Berlin Letter

Dear A,

I’ll keep adding to this as I go along. Maybe by the time I finish it, I’ll have an address for you (B. says he’s working on it; but can I trust him? Were you exaggerating the pass you claimed he made at you the day I left, as he drove you home from the airport?). In any case, I’ll be back in Berlin in less than two weeks. This detour through Stockholm is my way of giving you a head-start; I’ll shout ‘Olly Olly oxen free!’ when I arrive at the Zoo Station, okay?

The air outside this cafe, which is a handful of stair steps down from street level (it’s like taking tea in a womb), is gray-green with the imminent force of a steaming summer deluge. The thunder is ready to bang (city-sized trash lids); cars are rushing by in the twinkling air. Swedes are darting for doorways.

I had been zipping briskly along Kungsholmstrand, meaning to have a long walk today; little boats were bobbing and knocking together like hollow skulls in the greenish water. I was thinking how lovely it all was. Those quaint old red-brick buildings with black roofs and piping, lining the opposite bank, and the relatively sweet air (Stockholm isn’t yet as car-choked as San Diego or London or Berlin), and the innocently dour Swedes crunching along the gravel bank in a trickle of pilgrimage towards me. But I saw the blackness rising out of the east like a magician’s cape and I knew rain would come exploding from under it and scurried back up towards a main thoroughfare and found this cafe.

A girl is singing along to the radio music coming over the cafe speakers. With her frail, shaky, stubbornly confident voice. The song is in English, and she’s glancing intermittently at me, having pegged me as American, and I have to smile at the horrible, silly, unmusical song. Sweet girl, though.

I’m sitting out the storm…and to my horror, the café has just been invaded by three Americans. Students. I’m not in the tourist part of the town, so it’s an irritating surprise to see them here. It’s a little cafe, with only ten tables, and they’re sitting directly across from me, distracting me with their English. As awkward as it is to be in a country where I can’t speak the language, one of my greatest pleasures happens to be the immunity to small talk I enjoy when I can’t understand a word I’m hearing. So this sudden attack of English is a drag. Overhearing this bonehead chatter (in trans-Midwestern dipthongs, no less) is as bad as sitting next to a guy who’s smoking a cigar, or playing a loud radio… you can’t escape the pollution.

So I’m trying to sit here writing you, but I can’t help listening to them complain about the airports in France, or the exchange rate in Prague, or brag about the wild time they had at some party last night. They’re wearing the uniform…the expensive sportswear (orange nylon shorts and pocket tee shirts and trendy sandals) that you’ll see on MTV if you watch it long enough to start talking like them.

A few days ago I had what I describe as an Existential Panic. I had been wandering through a park, following a steady stream of people who looked like they knew where they were going, and I came to a stage full of strange Swedish musicians, surrounded by an amphitheater of about two thousand people.

I took a seat to the side of the stage and listened for a while (they were playing some species of avante garde jazz), and watched the crowd, and suddenly it hit me that I was the only dark-skinned person there. A couple of thousand people and not one brown face! Such a wall of blonde hair and pink cheeks was blinding, and I suddenly felt terribly alone. I kept thinking: what am I doing here? I’m thousands of miles away from anyone who knows me. I could disappear into a hole in the earth and no one would notice!

My brother lives in a house that’s a thirty-minute drive from the neighborhood we lived in as children…how did I end up being so close to the Arctic Circle? I don’t have any friends here, I can’t speak the language, and there’s no particular reason for my presence. Am I insane? Why do I feel so thrilled in the morning when I’m walking along the water? I must have problems.

Sitting there in the middle of that pure-white crowd, I felt, just for a moment, a terror pass over me that was like a chunk of ice in my heart. Not that I feared that the Swedes were somehow against me, or meant me harm…the Swedes are harmless…but because I knew that I was so absolutely alien to them. I saw myself as a category error. I saw myself sitting there, as from a hundred feet above, this one little dark spot in a pointillist canvas of pink and blond and white.

Has this ever happened to you, dear? Certainly not in Iran.

In a few days I leave for Berlin…hardly a cure for that.

Crossing the Baltic in a train was a thrill. The train, an old Czech monster, was loaded into the belly of the ferry at the port in Malmo late in the evening. I watched the loading with my head stuck out of a window in the sleeper car’s corridor. Flags were snapping and rippling from various masts and flagpoles that towered and teetered around the port. Stadium lights glared. We rolled on groaning wheels into the ferry.

I stood in the corridor and watched the procedure like a kid on his first train trip. I hadn’t expected this at all. I naively…Americanly…expected a bridge or a tunnel. But this: a train in a ferry. I was too surprised to be afraid. I didn’t think once of all the ferry sinkings I’d read about, or seen on World News. I just stood there in the narrow corridor with my head out the window, feeling free and alive for the first time in weeks.

