Tag Archives: berlin

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…

Gruenberger Strasse 1

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I arrived with my roll-y bags dragging behind me at the front door of Gruenberger Str. 1, in the neighborhood of Friedrichshain, in East Berlin, in former East Germany. That’d be the other side o’ the wall, kids. It was my first time in the city with daylight, having arrived the night before, and I’m not exactly sure what I expected, so I don’t really know if I was surprised to see the sky so dark and heavy and the architecture and streets so stern and cold. The front door to my new home already had luggage and canvases spilling around it, and I saw a very Swedish looking gentleman unloading a taxi. My roomie, Rudolf.

Gary, a former Takt resident, had decided a few years back to stay in Berlin. He goes back to London every so often to do a little work, but he always finds his way back to Berlin, and his sweet Julia. He let us in, with an unlit cigarette hanging out of his jaw, and welcomed us up the stairs with all our gear.


Upstairs, in our new home, Rudolf and I were introduced to Ron from Ohio, Chris from Atlanta, Roxanne, his girlfriend who was staying at another residency, Susana from Venezuela, Ryan from Toronto, and Ariel from France. Everyone looked about how I felt – a little tired, a little nervous, a little unsettled… but with Gary’s charming British accent, even more charming cigarette butt and hilarious anecdotes about Berlin, we were all around the kitchen table in no time, sharing our stories. We all agreed immediately that we were sure to be the best of friends. That we had lucked out. Apparently the last group did not get along, and I can’t imagine, in this small, shared environment full of creative personalities, how miserable that could have been. Johannes arrived not much later from the Netherlands, and that left one more who would arrive the following day – a wildcard we had yet to even know how much we would love. A few of us decided to follow Ryan to a pizza place and grab some lunch. Ryan had already been here about a month and we followed him down the street like a bunch of lost lemmings. The cliff is around here somewhere.

It went something like this…
“Ok, look at that! They call it pizza(!). Pizza. What are you having? I don’t know. Pizza I guess. Do you know THAT word. Oh! look, it’s part of that other pizza combination too, number 12, which looks like it might be pepperoni. Or ham. Spinaci? Do you suppose that means spinach? Maybe. Probably. OK, if I order a Classico, I wonder if that has cheese? I would guess it has cheese. But what kind of cheese do you think? Hey! I think that means salami! Oh! I’ll get salami! I don’t like salami on pizza. Gorgonzola. Yes – that’s what that one says. I think. What are you having? I think he wants us to order. I’ll have the spinachi, Oh, did I say that right? Spinakee…”

That went on, to the pizza maker’s delight, for about 15 minutes.
When we finally all settled on a pizza we could understand, our eyes fell to the beer case and BECK’S jumped out as the obvious choice, since it was a label we could wrap our heads around. So, pizza with spinaci and gorgonzola and a Beck’s = $4 euro. 4 people who haven’t slept in a couple of days who just met each other about an hour earlier who don’t speak German who are trying to order pizza and a beer? Priceless.

Ron and Rudolf and Pizza and Bier

We returned to our quarters and began the process of unpacking. We all agreed immediately that our rooms felt like giant jail cells. Big, cold, sparse, and made completely of cement. A few began immediately to make it home – Ariel won the prize. Her studio looked in a matter of hours, like she had lived here for years. Mine remained empty. I kinda liked it. It felt like the clean slate I had come here for. Except for the score of finding a leftover rug in one of the common areas, I didn’t do much but slide my work table closer to the windows and call it sehr gut. (Note – I have been here a week and you can be sure my room no longer looks like the photo below.)

Studio #9

Our first night in our new home was a quiet one. We went downstairs to the Jågerklause, a heavy metal bar, that features live music from all over the world. We had a beer. We had a smoke. We had no idea how much we would come to loathe that place.

We called it a nacht.

Ring the Bells

Friday, October 29th. 2010

I stepped out of Centraal Station today and I remembered all of it. The smell, the light, the buildings, the hot dog stand, all of it. 18 years ago I stepped onto the same sidewalk with the exact same look on my face, I’m sure. Let the bells of the Westerkerk ring. I have arrived. Hello, Amsterdam. I’ve missed you.

Westerkerk Church, Amsterdam

I am sitting in a cafe the name of which I won’t pretend I can pronounce, with my half pint of Amstel and a steaming dish of hutspot meht klapstuk. You can google that for your fun foodie fact. I am delirious from exhaustion. Spent a little time in Iceland this morning. So strange for it to be 8:30am and pitch dark. Met a nice guy on the plane from Boston and we made the last 20 hours together our own adventure. I’m ready to jettison everything but my purse, steal a bike, and ride hooting and hollering with glee down the little path along the canals.¬† My friends left before I arrived, so the neighbor let me into their apartment which is just a few doors down from Anne Frank’s attic, to find that they had left maps and museum passes and internet access. Home sweet home for the next 3 days. I’ll wander some. Find some art. Maybe find a job. Maybe find my wits. Maybe make a plan. Maybe not.

Until Berlin.