Category Archives: Berlin

Waking Up

As the Crow Flies

October 27th, 2010

Very early in the morning on October 27th, 2010, I was laying in bed, my head swirling with all the day was about to bring. Bags and clothes and supplies and photography equipment were scattered all over my room at my family’s farm in Eliot, Maine. Outside, the sun was coming up, and a balmy fog blanketed the field next to the farm house, suspending itself in perfect light between the high tension lines. Birds were flying. The house was stirring. I was waking up.

Very early in the morning on October 27th, 2010, I felt the lump in my chest. I felt the heaviness in my heart. A sinking in the pit of my stomach. But there was no time, it seemed, to think the worst. I had worked too hard getting myself into an upright and locked position to be able to finally take flight. There were only a few more hours, a million things to do, before I could stop to take a breath. Life was starting over thousands of miles away. I was waking up.

Very early this morning, on October 27th, 2011, I was laying in bed, my head swirling with all the day was about to bring. Bags and clothes and supplies and photography equipment scattered all over my seaside cottage in Kittery Point, Maine. Dim rays of rain-soaked light suspended themselves over a deep blue sea. Thousands of miles away from this day last year, I could no longer feel my chest. I couldn’t feel my arm. But I could feel my lungs fill under the heavy blankets with chilly morning air as I took a breath. I was waking up.

Sometimes Words Fall Short

There haven’t been many words here in the last few months. Up until the last post, I had been pretty honest about how I was doing, what it felt like to be trapped in this sick body. But in this last little bit, while I was finishing up the second round of chemo, healing up from my surgery, gearing up for another one, and spending every last possible moment I could out on the water, I couldn’t find the words in me to talk about it. The chemo had finally won, I gave in to it, as body and brain squeezed through a meat grinder of physical and emotional agony. It took everything I had just to do it. To get from one end of the day to the other. To endure myself. And I wouldn’t have done myself justice trying to explain it all anyways. Sometimes, words just fall short. Instead, I set out to sea with all the force of a spent wave and let the wind and water make all the noise for awhile.

I am within days of the anniversary of my departure to Berlin. A year ago I packed my bags, found the lump, boarded the plane. For a few months in Europe I was a sponge. I soaked up every moment as if it could be snatched away at any moment. I took chances on things that would have had me thinking twice back home. I met interesting, wonderful people, I danced, I ate crepes every day. In the early mornings, in my studio in Berlin, I would photograph myself. I didn’t know for sure what was wrong, but I had a gut feeling, as the dots began to align and German doctors ranted, and I wanted to capture myself in photographs before my life, my body, was potentially altered for good. I allowed myself to see what was coming only through the lens. I tucked each days photos away, I tucked the worry away, and went on living. There was no need to talk about it. The morning was over.

But there is something to tell this morning.

A year after I looked at myself through the lens of my camera, decidedly a different girl, I AM a different girl. I beat breast cancer. I have been declared free to go. The cancer is in remission, last week’s ancillary node dissection surgery revealing 13 out of 13 lymph nodes negative for cancer cells (unlike the last surgery)! And… I woke up with the most beautiful set of knockers a girl with cancer could ever ask for.

I won this round.

And still, sometimes words fall very, very short. There are so many things I want to say. There was a winter of such discontent, the depths of which no chart would dare mark. And as these depths changed with the tide, so too, did the course. On shore, the hard choices were riddled with the flotsam and jetsam of doubt and fear. But out there, an invincible summer began. Saltwater snuck it’s way past the poison, back into my veins. A sailboat appeared on the horizon, with crisp white sails gasping for fresh salt air. My hair came back in whisps then, curls. Wool was traded for silk. With a co-conspirator at my side and plenty of rum at the ready, we cast off on a permanent starboard tack to find secret beaches, breath-stealing sunsets and rising moons, constellations in the quiet, rocking dark of sea-damp nights. With fish jumping and seagulls squawking, we floated away whole days in the seaweed of Smuttynose, arms outstretched, the sun and saltwater righting us, healing wounds our blue-green eyes couldn’t see. Laughing our salty heads off at the very notion of peril. Where the waves whispered wild and sweet, I wasn’t sick. If words fail you now, sailor, blame the halyards. We did everything right.

And this morning, as I lay here in my bed by the sea, Asher beside me, the rain on the roof, leaves on the ground, the waves crashing within earshot, the Isles of Shoals floating within sight, in a house built by the Thaxter’s themselves, I am a soul in division from itself. Heriocally lost. Heriocally found. And I can tell you with absolute certainty these next few words…

I wouldn’t have traded this last year for anything.

Not one precious salty drop of it.

And this probably makes no sense to anyone at all.

