Berlin: A personal mythology of desire

When I was in high school, I wanted more than anything to study abroad for a semester in Berlin. I don’t know why, exactly, because I wasn’t studying German in school or anything, but I wanted to get away from home, and the idea of Berlin was in the air — my mother was being particularly obsessive about German and Austrian art from the periods just before and between the wars at that point, and I was dealing with having a thing for a boy who didn’t even know I was alive by lying on the the floor of my bedroom listening to David Bowie’s “Heroes” over and over. I had it on cassette, and that meant play, stop, rewind, play, as my heart unhealed itself each time it had to wait for the song to that hissing noise of a cassette rapidly winding.

I didn’t get to study abroad though — not in Berlin or anywhere else. The reasons were many: money, my parents not wanting to so let me out of their sight at so young an age, and the fact that we are, or at least my mother is, Jewish (I’m the product of a mixed marriage and religion is deeply complicated in my family). My plan just wasn’t a very comfortable idea for anyone.

And so I did not go to Berlin. But if I had, I would have been there when the Wall came down.

When that happened, we watched it on the news during dinner. I kept expecting to sob into my salad, but I said nothing, eventually turning to my parents and saying, “If you didn’t keep my passport in the safe deposit box I would steal it, and your credit cards and buy a ticket and go right now.”

I was so petulant, and I was so wrathful. And my parents didn’t say anything, they just kept watching the news. I’m grateful, really, that they didn’t laugh in my face and let me have what power I could.

More than twenty years later, it is for me, right now, midnight in Berlin. I landed an hour ago and am currently ensconced in a gloriously comfortable and cheap hotel room a few blocks from Checkpoint Charlie. Everything is, already, completely surreal.

For starts, the late plane on a Friday night from Zurich to Berlin is totally a party plane. With no one here bothering to go to nightclubs until well after midnight, people get on the plane a few hours after work, have a few drinks, arrive here, freshen up, and then faintly begin to consider going out (hell, it’s what I’m doing right now).

So my flight was rowdy and featured a very loud conversation about Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga that I couldn’t otherwise understand a word of. But that hardly mattered considering it also featured a drunk gay soccer team coming to Berlin for the weekend to go dancing and visit fetish clubs (no, really, I saw people checking on their high-end latex-wear in their carry-ons).

What was their mild dismay at the pre-flight music, an odd mix of Natalie Imbruglia and Neil Diamond that has perhaps damaged my pop-culture receptor sites for life, evolved into a gloriously angry sing-a-long to “Sympathy for the Devil” once our flight landed and we couldn’t deplane for ages because of a work action at Tegel.

So there we are, on the plane, ready to start our Berlin nights, but there’s no gate, no staircase, no plan for us to deplane, and the flight crew puts the music back on, I suppose to appease us, and then my soccer team is up on their chairs singing along. No one cares.

Well, I care. Because it’s beautiful and, well, bizarre.

Eventually, they get us a staircase, and we deplane onto the tarmac, where the air is full of fine frost and there’s no organization to speak of, and so there I am, my first moment in Berlin, ever, and I am windswept and damp and wandering amongst planes and drunk gay soccer players who are working their way through random two-line snippets of Rolling Stones songs. It is everything I never knew I wanted.

After that, I’m out of Tegel fast, hopping right into a cab and overwhelmed nearly immediately.

Berlin is so many things to me. So many pop-culture moments I never had in a way that’s made any sense. It is watching Christiane F. when I was twelve, and choosing to believe in the giant lie that is “Heroes.”

It is Steve Erickson’s Arc d’X, a novel about the way freedom and love bow to each other and what happens in Berlin on a single day between two millennia that is constructed entirely out of all the moments previously lost to memory.

It is Wings of Desire.

It is names I don’t understand the meaning of but remember from books and stories the whole of my life and that I whispered to myself like talismans the semester I didn’t get to go to Berlin: Alexanderplatz, Savignyplatz, Potsdammer platz.

