Tuesday, January 19, 2010

First We Take Manhattan. Then We Take Berlin.

In Berlin, the winter sky is gunmetal grey, the streets are covered with a slushy covering of snow, several inches deep, the cold seeps into your bones, no… deeper. Into your organs.

In Berlin, people ride the U-Bahn with or without the proper tickets. On the train, they sport haircuts like Peter Frampton, like Marilyn Manson, like Billy Idol. Sometimes you see someone who is a dead ringer for Dieter, Mike Myer's West German television host. They wear clothes that are old without being vintage. There is no fashion one-upsmanship, no status-seeking labels to be flaunted, no must-have accessory or pair of jeans. There are only curious gazes at the foreigner wearing the noticeably fashionable clothing, the expensive-looking ring.

In Berlin, there are little bronze plaques on the sidewalks telling you that at this location, in the year such and such, a Jew named so and so was taken to the (fill in the blank) concentration camp. Their family had lived in this city until that very date, was part of the life of Berlin. And then they were never seen again.

In Berlin, the museums are plentiful and palatial, cutting-edge or classical. There are three opera houses. There are symphony halls and theatres. Bars and clubs are everywhere. Everyone is drinking. Everyone is going somewhere, up for a party or celebration. Money is optional. Friendly sex is everywhere. People are welcoming. There are no cliques, no In-Crowd. Everyone is getting a free degree at one of the universities. Many are on welfare. If you don't have money and you want to drink or dance, someone will probably pay for you. The city is sprawling and architecturally discordant. The past is alive everywhere.

In Berlin, you will often feel like you are living in the past. Any moment in the past except for that slew of years in middle of the 20th century, which is a place unlike any other, a destination that is impossible to revisit.

But that slew of years permeates Berlin, giving the wind a special sorrowful sound, providing the reason for the gunmetal grey sky, making the bone-chilling cold a metaphysical matter.

In the winter world of Berlin, your feet are always cold and wet. You will take your boots off in restaurants and massage your toes. Some places you visit will have coal ovens you will need to feed with bricks of coal. Even when the embers are burning brightly and the ceramic tiles are hot to the touch, you will feel chilled, unable to remove your clothes to sleep. You'll wonder how anyone survived even one winter night in a concentration camp.

In Berlin, you will sleep with your street clothes every night -- even your bra -- because your fingers will be stiff with cold and unable to manage the unsnapping procedure. You will put your head under the covers, wear a ski cap one night. You will shower hurriedly in the morning after heating up the water for half an hour, stooping beneath the shower spray to get wet, soaping up briskly, bravely applying shampoo while praying for the water to remain hot long enough to rinse the stuff out, then going out on a limb of faith to apply conditioner or shave your legs and armpits.

Inevitably, the water will turn cold too soon and you will emerge from the tub, shivering, onto a cold-tiled floor, the thin shower curtain sticking to your cold, wet, goose-prickled skin.

In Berlin, the winter Spree will be frozen and black with sheets of ice floating on the surface. Crossing a footbridge slippery with snow, you fear that you will skate, slide under the rail and end up in the terrifying waters.

The Spree seems sadly meager as compared with the Thames, the Siene, the Liffey, the Hudson, the Danube. And then you hear about the bodies that were dumped into it and it becomes something else.

Evil. Complicit.

In Berlin, you have come to be with your oldest child who has chosen this place as his (hopefully temporary) adopted home. You bring him goods from Zabar's, about $150 worth of coffee, smoked salmon, salami, babka and coffee paraphernalia. You infiltrate his life while you are there; shadow him around his Berlin world. Thus, you meet his friends. You got to his haunts, see his operas and films, walk through his museums. Together, you crowd into Humboldt University for a free lecture by Orham Pamuk and sit on the floor with the student revolutionaries who have occupied the school for reasons that elude you.

In the morning and at night, you shovel his coal into the coal oven and brew his Zabar's coffee, the French Italian roast, first grinding the beans, then pouring the powder into the Chemex filter, adding the hot water, measuring out cream. You note the prices, instantly translate them from Euro value to dollar value. Things are cheap, generally.

In Berlin, you interview his expatriate friends, finding out why they are in Berlin, what the lure is. You have too much wine and ask a native German if anyone ever asked her what her grandfather did during the war. She laughs uncertainly. Your son stares at you.

The two of you fight, of course. Over stupid things but also over the division of time; how much you get to attend to your work versus how much time you get to spend together. You spend mostly every waking moment together and come home from clubs at four and five in the morning.

And then, it is time to leave. And then you are back in New York, on American soil.

Berlin is a conundrum, a paradox, a destination. To some it is endlessly problematic, forever desecrated. To others, it is a neverland of cheap, easy living, good times at the ready, a steady stream of people making little or no money. Lacking professional ambition or even the desire for a lasting love relationship. In Berlin, you will never feel like a slacker, a loser, an underachiever.

Because my son has chosen it, Berlin is of endless fascination to me. As a New Yorker, I see the lure of Berlin burning most brightly at this moment in time, offering an alternative to the collapsing American scene.