Like when they tell you that you’re 38 years old and you have cancer.

And then they tell you that you don’t.

Sometimes words fall short.

~ Ali

I’d like to thank my friend, artist Dennis Michael Jones, for inspiring this post. Sometimes your words get me thinking.

Sometimes Words… by Dennis Michael Jones

I Need to Get This Off My Chest

I’m home from Berlin and there aren’t enough swear words. Trust me.

I know, I know. What happened to this enviable adventure? The world traveler? The six months of reckless abandon? The torrid affairs? The food? The stories? The art? Well, I had some of that and now I have breast cancer. Passport and boarding pass, please.

Perhaps you just gasped, swore, dropped something, sat down, stood up, almost threw up, actually threw up, yelled, reread it, cried, clutched your hands to your chest…¬† Oh, don’t I know it. Because the few of you I’ve had the strength to look in the eye and say out loud that I was sicker than any girl my age has a right to be sick… Don’t I know what you’ve just done.

Now, don’t get that hurt look on your face because I should have called you, met you for coffee, said something at the party. You see, I wake up every morning and a herd of elephants has trampled my lungs. Millions of mad babies are screaming. Billions of metal objects are scratching themselves down a universe-sized chalkboard. Every time I have to hear myself tell the very worst truth I could ever tell, a little part of me gets left on the floor. Every time I have to tell it, I know I am upsetting someone. Every time I have to know the words I need to say, I have to know a little more for myself. It’s the cruelest joke. The insult of all insults to exclaim. It is anger and fear, frustration and disappointment. Loathing. And it is what I wake up with every morning knowing you don’t know and I am fighting for the words to tell you I am fighting for my life. It is not because I don’t love you that you didn’t hear it from my lips. It is exactly because I love you that I am telling you now.

It doesn’t matter what it’s called, what Stage it’s in, how big the tumor is, or when I found it. If I told you you probably would throw up, so just know that it has a long name, it’s so special they can’t Stage it, and it’s big. What really matters is that I was able to spend the last few months with a few incredible people, hiding out in “the eye of the storm” in Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Prague, taking photos, painting, writing, drinking, smoking, eating, dancing, kissing, living. With every cell of my body. And if anyone has been paying any attention to me at all over the last year, they would have felt a distinct shove forward, seen a spotlight that was aiming towards a life that was long overdue. My life. Get that taste of freedom in your mouth for the first time in ages and My. God. Just get on the plane. Go. Live. And I was living, right alongside a giant wall of terrible injustice, the Wall, and it would seem I have run smack into it. But… If you have been paying any attention to me at all over these last 38 years, you know exactly what I’m about to do.

I know the real truth. I am a lucky girl to have the life I have and the people I have in it. If not for you there would be no writing this, no taking pictures, no getting through last week, last night, tomorrow. “How can I help,” is an OK question to ask me. It’s the very first question, and it is the very best question. I am bracing myself, shoring up, battening down and I don’t know what I need because the storm is only just now hitting. I’m getting better at asking, and all I really need this moment is for you to ask me about my most recent adventures and let me tell you the rest in my own time. As for what happens next, well that doesn’t matter either. If I told you you would throw up. I did. Just know that right this minute I am exhausted and hopeful. Over the next 6 to 8 months I will be very, very sick and in the end I will surely come out of this but just as surely I will not come out of this looking like I went in, for the rest of my life.

And for all that we don’t know, know this. There will be photos.
For the rest of my life.
I have the 10-4 from Sniper 1 to shoot my way through this.
And I will not stop.

Week 2, #12 – Biopsy Series, 2011

I am Botticelli’s Venus. I am Helen of Troy.
I am the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Fuck You, Cancer. I am Ali.


It’s all a blur to me now so many weeks have passed and I can’t remember one day from the next and the hours fly by and it’s 4am and I am just going to bed and when I wake up it’s late but it is still early and people are just arriving from the day before and there’s so much to do before the time is up before it gets dark and then light again and there are hours days nights spent in galleries on subways walking in snow drinking sitting in smoky bars sitting for a painting watching listening talking feeling it’s dark and then it’s light again and there’s a rush to see something to feel something to know something before there’s no time left to try and make out the landscape through a dirty window speeding away to somewhere unknown and exciting and for a moment it is impossible to think that this time this blur is sharpening and it will too soon be time to try and make out the landscape through the dirty window speeding away to somewhere known and familiar sitting dreaming aching for a little more time.

*photo: The Czech Republic

Foreign to Familiar

Something has happened.
It’s not terrible so please don’t worry. I’ve been waiting for it. This shift in weight. This light-switch flipped. The hand on my arm in a familiar gesture, a goodbye with a smile and a nod. Absentmindedness without risk. A mutter at the usual, and a grimace at the cold. As quietly as the snow flies in to embrace Berlin, what was foreign has now become familiar and I have wrapped my arms around it warmly.

