Friday, 4 October 2013

On the delight and confusion of foreign cities. Sound, smell and sausage.



In my previous post I omitted to mention that yesterday, 3rd October, was the 24th anniversary of the Reunification of Germany. 

I only found this out because on continuing to search for a map of the city and a phrase book to replace my ancient Berlitz German for Travellers, I ended up buying postcards and asking the shop lady why everything was shut and the whole city was out drinking beer on the street.

Her explanation in delightful, impeccable English made me mildly ashamed, to have almost no German and not to have known the enormous significance of the date. 

I'd always placed the date somewhere in September, coming as it did quite soon after the fall of the communist government of Czechoslovakia, where I had been on tour with the Merseyside Youth Orchestra only weeks before. 

I had traded chewing gum for bottles of beer and a five pound note for two bottles of Czech wine and a crate of 24 beers which I sold to mates on the coach. It kept me in spends for days. 

I had photographed a police car chase and arrest below my Prague hotel balcony, the driver spread-eagled and searched in an apparently random but violent arrest. 

He later returned and could be seen somewhat strangely standing on the same spot below, waiting, no car to be seen. 
Everything was painted a peeling dark green. The crumbling stone buildings were reinforced with wooden scaffolding, street after street. Grocery shops with near empty shelves had silent, forlorn queues around the block. 

Our orchestra played to a near empty stadium with a government minder sitting alone in a sea of empty seats. Men looked over newspapers long and hard in hotel lobbies (I'm not kidding, they were everywhere we went!). 
Those small and vicarious memories are the only ones I can really use to visualise what life in East Berlin might have been like, until I was a healthy, free young adult. 

People were still trying to escape across electrified railway lines under gunfire to make it from the street on which I stayed last night to the adjacent one, miraculously inside the "free" world, just the other side of the tracks from FriedrichStrasse Station. 

Incidentally, that was the only way in and out of East Berlin from the West side of the city and workers under heavy guard and security checks made the stressful daily commute into but never out of the Eastern city. 


When I was young, plump and free,
this wall divided a city in two.
Plump and free: Or Not.
Now only fragments of wall remain as consciously retained reminders of this very recent brutal, crushing existence. I expect that many of the people I see around (although with the influx of aspiring fashionistas from around the globe they are surely a minority now) lived with the daily terror of the secret police, shortages of everything, poverty, surveillance and compulsory obedience to party dogma, spied on by paranoid neighbours, in fear and squalid lack of the rights, lifestyle, health and basic freedoms that their fellow citizens were enjoying across a concrete wall. 

I asked the shop lady what people were doing to celebrate Reunification Day. "Just drinking beer, I think" she said. "Or working, like me" she added with a laugh. 

"Anyway, it doesn't mean anything to me. I was in the States back then." It was striking from our single short interview on the subject how blithely many assumed the wholeness, the unity of the city to be. 

It was after all only 28 years out of a near millennium of the city's existence - at least, of the communities that now form it. 

Actually I was surprised to read that it was only in 1920, with the Greater Berlin Act that the city in its current form came to exist. Charlottenburg, Köpenick and Spandau from the Province of Brandenburg were incorporated into the city, doubling Berlin's population overnight from about 2 to nearly 4 million inhabitants.

It has its origins in the thirteenth century and was of course the capital for centuries of old Prussia, of Unified Germany, of the Weimar Republic formed after the revolution that removed the monarchy at the end of World War 1.

The quest to update my phrasebook was urgent because of the unshakeable memory of having relied on a 1950s Spanish "language tutor" on going to Barcelona around a decade ago. 

I faithfully reproduced the required "Por favor, donde esta el tocador de caballeros" (Literally: Where is the gentleman's dressing table, please?) trying to ask for the Gents.

Ending up miming a piss to a stranger in a bar, who merely shrugged and pointed, I vowed to update my language learning resources.

The German book in my possession allows me to learn such things as "No, I am travelling with my wife/husband/son/daughter. Can you direct us to a reputable night club?" 

There is a whole chapter on tobacconists but neither the chuffing glossary nor a single page in the book that I skimmed in increasing annoyance would give me the urgently required word "MAP". 

