Thursday, 10 January 2013

David Wagner: Welche Farbe hat Berlin

Berlin is doing its darnedest to make me look forward to a little sunshine. How many days of rain in a row? It's like living in Birmingham. I just admitted my embarrassing Coke Zero habit to a pharmacist to explain why I wanted caffeine tablets (in case I get caught short of my chosen poison in India), and he was delightfully rude in that flirtatious Berlin way. Apparently other people only take diarrhoea medication and disinfectants with them. Sheesh. He said he'd only manage about half of my daily dose, and I told him I'd been working long and hard on my Coke Zero habit and wasn't about to kick it right now. Just give me the drugs, man. It helped that the three men before me had been picking up methadone, I think.

So anyway, to make me feel homesick in advance, I've been reading David Wagner's Welche Farbe hat Berlin. It's a collection of short pieces about Berlin, written between 2001 and 2011. Sometimes they're linked into short stories about walking around from place to place. Sometimes they're collections of observations about things like street furniture. One of my favourites is a series about a night out clubbing with a friend, which ends with a bouncer telling them to go home and get some sleep. Or a bike ride around the neat forests and lakes in the West. The places are ugly, dirty, badly designed, there's a deadly dull all-day Schiller reading, there is rubbish on the streets - and it's all so wonderful.

The pieces are calm and clever and full of knowledge and anecdotes about the city's history, architecture, bars, people. It's hard to classify them - perhaps they're miniature essays, perhaps flaneurism, although Wagner isn't detached from what's going on around him and there are references back to himself and others. Probably it doesn't matter what they are, because they're beautifully written. At times sober, at times playful like the title piece on the colour of Berlin, with plenty of dry humour. I've been finding them delightful; they've been making me sigh. This morning I parcelled up the book and sent it to a friend, but I shall want it back very soon, OK, Amanda? I think I shall buy a job lot and give a copy to every friend who leaves Berlin, to make them regret it.

I've been growing tired, you see, of Americans writing about Berlin, which as another friend pointed out is really just Americans writing about Americans in Berlin. With a certain exception, that's not something I care to read about any more. Especially when the writers claim to be giving us profound truths about a place where they don't speak the language. In this respect, I'm a typical immigrant: anyone who came later than I did is a sham and has no idea about anything. You've never lived with a Berliner? You don't have a German child? Well keep your mouth shut. On the other hand, I don't see much point in writing about place in a generalising way anyway, as surely we all experience it differently?

And that's not what Wagner does here. He's not a born-here Berliner but he's been here a long time and he knows his stuff. And he makes no attempt to tell us what Berlin is like. All he does is show us snapshots of the way he's experienced it. Popping out to get bread on Kastanienallee, he notices the tourists and the mothers but they don't prompt a generalisation. There are changes over the years, which he remarks upon, but he doesn't attempt to establish a pattern or make a point. Just good, pared-down writing about a place he seems to love. I wish you all could read it.

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