I had no expectations when I arrived here. Well, that’s not entirely true, but I was only certain that it would be different, and I could only really think to expect that there would be moments, maybe even whole days, where I would ache for the comforts of home. That known quantity of a routine that does not ask you to understand it in German. But I have surprised myself. In a matter of a month and a half, I find myself walking without thinking, towards a bus stop, a cafe, the grocery store, a friend’s flat, the outdoor market, with my hat pulled down and my scarf wrapped tight, and my gaze directed past other faces, subconsciously knowing that I am not lost, and when I find myself on the next street corner, I will know as easily as breathing, which way I am to go.

I think back a few weeks when I first noticed this was happening. I was coming down the stairs of the subway station near my apartment and I took a long hard look down to the platform. Unlike all the times before, I did not glance up anxiously to double-check which side to stand on. I did not trace back across the map in my pocket how many stops to Alexanderplatz, to get to the S2, to change at Friedrichstrasse, to get the U6, to get to the U2 to get to Oranienberger Tor. I did not have to pick through the coins in my hand, flip them all over to see which was which, count them out one by one. I felt in my pocket for their weight quickly so my fingers wouldn’t have time to feel the cold, fed them into the machine, and chose my ticket without translating. I closed my eyes as the train flew through the tunnels and felt the stops and knew exactly when to open them again, to stand, to tap the little circle on the door to activate it.  Achten Sie auf den Spalt! Yes, I even minded the gap.

There are so many moments like this now, where I catch myself in a trance of familiarity. When I look down a corridor and know exactly what’s at the other end. When I hear a street name and know the neighborhood. When I say Tschüss with all the German accent I can muster. I took this photo so I would remember how it felt at the exact moment this world wasn’t new to me anymore. As it goes, I will forget it as easily as I discovered it, and I’ll want to be standing in this moment forever soon.

From foreign to familiar and back again…

Grateful on Gruenbergerstrasse

And the truthahn is gefroren.
Have fun Googling that.

It’s Thanksgiving in Berlin. Well, it’s Thanksgiving in my room, and I am grateful for the little box that arrived from the US yesterday filled with birthday presents, cranberry sauce, a couple of sweet potatoes (?!), dates, Stovetop stuffing, pumpkin scone mix (just add wasser!) a canned ham (?!), a jar of peanut butter and a paper tablecloth and napkin set with turkeys on it. Thanks, Mom.

But perhaps today I’m even more grateful for what woke me up this morning. No, it wasn’t a sound check at the J√•gerklause (lucky for them), or a circular saw across the hall (that was yesterday), but rather SUNLIGHT. I’m not exactly sure what I did to call up such a phenomenon, but today, after snow and gloomy darkness just hours before, in all it’s cloudless sky glory the sun was out. Lucie Belle! Wake up! Get your chain on and let’s go!

Bundled against the -5C temp and wind, Lucie Belle (that’s my bike for those of you who think I’ve recently shacked up with a Southern girl) and I hit the pavement and headed to Prenzlaurburg Allee in search of a turkey, a bookstore, and a projector. Agreed, that list is about as random as any list of mine on any given day in Berlin. It’s part of the adventure, the challenge, the charm, but I digress…

berlin sun

And so it was, a sunny Thanksgiving day, doing what I love to do most here, which is ride my bike aimlessly (sort of) around Berlin, breathing in the construction dust, the car exhaust, freezing my ass off and trying not to get run over by an ambulance or a trash truck, or another biker (I’m still working on my Berlin Bike Etiquette. The rules are in German. Gimme a break).

Did I find the turkey? Yep. And it was, not unlike my very first Thanksgiving dinner on my own, still frozen. Did I find the bookstore? Well, I found A bookstore where the OTHER bookstore was supposed to be but no, I guess I didn’t. Did I find a projector to rent for my upcoming show this weekend? Lots of them. Very expensive ones. And not unlike most things European, the price online and the price for showing up with a US Passport spans miles. And no sir, I do not have a eurocard or a registration or whatever it is you want me to present to secure the rental or $100 euros deposit in cash please stop flailing your hands at me and muttering in German I’m standing right here.

So, did I arrive home empty-handed and downtrodden? Not in the slightest. A secret little Christmas Market, at the end of the narrow Allee of W√∏rtherstrasse had cr√©pes to order. Kinda got used to a couple of those a day in Paris last weekend (sigh). And so I had not one but TWO. Pretty satisfied with my aprikose fix (that’s apricot jam to you gringos), I headed down another side street, a shortcut, to the Allee that would return me to my warm apartment and a cup of tea (and my box of grateful goodies), and there it was.

