The Idea of Berlin

The Idea of Berlin is a book-length essay on disappearance. Here’s a short extract:



April in Berlin was forbiddingly cold – then and on repeated occasions after this. I have a mental snapshot of myself on the steps of the Pergamon Museum: I’m alone, cold, smoking, disappointed by Berlin’s ugliness, exhilarated by the decadent facades full – still – with bullet holes and of which I was told that they featured in that romantic hymn that Wender’s film was, by places like the Tacheles which I had never had to encounter and interpret before (noise, smoke and disorder but with a remarkable discipline underlying them, rules of the alternative), by the overall sense of a wide prospect opening up and which must be related both to the slow beginning of a reconstruction – this was four-five years after the fall of the Wall -, and to the fact that it was the first time in my life that I was entering a parallel universe. That language, yeah. To hear it flowing cuttingly from mouths that found it easy and unquestioned, inside red floored apartments with astoundingly high ceilings! The language took on another generalised and precise life in such huge spaces (the flats, the avenues), and I realised I was poor. I knew German – had been obliged to learn it as a child, given that French as a foreign language was no option for me – but, ach, hated it and was quick to abandon it as soon as the obligation was lifted. It didn’ t evoke Goethe, Schiller and Heine for me – not even Walser, Sebald or Hanna Schygulla and Fassbinder or the beloved face of Bruno Ganz (who, actually, in my eyes is not so much flying above Berlin but rather forever waiting in Tanner’s white Lisbon). It meant taking senseless exams at the Athens Goethe Institute where, at twelve years old, I was asked to write a letter to my employer or have a dialogue with a travel agent, that kind of insipid stuff of which institutionalised language learning builds its well-earned reputation worldwide. The waste! Yet I remember my kind German primary school teacher with tenderness. Soft and encouraging, she had very white skin and wore her hair in plaits around her head – and tiny blue flowers on a dark background insist on popping up, a skirt pattern I suppose, or maybe a shirt of hers I liked. She wasn’t the cause of my distaste, and neither were the first books, coding the lives of little Hans and Liselotte for the sake of foreign children. Like the rest of the languages I speak, I speak German badly but much worse – and this was the cause of my distaste back then. That the entry to this new terrain seemed so easy for the first couple of years, as I had what they call a talent for tongues, but all too soon, there came a threshold which talent alone could not help to cross. You had to work – or, invest. In the same way I abandoned German when I was thirteen, I stopped Italian lessons after a couple of months when I was twenty five – and still recall the enormous effort it consequently took to get over the oral obstacle of the subjunctive, which is much more commonly used than in French or Spanish. I was never taught Spanish – my reading level being at odds with my writing and oral skills when I moved to Spain, so that the teachers at the University where I inquired were put off – and, similarly, never took any trouble with Catalan. I’m embarrassed to admit that I relied on my talents, and those proved short.




detail, drawing of a new series