When I was a child there was a popular fairy tale film “Das kalte Herz” (“Heart of Stone”) which was set in the Black Forest. However, because I grew up in East Germany, I had never heard of a Black Forest and hence, thought it must be some sort of fairy tale forest and certainly not a real place. – Now, thinking about London it quite feels the same. In Berlin, one is surrounded by images of London – on large advertising panels in the streets or on buses, in TV documentations, in magazines. I still remember exactly what these places feel like; I easily see myself passing by the places shown. And yet, while looking at them wistfully, they don’t seem to be real places but from a world far away behind an iron curtain.
While experiencing flashbacks of London – me sitting in the C2 bus to Camden, me passing by the Hampstead ponds, me strolling around on Brick Lane on a Sunday – I am trying to discover Berlin. How different it is; strikingly peaceful, relaxed, almost cosy. There is nothing of London’s hostility. When the sun is shining, parts of the city seem to turn into a beach; there is sand and striped beach chairs; everywhere there are street cafes filled with people having breakfast, lunch, smoking. There is normal life here which one recognizes first on the fact that children live in the city, children that play in groups in the streets, children that cycle around on bikes, children that play on playgrounds. Where in London is real poverty, here there is an exhibited bohemianism of doors colourfully scribbled with graffiti and walls with left-wing messages and gaps between buildings filled with rubbish. This deliberately keeping things run down is a statement more than a real lack of resources. Wherever you go, there are less people. Sometimes I miss the density of London and the connected intensity; then the only place I know to go is Alexanderplatz. – I still don’t know where to go in Berlin and thinking that all this here is fine, I wish I could go home now.
But never say good-bye. A while ago, I said good-bye to my favourite London musicians. However, everything comes back – in a new shape. I’ve always loved a particular song by the bearded singer with the cowboy hat whose warm voice sounded through the tunnels of the tube; recently I discovered it was a song by Jackson C. Frank, Carnival. So the song has returned to my world.
And this is how things meet in life. They are torn apart and yet connected through time. So I trust that London will come back in my life, in a different but nevertheless delightful shape.
Miraculously, after having been through the last wonderful, intense weeks, I am developing some confidence that my life will just carry on being exciting – and I am realising that it might be less about the place where I live than about me and my ability to take up on the world around me and get excited.
I wish I could discover the awesomely raw music by Jackson C. Frank again and hear his song Marlene like I did the first time. The song seemed to come from the unknown, unfolding like a long ribbon. Although listening to it repeatedly, I could not remember the tune just the atmosphere. Someone has written about Marlene on Youtube I’m stunned. Blown away like you can only be when you discover beauty for the first time. The moment I realised that the song is not a about a love story but a trauma in which Frank nearly burned to death when being a child, now being haunted by the girl he liked back then but died in the same fire made me just cry.
I’ve liked being a foreigner. I’ve always felt as a stranger and living abroad amongst so many other strangers just seemed to be the right thing. It helped clarifying my identity. There is no country I could go ‘home’. It was here in London watching the Chinese film Summer Palace that I realised what it had meant to me that the country I am from did not longer exist. I am not looking for a home anymore but wonder how it will feel to live in a country that is supposed to be my home.
What departing really means is that everything that is significant now loses its importance in the future. It is the nature of change that things one cares about now will become less relevant and drift from the centre towards the edges of one’s life. Once I’ve left the stream of London, the city will never be the same again. It will become a stranger and one day I might even wonder what I’ve ever found so appealing about this place. It is most likely that soon, I will never find MY London back. It will be a mere piece of memory, getting smaller and smaller.
No man ever steps in the same river twice (Heraclitus) – and no man ever steps in the same city twice. How much I fear what is going to happen.
I would give everything to go back to this night five years ago when I arrived in a shabby hotel room in West Hampstead right by the tracks of the overground, nervous, anxious, exhausted, having spent a day paralysed in the armchair of a home I didn’t know that night would never be my home again. I didn’t know that night that I would exchange a home for a whole city. I didn’t know that night what the city would mean to me very soon. I didn’t know I would have to leave the city five years later without having offered me a home or any permission to stay other than as a bohemian.