A tree.
A magical, magnificent, wonderful tree.
A tree that would send my dear friend Susan into fits of giggles and snorts.
A tree with tiny little doors to tiny little compartments, filled with books.

booktree in berlin

A take one, leave one book tree, and it’s sole purpose was to share the love of reading with anyone walking or pedaling by.¬† Two in English found their way into Lucie Belle’s basket, and over the river and through the “woods” to our Berlin home we rode. Barely able to feel fingers or toes and happier for it. Choking on Ubahn-encrusted air. Sunshine on my face for the first time in almost a month. Stovetop stuffing in my room. Eternally grateful for all of it. All of it.

Happy Thanksgiving to the many I love both near and far.
Ian, don’t you DARE touch my plate.


Flohmarkt Finds. A Sonntag in Fotos.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

In Germenglish, what that translates to is, “Flea market finds … A Sunday in Pictures.” But you probably guessed that. Flea markets here are all the rage. There a big ones, little ones, Saturday ones and Sunday ones. There are ones on Tuesdays and Fridays, and ones just for food and household goods and ones just for bikes. Berliners apparently love a bargain, have a lot of junk with some cool stuff mixed in, and they are not afraid to put up a tent. Wanna learn German? Haggle. And so it was this past Sunday that I found myself with a couple of friends, roaming around, blinded by the most sun we’ve had since arriving, haggling away at one of the largest flea markets in the city, the Mauerpark Flohmarkt.

It was dirty. It was crowded. It was a ridiculous mess. But it was a treasure trove. There was something for everyone. And I mean EVERYONE. And they bring it all home on the tram. We found appliances, and furniture, and enough dishes to outfit a town full of kitchens. Clothes upon clothes, shoes upon shoes, a stack of old family photo albums next to stacks of old Playboys. It was a photojournalist’s dream, and really, photographs might be the best way to show you my Sunday…

There were photos...

... fresh food

... hats (heads extra)

... shoes

... your P's

... your Q's

... cameras

... carry-ons

... crap

... flying things

... fun food

... frames

... forks

... SUN!

... a few more hats

... kites

... kids (this punk wanted a $1 from me. For taking a photo of Stewie Griffin)

… and Karaoke. (click to watch it!)

Sprechen Sie Englisch??

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

I know what fear looks like.
And I know how to drag it out of every German in East Berlin.

Sprechen Sie Englisch??

On our second day in town, my pal Ron and I walked down Karl Marx Allee, right down the boulevard of Soviet Power, towards Alexanderplatz. We scouted around this famous boulevard, checking out the glamorous new shops and galleries that have moved into this otherwise very austere neighborhood since the fall of the wall. We found a little antique store that had a shoebox collection of old black and white photos from the early years, before the war, and some even during. I was ecstatic. I needed the whole box. For what, I had no idea. But it was just so ridiculously delicious I needed it.

Sprechen Sie Englisch??

And there it was. Eyes wide pools of fear, a grimace, a grunt, a slight look of contempt, a wave of the hands for no, the mutual acknowledgment between us that gestures and sounds are going to have to do. A shrug for us both. My worst fear. His worst fear. But we’re in this together. I want the photos. He wants my Euros. We soldier on…

How much for this whole box? I make the gestures with my hands for bills between fingers and I lift the box. He digs through. Grabs a piece of paper, and writes down 80 euros. Oh. That’s about $130 US dollars. Nope. I shake my head. He pulls a few out and somehow I understand that a few of the items in the box are very valuable. Very historic. Very expensive. Ok. I’ll come back. I’ll come back? Ron, help. Return? Ah! Zur√ºkkehren! Yes! I mean, Ja. I mean, we’ll be back. Oh boy. Nobody speaks English. Myth. Busted.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

“Is that the doorbell? Can someone get the door?”

“I’ll get the door? I just pick up the receiver right? Hello? ”


“There’s no one here by that name.”

“Caroline at Takt?”

“I’m sorry, but there is no one here named Caroline. Maybe she’s supposed to be here, But she’s not here. Ok?”

“No! No!”

“No? What then?”

“It’s MEEEEE, Caroline!”

And so it was, at the bottom of the stairs. Sweet Caroline. Our little gypsy girl from Manchester, England. With as many bags as we had all arrived with combined. The youngest of us all. Dressed in pink with matching Barbie shoe earrings, exhausted, giggling, rambling away and not making much sense, but with the most adorable smile. It was hard not raise one eyebrow while immediately falling in love. Welcome home, Caroline.

Caroline's Room