By the time we arrived in Berlin, Germany was in a state of flux. The Wall had come down and Germany, geographically at least, was a country divided no more. However, the euphoria over the reunification of the former East with the former West had predictably already soured into mutual suspicion and a generalised insecurity, seemingly fueled by both opportunism and resentment.
We had visited Berlin many times before the Fall but, as we settled in for our year long stay, we were astonished each morning by the relentless erasure of recent history that was physically taking place before our eyes as we walked around. It was as if Philip K Dick’s science fiction ‘Adjustment Team’ had been working through the night rerouting or joining up roads, removing street signs, constructing new roundabouts, etc, in the process creating a new sense of disorientation in place of the once familiar sense of alienation with the Wall.
Of course, along with structural erasure came the beginnings of gentrification. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the old Jewish Quarter of Mitte, in the former East. It had already become a cliché to note that within a short time of artists moving into an overlooked and derelict area in search of cheap studio space there would inevitably follow galleries, designer shops, fashion houses, bars and restaurants, with most of the artists then forced to move elsewhere. (1)
Although Art in Ruins was partly founded on the idea of overlooked spaces we were always drawn more to alienation than to amnesia. So we always felt uncomfortable on our visits to Mitte and this particular day was no exception.
We were sitting at a table in a chic new ‘stylishly unfinished’ café bar looking through a large plate glass window out onto the old street. We ordered two beers and just after they arrived we noticed the barely audible sound of music. It was familiar and eventually we identified it as the soundtrack to ‘Once Upon a Time in America.’
When asked by a critic what this film, which we had seen a number of times, was about, the director Sergio Leone replied that the subject of the film was ‘Time’ – which we took to mean that it was about ‘Trust and Betrayal’ in the realm of human affairs.
As we smiled to each other in recognition, I looked up and saw a man coming in though the door. He turned and looked towards us. He was wearing a white suit with a faded rock-star white tee-shirt and an over-ripe sun tan. He sat down at a table near the door directly opposite us and made no attempt to avert his gaze as he ordered a beer. When it arrived he got up and moved his chair next to us and put his beer on our table. Having introduced himself he did not seem surprised to discover that we were not German.
Not speaking English he asked me a question in German. Hannah translated with a grin “He wants to know why you have no hair.” Noticing his long straggly yellowish bleached hair, I replied that ever since I was a teenager I had spent a considerable amount of time concerned with my hairstyle; so some time ago I had decided to have it all shaved off … “so that I don’t have to think about it anymore.”
He laughed at this reply and took a drink of his beer. Then another question “Why are you both wearing all black clothes … have you been to a funeral?” Hannah replied that when we were younger we spent a considerable amount of time concerned with decisions about fashion and so some time ago we decided it was simpler just to wear black.
He shook his head and then moved closer, took Hannah’s hand and asked “Why are you both so white? Are you ill … does the sun never shine where you come from? Look at me … I am healthy and tanned. I have just come back from a holiday in the sun.” Hannah, with a smile, replied “We don’t believe in holidays … and anyway, too much sun isn’t good for you.”
He looked at us seriously and then said “I have wasted the best years of my life … but now I am free to do what I like.” I looked back at him and said with a grin “Well, we have always been free … to do what we like … and we have wasted the best years of our lives.” He shook his head in a mixture of disbelief and pity and finished his drink.
We all got up to leave together and he walked with us along the street. He turned his head back to the café, nodded and said “I like to go in there from time to time to meet new people, although it is expensive … I have lived here all my life, this is meine Ecke – my corner.” As we all walked on he continued “I normally drink over there … “ He pointed to an old-fashioned German Kneipe with brown curtains.
“The drink is cheaper and that is where all my old friends are … why don’t you meet me there on Saturday?” We told him that maybe we would, although we never did … but then we never went back to Berlin.