A Berliner Darkly

“Creativity needs constraint. Otherwise it’s just emotion.”

–Brook McCarthy

I’ve been struggling with figuring out what to write. I wanted to provide some grand historic perspective on Berlin to put into context my views and observations on its people and culture, but I’m in a funk. I’m ear deep in my novel, trying to figure out the direction I want to take it in [and simultaneously fighting off thoughts about why this is a horrible idea]. I’m at the tail end of a cold that’s been haunting me for weeks [and my period is coming, naturally.] My wallet was stolen over the weekend [I got it back, without the money, of course] and I’m trying to figure out if there’s a nice way to say that this city’s ubiquitous attitude towards smoking is making me homicidal…without offending my friends who smoke [there isn’t.]

So since I can’t NOT offend…I might as well go all in: People smoke everywhere. EVERYWHERE. In restaurants, bars, nightclubs, train stations. They don’t even wait to exit the train before they light up. Once, I was riding the U-Bahn to Alexanderplatz and someone sat right across from me, pulled out a handmade cigarette, and lit up without any fear of consequence…staring straight at me, daring me to make the slightest indication that I gave a fuck. I just sat there, eyes burning from the smoke, tears streaming down my face, stomach rolling, choking on my own pride [and vomit.] When all I wanted to do was…

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Even now, as I sit in bed typing this out, I can smell the cigarette smoke coming from my neighbor’s flat. And while I understand autonomy, respect, all the things that underlie a democratic society…a small but very real part of me wants to punch her in the face so that her physical appearances matches her lungs.

There. Now we never have to speak of it again.

Let’s start with the book.

…Why? Why am I doing this? Most people are content with graduating college, possibly graduate school, possibly with a gap year in-between getting wasted on a beach in Thailand, then treating their STDs before getting married and then having children. I think it’s obvious by now that I’m an idiot, and therefore no such life suited me. And when I’m up at 1am surrounded by books, empty yogurt cups and chewed apple cores, staring at an unfinished sentence that’s been haunting me for the past 45 minutes while my neighbor blasts DMX at full volume, rapping in her thick German accent…I can’t help but wonder about my life choices.

I could have been an attorney. I almost was. Dad likes to recall how I have the mind for one. He thinks that me taking him down in arguments [namely because his argument consists solely of the words “because I said so”] is the same thing as writing complex legal documents loaded with incomprehensible jargon or cutting deals with corporate psychopaths who have all the money, power and means to keep things in litigation until the four horsemen of the apocalypse come riding through Kreuzberg to damn us all. The truth is, I have a good mind for solving problems, but I’m way too sensitive to cut straight to solutions mode, without first having a mini crisis of my own, especially if they’re my problems. I can’t count the hours I’ve spent sprawled out in bed, staring up at the ceiling, recounting any number of missteps I’ve taken that have caused an undesirable outcome. And I waste far too much time in blaming myself for the mistakes and shortcomings of others. It’s inefficient to be so involved with one’s own feelings. How on earth would I have been a good attorney when I waste far too much time trying to make sense of why people do horrible things?

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Getting my wallet lifted last weekend is a prime example of that. I was in a bar with a friend. I was distracted. My bag was on the table right in front of me. The lights went off, my bag was suddenly on the chair next to me, it was open and my wallet was gone. Nobody saw a thing. Nobody said a thing. A posse of thieves stole 80 euros and for about 24 hours, my sanity. And all I could think about, was not what undeniable bastards could do such a thing…but how on earth could I have been so stupid as to not be aware of it at the time? Pure, irrational emotion. Followed by the most intimate rage.

So! While I can [and often have taken tremendous pleasure in] methodically breaking down the arguments of others, nothing in this world makes me happier than puppies. PUPPIES. Small fur balls of piss and shit that bounce all over me and lick me in the face until I squeal. Puppies, pastry and Chopin. In that order.

Proof [you may want to turn down the volume for this one]:

I was riding on the S-Bahn yesterday and a woman sat across from me, pulled out a bottle of wine, unscrewed the lid and starting drowning her sorrows right in front of me with tears streaming down her face. The first thought I had was “Are you a writer too?” the second thought that crossed my mind was that I wished I brought those tissues that are sitting on my night stand. She probably would have knifed me in the neck for my watch if given the opportunity…

I have the mind of an attorney…but not the heart of one.

Sorry dad.

