Ghost Dance in Berlin - A Rhapsody in Gray

CHAPTER 1

My Winterreise

Chewing on a mouthful bit off a half loaf of coarse Vollkorn (whole grain) bread bought bright and early when the baker at the S-Bahn Station Berlin-Wannsee opened for business, I am standing, knee-deep in snow, at the grave of writer Heinrich von Kleist, on a wooded knoll overlooking the Kleiner Wannsee (Little Wann Lake), where, with a pistol shot, the troubled Romantic put a last period on the sentence of his life. The warm dough kneaded between tongue and palate and the kernels exploding under the millstone of my molars make for a pleasant distraction from the cold, an inner armor that insulates and fortifies. Nobody knows how to bake whole grain bread like the Germans, it tastes like it just came out of the oven in “Hänsel and Gretel.”

Shooting up out of sleep at daybreak, thrilled to be alive, I waited for the darkness to dissolve before venturing out, bundled up, a walking seven-layer cake, wadded with boxers and T-shirt, long johns, flannel shirt, sweater, overcoat, hat, hood, and woolen scarf, reveling in the frozen silence.

The spectacle of the icy lake glimpsed through the blurry periscope of my tearing eyes is dreamlike, birds frozen in flight and sailboats iced in at half-tilt. The pillow of snow on the lonesome tombstone supplants the white hair Kleist, a suicide at thirty-four, never lived to grow. It’s a peaceful, melancholy spot removed from the road in a copse of evergreens—not quite as remote as Kleist must have found it, but almost. Hard to imagine it’s still within Berlin’s city limits. An unassuming carved wooden sign, easy to miss unless you’re looking for it, points toward a winding footpath, oddly discouraging access. I am the only living soul in sight, and though I understand they mean to make it more presentable by 2011, the bicentennial of his passing, for the moment at least it’s still conducive to musing.

The poet Rilke went to Paris to serve as secretary to the sculptor Rodin and managed to carve a memorable book from the experience. Secretary, in a manner of speaking, to Kleist—it’s my English take on his words that helped earn me this sojourn in Berlin—he would surely not have begrudged my extracting a few reflections.

Wannsee, the posh district of lakeside villas where I live, is named for the lakes. The Academy is considerably less intimidating than I had feared. The white wine helps. The nicest thing about it is the silence and the solitude when I want it, and then to emerge for limited spells of sociability at breakfast and dinner.

*

Gazing at me over the rim of his glasses, the bookkeeper at the Academy, to whom I’d come to inquire regarding the delay in the payment of my monthly stipend, caught me peering out the window at the Großer (Big) Wannsee, the vast frozen body of water out back, perhaps divining my intent. “It’s not really a lake, you know, it’s a swollen river,” he remarked with a clipped, nervous laugh, adding, “People have fallen in.” The poet Georg Heym, another casualty of German letters, fell through a hole in the ice. But this is my year of living dangerously, the coldest winter in decades. When the young women on staff dare do it, as they say they will, I too will walk across.

*

Wintry Berlin is a city largely devoid of color, except for a dirty white carpet of snow flung over a treacherous ice slick and a perennial gray cloud cover overhead, ice and sky running into each other, stained by the faint yellow trace of a distant sun that never quite breaks through.

*

Picture my surprise last Wednesday on my way back to Wannsee, at the sight of a green hand gripping the railing before me on the crowded tram and artificial ruby-

red hair flapping in a simulated tropical breeze. Part wildebeest, part uprooted palm tree escaping the inhospitable arctic chill into the hothouse on wheels. And in the startling blur—a sudden burst of color blinds—the green gloved hands became fluttering palm leaves and the electric redhead a fabulous fruit, a cross between a pineapple, a coconut, and a ripe pomegranate—more tantalizing and forbidding than Eve’s fabled apple of temptation. In vain did my nostrils flutter in search of an olfactory rush, for this exotic fruit had no scent. She was cold, an ice fairy, a Berlin mirage, dashing out ahead of me at Alexanderplatz, and promptly melting, the renegade burst of color immediately blending back into the ubiquitous gray.

*

Sunday, despite the sub-zero temperature, I trekked the considerable distance out to Charlottenburg Palace—Berlin is a vast urban expanse—to catch the closing of the Lucas Cranach exhibit. I admit to an erotic tingle at the sight of all those oddly titillating blond nudes: his quizzical Eve, fondling fig leaf and apple; a seductive Teutonic Venus engaged in a sultry bump and grind with a veil that reveals more than it hides; bold Judith, sword in hand outside the tent, just after beheading Holofernes; and the virtuous Lady Lucretia, all her soon-to-be self-sacrificed loveliness on display, preferring death to dishonor—the pin-up girls of antiquity priming and pricking burgeoning Protestant morality. But I was particularly taken by the small self-portrait of the painter, a personal friend of Luther, who, despite his considerable worldly success, opted to preserve this guilt-ridden gaze to pass on to posterity. My libido too numb to take the tingle along, Cranach’s uneasy look accompanied me on my chilly rush home.

At minus ten degrees Celsius, the frigid sunset over Alexanderplatz, where I emerged from the U-Bahn (subway) to catch the S-Bahn (elevated), made the ground feel like a glacier underfoot. There on the frozen pavement sat a hooded black man playing pipes. Not bagpipes, mind you, massive metal pipes, a makeshift instrument composed of lead fittings twisted pretzel-like and painted blue, on which he banged a primal rhythm and blew a ululating wail, a cross between the guttural groan of an aboriginal didgeridoo and the mournful lament of a landlocked leviathan still aching with life while divining imminent death. His Lied der Kälte (Song of the Cold) echoed in the arctic chill, each frozen note an inkling of eternity. Too cold to pull off my gloves, reach into my pocket, and pluck out a coin, I rushed by, stirred by the sound, wondering how long he’d have enough breath and dexterity left in his frozen fingers to keep blowing and banging.

Oblivious, meanwhile, to such rarefied aesthetic considerations, two homeless men, the one without gloves pushing the other, without legs, along in a rickety wheelchair with one wheel broken, the protruding spokes flicking a curious percussive accompaniment, went whizzing by to seek the tenuous shelter of the unheated station. Wintry Berlin is no place for beggars. From the corner of my eye I caught the legless one in the wheelchair shrugging at the musician, as if to say: He’s still got all his limbs, so what’s he wailing about? Or perhaps it was a grudging shrug of sympathy. Too cold to consider for long, we almost collided, exchanging chilly looks, and each rushed off to our separate destinies.

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