1. Berlin, again
15 April 2022, 17.00
Schiphol. At the airport I looked for the New York Times, but did not see it amongst the plethora of glossy magazines, mostly involved with personality matters. This is not earnest anymore and pure decadence. Then I found old friends, also from New York. I selected The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. I felt dissatisfied, though; was tempted by Der Spiegel but dreaded the ponderousness. I saw Le Monde Diplomatique – but read it already. What to do, in this colorful fashionable waste? I bought a new Moleskine from Milano, a diary.
With no lines, because I am still able to write more or less regularly even as my steps falter.
As the plane sank slowly through the clouds covering the airport one became aware of a different weather. As soon as we approached the runway the streets started to glisten and a voice behind me commented, ‘It is raining’.
As the Uber driver sped us through the outskirts of Berlin memories of winter reappeared. A touch of grey, a feeling of gloom. Better weather is foretold but the flat in which I am writing still feels cold.
The flight meanwhile had been suffused by the approach of the south. Pictures were exchanged of sunny beaches, sunlit hotels. Gay couples, old and young, were on their way to places like Mykonos in the Mediterranean. The crowd was modern and dressed to kill. Many midriffs were visible as they hoisted their luggage overhead. Nobody seemed in need for cover.
But the moment of arrival of summer was not yet there, and eastwards the winter had not retreated. As I look out of the window of our flat I see the grey and black silhouettes of the Siberian crows still on the rooftops and chimneys.
The flat to which I returned has been slightly remodeled and sobered up. Gone are the more flashy accumulations of the former occupant. A film has been shot here, and the technical whirlwind has left its cleansing trail. The eye of the theatre has eliminated the superfluous and the whole effect is calming. Too calm perhaps.
At home I had been steadily following the Ukrainian war by television or Internet, even by the daily map-service of Le Monde. Here everything is unavailable and I will have to return to the train station for my daily news.
2. Berlin, 17 April 2022
Went out alone for the first time, to revisit the neighborhood. We took the train together and I stepped off at Savignyplatz. I waved and was on my own. I realized I had no program and refused to copy togetherness habits like taking the elevator down. The staircase was now decorated by a girl, a vagrant, who was begging and had spilled water from a bottle around her and meanwhile was reading a book.
The newspaperman was not there – it is Easter – and the New York Times was not waved in my face as he did last time. I looked left for a moment to localize Bleibtreustraße 7 and turned right to inspect the bookshops. First the German-oriented Autorenverlag, then the more cosmopolitan Bücherbogen. My old eyes deciphered a whole generation of new names in literature, but no names I recognized. Only Pamuk, with his endless feeling for actuality, had a new book about the Plague in Istanbul.
I again contemplated the bust of Kempowski, but – now that the bookshops were closed – from the back and outside. I read again the caption that the bust had been made four weeks before his demise. Looking at the back of the head and the competent way the sculptor had with a few slabs of clay given form to the slender neck, and no longer distracted by his gaze or spectacles, I felt a certain intimacy with this disappeared witness of my times.
Afterwards I turned into the next viaduct to get to the Kurfürstendamm. On the way there I stopped at another closed bookshop named Schöller which had a more selective, less ecumenical choice of books. The dark display was reassuring but the eyes had been blinded by the sun on the pavement and I decided to come back and browse inside at a later day.
The merciful weather, sun and little wind, made me walk slowly down or up the Kurfürstendamm towards the Dahlmannstraße. Nothing much happened. I did not sit down, hating to be on one of the terraces alone. As I was waiting for a traffic light my road was suddenly filled with a thousand cyclists sporting the yellow and blue colors of the Ukraine. An old lady in a typical black male hat applauded. She later gave an Easter gift and a doll to a solitary beggar.
3. Berlin, 19 April 2022
Though I met with old friends – like Sigrid Gareis – and interesting young people, I felt without compass most of the last days. Compared with KS I had no program so I tried to be helpful in practical matters. But these, and my usefulness, diminish with age. I am unsure of eyesight or movement and slow. KS thinks it is just the mood and I hope it is. But I am waiting for some sort of task or issue to re-energize me.
Moreover we will be separated for a month and a half when he will be in Singapore for his present creation of Salome. It is with bleeding heart that I will see him go but the slump in my energy has to be overcome and not create a crisis at the equator. There is one glimmer of hope, that he has toyed with the idea of using the Casa Giano as the setting of his new work – probably Dido and Aeneas. Our days on Earth are limited and how not to waste them?