Mama said there’d be days like this

So what? I’m anxious, flawed and obsessed with reversing the appointed order of my maker. Who isn’t? That doesn’t mean that I can turn all that nervous creativity into a novel, especially a novel that people will enjoy. But it’s not so much about others, so much as it is about channeling all that nervous energy into something that doesn’t tear my mind up from the inside out.

It’s a feat. And I’m realizing that the only way to get it done is to 1. Have a routine, and 2. Have a creative community off of which I can bounce ideas and receive feedback. I’m no Henry David Thoreau, Berlin is far from Walden, and very few literary masterpieces were conceived in pure isolation, surrounded by empty yoghurt cups and chewed apple cores. I joined a writing workshop back in September, comprised of journalists, poets, romantics and idealists from a variety of disciplines. In it, we undertook several exercises to help us define our story outlines, develop our characters and refine our literary voices. For all intensive purposes, they were incredibly useful…but the classes often devolved into therapy sessions in which participants hijacked the conversation to discuss their insecurities as writers, an underlying personality trait we all share, but which I had no interest in discussing when I’m paying to develop the skills that would undermine the need to have that very conversation with a group of strangers in the first place.

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Even though I am no longer continuing the workshop, for a variety of reasons, I got what I needed out of it – my first few chapters. And I’m equally as surprised as I am pleased to say that I’m actually very happy with them.

No, I’m not going to say what it’s about. In stages as early as these, there’s no point. But here’s a fun fact – everything that goes badly, or rightly for that matter, stands a 50/50 chance of going into the book in some way, shape, or form. So when it’s all said and done, and you pick up my debut novel from the bargain bin at the airport bookshop, just know that there’s a 50% chance that what you’re reading actually happened during Jennifer’s Berlin years.

Was Jennifer actually stalked by a crazed Norwegian filmmaker? Maybe. Did Jennifer fall into an underground drug ring run by former high-level officials of the GDR? Maaaybe. Did Jennifer sometimes hang around music clubs where she met several other band fans, formed a band, they got together on weekends, wrote songs about heartache, hit the road with pennies in their pocket, get discovered by a fat-bellied British tour manager with a cockneye accent who then propelled them to fortune and fame before Greta’s nasty drug habit brought everything crashing down minutes before they were to announce their first worldwide tour?

Maaaaaaybe. Maybe Greta only thinks about herself. WE HAD A CHANCE, GRETA!

…if you’re name isn’t Greta, Beverley or Dean, that last paragraph might be lost on you.

All writers write what they know. And anyone who says otherwise is lying…or they’re Toni Morrison.

A Berliner Darkly

Is there such a thing as a romantic realist? Someone who, for example, fantasizes about the Paris of the 1920s, when Stein’s Salon was the cultural epicenter for creative dialogue…and then who quickly rationalizes why it would not be a good decade to repeat because of pesky little things like war, the impending global market crash, rampant racism, sexism and syphilis. Am I the only one who does this?

Yes, I would have liked to sit down at a table with Hemingway and Picasso. Yes, they probably would’ve hated me in equal measure after repeatedly calling each of them out for mansplaining.

Through this lens, I’ve realized that Berlin is both a city thriving on creative freedom, and still in many ways struggling to sort out an identity after being ravaged by a war that ended more than seventy years ago [which, in the grander scheme of things, really isn’t that long.] People in this city are still struggling with abject feelings of purposelessness, especially when compared to the rest of the country.

While its politics are super progressive, you also get the distinct feeling that the ruins of war still plague its ability to move forward. There is a kind of emptiness to the soul of Berlin, and it’s filled with people who are obsessed with their own image, but don’t know why. This, in direct contrast with Munich, which has a booming manufacturing industry [and the snobbishness to prove it] feels like Berlin hasn’t fully recovered. And the people remember. And pride, regardless of which side of history on which it’s placed, is a difficult thing to repair. Taking into consideration the fact that the wall only fell in 1989, I’m really living in a place with no as yet clearly constructed identity. And a city without identity represents tremendous opportunity for freedom, expression and heartache.

Berlin is in a weird existential struggle. It’s at the center of free tertiary education. It’s at the center of tenants rights. It’s at the center of open border policy, environmental recycling reform and gender equality…but it is still not as yet comfortable with cultural convergence, globalization or heterogeneity. Does Berlin want to be the moral authority of the twenty-first century? Is it even possible given the guilt and shame still so visceral in every part of its culture? The jury is honestly still out…and the rising right-wing sentiment happening in parts of Saxony and the outskirts of Berlin are testament to that.