My compartment mate was out in the corridor with me. He was tall and thin, with the close-set eyes and beaky nose of a 40’s-era aristocrat; his mustache added to this impression; but there was something politely downtrodden, or washed-out, about him, that reeked of East German flat-bloc dweller. We communicated in a chunky goulash of English and German that suited the circumstances. We both used both languages. We never exchanged names, but made pleasant chit chat in a comradely fashion. He resembled the English actor Ralph Fiennes.

Our little sleeper compartment, equipped with dingy beds no longer than children, and with no efficient way for me to climb into my bunk without stepping on his, was a challenge that we faced together in good spirits. There was a tiny writing desk beside the curtained window that opened to reveal a sink (along with a stern warning in five non-English languages to avoid drinking the recycled water).

We stuck our heads out of the corridor window and breathed the eggy air of the Baltic, and I whispered a goodbye to Sweden, and a goodbye as well to the affair that had ruined the city for me. I purged my mind of the only Swedish I’d bothered to learn (“Jag pratar inte Svenska,” I don’t speak Swedish) and we rolled into the belly of the ferry and were swallowed by it, and its metallic groans and echoes, and the bluish odor of diesel fuel, and I was glad.

It was a good crisp night; I had been sweltering from Stockholm until Malmo, stuck in a sun-baked wagon with sixty other passengers and no air conditioning. I was relieved to change at Malmo, despite the burden of having to heave my large trunk off one train, and across the station, and onto the next. I left behind a Dane I’d been flirting with; a tall, young, bespectacled librarian with a razor-sharp wheat-blonde bob and a pretty face that surprised me with the flattest profile I’d ever seen on a European. From the side she looked like a flaxen-haired Chinese giant. Quite beautiful. Why am I telling you this?

We got off the train together and made our idle chatter, which shaded quickly into flirtatious adieu’s, when I was suddenly seized by an uncool panic because we were a hundred meters from the train and it dawned on me that I’d left my ticket on it. I stuck her there guarding my trunk while I dashed back through the crowd along the platform towards wagon number 2, seat number 17, which killed that fledgling romance.

I was huffing and puffing when I made it back to her and we finally shook hands (tersely?) goodbye; I think she may even have been pissed. It’s hard to tell with Northern Europeans. Romance, anyway, in most instances, is as useful as a glass staircase. I have her number, if I ever get curious, and you’ve finally pulled off the neatest of tricks and have disappeared forever. I’ve learned to keep my options open. (Sorry: that was tawdry.)

I made my connection and rolled out of Malmo while hefting my trunk onto an overhead rack with help from Ralph Fiennes. I was now on a Czech-made renovated German-owned Mitropa train, able to speak the language of the conductor and my compartment mate. I was suddenly infinitely more comfortable…I had stopped sweating and stinking of it…I felt more in control of my destiny; and the night, as I said, was crisp and clear and lit like a casino. We rolled into the ferry and could see only the industrial paint job of the belly of the ship, and the rivets in its seams, and stenciled specs and warnings.

I withdrew my head to avoid having it thunked by a girder we inched by and I ducked back into the sleeping compartment to have a look at a brochure that had been placed on the little desk by the window. It was a menu, and I briefly considered spending Dm 7.90 on Sechs Nürnberger Rostbratwürstchen (mit Antioxidationsmittel und Geschmackverstärker) but thought better of it.

Ralph suggested we look for the toilets on an upper deck of the ship since the toilets on a train of this type are unusable if the train isn’t in motion over open track. We waited for the orange-vested brakemen to secure the train, and for the ship to slide into the Baltic, and then we stepped out into the floodlit container along a narrow walk beside the train. Everything was painted beige or red or black, and the ferry throbbed bone-jitteringly as the engines strained against the waves. There was nothing of the wobbly ride I had come to expect from using the little ferries that connect one neighborhood to another in Stockholm.

My bunk mate led the way, and shouldered through a heavy door that was stenciled with hieroglyphics referring to gift shops and casino’s and toilets, and I followed him up three or four flights of painted metal stair steps, and we let ourselves in to an upper deck that was full of people in casual clothing, strolling back and forth on dull red carpeting. We mingled with these people; the other passengers on the ferry. Peculiar that I felt like a trespasser from steerage, since I’d crept up from the belly of the ship, when in fact I’d paid more for the ride then most of the passengers who’d boarded the ferry right there at the port. They were merely crossing the Baltic, whereas I had already covered a third of Sweden, and my journey was due to continue for hours after the ferry docked in Rostock. I was headed for Berlin, and had the rest of the night to go before the train was scheduled to ease into the Zoological Gardens, or Zoo Station, at around seven in the morning.

