One of the things people say to me about once a week is that Berlin must have changed a great deal over the past years. Presumably they say this because it's true, but that doesn't make it any easier to find a sensible response other than, yes, it has.
In 2001 David Wagner published a book of exquisitely composed pieces about places in Berlin, now out of print, called In Berlin. They were written for newspapers between 1998 and 2001. And now he's revised the book and brought it out in an updated version as Mauer Park. What we get is all the original pieces, plus extra material from 2013. Wagner revisits the sites he wrote about in the past and describes them as they are now. An empty restaurant that no longer exists, a settlement for sedate travellers where most of the old crew have moved on but left behind their artefacts for those who took their places, an abandoned slaughterhouse area now converted to homes and shopping opportunities. Or one of my favourites, simply a calm philosophical portrait of the Berlin public transport map, a spider's web with a few new threads added over the past decade. It's a book about the city and now also about change and continuation.
There are a couple of themes, most notably architecture and partying, and it's fascinating to follow cafés, clubs and bars through name changes and changes of address and additions to the menu and new kinds of cups as coffee trends move along – and to ask oneself with Wagner whether the "new Berlin" of the 1990s has passed the taste test. But along with the city, the author has aged. Now his daughter comes into the picture now and then, and he can't quite manage to stifle the odd note of regret and nostalgia, even if it's for things he ridiculed back then. The Café Kranzler was a huge, brassy West Berlin monstrosity full of old ladies eating bad cake, but its replacement is even worse, and those nineties clubs in Mitte that recreated smalltown childhoods, ach!
Two things happened to me while I was reading the book. First of all, I decided I really ought to get out more, as I imagined David Wagner visiting and revisiting the kind of places I rarely take note of – the oasis-like Hotel Estrel planted in its desert of Neukölln scrapyards; Schöneberg cafés; Adlershof! And secondly I got homesick (reading on a plane to London) and then couldn't take the beatific smile off my face at the thought of soon being back in Berlin (on the return flight). The final piece was written specifically for the book, and is about the Mauerpark. It's a serenade to that park full of crazies people now talk about all over the world, and it's full of love and admiration for a city and the people who live in it – and even for the people who just come to visit. Wagner writes with a generosity that goes beyond the gut reflex to hate tourists, a knee-jerk reaction so common here. For him, those visitors are part of what makes Berlin the way it is now.
A while ago I wrote about Anglophone visitors writing about Berlin and perpetuating a certain image of the place, those journalistic pieces citing budding microbrewery cultures and proclaiming that "nobody in Berlin" gets up before the afternoon. That's a Berlin I have never really recognized, as I put it then, but it seems like real people are living there so I've tried to find my peace with it, partly by vowing never to read anything about Berlin that is published in New York. Gideon Lewis-Kraus's essay City of Rumor, as it turned out, I did not hate at all. Possibly that's because it's less an attempt to describe his version of Berlin than an exploration of his – and others' – compulsion to do so. I enjoyed his style (I could hear his voice; it's not one you forget) and the way the essay doesn't pretend to be about issues much larger than the writer's own mind. I feel like it helped me to understand the whole phenomenon.
Yet still, Mauer Park is closer to my version of Berlin. Wagner is a long-term visitor; he grew up in West Germany and moved here as a student, like I did. He has a sharp eye for detail and he understands the city's historical layers, can tell genuine patina from tourist tat – although his affection and subtle humour extends to those who deal in it, like the man on Checkpoint Charlie making no pretence that the Leica he's selling is genuine.
To my great delight, Wagner did indeed write about me writing about him when we went out walking together. All that remains is for me to translate it and the solipsistic cycle will be complete. I hope you'll be able to read some of the pieces from the collection in English fairly soon. The book's late launch (it came out in September) is this coming Saturday at the Roter Salon. I'll be there too. If I'm smiling more than usual it'll be because I'm looking back at years of dancing and posing in one of my own favourite clubs.