There is no greater evidence of this than the Ausländerbehörde, the federal VISA office where hundreds of Auslanders [foreigners] line up every single day with all their legal documents to plead for a chance to stay in Germany. You have never seen people treated with such disdain before in your entire life. For all of Berlin’s ethnic diversity, there is still an attitude among the local bureaucracy that non-Germans aren’t equals. The recent influx of refugees has only intensified the situation, making government workers stressed and easily annoyed [not as stressed as people fleeing war-torn countries, but still!] The day before my appointment, I was speaking to a friend about what I should expect and she told me quite plainly that I could very well get my VISA, but that I would also likely leave the office in tears. That’s what happens to everyone. They get their paperwork, but only after being humiliated by people who just don’t want us here.

Everyone else I spoke to confirmed this.

So the morning of my appointment, when my translator couldn’t make it and my period decided to fill in, in her absence…I was already in tears. I clutched a bag full of forms, translated documents, articles, bank statements, IDs, statutory declarations and letters of offer and spoke through broken German…to the nicest woman I’ve ever met. So nice, in fact, that she granted my VISA on the spot. And when I asked her why she had been so accommodating, she explained quite simply that it was because I had cited Australia as my first nationality. If I had put American down instead, I would’ve gone to the floor above, where they really…really hate Americans. That’s what she told me.

…I didn’t see that one coming. I skated out of that building with two passports and a brand new visa like…

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So, now…I have an apartment. I have a visa. I’m writing…for money. I’m speaking German??

And despite the several very inconvenient setbacks of being robbed, assaulted, and stalked [you know, when I list it like that…] I woke up one morning and realized something:

This is what happiness feels like.

Jump, squat, stick it, stretch, repeat

So, what about my routine?

I wake up in the morning around 6am and write. Before the sun has fully risen, before opening up the curtains, before eating breakfast or responding to text messages from overseas, I write. I write about whatever is on my mind, but I’m disciplining myself to focus on the plot of my novel. Now that it’s getting colder, I stay in bed longer. I wear knee-high black socks, propped up against large pillows and turn my phone over on its face so that I don’t get distracted. I keep a bottle of water next to my bed, and sometimes I’ll consult a growing pile of books about literature, politics or sentence structure.

And I write…

I do this for about 5 hours every morning until my stomach begins to chew itself up from the inside out from hunger. Hunger, I’ve realized, is a powerful creative device when it comes to weaving intricate, beautiful phrases like “wispy-haired troglodyte” and “coterie of cunnilingus” [not to self: I haven’t used that last one, but now I kind’ve think I have to…] In those 5 hours, I am at my most clear-headed, creative, unencumbered best. I’m not yet bored by administrative concerns. I’m not yet annoyed by your ridiculous Facebook arguments. I’m not yet afraid of the impending election or infuriated by the general apathy amongst so many in my social circle. I’m just light…and words pour of me like warm honey.

After that, I eat so that I don’t kill anyone. Eggs, meat, fruit with yoghurt, peanut butter on dark toast and peppermint tea. Then I exercise ferociously until it hurts to breathe. Then I do my German homework, from which I’m often distracted by incoming calls from Australia. I need to get better at not doing that, but there is often an hour between exercise and class where I feel my heart suffocating from the distance between me and my loved ones, and I give in because the sound of a friendly voice from back ‘home’ is just as crucial to my psychological health as breakfast and exercise are to my physical health. I save all those photos of your little ones. I save all those photos of you watching documentaries on the sofa. I’ve put them into a folder on my iPhone that I look at when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

Walking through Neukölln I pass by all the Turkish cafes and Arab restaurants. There’s one run by a man named Arman who makes me tea in the eving. It’s strong and bitter, but invigorating. He’ll ask me questions in slow punctuated German about how I’m doing, and listens patiently as I stumble my way through the replies. He doesn’t charge me, because he says he remembers how difficult it was for him when he moved here. One rainy Sunday evening, I went into his café for some takeaway [grocery stores are closed in Berlin on Sundays] and he asked me what I felt like. I told him that I felt like eating everything in sight because I was on my period and I felt ugly and gross and that I was on the verge of a crying fit [I said this in English]. He gave me shaved meat, salad, chips, bread and chocolate pudding and he said to me “du bist sehr hübsch” [you are very beautiful].

Now, when I go into his café, it isn’t for the food. It’s to see a friendly face, and to bathe in the warmth of company in the icy Berlin autumn.