In the afternoon I went to the Altes Museum. KS had work to do nearby and I slowly walked through the well-organized and well explained selection of ancient Greek art. I spent some two hours there certainly not reading all of the captions but most of them. Certainly not recognizing all paintings and sculptures, but feeling acquainted with most of them. My interest began to slacken with the advent of Hellenistic art, and when Italy stormed in with another taste, I walked out and waited for my friend.
My main discovery was that the ancient art had been and was still a young art. Not only were the bodies and faces young, but the feeling was not of autumn but of spring. The cult was of health and sport. An overflow of energy seemed to confront the always present verdict of death. This was a fighting culture, and with a mission.
Everybody knows the centrality of Theseus in Athens’ mythology – but for the first time I realized how much Theseus was up against a formidable, disheartening odds. A labyrinth, a minotaur. It felt like civilization was discovering the vulnerability of the Dark Ages again, but with new confidence. Theseus made obsolete his father.
I spent some time looking at a striding female crushing a turtle under her foot. Now in my old age and in a time of destruction, I too feel this glimmer of hope.
4. Berlin, Thursday 21 April 2022
I have first to unburden myself a little bit from the experience of seeing the much touted show about Paul Gauguin.
It was not about the painter and his oeuvre, but about issues that could be raised about himself, his time. It was about him, in the sense of around him.
While other painters were doing impressionism, he broke the mold of painterly painting and went for different subjects and countries. This is now held against him. He is interpreted as a European colonist. The fact that his mother was Spanish Peruvian and that he spent his childhood in the Andes is hardly mentioned. Even though his venture into ceramics is only comprehensible against the backdrop of Inca pottery.
He died of syphilis after a failed attempt to take his own life because of this, but it is not as a victim of sexual transgression or liberation that he is presented, but as a philanderer. Sexual liberation turns into puritanism.
His realism in depicting the non-European body is not appreciated. Although his studies of the Asian (Javanese) face or the Polynesian body opened the eyes of painters and the public. Van Gogh may have profited from it in showing the dignity or beauty of ordinary people. Picasso would profit from its example in opening our eyes to ethnographic art, as art, and even reality.
Meanwhile the so-called Gauguin exhibition is all about interpretations by curators, who profit from him and his courage and strangeness. By attaching their spider-webs of theory to his adventurous life.
Yesterday evening I was messaged by a neighbor from the Middelweg. It was the car mechanic Hans Bijl, who told me about the sudden death of another craftsman, Loek Brussé, the sail-maker, who had his workshop behind my garden. He may have been 93 or 94, so not much older than I.
Only recently I asked him to adjust the ropes in the shed, supporting some bamboos, that were too heavy for me to handle. He climbed the ladder and with surprising force and deftness lifted the bamboos and fixed the ropes. I wanted to pay, but he refused. He earlier had invented a canvas shield for my bicycle in the same shed, that has served most of the nearly 40 years I have lived in this historical place.
As I would return late, I asked for his burial or cremation announcement. But the family wanted to keep the ceremony private. I heard however that his many friends in Leiden would gather at his workshop on Monday, where his body would be. It is an apt farewell place for a man who spent most of his life working on concrete matters.
I decided to inform others about his departure, but everybody would know already. I will tell though Jan Oele of his demise, as he once told me that as a student some sixty years ago, he used to visit Loek’s studio. Loek made canvas bags for the bike of this geologist.
5. Berlin , Friday 22 April 2022
Before I lose the experience, I should mention a visit to KW (Kunstwerk) a few days ago.
It is an art centre on three levels, with an inner courtyard used as a cafeteria, and a bookshop next to the entrance. Where one can also buy tickets. We had seen several interesting shows before there, such as the one on the artistic response to the AIDS epidemic in the eighties.
I felt most affected by the works of Oraib Toukan. In offing, from a distance, she takes the spoken voice of the artist Salman Nawati inside Gaza and sets it against footage shot outside Gaza. Somehow the subjectivity of the voice from the inside and the look from the outside, while sounds of shooting or bombing are heard, gripped my attention and made me identify with the unseen speaker. Oraib Toukan also uses poetry – for me the most intimate of human communications. In the exhibition one of the most impressive juxtapositions though did not involve language. It was that of a flowering bush tossed by the wind while in the background or foreground one hears volleys of gunshots.