We found the toilet and separated with politely embarrassed smiles and vented our bladders. Outside the toilet again, we shook hands (a post-penis-handling shake, mind you!) and I let him return to our sleeping compartment alone. He wanted to sleep through the crossing, but sleep was the last thing on my mind. I trusted him enough to let him alone for hours in that room with my backpack and trunk and most of my money, and I resolved to investigate the ship. It was unlikely I’d be crossing the Baltic again in the foreseeable future, so I wanted to make the most of my little adventure. It was funny that I should be coming from a state in America that was larger than most of the countries that my fellow passengers hailed from, and yet this ferry ride was my idea of a wild experience, while for them it was little more than an inconvenience of dreadful banality.

There were banks and banks of slot machines arranged along the promenade of deck seven, welded there cleverly to siphon off their coins, and heal their trans-Baltic boredom with simulations of Vegas.

In fact I sat there for a bit, in a row of chairs facing the slots, and watched some Polish auto worker in a pale gray track suit go from machine to machine, dumping in coins and winning jackpots. If he was a shill for the management I was the only audience to the spectacle, and I remained untempted to gamble, so the show was wasted. I just watched him pull the levers, set off the jingles of the jackpots, and slide on over to the next machine, with nothing more than raised eyebrows on his part to register the windfalls. It was either a miraculous night for him, or the jackpots are paid in pennies. I suppose I should have gotten a closer look.

Never having been on an Ocean Ferry before, I must admit I was uncertain about how to behave on one. I’d walk right up to the smudged glass doors that opened out onto the wind-washed deck but I’d content myself with merely peering through them at the blackness that seemed to rise up in an infinitely gentle curve above the ferry. Then I’d pace the concourse, and cross a median, to the other side of the ship, and peer again, as tantalized by the outside as an insect in a jar. I was troubled by the paranoid fantasy that opening a set of these large double doors would set off an alarm, but then some sloppily dressed Russians with a moon-faced child in a slick red raincoat pushed through these very doors, squeezing by me, sauntering in from the prow of the ship, and set off no (audible) alarm.

It was fantastic out there. I was in California-style shorts, but bundled in a rubberized rain jacket, which features a hood, and it was perfect in the chilly weather of the Baltic. I had sweltered in the train from Stockholm wearing this jacket, and felt like a fool to have even brought it, but now I was vindicated. I was cozy and self-contained.

I had with me a British magazine…style and music and movies…and I found a deck chair beside a pair of teenage girls and settled in under the flood lights, and I set about reading, or pretending to, running my fingers over the pictures but being too distracted to pay attention to the text. We were the only ones out there, the teenaged girls and I. They were singing perfectly foreign pop songs in touchingly high and imperfect voices, and I couldn’t have been more delighted.

One was blonde and sweetly unremarkable and the other had her hair pinned-up and cheaply dyed a beet-red color that had been some kind of proletarian fashion statement in this part of Europe for fifteen years, and I relished the naïve energy that they blessed the prow of the ferry with. A thread-thin line of lights were dimly apparent on the German side of the water, looking like a hairline crack in the black flesh of the sky. The stars above us, unfortunately, were as invisible as anything at the bottom of the Baltic. But that didn’t keep me from being exhilarated.

In fact I thought of another moment in which hand-made music and the night and bright lights had blended similarly to thrill me with a sense of life’s possibilities: a time in London, ten years before, when I’d been crossing Leicester square on a Saturday night and I’d happened upon a combo of bryl-creamed street musicians…a sax and an upright bass and a guy thwacking a snare drum with brushes…playing the theme from A Hard Day’s Night in 5/4 time with un-ironic verve. Couples in white dinner jackets and evening gowns were flowing over the cobble-stoned square in droves, with British pomp-and-shyness, and London suddenly swung for me, if only for five minutes, but what a five minutes it was.

Which in turn triggered other nostalgias, telescoping backwards towards the source of my libido, and took me back even further, to another night, set back in time by the distance of yet another decade, during which, at a tender age, I’d found myself standing at a bus stop, waiting for my girl (she’s married and motherly and showing gray now), when some guy with slicked-back Rome-black hair and an intrepidly large nose had had the nerve, while wearing (again) a white dinner jacket, to be strumming a nylon stringed guitar and singing Stand By Me to his patrician looking date, who struck me then as being trapped between the conflicting emotions of being humiliated by, and falling in love with, the gesture.

Romeo was perched on a big wooden flower box in front of a MacDonald’s there at the intersection of Hennepin and Lake in Minneapolis, c. 1980, on a muggy summer night that was fraught with mosquitoes, and crushingly ordinary, except for the fact that John Lennon was still walking the Earth that summer, and the devil had yet to introduce us to cell phones or compact discs.

I was ten or eleven and you were still to be born.


Projected Letters is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing the best new and established writing from around the world.