It’s dark on the drive, and someone on the radio is singing about it being too cold for angels to fly. My chest feels like someone is sitting on it, because every random building I look at that isn’t made of glass makes me feel like I’m in a room where someone recently died — there is a sense of endurance and of witnessing here; how exhausting it must be, I think, to be Berlin.

I sit there in the car that’s sort of swerving wildly for no good reason other than maybe I’m just not used to places that aren’t on grids, trying to come up with these words. The song about the angels keeps going, and I think I could sign what I am feeling, or dance it — this, this, is what all those years of Martha Graham technique were surely for, a way of speaking with wrath and cupped hands and my hollow hips — but I don’t know how to write it.

We pass the Bundesrat, and I think of a hundred things I want to tell Kali for our infinite novel project, and, after a long time, up ahead, I see a poster of a man in a military uniform. That turns out to be Checkpoint Charlie, and there’s a tacky museum across the street just like all the guide books said, and my hotel is just around the corner.

So now I am here, and it’s magic and scary and overwhelming and really, so far, just twenty-plus years of my own history made up in my head and foisted upon this place where the entire 20th century happened. But I am deeply, gloriously moved, and secretly, shamefully grateful I never came here when I was sixteen; I wouldn’t have understood.

Despite my best intentions to only give you one entry per destination on my itinerary between now and mid-April, I think, Berlin, necessarily now demands two. Because this one’s really about me. I’ll see what I can do to make the next one really about the city.

9 thoughts on “Berlin: A personal mythology of desire”

  1. This was beautiful. Now I really want to go to Berlin again. The first (and only) time I’ve been there I’ve had only few hours to see the most important places so I don’t really feel like I’ve been in Berlin but I did enjoy it.
    And I guess I’ll be feeling something very similar once I go to New York (I hope that will be sooner than latter).

  2. You’re guided by a signal in the heavens.
    You’re guided by this birthmark on your skin.
    You’re guided by the beauty of your weapons.
    First, you take Manhattan.
    Then you take Berlin.

    1. I was fascinated by all the East Germany stuff when I was there. The fact that people lived like that, in Europe, in my lifetime, felt completely incredible. If you get chance go to the DDR museum then definitely do, such a fascinating insight into what daily life was like on the wrong side of the wall. Info here:

  3. Just reading this was a wild grinning ride. I kept thinking of how your wonder and glee were heightened by your looking forward to writing about this, because how could you make up such a thing? If you’re given gay drunk soccer players and fetish clubbers on a night flight, all you can do to thank the universe is channel it, right?

    What an unbelievably terrific thing to read first thing on a weekend.

  4. “and we kissed, so nothing could fall”

    That song plays a big part in my own personal mythology too, and I have a very hard time ending mixtapes (I don’t care how the technology involves, to me they’ll always be mixtapes) with ANYTHING ELSE.

    And someone else who knows about Christiane F. Wow.

    I’m honestly not sure I could handle Berlin… but I’m glad you’re there to report back.

  5. You’ve just said many of the reasons I love Berlin. Americans always seem to go to Munich, but Berlin is really amazing.

    If you have the interest, I highly recommend the Jewish Museum of Berlin. It is extraordinarily well designed (the architecture is by Daniel Liebeskind) and the exhibits are excellent. But I’ve never spent less than 5-6 hours there, any time I’ve gone, so it does take a bit of a commitment.

  6. I’m…awash in memories. My first breath in Berlin was at Bahnhof Zoo, in 1987. In the course of my time in Germany, I visited the city more than a dozen times, so enchanted and fascinated with the place that going back home after a weekend there physically hurt.

    It’s an amazing city, with so much to do and see, and it just gets under your skin and never gets out once you’ve been there. If you want to get a good taste of Berlin in the 80s, seek out “Linie 1”, a musical originally produced by Berlin’s Grips-Theater, a youth theater project. It was later made into a film. There are snippets of the film on YouTube, the DVD is available for purchase, and you can download the songs from Amazon. Berlin obviously is WAY different now, but I think you’d be entranced by the changes between then and now. “Herrlich zu leben” is perfect…it talks about how exhausting and wonderful Berlin is.

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