The postcard shop lady directed me further along my route and I walked out into bright sun, noisy roadworks, enormous pile drivers sinking concrete and steel columns into the highway, moustachioed or pony-tailed folk in hiking jackets walking in groups in all directions, impassive with faintly disapproving looks. 

Tears of confused exultant happiness rose up as I remembered long ago sunny moments of hope, excited anticipation or just the joy of floating free in some foreign city, free to watch, absorb, listen, smell. 

The Cuban maniac on the bridge to Île de la Cité in Paris, proclaiming Castro the new Christ while slobbering down a broken flute. 

Finding at last a phone box that worked to telephone the American girl I had fallen over in front of, the previous day in Shakespeare and Co, the bookshop that finally agreed to publish Joyce's Ulysses (the predecessor of the then incumbent).

Pausing at the mini bit (a few doors down form the main place) of  Ganymed wine bar by the river Spree, watching wide flat river tour boats and elegantly dressed couples, I ordered beer, black pudding and sauerkraut. 

I forgot all previous thoughts, listened to 60's French pop (a favourite musical delicacy, in small quantities) and waited keenly for food. 

When only mustard had been forthcoming after around half an hour (and not enough for a meal, should the fast-approaching madness take me) my anticipation turned slightly more tetchy.

On arrival, the steaming skillet was a happy sight, lifting my tired soul with renewed anticipation. 

At first glance it was particularly the soft, large buttery potatoes in an apparent chicken stock that seemed most inviting.

Sauerkraut and black pudding looked good, piled artistically on top, crowned with watercress.
Just for a rough idea

The hungry man is capable of a weeping, howling, disappointment almost like no other. 

When I discovered that the black pudding had been boiled, I nearly cried out and ran from the establishment. 

It would not have been hard, from an eight by sixteen foot room, albeit crammed with tables and chairs. 

My hunger and the inconvenience that a street chase would have entailed however got the better of me and I took the first plastic sack of blood and minced gut and split it open for a good look. 

It was after all the mustard that saved the occasion although had the waiter been less of the scurrying sort I would probably asked him to go and find me the pot. 

Eating this terrible invention took me back to my busking days in Paris, in '92. 

Sharing an awful tiny loft with Jean Marie de la Montagne, Thunderbird-lookalike, irascible, sentimental, Alsatian romantic with a voice of gold who I teamed up with to do a nightly set on the RER Ligne B from Denfert Rochereau to Paris Disney, performing the same guitar/voice/violin set in each direction a half dozen times a night.

Cooking that other terrible idea, the andouillette (tripe sausage) over a single tiny gas flame in his chambre de bonne ("maid's room") off the Champs Elysee (a thousand francs a month to live in one of the most expensive sectors of Paris, which I shared with him, alternating mattress and floor). 

We ate that piss-smelling rubber nightly for weeks and I shall never forget it. 
Lettuce makes the andouilette
like a beggar in borrowed robes

It was the only meat we could afford and in the early 90s it was still largely unthinkable, literally impossible to conceive for most people, that a meal might not contain some sort of flesh, however filthy a form it arrived in.

The mustard had started, I thought, to wink at me, like a prank that had come to life. When the awful dark wine blood sausages came, I thanked providence for the invention of mustard, of bread and of beer. 

Later, having eaten the entire dish of blood, pickled cabbage and potatoes (and those last were, really, very good indeed), I retired to my hotel for a short siesta.

On awaking, a new adventure awaited, having rediscovered my animus. 


I walked and walked and walked, observing the emergent future concrete and glass in its magnificent embryonic stages everywhere around, interspersed with the unsmiling Imperial grandeur of the Treaty of Berlin - not all those ones of the eighteenth century promising Anglo-German peace or tentatively recognising Eastern cousins' freedom from the Ottoman yoke, no. 

The one of 1885 that carved all those straight lines through Africa. That one's for another time.
In the evening I drank wine with a Swiss psychoanalyst.


Today I have been at the most extraordinary conference on Functional Sounds, at the European Sound Studies Association, about which I had meant to write earlier, before getting side-tracked.

More, shortly. 

Now it's time for a bier.