I did to German class for three hours a day and sit amongst Brazilians, Turks, Brits, Colombians, Americans, Russians, Pollacks and Italians. Now I go for an hour and a half twice a week. We exchange startled looks with one another as we struggle to wrap our brains around the multilayered complexity of the German language. We stutter over how to properly conjugate the suffixes of adjectives according to whether or not they’re in the normativ, akkusativ or dativ tense. We list modal verbs and smile nervously at ourselves, squinting, grimacing and yes, laughing, while our brains slowly rewire themselves to account for learning a language that sounds like we’re berating prize-winning livestock.

I stand up in class and let people describe what I’m wearing in German, and then we switch places and I do the same. I’ve met some beautiful people in those classes. A kind-hearted Canadian illustrator with the softest voice and sweetest demeanor which truly becomes the stereotype of Canadians…a Russian club kid with a superb sense of humor and a talent for saving me during confusing grammar moments, a stunning Brazilian fashion student with a punk rock heart who turns heads wherever she goes…and Colombian graphic designer who tugs at my heartstrings with her smile.

I’m in class to learn German, of course, but I’m in THESE classes because I get to learn German with them. My teacher, Mortiz, teaches us not only about the language but about the historic idiosyncracies of German culture. In his class, I’ve learned that Bavaria is thriving with secessionists who view Berliners as parasites who suck the money out of the economy without giving anything in return. Like most places you only ever want to drive through, they even have a phrase to distinguish themselves from the rest of their countrymen: “Wir sind wir” which roughly translates to “We are us.”

And yes, it does sound ridiculous.

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Moritz is hilarious. He wears dated 90s attire, like puffy jackets and acid washed denim jeans with high tops. He wears a platinum chain around his neck, which he chews on when he’s annoyed with the class. He’s small, but walks with pure German conviction and makes us play silly games, which have proven extremely effective in expanding our vocabulary. If he asks me a question and I stumble my way through the answer, he’ll hang his mouth open, raise an eyebrow, think to himself “you poor, beautiful idiot” then completely regain his composure before explaining the concept all over again. He’ll give me a dozen scenarios and hammer home the grammar until he’s 100% convinced that I’ve gotten it, and even though it’s incredibly painful…it works.

Now I’m in a class with professionals who work during the day, and have no interests in evenings, or ideas. They work on computers and don’t laugh at any of my jokes. But I do this so that I can work more during the day.

On Wednesday and Thursday nights, I do comedy. Well, most Wednesday and Thursday nights. I have several new sets about Donald Trump, about life in Berlin…I throw myself completely into character for 5-15 minutes at a time with my comedy family and then we talk for hours after the show has ended over drinks and leftover pizza. This is how I met Rachman Blake, an American comedian who is slowly making the Berlin comedy scene famous – and Elena Gabrielle, an Australian cabaret performer who is, in my awesome opinion, absolutely KILLING it in Berlin. It’s kind’ve funny the number of lovable Australian performers I’ve met in Germany so far…and they all came to Berlin to escape the non-lovable Australians [yeah yeah…not all of you.]

On Fridays I don’t have class, so I do admin. Paperwork, bills, pitching, pitching, pitching…and now that some of the pitching has paid off, I do paid writing.

On Friday evenings, I sing. This is a relatively new development, a continuation of something I just began to do again in Melbourne. Through the power of Facebook connectivity, I’ve met some incredible musicians with too much talent and who smoke too much weed. Performances have been sporadic but life-altering. A performance I did a few weeks ago in Kreuzberg didn’t start until 3am, and it went on until brunch time. Afterwards, we piled into a taxi and rode to Prenzlauer Berg for breakfast and coffee where we wrote furiously on napkins and harmonized between bites of sausage and toast.

Last month, a friend I haven’t seen since high school [but whom I am nonetheless so incredibly in friend-love with] Facebook introduced me to a friend of hers, also living in Berlin, Jessica. Jessica has since invited me into a whole new world of brilliant, talented, passionate, hilarious people of colour. Artists, writers, musicians, rebel-rousers, misanthropes…they perform poetry, hip-hop, they create and promote intellectual artist talks, interviews and panels to discuss everything from immigration to black hair. We gather on weekend evenings to listen to music, eat homemade food, talk about politics and dating and laugh about absurdity. Now, when I’m feeling lonely, I meet them at cafes. I talk to them on Facebook messenger. We exchange stories and listen to Solange Knowles and paint each other’s nails and…

…yeah, this is what happiness feels like.

It was worth the risk.

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