish that Tony and I had often seen advertised on restaurant boards while we were previously in Berlin; we had even bought a can of it that we lugged with us in our luggage. The helpful grocery store clerk had seemed a bit amused when we asked on which aisle it was; apparently it’s the kind of dish that’s commonly made at home from scratch. She seemed genuinely surprised that the store where she worked sold it in a can. The can version of Senfeier (mustard eggs) was okay, but nothing to get excited about. I figured the real deal from a restaurant would surely be better; it was.
*** Ja, our conversation was completely in German.
*iv Somehow I’d missed this English language phenomena, which had taken place over the past 20-plus years while my nose had been buried in the world of video and deadlines and learn-this-technical-something and that-technical-something, and this, and that, and how about this, and now it’s time for that. I’d first noticed how English dominates the world while in Asia last year. Where had I been? I thought. Under a spell, was my own inner voice’s reply. But now “awake” I’m slowly “catching up” to this modern new world, happily choosing to ignore parts of it that don’t interest me in the least. : )
*v It was called SPECTRAL.
*vi Tennessee was named the “volunteer
” state because a record number of people volunteered to fight in both the War of 1812 and the Mexican War.