Another artist from the Middle East was Rabih Mroue. He had been invited to Berlin in 2002, by KS for his festival IN TRANSIT. KS had also told me about visiting his work in a gallery in Beyrouth in 2014. He attracted the attention of the PCF. He and his wife had now moved to Berlin. I remembered once having seen a video by him of a sniper aiming his gun at the lens of the camera of the artist. Here in Berlin he had expanded his technical range and his means of production vastly increased. No longer arte povera by circumstance. He was still able to create impressive images. One was of a harbor being bombed by planes – a chaotic but objective visual sequence of destruction. From this remains the image of silhouettes of planes appearing in the cloudy sky and a few moments later the bombs on their way to the earth, the harbor and the ships, and human beings.
The third exhibition was monographic, that is dedicated to Peter Friedl’s works. He was born in 1964 and “died” or was celebrated in 2022. One could perhaps summarize his works as témoignages, personal snapshots of his life and times. It was not wholly without effect on me when I saw a model he had made (2014) of Martin Heidegger’s dacha in the Black Forest. It reminded me of a letter by Heidegger written to me, and now lost, from that place. Half a century earlier, in the seventies.
6. Berlin, Sunday 24 April 2022.
Two years after my long stay in Berlin, I suddenly have been able to measure my physical state and its decline. A sense of precariousness has crept into my daily habits.
I first noted a young man rushing down a stone staircase at the railway station, jumping down over two or three steps at the time, and so doing in a few bounces what I was doing step by step. Then I walked behind a young man who was going upwards, every-time omitting a step and taking the third one. His speed was double mine. This feeling of slowness was beginning to divide me from a large part of the pedestrians. Young people were rushing by, some on skateboards, even sailing with their arm widespread through an imaginary zigzag tunnel in the crowd. I noticed urchins on roller skates. I was becoming part of the slow flow, that would avoid the edge of platforms.
We had a fight among ourselves about my awareness of this difference between my youthful self (which my brain still wants to direct or follow) and my new old self which brings both slowness and precariousness.
KS, who was somewhere in the Gorki Theatre and could not pick me up, asked Sigrid Gareis to fetch me at Dussmann’s bookshop. I was warned about her coming on bicycle. I joined her as she was parking her bike outside. She seemed to be shocked that KS had assumed I would have difficulty in finding the theatre – off Unter den Linden. Yet after we had arrived together at Gorki we both miserably tried to enter and failed locating him…, KS.
7. Berlin, 25 April 2022
I have the feeling, the obligation, of recording my last evening in Berlin.
The invitation to dine out had come from an actor who played the role of Salome in Oscar Wilde’s work, as filmed in our home in Berlin. It was in other words a result of KS’s invention. This invention had not only recreated the play in a world of migrants from the Middle East, no longer exotic but harsh. It had also given them a face. For this they wanted to thank him. I was included as a witness, a secondary friend.
We walked though a quarter of Berlin not built for migrants, but something like the bourgeois, in the 19th century. After the bourgeois dream had been swept away in the 20th century, together with its Jewish component, these neighborhoods had gotten new but uncoordinated energy from migrants. Not as an end station of their dreams, but as a temporary site to squat and work. Perhaps to return home, but always to move on.
We climbed the long staircases to the waiting open front-door from which light shone. We entered a small flat, overfilled with personal and impersonal belongings, like stacked beds and hanging clothes. I immediately spotted the head that had been cast from the actor, instead of John the Baptist’s severed head in reward for Salome’s dancing. It had now found a place on the floor.
The two occupants of the two rooms were not brought together by special affection, but by mutual support. They were both looking for a better place to live and work. But this evening they were working as a team. They were hosts in the fine custom of their country, generous but also with dignity. They cooked a full meal of four courses on a primitive oven, in the traditions of their origin.
Now and then they would, between the soup and the salad or between meat and rice, stand outside the kitchen where we sat, smoke and look how we reacted, and keep the conversation flowing. We were their guests and the spirit of hospitality was upheld.
These were educated asylum seekers, trying to find their footing after fleeing the persecution of Assad, and magically resurrecting some positive memory of their country.
I listened with a half ear. Others joined us, and I heard about plans for a communal workplace of the arts. But what most surprised me was that they discussed competing in vogue-ing. This seemed to mean impersonating on the catwalk a photo-model of the Parisian fashion glossy Vogue.